Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a cautious fan of the digital humanities. My fandom is based on a sense that digital technologies offer the potential for important—and in some cases revolutionary—new ways to produce and distribute humanistic knowledge. My caution, on the other hand, has many roots. I think an awful lot of digital-humanities talk is the chattering equivalent of vaporware. And, more significantly, like any other technology, the technologies broadly associated with the digital humanities can be used to serve good, or less good, ends. And in higher education today, the ends are, too often, less good, at least for the humanities.
This semester, I’m taking part in a series of free training workshops offered by Apple and sponsored by my university’s Center for Teaching Excellence. The university encouraged each academic unit (and some staff units) to send one or two people to these sessions. The instruction offered is excellent and practical. I will come out of this experience with a really deep understanding of a number of Apple apps, though the focus is on iBooks Author, which, as the name suggests, is a program that allows one to creates sophisticated electronic “books” that can be read with the iBooks app. But the focus of the software, or at least the way we are being taught about it, seems to have very little to do with what most historians–or other humanists or qualitative social scientists–would want to do with a digital teaching tool.
iBooks Author, at least as we are learning to use it, seems very well suited to teaching concepts and facts. The “books” it produces are attractive and present information in ways that can simultaneously serve different sorts of learners. Those in university units that need to create ADA compliant products seem pleased with the software’s ability to do so. iBooks do a wonderful job with short movies and 3D models. When we are taught a new feature or capability of one of the apps we’re learning, our teacher – who’s a former school teacher and education professor who is now an Apple professional who travels around the country teaching these workshops – will frequently ask us if we can think of a use for it in our work. Generally, the STEM discipline faculty, as well as staff in units like the office responsible for explaining graduation protocol to students and parents, immediately think of things that they might do.
But we humanities are often silent. We almost all deal in long, involved texts of one sort or another. And iBooks Author, at least as it’s being presented to us, wouldn’t add much to the study of, say, a Hollywood film, a Pynchon novel, or an extended work in philosophy. I ask my students to grapple with such long texts and would be more than happy to take advantage of digital technologies that make their experience of such texts richer. But, so far, nothing I’ve seen in my training really promises to do this.
I don’t think that this failure is, in any way, a problem with digital technologies per se, which offer all kinds of ways to improve one’s experience of long and complicated texts. Take, for example, one of the most ubiquitous features of digital texts: string searches. The ability to instantly find the occurrence of a word or phrase in a long text, or even a vast series of texts, offers tremendous possibilities…especially if one has been trained to think of creative ways to use this capability. But the authors of iBooks Author, or at least of Apple’s standard training regimen, seem not to have thought at all about the sorts of things that students in the humanities study.
Apple’s failure in this regard is, I think, symptomatic of a much broader failure in supposedly cutting edge, digital pedagogical approaches. MOOCs, much touted as the future of higher education, seem to do a horrible job even asking students to read, let alone encouraging them to engage seriously and deeply with texts. Although I continue to feel that digital technologies hold many possibilities for humanistic scholarship and pedagogy, the dominant ways in which these technologies are being applied often seem to ignore the very possibility of the kind of learning that has been traditionally associated with the humanities. And, to the extent that such digital approaches to pedagogy become dominant, the future of humanistic study in universities and colleges appears threatened.
On the very day that I had my latest Apple training session, I encountered another instance of the limitations of Apple’s digital humanistic vision. A link on one of the AHA Today’s “What We’re Reading” posts took me to this fascinating story about an orphan app. A couple members of the University of Virginia’s English Department, John O’Brien and Brad Pasanek, had created an iOS app that might be of interest to some readers of this blog. Rather than redescribe what they did, allow me to quote at length from their own description:
The idea behind our app was a simple one: we wanted to enable users–who we imagined as scholars, students, and general readers–to compare images of unique copies of those two early print editions of Jefferson’s Notes [on the State of Virginia]: a copy of the 1785 Paris edition that Jefferson presented to the Marquis de Lafayette, and Jefferson’s own copy of the 1787 Stockdale edition. These copies are among the treasures of the Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia, which was founded by Jefferson, and where we both teach in the Department of English. Jefferson’s copy of his own book is particularly interesting, because it includes hundreds of changes in his own handwriting that he made to the book over the course of the next few decades, some of which were quite substantial. While most of these emendations were incorporated in editions of the book published after Jefferson’s death, the physical object itself is locked away, a restricted library holding.
We imagined the tablet environment as a uniquely powerful surrogate for readers interested in Jefferson‘s second-, third-, and nth thoughts, who could study marginalia and at the same time access–with the swipe of a finger–a modern annotated reading text that would put the work in its context. We got a small amount of funding, the (enthusiastic) permission of the University Library to use high-resolution images of their treasures, the assistance of a splendidly capable graduate student in our department, and a local developer, Performant Software Solutions, who understands the humanities and immediately grasped what we hoped to accomplish. We edited and annotated the text, and transcribed all of Jefferson’s annotations; meanwhile Performant came up with a clever interface that allowed the user to scroll rapidly though collated page images and to swipe between the various states of the text. We knew from the outset that this would fall well short of a scholarly edition, but imagined that our app could be a good test case for using the tablet environment to put original documents in the hands of students and general readers. We planned to issue Notes for free.
But O’Brien and Pasanek ran into a problem. They had hoped to offer their app in the App Store. But Apple decided that it was “just a book,” and thus belonged in the iBooks Store. But iBooks offered through the iBooks Store have strict file size limitations, and there was no way they could make their app a small enough size to qualify for the iBooks Store. So a potentially valuable digital humanities app languishes, unavailable to users, because it doesn’t fit neatly into Apple’s categories of digital knowledge.
 I should note that there is a pretty severe limitation to the usefulness of such “books”: iBooks is currently only available for iOS devices. With the arrival of the next version of the MacOS, it will also be available on Macs. But since our students do not all have iPads, let alone Macs, our ability to actually use iBooks in the classroom is limited. There are also some intellectual property issues connected to using the iBooks store that I have yet to fully fathom.