Scholarship in the Digital Age

Students and scholars from the UO, Central Florida University, the Folk Art Institute at Shandong University of Art and Design, and Beijing Normal University collaborate digitally on the ChinaVine website.

If digital scholars in the humanities had a rallying cry, it might be something like “Free access for all” or “Information liberation.”

But academics are more inclined to act than to protest, and in what is likely the quietest revolution you’ve never heard of, humanities scholars across the country, including at the UO, are employing digital tools and collaborating with library specialists and IT geeks to create new modes of conducting research and new ways of disseminating it to wider audiences.

David Wacks, the former chair of the UO Romance languages department, has described digital scholarship as “anything a humanities scholar does that is mediated digitally, especially when such mediation opens discussion beyond a small circle of academic specialists.”

At the UO these efforts are taking many forms. Doug Blandy, an associate dean at the School of Architecture and Allied Arts, is a team leader for a collaborative, online project among several American and Chinese universities called ChinaVine. The site www.chinavine.orgeducates users about Chinese folk art and was recently redesigned to incorporate links to social media sites as well as photo sharing, audio, and video platforms to make it easier for users to interact.

The earlier version of the website provided information but was “a one-sided conversation,” with few opportunities for visitors to get involved. “Now there are multiple modes of entry through which people will engage with the product,” Blandy says.

Fundamentally, digital scholarship heralds a new way of thinking about access to information, says Robert Long, poet and UO assistant director of faculty development. “It is about sharing information and breaking down institutional barriers,” he says. “It’s about making information freely available to anyone who has an Internet connection.”

Expanding access to scholarly work is a major push behind the creation of online, open-access academic journals. Traditionally, Long explains, print journals were the place for scholarly research in almost all humanities fields. They maintained respected peer-review standards and were the publishing brass ring for tenure-track scholars. Get your research accepted by these elite journals and you nailed your publishing requirement.

But the downside of the system is that it is expensive and exclusive. An annual subscription to just one of these journals could cost a library “tens of thousands of dollars,” he says, and even when the journals went online, subscription costs remained high.

But today, Long says, software developers committed to the idea of democratizing information have developed “open source” software that allows libraries and scholars to create their own online academic journals. “They can be as complicated and as robust as people want them to be, and peer-reviewed [to any degree] they would like,” he says. Most significantly, access to the journals is free.

These online journals are not just online or PDF versions of a print product, says Karen Estlund, head of digital services for UO Libraries, but are their own entity.

“They transform scholarship beyond just reproducing the print artifact and turn it into something richer by taking advantage of things we can do in an online environment,” she says. Increasingly, she adds, more universities are accepting work published in online journals as counting toward tenure.

One pioneering example of digital scholarship is the work of Massimo Lollini, a UO Italian language and literature professor. Lollini is a scholar of Francesco Petrarch, a fourteenth-century poet who invented the Italian sonnet form. In trying to make the study of Petrarch more engaging to students, Lollini created a website called the Oregon Petrarch Open Book, which allows users from around the globe to view different translations of Petrarch’s Canzonieresimultaneously, read scholars’ critiques, and discuss their findings.

In working with the site, Lollini saw possibilities for broadening its scope. This past spring he went online with Humanist Studies & the Digital Age, an online, peer-reviewed, open-access, international journal (journals.oregondigital.org/hsda) that explores the intersection of the humanities and the digital age. The second edition appeared in the fall.

Writing and reading are still at the core of the human enterprise, Lollini wrote in the introduction to the first issue, “but in the new technological and social context they acquire unprecedented forms even when they recover usages of orality and sensory experiences.” Hence the need for “transferring our cultural legacy from earlier forms into digital technology.”

Long helped establish the framework for an online, student-run, undergraduate research journal, OUR Journal, which was activated in the fall. Carol Stabile, a professor in the English department and at the School of Journalism and Communication whose scholarship has included analysis of the online game the World of Warcraft, plans to have her journal, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, online by the fall of 2012.

“It’s an exciting moment in academic publishing,” says Stabile, who is also the director of the UO Center for the Study of Women in Society. “Things are in crisis and things are changing. But it also means that people who have a different vision of how this might work also have the opportunity to try new things and to innovate. And that’s pretty cool.”

By Alice Tallmadge, MA ’87

Prepping Future Digital Scholars

In 2009, an informal group of UO students and faculty and staff members formed the Digital Scholars to further awareness of campus resources available for faculty members and students interested in digital scholarship.

The group maintains a collaborative blog (www.uodigschol.wordpress.com) and an e-mail listserv for publishing articles and sharing information about grant opportunities in digital scholarship. It has also created a proposal for a twenty-four-credit cross-disciplinary certification program in new media and culture for graduate students, which would concentrate on understanding new media both as a focus of research and its use in conducting research. The proposal, one of the first of its kind in the country, is currently wending its way through the Oregon University System system for approval.

The certification would not only be exceptionally helpful in students’ research, says English professor Carol Stabile, but will better prepare students for employment, whether within or outside academia. “Our graduate students need to have a critical understanding of new media and culture if they’re going to be competitive,” she asserts. “Even if they’re headed for a traditional career path, if they can use digital tools, teach new media, they’re going to have a leg up.”

—AT