My digital future

This fall, as I have been trying to finish up my book project, Monks and Their Children, I have been asked more than once:  What’s your next project?   When I start describing copticscriptorium.org, I frequently get the reply:  no, I mean your real project, your next book.  My internal response was always twofold:  the snarky, “What, bringing the study of an entire language into the 21st century is not enough?” and the desperate, “I am not sure I have another monograph in me.”  And as the fall wore on, and 2014 became 2015, I became more and more convinced of the authenticity of those sentiments:  that digital scholarship in early Christian studies and late antiquity is still not regarded as legitimate as print monographs and articles, and that indeed I had no interest in writing another monograph.  It’s not that I thought I couldn’t write another book, but that I just had no desire to spend another decade on a long-form argument.  I was more interested in digital writing and digital scholarship that could be read or used by a community more quickly.  And in tighter, more focused arguments in essay form.

I also began chafing more and more at the conservatism of the field.  The definitions of “real” scholarship, the structural sexism that colleagues like Ellen Muehlberger and Kelly Baker were documenting in academia, and the perception of Egypt and Coptic as marginal areas of study.  That conservatism stoked my rebellious fires further; I was not going to force myself to come up with a book project just because that was what one “did” as an active scholar.

And then I saw the CFP for the Debates in the Digital Humanities Series.  It’s a call for essays, not monographs, but like Augustine hearing the child chant, “Tolle lege,” I had an epiphany:  I damn well had a third book in me. I just hadn’t put the pieces together.

In fact, I have two projects in mind:  both are examinations of the field of early Christianity as it intersects (or does not) with Digital Humanities.  Both are political and historiographical.

The book (as yet untitled) is about early Christian studies (especially Coptic and other “Eastern” traditions and manuscript collections), cultural heritage, and digitization.  Planned chapters are:

  1. Digitizing the Dead and Dismembered.  About the material legacy of the colonial dismemberment of archives, the limitations of existing DH standards and technologies (e.g., the TEI, Unicode characterset, etc.) to account for these archives, and how these standards, technologies, practices must transform.  The Coptic language and the White Monastery/Monastery of Shenoute manuscript repository will be the primary source examples, but there should be other examples from Syriac, Arabic.
  2. Can the Colonial Archive Speak? Orientalist Nostalgia, Technological Utopianism, and the Limits of the Digital.  This chapter will look at the practice of constructing digital editions and digital libraries and (building on the issues discussed in the previous chapter) explore the premise that digitization can “recover” an original dismembered archive such as the White Monastery’s repository.  To what extent can digitization recover and reconstruct lost libraries?  What are the political and ethical obligations of Western libraries to digitize manuscripts from Egypt and the wider Middle East?  Does digitization transcend or reify colonial archaeological and archival practices?  This chapter focuses on the concepts of the archive and library and voice.  [HT to Andrew Jacobs for inspiring the chapter title.]
  3. Ownership, Open Access, and Orientalism.  About the benefits, consequences, and dangers of the open access paradigm for digitizing eastern Christian manuscript collections.  Will look at the history of theft of physical text object from monasteries by Western scholars and will ask whether open access digitization is cultural repatriation or digital colonization.  Will look at a number of complexities:  a) the layers and levels of digitization (metadata, text, images); b) the spectrum of openness and privacy possible; and c) the different constituencies involved in asking the question:  whose heritage is this?  who owns/owned the text?  Church, local monastery, “the world” (as world heritage), American/European scholars who have privileged access to some of these texts already in their libraries or on their computers. Will explicitly draw on insights from indigenous cultural heritage studies related to digitization and digital repatriation.
  4. Transparency and Overexposure:  Digital Media and Online Scholarship in Debates about Artifact Provenance.  This chapter will examine the extent to which blogs and social media have changed the conversation about the provenance of text-bearing objects we study, and the ethical responsibilities of researchers.  Will also look at the risks of online debates, and suggest ways to have constructive conversations moving forward.  With special attention to the intersections of status (who’s online and who’s not?) and gender.
  5. The Digital Humanities as Cultural Capital: Implications for Biblical and Religious Studies.  Why our field needs to stop treating digital scholarship as derivative or less rigorous, the implications for us being so conservative about digital scholarship as a field, and how Biblical and Religious Studies can contribute to DH as a discipline (not just in content but in concept, in theory, in its very understanding of itself as a discipline or field, in other words, why DH needs Biblical and Religious studies).
  6. Desirable but maybe a stretch:  War and the Western Savior Complex:  Looks at the rhetoric of crisis and loss (especially in the context of the early 21st c. wars and revolutions in the Middle East) around saving texts, artifacts, and traditions.  What does it mean for scholars from Europe and America who are not the policy makers in their countries but are nonetheless citizens of them to be making pleas for the preservation of antiquities and or cultural traditions (and there is —see Johnson’s JAAR article “‘He Made the Dry Bones Live'”— a conflation of ancient traditions and modern Eastern Christian peoples in scholarship and the media)  that are endangered in part because of the actions of our governments?

The other project will be digital historiography:  using digital and computational methods to crunch Journal of Early Christian Studies (and hopefully its precursor the Second Century?) to look at trends in the field, especially with respect to gender.  Who is publishing, what are we publishing on?  Who is citing whom?  Who is reviewing whom?  How has that changed (or not) over the decades?  This may be one or two essays, not a book.  And it is inspired in part by Ellen Muehlberger’s work micro-blogging statistics on gender in biblical studies book reviews.  I’m taking the Topic Modeling course at DHSI this summer and will think more how that or other methods (concordance text analysis, network analysis, etc.) will support this project.

I hope to publish all of this in digital form, including the monograph on cultural heritage and cultural capital.

So that’s my digital future.  Of course, first I need to get a couple of other things out the door.  And of course Coptic Scriptorium continues.  But when you ask me what my next book is about, there you go.

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