CIC Summit on Digital Research in the Humanities

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Opening Remarks by Ellen WeissingerSenior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs
University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Presented at the CIC Summit on Digital Research in the Humanities in Lincoln, Nebraska
April 19, 2012

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln welcomes you to the CIC Digital Humanities Summit—a focused opportunity to foster collaboration in this transformative field. We are grateful to the CIC for their generosity in supporting this event, and grateful to all of you for gathering in Lincoln.

At UNL, the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities has influenced the humanities broadly, creating research projects with over 60 faculty in 13 different departments across 4 colleges.  This initiative is changing the curriculum, influencing research agendas, and creating a vibrant climate of grantsmanship in the humanities.  You are aware of Nebraska’s existing infrastructure strengths and our critical mass of faculty. You may also know that we announced last fall our intention to do a multi-year cluster hire of at least 6 new faculty positions to broaden and deepen our intellectual talent pool. These new positions are open to any relevant department, are managed by an interdisciplinary search committee, and resulted in two exceptional hires this year. A second phase of the search begins in the fall.

You well know that provosts and deans tend these days to think and talk like venture capitalists – we choose among investment opportunities by evaluating their potential returns. I don’t like thinking and talking this way, but I do. Too often, and of necessity, we judge return on investment with fiscal metrics like research expenditures, royalties, and tuition revenue streams.

I am especially proud of our decision to fund a hiring initiative in the digital humanities because, while it certainly has the potential to create all of these traditional returns on investment, it produces others that our campus values equally. Our investment in the digital humanities, for example,

  • is teaching us how to construct divergent and valid forms of peer review in the humanities, and allowing us to refit tenure and promotion processes and criteria to contemporary forms of scholarship.
  • is helping us to disrupt traditional systems that have controlled ownership of and access to scholarly products in the humanities.
  • is creating an alternative to the solitary life of humanities scholarship and showing us how to build humanities labs, research groups and interdisciplinary teams.
  • is drawing us in to complex pedagogies supported by sophisticated digital media that engage this generation of students in ways that must surely surprise and intrigue them.
  • and, importantly, it is teaching us how to redemocratize the products of humanities scholarship in the virtual world, and by extension, allowing us to envision a new age of both casual and serious avocational interest in the humanities.

These are vanguard contributions that can generalize across other disciplines and will evoke difficult and important academic conversations well beyond the boundaries of the humanities. This portfolio of returns would seem to easily justify our investment (especially when we consider the reasonable costs associated with building strength in the humanities – my colleagues at the campus level are delighted by start-up packages bounded by a mere five digits).

But there is a final return worth noting, and this is actually a fundamental reason that motivated us to invest in this initiative. We have to take advantage of every opportunity to protect the comprehensive nature of comprehensive research universities. If a campus is an intellectual ecosystem, then disciplinary diversity is essential to our long term survival. At UNL, we are determined to find ways to support the vitality of the humanities as an investment in the future of our intellectual community. A significant hiring initiative in the digital humanities is a great way to signal our intentions. We hope that our intentions are noted on your campuses and that our investment might evoke some form of envy, discomfort or retaliatory action from your deans and provosts.

So please do go home and tell your provost that Nebraska has declared an escalating arms race in support of digital research in the humanities. If they want to keep up with UNL, they had better start funding more positions for you. Surely they won’t want the newest and smallest upstart campus in the CIC to usurp them in something that is at once so canonical and so edgy.

Thank you for the work that you do. It matters. I hope you enjoy productive conversations together on this beautiful spring day in our lovely home town.