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Digital publishing expands audience and changes procedures in the humanities, says historian

by Richard Meckien - published May 13, 2016 02:00 PM - - last modified Jul 07, 2016 11:02 AM
Rights: Original version in Portuguese by Mauro Bellesa. Translation by Artemis Romano.

MIchael Elliott
Michael Elliott: "Digital edition will change the way how humanists do their job"

The humanities seem to experience an existential dilemma: while researchers are charged to engage in public debates on major challenges of the contemporary world, such as global changes and the manipulation of genomes, departments suffer from a lack of resources and humanists have the form of expression of their ideas questioned by scientists, journalists and other audiences.

There is also the difficulty for the dissemination of academic work by traditional means due to the high costs of printed editions and subscriptions to journals.

For historian Michael Elliott, from Emory University, the digital publication of humanistic production should change this scenario with all the technological possibilities already available, allowing the academic dialogue with audiences external to the university and even influencing the form of the knowledge production of the area. Elliott discussed these issues at the conference The Humanities and their Publics, held on April 19.

Two editorial events of 1996 in the United States illustrate the reduction an expansion dynamics of the public of the humanities in the last 20 years, he said:

  • the launch of an online archive dedicated to English romantic poet William Blake.

"Sokal's article was a hoax and argued that achievements of the natural sciences such as quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity are social constructions, citing the icons of the humanities at the end of the 20th century, as Jacques Derrida and Bruno Latour. He was concerned about the lack of rigor of the humanists when they speak of objective reality", he said.

Sokal's article received considerable attention of the international press. Some have accused him of being anti-academic and anti-intellectual, but most intellectuals have supported him, Elliot said. "By attacking the humanities when they speak of nature, he delineated his space and put them in their place. The humanities became more humble and no longer wanted to focus on other audiences."

In the case of the William Blake Archive, motivation and results were the opposite, Elliott said: "It was one of the first electronic text repositories on the Internet and provided everything one expects from an online archive, containing poetry and images of manuscripts, illustrations, pictures and watercolors by Blake, as well as essays on him”.

Related material

The Humanities and their Publics
April 19, 2016



The archive has been designed as a resource for research by postgraduate students, undergraduate and postgraduate professors, high school teachers and enthusiasts of William Blake's work. For Elliott, the archive has all the expected requirements for a work of the humanities: support of a foundation, approval of a university, and participation of experts and technical personnel.

For Elliot, the two publications have quite different views of academic work in the humanities: "Sokal's article criticized the humanities and pushed them back to the ivory tower; the archive on Blake, in turn, had a fairly new and fascinating format, but at the bottom it contained a traditional vision of learning”.

Tradition vs. to be advanced

He said he read in a text by Martin Grossmann that one of the important issues for the IEA is the contrast between tradition and to be advanced, adding that these two forces were closely related in the United States of the 80’s and 90’s.

At the time, the National Endowment for the Humanities, a government funding agency, complained of the intellectuals' inability to speak to non-academics and their overly critical tone towards American culture, he said. "That has changed a bit, but still persists". A few months ago, according to Elliott, William Adams, the new director of the agency, said that "there is a lot of skepticism in the public sphere on the value of the humanities to understand the political, economic and social context of today."

In reaction to this, Adams suggests that academics review the curricula of undergraduation and collaborate with scientists instead of criticizing them, according to Elliot. He cited Adam’s statement: "We must re-engage in the public environment in a whole new way and need to talk more affordably when we do our work".

Alan Sokal e Jean Bricmont

Intellectual impostures

Two years after the false article by Alan Sokal was published in the journal "Social Text", he and fellow physicist Jean Bricmont published the book "Impostures Intelectuelles", which criticizes the use of concepts of natural science by thinkers and post-modern philosophers, incorrect according to their view. On April 27 and 28, 1998, both attended the symposium "Visions of Science: Encounters with Sokal and Bricmont" (photo), organized by the IEA, in which researchers from different fields discussed the ideas presented in the book, which had just come out in France.

There is also criticism in the American press. Elliott said journalists complain that there are no more public intellectuals as there were in the past, capable of talking about challenges such as the manipulation of the human genome, climate change and racial disparities. "Journalists like when an intellectual speaks in a way so they can understand".


Given this scenario, Elliott believes that the human sciences in the United States are in a sui generis position: "They are haunted by the ridicule public to which they were subjected in the past [Sokal's article] and at the same time have to engage in public debates with the help of new technologies".

With the credentials of being a historian of American culture of the 19th century, Elliott pointed out that this kind of conflict situation is not new in the United States.

American higher education in the 19th century was dominated by small colleges that had the teaching of liberal arts and the humanities orientation as their mission, he said. "They were just a step away from becoming religious schools. They were aimed at training from the imported English idea that universities exist to teach knowledge, not to create it".

This system was challenged, he said, by the creation of research universities, first in Germany and then in the US. "This led to the creation of new universities, such as Chicago and John Hopkins, and to the change of orientation in others".

The university model concerned with the liberal arts and the training of professionals, and the model dedicated to postgraduation and research competed for a while, until the universities began to rely on the two lines of action, he said. "The University of Chicago, for example, has created relevant degree models, and at the same time laboratories for research and important areas of postgraduation".

William Blake Archive
Homepage of the William Blake Archive's website, created in 1996

With the adoption of this mixed model, the liberal arts became popular, according to Elliott. The result is that undergraduate students in the United States are generalists. "There are many courses for training in liberal arts and this helps to create a more democratic citizenship, which is the result of a very broad education. If a professor teaches English literature he will teach in a room where people become lawyers, physicians, architects or financiers. Then, in research seminars, they will teach to anyone who will specialize in a profession. As professors they should reach both audiences. This model worked well until recently".

Model in jeopardy

Elliott’s hypothesis is that this model is now in jeopardy in all areas, with a more pronounced crisis in the humanities, because a broader education based on them no longer has the support they had. According to him, the main reasons for this are:

  • the lack of consensus on what a general education is;
  • the high tuition prices, due to which students want the graduation disciplines to be more targeted for the vocational training they wish;
  • reservations about the political stance of humanities’ professors, often critical of American institutions;
  • the idea that undergraduate students are no longer representatives of the general public ("This is curious, because the current diversity of students in terms of ethnicity, social class, gender and others is greater than ever before").

Elliott believes that there is also a crisis of the production of the researchers. "In the US, the journals are not of free access and subscriptions are very expensive. To subscribe to journals, libraries need to reduce the purchase of books and other publications."

This situation will lead to a new organization in the way how academics do their work and address to the public, increasingly multiple due to the features of digital publishing, evaluates Elliot. Thus, in his opinion, the format of academic publications will change because of new publishing and distribution technologies. "These changes will change the concept of what it means to be a scholar in contemporary society."

He said that researchers from the humanities perform many works on environment, climate change, health, education and "that such works are consequential because authors must engage in public debates to address to non-academic audiences too."

"In the US, printed monograph has a kind of aura [as the unique work of art, according to Walter Benjamin], in spite of being mechanically reproduced, and it is worshiped by a small audience. Will the academic work lose its aura by moving to digital formats? Will academic sites, side by side to common sites, become less numerous? I do not think so. We will be seeking audiences engaged with the academic content and this will be good for academia and the rest of society".

Emily Dickinson Archive
The Emily Dickinson Arquive brings together facsimiles of the manuscripts of the poet


For Elliott, the William Blake Archive is a standard digital project, with the parameters of the editing work approved by the Modern Language Association of America, an institution that brings together academics of Letters.

He commented on three projects that go beyond the standard formalism. One of them is the Emily Dickinson Archive, dedicated to the American poet of the 19th century. "She has not published any poetry while alive, so her manuscripts are very important, but are stored at Harvard University and the access to them is almost impossible. The alternative is to access the digitized material".

A different project for its public outreach is the Voyages – Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Databse. "It is designed for scholars studying slavery, but as soon as it was published it was found that there was interest from other publics, such as genealogists and black Americans, the Caribbean and Brazil, who wanted to trace their origins. To serve them, the website owners have changed the presentation of the information".

Recently posted on Internet by Stanford University, the project Enchanting the Desert has been highlighted by Elliott as a multimedia-mode monograph. The project produced by geographer Nicholas Bauch deals with the history of the photographic record of the Grand Canyon. It contains a text of about 80,000 words, photographs, geographic information and audio clips, and can be appreciated in different ways. "One can imagine a printed book of the project, with texts and photographs, but there would be an extreme lack of data, restricting possibilities".

Voyages - The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database
Voayages, a project on slavery


In the debate that followed the conference, Martin Grossmann, former director of the IEA and coordinator of the IEA's Research Group Fórum Permanente: Cultural System Between Public and Private, said it is important to analyze the situation of human sciences from the political point of view and that at USP there are also difficulties for what is public to be used by society: "We have museums with very important collections and whose mission goes beyond teaching and research, because we have a duty to keep these collections and make them accessible to the general public".

Grossmann also commented that the model for the public university deployed in Brazil generates a strange situation, with public money funding sophisticated and expensive public universities for privileged people, leaving to private universities the function of absorbing a large part of high school graduates.

Elliott replied that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish public and private universities in the US, because "the public ones are less and less based on government resources, and more in annuities and private sponsorship and funding agencies". According to him, one of the reasons for this is the existing anxiety about the difficulties of students to have access to higher education due to the increase in the tuition price.

Jeffrey Lesser, a visiting professor at IEA, said that in his work as a historian and anthropologist he is increasingly working with computer scientists, and that the expansion of the public for the humanities also includes the expansion of the public that the researchers have to work with. He wondered how Elliott sees the future of this articulation of different publics within the university regarding the production of knowledge.

For Elliott, something peculiar of digital projects is that they tend to be more collaborative because they require more people and skills. Two outcomes are desirable in this dialogue, in his view: the increase of critical thinking, "not to be softened by humanists" and the multiplication of the number of projects from the dialogue between researchers from several areas.


Grossmann asked Elliott if the restriction of the resources for the humanities due to being more questioning is an international conservative movement or a reflex of a specific historical moment.

Enchanting the Desert
Enchanting the Desert: digital monograph by geographer Nicholas Bauch

Elliott disagreed. For him, the contraction of the humanities in the US is not the result of conservative policies: "These policies have existed for a long time. What has changed in higher education is that things with practical uses are considered more important and the humanities are seen as less useful".

"What I see is not a specific attack on the humanities, but a lack of funding to them, which are organized into smaller and more vulnerable departments when there are cuts in the resources."

According to him, it is the liberal [left-winged, in the American sense of the term] and not the conservatives who like to deride universities, criticizing concerns about political correctness and politicies of identity.

Claudia Bauzer Medeiros, a professor at UNICAMP and a member of the coordination of FAPESP’s Program for Research on e-science, commented that engineering researchers often say that humanists take too long to produce knowledge and that this increases the barrier between areas. She wanted to know from Elliott how this can be reduced and also how to deal with the diversity of funding policies for each area.

Elliott said that the cautious interpretation of the data is one of the things that define the humanities, but that digital publishing significantly reduces the time between the production of knowledge and access to it for all. On the issue of bureaucracy in funding, he said that it is a more difficult problem to solve and that the difficulty also exists in the US, with different protocols and analysis, even if carried out by the same department.

Asked by Abel Packer, coordinator of the SciELO-FAPESP Program, on the apparent difficulty of humanists to establish networks for the production of knowledge, unlike natural scientists, whose articles usually have a few pages and several authors, Elliott said that the issue of networking in the US has to do with how scholars in the humanities are trained, so digital publication will not solve it. "The expectation is that the graduate student sets a topic of independent research from the beginning. This independence is a cultural value of the humanities. The researcher is assessed in terms of their preparation to act independently in their area. On the other hand, natural scientists work in a laboratory with a staff from the start".

Michael Elliott, Jeffrey Lesser e Martin Grossmann
Michael Elliott, Jeffrey Lesser and Martin Grossmann

Professionals and amateurs

Luis Ferla, from UNIFESP, asked Elliot on peer review in digital edition and commented on the issue of aura cited by him, "an ironic paradox, because at a time when our social role is being questioned the solution can be losing our aura. In the digital world, the barrier between producers and consumers is disappearing and we are becoming similar to amateurs".

For Elliott, not all editorial experience will work in digital media. "There will be failures and we have to accept it. I also have some concerns about the loss of knowledge when we enter the digital world, where an academic work can stand side by side with something done without the desirable professionalism". Moreover, he believes that there will still be works of interest to academics in the field only.

"We are entering an era in which academics will work in many different things. This will change the way how we do our work and train our students, and it will create both risks and rewards".

Regarding peer review, he said that the university presses will continue to demand such an assessment for digital projects. "And one should be careful with what is put in digital circulation, because there is no longer the private environment of the academic world. Any student can immediately send something that was just published to the whole world by phone ".

Photos: Leonor Calasans/IEA-USP