“We must see digitally creative projects as essential to scholarship and teaching in the 21st century”

By Gregg Mitman

Digital media is rapidly transforming what it means to be a scholar.  Never before has such a wealth of information been so easily accessible.  Never before have so many platforms been available to reach diverse publics.

In 2010, when we launched a public history/archive website, “Gaylord Nelson and the Making of the Modern Environmental Movement,” in advance of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, we were shocked when traffic to the site reached 1 million hits and 15,000 unique visitors for the month of April alone. The collaborative project of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Wisconsin Historical Society made clear to me the potential of digital projects to rethink and push the boundaries of what it means to be an engaged scholar.

Anyone who has worked in a university setting knows how slow such institutions can be in adapting to change.  Despite more than a decade of dire warnings about the death of the scholarly monograph, it is still the rite of passage for achieving tenure in the humanities at most academic institutions in the United States.  Part of the issue, I believe, is that humanists are unfamiliar with and afraid of passing judgment on creative work.  What standards, what criteria, are evaluation committees to use in critiquing a website, video, or blog?  How does one assign authorship and/or credit to projects that necessitate collaboration?  These are tricky issues for disciplines that have long held up sole authorship and the solitary life of the mind as scholarly ideals.  But we must begin to value such work not as an addition to everything else that is asked of junior scholars in ever dwindling tenure-track positions.  We must see digitally creative projects as essential to scholarship and teaching in the 21st century.

The digital humanities are challenging the image of the solitary humanities scholar on many fronts.  Collaboration, creative design, curation, and project management are just a few of the critical skills needed in successfully adapting to the many niches opened up for scholars in the digital landscape.  More and more I find my days occupied working with people, rather than alone.  When producing digital videos, the team will often include cinematographers, sound recordists, editors, and musicians.  When building websites, collaborators may include graphic designers, programmers, scholar/advisors, and content managers.  Such digital projects, when successful, teach valuable artistic, social, and technical skills vital to the pursuit of careers inside and outside the academy.

The digital sphere is also challenging us to imagine projects across different media platforms.  What kind of work can a digital short video do that an article cannot?  A blog entry?  A virtual exhibit?  A podcast?  An op-ed?  Each of these forms represents different possibilities for creative expression of ideas and engaging multiple publics.

Sites like Ant Spider Bee offer important and exciting outlets for experimental work in the digital environmental humanities, at a time when the digital matters more than ever in how we think and communicate with our peers, students, and the wider world.

Gregg Mitman is the Vilas Research and William Coleman Professor of History of Science, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He is the founding and current director of the Nelson Institute’s Center for Culture, History and Environment, and is also curator of the UW-Madison’s popular environmental film festival, Tales from Planet Earth. He is currently at work on a multimedia project—a film, book, and public history website—that explores the history and legacy of a 1926 Harvard medical expedition to Liberia and the environmental and social consequences that follow in the expedition’s wake. 

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