The Big Humanities, National Identity and the Digital Humanities in Germany

Gregory Crane
June 8, 2015

Alexander von Humboldt Professor of Digital Humanities
Universität Leipzig (Germany)

Professor of Classics
Winnick Family Chair of Technology and Entrepreneurship
Tufts University (USA)

Summary

Alexander von Humboldt Professors are formally and explicitly “expected to contribute to enhancing Germany’s sustained international competitiveness as a research location”. And it is as an Alexander von Humboldt Professor of Digital Humanities that I am writing this essay. Two busy years of residence in Germany has allowed me to make at least some preliminary observations but most of my colleagues in Germany have spent their entire careers here, often in fields where they have grown up with their colleagues around the country. I offer initial reflections rather than conclusions and write in order to initiate, rather than to finish, discussions about how the Digital Humanities in Germany can be as attractive outside of Germany as possible. The big problem that I see is the tension between the aspiration to attract more international research talent to Germany and the necessary and proper task of educating the students in any given nation in at least one of their national languages, as well as their national languages and histories. The Big Humanities — German language, literature and history — drive Digital Humanities in Germany (as they do in the US and every other country with which I am familiar).

In my experience, however, the best way to draw new talent into Germany is to develop research teams that run in English and capitalize on a global investment in the use of English as an academic language — our short term experience bears out the larger pattern, in which a large percentage of the students who come to study in Germany enjoy their stay, develop competence in the language and stay in Germany. Big Humanities in Germany, however, bring with them the assumption that work will be done in German and have a corresponding — and entirely appropriate — national and hence inwardly directed focus.

But if it makes sense to have a German Digital Humanities, that also means that Germany may have its own national infrastructure to which only German speaking developers may contribute — 77% of the Arts and Humanities publications in Elsevier’s Scopus Publication database are in English, very few developers outside of the German speaking world learn German and the Big Humanities in the English speaking world tend to cite French as their second language (only 0.3% of the citations of the US Proceedings of the Modern Language Association pointed to German, while the Transactions of the American Philological Association, with 10% of its citations pointing to German, made the most use of German scholarship).

The best way to have a sustainable digital infrastructure is to have as many stakeholders as possible and, ideally, to be agile enough to draw on funding support from different sources, including (especially including) internationally sources of funding. We also need to decide what intellectual impact we wish German investments in Digital Humanities to have outside of the German speaking world and the related question of how the Digital Humanities can expand the role that German language, literature and culture play beyond the German speaking world.

Details and the full text are available here.

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