Kathleen Fitzpatrick on Public Digital Humanities

Julian Chambliss

This conversation was originally published in Reframing Digital Humanities: Conversations with Digital Humanists (2021). The conversation is between Dr. Julian Chambliss and Dr. Kathleen Fitzpatrick.


One of my earliest conversations was with Dr. Kathleen Fitzpatrick. Dr. Fitzpatrick is the Director of Digital Humanities and Professor of English at Michigan State University. Prior to assuming this role in 2017, she served as Associate Executive Director and Director of Scholarly Communication of the Modern Language Association. In addition, she was Managing Editor of PMLA and other MLA publications. During that time, she also held an appointment as a Visiting Research Professor of English at NYU. She is the author of Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (NYU Press, 2011), The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television (Vanderbilt University Press, 2006) and Generous Think: The University and Public Good (John Hopkinson University Press, 2019). She is project director of Humanities Commons, an open-access, open-source network serving more than 10,000 scholars and practitioners in the humanities. In our discussion, Dr. Fitzpatrick outlined why public humanities practice matters and we discuss how digital praxis can help academics engage with the public.

Public Humanities, University, Digital Humanities, Community

The Conversation

Chambliss: Yeah. This season of Reframing History is all about Digital History. And one of the standard questions I’m planning to ask everybody, regardless of who they are, is how do you define digital humanities?

Fitzpatrick: I define digital humanities as that work that gets done in the overlap of the Venn diagram between humanities and technology. And that happens in a lot of different ways. On one hand, it can be using technological tools to do work of the kind that gets done in the humanities, asking the kinds of questions, whether they’re historical or literary, or about art history, or what have you. But using computational tools that do the processing of the data and that assist the researcher in the findings that come out of that work. Or, on the other hand, it can be asking more traditional humanities-oriented questions about the computing technologies that we’re working with. So it can include digital media studies and questions about the ways that social media are changing how we interact and communicate with one another and so forth. My sense of digital humanities is that it’s super broad and that it’s a constantly shifting and changing field as both the tools shift and the questions shift, and we start to think about new ways of approaching the kinds of interests that the humanities has always had.

Chambliss: Right. Well, that’s a great answer, and that gets me to do what I should have done which is start out by being like, you are Director of Digital Humanities at Michigan State University.

Fitzpatrick: Yeah. I’ve got that definition ready to go when I need it.

Chambliss: You have that definition ready to go, and I’m really impressed. But that actually also touches on my second question for you. I know that when we talk about you, when we look you up on the Internet and you’re one of the… You reach a certain status where you have a Wikipedia entry. Did you know that?

Fitzpatrick: I did know that. I knew it because … how did this come up? Maybe I googled myself or something like this and it came up as one of those funky little cards, and it had my full birth date on there, and that really kind of freaked me out a little bit.

Chambliss: Yeah. I have a Wikipedia entry, too, so it’s not … It’s a thing. I feel like you reached a certain level getting a Wikipedia entry, like, wow, I have a Wikipedia entry. But your work in the humanities has a really long history, really going back to that earliest period of the work. And one of the things that I think that characterizes a lot of the work that you do is around this idea of community.

Chambliss: What do you think is at stake when academics create online communities?

Fitzpatrick: That is a really interesting question. And I came to this business of thinking about community and community spaces online in a kind of backward way. My original plan was to revolutionize scholarly publishing and to really think about new ways of disseminating articles and monographs online and full open access distribution and discussion around that work. And it really quickly became apparent to me that the thing that we were missing was not the tools to make that work or to disseminate that work. The things that we were missing were the people who needed to be present and willing to work in that way in order for work to get transformed that way.

It became really clear that what we needed to focus on was building a community that wanted to work together online, that had some stake in the kinds of conversations that they were able to have in that kind of space. As opposed to the kinds of things that they were able to do in print through journals, in books and so forth. I think part of what’s at stake for scholars in participating in and developing these kinds of online communities is the potential to open their work up in ways that make it more visible to people outside their immediate community of practice. And that can make it more approachable and accessible to people who might not necessarily recognize right off the bat. They might not assume that they’re really interested in this particular kind of project, but might come to it through some roundabout way that leads them into really serious discussions of the kinds of work that we do as scholars.

I think part of what’s at stake is making scholarly work more focal in mainstream conversations about really serious issues that we’re facing. Yeah.

Chambliss: That is interesting because your new book is called Generous Thinking, The University and the Public Good. And like your previous book, this one has been open for a while for public review. Which means you have a manuscript out there, it’s gone off to the publisher now and it’s coming out. You just had a reading tour talk on campus here. But in that book, and I read the, there’s an online version, you talk a lot about this idea of public intellectualism. What I would describe as public intellectualism, and the difficulties that academics have with that whole process. And I actually find this really interesting because I thought about this a lot in my own context. And I was really interested in that whole chapter, but I really love you talk about how maybe, and I think about this in my own context. I think that maybe one of the things that’s helpful for the new humanities. One thing that’s helpful about the new humanities for academics is that it creates these structures where the academic part is still there, but it’s also still, it gets to be public. Which is a really complicated thing, and it runs into these really big problems with open access, which I know you also talk a lot about. Can you walk people through your vision that you kind of talk about in terms of that public fear, that digital humanities fear and the synergy that’s possible there?

Fitzpatrick: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I will do my best in walking through this. One of the things that we’ve seen in recent years, and this goes back really to the ‘80s and the beginning of the Reagan Revolution in the United States is a real divide in public sentiment around higher education and what its purposes are, how it should be delivered, how it should be paid for and so forth. And we’re now at a real crisis point, in which public universities are receiving minuscule support from the public for providing education. Public universities are required to do increasing sorts of philanthropic fundraising in order to maintain the services that they provide. And a lot of that happens because the public doesn’t recognize the publicness of public education, right?

There is this sense in which education has become a private good, right? Rather than a public service. And part of my argument in Generous Thinking is that if we’re going to turn that around, if we’re going to turn to the public and say, in fact these institutions are here for you and we are building strong communities and we are working toward a larger sense of public good, than what is just happening amongst us on campus, we really have to start making the work that we’re doing on campus, publicly visible, publicly accessible. It has to be out there and it has to find purchase within, purchase being a bad metaphor, but it has to find…

Chambliss: Purchase in the third definition.

Fitzpatrick: Yeah, right. Exactly, a toe-hold, or some kind of grasp within the…

Chambliss: Traction.

Fitzpatrick: Traction, that’s a much better word. Thank you. Traction within the public who can look at the work that we’re doing and say that, I understand, that is worth supporting. Right?

I make the argument in Generous Thinking that there are some really key aspects to the ways that scholars work now that have to be made more public in order for this to come about. Open access as part of this, right? Nobody can care about your work if they can’t get ahold of it, right? If it’s in a journal that’s only in top tier research libraries, nobody’s going to find it. I mean nobody who doesn’t have access to those kinds of institutions already.

Chambliss: Right. Just as a way of definition or clarification for people who might not be aware. When we say open access, we mean a scholarship that is available in a free and open digital repository.

Fitzpatrick: Absolutely.

Chambliss: And they can look at several different ways, but probably the one that was most easily findable on the web is Academic Commons associated with either university or learning institution or some kind of professional organization.

Fitzpatrick: Absolutely.

Chambliss: Many colleges have Academic Commons and it’s sometimes really complicated what can go in there. But what it is it’s basically the work that has been published by the people who are on faculty. Whatever status it could be, talk about tenured faculty, whatever. Staff, that they are put there deliberately so it can be findable.

Fitzpatrick: Absolutely.

Chambliss: Many of these Commons are either through some sort of third party, or they’re through some sort of like specially created apparatus. It depends on the institution. My previous institution paid something called BP press, they created our Academic Commons. But other larger institutions, state institutions tend to use, they throw out of the box or open source meaning they’re free to use to create their own content.

Fitzpatrick: Yeah, so there are institutional repositories like that that are usually hosted by libraries, right? Where the faculty and staff, and sometimes students as well, at the institution can deposit their work and have it preserved and have it findable on the web and have it freely accessible to anyone who wants to download and read it. There were also other routes to open access. Publications that are freely available and open on the web that are the official publication, right? Rather than, the version that gets deposited in the institutional repository. Like Open Library of the Humanities has a whole series of open access journals that are pretty fantastic. But again, the whole key to that is just making the stuff findable and accessible and free out there so that people can read it and care about it. That’s one I think of this business of getting academic work visible and usable and cared about by broader publics than just those people who are already on campus.

But another part is really thinking about, about the register in which that work gets done. Right now, scholars write for each other and they write it in a particular kind of language that often closes other people out of a conversation, right? The more densely theoretical or critically rigorous, sometimes it becomes impossible for anyone who’s not already indoctrinated into this particular kind of investigation to participate. It becomes really important, especially today, for scholars to think about publishing in a range of different forms.

We want to have these insider conversations amongst ourselves. I think it’s still really important, this is how fields get advanced. But at the same time, we need to be able to give that elevator pitch or, right? Write the op-ed that tells people why this kind of research in a university is important. Why it’s not just insiders kind of talking about things that don’t really matter in the real world. Because all of the work that we’re doing does have real world consequences. We’ve just got to make the translation in a way to make clear what that importance is some of the time.

Chambliss: Yeah. One of the things that’s really interesting, you talked about mainstreaming academic information and the complexities associated with that, and I have a lot of experience with this particular question in part because I do comics, right? Until people actually know what they are, right? My dissertation is on the gilded age of progressive era planning. No one cares about that. They care about the implications of it if I explain it a certain way. But if I just say, well yeah I wrote about the gilded age of progressive era planning, they’re like okay. And so what I once explained to a student is that a lot of my work is either complicating what people think is simple or simplifying what people think is complicated.

Fitzpatrick: Exactly. Right.

Chambliss: Whenever I talk about comic books, they’re always like isn’t it a little bit more complicated than that? But I also know that when I was reading your, but talking about mainstream complaints that I heard, and I’m sure you’ve heard it too. If I talk to them for an hour, they shorten to 30 seconds and totally miss my point. Which I think lends itself towards this question. Like that’s why you need to get out there and say yourself.

Fitzpatrick: Yes. Exactly, exactly. Rather than having the reporter between you and the public, right? Being able to make that point yourself.

Chambliss: Right. But I think the question, I think this will be an important question for a lot of academics, is how do you position this process, and it is a process.

Fitzpatrick: No. Totally, totally.

Chambliss: If you look at some of the things that happened over the last few years, I’m thinking particular African-American intellectual history society, they have a really strong, the people involved they have a really strong narrative about why would they do is important and how it fits within the broader process of being an academic. And they make a very particular argument, that the thing that you do here are a step on to this other thing that you’re going to do as an academic. But that’s primarily historians who I will often argue have a really long history of being in public square.

Fitzpatrick: Yeah, absolutely.

Chambliss: For other people doing things that are not necessarily quite so accessible, despite how you might talk about it, history is still something they know what it is. How do the other people who are involved in works of the humanities… Is this something that humanities has a special ability to do? Or is this like a broader process that every discipline can be involved in? Like this is I think a really important question.

Fitzpatrick: I think that at least certain fields within the humanities have a special facility with this kind of movement between different forms of discussion. As you say, sort of making things that seem simple, more complex. But also making things that seem really complex, clear, right? It’s part of the work we do in the classroom all the time is making that shift in different registers of the ways that we’re approaching something. But I think this happens in a lot of different places. Scientists who are doing really complex, high-end theoretical work have to be able to translate that work into something comprehensible for grant applications, for instance. In order to make clear the importance of the work they’re doing and its implications.

And there are also a host of scientific publications that are public facing, right? Scientists I think are getting more and more practice in this process of taking work that would be otherwise impenetrable and making it yet clear for the public. I think humanists in certain ways assume that everybody ought to understand what it is that we’re doing. And I think we at times, even though it seems like we ought to have a particular facility with speaking to a broad culture, we need more practice at this. It’s not something we’re trained to do in grad school for instance.

You know, and so I’m thinking about, I mean you were talking about how historians have a long history in the public square, right? Public history has been a thing for a long time.

And there have been battles around it, right? Like trying to get it taken seriously. And is this really history or is this advocacy or you know, something else entirely. I think there is a perception that something like public literary criticism doesn’t exist, right? That this is that scholars don’t write for the public when they’re in literature fields. And in fact, I think first of all, it’s not true. But secondly, it grows out of a, there’s a fascinating argument by Gerald Graph about this and the history of the profession that he wrote that looks at this early 20th century moment of divide between sort of full logically oriented scholars in literature departments and critics. And critics were public facing and they were really thinking about ways of helping the public read and to figure out what to read and interpret the things that they were reading.

And that was seen at that time in the early 20th century as not being sufficiently serious. Right? For the field to have a place on campus. If it was going to have a place on campus, it had to become scientific. And so there’s been a sort of pushing away of that public facing mode for a very long time. It’s something that we really desperately need to recuperate and I think we’re finding really interesting projects that are doing that recuperation right now. If you look at some of the journals like the Los Angeles Review of Books, like Public Books, there are lots of academic projects right now that are really attempting to enter the public sphere and thinking about criticism of the kind that might once have been rejected.

Chambliss: Yeah, that’s a really important point. And it brings me to like my last question for you because as a faculty member here at MSU, you actually have a title and you’re Director of Digital Humanities at MSU, which I want to just say that we’re in the Matrix lab here at MSU which personally to me is very exciting. It was awesome but it’s also a place that I think is in a unique position in terms of both a burden and blessing associated with that. What does the DH look like here? It becomes a sort of like a benchmark around how we’ll look everywhere.

Fitzpatrick: Absolutely.

Chambliss: So as Director, what’s it look like here?

Fitzpatrick: That’s a really interesting question you should ask me. You know, it looks complex. Matrix is one of many DH related centers and labs and programs and units and initiatives on campus and DH at MSU, the thing that I am director of is a sort of federation of all of those different things that are happening on campus. Trying to get them to share resources, work together, think about collaborations and really make the full breadth of what’s happening here on campus, which is really quite extraordinary, known. Matrix is perhaps, the most nationally and internationally visible face of DH at MSU, but there’s also the digital humanities and literary cognition lab in the English department. There’s WIDE, which is in the writing rhetoric and American culture department.

Fitzpatrick: And I always forget the new acronym for WIDE. I was writing in digital environments originally, and now it’s writing interaction and digital experience is what it is now.

There is, as you know, Cedar the Consortium for—

Chambliss: Critical diversity in a digital age.

Fitzpatrick: Thank you.

Chambliss: I’m actually in that one.

Fitzpatrick: Yes, you are. And there are more things happening besides, and so we really want to be able to make the full spectrum of everything that’s happening here on campus known to make it much more visible and to really think about where we might build some bridges across these various entities to think about how we can we can work together on what DH might become here. One of the key things that I think MSU has going for it within this world of DH is that it is so publicly focused, right? That being the prototype for the Land Grant College in the United States, MSU has had this long standing, very public focused mission.

And so we’re able to take DH research and think about how it can serve communities. Think about how it can build better connections across areas within Michigan and beyond. And that I think is really quite extraordinary. We’re also thinking globally. A lot of the work that’s happening here at Matrix and then of course our annual global digital humanities symposium are really attempting to think about how the work that we’re doing with these new technologies is connecting areas that are able to work in collaboration and learn from one another far better than in the past.

Chambliss: Yeah. Well it’s really exciting. I’m always thinking about all the things that are happening here at MSU. I always, like I can say, I always try to keep these conversations short, but as a way of exiting, is there something that you think people should know that they don’t know that you want them to know?

Fitzpatrick: I think the one thing that we didn’t really touch on today that I would like to put in a plug for, if that’s all right is humanities commons, which is now since I’m project director on humanities commons. It’s affiliated with MSU and we’re really thinking about the next phases of the project’s development, right? Humanities commons is one of these sort of multi-institutional, multidisciplinary repositories and social networks that brings together scholars, students, practitioners from all across the humanities to share their work and communicate with one another. It’s fully not for profit. It’s directed by scholars and it’s growing quite rapidly. We’ve got 15,000 members now and are really looking at ways that the network can develop in order to facilitate better engagement within our fields.

Chambliss: Awesome. That’s great. Well, thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

Fitzpatrick: Thank you.


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Kathleen Fitzpatrick on Public Digital Humanities Copyright © 2022 by Julian Chambliss is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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