Two Epiphanies and a Manifesto

Maybe this post should begin with the news that I started my new position as Director of Digital Learning at MoMA last week. I couldn’t be more thrilled to be working at this great institution with such great colleagues.

And now the point of this blog post — we confess, we read the Digital Humanities Manifesto, with glee! We’re always suckers for descriptions of the radically new and different face of education that is emerging. This pleasure was sharply contrasted with the disappointment that we felt when we read the much more widely discussed essay, “The Last Professor,” by Stanely Fish in last Sunday’s New York Times Op/Ed section. Here, Fish, writing as curmudgeon of the academy, nostalgically laments the death of an idealized humanities education of yore—an education he imagines nobly separated from practical application and that he sees defiled by for-profit institutions and the rise of a permanent adjunct class. He ends by smugly noting “…I have had a career that would not have been available to me had I entered the world 50 years later. Just lucky, I guess.” He is reacting to and lauding his former student Frank Donoghue’s new book, “The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities.” In his essay, Fish looks only to the past and seems to fear that all change leads to a for-proft, job-focused educational system.

Clearly, the humanities are changing and the university is being challenged to its core; but maybe what will be lost is its insular elitism. Had Fish had more vision, his essay might have noted that the humanities have never been more vibrant and that the very dim view he holds is largely because the cloistered walls of the University block the light. The continued vitality of the humanities is however very apparent to those whose wireless signals breach those walls to connect with and distribute knowledge in ways that are incredibly exciting and give us every reason to think that academic research and teaching are exactly where we want to be now.

Here is the definition of “digital humanities”:
Digital humanities is not a unified field but an array of convergent practices that explore a universe in which print is no longer the exclusive or the normative medium in which knowledge is produced and/or disseminated.

And here are our favorite parts of the manifesto:

Paragraph 11: Among the highest aims of scholarship: entertainment; entertainment as scholarship: a scandal that is now no longer a scandal. To speak to an audience.

Paragraph 13: Redefinition of the contours of the research community once enclosed by university walls. The field of knowledge and expertise far exceeds these confines. There is no containing it within these walls. The challenge: to construct models of knowledge creation/sharing that confront this increasingly distributed reality.

We’ve written earlier about a new model of education where teachers are more accountable to students (no more boring lectures?). With Smarthistory, we’ve tried to be entertaining AND enlightening – using conversation as our tool. We’ve also tried to eschew an authoritative voice in favor of personal, opinionated voices. But we’ve also struggled with how to engage a broader public. We’ve “distributed” smarthistory to dipity, flickr, youtube and vimeo… and we’re working on Facebook now too (with Juliana Kreinik’s help).

This past week, we had two important lessons. I had a twitter account for months, but didn’t “tweet” much. But in the last couple of weeks, when I was home editing alot of videos, I twittered a few times about the videos I was posting on Nothing happened at first, but several days later there was a small explosion of interest — due in part to a few twitterers, the Getty Museum, Shelley Mannion, and CJ, who spread the word around. It was wonderful — we had a twitter epiphany.

Then, the Museum of Modern Art twitterer, one brilliant Victor Samra in the Digital Media and Marketing departments twittered Smarthistory, and the “followers” came rolling in and so did the lovely comments about the site. I look forward to working a lot more with Victor, and with my colleagues in the Education department, and the Digital Media department as well.

The other revelation this week happened with Flickr (readers of our blog know we have been HUGE fans of using Flickr for teaching for years). Here’s Steven’s summary from the Smarthistory page:


One of our Flickr contributors sent me the following: “One point I noticed in the discussion is the location at which Van Gogh painted the potato eaters. In the dialogue it is said that he painted it in a coal mining area in Belgium near the French border. Whereas, received knowledge here in Nuenen is that he painted it in the time he lived here.”

He is absolutely correct. We listened to the podcast and we clearly make an incorrect statement. The Potato Eaters was painted in Nuenen when the artist lived there and we were (unclearly) referring to a period a few years prior when Van Gogh was Borinage. We had been thinking of the impact of the spiritual on his subject in this painting. We are so glad he offered this correction. It is one of the great strengths of social media like Flickr. Here is a great reminder that expertise is broadly distributed. I love our networked world!

The Liberal Arts at an end!? We hardly think so…

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  1. Good points. Snow day here today. No snow days online. Started putting lectures on itunesu last spring. NB: Just listened to the discussion on “Cut With the Kitchen Knife.” Pretty good. But, after saying it’s so chaotic, you all point out (some) of the organization. It’s very organized, composed, as is all of her work. Also, no Karl Liebknecht in it (that’s a guy named Trost, speaking at a rally of sailors), or (here to the Flickr site) Walter Rathenau (an common misidentification, probably the hardest one in the work) but an obscure artistocrat. Watch for my forthcoming book “Objects as History in 20th-Century German Art (California, 2010), which offers in one of its studies a new interpretation…


  2. Peter –
    These are great identifications for the Höch photomontage…all of my (or should I say “our”) knowledge (correct or not) about the image comes from a lot of looking and reading—and now, because of these website podcasts, Flickr photos, Twitter posts, and blogging, we’re incorporating social networking into the learning model for art history! This is one of the goals of Smarthistory, so I guess we’re…scoring? Winning? Maybe everyone wins with this.

    One of the best parts of Smarthistory is our emphasis on participatory learning. To that end, we’re modifying our site to enable visitor contributions and commentary. Such changes, of course, do not happen as instantaneously as we’d like: in the meantime, however, what would be ideal is for you to visit the Hannah Höch Flickr page [] and do some notations on the image! Wouldn’t it be great if we could identify all the figures in the piece? I’m sure one or two scholars have already done all that hard work, and you also have some great factoids to add, but I’ve never seen her fantastic work mapped out completely, with everything and everyone identified for all to see—and don’t you think it should be done here?!? Flickr may not be perfect for this undertaking, but it’s a great start…so go for it! Make notes, write comments, and contribute!

    And if anyone else has more info for Höch’s “Cut with the Kitchen Knife,” please add what you can!


  3. […] are academics and the creators of, where they also maintain a blog. In one recent entry, they contrast Stanley Fish’s recent obit for the humanities with the Digital Humanities […]


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