Epistemic Infrastructures: Digital Humanities in/as Instrumentalist Context
In his essay “How Not to Teach Digital Humanities,” Ryan Cordell outlines some of the pedagogical and institutional challenges of integrating DH into larger humanities curricula. Importantly, Cordell argues that successful Digital Humanities pedagogy must always take into account local institutional and infrastructural contexts, and notes his structuring of previous classes in order to afford students’ leveraging of campus archival collections.
Cordell’s focus on material and institutional infrastructure as the “context” of Digital Humanities work dovetails with other scholars’ calls to productive engage with the wider “structures” that enable DH work, 1 and, more recently, invocations of “critical infrastructure studies, 2 . While the highlighting of the local and distributed material systems and institutions that underpin digital technologies (and therefore DH practices) can provide crucial insights into the hidden labor and material translations that shape DH institutions, this highlighting can serve to flatten and neuter the ideological-epistemological structures that also undergird digital practices.
In the context of the STEM educational apparatus, where I find myself enmeshed as a member of the Science and Technology Studies (STS) Department at an Engineering-Centered Institution, these epistemological frameworks can be especially influential, and are often cast as emphasis of “technical expertise” at the cost of the kinds of critical knowledge work that humanities faculty claim to encourage in our students. At face value, this may not be particularly surprising to other humanities scholars. In advocating for the need for DH faculty to resist overplaying “the digital” card in our classrooms, Cordell describes the orientation of the kinds of students we find enrolled in Humanities majors:
Many of our students honestly, truly, really choose literature or history or art history or religious studies because they wanted to read and think deeply rather than follow what they perceive as a more instrumentalist education in business or technical fields. To do so they often resist substantial pressure from family and friends pushing them toward “more practical” majors, which are often perceived to be more technical majors. 3
Cordell’s characterization fits the standard understanding of where DH takes place—in English departments 4 and classrooms where computational methods are being used to augment “traditional” humanities education. These students are of a different sort than students in more “instrumentalist” programs and majors—usually stereotyped in DH scholarship as STEM students interested in quantification, technology, and the ability to get a job. 5 However, if DH is to truly operate not as an “interdisciplinary bridge,” 6 but rather as a force to resolve and heal the divides between computational/technical practices and interpretive/critical scholarship, we must begin to take seriously the kinds of epistemic-infrastructural contexts STEM disciplines are embedded in, as well as the understand the ideological histories that have shaped those contexts. We must attend to students and scholars in educational contexts the opposite of which Cordell outlines above: in Engineering-Centered Institutions, Polytechnics, and other instrumentalist 7 educational contexts.
In this essay, I want to talk about instrumentalism not as pragmatic practice, but as ideological-epistemological apparatus. Instrumentalism not only resists the kinds of non-deterministic scholarship practiced in many humanities spaces, but it is also explicitly designed to account for, consume, and subvert the impacts of critical perspectives on technological systems. I thus want to inflect the concept of “infrastructure” differently than Alan Liu, who defines infrastructure as “the social-cum-technological milieu that at once enables the fulfillment of human experience and enforces constraints on that experience.” 8 Rather than enabling and constraining the activities of users, I argue that infrastructures operate epistemically, as “machineries of knowledge,” 9 to produce those users themselves. 10 I borrow from STS scholar Karin Knorr Cetina in arguing that infrastructures of scientific and technical production—including those relevant to the digital humanities—should be understood less as “knowledge infrastructures” and more as “epistemic infrastructures.” For Knorr Cetina, the term “knowledge structures” implies that material-social systems work to produce what we know. The term “epistemic structures,” in contrast, highlights how those systems work instead to produce how we know, by producing the practices, tools, spaces, and boundaries of “knowing” and of knowable objects. 11 Machineries of knowledge thus produce “epistemic subjects” and “epistemic objects:” practitioners and their always-in-negotiation objects of study. 12
If we take seriously the epistemic infrastructures of STEM education, it would be wrong to think of engineering students as instrumentalist persons who enter STEM in order to “be filled” with narrow technical expertise, or of engineering instructors as conspiratorial anti-political agents. Rather, the instrumentalist epistemic structures of engineering education produce students and teachers as technical practitioners; experts who, through their mastery of the fundamentals of math and physics, practice the production of “non-political” material systems. Simultaneously, though engineering students generally understand that technology “in the world” has social dimensions, engineering’s epistemic infrastructures produce technology as an epistemic object—“Technology” as abstract and ideal, methodological and apolitical—and define the boundaries of STEM’s knowledge domain as the exploration of that epistemic object of Technology.
Instrumentalist epistemic infrastructure is frighteningly effective at producing anti-political practices. Erin Cech’s longitudinal study of engineering students at four different universities shows that engineering students’ interest in public welfare, social concerns, and the political impacts of technological systems steadily declines over the course of their education. 13 This is despite the fact that, in most engineering programs, what little hands-on design, making, and human-interaction work that students do engage in almost always occurs towards the end of their coursework. This heavy declination of interest in social and political good should be especially concerning given that early outreach programs, particularly at the grade school level, combine building activities with “use technology to change the world” rhetoric to recruit students into STEM career paths. These programs, which include activities like Lego Mindstorms workshops and hands-on hackathons—and are not altogether unlike celebrated “making” pedagogies in the digital humanities--even consciously recruit women and underrepresented minorities, ostensibly in an effort to diversify the STEM workforce. Upon entrance into STEM higher education, however, students are subjected to a double “bait-and-switch:” 14 as making and building activities are immediately sidelined in favor of math and science foundations courses, so too are political and ideological concerns systematically excised from the epistemic object of engineering. This double bait-and-switch is coupled with a systemic administrative devaluing of interpretive humanities and social science courses. While engineering students in the U.S. are required (for now) to take “broad educational” courses, in my experience engineering students are often encouraged by their academic advisors to take “easy” humanities courses that they can mostly ignore in order to concentrate on their core educational work and simultaneously boost their GPA. Instrumentalist infrastructures thus practice the double-move of simultaneously accounting for and defanging the political ramifications of humanities scholarship.
Unlike Cordell’s students who, for various reasons, approach technologically-centered humanities classes with reticence and suspicion, engineering and STEM students interested in taking seriously their humanities classes are often attracted to elective classes that are viewed as fitting in with or dovetailing with their technical education, such as economics or philosophy of technology classes, or that allow them to apply their technical skills in the hands-on, self-directed ways that they are unable to pursue in their core coursework, such as digital arts classes. The technological inflection of the digital humanities thus offers a unique incentive for STEM students, as well as pathway for critical humanities and social sciences faculty to productively engage with those students. Ideally, the digital humanities can even begin subverting the instrumentalist epistemic infrastructures of Engineering-Centered Institutions (and the neoliberal university in general).
However, digital humanities pedagogy is also in a unique position to reinforce instrumentalist epistemological infrastructure, as well. Partly, this comes from the difficulty of teaching technical skills and critical thought to undergraduates at the same time, due in no small part to the epistemic infrastructures erected in the university post-instrumental turn. Ian Bogost has opined that humanists have to bracket criticality in order to get our grounding in technical skills. 15 I certainly sympathize with the pragmatic difficulties of teaching undergraduates code and close reading at the same time, particularly in our contemporary instrumental episteme. But bracketing technological practice as apolitical skills with potential social impacts—even in the context of a humanities course—only continues to produce Technology as apolitical epistemic object, as something that can be learned apart from the social and political world. As Tara McPherson suggests, the ontology of brackets is particularly pervasive in digital culture, and can actively undermine critical perspectives on technology and ontologies of difference that emerge from feminist, queer, and postcolonial positions. 16 Thus, DH’s relative lack of attention to the epistemic practices of Technology can encourage students to assume the instrumentalist stance, and, worse, to pre-tune them to the rejection of politics of difference.
Digital humanities can provide a model of transformational resistance to technocratic culture. Rita Raley argues that “the digital humanities should not, and cannot, bear the burden of transforming the technocratic knowledge economy.” 17 But if not us, then whom? And who better to build material-epistemic infrastructures that subvert the bracketing of critical thought and technical practice, that challenge the very ideological tenets of instrumentalism, than digital humanists? By entangling ourselves in the apparatuses of STEM education, and by building frameworks for STEM students—especially those in engineering and computer science—to ideologically contextualize their own educational experiences in their technical majors, digital humanities pedagogy can make inroads into dismantling technocratic culture by allying with the very persons in the best position to reproduce it.
Activities described in this paper were made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
- Kirschenbaum, Matthew. (2012). “Digital Humanities Is/As a Tactical Term.” Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew Gold, University of Minnesota Press
- Parks, Lisa and Starosielski, Nicole. (2015). Signal Traffic. University of Illinois Press
- Cordell, 2016
- Kirschenbaum, Matthew. (2012). “What is Digital Humanities and What’s it Doing in English Departments?” Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew Gold, University of Minnesota Press
- Cordell 2016
- Chris Biemann, Gregory R. Crane, Christiane D. Fellbaum, and Alexander Mehler. (2014). “Computational Humanities – Bridging the Gap Between Computer Science and Digital Humanities”, Dagstuhl Reports, Vol. 4, Issue 7, pp. 80–111
- Nieusma, Dean. (2015). “Conducting the Instrumentalists: a Framework for Engineering Liberal Education.” Engineering Studies. Vol. 7, 2-3, pp. 159-163
- Liu 2016
- Knorr Cetina, Karin. (1999). Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge. Harvard University Press
- Knorr Cetina, 1999
- Knorr Cetina, Karin (2007). “Culture in global knowledge societies: knowledge cultures and epistemic cultures” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews. Vol. 32, 4, pp. 361-375
- Knorr Cetina, 1999
- Cech, Erin. (2014). “Culture of Disengagement in Engineering Education?” Science, Technology, and Human Values. Vol. 39, 1, pp. 42-72
- Lachney, Michael and Nieusma, Dean. (2015). “Engineering Bait-and-Switch: K-12 Recruitment Strategies Meet University Curricula and Culture.” Proceedings of the American Society for Engineering Education.
- McPherson, 2014
- McPherson, 2014
- Raley, Rita. 2014. “Digital Humanities for the Next Five Minutes.” differences: a Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. Vol 25, No. 1, pp. 26-45
Kirschenbaum, Matthew. (2012). “Digital Humanities Is/As a Tactical Term.” Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew Gold, University of Minnesota Press
Parks, Lisa and Starosielski, Nicole. (2015). Signal Traffic. University of Illinois Press
Kirschenbaum, Matthew. (2012). “What is Digital Humanities and What’s it Doing in English Departments?” Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew Gold, University of Minnesota Press
Chris Biemann, Gregory R. Crane, Christiane D. Fellbaum, and Alexander Mehler. (2014). “Computational Humanities – Bridging the Gap Between Computer Science and Digital Humanities”, Dagstuhl Reports, Vol. 4, Issue 7, pp. 80–111
Nieusma, Dean. (2015). “Conducting the Instrumentalists: a Framework for Engineering Liberal Education.” Engineering Studies. Vol. 7, 2-3, pp. 159-163
Knorr Cetina, Karin. (1999). Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge. Harvard University Press
Knorr Cetina, 1999
Knorr Cetina, Karin (2007). “Culture in global knowledge societies: knowledge cultures and epistemic cultures” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews. Vol. 32, 4, pp. 361-375
Knorr Cetina, 1999
Cech, Erin. (2014). “Culture of Disengagement in Engineering Education?” Science, Technology, and Human Values. Vol. 39, 1, pp. 42-72
Lachney, Michael and Nieusma, Dean. (2015). “Engineering Bait-and-Switch: K-12 Recruitment Strategies Meet University Curricula and Culture.” Proceedings of the American Society for Engineering Education.
Raley, Rita. 2014. “Digital Humanities for the Next Five Minutes.” differences: a Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. Vol 25, No. 1, pp. 26-45