Between Two Cultures

At the RSA annual meeting, I attended a roundtable on DH pedagogy. While I was originally hoping to learn about my fellow early modern DHers’ pedagogical strategies, a conversation that took place before the panel quickly cued me into the fact that I was going to be getting something very different out of the discussion. I was taking an anthropological journey into the world of the DH-curious (people who are intrigued by the potential of DH but inexperienced and often intimidated by it).

When we got to the conversational part of the roundtable, an audience member quickly steered us into a familiar framework from 1959 – C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures.” The TL;DR of that Wikipedia link is that there are two cultures in modern intellectual society: scientists and humanists. This is an idea that a lot of people have bought into, from administrators trying to defund the humanities to force people into more “productive” career tracks in the sciences, to students who claim they are only “good at” one or the other. When fellow historians profess amazement that I would study something as “difficult” as the history of mathematics, I understand anew why some “History of Science” departments decided to calve off from “History” departments and consider themselves a whole different discipline. And when an entire discussion at the RSA gets bogged down in implicit assumptions that humanists can not or should not be required to learn to think programmatically, I can’t help but sympathize with DHers who argue that DH is a discipline distinct from the rest of the humanities.

That said, the idea that humanists and scientists form two separate cultures – and that humanists shouldn’t be expected to understand scientists, and vice versa – undermines the entire point of a liberal arts education. It erases undergraduate students who move freely between humanistic and scientific classes, often to the point of double-majoring or major-minoring across this perceived divide. It essentializes graduate students to a single narrow disciplinary viewpoint, as if they are unable to have any interests outside their dissertation topic. It ignores anyone who’s worked in the history of science (seriously: science has a history, just like anything else) as well as social sciences, quantitative humanities, computational/digital humanities, and any other field that doesn’t fit neatly into these two predetermined cultural categories.

The notion of this divide was so embedded into the roundtable discussion – and people were so convinced that those of us who span this divide don’t exist – that an idea was pitched of a DH workshop for RSA 2019 that required collaboration across the divide:

Now don’t get me wrong, collaboration is great. But for collaboration to work, you need to speak enough of the same language to communicate with one another either directly or through a translator. The former requires the humanist and the computer scientist to learn the other’s language, at least a little bit – for example, understanding the difference between computer scientists, data scientists, statisticians, and digital humanists, rather than lumping them all together under the label “IT people.” The latter requires working with someone who already exists across that two cultures divide, making it hard to argue that scholars can’t really be expected to do what some scholars are already doing.

What message, then, does the two cultures debate send to those of us who work across and between these allegedly separate cultures? Why must we be forced to choose sides, to repudiate half of our work/skills/knowledge/selves in order to force ourselves into a binary constrution that doesn’t reflect reality? Why are we teaching future generations of scholars that you can only be “good at” one or the other, instead of celebrating the scholarly role models who show that there are more than just two paths?

And so I end with the tweet that was my first gut reaction when the two cultures digression began to take over the panel: