- Introducing Digital Projects Review
We will never have a vigorous American literature, Edgar Allan Poe famously told his contemporaries, until we have a vigorous American criticism. The problem, Poe believed, was not American authors per se. The problem was that these authors were not being reviewed with sufficient sophistication. Authors with friends in the right places got a puff. Authors without friends got a pan or were ignored altogether. Critics and authors had yet to create the feedback loop necessary to great art, where sophisticated criticism makes even the best authors more sophisticated and critical of their own work, and where innovations in one field spark conversations in another. American literature in Poe’s day, then, was a literature in search of its critics. “We are now strong in our own resources,” Poe said of his fellow authors. “We have, at length, arrived at the epoch when our literature may and must stand on its own merits, or fall through its own defects. … At last, then, we are in a condition to be criticized.”
Digital humanities (DH) is, at last, in a condition to be criticized. Digital projects are beginning to be routinely noticed in the mainstream press, and within academe the period of reflexive puffing and panning has given way to complicated conversations about how digital projects should be evaluated for their academic contributions and for academic credit.
Still, it is hard to escape Poe’s notion that what the DH field most needs is more rigorous and sustained criticism. Relevant conversations occurring within the DH community tend to remain trapped there, and then there are the many conversations we have yet to have. How can we develop a more sophisticated taxonomy and vocabulary for digital work? We know what academic work is; we know its forms, and we know how to evaluate them. But all that changes when we evaluate digital projects because the word project is so elastic. What academic work is the project trying to do? What audience is it trying to reach? What should we call it? Is this an archival project—something akin to an edited volume? Or is this a work of scholarship—making a purportedly final judgment about a set of records and a purportedly important contribution to an ongoing scholarly debate? At what stage in the process is the digital intervention [End Page 125] made—is it in the data gathering, the data analysis, the data visualization, the distribution of findings, or elsewhere? How can we stop producing expensive “one-off” projects and start producing stable new academic digital forms and formats? How can we continue to democratize the production of digital projects so that good ideas do not languish for want of funding? How can we better involve university presses in these processes? Certainly if we, as scholars, are understood to write books while presses print books and libraries rent books, we are all doomed. But if scholars are engaged in knowledge production, presses in publicity, marketing, and peer review, and libraries in preservation and access, we all have a future. But what does that future look like? How, infrastructurally and logistically, do we get to that future?
Granting that these questions may be interesting to DH scholars (and to a lesser degree to the profession generally), why are they of particular import to American studies scholars? Because American studies scholars can no longer afford to ignore work relevant to its discipline simply because it is being done or distributed in digital form. Similarly, American studies scholars working in digital forms and on digital projects cannot afford to be left out of the very real benefits (and perils) of peer review. The Digital Projects Review in American Quarterly is intended to do a small part in alleviating a lacuna in our scholarly communication. It will provide a space to acknowledge and engage with digital American studies work worthy of comment. Our goal is to sponsor, in the review format, an ongoing conversation about the emerging forms of digital work in the field. This conversation will sharpen our vocabulary for criticism of digital work; it will refine the provisional taxonomy we use to define...