Notes on current issues in Digital Humanities

In July 2011, the Open University held a colloquium called ‘Digital technologies: help or hindrance for the humanities?’, in part to celebrate the launch of the Thematic Research Network for Digital Humanities at the OU.  A full multi-author report about the colloquium (titled ‘Colloquium: Digital Technologies: Help or Hindrance for the Humanities?’) will be coming out in the ‘Digital Futures Special Issue Arts and Humanities in HE’ edition of Arts and Humanities in Higher Education soon, but a workshop was also held at the OU’s Milton Keynes campus on Thursday to discuss some of the key ideas that came from the colloquium and to consider the agenda for the thematic research network.  I was invited to present in the workshop, and I’ve shared my notes and some comments below (though of course the spoken version varied slightly).

To help focus the presentations, Professor John Wolffe (who was chairing) suggested we address the following points:

  1. What, for you, were the two most important insights arising from last July’s colloquium?
  2. What should be the two key priorities for the OU’s DH thematic research network over the next year, and why?
Notes on the colloquium and current issues in the Digital Humanities

Introduction – who I am as context for how I saw the colloquium
Before I started my PhD, I was a digital practitioner – a programmer, analyst, bearer of Zeitgeisty made-up modern job titles – situated in an online community of technologists loosely based in academia, broadcasting, libraries, archives, and particularly, in public history and museums. That’s really only interesting in the context of this workshop because my digital community is constituted by the very things that challenge traditional academia – ad hoc collaboration, open data, publicly sharing and debating thoughts in progress.

For people who happily swim in this sea, it’s hard to realise how new and scary it can be, but just yesterday I was reminded how challenging the idea of a public identity on social media is for some academics, let alone the thought of finding time to learn and understand yet another tool. As a humanist-turned-technologist-turned-humanist, I have sympathy for the perspective of both worlds.

The two most important insights arising from last July’s colloquium?
John Corrigan‘s introduction made it clear that the answer to the question ‘what is digital humanities’ is still very open, and has perhaps as many different answers as there are humanists. That’s both exciting and challenging – it leaves room for the adaptation (and adoption) of DH by different humanities disciplines, but it also makes it difficult to develop a shared language for collaboration, for critiquing and peer reviewing DH projects and outputs… [I’ve also been wondering whether ‘digital humanities’ would eventually devolve into the practices of disciplines – digital history, etc – and how much digital humanities really works across different humanities disciplines in a meaningful way, but that’s a question for another day.]

In my notes, it was the discussion around Chris Bissel‘s paper on ‘Reality and authenticity’, Google Earth and archaeology that also stood out – the questions about what’s lost and gained in the digital context are important, but, as a technologist, I ask us to be wary of false dichotomies. There’s a danger in conflating the materiality of a resource, the seductive aura of an original document, the difficulties in accessing it, in getting past the gatekeepers, with the quality of the time spent with it; with the intrinsic complexity of access, context, interpretation… The sometimes difficult physical journey to an archive, or the smell of old books is not the same as earned access to knowledge.

What should be the two key priorities for the OU’s DH thematic research network over the next year?
[I don’t think I did a very good job answering this, perhaps because I still feel too new to know what’s already going on and what could be added. Also, I’m apparently unable to limit myself to two.]
I tend to believe that the digital humanities will eventually become normalised as just part of how humanities work, but we need to be careful about how that actually happens.

The early adopters have blazed their trails and lit the way, but in their wake, they’ve left the non-early adopters – the ordinary humanist – blinking and wondering how to thrive in this new world. I have a sense that digital humanities is established enough, or at least the impact of digitisation projects has been broad enough, that the average humanist is expected to take on the methods of the digital humanist in their grant and research proposals and in their teaching – but has the ordinary humanist been equipped with the skills and training and the access to technologists and collaborators to thrive? Do we need to give everyone access to DH101?

We need to deal with the challenges of interdisciplinary collaboration, particularly publication models, peer review and the inescapable REF. We need to understand how to judge the processes as well as the products of research projects, and to find better ways to recognise new forms of publication, particularly as technology is also disrupting the publication models that early career researchers used to rely on to get started.

Much of the critique of digital working was about what it let people get away with, or how it risks misleading the innocent researcher. As with anything on a screen, there’s an illusion of accuracy, completeness, neatness. We need shared practices to critique visualisations and discuss what’s really available in database searches, the representativeness of digital repositories, the quality of transcriptions and metadata, the context in which data was created and knowledge produced… Translating the slipperiness of humanities data and research questions into a digital world is a juicy challenge but it’s necessary if the potential of DH is to be exploited, whether by humanities scholars or the wider public who have new access to humanities content. ‘natural order of things’.

Digitality is no excuse to let students (or other researchers) get away with sloppy practice. The ability to search across millions of records is important, but you should treat the documents you find as rigorously as you’d treat something uncovered deep in the archives. Slow, deep reading, considering the pages or documents adjacent to the one that interests you, the serendipitous find – these are all still important. But we also need to help scholars find ways to cope with the sheer volume of data now available and the probably unrealistic expectations of complete coverage of all potential sources this may create. So my other key priority is working out and teaching the scholarly practices we need to ensure we survive the transition from traditional to digital humanities.

In conclusion, the same issues – trust, authority, the context of knowledge production – are important for my digital and my humanities communities, but these concepts are expressed very differently in each. We need to work together to build bridges between the practices of traditional academia and those of the digital humanities.

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