DH wobbles and Venn Diagrams

Following on from InterFace 2011 Lightning talks there were numerous examples of Venn Diagrams of where PhD students were positioning their research, true to the nature of the conference their positioning was mostly in between technology and humanities disciplines. During the conference there was also a lot of discussion about who exactly was in the DH crowd, and what that meant.  I still consider myself to be relatively new to the DH field, only really discovering it when I started work at UCLDH two years ago.  To be honest I’ve never really felt like I’ve fitted into any academic discipline.  My background in archaeology never seemed quite right.  Don’t get me wrong I really enjoyed it, and learnt an awful lot, but it just didn’t seem to fit with me.  So I moved on to Public archaeology, yes that was a bit more like it, but still it wasn’t quite right.  Then I discovered museum e-learning and museums and the web, and after a couple of years in the real museum world, digital elements became really important to me.

Then I arrived with a bump in DH.  It was really interesting to hear some of the comments at InterFace, from people who had never heard of Digital Humanities nor had any clue what/who/how TEI or XML is.    This made me happy, that was the exact position I was in two years ago.  I had a lot of learn, and still as of last week I thought Emacs was some sort of Emu, “Cool, a giant DH bird”. Thankfully to the lovely people at UCLDH and the wider DH community my work and more importantly, my slightly weird personality, seems to fit. User studies and Digital Museum content and visitor experience are up and coming in the DH field and I have never felt more at home.

It was great to see some many museum based research topics coming out of InterFace, and some really interesting questions being addressed, about digital objects, collections management and social media use. However, some of the bigger DH conferences do seem to neglect my area somewhat.  I was a bit lost from some of the sessions at DHSI, which appeared to me to be heavily text and linguistics based, and the same again at DH2011, not enough people and objects for my liking. This is where my confidence of being a DHer wobbles slightly.  I know historically DH has come out of text and linguistics, and I have no problem with that, it’s just not my cup of tea.  The bigger DH conferences are spreading out there themes to include archives, libraries, geospatial, classics and imagery but there still seems to be a hop, skip and jump away from where I position my research.

When I wobble as to whether or not I’m meant to be a DHer I always take solace in a blog post Melissa wrote last year about Digital Humanities as a career being a complete Hack:

I look around the folks who are part of the team at the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, and we are a motley crew – and all the better for it. The Eng Lit PhD- turned publisher- turned usability expert. The trained and practicing Librarian – turned academic information seeking specialist. The archaeologist- turned museums and the web expert – turned usability expert. The computer-scientist turned-medical physicist – turned manuscript expert. The computer scientist-archaeologist. Me? I’m the art historian-english literature- turned computer science – turned engineering science –turned information science digital classicist (I think).

I’m at risk here of describing Digital Humanities scholars as the freaks and geeks of the academic world, but this is far from negative. For most of us, getting here has been a series of random connections, introductions, jumps from one career structure to the next. Somewhere along the line, you need to know enough about Humanities to talk the humanities talk. Somewhere along the line, you need to have worked up enough programming chops to use, and utilise, computers as (not “like”) a pro.

So here is my Venn diagram of where I position my PhD research and yes Digital Humanities is at the top.

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