Does Digital Humanities embrace difference? Different interpretations, perspectives & disciplines?

Following on from the Defining the Digital in Arts and Humanities research post, this post will discuss the first half day session at the Northern Bridge Summer School held at Newcastle University in The Great North Museum on the 4-5th June 2015. The session focused on Exploring the Digital in the Arts and Humanities.  The aim was to emphasise that Digital Humanities embraces difference whether that be different interpretations, perspectives or disciplines.

So is Digital Humanities perceived as a Big Tent? The “Big Tent” was the theme of DH 2011, and since then this issue of “Big Tent Digital Humanities” has stimulated numerous discussions about the inclusive and interdisciplinary nature of the discipline.  “Big Tent Digital Humanities”, deliberately opens and muddles the focus of the field and it has even been suggested that “Everything is Digital Humanities! Everyone is a digital humanist!” (Melissa Terras 2011). Well at least that’s what those that self-identify as Digital Humanist’s have a tendency to think.  But what about those who don’t identify as Digital Humanists? Like the Northern Bridge Students.  What do they think about digital scholarship and the impact it is having?

The doctoral student participants were invited to gather in specific disciplinary groups to consider the question of how digital impacts on their discipline and their personal research agendas.  The groups were tasked with thinking of 3 ways digital is shaping their discipline.  The discussion and feedback from the specific discipline groups highlighted an exciting range of perspectives. This really hit home the diversity in Arts and Humanities research.  It was fantastic to see the differences and the commonalities when it comes to thinking about digital.

Below are the 8 specific discipline groups main points about how digital is shaping their subject area:

Theology:

  • Access of information – easy access to sources from dispersed areas. Enabling research rather than shaping it.
  • Connecting the field – networking and collaboration.
  • The Limiting access of digital – there needs to be an awareness of the digital divide.

Languages

  • Range of digital resources, accessibility and novel ways of interrogating sources.
  • Information management, specifically reference management. With accompanying advantages and disadvantages.
  • Dissemination of research – sharing research widely.

Philosophy

  • Concern of publishing unfinished material, accuracy of digital sources and information, but the digital also gives access to unrefined materials.
  • Dissemination of research – increasing conversations and access to research.
  • Ask not what you can do for the internet, but what the internet can do for you.

Creative practitioners

  • Serendipity of the bookshelf – not easy to do digitally, but if you know what you are looking for digital tools can help accessibility and findability of real objects – finding things to use in research.
  • Digital as a medium in itself but does this impact on tangibility and aura? Is this lost in digital media?
  • Using a computer to understand the human element.

Linguists and literature

  • Digital tools can be useful, but it shouldn’t be leading us. Digital resources are often used naturally, perhaps researchers don’t consider it as DH.
  • Digital can increase ability to collaborate.
  • Anxiety – Should we always be using digital, even when it is not necessarily relevant to research?

English Literature

  • Greater scope for your research library – but you can only find what you know it is there. Serendipity of bookshelf is often lacking in digital resources.
  • Media savvy generation – should be using digital resources and tools.
  • Impact of research and employability. DH is a good way to highlight relevance of research.

Archaeology & Heritage

  • Archaeology has already been using technology for a long time.
  • Changing expectations of what we can achieve – speed of changing expectations – The digital is changing expectations of research and researchers at an alarming rate. You can invest a lot of time in learning how to use new technology, is it worth it?
  • Remodelling knowledge – interacting in a more organic way.

Archaeology

  • Visualisation of data – maps, GIS etc – archaeologists have always used digital tools to help visualise their data.
  • Transformative – access, publish, analysis, process, software, interdisciplinary.
  • Critical thinking – why are we using technology – how does it help? Should we be using it?

Despite taking a closer look at impact of digital on discipline specific areas when we brought the group back together there were some key commonalities and overlapping themes:

  • We need to ‘Engage the brain’ – why are we using digital technology, and is it really helping us?
  • There is a need for critical engagement and thinking when using digital tools.
  • Digital tools enable wider dissemination, increases accessibility and findability of research.
  • Offers exciting possibilities for interdisciplinary approaches.
  • The challenge of digital attribution is an issue.
  • Serendipity of the bookshelf – how can we retain/regain serendipity in the digital?
  • Diversity of perspectives.
  • Trepidation about the use of some digital resources.
  • Engaging globally, increased opportunities, to be part of a virtual community.
  • Thinking about the nature of engagement, and what that means and offers.

In many ways, Digital Humanities embracing difference or “Big Tent Digital Humanities” is a nice concept and it is a useful perspective to continually explore.  The DH community is now considerably more open, approachable, and willing to embrace new perspectives than many traditional areas of arts and humanities academia.  This inclusivity, however, is not clearly reflected in the main published research areas in the digital humanities field. As Pannapacker (2011) notes:

The digital humanities have some internal tensions, such as the occasional divide between builders and theorizers, and coders and non-coders. But the field, as a whole, seems to be developing an in-group, out-group dynamic that threatens to replicate the culture of Big Theory back in the 80s and 90s, which was alienating to so many people. It’s perceptible in the universe of Twitter: We read it, but we do not participate. It’s the cool-kids’ table.

So, the digital humanities seem more exclusive, more cliquish, than they did even one year ago (Pannapacker 2011).

So it was nice to see so many commonalities between the disciplines when thinking about how digital is shaping their subject.    This to me really highlights what DH is all about – a broad spectrum of multidisciplinary academic individuals and approaches, which come together with a shared interest in technology and humanities research.

The follow-up exercise involved taking the ideas and points raised in the first session into multidisciplinary groups to think about and compile a manifesto/charter for the Northern Bridge Training Partnership.  The challenge was to suggest ways that Northern Bridge and its strategic partners could best meet the needs and requirements of students to equip them for emerging digital scholarship and perhaps even develop a leading position in doctoral training in this area.  Shawn has written an excellent summary of this over at Digital Humanities @ the library.

A big thank you to all the conveners and to all the Northern Bridge participants for an energizing and thought provoking session and conference.

 

N.B Obviously this post is just reflecting on different disciplines and the ideas discussed during the Northern Bridge Summer School.  There are lots of brilliant discussions about gender, ethnicity, age, and sexuality and digital humanities – a few links:

Defining the Digital in Arts and Humanities Research

Digital Humanities? What on earth is it? Tools for research? cultural expectations? understanding pervasive technology in society? We asked the Northern Bridge doctoral candidates to define and discuss.

On the 4th -5th June 2015 I had the pleasure of taking part in the Annual Northern Bridge Training Programme Summer School held at Newcastle University in The Great North Museum .  The Northern Bridge is a doctoral training partnership between Newcastle UniversityDurham University and Queen’s University Belfast, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

The 2015 Summer School theme focused on Digital Humanities and it produced a stimulating environment to discuss, share and learn about the impact of the digital on arts and humanities scholarship.   Digital Humanities is becoming an increasingly popular focus for academic research and discussion.  There are now hundreds of Digital Humanities centres and there has been an expansion in digital humanities taught courses, journals, and conferences.   But what is actually understood by the term ‘Digital Humanities’ is still up for debate.

Alongside the brilliant Shawn Day (lecturer at University College Cork, Queen’s University Belfast and Trinity College Dublin), Ian Johnson (Archivist at Newcastle University Special Collections) and Deirdre Wildy (Head of Special Collections & Archives at Queen’s University Belfast) we challenged the doctoral candidates to consider how emerging digital tools and methodologies impact on their own doctoral studies.

Before the Summer School started we circulated a short questionnaire to stimulate thoughts about digital scholarship. One of the most interesting questions enquired as to what the doctoral candiates understood by Digital Humanities.   As part of the form, we asked, ” What do you understand to mean by Digital Humanities in 140 characters?” – and received a surprisingly interesting set of answers. This list of definitions proved to be a very interesting starting point for exploring the Digital in the Arts and Humanities within the Northern Bridge Consortium.

In comparison to A Day in the Life of the Digital Humanities (Day of DH), which is a community documentation project that brings together digital humanists from around the world to document what they do and how they define Digital Humanities, none of the Northern Bridge consortium self-identified as digital humanities scholars.   So it was very interesting to see what ‘non DHers’ had to say about digital humanities.

Some examples from the twitters:









The definitions were tweeted using the hashtag #NBSS2015 and were processed through Textal to explore the relationships between words in the text via a snazzy word cloud interface. What came out most strongly to me was the emphasis on tools and dissemination.  Digital as an output rather than a process or an object of study in its own right.

Lots has already been written about how digital humanities might be defined (see the excellent Defining Digital Humanities edited by Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan and Edward Vanhoutte for a full volume on the subject) and the question of ‘What is digital humanities?’ continues to be a rich source of intellectual debate for scholars.  It was fascinating to hear what the next generation of PhD students felt to be important in defining DH.  It raises some interesting perspectives about how digital arts & humanities may be represented in the future.  It’s exciting to see how the established boundaries between, and relationships among, arts and humanities scholars are being re-imagined through the use of digital technology and the dynamic forms of engagement, discussion and collaboration it is enabling.

What have you done today to make you feel proud?

I knew Melissa Terras’ plenary speech was going to be good, but I wasn’t expecting it to give the reaction I experienced.  It shook me to my core.  In places I had goosebumps.  It made me immensely proud not only to be able to say I work with Mel, I work at UCL and I work in Digital Humanities.  It made me proud to hear someone so passionately describe what they believe in, what they represent. And I agreed with every single word.

You may think, I’m biased because I know and work with Mel on a daily basis. I know I am privileged.  I work with not one but two of what I consider to be the best people in the field.  Both Claire and Mel are so passionate about what they do and what they want to achieve and it is such an inspiring place to be.

I was concerned at the beginning of the digital humanities conference that I didn’t really belong here, everybody else appeared to know each other, there were so many papers that I didn’t understand, and I didn’t think there was anything displayed in the programme that truly represented the work that I do.  But it was an opportunity to get to know more about the diverse field that I am a part of, to see what else is out there. And boy is there a lot going on in DH.  Trying to digest all the information that was presented was hard going. I don’t think I will ever really understand Computer Forensics in the Archive, Linked Data, or how do to do TEI. After a couple of days, I still didn’t know if this was for me. Everyone appeared to be so comfortable with these concepts that I had only ever heard of, and nodded and smiled at, in the vain attempt of pretending to understand. There were so many intelligent presentations and questions and the prospect of standing up in front of this crowd and presenting my research was absolutely terrifying. And then the time came, Claire provided me with the best ever prep talk, as self confidence is not one of my strong points.  I stood up, and I presented to a packed lecture hall, its slightly disconcerting to see people sitting on the stairs because all the seats were already taken.  And it was fine, I was welcomed, I was embraced, and it was wonderful.  And then if I had any doubt left in me that this wasn’t for me.  Mel’s plenary happened. She took to the stage stated she was nervous. And then blew everyone away.

So, today I am proud to say; I am a member of the DH community.  I am a member of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities and we will rock you.