Discussing the Digital at DHSI 2014

At the first “Birds of a Feather” session at DHSI on Tuesday afternoon, chaired by our very own Diane Jakacki, the question posed was “Who are we and where are we going?” A pertinent question indeed, as the auditorium designed for the opening session could not hold the over 600 people who had come this year to University of Victoria for a week-long intensive foray into classes, flash talks, discussions, and meetings on the Digital Humanities.

I am at DHSI to attend a seminar designated for Deans and Chairs (in a room in which there might be the only people with grey hair) to try to learn about the problems of creating, sustaining, evaluating and growing DH at an institute of higher learning. My classmates are from large public and private R1s, and smaller Liberal Arts colleges, from the US, Canada, Australia, and South Africa, and we are all tasked with the question of reading about and discussing the problems of defining DH, evaluating it, developing it, and facing the challenges and rewards of collaborative DH work with faculty and students (and of course graduate students) in our various educational environments. Then, we are sent off to audit as many classes as possible, ranging from the Fundamentals of TEI (text markup language) to Drupal for DH, to GIS (know where I’ll be heading…), basic programming, database development, and physical computing (getting the internet to talk to physical objects) inter alia. On Friday, the group reconvenes to discuss how such digital knowledge might be embedded within the teaching and scholarship of our various institutions.

Our seminar conveners are the best of the best: John Unsworth of Brandeis and Ray Siemens of U Victoria, who are, for many, the leading figures in both the creation and promulgation of DH in North America.

The group voiced several common issues in our first session: how do we collaborate, how do we set up (international and domestic) networks between institutions or even within an institution to develop DH projects, and how do we sustain and evaluate them? How do we (as chairs, especially) ensure that faculty prior to tenure can pursue DH projects and have them fairly counted in the tenure process? How can we negotiate what I have termed the slightly precarious suspension bridge between the professional cultures of L and IT and the academic divisions in terms of differing expectations of sustainability and innovation? Whereas in the former there is concern for accountability of time, staff resources, and the sustainable longevity of a project, in the latter there is the need for original thought, innovation, experimentation.

The group explored the ramifications of this dichotomy, in particular, the question of where does DH belong? Many universities have Digital Scholarship Coordinators (we do too) for whom this question of identity is paramount and potentially hazardous. Whereas faculty involved in digital projects have the evaluation process of tenure, where individual digital scholarship is counted, those who are in positions through LIT do not.  There what is evaluated might be only the more ephemeral support role.  Thus for many of those in the audience here at DHSI, and many of the teachers too, a scholarly  commitment to DH might go completely unnoticed and unrewarded, and in the worst case scenarios might even count against them in a professional environment that does not also regard them as scholars.  Dual reporting lines for DH might then be crucial, best overseen by a Vice Provost for Faculty Research.

The Birds of a Feather session became quite heated as the place of DH was discussed. Where does DH belong? In departments? In a Centre? How do we avoid the silo mentality of both of them, or the fight for financial and knowledge resources with its resulting lack of collaboration? Should we then adopt the model of an interdisciplinary program as a home for DH? Accustomed to the interstitial, interdisciplinary programs are used to bringing faculty together from across the disciplines and operating at a level that transcends the turf wars of the academy.

A very helpful suggestion came up that evaluation of collaborative work should reflect the cultures of the many participants in that project. Clear expectations at the beginning of a project and mileposts for (sorry) deliverables help in allowing those who are evaluated by different divisions within an institution to achieve the credit they need and deserve for their work on a project. Furthermore, making clear the realities of working in DH might help to dispel what Melissa Terras has termed the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” among the higher administration of an institution. Yes, it’s nice to show off a pretty, shiny artifact to your donors and alumni, but what is really innovative and intellectually interesting is the process that lies behind the project. That’s where we learn as faculty and that’s where our students learn too.

From Melissa Terras’ Inaugural Lecture, May 2014




2 Replies to “Discussing the Digital at DHSI 2014”

  1. I love Terras’s John Bunyan-esque diagram of the cycle of a DH project! The Slough of Despond as technological disillusionment . . . I wonder to what extent the unrealistic expectations about DH are products of our impatience with any technology that does not do what it is supposed to do instantly. We accept that archaeologists (to give but one example) need time and patience to do what they do, but we expect the process of the digital to be as speedy as its interfaces which (as you point out katie) they simpoly cannot be. So DH practitioners need to focus more attention on the process as what is central – educating people about what lies behind the dancing pixels on the screen. No archaeological dig is ever finished, but that does not constitute failure . . .

    I have also been struck by the similarities between the resentment that DH has provoked among some other humanists and the internecine struggles in English and comp lit. departments during the rise of theory in the 1980s. The trajectory and vocabulary of the conflict is almost identical. The crucial difference is that the theorists were still (at the end of the day) producing books and articles in the same way as their New Critic forebears. DH is reflecting and using technological changes that far transcend the orbit of the academy – and for this reason (among others) there will never be a settled orthodox pattern or set of practices for DH. And we need to get used to that idea. DH is a forlorn hope attack on the 19th c. disciplinary structure that will be gone in forty years.

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