Modern Languages Research and the Digital Humanities

This week I’m attending an event hosted by the Institute of Modern Languages Research which asks the following question: “What is Modern Languages Research?” This pilot workshop brings together a number of academics, translators and practitioners in the field to “discuss what constitutes Modern Languages as a disciplinary field and the defining features of Modern Languages research as practiced in the UK”:

As a researcher in the Digital Humanities with a background in Spanish & Spanish American studies, I bring two different but complimentary sets of questions to this kind of event:

How does digital culture change knowledge production and why should Modern Languages researchers care?

We are still at the beginning of a process of digitally-mediated transformation in the way scholarly research is being carried out which have barely passed the experimental phase, and which we have only just started to properly comprehend, theorise and integrate into our critical toolkit. Disruptive discourse frequently paints an over-simplistic picture of how technology is changing the research landscape, and yet digital culture opens up opportunities and challenges for the humanities, in general, and Modern Languages, specifically, which we have yet to respond to adequately.

As someone who has participated in or advised on numerous digital humanities research projects with a Spanish language research component, what interests me is how digital culture has had an impact on Modern Languages research so far:

• How have research questions relating to Modern Languages been articulated (and answered) using digital technology?
• How have the relationships between academic, commercial and cultural practitioners altered as a result? What are the opportunities/tensions in the different approaches taken by these actors to digital applications of language-based research?
• To what extent have networked communication, open culture and the so-called ‘wisdom of the crowd’ influenced the execution and transmission of Modern Languages research and what are the opportunities/barriers?
• To what extent have digitally mediated research and teaching influenced each other?

This can also be usefully viewed from the ‘digital’ perspective, i.e. exploring how digital scholars/practitioners (including those involved in digital studies, new media and the digital humanities) have experimented with Modern Languages research and what broader impact that has had:

• How have scholars and practitioners studying ‘the digital’ approached and interpreted Modern Languages research?
• What tools and methodologies have they employed, and what opportunities are there for broader adoption?
• How has the ‘hypercentrality of English’ in digital communications affected Modern Languages research and what strategies have different language communities adopted to overcome this? What implications does this have for Modern Languages research specifically?
• Can digital culture innovate aspects of Modern Languages research without performing a ‘Trojan Horse’ role in paving the way for practices which threaten the future of the field?
• How useful is the ‘Commons’ model in thinking about the future of Modern Languages research? How might digital ecosystems for Modern Languages research facilitate the kind of collaborations envisaged by such initiatives as AHRC Commons ( ) or DH Commons ( )? How might they “break down departmental and disciplinary silos” in the words of the recent OWRI funding initiative (

How do languages influence digital culture and why should Modern Language researchers care?

If we look at this from the opposite direction, we immediately become aware that we are talking about two sets of languages – human-to-human and human-to-computer – which are at the core of much of what makes us human. These are generally treated as entirely different kinds of language, rarely studied together, and yet in both cases their codes, grammars and vocabularies perform translations of human culture, and the connection between the two seems worthy of further study. Anyone studying how digital memory and knowledge environments capture and represent language, and how this affects transmission/communication, has to consider questions such as the following:

• What language-based assumptions underpin the infrastructure and technologies we use, and how do they set the stage for the performance of language?
• How have researchers and practitioners negotiated any perceived Anglophone emphasis in these frameworks?
• How does digital modelling affect the way global culture is constructed, and what kinds of ‘translation’ are performed as information enters and leaves the digital sphere?
• What kinds of ‘language acts’ do different categories of data (ephemeral/instant vs stable/curated) perform?
• How does ‘mobile’ technology affect the mobility of language and culture in Modern Languages research, and what does that research look like when framed within the culture of the ‘App’?

With my ‘Digital Humanities’ hat on, I’m particularly interested in questions related to how we model, curate, analyse and interpret digital representations of the human record:

• How do different kinds and levels of data – ‘big/small data’, ‘deep/shallow’ data – influence the transmission of culture, and to what extent does that ‘data’ represent a meaningful cultural record in a Modern Languages context?
• To what extent is the connective potential of approaches like LinkedData and the Semantic Web useful in exploring the contact zones of Modern Languages research?
• How might digital traces of Modern Languages research influence transmission, translation and critical interpretation in the future?

My background

My research in this area touches on both sets of questions, and in the past I have been involved in the Out of the Wings project (, the ‘La Entretenida’ digital edition (, the CHARTA TEI pilot (, the Spanish and Portuguese language Dia das Humanidades Digitais/Día de las Humanidades Digitales event ( I am currently on the Executive Board of Humanidades Digitales Hispánicas ( I am also currently programme convenor for the MA in DH at KCL, which explores some of these issues:

Digital Humanities as an academic department

This post is based on my presentation at the panel on ‘Global Perspectives on Digital Humanities Expertise’ at the Digital Humanities conference (DH2015) in Sydney ( The panel – led by Jon Cawthorne (West Virginia University), Vivian Lewis (McMaster University), Lisa Spiro (Rice University) and Xuemao Wang (University of Cincinnati) – presented conclusions and reflections on a Mellon-funded project which looked at Digital Scholarship Skills more broadly (the original website for the study is at ). The panel at DH2015 also included presentations by Neil Fraistat (University of Maryland) and Jieh Hsiang (National Taiwan University), and these notes explore some of the general challenges in defining and developing DH expertise, from the perspective of an academic department in the Digital Humanities.

DISCLAIMER: all views my own!

Challenges of definition

There have been various attempts to take universal perspectives on the Digital Humanities in recent years), but in doing so, the obvious starting point is to ask how we define basic concepts (such as ‘digital scholarship’, ‘digital humanities’ or ‘centres’), something which it is notoriously difficult to do.
Digital Humanities initiatives occupy a wide spectrum: from entities which primarily offer a support role, at one extreme, to full-on academic centres with their own research agendas, at the other. From a formal perspective, activity in the Digital Humanities operates according to different rules, depending on whether it is carried out as a research theme in another academic department, as the work of an interdisciplinary faculty research centre, or the research of a full academic department.

The degree of connection to other more established areas of humanities is another factor, since each humanities field brings its own focus and set of requirements. The Digital Humanities (informally called ‘DH’ by many) have traditionally had a strong emphasis on research, but teaching is becoming increasingly important for many centres, and this has important implications for expertise acquisition. It is a fertile but uneven terrain, whose inhabitants possess extremely heterogeneous epistemic backgrounds and whose career paths are relatively unpredictable. A complex and often evolving mixture of technical and methodological skillsets and knowledge underpins research in DH and there are very diverse mechanisms for credit attribution, with some kinds of research outcomes (e.g. involving collaboration or digital/non-textual outputs) still not enjoying stable peer review processes. What is more, some make a distinction between the digital humanities (typically emphasising some element of ‘building’ activity, although this is not universally accepted) and digital scholarship in the humanities (which increasingly involves all modern-day scholars), although the precise labels and boundaries are much debated.

In summary, it is a dynamic field – with much scope for innovation, but also a high degree of instability. These challenges of definition make it hard to present meaningful boundaries of scope and to reach general conclusions in these kinds of discussion.

Which outcomes?

In my presentation in Sydney I argued that one way of helping us to overcome these challenges of definition is to think in terms of the outcomes we want to achieve, namely:

  • What will a future landscape of knowledge creation in the humanities require?
    • How is academic evaluation evolving to adapt to these new realities?
    • What are the career outcomes we would like to make possible in five or ten years’ time?
  • What are the academic outputs we want to produce? Taking a leaf out of the Academic Book of the Future project ( – a collaboration involving UCL and King’s College London funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, in partnership with the British Library, which is “exploring the future of the academic book” – we need to ask the following questions:
    • What will scholarly outputs of the future look like in the Humanities?
    • What currency and role will tools, models, datasets and visualisations have in the new scholarly publishing ecosystem?

Global Perspectives on DH Expertise

In searching for universal lessons, we also need to pay particular attention to global variation, and the social/cultural dimension. What different definitions of the humanities exist internationally, and how do these affect how digital scholarship functions from one cultural setting to another? We need greater research into the architectures of participation in the digital humanities which foment the acquisition of expertise and which enable a culturally balanced reception of its academic outcomes. What are the geopolitical contours of academic production in DH, and how do they affect efforts to build expertise?

DH as an Academic Department

The second half of my presentation moved to my own experience at King’s College London, working at the Department of Digital Humanities (DDH).

DDH has been a full academic department within the Faculty (formerly School) of Arts & Humanities since 2002 (although the name did not change until later), and over that time the department has undergone a marked shift in character from a unit dominated by research grants – which allowed us to develop a lot of expertise in digital methods and tools, and gave us widespread experience working with partners in other humanities departments (including History, Classics, English, Spanish & Portuguese and Music) at KCL and beyond – to an academic department with a more balanced portfolio of research grants and teaching.
DDH operates within a broader panorama of digitally-inflected research, which is evident in our different teaching programmes (including four MAs, a PhD programme and a new undergraduate Bachelor of Arts course). Last year our MA student intake was third highest in the faculty, demonstrating the current degree of interest in the Digital Humanities and adjunct fields. Our teaching programmes are research-led, and generally hands-on, but at the same time firmly grounded in theory. This more balanced approach to research and teaching means that a department like DDH has become much more student-centred in recent years – a key cultural change for DH centres and departments. This has both advantages and disadvantages, but it means that there is greater professional formality in the academic process, and closer alignment in job titles and career paths with traditional academic and commercial sectors. It also means that career paths are less defined by the latest state of funding grant capture and more closely identified with our own academic programme, which lays out our strategic focus.

Academics at DDH work in three overlapping but distinct research themes (digital humanities, digital culture, social and cultural informatics), so skills and competencies depend on which area we are recruiting to, but we typically look for people with a balanced approach to theory and practice, and a very good understanding of the humanities, social sciences and of knowledge production in a broader sense. We also look for a balanced understanding of both the affordances which digital culture & technology provide and of core humanities research traditions.

There are many challenges as DH becomes more formalised within the fabric of an academic institution, and they include the following:

  • How to maintain the collaborative ethos of DH while also facilitating the kind of individual profiles necessary for a formal academic career
  • How to maintain DH expertise across different career paths and at different locations in the academic spectrum
  • The need to produce traditional academic outputs (the monograph or journal article) while still generating innovative publications and outcomes

Some conclusions

During the Global Benchmarking survey, we were asked if there is a core set of domain knowledge, skills, competencies and mindsets required to practice and support the digital humanities. It would clearly be a mistake to answer this question in purely technological terms (so it is not about ‘knowledge of the TEI’ or ‘programming experience in Python’) – emphasis needs to be not on learning particular technologies, but on agility, mobility, creativity and critical thinking. It is important that practice be grounded in theory, and theory tested in practice. We need to beware techno-positivism and the lure of novelty technology, doing ‘digital’ for the sake of it. Emphasis should be on interpretation, scholarly enquiry (asking new questions), as opposed to ‘problem-solving’. And increasingly we need to be attentive to much closer interaction with other areas of digitally mediated practice and scholarship.

The slides from the presentation are here

Notes on DDH teaching programmes

Our teaching programmes currently include: