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 (http://dh2015.org/). 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 http://libapps.libraries.uc.edu/blogs/dsgrant/ ). 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 (http://academicbookfuture.org/) – 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 http://www.slideshare.net/PaulJSpence/2015-07dh2015.

Notes on DDH teaching programmes

Our teaching programmes currently include:

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