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Tuesday, 25 March 2014

DH Babel

Digital Humanities Australasia 2014: Expanding Horizons, the University of Western Australia, Perth, 18-21 March. 

By Suzana Sukovic

A few days at the second biennial conference of the Australasian Association for Digital Humanities (aaDH) have convinced me of two trends in digital humanities. 1. The DH Babel tower is falling. 2. Its rise is in the fall.

Scholarly textual studies and electronic editions have been pillars of digital humanities since its inception. As Jerome McGann famously said, ‘Textual studies is ground zero of everything we do. We read, we write, we think in a textual condition’. From that ground zero, the Babel tower of scholarly digital humanities has risen, built mainly by academic scholars.

But the signs of its crumbling walls are everywhere. In the last DHA conference, like in other recent DH events, delegates were not only academics, but also librarians, engineers, independent researchers, writers, teachers and business people. Among wide-ranging papers, some were ‘digital’, but not really ‘humanities’. Conference discussions often came back to the questions of ‘what is in, what is out’ of DH. In his keynote address and conversations after the sessions, Anthony Beavers questioned the opinion of some academics that philosophy using digital methods doesn’t belong to digital humanities. The relevance of social sciences conferences to DH and the lack of any significant connection between the two fields, were repeatedly pointed out in various discussions. It would be easy to assume that issues of connections and belonging are of special interest to some delegates or even DH in Australasia; that older and more established DH communities in the US and Europe don’t share these concerns. However, from the first steps of electronic text centres in Australia in the mid 1990s to the conference this week, we have seen an expansion of digital humanities in Australasia and internationally in the directions which often don’t lend themselves to existing signposts. ‘Expending horizons’ was chosen as the conference theme for a reason.

Detonation always comes from the ground zero. For the humanities, it is what ‘we’ (humanists and academics) do with the text. Many authors have written about the changing nature of textuality and the knowledge field in the digital environment. For the purpose of this post, let’s focus on signs at the conference that both ‘we’ and the text are changing.

‘Text’ is still strongly present, but ‘visualisation’ is looming in the background when it’s not taking the centrestage. In her keynote, Sarah Kenderdine talked about the inspiring work in the GLAM sector. Among many beautiful images, she showed us some dance annotations consisting, not of words, but of lines marking dancers’ movements. Games were repeatedly mentioned as a research output, topic and a reference in conversations. Large data sets are still a centre of attention (e.g.,

As for ‘we’, academia is still producing some fascinating work, but a number of other players are capturing people’s attention. If Twitter (see #DHA2014 and storify), as a collective note-taking tool, is any indication, the audience responded enthusiastically to talks about the archive of Circus Oz and the archive of games from the 1980s ( Following Peter Read’s, Diana Hodge’s and my Birds of Feather session Digital Humanities afield, a passionate discussion ensued, which could be heard in the next room, I was told. Stories from and about non-academic groups raise challenging questions and provoke conflicting views of critical importance to knowledge professions.

DH Babel tower, defined by scholarly textual studies, is falling, but the loss of one language with few dialects is a new strength of DH. The fall of a central monlingual tower and a dispersal of people to many language groups becomes a metaphor of the new knowledge model, much better suited to digital cultures. 

But, where is the strength in dispersal? Humanities faculties are struggling for survival. Often mentioned reasons are the current economy and parents who want their children to study something which will put bread on their table. Both are certainly true, but in my experience of living with teenagers at work and home, it’s also students who want to put time, money and effort into something that will pay back material dividends. It’s the students who often have doubts that wide reading and philosophy will give them skills for life-long learning. At the same time, this generation would love to apply their interest in history and literature to something they also enjoy. For many of them, interest in WWII came from playing Call of Duty or watching films, not from learning history at school. They like the idea that they could write stories for a new breed of games and immersive environments if they study humanities, though they doubt it. Digital humanities knowledge has potential applications in learning, medicine, well-being and recreation. Humanities departments need to help students in developing their ability to participate in the digital knowledge economy and to convince others that a history or English graduate is an asset. This is not an argument for turning universities into vocational education institutions, but for thinking of different approaches to strengthen the appeal of the humanities. Having ‘digital’ in front of ‘humanities’ is definitely an advantage for the young generations, but the digital humanities could and should have clear applications outside classrooms and academic research. It is already happening in some cases, but they are too isolated to change a common perception.

A new audience with time, resources and will to explore own interests is within reach. Special interest groups and the aging population are likely to be interested in scholarly output for their own purposes. As indicates, there are large groups in the community who need accessible, appropriately presented, historical records to study the past and construct their own view of a topic of interest. Providing a guided and orderly environment, which encourages investigation, requires collaboration between academics, information specialists and relevant groups in the community. It can’t be a purely academic pursuit.

Finally, multipurposed scholarly digital edition - the holy grail of digital humanities. Very few scholarly editions have achieved the dream of being used by scholars in own and other disciplines to investigate a variety of research questions, as well as by students and the community. The reason is that the dream is based on the arborial conception of knowledge while digital platforms are a fertile ground for rhizomes. 

Digital humanities may be enriched by allowing people in the community to take bits and pieces from academic outputs to build constructions of their own dreams. Furthermore, digital humanities should actively participate in building skills and tools for rhizomatic approaches. 

Last week Daniel Powell mentioned a Canadian DH van traveling to schools to show students how to use tools and work on their own projects. We need many DH vans and sheds. Who knows, they may build something interesting and new. My Facebook feed informs me regularly of school kids who broke new scientific grounds. This doesn’t happen in the humanities. Of course, there is a reason for a bit of arrogance in pointing out that wunderkinder don’t exist among writers and that PhD students in the humanities and social sciences are typically older than in sciences. Humanities insights usually require maturity, they are not normally built on few special breakthroughs and skills. However, with the growing importance of creative applications and digital skills, even that may change. We can’t assume, not even in the humanities, that grey heads always know better.

Digital humanities should pay close attention to the recruitment outside undergraduate courses. By working with schools, libraries and community groups to develop projects and skill base, humanists may develop people’s interest and raise skill levels. High school students with skills and appetite for digital humanities will once become more capable university students and contributors to the field.  

Once I wrote about divergent, parallel and convergent flows in relation to changing practices in the humanities. For illustration, I used a graph showing the evolution of glacial ice. I would like to use the graph again to illustrate that DH is entering the cycle of divergence and parallel flows. An articulated effort is required to build energy from the outward movement.

Wilson, Christopher John, and Zhang, Yu. “Comparison between Experiment and Computer Modeling of Plane-Strain Simple-Shear Ice Deformation.” Journal of Glaciology 40, no. 134 (1994): 46–55. cited in Suzana Sukovic. “Convergent flows: humanities scholars and their interactions with electronic texts.Library Quarterly 78, no. 3 (2008): pp. 263–284

Suzana has lived on ground zero most of her life. With a BA(Hons) degree in literature and linguistics; MA in literary theory and criticism interrupted due to immigration; MA (Information) topped up with a study of electronic editions; PhD thesis on roles of electronic texts in the humanities; and many years of earning bread, butter and a few extras in libraries, she believes she can feel in her bones when Babel is shaking.