Where should the digital humanities live ?

Don’t get me wrong. The cluster of work that bears the label ‘digital humanities’ is important; very important. I’ve spent the last decade or so of my working life in the gap between historians and application developers, trying to make sure that digital tools get designed in the ways historians need them to be designed. Projects digitising books; collaborative editing platforms; institutional repositories; Open Access journal platforms; web archives: I’ve done a similar job, more or less well, in each case. As well as that, I was (and remain) founding co-convener of the Digital History seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, which looks to showcase finished historical scholarship that would have been impossible without the digital, broadly defined.

But there is a problem with how we understand the term, I think. I receive the term as signifying a community of practice, of scholars employing new technological means to achieve the same ends as they did before ‘the digital’. And as that community of practice grows, one would naturally expect a degree of self-consciousness within it as to the distinctiveness of what we’re all doing. This is inevitable, and almost certainly helpful, as new journals, conferences and online spaces appear to in which work can get published that might be too innovative for traditional channels to handle, and for discussions about method to take place safely.

My worry is over the institutional location of this activity. Several universities have spotted the potential of locating DH people together, and so there are several Schools or Faculties or Departments of Digital Humanities, all centres of real excellence, in universities in the UK and elsewhere. It’s an institutional means of nurturing something important, and it seems to work. My concern is with the long-term.

As in all large organisations, the internal structures of universities have their own force in determining the shape of the work that goes on within them. Structures shape cultures and cultures influence behaviours. It’s nobody’s doing, but the effect is real.

A department has a head, who usually sits at the same table as the head of History, or Philosophy; and funds run down these channels, and reporting lines back up. And my concern is that this Digital Humanities, this enterprise that starts to be treated (in institutional terms) as a discipline in its own right, could become a silo. The unintended consequence of creating a permanent space in which to foster the new approach is that Dr So-and-So in English, or Philosophy, can say “Oh, a digital approach, you say ? You want DH – they’re over in the Perkins Building.” Enterprising individuals and projects can and do bridge these gaps between departments; but the effect of the existence of the silo on the general consciousness has to be reckoned with, and mitigating the effect takes time and effort.

Put it this way. When Microsoft Word came within the reach of university budgets, no-one proposed that a Department of Word-Processed Humanities be set up – although word-processing was a technology that became ubiquitous in a short space of time, and had profound and widespread and general effects on a crucial element of academic practice – just like the digital humanities. And right now, there are not Schools of Social Humanities, to foster communities of practice in the most effective use of Twitter for dissemination and impact. Both these were disruptive technologies which were (and are) promoted across departments, faculties and whole institutions until they needed (or need) promoting no longer.

The end game for a Faculty of DH should be that the use of the tools becomes so integrated within Classics, French and Theology that it can be disbanded, having done its job. DH isn’t a discipline; it’s a cluster of new techniques that give rise to new questions; but they are still questions of History, or Philosophy, or Classics; and it is in those spaces that the integration needs eventually to take place.

More writing, less publishing ?

It was Stefan Collini, in what now reads as an early and prescient exposure of the problematic language of productivity in humanities research, that suggested as an aside that we might all of us be better off if there were much more writing, and rather less publishing.(1) And if you’ll excuse the fact of a blog post about writing not to be published, I rather think that his point is as relevant now, if not more so.

But (you may ask) who has time to write for the sake of it ? When under pressure to produce for research assessment, and then some more for our blogs and for the media to increase our ‘impact’, isn’t writing not to be published simply wasteful of time, an inefficiency to be overcome ? In my own case, I can recognise the train of thought, which is made more pressing still since all my writing happens outside work time. Why write that paper if there is not a conference at which to deliver it ? And, why speak at that conference if there isn’t to be a volume of papers to follow ? And if a paper is turned down for publication, can I not get it placed somewhere else, or (failing that) recycle it for blog posts or as part of a larger piece some other time ? (By extension, there have been times when I seem only to have read books if I was reviewing them.) When writing time is so precious and, for some, the act of writing itself often such a trial, ‘waste not, want not’ seems to be the motto.

But I’m beginning to find that the act of writing for the eyes of no reader has its benefits. I have recently found out something which (for complex reasons) I cannot contemplate ever writing up for publication, or at least not while some people are still alive. But I need to make sense of it, because it is materially important for my thinking on other matters; and I need some way of dealing with it in a safe way, to allow it to have its impact on the things I can publish. And so I’m beginning to write it up as a means of clarifying what it means, even it then remains in the metaphorical bottom drawer.

More generally, Paul J. Silvia has suggested that the more prolific published authors tend also to produce the highest rated work, suggesting a positive correlation between quality and quantity in published work, rather the negative correlation one might expect. And if Collini was right, then we might extend this principle to suggest that the more unpublished writing one does, the better will be the words that do eventually escape into the wild. I tried to suggest in an earlier post that every act of writing for publication has some place in the development of one’s thinking, even if this or that sentence is deleted or revised to the point of being unrecognisable at one’s next sitting. If the same applies to whole pieces written not to be published, then I need simply to write, as much and as often as possible, since in ways that are hard to document, it will make me both a better writer, and a writer who writes better history.

(1) Stefan Collini ‘Against Prodspeak: “Research” in the Humanities’, in his English Pasts (OUP, 1999), p.236.