Defining the Digital in Arts and Humanities Research

Digital Humanities? What on earth is it? Tools for research? cultural expectations? understanding pervasive technology in society? We asked the Northern Bridge doctoral candidates to define and discuss.

On the 4th -5th June 2015 I had the pleasure of taking part in the Annual Northern Bridge Training Programme Summer School held at Newcastle University in The Great North Museum .  The Northern Bridge is a doctoral training partnership between Newcastle UniversityDurham University and Queen’s University Belfast, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

The 2015 Summer School theme focused on Digital Humanities and it produced a stimulating environment to discuss, share and learn about the impact of the digital on arts and humanities scholarship.   Digital Humanities is becoming an increasingly popular focus for academic research and discussion.  There are now hundreds of Digital Humanities centres and there has been an expansion in digital humanities taught courses, journals, and conferences.   But what is actually understood by the term ‘Digital Humanities’ is still up for debate.

Alongside the brilliant Shawn Day (lecturer at University College Cork, Queen’s University Belfast and Trinity College Dublin), Ian Johnson (Archivist at Newcastle University Special Collections) and Deirdre Wildy (Head of Special Collections & Archives at Queen’s University Belfast) we challenged the doctoral candidates to consider how emerging digital tools and methodologies impact on their own doctoral studies.

Before the Summer School started we circulated a short questionnaire to stimulate thoughts about digital scholarship. One of the most interesting questions enquired as to what the doctoral candiates understood by Digital Humanities.   As part of the form, we asked, ” What do you understand to mean by Digital Humanities in 140 characters?” – and received a surprisingly interesting set of answers. This list of definitions proved to be a very interesting starting point for exploring the Digital in the Arts and Humanities within the Northern Bridge Consortium.

In comparison to A Day in the Life of the Digital Humanities (Day of DH), which is a community documentation project that brings together digital humanists from around the world to document what they do and how they define Digital Humanities, none of the Northern Bridge consortium self-identified as digital humanities scholars.   So it was very interesting to see what ‘non DHers’ had to say about digital humanities.

Some examples from the twitters:









The definitions were tweeted using the hashtag #NBSS2015 and were processed through Textal to explore the relationships between words in the text via a snazzy word cloud interface. What came out most strongly to me was the emphasis on tools and dissemination.  Digital as an output rather than a process or an object of study in its own right.

Lots has already been written about how digital humanities might be defined (see the excellent Defining Digital Humanities edited by Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan and Edward Vanhoutte for a full volume on the subject) and the question of ‘What is digital humanities?’ continues to be a rich source of intellectual debate for scholars.  It was fascinating to hear what the next generation of PhD students felt to be important in defining DH.  It raises some interesting perspectives about how digital arts & humanities may be represented in the future.  It’s exciting to see how the established boundaries between, and relationships among, arts and humanities scholars are being re-imagined through the use of digital technology and the dynamic forms of engagement, discussion and collaboration it is enabling.

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