Does Digital Humanities embrace difference? Different interpretations, perspectives & disciplines?

Following on from the Defining the Digital in Arts and Humanities research post, this post will discuss the first half day session at the Northern Bridge Summer School held at Newcastle University in The Great North Museum on the 4-5th June 2015. The session focused on Exploring the Digital in the Arts and Humanities.  The aim was to emphasise that Digital Humanities embraces difference whether that be different interpretations, perspectives or disciplines.

So is Digital Humanities perceived as a Big Tent? The “Big Tent” was the theme of DH 2011, and since then this issue of “Big Tent Digital Humanities” has stimulated numerous discussions about the inclusive and interdisciplinary nature of the discipline.  “Big Tent Digital Humanities”, deliberately opens and muddles the focus of the field and it has even been suggested that “Everything is Digital Humanities! Everyone is a digital humanist!” (Melissa Terras 2011). Well at least that’s what those that self-identify as Digital Humanist’s have a tendency to think.  But what about those who don’t identify as Digital Humanists? Like the Northern Bridge Students.  What do they think about digital scholarship and the impact it is having?

The doctoral student participants were invited to gather in specific disciplinary groups to consider the question of how digital impacts on their discipline and their personal research agendas.  The groups were tasked with thinking of 3 ways digital is shaping their discipline.  The discussion and feedback from the specific discipline groups highlighted an exciting range of perspectives. This really hit home the diversity in Arts and Humanities research.  It was fantastic to see the differences and the commonalities when it comes to thinking about digital.

Below are the 8 specific discipline groups main points about how digital is shaping their subject area:

Theology:

  • Access of information – easy access to sources from dispersed areas. Enabling research rather than shaping it.
  • Connecting the field – networking and collaboration.
  • The Limiting access of digital – there needs to be an awareness of the digital divide.

Languages

  • Range of digital resources, accessibility and novel ways of interrogating sources.
  • Information management, specifically reference management. With accompanying advantages and disadvantages.
  • Dissemination of research – sharing research widely.

Philosophy

  • Concern of publishing unfinished material, accuracy of digital sources and information, but the digital also gives access to unrefined materials.
  • Dissemination of research – increasing conversations and access to research.
  • Ask not what you can do for the internet, but what the internet can do for you.

Creative practitioners

  • Serendipity of the bookshelf – not easy to do digitally, but if you know what you are looking for digital tools can help accessibility and findability of real objects – finding things to use in research.
  • Digital as a medium in itself but does this impact on tangibility and aura? Is this lost in digital media?
  • Using a computer to understand the human element.

Linguists and literature

  • Digital tools can be useful, but it shouldn’t be leading us. Digital resources are often used naturally, perhaps researchers don’t consider it as DH.
  • Digital can increase ability to collaborate.
  • Anxiety – Should we always be using digital, even when it is not necessarily relevant to research?

English Literature

  • Greater scope for your research library – but you can only find what you know it is there. Serendipity of bookshelf is often lacking in digital resources.
  • Media savvy generation – should be using digital resources and tools.
  • Impact of research and employability. DH is a good way to highlight relevance of research.

Archaeology & Heritage

  • Archaeology has already been using technology for a long time.
  • Changing expectations of what we can achieve – speed of changing expectations – The digital is changing expectations of research and researchers at an alarming rate. You can invest a lot of time in learning how to use new technology, is it worth it?
  • Remodelling knowledge – interacting in a more organic way.

Archaeology

  • Visualisation of data – maps, GIS etc – archaeologists have always used digital tools to help visualise their data.
  • Transformative – access, publish, analysis, process, software, interdisciplinary.
  • Critical thinking – why are we using technology – how does it help? Should we be using it?

Despite taking a closer look at impact of digital on discipline specific areas when we brought the group back together there were some key commonalities and overlapping themes:

  • We need to ‘Engage the brain’ – why are we using digital technology, and is it really helping us?
  • There is a need for critical engagement and thinking when using digital tools.
  • Digital tools enable wider dissemination, increases accessibility and findability of research.
  • Offers exciting possibilities for interdisciplinary approaches.
  • The challenge of digital attribution is an issue.
  • Serendipity of the bookshelf – how can we retain/regain serendipity in the digital?
  • Diversity of perspectives.
  • Trepidation about the use of some digital resources.
  • Engaging globally, increased opportunities, to be part of a virtual community.
  • Thinking about the nature of engagement, and what that means and offers.

In many ways, Digital Humanities embracing difference or “Big Tent Digital Humanities” is a nice concept and it is a useful perspective to continually explore.  The DH community is now considerably more open, approachable, and willing to embrace new perspectives than many traditional areas of arts and humanities academia.  This inclusivity, however, is not clearly reflected in the main published research areas in the digital humanities field. As Pannapacker (2011) notes:

The digital humanities have some internal tensions, such as the occasional divide between builders and theorizers, and coders and non-coders. But the field, as a whole, seems to be developing an in-group, out-group dynamic that threatens to replicate the culture of Big Theory back in the 80s and 90s, which was alienating to so many people. It’s perceptible in the universe of Twitter: We read it, but we do not participate. It’s the cool-kids’ table.

So, the digital humanities seem more exclusive, more cliquish, than they did even one year ago (Pannapacker 2011).

So it was nice to see so many commonalities between the disciplines when thinking about how digital is shaping their subject.    This to me really highlights what DH is all about – a broad spectrum of multidisciplinary academic individuals and approaches, which come together with a shared interest in technology and humanities research.

The follow-up exercise involved taking the ideas and points raised in the first session into multidisciplinary groups to think about and compile a manifesto/charter for the Northern Bridge Training Partnership.  The challenge was to suggest ways that Northern Bridge and its strategic partners could best meet the needs and requirements of students to equip them for emerging digital scholarship and perhaps even develop a leading position in doctoral training in this area.  Shawn has written an excellent summary of this over at Digital Humanities @ the library.

A big thank you to all the conveners and to all the Northern Bridge participants for an energizing and thought provoking session and conference.

 

N.B Obviously this post is just reflecting on different disciplines and the ideas discussed during the Northern Bridge Summer School.  There are lots of brilliant discussions about gender, ethnicity, age, and sexuality and digital humanities – a few links:

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