The future of Digital Humanities

As Glen Worthy pointed out the week before last, there are a lot of terrible things written about the Digital Humanities.  As his commentary was published, I was attending a summit on the Future of the Digital Humanities organised by the Higher Education Academy in the beautiful coastal town of Lewes, East Sussex.  The summit was designed to provoke thinking around future directions in Digital Humanities pedagogy, but produced some excellent debates around institutional cultures, the challenges of multidisciplinary groups and approaches, the different lenses that can be applied to the Digital Humanities, and the extent to which debates about what lies at the core of Digital Humanities affects our teaching and research.

The summit provided a rare opportunity to learn more about the state and status of Digital Humanities outside my own institution, particularly its place in core undergraduate teaching. I learned a huge amount from colleagues who are offering really dynamic experiences to students in their courses and related activities, and witnessed a refreshing openness to the possibility that when it comes to such teaching, we have as much to learn as to teach. I also caught a glimpse of the different perspectives on the future of Digital Humanities in teaching and research, and was reassured both by the confidence and the uncertainty reflected by those in attendance.  Let me unpack that. Confidence reflects the extent to which Digital Humanities has arrived in British academic life,  having been embedded into our teaching practices and research activities.  The uncertainty I witnessed suggested to me that the field of Digital Humanities is still exploratory, and those of us working in Digital Humanities are still working out where we fit, who we can collaborate with, which methodologies apply and work, how we can reach out to other research areas and across different sectors, and what roles we might have in newly configured universities. The longer we stay in this state of relative uncertainty, the more open we remain to any and all of these variables and the stronger and more flexible we can become.

The importance of this openness was reflected in two of the artefacts created during our 2 days to reflect the current state of DH, both of which imagined the landscape of Digital Humanities.  The first, discussed in this blog about the event by Tony Reeves, represented the Digital Humanities as a kitchen, with ingredients, rules, people, recipe books and most importantly, open doors and ample space for experimentation. The second was a fairly abstract, semi-structured environment, with a compass for roving DH actors to use for navigation. Being involved in DH can feel reckless, disruptive, risky and bewildering, but navigating this new environment is also fantastically exciting, and the potential knowledge exchange inherent in DH activities makes it, for me, absolutely worth it.


What will George Do?

I’m having so much fun working with colleagues at the Wales Centre for Behaviour Change at Bangor University, an interdisciplinary group with particular strengths in Psychology.  It’s making  me see the world in a completely different way, and no area of my life is immune.

A few weeks ago, I was reading my 4 year old a bedtime story that we picked up in the local library, a very funny book called ‘Oh No, GEORGE!’ by Chris Haughton. It turned out to be illuminating on the question of impulse control, examining the fact that behaviour does not always reflect our stated intentions. My Psychology colleagues discuss this by referring to the ‘value-action gap’, and are currently engaged in research that contributes to our understanding of what processes and systems are involved in making choices, in order to develop behaviour change interventions (nudges) to scaffold and reinforce healthy choices.

George (a dog) is determined to be ‘good’ (to make healthy choices which increase his wellbeing), but fails to sustain his efforts when Harris (a human who reinforces these healthy choices) is out of the house and he is left to his own devices.


(image from the author’s website)

We might categorise his processes as Reflective/Automatic (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008) or Fast/Slow Thinking (Kahneman, 2011).  When in Reflective/Slow thinking mode, he is keen to institute ‘good’ behaviour, but he makes ‘bad’ behaviour choices (which we might argue occur when he is in Automatic or Fast mode) which revolve around eating cake, chasing cats and digging soil.  George is genuine in his intention to be good and in his sorrow when he is unable to sustain this behaviour.  He recognises that he needs support (Harris) in order to follow through on his ‘good’ behaviour.

The book ends on a cliffhanger, when, having successfully resisted some prime temptations with the support of Harris, George is faced with a difficult choice – raid a bin, or resist.  I couldn’t resist asking my Psychology colleagues what they thought George would do, and whether he could be helped or nudged to make healthier choices.

My 4 year old is certain that even with Harris’ support, George will not be able to resist the bin. What will George do?


Oh no, GEORGE!, by Chris Haughton (Walker Books, 2013)

Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein (Yale University Press, 2008)

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)

Happy Museums

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I’ve been lucky enough to win some funding from the excellent Happy Museum project to kick off a new collaboration between my colleagues at the Wales Centre for Behaviour Change, Bangor University and the local museum in Bangor, the Gwynedd Museum and Art Gallery.  Our project, ‘What’s your Story?’ will develop an app to be used with museum visitors, encouraging them to record their thoughts about objects in the museum via their smart phones or mobile devices, creating a crowd sourced database of formal and informal content.  By enabling individuals to ‘put their mark’ on artefacts, the aim of the project is not only to promote a sense of community and encourage personal creative expression, but also to increase social capital.

The idea for this project was formed when I attended the excellent MuseumNext conference in the spring of 2013.  I was talking for the first time about my AHRC fellowship project, a study of crowdsourcing which looked at a virtual art collection, Your Paintings.  It was a completely different audience than I had been used to presenting to, and I was quite nervous.  I needn’t have been worried – the audience couldn’t have been warmer or more receptive.  For me, the whole conference was an exciting window into a sector that I had previously only skirted around the edges of.  The conference was inspiring and unforgettable, from the incredible keynotes (Rijksmuseum, Science Museum and Smithsonian) to the excellent fringe events (a particularly amazing evening was spent in the Van Gogh museum).  This year’s conference will be held in Newcastle Gateshead in June, and promises to be equally fantastic.

Two presentations provided the inspiration for the ‘What’s your Story?’ project, Tony Butler’s introduction to the Happy Museum project, launched in April 2011, and Hal Kirkland’s awe-inspiring talk about (among an impressive list of other work) the Audio Tour Hack project.  The idea of the museum as a space for increased wellbeing struck a chord, and the imaginative, fantastical world of the audio tour hack struck me as a perfect opportunity to increase that sense of wellbeing.  We applied for the new round of Happy Museum funding as soon as I got back from Amsterdam, and are thrilled and proud to be a commissioned project and part of the Happy Museum family.

Increasing visitor agency is a key theme in museum studies, with an emerging body of ideas on both subtle and overt ways in which ‘museums can facilitate, and not just impart meaning’ (Petrov, 2012). Similarly, two key aspects of psychological resilience are a sense of creating value, and of having agency in the world. The first promotes motivation, self-esteem and further engagement, the latter drives self-belief and a greater connection between the individual and their community. New technologies offer dynamic opportunities for engaging audiences and increasing visitor agency, creating what Nina Simon calls ‘the participatory museum’. In the participatory museum, visitors ‘construct their own meaning from cultural experiences’ (Simon, 2010). As more of our activities move online, new technologies will offer increased opportunities to reimagine museums and cultural encounters.

News about the project can be found here on the blog, over at the Happy Museum and on the new WCBC website (watch this space).


Petrov, Julia ‘Introduction: Objects and Difficult Subjects’ in Dudley, S., Barnes, A.J., Binnie, J., Petrov, J., and Walklate, J. The Thing About Museums: Objects and Experience, Representation and Contestation (London: Routledge, 2012)

Simon, Nina The Participatory Museum (Santa Cruz, California: Museum 2.0, 2010)

Research with Impact

Academics spend an awful lot of time thinking about impact, what it means and how to make sure our work has sufficient of it, but it is a rare experience (for me at least) to be directly presented with the impact your work has had on someone else.  I was in this happy position a few weeks ago at the brilliant Digital Humanities@Oxford Summer School where Dr Eric Meyer and I were giving a presentation on our Toolkit for the Impact of Digitised Scholarly Resources (TIDSR). Having stayed to indulge in tea and cakes after our presentation, I was lucky enough to be present for two fantastic presentations by Judith Siefring (EEBO-TCP, Bodleian) and Jonathan Blaney (British History Online) discussing how they have used the TIDSR toolkit in creative and imaginative ways to learn more about the usage and impact of their own digital content.  You can access their slides, and ours, here.

The TIDSR toolkit came about thanks to a project led by Meyer and funded by JISC back in 2008-9 and was designed to present a user-friendly guide to a suite of tools which would enable digitisation projects to gain a sense of the impact they were having.  The JISC Usage and Impact study was the first project I worked on at the OII, and my first foray into the world of Digital Humanities.  I was the traditional Humanities scholar we kept in mind when drafting the first iteration of the TIDSR toolkit.  I had had a rapid induction into many of these tools and methods, and we tried to make sure that other newcomers would be able to navigate them using the toolkit.

It was enormously gratifying when JISC announced a subsequent round of funding in 2010-11 to encourage new projects to use the toolkit to discover more about their usage and impact, and to develop strategies to embed these digitised resources in research and teaching across a range of disciplines.  All of these case studies have been added to the TIDSR toolkit, as has a report summarising the collective findings by Meyer.  

The toolkit continues to be used in a variety of ways and contexts: I recently used it as the backbone of my AHRC Early Career Fellowship project to study the impact of crowdsourcing on the digital art collection Your Paintings.  Anyone can upload case studies they have developed based on the toolkit, and you can also add tools, articles and comments to the main content.  If you’ve used it and you have something to say about it, please consider adding your impressions, your data, or a tool you’ve discovered that others could benefit from.  Apart from anything else, you’ll make my day.

Do as I say, not as I do…

One of my resolutions when I started my AHRC fellowship was to blog more.  I’m a huge convert to Twitter, and now read lots of blogs that are linked to in tweets.  I’ve found myself learning so much more about those academics in my field who blog.  You gain so much more knowledge from a blog than a tweet, it’s a great window into someone’s world.  My resolve was galvanised by lots of activity that seemed designed to prod the reluctant into taking the first steps.  Firstly, the Learning Technologies Group at Oxford launched an brilliant, accessible and inspiring ‘how to’ guide called 23 Things for Research to encourage academics at any stage of their careers to embrace digital tools and use them to develop their personal and professional skills.  Blogging was a central component of the course, creating a space for reflection and for sharing experiences with others in the process.  23 Things was a massive success.  I missed the start of the course (hence why I didn’t set up the mandatory blog) but I followed along online and found it terrifically inspiring.

So inspiring, in fact, that somewhat out of character, I followed up a chance encounter that led to this article on the Guardian Higher Education Network, extolling the virtues of early career researchers using social media to reach out and participate, or even to lead the conversation.  Following on from that, I spoke to our doctoral students at the Oxford Internet Institute about their own use of social media, and led a discussion on how to balance this new area of academic life with the more formal channels that lead more directly to conventional career rewards.  A week or two later, I gave a guest lecture to a group of Psychology masters students on the same topic: what opportunities exist via social media and how do you navigate these among other competing demands on your time.  I was thrilled that so many of the students took the time to tweet afterwards, telling me about how they had been inspired to get blogging and tweeting.  Fantastic, so why wasn’t I doing it too?

I think there are several barriers to overcome when you start blogging, particularly when you’re a later starter like me.  I envy the students who are growing up, so to speak, with social media at their fingertips.  They have the opportunity to test these channels out while they’re still in a learning phase, where there are no expectations and the elusive balance of formal and informal methods of communication can be tried and failed at with fewer consequences.  Coming to blogging late, I notice the skill and fluency with which those in my academic circle communicate and find the pressure to contribute something of this quality is paralysing.  I also notice that a large number of the blogs I read and enjoy are not directly connected to my research area, they’re just excellent, interesting commentaries on academic life, or contemporary politics, or a myriad of other things, eloquently expressed!  It’s much easier, and lower risk, to participate in such circles on Twitter, where by re-tweeting, you feel as though you’re participating in the conversation without having necessarily to make a scintillating comment – it’s like nodding your agreement.

I’ve come to realise that this kind of participation is pretty close to invisibility, and I think it’s time to step up and abandon the ‘do as I say’ mentality in favour of at least attempting to lead by example.  The importance of doing so was really brought home to me when I read Athene Donald’ excellent post on this subject where she discusses the blog as a form of ‘online mentoring’, suggests that women are more likely to be reticent and identifies the importance of taking risks and finding supporters.  I will try to follow in her confident footsteps.  It’s time to join the conversation.  And actually say something.