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.

 

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.