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The New Groves of Academe

Researching the ways in which new media and digital technologies are positioned in modern universities means reading about the changing models of governance, management and administration that shape how research and teaching are conducted. This proves very revealing in unexpected ways and—appropriate to my focus on discipline characteristics—there are clear differences in work from different fields. In the Humanities, and to a lesser extent, the Social Sciences, authors (even when offering some critique) discuss the ‘essence’ of digital media, often imbuing them with a quasi-magical quality. In these largely techno-determinist narratives, new media and digital technologies directly enact a “paradigm shift” that is inevitable because they innately (so it appears) alter our social relations, and relations of space-time. In fact, these technologies are agents or instruments of a shift with origins located elsewhere. Authors writing about what might be called ‘digitalism’ and science tend to be more prosaic. They acknowledge quite coolly that the increasing dominance of digital technologies on campus and in research ‘workflows’ is directly linked to the priorities of the market economy. This is obvious when we think about the emphasis on “innovation” (developing commodifiable products of interest to commercial private sector companies, who may in turn outsource their R&D activities) and on training students to adopt this same mind-set while charging them ever-increasing fees. University infrastructure becomes the final service-platform of a top-down government agenda. This agenda is reinforced by managers and normalised (through various means) in the minds of those working at lower levels—i.e. research and teaching staff.

Clearly digital technologies offer many exciting opportunities, regardless of debates on their nature. They are fascinating to explore, which is why I have chosen them as my topic of research. But we must remain aware of the wider systems which they are a part of, and this is why I am interested to consider them in relation to the academic “habitus”. Krull (2000) reminds us that nowadays, most Western governments view the funding of Higher Education as a “strategic investment” and that with limited finances available to support that investment, a focus on “public-private partnerships” and inter-disciplinarity are the logical outcomes of current political logic, focused as it is on “knowledge economies”1 . At the same time, “market populism” and “consumer democracy” have become “ideological lodestones against which all new policies [in the public sector] must be evaluated”, as Deem, Hillyard and Reed (2007) explain. The formation and dominance of neo-liberal New Managerialism (NM) and New Public Management (NPM) theories are part of a “cultural revolution” with a series of inter-linked effects upon “the discursive strategies, organizational forms and control technologies”  embedded within and used to legitimate public services. Networks, personalisation and customisation are among the concepts it privileges. Universities are “by no means exempt from these underlying structural pressures and the ideological momentum that they generate”, having become more like “workplaces” than “communities of scholars”. The restructuring inspired by NM and NPM have significant and long-term consequences for academic communities. I would argue, uncontroversially (?), that the promotion of digital media is one of those consequences.

This leads me to some more general thoughts about academia which are only loosely relevant to my work but which are certainly relevant to my status as a junior member of the academic community. Whether the changing management models mentioned above are good or bad is dependent on the position of the observer. Specifically, in relation to what the observer and his/her community have to gain or lose. Naturally, it can be hard to criticise a system on which you rely for employment, especially when the changes you are critical of seem utterly inevitable and “just the way things are now”. It is hard to know what the effects of changing technologies will be. It is easier for a journalist or other commentator to descry what is happening to HE (for instance, the current funding cuts) than it is for a low-grade academic on a temporary contract or in a department facing an uncertain future. Clearly, if attitudes based on a combination of fear and the desire for self-preservation (if not whole-hearted subscription to the new ideals) become endemic, there are likely to be depressing consequences. I’m sure we can all imagine those. The nightmare scenario is a group of ‘yes men’ and women unquestioningly serving highly paid superiors who do not necessarily possess or appreciate the core intellectual and social values of the average academic. Rather than scholars choosing the methods and tools that best fit a particular course, or project, they will be enforced. More positively, it may be possible for those in all fields of enquiry to adapt to the new market-centred regime without totally compromising. Despite inevitable concessions, traditional values and ideals might quietly be defended and promoted from within. This enterprise is a difficult one—a little like brokering for peace when outside the negotiating room there are bodies and ‘collateral damage’.

1Krull, W. (2010). Beyond the Ivory Tower: Some Observations on External Funding of Interdisciplinary Research in Universities. In Nico Stehr and Peter Weingart eds. Practising Intderdisciplinarity. University of Toronto Press, pp.260-270.
2Deem, R., Hillyard S., and Reed, M. (2007). Knowledge, Higher Education, and the New Managerialism: The Changing Management of UK Universities. Oxford University Press, pp.4-6; page 26.

Transformed Realities

This Thursday, our Digital Transformers Symposium finally took place and I am delighted to report that it was a huge success! Nineteen speakers presented diverse work from multiple Arts and Humanities subjects, sharing ideas and findings with one essential common theme – the ways in which digital technologies are transforming things – be they individuals, societies, or the ways in which we experience and understand. The day kicked off with a keynote speech by Dr. Jim Mussell, who took as his example the serial publications of Charles Dickens in Victorian magazine Household Words. This might seem an odd place to start – even if we are talking about digitised versions. After all, aren’t electronic versions just surrogates for higher quality originals? Dr. Mussell convinced us otherwise. By making use of digital tools for bibliographic analysis which at first glance seem utterly alien to the contexts of the works they are used to study, we may in fact find ourselves closer to the “truth” of a printed piece and its place in history. Magazines and books are objects. They are not the essence of a work but are “records of a set of cultural practices” – whether those practices involve binding and ink or binary and hyperlinks. By thinking about how digital versions of texts relate to their non-digital forebears, we might better appreciate that our interpretation of the past is always just that: an interpretation, within an imposed artificially linear narrative. Instead of being treated as deficient, inauthentic and lacking, new interfaces to old texts should be valued as enhancements – as transformative.

Panel 1 DTN

Ioanna Zouli presents her paper on “video practices and the dynamics of telepresence”.

The day proceeded with four themed panels – Participation and Community Engagement; Methodological Challenges; Shifting Structures of Communication, and Audio-Visual Experiences. Two play sessions were also on offer – Introducing the geographic dimension to your research: GIS for the Humanities (led by Dr. Paty Murrieta Flores) and Meaning and meaning-making: a social semiotic multimodal approach to contemporary issues in research (led by Professor Gunther Kress). All of our paper presenters were young early career researchers, from around the UK and beyond. For me, one of the best parts of the symposium was the sense of community that seemed to emerge once the sessions got underway. Even when discussing work far removed from their own, the audience were supportive and enthusiastic. This may be one of the key positives of digital media within the academy – particularly for young researchers. Whether you are a cultural theorist, a linguist, or an information scientist, a realignment of disciplinary boundaries creates opportunities to identify shared and new perspectives, enhanced by engagements with digital tech. Dr. Patricia Murrieta Flores explored with us how Geographic Information Systems, initially designed for engineers, scientists and planners, have become fruitful and fascinating tools for archaeologists and historians, who use them to identify and model patterns and trends of the earth, its artefacts, its people and their geo-politics, across space and time.

Dr Patricia Murrieta Flores gave us a hands-on introduction to GIS in the Humanities

Dr Patricia Murrieta Flores gave us a hands-on introduction to GIS in the Humanities

The day concluded with a stimulating and lively debate on the perils and potentials of Open Access Publishing as it relates to the Humanities and to Universities more generally. It is difficult to know at present whether the “Gold” or the “Green” route to Open Access publishing will prevail; most likely institutions will use some mixture of the two, with both becoming competitors in an increasingly uneven and costly publishing ecosystem based around entrenched and outmoded (?) notions of prestige and value. Those who can afford it will be driven towards Gold, with Green and its laudable aims of equity and freedom being pushed into the role of second-best.

Open Access Panel

A spirited panel of experts led a debate on the potential costs and benefits of Open Access

Our expert panel (Drs. Cathy Urquhart, Paul Kirby, Alma Swan and Stephen Pinfield) hinted now and then at positive transformative potentials stemming from OA – Alma Swan in particular sees OA as a welcome tonic to old-fashioned models – but overall it seemed a rather gloomy picture, dictated as ever by economics and elitist notions of bettering one’s peers. Many academics wish to see a culture of openness, experimentation and sharing, with contributions valued for their merit. The harsh realities of convention and money make that something of a pipe dream. There will be limited budgets to pay article processing fees hence managers will be forced to ask which articles represent the best financial “return on investment”, too busy and pressurised to judge them on anything other than proxy criteria of quality that do not consider the intellectual value of a work in its own right. Well, that’s the doomsday scenario. However naively, I very much hope that freer forms of communication will emerge to combat that!

We will be uploading slides, videos and other materials to the official Digital Transformers website over the coming month, so please do check there for more details on the excellent papers and presentations that were given by the members of our nascent ERC network. :-)

A New Network Emerges

After months of hard work and planning, we have finally finalised the schedule for our Digital Transformers Symposium, happening on Thursday the 23rd of May, at MMU. Working in academia – and in particular on a PhD – it’s easy to get caught up in stress and uncertainty of various kinds. So it really is great to be able to pour energy into a community-based event like this, which everyone seems to be looking forward to. All of the workshops and papers sound amazing and Jo and myself really couldn’t be more pleased at the quality and scope of submissions.

There aren’t any places left for the Symposium now (we only have room for 40): but tickets are still available for our Open Access Debate which opens to a wider audience later in the day. Hope to see some of you there! 🙂

Humanities by any other name

On Monday night, I attended the latest in a series of thought-provoking events taking place within the Institute of Humanities and Social Science Research at MMU. As part of their Annual Research Programme, Dr David M. Berry (currently based at the University of Swansea and author of several books on digital cultures, software and code) had been invited to give a talk on the fundamental nature of Digital Humanities scholarship. Given the current changes taking place within MMU and many other universities as a result of educational technologies arriving on campus, a naturally large audience was secured.

Berry took a rather critical approach in his lecture, raising a number of issues and problems around Digital Humanities as both an academic discipline, and as a brand. Given how enthusiastic he is about DH his criticism is highly informed and cannot be said to be of the reactionary sort. And really that was his whole point: as academics we must continue to raise difficult, challenging questions about the subject areas within which we are embedded. It was refreshing to have the all-too tangible tensions between scholarly and business imperatives recognised in relation to DH. In terms of my own research, such debates are vital to understanding how academics in different fields relate to, understand, and use digital and new media.

Enriching and challenging tradition

Key philosophical questions about the nature(s) of digital environments and techniques are often overlooked by proponents of  DH (although not, it must be said, by Cultural and Media theorists). Many nascent Digital Humanists are unsure what the term means – or what the core epistemic assumptions and problematics underlying their discipline are. Partly this is because Digital Humanities is an emerging and multi-disciplinary field, without clear historical traditions or organisational roots. Partly also it is because, for many Universities, “Digital Humanities” is something of a buzzword, with a surface level appeal considered enough in itself to attract new students and academics.

The danger is that Digital Humanists will become lost in computational formalisms, technologically-determinist methodologies, and the quantitative structural logic of engineers. They may lose sight of both the wider and more detailed perspectives brought about by traditional methods for illuminating truths about discourse and humanity. There is also the risk – in a target focused managerial culture – of being dazzled to the point of critical amnesia by the large public audiences that digital projects can garner when compared with audiences available for “gold standard” outputs like monographs.

Yet so long as we are careful not to sell or neglect our fundamental principles, Digital Humanities have much to offer. The Understanding Shakespeare project that Dr Berry showed to us during his afternoon workshop was one such example. Multiple German translations of Shakespeare have been scanned, OCRd and marked up, ready to be represented and queried digitally and visually. Analysing text and metadata computationally can reveal known and previously unknown correspondences and differences between editions, whether in terms of structure or content. As with many other semantic-web based tools (e.g. Gephi, Google Ngram and IBM’s Many Eyes), parameters can be set by researchers in a few easy steps and huge corpora can be explored – something almost impossible to do manually.

For me, the take home message was that the Digital Humanities – regardless of specific instantiations within individual institutions – must “extend their critique to include society, politics, the economic and the cultural.” Many researchers are already doing this and I certainly aim to do so in my own work. At the same time, Humanities scholars must not forget the “traditional” core concerns of their fields – i.e. the human subject, speculative knowledge, interpretation, and the value of focused, close readings – even as they rearticulate those concerns in exciting ways via computational methods.

Masked Robbers

The first thing I do before settling down to work in the Geoffrey Manton building is fill up my bottle with a stream of lovely ice-cold water from the Water at Work machine. This is of course essential for anyone used to Scottish “council juice” rather than the harsh and hard English variety. 😛 Trying to stave off a craving for coffee, imagine my surprise when I was greeted by this:

A mysterious visitor at the water cooler

A mysterious visitor at the water machine

A student, armed with a laptop and a cardboard box full of masks and hats, sat cross-legged on the floor. Cheerfully he asked me whether or not I intended to walk down the nearby glass corridor, which leads toward the canteen, a stairwell, and various doors which have, in the past, confused me. “Ah, sorry, I’m not. I’m going the other way”. Which was a shame, because it meant that I couldn’t take part in his Masked Exposures project/experiment, losing my chance to consider “the perception and performance of altered identities” while embracing anonymity.

An intriguing box of faces

An intriguing box of faces

“So how do you make sure you get the masks back?” I asked, as he very kindly let me crouch down to take some photographs of him and his equipment. Another cheerful smile. “There’s a bucket at the end of the corridor for people to put them in. So far only one of them has gone AWOL.” Ah! Such faith in humanity. I wished him luck and went back to Room 118.

It must have been thirsty work because before heading off to TRAUMA to watch excellent film noir The Fallen Idol (sorry for the gratuitous plug but I do have to mention TRAUMA whenever possible) I returned to the water at work machine yet again, empty bottle in hand. The boy and his masks had disappeared. The sign which he’d enthusiastically stuck up on the door had been crossed out with biro and sadly annotated:

Abandoned due to theft

Abandoned due to theft

I found myself feeling disappointed and a little bit sad on his behalf. On the other hand, I wonder if this is all a semi-intentional part of the experiment? He’s certainly learned something about what people might do when they get the chance to embrace “anonymity”. In fact, his pretense was that anonymity when entering that corridor was “compulsory” – so in some ways it might be said that his participants/subjects were executing a certain predictable (?) act of rebellion through their thievery. Okay, okay, I realise that might be pushing it a bit! I only hope the masks won’t be too difficult for him to replace. He also learned a valuable lesson about University security – who told him that masks or no masks, he didn’t have permission to be there and really would have to clear off 😦

I’ll be interested to see Jake’s footage when the project is eventually completed and I wish him the best of luck.

Digital Transformers

Last week, myself and a fellow MMU PhD student (now also teaching at the University of Sheffield) received some excellent news – a funding bid that we submitted to the Arts and Humanities Research Council under their Collaborative Skills Development Call was successful! 🙂 The AHRC have funded a number of exciting and exemplary projects around Digital Transformations over the past year or so and clearly our Symposium will be a great opportunity for both of our departments to take part in that, extending and enriching their current Digital Humanities research. In May, we will be hosting a one day event for UK-based Postgrads and Early Career Researchers. To quote from our official documentation:

Combining workshops, presentations, and networking opportunities, The Digital Transformers Symposium 2013 will be run jointly by Manchester Metropolitan University’s Department of Languages, Information and Communications and the University of Sheffield’s Information School (iSchool). The Workshop offers an exciting opportunity for all across the Humanities to explore the methodological and conceptual approaches and techniques required for the study of digital arenas. Further, the event will act as a platform for the creation of a young, cutting-edge academic network sustainable long-term.

We aim to include a range of exciting papers and discussions that make room not only for positive examples of DH practise but also for critiques and debates about some of its more problematic aspects; for instance, in terms of methodological foundations or the reliability of data. We’re also going to include a number of hands-on ‘play sessions’, where the 40-50 people taking part can get to grips with various types of digital research tool and learn more about how to use them.

Transformer stack

Digital research throws up all sorts of unexpected transformations…

Sorry I can’t be more specific at the moment but of course it all depends what ideas come in from potential contributors when we issue the Call for Papers in January. We do have a wishlist of presenters and some clear ideas about possible thematic strands – for instance, narratives of old and new media, media archaeology, data visualisation techniques, text mining, and Open Access Publishing, the last of which will be a highly pertinent topic relevant to participants from every discipline. Once the day’s schedule is in place, a major challenge will be making sure we create an event that participants find exciting, fun, and the sort of thing they’d like to continue being a part of longer-term. Watch this space (and others) for details of a forthcoming dedicated website and the CfP!

A Successful Screening

A quick post to say thank you to everyone who came along to Friday’s screening of The Officer’s Wife. It was great to see so many people (over 100 we think) in the theatre, and the Q&A afterwards showed how enthusiastic the audience were about both Piotr Uzarowicz’s film and the work of the Kresy-Siberia organisation. All in all it was an educational, moving, and rewarding evening.

The audience had plenty of comments and questions

Some people present had experienced directly the privations and the horror of Siberian deportation. Others, of varying age, nationality and background, were there to learn about a largely overlooked (and deliberately suppressed) part of history which the film explores skillfully and without bias, despite the deeply personal motivations of the director. Interviews with survivors, historians and activists are combined to great effect with voice-over narration, animation, and an evocative soundtrack by Oscar-winning composer Jan Kaczmarek, so impressed with The Officer’s Wife that he agreed on first viewing to provide an original score.

The film’s director outside Manchester Lecture Theatre

Hopefully Trauma film screenings will host similarly worthwhile events in the future. Tomorrow This evening a new season – hosted by Merlyn Taylor – starts. Coincidentally enough it will explore animated films which deal with stories of war and conflict, including Persepolis by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, and Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies. Hope to see you there!

A still from Grave of the Fireflies