Tag Archive | Academics

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.

Structures of Participation

As we finished our morning interview, Wanderer showed me the exit with a smile. “The time just flew in, didn’t it?” she remarked. Despite the unusually early start, I felt a renewed sense of enthusiasm. My bag now had a folder and an mp3 recorder full of original information; I left the building in agreement. The session hadn’t dragged at all. Wonderful. Back at my desk, an email from Ian arrived. “Not as scary as I expected!” she confided. I had to laugh at the thought of our discussion having instilled any foreboding. Isn’t research meant to be enjoyable? Speaking with Ian, Wanderer and others about their fields of research, their organisational cultures, and their views on new media, I’m fairly sure that’s something we all agree on. Regardless of discipline!

I’m now halfway through my pilot data gathering activities and have met with 4 out of 8 participants via 2 “paired interview” sessions – 1 along the road at Manchester University and 1 here at MMU. Preparing materials for what seems an eternity, I am very happy to report that both sessions were extremely informative and genuinely thought-provoking. So far, my interviewees have seemed to find them worthwhile too.1

The position of technology relates to multiple structural factors.

Getting your “subjects” to take part enthusiastically rather than having them keep one eye on the clock (hey, that’s my job!) is vital to obtaining quality data. That’s why I’ve chosen and devised a combination of discussions, semi-structured interviews, writing activities, and Semantic Differential exercises. Conversations and dialogues are far better than simplistic closed question formats. And of course, timing, flow, and sequencing are everything. It’s too early to conclude but my instinct tells me my data gathering instruments are pretty successful.2 Transcribing the audio and comparing terminologies, anecdotes and insights is already proving fascinating. Hopefully the next 2 are just as illuminating!

1 Participant anonymity is optional.
2 Thanks to everyone who helped me test and refine these.

Vivat Academia!

Although I’m still many mountains away from the terrifying moment that must be the Viva Voce, it was really worthwhile going along to yesterday’s discussion about what exactly is involved on the day. Some of MMU’s InfoComms PhD candidates have Vivas a few weeks from now, with others having only just “defended” successfully – meaning there were plenty of questions and stories (some of the horror variety) to share. What do the examiners expect of you? How should you prepare? What are the negative and positive sides of presenting your thesis? As someone pointed out, the Viva is a chance to discuss your work with people who have actually read it – in detail. They have probably even made notes in the margins! So overall, as well as inevitable terror, you should be pleased that at least two senior academics can reference your paragraph numbers and summarise whole chapters. Still, it’s a bit of a shame that PhD candidates in Manchester don’t have to wear colour-coded carnations and a subfusc as they do in certain UK Universities.

I was fascinated to learn from Emma-Reeta, a recently successful Finnish InfoComms candidate, that in her country (as well as in Sweden and probably elsewhere), the Viva Voce is a very public event and actually, a celebration. You might even end up with the whole thing appearing on You Tube!

Scholars in pub(lic)

I can’t imagine that happening in the UK, can you? It got me thinking (well, okay, got me thinking after our trip to the pub) about a question very important to my own infant thesis – what do we now define as the “Public Sphere” and how does it relate to the world of the University? The concept of the Public Sphere is most closely associated with Jürgen Habermas (and was popularised after the English translation of his Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit in 1989). In it he critiques the notion of a public/private divide with a focus on the “bourgeois” coffee houses of the 18th century – though, as he makes extremely clear, its roots go back much further, to the Enlightenment in fact.  Naturally back then it was structured very differently, reflecting a different set of influences and priorities: most probably more democratic ones, more concerned as political thinkers of the day were with reason rather than commerce. Still, in essence, whatever period we consider, Public and Private have always been abstract, flexible and porous.

Maybe the pub is a poorly lit coffee house...

Many questions are being asked right now about the future of the Public Sphere which bring these ideas back into focus – from its increasing commodificiation and role in entertaining rather than informing private citizens, to the possibility of different systems of socio-cultural and political participation. This is most obvious if we think about mass media (including social media) as the pre-dominant forum for public dialogue today. Zizi Papacharissi borrows from theories of architecture to write convincingly of “the spatial effects of convergent technology on place.” Importantly, she states that “unless these spaces bear distinct connections to the systemic core of democratic institutions, their ability to effect institutional change is compromised.” However, as well as looking at what these spaces mean for

  • Overtly political groups such as environmental activists, party- affiliated or single-issue campaigners
  • Minority or “disenfranchised” communities, and inevitably,
  • Consumer demographics or “market segments”

I think it is very much worth addressing what the changes and tensions between and within the Public and Private Spheres mean for the Scholar, not least to avoid a kind of artificial divide whereby academics are only visible or valued in so far as they contribute to the generation of money for business, or are on-hand to offer “expert comment” to the press.

To me, the idea of having to defend my thesis in public would be pretty scary. But if I imagine presenting and discussing my work in front of friends, family, loved ones, and anyone else interested in the topic – as well as having a big party afterwards – it seems like a valuable and special way of being recognised and welcomed into the public realm of academia. Beyond personal concerns, it is surely a great chance for Universities to make “visible” the effort involved in getting a PhD to people who may not ever want to do one themselves, and (important right now) who maybe aren’t always sure if Higher Education is something worth funding.