Environments and Interfaces

I’m in Victoria, BC this week for two meetings, the Canadian Society for Digital Humanities (part of the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences) and the Digital Humanities Summer Institute. This morning I attended a panel on the topic of “Digital Humanities Microclimates: Practice and the Politics/Pragmatics of Place.”

This stimulating conversation provoked me to think about the places where DH operates. It’s reinforced my sense that the best space for research oscillates between virtual and real, mediated and unmediated.

Researchers need to know that there are infrastructures like labs and classrooms and conferences where you can meet other DHers to learn things in a combination of trust and serendipity — but that there are also interfaces like blogs and Twitter and podcasts where you can gather an ever-widening array of ideas and suggestions and, well, all the stuff the hovers between serendipity and distraction. You need to talk to people directly, to tinker and make stuff together, but also (like I am now) to step away from the conference to write on your blog. Then you get the ideas that are both resourceful and random, the perspectives that are from nearby and faraway.


DH research happens in a series of discrete but overlapping spaces, both real and virtual. These are the spaces where we do our teaching and research. We work in these environments because of what Aimée Morrison (on the panel) called their “affective dimensions“: they make our work more focused and productive, but also more compelling, more engaged with our climates of thought and feeling. The ‘microclimates’ of DH (in the panel title) are local spaces that surround us when we work, collaborate, and consult.

These spaces foster an open-source ethos when we trust the other inhabitants to make us better thinkers and makers, to suggest new processes and techniques when we put our methods and our experiments online — well before they’re polished and complete. It’s aiming for the kind of “auto-didactic communalism” — another of Morrison’s elegant turns-of-phrase — that happens in the best classrooms, like Cathy Davidson’s.

(That communalism is what motivates me and my RAs to blog about our project, The Zeugmatic, before it’s ready for prime time. Blogs are the psychoanalyst’s couch of DH, where you talk your way out of complicated problems — even, or especially, when they’re problems you originally talked yourself into.)

But I digress. Today’s panel was about physical spaces and geographies. Does the ‘digital’ in DH necessarily push us toward the macro-climate where place has less meaning? We all gather ideas and inspiration from a range of sources. Just as our media diets are globalized, our research ideas can and should come from anywhere. That’s not just a metaphor: I can point to both CBC and ABC radio podcasts as my sources of ideas (namely Future Tense and Spark). Sure, both of those examples are resolutely in the anglosphere — but they’re far away from me in western Canada.

Yet we also need local networks, facetime. In Alberta we have a research consortium of digital humanists (with its own blog) that has built a community of DH practitioners; we have provincial interests, funding agencies in common, and a familiarity that builds trust — for those “affective dimensions,” again.

More locally, within universities, are the labs. I have conversations in my department, faculty, and university about how to build labs for digital humanists, places that bring programmers into conversation with the people who need their expertise. I’ve had some success turning seminars into literary labs. Humanists love to problematize; what we need are ‘solutionizers’ (as I think Ray Siemens said today). That takes more than tech support; it takes a stable of interested experts, collaborators, mentors, people who combine their expertise in new domains, to shape the future of our disciplines.

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