Five things I’ve learned about the Digital Humanities

Melissa Terras wrote recently on the fifth anniversary of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities. She closed with this call for responses:

what are the things you’ve learnt about the Digital Humanities in the last five years, from where you stand?

This blog post is my attempt at an answer.

I was a different kind of humanist five years ago (June 2010), before my first Digital Humanities Summer Institute, before I learned how to use computers to encode and analyze literary texts. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. I didn’t know any better; I didn’t know any different.

I was content to make arguments based on particularities: choosing authors I liked, analyzing stanzas, citing articles. I thought about my arguments in isolation, writing and rewriting articles that would eventually appear in print. My contacts with works-in-progress were at face-to-face academic conferences, with the papers their authors read aloud.

Today, in 2015, I still make arguments about particular authors and particular texts – but I search text corpora to situate their language in the larger patterns and habits of their contemporaries. I still think and write in isolation, but I also do more work out in the open, exposing my research methods and my interim questions to wider audiences than a seminar. I read my colleagues’ blog posts and watch videos of their public talks. I credit MITH’s “Digital Dialogues” and the Scholars’ Lab podcasts with teaching me more than ten conferences could teach me who’s doing what, and how, and why, and what language they’re using to describe it.

So what have I learned about DH in those five years?

1 / Experts are generous

Maybe it happens in every subfield, but digital humanists are generous with their expertise. Not just with the outcomes of their thinking, but the processes that got them to those outcomes: their methods, their errors and false starts, their data and protocols. They leave ladders behind them for the rest of us to climb – not just because they welcome the company, but because they want us to test their findings, to fork their code, to build things that interoperate with their repositories.

2 / Twitter really matters

I’ve just come off a conference that had one of the liveliest Twitter hashtags I’ve seen in a while (since my last DHSI). But Twitter matters works as a backchannel conversation every day of the year. When I finish writing this post, I’ll mention it on Twitter to invite readers and responses – just as I learned about Terras’s post from another tweet. When I delivered a conference paper this weekend, I posted it online and mentioned it on Twitter.

But it’s not all an echo-chamber of self-promotion; it’s where the professional life of the digital humanist is at its liveliest. It’s the place where we learn about the projects and the people who are doing them; about the conferences and the workshops that will transform your work; about the ideas and the methods that are expanding our research and teaching.

3 / Projects need managers

I’ve written about this at length before: digital humanities projects are more complicated than any academic work I’ve ever undertaken. Teams of collaborators and research assistants work on different components of the same dataset, and you need to consult experts and review literature and read documentation and arrange training and write grant applications – all while staying agile, so you’re not overly invested in any method or system. Effectively managing your own project while driving its high-level priorities is hard, so you need to hire one. And while you’re at it, you need to think about managing and curating your project’s data.

4 / Community is everything

One of the things I admired about Terras’ post is that it’s about the UCL program as a hub for the local DH community. She balances the collective interest with individual researchers’ interests:

This gig [is] also about supporting and encouraging the research environment, and individual scholars in their research interests. It’s incredibly important to do both, to establish the research centre as a serious concern, whilst also encouraging a change of culture across college that supports and encourages this type of activity.

In the coming year, this culture-change is on my mind as I work to establish a Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Calgary, a place in the library where scholars at every stage of their digital work – from tentative to adventurous, exploratory to established – will convene to share local expertise. Libraries are the original ‘humanities labs,’ the place where we find and develop and test ideas. We’re leveraging their time-honoured roles in a new era.

The Lab will host their projects and help them get things done, following another piece of Terras’ advice:

start local, with a project appropriate and important to your institution, which shows people what DH is in the doing, rather than the telling.

I appreciate her emphasis on what’s achievable, rather than what’s merely prospective or aspirational.

Which brings me to my last point:

5 / Adapt to thrive

Be ready to change direction if your first project proves too ambitious, or if others have already started on a path you’re well-suited to follow. No humanist’s research project is an island; all are interconnected though a string of footnotes. But digital-humanities research lives in an ecosystem of complementary and dependent projects, protocols, and respositories. If you adapt to that environment, you’ll thrive rather than going extinct.

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