Some thoughts on infrastructure for DH teaching

April 1, 2012 in Afternoon, Communication, Home, Teaching

17.14pm As predicted, a tech fail is looming for the TextLab presentations tomorrow. My co-teachers on the course, Jason Whitt and Heather Froelich, have been trying without success to connect their Macs to the wireless network in the lecture hall, so that our colleague Jonathan Hope – the fourth member of the teaching team currently in the US – can watch the presentations and participate in the question and answer session by skype. But it looks now as though this is not going to work. It is absurd that the biggest problems we have faced with this course are a matter of basic infrastructure. Knowing the poor reputation of the wireless network, I made sure some weeks ago to walk all over several buildings with my laptop open in order to find the room with the best wireless network connection; this lecture hall was one of the few places I managed to connect. I write back to Heather and Jason suggesting that it may be that the wireless will work with PCs but not with Macs, and that I may be able to solve this problem by bringing no fewer than three laptops with me to class tomorrow – my work one, my home one and my partner’s cheap working-on-the-road one.

(This is the point where I want to get at least a little credit from all the Mac owners out there who look at me with expressions ranging from pity to outright suspicion when I get out my VAIO to follow the backchannel take notes at conferences. Sometimes, just sometimes, being the weirdo with the PC can be useful. And also, when my partner bought his shiny new iMac, someone in our household had to stick with a PC for dumb things like video cameras that come with PC-only software.)

But anyway: this three-laptops solution is a band-aid fix for a problem that has more wide-reaching ramifications. Infrastructure is a continuing problem for those of us in the digital humanities in this institution: there are apparently no computer labs at all that are fitted out for teaching. For my own Introduction to Digital Humanities course in the previous semester I was lucky to be able to use the Mac lab that is usually set aside for the use of Journalism students, but given the constraints of timetabling it will be something of a miracle if this works again. What is striking is that the university makes all sorts of encouraging noises about DH but when it comes to properly outfitting the rooms needed to teach it, not to mention getting the wireless network to function, it is very hard to find the right person to get it done. My head of school has been extremely sympathetic and supportive but he isn’t the person who can fix this: there is someone else out there in the university who can but it is difficult to know how to find them, and it does not feel like my job to chase this down. Claire Warwick has written very diplomatically about this issue at UCL, and I am simultaneously cheered to see that even a world-class DH centre like the UCL Dept of Information Studies struggles to get proper IT support, while also depressed to learn that  infrastructure seems to be a common problem for digital humanists.

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