On sustainability

March 28, 2012 in About Day of DH, Admin Service, Biography, Blogging, Communication, Evening, Home, Reflecting, Writing

‘Oh no, not sustainability again!’ I hear you cry. ‘Has Claire not bored us sufficiently by going on and on about users that she must mount the new-favourite hobby horse again?’ Well tough whatever people: even the Day of DH can err, and I am going to rant about it right here (how clever and self-referential is that? And me not even an Eng-lit type anymore). Anyway, enough of the Prologue, as the Divine Francis might have said, let’s get on with this post.

Here is my problem, lacking inspiration for another post in my attempt to catch up on the Day of DH I thought I would look at my old entries over the years since we began this venture. So I Googled Day of DH 2009. Imagine my horror: it’s not there anymore. I can find 2010 and 2011, but not the very first (and arguably most important, because most innovative) iteration. How can this be? We DHers of all people ought to know about sustainability shouldn’t we? I know that various people, my colleague Julianne Nyhan analysed the posts and wrote an article about them, but still, not to be able to find it on the web is a little worrying after only 3 years isn’t it? Perhaps the TEI version still exists, backed up on a server somewhere, but that’s hardly the point. If we can’t make our own historical record available online after such a short time, what does that say about us, in DH, and our attitude to digital preservation? I could use the wayback machine, but that’s not the point either, is it? OK, well, too many rhetorical questions and probably time for </rant> but really, I mean…

Anyhow, I did my best to research the recent history of my days of DH in 2010 and 2011: perhaps this is why I have come over all ranty. It is, after all, easier to have a go at others when you are less than happy about what you have just realised about yourself. The recent history of my DH self does not seem to make happy reading, I’m afraid.

In 2010 I’m talking about how much I love DH, how much fun I am having, how much I adore the newly-founded UCLDH, and how I’m dashing about the place telling everyone all about it. (Like most of those newly-enamoured, I was, probably, a bit of a bore, I realise, for which, if yours was one of the many ears I bent, my sincere apologies). Nevertheless, my blogs are full of wit, energy, jokes and a delight in the life digital humanistic-especially at UCL. In 2011, I am a bit more circumspect: I’d just become HoD and am thus talking about running things so others can do DH, but still, there is spark and passion, a few ‘sweet phrases, lovely metaphors’ remain- I am ignoring the harbingers who have already come. I am new to management, and still sounding quite brave and bullish about how it’s not going to stop me doing DH, at all… ever… really… honestly. Actually, at the time of writing I was in the eye of a hurricane the like of which I had no experience, and just as well as it turns out- the bravado and confidence was all false.

Now look- the writing is very different. I am still here, still HoD: the storm has blown out, but blown a few things away as well. My blogs this year are those of the academic manager, sensible, serious, tired. There are no jokes, and not much energy, and there is much less time to do DH. But I do still care about it, and if there is no wit, there is still passion. In 2010 I wrote about being in love with UCLDH, but recognised that heady romance fades, and that we had to sustain our efforts beyond the fizzy phase, or another interdiscipline would come along and turn people’s heads. I could not know, at that stage, quite what an extraordinary growth our discipline would experience in the two years to come. This has undoubtedly helped underpin our efforts to sustain DH at UCL, because it provides external validation for what we already knew about the general wonderfulness of our discipline. Even so, and however hard it has been, I am proud of what we have achieved since then. In 2010 I wrote that our task was to make DH so central to UCL that they could not imagine life without us. In 2012, I think that has not only come true within UCL, but the spirit of UCLDH has a resonance, and is recognised, far beyond our own university.

We are still here, and, I dare to hope that we have a real, sustainable, future. For this I owe my colleagues, who have worked so hard to make what might have been a brief affair into a long term partnership, more than I can possibly express. The same is true of the senior people in UCL who supported us, and gave us the chance to prove our vision was practicable. It has not been easy, and is, perhaps, why I sound so tired this year, but we have proved that, if you work at it, sustainability is possible in digital humanities.

DH and book publication

March 28, 2012 in Editing, Evening, Home, Office, Reflecting, Research, Writing

Not much posting yesterday; as I said, there were a lot of meetings. By the end of term I’m so tired that the idea of posting something coherent in the evening is not a realistic one. In one of my meetings yesterday I ended up wondering which of the various academic admin types looked more exhausted-it was a close-run thing I reckon. (Why is this? Why does the task of running a university these days end up being such ridiculously hard work? I don’t think any of us management hampsters have time to get off the wheel long enough to answer that- perhaps we ought to…)

Anyway back to DH. As I said, yesterday I didn’t do much of that, but the day before (in the evening, after a day of the usual email and running stuff) I did at last manage to send off the revised version of our book, Digital Humanities in Practice, co-edited with Melissa Terras and Julianne Nyhan, to the publishers, Facet. To say that I am deeply relieved about this is the most massive understatement. It has proved to me, if proof were needed, that books are really not my thing: I shall never enjoy the task of producing an edited volume. It’s not so much the actual reading and editing of drafts- that’s actually rather interesting, although hard on my eyes. It’s the chasing people up and chivvying those who have missed deadlines etc that I loathe. I am a bit deadline-obsessive myself, and send grovelling apologies in advance if I think I am going to be even a day or so late delivering anything (and then usually deliver on time anyway) so I hate being chivvied myself. Thus it’s hard to do this to others. In fact this is one of the things I dislike about being HoD too. I am told that publishers are well used to late delivery of things, but still, it made me sufficiently uncomfortable that I do not propose to do that again.

It makes me think, though, about the whole business of books and DH. I have said more than once that I am proud to be one of the growing number of DH scholars who are full professors without a monograph. However, most of the others in this category have also edited collections, for example Ray Siemens and John Unsworth, who, with Susan Schreibman produced the wonderful Blackwell Companion to DH. The massive scale of this volume only serves to increase my admiration for them as editors and cat-wranglers. There are also several very interesting edited volumes on DH appearing at the moment, for example Matt Gold’s Debates in DH. This seems appropriate to me. As a team-based discipline in which sharing of ideas is vital, and where technology moves very quickly, DH seems far better suited to the edited collection with many voices expressing perhaps contradictory opinions, than the single authored monograph.

However, the fact remains that for many conservative tenure and promotion committees this still may be something of a challenge. I think I may be the first person in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at UCL without a book of any kind at the time of promotion to a chair, and certainly one of the first without a monograph, if we exclude creative artists whose outputs tend to be practice-based. This may be helped by the fact that article and conference publication is much more usual in Information Studies, and something that subject referees were used to seeing. Yet even then I was advised to argue my case and justify why I did not write monographs, because more traditional scholars might not consider me worthy of a chair as a result. It may be even more difficult for DH scholars in more traditional humanities departments to make their case.

Of course some excellent single-scholar DH can be done, and books produced, as a result- for example Melissa’s Image to Interpretation, so this is not a problem for everyone. However, I do think it’s regrettable if DH- a new discipline that has different working methods from its more traditional parent disciplines- should be forced into a procrustean monographic bed. If compelled to do so, those seeing it as the only way to tenure or promotion will doubtless produce the required monographs. Yet we need to think about whether this really fits what we want to do in DH in terms of publication. If a monograph is right for their style of DH- great, but if not, DH scholars should not have to beg to be given credit for their jointly-authored articles, conference papers, edited collections or even- gasp- digital outputs.

There are some very positive signs though: Beth Nowviskie produced the excellent digital resource Alt-Academy instead of a book, but of course, as Beth makes clear, she chose a different track from conventional tenure, and so is freer to experiment. Matt Gold is producing a digital, open source, supplement to Debates in DH, in which, I’m happy to say, a chapter of mine will appear. I actually prefer my contribution to be online only- not least because it’s about Twitter, so it seems appropriate. But then again, I have a chair now, and print publications matter much less to me, so I was happy to give up a printed chapter to someone earlier in their career who needed it more than I do. Of course I’m aware that most people will see the printed edition as the more prestigious form, but there we go, therein lies the problem really.

I think we are in a period of transition: I have heard DH bloggers arguing that theirs is the form of the future, and that we need to take blogging about DH seriously when academic output is evaluated. At UCL, research blogging is already considered as part of promotion cases, so progress is being made. We are also looking at different forms of digital, open access publication, with overlay journals being created from UCL Discovery, our Institutional Repository. Who knows, perhaps book-like digital objects might be the next step. I’m on the UCL Publications Board, so am bringing a DH voice to the debates, and I am pleased to say that this board is as open to new ideas and experimentation in publication forms as might be expected from a university that has always been proud of its independent, non-conformist attitude to academic traditions of all kinds. It will be interesting to see, therefore, what we can achieve here.

I am sure that the monograph still has a much longer future as a publication form than many people are predicting. This is fine for disciplines in traditional humanities where it truly is the most appropriate form by which to disseminate that research. We in DH need to make the case for the forms of output that best express our unique, and uniquely wonderful discipline. Just another thing for my todo list…

Supporting the future of DH teaching

March 27, 2012 in Admin Service, Afternoon, Meeting, Office, Teaching

Today, as with last year, a lot of my day of DH will be concerned with what you folks in North America call admin. This is no surprise, because I am a Head of Department (Department Chair). So these days I fit my DH between things that I do to keep the UCL Department of Information Studies running as well as I can manage. So today there is email catchup, as usual, followed by an afternoon of meetings.

One of these will be discussing how we are going to provide adequate IT support for the department. This is one of those hidden problems that UK universities don’t seem to approach in a joined-up way. We are rightly encouraged to be innovative and use digital technologies in our teaching and my colleagues in DIS have been enthusiastic in doing so, and are, even now, developing exciting new modules for our MA courses in DH and in Archives and Records Management. We’ve bid for a new mobile teaching lab in which to do this. But all of these things need quite intensive support, people to run and support web servers etc, and, although some academics are capable of doing such things, it’s not something I want them to do. From my point of view as an academic manager I want to see my colleagues using their time productively on things that are core to their jobs- teaching, research, knowledge exchange and student support; if they have to do someone else’s job- running the web server for example- then it stops them doing their own properly.

Yet, while we are innovating and looking to the future, the support and infrastructure we have reflects the past of humanities teaching. In a faculty of Arts and Humanities, where technical kit has not, historically, been commonly used, IT support is, understandably, not exactly thick on the ground, and getting it from the university centrally seems a surprisingly complex business. So here we have the conundrum that must affect many humanities departments in various universities who want to teach more DH, or will do in future, I suspect. We are encouraged to innovate and use digital methods, because students want this, we want this, and the teaching and learning arm of the universities wants it too. But then nobody seems to know how to acquire the infrastructural support from other parts of the university to make what we all want possible. It’s not a problem for Engineering: they are expected to need lots of kit and infrastructural support, but Arts and Humanities are not, partly because at the moment, humanities teaching is, indeed pretty low-tech in general. But how are we in the humanities supposed to make our teaching more digital if we are not supposed to need IT? It seems to be a bit of a circular problem at the moment, and I’m sure is not limited to UCL. I’ve had a few meetings about it already, with various people- and this afternoon we’ll grapple with it all again. In the end though, we have to make it work one way or another: the future of DH teaching depends on doing so.

Hello world!

March 6, 2012 in Uncategorized

Welcome to Day of DH 2012 Sites. We recommend that you test out the software with an About Me post, either by editing this post or deleting it and writing a new one. Enjoy your Day of DH!