Hands Up for Digital Humanities: The Beginnings of an Exposé

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There was nowhere to park. As if it wasn’t daunting enough to throw myself into the alien world of tech-heads and program-people, now I was late. I found the Loft – a boutique entertainment venue on Plymouth Sutton Harbour – and launched myself up the stairs, down a deserted corridor and towards the sound of confidence and mingling.    

Members of Digital Plymouth meet every quarter – three meet-ups and one conference per year – and they are, according to their website, a “diverse and talented community of digital businesses and organisations, sharing knowledge and celebrating achievements throughout the South West digital industry.” Each meet-up has three speakers, and once I’d traversed the deserted corridor and heaved open the creaking door, I faced a frowning crowd listening to the talk that had already started, a crowd clearly following what, to me, sounded like a recipe for cerebral soup; equally impressive and baffling, like how grandparents are with smart TVs. I found the nearest corner to hide in and counted around a hundred guests. And then there was me, the only humanist at the party; sweaty and breathless and creeping in late.

So what was a humanist – a creative writer, associate lecturer and practice-led researcher, to be precise – doing at a tech-industry networking event?

Believe it or not, I wasn’t there by mistake. I was on a mission: to explore the vanguard of digital excellence and seek out the digital in Digital Humanities (DH). According to U.S. English Professor & Digital Humanist, Gerald R. Lucas, “DH stands at the intersection of art and science; it makes technology explicit in our understanding and interpretation of culture. DH makes clear that the humanities and technology are inseparable.” An instrumental concept then, and one that, until recently, had been totally absent in my world.

Turns out I’m not alone in this digital blindness. Considering our tendency to elevate scholarly endeavours over industry outputs – a trend that is explored by Zoe Bulaitis in her excellent 2017 article – it is surprising that so many humanists, myself included, are oblivious to Digital Humanities; the term, the area, the field. Are we ‘doing’ Digital Humanities, or DH, without actually realising it? Or is this a product of systematic technophobia? How had I navigated my entire doctorate without discovering or being introduced to this world? Just like Minecraft and Furbies, how had I missed yet another hot trend?

And it’s everywhere if you know where to look.

People are doing it in libraries. People are doing it in labs. They’re doing it in colleges and airports, cafés and pubs, museums and science parks, hotels… bedrooms. Anywhere there are people, actually, or even just web access. And only some of these folks are humanists, the rest aren’t even academics. Instead, we’re talking technologists, creative industries and start-up companies, volunteers at local heritage centres, or 3D design students combining physical and digital mediums.

And I only came across it by accident. Upon completing my PhD in December, life went from nursing an all-consuming word-baby, to chasing down indistinct whiffs of potential collaboration. A few months later, I came across the term Digital Humanities. It was mentioned in a job spec: This module will contain a particular focus on collaborative work, presentation skills and the Digital Humanities.

Upon learning of my deficit I reacted just like any other decent academic. I spent hours (and hours) stumbling through an electronic maze of links, videos and reports, I impulse-bought books, signed-up for vaguely relevant events, and I made an online survey. Mercifully – as any fresh-faced and contract-less PhD graduate would attest – such impassioned efforts have blossomed into PROJECTS.

As such, this article preempts a series that will examine the hopes and ambitions, fears and barriers, successes and shortcomings of everything DH. Although I maintain a primary focus on Creative Writing and the South-west UK, the survey – Hands Up for Digital Humanities – is open to input from any country, discipline or background, and so in taking the survey as the catalyst for all this, my research questions aim to be both extensive and comprehensive:

1.Do discrepancies exist between the current provision for DH at universities, in terms of space, equipment and expertise, and the interests / activities of students being expressed / conducted on-the-ground?

  • What are the needs / interests of students? Is there a need that isn’t being met?
  • Who is actually engaging with facilities when they are actually provided?
  • How much of the student body feels their work would be/have been enhanced by increased digital focus?

2.What best practice guidelines can be set out by carrying out a review of DH provision in UK and international Higher Education environments?

  • What are the top 3 UK universities for DH provision and engagement?
  • How can we judge this?
  • What are the first things individuals and institutions should implement to improve DH?

3.Where else is DH being ‘done’?

  • What enterprises exist outside universities?
  • How can activities be streamlined? What lessons can be shared?
  • How can industry professionals and academics work together to strengthen DH practice?

4.What types of projects are DH departments working on and what percentage of these is related to English or Creative Writing?

  • Who is involved in these projects?
  • Is DH better suited to undergraduate or postgraduate study? Why?

5.How appropriate are DH resources for Creative Writing educators and practitioners?

  • Is it a case of inaccessibility, or unsuitability?
  • Are creative writers engaging with digital resources and if so, what are they producing?

6.What does the future look like for Digital Creative Writing?

  • How does existing DH practice fit in with Creative Writing theory and pedagogy?
  • How can better understanding of DH enhance scholarly opportunities for digital publishing?
  • If engagement with DH is embedded as a fundamental element of English and Creative Writing research projects, in line with methodologies or outputs, could it ensure a more coherent career trajectory?

So far, the survey has had some fascinating responses from individuals across academia, industry and tourism, including views throughout the education and career spectrums. From undergrads and apprentices, to professors with experience of twenty-plus years, to even those ditching the desk in favour of code, circuits and science. In the forthcoming articles, I will outline some of the more surprising responses, and highlight some common issues already surfacing at this early stage. We will delve deeper into these issues as I conduct interviews, visit DH centres and labs, and hold workshops with Chatbots. What is emerging at the frontier of creative writing, interdisciplinary research and pioneering digital technologies? How can humanists and technologists combine digital interests and work better together to benefit others? Ultimately, the purpose of this investigation asks whether DH can positively impact wider society by improving quality of life, and if so, I intend to showcase realistic pathways for making this happen.

As for my first foray with Digital Plymouth, it was more successful and productive than I could have imagined. I met founder Garry Hunt, a WordPress specialist and freelance digital designer who works with TEDxPlymouthUniversity and Women In STEM Plymouth. I cornered Tony Edwards, an exuberant educator with Software Cornwall who was one of the speakers at the meet-up.

Digital Plymouth – Group selfie with Tony

Tony managed to make voice-recognition software accessible even to me. How did he do this? By performing rap, of course. And, as it happened, I wasn’t the only humanist at the party. There was a Plymouth University English undergrad with an incredible story. Lana Dalby has co-founded an app, especially for women. According to the website, Babble is a “safe-space where you can ask questions, be inspired, share knowledge and exchange experiences. Most importantly, it’s a platform where we women can support each other.”

 

 

Lana Dalby

 

Babble Smartphone app

So far, I have only had a subsequent meeting with Tony, catching-up with him the very next day – well, I did say ‘cornered’ – and hearing about his exciting collaborative work with Harvey’s Foundry Trust in Hayle, Cornwall. But we’ll learn more about that next time when I hope to feature all three Digital Plymouth members, showcasing their ground-breaking work at the borders of Industry and Academia; the exact site from which DH is seemingly emerging.

Academics have a reputational reluctance to engage with creative industries, an issue explored in-depth in that same 2017 article where Bulaitis highlights how academics’ defence of innate value placed on arts and humanities is met with “accusations of snobbery”. Despite this, I made relevant connections at Digital Plymouth with overwhelming speed. Is this testament to the output efficiency that creative industries are well-known for? Is it down to my individual talent for networking, my charm, my candid approach? Or should we be thanking these industry professionals who seem to be so welcoming and enthusiastic, so open to collaboration?

I don’t know. I’m a humanist. Surely that’s enough for now. Perhaps I’d better go lie down for a while and think about it.

Lauren Hayhurst

Take my survey: Are you connected to the Humanities? I need your help! I am researching the awareness and provision of Digital Humanities throughout Higher and Further Education settings. Please take my 10-minute survey – Hands Up for Digital Humanities! Your responses will help to highlight knowledge gaps and improve partnerships between academia and industry. Thank you so much.

If you are interested in receiving updates on this research, please email me at lahayhurst.writer@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DrSmartlolly

You can find out more about me and my research at: http://eprofile.exeter.ac.uk/laurenhayhurst/

 

Lauren is an Associate Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at the University of Exeter and the University of Plymouth. In December 2017, she completed her Doctoral degree with Exeter - for which she produced a novel and a thesis - exploring stereotypes of Muslim women in post-9/11 fiction. In addition to Digital Humanities, Lauren's creative, critical and practice-led research includes: writing for digital wellness, ethnography for fiction writers, the ethics of representation, identity politics and the ownership of stories, writing and teaching diverse characters, and the use of power and control in political and dystopian fiction.