Hands Up for Digital Humanities – When Humanists Go Off-Piste

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Welcome to the fourth article in this series where we’re dissecting the multifarious entity of Digital Humanities (DH). To understand the context and scope of this series, and to consider the research questions upon which the investigation is based, please view the previous articles here, here and hereWe’ll also be referring to my online survey Hands Up for Digital Humanities – the quantitative input to this series.

The Loft, a modern event space on Plymouth’s Barbican – we’ve been here before, in article one. Back then, I was late, sneaking in at the back. This time I’m early and I’ve got my own chair – it’s one of those up on the stage. Alongside the other speakers – both male – talking about architectural visualisation and start-up investment, I’m here to discuss Creative Writing. At a digital technology event. Talk about odd-one-out.

It’s just over a year since my first Digital Plymouth meet-up in June 2018. Two months later I had been made one of the organisation’s team members – they were looking to add an exotic perspective, an outside angle to the board, and as a Creative Writing lecturer, I apparently fit the bill. Fast-forward to November 2019 and here I am, giving a talk of my own…

Immediate success story, right? To some extent, but for someone who constantly battles imposter syndrome, succeeding this far away from home comes at a price.  

Initially identified in the 70’s, imposter syndrome is a disabling affliction with connections to depression and anxiety disorders. It is common in academic and educational settings and typically affects more women than men due to the impact of gender stereotypes.

As Gina Gibson-Beverly and Jonathan P. Schwartz note: such individuals “are unable to view accomplishments as a result of their own competence but instead attribute them to external factors, such as luck and chance. Characteristics include an inability to internalise positive feedback, fear of evaluation and failure, guilt about success, and underestimating oneself while overestimating others.”

Cheery stuff.

So why would someone with a permanent need for the periphery enter an unknown field voluntarily, to the extent of becoming embroiled at a decision-making level? And why discuss such difficulties publicly? What am I doing?

For the longest time, I couldn’t tell you. But since entering the digital world I realised that my eclectic interests (not piecemeal passions, as the imposter in me likes to taunt) are never going to neatly align. Disclosing mental health conditions for staff in academia is still a taboo issue, and I was recently told by a successful entrepreneur that admitting such things in the business world is tantamount to professional suicide. But I sense I can’t be the only one who feels like this – and if I’m already bucking the trend by just being here, I might as well be honest about how hard it is and why.

The digital arena is comprised of collaboration, Digital Humanities exists at the intersection of art and science, whilst digital writing depends on a holistic approach to a variety of methods. So to hell with it. It might feel irrelevant and like no-one will be interested in my talk – bringing an unknown topic into an established arena – but there are always overlaps to be found if we just communicate, right? From ballet to kickboxing, I’ve been going off-piste my entire life. Time to own it.

And that’s what I’m doing, or pretending to at least.

Psychologically, I’m already there. Ethos-wise, thanks to the incredible feminist and queer theorist Gloria Anzaldūa, I’ve always advocated existing in the borders. And the pragmatist in me has found Amy Cuddy’s power poses reliably effective – ‘fake it till you become it’.

So, feeling inept bringing new ideas into an established space? Check. Convinced that no-one will be interested? Check. Feeling less relevant than the other speakers? Check. Fears have taken up residence and we’re doing it anyway. 

Soon the attendees start drifting in  – more than I’d prefer – lining up at the bar and taking their seats. Happily, my talk comes in the middle (but don’t worry, my chair is on the edge ready for emergency escape): ‘Rise Up for Digital Writing (feat.) The Reciprocity Circle’. The…what circle? Thanks to Byte the Book this was a great success. More later.

When my time comes, I launch straight in. First, Digital Humanities. I present the alien term to a blur of blank faces. Reference the DH Lab at Exeter University. Take them through the DH survey I set-up in 2018; aims, intentions and findings. ‘Interdisciplinary collaboration’ is the primary concern for respondents when thinking about improvements to DH provision. An initiative that relies on individuals not only ambling about the periphery, but traversing it entirely; something that gets a lot of air-time in Higher Education, but struggles to translate in practice, especially across STEM and non-STEM subject areas. Still, it’s desirable, if not easily achievable. Another validating reason for me to be here, combatting fears, speaking.

Innovations across digital Creative Writing all rely on an interdisciplinary ethos. I take my brightening crowd through some examples. The Byte the Book network, previously mentioned, is a great starting point for anyone traversing the crossovers of writing and all-things digital, in particular their event on 7 February – the aptly titled ‘Confluence’ – which brings together writers, technologists, and the wider publishing industry to discuss how technology is changing the way we make and consume stories.

Beyond networking, there are exciting developments in creative practice, from student projects to storytelling apps. And here’s where I get to my favourite slide in the talk (cue proud-teacher moment) – ‘Vessel 4012’ by Callum Hendley, one of my third-year Creative Writing students. A digital narrative created through the reassuringly accessible gennarrator.org. It’s as if the audience can sense my delight, as I detect some definite smiles and even the patter of understanding laughter.

I start to relax – it’s going great! Oh wait, what’s this?

***HTTP 404, 404 Not Found, 404, Page Not Found, Server Not Found***

The error message that all lecturers dread. It had come for me, here, in front of all these people. The links so meticulously tested beforehand are. Not. Working. 

Luckily it’s not my first rodeo. I’m already pretending, so I can keep going. I can laugh it off… And I do. I hear myself recover, the words keep coming, and I describe rather than demonstrate the remaining examples. Thankfully the content is impressive enough to carry itself.

Simulacra by Kaigan Games, a ‘realistic “found phone” horror game that takes place entirely on the screen of a mobile phone. A voyeuristic experience that combines point and click adventure games, found footage videos and fully realised phone apps.’

Lotus created by Dutch writer Niels ‘t Hooft. A ‘meditative story app’ enriched with sound, colour and animations; ‘put on your headphones, shut yourself off from your surroundings, and float away into a new kind of narrative experience.’ Hooft, a Writing Platform contributor, recounts his journey here.

A Picture of Wind by digital poet and Plymouth-based writer JR Carpenter. Written as a response to the 2014 storms which hit the Southwest of the UK, it uses live weather data to inform specific word-choice, and as such is different every time you view.

And here we are, I’ve made it! We’ve reached the final slide, and this returns us to the aforementioned ‘Reciprocity Circle’. My talk has been smoothly situated before the break, so I can lead the audience into the exercise, with the promise of beer refills soon to follow. 

I take them through some rules and background:

First, it’s a practical exercise that involves everyone getting up off their seats – considering their imminent visit to the bathroom or bar, this is not a problem. Second, it’s incredibly simple: everyone takes a post-it note and writes down one thing they need help with and one thing they can offer help with. This can be closely related to their creative work or the digital realm, or as far away as gardening or house-moving. 

This “need / offer” dichotomy means everyone gives something and everyone gets something. Whilst it is unlikely that everyone will have their needs met upon the first encounter, the process engenders a reciprocal culture that is informal, compassionate and interdependent. Even if no-one can help directly, there is always someone who knows someone else who is working on a project and looking for someone who can.

It is an effective, encouraging, high-energy activity that gets people talking. Even the more anxious types. It makes independent or passion project more visible. It builds interdisciplinary, cross-subject, and multi-faceted connections. It highlights where similar work might be occurring and helps to form partnerships.

And all you need are people, post-it notes and a wall for browsing.

I learned about the ‘Reciprocity Circle’ at Byte the Book’s Confluence last year, however, it originally comes from Adam Grant’s 2013 book Give and Take. For something that looks like one of those infuriatingly positive ‘self-help’ type books, it’s decidedly not one of those books. Grant talks about how there are ‘givers, takers and matchers’, people who, in social situations, tend to either give more, take more, or match other people up. Whilst there might be some truth that some ‘givers’ are often ‘doormats’, ultimately it is this group who occupies both the bottom and top of the success ladder.

And so the Reciprocity Circle, whilst designed to spark conversations amongst strangers, it encourages participants to become ‘givers’ in the complete sense – giving something to others, but more crucially, giving to ourselves by accepting help from others in return. As Grant says: “The givers who excel are willing to ask for help when need it. Successful givers are every bit as ambitious as takers and matchers. They simply have a different way of pursuing their goals.”

As I relay all this to my audience, most poke uncertainly at the piles of post-its in front of them, but a brave few are already grabbing pens and scribbling away. 

Initial nerves aside, it turns out to be a great success of the night, with conversations and connections continuing throughout the evening. Since my talk takes the audience into a break, they gladly refuel at the bar, and participate and peruse the give/take wall with interest. For me the effort doesn’t stop with my talk. Whilst I was relieved of the stage, I feel a responsibility to the exercise, and so take up a comfortable post lingering on the periphery.

My most insightful conversation involves a Games’ Design lecturer from Plymouth University who attended with a group of students. He describes how reluctant the students were – what could possibly interest them in a Creative Writing talk? But just as I had anticipated a lack of interest, the lecturer anticipated crossovers, and thankfully he was right.

It seems the digital arena coaxes out the commonalities between us. In addition to the Games’ Design conversation, I received two further invitations to speak, along with a referral to work with a technologist on an AI project… Exciting stuff! After all that nervous nausea, elevated breathing, hands sweating and shaking, it was definitely worth it. 

I might still feel like an imposter, but at least now I’m in imposter with a purpose. Just goes to show, despite reservations and fears, it definitely pays to go off-piste. And next time, maybe I’ll feel a little bit more like I belong.

Lauren Hayhurst is a lecturer in Creative Writing at the Arts University Bournemouth, and associate lecturer in English and Creative Writing at the University of Plymouth. In December 2017, she completed her Doctoral degree at Exeter University- 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.

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