Hands Up for Digital Humanities – Find the Gap

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Welcome to the third 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 and here. We’ll also be referring to my online survey Hands Up for Digital Humanities – the quantitative input to this series.

I never felt at home in our science lab tutor room at secondary school; there was always a trace of trespassing and intimidation. This shroud would settle even before I reached the room, perhaps starting on the walk over to the science block and intensifying upon entry to the clinical building. The squeaky floors amplified my trepidation. It wasn’t that I was bad at science, or even that I was avoiding adversaries – although a friend and I were once accosted by a troubled girl with a scalpel – so what was it about that environment that made me uneasy?

My A-Levels were in English Literature, Theatre Studies and Biology. I took Chemistry too, lasted about a month before collapsing under the cerebral strain. For some reason, Biology was more manageable but still a constant struggle, and that was my last official contact with science.

At post-16 college I hung around with loud, dramatic types; the ones making too much noise in the canteen or playing grunge music in the courtyard. We’d see the non-arty types around, but we weren’t actually friends with any.

Then at university we were grouped according to subject, beyond lessons, I mean. My neighbours in Halls were all arty like me. I don’t remember meeting a single person outside of English and drama, maybe one doing journalism, or dance. Were our circles so narrow? Or, if it’s natural for like-minded people to gravitate, perhaps infrastructure has merely grown to accommodate this?

Nevertheless, the problem remains; ‘like-minded’ is not limited to discipline, so what would happen if we defy the academic order and reimagine our affiliations across less conventional lines?

Back in my favourite coffee spot, the afternoon clientele is starting to thin out. The sun is spilling through the floor-to-ceiling windows, keeping me and my beverage warm as I browse idly on my phone, waiting for my next instalment of tech expertise to arrive. Texpertise.

Tony Edwards is a software developer, event organiser and education outreach coordinator for Software Cornwall. Tony has a fascinating and unique penchant for rap, and has managed to harness this knowledge in an illuminating talk exploring the potential benefits of voice recognition software.

Tony Edwards

Soon, Tony arrives with his neat ponytail and a smile etched in neat stubble, and we start talking about digital learning. We came across the term ‘silos’ in Article 2 when used in reference to working environments, however Tony is applying it to the accessibility of technology:

“Like we were saying earlier on, silos, we’re siloed in by our technology and our acronyms and the ways we speak about projects, and overcoming that is difficult. And that’s possibly one of our biases that we need to recognise.”

I find it encouraging to hear someone openly acknowledging the existence of silos and discussing the resultant shortcomings that affect their discipline and practice. Identifying bias, identifying how we might be unintentionally isolating ourselves, our subject areas or potential newcomers, is surely one of the most important actions we can take in bridging gaps.

Actually doing this is no easy feat and for an articulate take on unintentional bias, see this excellent 2017 article in ‘The Atlantic’. Adversity, however, should never become an excuse for inaction. At the very least, developing related qualities such as self-awareness, openness to critique, and vigilance against selectivity, would be useful, and academics would undoubtedly benefit from refreshing their best practice with this in mind.

I want to know what else Tony thinks about transgressing the learning divide. “In a perfect world,” I ask, “how would you bring together the tech and non-techs?”

“I’d do it immediately,” Tony replies, the urgency and passion clear in his voice. “At school, education level. One of the people I mentor is in Year 11. She was gonna go and do a career in journalism, and after we ran a couple of workshops she’s changed her career path to be more digitally focused, but to bring that journalistic interest in. She’s now looking at how she can script conversations and story-lines in games… That’s a growing industry, that’s gonna completely change games.”

I have to agree here. If we highlight the digital career prospects available to young people interested in non-STEM subjects, perhaps we could prevent the tech/non-tech divide from occurring in the first place. If school-leavers entering Higher Education to study journalism, English, creative writing, or other Humanities subjects, do so with an integrated understanding of how digital mediums can enhance their practice – rather than an aversion to or ignorance of all-things-digital – might siloing in academia be reduced?

Tony explains more about the drive towards such streamlining.

“There’s a big movement at the moment,” he says across the table, coffee in hand. “You know what STEM is obviously. There’s a movement to turn it into STEAM, add the Arts in there. Because Arts and Science were inseparable at one point, you didn’t have one without the other because they’re creative. If you’re exploring something, whether it’s an artistic project like writing a book or trying to create a new medicine, you’re exploring.”

Considering Software Cornwall’s mission is to “promote and support software growth and excellence,” this interest in the Arts and the Humanities comes as a welcome revelation for me.

Software Cornwall

So I ask: “From your point of view, how would it be to receive an email out of the blue saying, I’m a writer, I’m interested in working with you?”

“Over the moon,” says Tony, grinning. “When I was writing my game at university, if someone had emailed me and said ‘I’ll come and help with that element you know nothing about,’ I would have been over the moon. Software and techies are very collaborative, but not necessarily good at communicating that fact, outside of our bubble. And we don’t put ourselves in environments where this kind of thing can happen. You don’t hang out with creative writers necessarily, and without that it’s hard to get collaborations to happen.”

But Tony and his colleagues are making this happen. Through the programme Game Changer, Software Cornwall, in partnership with RIO (Real Ideas Organisation) and Cornwall College, are supporting young people at risk of becoming NEET (not in education, employment or training) by running a workshop series called Mission to Mars. Tony explains:

“[Mission to Mars] came about because it was difficult to find businesses to provide work experience for the late school / early college age groups. They might not have the skills to contribute to a real-world project, but they’ve got the interest and the passion and that’s the direction they’re heading in. So, we created this concept where they form start-up teams and complete a set of challenges using a robot.”

But in order to make it a success, the team has had to reach beyond a technological scope:

“The challenges are designed for people who are not techy. You need to have a bit of interest, but we’ve had non-developers turn up and they were on the winning team and made the biggest contribution. Sometimes not being techy is the biggest advantage, you don’t overthink the problem. You just want to get it working and move on.”

This format has been so successful that, when adapting Mission to Mars from an educational tool to team building for businesses, the team retained the non-techy elements:

“We had people who weren’t necessarily coders, didn’t want to be, so we added a marketing element – you need to write a pitch to get extra investment – to encourage those people, because not everyone has got the right way of thinking to be a software developer, and that shouldn’t stop people from being involved in the software industry. The best people to market software are non software developers.”

I find this collaboration incredibly exciting. What better way to connect techs/non-techs than through interactive team-building that relies on both sets of skills for success? This is an encouraging example of how we are moving away from the Arts vs. Science narrative, and anything that unites the two can only be a good thing, right?

Turning STEM into STEAM makes a memorable buzzword, and certainly seems to give visibility to the relevance of the Arts within the Science arena.

Richard Lachman, in an article published January this year, highlights how the Arts and Humanities could benefit the Sciences, namely in their intersections with ethics, empathy and citizenship. The key issue for Lachman seems to be that “the rapid prototyping tools and production pipelines of the modern era have let us scale these new inventions faster than ever before.”

Such speed, Lachman argues, has not only led to a disconnection between what is being produced in the lab and the priorities of the end-users, but has also left a moral deficit in the outlooks of STEM graduates.

To address this deficit, Lachman encourages the wider STEM field to engage with the “abstract ideas of rights, values and meaning – core elements in our study of the humanities,” envisaging this amalgamation to yield successes akin to the emergence of medical ethics and bioethics.

I find it exciting to read of how the Humanities’ ethos is applicable to the Sciences, and there has been a significant increase in STEAM-based engagement for schools, as the UK non-profit organisation Steam Co would attest. Nevertheless, as this initiative is science-led, the arts are framed as an addition-to, rather than a partner-in, and this does raise concerns. It also seems a little short-sighted to assume that ethical enlightenment is the extent of the Arts and Humanities / STEM overlap.

In their March article, Martin Willis and others come to the same conclusion. In response to Lachman, they argue that the “humanities are reduced to a service role where they work under the direction of the sciences. Rather than producing knowledge of their own, they exist merely to make the sciences seem more human.” The STEM field – and its morally devoid graduates – are also receiving a disservice.

On the contrary, Willis showcases examples of existing collaborations and partnerships between the Arts and Sciences that exhibit a reciprocal nature where the “focus is precisely on how science and culture are intertwined.”  

Despite the marketability – and damn catchiness – of turning ‘STEM into STEAM’, the Arts vs. Science divide cannot be transgressed by merely amending an acronym. The silos are still there underneath.

Interestingly, this idea of over-simplification corresponds to a common theme emerging from my DH survey. The pertinent question here is 7.2: Can you think of any fears or barriers that might emerge as a result of an increased focus on Digital Humanities?

With an open textbox the answers are various, but the issue most frequently referenced by respondents is that increased DH could lead to an over-simplification or compromising of the Humanities. Suggested fears and barriers include:

  1. A distancing from traditional humanities, making it appear that computational humanities is the best form of humanities.
  2. Some may have concerns regarding a move away from the materiality of books and traditional media.
  3. Reluctance around letting DH replace core methodologies, e.g. close reading, critical theory.
  4. Too much emphasis on DH could lead to students and scholars producing works just because they’re cool and not because they offer substantive information to a community.

This fear around being replaced or marginalised is as understandable as any sibling rivalry. And as real. Whether the compromising of ‘traditional’ Humanities’ values, or the impression that ‘digital’ is in some way less valuable, there is a tendency to consider DH as an addition to the Humanities, rather than an equal partner.

I think, just as the Arts/Science intersection has more substance than an acronym, the dynamic between DH and Humanities has more to offer than a simple either/or. I’m with this respondent: we should be “looking at theories around DH, and using our skills in the humanities, to question how DH everywhere changes how we see the world and do research.”

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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