Hands Up for Digital Humanities – Roadworks Required

Posted filed under Experience.

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

Have you ever wandered through a school, college or university, and had the feeling that the walls and corridors are judging you? Their rigid architecture assessing whether or not you’ve been here before, whether you know where you’re going, whether you ‘belong’.

“The arts or the sciences?” the walls seem to ask, deliberately funnelling us this way and that. “You have to choose,” they say. “You can’t do both forever.”

And largely, we, the inhabitants, comply. So much so, that the walls and their destinations drift farther and farther apart…

The perceived divide between artists and scientists is nothing new. Indeed, as C.P. Snow declared in his 1956 epochal essay ‘The Two Cultures’; “Neither culture knows the virtues of the other; often it seems they deliberately do not want to know.” Are we really only connected through our own incongruity, or have we progressed from this position in sixty-two years?

Over the last four months, I have met some interesting people whose views and experiences are helping me interrogate this question. Let me introduce one of them now.

Boston Tea Party cafe. Plymouth’s historic Barbican. An open-plan loft-type room, high ceilings, cured floorboards, echoey but snug. I favour an upstairs booth – on the right, at the back.

I’m here to meet Garry Hunt. He was the host of the Digital Plymouth (DP) meet-up in June that I mentioned last article. Garry’s wide smile and humble manner immediately makes me feel at ease and I ask him about the DP origins.

Garry Hunt

“We’re three years in,” Garry says, taking a sip of coffee, “but it feels like we’re only just getting started. If any other meet-up in Plymouth got 120 people they’d be overjoyed, but whenever we have a Directors’ meeting, we feel we could easily be doing more. There are 5000 businesses in Plymouth. We’ve got less than 1% of who we could have…”

This earnest and ambitious attitude is reflected in Garry’s hat collection. In addition to his DP hat as one of five directors, Garry is a WordPress specialist and freelance digital designer with his main business DigLab. He also provides training and workshops through ExploreMesh, the sister organisation to Digital Plymouth, and he co-runs the brilliant BorrowDon’tBuy, a vast library of ‘things’ such as equipment and tools available for the public to borrow, free-of-charge. Garry also engages in superhero basketball and learns lessons from Taylor Swift. Check out his latest blog.

Borrow Don’t Buy

“I’ve got a lot invested in Digital Plymouth,” Garry continues. “I want it to do well and I really feel what we’re doing is good. It’s for everyone.”

“From what I’ve seen,” I say, “there’s seems to be capacity for someone from Humanities to come in and talk about their digital involvement.”

“We want talks that will educate, inform or entertain, or possibly all three. The Humanities stuff would be really interesting.”

“People underestimate the knowledge value of the Humanities,” I say, always unable to keep epistemology out of the conversation.

“Yes, but I think a lot of people do this work without realising it.”

“Absolutely,” I say, pleased to find common ground. “This is something I’m finding from my survey.”

It’s still early days with only 47 respondents so far, but we can appreciate some trends emerging already. Garry has highlighted a pertinent issue and Question 3.1 of the survey is relevant here. This question asks whether respondents had heard of Digital Humanities (DH) before engaging with the survey. Of the 15 who hadn’t heard of it, one third of these checked the option: “This is something I have already being ‘doing’ without hearing the term.”

How exciting is this?

If DH activity can still take place without being reliant on conscious application, it suggests that the ‘digital’ and the ‘humanities’ are naturally compatible entities. This bodes well for any creative writer cautiously crossing over into the technological realm.

“What about this,” Garry says, reaching for his phone. “This may be where my understanding of the Humanities might be entirely wrong,” he laughs, “but there’s a website called Below the Surface where they dredged a river in Amsterdam and catalogued it.”

He hands over his phone. “Careful with this website, you will lose hours to it.”

I start scrolling. There are pages and pages of mismatched treasures from across the ages – a tear gas grenade shell from 2000-05, a bilateral blade from 5300BC, fragments of pottery and pristine smoking pipes from the 1700s. Past-lives in high-resolution, all twinkling clean with colours like morning.

Below the Surface is an ideal example of DH in action. Especially the collaborative aspect with archaeologists, historians and engineers all working together. I wonder now if Gary has ever had direct contact with humanists or artists in his work.

“Yes, game writers.”

Ah, but game writers – whilst entirely appropriate to this research, and fascinating to me – are already in the door. So, instead I ask: “What would you say to creative writers who are interested in the whole digital world, but might feel it’s impenetrable?”

“I would say it’s definitely not. It’s a cliché but it’s true, we’re all very introverted, quiet, personal people, but if you come and talk to us and have a conversation, you’ll always find people who will want to tell you about what they do. It’s best to ask ‘what are you doing, how do you do it’. From a digital perspective, every time I hear about someone doing something a bit different, I always find it really interesting, even if I can’t do it. There’s so many ways that you can physically work together, it’s not the impenetrable force-field we may put up.”

“I think it’s partly about knowing what’s out there,” I say. “I just happened to come across the DP meet-up. I wouldn’t have found it if I hadn’t been specifically researching digital events in Plymouth.”

Finding that key individual or event is one challenge, mustering the courage to actually attend something or initiate a conversation – outside of your own comfort zone – is something else entirely.

Whether due to anxiety, reluctance or obliviousness, failing to venture outside our own group could be attributed to the ‘silo effect’.

Marit Dewhurst, in her chapter ‘Nurturing the Intersections of Arts and Non-arts Disciplines’ explains: “The ‘silo effect’, whereby researchers and faculty members are contained in silos based on their field of practice, limits opportunities for a positive discourse around the arts.” And it seems no corner of academia is exempt, as Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein state in their 2010 article: “The silo mentality and viciousness of academic infighting in higher education are legendary.”

These silos could be the inevitable product of those judgemental walls and corridors; stagnating conurbations, cut off from their outdated, one-way traffic. If so, we need to start planning some serious roadworks.

I mention this issue of infrastructure to Garry: “There seems to be a general consensus from the tech people I’ve spoken to, that you’d like to have the input from the Humanities but there’s a lack of infrastructure for getting involved.”

“I don’t think it’s just a Humanities thing,” Garry says. “I think it’s a university thing, especially in Plymouth, possibly across all universities. Education prepares you for joining a workforce. Not for doing anything else with your qualifications. The way people work is going through a massive change. People need to take their skills and ask how they can use them in another way. There’s nothing that really prepares you for that.”

Interestingly, Garry didn’t go to university, and when we start chatting about his website-design training course, I wonder if this fact has contributed to his go-getting attitude.

“I’m a believer that you need to get people doing things,” Garry says. “You’ve got to physically do stuff. You don’t need to know how to do everything perfectly, you sometimes just need to know how to start. [The clients] always go away with something – we give them an actual website to build on the day, which they can go and carry on building.”

The connection between website design and the Humanities might not be instantly obvious, but there are plenty of Humanities-based businesses. Look at the tourism sector: information services, libraries, archives, and places like Literature Works, which is a registered charity and the regional literature development agency for southwest England. These are legitimate ideas for Humanists emerging from university with a graduate degree – anyone wanting to do something similar needs a website.

So how we can feed this into education? Should we incorporate business skills into every Humanities degree programme? And it’s not just skills or practice; what about products as well, both hardcopy and digital? Creative writing manifests not only in scripts, books and websites, but also in interactive online stories, apps using geolocation to personalise stories, pamphlets, zines and chapbooks. These are products that people have assembled and put out there. Why aren’t we teaching CW students to generate their own products? We not only need to develop more crossovers with industry, but with other disciplines in academia: visual art, illustration, graphic design and publishing.

The walls of schools and colleges and universities might still be judging us, but in this rendering at least, we can walk along the same corridors and occasionally end up in the same place. It’s time to set up our orange cones, don our hard hats and attempt some serious drilling.

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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