Saturday 1 March 2014

Digital Humanists as Warrior Poets

Our first lab of 2014 explored the possibilities offered by the World Wide Web and other new technologies for studying and disseminating the humanities.

Dan Porter, an MRes student at the School of History, argued against conventional approaches to digital humanities which view it as a distinct sub-discipline, suggesting instead that humanities scholars across disciplines should challenge themselves to embrace new possibilities. Dan saw the historical figure of the warrior poet as a precedent for this: these were men of two worlds, admired both for military prowess and cultural learning. In the modern academy, this duality can find an echo in scholars who push beyond the conventional limits of archival research and journal publication while maintaining the rigour normally associated with these 'traditional' approaches. Indeed, Dan was not arguing that these traditions be abandoned, but that they could only be added to and enhanced by intelligent use of the possibilities new technologies open up.

After outlining the nature of the technological changes in question, Dan suggested three specific skills that it might be a good first step for the budding digital warrior poet to learn:
1) Coding
2) Database management
3) Website design*
Learning one or two of these skills equips a scholar to conduct research or spread the results in whole new ways, and will make them a sought after collaborator as well.

I found Dan's talk both convincing and inspiring, though I think it's fair to say that there was also a certain amount of fear of the unknown in the room: historians tend not to be the most technologically minded bunch!

Our second speaker was Grant Denkinson of the Leicester Research Archive, who was there to take us through the details of how open access archiving of research works. This is one of the great changes currently facing the humanities, although it has existed in the sciences for some time. The aim of the talk was both to encourage us to use and contribute to the archive and to fill us in on the details of how it works, as well as allaying some fears about copyright etc.** It was good to follow quite a broad introduction to the possibilities of new technologies with a very practical talk on how researchers should approach open access archiving.

I enjoyed both these talks, and I think it's important for historians to engage with these changes as they happen, rather than assuming that our ivory towers make us immune from them.

Here are some of the links Dan shared during his talk: (an example of the mainstream view of Digital Humanities as a separate discipline) (a blog on the importance of understanding technology) (an example of excellent open access) (an example of fear of new technologies, a foe for the new warrior poets) (a simulation of the first website. This will not work properly on Internet Explorer)

* I have been inspired to dip my toe into this!

** The archives themselves handle the detailed application of this: e.g. if you publish in a journal which retains copyright for a limited period, the archive will hold your paper without making it accessible until this period expires (obviously this is specific advice for University of Leicester researchers, the details will vary with different universities and their archive services).