Reflections on Eastern ARC Digital Humanities Launch Conference, University of Essex, 8th July 2015

arc eastern

You may have heard of Digital Humanities (DH) in recent years, given its increasing ubiquity in academic circles (Miriam Posner gave a great introduction to digital humanities and media studies at a workshop at the 2013 SCMS annual conference). As our research environment has become increasingly digital, DH has emerged as an area of enquiry engaged primarily with developing tools and theoretical frameworks for the use of computing in humanities research. You’re probably less familiar, though, with the Eastern ARC, a collaborative research consortium involving UEA and its partner universities Essex and Kent. The ARC’s primary objective is to develop research collaboration and training in a number of contemporary research themes, including Digital Humanities. Since joining Film, Television and Media at UEA, a large part of my role has been to work across the Faculty of Humanities at UEA and beyond, finding ways to provide training, community-building and other forms of support for researchers with associated interests. Along with the other members of the Digital Humanities strand, we’ve been working hard to put together an inspiring programme for colleagues and students.

On the 8th July, we officially kicked off this programme with an introductory conference that brought together around 50 academics and postgrad students from across all three institutions. In future years, this will form the cornerstone of Digital Humanities activities across the ARC, but for this first conference we introduced attendees to the diverse range of research that fall under the banner of DH across the ARC. All of this was, of course, fuelled by frequent breaks for refreshments. Our keynote speaker was Sir Deian Hopkin, President of the National Library of Wales and Honorary Professor at the University of Essex; his paper dissected the death of the Digital History movement, with reference to what we could learn for contemporary Digital Humanities. As a co-organiser, my perspective on the speakers is perhaps slightly biased, so rather than provide a paper-by-paper account I plan to talk briefly about the wider issues that arose from debates at the conference.

First, there is widespread interest in what DH methods can bring to research. Attendees were generally positive about the event, and came from a range of disciplines including Film, TV and Media Studies, History, Literature, Politics and Geography. This diversity, though, was simultaneously seen as a strength and a challenge: some attendees could see value in talking across disciplines, while others felt strongly that a more singular approach would be more useful. The disagreement around this point indicated a wider uncertainty among participants of exactly what Digital Humanities is, and what its particular relevance is to attendees’ own research. This reminded me of the “Big Tent” discussion in DH, covered eloquently in an illuminating blog post by Prof. Melissa Terras from the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities.

DH - what is it

Indeed, a question that arose for many attendees was “yes, but is what *I* do actually Digital Humanities?” A number of people commented that their attempts to read around DH had been unfruitful, and that the literature hadn’t necessarily answered the questions they had. Rather than conceptualising DH as a distinct academic discipline, it was felt that it represented a potentially valuable methodological approach to existing disciplines. The richness and variety of research presented at DH conferences suggests that this is the case: there is a commonality with digital research methods that spans disciplines, and fruitful collaboration can perhaps occur at points where these methods intersect.

From our perspective, this told us that further work is needed on our part to familiarise staff and students with DH methods, through training and discussion across the scholarly community. DH methods provide great opportunities for researchers to augment their existing practices through the use of new tools, developing theoretical approaches to digital culture, and practicing digital pedagogy. Yet, for many of us, this represents a huge challenge which requires a new set of skills and even a different way of working. This is a point that we intend to address for future events, ensuring that relevant training and networking opportunities are available. We are also attempting to collate information about people working on humanities tasks using digital methods so that the community can begin to support each other.

DH - meme

I’d like to finish off with a few pointers to further information for the DH-curious. First, if you’re interested in hearing more about UEA’s involvement in the Eastern ARC, or Digital Humanities more generally, then please do drop me an email. You may also like to check out some of the official publications from the Alliance for Digital Humanities Organizations: Digital Scholarship in the Humanities (for which I’m currently the reviews editor); Digital Humanities Quarterly, which is an open access online journal. Having successfully swerved the “What is Digital Humanities?” question, I hope the conference, and these publications, can give a sense of the breadth of research that currently falls under this heading. And finally, do keep an eye out: UEA, in conjunction with its Eastern ARC partners at the Universities of Essex and Kent, has many exciting developments forthcoming in the coming months and years!

By Dr Paul Gooding                                                                                                                                 Eastern Arc Research Fellow in Digital Humanities in the Department of Film, Television and Media Studies.

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