[Humanist] 29.209 the end of digital humanities

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Aug 12 08:56:25 CEST 2015

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 209.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Tim Smithers <tim.smithers at cantab.net>                   (449)
        Subject: Re:  29.208 the end of digital humanities

  [2]   From:    Hugh Cayless <philomousos at gmail.com>                      (28)
        Subject: Re:  29.208 the end of digital humanities

  [3]   From:    Norman Gray <norman at astro.gla.ac.uk>                      (30)
        Subject: Re:  29.205 the end of digital humanities?

        Date: Tue, 11 Aug 2015 13:04:57 +0200
        From: Tim Smithers <tim.smithers at cantab.net>
        Subject: Re:  29.208 the end of digital humanities
        In-Reply-To: <20150811063314.6D67469A7 at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Willard, and Matthew, James, Marco, and Hannah,

I'm with Mike Mahoney: disciplines are what disciplined people
do.  Disciplined people decide what to do, how to do it, know
why they do it, and have good reasons for all this, that
change as a result of the disciplined doing.  So, I easily
agree, it is "a profound category error to treat any
discipline as a thing to be defined."  Disciplines are done,
not defined.  If you want to know what a discipline is, look
at what's being done.

Those who seek to define a discipline or field of practice,
particularly a new one, are, I think, most often out to
dominate it or do it down, usually for the benefit of their
own interests.  Less often it's an attempt to allay fears of
the new and unknown: the fallacy of "if we define it, we'll
know what it is."

The way we study and investigate things--the tools we select,
the technologies the tools are rendered from, the practices
the tools are taken up in, the methods that guide the
practices, the knowledge and understanding that informs the
methods, the kinds and forms of the outcomes, the discoveries
we make--influence and shape how we think about what we do,
how we do it, and why we do it: they all shape the discipline.
It would therefore be surprising if Digital Humanities turned
out to be just Humanities done using (so called) digital tools
and techniques.

Names, of course, are a part of this influencing, albeit a
small part.  They often reflect what was acceptable and
accepted at the time the names were first made and used.  They
are seldom fully appropriate, nor clear indicators of
important distinctions.  Digital Humanities might be called
Computational Humanities, given that it is the phenomenon of
(digital) computation that has and is being taken up and used,
and which is shaping and shoving work in the Humanities.
(Brian Smith was right, the digital here doesn't matter.)
It's like we now have Computational Fluid Dynamics, but still
have people who use towing tanks and wind tunnels, for good

Names don't fade away.  Names and naming always have their own
politics of power and identity.  Names get dropped or stamped
on and replaced by "better" ones by those with particular
interests to promote or defend.  Take "Artificial
Intelligence," for example.  In Edinburgh, where AI got one of
it's most important starts in Europe, it was first called (by
Donald Michie) Machine Intelligence, but AI was subsequently
adopted because that's what it was called in the US, where the
name was invented and most of the early efforts got started.
After the (so called) AI winter--following publication of the
ALPAC report (1966) in the US, and the Lighthill report (1974)
in the UK, new names were invented, such as Intelligent
Knowledge Based Systems (IKBS).  This became the official name
for AI in the Alvey programme (1980s), for those of you who
might remember those days.  Today, Computational Intelligence
would perhaps be a better name for what we went back to
calling AI, after the winter ice melted.

Any class distinction between "technician servant" and
"academic master" should evaporate if the masters become the
ones who devise and build the tools they use, and [further]
develop the technologies needed to render the new and better
tools they see they need.  This is, after all, an essential
aspect of becoming a master of your craft.  And research is a
craft that needs mastering to be able to do it well.  Until
this happens, we are all apprentices without masters to learn

Best regards,


Donostia / San Sebastián
The Basque Country

        Date: Tue, 11 Aug 2015 15:15:16 -0400
        From: Hugh Cayless <philomousos at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re:  29.208 the end of digital humanities
        In-Reply-To: <20150811063314.6D67469A7 at digitalhumanities.org>

I’d like to pick at Willard’s argument about class distinctions and James’s response a little, because I agree it gets at one of the ways DH can be (though certainly not 100% is) quite different methodologically and operationally from "Humanities". That is, at its best, it allows for the equal participation of people like librarians, developers, and designers. People who are not faculty (though they too may sometimes teach, do research, and publish).

This, as James points out, is constantly subverted by the Academy though, which wants to hire DH faculty—people who do and study Humanities in some Digital way, or vice versa. That is, the push is not to build collaborative teams who can do research and development beyond the capabilities of any single member, but to have more (essentially) lone scholars who do the sorts of things scholars do and care about the sorts of things scholars care about. The faculty wants to reproduce itself, not to hire people who are different but are paid at the same level as the faculty—and you have to pay these people reasonably or they’ll just go make twice as much money in industry and you'll lose your store of practical knowledge. I certainly don’t mean to say there’s anything wrong with hiring DH faculty, but you don’t have to be "DH" faculty to "do DH", nor indeed do you have to be faculty. 

As a colleague pointed out in conversation yesterday, what would you get more mileage out of: hiring a junior DH/German Studies academic, who knows a bit of German and a bit of technology? Or hiring a research software engineer and teaming them (as equal partners) for a few years with a senior German Studies professor? The latter would stand more chance of making real impact I think, but would mean conceiving of how the Humanities side of the Academy works quite differently.

All the best,

 *  Hugh A. Cayless, Ph.D
 *  Chair, TEI Technical Council 
 *  Duke Collaboratory for Classics Computing (DC3)
 *  hugh.cayless at duke.edu
 *  http://blogs.library.duke.edu/dcthree/

> On Aug 11, 2015, at 2:33 , Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:
>>> Let us rid digital humanities permanently of the class distinction
>>> between technician servant and academic master. Let us look closely at
>>> what this class distinction has done to both master and servant (by
>>> reading historical studies of servitude, not by watching Downton Abbey).
> I'd wholeheartedly support this, but let's be clear that what you 
> are asking flies in the face of the divisions inherent in many 
> academic institutions. The academics with whom I partner in my 
> own post always seem to conclude projects with a much clearer 
> understanding of the academic nature of the work that happens on 
> the technical side of research projects. It is rare these days 
> where people approach my team assuming them to be merely 
> technician servants, but institutional practices do more to 
> highlight this than academics themselves.

        Date: Tue, 11 Aug 2015 22:16:54 +0100
        From: Norman Gray <norman at astro.gla.ac.uk>
        Subject: Re:  29.205 the end of digital humanities?
        In-Reply-To: <20150810070757.9F6396964 at digitalhumanities.org>


I can add a few disconnected remarks to this, concerning ADASS (the conference series which Roger Malina mentioned), and the journal Astronomy and Computing.  The analogy between 'digital astronomy' and 'digital humanities' isn't exact, but might be close enough to be thought-provoking.  I won't draw out the points of contact explicitly, below.

I'm a sporadic attendee at ADASS -- my first one was ADASS XIII in 2003, having been in the general field for about five years before that; this year's is ADASS XXIV.  It's a conference series that people tend to go to repeatedly.  I think there's now only one person remaining who gets a gold star on his conference badge for having been to every single one, but there are several silver-star people.

(Incidentally, I don't think I've ever heard the term 'digital astronomy', so I think that flash in the pan flared out before I got involved.)

Astronomy relies on big telescopes -- telescopes which are too large for one institution or country, and so which are collaboratively funded by national research councils and the like.  This is one of the principal reasons why astronomy and particle physics are funded, in the UK, by a separate research council (stfc.ac.uk) from the rest of physics.  In consequence, a lot of the data-management, curatorial, software and archival work has been done by observatory or university staff in a service rather than academic mode.

The following is a broad-brush simplification, to stress the point I'm making:

That means that a lot of the people going to ADASS are, in a sense, 'quasi-academic': they are typically academics 'gone to the bad', who have ended up specialising in computing rather than astronomy (this includes me, and of course only I or my peers get to use that expression!), so they're employed to do this work, rather than moonlighting from a research job.  Astronomy is one of the disciplines that sees conference papers as 'not a real publication', so that people go to ADASS to talk and meet, and the abstract acceptance rate is pretty high; the papers are stereotypically 'what we've been doing in the last year' rather than 'we're going to revolutionise science; worship us'.

Until recently.

In the last decade, to a greater extent than hitherto, people are making deliberate careers in 'astronomy computing', in the sense that they are not doing this purely in a service mode, but in a context which requires them to get publications and associated academic glory.  ADASS has not really serviced that, and papers describing the technology tend not to be accepted by the main astronomy journals [1]; and after a certain amount of naval-gazing, that's why I and others created the journal Astronomy and Computing [2] to provide a non-ADASS outlet for fully formal refereed work in the general field.  The rationale is elaborated in the editorial at [3].  That describes a certain amount of agonising over the field's name -- 'astronomical computing', 'astroinformatics', and a couple of other possibilities -- resolved by the boringly descriptive name we eventually plumped for.

What is the link to 'digital humanities'?  I'm not sure (and the notes above, and this conclusion, are written in some haste and are a little undigested), but it might be, as Roger Malina suggests, that astronomy has gone through a cycle a little faster, or earlier, than the humanities has.  Perhaps this 'subdiscipline as new academic area' is in DH's future; perhaps the analogy breaks down.

If anyone is interested in the details, I can surely add more, or (since astronomy is a discipline with a strong interest in its own history) I would lay money I can find some written account of the history of these changes.

Best wishes,


[1] http://arxiv.org/abs/1103.1982
[2] http://www.journals.elsevier.com/astronomy-and-computing
[3] http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ascom.2012.10.001

Norman Gray  :  http://nxg.me.uk
SUPA School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Glasgow, UK

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