[Humanist] 24.320 designing an academic DH department

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Sep 8 03:07:24 CEST 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 320.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 07 Sep 2010 07:34:21 +1000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: activity and passivity

Most of the ideas about the activities of a digital humanities 
department that I come across put it in the role of a responder to 
research originating elsewhere for other purposes or in the role of an 
advertiser of potentialities. Little is said about its own independent 
research. What would this be? How would that department advance the 
field through curiosity-motivated (a.k.a. "pure") research? How would it 
keep its own people happy, indeed keep those it most wanted from going 

In a history department, say, the historians do history of whatever 
kind, ca. 1/3rd of each academic's time. The history that 
each does is driven solely by that academic's own interests, not by 
anyone who comes to the department wanting a history of X. If the 
historian gets involved in a research project, it is at choice and in 
his or her own area. The same holds for, say, computer scientists, who 
famously react rather strongly to any suggestion that they're appointed 
to write software on demand. Their purpose is to find out what computers 
can do, indeed what computers might be.

Research, we know, must be protected against the misconstruction that it 
is essentially for a known outcome. Goal-orientated research dominates 
the commercial world, e.g. in pharmaceutical companies, profits from 
which are sometimes used to fund the curiosity-motivated kind. Thus 
commercial companies make sure it happens despite the fact that it can 
only be justified through a leap of faith -- supported, it is true, by 
numerous examples of crucial inventions which originated other than on 
purpose and by a schedule. But still, in the time-frame of most budgets, 
a leap of faith is required and explicit or at least implicit permission 
to "go off and do something interesting", as a friend of mine was once 
told by his employer (alas, long ago, when such things happened).

One conclusion we might draw is that a DH department is bound to be in 
some respects more like a commercial company than like a conventional 
academic entity, running income-generating activities in order to 
support its own intellectual agenda. If that's right, then how exactly 
would it explain itself to university administrators and to its own 
staff? How would duties be distributed to what sorts of people?

Let's say you wanted to start such an operation, and to make the problem 
interesting, let's say that it had to explain itself, to attract and 
engage the interests of colleagues while keeping its own staff active in 
research. How would that be done now, in 2010, given the understandings 
and conditions we now have?



Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Professor, Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney,
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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