[Humanist] 27.352 standing up for our discipline

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Sep 18 08:14:43 CEST 2013

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 352.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 18 Sep 2013 05:45:19 +0000
        From: "Prescott, Andrew" <andrew.prescott at kcl.ac.uk>
        Subject: Standing Up for Our Discipline

Among the pieces of bureaucratic flotsam and jetsam which mean that increasingly academic departments are not places where anyone can hope to pursue a life of the mind, an item which particularly struck Willard and myself was a survey by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (one would almost rather work for Wernham-Hogg than imagine working for a body such as HESA). For the first time, HESA is attempting to capture subject expertise of UK academics and it is proposed to add this information to league tables published in newspapers. We won't discuss the value of league tables, but, since the relevant Vice-Principal asked very nicely, we will try and fill out the survey. Whereupon we find that the categories developed by the great minds in HESA do not include anything that could conceivably be interpreted as Digital Humanities. There is something called 'Mass Communication and Documentation' which is apparently meant to cover culture and media studies and library science of various types. Documentation doesn't seem at all an appropriate term for the type of manuscript studies I have produced, and anyone who has read Raymond Williams must jib at the use of the term 'mass' in relate to media and cultural studies. There is no category for Digital Humanities, although the Research Excellence Framework (a truly Orwellian formulation if ever there was one) documentation does pick DH out as a distinct area of activity and MLA has recently issued a subject breakdown which mentions DH as a separate subject area, comparable to say Italian Literature (which also raises a lot of issues, so we won't go into that).  

So, Willard and I write protesting about this apparent bureaucratic oversight, and the matter is referred to HESA. The response is:  'We suggest that it could be coded under one of I – Computer Sciences, due to lack of a bespoke code for Digital Humanities perhaps go back to the department and see which of these codes might apply as closely as possible to the course.  As far as we are informed there is no plan to revisit the JACS code for the moment.'. While I am all for building a closer dialogue with Computer Science, it would seem absurd to suggest that my limited coding skills were added to a computer science ranking. The expertise we want flagged up in King's is that of digital humanities. We want a bespoke code.

I'm feeling very bruised about this at the moment, because of the difficulties of negotiating where a Digital Humanities return most effectively sits in the REF. The REF documentation does mention Digital Humanities, but it forms part of Unit of Assessment 36, which covers everything from Cultural Studies to Information Science, so how a return is most effectively positioned in the UoA is a difficult tactical matter. The pragmatic decisions we are having to make in exercises such as the REF are having a profound effect on our discipline which deserves more discussion. REF is unavoidable because of the funding imperatives, but tick box exercises such as the HESA Survey can be confronted, because they are really very pointless. Surely, at some point, if we are to affirm a belief that we represent an intellectual field of endeavour comparable in stature to other academic disciplines, we need to start more systematically protesting at pieces of everyday thoughtlessness, such as this survey. 

Many academic staff in the UK are being asked to complete the HESA staff survey by early October. I have suggested to Digital Humanities academics in King's that they should refuse to complete the survey, and have written to all the relevant higher-ups to explain why. I would like to suggest via Humanist that other UK academics who regard themselves as working in Digital Humanities should do the same. We need to start more consistently standing up for our discipline.


Professor Andrew Prescott FRHistS 
Head of Department 
Department of Digital Humanities 
King's College London 
26-29 Drury Lane 
London WC2B 5RL 
+44 (0)20 7848 2651 

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