What can we learn from working with non-humanities developers?

As the international Day of Digital Humanities has come around again (all too quickly!), I wanted to mark the occasion with another blog post, to reflect upon my own engagement with DH one year on.

I’m in the USA at the moment, for the Society of French Historical Studies annual conference (so forgive typos etc. attributable to a touch of jet lag!), so I’m not doing much towards my usual Digital Humanities activities today. On Saturday, however, I’ll be showing them off in all their technicolour glory (!), with enormous thanks to Tom and the rest of my tech-team on the Europeana-funded Visualising Voice, who worked hard as we got this project presentation-ready. So instead of blogging the mundane powerpoints, the checking of my paper and a sneaky trip to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, I wanted to use this world-wide event as a long-overdue opportunity put together some thoughts I’ve had for a while on DH, HE and the tech sector.

In my 2016 post, I spent quite a lot of time exploring the perennial question mark which hovers over the term “Digital Humanities”. Since then, I’ve read quite a lot of other posts, as well as books and articles about how to “define” DH, by highly reputed scholars working in the field (including Melissa TerrasMatthew Kirschenbaum, David Golumbia and Dan Cohen. The problematic question is also the raison d’être of the website: www.whatisdigitalhumanities.com which offers a different definition of the field with each page refresh). The only unanimous verdict I can derive from my reading is that DH is ultimately undefinable (or to be defined, as Lou Burnard puts it, “with reluctance”). Rather than seeing the polymorphous nature of DH as a concern, as I did, to a certain extent, last year, I’ve now come to see this as a huge benefit of the field.

To me, now, DH is a world where nothing is closed off to us, where any new way of approaching texts, histories and contexts can be realised. DH allows me to think in three, or even four dimensions. Rather than being concerned with where the boundaries defining DH lie, I’ve begun to explore and challenge the boundaries that distinguish DH from Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) and from the tech industry. This has come about, mainly, through moving to Birmingham, where I’ve become quite involved in groups and community projects which use tech to answer questions and address key issues in society and in enterprise. It has also come about through working with a tech professional on my own project: Visualising Voice (discussed in this post).

While I came at the Visualising Voice project from the perspective of a scholar working in the humanities, my developer team came at it from a non-specialist perspective. That, for us, was win-win. While I think there’s work to be done in bringing our approaches closer together (i.e. getting the developers using TEI-XML to handle poetry) and getting me more comfortable with using GitHub and with pushing edits to the site myself, the collaboration has had huge benefits from both sides. I’ve also come under fire a few times, from the developers, for using DH standards, which they deem outdated or superfluous. This tells me that, as Digital Humanists we shouldn’t rest on our laurels – keeping up with what’s going on in the tech world is essential, lest we and our practices become out of date and out of step with the industry who can support us the most.

The importance of relating to and keeping-up with the tech industry was really brought home to me a few weeks back, when I attended the Big Cat Breakfast, held at Birmingham City University. This was a networking event much like Tech Wednesday, and some of the other tech-related events I’ve been to in Birmingham, the only different being that this one started at 7am and provided coffee and croissants instead of the usual pizza and beer (to me, this was an improvement… as an aside: while I won’t say no to free pizza or beer, I wonder whether the fodder on offer at these kinds of events reinforces gender stereotypes about who goes to tech events – or who drinks beer??). The main part of this pre-work networking event was a talk by Andy Street, former Chief Executive of John Lewis, who is one of the candidates for the up-coming mayoral elections in the West Midlands.

Street’s talk plotted how John Lewis came to be at the forefront of online shopping innovation, discussing the company’s huge increases in investment in technology between 2000 and 2015. Drawing on his experience in management, and in leading technological change, Street claimed that Birmingham – AKA the Silicon Canal – was set to be at the forefront of the third industrial revolution – the revolution of web- and mobile-technology. From my experiences of living in Birmingham so far, I’m inclined to agree. Certainly, if we invest in young people, to ensure that they have the right skill-set to thrive in the entrepreneurial and economic climate of the future, then Birmingham could well be a world leader in this revolution. However, there were a number of questions from the audience about where existing institutions such as the NHS, and the HE sector fit into this: Street was on-the-ball (it was 7.30am, after all), giving creative suggestions as to areas in which the NHS might shine, and discussed what Birmingham was already doing to support individuals in developing tech skills within the FE sector.

However, as the session came to a close, I was still left with some uncertainty about how the University sector fits into this model for creative technological revolution. I wasn’t the only one with questions about the relationship between higher education and the tech industry: a member of the audience, from a tech / design company herself raised the issue of graduate retention in Birmingham, asking what we can do to keep more graduates from the four fantastic universities the city boasts. Undoubtedly, Birmingham has the potential to rival London for graduate recruitment and salaries, and it makes economic and social sense to keep home-grown graduates in the city. I suggest a possible solution to this in the form of a partnership between some of the tech startups / organisations in the city and the higher education institution.

But what has all of this got to do with Digital Humanities? Returning to perennial debates over the amorphous nature of the field, I suggest that getting DH-based research on our students’ radar, and involving undergraduates in discussions about tech and research is a key way to enable students of history, music, the arts, languages, literatures etc. with technology. If we, as academics, work more closely with the tech industry, we’ll forge valuable links which will serve our students well as they enter the job market. Such a partnership might not provide undergraduates in humanities-based subjects with the coding skills necessary to thrive as a tech professional, but it will open doors, help to forge links with the tech sector and help to break down the still-prevalent tensions between computer sciences and the arts. Universities need to invest in tech in order to invest in people, fostering the development of forward-thinking, tech-savvy graduates who are equipped to join the workforce as we welcome in the tech revolution. I believe that Digital Humanities, and digitally-competent humanists have a key role to play in ensuring that the social, economic and international success of that revolution, within our own community.