Humanities Research ‘Surfdom’

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=418343

As someone who was involved in early digital humanities research (building a database of wartime propaganda posters in order to be able to identify themes/patterns in the posters), this story is really interesting:

We are now witnessing what Martin Wynne, Oxford University Computing Services liaison at the Oxford e-Research Centre, describes as “a move from research leave to research grants, with academics required to hire staff and manage teams”. This is obviously more congenial to some people than others, and critics argue that it is a trend driven far more by financial than scholarly goals.

But there is widespread agreement that the developing discipline and funding regime have overcome some of the teething problems. “Digital resources and infrastructure are developed to solve scholarly problems, not as ends in themselves,” says Hotson, “to serve our own projects and interests on the assumption that other scholars have very similar projects.” This avoids the danger of what amounts to academic “deskilling”. And while some earlier initiatives by researchers may have produced obscure and sometimes self-indulgent resources that helped them but were of no use to anybody else, Wynne argues that “reusability, sustainability and visibility” are the guiding principles today.

So how should we regard some of the more grandiose claims that are made for the digital humanities? Open-access projects, we are constantly told, democratise knowledge by making it available to anyone with a computer. “Far from being geared solely to academic questions,” says the website for Linguistic Geographies: The Gough Map of Great Britain, a chart that is thought to date back to the 1370s, “the project team was keen to ensure that our research findings reach the widest possible audiences, not least because maps are enduringly popular objects and always capture the imagination.”

New resources are also said to enable us to interrogate data in different ways and to ask fresh questions, including some that were previously not even imaginable. Since we can never tell what the scholars of the future are going to be interested in, almost anything might turn out to be useful. And if an academic discipline is in decline, digital tools can provide a way of reviving interest.

Such arguments are almost incontrovertible in the abstract, and are amply justified in particular cases, but often seem to be accompanied by very sketchy notions of what might constitute success or failure. Is it too crude to expect a database requiring x thousand pounds of research funding to generate so many thousand hits, five monographs, three spin-off radio programmes and 20 newspaper articles? And when does it become a dubious use of public money to create ever-more-sophisticated resources for disciplines that seem to be in terminal decline?

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