Digital Humanities: a Department, a Field and an Idea

Introduction: what is DH, and does anyone care?

There is a whole genre of writing out there on the subject of “What is Digital Humanities?”. For some, this is an existential question, fundamental to the basis of research, teaching and the environment of those parts of the academy which exist between computing and the humanities. For others, it is a semantic curiosity, part of an evolution of terminology from “computing in the humanities” to “humanities computing”, finally arriving at “digital humanities” when the instrumentalist implications of the first two no longer encompassed the field of activities described. For others still, it is a relic of 1990s angst over terminology as computing began to permeate the academic environment. Whichever camp one is in, it behoves people, like me, with Digital Humanities in their job title to revisit the question from time to time. This post is an attempt at this, with a particular emphasis on the Department of Digital Humanities (DDH) at King’s College London. The strap-line of the present-day DDH is “critical inquiry with and about the digital”. In what follows, I hope to unpack what I think this means for the field, and for DDH, which has been my institutional home since 2006. Those fourteen years have seen immense changes, both in the Department and in the field of Digital Humanities (hereafter DH) more broadly. Furthermore, tomorrow (1st February) marks six months since I took over as Head of Department of DDH. Therefore, this seems as good a moment as any for a moment of autobiographically driven reflection. I state, of course, the usual disclaimers. Like any healthy academic environment, (D)DH is marked by a diversity of views, a diversity we pride ourselves on embracing and celebrating; and despite being Head of Department, I speak only for myself, in a very personal capacity. Also, any errors of fact or interpretation in what follows are mine and mine alone.

Before I arrived at King’s, I worked for the AHRC’s ICT in Arts and Humanities Initiative at the University of Reading (to the great credit of Reading’s web support services, the AHRC ICT programme’s web pages, complete with the quintessentially 1990s banner I designed, are still available). At the time, I was no doubt suffering a colossal intellectual hangover from my efforts to apply GIS to Bronze Age Aegean volcanic tephrachronology and its archaeological/cultural contexts, and this may have coloured my view of things; but the purpose of this programme was to scope how computing might change the landscape of the humanities, and to funnel public money accordingly. This is the kind of thing that the National Endowment for the Humanities in the US has done, to great acclaim, with its Office for Digital Humanities.

What I was not, at this point, was any kind of Digital Humanist. Working outside the Digital Humanities/Humanities Computing (both appellations have been used over time, but this is another story still), I recall some push-back to the application of digital methods and “e-infrastructure” from some less engaged with technology in their work, who were concerned about reductivism, and the suborning of discursive curiosity to the tyranny of calculation. I particularly recall the debates about GIS in archaeology: GIS, we were told, encouraged over-quantification and processualism, thus stifling discursive, human-centred interpretation of the past. That, at least, is how I remember the landscape when I came to work for the AHRC programme.

Keeping this in mind, let us return to the “what is DH” question. This has become more nuanced and more complex as the “Information Age” has spread and developed over the last thirty years or so. It is well worth remembering that in that in the last 20 years (at least), “the Digital” has impacted on “the Humanities” far beyond the circle of those who self-identify as Digital Humanists in myriad ways (even recognizing that it is a highly permeable circle in the first place). For many “the Digital” was once a convenient method of sending messages supported by university communication networks, which eventually gave way to suites of tools, and associated methods, which provoked new questions about the approach, methodology and even purpose of what we were doing.  Historically, many of these questions were (and are) reflected in the preoccupations of wider society as “the Digital” seeped into the praxes of everyday life. Much of the debate in the bits of academia I inhabited in the early 2000s was couched in terms of if, or how, digital technology would enable research to be done faster, more efficiently and over ever larger distances. There were even questions of computers taking over human roles and functions: perish that thought now. Taking an historical view provides a bigger and contingent picture for this: my own generation was raised in the 1980s on movies such as Terminator, Tron, Lawnmower Man and War Games, scenarios, sometimes dystopian ones, where semi-sentient machines take over the world. I have long argued to my students that it is no coincidence that the rise of “Internetworking”, and the communication protocols that enabled it, including Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the WWW in 1989,  coincided with a genre of Hollywood movies about computers becoming better at intelligence than humans.

Enter DDH

The series of intellectual processes which led to the field of DH as we know it today thus unfolded against a backdrop of great change in society and culture, driven by computing technology. I come to the shape this gave more specifically to precursors of DH, such as “humanities computing” a little later. But these were, and are, certainly factors which have shaped the development of DH at King’s. Traversing several and various incarnations, “Humanities Computing” at King’s goes back to the early 1970s. There are traces of these times in the fabric of the environment today. If one walks from the present-day Department’s main premises on the 3rd floor of KCL’s Strand Building, down the main second floor corridor of the King’s Building  towards the refectory, in the bookshelves on the left hand side – amid Sir Lawrence Freedman’s library on the history of war and small display of Sir Charles Wheatstone’s scientific instruments, is a collection of volumes and conference proceedings that originate from CCH/DDH’s early activities (picture below).

DDH came in to being, by that name, in 2010. Prior to that, it was known as the “Centre for Computing in the Humanities”. It was established as an academic department in its own right in 2002. Harold Short, formerly director of CCH and the first Head of Department of DDH, wrote that:

The Centre for Computing in the Humanities (CCH) at King’s College London is a teaching department and a research centre in the College’s School of Humanities. Its current status was reached during the course of the 2001-2002 academic year, and may be seen as the natural outcome of a process that began in the 1970s.  ‘Humanities computing’ began at King’s in the early 1970s, with Computing Centre staff assisting humanities academics to generate concordances and create thesaurus listings. The arrival of Roy Wisbey as Professor of German gave the activity a particular boost. Wisbey had started the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing while at Cambridge (a Centre which is still in existence, with John Dawson as its Director). In 1973 the inaugural meeting of the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC) was held at King’s, and Wisbey was elected as its first Secretary. Although Wisbey did not feel it necessary to create a specific humanities computing center, he was Vice-Principal of the College in the late 1980s when a series of institutional mergers gave him the chance to propose the formation of a ‘Humanities and Information Management’ group in the restructured Computing Centre.

[Harold Short, July 2002 – reproduced with his permission]

 My central argument is that DDH’s story is one of evolution, development, and even – perhaps contrary to some appearances – continuity. This is an impression driven by the kind of question that we have always asked at King’s. As when I joined the Department fourteen years ago, two far more interesting questions than “what is Digital Humanities” were what is “the digital” for in the humanities; and how has “the digital” changed through time? For the last fifteen years have been a key period for “humanities done with the Digital”. Digital tools allow humanists to interrogate data more deeply, more thoroughly, with greater attention to the nuance between qualitative and quantitative data (which is far less grounded in the humanities than in the social sciences). Those questions are as interesting now as they were then; and they have only become more acute as the wider landscapes of technology, the humanities, and connective research have changed.

To text or not to text

When I joined King’s, perhaps even before, one of the first things I learned about the heritage (with a small “h”) of Humanities computing/Computing in the Humanities/Digital Humanities is that, particularly in the US, it had a long history of engagement with the world of text, and its natural home there, where it had one, lay in University English Departments. Text was certainly a low hanging fruit for the kind of qualitative and quantitative research that computing enabled. Many DH scholars trace the origins of the field to the life and work of Roberto Busa (1913 – 2011), the Jesuit priest whose scholarship in the 1950s on lemmatizing the writings of Thomas Aquinas resulted the Index Thomisticus using punch-card programming, which is widely regarded as the first major application of “Computing in the Humanities”. In the context of 1950s computing, the project was enabled by the epistemological inclination of text to lend itself to calculation: text, as a formal system of recording “data”, which is convertible in to information by the process of sentences and paragraphs, and thence in to knowledge by the process of reading, can be (fairly) unproblematically transferred to punch cards, then the principle form of storing data (this was a vast human undertaking, utilizing the skills of many skilled and unskilled operatives, many of them women, whose stories are now being re-told by the work of Melissa Terras and Julianne Nyhan. Matthew Kirschenbaum takes up this argument:

First, after numeric input, text has been by far the most tractable data type for computers to manipulate. Unlike images, audio, video, and so on, there is a long tradition of text based data processing that was within the capabilities of even some of the earliest computer systems and that has for decades fed research in fields like stylistics, linguistics, and author attribution studies, all heavily associated with English departments.

[Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. “What is digital humanities and what’s it doing in English departments?”, in M. terras, J. Nyhan and E. Vanhoutte (eds.) 2016: Defining Digital Humanities. Routledge: 213.]

CCH did a lot of work on text, but it did many other things besides. Even before I joined, I remember seeing CCH as a dynamic crucible of new thinking, a forum in which classicists, archaeologists, textual scholars, literary researchers, visualization experts, theatre academics, and more, could come together and speak some kind of common language about what they did, and especially how they developed, critiqued and used digital tools. This was a view shared by much of the rest of the world. Most visibly to me, it was recognized by the AHRC’s award of the grant that enabled me to come to King’s, the AHRC ICT Methods Network, at that time the biggest single award the AHRC (and its predecessor, the Arts and Humanities Research Board) had ever made. It was a revelation to me that such a place could even exist. It was certainly nothing like the environment I had known as a lonely GIS/Archaeology PhD researcher, working in a Department full of experts on Plato. It was therefore with great excitement that I joined CCH in January 2006, as a research associate in the Arts and Humanities E-Science Support Centre, which was attached to the Methods Network (what AHeSSC was and what it did is another long story, which is partly told in a much earlier post on this blog). It was just as exciting as an environment to work in as it had looked as an outsider.

Connective research

A delve into the Centre’s public communications at this time show how this collaborative spirit bought it to re-think what the humanities might mean in the Information Age. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine [a venerable resource now, having been launched back in 2001, but which is now an indispensable tool for much research on the history of the Web] took an imprint of CCH’s website on Saturday 14th January 2006, two days before my first day at work there. It has this to say about the Centre’s role. This seems to confirm the recollection above, that CCH was primarily an agent of collaborative research:

The Centre for Computing in the Humanities (CCH) is in the School of Humanities at King’s College London. The primary objective of the CCH is to foster awareness, understanding and skill in the scholarly applications of computing. It operates in three main areas: as a department with responsibility for its own academic programme; as a research centre promoting the appropriate application of computing in humanities research; and as a unit providing collegial support to its sister departments in the School of Humanities. As a research centre, CCH is a member of the Humanities Research Centres, the School’s umbrella grouping of its research activities with a specifically inter-disciplinary focus.

Despite the emphasis on collaborative research, one can see from this that CCH was also a place that did, very much, its own original thinking, grounded in the methods and thinking that were driving humanities computing at the time (see above). We can get a flavour of this by looking at the titles of the seminars it ran, which are still there for all to see in Wayback: “Choice in the digital domain – will copyright extend or stifle choice?”; “Adventures in Space and Time: Spatial and Temporal Information in the Digital Humanities”, “From hypermedia Georgian Cities to VR Jazz Age Montmartre: hyperlinks or seamlessness?”, and “The historian as aesthete: One scenario for the future of history and computing”. Some of these titles would not feel at all out of place in the seminar series of the DDH of today. Therefore, while the field, and the Department, have both (of course) changed significantly over the years, this suggests that there are some threads of continuity, as well as evolution, running through: innovation, responses to the challenges and opportunities of the digital, thinking through new approaches to the human record; and indeed what the “human record” is in the digital age. This, certainly, accounts for the first of the areas indicated above, in which CCH emerged as a department responsible for its own academic programme. What, I think, has changed most, is how the department collaborates.

The late 1990/early 2000s were a time of great change and innovation in DH, both technologically and institutionally. A 2011 Ithaka research report noted at the time that

In 2009 the Department of Digital Humanities (DDH), formerly known as the Centre for Computing in the Humanities (CCH), presented the model of a successful cross-disciplinary collective of digital practitioners engaged in teaching and research, with knowledge transfer activities and a significant number of research grants contributing to its ongoing revenue plan.

This highlights the fact that much of the Centre’s activity depended on income from externally funded research projects.  Ground-breaking collaborations with which CCH were involved, and in many cases led, still resonate: Henry III Fine Rolls, in musicology, and the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England all produced world-class original research, which contributed to a variety of areas, some directly in the associated humanities domains, some in CCH itself. Interdisciplinary collaboration was the lifeblood of the centre at this time.

It’s all about the method

One thread of continuity is what I would call “methodological emplacement”. That is to say, CCH/DDH has always had an emphasis on what it means to do Digital Humanities, the practice of method as well as the implementation of theory (whose theory is a key question). This, in itself, challenges “conventional” views of the humanities, inherently rooted in the theory and epistemology of particular ways of looking at the world. Among other things, it results in a willingness to deconstruct the significance of the research output – the monograph, the journal article, the chapter in the august collection. Providing a space to think beyond this, to consider the process, the method, and other kinds of output, in itself, lends itself interdisciplinary digital work. Arguably, the three strands to the CCH of the mid-2000s outlined above must, surely, constitute such a space, and is surely still a concern at the core of the present-day DH.

In a forthcoming handbook volume on research methods for the Digital Humanities that we are co-editing myself and my DDH colleague Dr Kristen Schuster develop the idea of methodology drawing from multiple theories:

The fact that each concept illustrates a matter of process rather than output from different perspectives is, we argue, telling of how badly we need to discuss research methods at large instead of research outputs. Considering research as a process, rather than an amorphous mass of activity behind a scholarly output, makes room for identifying crosscurrents in theories, platforms, infrastructures and media used by academics and practitioners – both in and beyond the humanities.

One can hardly expect a field which is concerned with an academic research programme in digital methods and their “appropriate application” in the humanities” not to change, and to expand the theoretical basis that underpins it, as the Information Age galloped on. My personal “year zero”, 2006, was only two years after Facebook was founded (February 2004), and two months before the launch of Twitter (March 2006), a year after Google branched in to mapping, and two years after the first widely-used adoption of the term “Web 2.0”. In our 2017 book, Academic Crowdsourcing in the Humanities: Crowds, Communities and Co-production, my colleague Mark Hedges and I argue that the mid-2000s were a transformative period in networked interactivity online, the time when movements like internet-enabled crowdsourcing have their origins (the word “crowdsourcing” itself was coined in 2006 in Wired magazine): DH was transformed, just like everything else.

Change in DH here, and everywhere else, continued apace. A key moment of the Department’s more recent history was 2015, when the King’s Digital Lab was established, providing an environment for much of the developer and analyst expertise that had previously resided in DDH, and before that CCH. Today the two centres have a closely symbiotic relationship, with KDL establishing a ground-breaking new agenda in the emerging field of Research Software Engineering for the humanities. This is far more than simply a new way of doing software engineering: rather, KDL’s work is providing new critical insights into the social and collaborative processes that underpin excellent DH research and teaching, establishing new ways of building both technology and method. The creation of KDL also underlines the fact that “DH at King’s” is no longer the preserve of a single Department or centre; rather DH is now a field which is receiving investment of time, energy, ideas and, yes, money across the institution.

With and About the Digital: from Busa to Facebook

Just as Busa’s work in the 1950s opened up text to new forms of interrogation by transferring it to the medium of punch cards where it could be automatically concordanced, so these developments open up the human cultural record, including its more recent manifestations,  to new kinds of interrogation and analysis. I do not think this should be a particularly controversial view. After all, my former employer, the AHRC, fully embraced this post-millennial epistemological shift in the humanities very explicitly with its “Beyond Text” strategic initiative, which ran from 2007 to 2012.  This was described as a “a strategic programme to generate new understandings of, and research into, the impact and significance of the way we communicate”, a response to the “increased movement and cross-fertilization between countries and cultures, and the acceleration of global communications”. The reality that the humanities themselves were changing in the face of a newly technological society is writ large.

This truth is not changing. In the eight years since the Beyond Text initiative finished, global communications, and the kinds of digital culture and society they enable have grown more complex, more pervasive and less subject to the control of any individual human authority or agency (with the possible exception of the Silicon Valley multinational giants) and, with the emergence of phenomena such as Fake News, ever more problematic. The digitalization (as opposed to digitization) of culture, and heritage, and politics, and communications – all the things it means to be human – has opened up new arrays of research questions and subjects, just as the digitalization of text did in the twentieth century. To put it another way, the expansion of “the Digital” has given DH the space to evolve. I believe it must embrace this change, while at the same time retaining and enriching the humanities-driven critical groundwork upon which it has always rested. 

Alan Turing himself said that “being digital should be of more interest than being electronic”. And so it has always been at DDH. Digital Humanists have always known this. The present strapline of the Department of Digital Humanities is “critical inquiry with and about the digital”. The prepositions “with” and “about” provide space for a multivocal approach, which includes both the work DDH(/CCH) has excelled at in the past, and that which it does now. Crucially in my view this enables them to learn from one another. Critical research with the digital” is, I would argue, exactly what Busa did, it is exactly what the English Laws, Prosopography and Fine Rolls project are.  At the same time, “critical research about the digital” recognises the reality that “the digital” itself has become a subject of research – the elements of society and culture (increasingly all of these, at least in the West) which is mediated by digital technology and environment.  As I finish my first six months as Head and look to the next, I want to see the Department continue to be a space which enables the co-equality of “with” and “about”.

Author: stuartdunn

I do various things, but mainly I am a Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities at King's College London's . My interests include things computational, cartographic and archaeological.

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