What versus How: teaching Digital Humanities after COVID-19

It will take a very long time for us to fully understand the long-term impact of the current COVID-19 crisis, and all the horrors it has bought to the world. By “us” I mean Higher Education, but of course this applies globally. Last month, in the space of a week many universities (including of course my own)  underwent the kinds of changes that would normally take five years or more to effect; and it is unclear when any kind of “normality”, as visible in the familiar processes of face to face Higher Education, will return. Given the great dependence of the global HE sector on academic and student mobility, and (some argue), the generally disorganized nature of many Western governments’ initial responses to suppressing the outbreak, some predictions estimate that it may be March 2021, or even later in Western Europe, before such normality can resume.

As the next academic year approaches – and its potential timing is discussed – we need to consider online teaching as a matter of resilience. After all proto-Internet itself emerged in the 1960s and 1970s partly as a response to the shadow of Cold War, providing a means of channelling executive command decisions through “distributed networks” which could survive nuclear attack. Given that COVID-19 and/or other pandemics may well recur, we have responsibility to our students, and each other, to consider how we might weather such storms in the future.  

More importantly though, it is a matter of pedagogy. One thing to say at the start, which is extremely obvious within the DH community, but which still perhaps needs re-stating, is that moving teaching normally done face to face online at a time of emergency is not the same thing as online pedagogy, never mind good online pedagogy. No one – academics, students, management – should expect it to be. Once this fundamental truth is acknowledged, there opens up a range of important and self-reflective questions that DH as a field needs to ask about what good online pedagogy is. This post attempts to pose – if not answer – some of these questions. 

 Most importantly, the COVID-19 crisis throws into relief the distinction between what we teach online (in DH, and everywhere else) and how we teach it. Flurries of discussion about the how of online education – the relative merits of Skype, MS Teams, Zoom, institutional VLE platforms – have proliferated. Against the background of crisis, our “how” has changed (literally) overnight, driven by the need to deliver what we had already promised to our students. Despite this, the creativity and innovation of DH has been much in evidence. It comes through in the always-excellent Digital Humanities Now’s roundup of COVID-19 think-pieces and other contributions here.  I have seen stories of many colleagues in DH who have risen magnificently to the challenges involved (these abound in my own Department), and I have been truly inspired by the stories they have told me of compromise, improvisation, imagination, and the challenges of the digitalization of content and delivery (these are exactly the stories that I have also seen echoing all around academic trade and social media – we are most certainly, to employ another over-used phrase all in this together). 

However, in the longer term the question of what we teach online, and how this differs from in-person degree programmes will need to be addressed. What kinds of learning can best be imparted remotely? Thinking of this in terms of what, as well as how, allows us to think of online teaching in terms of its opportunities, and not just as a palliative for the pain that recovering from COVID-19 will cause us all (which we will have to address in other ways – that is another story entirely). This, I think, is really important. It will also take time, resources, effort and imagination beyond the teaching we already do, and the efforts that we have all made to salvage our existing teaching tasks.

We can begin by asking if it is even possible to deliver the same learning outcomes from our homes as we do from the lectern. Should we even try? If not, what should we be doing instead? These are fundamental questions that have been bubbling under the surface of DH pedagogy for years.  Many current debates in the newer forms of DH embrace “the digital” as its own theoretical construct. They argue that “the digital” has its own modes of production and interpretation that are separate from (for example) printed materials or physical image media (this idea permeates much our teaching and research in DDH at King’s, and one of our core aim remains to build and contribute to the global body of that theory, as driven by the humanities).  It follows that “digital methods” should be seen as a body of methodology distinct from other types of method, particularly the discursive means used by humanities researchers to reach and understand the human record. If this is true, then we will have to accept that delivering “the digital” and “digital methods” online to students means that the fundamental building block of HE programmes, the learning outcome, will have to be re-thought for online delivery. What are learning outcomes even for in the digital age, when students are, as part of their everyday lives, connected with networks of knowledge, information, ways of doing things, cultures and economies that have only ever been “digital”?

Learning outcomes, defined as the skills and knowledge that a student has on completing a course that they did not have before, are inevitably tied to the types of material we teach. In the kind of humanities-driven learning of and about “the digital” that we pursue in DDH, the origins of such material may lie in the physical world (such as manuscripts, artworks, photographs etc) or the digital world (content created purely online). For reasons set out in more detail below, I believe that online teaching, in particular, gives us incredible opportunities to question this distinction in new ways, for all kinds of material in the Digital Humanities.

We can tease out these opportunities by taking an historic perspective; by looking back at assumptions which were common in the pre-digital world.  In World Brain (1938), H. G. Wells predicted that in the future

[a]ny student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica.

This view of the world runs gloriously roughshod over any idea that “the digital” actually changes our interpretive relationship with our material in any way, rather it asserts that an “an exact replica” can be easily delivered to any student, anywhere. The medium will never be the message in such a world: rather it is value-free, lacking in any phenomenological significance, and contributing nothing to the interpretive process. If our studies of Digital Culture and its related fields have taught us anything, it is that this is manifestly not true. Of course digital transmission changes our perception and reception of cultural material. Try writing a tweet with a fountain pen and posting it through the mail, or opening a text file in MS Word 95. The digital is a prism through which we see and experience the human record past and present, not a window. Online teaching needs to embrace this, and this is very much a matter of “what”, as well as “how”.

Therefore, the challenge for DH pedagogical theory and practice as it approaches both the how and the what of online learning is to construct new forms of learning outcome which enable students to embrace that prism: the teaching of digital methods, digital citizenship and digital ways of being, rather than just digital content not, as per Wells, as simply an exactly replica of what we get in the library or the archive. There is much one could draw on from other DH discourses: for example, much is made in library and archive studies of the truth that preservation (e.g. the creation of exact replicas of content) is not sustainability (which is the ability to use those replicas in some way).  I make no claim that this is a new idea in DH pedagogy (it is certainly very present in DDH), but it shows that DH has many rich and deep seams to draw in in understanding the key “how” versus “what” difference for online teaching (and research).

There follows some areas which I think we need to consider when building learning outcomes for online courses. I do not purport to offer any answers here, these are merely very initial and high-level ideas to act as way-markers to help kick off conversations that many of us will be having over the next months and, probably years. No doubt they will be changed, deleted, re-organized, re-ordered and added to, but for teaching which approaches “the digital” in a humanities driven way – which, for me is the essence of DH pedagogy – then these represent the starting points as I see them.

Participation and placemaking

Teaching is not something that happens only in the classroom or instructor’s office. As I point out in one of the early lectures of my Maps, Apps and the GeoWeb module, the classroom or lecture hall is a “place” that we all contribute to by the medium of our presence. It is more than walls, floor and a ceiling; its function channels Heidegger’s Being of Dasein: of physical presence. Place is a human construct which we create collectively and socially through processes of actually being there and, as in the world outside the academy, this has been disrupted by the digital.

In DH we have – slowly – learned to teach and develop bodies of theory with our students in the framework of “traditional” face to face teaching in the classroom and the lecture hall. Consequently the act of speaking in, and to, a group in the same physical location is a staple of the traditional seminar. However, for many of our students, physical place has already been collapsed. The channels of Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat etc may connect to the physical world through geolocation, but they “exist” aspatially. We must find ways to enable synchronous contribution to online discourse which encourages critical reflection of the nature of that “place”, that meaningfully separates formal educational channels from social ones.

Embracing asynchronous conversation

Closely related to the need to embrace asynchronicity, especially given that the seminar – small-group teaching of students co-located in time and place – is one of the key planks of humanities pedagogy. Like many of my colleagues, I make use of group work in seminars to maintain focus, but also to ensure that students who may be more introverted, and thus less inclined to contribute to a larger group discussion (despite the value of any contributions they have to make) feel able to contribute. We will need mechanisms online which facilitate such inclusivity online, and which not only facilitate one to many conversations, but also many to many discussions. These in turn need to respect, and work alongside, and not impinge on, students’ existing many to many digital lives.    

New kinds of assessment

The essay is as much an artefact of conventional teaching in the humanities as the seminar; however the limitations of the essay format for assessing who students have learned and how well they have learned it in DH have long been apparent. Whilst they will also have a role in assessing discursive understanding of the core modules, however there is a general assumption across the arts and humanities that assessment will always be by essay, unless there is a reason for it to be otherwise. In DH, I would suggest the opposite should be true, especially for online teaching:  essay-based assessment should have to be justified by the impracticability of shorter, practice-focused evaluation. For example, one of the learning outcomes of my own optional module is:

[The student should] be able to demonstrate knowledge of fundamental web standards for geospatial data, with a primary focus on KML, but with a broader appreciation of how these standards relate to generic frameworks, including most importantly the World Geodectic Data system. They will also be able to discuss the limitations these impose on the expression of information in the digital humanities, and discourses built around it.

Currently my assumption is that this outcome will be assessed discursively by a 4000 word essay, structured across 4-6 examples, or 4-6 arguments focused on a single case study. There is no reason at all why this assessment could not be broken down instead into 4-6 web-mounted exercises based on real-world problems based on humanities materials (in the best world of all, students could be given a list of 10+ mini-cases to select from, and then explain the methodological link between them). I think this would, in any case, get them much closer to the technical core of the problem described.

The importance of Open Access and Open Data

The COVID-19 crisis has prompted many publishers and content providers to make materials related to coronavirus research that would otherwise have been paid for freely available, for example Cambridge University Press , Wiley and Taylor and Francis.  This is excellent news for sure, but we need to capture this opportunity to think in more detail about the place of Open Access and Open Data in our research and teaching.  

In theory of course, online teaching can continue to be done behind institutional VPNs, subscriptions to Shibboleth and Athens, and to publishers; although some such resources are not available to students accessing content from certain regulatory regimes, which is another key factor. A move to online teaching must include promoting critical assessment of reflection on open data and open resources; to extend the principle of encouraging students to explore further reading in trusted environments (i.e. libraries) to the “wild west” of the WWW. Teaching that happens in the online “place” (see first point) must include methodological skill-building in how the features of that “place” – datasets, articles inside and outside peer-review, formal and informal research outputs, content produced by other students function, and how they can best be evaluated and navigated.

To conclude: the what and the how of online teaching are the axes on which all these considerations need to be plotted. Reconciling them will require resources, imaginative thinking, a range of theories, ideas and resources that DH has been experimenting with already for years and, above all, skillful and creative people to put them in to practice.  In all these things, I think DH has a good start.

Unintended consequences: GPS and digital creativity

The story of Global Positioning Systems (GPS), like all phenomenal technological success stories, is one of unintended consequences. GPS is now with us everywhere. It guides our driving and finds us the restaurant nearest to us. It aids mountain rescuers, and it helps ships stay on course. The digital world would be a very different, and less interactive, place without it. A phenomenal success story it certainly is. But its origins are more complex.

Also like most phenomenal tech successes, GPS was not born of any Eureka moment. Rather it came from a hotchpotch of technology, politics, fear and expedience. The launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite on 4th October 1957 was a point of enormous disruption for the West in the Cold War. Not only had Russia pulled ahead in the space race, it was now clear that it had the rocket technology to strike the US homeland. Western experts sprang in to action. MIT scientists found they could track Sputnik’s location using Doppler Effect principles, whereby sound waves vary in frequency according to the direction and velocity of an object reflecting them (imagine standing by a long straight road, and a car passes you at 80 mph). This in turn gave traction to the methods which would enable Earth-bound receivers to precisely triangulate their positions using satellites. For years this locative capacity was tightly guarded by the US military: under the process of “Selective Availability”, the signal, which allowed receivers to pinpoint their positions, was scrambled except for military users, so that its accuracy was all but useless except for the smallest-scale navigational purposes.

It took another Cold War flash-point to shift this thinking. On September 1st 1987, Soviet air defence mistakenly shot down Korean Airlines flight 007 to Seoul with the loss of 269 lives, thinking it was a hostile aircraft after it strayed into Soviet airspace. This bought the need for real-time geolocation in to sharp focus. In the grief and outrage that followed, then-President Ronald Reagan – amid the blood-curdling threats of retribution flying between East and West – accelerated the process of making GPS available for civilian use. And then on May 1st 2000, as the dust from the falling Berlin Wall was settling, his successor (bar one) Bill Clinton issued an Executive Order ending Selective Availability. Combined with the World Wide Web (invented 11 years earlier), this action helped set the Internet on its path from our desktops to our pockets.

[graph]
The moment Selective Availability ended on the night of 1st-2nd May 2000. Image from https://www.gps.gov/systems/gps/modernization/sa/data/

We are marking this event’s 20th anniversary in DDH with a series of events. Last week, we hosted a quadruple headed set of talks by myself, Cristina Kiminami and Claire Reddleman of DDH, and the GPS artist Jeremy Wood, who presented an overview of how he uses GPS receivers to craft linear sculptures of human motion through the world. In his words, “[W]e are the data. We are the map.” This raises a whole set of practice-led research questions for Digital Humanities: how does GPS help us explore “annotative” approaches to the world, where movement can be captured and imbued with further meaning through the process of associating and linking further information with it, versus “phenomenological” approaches, which stress the subjective lived experience of creating a trace (Cristina’s work); and how an entire place, such as a penal colony can be reproduced (Claire’s work).

Jeremy Wood presenting at “Walking with GPS”

The work we all presented last week represented showcases of how a technology born of the unintended consequences of the struggles, crises and flashpoints of the last century’s Cold War is now open to new ways of exploring relationships between the human/physical and the digital/ephemeral. We are much looking forward to exploring these questions further throughout the 20th anniversary of the end of Selective Availability. Next in this will be a conference on May 1st – the actual anniversary of Clinton’s order – organized by Claire and Mike Duggan of DDH entitled “20 years of seeing with GPS: perspectives and future directions”. This conference will surely have a rich seam of theory and practice to build on.

Red Posts

For a number of years, I’ve driven from Berkshire (and before that, was driven as a child from London) to Dorset, south west England, to visit various family members. An intriguing feature of the drive is the “Red Post”, at Bloxworth, near Wareham. It is an otherwise ordinary rural finger-post but painted red, with the placenames picked out in white lettering.

There are other such posts dotted around Dorset and the south west of England (possibly elsewhere as well), including one which, when I went that way last year, had been vandalized, on the road between Beaminster and Evershot (below).

One theory I have head is that they mark the sites of gibbets/gallows, although I haven’t been able to find any documentary verification of this. Also, it seems a bit unlikely and impractical to bring felons to the middle of nowhere to execute them.

Some are marked with the legend “Red Post” on the nineteenth century OS six-inch series maps, but some (including the Bloxworth post above) are not. I’ve come across a general public Act of Parliament of 1753 consisting of

A BILL for Repairing, Amending, and Widening the ſeveral roads leading from the Red-Poſt, in the Pariſh of Fivehead, where the Taunton Turnpike ends, through the Pariſh of Curry Rivell, the Towns of Langport and Somerton, to Butwell … etc

This suggests some considerable antiquity to the phenomenon; and that in the eighteenth century, Red Posts were well known and visible as waymarkers. So I am digging a bit more. I have a few ideas, and I hope that 2020 will bring a slightly more formal publication on the matter, on one platform or another.

This is a plea, in the meantime, that if anyone familiar with the English countryside knows anything about its Red Posts/Poſts , then I’d love to hear from you…

New posts at DDH

 

King’s College London is recruiting Lecturers and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Digital Humanities. Lecturers are the UK equivalent of Assistant Professors and Senior Lecturers correspond to Associate Professors in the US system.

King’s College London is in the fourth year of making a significant investment in the Department of Digital Humanities as part of an ambitious programme of growth and expansion in existing and emergent research areas and student numbers across its five Master programmes and the BA Digital Culture.

King’s College London has a long tradition of research in the Digital Humanities, going back to the early 1990s. King’s is one of the few places in the world where students at all levels can pursue a wide range of inter-disciplinary study of the digital (https://www.kcl.ac.uk/ddh/about/about).

We are seeking to recruit exceptional candidates to join the Department no later than 1st September, who can enthuse and inspire our students, conduct world-leading research, and contribute to the life and reputation of the Department through academic leadership and public engagement.

We are hiring for

Closing date: 28 April 2019

Lecturer candidates will be on their way to becoming scholars of international standing with a research and publication trajectory that illustrates this ambition. They will contribute to the further development of the Department¹s research strengths, provide high-quality teaching and supervision, and work collaboratively within the Department and beyond.

Senior Lecturer candidates will be scholars of international standing with a strong research and publication record and evidence of or potential for research income generation. The successful applicants will play a key role in leading work across the Department to enhance our research strengths, to develop new and emergent research areas, to innovate in teaching practice and pedagogy, and to contribute to our underpinning values of co-research and collaboration.

A History of Place 1: Authorship and Teaching

This is the first of a series of posts to follow the recent publication of my book, A History of Place in the Digital Age. My aim with these is to look at various topics on the theme of what it means to write a book in the Digital Humanities (DH) as a means of reflecting on what I got out of the process as (I guess) a “Digital Humanist”, partly to capture such reflections for posterity (whether or not posterity has any interest in them), and also in the hope that they might be of some sort of value to others considering such a course. Here, I look at the links between writing a book at teaching, in both the undergraduate and postgraduate taught classrooms.

A prosaic problem is, of course, accessibility. Even the most committed student would balk at the cover price of a History of Place, and inevitably it takes time for an institutional library to place orders. It is therefore worth exploring in detail what one can and cannot do to make your work available under the terms of one’s contract; and, where possible, expediting library acquisitions by (for example) encouraging purchase of the e-edition. I don’t think I have any searing insights to offer on this subject, rather I see it as part of a much broader and more complex set of issues on Open Access in Higher Education which, I am sure, others are far more qualified to comment on than me.

It’s a tenet of major research universities such as my own, that our teaching should strive to be “research led” (see e.g. Schapper, J. and Mayson, S.E., 2010. Research‐led teaching: Moving from a fractured engagement to a marriage of convenience. Higher Education Research & Development, 29(6), pp.641-651). Most, I guess, would interpret this as meaning that the content delivered in the classroom is sourced from one’s own original research, in the context of one’s Department’s research profile an strands, conveyed via various pedagogical tools and techniques. Most of the latter are based on conventional scholarly publications, notably journals and, of course books. In the future, I would like to consider particularly the implications of writing a book – and thus complicity, for better or for worse, in that environment – for student assessment, and the kind of culture the act of authorship encourages. In this, one needs to bear in mind that the traditional essay is perhaps not best suited to the delivery of all kinds of DH content. To transcend this truth (which I think most DHers would accept) I plan to use some of the cases discussed in my book – for example mapping references to Cypriot places in texts, (the subject of much of Chapter 7) – to encourage students to test and challenge observations I discuss on the construction of imperial identities, for example by using practically the Heritage Gazetteer of Cyprus. Ideally, I would like to accompany this with screencast videos to accompany the institutional lecture capture (the desirability and ethics of this are a story for another day); something I have already started to do to assist students with the Quantum GIS exercise they learn.

The text of my book is structured around a postgraduate module I have taught for three years now, Maps Apps and the GeoWeb: An Introduction to the Spatial Humanities. I think it is fair to say that there has been a great deal of cross-fertilization between the two activities, certainly at the design stage. The chapter structure of the book partly, but not entirely, reflects the weekly lecture programme for Maps and Apps, a conscious decision I made when drawing up the book proposal, figuring that there could be economies of scale in terms of the effort involved in both tasks.

Writing chapters which correspond to classes was a great opportunity – and impetus – to update my own knowledge and scope of understanding of those topics, and numerous new insights have found their way in to the lectures this year as a result. This has also given me a richer context to include, where appropriate, examples from contemporary life, something I feel greatly helps students engage with complex concepts, relating them to their own experience. For example, my class on neogeography, delivered towards the end of the Semester, was updated this year to include a discussion of commercial appropriation of passive neogeographic material by transport service companies, something which I explore at a theoretical level in Chapter 5 in A History of Place; but which (I think) also points students towards much broader contemporary issues which they see in the news, such as the appropriation of user data by platforms such as Facebook. Teaching this class, I have found that students react creatively and imaginatively to a task where they are asked to find actual instances, based on their own local knowledge and spatial experience, of omissions of features in OpenStreetMap, of the kind described by Monica Stephens in her 2013 paper Gender and the GeoWeb: divisions in the production of user-generated cartographic data; an important text both in this class’s reading list and in Chapter 5.

Another thing I found interesting to reflect on is that other chapters, somewhat counter-intuitively, emerge from reading, research and conversations I conducted during the process of setting up other modules I teach, in which I had relatively little previous grounding, and which were seemingly of limited relevance to the topic in hand. Chapter 2, for example, seeks to place the spatial humanities in the context of its long history. This includes the emergence of the Internet and WWW in the twentieth century, and a discussion on how these impacted human perceptions and experience of space and place. As one might expect, I draw heavily on Doreen Massey’s A Global Sense of Place in this section (a core reading for Week 1 of Maps and Apps, as it happens); but much of the literature I use to do so is drawn from my undergraduate History of Network Technology module. This was a course I began teaching in 2015/6, on quite a steep learning curve (if that sounds like a euphemism, that’s because it is). But a couple of years’ reflection on, for example, the work of J. C. R. Licklider, Paul Baran and Vanevar Bush – readings I expanded and consolidated for the book – bought me to realize that one can’t really understand the methodologies which underlie the spatial humanities without reference to the implications of the mid-twentieth century’s struggles with post war information deluge; for example Licklider’s vision, expressed in Man Computer Symbiosis (1960), of

[A] network of “thinking centres”, connected to one another by wide-band communication lines and to individual users by leased-wire services. In such a system, the speed of the computers would be balanced, and the cost of the gigantic memories and the sophisticated programs would be divided by the number of users.

In my view, this expresses a “de-spatialization” of human knowledge that directly foresees the kind of interactions and data transactions now familiar to users of OpenStreetMap, Google Maps, and indeed any other kind of geo platform.   This seems to me to be fundamental to the epistemology of the spatial humanities, helping to explain the emergence of the GeoWeb in the broader context of the information age. I therefore have to admit – with a little trepidation – that as well as my teaching being research-led, my research is, to an extent, teaching-led. This is of course before I factor in discussions with the students themselves, in tutorials, seminars and questions after lectures (which do happen occasionally); and more than once my mind has been changed on a particular issue by an excellent student paper.

Of course, it depends on what kind of book you’re writing. A History of Place is quite a broad-brush consideration of the history and impact of GIS, and related technologies on the humanities, which is analogous to the module design and learning outcomes of Maps and Apps. It is therefore logical to expect a rough, although not necessarily comprehensive (see above) correlation between the class topics and chapters. It would of course be different in the case of a highly specialized book dealing with a particular topic in depth. But even then, I feel sure there would be similar crossovers even in such cases.

So, to summarize: Obviously we must aim to pass on our original insights as scholars to students. However, it is also very well worth considering, in as detached a manner as possible, what new insights your teaching might contribute to your book. This, in turn, will help you to strengthen and improve our teaching, and the curricula of your courses – especially when (as many Digital Humanists do) you teach courses across disparate subject areas. A careful mapping of course reading lists to your own bibliography can be very helpful for the same reason.

 

A History of Place in the Digital Age

There’s an interesting tension between writing a book with a title like A History of Place in the Digital Age, while in the process engaging in a massacre of trees to produce a paper book. Anyway, it’s now out, and available from my wonderful publishers at Routledge.

I’m going to try to blog here a little more in (the rest of) 2019, especially offering some ideas on the spatiality of scholarly communication. A central premise of the book is that communication through different media has always both fractured and shaped our ideas of place, and that we can trace this back in to the distant prehistories of the Internet, to the origins of print media, and perhaps even further. This surely applies to the communication and consumption of scholarly ideas, where digital media are rethinking what it even means to have scholarly ideas. One thinks of the work of scholars such as the Classicist Sarah E. Bond, whose ground-breaking work on scholarly outreach and public communication puts Classical ideas into contemporary social, cultural and political contexts, thus (surely) inviting audiences, both inside and outside the academy, to revisit the substance as well as the communication of those ideas. Linking to my own more recent work in digital art history, one can begin to see parallels with recent arguments which suggest that it is not so much the distinction between “digitized” versus “digital” art history (i.e. the use of digital imagery and resources versus the use of computational analysis to understand individual works of art) which is important, as much as what the role of art becomes in a society in which the Internet is ubiquitously and fundamentally integrated.

Here, anyway, is the table of contents:

1 Spatial humanities in the digital age: the key debates

2 The longue durée of the spatial humanities: Part I: Communicating place

3 The longue durée of the spatial humanities: Part II: The case of archaeology

4 Text and place

5 Spatial humanities and neogeography

6 Spatial narrative

7 The structure of geodata

8 Motion in place

9 Conclusion

And there is still some room at the launch on 9th May.

Cleaning up chorography

I’ve been at the Spatial Humanities conference, hosted by the Lancaster Digital Humanities Centre these last two days. It’s been a terrific trip, like the best conferences, introducing me to new ideas and occasioning reflection on, and reappraisal of, old ones. I gave my paper, (slightly grandiosely), entitled The Eye of History: Chorographic Prologues and the Origins of the Spatial Humanities on day 1. In this, I attempted to set out some research I’ve been doing over the summer into how we might approach the writings of antiquarians such as John Leland, William Camden, Peter Heylyn, and William Stukeley as expressions of place. The eye of history bit of the title comes from the translated preface to Abraham Ortelisus’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, and – I argue – represents a key moment in the historiographical development of the spatial humanities, in that it recognizes that in order to understand the ancient world and its events, it is necessary to first have an appreciation of its geography. So rather than understanding the Roman world by reading the accounts of Livy or Tacitus, say, or the Greek world by reading the works of Thucydides or Herodotus, we need to understand the settings and the landscapes in which the events they describe occurred. Ortelius was seeking to help the educated classes of the sixteenth century do this by producing the Theatrum. My argument – and this is all in the The Book, out next year – is that the observational narratives of Leland et all plug in to this way of thinking, and apply it to understanding of the contemporary (English) landscape. The observational narratives oftentimes bore the titles of “chorographies” – first-hand accounts of that landscape preserved in memory and written record; and communicated through the then-new media of movable type. Sure, they had their own motivations, and their own agendas – Anglo-Catholic spirituality in the case of Heylyn, muscular pan-English nationalism in the case of Camden, a desire to resurrect the glories of the Arthurian past in the case of Leland – but this, I think, represented a new genre of spatial description, framed and enabled by the printed medium.

This blog post seeks to offer a brief elaboration of this argument, largely as a result of a question asked afterwards by Karl Grossner of the World Historical Gazetteer (which Karl also presented at the conference). Karl, nailing (in my view) the overlap between the thought processes of geography and gazetteer technology, pointed out that the types of spatial communication I presented were all descriptive. They thus negate the kind of critical and exploratory deployments of GIS which are necessary for any success in its use for exploring any humanities research question, a fact highlighted by numerous other speakers (especially Paty Muretta-Flores in her excellent opening keynote). Expanding on this point, Karl tweeted:

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I couldn’t agree more – and it highlights that the material I was presenting are primary historical spatial artefacts (and yes they are descriptions of place, driven by some of the motivations described above), not analytical vehicles or interpretations. The challenge henceforth is to identify the critical frameworks needed to understand and interpret those spatial artefacts – frameworks which will be mixed-method, involving both GIS and more discursive, qualitative means of reading. Thanks Recogito, I was able to give a high-level hint at what this might look like, by overlaying places referred to in Stukeley’s Itinerarium Curiosum with Ellis’s 1777 Compleat Chorography (kindly snapped by Valeria Vitale):

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So I would agree that while chorography might indeed be a dirty word, we can, perhaps, clean it up a bit.