Training and networking in the Digital Humanities: An Austrian perspective, by James Baillie
Ce billet est la version écrite de la présentation de James Baillie lors du Séminaire « Les humanités numériques dans l’espace euro-méditerranéen » qui s’est tenu le 3 mars 2020 à l’Université de la Manouba dans le cadre du lancement du projet RAQMYAT.
In the following paper, I will be covering a range of remarks on the definitions and teaching of digital humanities as we approach them in our group at the University of Vienna, headed by Prof. Tara Andrews, and as we approach them collaboratively in Austria more widely.
Definitions and diversity
One of the first problems of digital humanities is that of definition. In general, in this discussion I will be using the term to refer to the use of digital tools to conduct and assist humanities research. This definition encompasses a wide range of methods and techniques in a wide range of fields, but it also excludes a number of other fields with which Digital Humanities as understood by the above definition can easily be conflated, with which it does not share the fundaments of its methods. In particular, from a teaching perspective it is important not to conflate digital humanities with digital literacy, the ability to use basic software and digital tools like social media to enable and promote research. Digital literacy is increasingly a necessary prerequisite for all academics in the modern world; digital humanities as a field meanwhile encompasses more specific, research-focused skills for tackling particular humanities problems. It also does not necessarily share much with digital social science, which is able to take bigger and more statistically driven data approaches and thus has a fundamentally different methodological toolset to that which is needed to approach humanities problems. Third, it is separate from looking at humanistic and philosophical problems raised by the digital age, such as the ethical considerations posed by AI, social media, data security, and so on. Whilst these questions may be informed by digital humanities discussions on how to handle data, the ultimate questions being answered are fundamentally different.
The commonalities within digital humanities that bind it together as a field are those of the humanities more widely. In particular, where many parts of academia are increasingly working in a big data driven world, with large scale, systematically collected source inputs for their analyses, many humanities scholars are conversely driven by looking at small, fragmentary, and incomplete datasets, assessing the truth claims therein. Others, especially in fields like literature, assess the meaning and impact of texts via different reading methods. Humanities scholars from a range of fields piece together answers to a range of questions about culture, society, meaning, and our remembered pasts. Crucially, these questions and methods are brought together by being frequently unamenable to the sorts of statistical analyses common in other parts of academia. Digital humanities methods are an attempt to utilise a range of computing methods to tackle research problems like these across humanities fields. There are of course exceptions to the idea that humanists mainly deal with small datasets, and many digital humanists especially use for example larger analyses of terminology through texts or large quantities of GIS data to produce useful outputs for their research. Even in these cases, however, there will usually be some core aspects of humanistic interpretation of the attribution or social function of particular artefact types which are needed to underpin the larger dataset work.
Whilst of course other and contested definitions exist, then, the above will suffice as a description for my following discussion on teaching digital humanities. The breadth of digital humanities according to the definition given here should certainly be stressed, as should the related fact that it is not a single, discrete skill. From a teaching perspective this is especially important. While there are background skills, such as knowing the basic building blocks of computer programming or having some training in handling computer data, which will help students to understand many digital humanities methods, many digital humanities skills are specific to particular applications. A pure literature scholar is unlikely to require high levels of GIS training, whilst an archaeologist is unlikely to need to use the full scope of historical text encoding formats.
This diversity can be seen in the range of scholarship and methods among the teaching staff of our group in Vienna: our professor, Tara Andrews, has worked in particular on digital text scholarship, including tools for looking at texts across multiple manuscripts and stemmatological analysis; Maxim Romanov works on much larger scale corpora of Arabic biographical dictionaries, tracing the use and changes in terminologies in them over the course of the medieval period; Maria Vargha is an archaeologist who uses GIS systems in working on the Christianisation of central and eastern Europe; Daniel Knox works on analysing social networks, especially around brokerage, in early medieval Italy; and my own work focuses on prosopography (that is, collecting and examining collections of data about historical people) for the eleventh to thirteenth century Caucasus.
The importance of connections
Whilst the breadth of experience and skillsets we have is useful for our teaching, it is not in and of itself sufficient, and like in all areas with technical expertise skill-sharing is important. This is true for students as well as anyone: in a fast developing field, it should not be assumed that the supervisor will have complete expertise in all the technicalities of a student’s project, making connections to more people and thus a wider technical skill network invaluable. In Austria, projects like the Competency Network for Digital Editions (KONDE), on which I have worked in recent years, have allowed significant sharing of best practice and ideas at both formal and informal levels, by running workshops, producing documentation, and sharing practice with different programs and toolsets. The presence of the Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities (ACDH), based at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, is a further useful addition, and having some central, national resources available in a developing area like this to which multiple other institutions can have some connection seems to be an effective approach. Perhaps more so than traditional humanities approaches, Digital Humanities thrives on connectivity among scholars.
At a wider level still than national skill-sharing networks, Austrian academia is also well represented in transanational infrastructure consortia such as the European level CLARIN (for digital language data infrastructure) and DARIAH (for digital arts and humanities research more generally) projects, which coordinate competency centres and working groups across countries. Conferences are of course important too in sharing skills and research, and also there is a major role for workshops and hackathons, of which we have run a number at the University of Vienna in recent years. Hackathons, bringing scholars and technicians together to tackle specific problems, provide a space for novel technical approaches often unavailable in the day to day line of research; ours in recent years have included one on route mapping and one on prosopographical research. They can importantly also provide the basis and germination point for future collaborations and projects. These sorts of workshops can be of particular value to graduate students by providing them with assistance connecting and networking as well as skills advice.
Connectivity, then, is important because it unlocks access to a wider range of potential skills and collaborations – which are in turn necessary to allow the full potential of digital methods to be realised. These connections exist on multiple levels. Major projects, like the Project Raqmyat in which we are now participating, are an important starting point to foster contact at an institutional level. This can provide frameworks for mid-level collaborations, such as conferences, workshops, and hackathons. These in turn create the bedrock of regular, lower level, more personal communications between specialists and interested scholars in particular areas. The upper levels of formal project and event links are vital in part to build these regular connections; simply getting people on the same mailing lists, and knowing who to ask and discuss particular technical issues with, is invaluable, and moreover allows connections to be retained and thrive even at times when larger forms of organisation are difficult to achieve or lack funding.
Teaching and training
Beyond this utility of connectivity as core to building scholarship, there are other challenges to consider. Digital humanities, as it encompasses an attractive and increasingly popular set of methods, produces demand by scholars who are not DH specialists for more specialist technicians capable of working with DH methods. This leads to two problems. Firstly, some scholars may misunderstand the capabilities of DH as being purely an area for technicians, not something requiring methodological understanding on their part. Core to a digital humanities understanding of our methods, however, is the appreciation that data formats, data input methods, analytical tools, and even computer code can all in and of themselves encode or represent particular positions on the humanities questions they are being used to solve. An understanding at least on the theoretical level of the methods involved is therefore necessary even for the non-DH specialist humanities scholar to ask a technician or programmer to do some analyses on their behalf.
The second, linked, problem is one of providing necessary technical support to non-specialist scholars who want to apply digital humanities methods. Whilst a basic level of understanding is needed to allow a historian or literature scholar to communicate effectively with a specialist or programmer, few scholars in humanities fields even with some training will be capable of doing all their digital work themselves. This creates a need for service centres to allow for consultation and specialist programming in support of other scholars’ research work. We have found that it is important not to allow this need for accessible digital humanities technicians to be conflated with the need for specialised digital humanities academics who are responsible for teaching and developing digital methods; these are two different roles and it is helpful to retain them as such for both to operate effectively.
This leads us back to the issue of how much, and what kind, of digital humanities teaching we need to give students. With the approach we’re developing in Vienna, there are two main avenues here: the provision of digital humanities teaching within other courses, and its provision as a separate curriculum. The former, at least at a basic level, will be important for empowering new scholars to be able to engage properly with digital humanities literature and practitioners, which will likely be increasingly part of their fields whether or not they themselves use those methods. This may include both broad-based skills courses that provide a background skillset to understand a range of methods, and more narrow courses in specific toolsets appropriate to their research area.
We do separately, however, need specifically trained digital humanities scholars, who have the skills needed to not only understand the methods being used but refine, produce and develop them for specific situations. All too often, one size fits all methods are not available to digital humanists: when producing an edition of a text, for example, assumptions about the correct way to edit or regularise certain parts of the text for its final version may need to be represented at the code level and require the production of code specific to the project. The same is true of issues like database structuring: the information structure of the database represents not only a convenient way to store data but the result of humanistic choices that inform the design (whether these choices are understood as such or not). The digital humanities masters’ curriculum we hope to inaugurate in Vienna in the coming months will be an important step towards providing training for more specialised digital humanities practitioners who will have the necessary skills to help develop the specific approaches needed for more digital methods to be useable in a range of areas.
We live in a world of big data – but we also live in a world of scattered and unclear data, incomplete and obfuscated information, value judgements and narratives. The ability to digitally handle information of that kind is at the heart of what the digital humanities offer, and it is extremely important for being able to increase our understanding of humanity’s pasts and creative works. Our experience has been that the wide range of methods involved means that connectivity and skills sharing are important for effective research and pedagogy – as is recognising that there are a variety of different levels and types of skill necessary for engagement with the digital humanities, which should not be conflated with one another. The wide range of approaches adopted in Austria, from creating central hubs like the Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities to small workshops and informal emailing lists, from students taking one course to becoming specialists, speaks to these needs, and will, we hope, lead to a stronger environment for digital humanities development and usage both in Austria and with partners abroad in the years to come.