Day of DH 2010 (1)

So here I am, Thursday March 18 2010 – the Day of Digital Humanities. I intend to write a series of short entries throughout the rest of the day, this being the first. What I write is going to be quite messy compared to the entries on my real blog, but I’ll just jump straight into it anyway.

I’ve thought a lot about what it is I want to say here in the past couple of days. I don’t think I want to write so much about what I’m doing today (although, of course, I will), but more about what I think about what I’m doing, and how my thoughts on today’s activities influence my thoughts more generally about what it means to be a Digital Humanist.

The label itself feels alien to me. I think of Digital Humanists (imagine it being uttered in a booming voice) as smart people who understand more programming languages then I can count on the fingers of both my hands. They casually name-drop the acronyms – TEI, PHP, OCLC – and I’m left scratching my head. I’m not completely clueless – I’m familiar with the basical markup languages, including TEI, but I am not a computer scientist and everything I know about these matters comes from what I’m able to learn on my own in my own time. I’m not data-mining texts or collaborating with international colleagues on vast databases, and I’m not reading the latest issue of Literary and Linguistic Computing. In short, I don’t feel like a digital humanist. I feel like a English PhD who knows a bit about computing.

So why participate in this? Well, because it’s occured to me recently that what I know about computing and what I do with computers has helped and continues to help people. Not a lot of people, and not in ways that significantly alter their lives. But it’s enough to make me think about what lies at the core of being a digital humanist is – it’s about helping people by using computers, or by thinking about how we can use them in our fields and articulating those thoughts; it’s also about intelligently responding to the effects computing has in our work as humanities scholars, and building on these developments. As someone who thinks a lot about how computing can alter the way I work – and by extension how other scholars might work – and acting on these reflections, I can’t exclude myself among the growing band of digital humanists out there. The trouble is, I still need to justify that to myself, and my concern is that this need for justification stems less from my own personal insecurities than it does from a broader problem in DH itself, one that rests on the failure to define its reach clearly and concisely.

I don’t know if I’m a digital humanist because I don’t really know what being a digital humanist is; thus, I formulate my own definition and hope that the real digital humanists out there – the ones who don’t even remember what those acronyms stand for anymore because they’re so familiar with them – will accept me among their ranks.

Day of DH 2010 (2)

So what have I actually done today so far? Well, I spent the morning working in the Development and Alumni Relations Office (DARO) here at the University of Exeter. I used to be a full-time and then a part-time employee there, first as a database assistant and then a finance assistant and now I temp in both capacities. I do this work because I barely have enough money coming in month-by-month to pay my bills – a scenario depressingly familiar to most PhD students. I am in receipt of a £7k a year bursary, but what my parents are able to supplement in addition to this isn’t a lot, which leaves me with a shortfall that would put me out of University were it not for the regular work I get at my old office. I pretty much take up any temping work that gets offered to me these days – anything from filing in the Business School to transcribing short stories for my own department; it means that up to a third of my working week as a PhD student is spent working in an administrative capacity to pay the bills. I work with some great people, so this doesn’t cause me any great distress though.

My work this morning consisted of typical data-cleaning tasks, working with the Raiser’s Edge database where we store details on about a hundred thousand of our alumni. I basically merge duplicate records and clean up other bits of data; it’s mundane but also provides an opportunity to think about other things. And of course it points to the obvious: I spent nearly all my working day glued to a computer screen. Then again, the fact that I was cleaning up a database full of personal contact details doesn’t constitute digital humanities work – in fact, it gets to a point where the people whose information I’m glancing over become mere letters and numbers. This kind of digital work dehumanises, but that doesn’t mean to say that all work with computers does the same. There is a very strong case to be made for the necessity of computing to reclaim the human in the humanities today; it’s just not to be found in a university’s alumni relations office.

Day of DH (3)

I find that I’m writing these entries some six hours after the events I’m writing about. We’re up to lunch time now.

After getting back from work I did what a lot of people do – check my e-mails, and respond to them if necessary. Like many digital humanists, however, my digital check-list is more extensive than electronic correspondence: there’s my Twitter updates to skim through, Google Reader blog feeds to process, not to mention squeezing in a few articles I’d saved to read later. Twitter is the most active of these sources though, and what usually happens when I use Twitter here is something like this:

  • I browse through Twitter in Tweetdeck, scanning through the columns (I’ve organised the tweeps I’m following into lists – History, Digital Humanities, Society & Culture, and Higher Education – the first two are by far the most active)
  • In one of those tweets, I notice a link to an article that sounds interesting, so I click onto the article and read through it if I have time now. Otherwise, I save it in Read It Later to… well, read it later
  • Occasionally, I’ll like the article enough to paste it into my Tumblr log, tagged accordingly so that the appropriate Yahoo Pipe I created can pull it down (this seems pointless now, but in future the RSS feeds from the pipes I’ve set up will be fed into a new area on my website). Most of the time I’ll post to Tumblr when it’s a call for papers, but articles that really grab me can go in there too
  • Nearly all of my Tumblr entries get automatically posted to my Twitter account, so that all those tweeps following me get to see it now too, although the link refers them to my Tumblr log rather than the original article. This is usually because the CfP came from an e-mail, or because I’ve added some comments in my Tumblr about the article I’ve pasted there.
  • Finally, this tweet might get re-tweeted by one of my followers. I’ll either thank them or, if they’ve added some comments of their own to the RT, I might respond to that and a dialogue might take place between us.

This is a dynamic process, and it doesn’t always adhere to the above. Curating these sources is a valuable part of what I do: it draws my attention to important events or insightful articles on topics that interest me, and allows me to not only share these finds with others but archive them in a central area, and it can also lead to fruitful dialogues with other scholars. I’ve never thought it’s a waste of my time, but it does require a certain skill to pick out what’s useful in order to exclude what might be useful – I often don’t have time to deal with the latter. At a guess, I would say a lot of digital humanists do this sort of thing these days, and I think curating digital materials in this way is becomingly increasingly important.

Day of DH (4)

As my day draws to a close, I’ll just summarise how the rest of my afternoon/evening was spent, and conclude with some final thoughts.

This afternoon was a bit of a mixed bag. I did teach myself some more TEI, but I also spent far too much time procrastinating on Google Street View after discovering that they’ve covered nearly all of the country now. My sister and mother were caught glaring suspiciously at the Google van, which amused me very much.

But back on-topic, it’s worth pointing out that I’ve been teaching myself Text Encoding Initiative, and I’ve been using this resource: TEI by Example, put together by Melissa Terras, Ron Van den Branden, and Edward Vanhoutte. The site I’ve linked to there is described as a “preview” – it’s still incomplete, but it’s been incredibly useful for me. I’m familiar with some XML and I knew a smattering of TEI, but as a self-directed learner I needed something to guide me step-by-step through the process, and TEI by Example has been tremendously helpful in this regard.

But why am I teaching myself TEI? Well, and this is perhaps what gives me the right to call myself a digital humanist, I’m working as a research assistant for Andrew McRae and Philip Schwyzer, two scholars in the English Department here at the University of Exeter. They’re putting together a new edition of Michael Drayton’s seventeenth-century epic poem Poly-Olbion, and they’ve asked me to put together a website for Song 1 of the poem, as a pilot project. To date, I’ve slapped together a basic site awaiting the content, and written up all of my ideas for that site on a Wiki – neither I which I can share here today, as the site is still very much under construction, and the Wiki requires some input from Andrew and Philip. But the link to TEI is clear – the poem will be marked-up thus.

As it’s getting late I’ll pretty much leave it there. It’s been rewarding for me to follow #dayofdh on Twitter, and I’ll definitely have a look through some of the other blogs here. I hope whoever reads this has some sense of what the digital humanities means to me as an English PhD with no training in digital methods outside of what I’ve taught myself. I’ll definitely be doing this again next year too – it will be fascinating to see how differently I feel about it all.

Goodnight everyone!