I find myself a bit more fuzzy-headed than usual, as I sit down to write this, having just returned to the United States from a four-day trip to London for the Digital Humanities 2010 conference, where a few hundred folks working on and in humanities computing gathered for their annual conference.
I say “their” rather than “our” because I still feel like a bit of a latecomer, having only attended my first DH conference last year. Scholars representing a very wide set of fields, technologies, and methodologies were presenting, however, and those scholars represented a wide range of countries, institutions, and positions—the tenured and tenure-track, the #alt-ac, grad students, extra-academic professionals, and more besides.
This breadth indicates the big tent” that the digital humanities can be, a nexus of fields within which scholars use computing technologies to investigate the kinds of questions that are traditional to the humanities, or, as is more true of my own work, who ask traditional kinds of humanities-oriented questions about computing technologies. That big tent is also visible in the organization itself; the conference is sponsored by the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations, which is an umbrella group that coordinates the activities of the The Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing, The Association for Computers in the Humanities, and The Society for Digital Humanities / Société pour l'étude des médias interactifs.
By bringing together such a wide range of interests, affiliations, and perspectives to the connections between computing and the humanities, the conference can give one a snapshot of the state of things, a broad sense of what scholars who work within those connections are concerned about.
Not surprisingly, many of them are concerned about the economy and the effects it’s having on our institutions, particularly within the humanities, and on the kinds of innovation that the cutbacks most of us are facing might stymie. Melissa Terras issued a call to action within the digital humanities in her closing plenary address, assigning those present their “homework” for the next year: to be advocates for digital humanities research and to demonstrate the significance of the ways that we work and the projects that we take on.
A rousing call, indeed, as might be seen in the minute-by-minute reactions of the Twitter stream. But equally rousing, from my perspective, was the clear sense at this conference that, while we all heavily use computing technologies in our research, and many of us are engaged in the development of new tools for such research, the key problems that we face again and again are social rather than technological in nature: problems of encouraging participation in collaborative and collective projects, of developing sound preservation and sustainability practices, of inciting institutional change, of promoting new ways of thinking about how academic work might be done in the coming years.
These problems might be most acute in computing-intensive fields, given the speed with which the technologies we have available are changing and the comparatively glacial pace of change within the academy, but they’re problems that all scholars face to varying extents, as all of our fields are being reshaped in their interconnections with new technologies. Conferences like DH2010 are most useful, for me, in the ways that they engage with such change directly, encouraging scholars with a broad range of perspectives and commitments within the field to address the transformations by which we are surrounded.
[Image by Flickr user (and DH2010 attendee) Ernesto Priego; / Creative Commons licensed]