Why do digital humanists love an unconference?

Tara Thomson  Last week, I attended an unconference for the recently established Digital Humanities Network of Scotland (DHNetS).  Digital Humanists love an unconference, which makes sense as the format seems to align nicely with the broader ethos of the field.  The Manifesto of Digital Humanities 2.0 asserts the “utopian core” of DH:

it affirms the value of the open, the infinite, the expansive, the university/museum/archive/library without walls, the democratization of culture and scholarship, even as it affirms the value of large-scale statistically grounded methods (such as cultural analytics) that collapse the boundaries between the humanities and the social and natural sciences.

This openness is reflected in the devolved authority of unconferences, described by Adeline Koh as “participant-driven gatherings where attendees spontaneously generate the itinerary.” DH unconferences tend to follow the THATCamp model, where there is no set programme of panels or speakers and everyone is invited to contribute.

DHNetS is a new organisation that emerged from a recent knowledge-exchange project funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, ‘Archives Now: Scotland’s Collections and the Digital Humanities.’ Following a series of workshops throughout 2014 (documented on the project site), it was clear that many people in Scotland are doing exciting digital research and wanted more opportunities to meet, share, and collaborate, activities perhaps best facilitated by a more formal organisation.

The unconference was DHNetS’s first official event after its September launch. It opened with a ‘showcase,’ which gave researchers a few minutes each to introduce their digital projects, Pecha Kucha style. The event then moved into unconference mode, in which the participants together brainstormed ideas for discussion topics and these topics were aggregated under three umbrella themes. We then had breakaway sessions on each theme, each one facilitated by a volunteer. The purpose of the sessions was pitched as planning for the coming year, all of us deciding together what direction DHNetS might take for now, and what kinds of forums and events members might find useful.

The topic suggestions were similar to other DH unconferences I’ve attended, with most participants wanting to chat about digital tools, digital literacy and training for researchers and students, and funding streams for digital projects and outreach. Someone also suggested that we discuss issues particular to postgraduate students, although the proposal was met with some debate as participants questioned the value of dividing the group into staff and students. However, the PhD students present chimed in, admitting to their struggles to find a place in the field, and brought up the larger question of where the disciplinary boundaries of the Digital Humanities lie.

For students in fields such as Music, Publishing, or some of the Social Sciences, it can be difficult to know where they fit vis-à-vis the Digital Humanities, especially if they are the only ones in their department doing digital-focused research. Someone asked, “to what extent does the Digital Humanities encompass non-Humanities disciplines?” What is the difference, we wondered, between ‘doing DH’ and using digital tools for research in another discipline? A striking point came out of this conversation which does not sit comfortably with the DH ethos. It seems that some people feel excluded from the Digital Humanities as a discipline, but also sometimes feel excluded from their stated disciplines because of their digital work. These feelings were echoed by a number of participants, not just postgraduates but also early career and established researchers.

While this conversation was framed around postgraduate students’ concerns, I think the issues of disciplinary boundaries and exclusion/inclusion apply to us all. The unconference model aims to be democratic, and the Digital Humanities has aimed to build itself on devolved authority. The DHNetS main session’s facilitator even made a point of openly refusing an authoritative role. However, equal audience participation does not necessarily happen once one openly relinquishes authority. The unconference model assumes a shared vocabulary and shared agendas, but disciplinary knowledge is not always equally shared. Of course, a traditional conference assumes the same shared agenda, but because it doesn’t demand the same level of interaction, those who don’t know the language may not feel so exposed, and the forum may be less open to a coup staged by those with more professional confidence. Don’t get me wrong – I think an unconference is a brilliant idea, and a format that could generate exciting work that challenges the status quo. But while the unconference offers opportunity for shared engagement and involvement, it is still difficult to avoid putting those who have been initiated into the DH community ‘in charge.’

I volunteered to facilitate the breakaway session on ‘Disciplines: finding our place in the field,’ and two discussion strands developed. First, participants wanted to discuss the issue of disciplinary exclusion, and wanted to develop a series of workshop sessions this year designed to create a more inclusive community for postgraduates and those new to DH. The second strand ended up being about the ethics of digital scholarship. Particularly as postgraduates and early career researchers risk taking on the more undervalued labour in collaborative digital projects, it seemed essential to address issues around credit, acknowledgment, and labour relations, alongside inclusion. When the breakaway sessions ended, and the larger group reconvened, we agreed to organise an open event this year about the ethics of digital scholarship.

During the opening Pecha Kucha presentations, Fiona Williams of the University of Aberdeen, noted that “the digital gap is widening.” She argued that those of us who have access to digital technologies can easily forget that access does not come so easily to some, and digital development is uneven across the world. As democratising as digital technology seems, there is great risk of preserving existing power structures through uneven access. On a localised scale, this is also an issue for research and teaching, and it is essential that we discuss problems of access and exclusion now, as the field is developing.

About the author

TaraThomsonTara Thomson is a Research Fellow in Edinburgh University’s School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, and an Open Studies Literature tutor for the Office of Lifelong Learning. Her research interests lie in literary modernism, gender studies, critical theory, and the digital humanities. She is currently working with the Palimpsest: Literary Edinburgh project, and can be found on Twitter at @situationniste.



One comment

  1. […] It was reposted (with permission) from my original article for the IAD Learning and Teaching blog, IAD4Learn. […]

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