Saturday, 14 July 2012

Both technologist and humanist in the academic digital humanities?

I've been reading Andrew Prescott's excellent Making the Digital Human: Anxieties, Possibilities, Challenges:
...in Britain the problem is I think that the digital humanities has failed to develop its own distinctive intellectual agendas and is still to all intents and purposes a support service. The digital humanities in Britain has generally emerged from information service units and has never fully escaped these origins. Even in units which are defined as academic departments, such as my own in King’s, the assumption generally is that the leading light in the project will be an academic in a conventional academic department. The role of the digital humanities specialists in constructing this project is always at root a support one. We try and suggest that we are collaborating in new ways, but at the end of the day a unit like that at King’s is simply an XML factory for projects led by other researchers. 

Beyond the question of how and why digital people are pushed into support roles in digital humanities projects, I've also been wondering whether the academic world actually allows one to simultaneously be a technologist and a humanist.  This is partly because I'm still mulling over the interactions between different disciplines at a recent research institute and partly because of a comment about a recently advertised 'digital historian' job that called it "'Digital Historian' as slave to real thing - no tenure, no topic, no future".

The statement 'no topic' particularly stood out.  I'm not asking whether it's possible for someone to be a good historian and a good programmer (for example) because clearly some people are both, but rather whether hiring, funding, training and academic structures allow one to be both technologist and humanist.  Can one propose both a data architecture and a research question?

It may simply be that people with specialist skills are leant on heavily in a project because their skills are vital for its success, but does this mean an individual is corralled into one type of work to the exclusion of others?  If you are the only programmer-historian in a group of historians, do you only get to be a programmer, and vice versa?  Are there academic roles that truly make the most of both aspects of the humanist technologist?

And does this mean, as Prescott says, that 'intellectually, the digital humanities is always reactive'?

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