Russian translation by Kseniia Tereshchenko | Russian Translation (PDF).
Arabic translation forthcoming.
The conversation published here among three “bridge” figures in global digital humanities took place on January 25, 2021, over Zoom as part of the program of Saint Petersburg Digital Humanities Week (SPbDH) 2021. Each of the speakers has each been instrumental in organizing digital humanities events in their respective communities: NYCDH Week, SPbDH Week and the NYU Abu Dhabi Winter Institute in Digital Humanities (WIDH). They have also cooperated with each other in sharing experiences, expertise, and in some cases programming. They all met in person at a NYCDH Week event hosted in early 2020 by the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute entitled “International and Interdisciplinary: Collaborations in DH Research.” SPbDH week has traditionally been a place-based event, as has the NYCDH Week; both events even carry the name of the city in their title. Over time, these events (along with the WIDH in Abu Dhabi) have served a community-building function, making them all the more meaningful. In 2020–2021, the pandemic put this focus on place under a significant amount of stress, making it impossible to convene in person. Yet, as difficult as this period has been, we do believe that it offered a unique opportunity to reflect on questions of international, institutional cooperation among like-minded colleagues, thinking particularly about how dialogue about the internationalization of DH ultimately feeds back to our local communities. The moderator of the panel was Lada Zimina.
Lada: Hello, dear guests and colleagues! I am very happy to welcome you to the opening panel for the third annual Saint Petersburg Digital Humanities (SPbDH) Week. The topic of our discussion today is “Think digitally, act humanely: building DH communities locally and globally.” Our speakers are Kimon Keramidas, Associate Professor at Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement, NYU and also co-director of the International DHLab at Informational Technology, Mechanics, and Optics University (ITMO University); David Joseph Wrisley, Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at NYU Abu Dhabi; and Antonina Puchkovskaia, a director of the DH Center at ITMO University and the founder of SBbDH Week. To begin today, Antonina, I would like to ask you to tell us a bit about your experience in the global DH community and your work consolidating the local DH community in Saint Petersburg? How do DH weeks, both NYC and SPb, fit into your story with DH?
Antonina: Thanks for a very good question. I suppose everyone who is doing DH has their own story about how everything started. With a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies, I ended up teaching at a very STEM-based University like ITMO (Information Technology, Mechanics and Optics), and I’d started to think about how I may bridge two different universes—Humanities and Computer Sciences. I did some research and discovered a pretty promising co-location known as Digital Humanities. I dug deeper and was nicely surprised and excited about the manifesto, agenda, and most importantly the community, which from the onset seemed quite open and friendly. I started looking for events that gather DH people together. Within the first lines of my Google search was NYCDH week, the event which later became a model for our SPb DH week. I proposed a workshop on how to turn your Humanities course into a digital one. Not only was I accepted and got to run my very first DH workshop, but I met all those wonderful people (among them was Kimon) who were very supportive and helpful, answering all my questions about the fundamentals of DH.
When I returned to Saint Petersburg, the first thing I did was to talk to our first vice rector about launching a DH lab. Being a great supporter of different interdisciplinary initiatives at the university, she gave the green light to establish a small DH research lab, and Kimon continued to advise me through the whole process. A bit later, our DH lab team was awarded a grant from our university for developing an interactive map of Saint Petersburg with a specific focus on relations between the landmarks and famous people associated with them. This project now exists as a web and mobile application, and it also contributed to building a DH community in Saint Petersburg, especially by integrating the local into the international.
In four years, we have succeeded in launching a Master’s program in Data, Culture, and Visualization (DCV) with a track in Digital Humanities, and the DH lab grew into an International DH Center co-directed by Kimon. Still having great support from our university, we are now more focused on community development and recruitment for our Master’s program at the intersection of Humanities and Computer Science. We have run the annual SPbDH Week for three years now and the trend is quite convincing: we tripled the number of workshops, lectures and lightning talks within the week (despite the global pandemic) and, most importantly, increased our community fivefold. The geography of the participants is also very impressive: people come from Moscow, Perm, Vladivostok, and other Russian cities either to give or attend a workshop. This year, we went even further and organized an international panel. The DH community is very helpful and friendly and that is why we will continue to develop our local community hand in hand with the international community, dedicating our resources and energy to make more DH projects collaboratively, making more data available, open, and shareable, and creating more interesting discourses around it.
Lada: Thank you, Antonina! Talking about SPbDH Week, I would like to add a small personal observation of my own. As a member of the organizing committee, I noticed that in Russia quite often people who use digital methods in their own area of expertise and who are willing to offer a workshop are not really familiar with the term “DH.” In that perspective, the event is really about community building, because it shows the researchers that they are not alone and that what they do actually has a name and a community behind it. Moreover, we have many cases when speakers or guests stay in touch with the Center or even work with us as lecturers.
Kimon, can you tell us how and why DH week started in New York? What was your motivation as an organizer? And how’s it going?
Kimon: Within New York there are many large institutions: Columbia, NYU, the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, Fordham University, Hofstra University, and Pace University, and all of the cultural heritage organizations as well. Unfortunately, what happens is that these places are big enough to become insular. With NYCDH, we’re trying to foster a really open community outside of those bounds. NYCDH is a non-institutional, inter-institutional organization, so we’re not reliant on any single university or organization as a center. Running NYCDH in this way is based on the recognition that good work in DH often necessitates collaboration between different types of people. David, Antonina, and I all are used to collaborations, whether those collaborations are with other professors, data services, or librarians, and the events we organize are an opening for these kinds of collaborations.
NYCDH Week started because we wanted to share existing workshops at different institutions, but it was complicated by different curricula. So, we decided to create a structure completely outside of that. It began small, but has grown beyond our wildest expectations. In 2020, we had more than forty sessions and over 800 registrations. This year we only had thirty-two sessions—because of COVID—but we ended up with more than 1500 registrations, and included sessions being run both through NYCDH in New York and others organized at NYU Abu Dhabi. We were even thinking of aligning with Saint Petersburg DH Week to create an even greater sense of global simultaneity. People are starving for these kinds of gatherings and look forward to NYCDH week every year.
NYCDH Week is a movement based on the idea that we can change DH work within the academy by developing a community of people who are willing to give their time, be open with their work, share information, and create networks of participation. I know of an enormous amount of connections between colleagues that have been created through NYCDH Week, our graduate student awards, and web platforms.
The next step is figuring out how you manifest those experiences and interests into programmatic changes back at your institution. At ITMO, we’ve made a significant amount of progress, going from virtually nothing to having a successful Master’s program in just a few years. There are further possibilities in Moscow and in Perm to expand this in Russia, and David has been doing this work in the Middle East for twenty years in both Abu Dhabi and Beirut. Our hope is that we can bring together these three places that aren’t often in collaboration in Russia, the Middle East, and in the US or New York.
Lada: Thank you, Kimon! Do you have something to add, David?
David: Thank you for the invitation to join the conversation. As I listen to the two of you speak about the way the community is emerging in Russia, and particularly in the context of ITMO, I am really pleased to see what you have achieved. It’s quite remarkable that the institutionalization of DH has taken place so quickly. It is a testament to the passion and focus with which you have worked, but also to the openness of the future-oriented approach of your institution. In many places in the world, there’s a lot of interest in digital research in the humanities, but not a lot of action. It can be, for many people, a scary jump.
I remember some ten years ago when we had our first event in the Middle East, in Beirut, and then participating in some of the different community models that Kimon brought up: the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) (University of Victoria, Canada), the European Summer University of Digital Humanities (ESUDH) ( Germany), NYCDHweek, and then returning home to think about how to adapt those community models to our local environment. Localization is not an easy process.
You’ll have lots of eyes on Russian DH this year with the European Association of Digital Humanities (EADH) annual conference. So, congratulations on getting this going!
Lada: Thank you, David! We are actually really excited about the upcoming conference in Krasnoyarsk, as our DH Center together with the colleagues from the State Hermitage Museum, the Institute of Russian Literature, and the Museum of the History of Religion are organizing a panel aimed at community building, entitled “Digital Humanities Researchers and Cultural Institutions: Towards Productive Interaction” (see Puchkovskaia et al. 2021). We think it’s important to connect DH researchers from academia and specialists from the Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (GLAM) sector. I really hope the panel will help to consolidate the local DH community and maybe even some collaborative projects.
David, do you think DH brings people together, or does it create new forms of isolation and specialization? Could you also tell us more about your personal experience with DH research in the field of medieval studies and if the digital methods are welcome in that community?
David: My research interests have been diverse. First, I am trained as a comparative medievalist, but I have also lived and worked in Arab countries for most of my career. In the last decade, it’s not surprising that I have been working on new ways to bring the digital to those two communities: medieval studies and the Arabic-speaking world. Sometimes they overlap for me, but for the most part they do not.
I have experienced both an expansion of my community and some forms of isolation in my career. Integrating the digital into one’s speciality subfields is an entirely different endeavor than working to build a transdisciplinary DH community. There is a vibrant community of digital medievalists in the world, but they are still somewhat marginalized within medieval studies. I believe that the situation is slowly changing, and we may be less isolated post-pandemic, but it is fair to say that most medievalists are not involved in digital research. In specific specializations—say, digital medieval studies in Arabic, French, or Latin—the percentage drops significantly. What this means is that if you are doing digital humanities community building aimed at a larger audience, then your audience is much wider than it would be in a specialized field.
Shared methodologies most certainly bring people together. Imagine that a medievalist’s daily interlocutors could be Americanists, art historians, computer scientists, or linguists working in entirely different languages. It is often said that in universities, the digital is increasingly providing common vocabularies for a wide variety of research and community building amongst researchers. There’s a commonality in the challenges that we face—in the ways we produce our data and manage our research—which is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.
Working simultaneously in a transdisciplinary space, where our colleagues have very different ways of working, and in a specialist subdomain, interacting with domains close to us in the organization of knowledge, can be both challenging and very rewarding.
Lada: Thank you, David, for setting such an encouraging tone to the discussion. As for Saint Petersburg, and maybe even Russia in general, I feel that we are not quite there either. Hopefully big events, like EADH2021, will promote DH in Russia and boost the community-building process. Kimon, being a New Yorker, what are your thoughts on the same question? Does DH unite us, or does it separate us?
Kimon: I’ve learned a lot watching David because he has reached out internationally, building coalitions and relationships in what can sometimes be a provincial community. New York is large enough that people can often find enough relationships to stay working within that community. The same can be said for DH communities around Washington, D.C., and Virginia, and Southern California, where there are enough people that a kind of regional DH identity even begins to take shape. But as you begin looking at the situation globally, with DHSI in Canada, in Leipzig in Germany, and of course David’s work across the Middle East, you realize that it takes different textures of collaboration to work with different people in different communities. This is particularly important in this continuing period of transition, as people doing DH are still facing resistance in traditional disciplinary environments. That’s where occasions like SPbDH Week, NYCDH Week, and WIDH are so valuable, because they highlight that there are networks you can tap into to find like-minded people.
One thing Antonina and I talk a lot about with regards to ITMO is that the path to growth here is from the technical to the humanities. It’s the reverse from how it occurs predominantly in the US at least, and it is an intriguing challenge as you determine how best to transmit these ideas to an unfamiliar audience and how to engineer these collaborations.
What I appreciate about DH communities is how different people can come together and look for balance. You can engage with someone and say, “You do something completely different than I do but we probably have some common thoughts and make each other’s work better.” I think that that eagerness is probably a global trend that still benefits a lot of people. And the people who are eager to put that foot forward tend to be slightly more gregarious and open to the conversation rather than resisting. It takes that kind of nature, so it creates a good community right now.
Antonina: I would like to add something about how at ITMO we are trying to complement our skillset with the competencies we lack. Our institution is very STEM-based and we lack a strong Humanities faculty, so our way of bridging the gap between Humanities and digital technologies was to engage with the GLAM sector in Saint Petersburg. Luckily, we have plenty of cultural institutions in our city and they have shown a willingness to collaborate on questions of common interest, such as database architecture for collecting and storing data, building user-friendly interfaces, expanding a user base through digital storytelling, etc. The additional benefit is that we have also found a great number of people who are motivated and encouraged to learn more and to collaborate on DH projects. I would also like to highlight that establishing these relationships is an ongoing process, and it is very time- and energy-consuming. But it is really worth it. And in our case, working with such wonderful institutions as the Museum of the History of Religion, Mayakovsky Central Public Library, the Institute of Russian Literature, and many others, helps us both to build and develop the DH community and to represent cultural heritage and memory in digital environments. Furthermore, these cultural institutions become places for our students to do internships. It is a win-win for both academia and the GLAM sector.
Lada: Antonina, you mentioned the Master’s program that you run at ITMO. What are the challenges that you face while designing and running a Master’s program in DH? How do you explain digital humanities to your administration and other faculty at ITMO and how do you teach the field to students who may be completely unfamiliar with its methodologies and terminology?
Antonina: That’s a very good question and I believe an open one. I would like to answer it from two perspectives, both from the position of an academic leader of our Master’s program in Data, Culture, and Visualization and from the role of a DH educator. Designing a two-year Master’s program at the intersection of Humanities and Computer Sciences, I had to take a lot into consideration. First of all, I meant to build such a program for students with various backgrounds. So, developing a curriculum I focused on including more project-based modules, which allow students to work collaboratively and complement each other’s skill sets. Second of all, I tried to design a curriculum around fundamentals of digital technologies adapted to students’ varied skill levels, such as the most popular programming languages (Python and R), database development, data mining, UX/UI, visualization, text analysis, project management, etc. Moreover, I always wanted to introduce our students to a vibrant, multidimensional, and multilingual world of DH, by regularly inviting colleagues to participate in various hands-on workshops, guest lectures, reading groups, and summer schools.
Starting from the second semester, our students choose from two tracks provided at the program: one is in Digital Humanities taught in Russian, and the other is Cultural Analytics taught in English. Beyond the difference in the language of instruction, these two tracks also differ given the nature of the data students work with. In the first case, it is digitized data and in the second, born-digital data. So, choosing from these two options students are basically choosing between working with cultural heritage or digitized literary texts, in the former, or content found in the media, in the latter. Depending on the track, students are likely to learn about OCR (optical character recognition) and NLP (natural language processing), or digital storytelling and network analysis. As an academic leader of the DCV program I do believe that diversity is key, but this is especially true with DH education. So, my goal is to provide as many options as possible, so every student will be able to build an individualized educational trajectory, thereby fully realizing their potential. Teaching and co-teaching various DH courses at ITMO and Tartu University and giving lots of guest lecturers has allowed me to expand my teaching philosophy in DH. Most of my teaching has been focused around developing and curating DH projects. This includes not only acquiring necessary practical skills in data mining, data analysis, and visualization, but also in building a strong argument by asking research questions and analyzing what particular digital technologies are needed in each case and why. I call it “critical DH thinking” and usually highlight that, even though the applied skills are also very important, developing critical thinking will help to build more sustainable DH projects. To sum it up, the more I teach or do DH, the more I discover what is still to be learned and redesigned.
Lada: Thank you, Antonina! It is, indeed, so wonderful that we have three professional educators in DH at the table today. David, what are your thoughts on how to teach DH?
David: I love the topic of how the digital is changing the way that we teach and learn! One answer to your question of how to teach DH lies in the values embraced by your institution and how they are evolving. To give you an example from my own position: I arrived at NYU Abu Dhabi having worked for a long time in relative isolation on my digital projects at my previous institution, the American University of Beirut. There wasn’t institutional momentum there to create new courses and to imagine teaching as integrative and connected to faculty research. In my current position, there are multiple stimuli that have encouraged me to bring my research into the classroom. I have benefitted from the presence of an Arabic natural language processing (NLP) group, a vibrant Art Center with projects and commissions in digital or data-driven art, an active interactive media program, as well as the research center of the nearby Louvre Abu Dhabi. Those partners in and around my institution have most definitely contributed to my growth as a teacher-scholar.
There are lots of DH syllabi that you can find on the web and copy, and there are lots of methods that can be transferred to most parts of the world. I certainly did this for a certain phase of my teaching. But teaching DH has become less of a methodological checklist and more of an engagement with the common values of my institution and communities as they grow. When your DH courses align with those higher goals, there is much more room for DH to contribute, and to be valued, at home.
Antonina: I totally agree with that point that cooperation with other departments at ITMO, in particular Computer Science, helps us a lot, not only in teaching various courses at the DCV program but also working together on projects. We also collaborate and co-teach some DH courses together with colleagues from other DH centres in Russia bringing together students and cherishing diversity and openness. Moreover, as I have mentioned previously, we are closely connected with our partners from cultural institutions in Saint Petersburg and these collaborations have resulted in student internships, paid internships, and the expansion of student portfolios. This enlarging network is what makes us a community and allows us to make DH projects more meaningful and widely publicly available.
Lada: I would also like to jump in and add a little from the perspective of both a student and aspiring young researcher who is making her first steps in the field. First, when it comes to collaboration and education in DH, I think that in the program my fellow students and I have a lot to teach each other. Given that we come from different backgrounds, some of us are better at coding and others are better at finding good research questions and have a deeper understanding of cultural data. DH taught me that it’s ok not to know something—and for someone with an A-student complex, that was quite a discovery. I really love how helpful the community is, because really when you dive into DH, you push yourself far out of your comfort zone, no matter what background you come from.
And Kimon, I suspect you have something to add to this discussion.
Kimon: I’ve been working on these questions since I started my PhD program at the City University of New York in 2001, before the term “digital humanities” entered popular use. As a theater history PhD candidate, I noticed that we were for the most part studying play scripts because that’s what’s left from a production, and this ephemerality is one of the reasons it is hard to study the history of theatre. I began working in CUNY’s Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Certificate program to consider ways to gather all the artifacts from a performance to bring them to public history. Many of the faculty in that program were involved in creating the textbook Who Built America, which tracks the history of America from a labor perspective, rather than following the traditional “great white men” narrative. Along with the printed book version, this textbook was available as an interactive CD-ROM in the late 80s. So here we can see—decades before we even started using the term DH—that academics were doing work driven by the idea of expanding education and the reach of academic discourse.
So my perspective has always been to get information into people’s hands, using the new media we have to best contextualize the knowledge we produce. In building my DH syllabi, I wanted to avoid saying, “Here are the big names and tools in DH that you have to learn about,” and instead focus on how living in a complex world is intrinsically affected by the digital, and how do we understand that through method. So every time we talk about databases for the humanities, we also consider that our personal and health records are also somewhere in a database—and what does that structure mean to the way you are viewed by systems as a series of data points? How does the setup of that information affect you in your daily life? The goal therefore is to continually keep everything in a larger context and perspective.
Lada: Thank you, it’s really fascinating to follow your discussion, so let’s keep on talking about education and dissemination of DH. In light of the digital having become an integral part of our everyday lives, how do mixed methodologies in DH open the possibilities for scholarship that are more public, open, and designed to engage with the larger audiences?
Kimon: In the last decade in the US, we’ve seen how profoundly digital media can affect daily life, as social media has expanded and everything has been consumed by the internet. In my teaching and research I have been trying to figure out how the digital landscape affects us daily, how it affects the culture of consumerism, and how as academics and producers of knowledge we can bring all those points together. To these conceptual methodologies I would add visualization and website development, to reveal the potential of design in creating more engaging modes of narrative and storytelling. Because, in the end, we are all living some part of our lives in these public digital spaces, which, despite the problems they are creating, massively open up our ability to create innovative teaching platforms, share information, and build communities.
My connection with the theater, material culture, and web design has put me in a place where I want students to know how they can reach audiences through web development and design, which has arguably a lower threshold than more complicated analytical techniques. To do very advanced text analysis you really need to understand the fundamentals of statistics and the algorithms, but to do web development, you start to understand the discursive and aesthetic challenges and possibilities that come into play for presenting your work for a broader range of audiences. I teach a course on the American Hardcore Punk movement, and we focus on understanding one particular cultural moment to better understand how we use different modes of expression to generate activism, critique society, and carve out a space for our voices today. With that kind of platform, we can then look at subsequent related movements like Queercore and Riot Grrrl as well as reflecting on current flows in art and activism to understand their historical progenitors and the uniqueness of movements of the moment.
I ask students to think about how they can use the ethos of Hardcore to reach out and tell their own story. The most recent iteration of the course developed an amazing website, which was an experimental product of creative ingenuity that far exceeded what a stack of research papers alone would have accomplished.
Lada: We have a little bit of time to talk about our current concerns, and I would like to address the next question to David. So, David, how did the pandemic influence the global academic community and what perspectives do you see for international collaboration under the current circumstances?
David: Thank you for the question. Pre-pandemic, there were many DH events taking place in local environments around the world. An example of one such event we have heard about is NYCDH Week. Now, in New York it’s easy enough to move around the city from institution to institution for a week to experience this co-learning, co-teaching event. Not all cities have such a large community, however. In places like the UAE or Lebanon, where I have spent the majority of my professional life, the number of DH practitioners is very limited and we often rely upon international relationships to grow our projects and our community. The advice that I got a decade ago from a senior practitioner in the field when I asked how to start working in DH was to do three things: attend a THATCamp, enroll in a DH summer school like DHSI, and attend the Association of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO) annual conference. Back then, to attend such a faraway event required many months of advance planning. I imagine that we could do oral histories about the DH week-like events that have taken place around the world, focusing on how they played a transformative role in introducing researchers to digital methods.
The pandemic did not bring about a total shift in the ways that people have accessed training in digital methods—there were certainly some events taking place online before—but it has accelerated the process, and there has been a marked increase in people who want to engage in such learning. Over the course of 2020, with the large-scale adoption of remotely broadcasted events, I have witnessed a rapid opening up of local environments to global audiences. There have been all kinds of opportunities to listen in on many different conversations in different parts of the world now —far too many for a single person to follow. An interesting question to ask ourselves is which of these learning opportunities will remain virtual and which will pivot back to in person meetings? I believe that a professor of digital humanities should not only do research of their own, but also model new forms of research for their local environment, and in this respect, like Antonina, I spend quite a lot of time learning about what is going on in the world of DH in order to bring it back home. In 2020, the sheer abundance of conversations going on in digital humanities research and their connectedness has been challenging, but also exciting, to follow. As I do so, I am always asking myself how to match what a growing local community wants and needs and how to match it with global research trends. It’s a process of connecting the dots.
Another interesting question for me is what will a world of scholarly communication look like post-pandemic? There are so many people envisaging, and even prototyping, different modes of communicating or different modes of scholarly dissemination and communication. Even if we have not been traveling for this last year, we will no doubt get back on planes to go to professional meetings. I do wonder how we are going to spend our time and how we are going to manage the very new kinds of access that we have experienced. I think there’s a lot to be said about this last topic of post-pandemic scholarly communication, which stretches beyond the topic of today’s panel, but which will impact the ways that international collaborations continue to be founded and sustained. I guess that the way forward for research that I imagine, especially in remote places where there are smaller numbers of local researchers, will be fewer in-person conferences and meetings, replaced instead by longer stays or exchanges abroad for teaching, team building, or intensive exchange. Synchronous video conversation platforms like Zoom are, after all, great for exchanging ideas, in pick-up conversations with people you already know, coming to consensus through team discussion, or for certain kinds of scholarly dissemination, but what about all the other ways we communicate and do scholarship?
I don’t think we have fully considered what it will mean to be in person anymore, what the added value of being in the same space will be, let alone how connected to the rest of the world we will be when we are back in person in our local environments. I’m sure that there will continue to be great value in teaching in person, but for research, we still have to figure that out. Will we be able to have hackathons and sprints online with the same results? Will we meet in person for more reflective activities, such as ideation, planning, and writing? Or simply to foster the social bonds that support collaboration? What will happen to our colleagues who joined in the conversation during the pandemic for whom passport privilege and crossing borders are not a given?
During the pandemic I experienced so many interesting new kinds of interactions and experimental engagements. Obviously, not all of them will continue as we transition back to our offices and campuses. It is worth thinking, however, about how we will do digital humanities when we are together as opposed to when we are apart, as well as the role of the international collaborator in the local area. New forms of hybrid collaboration are certainly on the horizon beyond our current circumstances.
Kimon: I think the sprints are a good point. Sometimes when you really want to accomplish a significant amount, you need to be around your colleagues for three days in a row, eight hours a day working, including in-person time over dinners. So it’ll be interesting to see now that we’ve had this extended experience with telecommuting, how we will move forward. We haven’t gone through something like this trauma in the world for over a hundred years and we’re going through it now in a very different kind of time with specific technical, socio-economic, and pedagogical challenges. There has been a lot gained from this period in getting things working in a short timeframe, but we also need to sit back and consider which changes have been for the better and which really shouldn’t be repeated.
It’s hard to teach workshops in general using teleconferencing tools; some such as photogrammetry were extremely difficult to do. When I teach a workshop I move a lot around the room. I’m looking at everyone’s screens troubleshooting problems, showing students what they might have in common and how they can share knowledge, and making the learning environment engaged and participatory. On the flip side, while we had fewer sessions for NYCDH Week 2021, we had hundreds of more people register for workshops. So there is a new interesting mix of variables that we have to consider and that we will have to adapt to. Hopefully, we’ll find a really fruitful middle ground that balances all of these things. As David notes, a lot of us are thinking about it already: what’s the best way to transition things. We are fortunate in our positions that we have already looked to transcend geographical challenges, and now we are armed with better tools and more familiarity with approaches to closing the gap between these three locations: Saint Petersburg, Abu Dhabi, and New York. So trying to find ways to mitigate those distances while remembering the benefits of locality and presence is going to be the trick.
Antonina: Yeah, and I would like to add a little on that topic. I agree completely that professional networking is the most valuable thing that happens at a conference. In the end, this scholarly network is the most valuable thing you have. What you pay for when you travel is to build these relationships, and from there you can develop them through these digital tools and means like email and Zoom, but it’s really hard to establish strong relationships and community by only communicating online.
You can just work using emails, Zooms, Microsoft Teams, but I think that this is a very good lesson the pandemic taught us, that not all the things can be shifted online. We still have this “humanities” impact. We even have in Russia this funny word for “madness”— безумие/безZOOMие (a madness created by Zoom)—which has been in the media for a while. That’s true, it’s madness, it’s too many Zooms, all the calendars are packed, and people can call you at nine in the morning and that’s fine because they live far away.
I like that we’re finishing up this discussion before we move on to questions thinking about the future because DH is also about the future. We try to preserve things, we try to make them available and that’s an important part of our work as well. We want to preserve our community and chart a path for the future as well.
Lada: Dear colleagues, thank you so much for such an interesting and insightful discussion—we covered some perennial issues of DH as well as some current challenges and concerns. Now we have a little bit of time left to open our discussion and attend some questions from the audience.
Question from Nadezhda Povroznik, Head of the Center for Digital Humanities, Perm State University: When it comes to DH, is it possible to be only a medieval scholar or just a historian focusing on a narrow topic, or is it more encouraged to find the solutions for a wider range of questions? If so, how does this impact the way that we think about the focus on tools?
David: Your question reminds me of the question I received earlier where I was asked to reflect on how DH supports either integration or isolation, or perhaps both, in scholarship, and whether it only makes an intervention in a field of speciality or instead it builds some kind of larger community. For me, the way that I responded to a changing world of digital humanities around me depended on the moment of my career (I am currently Associate Professor). When I launched my first independent digital research, I made the strategic decision to work on a project on my own. I wanted to build my skills, make a first foray into digital humanities, and to be able to link the conclusions to the scholarly field that I knew so well. I started in digital humanities without an active community in my immediate surroundings; my collaborative research began with faraway scholars. There’s this very interesting shift in my publications that took place around 2013/2014 when I began to co-publish. It’s not that I abandoned single-authored research, but since this particular work was collective, it made sense to publish together. With colleagues in computer science we now tend to publish a variety of articles on the same project for different audiences, highlighting the multidisciplinary contribution that our work makes. It’s tricky to straddle knowledge cultures, but it has become the way that I balance my career now. You can do that when you’re a little bit more advanced in your career. When you’re younger, it’s harder to do, for sure.
In the end, it is about taking risks that your institution is willing to support. One of the key things in North America we have been witnessing is how, increasingly, professional organizations are creating guidelines for review that include digital scholarship in the evaluation process. This effort really relies on senior colleagues, because they sit on the boards of those professional organizations and on the editorial boards of journals. Mid-career faculty who value digital scholarship have an important role to play also in mentorship and advocacy.
Question from Larisa Krayeva, PhD, Assistant Professor at the faculty of Technological Management and Innovation, ITMO University: It’s more of an observation than a question and I’m not sure if it’s relevant…. Well, you see, I teach philosophy to students from all sorts of technical backgrounds at ITMO, and during your discussion it occured to me how my personal experience applying different approaches teaching philosophy to different groups of students—like engineers, chemists, medical student etc.—can be similar to your experience, finding the common ground with scholars from other humanities backgrounds in DH.
David: I have something to say about the different kinds of students who are not necessarily specialized in questions of the humanities. I am lucky to have my position in the Arts and Humanities Division, but I don’t teach students exclusively who are concentrating in topics in the humanities. There is definitely an advantage to this model, namely that you are able as you say to “build common ground” across disciplines and tap into very different interests and skillsets for a truly interdisciplinary experience. In fact, I have heard over and over from students who are not majoring in humanities subjects that they never knew that such a field of inquiry existed, and that it was amazing to be able to think across and between fields. Of course, one of the minor disadvantages of having only individual courses offered in a “standalone” fashion is that they are not developmental or sequential, allowing students to build skills over time as you would want if you had students specializing in the domain.
Question from the audience: What is the most important thing when you get into the DH? What should you focus on first?
Kimon: It’s very important to inspect the tools and to critically evaluate the methodologies before starting. Many of these tools have hidden processes that you need to understand the implications of in order to do competent research. You can’t just download an NLP package and start throwing stuff into it. You can download topic modeling tools and you can run them over the web or locally and then you can start trying to figure out what those words mean, but topic modeling is a complex statistical process that does very specific things to text to create a certain kind of output. If you don’t know what it does to create that output, you may arrive at incorrect or ill-informed conclusions. That’s why it doesn’t hurt to have technical knowledge. It doesn’t hurt to understand what an algorithm is; it doesn’t hurt to have some programming language. We don’t just start using a database. So becoming aware of the texture of the tools and methodologies and establishing a critical sensibility is the strongest foundation you can have.
David: Working with data, and working with the digital more generally, takes us outside of our comfort zone. So my suggestion might be to work to create some data about something that you know well and do so in familiar surroundings, and then try to evaluate as a group how well those data represent the thing that you think you know. It’s important to recognize that in the digital world we necessarily distort things by representing them as abstraction or by formalization. So I think it’s worth thinking at that level about the relationship between the digital objects that we’re creating and that which we know.
The ongoing phases of the pandemic have affected different parts of the world in different ways and at different times, exposing inequalities and different states of readiness and ability for communities to mobilize in moments of crisis and necessity. In the digital humanities, we have also listened with a critical ear to changes discussed within the academy: maintaining certain types of hybrid learning, alternative delivery of content, and even remote education as a means of expanding markets for higher education. These proposed initiatives suggest both change and instability in the years to come.
Our conversation about the practice of international collaboration was carried out in a period of flux where there was not as much time for reflection as we would have liked. Obvious points of discussion arising from this roundtable discussion which deserve further attention include the future of the digital humanities community event as national or regional scholarly cultures expand from basic training toward more specialized work, as well as the potential of hybridization of in-person events both to increase access in the scholarly community and to reduce the carbon footprint of our academic endeavors. On the other hand, we feel that it would be unfortunate if local digital scholarship were the only sort to prevail in the coming years. We hope that our thoughts published here will keep the discussion of international collaboration in digital scholarship moving forward, encouraging others to explore what kinds of new roles it might play.
We recognize that collaborative international dialogue takes a lot of energy and labor, as well as a certain kind of personality and commitment which the academy does not often support. The speakers at this panel are quite proud of their cooperation, and of how their efforts have influenced communities of practice far away from the location of their academic positions. For this reason, we have decided to publish the text of this conversation along with Arabic and Russian translations of it to foster critical discussion with JITP’s readership and the new worlds of digital scholarship coming into focus in these languages and cultures. We trust that this translingual initiative will further the goal of transnational dialogue in global digital humanities and will inspire others to build such bridges.