On being crazy about your trade
Digital Humanities 2014 in Lausanne, Switzerland
If you understand Dutch, you might have seen Zomergasten with journalist and mathematician Ionica Smeets in August. Zomergasten (‘Summer guests’) is a tv programme in which a famous Dutch person shows her or his favorite visual fragments (tv, film, recorded theatre, Youtube or otherwise) and discusses them with an interviewer. One episode is of a decent movie-length, about three hours. People with small children and a job will know: you will never finish this in one sitting. And I didn’t. But I did finish it. Easily. Stealing moments throughout three days. During baby’s naptime, during my computer calculating topics in a 32-novel corpus, while cooking dinner. What Smeets does, what her job is in fact, but what she does very well, is to make mathematics attractive and understandable to a wide audience. In this episode however, she did something else. She showed the viewer what it is like to live your life with eyes wide open and with enthusiasm. And with love for what it is you do. She almost never stopped smiling when she talked about the fragments she showed, from people she admires. These are people who are curious and who work hard to reach goals that seem beyond their reach. I found it all extremely engrossing and inspiring.
Smeets related that this enthusiasm, her love for mathematics, was what made her different, what made her not fit in when she was younger. She eventually realised that she needed different people to talk to. Being nuts about what it is you do, even if our peers don’t see it: perhaps that is what defines digital humanists as well. Or maybe I should write ‘defined’. Digital Humanities 2014 shows that at least we have found each other, even if our ‘humanities’ colleagues do not allow us to join them on their playground. We have created our own. DH2014 also showed that this playground is rapidly becoming too small for everyone to play on, with thousands of visitors, which the organisers happily (and perhaps a bit scared) proclaimed several times. This community of practice, as Ray Siemens described it in his keynote, is becoming so large that I wonder: where will we go? Perhaps conferences of the subfields will suffice — as a digital literary scholar, I visited talks on topic modeling ekphrasis in poetry, automatically recataloguing Diderot’s Encyclopédie and using topic models of canonised works to find thematically related forgotten novels — from a ‘traditional’ literary studies’ point of view still a hugely wide range of topics. I am starting to think that — next to that — we should keep trying to get back to the cool kids as well (and here I will stop milking the metaphor).
With the focus on computation and the digital, it is sometimes easy to forget what it is we are actually researching, or to be more precise: to not stop at the point where our computational process is successful. To not copy the format of computer science’s journals, where there is little room for a thoughtful piece of argumentation or a literary analysis of a couple of pages. Not algorithmic criticism, but literary criticism married to algorithmic analysis. What I think, judging by what I have seen at DH2014, is that most digital humanists are not only ‘nerds’ because they love using the computer, but also because they love literature / art / history / etc. Smeets is, after a period of being a mathematician only, trying to reconnect to non-mathematicians. If we lose the connection to our ‘traditional’ counterparts, as simply as by just citing other DH research in our articles, we lose a wealth of research, ideas and thoughts. Digital humanists rightly advocate programming skills in students, or at least a basic understanding of programming, but we should not allow those students to discard the rhetoric they have been taught in favour of those computer skills the minute they enter the field of digital humanities. We should endeavour not to be disconnected. Not by waiting for the love to be returned, but by holding onto the qualities that we have developed ourselves (or a wild idea: learn them if we haven’t already). Even if the relationship is not a reciprocal one for now and we cannot yet return our richness – and rich we are; the exciting and outstanding research we have seen in Lausanne proves it.