Are we, scholars working on Iberian peripheral digital projects, arriving late to the DH? A reflection on #hdh2015

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Captura de pantalla 2015-10-22 a les 1.29.08

If I learned anything from #hdh2015 –an international conference organised by HDH (the International Association of “Humanidades Hispánicas Digitales”) and LINDH (Laboratorio de Innovación en Humanidades Digitales)– it is that the Hispanic Digital Humanities are in great shape and growing fast. This second edition of this conference, following the inaugural one hosted by A Coruña in 2013, brought together almost 150 speakers for three dynamic and engaging days in which ideas and projects were shared. In addition to the three-day Hispanic oriented conference, the European Association of Digital Humanities organised their 1st #eadhday2015 as a 4th additional day, bringing the scope of the conference to a European level.

My personal experience overall –taking into account the fact that this was my first DH congress and my first time presenting my PhD project in front of a DH audience– was very positive. You could say that I may not be the best person to give feedback about a DH conference when I’ve attended no others of the kind, but as I’ve had some experience at other international conferences I can confidently say that both LINDH and UNED made #hdh2015 a success. The great venues, the fact that most sessions proceeded in a timely manner, excellent organisation and a good variety of panels made other minor hiccoughs –missing chairs to moderate in a couple of sessions and a projector malfunction in one of the parallel sessions– look unimportant.

There is no need for me to go into much detail about the papers given at the conference, because of its Digital nature and excellent coverage in Twitter of both organisers and delegates. You can look up the Twitter hashtag #hdh2015 to find an impressive live report of the panels and discussions, together with UNED’s audiovisual resources and LINHD’s YouTube channel with a video record of the sessions that took place in the main venue. As well as these, I strongly recommend checking both the LINHD’s account @linhduned and that of its director Elena González Blanco @elenagbg to guide you through the timeline of the sessions.

What I will do –partly because it was one of the questions that from my point of view generated more food for thought and partly because it is a vital question in my research– is to follow on the question posed by Elisabeth Burr @ESU_DH_CT to the organisers of #hdh2015: How come that of the 100+ papers presented at the programme, only a couple of them represented research done on linguistic and cultural minorities?

As incontestable as this observation by Burr was, my point here is that perhaps the criticism pointed to the wrong direction in this case, as I would not necessarily blame the organisation for failing to be inclusive in this sense. It is true that maybe a call for papers translated to some of the other languages within Hispanic Studies could have attracted some more projects, but… where do we draw the line here? If you include Portuguese, Catalan or Galician translations of the CFP, why would you not include respective translations into Quechua, Aymara or Guarani? That is definitely not the issue here. During years, “Hispanic Studies” has worked as an umbrella term including many minority languages within Iberian and Latin American territories. Depending on where you would find this term –mostly for political and cultural reasons– there might have been a higher or lower degree of inclusion of these minority languages, but this is a situation academics working on these areas have become accustomed to. When an academic working on a Galician/Catalan/Guarani poet goes to a Hispanic Studies Conference, he/she knows that besides the slightly political connotation present in the terminology used to name the event, their inclusion in the event itself is somehow guaranteed and generally not questioned. If we take the above to be true, the mere fact of adding the world “Digital” to that so called “umbrella term” that Hispanic Studies has become should initially not pose a problem for the automatic inclusion of those projects that, besides focusing on peripheral cultures or literatures, want to add a digital approach to their methodology. I may be excessively naive in my previous reasoning by removing “weight” to the political issues at stake when I state that there are no underlying reasons to this absence of plurality. But even if the current political situation in Spain could suggest otherwise, my opinion is that the causes are not necessarily connected to politics only. I attribute this absence as being symptomatic of a general climate in determinate areas of Iberian academia, in which we find high quality projects that could have been very relevant to this conference, but decide not to label themselves as a Digital Humanities project and therefore do not engage with this event. And for me, this is a missed opportunity for many of the projects that fall into this classification. I am not quite sure about the reasons behind this tendency, but I believe it is important to raise some questions with the intention of shedding some light on the issue. Some of those questions, which I post here –directed to academics doing research on peripheral literatures and cultures within Hispanic Studies– should probably be answered precisely by these academics, rather than by the organisers of events such as #hdh2015: – Are we, scholars working on Iberian peripheral digital projects, arriving late to the DH? And if so… – How do we fix/learn from this? – Are we the only peripheral cultures in this situation, or is our particular position aggravated by the increasingly favourable status of the Spanish language in the world? PS: I still cry at night remembering how good the food was during the conference. Thanks dh2015!  

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The Round-robin Approach

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One of the usual tasks of traditional researchers involves the creation of labels that situate their work within the otherwise infinite pool of knowledge constructed by mankind. Their tendency has often been to dissect this knowledge in small and carefully shaped pieces that meet the requirements of a specific field. This propensity to individualize areas of study is beneficial to a certain degree and completely justified in moments when academic practice is shifting towards new forms of knowledge. However, as internalized in the general practice as this process may be, it can come at a price in the exceptional times we are currently witnessing, with the Humanities experiencing a massive transformation driven by the Digital Age.

The price I am referring to is the loss of qualitative research production as a result of an excessive fragmentation of knowledge into emerging study areas. I came to think of these dangers during last Friday’s talk at UCC by Professor Enrique Santos Unamuno, from University of Extremadura. When talking about the multidisciplinary projects he is currently involved in, his exposition focused on highlighting the different skills that every contributor was adding to the overall project. Rather than labeling or restraining the scope of his work through new terminology, he employed existing notions taken from philology, cartography, computer science, philosophy, literary criticism between many others, and insisted on the need of all these fields to come together and collaborate between them.

In order for this collaboration to produce qualitative research, there is another necessary ingredient to the recipe: expertise. Through mastering their own field, researchers must excel at it while also becoming aware of their limitations when approaching other areas of knowledge. The aim is to seek the expert advice of other top researchers in these other disciplines, rather than unsuccessfully attempt the impossible task of becoming the ultimate interdisciplinary researcher who can master all subject areas.

Therefore, when we talk about Digital Humanities and its contribution to knowledge, I believe that above all, we have to highlight its collaborative nature, its ability to put together experts on existing fields that are willing to create new forms of knowledge. But most importantly, we have to be really careful when defining or labeling new sub areas within the discipline, as this can also restrain the skills associated to them. In other words, do the Digital Humanities search for a scholar who is an expert philologist interested in a collaboration with an expert on computer science, or do they want this scholar to be half proficient in computer science and half familiar with philological concepts?

Both scenarios are possible within the current definition of a digital humanist, but the question is which of them will produce the best research. The trend imposed by social media engines such as Twitter, which values quantity of information over quality, may be suitable for some aspects of a society shaped by the Digital Age, but when it comes to academia, epistemic integrity surely demands quality over quantity. In order to achieve this, collaboration between scholars in different areas of expertise is essential.

It was perhaps this same collaborative need, or even curiosity, which brought together some crime novel writers in the 1930’s. Figures such as Agatha Christie and Ronald Knox united their creative efforts with other twelve writers from the so-called Detection Club and created works such as The Scoop and Behind the Screen or The Floating Admiral, probably some of the first collaborative creative writing projects in history. Whereas the writing processes behind a literary work and a piece of research may differ considerably, these two practices may have more in common that what we think, as the level of expertise needed to succeed in a particular area of research can be compared to the level of specialization that a writer needs to achieve to succeed in a determinate literary genre.

My interest in this type of narratives is driven by the digital project based on Catalan author Manuel de Pedrolo: Temps Obert v11.1, which started off as a web-based free interpretation of Pedrolo’s ambitious novelistic series Temps obert, an eleven books approach to the concept of ultimate novel. After several weeks and close to forty posts,  the project has turned out to be an interesting portrait of how collaborative writing works, while showing the extent to which the writing process can be influenced by induced thematic and time restrictions; its weekly contributions from five different writers in their different mother tongues exemplify how the plot and style of a narrative can be shaped by not only the collaborative nature of its production, but also the immediacy of publishing on an online platform.

It is quite interesting to see how words evolve to convey different meanings though time, and even more surprising how we immediately associate these meanings to mental images. Since the moment I learned that these collaborative literary experiments were called Round-robin stories, I can’t help but imagine my four colleagues in the project as little fluffy robins chasing each other in circle, waiting for their weekly turn to write their four hundred words.

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