The rest of Digital Humanities @ Bern

So…that’s twice this week that I’ve made the same mistake. I mentioned in my last post that we’ll be looking at web publishing platforms in the Tools & Techniques class tomorrow, but I was wrong! We are actually scheduled to be looking at mapping tools and GIS. Shows what I know. Oh well, at least I got a head start on next week’s preparation.

The other half (mostly) of the Digital Humanities team at Bern.

While I was working on that somewhat misguided class preparation, my assistant Thomas dropped by with a few things that needed my attention. Between the two of us, and with some help from a secretary attached to the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, we are DH @ Bern. This entire escapade of establishing DH here would be a lot harder without all the help he cheerfully gives.

The picture also shows my fairly sparse office – really I ought to have drawn something colorful and abstract and exotic up on the whiteboard before I took the picture. This is a transitional year in many ways though, and this office will only be mine for another few months, until we move to the main humanities building in August.

Not pictured here, because I didn’t see them today, are my fellow members of the Kompetenznetzwerk ‘Digitale Information’, a research networking endeavor between the humanities faculty, the department for Wirtschaftsinformatik (“business informatics”), and the master’s program in Archival and Library Information Science and funded in part by the Swiss Post. Between all of us and our respective areas of expertise, digital information doesn’t stand a chance of keeping any of its secrets. Just like the Digital Humanities program, the Digital Information network is in its very early days as we all find our niches here in Bern.

So where do we go from here? It’s a good question. There are a couple of projects in the works for both Digital Humanities and Digital Information, and there are a couple more classes to dream up and design for the students, and beyond that we just have to keep announcing our presence and the sheer awesomeness of all things digitally humanistic, until the students are queuing out the door for the chance to work on digital projects. That’s what they do at all the other universities, right??

Learning and teaching

Since August I have been the new assistant professor in this new subject of “Digital Humanities” here at Bern. It is a strange thing in many ways, to be in a post that never existed before, has no defined curriculum or degree program, and does not belong to any institute or department—just the humanities faculty at large.  I really am making it up as I go along.

This term I am teaching two courses: a six-unit seminar Introduction to Digital Humanities, and a practical workshop on Tools and Techniques for Digital Humanities. This is the second time I’ve taught the Intro seminar—it’s a small group but they are interested and engaged, and I do have some fun with what I assign them to read. The goal for that class is to give the students some idea of what DH actually is, in all its definitionally-elusive glory. (In fact they may very well be looking today at all of your answers to the question of what DH is!)

The other course—the one for which I am preparing today—is the Tools and Techniques workshop. Like everything about my job right now the class is new and experimental, and the content has to be kept reasonably generalist, so this isn’t an in-depth introduction to digital textual scholarship with the TEI or anything like that. I made the decision at the beginning to incorporate Python into most of the lessons in some form, and as a result my poor students have had to watch me work out, by trial and error, what sort of computer interaction skills I can take for granted these days and what is familiar only to people who were using computers in the 1990s. (For example, the command line. It was only once I saw most of my students trying, quite reasonably given modern UI design, to use the mouse to fix typos on the command line that I realised how unnecessarily hard I was making things for them. But it would simply never have occurred to me until I’d seen it that that was a problem!)

Tomorrow’s class is about web publishing platforms, for which I intend to concentrate on WordPress and Omeka (if I can get the latter installed, which quite honestly I’m having problems with at the moment!) It’s going to be relatively light on programming for once – I’m not going to cover HTML and CSS and all that jazz in a single 1.5-hour session – but I hope by the end of it they will have a good idea how and where they can put interesting things online and (if I get Omeka running after all) what kind of visualization tools they can play with.

Applications, supplications

The first couple of things on my todo list have been knocked off, and I’ve come into the office meanwhile. You get spoiled eventually living in Switzerland – the trains run on time, the wifi works even through most of the mountain tunnels, and it’s perfectly reasonable to start the workday well before you have actually arrived at work.

Not to mention the whole “excellent chocolate” and “gorgeous views of mountains everywhere” thing, of course.

It does feel rather as though I have been working nonstop for the last few weeks. This is largely to do with the funding application season, which for me began sometime in February and will draw to a close on Friday with the deadline for COST trans-domain proposals.

For me this is the first year that I have been eligible for project funding as opposed to early-career individual funding. I’ve been writing applications, rather than supplications, for once. Okay, my post-doctoral applications were never as pathetic as the word implies, but you do have to pour your soul into the early-career applications in a fairly exhausting way, when they are judged it feels like it is your personal worth being evaluated, and if you have the misfortune to live in the UK you have to be pathetically grateful if you receive any feedback whatsoever, because in general you do not. I think most of us who have been there writing those early-career applications did feel that, given the opportunity, we would get down on our knees and supplicate indeed.

But this year it’s different. I’m excited about the projects I have proposed / am proposing, but there is not this sense of desperation or question of scholarly self-worth bound up in the picture. And the effect of that was that these applications were much easier to get started on – I am more used to struggling and fretting for weeks and then writing most of the text in a blind panic, but it turns out that when my professional life doesn’t hang in the immediate balance then I can just sit down and write.

Of course I am glad for this but I also can’t help thinking it’s rather unfair to those who want to do this sort of project research but have not yet had the good fortune to land a workable post from which to do it. The problem of vanishing opportunities for academics to do the work they love to do is not a new one, and it has had plenty of attention already, but it is interesting how every now and then this personal realisation will dawn about yet another aspect of the whole.

Coming alive

Kid off to school: check. Cup of tea at hand: check. Let’s get this day started, shall we?

I thought I would start the post with a retrospective of previous Days of DH that I’ve participated in, but as far as I can tell, everything before 2012 has disappeared into the ether. At any rate, here I was then. (Last year I sat the event out for various reasons.) In 2011 I was a postdoc just returning from maternity leave to my new job on the Tree of Texts project at Leuven; in 2010 I’d had my Ph.D. for just about one year, was a temporary lecturer in Byzantine history at Oxford and trying to work out what on earth I would do next.

This is possibly the first year that the Day of DH has caught me “doing digital humanities” whether I like it or not. Becoming a DH professor will do that to a person, I understand. It also means that this is the first year that I will be saying anything at all about teaching, classes, students, etc. instead of talking only about my own research and hacking.

On the schedule for today:

  • Send a mail around to partners in a COST Trans-Domain Proposal we are making, due at the end of the week.
  • Make the revisions to an abstract for the upcoming DH BeNeLux conference.
  • Collect links to projects I’ve mentioned in the Intro to Digital Humanities seminar I’m running, and send them to the students.
  • Plan tomorrow’s session of the Tools and Techniques for Digital Humanities class.
  • Finish the data analysis for an article I am writing.

So let’s get on with it!

Just another Day of DH 2014 site

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