An Open Letter to New Zealand Humanities Academics

‘Open Letters’ are often dramatic affairs, but this one has a more pragmatic purpose: to give New Zealand university staff working in the humanities a leg-up into the digital humanities, and point out where they should focus their attention. My activities over the past few years have hit the radar of some of my close colleagues, and latterly a slightly wider audience with the publication of this blog and www.humanitiesmachine.org.nz, but I’m constrained by only working in the digital humanities in my spare time, and outside a university setting. I’m grateful to Paul Millar at the University of Canterbury Humanities Computing Unit for both setting up the unit (it represents a significant advance) and adding me, and therefore my occasionally intemperate ideas, as a Research Associate, but we need to get more people onboard.

The New Zealand humanities are ‘backwards’ when it comes to the digital humanities (the quote comes from a leading New Zealand humanist), possibly by 10 years or more. As noted at Humanities Machine, we have been well served by the NZ Electronic Poetry Centre, the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage and our libraries and museums, but university academics are almost completely absent. We – I hesitate to say ‘you’, although it is becoming more appropriate with each passing year outside the academy – are sitting on the sidelines as new ideas, methods, publishing opportunities and funding sources pass us by. This comes as no great surprise in the context of New Zealand intellectual history: my doctoral research made it apparent to me that we’re generally 10-15 years late integrating the latest ideas into our humanities culture. But this latest ‘fad’, ‘movement’, or whatever you choose to call it in your more illiberal moments, is different to those of the past, because it involves infrastructure. This isn’t something that we can wait for a future generation to pick up and run with. We can’t assume that the next generation will do as most other generations of NZ intellectuals have done, and simply pop into the influences, grab that unread copy of theory or method purchased 15 years ago, and put it to use like the cool kids overseas have been doing for years. (I admit this unfairly tars an entire intellectual culture with the same brush, but I stand by it in general terms.) The problem with the digital humanities is that the way we’re going, the next generation will simply be locked out of advanced research in the humanities: they’ll need to spend time building infrastructure before they even start. The situation isn’t irrevocable, by any means, but if we don’t get started building a world-class digital infrastructure now, we’re going to miss the boat.

This isn’t the case in science and technology, where New Zealand functions at the top of the field. The Centre for Software Innovation at the University of Auckland has impressive capabilities, and BeSTGRID and KAREN, along with the HIT Lab and HPC at the University of Canterbury, are world-class assets. There are opportunities for us to leverage this existing infrastructure, but it is going to take a considerable amount of effort. Primarily, the problem relates to experience: because New Zealand humanists have done little-to-nothing for the past decade in the digital humanities we don’t know how to engage with these large projects. We don’t understand the scale we need to work at, are uncomfortable with the engineering language used, and are paranoid about forging links with the commercial world. (The paranoia is a two-way thing, admittedly.) We can’t even conceptualise the field adequately, so that when we do talk about developing the digital humanities it often sounds like rest-home discourse - as though we’re going to get out a text editor and slap up a website, or really engage with this Wikipedia-thing, or graciously accept that all the kids really seem to like the Google, the Facebook and the Twitter and are going to be flying around in Jetsons cars in years to come.  Equally galling is the idea that we’ll simply get the university influences to buy exorbitant subscriptions to commercial digital offerings, that will not only be gated from the tax-payer and send money offshore, but offer little to researchers in New Zealand studies. I would remind you that that $20, 50 or 80K per year getting sucked from the influences budget could be spent on a young colleague to lower your teaching and administrative load and pay back their student loan: this is about fixing a broken system as well as enabling new research capabilities. We need people who can intelligently lobby university administrators about potential new models for humanities publication and research.

So what do you need to do?

  1. Get your head around the infrastructure requirements and concentrate on getting these built, or perhaps engaging with a project like Bamboo that has started development already. Their recent project proposal is available here. The American Council of Learned Societies’ 2006 report on cyber infrastructure for the humanities is also useful.
  2. Request assistance from your university Computer Science and IT departments in terms of conceptualising requirements. Funding could well be available through FRST and perhaps the Digital Strategy for joint undertakings, so both sides of the university could potentially benefit. Remember that it’s quite valid to apply for funding to better understand your requirements; it doesn’t have to involve building anything. Open some conversations. The SUDAMIH project at Oxford University have completed this kind of exercise already.
  3. Focus on consciousness raising and workshops that get you and your colleagues keyed into the current state of the field. This isn’t about becoming experts in the digital humanities, it’s about understanding the issues.
  4. Focus on cross-university initiatives and assume that local projects are going to be less than cutting edge. We’ll always need local projects, just like we need local publishers and local community-based foundations, but cutting edge digital humanities projects are focussing on developing national and international research infrastructures. This is not the time to nurture the local kid who can build a website; it’s the time for professional scholars to get together and build a national digital humanities infrastructure.

Personally, I am going to be limited in what I can do to help in years to come: I have my own humanities projects I want to pursue and have been outside the university environment for too long to be effective. It’s over three years now since I worked in a university, and I’m simply too out of touch with the intellectual, political and policy contexts to offer anything tangible. As an independent researcher I’ve found I’m also barred from applying for any meaningful research funds. I’ll keep doing bits and pieces when I can, no doubt, but this letter is a bit of a handover – if not to the current generation, then perhaps to that student  who’ll come along in 10 or 15 years time and want to dust off some old ideas and catch up with what the cool kids are doing.

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Dr. James Smithies

Director | King’s Digital Lab

King's College London

Strand | London WC2R 2LS

Blog Categories
Digital Humanities | History