Getting Out of Our Comfort Zones

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”

Lao Tzu

I had a coffee today with Mark McDayter, a Professor of English at Western University. Mark and I have been talking over Twitter for a few weeks now, as we both have similar interests: the 17th Century, English Literature, Poetry, Libraries and the digital side of humanities. Mark has recently agreed to run a workshop on XML and TEI for the upcoming Great Lakes THATCamp 2012, and is one of 10 workshops that we’re exciting to be holding this year. As we spoke about all the things that will be going on during this unconference, Mark asked me an interesting question: Is there something larger going on around GLTHATCamp?

I initially answered that this will be the 3rd installation of GLTHATCamp, which has been extremely successful under the careful eye of Ethan Watrall. This is true. Then we spoke about the possibility of courses in DH being offered on Western’s campus, which we have both heard a lot about, and, of course, are very interested to see get underway. I told Mark about a number of meetings that have occurred over the past year with great intentions: get-togethers, speed-dating, guest lectures. All of these were great starting points, though some of them had rather low attendance. Finally Mark made a great point: the future courses and students in DH at Western were all fine and good, but we’re all too spread out (not to mention spread too thin). I’ve spoken to people in History, Hispanic Studies, Literature, Anthropology, Geography, Media Studies, Computer Science and Information Science who all have an interest in helping students (and each other) to develop the skills truly needed for an interdisciplinary degree program to succeed. Thing is, few of these people actually know each other.

So, back to Mark’s original question: Is there something larger going on around GLTHATCamp? Well, I don’t know, but I think there should be! I think we should take this opportunity to find out just exactly what is going on around campus, and around the entire Great Lakes area.

I’m going to propose a few ways to help build a community on campus, and I really hope that, in return, others can make suggestions, offer critiques, or provide examples of what they’ve done to get people out of their comforts zones and into a Digital Humanities community.

  • Create space. This also came up in conversation with Mark, who noted the lack of a lab anywhere on campus specifically designated for DH purposes. I know of two small spaces at Western, run by Bill Turkel and Juan Luis Suarez, that are great for a few, but too crammed for many. I’m sure others exist. However, if there were a space in which we could all start coming together informally that could grow over time, that would be a great start.
  • Encourage cross-disciplinary attendance in graduate courses. Even if its just for a visit or a few weeks, having a student from another discipline has two benefits. First, the student can offer a slightly different point of view on what is being covered in class, and second, they can bring their knowledge gained from experience in another subject back to their own field. It might change the direction of the class discussion, it may change the direction of the student’s work. It may not. But it certainly won’t harm anything.
  • Co-Teach. I know university administration might hate this suggestion, but if they decide to offer an interdisciplinary degree, they are going to have to accept that this, more often than not, means having more than one professor per course. This is what DH is all about, people with great ideas but different technical skill levels coming together and helping each other out. For the beginning, the courses offered should be treated as projects. Teach together, experiment, see what works.
  • Be Creative. This one has to be done carefully. Many people are not willing to respond to posters that read “Digital Humanities Speed Dating Event”, and those who do might have to answer to their better halves! But last-minute meetings, hack-a-thons, workshops, and discussions should be part of our normal routine.

So, I’ve provided a few starting points. If you have the time, please tell me what you think!


One thought on “Getting Out of Our Comfort Zones

  1. I am honoured to have been the catalyst for such a great post, Kim!

    You make some really terrific points here, and I think it would be very worthwhile to follow up on your ideas. Some of these I know that you’ve already been hard at work implementing, such as the “DH Speed Dating”; the others are ideas that we should all start pushing harder.

    One of our challenges — and I think this probably applies to Digital Humanities in general, and not just at Western — is to identify those working in the Humanities who are, in effect, already engaged in DH without perhaps being aware of it.

    DH is a pretty new field, and although its profile has certainly risen of late, definitions of what it comprises are still . . . fuzzy, to say the least. In my view, anyone who uses the digital medium at all extensively — through online texts or publication, social media, classroom technology, etc. — is at least potentially a “DHer” without necessarily self-identifying as such. One of the things that we can probably do better is to approach such people and let them know that, knowingly or unknowingly, they are contributing to a larger field, and that there is support, information, and a larger community of DHers out there that may well be able to assist them in their endeavours, as well as to suggest new possible directions that their use of technology might take them.

    Aside from the more obvious practical benefits to be accrued to DH by building a wider and more self-aware base, I think we all gain by breaking down the digital divide a bit, and encouraging a broader understanding of the uses and potential of technology. I’m sure I have as much or more to learn from such DH outliers as they do from me.

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