Inside the big tent

I seem to have been repeating myself a lot lately.

Bethany Nowviskie’s recent visit to our shores prompted much interesting discussion about the possibility of establishing a local digital humanities association. Not for the first time I expressed my hope that any such association would actively involve those of us who eke out an intellectual existence beyond the safe harbour of academe. Organising THATCamp Canberra made it clear to me — digital humanists are everywhere.

Reassuringly everyone seemed to agree, but still I worry. Bethany’s excellent post reflecting on her experiences in Australia and New Zealand prompted me to ponder once more the dangers of boundary-setting. ‘While we might belong to a society I suspect that our sense of belonging is more likely to be found at a THATCamp or in the collegial embrace of Twitter’, I suggested.

It seems I just can’t help myself. Craig Bellamy blogged the other day about the need for a research-led digital humanities, asking ‘inconvenient’ questions of our society and culture. It’s a useful and important argument, but it triggered another bout of nervousness. I submitted a comment to Craig’s blog, but it seems higher powers (or more likely the spam filter) decided my comments were best kept from public view. What I said was:

Nicely said, though I’m a bit worried about the distinction between ‘service’ and ‘research’. I’m with Tom Scheinfeldt in thinking that toolmaking (and service building) can precede the articulation of research questions and yet be an important strand in digital humanities research. Our enthusiastic and sometime playful embrace of new ‘conveniences’ can and should lead us in ‘inconvenient’ directions, but where does the service end and the research begin?

Similarly, in thinking of the new organisation (and reflecting my own prejudices), I worry that such a formulation downplays the work of people in libraries, archives and museums who fight long and hard to create ‘conveniences’ for researchers, who have little institutional support for open-ended research, but whose efforts nonetheless are informed by a rich understanding of the research process. I think we have a lot to gain by inviting such people to join us in the ‘big tent’ of digital humanities.

Bethany’s vision of the ‘big tent’ and her desire to find ways to support the careers of hybrid scholar/developers is inspiring. Tom Scheinfeldt’s post (mentioned above) and his more recent talk on ‘Stuff digital humanists like‘ also offer much-needed validation to an institutional fringe dweller like myself. Tom notes:

Innovation in digital humanities frequently comes from the edges of the scholarly community rather than from its center—small institutions and even individual actors with few resources are able to make important innovations.

But while celebrating my inner hybrid and enjoying the freedom that comes from living on the innovative edges, still I can’t shake a nagging feeling of illegitimacy, as if someone’s about to tap me on the shoulder and point the way out of the tent.

Perhaps it’s the talk of a ‘professional’ society — as if being a digital humanist is a job. For me it’s not. No matter what paid work I have, I’m a historian. Yep, I’m a historian who likes building digital tools for other historians to use. I’m a historian who pays the bills developing websites, editing other people’s content, or wrangling metadata. But I’m still a historian — it’s just who I am. So the ‘big tent’ for me is not so much about forging a career as finding a home.

Perhaps it’s insecurity born of jealousy or resentment. My partner Kate Bagnall and I are both historians, but it’s something we have to fit in around the edges of paid employment outside of academia. As we write articles, do research, organise conferences, referee articles and advise graduate students — all in our ‘spare’ time — it’s a little hard not be exasperated by the manoeuvres of academic game players, carving out their illustrious careers. (I’m sure you know the type.) But it’s a life we chose, and, despite its challenges, we find ways to keep both mind and body nourished.

Perhaps it’s a reflection of my own state of mind as I ponder yet another change of employment status in the coming year.

Or perhaps all this nervousness and worry is a sign that there’s more work to do. When I complained on Twitter about not being able to get to THATCamp, somebody suggested I organise my own. So I did. I want more than an association. I want a CHNM or a Scholars’ Lab. I want an Office for the Digital Humanities dispensing start-up grants for innovative digital projects. I want a new research funding system. I want THATCamps every other week.

I’m a historian and I like to build things.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Tim Sherratt Written by:

I'm a historian and hacker who researches the possibilities and politics of digital cultural collections.


  1. December 23, 2010

    Hi Tim, nice post (and checked my spam but no post from you. Boo!)

    The point about associations are that they are democratic. Meaning that the members largely determine their direction and appoint representatives. So, even if someone posits a certain direction; it has to be agreed upon by the members. This is the idea behind a formal association rather than a loose network.

    And the DH is a set of ideas and practices like any other. It crosses many boundaries and we must look for synergies, rather than differences. It is the sound of many hands clapping.


  2. December 23, 2010

    Craig, yes although associations, particularly professional associations, do sometimes set standards for membership and restrict voting rights (not that I’m suggesting that’s the plan for the DH association! :-)). I suppose my point is that keeping things open and inclusive can actually take some effort, it doesn’t just happen.

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