About Me

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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

9 January 2015

Resurrecting a Lost Lecture

In July 2003, I was asked to give a lecture at the Institute of Historical Research in London to mark the launch of British History Online, which has since established itself as one of the most important digital resources in the humanities. My 2003 lecture was to be the usual crystal-ball gazing sort of thing, and I rashly decided to venture into the world of multi-media. The new services such as British History Online which were becoming available at the beginning of the last decade were very exciting, but they tended to be very text-oriented. This was understandable, as it was difficult enough at that time making large quantities of text available online, but I nevertheless felt it worth making the point that the world wide web offered other possibilities. I wanted to point out that the web offered access to maps and images on a much larger scale. The first online collections of historical films were just beginning to appear, and I wanted to illustrate their potential for historians. I imagined how Frederic William Maitland, the Victorian scholar of medieval law who when I was a young scholar was seen as a model of the professional historian, would have reacted to these possibilities. I felt sure he would have been enthusiastic about such resources as Getmapping or the British Pathé newsreel archive. I gave the lecture an epigram from Maitland, 'The Web Must be Rent'.
The 2003 lecture didn't go very well. In the course of preparing the lecture, I became doubly enthused by the range of multi-media possibilities for historians, and made the classic mistake of trying to cram too much in - always a problem when using sound and video in a lecture, as they eat up the allotted time. The biggest problem was that I didn't realise that the overhead projectors of 2003 didn't all reliably support video projection and that performances might vary depending on the laptop and video drivers used. In testing my beautiful slides before my lecture, I found there was a black space where the video was supposed to be. I spent the lunch break desperately trying to lash something up to show the videos, but the evident difficulty of showing the film and the poor quality of demonstration undermined my fundamental point that historians could now more easily incorporate film and sound in their work.
Some lectures and presentations are like children, and you want to see them do well in the world, and I wanted the points I made in 'The Web Is Rent' to be more widely accepted. However, it was puzzling to see how the lecture could be made more widely available in the form in which I envisaged it in my mind's eye. Blogging software wasn't as sophisticated then as it is now. I wanted to embed the sound, video and maps more fully into the presentation than a blog would then allow, and didn't want simply to present a series of links. Above all, most of the multimedia material I used was fiercely controlled by licence and was not generally accessible. I tried to identify some public domain videos that could replace the ones I tried to use in the original lecture, but didn't find anything completely satisfactory. I experimented with a number of packages which seemed might offer a low-tech solution to making my lecture more widely available, such as Microsoft Producer, but they would have mostly resulted in something which was itself like a video, which missed my point somehow.
It would of course have been possible in 2003 to create the digital artefact I had in my mind's eye, but it would have involved seeking substantial funding and setting up a project. I was at that time fully preoccupied with other projects, and there didn't seem to be strong enough intellectual justification to seek the research funding that would then have been necessary to take the idea behind my IHR lecture forward - it was after all simply a lecture which sought to make a simple point that new technologies were opening up fresh possibilities for historians.
Although I put the 2003 lecture in my large store of unfinished or half-finished projects, I retained a strong affection for it among my intellectual children. This was partly because it reflected a vision of a multi-faceted history that I remain strongly committed to. The 2003 lecture also marked my first involvement with what has now become almost a default mode of lecturing for me, a more performative activity in which I talk around images, sounds and video which fortunately nowadays (generally) work. I put the slides from these lectures on Slideshare so that my audience can afterwards look at the links for themselves, but otherwise I don't feel the need to create a permanent record of them.
Just before Christmas 2014, Patrik Svensson asked me whether I could contribute to a panel in an event he was organising at the remarkable HUMLab in Umeå in northern Sweden. The work of HUMLab is fascinating for many reasons, but one particularly interesting theme of HUMLab's work is the way it explores how digital technology can support new spatial configurations for scholarly activity, drawing on approaches from libraries, performance arts, and architecture in rethinking the scholarly space. In asking me to join the panel at Umeå, Patrik explained that there was one condition - the speakers would be making a 'stepped presentation' using the eleven large display screens in the meeting space at HUMLab. A variety of digital objects could be displayed in varying configurations in these screens, but use of Powerpoints or Prezzi was banned. Presentations were to be more like installations than lectures.
In contemplating my contribution to the Umeå event, my mind went back to my 2003 lecture at the Institute of Historical Research. I wondered what would happen if I took some of the materials from 2003 and showed them on the screens in HUMLab. If nothing else, I was intrigued to see what those videos would look like on the high quality displays in Sweden - there was one of President Brezhnev in Afghanistan which I felt was a poignant historical document and I was keen to share. Patrik was particularly helpful in suggesting how such a display could work in the HUMLab space - he had the inspired idea that we could show some of the videos simultaneously, which was for me a highlight. It was a fascinating experiment, and it was exciting to see how different scholars from various disciplines responded to the possibilities of this simple but innovative space. The image at the top of my post shows me in the midst of my talk in Umeå.
Patrik was not, however, content with merely organising a hugely complex and extremely innovative scholarly meeting. He wanted to convey to the wider world something of the presentations at Umeå. I am very grateful to Patrik for giving me the impetus to revisit my ten year old lecture, as I think it would otherwise have just languished on my hard drive. Of course, we are now at point where blogging and CMS packages can handle the sort of integrated presentation I was straining towards in 2003. Patrick suggested the use of Medium, which I hadn't encountered before. Patrik favoured the use of Medium because it offers very easy embedding of a variety of digital media, and its collection format enables various contributions to be easily pulled together into a single publication.
As soon as I started working with Medium, I realised that it offered a means by which I could easily share my 2003 lecture. To my surprise, I found that my fundamental message from 2003, that the availability of new digital resources offers the opportunity for historians to use a wider range of sources in different media, remains very relevant. Most of the resources I linked to in 2003 still worked. The most volatile were, inevitably, the multimedia resources - the lecture was given before Soundcloud, YouTube or Vimeo was launched. In particular, the collection from which the Brezhnev film was taken was no longer available online, although I was still allowed to retain my copy of it. In other cases, such as the videos from a National Library of Wales online exhibition, the outdated codecs could no longer be loaded. Nevertheless, I found to my surprise that I could reconstruct most of my old lecture in Medium and it generally holds up well and I think I haven't committed any major copyright breaches in the course of re-assembling these materials. I could readily have replaced those multimedia resources which are no longer current, but in general I have left them even when this compromises quality, as an indication of how far resources have remained available over the period since 2003. I have embedded the Medium collection, 'The Historian and Historical Sources in a Digital Age', at the bottom of this post.
But of course I could not simply use my 2003 lecture in the HUMLab session - it was too long for one thing, and in many ways my message from 2003 has gained in urgency. While the web has flooded our world with images, much scholarly communication has become more textual and humanities scholars seem increasingly to privilege verbal discourse. This problem requires a renewed assault and I tried to use my 2003 materials to address these in my contribution at Umeå, 'Digitising the Historical Record'. Again, I've embedded links to the whole collection from the HUMLab event at the bottom of this post.
Does this story of how my lecture was lost and then found offer any wider lessons about changing forms of scholarly communication? A few points of wider value do seem to me to emerge.
  • The imperatives of funding mean that we give priority in the digital humanities to the funded research project, and by their nature such projects often tend to be large-scale and focussed on the creation of primary resources. But humanities scholarship is much more varied in its character and form than this. Very valuable contributions are made through small-scale, reflective pieces - often expressed in conventional scholarship through the article. My lost lecture was just such a small-scale project - not big enough to seek the serious research funding it needed to see the light of day in 2003, but still making some useful points. In the digital humanities, we seem to be geared mainly towards the larger projects - almost as if we were only able to publish monographs. We need to think about mechanisms to support the article-scale digital activity, and these mechanisms need to go beyond simple reliance on social media.
  • If my 2003 lecture was a conventional piece of humanities research, twelve years to publication would be leisurely, but not unusual. There is an assumption that digital humanities research will be made available very quickly, but maybe the timescales for digital humanities research are not dissimilar to those of more conventional humanities scholarship. Many of the constraints which affect scholarly timescales in the humanities (lack of time, availability of research materials, need to debate and develop ideas) apply as much in the digital sphere as elsewhere. The kind of delay I had in waiting until a suitable technology was available to achieve the vision of how I wanted my lecture to appear could occur with conventional publication, if you have to wait for a sympathetic journal or article. In the humanities, conventional wisdom assumes that scholarly work takes fifteen or maybe even twenty years to be picked up. Might it be the same with digital humanities?
  • Although a delay of twelve years in completing a piece of humanities scholarship is not unusual, the kind of multi-facetted publication that resulted is more unusual. Here, I think there is a distinct difference - that rather than just producing one final piece of work whose roots stretch back over twelve years, I have published the 2003 lecture, the Umeå presentation based on it (which itself draws on material from my paper on 'Imaging Historical Documents' in the collection The Virtual Representation of the Past edited by Lorna Hughes and Mark Greengrass, Ashgate 2008, as well as some other presentations), as well as this reflective commentary on the two pieces. This enables me to explore and represent some issues about the stability of scholarly publications using multi-media which I would otherwise have been able to do. 
  • It seems that one way in which our understanding of scholarly communication is changing is that we lay bare the evolution of our scholarship - in my case, anyone who is interested can often trace it from powerpoint to blog text and finally to a more formal publication. This is something that is more difficult to do with the works of a pre-digital scholar like Frederic William Maitland.   

    Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production The Historian and Historical Sources in a Digital Age

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7 May 2014

Digital Humanities and the Quest for Academic Respectability

Intervention at Higher Education Academy Summit 'Towards a Pedagogy for the Digital Humanities', Lewes, 7 May 2014

Andrew Sanders, in his Short Oxford History of English Literature (2000), has outlined the ideological and social influences which shaped the emergence of the study of English as an academic subject in the nineteenth century. Sanders describes how ‘the ancient English universities, once they got round to establishing chairs and then courses of study, felt obliged to make English acceptable by rendering it dry, demanding and difficult’. English had to establish its social respectability by comparison with subjects such as Classics. Sanders notes how English was considered ‘a parvenu subject largely suited to social and intellectual upstarts (a category which it assumed included women). In order to appear “respectable” in the company of gentlemanly disciplines such as Classics and History, it had to require hard labour of its students’. This was achieved partly by an emphasis on the study of Old and Middle English literature which remained fundamental to the Oxford syllabus until quite recently, provoking the celebrated protests of Kingsley Amis and Phillip Larkin, denouncing Beowulf as ‘ape’s bum fodder’. Amis found a note by Larkin in a copy of Faerie Queene which read: ‘First I thought Troilus and Criseyde was the most boring poem in English. Then I thought Beowulf was. Then I thought Paradise Lost was. Now I know that The Fairie Queene is the dullest thing out. Blast it’.

At Cambridge, of course, a more modern approach to English Literature was pioneered in the 1930s by I. A. Richards and F. R Leavis, but again a concern to affirm academic respectability is evident, through for example Richards’s emphasis on the technique of ‘close reading’ or Leavis’s stress on literature as a force for moral improvement. All academic disciplines share this need to affirm their respectability and to demonstrate their intellectual virility. The dominance of medieval history in British historical studies up to the 1950s likewise reflects an anxiety to show that historical research required hard labour. The forbidding theoretical constructs that have come to surround cultural and media studies convey the message that these disciplines deal in austere abstract ideas and not the fripperies claimed by their detractors. The use of quantification can convey similar messages in many social sciences. These tensions are particularly evident in computer science, which has had to escape from the charge that it was no more than technological tinkering, and where it has been necessary to develop a highly focussed approach to avoid the taint of being considered a support or ancillary activity. These agendas of intellectual respectability can also be developed by integrating dispersed but cognate activities, as for example in Systems Biology, where various quantitative and modelling techniques have been drawn together.

Digital Humanities is not immune from this need to demonstrate moral and intellectual respectability. Indeed, it is rather disappointing that Digital Humanities mirrors so strongly the processes we see in the Victorian development of the study of English. In what we might call Digital Humanities 1.0, we again see an enormous stress on work with canonical materials. The overwhelming majority of digital humanities projects are concerned with big names, often from the pre-modern period: Beowulf, the Exeter Book, Chaucer, Langland, Shakespeare, William Blake, Jane Austen, Rossetti, and so on. The dominance of the Classics in digital humanities projects suggests that all too often digital technologies have been used to provide an up-to-date and trendy makeover for ailing disciplines. The digital humanities is rarely used to open up access to non-canonical or obscure materials - the culture of the digital humanities has hitherto been dominated by the dead white European male. Moreover, what Digital Humanities 1.0 does to these canonical materials has frequently been very conservative. It is used as a means of continuing academic activities which print technology had rendered uneconomic or unviable. Many of the digital editions so far produced only over limited gains in functionality over conventional print editions - they allow searching and may incorporate images, but otherwise that’s about it. In historical studies, printing costs had caused the great Victorian series of calendars to peter out; digital technologies have allowed them to be revived, but eerily these digital calendars recreate editorial methods designed for print - rather as if a railway locomotive was run on a turnpike road.

Digital humanities has affirmed its respectability by frequently allying itself with extremely conservative scholarly methods. It has also affirmed its moral character by insisting that its fundamental concern is with research. Digital humanities has had to make its way by seeking soft funding. It has turned this misfortune to its advantage by trying to suggest that it is exclusively concerned with research. Digital humanities centres claim to be something like scientific research institutes, only concerned with advanced research (the term advanced is invariably invoked in discussion of digital humanities methods, even though most of the techniques are fairly standard and quite old hat). Digital humanities is seen as the preserve of a priestly caste concerned only with advanced techniques who do not sully themselves with anything lower than a postgraduate student. The terms ‘e-research’ and ‘e-science’ have been invoked to add to this aura. In the 1990s, those involved with the early days of humanities computing thought it would transform teaching and pedagogy as much as research. Among the pioneering programmes in humanities computing during the 1990s was the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP), and the development of new teaching methods was seen as just as important as research. Yet, in the pursuit of research funding, we came to feel that research was the most respectable path and pedagogy seem to have dropped out of the mainstream of academic digital humanities. This is illustrated by the lack of contact between digital humanities organisations and e-learning organisations such as the Association of Learning Technologists.

I’m glad to say there are signs that this is changing. I would especially single out the work of HASTAC under Cathy Davidson as bringing pedagogy back more centre stage for the digital humanities. Part of the future for the digital humanities has to be a greater involvement with pedagogy. But there are dangers as well as opportunities here. The current DH mania in the United States is closely related to the politically-inspired attacks on humanities funding in the US. There is a clear danger that ‘digital humanities’ is used in the United States as a term to try and persuade tea-party voters that there is a technological and economic value in the humanities. The trouble is that just rebranding the humanities as digital betrays the wider possibilities of the digital humanities. Just browsing through the job adverts from the States where literature posts have been justified but claiming that they will also encompass digital humanities shows that this is a real danger.

We don’t want a form of ‘digital studies’ which simply treats the web as yet another form of media for analysis. Digital methods offer us the possibility of engaging with and understanding the cultural materials that are the focus of the humanities in new ways. Through a site like the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, we can explore the life of poor people in eighteenth-century London in astonishing detail.In a resource like The Electronic Beowulf we can see letters concealed under conservation work that have remained hidden for 150 years. From the British Library’s digital presentation of the biblical manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus, we can see the words ‘son of God’ being inserted in one of the earliest copies of the Gospel of St Mark. These are truly exciting possibilities, which can help generate a more exciting and creative form of pedagogy than will ever be feasible through any form of MOOC. A new alliance between the digital humanity and pedagogy can achieve this.          

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22 March 2014

A Modern Memento Mori

It's that time and that moment when a laptop gives the greatest pleasure. It's late in the evening. You've cleared a lot of e-mails (although a terrifying number still remain), so you can indulge in some web surfing. There's a good track on Spotify and a glass of wine seems in order. Then, your hand catches the glass, and suddenly there's liquid where it shouldn't be, on the keyboard. You immediately switch off and unplug to reduce the risk of short circuits, and anxiously dry the keyboard.

I left the keyboard overnight in the hope that, left to dry with minimum risk of damage to the circuits, the laptop would survive. But the secret of the amazing battery life of the Mac Book Air appears to lie partly in its integrated circuitry, and when, full of hope for a resurrection, I went to switch on the laptop the next morning, it was dead. A visit to the Genius Bar (which always feels like dealing with a sinister cult) confirmed damage to the logic board, requiring very expensive repair, and left me contemplating whether it was more financially prudent to have the repair done or buy a new model.

The death of your computer is a modern memento mori. One moment you rejoice in the joy and pleasure of unlimited internet access; the next your computer is an inert mass of silicon, metal and plastic, and all those plans you had for the following day somehow look hopeless and irrelevant. In the midst of drinking wine and watching You Tube, there is death. Such a moment is a particularly forceful reminder of mortality because we frequently describe our digital connectivity in terms which present it is a kind of irresistible life force in some way disconnected from day-to-day materiality. Yet, as Matthew Kirschenbaum has so brilliantly discussed in Mechanisms, that flow of digits is directed and stored by a funny whirring disc which is in a constant state of decay from the moment that we first state the computer. The death of each hard disc is as inevitable as our own deaths. The computer is not a means of transcending mortality, but a constant reminder of it, and that inevitable moment of disc failure prefigures the larger scale failure which will eventually overtake us all.   

And of course you can back up computers; I don't currently have any means of backing up my mortality. Luckily, on this occasion, I'd been regularly backing up my computer, partly because Mac's 'Time Machine' makes the process of backing up simple. However, to restore from Time Machine, I need another Mac. Whether I go for repair or replacement, it still leaves over a week without a machine which I can use to restore the data. So, temporarily, I'm in almost as bad a situation as if I hadn't backed up the data, although I do have the comfort of knowing that rescue and redemption is not far away.

It is partly my fault for eschewing a desktop machine. I don't often work with multiple screens and when I undertake image or video work, I use machines in labs or libraries. I haven't had a desktop for a number of years and have relied on laptops. It means that when the laptop dies, I'm in trouble. Why is that desktop computers are so unmemorable? It is now 25 years since I got my first desktop machine. British Library issue at that time was a Dell, which made a noise like a coffee percolator, but otherwise had little to commend it. The British Library subsequently switched to Fujitsu desktops, which felt like they were rejects from the set of a Gerry Anderson puppet show. I gave up using desktops while I was at the University of Sheffield and when I went back to a purely desktop environment in Lampeter (no Wifi and a very locked down network), it felt like using a hammer and chisel. What I tend to remember with affection from my desktop days are odd bits of software (DBase III, Ventura, early web browsers) rather than the hardware.

On the other hand, I remember all the laptops I have had very affectionately, and the demise of each one was almost like the death of a favourite pet. My first laptop was a rumbustious Dell, and it became a firm and long lived companion. I only needed to change it when it was necessary to have something more high-powered to demonstrate the Electronic Beowulf CD, and the Toshiba laptop I had from 1999 is probably the single computer I have most enjoyed possessing and using. Both these early laptops went into retirement and died of gentle old age. The saddest loss was probably a new Toshiba Satellite Pro which was stolen within a few days of my taking delivery of it. Its successor confirmed my enthusiasm for Toshiba. My attachment for that machine was such that I even attempted surgery on it myself, replacing the keyboard. I worried afterwards that this repair may have contributed to the hard disc failure a few months later.

One advantage of my accident with the wine is that lack of other backup has forced me to get more to grips with a recently acquired iPad. I can see possibilities with the iPad which had eluded me before and can finally see that it is much more than a consumer object of desire. The iPad is starting to insinuate itself at the centre of my life. Indeed, part of the purpose of this blog post is to test a wireless keyboard and see how far an iPad can be useful backup when a laptop fails. My enthusiasm for Ubuntu has also been reinforced by its ability to resurrect one of my aged Toshibas, which is now valiantly trying to provide help but whose aged and arthritic hard disc is limiting its effectiveness. It's fun playing with these alternatives, but really life is on hold until the replacement MacBook Air arrives. Let's hope its life is a long and virtuous one and that, when the time comes for it to die, it goes gently into the cyber-night.

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