All posts by jwbaker

James Baker is Director of Digital Humanities at the University of Southampton. James is a Software Sustainability Institute Fellow, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and holds degrees from the University of Southampton and latterly the University of Kent, where in 2010 he completed his doctoral research on the late-Georgian artist-engraver Isaac Cruikshank. James works at the intersection of history, cultural heritage, and digital technologies. He is currently working on a history of knowledge organisation in twentieth century Britain. In 2021, I begin a major new Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project 'Beyond Notability: Re-evaluating Women’s Work in Archaeology, History and Heritage, 1870 – 1950'. Previous externally funded research projects have focused on legacy descriptions of art objects ('Legacies of Catalogue Descriptions and Curatorial Voice: Opportunities for Digital Scholarship', Arts and Humanities Research Council), the preservation of intangible cultural heritage ('Coptic Culture Conservation Collective', British Council, and 'Heritage Repertoires for inclusive and sustainable development', British Academy), the born digital archival record ('Digital Forensics in the Historical Humanities', European Commission), and decolonial futures for museum collections ('Making African Connections: Decolonial Futures for Colonial Collections', Arts and Humanities Research Council). Prior to joining Southampton, James held positions of Senior Lecturer in Digital History and Archives at the University of Sussex and Director of the Sussex Humanities Lab, Digital Curator at the British Library, and Postdoctoral Fellow with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. He is a member of the Arts and Humanities Research Council Peer Review College, a convenor of the Institute of Historical Research Digital History seminar, a member of The Programming Historian Editorial Board and a Director of ProgHist Ltd (Company Number 12192946), and an International Advisory Board Member of British Art Studies.

Leaving, Arriving, Building: one year at Soton DH

This is more of a personal blog than I typically write. Tomorrow I start two (and a bit) weeks of annual leave, and I wanted to do something to mark a real point of transition for me: a year since I left Sussex, nearly a year since I arrived at Southampton. In the course of considering if and what I wanted to write, I started to think through everything that has been achieved since September, and whilst I’m very proud of all that we’ve done here over the last year (and so grateful to so many amazing colleagues here), I concluded that there will be other opportunities to do that celebrating, not least in our Southampton Digital Humanities Annual Report, which we expect to publish in the Autumn.

So instead I’m writing something a little more personal. About transitioning from the first place I had a lectureship. About starting something new, rather than walking into something that was ongoing. About not being fully immersed in a History department. About moving away from east(ish) Kent after so many years. About how all that needs marking. Because much of the last year has been hard (or at least, hard relative to my experiences, the support networks I enjoy, etc). Leaving a part of the world that become like home was upsetting, and having that happen at the end of a tortuous house move didn’t help. Knowing you’ve chosen to make these changes, and then dealing with that change as family members experience crisis, are suddenly taken ill, or need professional care has been hard. As has seeing colleagues and friends experience ‘post covid’ society as isolation, fury, and fear. Not being part of the daily flow of the Sussex Humanities Lab has been hard: roughly two weeks into my new job, once the initial adrenaline had eased, I realised my Teams chats weren’t there, my little natters had gone, my routines of pinging out random thoughts for input had been unpicked, that Tim, Sharon, Amelia, Alice, et al all had other things to get on with that no longer involved.

So I’ve had to rebuild these routines, create a new team, and learn how to make that work. Little things have surprised me. I know from experience the stress of precarity and of being in the job market, and I do not wish to diminish the real impact that has on careers and health. But what I hadn’t appreciated was the stress of putting out a job advert, waiting for the applications to appear, wondering if the people on paper and on screen were the right people: it kept me up at night, and anyone who knows me well knows that few things interrupt my sleep. Now we’ve started to put that team in place, I couldn’t be happier with who has chosen to work with us, and so my attention has turned to the fragility of newness: of ensuring I can look people in the eye and say that there is a plan, we’re working to make this sustainable, that you can place your trust – within the bounds of what is possible in UK HE – in us being here for the medium term.

And that planning – my ‘leadership’ activities in HE parlance – take me away from History, from teaching my areas of expertise, from grants activity that focuses on where I come from intellectually, from what I know best. So whilst this year I’ve enjoyed, as I have for some time, continuing to work outside of my comfort zone, on work led by cultural geographers or development studies scholars, and in spaces that are consciously (digital) humanities in scope, not having History and the rhythms of a History Department, its meetings, agendas, and anxieties, as my default fallback, and especially the History Department in which I grew so much as a Historian, has felt oddly dislocating (though I should add that History colleagues here have been wonderful and welcoming and collegial).

Instead my default fallback is Digital Humanities and the particular flavour of Digital Humanities we are developing at Southampton. That flavour has been constructed with colleagues but remains strongly connected to my perspectives on DH: do humble not shiny and brash; work more in/with existing scholarly traditions rather in a DH silo; take care not to invoke DH unless it is strictly necessary or tactically useful; without wishing to revive hack/yack, get stuck in as well as talking about getting stuck in; don’t force the digital and computational down the throats of the unwilling, but give people pathways to find ways in that are relevant to them; accept that the ‘digital’ in your job title (third time for me!) is a marker that will prompt people to come your way with things you aren’t about, or you know little about, and so try to act with patience, humour, and compassion, because you might need those people as allies later down the line. And whilst I’ve been doing DH in some form or another for over a decade, and whilst I’ve made so many friends and connections in the wider DH community, whilst their company is often such a joy (shout out this year to the good people at DH Benelux 2022 in particular) it has yet to really feel like my fallback position, my home. Maybe next year. But now, time for a break.