In September 2001 I arrived at the University of Southampton to study a degree in History. In September 2021 I’ll be returning to Southampton to take up the post of Director of Digital Humanities. This means leaving where I am. I’ve had such a wonderful time at the University of Sussex and the Sussex Humanities Lab. I’ve worked with some inspiring colleagues and students, collaborated on some fab projects, and made some good friends.
Sussex has also indulged my uneasy relationship with Digital Humanities. Because whilst I’ve published in DHy places, run DHy things, gone to DH conferences, written DHy work, and read DHy books, I have rarely described the Sussex Humanities Lab as a place that does (only) Digital Humanities. Yes, we’ve built a community of expertise around technology’s role in shaping culture, society and the environment. And yes, we use technological tools to undertake research within the arts, humanities and social sciences. But our work ranges from AI to climate justice, ecoacoustics to automated writing, intersectional feminism to research infrastructures, critical heritage to robot opera. And whilst, when it is tactically useful to do so, we’ve described all that as ‘Digital Humanities’, more often than not we’ve described it in disciplinary terms, as interventions in practices and traditions that we’ve sought to understand, to integrate into, and to bridge between. Indeed, when Sharon Webb (my fabby amazing co-conspirator at Sussex who I’ll miss a lot!) and I won an award for working DHy things into our undergraduate History curriculum, we did so not because we taught our students DH, but because we empowered (I hope!) our students to consider how digital transformations have changed the conditions in which they do history and the approaches they can take to studying the past. They had after all, as I had 20 years earlier, come to uni to study History.
Over recent days I’ve been picking through Adam Crymble’s Technology and the Historian: Transformations and the Digital Age. Adam is another person I’m proud to consider a co-conspirator, and I’ve had the pleasure of glimpsing at this book during its gestation. I believe we really need his historicisation of recent historical practice. And I’m pleased I’m not alone in welcoming his key argument: that we need stop worrying about what ‘digital history’ is, and focus instead on the actual work historians are and have been doing. And so when my eyes landed on Adam’s introduction to his Glossary, where he notes that it’s presence is intended to encourage ‘practitioners to use more precise language when discussing “digital” or “digital history” work’, I kinda whooped, both with my History hat on, and because I have similar feelings about the use of the term ‘Digital Humanities’. Technology and the Historian resonates then with my longstanding discomfort with DH as a label for the work I get involved in, because I don’t think of it as DH, I think of it as history that leans on methods from computational lingustics, or digital forensics as archival practice and advocacy, or critical making that happens to involve building a website, digitising some stuff, and figuring out a bunch of metadata harmonisation, or highly collaborative action research that draws on digital preservation in seeking to create positive change in people’s lives.
Despite this longstanding discomfort with DH, I’m soon to become a Director of Digital Humanities (the third time I’ve had ‘digital’ in my job title, for anyone who is counting). I am genuinely excited by this, partly because in my interview I don’t feel I held back on that discomfort (and they still wanted me!), and partly because Southampton has some great infrastructure, people (some of whom taught me!), research software expertise, and ambitions. But I’m also excited because where once questions like ‘what is Digital Humanities’ made me squirm and bumble or – on a bad day – sigh or go defensive, I feel that I’ve now reached a place where I’m comfortable in my uncomfortable DH skin, where I can turn around a question on the definition of DH to ask people why they are interested in knowing what DH is as a route to figuring out what DHy things can do for them and their work. I wouldn’t have got to this place of comfortable discomfort without my (nearly) 6 years at Sussex, without colleagues like Tim (especially, Tim), Sharon (ditto), Amelia (ditto), Caroline, Jane, Alice, Nicola, Claire, Jo, Rachel, Andrew, Lucy, Mariz, Joanne, Vinita, Flora, Jo, Alex, JoAnn, Freja, Suzanne, Natasha, Laura, David, Ben, Louise, Jake, Tom, Beatrice, Amy, Chris, Alex, Liam, Ilona, Jim, Clive, Kate, Anna-Maria, Ahmed, and many, many, many more. Thanks folks. It has been bloody amazing.