Monday, 20 September 2010

Oxford past and DH future

Today I have been in Oxford, almost 14 years after I started work at the HCU (Humanities Computing Unit). It's not like I've never been there since. But I’ve just been external examiner for a PhD and I think that's made me reflect on my status, since being external in the UK system implies that you are An if not The Expert in the discipline. Inevitably that tends to make me a bit reflective about where I am, and how I got here.

I couldn't help thinking about what I'd have made of this had I known 14 years ago that I'd be a relatively senior academic at a world top 10 ranked university in a discipline with a name that was yet to be invented (Digital Humanities). I reckon I'd have been pleased, not least because at that point I had pretty much given up all hope of an academic career. But I certainly couldn't have predicted it. Nor would I have been able to guess that in my backpack would be a laptop weighing less than 1kg and an iPad. I could not have known that I'd plan my walk from the station to where I was staying using a mapping application on a device that's a phone in name, but that it would also play MP3s to accompany the journey as well as doing almost anything else I need of it aside from making tea. Nor would I have predicted that my favourite skinny-ish jeans plus my luggage and aforementioned phone would have been bought online. I mean while I was here I built the first website for my faculty. We hardly dreamt of online shopping.

So much for progress, but what of reflection? I owe a lot to this place. It was at the HCU that I really learned my trade as a digital humanist (even if we didn't call it that at the time). I will always owe a huge debt of gratitude to my colleagues but especially my then boss Lou Burnard and Stuart Lee: colleague, friend, fellow sufferer as a Leeds fan and pub quiz teammate sans pareil. It's just so sad that the HCU did not survive. But I certainly found my home in this brilliant discipline that never stops changing and growing with the technology.

I could hardly believe how lucky I was to find myself in a field in which people really wanted to hear about your work however junior and unimportant you were and who were happy to share theirs. I was indeed fortunate to be one of the few people at the time who understood both SGML and English Literature. Today’s early career scholars probably have a far more profound knowledge of the field, as well as far greater technical skills. They must regard us old fogeys with senior posts we seem to have wandered into much as we thought of the beneficiaries of the post war university expansion: lucky, but taking up jobs we could have done better. Still I thank the good fortune that led to me stumbling into the light of DH. It was so brilliant, for example, giving a talk about DH at Bangor last week. I hope some of the grad students I talked to either have or will come to share my passion for my field.

In the end I guess all this underlines the profound scepticism I have always felt about technological futurology. I could not possibly have predicted the kit I carry as normal and the uses to which I put it. But I loved the DH world in which I found myself then. It was so new and exciting. I still do: it still is. If I come back 14 years hence who knows what sort of technologies I’ll be using. But I am sure that DH still will be as exciting and that I will still feel the same.