Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Tea, Cake and DH research

I’ve been thinking lately about how we do research in DH as opposed to other humanities disciplines. This came about after I reacted strongly against the notion that we must only ever have PhD supervisions in offices, and be very formal about it. That made me wonder why I disagree with this so profoundly. So here are some thoughts about DH, PhD students and the centrality of tea and cake to our research.

I've always had meetings with anyone and everyone I work with or who works for me wherever seems convenient; that often means over lunch or tea and cake. I think DH people expect this because our research culture is very relaxed, informal and- because it is team based- sociable. One of my most important publications, for example, happened as a result of a conversation in a bar at DH: we wrote the grant application for INKE sitting on the deck in Ray Siemens’ back garden for five days, eating and drinking as we went along, because there was no time to stop. It didn't mean we were not doing serious scholarship, we just didn't need to be in an office, because we had a wireless connection and a laptop each. I’ve had meetings about DH in parks, cafes, restaurants, bars, and even on a Eurostar, and they often involved tea and cake, if not something stronger. I know a leading DH scholar who conducts all of his academic life in the local café, and even provides it with wireless to make his life easier. He only goes into his office to pick up his mail. Humanities scholars are probably more used to being in offices, because they need their books. Almost everything I need now for work is digital- hence the forlorn and empty appearance of my office bookshelves, which, being a booklover makes me deeply embarrassed.

I still feel, therefore, that it ought to be possible, if appropriate, to do this with PhD supervisions. I don't see why I cannot have a supervision with a student when we are at the DH conference just because my office happens to be thousands of miles away. Why should it matter as long as both supervisor and student are happy; it’s clear that this is a supervision not a general chat; and there’s nothing confidential being discussed?

I think my views about PhD students may come back to the nature of DH as team based rather than single scholar research. I'm used to working in teams in DH that contain researchers of various ages and levels of experience and seniority from Professor to PhD and sometimes even MA students. So I regard PhD students as part of our research group, albeit more junior members of it. I am used therefore to discussing research with them in group meetings on as equal a basis as I would with academic colleagues. That's why my immediate reaction to the offices-only suggestion was to say 'Well I have meetings with my colleagues in bars, cafes etc…' because I did not really see a difference. In research teams I am not in a teaching relationship with my PhD students any more than the more senior academic who was PI to my Co-I of my first big grant was teaching me. I learnt a great deal from her of course as a result, and she was mentoring me in an informal way. That really colours the way I see PhD students and postdocs- they may work for our group, but they are independent researchers with perfectly valid opinions and insights of their own and I learn as much from them (perhaps more) than they do from me. I might mentor and advise, but I am no more their teacher than the other academic was mine.

I think increasingly, however, that most traditional humanities scholars see things through the lens of teaching not research; at least this seems to be the case in our faculty. So I wonder whether they see PhD supervision as teaching, because that's what they like to do and they are not used to doing research with other people. If research is what you do alone, then if you are talking to a less experienced researcher you must feel you are teaching them I suppose.

I don't think one mind-set is right or wrong, but I do think we have to allow for variations of practice between disciplines. Thus I need to be able to carry on treating my PhDs as team members and equals, and single scholars to be more formal if they wish or we really are not preparing our students for the worlds they will work in.

It might also help explain why it is often difficult to persuade humanities scholars to think in terms of collaboration: DH PhDs and even MAs are trained for it, so it's easy when they become academics. Most humanities people, from being a PhD student, are trained to the opposite, and so it's harder. I'm not saying that either should necessarily change, but if collaboration and team working are going to be expected more of humanities researchers in future, then we need to think about how to make it seem more normal, if they don't get any help with this as PhD students. Anyone who does DH has had to change disciplines, thus mind-set, from one norm to the other, so perhaps we underestimate how hard it is for most people. It's all very well dangling money in front of humanities scholars in mid-career and saying 'You must collaborate!' and then wondering why people don't. They are happy working alone: they don't know how to work in teams and feel uncomfortable with it.

The answer to everything is, of course, in my ideal world, do more DH at every opportunity. But switching back to reality, this is a problem and I think we need to tackle it at PhD student level, although many supervisors may need to be convinced that this is a good idea. Perhaps they’d like to discuss it over tea and cake.

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