Thursday, 11 October 2012

Oh Pioneers!

This week I was at Manchester Metropolitan University, where I had the great honour of opening their new series of lectures about digitalhumanities. I was talking to someone there before the lecture, who said that he supposed I must be one of the pioneers of digital humanities. Of course I am very proud to be asked to give lectures such as this one, and to be identified as a well-known digital humanist, but I had to correct the misapprehension that I am a pioneer in this field. As a result, I thought it might be worth writing about this on the blog, at least briefly, because it's possible that other people who are new to digital humanities may not know about who the real pioneers of DH in the UK are.

It's a great pity that the recent growth in interest in DH has come about just as many of these men and women are coming to the end of their careers, or have retired. We, the next generation, benefit from all their hard work but there is a danger that they may not receive the credit they deserve for it. I had the great privilege to work for some of them and to get to know others as part of the digital humanities community. Even if I only confine myself to the UK pioneers, it's still pretty impressive roster. This is also only my opinion, others might want to add different names to what is probably far from an exhaustive list.

I would suggest that anyone interested in how DH really came about should read the first chapter of Susan Hockey's, still very valuable, book, Electronic Texts in the Humanities. This provides a very interesting history of the development of DH. Susan herself was, of course, one of the great pioneers of DH, and my predecessor but one as head of Department of UCL Information Studies (then SLAIS). I regard her as a very important mentor: without her support and encouragement my career could not have developed as it has. I also worked for Lou Burnard when he was head of the Humanities Computing unit at Oxford. Lou also had a huge impact on my career, since this was my first job in digital humanities. He's also had rather a significant impact on the World Wide Web, as one of the leading developers of XML markup. 

These are the two innovators in the field that I know best, however, there are others equally important and equally as eminent. For example, Harold Short, who was until recently the head of what is now the Department of Digital Humanities at King's College London (then CCH) did a huge amount to establish the discipline in the UK. Willard McCarty, of the same department is justly celebrated as a leading innovator in, and deep thinker about our field. Other celebrated pioneering UK digital humanists include Mark Greengrass and Seamus Ross who set up the DH centres at the Universities of Sheffield and Glasgow respectively when such things were the extremely rare bastions of what was, for far too long, a rather small and embattled discipline. David Robey has had a vital leadership role in DH, whether for his work as a scholar, or for the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing and in the context of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Also at Oxford, Alan Bowman, has also done very important work using digital techniques to aid the interpretation of  ancient manuscripts. 

Of course Marilyn Deegan, who moved from Oxford to KCL is another extremely eminent DH scholar; an inspiration to women DHers  in a field that has always been remarkably female-friendly despite its techiness. Another important female DHer (who nevertheless did not like to be defined by her gender) was Jean Anderson, who worked on linguistic copora at HATII (the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute) in Glasgow, and contributed so much to the ALLC executive.

I tend to regard Andrew Prescott, the new head of DDH as a contemporary of mine since, in common with colleagues such as Melissa Terras, Lorna Hughes, John Lavagnino, and Ann Gow, he is still very much in the thick of shaping the present and future of DH in the UK. Perhaps Andrew wouldn't thank me for saying it, but actually he has a much longer history in the field than I do, given his pioneering work on the Beowulf manuscript.

Thus without looking beyond the UK to figures such as John Unsworth, and the late Antonio Zampolli it's quite easy to compile an impressive list of the genuine DH pioneers, and, as I say, this is just my own selection (Do comment and suggest others, if you'd like to) So if you're new to DH and you haven't heard of the work of the people I have discussed, I'd recommend that you find out about them as soon as possible. Like the man said, those of us in the next generation are standing on the shoulders of giants.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Calm for Heads of Department

Over the summer, as I said in my last blog entry, I took a lot of time off. I also made the quite difficult decision not to follow a possible career path, at least for the time being. At the time I wasn't sure I had done the right thing. Now, with every day that goes by, I feel calmer, more content and less stressed about work and so I know that I have. I tweeted about this sense of relative serenity, which prompted a fellow Head of Department to ask how such a thing might be achieved. So I thought for a change that I might take inspiration from Prof Serious's occasional advice blogs and write one of my own. Obviously, these are just things that work for me- other HoDs might disagree. However, much of what follows is the result of conversations with various mentors, who have all been HoDs in their time. I hope they will be pleased to see that I'm finally trying to put their excellent advice into practice, although it has taken a while to sink in.

So, here we are: the little blog of calm for HoDs, or how to stay sane(ish) while running a department.

Learn how to say no.

Yes, everyone tells you this, but you are the HoD so you have to say yes to everything, right? Wrong. You cannot possibly do everything that's asked of you; so work out what's essential, what's desirable, and what might be nice if you had infinite time. Realise that you may only be able to do things in the first category, and maybe the second, but that life is too short for the third. Then learn to lose your guilt about telling people that you can't do what they want you to: that includes people senior to you. In fact senior managers do understand the problems you face, because lots of them have been a HoD, so they may be surprisingly sympathetic when you admit you can't do everything. If something is important, but impossible for you to achieve immediately, ask for more time, help or extra resources with which to do it. You don't have to do everything yourself, right now, nor is it actually possible. If there are no such resources, there must be legitimate questions about whether the activity really is critical.

Also realise that sometimes you will be asked to do something because you are known to be good at such things, and it would be easier for others if you said yes, just like you usually do. The person asking probably knows you are overwhelmed, and fully expects you to say no, but they have to ask. This is so that they can tell others involved in the relevant board/committee/panel/working party/conference that the obvious candidate has been approached, but can't do it, so another must be found. It is also so that you, the obvious candidate, don't get offended and huffy because nobody asked you. (Go on, admit it, you would be, even if you knew you were too busy to do it). If only, like Latin, there were different words for a question expecting the answer yes and one expecting the answer no: life would be so much simpler and more guilt-free.

Decide what you like doing, and do it.

The admin part of being HoD is pretty circumscribed, but you still have some control over the rest of your career as an academic. Work out what you enjoy and make time for that part of your job: some people love teaching, others writing, giving talks, being part of professional bodies, so be honest with yourself about what you look forward to and what you'd rather avoid. Say no to at least some of the things you don't like. If you can't dump the other stuff completely, try to change the balance in favour of things you like and are good at. If you don't want to say no outright, and it's something you'd like to do in future, postpone. Thus you can ask people to contact you again next month, term, year, or when you have finished being HoD, by which time you may have the time you currently lack. And yes, some people will always be huffy and ungracious when you say no, but try to remember that's their problem not yours.

Slow down.

Your career has almost certainly been a success so far, or you would not be HoD. But doing the job for five years will probably mean that your meteoric career progression will slow down somewhat. You will probably publish less, be able to PI fewer grants or not have time to write The Big Book: this will make you CV look less stellar. Well, stuff happens, so get used to it. It's only five years after all, and you get a year off afterwards to get back up to speed. Don't fret about what you can't change. You probably have at least 15-20 years of your career in front of you, so there's plenty of time to recover. I mean, what's the point of doing everything at breakneck speed then finding yourself in your early 40s with no professional ambitions left? (That's not actually rhetorical: if anyone has an answer, I'd be grateful if they'd share it...)

Take time off

Like most academics you have probably never taken enough of your holiday before. Start doing so now. Being HoD is a terribly pressurised existence, and you absolutely have to take time away from it to recharge and recover, or you will become steadily less effective. You might feel guilty about doing this, but as one senior person said to me last summer, you will be no use to anyone if you burn out. People work less and less efficiently the more tired they get, so if you want to do a good job and be helpful to your colleagues, you have to take time off. There is also the added benefit that your colleagues will feel that they can take holidays too. Managers who seem to work every hour of every day of the year, are, in effect, communicating to their colleagues that anything less is unacceptable for anyone who wants to be considered a success. You may not mean to do this, but you need to be aware of the, perhaps involuntary, messages you are sending if you don't take leave yourself, or spend your entire 'holiday' doing work email.

Get over the idea that the department will disintegrate in your absence. It won't, as long as you make plans about who will cover what when you are away. You will probably find that if you want to take more than a week off, you will need to plan it some time in advance. This is a good thing. It means you can tell everyone when you will be away, including colleagues, PhD students and your line manager- this gives them time to get over the shock. Do what you'd do with any other important commitment; put it in your diary, and the departmental calendar, if you have one, then keep your resolution and decline all work-based invitations to meetings etc during this period. If it's utterly essential that you are represented at a given meeting, this gives others time to rearrange or find someone else to deputise for you. Having made your decision, don't beat yourself up by comparing yourself to a fellow HoD or senior manager who seems to get by with no sleep and no holidays. That's their decision and it's their life; you don't have to do the same.

Oh and when you take time off, take time off properly. Don't even read work email, let alone reply; don't blog or tweet if you usually do so as part of your professional identity. People might find this odd, if they can't resist it themselves, but warn them in advance, then persist, and they'll get used to it. And don't read work-type books on holiday. The only way properly to relax and recover is to take it as seriously, as an activity, as you would your work.

It's only a job

Try to cultivate a sense of detachment about the job and its stresses. In the end, it is only a job, and not even a very important one at that (unless you are the very rare kind of academic who really does saves lives and cure dreadful diseases). It is not worth ruining your health or your relationships over what is, in the end, just a way to earn money, however much you might enjoy it. So use this knowledge as a way to help you say no, back off, chill out or take time off.

Remember that it's not just about you.

Spare a thought for your family, especially your partner. If you are a moaner, they will have to listen to your woes in far greater detail that they might wish to: if you are a sulker, they will have to bear your silent, black moods with equanimity. They will also have to put up with the times you come home late, having been to some professionally-related event that you cannot get out of because you are HoD and suffer from the time you spend away from them, dealing with the typical HoD's workload. So remember to forgive them when they finally snap or, ideally, try to remember to thank them for their tolerance, and spend enough time with them before that happens. This is all part of the reason for taking time out- your partner, friends and family need to see something of you as well as your colleagues.

That's about it. Of course this is not easy, and you may need to practice some of the more difficult things, such as saying no, several times before you succeed. Treat it like a diet. Don't give up in despair just because you ate a bag of crisps; forgive yourself, try again, and eventually you will get used to it. Good luck!

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Tides, travel and travail

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
(Julius Caesar, Act IV, scene III)

This, probably much-over-quoted passage has been on my mind a lot recently. Perhaps I remain enough of an Englit type to default to Shakespeare in times of uncertainty. Or perhaps it's because I've been thinking about my mentor Wil, a Shakespeare scholar, who died almost exactly 10 years ago. (I do begin to wonder whether I am doomed to mislay mentors once a decade at about this time. But I digress, and I have barely started). In any case I've been pondering the whole life, career, happiness, motivation thing a lot recently, and my conclusion is this, to quote another fine piece of drama, Housman's (actually very funny) Fragment of Greek Tragedy, 'Life is uncertain'. As a result knowing when to catch a flowing tide, is, it seems to me, vital.

The last few years have been like being on that full sea: mad, hectic, exhausting; sometimes for positive reasons, sometimes very much the opposite. It's hard to believe how much my life, especially professionally, has changed. In January 2009, I was an average Senior Lecturer, quietly doing her DH thing and keeping out of people's way. Since then I have become a professor, vice dean, and head of the UCL Department of Information Studies, not to mention serving on more committees, panels, boards and working parties than I dare list. Perhaps the greatest, and most amazing change is that I have been partly responsible for establishing the wonderful UCLDH, complete with a successful Masters course, lots of PhD students, and award-wining research projects. I could not have imagined this in January 2009; yet here I am now, the co-director of a thriving centre of which I could not be more proud.

Looking back, I almost find myself thinking 'How did that happen?' It seems too implausible, but maybe it was just that flood tide running. It felt like the time to say yes, to try things, to work harder than I could ever imagine possible, to establish some new things, mend, tweak, prod or restore others, and to do it all at about 90 miles an hour, because it seemed that there was no alternative speed. Everything had to be done now, if not before. Looking back it seems almost as if it happened to someone else; rather as you sometimes think you remember doing something, then recall that it was in a dream, a movie or a novel. It seems vivid, but you know it can't have been real. Too many unlikely things seem to have happened in that time, both good and bad, to be credible, and yet they really did take place.

As wonderful as all this was, though, it was equally exhausting. I took on too much, wore myself out and got far too close to an edge I didn't really want to peer over. I took a lot of time off over the summer, and realised that I cannot sustain the pace I'd been living and working at for the last few years. In any case, I get the feeling that other things are changing too. That particular tide has run out, life is in a different phase and different things are called for: not so much set-up and firefighting as consolidation and gradual development, achieved at a pace that's closer to the speed limit. This will still require plenty of hard work: when flying an aeroplane, if you don't move forward you stall and crash, so stagnation is not on the menu either. But then again, if you push the envelope too hard, the wings fall off and by last summer I swear I could hear some ominous creaking.

But when you have been used to living on adrenaline, how can you motivate yourself to move forward at a gentler pace, and how to you know what to aim for? I am still grappling with that problem. I am not really sure what I am going to do in future or where I am going, career-wise. I had a map, but I've used it, visited the places I wanted to go, and some I didn't even know existed and come to the edge of the page: it's all terra incognita from here onwards. I can't actually spot any dragons, but neither can I see an obvious path to follow, or landmarks to aim at; or maybe I can see several and don't know which to pick. I can't decide where I'd like the next tide to take me, even if I am able to catch it.

In the summer, I talked to some wise people about this peculiar situation and one of them said 'Well, why don't you just enjoy what you have achieved, and the fact of being where you are for a while.' I realised he was right, and that realisation brought great relief. After all that rushing about, maybe it's time to slow down, look around and enjoy the scenery a bit: to reflect on a hectic journey, successfully completed and be grateful to have arrived. I never intended to end up in this exact place, but in the end, it seems like a reasonable destination, at least until I decide where I'm going next. If I take time to sit still, look out of the window, and notice the details, the view begins to look surprisingly attractive after all.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Worthy to be here

These days my blogs seem nothing but a homage to Athene Donald’s acute observations. But, in my defence, I have been meaning to write this for a while, it’s just that her recent blog on the humanities and science has finally stung me into action.

Since I was once a humanist I chose to start this post with a quotation (apparently I no longer am, but that’s getting ahead of myself) If I were still a literary scholar I’d probably hope that at least half of my readers would not recognise or understand it, which would make me feel clever and superior. Given that I no longer am, it’s from the poem Love III by George Herbert, a seventeenth century devotional poet on whom, in my former life, I did some, probably not very good, work. The speaker expresses anxiety about not being a guest of sufficient eminence to be at a feast. God (personified as Love) answers that since He made humanity the speaker, a human, must be welcome, and the poem ends: ‘"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."/So I did sit and eat.’ 

What has this to do with DH? Well, to me the question of worthiness and inclusivity is key to what I love about DH, but is an issue about which, as a DH piggy in the middle, I observe different attitudes in the humanities and sciences and engineering. Last summer this was made uncomfortably clear to me: I was invited to a conference at which most attendees were scholars of literature or history and a very few DH people. At the post-conference reception I was horrified to find that we DHers were left on the edge of the crowd and ignored, except by the person running the conference who was, of course, doing his job politely and properly. Clearly the other attendees all knew each other, knew they did not know us, and as a result, assumed that we could not possibly be important or worth talking to. The only exception was someone with whom I’d worked on a previous project many years ago when she was a PhD student and I was an early career lecturer. Despite this she actually felt she had to ask the conference organiser to introduce us. This confused the hell out of me. ‘Why did she not simply come up and say hello? That’s what would have happened at a DH conference.’ I later asked the conference organiser, who replied that she felt an introduction was necessary because I am now a professor and well-known DH person thus far too important for her to approach. This he seemed to regard as eminently reasonable but I thought completely deranged. 

It made me realise how happy I am that this is not how we do things in DH. If I come away from a DH conference and have not met new people I regard it as a failure. It’s always been the DH way to try to talk to people you don’t know at conferences, because they might be doing some new and exciting DH that you really need to know about. Even if they are not, it’s just friendly to make people feel included, and in DH being friendly and inclusive is important. Apparently this was a deliberate policy begun by early DHers who hated the hierarchical, exclusive attitude of their old disciplines. I certainly found this attitude a wonderful change when I joined DH, a young scholar still bruised by her ejection from the world of literary studies. 

I’ve found a similarly welcoming attitude among computer scientists and engineers when it comes to DH. They seem far keener than most humanities scholars to get involved and find out what it is all about. Even if they don’t persist they will give it a try. As Athene Donald argues, I have always found scientists far more ready to respect and give credit to humanities scholarship in general than the other way round. I know eminent scientists and engineers who are interested in, and knowledgeable about, literature, music and art and who have enormous reserves of good will towards the humanities. I don’t have any evidence that humanities scholars outside DH feel the same about science or engineering.

This attitude has always surprised and saddened me, perhaps because of my background. My mother is a geographer, most interested in its more technical disciplines such as geomorphology and economic geography; yet she was happy to facilitate my teenage Shakespeare habit, and enjoyed trips to the theatre, and extensive discussion thereafter, it as much as I did. She is also an extremely gifted musician. My father was an engineer, but I probably ended up reading Classics and English myself because of his passion for literature, history, and all things Roman, including, but not limited to, their remarkable feats of engineering. But for every poem he read me, I was also told stories of the achievements of his hero Brunel (another engineer from the West Country) or of the discovery of stainless steel- actually very exciting, honest. I’ve always enjoyed lots of different subjects myself, and would have loved to be an engineer or scientist, but I turned out not to be very good at maths. 

Thus it may be that I was born (or perhaps raised) to be DH- because it gives me scope to wander into and between so many fields of enquiry. But I still don’t understand this difference in attitude to inclusivity. I am touched by the fact that the UCL engineers seem very keen to claim me as one of them, and have never pointed out that I don’t have enough maths to understand most of what they do. Yet, despite the fact that all my education pre-DH is in the humanities, I do not feel so welcome in what is supposedly my own field. Just the other day someone told me that my attitude to research- that what I do must be useful and meaningful to others, and not just about scratching a personal itch of curiosity- means that I am not a humanist. I am quite certain that it was not meant to be a compliment. I, of course, didn't mind at all, because I don't see being a humanist as neccessarily more valuable than being anything else. That, probably, is proof enough that I really am not one.

To me, though, that comment was just another symptom of a humanities attitude I see so frequently. Humanities scholars seem want to keep most people out of their fields, to be exclusive, to turn people away and tell them that they do not belong. The implication, I suppose, is that only the very cleverest are good enough to do such research, and if you exclude someone you are implying you are more talented than they are. I don’t know, because that attitude is so alien to all that I believe in. But it’s odd: scientists and engineers, at least the ones I’ve met, don’t seem to feel that only by excluding others do they assert their own intellectual superiority. Perhaps they feel that intellectual worth is tested by including different voices in the conversation, and creating new knowledge from the resulting discussion, rather than telling unfamiliar people to go away or keep silent. I know that’s what I think.

Perhaps, then, I am not a humanist, but I know I am a digital humanist. I am glad that I am in a field in which a big tent has been pitched, and that we welcome all sorts of people to live underneath its canvas. If DH ever starts to take a turn to old-fashioned humanities exclusivity I shall fight it with all I have in me. If that makes me an engineer, then good for engineering; as Herbert’s poem reminds us, we should be careful when we make assumptions about who is worthy to be here.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Should women fail?

It seems that we are all imposters. Judging by the comments on Athene Donald’s excellent blog on the subject, it appears that many of us feel, not so secretly, like fakes in our professional lives. Scicurious also argues that it might be welcome if senior scholars, especially women, felt able to admit to their failures and didn't seem to need always to look like perfect, successful academic exemplars. Her argument, which is a convincing one, is that if those in senior positions could be seen to have feet of clay, then it would make them seem more real, and as a result easier to emulate for those earlier in their careers. This makes a lot of sense, after all, which of us, really, is perfect? We all fail; we all doubt ourselves and feel that we are not doing as well as we ought to be. Some of us feel that most of the time, however it might look on the outside, it's just that in academia we don't like to admit it. The projects that go sideways are the ones about which we publish little or nothing, thus the illusion remains in place.

However, much as I'd like to follow her recommendations and go round admitting to everyone about how useless at my job I regard myself as being, I think that there is a real problem about this for women in senior, or leadership positions. The sad fact is that numerous studies have suggested that women actually do have to be better at a given task than men before most people will regard their efforts as equal (the multipliers vary according to studies, but it seems to be about three times) When women scientists, for example, apply for jobs or promotion they need more publications than men for their CVs to be rated equally, but often actually publish less, for various perfectly legitimate reasons. When letters of reference are written men tend to be described in more positive terms, and more active, assertive descriptions are given of their virtues. Even if a woman, trying, perhaps unconsiously to make up for these disadvantages, is assertive in a job interview, she is likely to be perceived negatively compared to a man. If a woman and a man in a leadership position act in the same way, one is likely to be perceived as decisive, positive and acting as a leader: the other tends to be regarded as a bossy, bitchy termagant. Guess which gender tends to get the negative reviews. This is horrifying, but it seems that studies are well founded and can be replicated. I’ve only linked to a selection- sadly there are plenty more, and the more you read, the grimmer the picture gets.

How could this happen? Well, it is a truism that the most effective espionage works by convincing people of something that they were already disposed to believe. Thus, in World War II it was possible for the allies to convince the Germans that the D-Day landings would happen in the Pas de Calais, because this seemed the most obvious location. I fear, therefore, that there is a deeply-rooted belief in our society, on the part or many women as well as men, that women simply are less good at things, especially being leaders or being truly excellent in their chosen career or craft, than men. Even most women want to work for a male boss, after all.

As a result therefore I am very chary, as a senior woman in a leadership position, of admitting in public to any failures, doubts or weaknesses. It seems to me that what follows from the findings of such studies is that if a senior male admits to doubts or failures, he will be regarded as charmingly modest- a trait of which I actually do approve. But if a woman in the same position says the same things, I fear that most people will believe her simply because she is female. There are also very few people of either gender who are so successful that there is nobody left to impress- university senior management, research funders, academic peers etc. Thus we still need to big ourselves up to create a good impression, however distasteful an activity we may find this.

Also, and admitting this may make me sound unutterably sad, I have always rather liked the people I work for, and my academic heroes to be just that: people I admire, look up to, and actually regard as slightly super-human, rather that rubbish like me. If someone who is managing me admits to doubt, failure or weakness it tends to make me feel a bit anxious- after all, if they don't feel they are in charge, then who is? If someone who is very successful, can't do something, what hope have I of managing it? Also, as I have written elsewhere, I am rather wedded to the ideal of being a swan: grace under pressure is always more impressive, in my opinion, than loud, panicky splashing.

I am aware however this does not help the next generation of academic women to progress in their careers or to feel that they do not have to emulate what is an unrealistic standard. After all, the studies I've referred to above suggest that we are all doing that already- trying to be three times better than men, just to be regarded as equal. What therefore can be done? Given the societal prejudices that appear to exist I think it's too early for women to go round admitting loudly and publicly to doubts and failure. Such things are, perhaps, better dealt with between consenting adults in private; with close colleagues, academic friends, between mentor and mentee. It follows, therefore, that if you are an early career woman, and you want to know what it really takes to climb that proverbial greasy pole, and how we really feel about doing so, you may just have to make friends with someone more senior than you, be they male or female. In doing so you might just gain a powerful ally and mentor with whom to share the successes as well as the tougher times.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Encomium modestiae: or big up dissed

Someone asked me recently what I admire in people senior to me.I barely had to think about it: I admire people who work hard, are very successful at what they do, but are also modest about it. There is nothing more becoming in an academic with a global reputation than being understated about their achievements. When I think back to the people I respected as a student or early career scholar, people with that attitude were the ones I wanted to emulate. They were the people who you wanted to be taught by, whose books you read, who you wanted to become: everyone knew how good they were- the last thing they had to do was say so themselves. I still feel that way, really.

The problem is that understated modesty is out of fashion in the university of today. We are forever having to write things about how wonderful we are at this, world-leading at that, excellent at another thing. If I'm not doing that for my department or for UCLDH, as HoD I am writing recommendations, references, nominations or reading drafts of such things for others. The aim appears to be for the subject to big themselves up until they sound like a the most remarkable academic paragon of recent history. It gets extremely wearing, all this big up.

It's even worse when I have to do it for myself. Writing about my own career for my application for a chair really was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do, even if that other unpleasant ritual of professorial big up, the inaugural, comes a close second; but I have written far too much about that already. In comparison, writing grant applications, articles for top journals, proposals for conferences that reject 2/3rd of papers were as nothing. The whole process took months, and numerous rewrites in response to the criticism from almost everyone who read it, that I had been too modest. Not enough big up in other words.

Is it just me, or does anyone else long for the end of big up? It's an ugly phrase and, I think, an unlovely concept. It's symptomatic of a culture, if one can call it that, in which currencies keep being inflated because nobody can bear the idea that some universities might be more equal than others. The government thought that only the top Russell Group universities would charge £9,000 fees, but almost everyone has, for fear of being thought a lesser institution than their rivals. The Roberts report that first proposed the new RAE/REF quality profiles suggested that 4* would be exceedingly rare. The idea was that such a grade indicated a truly world leading scholar, and, logically it follows that not every university would have one in each unit of assessment- the world leader in that discipline might not work in the UK, and thus nobody would be given that grade at all. This now seems laughable: at UCL, as at other top research universities, the expectation is that every member of staff must produce outputs at 3* or, better, 4*. Even if only half of us manage it, that still implies that we have 2000 genuinely world leading scholars here, some of us working in the same fields. It is, of course, a logical impossibility according to the original intention but it all comes from this big up culture where nobody is allowed just to be good at what they do any more: even excellent is a little disappointing.

The problem is money of course. The reason we have to write all these things is promotion, prizes, grants, REF (and thus research funding), in which we are competing with others, or at least matching ourselves against criteria. Thus being modest and claiming simply to do a good job will not work if our competitors choose to, as it were, exaggerate a little. How else is money, or preferment to be handed out? I suppose in the old days the way to decide such things was by patronage; knowing the right people, being a good chap, being one of us. As a woman from a very ordinary background I can hardly feel confident that I would have achieved what I have under that kind of arrangement. Thus, perhaps big up is not the worst option.

Becoming as it is for people to be charmingly self-deprecating, it's also a very good way to do themselves down. I've recently been in a couple of situations where someone's reluctance to big themselves up has harmed their prospects. It's rather
like examining a PhD: if the candidate doesn't demonstrate that they know the literature, you can't assume that they do, even though it's probably the case. At least in that situation there is a viva in which such doubts can be answered. There are no second chances in a lot of the cases where big up is called for. If you are part of a large competition people assessing your case may not know you or be from an entirely different field, and thus not understand what you do. You have, therefore, to explain why what you have done, or intend to do, is important, excellent, worthy of their notice. Once you find yourself on the other side of the divide, where you are the one assessing, not just writing or supporting the applications, you begin to realise that what, to the individual making the case, feels like boasting, reads to the assessor simply as explanation.

It appears, therefore, that in the university world big up may be a necessary evil; perhaps the age of modesty, like that of miracles, is past. It may be that it's ugly but necessary. Nothing, though, will ever make me like it.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

J'ai deux amours

On Monday evening I was in one of my favourite bistros in Paris and suddenly I found myself thinking 'My father would have liked this.' Maybe he would have done: according to what I have been told he was a francophone, francophile, foodie, before he latter term had been invented. But that's the thing; I have to go by what I have been told, because my father died when I was nine, having had a serious illness that changed his personality for two years before that. So in effect I have a seven year old's view of him. Those of you who have or have had seven year old children, or can remember what it was like to be one, may see the problem with this. How much can someone of that age really understand what an adult is like?

The odd thing is that I know nobody else whose parent died when they were a child: it must be very rare these days, or maybe everyone feels the same strange sense of shame as I do, so doesn't want to discuss it. When you're a child people talk in hushed tones about how you 'lost' your father: I wonder whether, as a result, I learned to feel ashamed of having been so careless. But, for whatever reason, there are not many of us about, it seems, so I don't know whether my experience is at all typical. But it came to me that I would sell my soul just to have one adult conversation with my father. Perhaps others of the early-bereft may feel the same.

There are so many things I long to know: whether he really did love the same wine as me (or whether I've made myself do so, having heard of his preferences); whether I like Stolychnaya because as a teenager I found a long-extinct bottle of his at the back of a cupboard. I'd love to know whether he, like me, would revel in the ambiance of a genuine Art Deco bistro, and what kind of food he'd like to eat there. I'd like to hear what kind of actresses he fancied, be told a slightly off-colour joke, bitchy story, salacious bit of gossip. I'd like to know about his mentors and the people he admired, and hear some stories about his career, how he grew up and his heroes. I'd like to know whether we'd disagree about politics, music, art: I think we would about religion. I'd like know what he was like when he'd drunk a little too much, to see him slightly the worse for wear the next morning, and threaten him with a fried breakfast, or find out whether he'd already have done the same to me. I'd like to talk about books and disagree about Dickens (I hear he loved him) I'd like to know what he thought about my life and what I have done with it, even if that caused a blazing row.

All of these things probably sound normal to grown-up people who managed not to mislay a parent in the process. But it's impossible for me to know what just one go at such normality might feel like, so I can't tell. I think, though, that it would be pretty good. Josephine Baker once sang 'J'ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris.' I agree, and I think my father probably would have too. But, in the end, there is no way of knowing.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Something less cheerful

Being the DH person that I am, when it comes to the need to communicate something widely of course I turn to a digital channel. What I need to say is not very welcome, and makes me quite unhappy, but doing it this way is easier than saying it over and over F2F or on email, so here we go.

From now on, it's going to take me a bit longer to do things such as read article drafts, answer emails, and even (the horror) read books. I have an eye problem: a very painful invisible condition that affects my ability to read as much or as fast as I'd like to. Some of the muscles around my eyes don't work especially well, and this affects my ability to focus on a point- a handy skill when it comes to reading. This means that all reading is hard for me; despite having prisms in the lenses of my glasses, the longer I spend doing so, whether at a screen or on paper, the more I suffer from serious pain and fatigue.

I've probably had it all my life, but it isn't getting any better, and there is no cure and almost no treatment. It may be getting worse with age, or it may be that the insane amount of email and the vast numbers of documents that an HoD has to read are just taking their toll. It seems that my condition probably counts as a disability, so UCL are being very helpful and making all the adjustments that they can: I have an iPad because reading from a screen I can move about is easier than paper, and large high resolution monitors. However, it's been made clear to me that I have to try to be sensible and look after my health as well.

This means that I have to be more careful about the time I spend reading, on screen and answering email. Given that it seems unlikely that the email deluge will slow down any time soon, I think that means I am just going to be slower to deal with things. It might take me longer than you expect to reply to things. It will mean that I can't read things quickly- if you need comments on a document, draft, piece of work etc I will need several days now- overnight just isn't possible any more, however urgent the deadline might be.

It's hard to explain just how frustrating this is. The digital world is where I live: it's my job but also a source of endless fascination and delight. I also love to read- a book is where I go to hide when things get stressful or upsetting. Yet the more of this I do, the more painful it is. There is no way I can explain the nature of the pain- but believe me, it's not just scratchy, tired eye feeling and I'm not just being a wuss. It would take something serious for me to have to do what I am doing. But if I don't things just get worse and worse, to the point when I cannot take in anything at all, or do any useful work because reading, and then actual comprehension become first agonising then actually impossible.

I will try to find ways round this. I am going to investigate various types of software that may help. But the adjustment period will be hard. In the end there is no substitute for rest and taking things slowly or taking time off for my eyes to recover. I have to say no to more things; I have to tell people they have to wait for things, when I know they need them sooner; I have to seem lazy and uncommitted to my job because I just can't do things as quickly as I'd like. Please, therefore, try to be patient while I learn to work around all this. I hope I will learn to manage it better, although the condition itself will never improve, but at first it will be annoying and frustrating for everyone, I'm sure.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

How it was for me

Various people have asked me what it's like doing an inaugural, and whether I enjoyed it. The second is very easy to answer: no, I didn't and no it didn't get better once I got started. It was terrifying the entire way through. The first part of the question takes a little longer, still, I thought I'd give it a try.

Walking over to the Gustave Tuck, with the DH team and Ray and Lynne: I'm still quite relaxed, walk through the door- and the nerves hit me. I start to set up presentations- all going well until... 'What does this mean? I can't see my notes? I have to see my notes! I won't remember what to say' Panic starts to nibble at the edges of my brain. I'm supposed to be a geek, but I can't work out what to do- my mind fuddled by fear. The tech support guys take over, fiddle about with my laptop and fix it. Panic recedes for now, but it's there ready to take over, if I let it.

There's nothing to do now, but watch the Lecture theatre fill up. I stand chatting to the Dean, people-spotting, pretend not to be nervous; I don't think he's fooled. Time to sit and listen to him and Melissa doing the intros. Strange calm descends- I find myself walking up to the front. I forget to turn the mic on then remember a few minutes into talk. Looking out on a room full of faces, most familiar, some not- this surprises me (who but a kindly friend or colleague would want to hear me talk after all?) I don't really know how to begin this talk, so I just do. I can't pick up the mood of the room. First few slides- no real feedback. Do they get this? Is it going to work? I hear myself speaking- watching for reactions, not getting much. Some people look pensive, friends look a bit confused, the Dean seems to be frowning. Oh well, never mind, forget it, move on.

Talking about DH and collaboration- smiles and nods from the DH people. Talking about ordeals and selfish professors: laughter, agreement from the Cambridge crowd who don't think much of profs. Another of the three Deans in the room is frowning. The VP research looks thoughtful- is that good or bad thoughtful? Never mind, forget, move on.

Talking about gender unfriendliness and outdated rituals: I dare not look at any of the Deans or the VP research. Other people seem to like it. I sense silent whoops and fist pumps and begin to notice fingers flying across screens as people tweet. This has to be better.

I suddenly realise that I can't remember what time it was when I started. How long have I been talking? I know I'm now half way through the slides, but have I said too little? Too much? Nothing to be done, but use the instinct for timing you get from hundreds of lectures and hope for the best. Still watching the faces. Another Dean frowns; in fact I fear they are all at it now. What did I expect? I knew this was going to be controversial. Too late to stop- anyway I believe what I'm saying. Forget, move on.

Faces light up with smiles as I mention a name, a joint project, something we care about. UCLDH colleagues are at the front, DIS at the back, others DH, and UCL around the room. I feel support, positivity, agreement come up like waves. Frowns are less noticeable now, but still worrying. Never mind, forget, move on.

Everything seems to go slowly- I check the notes. Did I say what I wanted to say? Have I said this before? Did I say too much about that? Too late- need to move on. Someone looks bored- oh no, the worst thing. Remember, it doesn't matter, they won't all like it, you can't be perfect (Frieda's advice comes back to me) Almost at the last slides. I try not to let myself feel relief- if I feel anything the fear could still come for me. I look up, feel lots of positive energy from the room- Deans perhaps frowning less noticeably. Don't care- time to stop. I expect to feel relief- don't. I still feel hyper-aware as I listen to Ray's conclusion. We crashed the live streaming server. I am delighted, amazed, incredulous. How many people were there out there listening? Did they like it?

End of the lecture: people come up to congratulate me, shake hands, smile, say well done. I feel as though I am talking through a glass wall- everything is slow, distant, a bit unreal.

I'm walking across to the Grant Museum, talking as we go. Still no relief, I'm still not elated. There is good reason, as it turns out. The catering has not arrived. I feel numb, shocked, disbelieving. It must be here- just let me look for it and it will appear. It doesn't. Two Deans, Henry and Stephen, now definitely frowning, look as shocked as I am. No time to wonder what's wrong- they start to deal with it. I am as stupid and useless with nerves as I was with the tech problem. Rapid conversations with a number of people, faces come and go, offering ideas, explanations, help: nobody knows what's wrong. Melissa is in crisis management mode- suggesting solutions, giving reassurance, staying cheerful. People offer to help; are sent, dashing about UCL to find out what's going on and get help. I want to join them, help sort it out, fade into the background, be anywhere but here. But no, it's my party. 'You go and talk to people- we will sort it out'. Bewildered and useless, I do.

Suddenly Henry appears, puts a glass of wine into my hand and disappears before I can ask what's happening. Nobody else has one. Where did it come from? This seems wrong, but before I can protest, others appear, and people do what they ought to and start to drink and talk. Most are still here- now smiling, laughing, making a joke of it. But the Dean and most of the UCLDH team have disappeared. I am trying to talk to so many people at once I don't have time to wonder where they have gone. Now everything speeds up- I want to talk to everyone, but keep missing people. Short, fractured conversations get left mid sentence as I flit about from one group to another, always missing someone, never talking for long enough. People congratulate me, tell me what a great lecture it was. I still feel numb: I'm pleased, but I can't really take this in. Half my mind is still on the wine- where did it come from? Where are the others?

I escape and find Jack, manager of the Grant serving wine with Claire, heroically pouring drinks one-handed, her other arm still in its sling. Suddenly the others arrive, laden with bags full of drinks. Melissa, Tim, Henry, Simon, Andy, Steve are opening boxes, unscrewing bottles, smiling, talking, pleased to have effected a miracle. They have been out to buy all this, while Jack's stop-gap stash from the Grant Museum was being drunk. I am relieved, grateful, delighted, don't know how to thank them for what they have done. This is proof if it were ever needed of all I have been saying about UCLDH and what a wonderful team of people I work with. We smile at each other, overwhelmed by relief at the saving of the party. I try to find the right words to tell them how happy and thankful I feel, but nothing can express it adequately. I hope they know. We'll never forget it; we'll laugh about it soon, but for now, people are recovering, congratulating each other, faces alive with pleasure, beginning to relax, war stories already being told. I have no idea how long all this took- time seemed to stand still, but now accelerates.

There isn't enough time to talk to everyone- people leave, say goodbye and thank you, and I feel I barely had chance to say hello. Then we are shooing people out, collecting glasses, thanking Jack for all he's done, collecting people to go to dinner, wondering where to go (impossible to predict times or numbers for a booking). Finally luck chooses to favour us, and we find a table at Paradiso, and have a wonderful, happy, relaxed dinner, and which nothing goes wrong, and nobody even looks pensive, or frowns. At last we walk back down Gower street, people going off to Tubes and hotels. It's over. I'm glad. It takes a long time to get to sleep that night.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Inaugural lecture

Below is the text of my inaugural lecture. If you would like to listen to it, you can find it on Soundcloud. The two are not exactly the same, because I believe in giving lectures not reading them. Enjoy....

The monologue in a crowdsourced world: have digital resources rendered the inaugural lecture obsolete?

The longer I work in DH, and the more I consider what the digital medium makes possible the more the idea of me standing up and telling people what I think and thus by implication what they might think seems frankly bizarre. I increasingly dislike the idea of the single voice speaking with some kind of a spurious authority. One of the great assets of the digital, and what it encourages and enables is multiple voices entering into a dialogue and creating new knowledge out of conversation and discussion. In what follows, therefore, I propose to look carefully at this apparent contradiction.

Even in the physical word, there are, I believe, better ways to generate knowledge, through dialogue and conversation. I think that one of the reasons for my unease with the idea of the single person lecture is that, as a student I knew it as an optional extra rather than the core of the educative process (lectures were not compulsory for Cambridge undergraduates and this remains the case). Cambridge teaching relies on the supervision- a discussion between an academic and one or two students- as the foundation of teaching and learning in the arts and humanities. I was lucky enough to be taught by some of the greatest international authorities yet it was never assumed that their voice in the conversation was necessarily more important than mine. Far more important than who was talking was the quality of thought expressed and the nature of knowledge that emerged from the dialogue, and I think that's quite right.

I don’t propose to talk about users of digital resources in the humanities, and cultural heritage…again. I thought it might be time to take pity on people: if there are any inhabitants of planet Zog who haven’t heard me talking about this, you could always download some of my publications from UCL Discovery. Nevertheless, I propose to apply some of the techniques that we use in user studies, and apply them to the phenomenon of the Inaugural lecture as a case study. Stan Ruecker my colleague on the INKE project uses what he calls the affordance strength model to assess whether digital resources and interfaces are fit for purpose. This allows him to compare the actual use of an artefact or resource, digital or physical, against its potential utility and suggest changes to design and functionality that might improve it. This approach can help explain, for example why despite the production of ever more complex digital reading devices, many of us still prefer to read print because it has affordances that digital cannot yet match.For example we can make notes on a piece of paper, doodle, fold it up, carry it easily, etc in a way that even the most sophisticated digital readers cannot match.

Stan makes clear that the concept of affordance is a very complex one, and there is excellent discussion of affordances in the excellent new book: Visual Interface Design for Cultural Heritage, that Stan has co-written with Milena Radzikowska and Stefan Sinclair. But my very basic explanation of an affordance would be a property that an object possesses that we are aware we can use. It's not a very elegant description, so here is an example from the book of a situation in which various affordances interact.

For example, a cat may afford petting by its owner; the petting affords pleasure for the cat; the petting affords pleasure for the owner; the petting and the cat’s pleasure afford a sense of companionship for the cat owner (and arguably for the cat, too). The pet-ability of the cat is a mechanical affordance. The pleasure of the two creatures involved is an affective affordance. The companionship is a social affordance. It is possible to have any of these affordances without the others. The cat may still afford companionship even if it is not currently in the mood for being petted. The cat may also afford petting but fail to experience pleasure, and so on. The cat is also unlike the book in that its willingness to afford petting in the first place is volitional – the book cannot actively resist reading, by, for instance, jumping up on top of the refrigerator.

Given that affordances can be nested in these various ways, it is not necessary to perceive all the details of an affordance in order to be able to identify and begin using it.....With respect to petting the cat, the person does not have to anticipate that the petting may result in a sense of companionship – it is enough for either the owner or the cat to initiate the negotiation and see where it leads. (Ruecker, Radzikowska and Sinclair, 2011, p94)

I propose to use a version of this method to assess the IL’s current affordances and possible future utility. Another method that we have used extensively is what Ann Blandford calls use in context. This means studying what users actually do with digital resources in the context of their usual work, rather than forcing them to complete set tasks in a lab, and it takes into account the importance of the cultural and professional context within which people work. We have, for example, braved knee deep mud to study archaeologists at Roman Silchester, so I think it’s robust enough for the task in front of me. I am assuming that both the person giving the lecture and the audience are users, and the institutional context we need to take into account is that of UCL in particular, but also the wider academic and historical context, and that of my own professional history.

Affordances are to some extent dependent on the user's perception of them, so the list that follows is mine, but based on what I can gather about inaugural lectures and their purpose from talking to other academics, and from reading university websites. They are as follows:

  • Communication of research
  • Interactivity
  • Ordeal
  • Paying back
  • Public Engagement
  • Inclusiveness/Teams
  • Celebration
  • Social occasion/networking

Communicating your research

One of the ideas that is mentioned regularly as the purpose of the inaugural is to tell people about my research, whether that is at UCL, or to engage with the wider public. I had to be reminded that there are in fact people who don’t yet do DH, and part of the reason for me doing this lecture might be to persuade them that they’d enjoy it. Quite honestly I am not convinced that there is any corner of the known universe that hasn’t been reached by the relentless digital wave of publicity that is UCLDH. The fact that our posters are now on display at the ODH in Washington as a result of Melissa’s tweets and blogs is surely evidence of the huge potential for outreach that is innate in digital media. However, it is important to consider this affordance.

One of the stated aims of inaugural lectures is that they should give some idea of the kind of research field in which people work. In this again I feel the affordances of the lecture form are lacking because of its monologic nature. All of my work has been about giving others a voice. If I succeed I should no longer need to speak at all really. When I began work in DH it was assumed that users should not be seen or heard. Their views were unimportant and their only purpose was to adopt all the cool tools and techniques that the clever expert DH people designed for them, and they should be grateful and uncritical. We know what was good for them, in effect. If they failed to do so, it was because they were ignorant, Luddite, old fashioned or just plain stubborn. They did not know what was good for them, in other words. If my work has achieved anything it is to fight against such assumptions and insist that users of digital resources do know what they need, and that if they don't find it they will not use things that are unfit for their needs. In this I was, at one point, something of a lone voice, but I insisted that it was worth me speaking, because I was doing so to give voice to those whose opinions were ignored. I am delighted to find that opinions are now changing, users are being consulted and their views listened to. If my voice is lost in the clamour of ideas, views and demands from the voices of those users, and that such views are taken seriously and design decisions taken on this basis then that is the greatest success that I could wish for.

But how in the end can this happen? The only way to create such resources is for users, designers and those who study user needs, behaviours and requirements to work together. Once again, where is the place for the lone voice in this process? DH is, in almost every way that we can imagine, a collaborative field. We have to learn to work together and understand the different languages that are spoken by different partners in the dialogue: geeks, humanities scholars, information professionals, technical support people and indeed the public. In that sense, therefore, the voice of the DH scholar is of use as an interpreter between different languages and cultures. But interpreters cannot, but the nature of their job, exist in isolation. It is perhaps significant that there are, in relative terms, so many excellent female scholars in DH and in user studies more widely. One might argue that girls are constantly socialised to the idea of communication, creating community and interpreting between people who don’t understand each other. This is not always easy, and if it doesn’t work, can be the downfall of apparently good projects, but when it works properly is one of the great joys of doing DH research, where conversations from different viewpoints result in insights that no one individual could have produced. I would far rather work in research teams that stress community and dialogue than publish single authored monograph, and it may be that this is why so many of us in DH have come to the same conclusion. Of course it is partly due to the speed of technological change in our field. Nobody really wants to read about 5 year old technologies. When we do publish books: they tend to be multiple authored. It's as if we have a sense that DH is about a multiplicity of voices and perspectives, and thus that hundreds of pages of a single voice would be to misrepresent the diversity of the field. So I really do not feel that the monologic lecture can give a real idea of how research in DH works.

Lectures are beset by problems of physical constraints. We can only fit a certain number of people into a lecture theatre: there are always limits to the number of questions that may be asked, and of the time possible for answers. There are of course some very interesting and complex questions about the comparison of physical presence and digital surrogacy which we are only beginning to understand, for example in the context of museum studies. Helen Chatergee’s work at UCL Museums suggests that when we handle real objects, different part of our brains respond than when we see a digital surrogate, and similar results have been achieved in studies of visitors to art galleries. It is also clear that despite the early, exaggerated enthusiasm for a pure form of e-learning the reality is that most students prefer a face to face experience of university education because of its social aspects. For example there are many excellent XML tutorial materials on the web, but students still prefer to come to UCLDIS to be taught XML because, despite my great respect for my former boss Lou Burnard, it's easier to work out why your code won't validate with the aid of a friendly demonstrator than a cardboard programmer. I remain to be convinced, however, that this applies to one-off lectures.

Digital media offer a far more flexible and appropriate way to communicate DH research. DH is a global field, and we can enter into conversations with members of our community worldwide using blogs, social media and crowd sourcing techniques. Webcasting or podcasting a lecture means that nobody really needs to be physically present to hear me talk any more. But if I blog or tweet about these subjects it becomes a more equal, multi vocal dialogue. Anyone, anywhere in the world can read a blog at any time, or indeed listen to a podcast. They can leave comments or tweet and be part of the discussion either with me, or other members of the 'audience'. There is no limit on the number of questions or comments that can be made: for people who feel shy of asking a question in public it may be easier to comment on a blog or to tweet especially if they wish to do so anonymously. Such a dialogue may be carried on over an extended time period and does not require an 'audience' to be present at a particular time and place. There is also far less implied or actual hierarchy present: it would seem odd if audience members stuck up a discussion amongst themselves at a lecture, even it if was inspired by the themes discussed, yet we relatively often see multi vocal discussion in the comments sections of blogs or on Twitter or Facebook. It might also seem rude if people got up and left during a lecture yet when reading a blog or series of blog posts we can stop, skip, re-read and come back hours or even days later, as is convenient, and the writer need never know or be offended.

I also had to draw up an invitation list for my inaugural lecture, but one of the reasons I prefer blogs and Twitter to Facebook is that I don’t have to invite people to join me when I discuss DH in those media. Anyone can follow me, or read a blog, and I rather like the sense that I have never met many of the people who do so, in the case of a blog, I may never know. Somehow it’s liberating to talk to such an audience, whereas talking to a distinguished crowd face to face is frankly terrifying.

The ordeal

This brings me to the need to digress, briefly about another possible affordance: the inaugural as ritual ordea. It's been described to me as the entry fee to the professorial club. This makes it sound rather like some awful fraternity hazing ritual, but we might pause to look at this, at least briefly. I can report that if such lectures are meant to be provide a frightening ordeal then in my case at least, that really works! I can’t see how anything digital could match this affordance, unless the new professor were seriously technophobic. But talking of phobias, there are surely quicker, more efficient ways of terrifying people than making them do a lecture. Those who fear heights could be made to walk about on the college roof: arachnophobes could be sent to the UCL Grant Museum to play with the spiders; people like me who are claustrophobic could be locked in a small dark space for a while. I don’t think anyone would feel that was an appropriate thing to do to a new professor, so surely we can dismiss the idea of the ordeal as a serious aim……can’t we?

Putting something back

There is also the more serious idea lurking behind the idea of an entry fee: that new professors should give something back to the community. This is a laudable aim, but I cannot see how someone standing up and giving a lecture achieves this, and indeed it rather reinforces the image of professors as "personal glory seekers", or "backstabbing assholes who take the credit for other people's work" as a recent article in the THE reported. The same study on which the THE reports suggests that Professors should take a greater role in intellectual leadership and mentoring. So, instead of giving a lecture, a more useful way to give back, or pay the entry fee might be to require all new professors to mentor a more junior colleague for a year. This is most likely to be a real world activity, but it might have a digital component, depending on how geeky both people were.

The digital alternative

Digital media are, not surprisingly, the best way to communicate the nature of my own research field- DH. However, I shall also go on to argue that the affordances we have discussed above for dialogue and sharing of information work better than a lecture for sharing any types of research with the wider UCL community. One good example of how colleagues can communicate their research to each other is through blogging, and particularly a simultaneous blogging event such as the Day of DH. Participants sign up to be part of the day and are then encouraged to record what we are doing and reflect on their work and the progress of our subject, and to read each other’s work and comment. This writing has been analysed, using text analysis technique and treated as a crowd sourced publication on the themes and development of DH. The global commitment to the Day of DH seems to me to indicate that dialogue and the equality of many voices is regarded as central to what we do, but it also works well in other fields: UCLDH PhD student Lorna Richardson used this model very successfully for the Day of Archaeology which she organised last year.

It’s possible to imagine a similar event at UCL, where we chose a day and blogged about our work. I think it would be fascinating to read about what my colleagues are doing all day. This would not have to be limited to professors: it could showcase the work of entire research teams or groups and could, indeed should, include early career researchers, postdocs and PhD students. Arguably their research needs more exposure rather than that of professors who are supposed already to have a global reputation after all. Or, if we are thinking of it as an alternative to inaugural lectures, then we might ask newly appointed professors to blog about their work, for example over a week, or longer if they wanted to.

These blogs could, as in the Day of DH, be linked to a common interface, and other new professors might add their comments, as indeed any readers could. Bloggers could provide links to artefacts, images, designs, music, buildings etc depending on what they work on, and there could also be links to UCL Discovery, so that if readers found the blog sufficiently interesting, or relevant to their own research, they could download academic articles. The audience may leave a lecture fired up with enthusiasm to download articles, but I think it's quite doubtful whether they actually do so, especially if they stay for the party afterwards.

The inaugural model also seems to speak to an older model of academia, where everyone had time to find out what everyone else was doing, and might be able to understand it when they did. Now, if we are serious researchers we don't have time to go to all the inaugurals even in our school, let alone UCL, that time is better spent on our own research. Disciplines are also far more specialised, so the idea of the professor as polymath is seldom true. We get promoted because we are experts in our fields and we become so by a pattern of publication in specialist journals that precludes the ability to develop a broader outlook. You don’t have time to read very widely if you have to produce the publications and grant applications that RAE/REF and promotion criteria demand.

In the real world, if I want to find out what colleagues work on I don't want to have to wait until they give a lecture: I'll use digital resources, look up their webpage, follow them on Twitter, find out if they blog, download articles from UCL Discovery. This gives me a far more comprehensive picture of their work, far more quickly than listening to them give a lecture. This could be a new way to foster interdisciplinarity at UCL, whereby people might stumble upon someone who is working in an area of shared interest. It could also be a genuine vehicle for pubic engagement, since the commenting function and potential linkage with Twitter would allow those outside UCL to take part in the conversation.

Public Engagement

Of course these kind of blogs would work very well as a vehicle for Public Engagement. This has also been suggested as a purpose of the inaugural lecture. I can't see how this can be possible, because a lecture is a one to many medium of expression, and without the ability to ask any questions there is no possibility of two way interaction: under the UCL definition, therefore this cannot count as public engagement. Steve Cross, UCL’s head of public engagement, also tells me that very few people from outside UCL come to Lunch hour lectures, that are specifically designed for the public. Yet I know that the podcast of my LHL on Twitter has reached far beyond UCL- people tweet to tell me so and the numbers of downloads of public engagement podcasts such as those from UCL CASA’s Global Lab are very impressive, and clearly growing. So it's arguable that even if we think about such things as communication of research to the public the digital form is at least as good, if not better.

However, digital resources really are very good vectors for Public Engagement: they make it possible for those outside academic to engage with our ideas and even become part of the research process. Because of the stress in DH on collaboration and the need for interpretation and communication it is perhaps not surprising that as a field we have taken to Public Engagement very happily. I’m very proud of the various public physical public engagement activities in which various members of UCLDH, including our students, have taken part, including Bright Club, creative writing workshops and a popup exhibition at the UCL Art Museum. But it is not surprising that the combination of digital resources and the UCL belief in PE and inclusion have produced are two of the most exciting crowd sourcing projects in the world. Transcribe Bentham allows people to engage with original historical sources online in a way that was, until recently, only the preserve of scholars and archivists. It’s wonderful that it has won a Prix Ars Electronica, and caught the imagination of the global media, such as the New York Times, but even more important is that fact that so many members of the public have taken part and contributed transcriptions to the resource. After my lecture the party took place in the UCL Grant Museum, not just because it’s a beautiful space full of fascinating exhibits, but also so that people could use the QRator iPads. Our work on QRator, a collaboration with UCL CASA's Tales of Things, means that users can now express their ideas about museum objects, rather than passively clicking an interactive display or reading a conventional museum label. In doing so they enter into a dialogue with the exhibits, the museum curators and other visitors, whether they are physically present, or commenting on Twitter or via the Tales of Things website. This is a true dialogue, one might even say crowdsourced interpretation, and would have been impossible without the aid of digital technologies. Our work on social media and crowdsourcing once again privileges many voices over one, and is thus, entirely appropriate for DH.

I must admit though that some critics of digital diversity appear to feel that in this scenario there is no place for expertise and the role of the teacher, curator, editor or other form of expert is thereby undermined. There still remains a reactionary academic distrust in the idea that social media can ever be used to a serious purpose, and a fear that allowing normal people to voice their views is fundamentally disruptive and disreputable. I disagree with this view which seems contrary to UCL’s founding principles of openness and inclusivity. Cuncti adsint meritaeque expectent praemia palmae: Let all come who by their merit deserve the greatest rewards. Surely the affordance of the digital medium to allow expert voices to mix and converse with those of the interested public is far more powerful than that of the lone voice speaking. If we are too afraid to discuss our views with others, whether within or outside academia, what kind of experts are we?

Interactivity and inclusiveness

It therefore seems to me that the digital medium allows for a more inclusive approach to academic research, whereby users are not only consulted but become part of the process of discovery and interpretation. There’s also another aspect to inclusivity, and that is in the sense of not discriminating against certain groups. The physical lecture therefore seems to me to offer potential barriers to gender neutrality and family friendliness as compared to at least some uses of digital media. The early evening timing of academic rituals such as lectures and seminars also seems to assume a very dated model where male academics worked and their wives or servants dealt with family and practical things. Having such things in the early evening is only convenient if someone else is shopping for and making dinner and looking after children or older relatives, and you do not have a long commute home afterwards. For most of us this is not the case; early evenings are especially difficult when it comes to maintaining a healthy balance between work and family life. Given that, unfortunately, studies continue to show that women still do the larger share of caring responsibilities and housework, even if they work full time, it may be especially difficult for them to manage this conflict. Yet I know that my DH colleague Melissa Terras found that the use of Twitter and reading blogs helped her keep up with her field while on maternity leave: you can read twitter a 3am while balancing babies and an iPhone. Melissa has missed a lot of inaugurals while she’s been on leave though….

Including the team

I might also argue that the inaugural lecture form is not only unfriendly to women in the audience, but also to female presenters. The most recent Athena ASSET survey of women in STEM subjects demonstrates that most women prefer to attribute their success to working with an excellent team of other researchers and to the support their receive from their partner and family. I am very definitely one of these.

My team know, because I tell them all the time, that they are the most wonderful group of DH researchers on the planet ever, and I could in no way have achieved a fraction of what I have done without them. I don’t say that kind of thing to my husband, but I should, because the same is true- even if he doesn’t do DH. But the serious point is that this tends not to be the case for men, who, the report suggests, tend to see their own ability as the main reason for their success. It follows from this that the inaugural lecture is a particularly masculine form, stressing as it does the achievements of the individual. I would have preferred some kind of event in which my team could have shared not just in the celebration, but in the presentation, and it feels uncomfortable for me to be singled out in this fashion. To use a cycling image, I’m like the person who wins the Tour de France. I may be the one who, literally, gets to stand on the podium this time, but I could never have achieved it without my team working for me, sheltering me from the wind, setting the pace up the climbs, helping me on a bad day, after a puncture or a crash, leading me out in the sprints. I might take the glory, but they do so much of the unseen, unappreciated work, without which it would not be possible. It appears that this may not simply be my own choice, it’s just that I am typically female in terms of who I credit for my success, and who therefore I wish I could include in its celebration.


It’s perhaps significant that some of us are wondering whether the single person lecture is appropriate at all as a way to celebrate achievement in DH. During this year’s Zampolli Lecture, at DH11 several of us wondered on Twitter whether this was an incongruous event, given that the honorand, Chad Gaffield was talking a great deal about the work of his team. We felt that almost every DH scholar of note now works with a research team, and that therefore it might be more appropriate to have some kind of an event that celebrates the most excellent DH team, or the most effective DH team worker. But it must be noted that digital social networks can be a vector for celebration themselves. One of the most delightful aspects of my field is that it’s usual to congratulate individuals and team on their success using Twitter, Facebook or comments on blogs. It’s great to know that we don’t feel it diminishes us as scholars to celebrate the success of others online.

Thus the inaugural lecture works well as a celebration if it’s for an individual scholar, but I think it’s less appropriate for team-based research. In my view, though, we already have an excellent way for individuals to celebrate at UCL- The Provost’s Promotion party. This is a delightful occasion at which everyone invited is celebrating their promotion, not just professors, and is able to bring a guest, often a family member, or colleague who has supported them and helped make the promotion possible. It can’t celebrate the whole team, but it gets closer to it than a lecture.

I think therefore, that when we compare the affordances of digital resources and the one-off individual lecture, the digital proves to be at least as good, if not better in almost every category and it is especially ineffective when it comes to expressing the nature of my own field. And yet, the objection might be raised that we still feel that it’s very important that DHers from all over the world should meet at various conferences and workshops, especially the annual DH conference. Why does this physical meeting still matter?

As Ann Blandford has found, the informal, social parts of conferences are the most useful in terms of ideas generated through serendipitous discovery. This is part of the reason for UCLDH digital excursions, where the talk is always short, but the drinking and discussion is as long and enjoyable as possible. People might think we enjoy such occasions: how wrong they are. We only do it for the research networking possibilities, honest. So it turns out that the really important part of this whole process is not the lecture at all, it is the party that follows. My colleagues in other parts of the world, who could not attend my lecture might watch a webcast but nobody has yet invented the digital equivalent of the party, even via social media. Even if they were tweeting away with a glass of wine in one hand and an iPhone in the other, it’s almost impossible to replicate the atmosphere generated by a real, physical party. So this, after all is the affordance that we cannot yet surpass in digital fashion, which is probably why we in DH take partying so seriously.


So let’s have a look at the affordances that I’ve described above and how physical lectures and digital media compare. Physical lectures are clearly massively superior when it comes to giving people a serious fright. Neither medium offers a very effective way to pay back to the scholarly community, but other ways to do this, such as mentoring, would be predominantly face to face activities. Lectures compare badly to digital media when it comes to being interactive, and allowing users and those outside academia to take part in the research process. I also believe that digital media are far more effective as a way to communicate research whether within or outside academia. If we use such things as connected blogs then digital media also offer a way to include and celebrate the activities of a research team. The physical lecture also does little to dispel the image of the professor as stuffy, self-absorbed and disconnected from the wider public or colleagues; the early evening timing harks back to a world where men attended lectures and women looked after the home. We need, therefore, to be aware that in persisting with the physical form we are doing little to challenge these kind of academic stereotypes.

How effective a lecture is as a way to celebrate seems to me to depend on the type of person and the kind of research they carry out. For an extravert single scholar who loves the adrenalin of performance then I am sure they must be wonderful. But for people such as me, who prefer to celebrate with their team and supporters, and fade happily into the background, attracting as little personal attention as possible, then they are, as my engineering colleagues might say, suboptimal.

One of the most powerful things that we gain through the use of digital resources and media is options for ways to communicate and exchange information, express ourselves and conduct our research. We can send email, blog, tweet, Facebook, share pictures, videos, music: we can be an active participant who creates information or prefer to read, lurk and take things in. None of this excludes the possibility of reading a printed book, visiting a museum, listening to a concert or going to a movie with friends. It’s up to us to decide how we want to mix the digital and physical in our own informational and social world. The media we use depend on individual preferences, and what we want to say about ourselves. No one thing is right or wrong: we need to find the most appropriate tool or medium for what we want to achieve. This is as true in our academic as our social lives. Thus I would argue that in academia we should be open to the same kind of complex informational landscape: why not allow for a variety of forms physical and digital that will achieve communicative objectives, why not change the mixture as technologies change? In doing this we might wish to include the traditional lecture in the repertoire of channels, but if we do we need to be clear about our motivations for doing so. If we persist with the traditional form of the inaugural, it is because we want to say something about belonging to a historical academic form and tradition of public academic performance not because it’s genuinely the best way convey information about our work, or our disciplines to colleagues and the interested public. The one affordance of the inaugural process that we cannot begin to match in the digital form however, is the party. It looks as though it might be some time before we can find a digital equivalent for that.