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.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Inaugurals and affordances

Tomorrow I’m giving my inaugural lecture entitled "The Monologue in a crowdsourced world: have digital resources rendered the inaugural lecture obsolete?" It's at 6.30 in the Gustave Tuck lecture theatre, if you really want to come.

I can’t say I am really looking forward to it: one of the aspects of inaugurals that I discuss is that they seem deliberately designed to be a frightening ordeal for the person who gives them (and for all I know an ordeal of a different kind for listeners). I was very unenthusiastic about having to do one of these, and could not really work out why. So I did what my old director of studies used to suggest when I was stuck with an essay question: try to examine what it was about this topic at hand that made me uneasy, and write about that.

As a result I decided to examine the phenomenon of the inaugural lecture itself, and consider how well it still works in a digital world. To do this I’ve used the concept of affordances, often employed in the study of interface design and human computer interaction. In essence an affordance is the properly we are aware something possesses and an analysis of affordances can help us decide whether a tool, physical or digital, is fit for the purpose for which we need it. Thus I'm going to consider the affordances of inaugural lectures and of comparable digital resources and see which comes out on top.

I’m going to post the text of the lecture on this blog after tomorrow, and it will be live tweeted and webcast. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out what my conclusions are, but here’s a hint- in the end I am a digital humanist.

Monday, 16 January 2012

#tweetyourthesis: elegant simplicity

I think it's about time that I talked about #tweetyourthesis in rather more than 140 characters. Susan Greenberg and Anne Welsh have provided excellent accounts of how it all happened: conversation at a dinner for PhD students turned to questions of how concisely to summarise your thesis. Susan picked up the idea and tweeted it first, but then I chimed in with the idea that if you can't summarise your research question or problem in a tweet then it requires more work. Why did I do this? Well because as Ernesto Priego says, it's something I often say IRL, and had been doing so that evening. One of my colleagues used to say that the argument/question/problem of the PhD dissertation ought to be summed up on the back of a postcard- so in conversation several of us decided that the most technologically current version of this must be a tweet.

This is not something I only say to PhD students. I read a lot of research proposals- I'm Vice Dean: Research for UCL Faculty of Arts and Humanties and a member of the AHRC Peer Review College, and periodically review proposals for other international councils. I find it surprising how often people cannot summarise their proposed research in a sentence or two. The research question section ought not to be a paragraph long, but it very often is. Furthermore, I almost always find that if there is a long, rambling 'question' the rest of the proposal is often weak, confused and lacking in clarity in other areas, such as methodology or research context. However, the best proposals are able to convey complex concepts in clear, concise, precise terms. I have therefore come to the conclusion that being clear in your own mind about what you are aiming to do has a lot to do with having a properly worked out plan of what your research is going to be about, and why it might matter.

This is why I insist that my PhD students ought to think carefully about their question. I also find that the very best PhD work is such that when you have finished reading a dissertation it is immediately clear to you what the original contribution of the research is. If I am examining a PhD and can't immediately work out either what the main question is or what its contribution may be then I worry about its quality.

The exercise of summing up your research concisely is therefore not about dumbing down. As I often say to people, sometimes the most difficult questions are seemingly simple. Huge amounts of ink have been spilt over 'What are the causes of the first world war' or 'Why can't Hamlet take revenge?' and this seems likely to continue for a while yet. A lot of people in my field get very exercised about 'What is digital humanities?'. I don't think the people at CERN thought it was especially easy to answer 'How can we find the Higgs Boson, and what might happen if we do?' Nor do I think that Crick and Watson thought that their efforts to answer the question 'What is the structure of DNA?' were based on a programme of easy, pointless research. My point is therefore that just because your question is simple it doesn't mean your research must be simplistic.

I also think there has been a bit of a misunderstanding about understanding. Some people have objected that in science they are dealing with very complex concepts and new ideas that the public don't yet understand, if they ever will. That still, to my mind does not rule out being able to communicate your topic concisely to people in your own field. I didn't say that everyone has to understand your research: in the case of my PhD students I just want them to be able to communicate it to me, their examiners, and, ideally people who might give them a job, if it's in academia. If you can also explain it to a member of the public, that’s even better.

But this is also about something very much deeper in the academic psyche. There are some people who feel, as I do, that the greatest and most impressive form of scholarship is to be able to express very complex ideas in a seemingly simple way, so that they may be easily understood. It's the swan argument- you make it all look easy, and only another expert can tell how hard you are working. If, for example, you watch a truly expert rider doing dressage it looks as though they are just sitting still and the horse is doing beautiful, elegant movements because it wants to. Yet if I or most average riders were to get onto the same horse we’d be eating the arena floor in seconds. Only when you know a bit about riding, can you appreciate what incredibly hard work it is to sit apparently still and ask a huge, powerful creature to do what you want it to, with tiny movements of your hands, legs and body. That is what I aspire to in research myself: power and elegance that appears effortless. I do know, however, that some scholars feel that the opposite is true: only if you express yourself in such complex language that only a very few of the brightest of your colleagues and comprehend it are you a true intellectual. I have to say that I cannot agree with that view. That in the end is why it’s elegant, not dumb, to be able to tweet your thesis.