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.

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