Digital Humanities Laboratories: Communities of/in practice

I’m organising and chairing a panel discussion “Digital Humanities Laboratories: Communities of/in practice” together with Dr Christopher Thomson (University of Canterbury) at the DHA2021, Australasian Association for Digital Humanities Conference “Ka Renarena Te Taukaea | Creating Communities” host by Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | the University of Canterbury in Aotearoa New Zealand (22-25 November, 2021). You can find out more about the conference programme here

You can still register for the conference and join our panel discussion that will be held on Tuesday, 23rd November 2021 at 6.00 pm New Zealand Daylight Time.

The goal of this panel is to discuss the role of laboratories in producing digital knowledge, building the digital humanities community and contributing to work towards greater racial and gender equity and diversity in the field. This conversation is the topic of my forthcoming book collection edited together with Christopher Thomson (Digital Humanities Laboratories: Perspectives on Knowledge, Infrastructure and Culture, Routledge, 2022). We invited therefore five speakers who are also contributors to that volume: Jacquelyne Thoni Howard (Newcomb Institute of Tulane University, US), Itay Marienberg-Milikowsky (Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel), James Smithies (King’s College London, UK), Tyne Daile Sumner (University of Melbourne, Australia), Brandon Walsh (University of Virginia Library, US).

Please see the full abstract of the panel discussion below and on the conference website here.


Digital Humanities Laboratories: Communities of/in practice

Christopher Thomson & Urszula Pawlicka-Deger

For many, digital humanities is best imagined as a community rather than as a discipline. A notable example of this view is Ray Siemens’ 2014 Zampolli lecture in which he discussed the view of digital humanities as a ‘community of practice’, a term introduced by Lave (an anthropologist) & Wenger (a computer scientist) in 1991. In more recent times, as the computing techniques and resources used in digital humanities research and teaching continue to proliferate, questions of infrastructure, methodologies and institutional change have also come to the fore. A renewed focus for such questions has been the appearance of laboratories in digital humanities, which have recently been discussed as institutional structures (Foka et al. 2018), situated knowledge practices (Oiva & Pawlicka-Deger 2020), and as ‘lab discourse’ with its wider relevance to popular culture as well as academic knowledge (Wershler et al., 2021). What, then, might digital humanities laboratories add to the specification of digital humanities, and how might they prompt us to reconsider the nature of ‘digital humanities community’?

These questions, among others, are to be the topic of a forthcoming edited collection (Digital Humanities Laboratories: Perspectives on Knowledge, Infrastructure and Culture, Eds. Urszula Pawlicka-Deger & Christopher Thomson, Routledge, 2022), and we propose this panel as a conversation between some of the contributors to that volume. The five panellists will each present a 5-minute summary of the research informing their chapter, followed by a discussion of the following questions: 

  • What makes a laboratory different from a community – if, in fact, it is – and how can labs build a sense of community?
  • In what ways can laboratories help bridge traditional and computational humanities research practices? 
  • How might labs help us to re-configure research infrastructure alongside, or embedded within, understandings of research as a social practice?
  • How can labs be configured to work towards greater racial and gender equity and diversity?
  • What is needed in terms of institutional, management and socio-cultural actions in order to mitigate or overcome the hierarchies that may appear in DH laboratories, such as those of technical expertise (‘technical’ / ‘non-technical’ roles), or labour practices (precarious employment, gender biases)? 

Foka, Anna, et al. “Beyond Humanities qua Digital: Spatial and Material Development for Digital Research Infrastructures in HumlabX.” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, vol. 33, no. 2, June 2018, pp. 264–278. doi:10.1093/llc/fqx008.

Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991.

Oiva, Mila, and Urszula Pawlicka-Deger. ‘Lab and Slack. Situated Research Practices in Digital Humanities – Introduction to the DHQ Special Issue.’ Digital Humanities Quarterly, vol. 014, no. 3, Sept. 2020.

Wershler, Darren et al. The Lab Book: Situated Practices in Media Studies. University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming 2022. Draft available at https://manifold.umn.edu/projects/the-lab-book

Gender and Digital Humanities Labs: A Student-Centered and Interdisciplinary Approach

Jacquelyne Thoni Howard (Newcomb Institute of Tulane University, US)

Considering the recommendations of scholars, a feminist Digital Humanities lab should support its student labor force and decisions about labor should be organized from the bottom-up as much as possible. Digital Humanities should avoid copying oppressive lab systems when building DH labs. Newcomb Institute intentionally designed its Technology and Digital Humanities Lab to operate as an extended Digital Humanities learning space for students and faculty using feminist pedagogy and epistemologies principles. The Digital Research Internship program provides a model for building a supportive community of feminist technologists, guides students in gaining employment by providing them with opportunities to gain technical skills and confidence-building, delivers opportunities for students to meet, learn from, and work with faculty, staff, community members, and peers across campus by encouraging collaboration when working on Digital Humanities projects. As part of their jobs, interns examine social issues such as gender and race through the lens of technology studies. Lastly, students become makers by contributing to the Digital Humanities projects, conducting their own research within technology studies, and documenting their work. Each of these objectives align with feminist praxis, especially when applied to a Digital Humanities lab.

The Nurturing Digital Humanities Lab: An Inside Perspective

Itay Marienberg-Milikowsky (Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel)

The flourishing of digital humanities in the last two decades has led not only to a change in research methods and theoretical thinking, but also to the emergence of new institutional frameworks, such as laboratories, to aid activity in the relatively new discipline. However, what is the purpose of a laboratory engaged in computational research in the humanities? Why is it necessary? Is this just an attractive title that allows universities to be proud of winds of change and up-to-datedness, or is there something beyond that? Obviously, these questions may have varied answers in different places, times and institutions. As researchers have already shown, digital humanities laboratories are indeed characterized by a multiplicity of different models.

Based on the biologist Uri Alon’s description of the ideal laboratory, and the theory of the trickster as a cross-border liminal figure in literature and culture, this very short presentation seek to outline and illustrate a model for a nurturing digital humanities lab: a laboratory built from the outset in a way that helps us conceptually and mentally – not less than practically to deal with the challenges that distinguish this unique interdisciplinary field; a field which requires us very often to move freely, like tricksters, between spaces, in a way that emphasises such challenges and makes them visible, instead of taking them for granted.

The Lab as Lifeworld: DH Laboratories as Techno-Humanistic Experiments

James Smithies (King’s College London, UK)

King’s Digital Lab (KDL) was established in late 2015. At the time, Digital Humanities (DH) was conceived by commentators as (variously) either a brave intervention into traditional scholarship and the emerging political and intellectual discourse of early twenty-first century capitalism or a naïve capitulation to the logic of markets and hyper-rationalism. DH laboratories have an uneasy relationship to this wider debate: they are surely arch symbols of the ideological, practical, financial, and intellectual choices made by universities and cultural heritage institutions investing in them. To invest time and money in a laboratory, whether virtual or physical, is a demonstration of institutional purpose and strategic intent. 

It would be intellectually moribund to leave analysis there, however. Donald Ihde’s notion of the lifeworld suggests that any coherent and sustainable economic model for DH laboratories need to be informed by critical and phenomenological analysis, to understand the nature of the thing-itself before extrapolating operational and administrative support mechanisms. The goal must be to consciously attend to and then move beyond the hyper-rational ideologies that Silicon Valley promulgates, towards a more mature scholarly model where technology is socialized and fully integrated into the value system of the Arts & Humanities and wider university and cultural heritage sectors. 

This has implications well beyond the digital humanities community: if implemented the realisation of lab-as-lifeworld, conceptualised in technical but also political and socio-economic terms, could inform an operationalised phenomenology of technology relevant to society as a whole. Building on this vision, the next phase in the articulation of DH laboratory models may well support national, trans-national, and even global aspirations.

More Than a Lab: Infra-structuring the Humanities in the Digital Studio

Tyne Daile Sumner (University of Melbourne, Australia)

This presentation canvasses three interrelated components of Humanities research practice that (re)define infrastructure in the context of the Digital Studio at the University of Melbourne: a practice-based epistemology manifested through critical assemblages of resources, architecturally inflected interdisciplinarity organised around transparency and fluidity, and a connected intelligence approach to empowering sustainable inter-institutional knowledge creation. It considers the role of experimentation, and the alliances that are formed in the process of proto-typing as the epistemic conditions for research in the twenty-first century humanities. It also considers an ethics of durability and flexibility of digital research labs over the past 18 months, in which Universities have experienced what might be called ‘the infrastructural swerve.’ In this unprecedented reformulation of many labs, researchers, teachers, and students have been dispersed and disconnected, throwing into question our reliance on physical space and resources. Finally, the presentation considers the philosophy of place as a constitutive element of the future digital humanities lab. Specifically, place as unique to the human perspective and the values, meaning and diverse cognitive systems that researchers bring to place. 

The Lives in the Scholars’ Lab: Values-Driven Digital Humanities”

Brandon Walsh (University of Virginia Library, US)

For more than thirteen years, the Scholars’ Lab has served as the University of Virginia Library’s community lab for the practice of experimental scholarship in all fields, informed by digital humanities, spatial technologies, & cultural heritage thinking. This presentation will argue that a lab’s success must be measured by the degree to which it advocates for the lives of those in its community. For the Scholars’ Lab, this advocacy takes the form of collectively authored documents that serve as the foundation for engaging in values-driven digital humanities work directed, in particular, to supporting the needs of students and early-career scholars. The talk will address the urgency of directing support to these under-resourced members of the community while also describing the challenges of constituting a community in this way. 

In the “The Life of a Digital Humanities Lab,” the larger chapter from which this work originates, six leaders of very different DH labs around the United States synthesize key challenges and affordances common to the lab as a space, but also highlight divergences and particularities through focused case studies unique to our institutions. In particular, the chapter analyzes the infrastructural role of the DH space in terms of funding and sustainability, articulates common activities and approaches to labor, and reflects on the importance of diversity and equity in the DH lab.

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