As a discipline, we suck online

UCL lecturer tells digital humanities to sharpen up on the web or lose out. Sarah Cunnane reports

July 15, 2010

The plight of the "digital humanities" - the integration of technology into the humanities - was tackled in an unflinching speech at an international conference.

Melissa Terras, senior lecturer in electronic communication at University College London, described her keynote speech at the Digital Humanities Conference last week as "necessarily negative", warning that, as a discipline, "our web presence ... sucks".

Reciting a story about the corpse of UCL's spiritual father, Jeremy Bentham, being wheeled into senate meetings at the institution and listed in the minutes as "present, not voting", she told delegates if the digital humanities did not improve its standing online, it too risked being "present, not voting" within the academy.

While she acknowledged that there was "a lot of hard work going on behind the scenes", Dr Terras said the discipline risked looking "amateurish" to outsiders.

The lecturer cited a number of websites within the discipline, such as the Association for Computers and the Humanities' site (last updated in 2003), as examples of how the digital humanities had been "slow to embrace" new technology and social media.

She also argued that those working in the field had to rectify the "historically bad" articulation of the relevance of the discipline, warning: "How many of us ... say, 'Well, it's kinda the intersection of ...'. You lost them at 'kinda'."

Dr Terras said the current drive to measure and reward the wider "impact" of research was another factor the discipline had to consider.

The wisdom of such an approach is still being debated in the UK as plans are considered to include an impact measure in the main mechanism for distributing quality-related research funding. In the US, she said, funding is already being directed in this way.

With this in mind, Dr Terras said, scholars in the digital humanities needed to "ensure that all of our wonderful 'whiz-bangy' tools are followed up with research papers in important places". This was "the only way to maintain and improve our academic credentials", she argued.

In conclusion, she said that the discipline needed "people who are not just prepared to whine but prepared to roll up their sleeves and do things to improve our associations, our community, and our presence in academia".

The speech, delivered at King's College London, provoked scores of responses on Twitter, using the hashtag #dh2010. Matthew Kirschenbaum, associate professor of English at the University of Maryland in the US, tweeted a pithy summary. "Party's over folks, time to get our shit together," he said.

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