School of Advanced Study reaffirms commitment to digital research

New professors in digital history and digital humanities are examples of institution performing its ‘national role’

January 8, 2015

Source: Corbis

Great unknown: there is no agreed definition of what the digital humanities are

The University of London’s School of Advanced Study has underlined its commitment to digital research through the appointment of new professors in both digital history and digital humanities.

Taking up the latter position in February is Lorna Hughes. When her role was advertised last year, shortly after a proposal (later withdrawn) to merge the Institute of English Studies into two other constituent institutes, concerns were expressed that the SAS might be withdrawing from more traditional forms of humanities research.

It was also asked why another centre for digital humanities was needed so close to the leading departments at University College London and King’s College London.

Both these concerns rest on a misunderstanding, said Barry Smith, the SAS’s pro-dean for central academic initiatives. “The school has a national role,” Professor Smith explained, part of which is to “offer leadership and new initiatives”.

“King’s and UCL teach digital humanities and offer degree programmes. We are in no way setting up a new institute or centre in competition with them but facilitating research in collaboration with them, and with other departments such as those at Durham, Nottingham and York,” he said. Since the funding for the new chair in digital humanities came from “a separate pot of money”, it would also not encroach on the other activities of the SAS.

“There is still no widespread agreement about what digital humanities are,” continued Professor Smith. “We want to lead the discussions and focus the leading players.”

Jane Winters, former head of digital publications at the SAS’s Institute of Historical Research, has been promoted to professor of digital history.

Professor Winters joined the IHR in 1996 and recalled telling the interview panel that she never used the web. Yet she soon went on to play a central role in the development of resources such as British History Online, a huge collection of primary and secondary sources that enjoys well over a million page views a month and is now being enhanced and expanded.

Her new role, she said, will require her to “develop new research projects, many of them collaborative, and enhance the resources we have got”. She will also continue her involvement in projects designed to support historians in “handling born-digital big data – making the archive of UK webspace available without overwhelming them”.

“It is also about feeding in historians’ concerns, so that resources are driven by the research questions rather than by what the technology allows us to do,” she added.

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Reader's comments (2)

Melissa Terras here, Director of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities. We're delighted that Professor Hughes is joining us nearby in London - and would just like to point out that Professor Hughes has been an affiliate team member of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities for quite some time, as evidenced on our people page: We're also welcoming Professor Winters to give a seminar at UCLDH in a few weeks time: We work very closely with the IHR and SAS, and have been doing so for a long time. Don't also forget the London Arts and Humanities Partnership for doctoral student grants, which is a joint consortium between UCL, KCL, and SAS - and has a strong Digital Humanities element. See how we all play together nicely!
I am thrilled that SAS have appointed Lorna Hughes and Jane Winters as Professors. They are both top notch academics with a passion and collaborative spirit to raise the profile of digital scholarship in London to a whole new level of excellence. There is huge opportunity for further deeper collaboration as already evidenced by the range of existing research collaborations between SAS, KCL and UCL. Personally, I am part of AHRC funded research in collaboration with UCL (Academic Book of the Future) and with SAS (Ministry of Information) and one of our excellent PhD students gained a doctoral grant from the London Arts and Humanities Partnership. I have gained so much as an academic working with SAS and UCL in collaboration and I welcome more chances for us to do this. I can think of no better catalysts for SAS digital research perspectives than Lorna and Jane.