DH about DH about DH – and about the German and the French

After the call for participation to the DH workshop / conference/ happening at the German Historical Institute in June in Paris was issued both in French and in German, something (not so weird) happened. The Germans did as instructed: they blogged and posted the reference to their post in the commentaries. The French found a way not to do exactly what they were asked to, but what was more convenient to them. I must admit I am germanized enough to have taken part in the German organized part, and not so much in the “let’s talk together” French part. As a matter of fact, I published one of the very few blog posts written in French.

The announcement consisted in an official call for blogging in German (Aufruf zur Blogparade), while the French title was more loosely formulated: “Appel à contribution“. Still, the call (even in French) mentioned explicitly which communication means were to be used: collective texts written on pads or wikis, blog entries, Zotero or Diigo selections, Scoop it or Storify pages, audiovisual media, drawings, podcasts, movies. But this wide scale of options didn’t prevent the debate to develop in the parallel universe of the DH-fr mailing list instead.

While some were so overwhelmed by the sudden activity and exchange, occasioning a wave of “please withdraw my address”-emails to the whole list, most of the people I know who are actually on the list follow the debates as closely as they can, even if they don’t themselves write or post. In that sense, the call certainly has overpassed its initial aim, which was to have some persons react. Today, about everybody who is into DH is also in the debate. The link to the list has been tweeted and retweeted since Sunday. One of the most referential contributions has been thankfully published as a blogpost in the aftermath of the discussion, and even translated into English. Day after day, you can see different questions pop and evolve. Yesterday and today for instance, the discussion had mostly to do with the amount of technical skills that should be taught in any DH Master or, for that matter, in any Humanities department altogether.

This is connected to one of the remarks that surprised me when it was made a few days ago. Unsurprisingly, the discussion also revolves around the question whether DH are a discipline (more accurately: should be a discipline) or not. The tension is palpable in the answers: fear of institutionalization on one side, fear of risking one’s career (or their PhD candidates’) on a risky bet on the other. If DH were an accepted discipline, the recognition of programming activities or contributions to databases as scholarly accomplishment would not be such a big deal. As it is, even scholarly blogging is often considered not a real publication…

Now the fear of institutionalization is the part I found interesting. One argument was: If DH were a discipline, the relationships between technicians and researchers would grow into this huge hierarchical gap. Of course, in France, the question of institutionalization has to do with the fact that the sciences are nationally defined. There is a committee for each discipline, hence the disciplines have to exist as such. In Germany, having different denominations for professorships dealing with DH – with a certain specialization like computer philology or digital linguistics, etc. – does not seem to be a problem.

So, to come back to my point, would it really be so that if DH were a discipline, the researchers would despise the technicians more? Really, I don’t know what can lead to that assessment. It is so obvious that there can be no DH without technicians – I count myself as one of the least possible technicised Digital Humanists – that it would rather seem to me that a disciplinary structure would, on the contrary, allow the technicians to have the values of their skills actually recognized. You would be able to include them in funding applications without hiding the positions under vague descriptions. It is precisely from the institutional point of view that it would seem a rather good idea to me. Now there are obviously other aspects to take into account too. And the difference between the French and the German system. As always, I am trying to grab the best ideas in each one of them…

When answered the question “If you could change one thing, what would it be?” at the ALLEA symposium yesterday, Claudine Moulin answered “that DH people stop asking themselves what DH are or should be and just do it”. There is something refreshing about this answer, especially in the context of the French discussion. But it is only understandable as a second answer. The one answer that was given right before by the other speaker, Peter Doorn, was in fact: “make the fear of the digital go away”. Because you can’t deny that the fear is there, within the community for the recognition of its scholarly value, and outside of it, be it only when hearing the words “digitization” and “internet”.

(Did I mention already that DH are not digitization programs? Really, I did? Well, I do it again then…)

Anne Baillot

I studied German Studies and Philosophy in Paris where I got my PhD in 2002. I then moved to Berlin, where I have been living & doing research ever since. My areas of specialty include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history. I am currently working at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin as an expert in digital technologies for the humanities.

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