Those invisible forces

In her brilliant closing keynote of the TEI conference in Lyon, Charlotte Roueché exposed research questions in such a way that they seemed inseparable from what one could consider are infrastructural challenges, but are in truth also methodological or even political principles. Talking about the TEI community was the ideal setting for considerations on the competences, the communication means, the aspirations it takes for a community like that of the Digital Humanities to emerge.

Charlotte Roueché’s diagnosis that the success of humanities research based on digital methods depends on how easily you might be able to find the right person to advise you on technical and methodological aspects that might at first be new to you confirms what the quality of the papers presented in the sessions had shown. The gap between scholars (be they PhD candidates or more advanced researchers) working either alone or with very little technical and infrastructural support on the one hand (as I have often had the occasion to meet them in other conferences) and those that benefit from the expertise of established DH centers or similar structures on the other hand is striking. Cologne, Lyon, Montreal did not need to present themselves as infrastructures: the talks their researchers gave (and notably the less advanced ones) were a tribute to the benefits of the excellent training, advising, and other support they receive. The research ecosystem sustained in these DH competence centers strengthens the quality of the research in that it enables researchers to introduce a reflective dimension to their work that is hardly reachable when you have to manage spreadsheets in your free time and dream of making a database out of them.

When I complain about the lack of recognition of digital achievements in the Humanities, it is one thing – I am (academically) young, I have no faculty position and often feel that my position is not much more assured than the one of my PhD candidates. When Charlotte Roueché denounces the hierarchy between professors and “the others”, when she tells about the fear of the unknown, about the fear of sharing that she observes among the faculty members that are in politically impacting decisional positions, it has another kind of weight. Still, I keep thinking that this is not solely a question of generation. It will not suffice to have the old generation disappear and a younger one gain decisional power. Even the next generation, the people just a few years older than me, are far from being open to the evidence of the digital. Training, outreach, dissemination are, to my eyes, especially necessary towards this generation of the 45-55 year old Humanities faculty members. And it takes people like Charlotte Roueché to make the digital audible and visible to them.

Because it takes a huge amount of energy to make the invisible forces visible, as vital as they are in reality. The invisible forces are people those that connect the technical skills with the scholarly questions, people like engineers, librarians or documentalists, who at least in France have a status and often a stable position (although a moderate salary). In most countries, people with competences in information sciences or computing who are willing to work for the humanities often have no clear status. And since computer scientists working in the industry are being paid a lot of money, you need to pay them enough to attract them to the higher education system, which is a real challenge. In Germany, the computer scientists, even when they maintain more than they develop, are often paid as much as the Humanities researchers, if not more, which in turn leads to feelings of inequality of treatment. Finding a satisfactory balance in which everyone feels respected, paid and considered for what their competence is worth (which is the preliminary condition for satisfactory cooperations) is anything but easy in today’s research context.

The TEI conference, as Charlotte Roueché finally pointed out, is a moment of grace (my words, not hers, but I think this is in the spirit of her keynote) in which the status of the participants does not really matter. What matters is to make progress on this one thing we all have at heart: Text Encoding. And because it is what we all have at heart, the momentum of the conferences is always amazing – in that sense, calling these conferences “Members’ Meetings” was an excellent idea in the first place. And the Text Encoding Initiative is probably just as much a Text Encoding Impetus.


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