The State of Conversation

During the #dhiha6 conference, we tried out different formats in order to foster exchanges. One of them were the Lounges, which I mentioned in an earlier post. In the lounges, participants could actively contribute to predetermined setups by commenting texts, answering questions, letting ideas emerge. This setting was interesting in that it allowed the participants to move from one lounge to another, to stay longer in one and less in another, to smell the atmosphere and move on or sit on a couch for half an hour. In the lounges, the participants turned into Parisian flâneurs.

The Laboratories did not allow an extensive participation of the public – there was not enough time for that. There, the experiments were performed mostly by the person(s) in charge of each laboratory – the whole setting was sometimes prepared in advance, sometimes determined or modified along time according to the questions that were asked, as in the machine translation Laboratory.

But the format that had most success were the ConverStations. 7 tables, each one of them dedicated to a different topic (the list of the topics can be found here), were offered to the participants. With 3 rounds planned, the participants could pick 3 of the 7 tables and attend them in the order they chose. Once a round started, participants and chair had 18 minutes to elaborate on the table’s topic.

Together with Mareike König, I was in the position of the observer and moved from table to table. At first, we did not really know what we were supposed to observe. After a few minutes, two aspects seemed to me to be worth being observed more closely. First, the chairs, all of them experienced teachers, researchers and organizers of all sorts of meetings, had obviously opted for different strategies in the construction of the discussion. Second, the results they wanted to see emerge were materially different too.

Let me begin with that. With the notion of “experiment” at the heart of the conference, the aim was not to artificially mimic the natural sciences by using their vocabulary and their habits for the sake of pretending to be experimenting. The aim was to reflect on some of these processes and what could be operationalized in the Digital Humanities. To me, some of these processes have to do with accumulating and organizing evidence. And there is (or so I thought) mostly one way to do so: by writing things down in such a way that everyone who would look at the minutes would be able to make sense out of them.

Either I am nurturing illusions regarding the precision of protocols in the natural sciences in general or it was simply impossible to make such a setup work in so short a time (18 mn per round is really extremely short). Whatever the reason, we had to admit that the memory of the event constructed itself if not anarchically, at least in a wide variety of forms. We (we, the observers) recorded some of these observations in a series of photos of the tablecloths that we livetweeted (check the hashtag #dhiha6): each table was covered with a paper tablecloth, pencils in 4 colors were on each table, 20 of them or so. Some participants wrote elements of the discussion down on the tablecloths without being explicitely asked to by the chair, some added to notes to what the former group had written. A few tablecloths were left blank, many participants- and many chairs too – wrote on writing blocks, others on tablets, on laptops. (Mareike and I had the smartphone in one hand and a small notepad in the other) In the end, I have never seen such a variety of formats in the note-taking at a conference.

This has also to do with the way the chairs conceived the whole set-up, the first point I mentioned as being noticeable. Pierre Mounier did a first round in which he emphasized the search for examples, and summarized the results of the first round at the beginning of the second one, which could then start from there, etc. On the tablecloth, he took notes in a different color for each round, thus showing how the whole construction took shape. Claudine Moulin had brought illustrations which were commented and served as thread. Through different means, the chairs managed – with different strategies – to make the discussions start without too much ado, and get quickly structured.

I was surprised at how fundamental, even Socratic, the discussions started. Especially in the first and second rounds, definitions played a crucial role. The key concepts of each table were to be defined and explained, themselves invoking new concepts, other definitions. It went so deep as to the question “What exactly do you mean by object?”. This part, at least, corresponds to what I expect from a rigorous research method.

But the ConverStations did not stick to the stiffness of definitions. The whole communication potential could unfold in the last rounds (Mareike and I added a 4th, unplanned round, much to the despair of the chairs, who were exhausted already, but the participants, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy!) The chairs asking questions, the participants sometimes staying mute (especially at the “Creativity” table), some participants having more to say, some others taking for a while a position of observer, small groups entering more intensive discussions than larger groups: many forms of exchange emerged, none of them frontal, all of them concentrated.

When the chairs summarized the four rounds of discussions that took place at their table, it was amazing to see how much had actually emerged from these not even 2 hours of discussion. There remains to find a format that allows to not let these ideas fly away and disappear – maybe blogposts on each topic would allow that, by integrating the tablecloth minutes and other material. But what was (I think) the most important remained even when the conference was over: the deep breeze of questions and ideas, exchanged, deepened, and put in perspective.

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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