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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

14 June 2012

Project Fever


I am just starting a very slow, very tentative process of getting back into the swim of normal life after the accident in which I broke my leg in February. Two enjoyable outings as part of this process were to the workshop organised by the AHRC in connection with its Digital Transformations theme at the Cotswold Conference Centre on 28-29 May. The slides from talk reflecting on the workshop and on the nature of 'Digital Transformations' are available here, and are fairly self-explanatory, I think.

My second outing was to the Early Career Researchers Workshop organised by the excellent CRASSH at the University of Cambridge last Friday, 8 June. The title of the workshop was 'This Project Will Self-Destruct in Five Years: the beginning, middle and end of a digital humanities project, and how to keep it alive'. The day had excellent presentations by a number of leading digital humanities projects, as you can see from the programme here.  Which meant that, coming at the end of the day, I was initially a bit uncertain as to how I could best reflect on the day's proceedings. The previous presenters had already made many very useful and practicable observations o the mechanics of project management and on supporting the sustainability of digital humanities projects. I am not sure that 'Prescott's Top Ten Tips on Project Management' would have added very much to the day's proceedings.

But one thing did strike me - how we have all come unquestioningly to accept 'the project' as the unit of currency in the digital humanities world. We live our lives, dream our dreams, and govern our waking and sleeping by projects, endless streams of projects. Why? How did this happen, and it is really necessary to achieve the visions which drive the digital humanities?

If we take a step back from the immediate preoccupations of funding and project management, we can soon see how our world is increasingly governed by projects, from the Euro project to the Olympics project. It is strange how the project, a faintly scurrilous and ludicrous term in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, has become the byword for efficiency, achievement and organisation.

My talk for the CRASSH workshop, 'Does My Project Look Big in This?', sought to consider reflectively this project fever in the digital humanities. The slides from the talk are available here. I wondered in the talk whether our preoccupation with the project is actually holding back the development of the digital humanities as an academic discipline, because it discourages us from engaging with process. I suggested that if we are to escape project slavery, we need to wean the the digital humanities away from its project dependency.

Given the extent to which the project is a metaphor for our time, if the digital humanities could conceive of an alternative to the project, that would be truly transformative.                

2 comments:

  • richardm says:
    14 June 2012 at 11:15

    Andrew

    Thought-provoking, as usual. But this blog also provoked an emotional response in me: frustration that the humble project gets a bad name. Again.

    Yes, I understand that projects can bring out the worst in people - a bit like the McKinsey mantra "if you can't measure it you can't manage it" does in me - but applied pragmatically, sensibly, with sensitivity to the domain, project management is a great enabler.

    Take project management best practice - perhaps loosening it up a bit - add some agility to way the stuff gets done, and harness the passion that people have for what they do (don't kill it). Done right, it is possible to secure the funding we are so dependent on while still enjoying what we do and taking digital scholarship to new places.

    Projects = freedom, not slavery.

    Richard
    (Full disclosure: I'm a project manager...)

  • Paolo Monella says:
    15 June 2012 at 04:14

    I agree with your provocation. Research, by definition, is a process. The goals are set out as you go. If at the start of your research you know exactly what you are going to find, you have already found it: no need to search. This is may sound too philosophical, I know, but reducing DH to mere "making" implies the risk that we find ourselves in a building site with no architects or engineers. Though a good engineer must be keen to dirtying their hands with the dust of the building place, engineering is mainly about thinking and modelling new things to do (and architecture even more so). Are we builders, engineers and/or architects?

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