Digital Humanities Summer School in Switzerland: A Personal View

Report by Dr. Sc. Marijana Hameršak, Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research, Zagreb, Croatia

Today most humanities students and scholars work in a digital environment. Although writing and reading are still the core activities in the humanities, pen and paper, book and notebook are being more and more supplemented or substituted by their numerous digital counterparts. The increase of research materials available in digital form, as well as the expansion of the use of personal computers, has led to the digitalization of our everyday research activities. For example, searching the internet in general and journal databases and digital archives in particular, reading journals, book or documents on screen, sending and receiving emails or tweets, following and participating in discussion lists, forums or networks are regular parts of our academic lives. Nevertheless, it seems that some of us are less “digital” than others. If this were not so, the label “digital humanities” would have no referent in the sense of a particular research field, or at least a research orientation. If this were not so, the explosive growth of different digital humanities projects, conferences, programs, summer schools, seminars, journals, books, papers and, of course, blogs would not be possible.

In 2012 one of these numerous digital humanities blogs (Digital Humanities Now) became my window into a world in which the digital itself is the methodological and epistemological issue. And as it usually happens, one thing lead to another, or in fact, one link lead to another link, and I submitted my application to the first Digital Humanities Summer School in Switzerland (DHCH, Bern, June 26-29, 2013). The idea was to dedicate a few days to digital humanities and to find out more about an area outside my core research interests. Faced with the standard work overload, it seemed to me that the summer school in a nearby country was the ideal place to introduce myself to the basics of the field of inquiry that I had just started to follow only rudimentarily and occasionally.

Having in mind some recent and promising digital humanities work in the fields of my expertise (for example in folklore), I applied for the DHCH, but of course had no illusion that I could follow the steps of this work; I only wished to understand it better. Therefore it could be said that I came to Bern primarily to fulfill my curiosity or, in pragmatic terms, to learn as much as possible in such a short period of time.

The school met my expectations first of all because it was introductory oriented and because program was enthusiastically and carefully prepared. I was deeply impressed by the stress on the communication with the participants, as well as with the creative, collaborative and egalitarian practices during the conference (see for example the idea of unconference sessions, announcements during the conference at the DHCH website, tweets on #DHCH or collaborative notes from the conference). At the same time I was surprised, sometimes even terrified by the amount of multitasking (googling, tweeting etc.) done during the lectures.

The schedule was tight but balanced lectures, workshops, breaks and unformal events very well. The balance between excitement over new analytical possibilities and critical reflection upon them was also present. Most of the lectures and particularly the discussions touched on possible epistemological dead ends of a particular tool, procedure or result, and for me these were the most interesting moments at DHCH. The dedication of the humanities to critical research, reflexivity and interpretation was highly appreciated in these discussions. Nevertheless, a sense of detachment or even obliviousness towards past humanistic research (its dedication and its results) was in the air, especially in the discussions regarding the analytical possibilities mass-scale digitalization of archival materials preferred by the contemporary funding regimes. Therefore critical reflection about the relationships between trends in the digital humanities and the neoliberal university (project-oriented funding, preference for applied research, exploitation of resources and people etc.), which also took place at the margins of DHCH, will probably be of crucial importance for the future development of digital humanities and their relevance for “less digital” humanities.