Reflections on #doingdah14: part 1, research

We’ve just finished the more tool-oriented part of Rebuilding the Portfolio: DH for Art Historians, and I’ve been able to listen in on and contribute to a wide-range of interesting and important conversations about the shape and values of digital work. I admire the participants for their openness and willingness to dig into some very thorny issues related to DH with energy and good humor. As someone whose research interests straddle history and art history, but spends most of my time around historians, it’s been a highly enriching opportunity for me to be able to discuss the digitals with such a large group of art historians and get that perspective. Here are 3 of the points related to research that have been raised over the first 7 days that stick out to me:

  1.  Ideas and questions should drive DH work: A number of participants have expressed in varying ways, but with similar conviction, that the work of DH must be driven by intellectual problems/questions so that “the digital” substantively contributes to scholarship and knowledge. I wholeheartedly agree. I think many in the field would agree with the statement, but I want to emphasize here how rigorously and carefully the institute participants have been in unpacking the theoretical, methodological, ethical, and intellectual implications of the varying digital methods and tools they’ve been presented. Mucking about with a tool is fun, but without resonance if driven by descriptive rather than analytic questions. There was also much discussion of how digital work shouldn’t merely replicate existing forms online, that digital work should take full advantage of the medium.
  2. As professionals who critically engage with images in multifaceted ways, art historians’ training and perspectives are incredibly important to expanding DH: I believe that art historians, more than the majority of scholars, think critically not only about their objects of study in the context of their research but also how to incorporate them into the presentation of their scholarship (in whatever form that may take). This is huge, considering how visually-oriented much digital work is: we create visualizations of data, consider how to layout search functions in different visual arrangements (eg, list vs grid), etc. Being more attentive to how images and visuals are deployed can strengthen digital work, improving the effectiveness of including images beyond using them as empty illustrations.
  3. Many tools presuppose an English language, Western-oriented approach: This was apparent Monday working with texts (Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, Daniela Sandler, and Georgina Gluzman wrote reflections on the limitations related to their projects), but also raises an important question of how to facilitate the full range of art-historical (and other disciplinary) inquiry and voices going forward. This is a larger issue, of course, but absolutely worth raising repeatedly in the context of the emergence of digital art history.

I’ll write up a second post on conversations around authority, access, labor, and ethics at the end of the week after our 2 days on shared authority and pedagogy. Some of these conversations have popped up already, but as the more concentrated discussion is scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday I’ll hold off for a few days. In the meantime, I suggest reading the participants’ perspectives and progress through the institute.

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