#dhiha5 Panel II: Training for the Digital Humanities – what skills are necessary, how can they be transmitted?

Working group: Franziska Heimburger, Michael Schmalenstroer, Bertram Triebel

«A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.»

When Max Plack wrote this sentence, his primary focus was evidently on the natural sciences with their particular methods. It seems to us to be a useful entry point to one of the questions which most closely concerns what Michael Schmalenstroer calls the generational conflict in Digital Humanities: that of skills and training. As early careers researchers interested in the Digital Humanities, we are acutely aware both of the vast potential opening up for research in the Humanities and Social Sciences and of the lack of suitable skills among both our peers and the preceeding generations. On the other hand we are also involved to varying degrees in the teaching of younger students at B.A. and masters level which gives us an understanding of their (lack of) skills and their needs. As the introduction of methods and approaches from Digital Humanities continues to transform research practices, how is this trend reinforced or indeed countered by both established and new teaching approaches? To what extent do we just need to wait for « its opponents [to] eventually die » and to what extent do we find that the marketing concept of « digital natives » has little bearing on the fairly technical skills necessary for research?

In surveying the various blog posts written in preparation for #DHDHI5, we were struck by a fundamental imbalance: while several posts in French and messages on the French DH-mailing list discussed training and skills directly, this was not a priority topic in the German-language contributions. This may be linked to the respective experience and personalities of those who contributed to the debates in both countries, but it does seems significant in assessing where « Digital Humanities » as a set of methods and skills stand in both countries. Does this simply mean that France is « further on » in discussing the implications of « Digital Humanities » outside the narrow community of researchers who already use these methods? Does it reflect wider differences in approaches to teaching in both countries, especially as far as basic methods courses for undergraduates are concerned? We also need to consider different hierarchical structure of research in both countries: to what extent are young researchers able to conduct independent research, to what extent are they associated in technical domains, as co-authors?

Another discussion which we expected, but hardly witnessed, was that on different disciplinary traditions of those active in the field of Digital Humanities today. Is there a different approach towards training students in DH methods and approaches in history than in comparative literature or linguistics? What about sociology and anthropology? The current status of Digital Humanities means that its most prominent proponents all experienced a significant grounding in one or more of the humanities and social sciences early on in their careers. What impact does this have on their current-day teaching?

The French discussion, both in several blog posts and on the very active « DH »-Mailing-list included a number of important points about skills, training and ways of putting this into place. To our mind, several crucial aspects were mentioned :

The distinction between specifically « DH » degrees, such as the masters programme at the Ecole des Chartes in Paris or the new programmes devised by our two main speakers today in Lyon and Würzburg, and the vast majority of degrees in the humanities and social sciences which often do not include any aspect of this kind of work, yet qualify large numbers of students who may find themselves lacking the kind of skills we think will be crucial in the future.

It seems reasonable to assume that the current success of Digital Humanities projects and applications with funding bodies will lead to an increase in the number of degree courses in the Digital Humanities. Most of these courses tend, at least for the time being, to be directed at masters’ level students who have a basic grounding in one of the humanities and social sciences or (though I think this is rarer) come from a more technical background in IT. The emergence of a body of individuals with degrees in « Digital Humanities » must have a significant impact on the evolution of the field, providing a workforce for joining and spear-heading new research projects. It will also necessarily have an impact on those students who pursue post-graduate degrees in the humanities, especially with a research aim. If there are specialised masters programmes in « Digital Humanities », does this mean that those will be the only places where these kind of skills will be taught? What will the future roles of trained specialist and « normal » researchers be on DH projects in the years to come? How much of a common base do we need. Moritz Hoffmann mentions this aspect when he suggests that those who chose to study history did so precisely because they were less technically inclined.

The training necessary for the coming generation of researchers in the humanities and social sciences

Blog posts and emails on the mailing-list seemed to agree that it would be a great loss and even potentially dangerous if the more traditional degree courses in the humanities and social sciences did not provide even cursory introductions for those who will be pursuying research and teaching in a world where they need to be at least vaguely familiar with the potential of the approaches in Digital Humanities.
Several of the posts took this further and attempted to define a common denominator of IT literacy for research purposes for our students today.

Claire Lemercier writes on this matter: « In fact, my objective (which I sometimes reach – but not always) is to make sure that the student or colleague that I am training is then capable of doing that which he or she needs in a given situation:
a) either do the work on their own with the available « magic boxes ». This could include entering relatively simple data from a source in a spreadsheet, adding a level of analytical coding, running facto analysis on the data by following a step-by-step tutorial, publishing the result and thus enabling historical knowledge in their field to progress in a rather more rigorous and reproducible manner than elsewhere.
b) to realise that the « magoc boxes » they are aware of are not really suitable to what he/she wants to do and then to know in which general direction to do further reading and who to ask or where to find potential collaborators to set up more complex frameworks if that proves necessary. »(LEMERCIER, Claire. Email to dh. “[DH] Colloque Sur Les Digital Humanities : Appel à Contribution,” April 29, 2013)

One of the attempts to define such a common denominator, taken from this blog post and based on the experience of training first-year masters students in history, is arranged visually and could serve as a a starting point for our discussions:

We have listed a collection of other skills that are often lacking among our contemporaries – we would love to hear comments from individuals and institutions who have formalised any of these as part of a training course:

– a thorough introduction to the scientific « eco-system » of the Digital Humanities researcher: OpenAcces platforms, digital archives, various databases

– an introduction to « Big Data » and its potential uses for researchers in the humanities and social sciences

– Practical training in converting the kind of usually printed source material in to the kind of data Digital Humanists can use

– introductions to coding, to website management, to database construction, to video editing

– training in social media use for research dissemination, including outreach work to a non-academic public

– Open Access publishing strategies and possibilities

– good practice in collaborative work, including larger teams with technical expertise

– training in legal questions, in particular those linked to copyright aspects of blogging
In conclusion we would like to come back to the Max Planck quote we started with. We probably need to convince at least some of the tenants of the « old truths » – otherwise the new researchers will not be able to enter the field appropriately equipped for the work they want to do. This includes negotiating the hurdles of short-term contracts for younger researchers which not only lead to job insecurity for the individuals but also make it very difficult for training initiatives to be established and then continued for future generations of studnets.

In order to get us started in that direction – and fully aware that we are very much preaching to the converted here – we would like to put out a couple of questions for discussion:

1. Are degree courses in « Digital Humanities » really the way forward? And at what level should they be offered?

2. Can we agree on a common denominator set of skills for each level of academic study in more traditional degrees in the humanities and social sciences?

3. How can we involve all the stakeholders in this discussion? Including students (who often have very clear ideas on what they need), those actively involved in Digital Humanities projects who have a good idea of what skills should be taught (Frédéric Clavert is a great example) and those in charge of degree courses and recruitment decisions who may not be fully aware of this crucial question.


Franziska Heimburger

Franziska Heimburger est maître de conférences à Paris-Sorbonne. Elle travaille, à la suite de sa thèse, sur les langues et l'histoire, particulièrement en contexte guerrier.

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Franziska Heimburger

Franziska Heimburger est maître de conférences à Paris-Sorbonne. Elle travaille, à la suite de sa thèse, sur les langues et l'histoire, particulièrement en contexte guerrier.

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1 réponse

  1. Stefan Müller dit :

    « When Max Plack wrote this sentence » ->
    « When Max Planck wrote this sentence » 😉

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