Whate are the Digital Humanities? – Public PhD Seminar @ Oslo University

Just came back from the public PhD seminar “What are the Digital Humanities?” that took place at Oslo University, Norway June 14-15. This was a very enriching experience on two accounts:

One, of course, the programme (which you can call up at www.whataredigitalhumanities2013.wordpress.com). Among the highlights were a concise introductory keynote by Oyvind Eide that reflected directly on the conference theme and five papers dedicated to some longer running, high-profile DH projects run and/or initiated by established Norwegian researchers (Espen S.Ore, Jill Walker Rettberg, Oddrun Gronvik, Stine Brenna Taugbol and Christian-Emil Smith Ore). This is highly significant work and it demonstrates, once again, how the so-called “small countries” can often provide for a more agile, supportive environment for innovative scientific paradigms.

And then what really fascinated me were three presentations made by young “up-and-coming” DH scholars:

Laetitia Le Chatton (Uni Bergen) talked about “Conversational Machines and Their Role in DH”. What is a “conversational machine”? Well, check out Laetitia’s project facebook page  to learn more about her pretty quirky take on chatterbots. The machine that Laetitia and her team have designed is advertised as “The engine that speaks your mind” and is based on a radically new approach that builds on communication theory more than anything. Pity it’s not yet running as a web service – so I will have try and get Laetitia to visit our heureCLÉA team in Hamburg and do a live demo for us.

Scott Weingart (Indiana University) talked on “Weakly Connecting Early Modern Science” and the principles underlying Social Network Analysis (SNA). Scott claimed that he had mixed up his slides and left the correct one in the US – well, if that’s the level he achieves with the wrong slides then the mind boggles as to what he’ll do with the correct ones! This was a very well thought-out and transparent introduction to the topic. Scott’s current focus is on the “Republic of Letters”, i.e. the Early Modern Age science discourse that is documented in the form of thousands of letters exchanged among thinkers throughout Europe. For more check out his blog. Must get him to Hamburg too, hopefully in October!

The third paper by a young scholar was presented by Lieve Van Hoof who is about to take up a position at Ghent University. Lieve works in SNA as well, but her area of expertise is in Classics rather than Early Modernity: she demonstrated how an SNA of some 1500 letters written to and by Libenius of Antioch (314-393 A.D.) can cast new light on some assumptions and hypothesis which traditional Classics has formed about the practice of discourse and the formation of ideas in Antiquity. I’m glad I managed to convince Lieve to come to Hamburg straight away, i.e. in two weeks time, and to present her work in my current lecture “Introduction to DH” on 25 June 2013.

Unfortunately I could not stay long enough to listen to Emma Ewadotter’s presentation on HUMlab as I had to catch my flight back to Hamburg via Copenhagen (why did it take me 1 1/2 hs to get to Oslo, but 7 hs to get back? I sometimes get the impression that I’m spending half my life in airport lounges. That’s risky to humanity because sooner or later I will strangle one of the human appendixes of smartphones who seem to believe that the entire world MUST partake in the fate of Auntie Carol’s basset hound,  or the latest war story about the-deal-we-almost-struck-with-the-Chinese-but-now-I’m-on-my-way-to-Chicago-and-don’t-forget-to-call-Rick-about-the-discount-on-the-Scud-missile-shipment).

The second and more general thing that impressed me is how a new generation of young DH scholars is taking up the reigns and beginning to transform our field! This energy and enthusiasm is really, really inspiring! And just think about it: a young PhD student organizes such an event almost single handedly, gets substantial funds, deals with all the admin, flies in people from all over Europe and the US and gets the ball rolling in the discussion on “Digitale Humaniora i Norge”! Well done, Annika and thanks a lot for all your effort! (Annika Rockenberger presented on „Georg Greflinger – Digitale Archiv Edition sämtlicher Werke und Schriften. Pilotprojekt: Ethica Complementoria (1645)“ at last year’s DH Unconference prior to the DH 2012 – a mammoth task for a PhD project!)

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