What is the problem with the DH conference, really?
For sake of transparency, I must say that this content has been presented as a paper proposal to the DH2023 Conference and was rejected for good reasons. After seeing the set of reactions on social media to the publication of the proposals’ selection results, I think it was worth sharing my thoughts, hoping that this would foster a debate in the community. This is I why I decided to publish it here on the AIUCD Blog.
The idea of proposing this “position” paper stems from reading a lengthy and informed article published in the DHQ journal – the issue 2022 16:4 – entitled The circus we deserve? A front row look at the organization of the annual academic conference for the Digital Humanities, written by a representative group of digital humanities scholars – Laura Estill, Jennifer Guiliano, Élika Ortega, Melissa Terras, Deb Verhoeven, and Glen Layne-Worthey – who have played important roles in international DH scholarly organizations and in the scientific and logistical organization of the DH international conferences over the past decade. The essay duly examines a number of issues that, according to the authors, have weakened the effectiveness and functionality of the most important Digital Humanities conference and proposes a set of possible solutions. It also already had an official answer from the ADHO governing bodies, Response to “The circus we deserve? A front row look at the organization of the annual academic conference for the Digital Humanities”, which mostly tried to explain the institutional and organizational complexities behind the conference and the functioning of ADHO, as well.
The author of this article has played a role in this story: both by having executive functions in some of those organizations (I have been President of Italian AIUCD, and now I am Chair of EADH), although by no mean does this paper expresses an official position of any of these organizations; and by having had the honor of serving as co-Chair of the DH2019 (Utrecht) conference’s Program Committee, along with my colleague Elena Pierazzo, the last edition, before this one taking place this year in Graz, in presence and the greatest one, so far, both in terms of the number of proposals and of delegates’ participation. What follows, then, stems from a long acquaintance with the DH scientific community, albeit from a cultural and scholarly perspective different from the Anglo-American one, still dominant in the DH community notwithstanding the many and various attempts to promote multiculturalism.
The Circus’ challenges
Analyzing in detail the DH conferences organizing protocols and reports, their personal experience and some important quantitative analysis like (Weingart and Eichmann-Kalwara, 2017), the article individuates a set of critical points in various aspects of conference: the selection of Program Committees, the choosing of conference themes, the preparation of calls for papers, the peer review process, and the selection of keynotes. The conclusions of the study, as summarized in the abstract are the following:
[…] existing structures and processes inadequately address concerns around representation, diversity, multilingualism, and labor. Our recommendations, including aligning the conference budget with its priorities, fostering fair labor practices, and creating accountability structures will be useful to those organizing future Digital Humanities events, and conference organizers throughout academia interested in making academic conferences more inclusive, welcoming environments that encourage a plurality of voices to fully partake in academic discourse.
It is undeniable that the critical issues evidenced in the article are sharable, although the solutions proposed are not always universally satisfying. For example, and this is an issue that is not limited to the dh field, the question regarding the ecological sustainability of international conferences (Holden et al., 2017), seems to be overrated, given the limited impact in terms of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, confronted with the benefits of in-person interaction by members of a scientific community. These go far beyond the opportunity to hear scientific presentations in real time and in presence, but rather in the myriad of social interactions that are established in informal settings during an event such as a large international conference (Reychav and Te’eni, 2009). These interactions are a key element in knowledge sharing and fostering new creative insights, that virtual substitutes have been unable, at least for now, to replace. Detailed surveys on this point are lacking, at least as far as I know so what I say is anecdotal and subjective in nature. However, in my experience and in the experience of many members of the scientific community with whom I have had the opportunity to exchange impressions on this aspect, the various virtual rooms set up in virtual conferences are poorly attended and in their current configuration fail to reconstitute the atmosphere of intellectual commonality typical of an in-presence conference. Probably the development of technologies in the coming years may bring such advances as to make synchronous online interaction an adequate virtual substitute for physical presence interaction. But I observe that these kinds of advancements, in particular the possibility of making 3D environments usable in real time, will require the availability of technological apparatus and bandwidth that will represent a cost and a sustainability hurdle, not unlike what is required for physical attendance, especially for scholars from less economically advantaged countries.
The problem with the DH conference, really…
As I said, I acknowledge that many of the critical issues evoked by The circus we deserve? are sensible and worth thinking about. However, it seems to me that the article overlooks a deeper problem related to the conceptual foundations of the dh field in general, and of the DH conference. To avoid being vague and indefinite I state that the fundamental conundrum of the conference functionality and effectiveness in attracting and engaging intelligences, is not so much in the albeit fundamental problems highlighted in the article, but rather in its extreme thematic content and methodological divergence, that reflect the evolution of the field in the last couple of decades.
Enhancing cultural diversity has been a strength of the DH community since the turn of the century in parallel with the replacement of the label “humanities computing” with that of “digital humanities”. But it becomes a self-defining asset in coincidence with the 2011 Stanford conference, whose theme “Big Tent DH”, programmatically aimed to make the DH scholarly community open and inclusive in terms of scholarly domains, topics, methods, and objects of study. Diversity, from a value for social action, became the conceptual foundation of an entire field of study, along with the notion of “community of practice” proposed by Siemens in his keynote speech at DH2014 (Siemens, 2014).
The conference organizers, in later years, have pursued this objective, as well as taking on the task of showing the goodwill of DH organizations in fostering diversity and inclusiveness as a strategic value. I know that I am entering into extremely delicate terrain that could be misunderstood. I strongly believe that endorsing a general policy in favor of diversity and inclusivity is perfectly legitimate and desirable. However, it seems to me that in the last decade we at ADHO, and the DH conference organizers, have programmatically renounced defining and delimiting the theoretical foundations of the field of study they seek to represent. This choice paid good rents until the second decade of the millennium, accompanying the explosion of the DH phenomenon. But in my view, it risks becoming a limiting factor in view of consolidation. Diversity, in fact, from a convergent factor, has become a divergent factor. This is reflected in the DH conference organization and management, namely the problems of correctly assessing the proposals and creating a suitable academic program. The question that should be asked today, then, is whether it still makes sense to organize a global conference where the thematic and methodological diversion is so wide as to make the exchange of knowledge and experience impossible. My personal position leans toward no, but at least I think it is time to discuss this in order to make sense of the future of the DH movement.
This question, anyway, is not limited to the fate of the Conference. Because it invests fully also the rationale, scope, and functions of the national and global DH institutions that we have been building in the last quarter of the century
Estill, L., Guiliano, J., Ortega, É., Terras, M., Verhoeven, D. and Layne-Worthey, G. (2022). The circus we deserve? A front row look at the organization of the annual academic conference for the Digital Humanities. Digital Humanities Quarterly, 16(4).
Holden, M. H., Butt, N., Chauvenet, A., Plein, M., Stringer, M. and Chadès, I. (2017). Academic conferences urgently need environmental policies. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 1(9): 1211–12 doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0296-2.
Reychav, I. and Te’eni, D. (2009). Knowledge exchange in the shrines of knowledge: The ‘how’s’ and ‘where’s’ of knowledge sharing processes. Computers & Education, 53(4): 1266–77 doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2009.06.009.
Siemens, R. (2014). Communities of Practice, The Methodological Commons and Digital Self-Determination in the Humanities. Lausanne: ADHO.
Weingart, S. B. and Eichmann-Kalwara, N. (2017). What’s Under the Big Tent?: A Study of ADHO Conference Abstracts. Digital Studies/Le Champ Numérique, 7(1): 6 doi:10.16995/dscn.284.
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Fabio Ciotti (2023, 10 Marzo). What is the problem with the DH conference, really? Informatica Umanistica e Cultura Digitale: il blog dell' AIUCD. Recuperato il 27 Febbraio 2024, da https://doi.org/10.58079/qcdb