Some Thoughts on the Digital Humanities Conference

February 24, 2010

DH2010 The Digital Humanities 2010 programme committee sent out messages yesterday about acceptances and rejections. My motivation for this post has mostly to do with the impact of this process on newer members of the digital humanities community, but more on that a bit later.

I had some success, but more failures, which more or less corresponds with the competitive nature of the conference: about 34% of paper proposals were accepted. It may appear to be a strategy to send out several proposals and hope for the best, but it actually happens more naturally than that since I’m fortunate enough to be a part of several collaborative teams that tend to submit proposals.

I’ve participated in the conference for well over a decade now, both as a presenter and reviewer (nearly every year), as well as a member of the programme committee on several occasions. Despite the frustration of rejections – and the almost inevitable feeling that someone “didn’t get it” – I can say that both reviewers and programme committee members work very hard. This year several reviewers were assigned five proposals (of about 1000 words) and sometimes more, which is a significant voluntary work-load. The programme committee spends an unbelievably busy time at the end of December, into January and sometimes February. The programme committee chair deserves special praise and gratitude (every year) for the enormous amount of work needed to pull things together.

I can honestly say that I feel that the quality of papers generally increases every year, which I think is related to the steadily increasing competitiveness of the process. Another way of formulating this is to say that a substantial number of very good proposals are rejected (again, I say this as someone who has had access to all of the proposals several times). This is similar to my experience on some grant panels: I’m always dismayed to see high quality research not supported because of quotas rather than quality. Yes, this is a reality of academia (and life in general), but it’s good to remind ourselves (when rejected) that there are many other measures of academic worth (acceptance to grad schools, completion of degrees, hiring into positions, respect of colleagues, etc.). A rejection of a paper to DH is not a rejection of a digital humanities scholar. In fact, it may not even be a rejection of the paper as much as an admission that the conference has difficulty supporting a growing, diverse community. One the plus side, constructive criticism on the proposal and/or project can be valuable for the author(s) in other contexts.

Although we’d like to think that the review process is smooth and completely fair, it’s not; it may just be the worst solution, except for all the others. DH has experimented in the past with various formats and strategies, including blind and double-blind reviews, but I think it’s safe to say that the current practice reflects lessons learned from the past (though of course circumstances can change). It’s worth noting that the Alliance for Digital Humanities (ADHO) has a dedicated standing committing for the conference, and much discussion happens around how to make things work optimally.

Given the competitiveness, just one weak review is often enough to dip a paper below the acceptance threshold (though, to be fair, the programme committee often looks closely for discrepancies and outliers). Since this is a multidisciplinary conference, the assignment of reviewers can be very challenging, and it’s almost impossible to find a reviewer whose expertise align perfectly with a multidisciplinary proposal. I think it’s well worth recognizing some of the factors that come into play:

  • with an international team of reviewers, the ratings mean different things culturally (8/10 may be outstanding for one person and just very good for another); the impact of the numerical system is somewhat dampened by the qualitative descriptions for each number (and the basic guidelines provided to reviewers), but there’s still clearly a distinction between “hard markers” and “easy markers” (and, frankly, I think this is the biggest challenge we have)
  • given the multidisciplinary reviewers, there’s probably a general phenomenon of pushing inwards toward the centre of recognized digital humanities research and practices – reviewers are more likely to be supportive when they fully understand a topic (and perhaps recognize it from previous years), which means that more experimental, novel or fringe topics sometimes suffer (I mean fringe to “traditional DH”, not necessarily fringe in academia)
  • reviewers know who the authors are and there’s a risk of reputation trumping the quality of the proposal itself; I’ve thought this was more of an issue in the past, but I know of many central and long-standing figures in DH who have had proposals rejects – moreover, as the community continues to expand and more people are involved, I think this phenomenon weakens
  • digital humanities (aka humanities computing) is a process, not a static discipline – knowing what it is and how to assess quality is an ongoing exercise and a moving target (which is a large part of what I enjoy so much about it)

The DH review process is very good, but it’s not perfect. It may never be perfect, but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep thinking about how it might be improved.

As I see the digital humanities gaining momentum in various places (cf. funding programmes, international collaboration initiatives, training, increased prominence in more traditional settings, etc.), one of my concerns is that the digital humanities conference actually serves to stifle growth and innovation, particularly for new scholars. Despite valuable initiatives to encourage new scholars, rejecting a good (but not top) proposal sends a certain message about how welcoming we are as a community of scholars (this despite the fact that I think the digital humanities have a well-deserved reputation as being a friendly and welcoming bunch, partly because for so long it has been a haven for scholars working at the fringe of their own disciplines). I’m not suggesting that we lower our standards to not hurt people’s feelings, I’m suggesting that we may be going through growing pains and we need to be sensitive to the message being sent to potential new colleagues. Let’s not forget that humanities computing has almost always been preoccupied with reaching new audiences and expanding its reach, especially into more “traditional” corners (though one wonders if, after at least 60 years of practice, we’re not traditional ourselves). One solution might be to increase the capacity of the conference by allowing more parallel sessions, as frustrating as that can be for conference delegates (and schedulers). Personally, I’d rather have the difficult task of choosing between multiple interesting sessions than risk turning away high quality research and the potential to draw more colleagues into our community.

Fortunately, the digital humanities conference isn’t the only vehicle for welcoming scholars into our community (though it is the one that many encounter very early on). I think the proliferation of many excellent conferences throughout the year (real conferences, unconferences, surreal conferences, etc.) have served to de-centre the digital humanities conference (in a good way), and contribute to the vibrancy of the community throughout the year. Social media like Twitter and Facebook have complemented the Humanist listserv in providing a constant flow of information about digital humanities, for those who care to listen and/or to become involved.

I must admit that I have mixed feelings about the growth and apparent increase in prominence of digital humanities (we should probably be careful what we wish for), but there’s seems to be no doubt that the digital humanities is a discipline (or set of disciplines) that’s healthy and growing. I hope to see you in London!

Comments are closed.