Blog Post

What do say and avoid saying in a DH Talk

I am a graduate student at a research institution that does not have a formal structure for digital humanities research. While there is a growing number of graduate students and faculty interested in engaging the humanities through technology, there is no one center to which we can go for support. As we struggle, like so many others, to grasp the concept of digital humanities that many of our professors and administrators choose to either ingore or disparage, speakers have been invited from other institutions that have shown a previous track record of success in the field. Unfortunately, I feel that many of these talks can fail to have the desired impact, at least from my own perspective. The following is a list of things that I think any speaker going to another university that does not already have a dedicated digital humanities center should keep in mind.

1) Brag!

To be more specific, you should brag about the things that will perk the interest of faculty and administrators in attendance. Show how digital work has led directly to external funding, publications, and new areas of research on campus. Talk about how cutting edge your DH center is and how you have been able to employ graduate and undergraduate students (even if they aren't getting paid) to participate in projects that can benefit the scholarly community.

2) Define EVERYTHING!

Don't assume that anyone in the room will understand any jargon you are using. Not everyone knows what Omeka is, and its spelling may also prove ellusive to someoone trying to google it, for example. If you think this may be burdensome, make a handout. Have it on your overhead project presentation without specifically talking about it. Just don't gloss over it, leaving part of your audience frustrated. 

3) Don't get too technical.

While a few people in the room may be interested in the technical aspects of what you are doing, save the in-depth discussion for after your talk. Spend more time talking about the basics. The results of a digital tool can seem like magic. Let that magic shine, but remember to make sure to keep the possibilities within the grasp of those in attendance.

4) Tell people that this is the future.

Make it clear to your audience that DH is not a nifty side project. Impress upon those listening that what you are doing is the inevitable future of the field and that ingornace about its importance is detrimental to their own research, the job prospects of their graduate students, and the longevity of their departments. 

5) Don't just show us a cool tool we can't use.

It seems like almost every center has developed some new program that will have an incredible impact on the field... next year. While this may be somewhat impressive, it is not helpful to anyone who is unable to start using it right away. Go ahead and talk about the tool, but at least make sure you let the audience know about something you are doing that can also be useful to them. Being a developer is undoubtedly necessary for this field, but so is being a user. Most people who goes to these talks will be, if you are lucky, users of technology. Let them see something that can use, in a very practical way, right away. 

I hope this can spark some discussion about what a DH talk should be like, especially for those of us who lack a formal structure for doing such research.

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2 comments

Thanks for posting this list.  These are exactly the kind of things schools should keep in mind to tell their speakers when they are trying to build capacity in digital humanities.  We noticed the jargon problem this summer at THATCampLAC and created a Digital Humanities Glossary.  It is a great paradox that the DH community is so open and welcoming, and yet we easily forget that our jargon, projects, methodologies, etc. can seem completely opaque to the uninitiated.  

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Thanks, I am going to add this to our THATCamp page right now!!

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