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Digital History
20 March 2012
Melissa Terras (UCL); Adam Farquhar (British Library); and Torsten Reimer (JISC)
The Future of the Past roundtable

 Digital History

The first roundtable event of the Digital History seminar had some teething problems behind the scenes.  One of the original presenters, Alastair Dunning (The European Library) wasn’t able to make it but was quickly replaced by Adam Farquhar (British Library).  Then much closer to the event Andrew Prescott (KCL) broke his leg and had to pull out.  Torsten Reimer stepped up to the challenge whilst Tim Hitchcock agreed to read out a short statement from Andrew.  The suggestion was also made that Lorna Hughes (University of Wales) might be able to offer a ‘first response’ presentation.  In the end the event was perhaps stronger for the larger mix of presentations with much food for thought. 

The topic was the future and present state of digital history.  It is interesting that as an historical focus, digital history was, not all that long ago considered somewhat obscure as a disciplinary focus.  There was great uncertainty about what should be digital, what that meant, and how research could benefit from such tools and approaches.  I think all speakers agreed that we are well past that point, but there were concerns that we have not yet figured out what ‘digital’ can and should actually do for us.  Digital should be able to transform what we do, yet so far this has not happened.  The extensive and highly important transcription work carried out in the nineteenth and early twentieth century by historians was a nice comparison.  The publication of masses of historical documents alongside analytical and explanatory commentaries revolutionised what historians could achieve and made it possible for us to diversify into other areas such as gender, cultural, and psycho-analytical methodologies.  The same expansion or transformation of History is yet to occur due to digital techniques, yet the tantalising possibility that it can do remains. 

The roundtable began with a statement written by Andrew Prescott but read out by Tim Hitchcock (this statement can be found on Andrew’s blog Digital Riffs.  This was then followed by presentations by Melissa Terras, Adam Farquhar and Torsten Reimer providing insights from the point of view of the scholar, librarian, and funding body in that order.  Lorna Hughes then made first response which was then followed by various questions and answers. 

As per usual the session was streamed live with Andrew Prescott and seminar conveners Peter Webster (IHR) and Seth Denbo (Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities), joining the 20 strong online listeners.  Although the first 30 minutes was affected by an odd echo on the microphone the stream worked well.  The edited version presented on History SPOT combines some of the slide show presentations and cuts out the bits between presentations where possible.  It also (thankfully) cuts out one piece where I appeared on screen to sort out a slide show that at first refused to work. 

To listen/watch this podcast click here.

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Dispensations and Conversations
11 November 2011 
Biology, Brain Theory and History: What, if anything, can historians learn from biology?

Speakers: Dr Lisa Blackman (Goldsmiths, University of London), Dr Hera Cook (University of Birmingham) and Professor Roger Cooter (University College London)

Chair: Professor Joanna Bourke (Birkbeck, University of London)

Multi-license with GFDL and Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5 and older versions (2.0 and 1.0)What can history learn from biology is the basic question set out in this session of Dispensations and Conversations.  The three panellists all deal with this question according to their own research interests some seeing biology as useful or in need of further integration whilst others believing it intrusive and inaccurate as a historical methodology.  The question here relates to the ‘turn to affect’ in the social sciences which has increasingly meant an incorporation of biological and neurological insights to be incorporated into analysis, including historical, of human behaviour. 

Lisa Blackman argues that the persistence of a viewpoint that the humanities and sciences are entirely separate entities is harmful to both disciplines.  The reality, Blackman suggests, is that there is a lot of overlap, exchange and collaboration that often goes unnoticed.  Hera Cook – through her examinations of emotion as an historian – notes how her topic brings up issues over the ability to draw upon evidence that is considered historically sound.  Hers is a subject in need of staunch defence as its reliance often on non-factual and chaotic evidence (i.e. human emotion) is all the more difficult to research through traditional historical methods.  The concept of biological or bodily emotions is therefore useful (more so than psychoanalysis Cook tells us).  Investigating an ‘embodied’ response, say to an emotional shock can be found in historical evidence and can help us better understand socio-economic situations and human experience.  Finally Roger Cooter considers whether biology and neurobiology as a ‘more scientifically accurate’ replacement for concepts of consciousness is in truth only a representation which is often politicised.  As an historical construct in itself, biology has limitations equal to other concepts used by historians.  The problem in this case according to Cooter is that biology as a science tends to be accepted more readily without consideration of the selective and limited character of biology and how it might retrospectively distort our understanding of the past.  

Historians are increasingly turning toward the more chaotic aspects of human experience in their studies of the past.  At the same time there are increasing calls for more interconnectivity between the sciences and humanities.  Some argue that we are already there – that the links have been made, examined, and are in the process of bringing out new understandings.  Others suggest that more needs to be done or that the connections are fragile or inaccurate.  Cooter’s argument that the science of biology and neurobiology is difficult for historians to properly grasp (as they are generally not experts in this field to the degree necessary) is certainly highlighting a problem in collaboration.  How can historians make use of the discoveries and theories of the sciences to the extent necessary when they are not scientific experts themselves?  Closer discussions with scientists would, of course, be one approach.  But even here there is no guarantee that the scientist would understand fully the historical method either.  Is this a case of ‘lost in translation’ or can/should the disciplines combine more completely to gain new insights into the past and into human experiences?

It seems that the discussion into biology, brain theory and history only touches the surface of an unease that continues to remain in all disciplines regarding co-operation and collaboration.  It suggests on the one-hand that attempts are being made – and fruitful results are being produced – but that there is still work on the theoretical side in particular to be done to align the disciplines.  Hera Cook’s focus on sexuality and emotion is a clear example of an historian making good use of disciplines outside of the traditional set of historical tools and study topics.  Indeed this is true of all of the speakers of this podcast.  Professor Joanna Bourke – the chair for this session – has recently turned her attention to the study of fear and hatred in history and is therefore equally entwined in the discussions and arguments over emotion as Hera Cook.  Lisa Blackman works on the intersection of critical psychology and cultural theory whilst Roger Cooter’s focus on the social history of ideas in science and medicine gives him the much needed ‘bird’s eye view’ of how these collaborations are progressing and the potential limitations or difficulties that they might bring.

Together these podcasts provide a thoughtful discussion and case study over the issues of collaboration between the sciences and humanities.  They are certainly worth a listen!

Resources:

History SPOT podcasts

Body and Society special edition on the ‘turn to affect’, Body and Society, March 2010 16:1

Dr Lisa Blackman (Goldsmiths) profile

Dr Hera Cook (University of Birmingham) profile

Professor Roger Cooter (UCL) profile

Professor Joanna Bourke (Birkbeck) profile

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Today I am very pleased to announce that videos from our Novel Approaches conference were added to the History SPOT platform (see here for the videos pages), to Youtube and iTunes-u. So you now have the option of watching or simply listening to what our panelists had to say.  In fact today (which will be the last update to History SPOT before Christmas) has very much been about a return to the end of November when I was busily working on the virtual conference.  I therefore thought that this was as good a time as any to write down a brief summary of the conference:

 

Novel Approaches Conference
17-18 November 2011

Where do the borders between academic history and historical fiction lie? Can historians legitimately write historical fiction whilst also maintaining their legitimacy and truthfulness as an historian? How ‘authentic’ should an historical novelist be when writing about past events and persons? These, and many more questions, were the focus of this years’ highly successful IHR winter conference. Novel Approaches: from academic history to historical fiction featured historians, novelists, and publishers in a discussion and debate about the relationship of historical fiction and academic history.

Hilary Mantel and Alison Weir both argued that ‘authenticity’ and ‘accuracy’ was essential to their craft and that in many ways what they did was not that different to that of the historian. James Forrester (pen name for the historian Ian Mortimer), however saw historical fiction as more fantasy than accurate history. Forrester/Mortimer made the distinction between History and Fiction through writing for both forms under different names.

Amongst the many threads that were taken up throughout the conference was a concern that academic history was seen as ‘stuffy’; ‘dull’; and ‘irrelevant’ by the public and that (perhaps more troubling) historical fiction was often viewed as a better sort of history and one that was equally as accurate. I don’t think any historical novelist would claim that what they wrote was strictly ‘truthful’ when it came to the past, although many (including Mantel and Weir) would argue that they only made up those elements that fell between the cracks of historical knowledge. Within that argument, it seemed, was a slight queasiness regarding where historical fact merged with fiction and how the reading public could differentiate between the two. It must be said that the same queasiness affects historians when they regard their sources; how does the historian remain neutral when regarding the evidence? Is it possible to remain entirely neutral? Is it even possible for the historian to discover the past and write about it in a ‘realistic’ manner that is, in itself, not partly fictional?

After the conference end began our first ever ‘virtual conference’. The virtual Novel Approaches includes podcasts from History SPOT; book reviews from Reviews in History; bibliographies and online resource lists (compiled by the people behind BBIH) and a host of additional articles, materials and opinion pieces. The conference ran between Monday 21 November and Friday 25 November 2011 but the resource itself is there indefinitely. Indeed today we updated the site so that it will be a little easier to navigate. For those who registered for the virtual conference you should find in your email inbox a new Newsletter (issue 2) with information about upcoming events, some photographs from the conference, and a few other short articles. This and the previous Novel Approaches newsletter will be published on the virtual conference site in the new year so those of you who didn’t register won’t miss out.

Please do feel free to have a look at the Novel Approaches website, to contribute to the continuing discussion around these resources and make use of the site whether your interest is in academic history, historical fiction, or somewhere in-between.

And that’s all from me for another year.  I hope you all have a good Christmas or holiday break!  I’ll be back in the new year with more SPOT newsletters, podcasts, handbooks and live streams than Santa Claus could stuff into a sack!

Best wishes,

Matt

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