Kay’s response to Q2: ML and digital archives

As a historian of Occupied France, much of my research life has been spent in archives where materials still appear from the stacks in grubby cardboard boxes, whose crammed contents have clearly not been read in years, if ever, if the rusty pins holding the fragile papers together are anything to go by. No part of my work is more exciting than when I engage with an original physical document, a moment when the years between us disappear and the war becomes alive. And I have lost count of the occasions when the delivery to my desk of the ‘wrong’ archival box has offered a serendipitous page to harvest.

But I’m no Luddite, just in case you think that’s where this is going. Indeed, the digital has positively revolutionized my research, in terms of how I work, what I produce, and the reach of the outcomes. Simply in practical terms, digitizing historical material offers a valuable backup system in case of the loss of the original. But there’s rather more to it than that for me. Working on wartime radio, as I do, the digitization of old wax cylinder recordings or gramophone records held at, for me, a core research archive—the Institut national de l’audiovisuel in Paris—has offered an alternative means of access to originals which previously existed only in delicate formats withheld from use. It has significantly expanded the corpus I can exploit and enabled me to write on resources never previously interrogated. Moreover, it has made it possible for me to hear the voice of the principal broadcaster I study, which is crucial for an analysis of his styles of delivery and the intended impact on his audience. But the opening up of wartime broadcasts in this way also suggested a further step to me: to use digital space to make the broadcasts widely available for both future research enquiry and interested general audiences by creating a new user-friendly historical resource, freely available as a public work. The result is a unique born-digital critical edition of wartime radio broadcasts which brings together a fragmented corpus—transcripts of the digitized recordings and digitized versions of the surviving printed texts of target broadcasts—published as a PDF file. It can be accessed here.

My edition is, in essence, a digitized version of the original materials which functions as a form of archive in itself. But I don’t personally think this makes me an archivist. The edition is its own document, and the content is filtered through the lens of my identity as a historian, not least because of the critical framework which accompanies the broadcasts. The edition is a hybrid which makes no claim to be a pure act of curation. The aural dimension has not been replicated, while those broadcasts which already existed in print version are not reproduced as facsimiles, but are new, clean versions created using OCR software. Nonetheless, best practice means that I have responsibilities to the original documents, and that my ‘version’ of these had to possess integrity if it were to be reliable. So, whilst I corrected basic inaccuracies (e.g. spelling or punctuation mistakes), or standardized presentation, the edition otherwise alters nothing of the original broadcasts, instead explaining any issues or inconsistencies in footnotes. Issues remain. Future-proofing is a particular concern, and the digital future has to ensure that the digital present remains functional, so that today’s PDFs do not become yesterday’s 78rpm records. Not that this is enough to dissuade me from my efforts: a second edition of wartime broadcasts is well underway.

Daniel’s response to question 6: ML Research and Process

Does “collaboration,” the word most commonly used to describe working with others, reveal anxieties inherent to any division of labor? “Collaboration” opens up problems from the start, given that it means both “united labor” and “traitorous cooperation with the enemy.” To what extent is one sharing or abandoning one’s own principles through collaboration? Yet to even raise the question of collaboration’s connotations requires one to engage in a humanist practice of concentrating on ambivalences, rather than on productive meanings. To ask about what “collaboration” means may simply be a way to hold up the process of collaboration. Is this query merely a form of epistemological quibbling or does it acknowledge institutional disparities in joint research? Anyone with a dictionary can recognize the ambivalence in “collaboration,” but just how serious is this concern?

The abundant commentary on the collaboration concentrates on both the ethical and methodological decisions required in setting up digital projects, as well as in interpreting the data they generate. The moral implications of collaboration usually involve making sure that all the participants are acknowledged appropriately. Humanities scholars like to presume that the natural and social sciences have worked out the conventions of crediting authorship for jointly written articles, however the dynamics and specializations of digital projects often do not align with what are imagined to be clear-cut protocols. The “Collaborator’s Bill of Rights” may suggest an orderly assignment of roles, but its reliance on Enlightenment universalist categories would lead anyone to doubt their effectiveness: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/offthetracks/part-one-models-for-collaboration-career-paths-acquiring-institutional-support-and-transformation-in-the-field/a-collaboration/collaborators’-bill-of-rights/

As for methodology, the first point introduced is that although humanities scholars tend to work alone, they now need to learn collaborative methods of research and institutional evaluation if they are going to participate in digital research. Asymmetrical relationships are almost a requirement in the most innovative digital projects. Collaboration ideally includes very different kinds of partners. So that it does not look like a bunch of professors all discussing the same problem, nor should it follow a corporate IT model whereby a team is assembled of different experts to produce one result. And if the collaboration is meant to be even-handed, then it cannot be structured along a simple service arrangement, whereby data is brought forward from an archive for the humanist to interpret.

The most exciting digital scholarship argues, of course, that we are not faced with a choice between either humanities questions or scientific methods. Ben Schmidt’s work on this point is exemplary: http://sappingattention.blogspot.com/2012/11/reading-digital-sources-case-study-in.html Likewise, there a plenty of people arguing against the imperative to work in teams. Presumably, individual scholarship will revive as digital scholarship refines its tools: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/09/10/joint-authorship-digital-humanities-collaboration/ Before we formulate a utopian model of even-handedness in research, we should note that interactions between disciplines rarely operate at the same speed or with a calm sense of parity. Interdisciplinary work inevitably entails appropriating methods and information from other fields so that they can redeployed in unfamiliar contexts. As Ted Underwood states, humanists who require convincing of the virtues of distant reading should not hesitate for too long, lest researchers from outside their discipline start explaining their own field to them. http://tedunderwood.com/2015/10/03/can-we-date-revolutions-in-the-history-of-literature-and-music/ Collaboration thus can be motivated by a certain urgency to join a discussion that is already well under way.


Tori’s response to Question 4: Modern Languages and Digital Ethnography

In preparing this blog post, I have enjoyed taking a look at two new books relating to the topic of digital ethnography, which I will draw on in my reflections here (and highly recommend to readers!): Christine Hine’s Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday and the introduction to Sarah Pink et al.’s Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice (introduction freely available online here).

For many in Modern Languages, moving into ethnography, and studying digital culture through ethnography, is a departure, of some kind, from the methods we were trained in, and how we are accustomed to thinking about texts and their authors. Digital content such as blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts, and digital videos (to name just a selection) is mobile, mutable and multipliable. It is also often produced by people whose names do not appear in library catalogues, or figure in lists of the literary canon for a particular language or country/region, but it might also be that one chooses to study the social media output of a well-known author, artist, or filmmaker, for example.

In deciding to ‘follow’ digital content, we watch texts in progress as they emerge, circulate, and generate responses in a variety of settings, not necessarily only on the internet. Our lens widens beyond the texts, to the practices and motivations involved in their production and circulation. We need to find ways of capturing and analysing this material as we go along, but also appropriate and possible ways of interacting and developing relationships with the authors of digital content, being visible to them as well as present with them, in one way or another. This is a central part of studying digital culture, ethnographically. This type of engagement also requires us to think carefully about research ethics at all stages of the research process, from initial approaches to potential participants, to writing up and disseminating our findings.

In making this departure, then, we need to develop an understanding of the origins and principles of ethnography, as well as an awareness of how ethnography itself is being changed and challenged by digital technologies, so that our choices are well informed. We need to think carefully about where these origins and principles converge with ways of working in Modern Languages, and where they diverge – and how to handle these divergences. As Pink et al. emphasise, this type of disciplinary negotiation and encounter is important and necessary, since ‘ethnography is not a very meaningful practice by itself; instead, it is only useful when engaged through a particular disciplinary or interdisciplinary paradigm and used in relation to other practices and ideas within a research process’ (2015: 2). Employing (digital) ethnography within Modern Languages, then, offers us an opportunity to think about what Modern Languages, or a modern linguist, is, and does.

The methodological reflexivity and adaptiveness of (digital) ethnography, and the emphasis on documenting and reflecting on choices made in response to the conditions of fieldwork – ‘making moves and exploring connections that help to answer strategically significant questions’ (Hine 2015: 69) – is a valuable addition to Modern Languages, where we do not always make explicit how we have reached our interpretations of texts. The textual analysis skills we learn in Modern Languages, and the linguistic and cultural skills we acquire to enable us to do this in a language other than our own, are crucial tools when making a departure into digital ethnography and finding ways to do digital ethnography within Modern Languages.

If a departure can be understood as an innovation, we can turn this around and remind ourselves that an innovation is also an alteration of a pre-existing trajectory. Innovating in Modern Languages by adopting digital ethnography as a way of studying digital culture changes how we understand texts and the basis on which we analyse them. It requires us to expand our focus to include not just practices, but also people. It asks us to write research on the basis of the relationships constructed in the process of fieldwork and to reflect on the decisions we took. This is not an easy undertaking, and can sometimes be unsettling and messy, but it is always provocative and challenging.


Hine, C., 2015. Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday. Bloomsbury Academic, London.

Pink, S., Horst, H., Postill, J., Hjorth, L., Lewis, T., Tacchi, J., 2015. Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice. Sage Publications, London.

Claire’s response to question 3: Modern Languages and the Digital as Object of Study

In recent decades, digital technologies have caused us to re-think existing literary and cultural formats, and new platforms have transformed our understanding of what a ‘text’ is. As Modern Linguists, most of us were trained in the analysis and research of conventional literary, filmic, or cultural genres: despite the varied languages in which we research, we all have, broadly speaking a common consensus of what, for instance, ‘a novel’ or ‘a film’ consists of. We have all been brought up to recognize key genres, understand the rules of those genres, and apply the tools of analysis specific to those genres.

But what happens when texts – understood in the broadest sense of ‘cultural’ product’ – cease to exist within their neat generic boundaries? When, for instance, a hypermedia ‘novel’, involving text, audio, still and moving images, and user interaction, may require skills of analysis coming from visual culture, film studies or computer game studies, as much as literary theory about ‘the novel’? It is these new cultural forms that, for many of us, have made us start to think across disciplinary boundaries, and learn to negotiate new tools.

But it’s not just a case of the new tools that we as Modern Linguists need to learn when dealing with digital cultural products: it’s also about what we as Modern Linguists can contribute to digital culture studies from our perspective. A significant number of scholarly works have already been written on digital culture. Yet, those of us who are Modern Linguists are bound to notice that these works frequently take as their model Anglophone paradigms, and ignore – or, at best, mention in a footnote or in passing – an existing rich cultural, literary and artistic heritage going well beyond the Anglophone that informs contemporary digital cultural practice.

Whilst the multiple precursors of contemporary digital practice found in the non-Anglophone world are too varied to mention, as examples we could highlight the Brazilian poetic movement of concretismo in the 1950s and its influence on contemporary digital literary play. We could mention caligramas/caligrammes, developed both by Huidobro in a Chilean context and Apollinaire in a French context, as precursors to the kinetic poetry we see today – and indeed, Argentinian Ana María Uribe’s anipoemas are a good example of how caligrammesque poems can be animated across the screen. Surrealist games developed in a French context in the 1920s, particularly the cadavre exquis involving experimenting with word combinations to spontaneously form sentences, are a precursor informing contemporary collectively-generated fiction. Techniques developed through OuLiPo, such as that undertaken by Raymond Queneau in his Cent mille milliards de poèmes (1961) involving multiple poetic variations based on the recombination of phrases, inform contemporary combinatory fiction. And the contemporary genre of Twitter poetry – called by some the twaiku – has its roots in the Japanese tradition of the haiku, on which it draws in its understanding of the formal restriction to 140 characters as a productive, creative one, leading to the possibility of capturing moments or images with a particular intensity.

In these and many other myriad examples, what we as Modern Linguists can offer is an enhanced understanding of ‘new’ digital genres. We can bring to the table a consideration of digital ‘innovation’ within a much broader context of literary, artistic and cultural innovation in various countries and languages. And we can provide a much-needed reminder that to be digital is not synonymous with being Anglophone.

Niamh’s response to Question 5: Users and Interface

I want to approach this question with a reflection and, then, draw on recent discussions around dissemination. In my research into the culture of users I have drawn upon thinking around the disruptive potential of technology for artists, (h)activists, amateur creators, and non-state actors. Evidently, this demands that we think of a user as more than an adopter of others creativity and design and see the capacity for user agency. Additionally, I employ disruption deliberately as a concept that is not always benign, but has potency and salience for much of this discussion. Other theories that have informed my conceptualisation of users are taken from fan studies. This has some overlaps with how we imagine disruption functioning through outliers/loners. Fans are re-mediators (pace Jay David Butler and Richard Grusin 2000), who take a creative piece and re-formulate it according to their own reading or re-imagining. Henry Jenkins, a founding theorist of fan studies, has long fashioned himself an aca-fan and has explored how (fellow) fans become “poachers who get to keep what they take and use their plundered goods as the foundations for the construction of an alternative cultural community” (1992, 223). Through digital turns and developments, these poachers are now mainstream – some business models are even founded on this premise-, and the communities they form are multi-nodal and diverse. In many ways, as diligent obsessives, academics have some of the characteristics of fans operating from a place of specialism eager to communicate to audiences the significance of their insights and research. Thanks to changes in publishing, new modes of communicating and the variety of registers expected across different platforms, audiences are varied which means that we must be adaptive and polyvalent. These shifts require academics to think of ourselves as users and consumers and, simultaneously, of our readers as users whose consumption is to be measured and understood according to an ever-evolving series of metrics and algorithms. This brings both the language of business and measures normally associated with the sciences into the humanities in ways that we are not always comfortable with, but should be adapted to fit our own needs and aims  in ethical ways.

Interfaces are the means through which we disseminate our research and reach a range of users. This can be as varied as using Facebook and Twitter to tell our academic friends and followers about our new outputs, or writing short posts that summarise or distil our reading of a text for a wide audience on a blog, or, an opportunity for building networks and readers while working through our thinking, as well as a myriad other uses. These interactions take place on a multiplicity of platforms. With this in mind, I want to pose a variety of questions, here. What is the utility of these spaces and their functionality? Do they help enhance research? Is the fact that many of them are created to sell and serve the marketplace mean that they do not fit with the creative process of academic production? How do they challenge (disrupt, even) the idea of the single brilliant mind fluidly producing works of genius, and require us to re-think what it means to write, publish, and even allow ourselves to fail in public? Whether all content should be free and freely available , and who has rights to it has been subject of much recent discussion and even lawsuits. In the light of this, how important is where you place your work to you as a user and researcher? Should it be on a “federated network in which a scholar can maintain and share their work from one profile, on a scholar-governed network, whose direction and purpose serve their own”, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick suggests? Or, are there other models that suit your work better? I look forward to your thoughts and contributions.

Butler, Jay David and Richard Grusin (2000) Remediation: Understanding New Media Cambridge, Mass & London: The MIT Press.

Jenkins, Henry (1992) Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture New York & London: Routledge.


Kirsty’s response to Question 1: Big (?) Data and ML

The world of data is, at first glance, an unfamiliar one for those of us who make our living from literary and cultural representations. We are trained – and we train our students – to ferret out nuance and connotation, to read between the lines or beyond the page, to find the multiple meanings surging around a simple word like ‘home’ or ‘nation’ or ‘language’. And Modern Linguists, like Ginger Rogers, do all this backwards and in high heels – or at least, in multiple linguistic, geographical and cultural contexts.

In the world of data, of course, our tried and tested strategies of interpretation do not wash. Trying to impute nuance, connotation and multiple meanings to a spreadsheet is a pointless task, rather as if your precious data is at the mercy of a translator who understands only one language and doesn’t get nuance. A computer will do exactly what you tell it to do, and only when you tell it using the one expression it has been programmed to understand (no stray punctuation and definitely no connotation).

But let’s not overestimate the problems. In fact, once you get past the initial encounter (awkward first data?) and see things from the computer’s point of view, much about working with data plays to our strengths as Modern Languages researchers. They are programming languages, after all, each with its associated social, cultural and pragmatic milieu. You could even say that Modern Linguist vs XML or SQL or [insert your programming language of choice] is the ultimate intercultural encounter.

In all seriousness, Modern Languages researchers not only have much to gain from data-driven humanities projects, but we also bring a very particular array of skills to the table. We are ideally placed to develop a reflective, intercultural approach to digital/digitized data and the tools that allow it to be captured, stored, curated, shared, analyzed and transformed. We need to make our case

Gathering data – qualitative, quantitative, numerical, categorical, bibliographical, biographical, topographical, you name it – is just the beginning of the process, and if we lack the technical tools to transform it into something else, well, that’s what collaboration is for (and that’s a Good Thing, by the way). But once the data is gathered and transformed, and ready for meaningful engagement, that’s when our expertise comes into play.

As Modern Languages researchers, we can combine our proficiency in representation, its nuances and connotations with our ability to consider the commonalities and differences of engagement with digital/digitized data and tools across cultures and languages. Out on the global web, data-driven projects and tools such as crowdsourcing, community archives, emotional geographies, or genealogical databases provide unprecedented opportunities to leverage the digital as a means of stimulating investment and even participation in Modern Languages research by individuals and communities who would never, even for a second, regard themselves as modern linguists. Let’s grab them!


Question 6: ML Research and Process

Modern Languages as research and process. Traditional academia discourages sharing of process and encourages researchers to share a final finessed piece. Digital spaces allows us to reveal, share and upend this by showing the tools, materials and infrastructure of our study. In what ways has this changed how we think about the end result of our research? What are the benefits of this laying bare? What are the pitfalls of this means? Does it change research itself?

First contributor:

Daniel Purdy


Kathleen Fitzpatrick

Paul Spence

Question 5: Users and Interface

Digital writing and publishing not only has to take into account readers as end users, it also has to recognise their potential in an open and dynamic dialogue. How should we tap into the potential for readers to respond, improve upon, and change the process of publishing and editing as interfaces and platforms develop? In what ways do we need platforms to change to make reader engagement possible?

First contributor:

Niamh Thornton


Kirsty Hooper

Tori Holmes

Question 4: Modern Languages and Digital Ethnography

How has Modern Languages changed its methodological approach when analysing digital practices online? How is ML research into the digital as much about practices as about texts? And how can we learn from ethnography? What are the boundaries between digital ethnography and textual analysis?

First contributor:

Tori Holmes


Claire Taylor

Thea Pitman

Question 3: ML Digital as Object of Study

Digital technologies have caused us to re-think existing literary and cultural formats, and new platforms that have transformed our understanding of what a ‘text’ is. What are the new cultural forms being developed at the interface between literary-cultural expression and new media technologies? What existing rich cultural, literary and artistic heritage (going well beyond the Anglophone), do they build on? How might they force us to re-think the (implicit) nation-state assumptions that conventionally underpin Modern Languages practice?

First contributor:

Claire Taylor


Thea Pitman

Emanuela Patti