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.

NIAMH THORNTON

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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

Respondents:

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

Respondents:

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

Respondents:

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

Respondents:

Thea Pitman

Emanuela Patti

Question 2: ML and Digital Archives

Technology has allowed us to gather material and share it to a wider community. What can we use to make archiving possible and lasting? If we work online and create spaces, do we become archivists? If so, what are the ethics and issues that arise from this? Is the digital archive an act or recovery or curation?

First contributor:

Kay Chadwick

Respondents:

Niamh Thornton

Kirsty Hooper

Emma Cayley

Question 1: (Big?) Data and ML

The ever increasing volumes of data that are available to us as researchers are changing the way in which we engage in Modern Languages Research. What data tools and concepts are helpful to us, not just in an instrumental sense of how we undertake our research, but also in a more conceptual sense of how we understand what Modern Languages is? How might tools such as crowdsourcing help generate audience engagement in Modern Languages, and increase the public understanding of ML?

First contributor:

Kirsty Hooper

Respondents:

Claire Taylor

Niamh Thornton

Main Question: Modern Languages and the Digital: the Shape of the Discipline

Undeniably, the advent of digital technologies on the shape of ML research and publishing has been immense. First, regarding research, digital technologies have changed the way in which we engage in our research practice right across the full cycle of the research process: from our objects of study, which may no longer be the traditional print book (as was the basis of our conventional, philological training), but instead may now include genres as diverse as the hypermedia novel, twitter poetry, net art, hacktivism, social media, and many more, through to our tools of analysis, which may now include visualizations, big data approaches, and so on, ML has – along with many other humanities disciplines – seen its shape change over the past two decades. It also has led us to challenge what it means to describe ML as a discipline, or, at the very least to re-inscribe its boundaries.

Second, regarding publishing, the changes to conventional models, with the rise of the e-book, online early journal articles, open access publishing, and online only publishing on the one hand, coupled with the rise of self-publishing that has been afforded by digital technologies and social media in particular on the other – where we now ‘publish’ on Twitter, blogs, Facebook or other platforms just as often as we do in conventional print outlets – means that many of us have had to re-think what it means to ‘publish’ in ML.

The changes to the basis of ML research are not only methodological and practical, but also conceptual. We find ourselves availing of new tools for analysis, new methods for approaching objects of study, indeed, for some, even the objects of study themselves are new. All these require us to re-formulate what it means to carry out research and to consider the possible affordances of a plethora of platforms, spaces, and tools.

One of the significant impacts that digital technologies have had on our conceptualization of ML as a discipline is to make us re-think some of the place-based assumptions underpinning our research practice. If as creators, academics or practitioners we can exist virtually, does place and space matter? Conversely, geopolitical shifts, uneven access points, legal differentials, and cultural particularities demand that we consider how we can become even more fixed and attached to place and space.

Another big impact of recent changes is the question of how the digital may have made us re-think ourselves as a fundamentally philologically-based discipline. In other words, the phenomenal explosion of user-generated content enabled by digital technologies has been a wake-up call for many of us –we can no longer take as read that a common object of study is the canon (be that literary, film, art, etc); and, moreover, we need to look at practices, as much as texts.

Of course, all of this didn’t happen in a vacuum – with the rise of cultural studies approaches, ML was rethinking itself anyway. So, perhaps, it’s more a case of this all crystallising at the same time: that at the point at which ML was already in the process of questioning some of its assumptions (philology; study of high literature, etc), the rise of digital technologies then has become this disruptive element that demands a re-formulated genealogy.

As we look to the future of the discipline(s) there are as many questions as answers. As a consequence of this new landscape with its new tools and practices, do we need to find new nodes where our disciplines reside that belong within and outside of national territories? Do we need to be open to all changes and forget a boundaried sense of what we do? Or, are there needs for new frontiers where we establish our own silos with connections to those who want to share and exchange ideas and methodology? As adopters of technology, do we need to be more than just end users and become designers, makers, or programmers?

It’s certainly the case that ML has had to (and has to continue to) re-conceptualize itself, in the face of immense pressures. Worton’s call for ML as a discipline to articulate a clear and compelling identity, all the while maintaining itself as a trans-disciplinary field ( 2009: 37), seems to be fundamental- and it’s still one that we’ve never really answered. This is a huge challenge for us as Modern Linguists, and it’s not clear we’ve actually got there yet. If this is the main challenge, then the digital is one set of coordinates within this bigger picture; it’s one of the things (but not the sole thing) that we have to negotiate as we re-think our discipline(s). We have previously contributed to a conversation about our own ‘discipline’, Hispanic Studies, where we both expressed a desire for disciplinary renovation and interdisciplinary exchanges and we proposed some forms in which we, as journal editors, could make our contribution at this moment (Fraser and Henseler 2014). Situated as we are in language- and area-specific knowledge and research, we have to ask about the desirability of such an approach in other fields and in the appeal of seeing ML as one discipline or several inter-related polyphonous disciplines onto which we patch the shifting prefixes (such as, trans-, inter-, intra-, multi-) as the need arise. Can we be DH-MLers? Can this be a thing?

Without a fixed object of study (literature) that the discipline is founded on, yet with the tools to understand other cultural objects and with communication as a fundamental skill, ML is well-placed to tackle the user-oriented end of DH. As researchers capable of reaching across into the unfamiliar and uncomfortable we have the capacity to test the limits of knowledge. Some of these are skills integral to all of those in the Humanities. But, we invite ML faculty to look at those with whom you work daily and you will find that we are well used to working across disciplines. Linguistic specialists parsing language usage work with social media researchers side-by-side with historians of early modern periods. Sometimes, within so-called disciplines, we may not even have a shared second language, or national focus. Yet, ML binds us. What have we learnt from this that can contribute to a widening of the scope of DH and how can this be mutually beneficial?

CLAIRE TAYLOR and NIAMH THORNTON