Big data and the study of reading

By Daniel Allington and Andrew Salway

[Cross-posted from http://www.digitalreadingnetwork.com/big-data-study-reading/. Comments disabled here; enabled on the original.]

We’re really looking forward to running the workshop on big data and digital reading on 6 March 2014. Here is your required reading… just kidding, but we’ve selected two discussion pieces that we think could be interesting to talk about, so if you could have a look at them ahead of the workshop and post any initial thoughts below, that would be brilliant.

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Corpus linguistics. Distant reading. Available abstract.

In case anyone’s interested, the abstract is now available for Ann Hewings’s and my paper in the Digital Humanities in Practice series, ‘Corpus linguistics as distant reading?’ We’ll be presenting it to the Digital Humanities Thematic Research Network at the Open University in Milton Keynes, from 12.00 on 4 July. The event goes on until 14.00, but that’s including lunch. Thanks to Francesca Benatti for inviting us and organising everything! Neither Ann nor I is a digital humanist, but Francesca assuredly is, so I shall trust her judgement that this is a good idea and look forward to some interesting discussion.

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The autonomous model of digital literacy?

On 20 March this year, I joined my head of department, Ann Hewings, in contributing to a cross-faculty staff seminar on using e-learning and large datasets for digital literacy development with undergraduate students. Unsurprisingly, there was discussion of digital humanities resources: in particular, the online Old Bailey Proceedings, 1674-1913, introduced by Francesca Benatti, and the Open University’s own Reading Experience Database, discussed by its director, Shafquat Towheed. Two librarian colleagues, Katharine Reedy and Sam Thomas, also spoke, explaining the Open University’s award-winning Digital and Information Literacy framework – in effect, a cross-disciplinary, skills-based curriculum to be studied by every Open University student alongside the knowledge- and skills-based curricula associated with each qualification pathway – and arguing that literacy training of this sort is most effective when integrated with substantive course content. Sam was kind enough to illustrate this point mainly with online activities that she and I had developed together for U214 Worlds of English – the mid-level undergraduate module that Ann and I were scheduled to speak about. (Ann was the chair of the team that produced U214; I played various roles on the team, including co-ordinating the online activities.) However, from my point of view, the most interesting presentation was the long opening talk by Robin Goodfellow of the Open University’s Institute of Educational Technology. Robin’s ESRC-funded Literacy in the Digital University seminar series has provided valuable insights into the conceptual and ideological basis of digital literacy and digital literacy training, and I’ll cover his talk last because it serves to problematise what the rest of us were talking about.

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The managerial humanities; or, Why the digital humanities don’t exist

As we all know, the digital humanities are the next big thing. A couple of years ago, I gave a presentation at a digital humanities colloquium, explaining what I saw as the major reasons for this (Allington, 2011). We are working within an economic system in which owners of capital (funders) invest in research speculatively purchased in advance from the owners of the means of knowledge production (universities), with permanent employees of the latter (what North Americans call ‘faculty’) playing the role of brokers between the two (both as writers and as reviewers of grant applications) and managing the precariously-employed sellers of labour (junior academics and support staff on temporary contracts) who actually get things done. Humanities research is traditionally cheap, which is bad from at least two points of view: funders want to save money by administering fewer, larger, grants, while universities want to see every department generating research income on a par with that pulled in by STEM centres. The digital humanities come to the rescue by being so conveniently expensive: they appear not merely to profit from but to require such costly things as computer hardware, server space, and specialised technical support staff who – in a further benefit from the point of view of the ethically-indifferent university – can be employed on fixed-term contracts, instantly disposed of when the period of funding comes to an end, and almost as instantly replaced once the next grant is landed. It didn’t have to be like this: computers can as easily reduce as increase the size of a research project. In the funding game, however, the goal is not quality, nor even efficiency, but only bigger and bigger contracts. This is the context within which the digital humanities have fashioned themselves from their less tiresomely glamorous predecessor, ‘humanities computing’.

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