My Introduction to the Digital Humanities

04 Sep
An excellent book if one is interested in the history of the Crusades, or in the historical interaction between Christians and Muslims.

Soldiers of the Faith by Ronald C. Finucane

One of my first–and most pedagogically useful–experiences with the Digital Humanities came from a direction that seemed, on the face of it, the most improbable of all.

I was an undergraduate in my second year, labouring away at the three majors I had going at the time (I hadn’t yet given up hope of being an astronomer). I had to sit an undergraduate seminar on research in History, for the purpose of completing the degree requirements for that major, and I ended up taking the course with a professor who I had already gotten to know, being as he was the undergraduate advisor. His name was Ronald Finucane.

Professor Finucane was, to my young mind, the model of everything a professor should be. Fearless and frank in his academic opinions, graduated out of Oxford, consummately prepared with a lecture-heavy style, stern yet with a sharp sense of humour, and otherwise old-school in all of the best ways. Yet, this did not translate into a fear of technology or development: he encouraged the use of laptops as note-taking devices (to my relief and delight, as they have revolutionised the way in which I write my notes), and he also embraced the digitisation of resources.

Prior to the digitisation of resources, archival research was often ponderous, difficult, and contingent upon a fair bit of luck. One would speak to an archivist, hope to God they knew something about what one was researching, and go in to the archive with blind faith in what was selected for one to read over. Sometimes, this meant finding an unexpected treasure–usually, it meant fruitless hours spent in a dingy room smelling of mould and the withering dreams of prospective researchers.

One can hardly imagine clergy, accused of every sort of heinous crime, hiding behind this magnificent architecture--but they did.

St. Paul’s Church, Hammersmith, County Middlesex

Professor Finucane not only encouraged us to embrace these digital resources, he required it. Our final project for the course was to do a piece of original research using the Middlesex Sessions Rolls–freely available online–and to come up with an approach, topic, and thesis entirely on our own, with the use of that digital resouce being the only requirement. Professor Finucane would approve each topic, and the only restriction was on the years chosen–any one decade span during the reign of Mary or Elizabeth I.

The papers which were produced were varied (I wrote my own paper on instances of clerical misconduct and what this evinced about the behaviour and fate of London clergy) and, surprisingly, of a much higher calibre than those I would often encounter later in my studies. This was probably down, in part, to Professor Finucane’s fantastic teaching style (a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, he would later become a distinguished professor at my university), but also to the ease of access to primary historical documents (almost always the best jumping-off point) afforded by digital resources.

The lessons obtained in that undergraduate course have stuck with me and formed my research style and approach more than anything since–more than any of the (now six!) specific courses on Critical Theory which I have taken (none of which, it must be said, even mentioned the digital humanities revolution). Digital research has been an absolutely vital part of every research project I have ever undertaken, and I attribute much of my success as a student to learning the value of effectively using those resources.

Professor Finucane wrote recommendation letters for me when I applied (and was accepted) to graduate school for History. He died that autumn, far too early, from lung cancer. But I remember him, unflinchingly and to the end, as a scholar who was never afraid of change or evolution in his field. Instead, he approached these developments as any scholar ought to: with native curiosity to discover what it might mean and how best to employ it.

Hopefully I, too, will be just as open to new developments and innovations in my discipline. And should I start to waver, I have the remembrance of some excellent role models to put me back on course.

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Posted by on 4 September 2012 in Essays


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