Friday, July 12, 2013

10 insights for humanities researchers from #ACHRC 2013

#ACHRC 2013: 2 days, 1 keynote, 6 panels.
Between 8-9 July, researchers converged on the University of Western Australia for the annual meeting of the Australian Consortium of Humanities Research Centres (ACHRC).

Humanists came from range of disciplines and institutions: university research centres, collecting institutions, advocacy groups, media, university administration and funding bodies. The diversity of attendees resulted in a range of perspectives and energetic debate.

All were united by a belief that, in a world facing pressing global challenges, we need the humanities now more than ever. In this context, it seemed appropriate that the keynote was delivered by Alan Liu, a digital humanities innovator and passionate advocate of the humanities.

Here are ten themes that emerged over an inspiring few days:

1. We need to learn how to tell compelling stories about the humanities.
We’re not doing enough to communicate the value of what we do. Alan Liu’s keynote stressed the importance of humanities advocacy and outlined the creation of - a “conceptual laboratory” that provides a space for humanists to tell their stories. Digital storytelling outcomes include:
  • Infographic Friday - visualisations that express the impact of the humanities using statistics
  • Humanities Backpack  - mini documentaries that bring the research process to life
  • Humanities Showcase - online portal that allows public audiences to browse a gallery of research case studies

For Liu, public engagement starts with an articulation of fundamental principles which should be long-term, structural and local/global. What do the humanities stand for? Frustrated by the strategic plan outlined by your research institution? Liu and his colleagues at the University of California were. So they sat down and outlined their own vision.

To communicate values you need to know what they are. Several key outcomes of the 4Humanities project have been value finding exercises such as What everyone says about the humanities and Humanities plain and simple, which challenges contributors to outline why the humanities matter in plain language. Techniques include focus groups, crowd sourcing, and text mining values statements. For a best practice example, Liu pointed to a recently released report and video published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “The Heart of the Matter: Commission of the Humanities and Social Sciences.”

2. And communicate these stories to our audiences more effectively.

Deakin University: Research My World
Engaging with public audiences is not about meeting research impact funding obligations; it’s a social responsibility. Andrea Whitcomb encouraged researchers to resist the notion that academic work is outside society and to develop research projects that emerge from problems and issues outside of academic debate.

Alan Liu outlined a framework for public engagement that involved (1) articulating a core message, (2) designing a communications plan (involving the selection of spokespersons - not necessarily the researcher, media channels, and specific media forms and genres) and (3) communicating this message to a specific target audience (such as fellow academics, practitioners or local communities). Researchers should seek to emulate organisations skilled in communicating for social change, such as the Occupy Movement, and Amnesty International. He suggested researchers may like to read Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport’s recent book, Digitally Enabled Social Change, Activism in the Internet Age.

Deb Verhoeven felt it was important that researchers feed data and results back to communities. She described a recent project that engaged communities in the research process from the outset using crowd funding. Not only did the Deakin University Pozzible Campaign, Research My World, raise over $20,000 in research funding, it helped build the online profiles of the early career researchers who participated.

Jane Davidson, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions argued that research impact should include creative outcomes as well as traditional research outputs and outlined recent collaborations with ABC radio, schools and the arts. 

Andrew Jaspan, Editor of The Conversation, outlined his vision to provide a new business model for news media. The Conversation has 1.3 million unique views per month, with 80% of the audience outside of academia. An Australian success story, over 60% of academic contributors are followed up by other mass media outlets and the recent UK launch will be followed by launches in USA and India. Subsequently, Linguist Alan Dench reminded researchers that, while the written word has primacy in academia, spoken language remains a primary form of communication and is innate to human beings. He urged attendees to speak on the radio and encourage students to practice communicating their research verbally by participating in Three Minute Thesis competitions.

3. But often, we don’t really understand who our audience is.

Dev Verhoeven reminded researchers that we are not communicating to a homogenous group of people called “the public”.  Powerful storytelling necessitates a genuine understanding of our audience/s and these insights are the bedrock of any communication. Not only will this information assist researchers in crafting an impactful message, this kind of focus can assist in making decisions as to the most effective communication channels - vital when time and money are in short supply. Know your audience and design communications to resonate with specific concerns.  Then choose the most appropriate communication channel to reach each group.  Provide different touch points that allow people to become involved at various levels. For example, some may watch a video or share information on social media, others might like to make a donation or even examine research data for themselves.

4. It's not enough to start a discussion, we need to change the conversation.

We need to advocate the humanities on our own terms.  Christina Parolin, of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, argued that the term "benefit" captures the intention of research assessment better than "impact". Indeed, Alan Liu prefers the term “discovery” rather than words such as “invention”, and “innovation” as he believes it most aptly expresses the range of human meanings and possibilities associated with technological breakthroughs.
Liu suggested that researchers explore George Lakoff’s strategic frame analysis, a science based communications methodology that draws from linguistics, psychology, anthropology, political science and communications theory. If you're interested in Lakoff's work you can explore his eWorkshop Changing the public conversation on social problems: a beginners guide to strategic frame analysis  or read his article Framing 101: How to Take Back Public Discourse.

5. Continue to question the logic of measurement indicators.

Carmen Lawrence agreed that accountability for publicly funded research projects was important but compelled the audience to keep asking the hard questions. Why are you asking us to measure this? What is the likely benefit to the academy/society? How many dollars does it take to get one dollar on the desk of a researcher? Christina Parolin agreed that data collection was an issue, citing the administrative burden and cost of preparing case studies, the risk of over engineering the effort to measure impact, and the focus on demonstrating and communicating rather than making the research more beneficial.

Lawrence noted the private sector origins of the current obsession with measurement, citing the mantra "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it".  She compared dogmatic approaches to measurement with religious devotion stating "The fact that something is hard to measure does not mean that it is not real or important". Indeed she argued that the more any social indicator is used for social decision making, the more it will corrupt the very policies it aims to manage, quoting Goodheart’s Law which states "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure".

6. Form richer, mutually beneficial collaborations.

We’re stronger together. Humanists may have different goals but we tend to share a similar vision. Richard Neville, outlined how the State Library of NSW wants to "be a place where conversations happen, either on site or online", an objective which echoed several previous discussions. Yet collaboration between different research centres, disciplines and collecting institutions poses challenges.  Neville recognised opportunities to share staff, knowledge and experience based on mutual understanding and frank discussions about expectations, constraints and opportunities. Alec Coles, CEO of the Western Australian Museum, reiterated some of these concerns but was optimistic about ways in which partnerships could add immense value.

7. Think global.

Is the global turn in higher education merely economic opportunism or a genuine desire to train and educate graduates to become global citizens? Masashi Haneda, Vice President (International) of the University of Tokyo, argued that global issues such as climate change, food and water crisis, aging societies, bioethics, security and migrations, necessitated the development of a new global citizen and that the humanities should play a leading role. Krishna Sen, Dean of the UWA Faculty of Arts, was more cautious about the idea of “Global Humanities” arguing the centrality of difference and relativism to the humanities. Yet, the discourse surrounding the Asian century highlights the importance of alternative modes of understanding. According to Krishna, "We are the miners of ideas and we are the real miners of the Asian century".

8. Embrace new technologies.

Marvin eBook reader - iPad app
Alan Liu showcased some extraordinary new digital humanities projects such as Open Journal Systems (OJS), the Journal Author Name Estimator (Jane) and Marvin – an iPad app that automatically generates abstracts from ebooks.  Other innovations included JoVE, a Peer Reviewed Scientific Video Journal and Wikipedia Journal Articles. Liu’s visions for the future included a machine learning approach for identifying thesis and conclusion statements in student essays, and a computer program that could support academics in public outreach by automatically generating draft tweets and blog posts based on "business as usual" teaching and research activities.

According to Lui, Research Centres should act as “Think Tanks” for the Humanities.
  • Taking a long term, strategic approach and contributing to public policy
  • Becoming hubs for digital humanities by investing in state-of-the-art infrastructure (such as video conferencing), hosting workshops and conferences and offering support with communications and public outreach, websites and databases, and legal/IP issues.
  •  Lobbying for institutional acknowledgment for blog posts and public outreach activity, referencing the recently published (and must-read) Young Researchers in Digital Humanities: A Manifesto. Carmen Lawrence also recognised that the immense pressure to publish and lack of reward for outreach activity discourages community engagement, stating "We are giving young researchers the wrong message".
  • Supporting early career researchers by recognising that there are not enough academic jobs for graduates and helping to develop alt-ac career paths.  Kate Darian-Smith, of the University of Melbourne, also shared examples of how her team are trying to develop new career opportunities and forms of PhD supervision.

9. But be realistic about potential pitfalls and challenges.

Who is going to pay for it all? Several speakers recognised the logics of current funding systems provided considerable barriers to making such grand visions a reality. An ACHRC survey of 180 Australian Research Centres led by Tully Barnett revealed that many operate with minimal administrative support - yet this is vital for tracking research impact, planning events and public outreach activity.  Training and developing new skills is essential for researchers but this has limits. It it is inefficient to stretch competencies too wide. Research Centres should empower humanists to do what they do best and free their time for research as much as possible.

Toby Burrows, Director of eResearch at UWA, urged attendees to be aware of “The Nasties” when planning websites and databases. Blogs, social media and open source platforms are not “free”. They involve a long term commitment of time and effort, as well as  hard costs involved with backing up data, servers and web hosting. Should you seek open source, commercial or bespoke IT solutions? Burrows outlined pros and cons of working within IT systems or going it alone.

10. And stop complaining. 
Robert Phiddian, Director of ACHRC, didn’t mince words in his closing remarks, stating “It’s our own bloody fault” for taking the brace position rather than getting on the front foot. The meeting ended on an optimistic note, with a challenge to experiment, innovate and think differently about the ways in which we undertake and communicate humanities research.

There is much to be done but also much that can be done


I was awarded a bursary to attend the 2013 meeting of the Australian Consortium of Humanities Research Centres (ACHRC) by the UWA Institute of Advanced Studies.  Huge thanks to the event convenors: ACHRC Director Robert Phiddian, ACHRC Research associate Tully Barnett and UWA innovation cheerleader, Susan Takao.