Harvests from September conferences

September has been a very busy month, where I spent most of my time at conferences:

I have to say that I started that month exhausted and was really wondering how I’d ever make it through it. It turns out it was amazingly energising, thanks to all the fruitful exchanges I had with people from a wide variety of horizons.

Here are tidbits of what I thought were interesting points that emerged throughout this dense month, dense in content and in networking :

  1. Cognition is on every lips. My approach to understanding the act of interpretation of ancient documents has become more and more involved with checking the cognitive sciences literature throughout the fellowship, and five major themes have emerged (see the preliminary announcement of the colloquium I’m convening in Dec). While discussing these themes at the Digital Humanities Congress I realised that people are not only interested in how they do things but also intrigued as to what it involves cognitively. And all of them want to do it better and, for that, they need to understand how they’re doing things now (well that is what expertise is made of , after all, cognition and metacognition!). The most frequent feedback I had on my presentations (eg this one) was: “It made me think about how I do things”. That was very gratifying, and definitely encouraging as far as the landscape of future research, beyond the fellowship, is concerned.
  2. What I’m doing is not really akin to cognitive archaeology although I can see how some confusion can arise. As I understand it, cognitive archaeology tries to unpack what was happening in the minds of people past; in contrast, what I’m doing is trying to unpack what happens in present people’s minds when they attempt to understand the past. I believe the distinction to be significant. Even if cognitive archaeology is an interesting approach, I’m not entirely sure how tractable the questions about people past asked by cognitive archeologists are. In contrast, I have a direct access to the people creating/discovering/accessing knowledge about the past. And my focus is on them – what are they doing, how are they doing it, what might help them? Yes, there is some kind of connection between the two, but it is rather tenuous, and if made, it needs to be made much further downstream from the results emerging from my research; it should relate to the content of the knowledge scholars create, rather than directly to their cognitive processes.
  3. More multi-disciplinarity is the way to go, but more “in-betweeners” are needed. And this is not just another case of putting C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures theory forward. On the contrary. It’s a rebuttal of it. We’re in a Multitude of Cultures landscape. And that was very flagrant at Dagstuhl. Each discipline, each field, each sub-field has developed their own terminologies, sometimes borrowing from each other and subverting the borrowed meanings, or just evolving the meanings in different (if sometimes divergent) ways. Take the word “feature”. In a palaeographical context, the word feature will, for example, serve to describe the remarkable characteristics of the end of stroke in a given scribal school; in image and signal processing terms, it will describe the behaviour of a curve or surface where changes occur in the (n-th order) derivatives (like a step or a ridge). There can then be some overlaps between palaeographical features and image processing features, but there are also some contexts where they definitely do not designate the some object.  And actually, even within palaeography, the word feature might signify something different depending on the kind of script that is studied. Another striking example is the word “ontology”, used in AI and in philosophy. Here again there are overlaps, but most philosophers will cringe at the AI use of the word “ontology”. These simple examples show concretely how important it is to have “in-betweeners”, peolpe who are acquainted with the various domain-specific terminologies, and who will be able to identify when such terminological issues occur and take on the role of translator so that the scholars can understand each other across domains.
  4. Asking questions vs. giving answers. Under this heading, I’m referring to styles of scholarly approaches in research. I had a real epiphany moment at Dagstuhl when I realised what was going on. At times, it felt like there were hiccoughs in the communication, but not hiccoughs that could be blamed on misaligned terminologies. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, it felt like people were getting frustrated because they weren’t heard; I pondered and it eventually dawned on me. The tradition in computer sciences is to find hard questions and then to answer them. The emphasis is often put on the answering. Answers act as a deliverables; that’s what computer scientists do, answer hard questions. In the palaeagraphical world, as well as in papyrology, epigraphy, and assyriology, with which I am familiar (I can’t really talk for other subjects), the tradition and emphasis is on the questions. What is of primordial importance is to ask the right questions. They can be hard questions (and they often are), and of course answering them is important, but the research process always puts the accent on the next question. No wonder people were slowly getting frustrated, on one hand you had the “answer-ers” and on the other the “question-ers”. A dialogue were each question is met by an answer and each answer by another question might just never end! I don’t have developed any tricks on how to handle this yet, but it’s really important to be aware of it – and again, that’s the kind of situation where having an “in-betweener” can come in really useful.
  5. Presentation styles unpacked. With my background in the so-called hard sciences, I was always taught to not, ever, in a million years, read my presentations  and to always always have slides (and even in a foreign language – like for my very first academic presentation, at a German conference, when my German was shaky at best, I spent a lot of time practicing not to read – reading really was a big no-no). My incursions in the Humanities have taught me differently. It’s again a question of culture.  In the eyes of their peers, speakers in textual scholarship who read their presentations are perceived as mastering their subject, and having a definite point to make with some possibly complex arguments to put across; whereas in the image processing community (and in medical imaging and computer sciences in general), a speaker who reads is someone who is perceived by their peers as being insecure about their subject. And towards the end of Sept, after lengthy and detailed discussions with palaeographers, papyrologists, and epigraphers I discovered this: for textual scholars, presentations are built just like written articles: the slides are illustrations, the text, which is (most of the time) read, is the main text of the article, and the handouts (if any) are the footnotes. To me, what is striking about this is that it absolutely makes  sense, yet it doesn’t seem to take full advantage of the orality of the mode of communication. And this cultural diversity usually shows at Digital Humanities conferences;  some presentations are more read than others, usually depending on the traditional subject the presentation is rooted into, and some presentations are hybrids of reading and talking, showing some signs of the mutual influences of the disciplines they bring together. (I haven’t broached the question of the language the talk is given in here; that would likely yield a whole discussion on yet another type of cultural differences!) .

To be fair each one of these points would probably be worth a full post, but with deadlines looming and a colloquium to prepare, I thought I’d try to evoke these topics – in broad brushstrokes.

Have you encountered any occurrences such as those in points 3, 4, and 5? Have you developed tips and tricks to deal with them?


Ségolène Tarte

I am a researcher at the Oxford e-Research Centre, University of Oxford, UK where I’m working on an inter-disciplinary project involving imaging sciences, information sciences and papyrology. I am an image processing specialist, whose research focus has turned to the Digital Humanities. I am interested in the study, understanding and modelling of expert knowledge in the Humanities. With methodologies inspired and informed by anthropology, philosophy and the cognitive sciences, I aim to inform the design and development of software systems that will support the experts in their task. Two overarching questions in my research interests are: what does the digital world have to off er to support knowledge creation, and how does it influence it?

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About Ségolène Tarte

I am a researcher at the Oxford e-Research Centre, University of Oxford, UK where I’m working on an inter-disciplinary project involving imaging sciences, information sciences and papyrology. I am an image processing specialist, whose research focus has turned to the Digital Humanities. I am interested in the study, understanding and modelling of expert knowledge in the Humanities. With methodologies inspired and informed by anthropology, philosophy and the cognitive sciences, I aim to inform the design and development of software systems that will support the experts in their task. Two overarching questions in my research interests are: what does the digital world have to off er to support knowledge creation, and how does it influence it?
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