Reboot in 3, 2, 1…

Over the last few years I have been experimenting rather freely with blogging as a medium, trying out various forms and styles and their usability for different purposes. Mostly these experiments have been in Swedish (1, 2, 3), while the short-lived blog here was in English (as well as a Tumblr with an even briefer lifespan). There is always more to learn, of course, but by now I am getting a basic grasp of what I can use blogging for and how. Also, after thinking quite a bit about online identity – what it is, why and how it matters – I am beginning to see how I want to organise my presence on the Web over the longer term.

As a result, I have decided to collect most of my writings and other content related to my activities as a historian and academic here. The new site will have two main sections: a regularly updated blog and a repository of my publications (whenever available), conference papers etc. Both will be bilingual but unevenly so, with most content being in Swedish and a smaller part in English. While this arrangement is rather unusual it will lead to more frequent updates, and for me personally it makes more sense than maintaining two separate websites differentiated only by language.

To accommodate these changes an overhaul of the whole site is required, including a transfer of the domain to a new web host in the near future. During the move the site might not be available at all for a day or two, and for those following the blog via RSS or email you will probably have to re-subscribe once the transfer is complete. When it is, I will restore existing blog posts and update this entry to reflect that fact. I will see you on the other side! :)

Update 2 October: Welcome back! The site is now up and running again, although the domain transfer does not seem to have propagated fully throughout the Internet yet. Over the next few days and weeks I will be organising the website and upload content new and old.

Becoming a digital humanist

Unlike Rachel Herrmann I cannot pinpoint the day when I decided to become a historian. It was a choice that emerged only gradually and from the simplest, most unoriginal of motives: a lifelong fascination with the past and how it relates to the present. If you always go around thinking about the world in terms of continuity and change over time, aspiring to pursue a life in academic history seems like a logical step. So I did, and (some twenty years later) here I am.

As a historian, then, I must admit to having a deep and not entirely rational attachment to the traditional practices and material aspects of our craft. Yes, I confess: there is nothing like the dusty smell of aging books that have not been opened for decades, or the touch of fragile sheets of paper covered with centuries-old handwriting. The mundane details of organizing archival trips, the tedium of combing through library card catalogues where no shortcuts are to be had – it is all part of a somewhat old-fashioned mode of scholarly life that means the world to me.

There can be no doubt, however, that this way of life is quickly becoming obsolete in many respects. Sometimes I cannot help wishing that I could just go on as if nothing had happened – everything would be so much easier then, right? – but that is not really an option at this point. The reason is simple: academia, along with the rest of society, is about to be transformed by the digital revolution in ways we are only beginning to imagine. In one way or another, as teachers, scholars and citizens we all have to face the changes brought about by digital technology and social media.

It was this realization that made me begin to explore the field of digital humanities almost one year ago. On the one hand it was obvious that I could not continue along the same old tracks, on the other I felt a certain skepticism about some of the claims being made on behalf of all that is New, Digital and Social. The best way to deal with that ambivalence was to get at least a basic grasp of what is going on and where things seem to be heading. So, for the last ten months or so I have been trying, in my spare time, to follow some of the more visible DH figures on Twitter, read their blogs and collect information about useful tools and resources.

I have not really had the time to explore specific techniques or services in depth, like a proper, practicing ”digital humanist” (however that is defined) would; I have just tried to understand the major features of the DH landscape and what the main points of debate are. I have blogged and tweeted about it, but as someone pointed out the other week that alone does not make you a digital humanist. It was only a few months ago, and even then hesitantly, that I updated my profiles on Twitter and from ”interested in” to ”exploring digital humanities”.

By now I think I have a reasonably good general idea of the main issues, but no actual hands-on DH experience – unless you count the blogging and tweeting, of course. In one sense I do not even want to become a card-carrying digital humanist at all, since that label is strongly associated with certain beliefs and ideas that I do not fully subscribe to. (That is a whole other discussion that shall have to wait for another time.) But my direction is clear and over the next year or two this topic will be all the more relevant to me. On the one hand I am in the early stages of a research project where I will try to apply some of my recent DH insights, and on the other I have been asked to lead a development effort at my department to better integrate some of the new digital and social tools into our teaching practices.

About a week ago I passed another milestone on this road to wherever I am heading, when one day I went from ”exploring” to ”practicing” digital humanities in my everyday work – if on a very modest scale. In the morning of that day, sitting on the tram going to work, for the first time ever I published a blog post from my mobile phone. Part of the afternoon I then spent by reading up on Zotero and watching the entire collection of screencasts about how it works, in preparation for actually using it in my research. For mankind those may have been very small steps, but for me they were great leaps on my way to becoming something akin to a digital humanist.

Don’t just do it

Lincoln Mullen, writing for ProfHacker, offers useful advice on how (and why) you can make some things in life more difficult and complicated. This one hit close to home for me:

I’ve decided to wait 24 hours before agreeing to do anything that is more than routine. Usually, if you ask me to do something, and I’ll say yes right away and regret it later. So now I wait a day before thinking about it, so that I actually can think about it.

I will try to remember that next time.

Keeping it together

The last few days I have been reviewing an old research proposal that I wrote more than two years ago. I was fortunate enough to receive a grant for the project, but because of various other obligations it was only last spring that I began to work on it in earnest. After some initial weeks of reading up on what’s happened in my field recently, I reached the point where I felt the need to revise the project abstract to reflect developments in my thinking since I wrote it, flesh out more fully the main points and organization of each chapter and so on.

As I have been working on this, I have become painfully aware of how long it has been since I was last in this position, i.e., about to embark on a fully funded, multiple-year project that will (hopefully) result in a book. Yes, writing articles can be difficult and challenging too, but trying to maintain coherence – ”staying on message”, as a politician would put it – throughout a few hundred pages of text is a different matter altogether. Apparently it is also a skill you can fall out of practice with if you don’t do it regularly enough.

All I know is that I have been slogging my way through the various threads of research and the lines of argumentation that I want to include in the book, and let us just say that more work is needed. The problem is not really each strand of thought in itself, but rather the totality (in a painfully literal sense) of ambitions represented in the proposal as a whole. There are just too many of them. Or to quote The Matrix: ”The problem is choice.” As it always is, isn’t it?

* * *

While the chapter synopses need further, uh, refinement, at least I was able to revise the project abstract into a state that I may dare to share publicly. It is coming soon to a blog near you.

Hello world!

The innocent energy and eager optimism of the default WordPress ”first post” title is irresistible. It is also firmly rooted in computer and programming history, which makes it seem quite appropriate for the introduction of a blog where certain aspects of digital technology will be one of the main themes. Add the fact that I will likely have trouble enough coming up with a good title for the next post, and I will not even try to improve on this one.

I am a reader (associate professor) of history at the University of Gothenburg in Göteborg (Gothenburg), Sweden. This blog is intended to serve as an outlet for writing about a variety of topics that interest me, but with a clear focus on two main areas. The first is my own field of research, which can roughly be described as 18th century Linnaean travel in a global history of science context. The second is the hard-to-define but fascinating set of questions, opportunities and challenges that arise out of the encounter between humanities scholarship (including teaching), digital technology and social media.

My attempts to grasp and learn about the issues related to the emerging Digital Humanities, especially Digital History, gave the impetus for launching the blog and will be echoed in many of the posts here. Another, more practical reason for trying my hand at blogging in English is that it helps me improve my writing skills in a language that is not my first. In my current research project I expect to write a number of articles and book chapters in English, and regular posting here seems like a good way of practising. In other words, any feedback on the spelling, grammar and idiomatic usage of British English is very welcome!

And what about ”useful curiosities, past and present”? Well, to me it sums up fairly well some of the questions and the categories I often work with and think about. I will have to elaborate in later posts, but ”utility” and ”curiosity” is often seen as polar opposites, not least in contemporary discussions about how to prioritize research funding, while in reality the relationship between them is much more complicated. For one thing, what is merely curious today may turn out to be very useful tomorrow – and how do we even start to define what ”useful” actually means?

Many of the early modern naturalists I have written about wrestled with similar distinctions and their consequenses, which is one reason I find these travelers so interesting. For all the risks of applying simple labels I think ”useful curiosities” captures much of what the whole Linnaean endeavour was about, including its inherent contradictions and ambivalences. By studying their struggles we understand our own better, which is yet another reminder that history itself is not only curious but can be very useful indeed.

(Edit 3 Oct. 2013: This was the inaugural post for my English-language blog at the address, which has since been merged with a Swedish blog of mine.)