A small group of us gathered in Bay 8 after lunch for a chat about skills development. Although small in number, we were a diverse group of software developers, researchers and students (from history, linguistics and computing/maths) and a librarian.
I proposed this session based on my observations that although a lot of effort seems to be going into building e-research infrastructure and tools, less effort is directed at ensuring that researchers (especially in the humanities) have the skills required to use them effectively to further their research. (I think this is partly due to the emphasis in current funding on infrastructure and not capability, but that does not explain the lack of embedding these skills into humanities curricula, preferably from Honours or even undergrad.)
Although it still seemed to be the case that digital humanities methods were not being widely incorporated into research training, there were lots of suggestions about how researchers could take matters into their own hands, from enrolling in formal training courses through to informal learning (e.g. open courses on the web) and learning-by-doing (the old ‘just have a play with it’ technique). Talking to colleagues from your discipline about what tools they use or know about was also agreed to be a good way to get started, so coming to a THATcamp should be on everyone’s list! There was also a discussion about the difference between learning about specific technologies vs developing a kind of ‘technical literacy’ that makes it possible to find out about, and move to, new tools and environments as technologies change.
There seemed to be a consensus that formal training would be of most benefit if it was targeted to the discipline or the needs of the researchers, and if the researchers had a strong sense of what it is was they wanted to achieve, whether that was discipline-specific or perhaps something more generic (e.g. web authoring, or administering a collaborative workspace for a research team). This might make it difficult for trainers, as both tech skills and some domain knowledge would be needed to really meet the needs of researchers.
The conversation then turned to a slightly different question: do humanities researchers need to know all this stuff themselves, or is what is missing a multi-disciplinary team approach, in which researchers and technologists could work alongside each other, each bringing their own bodies of knowledge to the mix? We then talked about stereotyping (seeing ‘IT people’ as an undifferentiated blob of helpdesk staff / service providers rather than partners and professional equals), and the need for people in business analyst roles that can ‘bridge’ the gap between the researchers and technology experts. These roles are emerging (e.g. through e-research units at institutions or on a state basis, like Intersect in NSW or QCIF in Qld) but are still not all that common.
Thanks to everyone who participated in the session. Please add a comment if you were there and would like to add or clarify anything!