SHL Priority Areas — what are they and why?

A short reflection one year on 

By Sharon Webb 

In 2021 the Sussex Humanities Lab, one of the University’s four flagship research programmes, reviewed and re-evaluated its research structure. In an effort to amplify voices within the Lab, and to attract new voices and contributors from outside of it, we devised eight so-called priority areas that reflect current research and the expertise of our members. These priority areas allow us to highlight our research and provide a structure for our seminar and open workshop series, as well as a way to support strategic research development and grant capture. A year in, we are reflecting on how this structure has or hasn’t worked. Either way, through this structure we have managed, despite Covid challenges, to develop a programme of work which has provided crucial points of discussion, dialogue, debate, and growth.  

Our priority areas aim to further build research capacity across the University and to provide entry points to new Lab associates and to the wider community. We recognise that for some it can be difficult to know exactly what the Lab “does,” and we hoped our priority areas would help demystify that. The fact is, we do a lot: we are diverse, and we work in such an agile manner that it can be difficult to pin us down – this has its advantages and disadvantages!

We define ourselves as a Lab because we are a space of doing, of experimenting, of making (watch this space for a co-authored chapter on this very topic soon). Our collaborations cut across boundaries and as a group we all work in an explicitly transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary fashion. Our work is also value-driven, with a concern for ethics, equalities and diversity work, and by social justice and sustainability issues. In that regard, we are driven by a set of values explicitly written into the fabric of the University of Sussex, and indeed values embedded in our home school, the School of Media, Arts and Humanities. It is probably no surprise then that many of our priority areas reflect these values and concerns, cutting across disciplines and subject areas – such as ‘Philosophy of AI’ or ‘Uncertainty and Interpretability of AI’ , led by Beatrice Fazi (MAH) and Ivor Simpson (EngInf) respectively. ‘Experimental Ecologies’, led by Alice Eldridge (Music), is concerned with developing wider disciplinary understanding our (human and other organisms) environmental relations in the anthropocene, where the biosphere and technosphere are irrevocably linked.  In this way ‘Experimental Ecologies’ aims to foster:

post-disciplinary research where arts and humanities, natural and computational sciences, traditional indigenous knowledge, and everyday local experiences have an equal footing in addressing key environmental issues at human-environment interfaces.

In this area, “an equal footing” is key, and this perspective and outlook informs much of work in other priority areas developed by Lab members. My own area for example, ‘Intersectionality, Community and Computational Technology’ (ICCT) highlights, challenges, and disrupts the way in which computational technology reproduces and reinforces various inequalities in society. It is concerned with, reflective of, and feeds into the value system of the Lab but it is also concerned with research that is driven by perspectives of equity and inclusion. Above all it is community driven, and its foundations are born from collaborative work with queer and intersectional feminist communities and research praxis – community perspectives are on par (on an equal footing) with academic ones. This priority area reflects existing work within the Lab, specifically through the ‘Feminist Approaches to Computational Technology (FACT) Network, the ARHC-IRC funded network grant, ‘Intersectionality, Feminism, Technology and Digital Humanities’ (IFTe), whose overaching objective is to:

‘un-code’ gendered assumptions, question our digital environments and systems, and embed intersectional feminist methods and theory within DH with a view to the creation of new DH futures

And more recently, ‘Full Stack Feminism in Digital Humanities’, a two-year project jointly funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) and the Irish Research Council and part of their ‘UK-Ireland Collaboration in Digital Humanities Research Grants Call. This project aims to develop feminist praxis, methodologies, and ethics from within and across Digital Humanities projects and research. “Full stack” means we are concerned with issues related to inequalities in DH that span from the infrastructure layer to the representation layer – it reaches, and cuts, across all types of environments. In this sense, the Lab’s priority areas represent critical mass of research that grows through engagement within and across the Lab. 

You can read about all our priority areas and ways that you might get involved here: 

Our priority areas represent things that we care about, things that we want to grow, areas we want to foster and nurture. They are not static or fixed but rather a means for us to articulate our priorities but as we know priorities change as we as individuals, as members of society, as colleagues in a School/University develop. We nurture these areas not for the Lab’s own benefit but for the benefit of those that engage with us.  

So, reflecting a year on, does the structure work? Maybe it doesn’t matter what structure we have if the right conversations are happening, if the right collaborations are developing, and if ultimately our members, our community feel involved. Our research structure can only be judged by the collaborations and research they foster, and in this regard, I think we’re not doing too bad!  

Prepping Robo_Op (2021)

SHL Welcomes Two Research Fellows

Sissell Marie Tonn is working on foundational research and media experimentation for a new artwork The Sentinel Self – an immersive interactive narrative built in the game engine Unity, which will creatively explore the shared threat of microplastics to living organisms and their environments.

Ian Winters is working on the Domestic Light project, a timely work, conceived in and for a COVID and post-COVID world, which explores the nature of our relationship to the character of light, home, and the passage of time – through the spectral footprint of light in homes worldwide. The project will result in a series of new installation light-sound works in San Francisco and Richmond; a live online work showing the color of light/dark around the planet during the year; and a broad Bay Area community engagement program that includes a series of panel discussions, work-in-progress presentations, a LASER lecture and a special print/online publication in the Leonardo Journal.  

PhD Community Advocates

From the SHL newsletter:

We’re a group of PGRs who want to connect people and build a community of doctoral researchers and makers through activities based in fun, creativity and researcher skills development. We will be organising several ongoing events over the next few months including:

WALKSHOPS
The walk shop is a peer-led meetup group for researchers to walk out and share any research woes, plan the week, celebrate successes and stomp through procrastination blocks. Each Monday at 10 am, we will set off and walk out the week ahead. More info & registration

NEURODIVERGENT ART JAM
A series of art-making and creative writing workshops for PGRs who identify as neurodivergent, culminating in an exhibition to share creative work and raise the profile of neurodivergent experience at the University of Sussex.

Attendees can sign up for 3 two-hour long workshops, which will be limited to 10 participants and neurodivergent focused/friendly More info & registration (Funded by the Researcher-led Initiative Fund)

ARCHIVING AND DIGITAL SKILLS WORKSHOPS (coming soon)
This series of workshops act as an introduction to creative archiving and digital skills/methods, and will be held online and in person in the lab. Our workshops aim to be welcoming, interactive and a space for participants to think about and discuss their own research.

COLLABORATIVE PLAYLISTING (coming soon)
For when you want to get involved but don’t have much time to spare, we will also be running an ongoing series of collaborative playlists. For these playlists you will be able to suggest music you’d like to be included.

The Digital Humanities Climate Coalition

After some wonderfully galvanising encounters in late 2021, Digital Humanities Climate Coalition is now officially a thing. It’s a collaborative and cross-institutional initiative focused on what DH researchers (broadly construed) can do in times of climate crisis and climate transition, especially understanding and improving the environmental impact of DH research. Participants are based at HE institutions and DH Centres across the UK, Ireland, and Northern Europe. There are three working groups doing things over the course of 2022, plus a reading group. If you’d like to find out more or get involved, you can do so here.

Applied Hope Game Jam

The Applied Hope: Solarpunk & Utopias Game Jam was an open games jam run in summer 2021, inviting game designers to create all manner of things related to envisioning positive futures. Entries were mostly storytelling and tabletop roleplaying games, although we also got prototype video games, zines, a Twitter bot, and more.

After poring through almost sixty submissions, some prizes have just been awarded:

1) Best RPG Under Five Pages: subconscious_Routine by poorstudents

2) Best Solarpunk DIY Game: Scraps by Cezar Capacle

3) The Lustrous Effervescing Fontanelle of Luminous Mutable Futures Award: It’s About the Yearning by Lonely Cryptid Media

4) Mx Congeniality: Moon Elves by Maik

5) The Applied Hope Fruiting Bodies Award: Roots & Flowers by The Gift of Gabes

6) The Best Adaptation Award: The Transition Year by Affinity Games

7) Best Game About Something Pretty Specific: Marvelous Mutations & Merry Musicians! by Wendi Yu

Special Prize: Big Buzz Award: The Nurture by hannah j. gray

Some remarks on the winners can be found here.

Utopia on the Tabletop

Utopia on the Tabletop is a forthcoming collection of scintillating interventions and essays about tabletop roleplaying games and their relation to utopian theory and practice. It is being edited by Jo Lindsay Walton and supported by the Sussex Humanities Lab’s Open Practice group. Contributors include:

  • Emma French
  • Francis Gene-Rowe
  • Grant Brewer
  • Kelsey Paige Mason
  • Lesley Guy
  • Vivek Santayana
  • Felix Rose Kawitzky
  • Nicholas Stefanski
  • Maurits W. Ertsen
  • Rafael Carneiro Vasques, Vitor Celli Caria, and Matheus Capovilla Romanetto
  • Benjamin Platt
  • Grace A.T. Worm
  • Allan Hughes and Mark Jackson
  • Jess Wind
  • Nicholas J. Mizer
  • Jo Lindsay Walton
  • Rok Kranjc
  • Kellyn Wee

More to be confirmed!

The collection will launch in late 2022 / early 2023. It will be a collaboration with MAH’s new poetry and poetics imprint Both Are Worse. In the meanwhile, you can keep an eye on Vector, where you’ll be able to get a sneak peek at some of the chapters throughout the second half of 2022. See also the related Applied Hope Games Jam.

Greening the Digital Humanities

We had, I think, a very good workshop.

To coincide with COP26, the Greening the Digital Humanities workshop was held by the Edinburgh Centre for Data, Culture & Society, the University of Southampton Digital Humanities, the Sussex Humanities Lab, and the Humanities & Data Science Turing interest group. It was a chance for Digital Humanities groups across the UK and Northern Europe to come together to consider what DH communities should do to rise to the urgent challenges of a changing climate and a just climate transition.

It was a summit of unprecedented scope and determination, and probably long overdue. Before the day itself, we had a couple months’ worth of drumroll. So we were able to start by sharing insights from these various scattered dialogues and surveys. Video here and slides here.

Building on this early engagement, four-ish main action themes emerged during the workshop:

  • Compiling a toolkit for DH researchers to do what we do more sustainably — finding out what’s already out there and signposting it, finding out what isn’t and inventing it.
  • Improving our knowledge, especially about how to measure our own impacts. This could definitely inform that toolkit, but it came up so much it deserves its own theme.
  • Nurturing a community of interest around just transitions — climate action is about decolonisation, about feminism, about anti-racism, about diversity and democracy. Many of us felt we wanted to deepen our understandings of climate justice, to share in one another’s research, and to reach out to colleagues and fellow travellers outside of DH.
  • Lobbying, influencing, and offering support and expertise — especially within our universities, and in our relationships with major funders. There was also some interest in other stakeholder groups (key suppliers, green investor coalitions, people responsible for league tables and excellence frameworks, etc.).

My own breakout rooms focused mostly on that final theme. We spent quite a lot of the conversation on funders (representatives from whom were in attendance). We all acknowledged the need for a collaborative and joined-up approach, feeding our perspectives into the work funders are already doing.

At the same time, there is also a fairly clear short-term ask here: we want prominent assurances that bids are not going to be disadvantaged for devoting some of their precious word counts to environmental impacts, and that budget lines related to mitigating environmental impact are legitimate. Everybody’s hunch is that this is already the case, but it’s good to have it said out loud, while the medium-term processes such as updating funder guidelines grind into gear. There is plenty to figure out. But the next few years are crucial from a climate perspective, and bids going in today or tomorrow are impacting what we might be doing in 2022-2025. To keep them aligned with the 1.5 degrees ambitions, some interim incentives will be handy.

As we flowed from our break-out groups into plenary discussion, another theme that emerged was work. We’re long past the point where managing climatic impacts could be seen as a ‘nice to have’ piece of work bolted onto the side of business-as-usual, if there happens to be some extra time and energy to devote there. But at the same time, we need to be sensitive to the diverse levels of capacity. We need to watch out for replicated or otherwise unnecessary work. Where possible activities should be folded into things that already exist. Progress can be made asynchronously to reflect busy calendars. And where we can, we should tune into the ways this work can be collectively nourishing, fascinating, and energising.

So what are the next steps? Broadly, to sort ourselves into teams to try to action things over the next six months or so, and see how we get on with that. Also to continue to reach out to others. These activities probably need to be organised under an umbrella of some kind. How do you like the ring of a Digital Humanities Climate Coalition?

The workshop winds up. One by one they go back to their lives, till I am alone in the Zoom room. A surreptitious glance over my shoulder, then I gleefully get out my gas-guzzling leaf vidaXL Petrol Backpack Leaf Blower and get the Google Jamboard in my gun sights. Post-its dance like confetti. One flies up that escaped my attention earlier.

“The world is burning. It is already too late without massive systematic top-down changes forced on us that no politician will want to do. Let’s all write nihilistic poetry and embrace the end.”

I feel that too. Of course it goes straight into the spreadsheet: WILLING TO LEAD OR CO-LEAD NIHILISTIC POETRY AND END-EMBRACING WORKING GROUP.

But it also drives home for me one last theme: the importance of mid-scale action. When we focus too much on what the individual can do  — buying zippy little electric car, or the Correct Broccoli  — it fails to engage with the scale of the challenge. When we focus too much on the big big shifts  — system change! DegrowthAn end to extractivist ontologies! — the concepts have all the necessary oomph, but the concrete actions prove elusive.

The middle scale, the often distinctly unpoetic activity of organising with a few others to influence an organisation, a sector, a community of practice, a regulation or practice, is often what goes missing. The small scale and the big scale are still important, of course! And climate actions at many different scales feed and reinforce one another. Nihilistic poetry and end-embracing can even be part of that …

But the reason it felt like a very good workshop was that it was satisfyingly in-the-middle. Hope can be a feeling, but hope isn’t exclusively a feeling. Hope is also what you do. And often it’s things you do with a few other people that most manifestly are hope. Interventions with two or three other collaborators, or a dozen, or twenty, exploring what might be accomplished, and multiplying the tales of the attempts.

If you are involved in any way with Digital Humanities and were not at the workshop, please feel free to reach out. Some ways to get involved: email j.w.baker@soton.ac.uk and ask about the Digital Humanities Climate Coalition; sign the Digital Humanities and the Climate Crisis manifesto; contribute to the growing crowdsourced list of resources (and wishlist).

This post mirrored at Southampton and Edinburgh.