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Regular version of the site

'What Convinced Me to Come Here Was HSE's Focus on Research'

Frank Fisher, Associate Professor in the School of Linguistics, moved to HSE in 2016, having previously worked at Göttingen Centre for Digital Humanities. With his significant experience in the field, Frank instantly gave boost to digital humanities research at HSE. He became the co-founder of the Centre for Digital Humanities at HSE and is leading a new Junior Research Group on digital literary research. In January Frank became a co-director of DARIAH, a pan-European research infrastructure, with hopes to leverage his involvement there to the benefit of research projects at HSE.

— So, you’ve been working at HSE here in Moscow for 9 months already. How do you like it here?

— Well, I came to Russia from Göttingen (just like Pushkin's Lensky), a very renowned university city, but by two orders of magnitude less populated than Moscow. So my first impression was a geospatial one. But summer was approaching and it was the best time to wander among the streets of the city and explore.

— How does HSE compare to the western universities you’ve been to? I know there were quite a lot of them.

— What convinced me to come here was HSE's focus on research. I was largely working on digital infrastructures and time for individual research was sparse. At HSE, time and resources for research are part of the deal.

— You're doing your research in Digital Humanities, which is still an emerging field and a novelty to most people. Could you please explain what DH are, in a nutshell?

— I think the purpose of the Digital Humanities can be summed up in a rhetorical question: Why don't we use our computers and other devices for things beyond word processing and spreadsheets to help us enhance our Humanities research? The good thing is, we didn't have to start from scratch. There is a rich history of formalist, positivist, structuralist groundwork and we can build on that when formalising our data. This is a precondition for conducting large-scale analyses, something that the Humanities had to learn how to do. So we started to learn from and cooperate with our colleagues from the Sciences. DH is all about collaboration and interdisciplinarity, research is done in the form of 'projects'. And by the way, the most exciting thing about the Digital Humanities is the kind of data we deal with. Research objects from the Arts and Humanities turned into zeros and ones are still highly ambiguous. And if a Humanist is trained in one thing, it is the interpretation of ambiguous material. This is where we can make a difference. Our data narratives will and should never convey the idea that we're dealing with ultimate, unshakeable results when analysing products of human imagination or intellectual invention.

— HSE now has a dedicated DH centre, and you’re part of it. What are the plans for the centre, major directions of work etc. Do you plan any activities already, maybe workshops, conferences etc.

— Yes, the centre was founded last year and the list of our past and present projects  is already considerable, I think. But first and foremost we are reaching out to our faculty and beyond to involve colleagues who are interested in cooperation or in learning how they can add a digital angle to their research and teaching. We will also strengthen our efforts regarding alternative teaching formats, workshops, hackathons, spring/summer/winter schools. Speaking of which, last year we initiated the first Moscow-Tartu School on Digital Humanities, and we are right now working on the second issue. We were overwhelmed by the interest last year, there were hundreds of applications and, unfortunately, we could only consider some 40 of them. But prospects for the Digital Humanities in Russia are good. There are many endeavours throughout the country, we're talking with colleagues from Krasnoyarsk, Tomsk, St. Petersburg and other cities/universities and it is my hope that we can have collaborative events and activities.

— Your activity at HSE already started to bear fruits. For instance this new research and study group on Literary Network analysis that’s been approved of recently. Could you tell about this? What outcome do you expect?

— Today, kids grow up in digital environments and are natural early adopters of all this digital paraphernalia. It is not a matter of course, but it can happen that, due to this, the distance between students and professors in the Digital Humanities is shorter than in other disciplines. So it makes a lot of sense to involve students into research projects early on. As for our group project, we're happy that it was accepted and already started to work on it. We set out to build a corpus of Russian Drama, encoded in TEI, an XML standard for digital editions. Based on this formalisation, we will apply large-scale social network analyses on the character networks of these plays to describe the evolution of Russian Drama from the end of the 18th century to the beginning to the 20th century and compare it with developments in other European countries. As I said earlier, we don't have to start from scratch. To name but one example: In the 1930s, Russian formalist Boris Yarkho was researching the distribution of speech in 5-act tragedies, a quantitative study of 153 German, French and Russian classical tragedies. This is impressive, given that Yarkho couldn't work with computers yet. It is this tradition we stand in, also if the epistemological foundation of the digital literary studies is changing due to digital methods.

— You’re now a co-director of the board of directors of DARIAH-EU, the Digital Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities. Could you tell us what it is and how your activity there relates to your research and pedagogical activity here at HSE.

— At the beginning of this interview, I mentioned that I was mainly working on digital infrastructures when in Germany. I must say that I was happy to get out of this for a while and do research, but after some time I started to miss it. ;-) I saw the call for applications from DARIAH and gave it a try. Since 1st of January, I'm now one of three directors of the organisation that connects dozens of institutions in currently 22 countries in Europe. I am grateful that HSE supported my application and I hope that in this position I can help to establish and strengthen ties between DH researchers throughout the continent.

— A philosophical question at the end: why DH? What led you to the field and what makes you think it's worth your time and effort? 

— Oh, that's quite a short answer. When I started to study, I couldn't decide whether to do Computer Science or Literature. So I studied both. I couldn't foresee that, years later, we would have a discipline called Digital Humanities, so I guess I was lucky that it turned out like that . By the way, it is always a good idea to ask a Digital Humanist how he or she became one. Their stories reveal the great diversity of this field, which is natural, because the vast majority of my colleagues are working in a discipline that couldn't even be studied years ago.

See also:

Digital Humanities – What Is It and Why Is It One of the Newest Revolutions in the Humanities?

The scientific landscape is changing before our eyes. Different sciences are becoming more and more intertwined with one another, and this sometimes creates quite unexpected combinations, such as the digital humanities. This field is developing rapidly, with conferences and summer schools now being held on the subject. In addition, HSE recently devoted an entire week to the Digital Humanities. But what is this field and why is it so important? 

‘These are the People Who Will Shape the Agenda in the Humanities’

The first Moscow-Tartu School in Digital Humanities has taken place at the Leo Tolstoy House and Museum in Yasnaya Polyana. The school‘s aim is to create an interdisciplinary academic environment in which modern computer methods are applied to the study of texts. The school was organized by the HSE School of Linguistics, Leo Tolstoy House and Museum in Yasnaya Polyana, and the Department of Russian Literature at the University of Tartu.