Kindred Britain and Scholarship

Emma Honour Mae...August 26, 2013

Redundant as it may seem to say, Kindred Britain is a project that spans generations. Not only the generations of the database’s inhabitants, spread over the last thousand or so years as they are, but the more recent and less distinctly segregated generations of scholars. As an undergraduate research assistant, I was fortunate enough to be one of two people to work on Kindred Britain who was born after the Internet.

Kindred Britain did not, simply on premise, impress me. I’ve read articles for months -- on my personally tailored RSS feed -- about the rise of data visualization and interdisciplinary projects on university campuses. I got my email address at age eight. I can barely remember a time when “Googling something” for the answer was not an option.

It took a little discussion with my superiors for me to fully grasp -- and even now, I’m not sure that someone of my age can -- the significance of a project like Kindred Britain. The professor from whom the project sprang like a regular Athena, Nicholas Jenkins, was trained as a scholar in the ‘90s, roughly around the same time that the commercialized Internet and I made our way into the world, one of us with slightly more impact than the other. He was educated in a world where the spheres of the humanities and technology simply did not touch, nevermind overlap to create a data visualization project integrating traditional scholarly narratives.

Likewise, the digital humanities specialist Elijah Meeks, who was responsible for much of the tech behind the site, was educated in philosophy and English at a time when there was something vaguely “magical” about the humanities. As he described it to me, there was something nostalgic, traditional, loyal about studying literature and writing about literature in the static way -- how noble, to continue the ways of our intellectual ancestry. How full of ethos, to humanize scholarship as it should be, to focus on the human instead of the machine.

I’m not sure if the other research assistant’s experience has been equally disdainful of the humanities, but in the university culture I have experienced, the entire set of subjects is seen as incomplete without a technical, statistical, or somehow computational portion attached. It’s fully expected by most that you won’t have any career opportunities unless you make an effort to integrate tech into your learning. And humanities “scholarship”? Everyone knows that it’s much easier to get an A on a term paper than on an operating system that you built from scratch.

In light of my newfound awareness, I feel that it’s my responsibility to emphasize to my audience of peers how important this is. We’ve all been sent a dozen websites with colors and lights and things that move, or discarded emails from parents or well-meaning relatives who want us to read something or learn something from somewhere in the infinite recesses and infinite wisdom of the Internet.

Clearly, this is a project of tremendous work and value, but how would you classify it? Could this be someone’s dissertation? Hobby? Research? In a world where we’ve decided that anything valuable is quantifiable, we’re struggling to come up with the appropriate language and structure for something that pushes those boundaries and, as Prof. Jenkins mentioned in “Originating Kindred Britain,” “reintroduces narrative and personhood into the scientific discourse.” Embedded in this project are not only questions of identity, family, or relation, but questions of scholarship, and the place for this new material amid the so-called “crisis of the humanities.”

Rather than being a brick of a book that few would ever consult, let alone wade through, Kindred Britain is a site that I can share with friends, family, peers and colleagues. It is something I can consult specifically for research, or explore with, or connect -- genealogically, professionally, geographically -- to my own relations and connections. The transformation of humanities scholarship is at least as interesting as the latest in commercial social networking.

What is the takeaway here? I think it depends on your place in the generational spectrum. For those of us beaten down with the impression that humanities students will be unemployable, take a look at the Digital Humanities and the contributions that don’t necessitate a technical background. For those of us teaching, it might be time to get more comfortable with the integration of data and narrative. For students like myself, consider how you can apply writing, editing, art, design, or history to make them new again. It has been a blessing to discover that though I am proficient in Google search, I don’t know about all of my opportunities.