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"The deep-seated changes produced by digital technologies are as great as those caused by the invention of printing at that time, and are not neutral"

Thanks to Humanum, Sorbonne University was the first institution in France to incorporate not just the practice but also the theory of digital humanities into its research and training activities. Interview with the scientific resource person for the chair, Didier Alexandre, who is director of the Observatoire de la vie littéraire (Obvil) and professor of French literature at Paris-Sorbonne.

The main mission of the Humanum chair is to foster critical thinking on the work of the Obvil Labex: In what way is it essential?

D.A: The deep-seated changes produced by digital technologies are as great as those caused by the invention of printing at that time, and are not neutral: the digitized object that we work on is no longer a book per se, and the uses of digital methods that the Obvil is introducing to analyze the literary world have consequences on our profession as researchers. Therefore, it was essential to think critically about the work of the Labex to avoid taking an approach that would be naïve, since it would be naive to think that the machine will do the work for us. Digital tools certainly open the door to significant progress in research on literature, but at the same time we need to be aware that the software programs we use to analyze texts are authoritative: the algorithm that searches a text to find occurrences is a way of asking the question that shapes the answer, and, in a certain way, limits the researcher’s exploration options.

 

Training also plays a significant role in this chair: Why?

D.A: We should no longer be asking if the digital revolution is going to happen: it is already happening. The question today is: What will teaching and research do with the changes that this revolution is creating? This implies thinking about and dealing with these transformations. That is the goal of the training: to give students and young researchers the means to master not only the uses of digital technologies within the context of human and social sciences, but also their challenges, and it is our mission at Sorbonne University to train them in such critical thinking. From the outset, the Labex set itself the goal of developing classes on digital humanities from bachelor’s to doctoral degree. We are doing this with the support of Milad Doueihi, the Humanum chair-holder, who is from the United States, where the digital humanities are relatively well developed and who is an internationally-renowned specialist on the matter (read the article, “Un lieu fécond de pensée du numérique” – “Fertile ground for thinking about the digital world”).

 

The chair has now reached its halfway point: What has it contributed so far to the Obvil and Sorbonne University?

D.A: With the Obvil and Humanum, Sorbonne University was the first institution in France to incorporate not just the practice but also the theory of digital humanities into its research and training activities. The expertise and reputation of the chair-holder, Milad Doueihi, the many lectures he has given throughout France on the challenges of the digital world, and his considerable network of relationships are helping the Obvil and Humanum to gain momentum in their field, legitimize their work and ensure that they are known and recognized internationally. He has helped us to make contacts with several prestigious laboratories in the English-speaking world, including the Metalab at Harvard University, whose director, Jeffrey Schnapp, spoke at the Obvil’s 2014-2015 seminar, and the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, with which the chair will organize a conference dedicated to the international dimension of digital culture in April 2016 in the United States. All of this helps to burnish Sorbonne University’s reputation.

 

What are the possibilities for the chair after 2016?

D.A: It is still too early to say. However, Paris-Sorbonne University decided to create the position of professor of digital humanities in the French literature and comparative literature UFR for the 2016-2017 academic year, and the practices, research and classes that Humanum has helped to create were clearly a driving force behind this decision. The chair has also been a success In this regard.

 

 

Related to the article

To read

The Obvil Labex website

 

 

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