Voting for the fourth annual DH Awards opened today. For those unaware, these awards allow the public to nominate and vote on Digital Humanities projects shortlisted in a number of categories: “Best Use of DH for Fun”, “Best DH tool or Suite of Tools”, “Best DH Blog Post or Series of Posts”, “Best DH Data Visualization”, “Best Use DH Public Engagement”, and “Best Exploration of DH Failure” (for which there were not enough nominations). There is no financial prize, and nominations are filtered by an international committee composed of respected DH scholars.1
The initiative is intended as a means of drawing attention towards the work of our colleagues, and in this respect it is a worthwhile contribution to our community. With some slight re-branding intended to make it clearer to those from beyond our cohort that they are community accolades assigned by popular vote, the DH Awards could present an even greater opportunity for our field. Yes, they generate awareness—a vital activity—but we need to consider the unintended repercussions.2 Twice in recent years has a senior scholar, one of which was speaking in their capacity as a member of a search committee, queried me on the prestige of these awards—I can only assume that there have been situations wherein the weight of these prizes been overrated. As our field continues to mature, we should take precautions to ensure that each and every distinction that someone might place on their résumé is taken for what it is. The reality of our discipline is that many hiring committees aren’t ideally placed to assess the expertise of candidates looking for DH-related positions, and it is not inconceivable to imagine a scenario in which such an honour might be misinterpreted.
Everything shortlisted listed is a stellar piece of work with which any scholar would be delighted to be associated. Furthermore, as a community, we should continue to recognise our peers, particularly as so many DH scholars see their efforts undervalued by their administrations and institutions. But we need to make this community-ethos more transparent, so that hiring and promotion boards, which often include the uninitiated, can see at first glance the spirit in which the awards are intended. A simple renaming might suffice, branding the event as the DH Community Awards; or perhaps the selection committee could be expanded, and charged with choosing what would then be peer-reviewed recipients, with the public still free to submit nominations (I accept that selection by committee has its failings, but surely it is a better approach than popular vote?). To heighten transparency, the sources of the nominations could also be revealed, a strategy that has been adopted by journals like Digital Studies / Le champ numérique with respect to their reviewers.
Where I see particular value in the DH Awards is in their potential to encourage emerging and younger scholars—back at the beginning of my PhD, I was excited to be shortlisted for a DH Award. But it’s difficult for the awards to be just that when they include major grant-funded projects alongside smaller undertakings being driven by what one assumes are modest resources. If the DH Awards are about awareness, perhaps these larger projects, many of which have budgets for public engagement, should be omitted? Recognition of our more established colleagues happens regardless, through our teaching and citations. Or perhaps the categorisation could be adopted to reflect the funding status of different projects? There are lots of ways we could re-consider this scheme so as to further benefit the creators of DH projects, both big and small, high- and low-tech.
Established in 2012, I hope to see the DH Awards endure for many years to come, but I do believe that they merit some examination and possible reinvention if their existing value is to be reinforced.
1. Kudos to James Cummings, his fellow instigators and contributors, who give their time and expertise freely to this so as to generate awareness for our projects—it is they who should receive a prize for public engagement.↩
2. With thanks to Scott Weingart for his general advice and wisdom.↩