After I wrote my original “How Did They Make That?” post, on some common types of DH projects, I got to thinking about whether there might be ways to help people reverse-engineer digital projects on their own. I used a talk I gave at CUNY as an excuse to think of some of these ways. This presentation, a modified version of that talk, is the result.
Incidentally, I propose a drinking game: whenever you see my tiny Skype avatar taking a sip of coffee, take a drink.
Erratum: The Negro Travelers’ Green Book is a project of the University of South Carolina Libraries, not the University of Southern California, as I keep saying. Also, just a note that while I focus on the mapping elements of that project, they’ve also done a beautiful job digitizing the book itself.
We’ve seen digital humanities in terms of “projects” since Roberto Busa indexed Thomas Aquinas. But lately it seems to me that the imperative to continuously produce something is getting in the way of how people actually think and grow. What if we viewed digital methods as a contribution to the long arc of a scholar’s intellectual development, rather than tools we pick up in the service of an immediately tangible product? Perhaps we’d come up with better ways of investing in people’s long-term potential as scholars.
It’s natural for DH centers, especially newish ones, to want to spread the word about digital humanities. But increasingly I suspect that issuing a faculty call for projects is not the way to do it.
Our original proposal for this session read like a lot of attempts to grapple with controversy in the digital humanities. “Is digital humanities complicit with the neoliberal impulse in the modern university?” it asked. “Some say it is, citing A, B, and C. Others say it isn’t, citing X, Y, and Z.” The framework, if unoriginal, had the benefit of being easy to write.
My copanelist Natalia Cecire pushed us to think beyond this cliché. “Let’s start with the premise that it is complicit,” said Cecire, citing Alan Liu’s “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” “Else why would it be so obviously attractive to the neoliberal university? Let’s start with that and talk about what we then do.”
Borrowing Natalia’s framework, I want to complicate a discourse about labor that has emerged from and become identified with the digital humanities. The term for this work is “alt-ac,” which stands for “alternative academic.” ((My critique is not altogether new. Liana M. Silva aired some of these concerns in April. Martha Nell Smith has levied similar critiques of DH centers’ hiring practices, and Bethany Nowviskie has dealt with a number of these concerns in “Toward a New Deal.” I am moved and inspired by this vision of a WPA for the humanities, but I feel that my fundamental objection to some of the rhetoric about alt-ac — that it rests on the flawed assumption that the academic jobs crisis is caused by an overproduction of Ph.D.s — has yet to be answered.)) Jason Rhody, a senior program officer for the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities, coined the term in 2009 to describe the scholarly work performed by many of us in and in the orbit of the academy who do not hold traditional faculty jobs but do perform scholarly labor. ((For a history of alt-ac and a snapshot of how graduate programs might equip students for these jobs, see the excellent “Humanities Unbound: Supporting Careers and Scholarship Beyond the Tenure Track,” prepared by Katina Rogers for the Scholarly Communication Institute.))
Many students tell me that in order to get started with digital humanities, they’d like to have some idea of what they might do and what technical skills they might need in order to do it. Here’s a set of digital humanities projects that might help you to get a handle on the kinds of tools and technologies available for you to use.
I recently published this article in a special issue of the Journal of Library Administration devoted to digital humanities and the library. You can find a non-paywalled copy of the article here. Many thanks to Micah Vandegrift for drafting an open-access addendum to our publishing agreement with Taylor and Francis. Micah has also posted an “alt-TOC” for this issue, with links to the other authors’ non-paywalled essays, along with a great synopsis of how he approached the negotiation with Taylor and Francis.
So, that post. I’ve never written anything that’s gotten much attention before, and the experience has been strangely, intensely stressful. Is it too divisive?, I wonder. Too hastily written? When I wrote the post, to be honest with you, I was livid about job-market news from friends, not to mention the latest VIDA stats. Should I have been more constructive? I was short with people in the comments, and I regret that. (Sorry, Ben.) Should I have said more about how much I love the community of DH? Because I do, because it’s been life-changing for me, because I love spending time with you. Am I now Gender Lady? I hope not, because I really don’t want to talk about this all the time.
I was glad to see the post gain traction — and I prodded it along — because I want the conversation to take place. But I’m extremely self-conscious about being near the center of it.
On Sunday, it felt like time to shut down the computer and dig out my sewing machine, which is something that consoles me. I first learned to sew from my mom, but I was too impatient to stick with it. It wasn’t until college that I picked it back up again. I really came of age too late to be a riot grrl. But this was in Portland, where, as we all know, the dream of the ’90s lives on, and stuff like sewing and crafting was part of DIY feminist culture. (Just as it was for Jacqueline Wermont!) We taught each other to sew and knit, and, yes, we put many a bird on it.
Oh, how I hate being the bearer of bad news. Yet I feel I have to tell you something about the frustration I’m hearing, in whispers and on the backchannel, from early-career women involved in digital humanities.
Here, there, and everywhere, we’re being told: A DHer should code! Don’t know how? Learn! The work that’s getting noticed, one can’t help but see, is code. As digital humanities winds its way into academic departments, it seems reasonable to predict that the work that will get people jobs — the work that marks a real digital humanist — will be work that shows that you can code.
In principle, I have no particular problem with getting everyone to code. I’m learning to do it myself. (And a million thank yous to those of you who are helping me.) But I wanted to talk here about why men are the ones who code, so that we can speak openly about the fact that programming knowledge is not a neutral thing, but something men will tend to have more often than women.
This matter is of no small concern to me. It is breaking my damn heart to see how many women I know have earnestly committed themselves to codeacademy because they want to be good citizens, to prove they have what it takes. These are my friends, and this is their livelihood, and this is the career we’ve chosen.
This year, the American Historical Association’s annual meeting included a THATCamp, which I was happy to attend. Andrew Hartman, a professor at Illinois State University, published an interesting response, which I wanted to take a moment to address.
Hartman enjoyed himself but wondered if the scholars attending THATCamp evinced an unwarranted utopianism about the prospects of technology to transform the practice of history. It’s a good question, and an understandable reaction, but I don’t think it’s altogether accurate. First, I think that what Hartman understood as utopianism may in fact have been an attempt by the participants to make newcomers like Hartman feel welcome. If there’s a utopianism present at THATCamp, I think it’s more about the possibilities of new forms of interacting with each other, not the technology itself.
(As an aside, I think that for women this may hit a particular nerve. Digital humanities’ vaunted niceness is an aspect of the field I love, but for women in particular being “nice” is often read as an admission of intellectual inferiority. Some people can easily afford to be nice; for others, the cost is higher.)
In fact, as I’ve written before, technological utopianism bothers me a great deal for very personal reasons, and it’s a stance digital humanists have been quite active in countering.
More substantively, I’d like to respond to another of Hartman’s points: that while digital history is “an important new tool … it does not change the way we conceptualize the past.” I’d like to argue that it does, and in ways that directly counter the characterization of digital history as utopian. In fact, much of it has an activist project that, like Hartman, draws on Marxist theory.