Teaching technical skills online

Here I am, still blogging like some kind of caveman. I guess I should be using Substack or Medium or something, but maybe blogs will come back in style, like other artifacts of the ’00s.

Anyway, in the past, when people asked me whether I could teach my digital humanities classes online, I hemmed and hawed. Tools like web-based visualization software have made it easier to share work across platforms, and heaven knows there are plenty of cloud-based collaboration tools out there.

The thing that worried me was teaching new tech skills, which is a big part of my classes, and particularly my Intro to DH classes. I am super, super picky about how to do this, as I’ve mentioned before. My feeling is, I get one shot to teach the students this new skill, and if something goes badly wrong, I’ve not only missed my shot, but I may inadvertently lead someone to believe they’re not capable of learning the skill. It’s why I teach every single skill myself, rather than invite people to give workshops; I just know exactly how I want it done.

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Sitting with the rage

Have I ever felt this angry or trapped in my entire life? Certainly—let me cut you off right there at the pass—the world has seen greater cruelties and outrages. “Broken childcare infrastructure” barely makes the list of world-historical tragedies.

And yet for sheer absurdity, for the unbelievable stupidness of this problem, for our steadfast refusal to acknowledge the giant fucking impossible disaster hanging over all of our heads—for that, this year should win some kind of award.

Let me back up. California’s public schools are all currently online, as they should be. I have a seven-year-old daughter who’s in Zoom school. I also have a six-month-old baby. I also have a full-time job, as does my husband.

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Money and Time

This is an edited version of a talk I gave at UC Irvine on February 5, at a symposium organized by Peter Krapp and Geoffrey Bowker.

Digital humanities, as we all know, is sexy right now. It seems to be everywhere, including the New York Times, the New Republic, and the Atlantic. Mellon’s funding it, the NEH is funding it, ACLS is funding it, we’re telling our grad students to prepare to work in it. Digital humanities initiatives or centers are popping up everywhere, and what a luxury to be part of a field that’s so frequently mentioned that people create angry memes about it.

At UCLA, I run and teach in our digital humanities minor and graduate certificate, which started four years ago and now enrolls about 60 undergraduates and 30 graduate students. Students are genuinely excited about DH, and it is a total blast for me to work with them to chart out the possibilities of this expanding field.

University departmental structures aren’t always congenial to interdisciplinary work, but students seem to get it right away. They’re really fascinated by the basic questions DH raises about knowledge organization, history, and epistemology, and I love the way they push the field’s boundaries just by asking the questions that come most naturally to them. I’ve felt actually extremely lucky to be part of a field that’s growing so quickly, and even to be in a position to help chart its direction.

But all this excitement and energy might conceal some less exciting ground truths. I have been spending a ton of time on the road lately, meeting with people who are starting DH centers and talking with people who are keeping initiatives and centers going. And they are tired. They are all really tired.

And once you drill down into the specific staffing and labor configurations of these DH initiatives, you’ll begin to see why. So many of these programs are staffed entirely by postdocs, perhaps with a faculty director who spends a portion of his or her time running the center.

In other cases, a DH initiative consists of a single librarian, who’s probably also responsible for liaising with several academic departments. If a DH initiative has programmers, they’re usually what you’d call “matrixed,” meaning they have multiple bosses, to whom they have to account for their time in exquisite detail. Or if the DH activity is coming from faculty, it’s from people who have to use every ounce of their ingenuity to scare up resources to support their students and their research.

Why is this widespread shortstaffing happening? Some of it is probably just because DH is new and untested, and it is notoriously difficult to launch new, interdisciplinary programs at universities, especially big ones like most of the UCs.

And DH has had the bad timing to emerge during a moment of particular budget austerity, at least when it comes to paying for academic programs. (Whether that’s coincidental is another, much longer discussion.) Launching a program with a two-year postdoc is clearly absurd and shortsighted, but it’s nevertheless become standard operating procedure for many places looking to get a program going. So, in a way, many of these conditions are just typical of our corner of academia at our current moment.

I wonder, though, if part of the problem might also be that our institutions have absorbed some of the widespread rhetoric about the immateriality of digital labor. We’ve come to think that stuff that you do on a computer can be done anywhere, anytime — and thus everywhere, all the time, with no particular material requirements.

We’re used to getting digital stuff for free, from Facebook to iPhone apps, so perhaps we think digital academic programs shouldn’t be any different. People built Linux for free; why shouldn’t they donate their time to build a DH program?

The wide availability of free software and the general enthusiasm about all things digital have probably contributed to this notion that all we need to make a DH center is a laptop and a postdoc. For my part, I’ve optimized absolutely everything about my job I can possibly optimize, from text-expanders and email auto-filters to IFTTT pipelines to automatic appointment-booking software. We’re all lifehacking, right? And I still feel like I’m teetering on the brink of burnout.

Don’t worry, this isn’t really about me. I mean, we should all be concerned with every laborer’s working conditions, and we should all be concerned about what’s happening with academic labor. I suspect we all are. But I actually want to make a somewhat different argument here, one that has more to do with the possible futures of both of our fields.

Recently, I was talking to a group of our grad students about the kinds of work people are doing right now in digital humanities, and they asked some uncomfortable questions.

Take digital mapping. Postcolonial theorists have known since forever that the Mercator projection enshrines Western European, Cartesian models of space, when in fact there are many different ways of understanding geography. Why does every DH project use the Mercator projection?

Or take network analysis software. The tools we tend to use, like Gephi and Cytoscape, are great at measuring centrality and clustering coefficients. But what about some of the most basic things a humanist might like to do, like transforming the network diagram to reflect the perception of a different historical actor? That’s just not a possibility for us. Why is that?

Why? It’s simple. Because we’re relying on tools and infrastructure built for industry — or, in the best cases, for scientists. Which makes a certain amount of sense; one doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel. But it’s also had material effects on the kind of work we can produce, and the horizons of possibility our work can open. When we choose not to invest in our own infrastructure, we choose not to articulate a different possible version of the world.

In fact, this state of affairs is already very well-documented for edtech. By outsourcing development of key components of educational technology to for-profit vendors, we’ve chosen to invest in the development of software companies that mine our students’ data, encourage us to spy on their work, and lock us into a closed ecosystem of for-profit technology whose philosophy bears very little resemblance to the kinds of teachers we started out wanting to be.

And for all of the excitement about grant funding opportunities and enthusiastic administrators, the actual state of DH funding is less flush-with-cash than boom-and-bust. An NEH grant, no matter how prestigious, doesn’t secure a salary for very long. A postdoc, no matter how smart and committed, isn’t going to singlehandedly change campus culture.

It’s one thing to get an awesome project going; it’s another thing to pay for the routine maintenance necessary to keep it up and running. Recently, we saw the closure of HyperCities, UCLA’s well-known mapping platform for humanistic projects. People were tired of piecing together grant funding to keep it lurching along. Meanwhile, Google decided to shut down its support for the Google Earth browser plugin, so … it’s gone. That’s what happens when we don’t invest in our own infrastructure.

Don’t get me wrong, I get tired all the time of trying to wrestle with the exhausting bureaucracy of a public school, and I’ve turned to private-industry solutions plenty of times. Most recently, I’ve given up on trying to control my own space on university servers and started encouraging my students to purchase their own space from hosting companies for class projects.

It seems like the reasonable thing to do, since Lord knows I’ve had my stuff written over and erased from university servers more times than I can count. But I’m also aware that by choosing not to invest in support for this kind of thing, we’re relinquishing all of this work to private servers. We’ll never get it back again.

Last year, UCLA announced an app competition. The contest promised a $5,000 prize for the best app to, quote, promote “UCLA’s mission of education, research and service.”  I’m 100% sure that the offices that sponsored this contest had the best intentions, and I salute the winners. But this is not support. This is not research support. How long does it take to build an app? How many people does it take? How is the app going to get updated once the contest is over? What message are we sending our students by telling them they should work for free? Has anyone thought this through?

We want to believe that we can be agile and innovative, like Silicon Valley says it is, by making DH run with short-term grants, app contests, and temporary labor. We want to have a sort of Uber-style sharing economy for DH-research. But this is not how one supports careful, enduring scholarship and teaching.

Why does digital humanities look the way it does right now? I think the boom-and-bust cycle of grant-chasing and temporary funding has had a huge but largely unacknowledged effect on the kind of scholarship we’re producing. If we want to produce truly challenging scholarship and keep our best scholars from burning out, we need to pressure our institutions to, frankly, pay up. You can optimize, streamline, lifehack, and crowdsource almost everything you do — but good scholarship still takes money and time.

Photography and the limits of empathy: Reading Garner and Brown through Saidiya Hartman

I wish I had more time to write this, but I’ve been reading Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection this week and have found that it’s brought some clarity to my thinking about the recent news and coverage of the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases. In particular, it’s informed my thinking about the photographs circulating around these two tragedies: why they seem to compel some people but not others, and the limits of the ability of the photograph (and the video, in the Garner case) to convey deeply entrenched injustice.

So I thought I’d share these extended quotations, in case they’re helpful to anyone else.

On the limits of empathy

Writing in response to a harrowing description of enslaved people by John Rankin:

Properly speaking, empathy is a projection of oneself into another in order to better understand the other … Yet empathy in important respects confounds Rankin’s efforts to identify with the enslaved because in making the slave’s suffering his own, Rankin begins to feel for himself rather than for those whom this exercise in imagination presumably is designed to reach. Moreover, by exploiting the vulnerability of the captive body as a vessel for the uses, thoughts, and feelings of others, the humanity extended to the slave inadvertently confirms the expectations and desires definitive of the relations of chattel slavery. … Put differently, the effort to counteract the commonplace callousness to black suffering requires that the white body be positioned in the place of the black body in order to make this suffering visible and intelligible. (18-19)

The photographs of Mike Brown’s and Eric Garner’s family, and the video of Eric Garner’s arrest, should, it seems, be enough to inspire widespread reevaluation of the justice system. These are human beings in terrible despair, and that should convey the depth and urgency of structural injustice. Yet somehow it isn’t and doesn’t. Again and again, we’ve seen these images submitted to what Tressie McMillan Cottom has called “the logic of stupid poor people”: picked apart, judged on someone else’s terms. If empathy is the act of transposing oneself into another’s body, than perhaps it has limits: We who are not continually besieged by state brutality cannot properly empathize; or if we can, then the very act obliterates the specific body we try to inhabit. The demand must consist of something stronger than identification or empathy. Justice, I guess? Deep and searching scrutiny of structure?

On the Ferguson hug

The simulation of consent in the context of extreme domination was an orchestration intent upon making the captive body speak the master’s truth as well as disproving the suffering of the enslaved. Thus a key aspect of the manifold uses of the body was its facility as a weapon used against the enslaved. (38)

The hug. It appears to have been staged, but that almost doesn’t matter; the excitement with which it was circulated as an emblem of hope says a lot about what we want black bodies to do at this moment.

On what we feel entitled to see

However, what I am trying to suggest is that if the scene of beating readily lends itself to an identification with the enslaved, it does so at the risk of fixing and naturalizing this condition of pained embodiment and … increased the difficulty of beholding black suffering since the endeavor to bring pain close exploits the spectacle of the body in pain and oddly confirms the spectral character of suffering and the inability to witness the captive’s pain. If, on the one hand, pain extends humanity to the dispossessed and the ability to sustain suffering leads to transcendence, on the other, the spectral and spectacular character of this suffering, or, in other words, the shocking and ghostly presence of pain, effaces and restricts black sentience. (21)

We demand, in an effort to convey the depth of injustice, the most exquisitely graphic images of brutality. Should we question our own right to scrutinize the body in pain, and our own hunger to view and circulate these images?

Everybody must get spammed!

If you tried to leave a comment and got spammed, it’s because you’re a cylon. Just kidding, it’s nothing personal. I’m trying to fix the settings, but I’m having trouble. Send me an email to let me know, or just hang on, and I’ll keep monitoring my spam folder.

A Digital Humanities Conference at Yale

Screen shot 2009-11-17 at 8.21.29 AMJust recently, a lot of digital humanities momentum has been gathering at Yale. There’s a new DH working group, a new Public Humanities master’s program (which I’ve joined!), a new Theory & Media Studies Colloquium, and now, Yale’s first graduate conference on the digital humanities. It’s called The Past’s Digital Presence: Database, Archive, and Knowledge Work in the Humanities, and it’s scheduled for February 19 and 20, 2010. The organizers, Molly Farrell, Heather Klemann, and Taylor Spence, were generous enough to allow me to come on as Design Chair for the conference, and I’m really excited about the whole thing. Jana Remy is the conference’s Online Media Chair, and she’s been Twittering [edit: Tweeting! You’re supposed to say tweeting, right? Gah, I don’t even know] about the organization process. Once the conference gets closer to live, Jana will also be blogging and podcasting it.

In the next few weeks I’ll be designing a website for the conference, set to go live on about November 30. My first task, though, was to come up with a logo. I wanted something that looked serious, since DH is still establishing its presence at Yale, but that also had some aesthetic appeal. Here’s the set of logo ideas I came up with:

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Forget my hard drive, I’m moving to the cloud

BSOD Stop c218 by Justin Marty
"BSOD Stop c218" by Justin Marty

A couple weeks ago, I pulled out my laptop and noticed a suspicious splash of water sandwiched between the plastic case and the computer. Pressing the power button yielded nothing but a sad, whirring fan. I was seriously bummed about losing my expensive laptop, but I took solace in the fact that I’ve been obediently backing up my computer with Time Machine and an external hard drive for the last year.

So imagine my dismay when my external hard drive refused to be read.

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