Continuing the Conversation: More on Digital Humanities Theory and Praxis

After I wrote my post about going from industry to academia, Barbara Hui followed up with a great post on her own path. In her post, Barbara shifted our discussion from trading war stories about industry life to actual theory and/vs praxis in Digital Humanities. For the purposes of the conversation, she categorized three types of DH scholars:

1. Some DH scholars don’t create any digital tools themselves at all, but rather, for example, read and theorize about literature that has been written in the digital medium, and/or that references the digital medium in some way. (pure theory)

2. Other DH scholars don’t theorize at all, but instead, for example, might have a background in a “practical” discipline like Library and Information Studies (or a humanities degree they have “left behind”) and now work on creating digital reference or archival tools for use by humanities scholars. (pure praxis)

3. Yet others do a mixture of both: for example a literature and media studies scholar creates a new media mapping platform to serve as a multi-purpose tool for both teaching and theorizing about city-spaces. (theory + praxis)

She then asked a series of very good questions: “Which of these scholars is the most authentic DH scholar? Or is DH all of these things? Is the DH scholar who can’t/doesn’t write code a true DH scholar? Or should she instead be called a literary and/or (new) media theorist?”

My quibble here isn’t with Barbara or her categorizations, it’s with the idea that one could be a theorist of anything without actually being able to create or do the things about which one theorizes. In the case of DH, this would be something like people theorizing about the digital archive but who are unable themselves to actually create an archive or even be a good hands-on project leader. Let’s say someone fancies themselves such a theorist/person but when you say “metadata” or “TEI” they glaze over and/or say “yes! I put stuff on the web and then I write about it.” That is so not the same. But therein lies the problem—other scholars don’t necessarily know that’s not the same thing. As someone who fundamentally understands and/or has experience with the technical aspects of just about everything tool or process currently in use, it’s very easy for me (and probably others with the same sort of experience) to see that the signal to noise ratio of DH-related theory is pretty low. That is to say, there’s a more noise than signal. However, that ratio is getting better. I feel a lot more comfortable about working in DH now than I did two or three years ago, when I was hearing a ton of noise and not a lot of signal, and wondering exactly why I would want to leave industry to immerse myself in a field still talking and working in Web 1.0 terms (and methods of inquiry).

So, to answer the question “Is the DH scholar who can’t/doesn’t write code a true DH scholar?” I would say no—their theories would not find a place in my own work (except to refute them, which is valuable, but not really the point here). I’m reminded of a question that @PhDinHistory (Sterling Fluharty) asked @pseudonymTrevor (Trevor Munoz) just today on Twitter (in a discussion about Donald Knuth, CompSci, DH, HC): “if computer science is a science, then does that mean that digital humanists sometimes use the scientific method?. Continuing my trend of being incredibly reductive about everything on my blog, I’m going to say “yes” because I think what makes “noise” for me is when I can’t see the method behind a DH-related theory, or I can see missing elements of technology or areas in which technology is misused or, in short, I can see where the theory is not falsifiable. If I can tell that you’re not exceptionally well-versed in the technologies behind the theory you’re producing, I’m unlikely to build off your theory in my own work. I wouldn’t take the work of a scholar of German literature seriously if they didn’t actually speak German, so why would I take seriously the work of a DH theorist who doesn’t know how to code? [“code” in this case can mean many different things, even “design a relational database”]

Cathy Davidson blogged the following a few days ago in her post “Calling Citizen Humanists“:

As I’ve blogged about ad nauseum, if we humanists don’t believe we have content worth sharing with the public, and if we don’t respect the world with whom we might share it, then we aren’t full participants in the Information Age but dilettantes using expensive new digital affordances in predictable and old-fashioned and outmoded ways. If all we are doing is writing grants to make better toys used by fewer and fewer people, then, well, really, who cares? Who should care?

We deserve our marginalization if we use so-called digital humanities simply to replicate in a new (and more expensive) electronic medium the narrowest forms of analog humanities.

It’s dangerous to follow DH theorists who lack intimate knowledge of the tools and technology driving their field; doing so leads to unnecessary replication of efforts (from academic or industry models), and to the use of “expensive new digital affordances in predictable and old-fashioned and outmoded ways.” In other words, stagnation of the field as opposed to moving the field along. Like I said, it goes back to Thoreau: “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end…” We want improved means and an improved end.

The improved end might come from the pure praxis folks Barbara defined above, those who create digital tools for use by humanists but don’t theorize in the humanist tradition, I think right now—as we race to implement technology in the academy and get buy-in from all possible stakeholders so that we can actually continue to do our jobs (e.g. have something to theorize about)—the pure praxis people are more valuable to moving the field forward than the pure theorists. I urge you to read Patrick Murray-John’s (@patrickgmj) post “More Theory/Praxis + Digital Humanities“; now as an Instructional Technology Specialist, he thinks he is “contributing to teaching and the development of students, even though at a step removed from the classroom, to a degree and in a way that I never could have as a professor.” Sounds like it. We should all be so lucky to have someone like him on our team. But—and I say this in part because I fancy myself one of these—the mix of theory and praxis is where it’s at. From this group of people come the tools to create new knowledge; the theory and praxis people keep the circuit of new knowledge creation moving along (or growing organically; not to derail this into a Darnton vs Deleuze thing).

Here’s the real question, asked by Barbara in her post but going back to the Kirschenbaum “Hello WorldsChronicle article from January: “Given the current academic system, is it fair to expect digital humanists to have expert technical skills?”

YES.

I’m not saying it’s easy, and I don’t even think “expert” is necessary. “High Intermediate,” perhaps, especially because it’s an ongoing learning process as technology advances—you have to stay involved to maintain the knowledge level. I think the problem is in thinking that learning the information has to come from the classroom. It doesn’t. In fact, I think that exacerbates some problems—learning about processes or learning how to code in a vacuum—because completing courses in [Language] Programming doesn’t mean you can conceptualize a project and implement it. Conceptualization, implementation, and management take practice and play. But that’s a different conversation. For now I would emphasize:

1. Yes, if you want to call yourself a digital humanist, you need more “digital” skills than being able to surf the web or markup some static pages in Dreamweaver or its ilk.
2. High intermediate skills are not terribly difficult to obtain with a little effort.
3. Once you embed yourself in the information stream, you have to keep swimming.

If you read the Kirschenbaum article you’ll see an example of the problems of learning to program in a vacuum like I mentioned above. Although true that programming classes ensure that you get a strong foundation in “variables, arrays, sorts, conditionals, operators, and the like,” missing is the

sense of why anyone would want to learn programming; why programming was a unique and startling way of looking at the world; why it was, in fact, a kind of world-making, requiring one to specify the behaviors of an object or a system from the ground up; why and how such an activity was connected to the long traditions of humanistic thought I encountered in the classes devoted to my major, reading Leibnitz for example or (better) Jane Austen, surely one of our ultimate system builders and world-makers. What was lacking, in other words, was any kind of historical and intellectual context for why “bubble sorts” and “do-while loops” mattered.

Figuring out why it matters comes from play, it comes from critical thinking, it comes from abstract thinking, and it comes from all of those things that make a humanist a humanist.

[Note: this is not the full extent to which I want to talk about this article; I have another post brewing that is specifically about the article, and it dovetails with the reasons why my books are full of teaching procedural versus object-oriented programming. But suffice to say at this point that the article made me say “Yes! Someone understands! I’m not crazy and alone in this world!” and made me feel enormously better about my decision to (ostensibly) leave industry for academia.]

I think of it like this: graduate students in literary studies are very likely to teach composition at some point in their academic careers, despite not being “rhet/comp people.” Hopefully a course in composition pedagogy is part of their graduate program. Sometimes it is not, and sometimes people choose not to take it—how good are these people at teaching composition? Others—even though it’s not their primary field—will read up on composition pedagogy on their own time, perhaps involve themselves with the writing center, perhaps atttend some rhet/comp conferences, and generally do the things that help them perform their jobs better than before. Why would someone who chooses to involve themselves in DH not expect to do the same “extra” work to ensure they have the skills to compete in the field and help shape/change the field?

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