lazy consensus

[This is a roughly-edited version of a keynote talk I gave last month at #code4lib, a fantastic annual conference for software developers and systems folks working in libraries. If you want to hear my bad jokes and attempts to pander to the crowd (or at least to let them know that I was conscious of the back-channel), or if you’d like to see what happens when I indulge my nerdiest tendencies in slide production, I recommend the archived livestream. I’m skipping a long pre-amble that included the Super Friends, hostile IRC bots, and a description of my own professional background – in which I slowly moved from literary and bibliographical scholarship to working with independent DH projects in scholarly think-tanks and projects that sat alongside libraries, to working in and for a library, and as a part of the blended digital humanities/library community that many of us inhabit now.]

The biggest surprise I had about my emigration to Libraryland will be of no surprise to those of you who have been here longer, or who came out of an I-school, or otherwise basically grew up in the culture. And that is that the shift radicalized me. Coming to the Library woke me up: on matters of privacy, on labor conditions and class issues in higher ed, on the sucky practice of training of humanities grad students for non-existent jobs, on free & open access to information, and (especially for those of us who work at publicly-funded institutions) on the rights of taxpayers to expect quality work for the public good out of what they help pay for.

So it may sound like I’m going to give an activist talk. That’s true to some degree, but I’m mostly going to give an impatient one — a talk that comes from where I am now. Although I used to be on the design and development side of things, I am now a soulless administrator, and therefore I thought the most useful function I could perform at code4lib would be to bring something back to you from that perspective. My title will therefore not immediately suggest an activist agenda.

Welcome to… “Lazy Consensus.”

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don’t circle the wagons

I‘ve been feeling sheepish ever since Debates in the Digital Humanities came out. When the collection was being put together, I was too pressed by other deadlines to agree to write anything new — so I granted the editor my (not-strictly-necessary) permission to reprint a couple of old blog posts.

They looked pretty darned shabby, I thought, in the cold light of day — or, rather, in the beautifully-produced volume that resulted, when I encountered it selling like hotcakes on the floor of the MLA Exhibit Hall. Mine weren’t the only blog posts in the book, but among so many carefully-reasoned and well-researched formal essays, they seemed awfully, well, bloggy. “Eternal September of the Digital Humanities” was a maudlin autumnal piece from 2010, in which I looked at the growing pains of the DH community from the point of view of those of us who still slip and call our re-branded conference “ACH/ALLC,” or make jokes about humane computation before we remember that nobody terms it humanities computing anymore. From the most-experienced people in this suddenly-hot “emerging” “discipline,” I was hearing mutters of retrenchment and retreat — and was wearily trying to encourage newbies to learn their history, as a way of heading that off. But out of the moment, and to a radically larger readership, I worried my post would seem like a mysterious, lyrical whine.

And “What Do Girls Dig?” was worse. In it, I had stitched together some quick Twitter conversations using Storify — then brand-spanking-new — as a way of gearing up to a slightly dangerous point: that our scholarly community and especially our funders, who hold such power and responsibility in normalizing and rewarding academic practices, were unthinkingly taking a rhetorical stance toward data-mining that might, just might, contribute to the low up-take of the method among women. I still think I’m right: that, among a host of other deterrents, language about “digging in” and the big, big, bigness of “big data” don’t help. (Boys, don’t you know it’s not the size that matters?) But commentary on that piece has always centered more around ends than means — around the gender ratio of grant-winners rather than the conversation I had hoped to open up, about the choices we make in framing and rhetoric.

So I’d been feeling more than iffy about those two posts — but recent events have given me reason to revisit them, and to think about the people they were speaking for and to.

It has also made me see that they’re connected.

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