Bethany Nowviskie

don’t circle the wagons

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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.

First, I seem to have gotten up on the wrong side of the time warp, because American politics has taken a sudden swing back to mid-century (but without an iota of decorum or style). My home state very nearly added mandatory vaginal probes to a law that is sufficiently hostile toward women without them. Idiots on the radio feel comfortable calling young female law students “sluts” and “prostitutes” when they testify about the value of reproductive health care, and demanding that those of us whose insurance covers birth control pills compensate red-blooded American taxpayers by starring in pornography for their pleasure. And presidential candidates give us fair warning that the separation of church and state makes them wanna puke.

A little closer to DH, we can add: a sad flocking of people, underserved by STEM education, toward the dubious pedagogy of sites like Codeacademy; the outpouring of response to Miriam’s Posner’s bellwether commentary on “things to think about before you exhort everyone to code;” and the concomitant “rise of the ‘brogrammer’.” It’s enough to make a girl… well… and on the other hand, I’ve been watching an increasing number of women in my Twitter circles shut down perfectly civil and earnest conversation by accusing interlocutors of “mansplaining” to them.

Let me get to the point. What does the current climate between men and women — in and beyond the “culture” of coding — have to do with my two-year-old uneasy warnings about the danger of retreat and retrenchment by our DH old guard (so recently young Turks)?

I used to worry, in a purely gender-neutral way, about the exhaustion of the Eternal September effect in a community growing by leaps and bounds. And I still fret, but with this extra-worrisome difference — especially because the call for a more deeply-theorized and critically-engaged digital humanities comes in waves. That makes it as dangerously easy to tune out as the tide, for people who have heard it again and again — people whose hard-won intellectual experience and concrete understandings of digital project development should make them indispensable partners with scholars new to DH.

Longtime practitioners of humanities computing worked through a period in which answering almost any digital research question required both pragmatic and theoretical work: scholarly content modeling or database design, from-scratch digitization and a rationalization of structured markup, and the considered, hands-on building of software tools for humanistic inquiry and social platforms for sharing results. To them, the call for a theory-aware digital humanities can itself sound under-researched — or even (on a bad day) insulting. And then we have the coders: DH software developers — some highly-experienced and many relatively new to the field — whose day-to-day working lives make real the “more hack; less yack” mantra of THATCamps and heads-down, deadline-driven projects. A Utopian vision of DH would see scholars engaging with developers as peers in mutually intelligible conversation. But a gap exists, in critical vocabulary and in the norms of discourse between these groups (even including developers with deep backgrounds in humanistic research) — and it functions as a mutual disincentive to engage.

You can bridge the gap in places, but in modes and loci that often seem exclusionary or unintelligible to the broader community — where scholars (male, female, or transgendered) increasingly encounter DH out on their own, away from resources to learn the lingo, and personnel who could guide the way. Likewise, newer or isolated and under-funded developers sometimes find it hard to correlate their local work with the bigger trends, technical and intellectual, in humanities scholarship. And senior members of the developers’ community, whether in faculty or #alt-ac appointments, lack platforms and systems of reward that might help them to speak across these groups.

Too often, in the constellation of pedagogical and methodological training opportunities that have grown up in the DH community (Codeacademy is the lamest and most non-specific of these: I’m thinking of most IATDH and DHSI programs, of THATCamps, DH Conference workshops, and initiatives by HASTAC, NITLE & centerNet, and others — including our own new Praxis Program) the onus is put on traditionally-trained humanities scholars to become tech-savvy digital humanists, without much attention paid to the professional and intellectual development of the people already steeped in humanities computing technology and for whom this work is a primary focus and responsibility. By and large, DH developers lack opportunities to grow as programming practitioners, to interrogate and articulate their craft, and to build and sustain a thoughtful and engaged culture of code-work in the humanities.

The solution is not as easy as putting scholars and technologists into conversation and working to translate among varied perspectives and vocabularies. Software development functions in relative silence within the larger conversation of the digital humanities, in a sub-culture suffused — in my experience — not with locker-room towel-snaps and construction-worker catcalls, but with lovely stuff that’s un-voiced: what Bill Turkel and Devon Elliott have called tacit understanding, and with journeyman learning experiences. And that’s no surprise. To my mind, coding itself has more in common with traditional arts-and-crafts practice than with academic discourse. Too often, the things developers know — know and value, because they enact them every day — go entirely unspoken. These include the philosophy and ethos of software craftsmanship and, by extension, the intellectual underpinnings of digital humanities practice. (If you use their tools, that goes for your DH practice, too.)

Now, it’ll be easy enough for a critic of this post to take shots at the language I’ve inherited (journeymen, craftsmanship…) — and I can make it even easier by telling you that my R&D department, one of the most highly-respected in North American DH, is one hundred percent male. I’m not the kind of boss-lady who’ll deny that there are deeply-ingrained and structural problems this community needs to address.

But I’ve not worked much more than an arm’s-length away from a DH software developer for the past fifteen years. The vast majority of them have indeed been men, but in every case the vast majority of the budding DHers they have given their time to mentoring have been women — myself included, and I’m still being mentored by my developers. Very many of these women have gone on to roles of great influence and authority in the digital humanities — have grown into coders or code-literate scholars and librarians or administrators in a position to shape the field. There’s something we come to realize in this process — and it’s neither Stockholm syndrome nor a Wendy-and-the-Lost-Boys complex speaking here, but hard-won experience you ought to take seriously:

Today’s task should be less about telling DH code culture what’s wrong with it, and more about helping it tell its own story, in a way that will be legible and welcoming and, hey! open, extensible, and easy for you to refactor.

Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.