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.

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18 Responses to “don’t circle the wagons”

  1. Jeana Jorgensen
    on Mar 4th, 2012
    @ 4:59am

    I think you’re completely right to contextualize these tensions in relation to contemporary American politics. The feeling that one is less human than a cluster of cells is enough to make anyone edgy. The gendered allocation of teaching resources combined with the message that women are walking wombs (but sex is certainly not to be sought out or enjoyed or you’re a slut) are creating a really inhospitable cultural environment for women to pursue, well, most things that do not involve baby-making.

    So, I agree that we need more conversations about framing and rhetoric, but possibly with some activism thrown in. What good are the tools we create and the articles we write if half the population cannot access or relate to our research due to under-education and laws that restrict open access to both our bodies and our sciences? (I’m hoping that the whole “personal is political” slogan hasn’t gotten tired yet, as it seems we still need it!)

  2. Ted Underwood
    on Mar 4th, 2012
    @ 9:00am

    A beautifully-written and humane post, with which I wholly agree.

    But the thing that’s on my mind is how this intersects with the “Eternal September” problem, which I think is about to increase by an order of magnitude now that we are the #1 thing other humanists feel like arguing about.

    Posts like Miriam’s, and like “What Do Girls Dig?” are absolutely the *most* civil and sympathetic possible versions of a critique that is going to become more pointed and more public. I don’t think the critique will always be about gender (or race) — although those specific concerns are real and valid. It’s also going to be, in part, a broader culture conflict between information science and the humanities that gets played out *through* DH. Humanists are not going to enjoy being told to learn how to code …

    I don’t know exactly how we should respond; I guess all I’m saying is that this is not a distraction or even a problem internal to DH. Addressing concerns like this is going to be a huge part of our jobs over the next decade.

  3. Ted Underwood
    on Mar 4th, 2012
    @ 9:55am

    One thing is totally clear to me already … which is that I need to somehow persuade, cajole, or bribe more female scholars to try a “big data” approach. I know mainstream humanists are going to hate that approach to begin with; if it also presents itself as a gendered subfield … it’s going to be a massacre.

    So I would welcome advice, about rhetoric and everything else.

    Also, here’s a research lead for anyone who wants it: given a collection of 18/19c writing, it would not be hard to make some important, Nancy-Armstrong-type feminist arguments about the changing relationship between writing by men and by women. E.g., we know that women wrote differently. But did the nature of that difference itself change over time? And can we confirm Armstrong’s thesis that some themes/perspectives were adopted first by women and then diffused outward? I bet there’s an article in there somewhere for anyone who wants to dig, or gather, or cultivate it.

  4. - #DML2012: I am the teacher underground.
    on Mar 4th, 2012
    @ 11:14am

    [...] Kind of makes you wonder if we should’t just start new public learning institutions – including higher education institutions – to get a handle on the problems of race, gender, sexuality, and other forms of identity we greatly admire as a system and rightly rail against as individuals. [...]

  5. Bess Sadler
    on Mar 4th, 2012
    @ 5:14pm

    Great post, Bethany. One thing I noticed and that really bothered me as a DH developer was that there was a lot of emphasis on making technology accessible for humanities scholars but not so much on making the humanities accessible for the software engineers working on the project. I never felt it from you, in fact quite the opposite, but from many faculty members (even grad students that I worked with!) there was this attitude that those with the technical expertise were “just geeks”, that either we couldn’t possibly have any interesting insights on the subject we spent all our time steeped in, or that when we did have interesting insights they were free for appropriation because, not being an academic myself, my ideas don’t count until they appear in someone else’s paper. Wow, I guess I sound bitter and I guess I am a little. But just as I agree with you that DH researchers could benefit from praxis, many software engineers could benefit from some big picture soul leavening theory, but never get that exposure because… Well, we think we’re being responsible and choosing a steady paycheck. I loved my women’s studies major, but graduate school in the humanities was not an option for me because I am also the kind of person who researches employment and salary expectations. Sometimes I think that makes me soulless, and sometimes I think it makes me a feminist, but either way DH is left with many of its most viable practioners getting the impression that humanities isn’t a viable career path. How do we reach those folks?

  6. Things we share | Miriam Posner's Blog
    on Mar 5th, 2012
    @ 11:43am

    [...] when you talk to me about a community of practice, I get that. When you talk about making as a way of knowing, I understand that, too. I hear you [...]

  7. Arno Bosse
    on Mar 5th, 2012
    @ 12:28pm

    Bethany, the part of your post that really resonated with me was the question of how to close the gap (in both directions) between those new to DH but with significant scholarly training in the humanities (say, humanities graduate students and those with significant technical experience (say, developers) but with little training in the humanities in academia. At that point it becomes (as Bess and others in the comments also echoed) an issue for all of us in the “field” – men and women.

    I’ll never forget the remarks I heard from a CS professor serving as a panelist at the conclusion of first Chicago DHCS Colloquium in 2006. One great difficulty with collaboration between CS people and humanists, she noted, was that neither had a good handle on what the other felt was an “interesting” problem. As a result, humanists in particular found it difficult to imagine that CS people could be operating in the same “problem space” and therefore tended to go to them with (at best) naive and grossly mismatched problems (i.e. either undergraduate CS 101 or HAL 9000 requests) or (at worst) treat them as lowly service providers, never as intellectual partners. At that particular DHCS I was particularly proud of the fact that Ian Foster spent two full days at the event and later told me he had no idea humanities problems were “so interesting” (computationally and intellectually). At the same time, despite cashing in all the chits I had collected over the years as a graduate student in Comparative Literature at Chicago, I was unable to persuade my own humanities faculty to attend and listen in for even one full day.

    Fast forward to today. Yes, a lot more (still very, very few, let’s not kid ourselves, but slowly growing..) graduate students are curious about the digital humanities. But where do they begin? The most prominent (thanks to the NYT, thanks to their own hard work and well-written blog posts) DH practitioners are active in text analysis, data mining and machine learning endeavours of various kinds. Ted is right (and Miriam already quite rightly kicked this off) in saying that humanists (and without diminishing the gender specific points Miriam and others have made) – men and women – are not going to like being told to “learn to code”.

    Is this an unreasonable response? No, I don’t think so. In the humanities we’re constantly evaluating new approaches & new ideas to known problems (the canon doesn’t change that much..). That’s really a great deal of what it’s all about. If someone can’t allow me to intellectually share the thought process that led them to a certain conclusion (i.e. their argument) and then allow me to respond to that argument by agreeing, disagreeing, extending etc. then that person is just not going to be part of the conversation (I realize this is a bit of a stretch in the wake of deconstruction and psychoanalysis but bear with me.. I really do think it’s true).

    What makes (I think) DH as popularly practiced today so frustrating is that it’s so hard (man or woman) to take part in the conversation. And this is not because the newbies can’t program (I’ll gladly add myself to this category). It’s because in many cases the DH mediated arguments and insights aren’t easily reproducible. So the NYT (and newbies) are left to respond to the conclusions of these experiments or shy away from it altogether because no-one wants to look stupid in public. Take the brief spike in topic modelling articles we saw a few months ago. How many of these included step-by-step instructions to reproducing these experiments? I’m talking step by step by step.. and that includes providing the source data, the exact parameters used in e.g. MALLET and instructions on how to format and visualize the results. Many provided parts (e.g. the data, links to tools used) but to the best of my knowledge none went out of their way to guide & accompany you each step of the way.

    Give those graduate students interested in running their own, I don’t know, experiments in topic modeling on 18th/19th c. novels a way to independently enter the discussion at a high level and a springboard from which to ask more questions. You don’t need to “learn how to code” for this. Coding or a collaboration with a developer will come later anyway (prompted by their own curiosity and desire to think outside the tools’ assumptions). It’s easy enough to download and install MALLET for example (not to dwell on MALLET..). But I just don’t think once done you can then go ahead and do interesting literary experiments with it on your own as a curious, intelligent humanities student without more help. Ditto network analysis, ditto many similar tools.

    In summary – although many people in DH are teaching scores of students how to program (that’s great!), many, many more young people are coming to DH via blog posts, articles in newspapers, magazines or conference presentation. They want to take part. Let’s make it easier for them to do so, without any programming. Narrated, step by step instructions such as the excellent series on regular expressions in Prof. Hacker ( are one means to do so. Other, technical aids such as ready-to-use virtual machines with the necessary tools pre-installed would be another. Where are all the text mining screencasts? Where are the “The math and stats you’ll need to know to understand machine learning” articles? Reminders on the part of conference organizers and journal editors that authors clearly spell out their methodology and link to their tools and data sets would also help.

    I want to add just one more thing (sorry!). I don’t want to give the impression that I am advocating more “easy to use” GUI tools for humanists or the like. After finally getting their heads around dozens of novels, several languages, multiple, contradictory literary theories, writing a dissertation or two and teaching undergrads, humanities students don’t need “easy”. It’s been my experience that if the results are compelling and interesting then students are trained and able to put up with any kind of arcana a command line will throw at them. Just allow them to discover its relevance by themselves.

    Much of this kind of work is already being done (I was pleased to note the step-by-step instructions on creating historic GIS at the Scholar’s Lab for example; the TEI’s efforts also come to mind). But we need an awful lot more of it.

  8. Miriam Posner
    on Mar 5th, 2012
    @ 1:28pm

    Ah, B, you sure can write. I love this post, like I love everything you write, and spent a day thinking about it (among other things). I wrote an attempt at a response here:

  9. Discussions of gender and learning digital skills in the humanities | HDW Notebook
    on Mar 5th, 2012
    @ 1:56pm

    [...] around “digital humanities” and what it means. Bethany Nowviskie’s post, “Don’t circle the wagons,” and the links there are a way to get a sense of how these pieces fall into the middle of a [...]

  10. Luke Fernandez
    on Mar 9th, 2012
    @ 4:49pm

    Very interesting post. First, I’d agree with Bess Sadler’s comment that it would behoove us humanists not to condescend to coders as just ” just geeks, that either we couldn’t possibly have any interesting insights on the subject we spent all our time steeped in.” It may just be my personal gripe, but a good first step in that direction would be to “interrogate” the penchant to refer to technicians and engineers as “techies” — it is a diminutive after all.

    I really like the comparisons and contrasts you make between the enterprise of coding and the enterprise of composition (or whatever else us humanists do) and I wonder whether more (much more ) could and should be said on this subject:

    You are right that coders engage in a little more praxis than many humanists. But that doesn’t mean we also don’t share a lot in common. Successful software developers after all (if not coders perse) have to ‘ interrogate” their audience’s desires if they want to create software that is usable. In that sense they are doing ethnography as much as humanists do (if anthropologists can be considered a part of the humanities). In fact there are some software “business analysts” who refer to “needs analysis” as ‘ethnography.” That, in my view, is only one of many approaches we share in common. The rest of those commonalities deserve more illumination if we’re going to bridge the code and composition divide.

  11. Luke Fernandez
    on Mar 16th, 2012
    @ 1:56am

    A bit more on the theory/praxis divide and how the duality might possibly be leveraged to better the teaching and learning of programming:

  12. ENGL 666: Intro to Digital Humanities | Day of Amy Earhart
    on Mar 27th, 2012
    @ 1:32pm

    [...] Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation.”   We looked at recent controversies over gender and race in dh and the discussion was far [...]

  13. afternoon | Day of Bethany Nowviskie
    on Mar 27th, 2012
    @ 11:05pm

    [...] expert DH software developers and advanced humanities scholars. (I’ve talked about this elsewhere.) Then we walked to our cars and talked about dinosaurs and Americana — and planned the next [...]

  14. Day of DH: digitalculturebooks Authors Reflect on Growth and Growing Pains
    on Apr 2nd, 2012
    @ 4:19pm

    [...] and theory.  Jean Bauer’s “Who You Calling Untheoretical?,” Bethany Nowviskie’s “Don’t Circle the Wagons,”  Miriam Posner’s “Some things to think about before you exhort everyone to code,” Natalie [...]

  15. Theory is dead, long live theory! - Alex Gil | Alex Gil
    on May 2nd, 2012
    @ 7:05pm

    [...] Of course, we must continue to ensure we are not saddled with unnecessary burden from folks who would see us as the help, eternal september and all. I suggest we turn the tables and recognize that discourse provides us with a service.  In order for us to perform such a wonderful legerdemain we must constantly re-acquaint ourselves with the fragile and unique deformities of the humanities and the social-sciences. I’m not kidding when I say that talkers are hackers too —yes, even if most of them just work those legacy systems we call books. If we were to lay bare their own mechanical and material exigencies, find the lingua franca that is always-already there to unite us, and do so without confirming their worst fears of obsolescence in the age of Google, we might just save ourselves from our exilic tendencies. [...]

  16. More Hack, Less Yack?: Modularity, Theory and Habitus in the Digital Humanities | Adeline Koh
    on May 21st, 2012
    @ 2:54pm

    [...] McPherson outlines in this essay. I see this in Bethany Nowviskie’s (@nowviskie) recent post, Don’t Circle the Wagons: “Software development functions in relative silence within the larger conversation of the [...]

  17. DCW Volume 1 Issue 1 – Plugging In, Plugging Out
    on May 25th, 2012
    @ 2:32pm

    [...] that leads to the sorts of in/out elitism helpful to no one (as poignantly discussed by Bethany Nowviskie and DCW’s own Miriam [...]

  18. Things we share | Miriam Posner's Blog
    on Oct 28th, 2013
    @ 6:12pm

    […] when you talk to me about a community of practice, I get that. When you talk about making as a way of knowing, I understand that, too. I hear you […]

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