Bethany Nowviskie

switching codes

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This post should really be a comment on one entitled “Tacit,” by Natalia Cecire — but it exceeds the author’s permitted word length for comments, so — rather than cut too much — I’m publishing it here. Alex Gil has also shared some thoughts, which I find very constructive. The subject is “Speaking in Code,” an NEH-funded summit and planning meeting we are hosting at the UVa Library Scholars’ Lab. This 2-day program is meant to get advanced digital humanities software developers talking with each other, perhaps for the first time, about what may go unspoken in their technical and communal practice, and therefore be difficult for scholars and newbies to access — and then to see where they think energy may lie, within their own ranks, for concrete next steps.

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Hi, Natalia — thank you very much for your post. You’re absolutely right to call me out on the make-up of the list of facilitators for the “Speaking in Code” summit. This is a move I have been known to make, myself. (More than once, actually, usually with happy endings.) So I respect the impulse.

I’m writing to share some of the thought process and fumbling around I went through in the first phase of organizing “Speaking in Code.” I do this not to excluse my failure to put together a more diverse group of collaborators, but rather in the hope it can spark ideas in others working to organize events, or can serve to further this important conversation in any way.

First, because I am concerned that my colleagues may find the situation embarrassing, I want to emphasize that I am solely responsible for the early invitations to “Speaking in Code.” My staff and the people I invited to become involved with this event gave good advice, and some worked hard to help me seek out and recruit other participants — but ultimately any failure in conception or execution of this project are mine.

It may be helpful to share some background about the concept. We initially put in a bid for a two-year institute, involving many more people, with extended public activities in the downtime between summer workshops, and without as much need to keep all aspects of it “high level” in terms of participants’ and facilitators’ experience in DH and software development. We were not funded for that project, but continued to think it was a conversation worth having, so I decided to float a kind of planning meeting, involving the small group of people who remained highly committed to taking the idea forward, in the hope that getting them physically together for a focused conversation could lead to something broader.

But as Hugh says, the pool is fairly small, of senior, experienced software developers who: self-identify as working in the digital humanities/humanities computing (a decision I made so that we wouldn’t spend too much time “defining DH” or, at this stage, talking about different computing cultures); who are comfortable (or could be prevailed upon!) to coordinate a public discussion on the aspects of their jobs that are of interest here; who see this kind of bridge-building with scholars as potentially fruitful; and who are occasionally able to take time away from their paid work, which is frequently contingent (freelance or grant-funded). When you add in the pressures that some women and minority developers are under — financially, in terms of family obligations, sometimes needing to limit so-called professional development opportunities to those that actually advance their paying careers, and maybe worst of all dealing with the stress of being continually called upon to “represent” people like themselves at various events — well, I came to understand why folks said no. (And sometimes it was just a matter of the timing.)

None of this is to say that I did everything that could be done. For instance, I could have been more gutsy and made a very public call as part of the grant writing process, before we knew whether we’d be able to do “Speaking in Code” at all. Likely I will kick myself when applications come in and I realize that I missed reaching out to someone obvious. One good idea (although we were nervous about increasing costs in the grant) would have been to make each of the people who ultimately accepted our invitation responsible for recruiting a partner and co-presenter. Anyway, it would be wonderful if the conversation you have opened results in a set of concrete suggestions for outreach to this particular community, going beyond the helpful resources of the Geek Feminism project and so forth.

As I worked on “Speaking in Code” over time, I started hoping that my inability to identify and successfully recruit a more diverse set of conversation leaders was a failing of my own networks and imagination, and that we could mitigate the problem by attracting people who may already be working under the radar, through a big, open call. Since we had re-cast the teaching institute as a summit, I would only be asking facilitators (formerly “faculty”) to open conversations, not lecture (excepting the keynote) — which meant that everyone involved would have more agency and floor-time. Still, I recognized full well how the lineup would look, and dragged my feet on publicizing the summit agenda, basically all summer long. We might have avoided the issue by making the open call and selecting participants before announcing who was already involved. I considered this, but it felt underhanded and also unfair to our partners, who are kindly volunteering their time and, I think, deserve credit for what they do. Some of these people — at the point we were putting this together — were precariously employed indeed and therefore, I think, especially generous and brave.

I also considered stating baldly on the site, as part of the call, that we were acutely aware of the lack of gender balance in the group of facilitators. In other words, I could have addressed this in an even more head-on way. Likely I should have done that (I’d be interested in readers’ opinions), but I was concerned about being more off-putting to participants than necessary, by emphasizing the negative. And I remained excited and honored that some of the most careful thinkers and well-respected developers and scholars in the field were committed to the idea, and didn’t want to embarrass them publicly for something that was my fault. (A common response to my fretting about this, within the community, was that the reputations of the people I had drawn together — as teachers of women and minority coders and sensitive advocates for underrepresented points of view — preceded them, and that “everybody” would see that these were excellent choices. That provided some good opportunities to talk with friends and colleagues about problems embedded in assuming what “everybody” sees.)

While I was worrying somewhat unproductively about the communications side of this, I took the opportunity to re-budget the Scholars’ Lab for the coming fiscal year, and identify a chunk of departmental funding we had earmarked for visiting scholars, that I could use to supplement what we got from the NEH. My hope with this funding addition is to make it more financially possible for women and minority developers to become involved with the project, and that a UVa “visiting scholar” designation for a couple of them would provide both a nice CV/résumé line and, on the home-front, opportunities for our students, staff, and faculty to expand their own conceptual horizons and practical networks. I also sought out further advice from people I respect on how to reach and best support the new (to us) DH ant-lions I was hoping we’d meet.

In thinking about the inclusiveness/exclusivity aspect of the program (frankly, in agonizing over it for a long time!), I ultimately decided that we couldn’t run “Speaking in Code” as a quiet, mostly internal planning meeting. Instead, we should use the event itself as an opportunity to address the meta-problem (admittedly, in the way I try to address everything: by attempting something concrete, collaborative, and programmatic). Could I combat the homogeneity of the list of initial partners by doing everything I could to signal our eagerness to involve a more diverse group of participants as the larger project moved forward? If the call worked, could I use the summit website and the decently big megaphone of the Scholars’ Lab to give the people who raised their hands a nice platform from which to share ideas, and increase their visibility in the DH community? Maybe this would have the side effect of making it easier for the next person in my situation to round out a panel or program and build in diversity from the get-go. Maybe, once we added the full participants list back in (here I am taking the template for it out because I didn’t like the optics), it would become a kind of quiet beacon. (That was me in High Optimism mode.) Regardless, making the attempt — even in the untoward case of an event pitched at such advanced DH developers — seemed like a contribution, and it was plain to everyone involved that “Speaking in Code” needs a rich variety of perspectives if our work is going to be meaningful. So we went forward.

I invited a few of our brilliant women in the SLab, some of whom are involved with disenfranchised communities, to advise on language for the call. “You are welcome here” was mine, though, and may have been too strong, coming from a place of apprehension (I’ve been expecting commentary on this) and out of my great concern that the signal be as clear as a bell. I’m sorry that, to you, it rang hollow. Certainly I agree that actions speak louder than words.

The call has resonated with some people (see tweets like these: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). I doubt these folks were blind to the current gender balance on the site, but instead saw and approved of what we’re trying to do. Even better have been the quiet offers to help. (I was careful to provide my personal email address on the site and ask for advice alongside nominations and questions, inviting people to contact me privately.) I’ve also gotten several great messages about particular developers, previously unknown to me, who have already been encouraged to apply, and I’ve been glad to see spontaneous exhortations made to various communities — even ones as quick and simple as this. I hope that continues, and we have begun trying to figure out how to accommodate much more interest in “Speaking in Code” than we are funded to support.

I want to be clear, though, that at no point did I, nor anyone involved with the summit, offer our call for participants as a “model for inclusivity.” It is not. I don’t think we or the DH community (like many groups within and around the academy) are there yet — not by a long shot. But I think we can get there, which is why I brought forward a proposal to the steering committee of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations this summer, that establishes a protocol for the creation of ad-hoc working groups on issues of inclusivity. ADHO’s international character makes this work especially important, and especially complex. I was pleased that the proposal was enthusiastically approved, and I’m now putting my volunteer effort where my mouth is, by chairing the first of these groups, which will dig into the key, governing documents of the alliance, with an eye toward making sure that — well, for instance, that events that ADHO endorses are required to think twice before they put forward an imbalanced list of speakers.

This is hard and time-consuming work. It’s delicate work. (I have heard rumblings from some folks I greatly admire and whose goodwill we need, that I’m pushing too hard, in a way that may make them feel unwelcome as part of the ongoing conversation.) It’s complicated work to do from an alt-ac position and as someone who tries to be a fair-minded, even-keeled supervisor and a good mentor to a broad range of faculty, staff, and students. Frankly, it’s work that I find emotionally draining — but I have no doubt that it’s much more draining for developers and DHers on both/all sides of this issue, who must often feel that they’re being talked about, as much as with, and possibly misunderstood in lots of subtle and blatant ways.

It’s important work to try to do. It’s work that must be done.

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.