Bethany Nowviskie

resistance in the materials

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[This is the text of an invited talk I gave at the 2013 MLA Convention, as part of Michael Bérubé’s presidential forum on “Avenues of Access.” The session also featured Matthew Kirschenbaum and Cathy Davidson, and was subtitled “Digital Humanities and the Future of Scholarly Communication.” My slides are available here, and if you like this talk, you may also be interested in my RBMS keynote, Reality Bytes.]

Most mornings, these days—especially when I’m the first to arrive at the Scholars’ Lab—I’ll start a little something printing on our Replicator. I do this before I dive into my email, head off for consultations and meetings, or (more rarely) settle in to write. There’s a grinding whirr as the machine revs up. A harsh, lilac-colored light clicks on above the golden Kapton tape on the platform. Things become hot to the touch, and I walk away. I don’t even bother to stay, now, to see the mechanized arms begin a musical slide along paths I’ve programmed for them, or to watch how the fine filament gets pushed out, melted and microns-thin—additive, architectural—building up, from the bottom, the objects of my command.

I’m a lapsed Victorianist and book historian who also trained in archaeology, before gravitating toward the most concrete aspects of digital humanities production—the design of tools and online environments that emphasize the inevitable materiality of texts, and the specific physicality of our every interaction with them. I suppose I print to feel productive, on days when I know I’ll otherwise generate more words than things at the digital humanities center I direct at UVa Library. Art objects, little mechanisms and technical experiments, cultural artifacts reproduced for teaching or research—cheap 3d-printing is one affirmation that words (those lines of computer code that speak each shape) always readily become things. That they kind of… want to. It’s like when I learned to set filthy lead type and push the heavy, rolling arm of a Vandercook press, when I should have been writing my dissertation.

I peek in as I can, over the course of a morning. And when the extruders stop extruding, and the whole beast cools down, I’ll crack something solid and new off the platform—if a colleague in the lab hasn’t done that for me already. (It’s a satisfying moment in the process.)

Sometimes, though, I’ll come back to a mess—a failed print, looking like a ball of string or a blob of wax. Maybe something was crooked, by a millimeter. Maybe the structure contracted and cracked, no match for a cooling breeze from the open door. Or maybe it’s that my code was poor, and the image in my mind and on my screen failed to make contact with the Replicator’s sizzling build-plate—so the plastic filament that should have stuck like coral instead spiraled out into the air, and cooled and curled around nothing. Those are the mornings I think about William Morris. Read the rest of this entry »

ada lovelace day: malala yousafzai

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This is my fourth post for Ada Lovelace Day, when we pause to honor the women who most inspire us in the fields of technology, science, engineering, and math.

I haven’t missed the day since it was launched in 2009. That year, I celebrated Johanna Drucker and Bess Sadler. Johanna, who taught me letterpress printing, helped me deepen my practical and embodied engagement with technologies of text. From Bess I came to understand the global, ethical dimensions of open source software development and why it is so important for me to advocate for it and support it every day in the Scholars’ Lab. The next year, I honored Leah Buechley of MIT, whose Lilypad Arduino and other “high-tech, high-touch” wearable, embedded, and frankly beautiful soft circuits–part of her tireless and smart promotion of technology education for girls–were my entree into physical computing. And last year, I wrote about humanities computing pioneer Susan Hockey, so far the only female winner of our highest digital humanities award, the Busa Prize–and I discovered a fantastic old photograph of her, to boot.

Reuters thumbnail image, Malala YousafzaiThis year, it’s Malala. By now, everyone has heard the story of Malala Yousafzai, the fifteen-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head and neck by the Taliban aboard a school bus, for daring to say that children should have the opportunity of an education regardless of their gender. The news this morning, one week after the attack, makes her survival seem more possible–but we have yet to learn at what cost to her sharp mind and brave heart.

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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.

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a tribute to Leah Buechley

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Last year on Ada Lovelace Day, when we celebrate women in technology, I wrote about two inspiring friends: Johanna Drucker, who taught me letterpress printing (foundational to my thinking about design and the digital humanities in the context of evolving technologies of the book) and Bess Sadler, then of Scholars’ Lab R&D and now at Stanford, who had just released Blacklight into the world as a step toward making library research more joyful. This year, I got Ada’d my own self (thanks, Julie!), with a picture from a recent workshop that confirmed my desire to write about the amazing Leah Buechley.

Leah Buechley’s work speaks to everything I hold dear about the digital humanities: that it interprets, operates within, and both impacts and reflects the experienced world — of messy, embodied, personal, subjective, aesthetic, poetic, cyborgic, enveloping life. In other words, Buechley does high-touch as well as high-tech. Read the rest of this entry »

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.