Bethany Nowviskie

on capacity and care

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[This is the blended and edited text of two talks I gave last week. One, titled “On Capacity and Care,” was the keynote presentation at the 2015 Office of Digital Humanities project director’s meeting at the National Endowment for the Humanities. The other was titled “Grand Challenges in/and Graduate Education,” and was presented at the University of Michigan, to inaugurate a series of “Mellon Conversations on the Future of the Humanities Doctorate.” Want the tl;dr version? It’s here, as “Capacity Through Care,” a brief provocation for Debates in DH 2017.]

Let’s see the merest edge of a glacier—stable, renewed through deep time—quickly bow to pressure, calve, and rush with a roar to join a flood that rises six thousand miles away. Let us see (we have seen; we could hardly bear to see) a child face down in the surf of an unforgiving sea, its waters connected with those you bathed in this morning: one among thousands cast off from political and economic systems through which we are likewise linked. Let’s see a human gesture, a characteristic crooked smile, a passing thought typed into a search engine, any one of a dozen unthinking transactions of a morning—the purchase of an apple, a novel for the train. Let’s see all of these things become tiny points of data in a surging ocean of data in which we may feel increasingly alienated and lost, and yet—happily or with un-wished-for accuracy—be found.

We are educating new cohorts of students of the liberal arts, both graduate and undergraduate, perhaps best positioned to discover, interpret, and build upon a growing species of understanding—one that may be deeply uncomfortable, yet has been more deeply, fundamentally, and long desired in the humanities: the knowledge of relationships among the largest and smallest of things. It’s my belief that the sobering environmental and social challenges of the 21st century—our grand challenges, global challenges, even extinction-level challenges—will require a more capacious humanities. By that I mean one that understands its history and possible futures broadly, and that has organized itself to work effectively, simultaneously, and in deep empathy and interconnection with other fields and disciplines, across multiple, varied scales. And this is why I took the invitation to speak to you on graduate education reform—as an opportunity not just to address the sorts of tactical steps one might take at a university like yours, in response to the more immediate issues that often provoke this conversation (issues like the employment placement of grads, their funding streams, future prospects for the professions of literature, history, and so on within the academy), but to address some much larger frames outside it, through which I think we need to look. So, among my major themes tonight will be the complementary notions of capacity and of care: two ideas that rarely appear together—particularly as they seem to work on different ends of the scale, and are so differently gendered—in our discourse about the humanities in the digital age.
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a game nonetheless

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[I recently had the pleasure of responding to a creative and beautifully grounded talk by Kevin Hamilton of the University of Illinois, called “Beyond the Reveal: Living with Black Boxes.” Kevin spoke as part of a workshop on “Algorithmic Cultures,” hosted by Chad Wellmon at UVa’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. The great Frank Pasquale also presented on themes from his new book, The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms that Control Money and Information, to which Siva Vaidhyanathan offered an illuminating response. My thanks to Chad and the IASC for hosting the conversation, and to Frank and Kevin for their encouragement to post these remarks. I hope Kevin will publish his terrific paper! You’ll only get glimpses of it in what is to follow.]

I want to begin from Kevin Hamilton’s own, very effective jumping-off point. By doing that, I’ll hope to encourage some further historical and contextual thinking about these problems in much the same way Kevin did, with his situating of the “black box” metaphor in changing 20th-century conceptions of agency and work—in our evolving notions of the relation of laborers to the systems and environments they inhabit. My context is a little different, though, if closely aligned, because I’m thinking of modes of interpretive work, of scholarship and creativity in the humanities. I’ll also talk a bit about the formal definition of the algorithm, and why I think it’s useful—particularly for practitioners and critics of the digital humanities but really for all scholars engaged in a discussion of algorithmic culture—to be clear on what an algorithm is and is not, especially in its connection to the kind of work we and most of our academic colleagues do.

“What do we do,” Kevin productively asks, “when the sociotechnical system we hope to study is obscured from view?” You’ve heard from him about a range of experimental approaches, all tending toward the conclusion—which resonates strongly with my own experience in digital project and platform design—that the most fruitful research paths may lie beyond or alongside the impulse to “reveal” the contents of a so-called algorithmic black box: even to include making a kind of peace with our platforms and our growing awareness of own situated positions within them.

But I’ll ask again. Traditionally, when we become interested in obscured systems, what do we do? Well, “we” (the sort of folks, that is, in the room today)—go to grad school.

Nobody lives with conceptual black boxes and the allure of revelation more than the philologist or the scholarly editor. Unless it’s the historian—or the archaeologist—or the interpreter of the aesthetic dimension of arts and letters. Okay, nobody lives with black boxes more than the modern humanities scholar, and not only because of the ever-more-evident algorithmic and proprietary nature of our shared infrastructure for scholarly communication. She lives with black boxes for two further reasons: both because her subjects of inquiry are themselves products of systems obscured by time and loss (opaque or inaccessible, in part or in whole), and because she operates on datasets that, generally, come to her through the multiple, muddy layers of accident, selection, possessiveness, generosity, intellectual honesty, outright deception, and hard-to-parse interoperating subjectivities that we call a library. Read the rest of this entry »

all at once

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Thirteen years ago, I was a graduate student in English literature when the Twin Towers collapsed, a fireball erupted from the Pentagon, and a group of everyday travelers hurtled a fourth involved commercial airliner, in self-sacrifice, into a muddy field. We got an email from our department chair. It read (I paraphrase), “this is why poetry matters.”

I had been watching people leap to their deaths from skyscrapers on the morning news. “Bullshit,” said I, a girl who had been in love with Shakespeare and Pope and Keats and Tennyson since grade school. And that was the end of any more conventional conception I may have had of my own career–the end, for me, of the profession of English.

I was, truth be told, already on the way out, toward my discipline’s methodological and material oddball fringe–specializing by then not in literary hermeneutics but in the mapping of its lessons and techniques to bibliography, scholarly editing, human-computer interaction, and humanities computing. Over time–by applying my teaching experience and past education in Education, and by learning from the side jobs in labs and centers that I held as a grad student–I built some expertise in project management and digital cultural heritage. In that way, I applied myself to work that felt more satisfyingly pragmatic to me. I couldn’t bear to spend my time happily, as a single, sensitive reader and writer–but I could happily spend it struggling: nudging and nurturing people, and helping them find ways to work effectively as teams in the protection and remediation and interpretation and sharing of stuff. Soon I was a mother and a post-doc. Then I was a member of UVa’s research faculty in Media Studies and a mother some more. Finally, I became a librarian and (heaven help me) an administrator. Read the rest of this entry »

a kit for hosting Speaking in Code

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[Cross-posted from the Re:Thinking blog at CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources, where I’m honored to be serving as Distinguished Presidential Fellow. Check out all the great content at CLIR! (and see the Scholars’ Lab’s announcement, too).]

This is a belated follow-up post to last autumn’s “How We Learned to Start/Stop Speaking in Code,” in which I described the motivation for us, at the UVa Library Scholars’ Lab, to host a two-day summit on the scholarly and social implications of tacit knowledge exchange in digital humanities software development. But the timing is good!—because today, the Scholars’ Lab is releasing a web-based toolkit that any group can use to host a similar gathering. We also want to make the community aware of some venues in which distributed discussions of the social and theoretical side of DH software development can continue online: using the #codespeak hashtag on Twitter, and at the #speakingincode channel on IRC.

“Speaking in Code” was generously supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library, and it brought together 32 competitively-selected, advanced software developers with expertise in humanities applications of computing, for an extended conversation about the culture and craft of codework in DH. The group that met in Charlottesville last November paid special attention to knowledge and theoretical understandings that are gained in practice yet typically go unspoken—embodied in systems, techniques, interfaces, and tools, rather than in words. This is a brand of humanities work that can seem arcane and inaccessible to scholars, or worse: because its methods and outcomes are not always broadly legible, it is easily assumed to be devoid of critical thought and contextual (historical, theoretical, or literary) understanding. To quote my last post:

Communications gaps are deep and broad, even among humanities-trained software developers and the scholars with whom they collaborate. Much (not all) knowledge advances in software development through hands-on, journeyman learning experiences and the iterative, often-collaborative development of built objects and systems. Much (not all) knowledge advances in humanities scholarship through fixed and fluid kinds of academic discourse: referential, prosy, often agonistic. Read the rest of this entry »

  • Published: May 4th, 2014
  • Category: design

anthropocene abstract

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I am deeply honored to have been invited to give a plenary lecture at this year’s Digital Humanities conference, planned for Lausanne, Switzerland in early July. My fellow keynoters are Bruno Latour, Sukanta Chaudhuri, and Ray Siemens, who will receive ADHO‘s Zampolli Prize. This is quite a line-up! I’m not nervous at all. Why do you ask?

Now that I’ve provided an abstract for the talk, I thought I’d share it here. My subject is Digital Humanities in the Anthropocene:

This will be a practitioner’s talk, and—though the abstract belies it—an optimistic one. I take as given the evidence that human beings are irrevocably altering the conditions for life on Earth and that, despite certain unpredictabilities, we live at the cusp of a mass extinction. What is the place of digital humanities practice in the new social and geological era of the Anthropocene? What are the DH community’s most significant responsibilities, and to whom? This talk will position itself in deep time, but strive for a foothold in the vital here-and-now of service to broad publics. From the presentist, emotional aesthetics of Dark Mountain to the arms-length futurism of the Long Now, I’ll dwell on concepts of graceful degradation, preservation, memorialization, apocalypse, ephemerality, and minimal computing. I’ll discuss digital recovery and close reading of texts and artifacts—like the Herculaneum papyri—once thought lost forever, and the ways that prosopography, graphesis, and distant reading open new vistas on the longue durée. Can DH develop a practical ethics of resilience and repair? Can it become more humane while working at inhuman scales? Can we resist narratives of progress, and still progress? I wish to open community discussion about the practice of DH, and what to give, in the face of a great hiatus or the end of it all.

The talk will likely be recorded at the event and later published in one of the ADHO journals, but I will also (as usual) post the text here after I deliver it. You’ll see hints at my reading on the subject in the abstract above—from Jo Guldi and David Armitage to Steven J. Jackson, Rebecca Solnit, Shiv Visvanathan, Bruno Latour, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Timothy Morton, Susie O’Brien, Brian Lennon, Eileen Crist, and more, including a number of institutional and collective projects—but I welcome messages pointing me at things you suspect I’ll miss.

Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at http://nowviskie.org 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.