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 »

praxis, through prisms

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This is just a quick post to share two bits of news about our Praxis Program at the Scholars’ Lab. The first is that I’ve written an op-ed on Praxis and our Fellows’ practicum project for this year’s Digital Campus special issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The piece was originally titled “Praxis, Through Prisms” — now “A Digital Boot Camp for Grad Students in the Humanities.” It’s pay-walled, for now, but I’ll re-publish it in open access format in 30 days. [UPDATE: now available in PDF format in UVa’s institutional repository.]

prismatic badge

by Chad Hagen for The Chronicle

Check it out to learn more about the program, get a sneak peek at Prism (launching this Tuesday, which is the second newsflash! congrats, team!) and find out what I see as the great project of humanities computing / digital humanities. Spoiler: it’s “the development of a hermeneutic — a concept and practice of interpretation — parallel to that of the dominant, postwar, theory-driven humanities: a way of performing cultural and aesthetic criticism less through solitary points of view expressed in language, and more in team-based acts of building.”

Or, in other words, the kind of thing our amazing grad students and diverse crew of scholar-practitioners are working on at Praxis. Through Prism(s).

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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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  • Published: Nov 12th, 2011
  • Category: higher ed

it starts on day one

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Here’s a modest proposal for reforming higher education in the humanities and creating a generation of knowledge workers prepared not only to teach, research, and communicate in 21st-century modes, but to govern 21st-century institutions.

First, kill all the grad-level methods courses.

Kill them, that is, to clear room for something more highly evolved — or simply more fruitful — to take their place. Think: asteroids clobbering dinosaurs. Choking weeds ripped from vegetable gardens. The fuzzy little nothings and spindly cultivars in this scenario, squinting cautious eyes or uncurling new leaves into the light, are:

  • those research methodologies and corpora (often but not exclusively gathered under the banner of the “digital humanities”) that address hitherto unanswerable questions about history, the arts, and the human condition;
  • and the new-model scholarly communications platforms we can already recognize as promising replacements to our slow and moribund systems for credentialing and publishing humanities scholarship and archiving the cultural record on which it is based.

What do these critters need to grow up? The same thing our colleges and universities so desperately need: a generation of faculty and alternative-academic scholar-practitioners who have been trained to work in interdisciplinary contexts and who can not only take advantage of computational approaches to their own research, but who have been instilled with enough of a can-do, maker’s ethos that they feel empowered to build and re-build the systems in which they and future students will operate.

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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.