how we learned to start/stop “speaking in code”

[UPDATE: #codespeak is over and was a smashing success. See a post on outcomes, including a kit for hosting similar gatherings, here. This entry is 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!]

Here’s a consummation devoutly to be wished: digital humanities research and practice becomes its best self, and finds scholars and technology staff engaging as peers in mutually intelligible conversation. It sounds like a modest hope, until you reflect on how far we are from achieving that vision.

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. A real division exists in style and practice, even when the subjects and objects of humanities inquiry are the same. What might bridge a gap like that? And can we move past an historical moment in the academy, in which the onus is almost entirely placed on archivally and theoretically trained humanities scholars to become tech-savvy digital humanists—to build a concomitant sense of momentum, responsibility, and opportunity in our community of DH software engineers? Can we build greater community itself, just by making a space in which such problems are addressed?

In early November, the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia Library will host an event called “Speaking in Code”—a two-day, high-level summit for approximately 30 advanced humanities software developers. These folks have applied to participate from universities (where they work in academic departments, DH centers, independent projects, and library-based labs), from publicly funded cultural heritage institutions, and from the private and freelance sector. We believe our summit—supported by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Jeffrey C. Walker Fund for Technology in the Humanities at UVa Library—will be the first focused meeting to address scholarly and social implications of tacit knowledge exchange in the digital humanities.

Our first-day discussion topics address core problems and activities in humanities computing. They include: physical and digital embodiment, and our unspoken understandings of them, as made evident in code; how best to take advantage of moments of fruitful rupture between design and development phases in DH work; challenges in crafting humanistic models for the represention and procedural analysis of human language; and methods by which developers and metadata specialsts grapple with other kinds of ambiguity, or “messy understandings,” in cultural heritage information.  The second day of our meeting will start with concrete project pitches, responding to day-one conversation and offered by participants in lightning rounds. This will be followed by work on some of the projects that are pitched, conducted in small groups, with an eye both toward making immediate interventions in the field and seeding longer-term, collaborative undertakings.

So many people practiced in DH and cultural heritage software or database development assert that theories and responses to theory, embedded ethical positions, and sophisticated understandings of the relation of method to humanities interpretation underlie their work, that these assertions must be taken seriously. But they must also be pressed upon. What new outcomes of humanities scholarship are to be found beyond books and articles, in functional code and experimental interfaces? We want to ask the people who build them. What new modes and methods of scholarship are emerging from collaborative and craftsmanlike practice, and why are these important? We want to ask the people who practice them. (We want to ask ourselves!)

The underlying question of our summit, though, is this: how might we—at a moment when scholarly interest in humanities computing is growing by leaps and bounds—bring longstanding technical conversations into more open, inclusive humanities discourse? DH developers’ conversations strike many faculty as inaccessible: perhaps too informal to be recognized as intellectual and theoretical work, part and parcel with other modes of scholarly communication; or simply too telegraphic and oblique to their own training to be understood. “Speaking in Code” will foreground the intellectual dimensions of DH craftsmanship but—importantly, unusually, and we think as a necessary first step to fostering discussion in venues legible and friendly to scholars and developers alike—we will start with a meeting organized and conducted on software developers’ own terms.

I’ll report on preliminary outcomes from “Speaking in Code” in my next CLIR blog post.

Bethany Nowviskie directs the Scholars’ Lab and department of Digital Research & Scholarship at the University of Virginia Library and serves as special advisor to the UVa Provost on digital humanities concerns. In August, she was appointed CLIR Distinguished Presidential Fellow.