[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? Continue reading “how we learned to start/stop “speaking in code””
[This (minus the ad-libbing, and skipping a pre-amble) is the text of a keynote talk I gave last month, at the second annual conference of the Japanese Association for Digital Humanities. I was invited to Tokyo to speak on the history and ethos of the Scholars’ Lab at UVa. I offer here… the whole scoop, and pretty much my entire playbook!]
The Scholars’ Lab is unusual in many ways—not least in the fact that we are simultaneously almost new and twenty years old. Paradoxes abound: we operate with a great deal of independence, and yet are more deeply and fundamentally inter-connected with other administrative divisions of our institution than many North American DH centers can claim (or perhaps would desire) to be. And, in a way, we’re not a center at all. We are a small department of the University of Virginia Library.
That position in our institutional org chart leads to a further incongruity: in a library that prides itself above all things on providing the highest possible level of service to researchers, we are—with the big, circular reference desk and bright, open, publicly-available computer lab that define our space—a service-oriented department. Yet we also work hard to call under-examined notions of digital humanities “service” into question, as our staff (primarily available to students and scholars for consultation and project development) also develop and communicate their own intellectual, artistic, and scholarly research agendas—and as we conduct collective experiments and host ongoing discussions on the changing nature of knowledge work in the academy.
But let’s not leave the paradoxes just yet—because, when it comes to the Scholars’ Lab, I can also assert that we are big and little at the same time. Thus the title of my talk: “Too Small to Fail.”
This is of course a play on a message we heard around the world in the wake of the global financial crisis, offered in justification of government bank bail-out schemes: a notion that certain corporations dominating our economy have become giants among men. They have been made “too big to fail.” It is an approach some digital humanities centers try to emulate, on their local scenes. But the Scholars’ Lab occupies a different space. Today I’ll give examples of the way we meditate on smallness as a virtue. But more importantly, I’ll discuss our attitude toward the other half of the “too big” equation—toward failure. At the SLab, we like to think we’re always ready to fail well, which is to say, that we’re capable of enabling and celebrating failures that have been executed on the proper scale and with the proper attitude.
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).
It’s been an excellent Sunday morning for posts about DH and the profession(s). First, Desmond Schmidt crunches the numbers from a decade’s worth of job postings on Humanist, which is the primary and longest-standing international discussion list for the digital humanities. (If you think there’s a DH boom in the US, check out Desmond’s per-capita analysis.) Interestingly, this survey only took PhD-level positions into account. How have job requirements in this field evolved? Tomorrow’s Humanist should have a response from Dot Porter, citing an #Alt-Academy essay she wrote with Amanda Gailey on “Credential Creep in the Digital Humanities.”
And here’s Kathleen Fitzpatrick in the Chronicle, on what is really required of institutions and departments who encourage junior scholars to ‘Do the Risky Thing’ in Digital Humanities. Kathleen is amplifying and contextualizing a concern frequently voiced in the past two years, around the spate of “cluster hires” in DH — which sometimes seemed to happen without thought given to the suport structures, both departmental and institutional, that new faculty would need. (I remember Patrick MurrayJohn as the first to start squawking about this on Twitter. I couldn’t find his much-earlier tweets, but there’s this thread at DH Answers.) On the Chronicle piece, Kathleen and Ian Bogost make two important further points that may resonate with our Grad Fellows and Praxis group: regarding “mentoring up,” and pressing forward.
Our goal in the Scholars’ Lab Praxis Program is to address methodological training in the humanities not just through workshops and courses, but by involving graduate students in digital projects from the ground up. This means learning by creating something — together — with all that entails: paying attention both to vision and detail; building facility with new techniques and languages not just as an academic exercise, but of necessity, and in the most pragmatic framework imaginable; acquiring the softer skills of collaboration (sadly, an undiscovered country in humanities graduate education) and of leadership (that is, of credible expertise, self-governance, and effective project management). All this also involves learning to iterate and to compromise — and when to stop and ship.
To do this, our Praxis team needed a project. We wanted it to be a fresh one, something they could own. It was important to us that the project only be in service to the program — that its intellectual agenda was one our students could shape, that they set the tone for the collaboration, and that — as much as possible — it be brand-spanking-new, free from practices and assumptions (technical or social) that might have grown organically in a pre-existing project and which we might no longer recommend.
In this inaugural year of the Praxis Program, the Scholars’ Lab, in consultation with some colleagues from UVa’s College of Arts and Sciences, is providing the central idea for the project. It’s just too much to ask that students new to digital humanities work invent a meaningful project from whole cloth on Day 1 of the program — especially one that, we hope, will make a meaningful intervention in the current scene of DH research and practice. That said, by the end of this year, our current Praxis team plans to have conceptualized a second project (or perhaps an extension of this one) to pass on to next year’s group.