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Who Is Doing DH?

Or, more accurately, who gets to claim they do DH?

October 21, 2012

While I was at the University of Western Ontario, I had the privilege of giving a graduate seminar in their CulturePlex facilities. I chose to talk to them about Ted Underwood’s provocative piece, How Everyone Gets to Claim they Do DH. I was hoping for a lively discussion from a group of students who were immersed in DH, perhaps disagreeing that less-qualified graduate students get a claim to what they have been perhaps more legitimately working on. I also wanted to hear what the newest generation of DH scholars had to say.

I was not disappointed. We talked for over two hours. I was impressed by the variety of the students in the group, which included programmers working at the CulturePlex, DIY DH’ers, international students, and students who had never done DH but were interested in the discussion. I meant to create a crowdsourced response to Underwood’s post, but instead just created a google doc with notes from the ensuing conversation. The issue of hiring, tenure, and promotion came up in relation to those who are fearful of really “doing” digital humanities projects, but I wanted to push them further, past the fear, and into the space where we could really talk about what we understood as “doing” digital humanities.

I stand with Underwood on this, and I told them as much: by participating in this discussion, I told them, you are, in fact, doing DH. I meant it as a provocation, but I do really believe it to be true. In my talk the previous day, I argued that DH has grown beyond a community and instead has become a collective that is made up of many different DH communities, working on different projects with different skill levels, and this included those of us who leaned more towards the humanities side of things, self-reflexively and critically casting our gaze on other DH communities, their ethos and practices.

There was much hand-wringing and feet shuffling, but many of them opposed my (and thus Ted Underwood’s position). One international student, with ties to the growing DH community in Mexico, was worried about those who were producing “bad,” or at least suspect, DH research. What if, he suggested, a scholar creates a database, produces results, but then his metadata is proven to be flawed, thus undercutting his conclusions? This is one of the perils, perhaps, of opening up scholarship, a fear of what will be passed off as “research” once peer-review is weakened or eliminated. I asked what he would do if a student produced suspect scholarship based on flawed data? We would work with the student to correct the flaws and use it as a teachable moment. So many of us who are new to DH are in the same situation as our undergraduate and graduate student, facing new theories and ways of reading, traditional or otherwise. To expect faculty, just because they are faculty, to get it right the first time when learning a completely new and different way of doing research is dangerous, although one would think persuasive within the larger culture of academia. We need to be free to “get it wrong” and then work to get it right.

One of the programmers, who had been quiet for a long time, listening to the humanists hem and haw over definitions and history, spoke up with a comment that really made the room think: in computer science, one does not get to claim that they are doing computer science by simply talking about computer science. Thus, talking about DH does not a DH scholar make. He drew a parallel between what happened in biology (with the integration of computer science, statistics, and mathematics). Some biologists have made the transition and are doing a new and different form of biology. Others, either because of lack of resources or lack of interest, are still doing biology in an “old fashioned” way. DH is like computational biology (or computational linguistics); some will do it, most will not.

This lead me to my next question, which was, is it doing DH if a humanist works with a programmer (or community) to create a new digital tool (or ad-on to a current digital tool, like a widget), or must the humanist be able to create the interface or tool themselves in order for it to be DH? As we develop more and more tools for humanists to use to do our research (like interfaces that do TEI for you, much like HTML interfaces that came out in the mid-1990s), does that disqualify those who are using the tools from doing DH because they didn’t have a hand in creating them (I was also thinking of the database creation tool they are working on at the CulturePlex). Once we have developed the tools, does the user get to claim they are doing DH?

Now the humanists spoke up, stating that if one is using the tools critically and reflectively, then they are indeed doing DH. There is the self-reflexivity that often isn’t found in the sciences that make digital humanities different from just programming (not that there isn’t reflection, but this idea of you either build it or you’re not a part of it is a much less nuanced view than most humanists, digital or not, would allow). One of the students had no sympathy for any digital humanist who didn’t learn how to program or code, stating that they clearly weren’t serious. But then we got back into the discussion about which codes, which languages, are “canon” so to speak within DH. Here again, I pointed out that it depended which community you were looking to gain access to within the DH collective. Some program, some code, some do content development, others do database management. And how much is enough? I agreed with him that the ethos of being open and willing to learn new skills is part of doing DH, but does one only gain legitimacy when they are experts?

Round and round we went. Clearly, there are no easy answers, and these are the three most provocative (to me) statements and questions that came out of the two-hour discussion. I’ll open it up in the comments here: Who is doing DH?

Addendum: After I wrote this piece, I came across the schedule from this week's THATCamp Hybrid Pedagogy where they did a session discussing some of these very topics (select the "What is a Digital Humanist? What is DH?" session). It's an ongoing discussion in the field.  



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