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On Theory, Praxis and “Digital Humanities”

On Theory, Praxis and “Digital Humanities”

A bit of background: this post is a response to @jcmeloni’s recent blog post On Going from Industry to Academia, which was itself a response to a discussion @jcmeloni and @georgeonline had on Twitter, which I belatedly butted in on. As she puts it:

There was some discussion on Twitter approximately a billion years ago (I don’t know, last month maybe? Internet time has always been messed up.) that I believe started when @georgeonline was musing about transferable skills and how there’s work to be had for digital humanities scholars outside of academia. My curmudgeonly self popped up and noted that jobs are hard to come by for everyone, that as an industry person it’s easy to see gaps in the skillsets of some academics working in digital humanities, that people coming from academia to industry are competing with people who have been in industry all their lives and have been laid off/downsized, and that it would be generally bad advice to tell an academically-oriented digital humanities scholar that they are automatically competitive for industry jobs (just like it would be bad advice to tell an industry person that they are suited for a wholly academic job without spending any time in the academy, IMHO).

Then I said that I should really get off my butt and write my “what it’s been like going from industry to academia” post, and @barbarahui said she’d like to see it—she did the same thing—and then I stayed really busy and never got around to writing it or anything else. But here we are. I’m going to take a crack at it.

As soon as Julie (@jcmeloni) put up said post, I ran off to read it, and it provoked enough musings of my own that I’m now writing my own post in response.

Let me preface by saying that my “industry” story is different from Julie’s in a few ways. First, my career in tech was at a university, specifically at UC Berkeley in the Information Services & Technology department. While the IST department is non-academic (it provides the entire campus with voice and data network services), many of its employees–particularly the techie ones–were students at the university at some point. In fact, many of the programmers are former graduate students, most of whom studied things that have very little if anything to do with voice or networking technologies. The director at the time had a PhD in biology, a fellow programmer had studied American history, the network sysadmin was ABD in Political Science, and so on. By and large, these people got their programming/tech skills on the job. I hear this sort of homegrown technical skill is not unusual across the tech industry, but I do think that at IST there is a particularly strong link to academia for several obvious reasons.

A recent grad from Berkeley with a BA in Comparative Literature, I started out at IST on a temp job as administrative assistant, got curious about computer programming, which was exploding in the SF Bay area at the time (1997), and started my tech career by taking a night class on “Intro to Programming in C.” My  boss generously offered to pay for the course so that I could see if I even liked it. Sure enough, I was hooked. I love the pattern-making and puzzle-solving aspect of coding, the challenge of designing tools and interfaces in efficient and elegant ways. I still find it enormously satisfying to be able to create something via code that is functional, that is deployed out into the world and is instantly useful to people. After taking that first course, I learned more on my own on the job and via other classes, and slowly but surely transitioned into positions with increasing levels of technical responsibility. My first gig was a temp position writing data reports; in my last few years at IST I was a core member of the IT development team, writing applications code full-time.

[It was a weird time in SF during the dot com boom. I would go to parties in the city and get job offers from start-up dudes apparently because I was a woman who knew how to program. But I digress...]

After 6 years on the job though, I just didn’t feel that a life of full-time coding was quite meant for me (this in spite of the fact that I had a pretty wonderful, secure career with a goodly salary and great benefits. I know, I’m crazy. Just ask my family ;-). I missed exercising the other side of my brain. I deeply missed the challenges of reading literature, philosophy and theory, and writing about them. I decided it was time to go back to my first love, and so I applied to PhD programs in Comparative Literature. This is how I ended up in said department at UCLA, where I’m currently finishing up my dissertation on late twentieth-century German- and English-language literature.  My break with “industry” was more decisive than Julie’s: I quit my job, and although I’ve had programming gigs throughout grad school, they have all been at the university as a graduate student researcher. This means that I get paid a fraction of what I would be paid in the “real world” for programming, but my employers understand that my main job is my academic research; there’s no bottom line of profit; and the work is all academic in nature. It just happens to be in digital form.

While I’ve been back in (the loving arms/ivory tower of) academia, I’ve thought a lot about what role digital media (should) play in my own research trajectory and in the humanities in general. Given my background, I suppose it makes a lot of sense that I would “do Digital Humanities.” And I would say that I do. But to be honest, I’ve found that defining what that means is not easy. There is a gnarl of issues involved. After much mulling over the subject, the crux of it seems to me to be a problem of theory vs. praxis.

I’ve seen DH defined (implicitly more often than outright) in a few different ways. Some define DH more along the lines of theory, and others more along the lines of praxis. Saying that one “does DH” can mean a variety of things:

  1. Some DH scholars don’t create any digital tools themselves at all, but rather, for example, read and theorize about literature that has been written in the digital medium, and/or that references the digital medium in some way. (pure theory)
  2. Other DH scholars don’t theorize at all, but instead, for example, might have a background in a “practical” discipline like Library and Information Studies (or a humanities degree they have “left behind”) and now work on creating digital reference or archival tools for use by humanities scholars. (pure praxis)
  3. Yet others do a mixture of both: for example a literature and media studies scholar creates a new media mapping platform to serve as a multi-purpose tool for both teaching and theorizing about city-spaces. (theory + praxis)

Which of these scholars is the most authentic DH scholar? Or is DH all of these things? Is the DH scholar who can’t/doesn’t write code a true DH scholar? Or should she instead be called a literary and/or (new) media theorist?

What about the scholar who creates digital tools for use by humanists but doesn’t theorize in the humanist tradition? While digital tools might enable humanities scholars to produce new knowledge, do the tools themselves constitute new knowledge, or are they, to quote Thoreau from Julie’s post, “just pretty toys” until and unless they are used productively? Good tools are invaluable to be sure, but perhaps they should be counted as work in Software/Platform Design, not the humanities per se.

Or what about the literature scholar who comes up with the idea for a digital project and serves as the project PI, promoting it throughout the academy, writing grant proposals and giving presentations, but doesn’t actually do any of the applications development herself?

This brings me to Julie’s point about the observable lack of IT skills among academics working in DH. Unfortunately, I would have to agree (although of course there are always exceptions). Too often, humanities scholars come up with wonderful ideas for technical projects but don’t know what it is that they want in technical terms, and are therefore unable to manage the project from a technical perspective. Problems that stem from lack of knowledge about the software application creation process all too often lead to inefficient development, closed/insular design and the other kinds of problems listed in the Tools for Data Driven Scholarship report.

But really, given the current academic system, is it fair to expect digital humanists to have expert technical skills? We are humanities academics, after all. Most humanities scholars start their careers without having had a discrete chunk of time in which to learn tech skills, much less experience the life cycle of an IT project (which is arguably essential for successful digital tool development). Since learning these skills is not part of the humanities curriculum at most institutions (at any institution?), I can’t imagine when a digital humanist would possibly acquire them, unless they happen to have worked in IT at some point before grad school. Which is highly unlikely, unless you’re crazy enough to leave the industry like @jcmeloni and me. Point is, acquiring the kind of tech skills to be an effective creator of digital tools is hardly something a young humanities scholar can be expected to do in her (non-existent) spare time.

Given this, I actually find it pretty impressive that DH scholars have managed to build the tools they have built. The challenge for now and the future is to figure out a way to bring the expertise of the two fields together in an improved way. UC Berkeley, for example, is launching a new “Designated Emphasis” in New Media for PhD students, which adds a semester or two on to the regular doctorate. I’m not sure how technical this curriculum is, but in general it makes sense to me that one needs additional time to gain what is essentially expertise in another discipline.

Personally, I find DH to be a fulfilling approach because it brings theory and praxis together. I came back to the humanities because I missed the  theorizing and the “fuzzy” logic of it, but working in software development has also given me a firm appreciation for creating things that have solid answers and an immediate effect in the here and now. Thinking about and playing with media, recognizing that the medium does make a crucial difference to the message, is deeply fascinating. I’m a strong believer in the fact that ideas matter, and am constantly inspired by the work being done by people both in the humanities/social sciences and in IT to see the world around them more clearly and communicate those ideas in a way that makes a difference. Of course there will always be those whose aim is just to make silly toys (for profit or fame or what have you), but I think that DH can be a particularly rich mode of inquiry.

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