Decoding Digital Humanities Bloomington

An informal monthly gathering to discuss issues related to the digital humanities. Come meet people studying or working in DH!

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March 2011 Meeting Recap (Amy’s POV)

Amy is a newcomer to Decoding Digital Humanities Bloomington; she also has a blog, www.theambulantscholar.com.  She shares her perspective of “Building,” the discussion topic for March, below.

It was a blustery Friday, and orders for drinks and appetizers were aplenty.  While some of us preferred the onion rings to the fried pickles and still others elected to nibble on soda bread, we all agreed with Stephen Ramsay and Matthew Kirschenbaum: a digital humanist must be able to code.  As Ramsay explains in “On Building,” coding represents a radical, significant step from “reading and critiquing” (i.e., the activities of a traditional scholar) to “building and making.” 

I wondered how “building and making” might transform my work, so I’d like to indulge that question here, if only to illustrate the inherent difference between traditional and digital humanist scholarship.  Consider Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives (1890), which focuses on New York City’s immigrant underclass: a literary scholar might critique the text’s representation of the Lower East Side’s transportation pathways, including its meandering sidewalks, nefarious streets, and subterranean sewer passages; however, a digital humanist might build a program that would spatially map these pathways so that users ultimately could compare Riis’ version of the Lower East Side with actual maps of this area. 

Had each discussion participant been a programmer, our conclusion about coding’s fundamental place in the digital humanities would have been unsurprising.  But, several of those in attendance had no knowledge of code—myself included.  Interestingly, I didn’t come to the meeting with the mindset that a digital humanist must be able to code.  I was skeptical of Ramsay’s assertion that “building and making”—that essential thing a digital humanist does—only boils down to one practice (i.e., programming.)  In fact, before the discussion, I agreed with Lincoln Mullen who claims that “we’re all digital humanists now” because the field not only is a spectrum of activities, but also is built on an “ethos of inclusion.” Although Mullen’s piece didn’t make the discussion agenda for March, I want to mention it here because it sharply contests the group’s ideas about coding as well as the claims advanced in the readings we examined.

The group’s lively discussion about tenure and funding in the digital humanities perhaps is what brought me—and maybe other non-coders—to Ramsay and Kirschenbaum’s camp.  Granted, deeming coding as a firm line in the digital sand might seem undemocratic; however, the promotional structure of academia necessitates such a strict standard.

We revisited the issue of “who is getting credit for what and for what purpose” when we turned our attention to collaborations between traditional scholars and digital humanists—that is, between one who has idea and one who has the tools and expertise to build as well as refine the project.  In this kind of partnership, who is the digital humanist, and by extension, what kind of “credit” on the institutional level does each individual receive for his/her work?

Because several participants were graduate students, we also discussed Kirschenbaum’s claim that humanities students whose projects would benefit from programming expertise should learn coding languages and receive foreign language credit for such study.  The consensus?  A resounding “Like.” 

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