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Inclusion In The Digital Humanities

Note: This is a work in progress and doesn't represent my concluding opinions. It will change and should not be considered as published. It is available under the rubric of "open research" in progress.

We have finally become that which we warned people about

Ever since the Chronicle story about the emergence of the digital humanities at the MLA there have been grumblings and reflections about who is included or not in the fold. Some of the places where this discussion has gathered are:

  • Stéfan Sinclair posted a blog essay, Some Thoughts on the Digital Humanities Conference in February about rejections from the DH conference and how that should be interpreted (don't feel rejected).
  • John Unsworth in his "The State of Digital Humanities" at DHSI talked about discussions in the blogosphere about exclusion. This led to a discussion about why people feel excluded.
  • Susan Brown gave a keynote at the DHSI on "What do scholars want? Of Collaboratories, Gender, and DH Evangelism" that dealt with gender and inclusion - how women are poorly represented in many of the powerful bodies of the field. She made the point that "On the one hand DH is extremely inviting to women and yet there is a preponderance of men in the field or senior men." (This is from my Conference Report so it is a paraphrase of her comments.)
  • The Day of Digital Humanities project gathered a wealth of information about what digital humanists say they do and definitions of the digital humanities from the participants.
  • There was a discussion on Humanist around whether a graduate student organized conference at Yale was a "watershed event" as Ed Ayers is reported to have summed up the conference. (Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 647). Willard McCarty's report to Humanist celebrated the independent interest of graduate students who organized the conference. "Quite independently of the work us older ones have done for so long, these students see the possibilities now visible and question them as befits the humanities."

Having wandered in the wilderness that was humanities computing since the (very) late 1980s I find it ironic to be part of something that is suddenly "popular" or perceived to be exclusive when for so many years we shared a rhetoric of exclusion. Our biggest problem for years was getting anyone to come to meetings, especially graduate students. We traded stories about the lack of respect from the established disciplines and how we had sacrificed traditional careers to pursue computing. How many times were we warned not to do computing or not to put it on our CV if we wanted to be taken seriously as humanists? We were inclusive because we were passionate and wanted company. We were probably even a bit desperate. Now the shoe is on the other foot and the field is perceived by some to be excluding people. We are a point of disciplinary evolution that calls for reflection, grace, and a renewed commitment to inclusion. Above all we need to critically review our history and our narrative of exclusion and inclusion lest it blind us to needs of the next generation.

Here are some thoughts on the subject:

Jobs. As John Unsworth pointed out in his talk, this is partly about jobs. There are a lot more jobs per capita now in the digital humanities than in traditional fields. This is in part because of all the semi-academic and para-academic jobs in libraries, digital humanities centres, computing observatories and instructional technology centres. The issue of inclusion comes up in part because people want to know how to prepare for such jobs and digital humanities careers. The temptation is to draw a line and specify particular skills (as in TEI encoding) as gates into the field. Specific skills are, of course, found in particular job ads depending on the skills needed, but it would be a mistake to scale up the needs for a particular job to the field as a whole.

I it would be a mistake to limit the field to one particular technology given how fluid the field is. It would be a shame for us to fixate on a particular technology (and skill with that technology) rather than a more general ability to think about and adapt information technology as it changes. Click here for my answer to the question of skills in Humanist this April.

That said, many of the jobs that make the digital humanities desirable do require real technical expertise and often expertise with text encoding (which means an understanding of the collective wisdom gathered by the TEI.) The applied nature of these jobs will generally exclude those that have a strong critical understanding of information technology but little experience with implementation in computing environments. The digital humanities, in part because of the need for practicioners with extensive skills, tend to look undertheorized, and it is. It is undertheorized the way any craft field that developed to share knowledge that can't be adequately captured in discourse is. It is undertheorized the way carpentry or computer science are. To new researchers who have struggled to master the baroque discourses associated with the postmodern theoretical turn there appears to be something naive and secretive about the digital humanities when is mindlessly ignores the rich emerging field of new media theory. It shouldn't be so. We should be able to be clear about the importance of project management and thing knowledge - the tacit knowledge of fabrication and its cultures - even if the very nature of that poesis (knowledge of making) itself cannot easily (and shouldn't have to) be put into words. We should be able to welcome theoretical perspectives without fear of being swallowed in postmodernisms that are exclusive as our craft knowledge. We should be able to explain that there is real knowledge in the making and that that knowledge can be acquired by anyone genuinely interested. Such explanations might go some way to helping people develop a portfolio of projects that prepare them for the jobs they feel excluded from.

Put another way, there is nothing wrong is valuing thing knowledge as long as we also recognize the value of theoretical critique. My guess is that there is a residual fear in the field of theory, both because many fled theory for application and because poor theory can be totalizing in a way we fear will delegitimize all the makings we struggled with in that "gotcha" sort of way. Fear of theory can lead to an excluding that uses institutional mechanisms to cordon off those that might ask awkward questions. We have all witnessed brutal theory wars and know colleagues left behind, but that doesn't mean that we should push all critique and theory out for fear confronting our past. For that matter theory has itself matured in ways that provide insight into thing knowledge and the sociology of labs. Can there not be reciprocal respect of theorists and practicioners that leads to forms of thinking through that weave theories in as another form of thing that is also made?

Disciplinary Violence. In a paper I gave years ago at the University of Victoria I asked, in the spirit of Giambattista Vico, what crime we were committing in order to form a new discipline. Vico, in his New Science, looks at the birth of institutions and suggests that all institutions are born in a crime or violation of other institutions. Romulus kills Remus for stepping over the virtual walls of the city he is founding. What are the violations of humanities computing in its emergence and how will they come back to haunt us?

Of course, founders never think of their foundational work as a violence, they tend to think of the founding of an institution like a new discipline as a heroic escape from the limitations and violations of the parent disciplines. In humanities computing we used to grouse about English, History and Philosophy and how we weren't understood by them. The perception that we are victims can then authorize a callousness or exclusion even when we are no longer in any real sense excluded. This is the irony - the discipline of the refused continues to think of itself as victimized and in so doing treats others in the ways it was formed to escape. The refugees become the disciplinarians. How can we avoid such false disciplinarity?

One of the sites of this stress in the digital humanities has been the inclusion of those alternative academics without faculty jobs. Since the beginning, many of those contributing to the digital humanities were not tenure-track faculty, but programmers, librarians, computing support staff, graphic designers and so on. The character of the digital humanities as a community came in part from the provision of a safe and inclusive space where having a faculty position (or not) made no difference. This is one of the differences that made the community and it is tied to the emphasis on development and implementation over theory (because so many participants were in charge of just that - making things work for the faculty who theorized.) We don't want to lose this aspect of our traditional inclusivity because in the North American university there is a caste system that generally excludes students, staff and librarians from full participation as the other that has to be disciplined. That, in my mind, is one of the important differences between the digital humanities and neighboring fields like communication studies or computational linguistics, though they probably have their para-academics. Communication studies and linguistics are fine fields with their own forms of diversity, but they don't tend to be inclusive in the ways humanities computing has been inclusive.

In short, I believe that we need a space where computing staff, librarians, students and faculty who are interested in applications of computing can meet and learn from each other. It would be a shame if the digital humanities ceases to be such a space in order to accommodate other forms of difference. In particular, I think we need to be careful to not delegitimize the non-textual forms of making knowledge important to those who implement and run systems. This is the danger of theory and perspectives that are value theoretical discourse over practice. The ideal would be to develop a space where the theoretical and the pragmatic can inform each other without participants needing to excel at both.

The emphasis on the pragmatic and the ongoing participation of the alternative academics is intimately tied to the very success of the field in employment because most of the jobs advertised are not for faculty, but for alternative academics able to straddle the academic and the applied.

None of this should blind us to the forms of exclusion and the limitations of the field. In particular I think we suffer from being a field in which an old boys (and a few women) network formed because there are few formal ways that people can train. The only way in seems to be informal apprenticeship in projects and with senior people that then conveys inclusiveness. If you can't get on a project and train with those already in then you can have a hard time demonstrating requisite skill. One reason we are trapped now with only informal entry venues is that there are very few graduate programs and training opportunities for people interested to circumvent the vicious circle of not being a digital humanist until you apprentice and not being able to apprentice until you are a digital humanist. This is, to some extent, due to the youth of the discipline, but it is also due the understandable desire to resist becoming a rigid discipline with all the gates of departments, formal programs, and canonical skills. Further, the first generations of digital humanists, most of whom did not enter the field through formal avenues (how many of us have degrees in humanities computing?) are probably blind to the need for documented and open entry avenues. After all, if we risked our careers wandering in the wilderness, why shouldn't others? If we learned to learn on our own and in the face of disciplinary rejection, why shouldn't others? If our character was formed in the oedipal violence of interdisciplinary work, why shouldn't we ask others to follow that path?

We thus find ourselves in the ironic situation that the very frontier character that we thought was inclusive and character forming is now excluding those without access to apprenticeship opportunities we had. We find ourselves trying to develop formal programs that prepare new researchers and alternative academics where we have no experience with formal avenues (let alone respect for formal disciplinary avenues.) We compound the problem by trading in "war stories" that emphasize our independence and the glory frontier days while forgetting the luck, generosity, and forms of training we did receive. We would like to believe that we were special when, at least in my case, I was just lucky to get a job in a computing centre. Our stories are just that - stories we told ourselves in the cold to build the frontier community spirit. They are not the measured critical history of the field we should aspire to.

Beyond Stories. But I'm not worried about the stories so much as the problem of interdisciplinarity mentioned above. This is an issue we have discussed before (and will probably discuss again if one side or the other doesn't drive out the other.) It is the issue of maintaining the digital humanities as a commons while still providing open and inclusive ways into the commons. It is the problem of defining the community so that it is inclusive without being so undefined as to be meaningless. It is the problem of encouraging and supporting expertise without fixing skills as barriers.

I used to argue for disciplinarity at the expense of maintaining a commons. I used to think we should stop worrying about what the other disciplines thought about us; stop thinking of ourselves as a servile (as opposed to liberal) art that must support the application of computing to whatever problems come from our betters in the humanities. The advantage of choosing disciplinarity is that we can build formal ways in; we can develop graduate programs, skills training and a common discourse that provide people with open and negotiable guides to participation. If some level of programming is desirable we can create courses to introduce humanities students to coding and code studies rather than asking them to figure it out on their own (as we think we did.)

But, I am no longer confident that we want to take the route of forming a discipline with all its attendant institutions. We may want many of the institutions, but I am increasingly swayed by Willard McCarty's vision of interdisciplinarity as worked out in Humanities Computing. Is there some way to maintain both the permeability of an interdisciplinary commons where the perspectives of different disciplines are welcome in the commons while encouraging appropriate skills and rigour? Can we have it both ways - have both the commons and well articulated onramps?

One model is the relationship between statistics as a discipline and all the other disciplines from sociology to social work that apply it. We could maintain "humanities computing" as a designation for the study of methods that contributes to the commons and "digital humanities" for the broader and more inclusive commons. I believe this was the idea when people like John Unsworth introduced "digital humanities" as a more inclusive term so as to designate the breadth of activities by humanists using technology that don't necessarily come to our conferences or care about analytical tools as long as they work when they need them. Such a model would recognize that for application to work we need both specialists in the application of computing AND those bringing new problems in.

Above all I am convinced that the answers don't lie in what we have been, but in what we could be. I am encouraged by the whole unconference movement, especially THATcamp. These unconferences provide a different model of inclusion than that of experts (the in-crowd) lecturing (or training) the undigitized. They are chaotic, but when they work they allow a democratic sharing of gifts, including the unexpected gifts that are excluded by conferences. The spirit of unconferences is driven by new researchers bringing ideas and new techniques and creating a new "we" of community. At the unconferences I have participated in I get to be the student again learning to embroider smart fabrics or hack an interactive out of electronic trash. They create community without the traditional gatekeeping of the established - a more open and flexible commons that isn't defined by what an old guard thinks should be included. In such oedipal events there can be a violence to the accumulated and expected expertise valued by those long in the discipline (and tooth), but that tension is what it takes to renew a field and keep it open. May we have the grace to welcome the exuberance of passion of the next generation.



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