Literacy in the Digital Humanities: Or, a clueless “noob” in digital academe

Today my faculty group focused on the Digital Humanities here at Messiah College had a great session with Ryan Cordell from St. Norbert’s College.  Ryan blogs regularly for ProfHacker at the Chronicle of Higher Education, and holds down the Digital Humanities fort (or perhaps leads the insurgency) at St. Norbert’s.  He’s also especially done some work advising liberal arts colleges on projects in the Digital Humanities, so I thought he’d be a good choice for consulting.  I’m happy with the choice:  Ryan was practical and down-to-earth, while also pointing to really challenging and exciting places we could take some of our nascent ideas.  I think we came away with some good possibilities for next steps that will lead to some concrete action in the next year.  I highly recommend Ryan if your looking for a consultant for starting or managing digital humanities projects in a smaller school setting.

Earlier in the day I had had the good luck to look in on a massive twitter debate that was, unbeknownst to the participants, about or at least precipitated by me and a brief conversation I’d had with Ryan.  I’d told Ryan that one of my biggest concerns was professional development for faculty and getting them over some of the immediate humps of alienation that traditional humanistic scholars feel when confronted with what amounts to an alien DH world.  I mentioned the fact that I  and one of my colleagues, David Pettegrew--who is himself much more versed in technical know-how than I am–went to a THATCamp and spent the first two or three hours feeling completely lost and at sea, unable to fully comprehend half the language that was being used or the tasks that we were being asked to implement. I mentioned to Ryan that I felt that I probably needed to have had a half of a semester of a coding class before I would have gotten everything out of the THATCamp that I should have gotten.  Although that improved as things went along and we got in to concrete projects, and I also found everyone very gracious and the atmosphere enthusiastic,  I was worried that my faculty who were only interested in investigating (and perhaps then only after my pleading) would be discouraged or uninterested in engaging with DH if a THATCamp was their first experience.

Ryan mentioned this in a tweet yesterday.

All-twitter-hell broke loose.

Well, not really.  In fact it was a really fascinating and intellectually complex conversation–one I wouldn’t have thought could happen via Twitter.  I won’t try to completely replicate that conversation here.  You could go to Ryan’s twitter feed and find the essentials for yourself.  It was clear, though, that Ryan’s tweet had touched what amounted to a raw digital nerve.  Some twitterers were flabbergasted that anyone would find a THATCamp too daunting or that it could ever be alienating.  Others assumed that the problem definitely must have been with me, that I was too shy to ask for help.  Ultimately the conversation turned to a pretty serious engagement with the question of whether there were genuinely insider and exclusive groups and hierarchies within DH.

As a “noob”–which I discovered in the course of the twitter conversation yesterday is what I am–I am here to say without a hint of condemnation, “Yes, yes, yes there are.”

For me, this is not a moral or even a political statement, though it was very clear to me that for many people in the conversation this was a moral or political concern.  To admit to hierarchies and exclusivity was  a betrayal of the collaborative and radically democratic spirit that many feel is at the heart of DH work.  I will say that these collaborative aspects are part of what most attracts me to what’s going on in DH–as little as I actually do know;  I see it as a superb fit for some of the commitments my school has to the public humanities and to public service more generally, besides moving students in to more collaborative learning environments that will be useful to them in the world they are entering.

However, any academic discourse that is imaginable, maybe any discourse that is imaginable at all, operates by exclusion and inclusion simply given the facts that there are those who know the language and those who do not, there are those who are literate in the language and those who are not, there are those who are fluent in the language and those who are not, and there are those who are creators in with and of the language and there are those who are not.  It is impossible for me to imagine how this could be otherwise.

The reason DH can be difficult and alienating for beginners like me is because we don’t know enough of the language to even know what to ask for. I will say I mused over the question of whether I had just been too shy to ask for help at the THATCamp.  Being a fainting violet is not really a quality that will get you terribly far in administration, so I doubt it, but it may be that I could have asked for more help.  The problem was, I felt so lost that I wasn’t entirely sure what kind of help to ask for.  This is a basic function of discourse, to understand the parameters of the language games you are playing, to know what questions to ask, what moves to make and when, and where to go for the vocabulary you need.  Its why you need consultants like Ryan, or teachers who are in the know.  Its the rationale for the title of my post referencing Gerald Graff’s Clueless in Academe.  DH is obviously a part of academe, even in its alt-academic forms, and it is increasingly central to academic work in the humanities, and there are an awful lot of people who are clueless about where to begin.

There is nothing morally or politically wrong with this or with being a part of an in group.  To say there is would be to say there is something morally or politically wrong with being alive.  Hyper-Calvinists aside, I don’t think this is a tenable position.

The problem, however, from an administrators point of view–and I speak in to this conversation primarily as an administrator who is trying to facilitate the work of others and promote the well-being of our students–is the pathways toward accessing the language and practices of this world aren’t always terribly clear.  Indeed, ironically, I think some of the laudable democratic ethos in DH work and culture may contribute to this obscurity.  Because a THATCamp–and so much other DH work–is so democratically organized, it means that one experience, conference or workshop may in fact really work well for rank beginners, while another may really require attendees to be a little more versed in the basics before attending.

For me as a person and as a thinker, that’s fine.  I actually look forward to going to another THATCamp someday, even if I am just as lost as I was the first time around. My tenure no longer depends upon it–which gives me a freedom my junior faculty do not have.

However, as an administrator, that democratic quality is a disaster as I consider what kinds of professional development efforts to try to support with my faculty.  I would not be able to tell whether a particular experience would be appropriate for a rank beginner who is hesitantly interested or at least willing to give this a try.  Alternatively, I wouldn’t be able to know ahead of time whether a particular experience would be appropriate for a more advanced colleague who might go and get an iteration of the basics she already knows.  My ability to manage my budgets in a responsible fashion is hampered by my inability to gauge what kinds of professional development experiences I should pursue or promote with my colleagues who are at very different places in their experience of and expertise in DH methodologies and practices.

The traditional life of a humanist academic is elitist in its own obvious ways with its own arcana and exclusionary practices. But the pathway toward access to its languages is fairly well marked, even if it is now increasingly travelled successfully by the very lucky very few.  I could tell junior faculty members 10 years ago that if they wanted to succeed at my college they needed to do three or four things, and I could outline how they should go about doing them.  I don’t sense that kind of pathway to DH work, yet, so while I am wanting mightily to get my faculty more involved with some of these efforts, I’m also aware that without a clearer path for their own professional development, I may be as likely to facilitate confusion as I am to promote professional development.

This problem may simply disappear as DH becomes more and more central to the humanist enterprise, but I suspect as it does become more and more central that the pathways to access will have to become more and more clearly marked.  This means the development of disciplinary (or quasi-disciplinary–I am aware of the angst over thinking of DH as a discipline) protocols and expectations, and as importantly the expected means by which those elements of professional life are effectively accessed by beginners.

This means the recognition of certain gateways and the appointment of their gatekeepers, which all smacks a little bit of hierarchy and exclusion.  However, while it’s true that roadmaps undemocratically dominate a landscape, they also get you where you need to go.  And while gateways mark a boundary, they also let you in.

13 thoughts on “Literacy in the Digital Humanities: Or, a clueless “noob” in digital academe

  1. Pingback: Journal of the Digital Humanities: The Community as Gatekeeper | Read, Write, Now

  2. markmcdayter

    Thank you for this post. I don’t think I know of any “field” or “discipline” (or whatever we are calling it) within the Humanities that is more “welcoming” and eager to be loved than Digital Humanities — or any one that is more clueless about how to go about actually realizing those goals. The learning curve for “noobs” is immense and daunting, and while we *do* have things like THATCamps, there is some danger that even these may become inward-looking and somewhat clique-ish, if only by virtue of the language and assumptions that dominate such get-togethers.

    It’s a problem, as you note, and not just for the Digital Humanities, which is eager to expand and be embraced. Computers and technology aren’t going anywhere: they are bound to become more important in the study of the Humanities, and that soon. For this reason, the Digital Humanities is *vitally* important to Humanities as a whole, for If the existing DH community can’t find a way to bridge the current digital divide, then the Humanities as a whole is in grave danger of being left behind.

    1. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Ryan. I think you are absolutely on the mark that the future of the Humanities depends on figuring out these things. And, of course, its obviously a two-way street. Traditionally trained scholars and administrators such as me have to see the need and have to be willing to put in the time to achieve a difficult new knowledge base. I’m obviously most interested in figuring this out in my immediate situation in our School, where we have a very talented, committed, and EXTREMELY busy faculty, and where DH has only been a serious part of the conversation for anyone for about a year. I think in a very practical sense encouraging and facilitating faculty engagement with all of these humanities computing issues is one of the most important things I can be doing to securing the future of the Humanities in my own institution, and I think our situation is only one small case. This difficult transformation is true not only in the difficulties of figuring out how to even understand and use computer tools and languages, but also in more banal and mundane things like figuring out how to use e-books in a history or English class, or how to teach students to write for digital environments. I actually have found almost everyone associated with DH to be very congenial and welcoming, it’s just that they are doing it in a foreign language and I’m only just figuring out how to get beyond smiles, nods, and hand gestures.

  3. Katherine D. Harris

    Thank you for your post Peter. It’s an interesting insight into someone’s desire to engage with Digital Humanities. After participating in that Twitter conversation yesterday, I received a tweet asking if a particular project was DH or something else. Students were involved but the project already had an infrastructure. In other words, students were contributing content to a project that involves a topic/culture that is severely under-represented in Digital Humanities. So is the project Digital Humanities or Digital Pedagogy? The difference might be in the question you pose above about the use of e-books in a History course.

    Perhaps the best way to engage your faculty is through digital pedagogy first and then entice them into doing a Digital Humanities project. Digital Pedagogy means using some form of technology to mediate and even alter learning in a classroom environment. An e-book asks students to read, absorb, comment on materials that will inevitably alter their ideas.

    In the DH community, we are only just now organizing Digital Pedagogy as a subset of DH. You might take a look at my NITLE post to start ( where I link out to many other practitioners of Digital Pedagogy or see the DHCommons post that further discusses the participants’ needs from Digital Pedagogy (

    If you’re more interested in scholarship and research by faculty (and possibly including some students along the way), see Lisa Spiro’s article in the Journal of Digital Humanities (

    Some of the confusion about DH comes from immersing oneself. But, this is also the beauty of DH: How do you know the questions you want to ask until you get in there and work with the materials and the tools?

    And, welcome to the group! It’s ever expanding.

    1. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

      Katherine, thanks for this very generous reply (By the way, enjoyed your talk at the Re:Humanities conference). I have been noting this “divide”–if that’s what it is–between Digital Humanities and Digital Pedagogy in some of the twitter and other conversations online. I haven’t quite figured out exactly what the divide is about for the parties involved. For me, I am interested in the kinds of continuities that I think you are pointing to. I am EXTREMELY interested in getting faculty and students collaborating on projects in a way that would be both pedagogical and scholarly, if that makes sense. Our school is putting a big push on the notion of collaborative work between students and faculty, and I am convinced DH could be a good way to do that in our setting. On the other hand, I also want to just promote people working with simple available tools in the classroom–have students build web pages instead of or along side of writing research papers, have them figure out how to use iPhones creatively, or Google Docs. This kind of stuff isn’t quite as sexy and building an intricate digital tool to do advanced research, but it is practical and still important–and as I would see it part of a pathway toward deeper engagements, especially for students in their 20s.

      The immersion thing is difficult. We are a teaching institution with heavy teaching loads and faculty don’t have that much time to experiment–we do support scholarship, but other than sabbaticals that typically means reductions from a very heavy load to just a heavy load. If I could give them all a semester to immerse themselves in a project I would, but I think the average faculty member–especially mid-career faculty–is ruthlessly pragmatic with her time–which for me means that if I can get them to experiment with one tool, even a low level tool, I’m pretty happy. For more advanced work I’m probably going to have to rely on smaller numbers, a handful that has already immersed themselves in graduate school or on their own because of a passionate inclination, and then try to build a handful of others who can play supporting roles. That’s the hazy vision at the moment. And, of course, I feel that even though I’m approaching this as an administrator, I have to put my money where my mouth is by getting to know some of the discourses and practices myself so I can understand what the faculty are facing and trying to work through. (I told another administrative colleague that if I wasn’t in administration I’d be going whole hog for this, both because I’m fascinated with the possibilities, and because I’m convinced some familiarity is going to be a necessary part of the skill set in another 10 years or so.

      1. triproftri

        First, I really think you should be applauded for encouraging your faculty to explore in this DH/DP area. It’s not many administrators that are excited about the field and/or want to take a deep dive. So, you are unusual in that respect. Plus, it’s a totally wild/cowboy/girl-esque field, and has been for years. We kind of cherish working outside the boundaries sometimes. It’s of late that we see the need for working further inside the boundaries.

        And, I get it about the heavy teaching load. Often, I sneak DH into my courses without telling the students (TechnoRomanticism was one of them). Other times, I engage with Digital Pedagogy and then chat with the students about it. But, I have to say, I came to the field on my own as a graduate student and the continued my work through pedagogy because, quite frankly, that’s what my university pays me to do. We too have extremely heavy teaching loads, and experimentation becomes risky because of yearly reviews for all levels of faculty (and more so for adjuncts). My use of new forms of Digital Pedagogy is often equated with other revisions to course materials such as revising a lecture. But, it’s been my job to try to let my colleagues know that there’s more to using technology, not to mention the labor upon me for DIY (which I heartily enjoy, I must admit).

        Do you think you could convince your faculty to explore by changing 1 assignment? or even using 1 tool on a single day? of if they had someone help them with that single assignment by providing the language for the assignment, the help with teaching the tech skill, and then the assessment strategies or even an exact grading rubric? What if there were a store of these kinds of materials? Could you entice the faculty to work towards Digital Pedagogy in this way? Perhaps even then extending this labor into their own work?

        Case in point: I really am intrigued by data mining & topic modeling. The programming and corpus preparation are totally beyond my scope of knowledge. I don’t have time, even while on sabbatical, to immerse myself in this complicated field. But, I have a corpus. Thanks to Twitter, I now have someone willing to help with this (Ted Underwood), and a willing set of collaborators on Twitter. My next thought is to make this a class project, not just my lonely self sifting through the data and the results: I’m looking at 96 Gothic short stories published in an early 19th C serial to determine why they were published so prolifically in this particular genre and if the stories shifted the classic gothic tropes into a new form of gothicism for the rest of the 1930s-?. So, I have a question. Can a course be formed around this? Probably a portion of one. Now, which course will that be? Can I experiment first in an upper division English major’s course? I probably should since these students will be more prepared in their critical thinking skills. The biggest dilemma for me: will my chair and the current curriculum committee offer me the course in which to do this? Right now, probably not since the Chair is somewhat hesitant about my use of digital pedagogy/humanities in his undergraduate spaces. Will I be able to do this under-the-radar in some lit course that’s currently assigned to me? Sure!

        So, you see, by the very fact that you are aware of the progress and experimentation with Digital Humanities and Digital Pedagogy, you can encourage your faculty and chairs to take very small bites of cake. I hope you do. And, am extremely interested to hear about your take on it from an administrator’s POV. I think this is where I don’t understand how to convince my (yet to be named) Dean about the efficacy of DH/DP. Maybe you can help me with that??

        In any event, please keep blogging about all of these issues!!

  4. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

    Very interesting, Katherine. I have been interested by how much of this work is being done by people who are more at the margins of the academy, or working jobs away from the big research institutions. I was really surprised to discover, for instance, that Ryan Cordell mostly works on his own at St. Norberts, and at the Re:Humanities conference that the folks at the Tri-Co colleges in the Philly area have very much felt that they were just out there on their own until very recently. Our picture of the Digital Humanities, partly just because our Historians have been taking the lead for us here, was more the stuff coming out of George Mason or Duke (the Digital Durham project), i.e. big places with lots of funding that left us a little bit anxious about whether anything could be accomplished in our smaller, less resourced setting. When Ryan told us a few days ago that if we had 12 people sitting around the table even talking about DH we were ahead of the game, I was about floored, and it made me very grateful for my faculty, since a number of them are sitting at the table without being entirely sure it will go anywhere for them after the biweekly meetings this year.

    Re. faculty familiarity, yes, I think many faculty have been willing to engage at the level of the discrete assignment. We started a college-wide mobile technology innovations project this year, and a number of faculty in my school really picked up the ball. It was kind of a “throw iPads at them and see what they do” kind of experiment, which in retrospect could have perhaps been more focused and goal oriented, but a number of individual projects and research projects were very good and interesting. We had an English prof experiment with getting students back in touch with the orality of poetry, and other English prof work on composing multimedia texts in a composition theory and pedagogy course, a History prof investigate the relative merits of using iPads for studying Classics, and an archeology prof (David Pettegrew mentioned above) incorporate iPads in to the reporting mechanisms for his field work with students. I’m trying to continue to support that kind of thing with what funds I have since our capital funds have been cut for next year (a headache everywhere). I think these kinds of things are the first step in getting students and faculty working collaboratively on research projects that could include digital components or could be full-blown DH projects–whatever that means :-).

    Re. working with your own administration, I think it’s important to recognize that every administrative culture is unique and every administrator is dealing with a host of problems that they are having to balance and work through. It is helpful if you can go to an administrator and show him how a plan you have solves problems or addresses several issues that fall in to his bailiwick. He/she can start to think of it as an avenue for change rather than one more thing he/she has to worry about. Although this isn’t the reputation, I think most administrators are genuinely interested in effecting significant and lasting change in their institutions, and frustrated that they don’t have the resources or can’t cobble together the critical mass to accomplish it. Even then, your dean may face the daunting challenge of convincing his higher ups that this new thing is the way to go. Every administrator is always weighing the political capital they have to spend–with senior faculty, with his superiors up the food chain, etcetera, etcetera.

    In our instance, several things have come together that have convinced me that this is what I need to put my weight behind. Some of it was just native interest on my part. I’ve always been intrigued by digital pedagogy as you call it, but employed it somewhat haphazardly over the years. Second, we have a strong history department with a lot of interest in this area. Third, our school has put a lot of emphasis on developing in the areas of technology, especially in delivering our educational program, and there has been capital to do it (cut for next year, but that is probably a one time deal to make sure we could make up for some steady state faculty salaries the last few years). Fourth, we’ve had significant erosion in our student recruitment in the humanities since 2005, so it has everyone’s attention and has generated conversations about what kinds of changes in our programs would best prepared students for the future, and also attract students to our programming. Fifth, the college-wide strategic plan is calling for efforts to encourage and facilitate more undergraduate research and especially collaborative research between faculty and students. DH would be the ticket for us there, I think.

    So you can see that this is a confluence of things coming together where I think Digital Humanities could make a big difference. I still have to get my superiors on board–even Deans don’t have that much power–but so far the Provost and President have been interested in where these conversations are going, and they’ve been supportive of me continuing to formulate plans and facilitate faculty development in this area.

  5. Pingback: What is the Digital Humanities and Where can I get some of it? | Read, Write, Now

  6. Pingback: My Latest at NITLE’s Techne Blog: A Glossary of Digital Humanities? « Rebecca Frost Davis

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