Tag Archives: Clueless in Academe

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.