So do I Count as a Digital Humanist?

I’ve never really been a technophile. I stopped playing video games right around the time Sega became uncool. And other than AIM and myspace, my early experiences with technology resembled more of a user than a creator. Academically, I became interested in technology from a social and cultural perspective. My MA thesis argued that the Tea Party drew from populist rhetorical tropes in their deployment of technology in everything from recruitment to identify-formation. But when I first started my rhetoric and composition PhD program at TCU and presented at the 2012 Computers and Writing Conference in Raleigh, NC, I was a bit out of my element when I attended the Town Hall on computational literacy. There, I heard David M. Reider proclaim: “If you can’t write code, if you can’t think with code, if you can’t write algorithmically, you may eventually find yourself stuck in the logocentric sands of the past.”

Woah!

And even though Elizabeth Losh tempered Redier’s provocation with: “Relax, be confident in your own abilities to learn new things, ask questions, facilitate the questions of others, and network in ways that help you make new friends,” It was nice of her to say. But I was still anxious. I wanted to study the social and cultural issues with technology–I didn’t think I had to actually do work with technology. Two years later and I’m still not quite sure where I stand. My reading in literacy studies cautions me against adopting language imperatives. Though I do agree that it makes sense to be up-to-date on conversations and practices in the field–on which I have been keeping a cautious eye over the years. I’ve stepped my game up in a few areas, too. I co-designed an advertisement for my department in this year’s Rhetoric Society of America program. I attended the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria where I earned a certificate in Network Analysis (and I even learned some really great programs that I actually use to analyze data in my dissertation).

But is that enough? The imperative to “learn the new language” of the field is still daunting to me. This question is especially complicated by the work I’ve been doing lately. Over the past year I’ve been working on with a group of Transatlantic Studies scholars on a website devoted to transatlantic pedagogy. The site complements and supplements their larger book project called Teaching Transatlanticism (In which I have a chapter!) and also functions as a collaborative space to share teaching resources, lesson plans, information on academic programs, and even reading lists. It’s been a really fun process. I was involved in the early stages of applying for the grant to fund the project; I was in the meetings with the Dean of the Libraries to collaborate on housing the site on our institution’s servers; And I work diligently with another graduate student and the digital services librarian (the real rockstar of the group) to design, code, and update the site. So despite the topic of the material (which is quite out of my range intellectually) I feel like this site is my baby. It was a hard sell to get me on board, too. My experience with webdesign a year ago was limited. But when I was asked to help with the site I was reminded of an essay written by my advisor several years ago on how she worked with other faculty to open a New Media Writing Studio on campus despite their limited experience with new media composing. They utilized a theory of “emergent learning” in which they moved forward without knowing all the answers, making do with the resources at their disposal, and sharing knowledge created in this environment with the community along the way. So I decided to move forward, without knowing much about coding or design, and began collaborating with people who knew more than me. Now, a year later, I’m certainly no expert but I know a couple things I didn’t before. And perhaps more importantly, I know even more about collaboration. Working together with people from different backgrounds on a shared goal, we combined resources, expertise, and knowledge to create something beneficial to more than one community.

But does that “count” as a digital humanist? Just like in Computers and Composition, we see similar debates in the DH crowd. Just a year before the 2012 Computers and Writing Conference, for instance, Stephan Ramsey gave a talk called “Who’s in and Who’s Out,” which Mathew K Gold quotes in his incredible collection Debates in the Digital Humanities

Digital Humanities is not some airy Lyceum. It is a series of concrete instantiations involving money, students, funding agencies, big schools, little schools, programs, curricula, old guards, new guards, gatekeepers, and prestige…do you have to know how to code [to be a digital humanist]? I’m a tenured professor of digital humanities and I say ‘yes.’ …Personally, I think Digital Humanities is about building things…if you are not making anything, you are not…a digital humanist.

Ramsey and Reider, both from different yet overlapping intellectual perspectives, both making fairly similar pronouncements about the imperative of scholars in the field proclaiming to be “digital” in some way, both at a very formative time in my intellectual life, simultaneously inspired and terrified me as a scholar. These pronouncements were ultimately motivating to me, despite what some may argue is an underlying beef between DH and C&W.

Like most things, the only camp I really want to be in is the one that puts scholars and teachers of all things related to language and literacy on the forefront of public debate. In other words, if the work we are doing is innovative, rigorous, and responsive to the communities in which we live and work, then I want to learn it, teach it, and use it to make a difference. This imperative is, of course, tempered with reluctant optimism. I don’t want the imperative to code to mean a modern extermination of a vernacular language in the effort to maintain the privilege of an elite literacy. That’s a little hyperbolic, I know. But I do bristle when I hear someone tell me that coding is the new language everyone must speak, or that WISIWIG sites are trapped in a kind of logocentrism. Then again, recent work in multimodal composing shows us quite poignantly that using html in digital composing practices is indeed a culturally relevant practice that many people already use to make meaning. Others have made similar arguments like the 2012 C&W town hall, suggesting that the time for scholars to learn html is now, while others, like myself, caution against proclaiming that the command line is some sacred space superior to the “WYSIWYG world of lay-users.” My experiences so far have aligned more closely with Liz Losh’s cogent advice to relax, be confident, ask questions, facilitate the questions of others, and to network strategically. I would add a few more things to that as well:1) Collaborate with people who know more than you. Strategic collaboration makes new friends and teaches you new skills; 2) Put yourself in intellectually uncomfortable positions, whether through those aforementioned collaborations or through certificates, conferences, and projects that aren’t seemingly related to your world. You learn several things this way: namely, the importance of work disconnected from your own work and also that your own work is not as disconnected to theirs as you may have thought; 3) Don’t sell yourself short. Learning new computational research strategies is indeed important, but our other social and cultural expertise is also important. In other words, while asking myself: “How can I incorporate critical code studies and digital humanities into my own work?” I should also be unafraid to ask: “How can the DH and C&W crowd better incorporate my work on public rhetoric and cultural studies? This was reinforced pointedly for me in my initial meeting with the library to request that they house our website on their servers. After pitching to them how great our website could be to their public and institutional ethos, a colleague of mine segued rather bluntly into: “So what do you think the library can do for us?” In other words, the digital turn in composition and writing studies is an inherently collaborative effort. We must not sell our individual and local expertise short in these exchanges for we’ll lose sight of our mutual goal of a more engaged, informed, rhetorically savvy public.

I’ve come a long way since the Sega, and a long way since 2012. But I still maintain a reserved, reluctant optimism at this fascinating point in our intellectual landscape, one that I hope equips me with new skills, fresh insight, and new friends across disciplines.

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