How to Make a Digital Humanist? DHSI, Victoria, BC, Canada, 8 June 2012

I’ve blogged here the Prezi and notes from the colloquium talk I gave at DHSI 2012.

The title of my presentation today, as it appears in the schedule, is “How to make a digital humanist.” The title of the presentation, as it appeared in the proposal I submitted back in December 2011, was [next slide] “How to make a digital humanist?” So, for those of you who were hoping for a recipe, a set of instructions on how to train the next generation of DHers, you are probably going to be disappointed, because what I’d really like to do is ask some questions. Or at the very least, propose a framework for generating questions, the answers to which may help to define not only digital humanities pedagogy, but digital humanities as a discipline.

As a community, digital humanists generally agree our work requires some level of technical competence. The NEH Summer Institutes, THATCamp bootcamps, and of course, DHSI have all come about in order to fill this perceived need to develop the technical literacy of humanists who are engaged or interested in digital scholarship. We sometimes disagree, however, on the details regarding the exact of level of expertise, the precise composition of the skill set, or the identity of “essential” technologies.

This disagreement about how much and what sort of technical expertise is required to do digital humanities work can, I think, fairly be characterized as part of a larger conversation within the discipline about the relative importance of building or “hacking,” and theory or “yacking” in DH. For some, building and doing takes precedence. [next slide] Others question that paradigm. [next slide] And the meanings of the terms themselves—of hacking, building, yacking, theory—are to an extent the subject of this debate. Thus, in her recent blog post, which was a Digital Humanities Now Editor’s Choice selection, Adeline Koh sums up the “hack” v. “yack” debate this way [next slide]:

One of the most prevalent debates within the Digital Humanities (DH) is the idea that practitioners should just go about doing rather than talking, or to practice “more hack, less yack.” In other words, instead of pontificating and problematizing, DH scholars should be more concerned with making stuff, and making stuff happen. The “more hack, less yack” mantra has been going on for a while now, and has brushed up against some challenges. . . . In many of these debates, it seems as though the “theoretification” of DH is viewed with suspicion as it disturbs the implicit good nature of much of the DH community.

In her thoughtful response to Koh’s post, [next slide] Bethany Nowviskie argues that, rather than summing up a divide between doing or building on the one hand, and theorizing or conversing on the other, “more hack, less yack” is instead “a rallying call for a different kind of conversation-having — not a desire to shut down conversation.”

So, for Koh, the “more hack, less yack” debate involves big, potentially discipline-defining questions about the roles that building or coding, and theorizing or critiquing should play as part of digital humanities work. For Nowviskie, the debate seems to involve somewhat narrower, but still very important questions, about scholarly communication and how digital humanists explain the work of DH. For me, the really fascinating, and ultimately very productive, thing about this conversation regarding how DH will define itself (or maybe not) as a discipline, is how the questions raised on both sides ultimately converge with clearly pedagogical concerns. [next slide]. In attempting to understand how building and theory factor into the disciplinary mix, we are really asking ourselves, “What do would be digital humanists need to know, in order to do what digital humanists do?” And, in considering how DH can or should transform how and for whom we present our scholarship, we are in turn asking, “How do we most effectively explain the work of digital humanities to those who are interested in learning what digital humanists know?”

Representing the “more hack, less yack” debate this way, from a pedagogical perspective, demonstrates very powerfully how those engaged in teaching DH are also, of necessity, engaging with some of the most pressing questions of DH scholarship. It also suggests that redefining or reconfiguring disciplinarity in the humanities may necessarily involve a reconfiguration of humanities pedagogy. [new slide] Applied research in learning theory and learning psychology has increasingly become concerned with approaches to learning. A “learning approach” consists of both an intent and a method. It is a strategy, often consciously adopted to achieve a certain goal. To the extent different disciplines involve different goals, they also require different approaches to accomplish those goals. If teaching traditional humanists to be digital humanists involves teaching new things, then we may need to introduce new methods for teaching them.

We should be wary, though, of simply replicating best practices from the computer sciences. Not only do the goals of computational training in the digital humanities perhaps differ from those in the computational sciences, but students in the digital humanities, and the learning opportunities available to us, may differ in significant ways from what one usually finds in the computer sciences. [next slide] I don’t mean to say that digital humanities learners are more likely to be artsy, or worse at math, or smarter than computer science learners. Rather, I’m suggesting we may bring different experiences, particularly different learning experiences to the classroom. We need to be aware of how those learning experiences translate into learning approaches with which we are comfortable, and which have been successful for us. We also need to be aware of how well those learning approaches work, or maybe don’t in new and perhaps qualitatively different learning situations.

Finally, a turn to the scholarship of teaching and learning, also highlights how teaching is itself a kind of building, or maybe it’s a kind of scholarship. I think we can all agree that effective teaching is certainly a constructive activity. [next slide] It involves the application of theoretical approaches in dynamic situations where the stakes can be very high. Teachers of digital humanities are engaging with some of the most pressing concerns of digital humanities scholarship. Many of them are also contributing to the store of public knowledge resources upon which we will continue building our discipline. As we think about how digital humanities may redefine the landscape of humanities scholarship, maybe rethinking the distinctions we sometimes make between hacking and yacking, we might also have an opportunity to rethink the distinction we make between teaching and scholarship.