Programming and Digital Humanities

In August this year, there were two almost consecutive threads on the Humanist mailing list that I found rather disturbing. The first, with the subject “getting involved”[0], seemed to reach a semi-consensus among its participants that digital humanists should be able to do some programming, at the least. In the second, with the subject “designing an academic DH department?”[1], people gave their views on the ideal makeup of such a department. Here’s part of one response, from amsler@cs.utexas.edu[2]:

I would see it as involding two clusters of people. The digital
humanists and the computer technologists / engineers who were employed within the digital humanities group as dedicated to that group itself. Roughly, I’d see a ratio of 1 computer / engineering professional to 5 or so digital humanists…

[I]n the traditional university environment, where you’d have separate computer science/engineering departments and a digital humanities department […] you’d wind up with the digital humanities having just computer support staff and the computer science/engineering departments having the truly creative people. That is, the best minds in computing & engineering wouldn’t be thinking about digital humanities ideas unless for some reason the computer science / engineering departments happened to pick up someone with those “outside” interests.

So this department would have five digital humanists getting the one creative computer scientist to implement all of their ideas, while s/he also does his/her own research and implementation? What exactly makes the humanists “digital”, then? And why would a creative computer scientist want to be the dogsbody of the group?

And from Darren Harkness[3]:

For an active DH department of 12-24 scholars, I would likely recommend a minimum of two developers, ideally split between highly structured languages such as Java and Python and less structured languages like PHP and perl as a way to cover most of your faculty’s needs. I would likely recruit a senior Java developer and a junior web developer with good research skills.

Am I simply reading these messages incorrectly, or is actual development/programming not what digital humanists do, in spite of the rhetoric? The ratios, in particular, don’t speak of the technical people being considered as anything like equal colleagues. This feels, to me, like a big problem.

[0] Both this and the later thread are available in the Humanist archive, though why a mailing list in this day and age doesn’t have threaded, dated, and searchable archives is beyond me. The first post in the “getting involved” thread is dated 19 August 2010.

[1] First post dated 1 September 2010.

[2] Message-Id: <20100825214431.B9F356395B@woodward.joyent.us>

[3] Message-Id: <20100827004713.D2F8D63E68@woodward.joyent.us>

2 thoughts on “Programming and Digital Humanities

  1. I’ve not been following the Humanist thread, but when I saw the passages you cited, my first thought was, “What are these so-called ‘Digital Humanists’ actually doing, if they want computer scientists/engineers available to implement their ideas?”

    I agree that an ideal Digital Humanities group (whether a department, the research team for a single project, or a whole community) needs a fair mix of people with very hard computing training and skills, people with humanities backgrounds but at least adequately versed in encoding and scripting, and people who are principally humanities scholars with a sympathy for and interest in computer applications and information science (I myself sit somewhere between the second and third of those categories). All of these people are “Digital Humanists”, however; to say anything else is to fetishize one half or another of the title.

    Just as, in my humanities field, you might be seen as somewhat problematic if you write about ancient history and classical culture without ever referring to Greek or Latin texts in the original languages, if you claim to write about Digital Humanities without ever “getting your hands dirty” with code (be that markup or scripting), you should expect raised eyebrows.

  2. I suppose the question of the Dig/Hum balance is going to depend on what you conceive of as the point of the discipline. I’ve just posted a fairly lengthy ramble on my own take on this, the short version of which would be that the purpose of DigHum properly so called is experimenting with the digital medium in order to experiment with the material. From this it would follow that one needs a pretty supple understanding of both ends of the equation.

    It’s obviously a tall order, and any given individual is going to be stronger on/more committed to one side than the other. But what worried me about the Humanist conversation was that, while the notion that DigHum was experimental and exploratory was very much in the air, the people concerned seemed to conceive of the process as one whereby the humanities scholar thought of a whizzy new idea and then gave it to the developer who could carry it out – and that’s not how it works, both because the developer should ideally keep some dignity in the process, and because experimentation can’t proceed in this take-a-decision-and-stick-to-it way. Experimentation in any medium involves a continual interplay of form and content while you explore the potentials of both — whereas the various Humanist contributors clearly preferred to remain as theoretical as possible. A problem, I suppose, that besets the discipline as a whole.

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