Decoding DigiHumanities: “Building Things”

I’m joining–for the first time ever–the Decoding Digital Humanities Bloomington Group for their March discussion, which is organized around the theme of “Building Things.”  Three articles are up for discussion:

After the jump, I listed what I consider to be significant or valuable claims made in each article; the bulleted lists, in other words, aren’t summaries.  Then, I recorded the issues and questions Ramsay and Kirschenbaum’s readings have raised for me.  Mostly, I’m doing this because I need to prepare for the discussion a little earlier than I’d like, and since I’m just beginning to explore the digital humanities as a discipline, keeping a detailed record of my thought process will be important.  (According to some, my newness to discussions about the disciplinarity of DH doesn‘t mean I’m not participating in the field.  As Lincoln Mullen says, “we’re all digital humanists now” because the field is a wide spectrum of activities.)  Additionally, I thought that blogging my reading process might be an interesting exercise, given that I’m preparing for a DH discussion about “building.”

[Note: After perusing the selections above, I’m struck by the extent to which Ramsay and Kirschenbaum’s pieces ended up contextualizing my motivations for blogging the reading process, which does not qualify as building–or even make me a digital humanist–according to the readings.]

[Note 2: I wrote the wrap-up discussion for the meeting, which is available at Decoding Digital Humanities’ tumblr site.]

Take Away Points

Ramsay, “Who’s In and Who’s Out”

  • This piece is a transcript of his talk at the “History and Future of Digital Humanities” panel at the 2011 MLA.
  • Coding is an essential requirement of the digital humanist.
  • Why?  Coding is a practice: it is a method, and method is an essential component of disciplinary identity.
  • Also, coding is an important requirement of the digital humanities because Ramsay “says” so.  In his department, he can make the rules, and thus, the boundaries, of the discipline as it manifests in his institution.
  • Programs at other institutions may set different boundaries.  An institution’s weight may influence the extent to which their own disciplinary boundaries become replicated at other institutions.
  • Drawing disciplinary boundaries (i.e., deeming coding a “must”) might seem like an unattractive move in a field which promotes access and inclusion, but it is necessary for the survival of the discipline.

Ramsay, “On Building”

  • This piece represents a follow-up to his MLA panel comments.
  • Building (coding construed more broadly) is an important part of being a digital humanist.
  • Why?  It represents a “move from reading and critiquing to building and making.”
  • This step is more “radical” than merely “taking the traditional methods of humanistic inquiry and applying them to digital objects.”
  • Why?  Because building alongside reading and critiquing generates unique insights that can’t be gleaned if one only were to observe, theorize, etc.

Kirschenbaum, “Hello Worlds: Why Humanities Students Should Learn to Program”

  • Why “should?”  Pragmatically speaking, students whose projects would benefit from knowing how to code should do so.  (Importantly, they should be given credit for this work at the program level–say, credit for completing a language proficiency requirement.)
  • Coding also could be of interest to humanities scholars:
  • Because it is a language that is employed by and must be legible to humans, coding has aesthetic and stylistic properties that are variable and rich.
  • Coding is contemporary poesis. (I like this one!)
  • Coding creates texts which generate (virtual) worlds, and these worlds have “ideological” and “rhetorical” significance, as they are both distortions and reflects of the real world. This claim is akin to the assertions that literary texts are representations of the larger world, and the nuances of these representations are significant.

Implications and Questions

Building things here.  Or not. According to Ramsay, by “merely” blogging my thought process and discussion notes, I’m not really building.

Why doesn’t blogging qualify as building? required, to my surprise, a lot of building–selecting a theme or “grid,” deciding on the number of pages, choosing widgets and personalizing their content, selecting colors, opting for a gravatar (or not), the list goes on (and on).  I’m not asking this question because I’m offended by Ramsay’s perspective of this activity; rather, I’m simply curious.   What other building activities involve making but not coding?

Also, would I be building if I switched from the “visual” to “html” view in WordPress in order to manually code my blog post?  Or is this form of blogging still too “archaic”?

Knowledge vs. Skill vs. Use. Since I don’t code (although I do know some XHTML, a web mark-up language), I’m apparently not a digital humanist by some standards.  But what if I did?

What kinds of code does one have to know–and in how skillful a way must one employ them–to qualify as a “builder” (aka, a “knower” of code), and therefore, a digital humanist?

Studying virtual worlds. I like Kirschenbaum’s statements about virtual worlds–coding creates a text which generates an ideologically and rhetorically significant model of the real world.  But, I’m a little confused (and I mean this genuinely). 

In discussing the significance of a virtual world (its function as a model), what is gained and lost when (1) we don’t consider code at all, (2) consider code but haven’t built it, and/or (3) consider code and have built it?  And am I correct in assuming that Kirschenbaum would advocate (2) and Ramsay would advocate (3) (based on their articles above)?  And can (2) be accomplished at all (thus making (1) and (3) the only options)?

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Posted in Life of the Mind

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Dr. Amy Rubens
I'm an "ambulant scholar," and I move among several worlds. As a professor of English, I research and write for audiences within and outside of academia. As a teacher of writing, literature, and culture, I facilitate learning. As a blogger, I critique, question, and reflect. Learn more about this blog and the work I do as a professor and workplace writing consultant.

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