Blog Lab: Day of Digital Humanities 2013

On April 8th, I participated in Michigan State University’s Day of Digital Humanities, or Day of DH (#dayofdh) on twitter.

As part of my activities, I blogged at a special site, but I wanted to share some of my work here, including my first comprehensive post, “DH From My Office Window: Or, Can DH Be More Than Coding?”

In that post, I mentioned my work with The Ambulant Scholar. In March of 2011, I published two short pieces about DH and explained how I came to believe in the assertion that to do DH means to code, or build a tool or platform using a programming language.

My definition of DH has expanded and now encompasses broader acts of building. Building a website and blog could be considered one of those acts.

To be clear, blogging is not necessarily doing DH if this act only encompasses writing in a digital environment. Laura Mandell clarifies this exclusion, albeit more abstractly, in the Journal of Digital Humanities

Digital scholarship is not…simply scholarship that takes place in digital media: all the digitized journal articles in JSTOR and Project Muse do that, and in fact all publications either now or will shortly have some kind of digital manifestation, even books. Most e-books might as well be books.

Of course, Mandell also notes some exceptions to this assertion. For instance, when one is digitizing and editing an archive of materials that are of interest to others but are not considered marketable by publishers.

Keep reading after the jump for the story of how my views of DH have changed, and how The Ambulant Scholar is a part of that story.

“DH from My Office Window: Or, Can DH Be More Than Coding?”

I understand DH—now, at least—as an approach to building digital tools and platforms that help produce, preserve, or circulate scholarship in the humanities. For me, these fields are primarily American literature, the medical humanities, and various branches of composition, including professional writing. DH also involves creating tools and platforms that can be used in the classroom to help students—including undergraduates—do the same with their research. Importantly, my view of DH’s goals necessarily encompasses the building of tools and platforms that facilitate not only institutional service, but also public service in the humanities.

In other words, I do not now ascribe to the narrow belief that DH involves only coding, or the building of tools and platforms by writing source code using a programming language like Python or C++.

But I did once. I believed that building in DH meant—and only meant—coding.

I first heard of DH back in 2011 when I was still a graduate student. I attended a roundtable discussion at one of my favorite Irish pubs in Bloomington, Indiana. The roundtable was to occur monthly and was organized by a graduate student in my cohort who, in addition to finishing his PhD, was working on a second degree in Library and Information and Science.

The series was called “Decoding the Digital Humanities,” and the roundtable I attended—the first ever held, in fact—was organized around decoding, a defining but also polarizing element of DH.

To guide our discussion, we read two foundational texts in DH: Stephen Ramsay’s “Who’s In and Who’s Out” and Matthew Kirschenbaum’s “Hello Worlds: Why Humanities Students Should Learn to Program.”

I blogged about the readings and our discussion of them. This was during the early days of my scholarly/professional blog, The Ambulant Scholar. In 2011, blogging, like DH, was brand new to me, and I hesitate in [drawing attention] those posts, but I will to demonstrate how my understanding of DH has evolved from a building-as-coding-practice to something much broader. My subsequent academic experiences and professional affiliations indeed have moved me from this narrow view of DH to another—one which fills my office window, albeit it metaphorically, every day.

Whereas this older, narrower version of DH excluded me as someone who does DH, this evolved understanding brings me into the fold and allows me to frame my labor more effectively in tenure and promotion documents.

So where am I at academically and professionally now, two years later? I finished my PhD in 2012. During the final push, I blogged for Inside Higher Ed’s GradHacker on a monthly basis. I started a tenure-track position as Assistant Professor of English at Francis Marion University in the fall of 2012. I’m really lucky in this respect. While I was fortunate that my job search concluded successfully, I was fully aware of the reality of the academic market. As early as 2011, I had been applying for a variety of positions within and outside of academia, and I continued to apply for non-academic jobs up until I accepted the position at Francis Marion.

At Francis Marion, I regularly teach composition and business writing courses. Next fall, I’ll teach a medical humanities-themed composition course, and next spring, I’ll teach a 400-level literature class on themes of illness and medicine in post-Civil War American literature. One could say I wear many teaching hats! I also teach a lot of students: up to 80 students in the fall across four sections, and up to 60 students in the spring across three sections.

Francis Marion, then, is very much a teaching-focused school, and with only 4,000 students, it’s relatively easy for students to have meaningful interactions with professors—and vice versa. Who is the average Francis Marion student? Many are African American; many are the first in their families to attend college; many are from the Pee Dee region; many have been historically underserved in their education from preschool to high school. We are a state school, yet we do not receive even a quarter of our operating budget from the state. Most of our budget comes from tuition and private donors, but our tuition prices are some of the lowest in the state.

I’m proud that we are able to offer our students an affordable education. While I feel it is a quality education, I wonder if we could do more if we had more financial resources, particularly to use towards computers, software, and other related technology.

All of these experiences, combined with my current academic and professional surroundings, make it nearly impossible for me to learn to code. To be sure, I can apply for travel and professional development funds to take a coding class or to travel to a THATCamp about coding. I could even take a C++ or programming class at Francis Marion for free! However, my teaching, research, and service loads simply leave me little time to learn to code in ways that produce useful projects—for scholars, my students, the public—that also would count towards tenure and promotion.

I do have the financial resources, time, and incentive to fashion tools and platforms from the fruits of others’ coding labor. My recent job market experiences make this familiar work to me. Thus, this year, I built and designed a new website and blog for our department using a WordPress installation. The word building here is important, as I constructed our website and blog based on the unique needs of our department. In getting this project off the ground, I learned that “building” in DH also means forming partnerships across the institutional spectrum.

In my DH future, I envision a different building project. As I mentioned in my first Day of DH blog post, I’d like to digitize and create an online repository for all twenty years’ worth of the Hoosier Res-Cuer, a monthly magazine written by and for residents of the Indiana State Sanatorium. How, though, will I secure funding for such a project—one that involves expensive scanning equipment? I’d likely have to secure external funding: Why would Francis Marion, a school in South Carolina, help me preserve what seems like a regionally-focused archive that they don’t even own? Furthermore, if I were to get funding, how would I get permission to start the project? Would I need to be affiliated with Indiana University, as they own the materials?

In closing, as I think back to my original views on DH, I was naïve to think they’d stay the same. They were destined to change based on the skills I’ve acquired and how I presently utilize them within my unique institutional, professional, and scholarly positioning.

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Posted in Blog Lab, Digital Humanities, Medical Humanities

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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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