I’m sorry. I need to vent. If you think you will be offended, continue at your own risk. You have been warned.
Several weeks ago, the whole Digital Humanities Theory, or Hack vs. Yack, debate sprung to life once more with a post by @ncecire. I have since read several other posts on this issue, calling for more communication, more give and take, more attention to political realities between Theory and DH.
However, I find many of the comments in these pieces insulting to those of us who work on DH projects. I doubt this is intentional, but I feel the need to defend the theoretical work already being done, while looking forward to incorporating even more ideas. Debate is good. In the academy, debate over terminology is inevitable yet often productive. So here is my rant:
I am sick and tired of people saying that my friends, my colleagues, and I do not understand or care about theory.
Every digital humanities project I have ever worked on or heard about is steeped in theoretical implications AND THEIR CREATORS KNOW IT. And we know it whether we are classed as faculty or staff by our organizations. Libraries and other groups involved in DH are full of people with advanced degrees in the humanities who aren’t faculty, as well as plenty of people without those advanced degrees who know their theory anyway. Ever heard of #alt-ac? The hashtag is new; the concept is not.
I have attended physical weeks of meetings to discuss terminology for everything from personal status (Do we label someone a “slave” or “an enslaved person?” If we have an occupations list should we include “wife,” if so should we include “husband?” What about “homemaker?”) to political structures (When do we call something an “empire?” Is “nation” an anachronism in this period?). I’ve seen presenters grilled on the way they display their index — and heard soul searching, intellectually rigorous justifications for chronological, thematic, alphabetic, or randomized results.
Just this week I was presenting The Early American Foreign Service Database and got the question “So where is the theory in all of this?” Before I could answer with my standard, diplomatic but hopefully though-provoking, response a longtime DHer called out “The database is the theory! This is real theoretical work!” I could have hugged her.
When we create these systems we bring our theoretical understandings to bear on our digital projects including (but not limited to) decisions about: controlled vocabulary (or the lack thereof), search algorithms, interface design, color palettes, and data structure. Is every DH project a perfect gem of theoretically rigorous investigation? Of course not. Is every monograph? Don’t make me laugh.
I have spent so much time explaining the theoretical decisions underlying Project Quincy, that I wrote a program to allow database designers to generate color-coded, annotated, interactive database diagrams in the hopes that more Humanist Readable documentation would make all our lives easier. (The program is called DAVILA.)
One of the most exciting things about DH is the chance to create new kinds of texts and arguments from the human experience. Data structures, visualizations, search tools, display tools . . . you name it . . . are all a part of this exploratory/discovery process.
So it’s time for me to stop ranting and, in the best of DH tradition, DO SOMETHING.
If we as DHers are creating something new, then I believe our vocation includes teaching others how to read our work. If someone looks at The Early American Foreign Service Database and doesn’t see the theory behind it, maybe I need to redesign the site. Maybe those color-coded, annotated diagrams should be more prominently displayed. Maybe I need a glossary for my controlled vocabulary. I wrote DAVILA, but the download only parses one kind of schema. Maybe I should write some more.
I’m going to stop talking (for now.) But, I’ll end with a tweet from Matthew Kirschenbaum, a great practitioner and theorist of DH: “More hack, more yack, and please, cut DH a little slack. We’re just folks doing our work.”