Baking Gingerbread, as a DH project

Earlier today I was trying to put together slides for a workshop called “Getting Started in DH.” And I just couldn’t get started.

For the record, I have given versions of this workshop more times than I can remember.  I have slides from those workshops, and looking them over, I despaired.  DH is so big, DH has so many communities, and, like any other community of theory and practice, participating in DH can become a serious commitment.  Getting a group of people “started” in DH over a lunch talk just seemed impossible.  At least given my rotten mood on this particular Saturday afternoon.

I gave up on the slides and decided to make some gingerbread.  Technically, I decided I needed to bake something, and when my husband saw me look over the recipe for from-scratch gingerbread, his eyes went soft.

So I forged ahead even though we were missing a crucial ingredient — buttermilk.

We were also out of milk, which is how I usually make buttermilk (just add a dash of lemon juice).  But, we did have some creme fraiche hidden at the back of the fridge, and a quick google search confirmed that a blend of creme fraiche and water would work just fine as a buttermilk substitute.  Onward.

I pulled out all the ingredients and lined them up on the counter.  I got really interested in cooking the same summer I took Intro to Molecular Biology, so I cook like I’m in a lab. Although baking has always felt more like alchemy than chemistry.

As I measured and poured and stirred the batter into existence, I found myself thinking about the historical and contemporary imperial structures present in a recipe for gingerbread.

I had blackstrap molasses swirling with creme fraiche: need I say more?

My molasses and brown sugar are organic and fair trade (because seriously, if you are a scholar of early America and you don’t buy fair trade sugar products, I strongly recommend that you reconsider that decision), but I had bought them at Whole Foods, that great appropriator of other food cultures.  And fair trade isn’t cheap, so the fact that I can afford to buy it should be an important modifier on that last statement.  The recipe comes from Williams Sonoma, where the appropriation continues.   My last-minute buttermilk substitution was confirmed by a blog post written in 2009 that had been crawled by the Google bot. The list goes on and on.

Systems and structures, past and present.  Not much here that is natively “digital,” except the readout on my oven and the Google search — both of which elide vast systems of industry and manufacturing.  A great deal here that is “humanities,” because what is closer to us than the food we eat and how we make sense of the world?

And so, I decided that my gingerbread was a Digital Humanities project.  I didn’t design a database for this one, or write a single line of code, but that has never defined DH for me anyway.  I did make “a thing.”  I made it using the resources I had available to me, lab procedure, tacit knowledge, and pre-built digital tools.  I decided on the project in consultation with those it would most impact.  But none of that makes it “DH”either  — at least not for me.

What, IMHO, makes my gingerbread Digital Humanities, is that I made it thinking about the systems and structures that I participated in.  This time I didn’t have a research question, I just had a goal.  But I didn’t leave my training in history or information architecture at the door.  I brought them with me.  That doesn’t change the gingerbread.  It should taste the same.  But for me, DH is in the process, not the outcome.

And I am sick and tired of people with strong technical skills sitting on their mountains and declaring that non-programmers can’t “do DH” or that a certain project “isn’t real DH” because it doesn’t meet some imaginary standard of DIY grit and sophistication, or that somehow becoming a more diverse community will mean lowering our standards.

Digital Humanities needs both sides.  It needs all sides.  DH should be a conversation, a process, and a community.  It should not be a checklist, a test, or yet another way to exclude the people that major structural forces already exclude.

I am hardly the first person to say this.  Among the many people I have learned from, I cannot commend enough the works of Roopika Risam, Bethany Nowviskie, Miriam Posner, Deb Verhoeven, Alex Gil, and Bruce Janz.  And that is just for starters.

But I want DH, especially my new DH home, the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton, to be balm as well as a trumpet call.  I want CDH to be a place where people feel safe enough to be brave.  And I want them to feel (and be) protected, because the academy is scary enough all on its own.

So I had better write those slides.

But first, gingerbread.

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