looking back, moving forward

Pawing over the contents of my thoughts on stuff this last semester has been an interesting experience. One intriguing transformation in my own thinking is the way in which I have gradually (and grudgingly) come over to the side of the theorists in the way I think about digital humanities. This was definitely a surprise for me as I came into class firmly on the “lets play around with things and see what we can do” end of the spectrum. This can definitely be seen in some of my earlier posts like the one about exploring the internet where I basically just played around with an interactive map to see what I could find. It was fascinating, and it was fun. I also still think that it’s a legitimate attitude to have, especially when we are boxed into a position in which we need to do digital work, and at the same time don’t yet have the requisite skill set to make our own tools.

            This lack of skills is a pedagogical failure on the back end of digital humanities that, for me, is probably one of the biggest weaknesses of the entire digital humanities enterprise. It’s all well and good to talk about the need to build digital tools from the ground up to make them technologies for humanists, but when teaching graduate students this stuff takes a back seat to showing off digital humanities because it’s STEMy that problem won’t actually get fixed. Pedagogy creates communities of knowledge in which tools and techniques can be developed and shared, and truly humanistic tools can be made. Without robust pedagogy it seems incredibly unrealistic to expect that these kinds of tools will be made and, in my opinion, seems to be a way to make digital humanities a more exclusive space in which only people that came from richer institutions with well-developed programs get to be digital humanists.

            But at the same time, and I think this was one of the big realizations for me, just because we may not have the technical chops yet to make our own tools it does not follow that we can’t be critical of the tools that we actually do use. And reflecting back on the way this class was structured with the blend of readings and the practicums I think it was actually really effective in balancing out those two elements. This balance comes out looking at my blog posts too, where this is a mix of trying stuff out and thinking about trying stuff out. This kind of curriculum actually seems to be a good solution to the problem we (and I mean those of us at OU doing digital humanities) have now in which we are sort of operating in a kind of digital humanities grey area in which on the one hand we probably won’t, at least for a while, have the technical chops ourselves to build these kinds of tools, but at the same time not be naïve about the tools that we are forced into using because of our particular circumstances.

            The curriculum is an effective practical approach to navigating the world of digital humanities for ourselves in which screwing around and critique both seem to be necessary skills. I think the tipping point came from a combination of factors some of which were internal to the class and others which came from outside of it that made me more comfortable in critiquing the tools that we use. Looking back, it seems like it was the mapping stuff where a lot of my thinking on this came together. I did a practicum about making maps in which I complained a great deal about the difficulties of making a map as simple as the one I wanted. But that whole experience, combined with a lot of reading about the history of GIS, maps, and satellites got me thinking about the how the entire experience of digital humanities is so often mediated by the use of tiles, which went back to a previous practicum about the Anatomy of a Web Map and what tiles are and how they work. This is all stuff that was bouncing in my brain that came from class.

            Outside of class, I had been thinking a lot about video games and what they might be able to teach us about doing digital humanities (and this was partly as a surrogate for not being able to play them during the semester). So I had been watching a lot of YouTube videos and I came across this guy named George Weidman, AKA Super Bunnyhop (this video in particular):


He reviews video games, but he’s also a “vernacular digital humanist” if such people can be said to exist. He looks at the mechanics of games and how they make players behave through subscribing to those mechanics. He engages in issues of historical significance in thinking about the ways video games do or do not contain elements for long term digital curation and preservation so that they can be played and enjoyed in the future. What was valuable for me is the way in which Weidman approaches and critiques the technical aspects of game play in a way that is deeply engaging to humanists. And he’s doing it on YouTube. And he’s doing it in a way that I think is similar to the kind of situation that we find ourselves in now as digital humanities scholars inside the academy. Like gamers, we are given things to play with that were not designed by us and the rhetorics which informed their creation force us into ways of interaction and behavior through the way they were designed. But we are also in a position to be fully cognizant of the implications of the tools we use.

            Anyway, the point being that all of this stuff began to fit together around the same time in a way that changed my thinking with regard to this issue. In my big long post about video games I talked about play as being work: and I think the same kind of approach can be taken with regards to digital humanities. We have a whole bunch of tools with which to play around with but we should be engaging in “theoretical play” and not being naïve about the tools we use and the ways in which we use them. The structure of this class actually has the result of encouraging theoretical play by presenting both a range of really fun things to tinker around with, and a critical framework which we can bring with us in our engagement with those tools. And I think it’s an eminently practical approach for navigating the real world of digital humanities in which we are forced to take advantage of whatever tools are available to us and yet not be so paralyzed by critique that no work ever actually gets done.