Difficulties in Keeping a Dialogue About Digital Humanities

Talking about DH on a blog will get some people angry with you. I will discuss here some examples arising from my own experience, making this is more of a meta-post about my weblog, than a post for my weblog, but the underlying issues reverberate throughout engaging with Digital Humanities, and so it is well worth discussing to understand more about how (and how not) to talk about Digital Humanities.

The underlying difficulty, no doubt, is that in order to talk about DH, we are in conversation with people from different walks of life. Whereas we could go on about our research to our own tribe, our inner group of colleagues, without any trouble, for DH, as a scholar, we are equally talking to librarians, business persons, and people in IT. It therefore needs to be a discussion bridging different paradigms.

The biggest difference in paradigm is so inherent to DH it is visible in its very name: digital has to do with the Exact Sciences and its quantitative, numerical methodology, humanities has to do with the Humanities and its qualitative, verbal methodology. It seems particularly difficult to immediately grasp the other paradigm for somebody who has been trained for years in only one of them. Much more can be said about this specific difficulty but I will simply leave it at that for now.

A further issue is that each group talks from a different approach. Me as a scholar, I talk about technology from a user point of view. Librarians from a buyer point of view. Business persons from a seller point of view. And finally people in IT from a creator/producer point of view. Again, I will leave it at that for now.

Another issue that has brought me some trouble is that people take me too literal and too serious in my blogposts. I use an off the cuff, relaxed style and I exaggerate this to emphasise that this, any blogpost, is not a formal academic statement. I will also dare to say things on my website that I wouldn’t say in an actual scholarly publication. I think the medium allows this, almost calls out for it, for example because people will not read a blogpost over a thousand words. On the internet people want a little word snack. Another reason for this style is that I only write this website for free, in my spare time. If I want to have some regularity in new posts, I cannot perfect my writing as much as I would for my scholarly publications. And if you think of starting your own website, let me tell you, it will be near impossible to convince other people to contribute. So in a way almost everything is set against you, to maintain an academic blog with original content.

Let us go over four incidents, the last one which inspired this post:

1. The scholar

I wrote about a certain project and made a passing comment that either the presentation or the supporting technology seemed outdated. I received an angry email in my mailbox about how the technology was only old because the project had been running since nearly the dawn of time and did I not realise how much work had been put into this and also this specific project wasn’t representative of the team’s work as another project showcased much more recent technology, and so forth. The email came from, I believe, one of the leads of the team. I wrote back as positively as I could with some thank you‘s and I didn’t mean to‘s mixed in, and with the question what, concretely, she thought was factually wrong in my post so that I could change it. To my relief, she appreciated my response, and gave some details. I changed my post here and there in accordance with these details, and said I would probably review the other, more recent project some other time. I haven’t done so, actually, which is a real shame, but such is the nature of a pro bono weblog I’m afraid. All in all it was a very pleasant experience.

It made me think that we need to value any input, no matter how negative, because for people to even bother writing is really good, heck, better than all these people I know who like the blog, seem interested in writing something, but then don’t, even when I encourage them.

2. The library

A second big incident was after I reviewed a library’s digitization project and made a rather audacious, derogatory remark. When I wrote it, I already had my doubts, but there is also a certain element of activism to my blog; I am not here to mope around but I think there are a lot of things that are in critical need of doing and I can’t be the only one doing it, many more need to follow, e.g. how to digitize well, how to acquire, hold, and work with digital documents legally, how to ensure access is as open and as free as possible, how to make our workflow easier, and how to keep an eye for the value of the actual, physical artefacts. And so, I sometimes feel the urge to, what I call, tickle people. Did I tickle! No less than three levels of management e-mailed me, and to my great surprise the director of this world-renowned library invited me to speak to him in person (I lived in the same city). I started by assuring I would edit-out the nasty remark. I hoped this would allow me some face-time with the director to discuss digitization more generally, to understand what people at his level are excited about, care for, and think needs to be done. Not joking: we seriously discussed a job-opportunity for me (which, eventually, didn’t work out).

Librarians are one of the most valuable interlocutors for us scholars, when it comes to digital humanities, and I feel they are kind of overlooked in this regard. On many practical and legal aspects of digitization and workflow, they have a much better grasp. Much more than us can they justify as part of their job to read and think on these topics, and this they do. Right now it seems that researchers and librarians each rather talk amongst themselves than to each other. How this can be changed, I do not know, but awareness is the first step towards a solution, I suppose.

3. The random visitor

The next two examples are examples where dialogue seems impossible. Sometimes, people leave comments underneath my blogpost that are mean-spirited. I think that they think they can do this anonymously and unimpeded. The thing is, every comment first needs approval before it is publicly shown, because otherwise spambots would make the blog a miserable place. The thing is too, leaving comments is almost never as anonymous as you might think. For example, if you did not log out of Facebook, the code that regulates comments will detect your Facebook profile and display your name and your profile picture next to the comment. Even if you did log out of Facebook, traces of your name and your IP address (which can be traced to a region of the world) will likely automatically appear next to your comment. So what did I do with the mean-spirited comments?

In the end I decided to simply okay them, so that they would be publicly visible, and basically leave it at that. I think such comments say more about these people than about me.

4. The computer specialist

I didn’t mention any name for the previous incidents because they approached me privately. For this last example I can mention the person by name, because he complained about me in public. Titus Nemeth of TNTypography saw my posts on Arabic typography and noticed there was much lacking. I am not surprised; he is a professional in making award-winning Arabic typefaces and I am clearly not. And so he wrote a scathing rebuke of my posts, which might make you think I personally insulted his mother (I didn’t). (see how I included casual humour there, by exaggerating) According to him, I “betray half-baked ideas“, “insinuate” and “denigrate” and in the end I truly “could not be more wrong.” Okay that sounds (like I was) very wrong. But what is the most striking in this context is that he did not contact me beforehand. Nor did he contact me afterwards. If it wasn’t for a Twitter-friend pointing it out to me I would have never known. And probably, hadn’t I linked to the critique here, you wouldn’t have known either. All of this is even more surprising considering that he wrote a 500-page tome on exactly this topic, which came out last year. He didn’t even mention this in his own piece, I only found out after searching for his name on the web!

The examples I used here are in order of escalation. With Dr. Nemeth’s example, we reach a level that I wondered if it merits responding. It seems he didn’t want me to correct my blogposts, otherwise he could have contacted me. His conclusion reads “So should we stay tuned for more? Yes, sure, for talking across discipline boundaries is sorely necessary. But please make sure it will be better researched next time.” In a way this seems to suggest I should shush it and leave such discussions to professionals. So what do we do with this? My initial frustrations as a user of Arabic typography remain standing: 19th century prints are by and large horrible to use, modern encoding has serious issues that require work-arounds. Dr. Nemeth called both of those statements wronger than wrong but I think he understood some of my words wrongly, or, rather, I did not express myself clear enough. Read charitably, his piece challenges me to explain more about these issues, i.e. why they are issues from a user point of view. This I will do in a future post, because in the end if one persons asks for more clarification, it is likely that there are other people who are also interested to hear more.

In the mean time, I contacted Dr. Nemeth myself and after some back-and-forth was very pleased to see that we could have a productive conversation. At first he defended his post, stating:

In my review and reply to your blog posts, I identified that someone who speaks with authority and claims expertise, is disseminating erroneous information. Readers are bound to take your information as correct, so it seems apposite to publicly challenge and correct statements that are misleading.

He later on apologised for the crass language he used and changed his position to saying:

The essence of my critique remains, which is that there is a whole world that is relevant for DH, and should therefore be considered more seriously, and not in passing.

Brought down to a more sober and honest discussion between me and him, this final statement illustrates well what I spoke about at the beginning of this post, namely, that the most difficult thing about talking about Digital Humanities is having to bridge different paradigms.

Keeping the dialogue

Opening and keeping a dialogue on issue related to Digital Humanities is no picnic, especially through a blog. There are differences in paradigms, in points of view, and in expectations of a blog. I understand very well that discussing the free sharing of PDF files of journal articles irks librarians and is fiercely opposed by publishers. I don’t condone it, but I see it happen among scholars and students and it therefore merits discussion. As even Titus Nemeth hints at, discussions between different stakeholders is needed as each forms a piece of the same puzzle. Only together can we make technology work favourably for society at large. It is up to us, scholars and students, to voice our concerns from our point of view as users. If we don’t do it, we will be forced to live with the result of discussions among the other stakeholders, likely to our dissatisfaction.

3 thoughts on “Difficulties in Keeping a Dialogue About Digital Humanities

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