Transdisciplinary crossovers into the DH – The Don’ts and what can go wrong

Dear friends,

today I want to illustrate some trans-disciplinary crossovers (into the DH) gone wrong. In earlier posts, I have already explained some of the dos (Looking at data with the eyes of a Humanist: How to apply digital skills to your Humanities research questions and Formulating Research Questions For Using DH Methods and What are ‘real’ Digital Humanities and how to get started?), so I assume I have you covered in that area. This is all very happy and positive – but I think I also owe it to you guys to give you an honest opinion of where you probably fucked up. It always hurts to learn these things and it’s more butterflies and rainbow-sprinkles to list all the empowering things you can do. But there are some traps as well and we don’t want you to fall into them. And if you already have, at least now you’ll have the closure to understand why you maybe have gotten rejected etc. because in my experience, Humanities people oftentimes aren’t aware of when they’re stepping on DH toes, which is why this post is in the category “DH etiquette”. So let’s get to it.

[And oh, I also wanted to repeat here what I already anounced on Twitter: I will post less frequently over the summer. Usually I post every week on Sunday, now I will try to stick to the updated summer break schedule of once every two weeks.]

As a disclaimer: This post is not meant to shame anybody – it’s supposed to help you understand some behaviours which you yourself might have been exhibiting which are holding you back in your career. In my experience, the two following mindsets I’ll describe in this post are extremely common and Humanities scholars are totally not aware that they fell victim to them. Those are:

  1. not (being willing to) do the work for getting the tech literacy required to do DH; only being surrounded by people who are less good at digital stuff than you are (hint: you should seek out the company of people who are much better at tech than you or else you’ll never learn anything!). And:
  2. not understanding “your place” in the DH hierarchy/system as so-called “label DH”, i.e. wondering why they didn’t consider you for this PostDoc that was screaming “programming job!!!” all over the job ad even though you have never written a single line of code in your life. This sounds a bit exaggerated – but I’ve seen really many Humanities-based scholars who fell into this trap because they considered themselves DH without really knowing what DH means. Essentially, they are so unaware of DH culture that they think the “technologies required” part of the job ad is optional or “nice to have”.

The example persona

As an example of a type of person likely to get caught up in such fails, I want to take the English literature scholar wanting to do DH. This doesn’t mean I have a problem with English literature people but they just form a category of scholars more likely to fall into certain traps. Let me explain:

There are lots of English lit scholars because it’s a hugely popular field and English is such an accessible language. All the canon is already quite overresearched, so in order to find your space in the research community, you either need to jump on some crazy-but-currently-trending-mini-subject-bandwagon or you have to jump on a fancy-new-methodology-bandwagon if you want to make it in the field. Which means in practice that many people in English lit might want to do DH and there are a few things which can go wrong with that.

Failure mindset 1: Many people (especially younger individuals) think “since I grew up around computers and can use social media, I know how to do DH, so DH is an easy win”

Well, I’m sorry to inform you that every element of this statement is horribly wrong and using this mindset, you’re not going to get very far. DH is is precisely using computers in a “superuser” way, i.e. not just using them like a normal user. Only because many older heroes in your field have no computer literacy whatsoever and compared to them, you are a/the “computer person”, that doesn’t mean you already know how to do DH.

You’ll still have to learn many things and also – I think this is the most under-estimated failure point when learning DH – you need to have enough humility to be able to admit incompetence and failure. Learning advanced computer stuff will show you your own imperfections very clearly, you won’t be able to do things easily, you might even embarass yourself in a scholarly way at some point. This might be unexpectedly hard for you, especially if you already “are somebody” in your “field of origin”. I get how that makes you vulnerable and how you can’t afford to look like a beginner anymore. You might even be tired of having to learn something entirely new, etc. if you’re already in or past your (successful) PostDoc phase in your field.

This is the point where you really need to be honest with yourself: Are you ready to walk into the room and not be the expert? Are you ready to let DH people teach you things you know nothing about and maybe even turn out to not be good at? Many people don’t take this very well. This also doesn’t make you a bad person. But it might mean that your transition into the DH is not going the way it should. Because the community is never going to accept you if you approach them in an arrogant way even though you are quite clearly clueless when it comes to the more technical aspects of the DH. Unless you’re a really important tenured professor, you can’t afford to want to do DH – or even start a cooperation grant proposal – unless you are willing to be humble and actually learn some DH skills (which I have written about in great detail in the posts linked above such as this one).

How to avoid trap number 1: Do the work

The DH are not a service provider thing which exists for the sole purpose of boosting your career. Doing and learning DH is a lot of hard work. If you perceive it in any other way, it will show and DH people will know. You will not get accepted into the community – it’s as simple as that. On the other hand, if you show the qualities I described above (respect for the DH, humility with regards to your own (lack of) digital skills and willingness to learn illustrated by the fact that you have already taken a class in DH before even approaching anyone about a DH grant), you will receive a warm welcome and have lots of great new opportunities.

However, always remember that it’s not the DH people’s job to show you what opportunities are out there. You should already know (and better, have actively tried out) technologies relevant to what you want to do. Want to do a digital edition? Know the terms involved, be able to name (and have investigated) existing projects comparable to what you want to do and understand some basic XML (and mabye the standard relevant to your field). If you want to do something more like data science, know how calculations are made and how visualizations come to be. You can find out this information online for anything you want to do. Or maybe approach some DH scholar to ask for it – they will be happy to help if you seem willing to learn. Then do the work.

Also, know why a digital approach (or the digital approach you came up with) enhances your project or makes your project better than it would be without the digital ascpect. Hint: The answer is not “because I think it’s the easiest way to get grant money”. Does a digital approach actually benefit your project? How is the project intersting for the DH people? Can they develop a fancy new tool or do you basically just want them to “make a website” – because that’s not what the DH are for.

Stephen Ramsay: “Becoming a scientist is at least in part the process of understanding how to use that equipment. In the nineteenth century, scientists like Pasteur and Lavoisier had to fabricate nearly all of their tools (becoming, in effect, glass blowers and metallurgists) in order to do their work, and that continues to some degree even today. […]

What’s most interesting about this analogy to me, though, is that if we look at nineteenth-century science, we see a lot of resistance to the work of people like Lavoisier, in part, because this concern with tools and building doesn’t seem (to, say, the Classics faculty at Paris) to be academic work at all. Humanists looked at that kind of lab-based work and said, “That’s not intellectual inquiry, that’s plumbing!”

This is something like what we confront today in DH. XML, GIS, and things of this sort are, in a sense, witheringly complicated experimental tools, […] Tools and building is one thing, but perhaps the most disruptive aspect of all is the way DH combines the seminar room with laboratory culture.” (Why is knowing how to code necessary? blog post on Stephen Ramsay’s essay, with comments from SR on experimentation and building tools, posted in 2011 – and thanks to CrankyPhilosopher for the hint!)

Once you’ve done the work, you are ready to be admitted into the community. If you haven’t done the work, there are other edge-cases which might apply to you that I’ll describe now…

Trap number 2: Doing label DH and not being aware of it

Especially in areas like that of our example person, English lit, I find that there are many people who identify as DH in their sub-community (i.e. English lit), yet they have never been to a real DH conference or actually know any “real” DH scholars. By saying that, I don’t mean to exclude people with a narrow definition of “what real DH allegedly is”. I’m just trying to make clear that there are multiple levels to DH and despite wanting to be as inclusive as possible, if the DH want to be accepted as a real discipline, they need to make certain distinctions. If everybody can be DH, then it’s not worth much anymore. Also, by the way, other disciplines are highly exclusive too and nobody questions that.

Would you accept me as an English lit scholar only because I have written any English lit essay in school once or because I have read an English lit book? No, you wouldn’t. Actually, I once submitted an article on some old project (from my times at Religious Studies) to an English film studies journal and they were super-exclusive. My paper was a fit in terms of subject but they totally rejected me because I didn’t respect their conventions from the English community (that I wasn’t even aware of). It’s the same thing for the DH and it has to be, or we wouldn’t be a discipline. From my own bad experience with the film studies journal, I also know that it is hurtful to be excluded due to some secret conventions that you as a disciplinary outsider or crossover can’t really know about. But hey, that’s what I am here for. Hopefully, my posts will be able to give you that tacit knowledge and insight that I myself never got.

So anyway, what I really wanted to say is that there is a sub-community of DH in English lit. Some of those people engage in actual DH discussions and events (DH-specific conferences, journals, etc.), while others don’t. If you want to be part of the DH, attending related events and knowing other actual DH people is unavoidable. It also is an easy way to understand how the DH work as a discipline. If you don’t do that and only know “the DH” from your English lit conference’s DH panels, then sorry – but you really don’t know the DH and you’re probably going to be seen as somewhat of an imposter or “label DH”. That means people will think you are using the DH as a label to get the most out of the current hype (fame, money, you name it) but you are not doing the work and don’t have the skills (i.e. technical rigour, knowing technology past a passive knowledge, that is, active usage skills, etc.). For “doing the work”, see Tip 1 above.

How to avoid trap number 2: If you do label DH for self-marketing, at least be aware that you are not an actual DH person and don’t apply for actual DH jobs to avoid awkwardness

As long as you are aware that you’re using the DH as a label in your self-branding and academic sales strategy, you might be considered somewhat morally flexible but still, all is well (kind of). For me, it gets problematic when people are (very obviously to real DH people) playing the “label DH game” but are not aware of it themselves.  But once your identity or self-fashioning construct is so full of “label DH” that you forget that you are not an actual DH person, this is where the real trouble starts. If you’re doing label DH in a somewhat ‘malicious’ way (I’m not judgeing you, academia is hard), you can at least try to actively avoid exposure to real DH people as to avoid detection and embarassment.

If you think that your (non-technical) participation in a DH cooperation project makes you a DH person qualified to apply for a full-blown DH job (happens all the time in my experience), this is just going to be very awkward for your DH job application committee. Or if you use DH termini technici as metaphors (I have seen this happen more than once in real life, coincidentally, always in English lit contexts). If you can’t imagine what that looks like, let me give you an example (pretty close to something I have seen in real life, although it’s hard for me to believe that these things actually happen): “Machine Learning. Automata in the 19th century”. If this is your subject and you honestly think that you are doing DH, sorry to break it to you, but you are delusional. And your delusion is allowed to continue because you are surrounded only by history or literature people who all know less about the DH than you do. So either, if you actually don’t really want to learn DH skills – make sure to stay away from real DH people (or it’s going to get weird) or else, do the work, find out what the DH really are about and learn the skills.

Conclusions for DH job applications from not-(yet)-really-DH people

If you still want to apply for a DH job and do it right, be very clear about what your skills are and what they aren’t. If your CV doesn’t include a “Computer Skills” section (or that one doesn’t extend past “Good knowledge of MS Office”, you are likely not a DH person or, at best, a label DH person. If that’s what you want to be, that’s ok. But be aware that people who land those real DH jobs tend to get them because they have spent hours and years working on those tech skills you might deem unimportant – and don’t whine that this hiring decision was “oh so unfair” afterwards if it demanded technical skills that you didn’t have (H people come whining to me about such things so much more often than they should…). Also, don’t discard the “required technical skills” section as a “nice to have”. If they put it in the job ad, you need at least some of those skills or else the ad wouldn’t say you did! If you are label DH, apply only for jobs which don’t have tons of technical requirements and be very open about your skills.

If you can’t even clearly name those skills without a lot of thought (like “I know how to create a data model for a specific usage which complies to state-of-the-art data standards”, “I know how to make and interpret a visualization using Voyant Tools” or whatever your skills are), it’s also likely you lack the required level of DH meta-thinking, so you should honestly reconsider even applying. If you don’t have the programming skills but do have the level of meta-thinking, you might be a good fit for jobs which require just that. You might have gotten this meta-thinking from having been part of a DH project – but also be aware that not everybody (by far) who has ever been part of a DH project came away from it with decent DH meta-level thinking skills – just saying. If you didn’t interact with the digital part of the project much (i.e. you never saw any data in its raw from or how it’s stored but only interacted with a web interface or MS Office tables or something), then you likely don’t have it.

That’s basically what I wanted to say today – I hope you don’t understand this as mean criticism. It’s really just meant to give you a meta perspective which might help you understand some rejections or experiences with the DH community because you are doing these things without being aware of them.

Hope this helped somebody,


the Ninja

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I like LaTeX, the Humanities and the Digital Humanities. Here I post tutorials and other adventures.

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