harlan kellaway's blog // How best to start digital humanities work with students disadvantaged in coding culture?

Published 02-01-2014

This week I found myself experiencing a bit of deja vú -- while in a new course, in a new school, as a new student among classmates who had already spent a semester together.

I started my formal digital humanities education this week in a project-based venture that is both a course and an experiment in a praxis-model for digital humanities learning. As we went around answering the customary hello-my-name-is’s and I’m-interested-in this-course-because’s, our brief bios seemed to fall into a pattern of ending apologetically on how much coding experience one did not have. And, with that, I felt the same cumulative anxiety bubbling up as I felt during ice-breakers at the last hackathon I attended (one to benefit trans and gender non-conforming individuals). As class ice-breaking gave way to group discussion about how this praxis would be enacted, I felt this anxiety come to a brief head - “how many people here actually know how to code? how many??”. The quick nod of heads after this proclamation confirmed it was a question on many people’s minds. We were quickly reassured that not all projects have to involve heavy coding, but there was an acknowledgement that each project required some sort of 'dev'.

I believe the anxiety I felt percolating is a function of something that's been recognized by some for years.

It was succinctly voiced, for example, by Miriam Posner:

Here, there, and everywhere, we’re being told: A DHer should code! Don’t know how? Learn! The work that’s getting noticed...is code.1

I feel there's an (often unspoken) pressure-to-perform that is felt in tech-oriented project environments by those inexperienced with coding -- and, the reality is that this pressure disproportionately affects groups traditionally not included in coding culture (those who, as mentioned by Posner, are not men -- not "middle-class white men to be specific"). At a hackathon, the first of its kind, comprised of trans individuals and allies working with personal interest in empowering trans communities, it wasn't surprising that this sentiment was palpable. But I was somewhat surprised to feel it in the second half of a year of digital humanities graduate course. I had been worried about jumping into a class of people already experienced with each other and with digital humanities work -- but I left feeling uncomfortably 'ahead' in some sense of folks who don't share my coding background.

This isn't meant to be a criticism of the course -- I'm very excited to be thrown in the deep-end of preparing a digital humanities project. Rather, this is a call for awareness of how issues in coding culture can be echoed in digital humanities. And, a call to be more explicit about how coding as a skill operates in a digital humanities classroom comprised of mostly non-coders and mostly those traditionally left out of coding culture. Furthermore, I wonder if it's beneficial to acknowledge this upfront and, in the spirit of collaboration that is so actively being promoted in digital humanities and in this course, to discuss how to rectify it.

As more food for thought, here is James Gottlieb's recommendation in response to Posner:

Instead of pushing coding, let’s push critical thinking. How do we structure our projects? How do we build projects that can share code and data with other projects? How do we build things that others find compelling? How do we influence the world? Let’s elevate the field to the point where it begins leading a community outside of the academy.2

To be clear, the course I'm in isn't 'pushing coding' - but it's realistic to think that that feeling of pressure may be felt by some thrown in digital humanities work. I share this quote because I like this vision that lends more influence to the skills held by non-coders.

In the posts I write in the duration of this course I aim to end with questions that I hope to revisit at the end of the course. For this week, I'm asking:

Are we doing more of a disservice to those students already at a disadvantage in coding culture by not explicitly exploring this gap before diving into digital humanities work?

Of personal interest -- I happen to notice that the vein through which I entered digital humanities (simplistically: digital >> humanities) seems rarer than the opposite (humanities >> digital). Why does digital humanities attract so many non-coders if many projects seem to be coding-dependent? Are non-coding students getting what they set out to get from their digital humanities education? Do coders get more?

Quote sources:
1Miriam Posner, "Some Things to Think About Before You Exhort Everyone to Code", http://miriamposner.com/blog/some-things-to-think-about-before-you-exhort-everyone-to-code/
2James Gottlieb, "Coding and Digital Humanities", http://www.jamesgottlieb.com/2012/03/coding-and-digital-humanities/

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