Working the Digital Humanities: Uncovering Shadows between the Dark and the Light

Last July, I received a welcome email from Wendy Hui Kyong Chun asking if I would be interested in responding to her 2013 MLA “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities” roundtable presentation in an extended conversation that would be published in a forthcoming special issue of differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies.  Wendy’s generous invitation led to what I feel to be a productive and convivial dialogue about the “cruel optimisms” of the digital humanities, and I’m delighted to be able to share widely the fruits of that conversation. I remain grateful to Wendy for asking me to participate and to Richard Grusin for the occasion that prompted this special issue, and I look forward to the conversations that follow.

Under our author agreements with Duke UP, Wendy and I can publish our own PDF versions of the article published in differences. Therefore, I have chosen to post one such copy here.  Aside from oddities caused by reformatting such as pagination, hyphenation, capitalization, and other surface discrepancies, the text of this pdf should be the same between the two versions.  For the purposes of citation, you may choose to refer to Duke UP’s copy and page numbering.

The full PDF of the article is available here: Working the Digital Humanities. An abstract is also available.

3 thoughts on “Working the Digital Humanities: Uncovering Shadows between the Dark and the Light”

  1. Thanks for the mention of the Bamboo talk, Lisa! I’m grateful for the support from my bosses, and the Dean of Arts & Humanities (the former project PI), in letting me give the talk. I think the organizational culture of higher-ed central IT played a large role in making it possible, and it would have been a lot riskier to unabashedly talk about failure if my job were based out of the academic side of the house, or perhaps even the library. Having worked in central IT in one form or another for a decade now, it really seems like a part of the university that’s inured to failure, including big, expensive failure. Spending millions of dollars on an administrative system replacement project that never gets off the ground, or quickly needs replacing itself, happens often enough that people aren’t fazed by it. The end of Bamboo was a disappointment for those of us who spent years working on it, but no heads rolled as a result; we all just moved on. As far as I know, the failure to secure additional funding didn’t even impact anyone’s performance evaluation, at any level of the project.

    All of which is to say, this is one case where the peculiarities of my organizational structure put me in a privileged position for being able to talk about failure with no negative professional consequences. I can’t blame people who are grappling with issues around digital projects and tenure and promotion for wanting to put their projects in the best light, or quietly sweep them under the rug. Even for people who’ve made it to the top of the ladder, talking frankly about failure might have consequences for digital humanities program building (within academic units, or within libraries). I don’t know many other DH folks who are based out of IT, or who work in groups where project failure would be seen as not a huge deal. Talking about failure in IT isn’t brave, so much as just taking advantage of an opportunity provided by a different organizational culture. I probably wouldn’t have stuck my neck out if my paycheck came out of a different set of funds, and I’d be surprised if failure became the new trending topic in DH circles because of the consequences nearly everyone else faces in publicizing it.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment. I agree that there’s a lot to prevent us from talking openly about the things that don’t become glowing successes, but I’m hopeful that something like circulating white papers or other forms of informal, scholarly material might help us to learn from each other about what works and what doesn’t, to be able to better inform projects to come about the real pitfalls others have experienced along the way. It’s hard to move this conversation out of the “tacit knowledge” area and into a more open space where the transmission of the most important lessons learned is available to those who are early on in the development of their project work plans. Otherwise, it has the potential to form one more of those silent barriers to entry.

    Saying that, however, is not at odds with the very real challenges to that kind of sharing that you mention here. I agree with you that it’s unreasonable to expect those whose whole salary depends on the narrative of success to be so outspoken about a projects failures. I actually find much hope in the idea that what can be gained by collaborating across institutional boundaries is that not everyone in an institution works under the same constraints; therefore, there may be those on the team better suited to sharing some information than others.

    Again, thanks for your paper, Quinn, last summer and for your thoughtful comment here.

    1. I really like the white paper idea, and I’ve been mulling over ideas for how to make that data more accessible. This summer we’re going to be revising the fields available as part of tool profiles on the DiRT directory, as well as going through and updating every single tool listing. A “funding” field is one that we’ve discussed, and I’m thinking a field for links to publications (including, but not necessarily limited to, white papers) would also make sense. I’m also looking to undertake a similar field and data review for the DHCommons project directory, as part of importing data from, and I think there’s a strong case to be made for including publication links there too.

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