Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Outside the tent

Yesterday was a bad day. I’m chasing a messed-up software problem whose main symptom is the application consuming all available memory and then falling over without leaving a useful stacktrace. Steve Ramsay quit Twitter. A colleague I have huge respect for is leaving a project that’s foundational and is going to be parked because of it (that and the lack of funding). This all sucks. As I said on Twitter, it feels like we’ve hit a tipping point. I think DH has moved on and left a bunch of us behind. I have to start this off by saying that I really have nothing to complain about, even if some of this sounds like whining. I love my job, my colleagues, and I’m doing my best to get over being a member of a Carolina family working at Duke :-). I’m also thinking about these things a lot in the run up to Speaking in Code.

For some time now I’ve been feeling uneasy about how I should present myself and my work. A few years ago, I’d have confidently said I work on Digital Humanities projects. Before that, I was into Humanities Computing. But now? I’m not sure what I do is really DH any more. I suspect the DH community is no longer interested in the same things as people like me, who write software to enable humanistic inquiry and also like to think (and when possible write and teach) about how that software instantiates ideas about the data involved in humanistic inquiry. On one level, this is fine. Time, and academic fashion, marches on. It is a little embarrassing though given that I’m a “Senior Digital Humanities Programmer”.

Moreover, the field of “programming” daily spews forth fresh examples of unbelievable, poisonous, misogyny and seems largely incapable of recognizing what a shitty situation its in because of it.

The tech industry is in moral crisis. We live in a dystopian, panoptic geek revenge fantasy infested by absurd beliefs in meritocracy, full of entrenched inequalities, focused on white upper-class problems, inherently hostile to minorities, rife with blatant sexism and generally incapable of reaching anyone beyond early adopter audiences of people just like us. (from https://medium.com/about-work/f6ccd5a6c197)

I think communities who fight against this kind of oppression, like #DHPoco, for example, are where DH is going. But while I completely support them and think they’re doing good, important work, I feel a great lack of confidence that I can participate in any meaningful way in those conversations, both because of the professional baggage I bring with me and because they’re doing a different kind of DH. I don’t really see a category for the kinds of things I write about on DHThis or DHNow, for example.

This is great stuff, but it’s also not going to be a venue for me wittering on about Digital Classics or text encoding. It could be my impostor syndrome kicking in, but I really doubt they’re interested.

It does seem like a side-effect of the shift toward a more theoretical DH is an environment less welcoming to participation by “staff”. It’s paradoxical that the opening up of DH also comes with a reversion to the old academic hierarchies. I’m constantly amazed at how resilient human insitutions are.

If Digital Humanities isn’t really what I do, and if Programmer comes with a load of toxic slime attached to it, perhaps “Senior” is all I have left. Of course, in programmer terms, “senior” doesn’t really mean “has many years of experience”, it’s code for “actually knows how to program”. You see ads for senior programmers with 2-3 years of experience all the time. By that standard, I’m not Senior, I’m Ancient. Job titles are something that come attached to staff, and they are terrible, constricting things.

I don’t think that what I and many of my colleagues do has become useless, even if we no longer fit the DH label. It still seems important to do that work. Maybe we’re back to doing Humanities Computing. I do think we’re mostly better off because Digital Humanities happened, but maybe we have to say goodbye to it as it heads off to new horizons and get back to doing the hard work that needs to be done in a Humanities that’s at least more open to digital approaches than it used to be. What I’m left wondering is where the place of the developer (and, for that matter other DH collaborators) is in DH if DH is now the establishment and looks structurally pretty much like the old establishment did.

Is digital humanities development a commodity? Are DH developers interchangeable? Should we be? Programming in industry is typically regarded as a commodity. Programmers are in a weird position, both providers of indispensable value, and held at arm’s length. The problem businesses have is how to harness a resource that is essentially creative and therefore very subject to human inconsistency. It’s hard to find good programmers, and hard to filter for programming talent. Programmers get burned out, bored, pissed off, distracted. Best to keep a big pool of them and rotate them out when they become unreliable or too expensive or replace them when they leave. Comparisons to graduate students and adjunct faculty may not escape the reader, though at least programmers are usually better-compensated. Academia has a slightly different programmer problem: it’s really hard to find good DH programmers and staffing up just for a project may be completely impossible. The only solution I see is to treat it as analogous to hiring faculty: you have to identify good people and recruit them and train people you’d want to hire. You also have to give them a fair amount of autonomy—to deal with them as people rather than commodities. What you can’t count on doing is retaining them as contingent labor on soft money. But here we’re back around to the faculty/staff problem: the institutions mostly only deal with tenure-track faculty in this way. Libraries seem to be the only academic institutions capable of addressing the problem at all. But they’re also the insitutions most likely to come under financial pressure and they have other things to worry about. It’s not fair to expect them to come riding over the hill.

The ideal would situation would be if there existed positions to which experts could be recruited who had sufficient autonomy to deal with faculty on their own level (this essentially means being able to say ‘no’), who might or might not have advanced degrees, who might teach and/or publish, but wouldn’t have either as their primary focus. They might be librarians, or research faculty, or something else we haven’t named yet. All of this would cost money though. What’s the alternative? Outsourcing? Be prepared to spend all your grant money paying industry rates. Grad Students? Many are very talented and have the right skills, but will they be willing to risk sacrificing the chance of a faculty career by dedicating themselves to your project? Will your project be maintainable when they move on? Mia Ridge, in her twitter feed, reminds me that in England there exist people called “Research Software Engineers”.

There are worse labels, but it sounds like they have exactly the same set of problems I’m talking about here.

12 comments:

ptr said...

Hugh - As someone who is a full time industry programmer looking in on DH from the outside, really excellent comments.

Samuel Huskey said...

If DH has "moved on and left a bunch of us behind," it's not going to go very far, especially if it isn't any different in its biases and prejudices than the establishment it appears to have replaced. In any case, I don't want to be part of a scholarly community that looks down on the people whose work makes the community possible in the first place. I hope that I have never given you the impression that I think of you as "just" a programmer. I consider what you do to be the fullest expression of the humanities tradition, since it encompasses logic, grammar, rhetoric, math, history, philosophy, languages, and literature.

Hugh Cayless said...

Sam: You have certainly never given me that impression. :-) I don't think it changes much if DH has become something else, just that we need to be mindful of whether we should still claim to be part of it. And perhaps not look to it for much help.

Jean Bauer said...

Thank you for writing this! I have a similar reaction to a lot of what is happening right now, but I don't really know how to respond (except to hope everyone can sit down and learn from each other). I identify most strongly with the maker/coder side of DH and yet so much of what I hear claims that women are excluded from DH because of the technical/coding aspects. Which, on a bad day, can leave me wondering if I belong anywhere...

Patrick Murray John said...

There has been a lot of noise lately, but it does NOT constitute a redefinition of DH. Your mad skillz are still DH skills. For years people have talked about what is DH. Nothing has happened recently that gets us closer to a definitive answer to that.

Kevin said...

Hugh, you've explored some topics I've also been thinking about, but it's interesting to me that you see some things the opposite of the way that I have.

When I hung around DH crowds more often (in the early 2000s), I found that even then people spent a lot of energy on defining DH and on theoretical questions rather than getting projects done. I've long contrasted the Digital Humanities conferences with, say, DLF Forums in that the former requires that papers be couched in a research agenda, whereas the latter is quite open to project reports. So I'm not sure that the DH community was ever concerned with the same thing as people like you.

While I fully agree that we have a serious structural problem in how we fund DH work (in that it often carried out through grants and therefore the staff are always in a precarious situation), I actually have more faith in libraries' ability to find the money to fund the important work like support for DH projects. From the point of view of enabling scholarship, hiring a bibliographer or a DH programmer are really quite similar: both have to understand how scholars work and what they study in order to create effective tools for scholars to use. Now that I work in a library, I wouldn't really contemplate moving to a DH center (or a publisher) whose funding is less secure. Yes, library budgets are cut, but they are also quite strategic in how they allocate money, and they are evolving to reallocate money more efficiently to allow them to move into supporting things like DH.

Hugh Cayless said...

ptr: Thanks!

Jean: I really think the male-dominated-ness of tech is just an accident of history and the more women join in, the better socialized its denizens will become. The only barriers to entry are social, which is not to say they aren't there, and aren't a problem, but they're also not rooted in any real differences in intelligence, temperament, etc. Don't give up! We need you.

Patrick: I dunno. I notice with some amusement this morning that one of my interlocutors on Twitter submitted this post to DHThis and it only garnered a couple of votes (that does not mean go vote for it!). I think this might be a sign I'm right :-). I'm not terribly bothered if DH has moved on, and I think it has—this is what Steve Ramsay was pointing out in his DH I and II post a few months back. And I wouldn't argue that my skills (such as they are) aren't applicable to the current version of DH. But I don't think that what they're being applied to now is DH any longer, despite my label :-).

Jean Bauer said...

Hugh: I have no plans to stop coding (would probably go nuts if I tried), but thanks for the encouragement! I do question your assertion that programming is a male dominated field for historical reasons. There was a time (say the 1980s) when CS was the most gender balanced field in STEM. It seems like no one is quite sure why, but something shifted in the 1990s and the field developed a new set of highly negative attitudes towards women. My dad has been a professional programmer since the 1970s. He is really confused/saddened by this shift and tries to hire as many female programmers as he can to keep a gender balanced workforce at his company, but he has to do a lot of leg work to find them.

Hugh Cayless said...

Jean: agreed. "accident of history" is a bad phrasing. What I mean by it is "for no good reasons at all". :-) I'm continually enraged when I see post facto rationalizations of the imbalance (like the recent Dave Winer nonsense, e.g.). You're absolutely right that the shift is pretty recent history.

Ryan Baumann said...

As much of an embarrassment to programming as it is, one positive thing I've noticed about "DH" in the past is that it can create an environment which fosters people coming in via the more balanced humanities culture and getting introduced to programming because of the technical/coding aspects of DH. Somewhat of a social parallel to the idea that while some assume DH represents a colonization of the humanities by CS, it may in fact be the reverse.

Jean Bauer said...

Hugh: Sorry, historian:) I guess my hope is that recent changes are more easy to undo . . .

skg said...

As for dwindling, two recent pieces partly about TechCrunch Disrupt seem pertinent, if magnified in ways I personally haven't seen within humcomp or DH: Khadijah M. Britton, "What Women Don't Want"; Rachel Sklar, "The Riptide of Titstare."