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

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.