Reading and Making, ‘Big Ideas’ and ‘Methodologies’

I would like to take Golumbia’s arguments even further and suggest that Ramsay’s celebration of ‘making’ as the future of literary and cultural studies appears to draw the troubling distinction between ‘making’ and the by implication ‘making’-free – dare I say unproductive – scholarship that predated it. To do what literary critics do best, I’ll consider some economic terms like ‘labor’ out of their proper disciplinary contexts (more on decontextualized specifics later). To suggest that ‘making’ is new for scholars effaces a certain aspect of the labor involved in producing scholarship that is not reliant on digital technologies. Just, as Golumbia points out, ‘the digital’ is already a huge factor in scholarship across disciplinary divides, there are existing scholarly pursuits by those who can’t code that are equally interested in ‘making’ as scholarship. It is, in fact, the literary historicist’s desire to compose scholarly articles that not only present ‘ideas,’ (now, I mean this only in the sense of Scheinfeldt’s blog; in his way of opposing ‘big ideas’ to ‘methods’), but also revel in the show-and-tell aspect of simply digging something up and saying ‘here it is’. I’ve heard ‘theory people’ use this as a personal reason for disliking historicism: it is perpetrated by academics less interested in making arguments and more interested in sharing cool objects. I mean ‘cool objects’ quite literally – as a graduate student that does lots of cross-disciplinary work with dress culture studies among other fields, I find the most compelling scholarly work to be precisely about making, perhaps not of kilts themselves (I study Celtic masculinities), but of scholarship that seeks to interact with physical objects in ways that go beyond mere description.

The use of decontextualized scholarship from other fields is, in my honest opinion, a remarkable skill that is well cultivated by literary critics (to those who don’t know me, this may sound like sarcasm; but it’s not – I am a champion of productivity found in sloppiness). Another time, you may witness me claim that a satisfying state of the field would be one in which we are free to creatively dabble in the technical aspects of digital disciplines in much the same way as we permit ourselves to ruffle the feathers of historians, psychologists, and economists by using and perhaps abusing the findings, key concepts, and vocabularies of their fields. This is part of the reason for which I do not see the path between Ramsay’s devoted teaching of coding to individual humanists and the second of his conference-complicating assertions, “Do you have to know how to code? I’m a tenured professor of Digital Humanities and I say ‘yes.’” Why the leap from the importance of teaching a useful skill that enhances research to a tenure-based claim about the role of coding as a fundamental aspect of literacy for those who ‘make’?

What about my suggestion from a couple of weeks ago that a published piece of DH scholarship (I guess like Eric S. Faden’s video & surrounding apparatus,) might draw conclusions that could be invaluable to a piece of ‘standard’ scholarship. In fact, that video is arguably a substantial entrance into the conversation established by that Schivelbusch book. So I envision a kind of collaborative climate in which a scholar writing a traditional academic essay that seeks to enter the same conversation would be encouraged (or even ethically compelled) to mention Faden’s contribution. It is in this collaborative climate that I see the DH as having the most tangible impact on the field as a whole: whereas not all humanists will learn how to code, they will have to learn how to account for and incorporate the work of the increasing proportion of those that do. This might be as systemic as more interactive formats for the online editions of the top peer-reviewed journals, or it might be as individual as a conference presentation that spends two or three of its allotted minutes to showing or (preferably) otherwise interacting with something like the Faden video. Rather than, like Fitzpatrick in the Golumbia example, encouraging the graduate student to do a digital project because it’s the new thing (I bet that’s why the student was so vague – she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do, just that those maps people have cool looking finished products… so far we’ve proved that ‘making’ is seductive), there should be an evaluation of how the digital enhances the given project and how it would aid in its completion. This means that some projects will be more welcoming of DH methods and ways of defining knowledge than others, but that’s a good thing. But let’s stay away from the divisions between ‘reading’ and ‘making’; between ‘big ideas’ and ‘methodologies’ — they’re too close for comfort to that ubiquitously drawn line between ‘saying’ and ‘doing’ that already makes our lives as academics so difficult in the arena of popular opinion.

Oh, and the Ramsay stuff on ‘making’ that I’m referring to can be found here, though my references to the discussion were mainly through Golumbia.


12 thoughts on “Reading and Making, ‘Big Ideas’ and ‘Methodologies’

  1. decampda

    Good post Adam. Let me first preface this by saying that I am a history graduate student at Northeastern enrolled in Ryan Cordell’s digital humanities seminar. I enjoyed that you mentioned Ramsay’s vision of all digital humanists learning to code. I also disagree with this statement. To me, being a digital humanist means approaching traditional (or novel) research topics with a new digital lens. This means understanding digital tactics, tools, and methodologies, and keeping their strengths and limitations when devising your research questions. And I feel this is the biggest strength of utilizing digital techniques. Digital techniques allow us to devise new approaches and formulate different research questions to our respective disciplinary (and interdisciplinary) interests. One does not necessarily need to code, to “make,” these digital tools in order to approach these topics through digital analysis. One just needs to understand the strengths, weaknesses, and biases of both the digital technique you are using and the results it produces. Do you necessarily need to know the specific algorithms and sequences of Python coding, for example, that went into building the tool? I think not. But what you do need to be aware of is the ins and outs of what that particular program does, what its results mean, what it includes, and what it excludes.

    That being said, I recognize the value of being able to code–or at least proficient enough in coding to manipulate an already made tool to serve your specific research goals. Being able and willing to code a tool opens up your research to different research questions, even from those digital humanists that do not know how to code and are borrowing or “outsourcing” (loaded term but appropriate when we think of humanists collaborating with computer scientists on these digital projects). A humanist who can code can approach a research question in a way that one who does not know how to code cannot. But this does not, in my opinion, make the latter any less of a digital humanist than the former. There should not be, as you quote Ramsay, a binary divide between humanists and digital humanists based on technical expertise. Some projects are only feasible with a certain level of competency, however, coding skills should not be a prerequisite to join the DH club. Instead, I like to think of DH, and humanities more generally, as a spectrum of different types of research questions. The non-digital historian who uses network theory asks different questions from a digital historian using software like Gephi to produce network visualizations. And this digital humanist is addressing different questions from the digital historian who creates their own program to run a network analysis.

    Technical competency is certainly a great skill to have. But the way you approach a topic digitally, and to what degree your project relies on digital tools and expertise, ultimately relies on your research questions. And to me, a digital humanist is one who’s research questions can only be answered digitally, whether or not they are making their own digital tool. I agree when you say that “This means that some projects will be more welcoming of DH methods and ways of defining knowledge than others, but that’s a good thing.” I think the same can be said about digital projects. Some digital projects will be more receptive to knowledge of coding, or “making,” than other DH projects, but that is a good thing.

  2. Staci

    I really like your post here Adam. What I think you call into question quite nicely is the distinction between productive and unproductive intellectual labor. I find this interesting because you seem to equate production with DH-output (i.e., fancy graphs) as opposed to unproductive or, as you say, ‘making’-free, idea-output. This is ironic, I think, when put in conversation with traditional academia that ONLY equates “legitimate” idea-output (i.e., peer-reviewed published essay/book) with productivity (except if, as we discussed last week, you are lucky enough to have something written in your contract to the contrary). With that in mind, then, is this drastic push toward counting DH-output as productive just working to combat the other restrictive notion of academic productivity with regards to tenure? Is this push an overcompensation that attempts to disqualify idea-output or is it just working to at least justify DH-output as ALSO productive in the same way? I am inclined to say the latter.

  3. Jesse Menn (@jessemenn)

    I find that regardless of whether we apply a dh label or not, we tend to build stuff and share a cool object — a cool kilt we dug up in the archives or a scholarly paper destroying the entirety of Western metaphysics. But that’s a relatively boring argument, so what about something more akin to your ideas of labor/tenure/collaboration/letters-of-authenticity…

    To be perhaps overly localized, our department necessitates a foreign language requirement to be fulfilled before we can advance to candidacy. This can be satisfied in a number of ways, but by and large it suggests we are not real scholars capable of being candidates for said letters of authenticity unless we can engage, in some way, with a foreign language. My point is that “the leap from the importance of teaching a useful skill that enhances research to a tenure-based claim about the role of coding as a fundamental aspect of literacy for those who ‘make’” is answered even within our graduate handbook. French or German or Latin or Anglo-Saxon, ostensibly, are useful skills “that enhances research,” just as the fundamental digital logic or code literacy allows us to enhance our research. All of that, as well, seems to fall under the tenure/candidacy/authentic scholarship, as well. Differentiating between the two reinforces what seems to be a fundamental argument (that is, what counts?) raised specifically by the growing popularity of (new) media studies and dh-related work.

    I sense some general ambivalence from you toward dh-projects. I _think_ but am undsure, that I share a similar ambivalence. While by and large I think it’s awesome that we now have these new modes of investigation that can possibly stand on their own or encourage/allow more collaborative scholarship, I can’t help but thinking “great, but we still need good scholarship.” A website is great and all, but it should be held to the same scholarly standards and debate that we push on our “traditional” papers. Most of us still recognize good work and bad work, beyond bells and whistles and jQuery.

    1. Chris Barnes

      I think that raises the question of how one evaluates digital work in a way that is fair to the scholar doing the work and the other scholars in the department (I’m imagining in this scenario the conversation we had last week about some professor — I can’t remember who — who has written into his tenure contract the different digital equivalents to “traditional scholarly works”). I think the question of what sort of rubric we use to evaluate digital scholarly works is an interesting conversation to have. I’m unsure as to what one of these rubrics would look like, or who would even be developing them, but clearly, DH demands that they exist. Is saying a 15 minute video is the equivalent to publishing a scholarly article fair? It seems arbitrary on its face — why 15 minutes? — but, then again, there is a type of labor that goes into making, for example, a video, that is certainly different than researching and writing that article.

    2. Chris Forster

      You note here language requirements in departments. I will quote here, briefly, from a 2009 column by Matthew Kirschenbuam: “The English department where I teach, like most which offer the doctorate, requires students to demonstrate proficiency in at least one foreign language. Should a graduate student be allowed to substitute demonstrated proficiency in a computer-programming language instead?”

      As you ask, what counts? (And, perhaps more important, why?)

  4. jkappes

    So on the Reading V Making dichotomy that you start to break down, the problem seems to be most centrally, as you start to note, that traditional scholarship has always been engaged with making, and “reading” and “critiquing” is not a fair assessment of the history of humanities. We darn well “make” an argument. It seems that the difference between making a traditional argument and making a map is the engagingness of that map. Very few, if any, people will read the arguments we carefully craft, but if you stick something in a gallery, people will probably at least glance at it whether or not its good (see: student art shows). That is to say, the chance for engagement seems greater with a nontraditional academic essay—the coolness. The seduction, in these terms, may not be a parenthetical but a principle.

  5. Peter Katz

    I’m going to interject here in my increasingly common persona of raging-Marxist-Peter.

    We started out discussing labor (and Jordan mentions something about the “masculine” labor of building in his post, as well). But we very quickly turned it into a discussion of aesthetics. We decided that it isn’t really that some people make and others don’t; it’s the allure of the thing made.

    But when we talk about labor and value, those aren’t purely subjective terms unmoored from critical distinctions. Do we mean …

    Malthusian value, which comes from digital humanities capacity to produce more scholars? (biological value)
    Smithian value, which comes from the social value that other humanists place on the work? (use value/exchange value)
    Ricardian value, which comes from the amount of labor put into the object–which, for DH, is usually quite a bit? (labor value)
    Lewesian value, which comes from the ratio of pleasure generated by the allure of the final object to pain put in? (utilitarian value)
    or, of course, Marxian value, which really ends up being an ideological mechanism projected onto a fetishized object? (ideological value)

    I’m sure people have theorized value since the mid 19th century, but they’re irrelevant.

    It seems that Adam is arguing for Lewes: finding a cool object is worth the labor, and valuable. Ramsay seems to be arguing for Ricardo: it’s all about the labor put into the object. And the subsequent thread seems to be and countering Ramsay’s Ricardo (but we all do labor!). I’m not going to suggest a way to “solve” these questions, but I am going to say that the debate itself seems indicative of many of the critiques of DH that we read for this week in that whatever theory of value we’re debating here, it is not ideological value.

    Moreover, the way DH’s myriad hydra heads seem to define themselves seems to me to directly avoid the question of ideological value, and returns it always to Ricardo and Lewes: how much work did I put into this project, and how pretty is it? Even that, I would say, is a smokescreen for the more important question that these sorts of debates always seem to circle, the question that lurks within Ramsay’s “I’m a tenured professor,” which is a Smithian value: how much will other humanists pay me (in pecuniary and cultural capital)? But even at that point, we’re still not to the place where DH can ask itself the ideological questions it needs to.


    1. adamkozaczka Post author

      Exactly, Peter — a humanities-aware programmer might read one part of this discussion on ‘coding’ and respond with a list of four different types of programming languages each of which has a distinctly different application. This might make silly a debate over the merits of ‘coding’ as an umbrella category. I think I correctly read the facetiousness in, “I’m sure people have theorized value since the mid 19th century, but they’re irrelevant” — we as literary critics pick and choose and hopelessly oversimplify other fields in order to make arguments (even ones designed to cast suspicion on the vocabulary in other arguments).

  6. H Hamilton

    Alex –
    Hi! My name is Haley, I’m a first year English MA student in Ryan Cordell’s ‘Doing DH’ (appropriate for this week, huh?) class at Northeastern, and one of your ghost commentators for the week.

    It seems Dave got a head start on me, but I want to plug for ‘digital/technical competency’ a little bit more. Your post for this week speaks very strongly to the readings our class did week before last, David Bodenhamer’s “The Potential of Spatial Humanities” and Ian Gregory’s “Exploiting Time and Space”, (I’m having trouble getting links to work from the comment interface [?] anyway, both are here: and to Elijah Meeks’s contribution to the ‘Conversations’ section of Journal of Digital Humanities, “Digital Humanities as Thunderdome” ( Bodenhamer and Gregory’s articles each deal with, unsurprisingly, GIS and the software’s potential and its limitations in being applied to research in the humanities. Meeks describes DH from a position we, as junior humanities scholars, don’t necessarily hear too often – that of the alt ac professional often working behind the scenes in digital humanities.

    ‘Making’ with digital humanities is really exciting: like you said perfectly, ‘making’ is seductive, and, like the graduate student you reference via Fitzpatrick and Golumbia, we can all agree “those maps people have cool looking finished projects”. While it’s clear from your post that the line between ‘reading’ and ‘making’ definitely does hit close to ‘saying’ versus ‘doing’ (OR, ‘hack’ versus ‘yack’ and that humanities research, digital or otherwise, need not be pigeon-holed via any one of these terms, I think Meeks, Bodenhamer, and Gregory let us look at Ramsay’s (intentionally?) incendiary claim that, as a “tenured Digital Humanities professor” yes, you have to learn to code.

    GIS is really cool. I, for one, am terrible at it (spatial relations and geometry, not my fortes) but the implications and potential are very exciting to me. GIS, however, “delineates space as a set of Cartesian coordinates with attributes attached to the identified location, a cartographic concept, rather than as relational space that maps interdependencies, a social concept” (Bodenhamer 20). When we think about space as humanists, we go beyond the coordinates; we sometimes, in fact, look at almost everything but the coordinates. Which is fine, until it is forgotten that software like GIS “isn’t built for humanists, because nothing is truly built for humanists; the closes we can get is something built by humanists” (Meeks 79 emphasis in original). Meeks, as an alt-ac collaborator and someone who has written code for Gephi, is very concerned with “the way wholesale importation of digital tools, techniques and objects into humanities scholarship tends to foster a situation where rich, sophisticated problems are contracted to fit conveniently into software” (79).

    Without being involved and engaged with the “nitty-gritty details of the logical systems that are being put in place to translate [humanities] work into the digital realm” (Meeks 80), without, like Ramsay posits, being required to learn to code at least a little bit, we run the risk of forgetting that, while digital technology like GIS and Gephi provide “a data model that assists researchers in the humanities to understand space and time simultaneously…this does not provide a complete solution to the problem” (Gregory 73). Without learning to code, I think Ramsay would say, we are at greater risk of failing to take into account that what we ‘make’ with DH is, like Meeks cautions, “the result of an interpretive act” (79).

    That being said, my personal favorite Ramsay-ism is the Screwmeneutical Imperative…which just might contradict a little bit of the fire and brimstone that seem to come with ‘yes, you must learn to code’.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s