Please Write it Down: Design and Research in Digital Humanities

Tom Scheinfeldt provocatively suggested that “DH arguments are encoded in code” and that he disagrees “with the notion that those arguments must be translated / re-encoded in text.” I don’t think this is how this works.

What I see as the key issue is not so much whether digital humanists need to “re-encode” their work in writing. Digital humanists, like reflective designers of all stripes, are already doing a lot of writing. They are creating documentation, making wireframes, etc. The question here is: what kinds of writing should humanities scholars who design software and make things in code be doing?

Writing is Thinking, and Designers Write Things Too

Everybody working on a digital humanities project needs to be writing. I am suggesting that this is simply a fact of life. If you don’t have at least a one-pager for your project, then you don’t have a project; you are just fiddling around. In fact, purposeful design necessitates the creation of documentation at nearly every step.  As I recently suggested, every document and artifact that you create in the process of design could serve as a new genre of humanities scholarship. For starters, practically everything in Dan Brown’s Communicating Design already looks like the kinds of things we already write.

As I see it, it is not that you need to translate what you did in code into text. Instead, to have made something interesting in code you probably went through a reflective process that inevitably created a wake of valuable texts that were central to both the creation of the argument the code made, and potentially the most viable communication of that argument. You probably only need to clean them up a little bit. Even better, many projects are the result of grant-funded work. In those cases, the text already exists since the creator needed to explain what the thing they were going to make was supposed to do.

With this said, I would also suggest that at the end of a project (or whatever it is we are calling done), taking time to sit down and write out what you learned is an invaluable reflective practice. In my own experience, this is far from being the moment when you translate something you already knew into another format; rather this is the moment that crystallizes what you actually learned. This is not about writing it up. Taking a few moments at the end of a project to reflect on what you wanted to accomplish, what actually happened, and what you learned from the process is critical not only for communicating results, but for really coming to know them.

With Design and Humanities Research We are Still Only Beginning

So people who make stuff have to write a lot about what they are doing as part of the process of making stuff. This kind of writing is simply part of being a reflective designer. But I think we are only scratching the surface of how purposefully thinking about the process of design could become a key part of humanities scholarship.

I have my feet in both the digital humanities world and the world of educational research, so I would like to point digital humanists to an ongoing conversation in instructional technology about design and research practices. About twelve years ago, educational technologists started talking about something they call design-based research. The idea is that instead of contriving wonky experimental designs, it would be better for researchers to adopt the role of designer and think through how formalizing the iterative practice of design could serve as a basis for research methods. The idea behind design-based research is that there is some kind of hybrid form of doing, theorizing, building and iterating that we should turn into a methodology.

Two articles summarize this conversation nicely: Design-Based Research: An Emerging Paradigm for Educational Inquiry (PDF) from The Design-Based Research Collective and published in Educational Researcher in 2003, and Design-Based Research: Putting a Stake in the Ground (PDF) by Kurt Squire and Sasha Barab, published in The Journal of the Learning Sciences in 2004. The Design-Based Research Collective’s piece suggests how theory, practice and method coalesce in research-based design.

Design-based researchers’ innovations embody specific theoretical claims about teaching and learning, and help us understand the relationships among educational theory, designed artifact, and practice. Design is central in efforts to foster learning, create usable knowledge, and advance theories of learning and teaching in complex settings.

In short, yes; designs always have explicit and implicit arguments inside them. However, reflective designers produce a range of artifacts and documents during the process of design that, if shared, could both help them become better designers, and help others learn to become better designers. Further, the concept of design-based research pushes us to think more deeply, and not simply absorb the design practices of others. What might a design-based research method look like if we translated it from the educational context and into the context of a particular humanities research question?


Originally published by Trevor Owens on November 11, 2011. Revised March 2012.

About Trevor Owens

Trevor Owens is a Digital Archivist with the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) in the Office of Strategic Initiatives at the Library of Congress. He is finishing a PhD in social science research methods and instructional technology in the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University. Trevor wrote a book for Arcadia Press about the history of Fairfax County told through postcards, and published articles in the journals Simulation & Gaming, Science Communication, Cultural Studies of Science Education, and On the Horizon. In 2009 he was chosen by Read Write Web as one of the 50+ Semantic Web Pros to Follow on Twitter, and won the CW Bright Pixel Prize for building PlayingHistory, an open collaborative directory of digital historical games and interactives.