Think Talk Make Do: Power and the Digital Humanities

How cowardly to begin with a disclaimer! And yet. It seems worth saying that I wrote the original post from which this is derived in a fury at job-market news from friends, as well as the latest statistics from VIDA about women’s representation in magazines and book reviews. I probably would have been more temperate if I’d known what kind of reaction this post would provoke — but then again, who knows? Maybe not.

What interests me in hindsight is how relatively limited my original post’s claims are, compared to the breadth of reactions in its wake. I said, simply, that if you want everyone to code, fine — but recognize that not everyone has equal access to this education. Or that’s what I thought I said. The responses, to my surprise, fixed on archival representation, the nature of identity-making in digital humanities, the kinds of knowledge we value, and how community members might productively express dissent.

I do not flatter myself that these reactions have anything in particular to do with the quality of my original blog post. Rather, it seems to me that many people had things to say about identity and community in digital humanities at a moment when these questions feel pressing.

One of the odd things about blogging is that the the final product, the thing you’re left with, is not what you’ve originally written. It’s an oddball aggregate of the comments, responses, and conversations it leaves in its wake. In this case, these conversations changed what, in my mind, the original post was about. For me, it’s no longer just about coding and gender; it’s about the kinds of conversations we’re willing to have about uncomfortable questions.

I was inspired and energized by many of the reactions to this post. But I do suspect, in the aftermath of all this, that we digital humanists have not yet developed a robust language for discussing inequities of power among our practitioners. These inequities do indeed have to do with the kind of position one holds — whether, for example, one is a tenured professor, a contract archivist, or a staff technologist — but at this moment, inequities of gender and race feel most pressing to me precisely because we’ve proven ourselves frankly bad at discussing them. Our community is wonderful and worth celebrating, but it’s worth scrutinizing, too.

It’s equally true that we won’t really resolve these questions by reaming each other over the seminar table, as so many of us were trained to do. As Stephen Ramsay suggests, now might be a good time for us to talk to each other not nicely, but benevolently; that is, with the understanding that we value and care about each other as colleagues and friends, even when we disagree.

What follows is an edited version of my original post, called “Some Things to Think about before You Exhort Everyone to Code,” along with selections from the follow-up post I wrote a few days later.

*           *           *

Oh, how I hate being the bearer of bad news. Yet I feel I have to tell you something about the frustration I’m hearing, in whispers and on the backchannel, from early-career women involved in digital humanities.

Here, there, and everywhere, we’re being told: A DHer should code! Don’t know how? Learn! The work that’s getting noticed, one can’t help but see, is code. As digital humanities winds its way into academic departments, it seems reasonable to predict that the work that will get people jobs — the work that marks a real digital humanist — will be work that shows that you can code.

And that work is overwhelmingly by men. There are some important exceptions, but the pattern is pretty clear.

In principle, I have no particular problem with getting everyone to code. But I wanted to talk here about why men are the ones who code, so that we can speak openly about the fact that programming knowledge is not a neutral thing, but something men will tend to have more often than women.

First, men — middle-class white men, to be specific — are far more likely to have been given access to a computer and encouraged to use it at a young age. I love that you learned BASIC at age ten. But please realize that this has not been the case for all of us.

Second, the “culture of code,” the inside jokes and joshing that you enjoy, may not be equally appealing to everyone who encounters it. This should be, but apparently isn’t, obvious.

But Miriam, you’re thinking, there are lots of examples of DH coders who started late and are now well-respected and proficient! This is true! And they inspire me all the time. But this is also why I wanted to talk a little bit about what it’s like for a woman to learn to program.

Should you choose to learn in a group setting, you will immediately be conspicuous. It might be hard to see why this is a problem; after all, everyone wants more women in programming. Surely people are glad you’re there. Well, that’s true, as far as it goes. But it also makes you extremely conscious of your mistakes, confusion, and skill level. You are there as a representative of every woman. If you mess up or need extra clarification, it’s because you really shouldn’t — you suspected this anyway — you shouldn’t be there in the first place.

But there are all these online communities where you can learn to code. There are! But if you are under the impression that online communities are any friendlier to women’s participation, then you, my friend, have not looked lately at Wikipedia.

Well, just practice! I did the work — so should you! Here is the real point I’m trying to make here: It is not about “should.” What women should do has nothing to do with it. The point is, women aren’t. And neither, for that matter, are people of color. And unless you believe (and you don’t, do you?) that some biological explanation prevents us from excelling at programming, then you must see that there is a structural problem.

So I am saying to you: If you want women and people of color in your community, if it is important to you to have a diverse discipline, you need to do something besides exhort us to code.

“What, exactly, are we supposed to do besides exhort women to code?” several people asked, reasonably enough. In a follow-up, I suggested some positive steps we might take.

  1. Let’s think about ways to build communities of underrepresented people. We have some great models here, in women’s development groups, in the Praxis Program, in MATRIX, in the Crunk Feminist Collective, and, yes, even though it might not be your bag, in groups like Craftster. Women and people of color are really, really good at building and maintaining supportive communities. Let’s make sure that they (we) have spaces to do that, and that they (we) know we value these communities, even when they say things we don’t totally want to hear.
  2. Let’s acknowledge that we all do racist and sexist stuff sometimes. I should know. I do it all the time. All. The. Time. I don’t mean to, and I’m not a bad person, but I do. Let’s just figure out together how we can stop doing this when it counts, when we’re depriving someone of an opportunity to learn or do something important.
  3. Let’s talk about when our niceness could be shutting down important conversations. As anyone who knows me very well will tell you, I am a Nice Person. I instinctively recoil at unpleasantness. But sometimes — not always, but sometimes — it might be necessary to have these really uncomfortable conversations.
  4. Let’s believe people when they tell us they feel uncomfortable. It’s so easy to correct someone when she tells you she feels slighted because of race or gender. I’ve done it many times. But I’m trying, really trying, to take a minute or two to think: She’s probably the expert on her own experience.


Originally posted by Miriam Posner on February 29, 2012. Revised for the Journal of Digital Humanities June 2012.

About Miriam Posner

Miriam Posner is the coordinator and a core faculty member of the Digital Humanities program at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her most recent article, on Thomas Edison's Red Cross Seal films, appears in Learning with the Lights Off: An Educational Film Reader (Oxford, 2011). She earned her Ph.D. in Film Studies and American Studies from Yale University in 2011.