Blog //I/O: Reading & writing as a digital humanist

In which we consider our different practices of reading and writing.

Tell us a bit about yourselves.

AS: My name is Ammon Shepherd. I’m a Digital Humanities Developer and I help out in the Makerspace. I work in fits and spurts on different projects, and my reading kind of reflects that.

BW: I’m Brandon Walsh, Head of Graduate Programs in the Scholars’ Lab. I listen to a lot of audiobooks and podcasts, and this lean on a variety of different formats has formed a lot of my reading habits.

AV: I’m Amanda Visconti; I co-direct the Scholars’ Lab. I like making websites about books, and reading books about websites.

How has your reading style changed over the years?

AS: While researching and reading for my dissertation in history, much of my reading was very traditional; books, journal articles, scans and images of archival documents, and loads of printed copies of archive papers. After doing archive research, I would typically go through each document and take notes as I went on the things that I felt would fit into the different chapters. Reading books and articles was a bit different. With books and articles, I was usually trying to find information for specific aspects of the narrative or argument I was making. I would skim through the text looking for points to reference.

My reading now is much less academic, at least for the traditional field of history, or the humanities paradigm in general. My day to day work involves more problem solving and research of technical aspects and computer programming. I read a lot of blog posts, support forums, and software documentation in order to solve the problems. I’m usually reading for a quick fix to a specific problem. Instead of books and journals, I’m reading personal blog posts, Stack Overflow questions and answers (https://stackoverflow.com/), documentation for ancient (http://cocoon.apache.org/) and modern (https://nodejs.org/en/docs/) software, and tutorials for constructing electronic projects (https://www.raspberrypi.org/).  

BW: I remember reading for my PhD comps as a massive shift in my reading practices. During that time, I read more long-form pieces - novels, essays, books - than I have ever read before or since. It really burnt me out on sustained reading in a way that took several years to recover from. I’ve been slowly rebuilding the ability to commit to sustained long-form reading in the years since then, and it is only in the past several years that I’ve been able to make any headway, certainly in terms of pleasure reading but also in terms of reading for work. One of the main changes recently has been to the context in which my (work) reading is happening - I have far less time to do it. Particularly in a 9-5 office job, one of the challenges is recognizing that reading for work is, well, work, and not some distracting cheat on my other responsibilities. This is as much an internal pressure that I apply to myself as anything else. One strategy for encouraging that reading actually happens is to block the time off on my calendar for it (a strategy I think I adopted after Ryan Cordell’s example). Doing this feels like an indulgence in between meetings, but it makes me better at my job. And the flip side of this is that I work hard to try and limit work reading to work hours and read other things outside of the office. It’s a difficult balance to strike, particularly when a novel or article might be both for pleasure and relevant to my work. But I think it’s important at least to recognize that thinking and reading can be work. And the time and energy we give to them should be factored into conversations about sustainable work practices.

AV: Like Brandon, reading for literature comps (here’s my reading list and rationale!) changed my relationship to reading, but in an ultimately good way—I pay a lot more attention to whether I’m enjoying and challenged and learning from something I’m reading now, and am better at just stopping reading when those things aren’t happening. There was never enough time to read, during the first three years of my PhD program—I always was racing to get through the pages, and didn’t have enough time to reflect, or to move through readings non-linearly. I worried about being questioned about some random concept on page 180, rather than getting a sense of some of a book’s arguments and what I thought about them. And I felt like I needed to Know Things, that I needed to have read X thinkers on Y authors to be a functional scholar.

(My mentors in grad school were amazing, and to their credit none of these pressures came from them. Rather, I was seeing how other students were working and figuring out what being a scholar meant to me. I remember Melanie Kill recommending I use exams prep to figure out how I want to manage the reading part of being a scholar, before starting the first big project of the dissertation. Her advice rewrote my initial floundering with how to usefully ingest a lot of texts into something expected and welcomed.)

I basically don’t read any books or print journal articles anymore. I’ve gotten off most (all?) listservs. I’m not any less of a scholar for delimiting my reading to other formats. Folks who do all or some of their reading via these formats are real scholars, too. How, when, and where you read are personal choices. There is a lot of writing and discussing out there, no one can read more of it, and it’s completely fine and intellectually responsible to delimit the formats and topics you’re going to read.

Scholarship doesn’t come from restricting the ways you take in new ideas; scholarship is challenging yourself to think hard and share that thinking so others can learn from and build on it (a re-articulation of Mark Sample’s great “When does service become scholarship?”). And I guess I do extrapolate some best practices from that definition of scholarship, like representative and accurate citation being necessary for scholarship to work (e.g. see Sara Ahmed’s articulation of citation as a black feminist practice). You can’t share your thinking well if you don’t say whose work you’re building on and how, and contribute to the community’s knowledge of other thinkers to learn from in addition to your thoughts.

How do your reading inputs connect with writing/outputs?

BW: When I worked on my dissertation I had a good cycle on input becoming output. Each morning I would read and mark down quotes that were relevant, and then in the afternoon I would write, directly integrating the new material I had just read. For the most part, things I read were all immediately instrumentalized. Of course, that approach really only works when you’re working in a sustained way on a big writing project on a topic. It’s harder to maintain that system when you’re just reading whatever happens to come through Twitter on a regular basis and when you’re also balancing all of that with the actual working realities that pull your attention in a thousand other directions. Now the material I take in doesn’t directly turn around in the same way. I still read, and things get absorbed. But these readings are often on a number of different topics and less likely to immediately and directly get piped right back out (perhaps because I’m not doing as much academic writing these days). In some ways, the day-to-day experiences of my job actually wind up being more directly and consistently piped into my writing as context for my thinking. Which is to say - reading and citation are only one way of accumulating evidence for a piece of writing. Lived experience, with enough reflection is another. And that’s something I constantly try to teach my students, who tend to be most familiar with how to work with written resources in their scholarship. For them, thinking critically about the lived process of their scholarly work is often more alien, and it’s useful to help them reflect on it and learn to connect it to their reading and writing.

AV: My reading nowadays largely consists of: blog posts, tweets and Twitter conversations, attending conference and event talks (or reading transcripts afterward), talking/Slacking/emailing with people. For Slack, we’ve got an active Scholars’ Lab internal Slack for our staff and students, I love the Documenting the Now Slack for generous and smart thinking about the ethics of archives (particularly archiving and doing research with social media), and the DH Slack (which I’ve been posting to less lately, but still enjoying reading). Sometimes the blog posts or tweet link to digital projects or online journal articles that I read, but the “next” books on my work to-read list have been the same ones for what feels like a year, and I’m not getting to them.

I’ve moved away from bookmarking stuff that I think I ought to read, and am only bookmarking things I think I’m likely to read soon, and that will impact my work (change or improve how I think or talk or listen). Having a huge backlog of “should reads” can make me feel behind, or like I’m slogging through processing text for reasons other than my own. I’d rather not have too much stuff on the backburner, and take longer thinking about the stuff I do read.

Sometimes it’s physically small pieces of reading that have a large impact on my writing, like this tweet by Élika Ortega, that rewrites the popular focus on “What is DH?” to instead ask “What can DH be?” That tweet—and her work living that shift—plus Stewart Varner’s building on Élika’s thinking, all encouraged me to take more personal agency in my scholarly community. Rather than just imagining what I’d like DH to become as a field, I started looking at how the tiny snowflake of my scholarly choices contributes to what the field becomes. For example, I’d thought I was okay with my dissertation creating yet another edition of a canon white male author, and I don’t think I’d argue the same today. That is not a comment on what anyone else should study—I just found that a shift in my thinking about the field of DH accompanied a shift in scholarly topics and formats. This is all to say that something as un-book-like as a tweet can cause a profound shift in someone’s scholarly career, and influence various kinds of future scholarship (including, in this instance, blogs posts, research projects, and keynotes).

Élika’s tweet (arising from the #WhatIfDH2016 etc. hashtags) made a huge impact, but Twitter’s been significant for my scholarship in subtler ways as well. I’ve learned to be a better scholar and person from Twitter exposing me to new ideas, or ideas I didn’t take seriously enough. It is wrong that I’m able to get so much from a platform that is actively unsafe for many of my peers to use. Some of my more recent scholarship has been a reaction to this: what features and feeling would an ideal academic virtual community have; what good virtual academic communities already exist, and whether there’s even a need for alternative technical platforms to assist with addressing social issues; and how we can better structure the work of community-building and moderation that helps such communities thrive (particular interests: more equitable distribution of the labor and stress of moderation, and recognition and reward for this work as scholarship).

AS: While doing traditional academic research, the output was foremost a dissertation, secondly a hopeful journal publication, and finally a blog post and website, because in the end, that was the only way the research was going to be accessible. The dissertation and journal pieces were not accepted, but the website was self published, and read by hundreds. There was always the sense that there was a larger audience interested in the topic I was researching, and a dissertation or journal for academia was not the right fit. So the website contains the text of the dissertation (https://nazitunnels.org/dissertation), and a blog (https://nazitunnels.org/) about the process of research and writing.

Nowadays, I don’t do a whole lot of writing for others to see. The websites and code that I write are the output, and most of that is unseen. The output can also be in the form of a physical object. One recent project produced a hand-held mp3 player with 3-inch monitor, built from a Raspberry Pi computer and lots of knobs, switches and other electronic components. The process of creation was only made possible through the many tutorials found on the World Wide Web. Another form of output is writing, but it is documentation of the processes to create objects and websites. These writings aren’t found in journals and blogs, but in GitHub or GitLab repositories (https://gitlab.com/scholars-lab/womensbios). Rarely, I’ll post some musings and findings on my personal blog, but they are almost exclusively technical now (https://mossiso.com/2018/09/18/what-is-tput-sgr0-doin-in-my-bash-prompt.html).

What do you wish you did differently? What do you want to try?

AV: I’d like to get back to blogging a couple of times a month. I’ve got a large backlog of drafts, including a series on designing DH infrastructure from my previous role at Purdue—I’d like to post those, and to continue to make infrastructural documents and decisions from my role in the Scholars’ Lab public, like the work of structuring our new job openings equitably and drafting job ads to match (one example, another example).

I also want to experiment further with my blogging voice. I’m interested in making public the pieces of scholarship that get “published” less often, whether that’s things like hiring that we don’t share to the detriment of the diversity of our community (e.g. folks sharing the text of their successful job talks—Lee Skallerup Bessette, Celeste Tuong Vy Sharpe, Chris Bourg, and Brandon Walsh, as well as my Scholars’ Lab and previous Purdue job talks), or what the daily scholarly practices look like that eventually result in a book or website (e.g. the software they use to make daily progress on writing a book), or some small technical thing I figured out (e.g. automating screenshots of my liked tweets for personal Morale Boosting; post coming… soon?). And I’m proud of my Programming Historian lesson, which I tried to write with kindness and thorough explanation of non-obvious technical stuff.

But I also love to read digital writing that is thoughtful in a different way about language and structure. I think I’ve had “write something that makes me feel excited about scholarship the way Bethany Nowviskie’s blog posts make me feel” as a goal for years now. Brandon recently shared some of his writing that made me similarly really excited about work, and reminded me that I want to try similarly structuring some of my own thoughts. I think more attention to language and structure could help me here, but I’m also realizing that a difference between many of my blog posts and these digital essays I admire, is that they argue in a generative way much of my writing doesn’t. Some things I’d like to experiment with emulating and building on: Bethany’s lyrical force, Brandon’s clarity, Aimée Morrison’s life-giving affirmation of scholars’ brains and bodies, and April Hathcock’s courage and concision.

BW: I always really enjoy blogging, and I wish I did it more regularly. At present I mostly work from a “blog whenever I feel like it or have a talk to share” mode, but I think the result of that is that the public sharing of ideas can often end up on the backburner. I’d like to get back into a habit of thinking out loud and on the page as a regular part of my work routine. I regularly encourage students to blog their process and to think about the blog as a place where still-forming reflections on any number of process-related things can have a home. But I’ve become something of a hypocrite in that I go months without posting anything and wait around until I feel like I have something to say. I’d like to walk the walk more and get back to regularly producing smaller nuggets of text. Like any muscle, creativity is one that needs to be nurtured and grown, and I think blog writing gets harder the less I do it. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Erin Rose Glass, and Jim McGrath are models for me in this regard that I’d like to emulate more. Their commitment to public thought, interrogating and developing new modes for representing writing, and their  provocations about the kinds of possible subjects worth talking about are all deeply inspiring.

AS: I would like to have more time to analyse and view the things I’m reading objectively. If I’m writing code or building electronics as a collaborative effort on someone else’s project, I would like to take time and read the scholarship behind the project and contribute to the more academic side of the scholarship. Often when working on a digital humanities website (usually in the mode of fixing or archiving the project), I will spend time reading content. I think I’ll take time to reflect on those readings and write up a short blog post about the “research” I just spontaneously did. Perhaps, if I’m feeling extra outgoing, I’ll find a way to contribute directly to the project.

What technologies do you use to facilitate your reading and writing?

AV: I blog in a GoogleDoc (for collaborative stuff like this post), or using a Markdown editor (Typora) or text editor (BBedit, for when I really need to focus and not mess with formatting). I moved my personal blog (LiteratureGeek.com) from WordPress to a Jekyll-generated static site hosted on GitHub Pages, so sometimes I write directly on the GitHub website. I read and write tweets using Tweetbot (on my iPhone) or Tweetdeck (from my laptop). In the past, I’ve used WriteRoom (for distraction-free exams presentation writing), and bookmarking tools including Pocket, Instapaper, and Pinboard to save things to read later. Currently, I save links from Twitter to Chrome bookmarks, and try to open those tabs at work once a week to read or discard them.

BW: I’ve found Pocket to be very useful for managing the incoming stream of blog posts that I want to get to. Pocket is a great way to collect lots of different pieces and then package them into something that I can work with offline. So, in addition to general capturing, before I take flights I’ll often go through and find a bunch of blog posts on a particular topic. I store them all in Pocket, and then I can use my phone to read around a lot of stuff during travel. Reading one blog post might sometimes feel like procrastinating, but reading twenty posts in one sitting while unable to do much else is a great way to feel productive. I also make a lot of use of audiobooks, podcasts, youtube lectures turned into sound recordings using youtube-dl, or organizations like devdh.org that post their materials in an audio format. This is all a holdover from when I had a long-ish commute at my previous place of work, and I was just trying to make the long drive feel like less of a time sink. For a lot of people this form of reading might seem like sacrilege - I’ve often heard people say that too much gets lost when trying to take a text in through your ears. But I like how D.E. Wittkower writes about the phenomenology of audiobooks. In short, it’s not that the one format is better or worse. You certainly lose things in particular formats, but you also gain. You get something useful out of each experience. All of this is to say that I make a lot of use of technologies that let me get at reading in other ways and other contexts.

AS: My most used technology while reading is a search engine, usually Google. Most of my writing is done in a terminal, using a text editing program called Vim. I will also use Visual Studio Code (https://code.visualstudio.com/) for writing code.

Where do you read? What do you read? (authors, forums/platforms, formats, topics…?)

BW: In terms of what I read, I sometimes like to use blogs as an opportunity to do a deep dive into one person as a thinker. Blogs are interesting in this way - they give a serial reading of a single person or group’s thoughts over an extended period of time. You could theoretically grab every book or article a person has ever read and sit down to read them all start to finish, but that requires a lot more logistical work and a lot more time. So before flights I’ll sometimes go through a blog and scoop every piece of public writing from a particular DH person and move through their documented thoughts. I’ve done this for Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Bethany Nowviskie, John Unsworth, and Stephen Ramsay. More generally, I tend to get a lot of ideas for my reading through Twitter. Since I have lists of particular people based around particular topics I often get plenty to take a look at based on those thinkers I am interested in. But lately the most inspiring reading I’ve done has come from Cathy Davidson and Katina Rogers.

AS: Almost 100% of my reading is done on the computer nowadays. There are always printed books that cover some of the technology and programming languages that I use, but these are often out of date just after they are published. Documentation for a given project is usually only available on their website. I don’t usually follow a specific author, platform or topic, except perhaps for the following blogs and news outlets: https://hackernoon.com/, https://hackaday.com/, https://slashdot.org/.

AV: I’ve been meaning to gather a list of frequent authors/places I read online, but have exhausted too much energy on my other answers to do that well right now! ¯_(ツ)_/¯ In addition to more professionally related reading by folks like my colleagues at the Scholars’ Lab, Bethany Nowviskie, Brandon Walsh, Aimée Morrison and the other Hook & Eye bloggers, April Hathcock, and Chris Bourg, I follow folks on Twitter who do creative, feminist tech work, many of whom also publish great zines. Sarah Werner does great scholarly blogging and tweeting, and I think I’ve also enjoyed basically every fiction book she’s recommended on Twitter.

Our thanks to colleague Ronda Grizzle for helping us frame this piece in a generative way!

Cite this post: Amanda Visconti, Ammon Shepherd, and Brandon Walsh. “I/O: Reading & writing as a digital humanist”. Published September 27, 2018. http://scholarslab.org//blog/i-o-reading-writing-as-a-digital-humanist/. Accessed on .