Gendering Praxis

As we embark on the next semester of the Praxis Program we have begun to think about our “roles” in the Prism project.  This has led to a surprising rush of gender feelings.  Parts of these feelings feel too second-wave feministy to be appropriate in this day and age, but regardless I find myself frustrated with myself for fitting into certain gendered tropes.  We have six people in our Praxis cohort, three are men and three are women and two of these men have previous experience in the coding/programming world.  Thus as we assign jobs I find myself gravitating towards design, project management, outreach and community engagement.  While the rest of the positions have yet to be assigned, its hard not to feel a division of labor emerging that is highly gendered.

What makes this all the more frustrating is that my hesitation to take on “coding” responsibilities grows out of the realization last semester that I am not that interested in learning programming languages.  I’m happy that I have learned HTML/CSS and have a basic understanding of Ruby on Rails, my computer proficiency has expanded a thousand fold, and I will be certainly implementing digital tools in my dissertation.  However, I may not necessarily want to do the backend work necessary to make those tools manifest.  It is hard to let go of my deeply feminist goal of mastering coding languages and democratizing this knowledge for underrepresented groups in the digital world (women, people of color, queer people etc.).  This is not to say I have somehow given up on learning Ruby or other aspects of programming, but it is clear to me that I do not have the passion or drive to ever truly master these tools.

An additional challenge that my gender has presented me with is my frustration at not knowing and needing to constantly seek help.  Even though the Scholars Lab staff could not be more amazing, kind, and understanding as they explain what is likely obvious to them, I feel that my constant confusion and steep learning curve plays into gendered assumptions about women and the digital world.

Unfortunately right now I have more questions than I do answers about gender in the digital humanities.  How do we make digital humanities spaces that are truly feminist and anti-racist that recognize the historical and structural inequalities each person brings to the space?  How can we as people from underrepresented groups work through feelings of insecurity or “out of placeness” in the digital world?  How do we implement progressive pedagogical approaches to the digital humanities that resist teacher/student dynamics that disempower students? I know that there are already groups doing this work and I am excited to spend more time engaging with their pedagogical approach (groups like BlackGirlsCode and TransformDH).  In the meantime I’m curious what other people think…


  1. Hi Cecilia,

    I’ll add my voice here that this has been a really great thread, and the conversations its spurred have been really great. I was wondering if we might be able to talk more in person about the points you and Claire raise? If there are ways we could change how the material is introduced, or do a better job at describing things, I’d love to hear them.


  2. Thanks, all, for this terrific discussion — and for the conversations it’s prompting in the grad lounge and on IRC! Just to connect the dots for outside readers, I want to point out Claire’s earlier post and discussion.

    I’d still like to hang back and listen more before I make too many big observations — which I’ll likely do in person, rather than here — but thought I’d add this: when we went through the selection process (including those group interviews!) for Praxis applicants this year, it was with an eye for fellows who would bring different things to the table — and who seemed to want or need exposure to different aspects of DH work, considered holistically. So, even though we front-loaded skill-building around HTML/CSS, Ruby, and version control in our weekly sessions last semester, if you leave Praxis thinking that those are therefore more valuable and harder-to-refine skills than design, public humanities and interdisciplinary/inter-professional communication, technical and social project management, architecture, UX assessment, etc. etc. etc., we will definitely have failed.

    I also find it interesting that, as a group, we didn’t feel the need to address gender roles in as head-on a way last year (although there were certainly good conversations, and I think real growth for some team members, in awareness about the impact of their communication styles and unstated, likely gender-based or cultural assumptions). I wonder if the feeling that it wasn’t as much of an issue was partly because it became obvious early on that Annie would emerge as our lead coder. She was far from adept at this kind of work when she started, but she really took to it, seemed to enjoy it as an intellectual activity, built skills quickly, and saw value in it for her future research (which is key). And we also had Ed, with his background in the arts, volunteering to lead the early design work — picking color palettes and thinking about typography, etc — which some of you have indicated you may see as a gendered set of interests.

    In other words, team make-up matters, every time. It was probably a particularly charmed set of circumstances that led Praxis 1 to counter stereotypical roles without really thinking about it. But I am deeply curious and motivated to ask what we can do as a group, this year, to make sure that the choices you make about how you will contribute are as much as possible the result of your own desires and inclinations. This is not in order to pretend that the larger systemic reasons that have made it easier for some groups to engage with some aspects of DH work don’t exist. That’d be impossible and unhealthy. (And, on the flip side, we should also have a discussion about the more localized systems in which those roles and activities can function: for instance, I have often heard bafflement on the part of low-paid, disrespected-by-faculty, often contingently-employed academic coders that their tedious labor — which more than one has equated to the “shit-shoveling of DH” — so easily acquires this gloss of techno-empowerment.)

    But in general I expect, as a team, we want each other feel free to do what makes personal as well as collective sense: to push ourselves to try something hard and new or decide to build on our existing strengths, for instance, and to make our own calls about to what degree we (each of us) are or aren’t interested in challenging norms — recognizing that we can make and revise those decisions again and again, at will. Anyway, thanks so much to you and Claire for opening up this conversation. Let’s keep it going!

  3. Here’s another voice from prism’s past. I remember when we were at the threshold of choosing roles and my own thirst to be a part of every role (which comes from my hummingbird inability to finish anything and start all). Eventually I did get more into the code-y side of things because I wanted to be able to build anything by myself in case the world of collaboration ever fizzled out—a strange motivation considering building a web project would be the least of my concerns if the world of collaboration fizzled out. In the end I ended up working on the i18n framework and the translations for the site, building on my knack for human languages while still exposed to the machine ones.

    At the time I was a bit disappointed, I confess, that I couldn’t contribute more to the conditionals, I/O’s and iterations that made Prism, the rails app, run. Like you, I felt like ‘coders’ were at the center of DH. A common mistake. Sensing my blues, Bethany taught me one of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned: We are all part of the party. The ranger, the white mage, the thief… Like Lindsay says, sometimes it feels like you’re just given a consolation prize or a pad on the back when you’re not the coder, but I now know that the other roles necessary to get digital scholarly projects off the ground are not just consolation prizes.

    I am currently gainfully employed as a full-time, full-blown “digital humanist,” organizing all kinds of projects and technology centered activities, and I can’t remember the last time I wrote a piece of code outside of the HTML/CSS variety. I thank Eric R, Wayne, David and Jeremy for teaching me where to look if I ever needed to do it, but more importantly to appreciate and collaborate with those who do. My main job as a DH’er now consists of building relationships, working the admin side to create infrastructure that can make those relationships sustainable. In short, I am mostly a match-maker and a brainstormer—the perfect hummingbird job—and I am convinced that match-making and brainstorming are just as ‘central’ in DH as coding.

    I don’t know if I can address the structural question without writing a book on the subject. I just wanted to offer a word of encouragement from a veteran who found a way to contribute that was not the one he imagined was expected of him, but that was in the end, the right fit.

  4. Thank you and Claire for bringing these issues up. We need to be having this discussion and pushing these norms.

    The people in the Scholars’ Lab are all trying to figure this topic out, and we’re trying to figure out the technical stuff too. As Katina and Jeremy have pointed out, we constantly ask each other for help and information, both in IRC and IRL.

    And helping you all is really one of the more enjoyable parts of our jobs. So please ask. And not just about Praxis or Prism. We’re happy to talk to you about whatever project you’re working on now and in the future. That’s what we’re here for.

    In the context of Praxis, we’re keenly aware that programming is not for everyone. Nor should it be (don’t even get me started on the idea that everyone should learn to program). However, to elaborate on what Jeremy said (and probably pushing it further than he would), I want everyone to be exposed to enough programming to be able to intelligently decide that it just isn’t for them, to find the upper limit of their interest. Optimally, at the end I’d like everyone to be able to say, I could probably do that, given enough time and effort. But it’s not worth it to me, so I’m going to spend my time doing this other thing that makes me happy.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think our pedagogy is anywhere close to there yet.

    It may also be helpful to separate your long-term goals from what you hope to accomplish in Praxis itself. That might be adding unnecessary stress to something that could be fun. Right now, we’re trying to figure out how to ship something. That’s always a difficult process, however, it doesn’t mean you can’t start to learn programming, or design, or project management, or whatever else. But that may entail only getting a taste of it along with a solid idea of how to proceed in the future.

    And in the meantime, you can contribute in other ways that feel more natural for you. And of course as Lindsay pointed out, pushing us critically is an important part of the Praxis dynamic. It is, really, more important than either Prism as a product or a specific set of skills that the Praxis fellows may gain.

    And as part of the larger discussion, I’d really like to hear any suggestions you have for making this a productive, fun environment for everyone who wants to learn programming, whatever their background, comfort level, or abilities. Pair programming is a good start, but it can be difficult too, and I’d like to hear how that exercise went, what worked, what didn’t, what you learned or didn’t, and how you think it may contribute to Praxis in the future.

    • I actually thought Pair Programming was wonderful and I think I will try and keep doing it with those folks who will let me lurk near them. It was helpful because it felt like a real partnership so we sort of sank or swam together.

      I also completely agree with what you are saying about being able to make an informed choice to not code. In that sense I accomplished my major goal in Praxis which was to try <–(i hope this comes out as italics) coding and be engaged with the digital humanities. Both of those have happened, I have thought differently about my dissertation project and am really eager to apply everything I'm learning in Praxis to my own work. Thanks for reminding me of that!

  5. Hi Cecilia et al.,

    I chime in here as, I think it’s fair to say, the female designer full of feelings from last year’s Praxis cohort. You can thank me, in part, for things like the rainbow gradient in the Prism header and all the border radii and box-shadows that soften things up. The stuff I built for Prism and the “hard” skills I had to learn to build them were stereotypically feminine, but all the more abstract stuff that went into conceptualizing and planning Prism was a different story. I can be hypercritical, a real naysayer, especially as part of a team. I might have written long blog posts full of feelings about colors and shapes and Ani DiFranco, but I was skeptical, critical, even downright negative as we talked about big questions in the digital humanities during the Fall, and that was valuable work too. I share all this to say that it’s not all about hard skills. I realize that’s what people say to remind female project managers and communications folks that their work matters too, but I mention it instead to suggest that you may bring other important stuff to the team. The way you’re able — and willing– to dissect and analyze your team dynamics might be seen as a stereotypically masculine ability even if it falls under the stereotypically feminine category of project management. In academia, dissertation work isn’t just sitting down to write. It’s also conversations with friends and colleagues, random things you read online, intellectual exercises in seemingly unrelated areas. The work of the Praxis team isn’t just the stuff that happens under your assigned roles and on your deadlines. I bet you’re doing more than you think.

    I also want to point you to a wonderful online discussion list that I became a part of right after Prism launched. It’s called the Tech Lady Mafia, and it’s a group of women working in technological careers. Some code, some don’t, and I bet none of them really cares about that stupid binary. I don’t participate much, but I do appreciate the insight, frustrations, and experience that is shared in this group every day. Check it out.

    • hey lindsay, thanks so much for the link. i’m definitely going to check it out. we were having a discussion the other day and i found myself saying: “I really like this idea but I don’t want to commit to something I can’t create.” Fortunately Chris Peck pointed out how problematic that was but it sort of demonstrated why I had been feeling so stuck in terms of thinking about Prism. I felt like i couldn’t suggest anything that I didn’t have the necessary skills to take on by myself (which also speaks to the challenges I face when working in groups). Basically it felt like my suggestions were “naggy favors” that I was asking of everyone around me. It is clear from these comments and the discussion that day that it isn’t the case but it took me a while to really put my finger on what was blocking me from feeling great about suggesting ideas.

  6. Like with Claire’s post, I just want to say thanks for sharing this, and want to let you know I’d like to hear/read more of your concerns about this. I frankly don’t have good answers for these issues, but think about them constantly, and hope that paying attention to statements and questions like this will help me be a better collaborator with anyone interested in doing DH work.

    The initial thought I had about your “confession” that you don’t want to do programming is: Don’t do programming. I think any situation that takes away your agency, your ability to decide what to do or not to do, isn’t a good one. There was a blog post I’ve been trying to find since Claire published her post, that discussed the pressure and stress some women in programming feel about being the constant examples people put forth for successful women in programming. (If I find it I’ll share in a subsequent comment.) With that in mind, I’m very reluctant to have Praxis Program create a similar situation, where you feel pressured to do a specific task because of expectations, social progress, or whatever. We shouldn’t feel forced to do certain things, or learn things, to perpetuate or dismantle stereotypes. It seems like the same as not expecting you to do certain things because of your race/gender/age/heritage/income.

    That said, I hope we create an environment of collegiality, equality, and collaboration. We’re all ignorant—every single one of us—of so many things. That fact should encourage collaboration, not discourage it. We should feel confident in our ability to profess ignorance, but we shouldn’t take pride in it any more than we should be afraid of it. We should acknowledge it for sure, and if you want to do something about it, for you, then do it. If you need help, or have questions, you should ask. (Katina’s quite right about this. Scholars’ Lab folks ask each other questions and get help all the time.) If you don’t want to learn something, for you, then don’t do it. If you can make that choice confidently, I’d say we’ve done an OK job in our program. If you can’t, I think we should address that.

    • Yeah I agree with a lot of this, part of my personal goal with Praxis was to gain more computer/internet literacy and that has been achieved especially my ability to name my upper limits of interest in certain topics. I know can talk intelligently about why I choose not to code rather than just not know how to do it. That being said I understand that “ideally” we should all be able to make agentive decisions about our desires, my issue is that there are historical and structural reasons that it feels impossible for me to do that without carrying my feelings about gender/race/sexuality with me. Obviously these are problems much bigger than the SLab but part of the reason I bring it up is that I feel like if any office could think creatively about reorganizing power hierarchies it would be SLab. I think people are thoughtful enough and smart enough that together we could figure out how to create a new type of DH space that challenges these structures.

  7. Cecilia, I’m so glad that you and Claire have written about this important—and tricky—issue. I tend to be very sensitive to this kind of thing, and prone to annoyance when I find myself choosing paths or behaviors that strike me as stereotypically feminine. (This has actually been a challenge for me in my current work-from-home arrangement!)

    Personally, I think it’s incredibly important to see the ways that collaboration is enriched by a combination of two things: variety (of skill sets and perspectives), and a common groundwork (of shared knowledge and goals). I found this to be very true in a recent project that Jeremy and I worked on. While I don’t have the skills needed to do the actual designing and building, I still felt like a full partner in the project (and I think he would agree). It was really useful that I had learned enough HTML and CSS to read his work, make adjustments, and add content; I was also able to use GitHub to collaborate seamlessly, which made our combined efforts much more productive. This project really emphasized something I’ve found to be generally true: While the tech skills seem daunting in the abstract, learning them for an immediate purpose makes it much more appealing. I hadn’t mastered anything, but I had learned enough to contribute in a completely different way than I could have done a year ago. Hopefully this will prove true as you all shift into the more concrete building phase.

    It’s frustrating when circumstances happen to mirror stereotypes, and you and Claire are right that there are longstanding structural reasons why this happens. Calling attention to the issue is important. That said, I think it’s worth noting that last year’s lead developer was a woman—and look at who runs the SLab! Tech can be a challenging environment for women, but there are also some strong examples that have been a part of the DH world for decades. Bethany could point you to many exceptional role models.

    Also—don’t worry about asking for help! The R&D team members ask one another for help all the time (hope that wasn’t their dark IRC secret). Nobody knows everything, and sometimes the main advantage one person has over another is that they know where to look up the information that they need—and asking about it can yield unexpected insights. The questions can even lead the expert to learn or try something new. (Eric R learned a great deal about d3.js visualizations after I asked him about some possibilities for a project I’m working on, for instance.)

    • Katina, thanks for your response! I think you’re totally right that I just need to reconceive how I think of my own contributions as central rather than marginal. Part of what’s hard is that these critiques have less to do with SLab individually and more with structural inequality. So I have to unlearn a lot of weird stuff about what actual “skills” are. I want to think more with you and the other SLab folks if there are pedagogical ways to work around these skills hierarchies.

  8. Cecilia, all I can say is that I’m right with you on the points of constant confusion and steep learning curves, so take that for what gender evaluation you will. I’m pretty clearly not cut out to be a programmer, myself.

    And perhaps that’s a thing to note–a good thing? A bad thing? But when any DHer can positively choose to learn code, or HTML, or project management–or positively choose not to do one of those activities–strictly based on personal inclination with no consideration of gender or gender expectations or place in the digital world, perhaps that will reflect a real structural change. I personally hope so.

    We aren’t there yet, which makes it tough.

    • Eric, I totally hear where you’re coming from. I know we’ve struggled together in the coding trenches for a while now. I guess my issue is that it feels like my failure says something larger about my identity. Feeling like I’m failing at coding does not just feel like a statement about my personal limitations but it feels like a comment on my gender/race/sexuality and the incompatibility of those identities with DH. Does that make sense?