ruby slippers

It’s been an excellent Sunday morning for posts about DH and the profession(s).

First, Desmond Schmidt crunches the numbers from a decade’s worth of job postings on Humanist, which is the primary and longest-standing international discussion list for the digital humanities. (If you think there’s a DH boom in the US, check out Desmond’s per-capita analysis.) Interestingly, this survey only took PhD-level positions into account. How have job requirements in this field evolved? Tomorrow’s Humanist should have a response from Dot Porter, citing an #Alt-Academy essay she wrote with Amanda Gailey on “Credential Creep in the Digital Humanities.”

And here’s Kathleen Fitzpatrick in the Chronicle, on what is really required of institutions and departments who encourage junior scholars to ‘Do the Risky Thing’ in Digital Humanities. Kathleen is amplifying and contextualizing a concern frequently voiced in the past two years, around the spate of “cluster hires” in DH — which sometimes seemed to happen without thought given to the suport structures, both departmental and institutional, that new faculty would need. (I remember Patrick MurrayJohn as the first to start squawking about this on Twitter. I couldn’t find his much-earlier tweets, but there’s this thread at DH Answers.) On the Chronicle piece, Kathleen and Ian Bogost make two important further points that may resonate with our Grad Fellows and Praxis group: regarding “mentoring up,” and pressing forward.

Finally, Natalia Cecire responds with the most acute blog post I’ve read on the whole so-called “rise” of digital humanities and its political and professional consequences: “It’s not “the job market”; it’s the profession (and it’s your problem too).”

And what am I doing on a quiet Sunday afternoon (besides linking together this distributed conversation)? I’m following along with our Praxis students as we learn Ruby from the ground up. This has been really satisfying to me, and not only because of every way in which I agree with Steve Ramsay on “building.” It’s also because, like so many digital humanists of my generation, I learned every ounce of what I know on the job, rather than in the classroom or through any formal or institutionally-supported training program — and most of the time my learning involved being confronted with something half-built or even jury-rigged by other humanities scholars who only marginally knew what they were doing. I’m not disparaging this experience! The soft skills and improvisational confidence you learn on real-world collaborative projects are invaluable — but the rationale for addressing programming more clinically may be akin to the one for learning Latin. (Look what has been built upon it — what you will understand! And you’re not really going to pick it up as an exchange student.)

I’ve always felt like I could hack around (read: extend, modify, steal) on the spot with a decent level of fluency — if supplemented by a small amount of magical thinking — but that I lacked the basic and thorough grounding that would serve me well in a variety of situations, and that would make me less dependent on others when starting from scratch. It’s time I did something about that.

The R&D staff of the Scholars’ Lab are providing our Praxis colleagues (and those of us in the SLab who need it!) with exercises, tutorials, lessons, and one-on-one sessions on learning to code. They’re also sharing the materials they create with the wider world. Pretty soon, the Praxis team will move out of lesson-ville and back into on-the-job learning, as they collaboratively design and build a tool called Prism. For now (for me, anyway), taking the time to complete a set of rudimentary Ruby exercises feels like the biggest gift I’ve given myself in a long while.

What does this have to do with Fitzpatrick on risk? With Cecire’s sharp look at the present scene? With Schmidt and Porter & Gailey and the trends? With the title of this post? I’m making a cup of tea and moving off the Praxis site into a third set of exercises — so let’s leave that as an exercise to the reader.

Computing humanist/humane computationalist since 1996. Director of Digital Research & Scholarship at the University of Virginia Library and Special Advisor to the Provost at UVa. A Distinguished Presidential Fellow at CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources, @nowviskie is also the immediate Past President of the Association for Computers and the Humanities and a…

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