Praxis: Doing is Thinking?

Speaking off the cuff to a group of prospective Praxis Program applicants in March, I found myself explaining how “aesthetic provocation” isn’t the same as argument, that Prism isn’t a tool that produces criticism as much as it is a tool that might prod us to see, read, or critique in new ways. I didn’t know I knew that until I said it in front of 30 people, and that experience might serve as a nice synecdoche for what Praxis is all about. I calmed down about all those big ideas I blogged about in the fall when I started to have design deadlines. I quickly remembered my pre-graduate school ambivalence about being a manager when trying to coordinate design team tasks. I learned CSS tricks when I had things I needed to style in certain ways. Sometimes I worry that I just gave up on all the big ideas in favor of shorter-term, more immediately satisfying web design lessons and goals, that I somehow betrayed my disciplinary yack in favor of less heady but more hands-on hack. But maybe we’ve just been too busy with the latter lately, and these final blogs provide a place for the former now that Prism has been released.

I know, as Bethany eloquently explains in her Chronicle article and her blog that Prism and much of DH is focused on creating and enabling new hermeneutics rather than on advancing critique. For that reason, I’m not yet imagining a digital component to my dissertation, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a digital humanist. Praxis has shown me a different, collaborative model of scholarship. Prism as it exists now could use some supporting research and theorization, especially about what kind of hermeneutics our working visualization instantiates or suggests, but it’s still a starting point for many possible readings or arguments to which many people can contribute.

I may not be creating a digital dissertation chapter like Annie or a whole digital edition like Alex, but I did manage to learn enough about HTML and CSS this year to style a decent looking website, and I think I can figure out how to style one that looks even better. I could have kept tinkering with Prism for much longer and I know it’s not the most sophisticated or aesthetically pleasing site you’ve ever seen, but I’m still proud to have been part of making it look how it looks. I will continue to seek out opportunities to become a better designer and to work on projects that interest me, and I’ll soon be starting design work with the wonderful UVa English department folks behind redschoolhouse.org. And that means I’ll probably stop into the Scholars’ Lab every so often for design advice from Jeremy and technical help from Wayne and Eric. I know I’ll see Sarah and Annie in the English department, and I hope to run into Ed in line at the dumpling truck. I wish Brooke and Alex all the best next year wherever they find themselves. I have learned so much from and with all you wonderful people, and the technical stuff is the least of it.

I am a 2011-12 Praxis Fellow, a PhD candidate in the UVa Department of English, and a former AmeriCorps member, campus civic engagement coordinator, and criminal defense investigator. My dissertation uses theories of waste and excess to examine American literary responses to disaster from the 1927 Mississippi flood to the present.

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