Digital Humanists Skillsets

Recently on Claire Ross’ blog, she asks the question, “Do you need to be procedural literate to be a great digital humanist?” in response to a previous discussion of a paper by Michael Mateas (“Procedural Literacy – Educating the New Media Practitioner”). Her summation is that Mateas

“…suggests that procedural literacy is necessary for DH and new media researchers, because without understanding the back end of the programme, researchers will never be able to think critically about digital projects.”

I think her question is a great one and the easy answer is that being literate would definitely help, but is it necessary? It seems like the answer should be obvious but like all things worth pondering, it really depends.

For one thing, the scope and time-frame of any project will dictate much of who can do what by when and for whom. Before academia, I used to program for a large corporation. Many of our projects–all, if they were not an internal tool for the IT group or an infrastructure project for the company–were managed by people with the business expertise, usually having no formal IT skills (except what they gained through working on such projects). The company’s policy was that business needs ought to guide development and not the other way around. Having project managers didn’t necessary mean top down workflow. These managers had to listen to input from the particular experts as well as be able to ask good questions. It was basically a collaborative learning as well as teaching environment.  And it makes sense for large-scale projects.

But likewise, for smaller projects–helping improve particular department’s tools/workflow or create something new based on new business demands usually consisted of a developer or two acting as a project manager to work with a representative  from the department–again, someone who had the the particular business expertise. It was a collaborative effort. In either of these scenarios, it took someone with vision as well as someone with the particular know-how. In my own experiences, any sort of successful project often boils down to someone having great trouble-shooting skills regardless of whether it’s an IT related project or a strictly business practice related one.

Having said this though, I believe these same sorts of trouble-shooting skills are at the heart of writing essays as well research projects in general. You break down the paper into sections that you know you need to explore, then work on learning what it is you need to in order to do the exploring. This may involve asking other experts, such as advisers, for leads to articles or books. Granted, projects involving developing research/archival sites or tools can feel a lot more like building a house (which can require a lot of different domains of expertise)–which brings me round again to my opening comments about the scope and time-frame of a project. I’ve been wrestling this last year on my own project, knowing I don’t have forever to learn all the necessary programming languages and tools I believe I need to pull it off. But with slow, very minor steps, such as getting my feet wet last year with TEI via Brown University’s text encoding workshops followed by an XSLT class at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute last month,  though I don’t possess any experience with these tools, I’m seeing how I can actually get at some of my project’s questions while also seeing a way to maybe narrow the scope.  At least today I feel this way.  I admit though, that after hearing at the DHSI of all the different projects people are working, I was overwhelmed by how large they were, and as well as the large infrastructures (whether it was time, training, developers, etc through such organizations as the Nines) they required; resources I don’t have. But the good news is that experiences with my smaller projects may lead to work with these larger collaborative efforts.

Back in my IT days, we used to refer to ourselves with that old saw about being a Jack of all trades, master of none. These days, I feel more like the squire…. The cool part about the promise of the Digital Humanities is the amount of cross-collaborative possibilities it holds. As organizations like Project Bamboo mature, they hopefully will become the model of an open market place of skills within which different universities and organizations can trade such skills frequently and within a flattened hierarchy. When that comes, I think the idea of cross-collaboration project managers will become more important than any one individual needing to know not only how to program but multiple languages.  But this then brings up a different issue:  what happens when the majority of people within the field want to be only project managers? Will that create an imbalance that will eventually force people to acquire procedural literacy that Claire and the rest of us are asking about? Hmmm. Might best to work on those skills, if slowly, just in case.


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