October 07, 2012 by Amanda Visconti

The beauty of DH: We're all continually n00bs at something

Cross-posted from a long comment to a HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) post by Abby Mullen.

Over on HASTAC, Abby Mullen writes about "DH imposter syndrome" for people new to DH. My reply:

A great thing about DH is that even for people who've been involved for several years (e.g. me) or many years (as with many of my co-workers at MITH and my graduate advisors), there will always be large areas of DH work where each of us is ignorant. Sure, there are commonplaces and vocabulary that everyone picks up over time, as well as a sense of some of the more-trodden discussions (e.g. the community attitude toward big data, small data, deep data; toward defining what is DH and who is a DHer; and towards games and education, online learning, and the scholarly status of digital creations). But if you go to a THATCamp (which I heartily recommend if you haven't), you'll quickly notice that

  • the person with the most to say in one session is a complete n00b in a later session (people go to THATCamps to learn stuff they don't know!),
  • that almost everyone there is excited to explain their work to anyone who will listen--and that explaining it to someone with no background in their area means that they'll get to hear new types of feedback, and
  • that, much less than in the traditional humanities (though of course things aren't perfectly utopianic here either), you don't need to wait to ascend the hierarchy to get your projects seen, to talk in or lead a session (or even run your own THATCamp on the THATCamp topic of your dreams!), or to learn skills and tools that allow you to do better work without the benefits of a full-time position, tenure, or much/any funding (e.g. Omeka, Zotero, Wordpress--all tools THATCampers teach at most Bootcamps that are free or require cheap hosting fees)

DH, as I and many see it, has a strong pedagogical focus; part of everyone's work in their particular niche of DH (whether that's mapping, topic modeling, something else) is not only to do awesome things, but to share it with the DH community in a way that non-specialists can understand. There's also a great movement in DH toward a more public humanities aimed at people outside the academy who are passionantly curious about history, narrative, etc. (e.g. the 4humanities project and work that seeks to use the wisdom of the crowd for interpretive rather than mechanical tasks, such as the Scholars' Lab's Prism, comments in the LOC historical photo Flickr stream, and the NYPL menus project).

I don't mean to say that you (or anyone) won't feel like an imposter for a while upon first getting involved in DH (or, as I've pointed out, that you won't continue to feel like an imposter recurrently over the years as DH folds in new tools and approaches and disciplines). What I do mean to say is (from the viewpoint of a fellow grad student) that feeling like an imposter in DH is

  • actually more substantiated in DH than in the traditional humanities, and that's a good thing; I think it's less scary to feel like you don't know enough when you actually don't and can't possibly be an expert on everything that's going on. As Ted Underwood recently pointed out, DH is less fakable than the traditional humanities because of the skill-learning and interdisicplinarity involved, but I take that to mean it frees everyone up to admit ignorance and n00bishness without losing professional face--and to get the help they desire.
  • not something that you should let make you feel like "less DH" than anyone else; everyone was a n00b with every DH skill at one point, the proliferation of new tools and approaches means that everyone is going to be a n00b at something again and again, and the DH community is pretty good (and getting better) at offering opportunities online and off for learning about the stuff you want to know but don't yet understand.

Follow the people smart Tweeps you already know are following, and don't be afraid to tweet at them when you don't follow something. CHNM's Tom Scheinfeldt has a great blog post/Debates in DH chapter (the latter is another great resource for diving into DH, by the way: both chapters and really finely crafted blog posts covering a lot of the field's preoccupations) discussing how DH is a peculiarly "nice" field, in large part because of our emphasis on skills and methodology (so there's another benefit to those aspects of DH that make it a little harder to pick up). If someone's doing DH and they're not willing to at least say "try going and reading this book/post/project site", they're going to be a bit anomalous. Also, don't be shy about tweeting a link when you have a new blog post, or to mention you Twitter handle frequently (I looked up your handle after reading this post, but I'm usually more lazy about that!).

Also, it's totally okay to not care about some aspects of the DH field; choose the things that help you do better work in areas you care about. Even if you don't know how your non-DH work relates to what people are doing digitally yet, DH probably relates way more than you can currently imagine. It did for me: I left college wanting to somehow mash up my love of complex books and making websites, then found out about online editions, topic modeling, text visualization, literary games... and a lot of other amazing things that people with similar interests were doing with digital tools. Finding out that other people were doing this stuff was an eye-opener! You know what you care about, so enlist others to help you find the DH work that might intrigue you or help you out, either through HASTAC posts, tweeting, or the DH Q&A site.

Oh, and for anyone reading this who's intrigued by DH but hasn't gone to a THATCamp: you should. Really. Check out the main page and look for one near you (some can also offer limited travel assistance to a few attendees), or tweet @thatcamp if you need help or reassurance that you'll fit in :) And yes, THATCamps are full of people just dipping their toes (or cannon-balling) into the DH waters, so it will be pretty impossible for you to feel like you don't fit in at one.