October 10, 2018 by Amanda Visconti

I/O: Reading & writing as a digital humanist

I recently collaborated with my awesome colleagues Ammon Shepherd and Brandon Walsh to self-interview about how we read and write as digital humanists, e.g. how our PhD program experiences changed where and how often we read. I’ve included my answers below, but please do check out the whole post to read Brandon and Ammon’s thoughts and see the variety (and some interesting similarities: fewer print books!) among three digital humanists growing in alternative academic careers in libraries after humanities doctoral research.

How has your reading style changed over the years?

Like Brandon writes, reading for literature comps (here’s my reading list and rationale!) changed my relationship to reading, but in an ultimately good way—I pay a lot more attention to whether I’m enjoying and challenged and learning from something I’m reading now, and am better at just stopping reading when those things aren’t happening. There was never enough time to read, during the first three years of my PhD program—I always was racing to get through the pages, and didn’t have enough time to reflect, or to move through readings non-linearly. I worried about being questioned about some random concept on page 180, rather than getting a sense of some of a book’s arguments and what I thought about them. And I felt like I needed to Know Things, that I needed to have read X thinkers on Y authors to be a functional scholar.

(My mentors in grad school were amazing, and to their credit none of these pressures came from them. Rather, I was seeing how other students were working and figuring out what being a scholar meant to me. I remember Melanie Kill recommending I use exams prep to figure out how I want to manage the reading part of being a scholar, before starting the first big project of the dissertation. Her advice rewrote my initial floundering with how to usefully ingest a lot of texts into something expected and welcomed.)

I basically don’t read any books or print journal articles anymore. I’ve gotten off most (all?) listservs. I’m not any less of a scholar for delimiting my reading to other formats. Folks who do all or some of their reading via these formats are real scholars, too. How, when, and where you read are personal choices. There is a lot of writing and discussing out there, no one can read more of it, and it’s completely fine and intellectually responsible to delimit the formats and topics you’re going to read.

Scholarship doesn’t come from restricting the ways you take in new ideas; scholarship is challenging yourself to think hard and share that thinking so others can learn from and build on it (a re-articulation of Mark Sample’s great “When does service become scholarship?“). And I guess I do extrapolate some best practices from that definition of scholarship, like representative and accurate citation being necessary for scholarship to work (e.g. see Sara Ahmed‘s articulation of citation as a black feminist practice). You can’t share your thinking well if you don’t say whose work you’re building on and how, and contribute to the community’s knowledge of other thinkers to learn from in addition to your thoughts.

How do your reading inputs connect with writing/outputs?

My reading nowadays largely consists of: blog posts, tweets and Twitter conversations, attending conference and event talks (or reading transcripts afterward), talking/Slacking/emailing with people. For Slack, we’ve got an active Scholars’ Lab internal Slack for our staff and students, I love the Documenting the Now Slack for generous and smart thinking about the ethics of archives (particularly archiving and doing research with social media), and the DH Slack (which I’ve been posting to less lately, but still enjoying reading). Sometimes the blog posts or tweet link to digital projects or online journal articles that I read, but the “next” books on my work to-read list have been the same ones for what feels like a year, and I’m not getting to them.

I’ve moved away from bookmarking stuff that I think I ought to read, and am only bookmarking things I think I’m likely to read soon, and that will impact my work (change or improve how I think or talk or listen). Having a huge backlog of “should reads” can make me feel behind, or like I’m slogging through processing text for reasons other than my own. I’d rather not have too much stuff on the backburner, and take longer thinking about the stuff I do read.

Sometimes it’s physically small pieces of reading that have a large impact on my writing, like this tweet by Élika Ortega, that rewrites the popular focus on “What is DH?” to instead ask “What can DH be?” That tweet—and her work living that shift—plus Stewart Varner’s building on Élika’s thinking, all encouraged me to take more personal agency in my scholarly community. Rather than just imagining what I’d like DH to become as a field, I started looking at how the tiny snowflake of my scholarly choices contributes to what the field becomes. For example, I’d thought I was okay with my dissertation creating yet another edition of a canon white male author, and I don’t think I’d argue the same today. That is not a comment on what anyone else should study—I just found that a shift in my thinking about the field of DH accompanied a shift in scholarly topics and formats. This is all to say that something as un-book-like as a tweet can cause a profound shift in someone’s scholarly career, and influence various kinds of future scholarship (including, in this instance, blogs posts, research projects, and keynotes).

Élika’s tweet (arising from the #WhatIfDH2016 etc. hashtags) made a huge impact, but Twitter’s been significant for my scholarship in subtler ways as well. I’ve learned to be a better scholar and person from Twitter exposing me to new ideas, or ideas I didn’t take seriously enough. It is wrong that I’m able to get so much from a platform that is actively unsafe for many of my peers to use. Some of my more recent scholarship has been a reaction to this: what features and feeling would an ideal academic virtual community have; what good virtual academic communities already exist, and whether there’s even a need for alternative technical platforms to assist with addressing social issues; and how we can better structure the work of community-building and moderation that helps such communities thrive (particular interests: more equitable distribution of the labor and stress of moderation, and recognition and reward for this work as scholarship).

What do you wish you did differently? What do you want to try?

I’d like to get back to blogging a couple of times a month. I’ve got a large backlog of drafts, including a series on designing DH infrastructure from my previous role at Purdue—I’d like to post those, and to continue to make infrastructural documents and decisions from my role in the Scholars’ Lab public, like the work of structuring our new job openings equitably and drafting job ads to match (one example, another example).

I also want to experiment further with my blogging voice. I’m interested in making public the pieces of scholarship that get “published” less often, whether that’s things like hiring that we don’t share to the detriment of the diversity of our community (e.g. folks sharing the text of their successful job talks—Lee Skallerup Bessette, Celeste Tuong Vy Sharpe, Chris Bourg, and Brandon Walsh, as well as my Scholars’ Lab and previous Purdue job talks), or what the daily scholarly practices look like that eventually result in a book or website (e.g. the software they use to make daily progress on writing a book), or some small technical thing I figured out (e.g. automating screenshots of my liked tweets for personal Morale Boosting; post coming… soon?). And I’m proud of my Programming Historian lesson, which I tried to write with kindness and thorough explanation of non-obvious technical stuff.

But I also love to read digital writing that is thoughtful in a different way about language and structure. I think I’ve had “write something that makes me feel excited about scholarship the way Bethany Nowviskie‘s blog posts make me feel” as a goal for years now. Brandon recently shared some of his writing that made me similarly really excited about work, and reminded me that I want to try similarly structuring some of my own thoughts. I think more attention to language and structure could help me here, but I’m also realizing that a difference between many of my blog posts and these digital essays I admire, is that they argue in a generative way much of my writing doesn’t. Some things I’d like to experiment with emulating and building on: Bethany’s lyrical force, Brandon’s clarity, Aimée Morrison‘s life-giving affirmation of scholars’ brains and bodies, and April Hathcock‘s courage and concision.

What technologies do you use to facilitate your reading and writing?

I blog in a GoogleDoc (for collaborative stuff like this post), or using a Markdown editor (Typora) or text editor (BBedit, for when I really need to focus and not mess with formatting). I moved my personal blog (LiteratureGeek.com) from WordPress to a Jekyll-generated static site hosted on GitHub Pages, so sometimes I write directly on the GitHub website. I read and write tweets using Tweetbot (on my iPhone) or Tweetdeck (from my laptop). In the past, I’ve used WriteRoom (for distraction-free exams presentation writing), and bookmarking tools including Pocket, Instapaper, and Pinboard to save things to read later. Currently, I save links from Twitter to Chrome bookmarks, and try to open those tabs at work once a week to read or discard them.

Where do you read? What do you read? (authors, forums/platforms, formats, topics…?)

I’ve been meaning to gather a list of frequent authors/places I read online, but have exhausted too much energy on my other answers to do that well right now! ¯_(ツ)_/¯ In addition to more professionally related reading by folks like my colleagues at the Scholars’ Lab, Bethany Nowviskie, Brandon Walsh, Aimée Morrison and the other Hook & Eye bloggers, April Hathcock, and Chris Bourg, I follow folks on Twitter who do creative, feminist tech work, many of whom also publish great zines. Sarah Werner does great scholarly blogging and tweeting, and I think I’ve also enjoyed basically every fiction book she’s recommended on Twitter.

Our thanks to colleague Ronda Grizzle for helping us frame this piece in a generative way! This is a partial cross-posting from a 9/27/2018 group-authored piece on the Scholars’ Lab blog.