So hi, and thank you for having me. When Spencer [Keralis] asked me to do this talk, I replied with the question I usually ask people who want me to do talks: “what kind of talk are you looking for?” And Spencer said a polemic might be good. Spencer, I love you, but I am not convinced of the wisdom of this idea. But no, I know, if I’m known for anything in the wide world it’s for polemics, so fine, go with the flow, right?
So let me kick this off with a possibly-polemical truth: I do not feel welcome here, among you, in this context. I do not feel that I belong at this conference at all, never mind up here at the podium! Now, Spencer, don’t panic; it’s got nothing to do with you, you’re fine. And it’s not this specific conference, either; Digital Frontiers actually feels a lot more hospitable to me than most digital-humanities conferences—well, any digital humanities conferences. Some of that is in the about statement on the Digital Frontiers home page: Digital Frontiers exists to “explore innovation and collaboration across disciplinary boundaries in the arena of public humanities and cultural memory.” Boundary-crossing, hey, I am all about that, ask anybody! I cross a lot of lines! Oh, wait, that’s not quite the same thing. Or maybe it is. Whatever.
But when I seriously got down to thinking about what I’d say today, I noticed that I was starting to feel discomfort at the whole thing. And the closer this date got, the worse my internal discomfort got, and in me, this kind of discomfort plays out as rumination and insomnia, always has—so you folks have no idea how glad I am to get this over with finally!
But here’s the thing. I’m pretty sure I am not the only person in this room feeling a little unwelcome, maybe intimidated, maybe scared. In fact, I can almost guarantee it. And again, I’m not trying to say anything bad about Digital Frontiers. It’s not about that. It’s about a whole collage of weirdness, in the academy generally and in the humanities and in librarianship, and since humanities faculty and academic librarians form the bulk of the digital humanities, there’s weirdness in DH too. And some weirdnesses that are really awful and destructive, all I personally can do is acknowledge them, because I am not the right person to talk about them. Racism and colonialism in digital humanities, just as one example? We don’t need any more middle-aged white women like me talking about that like we’re some kind of authority, right? I’m not an authority on that, of course not. That’s there, and it absolutely makes people feel unwelcome, and I’m sorry for that and I bring it up because I don’t want anything I say today to erase it. I’m not going to emphasize it today, though, not because I don’t think it’s important, but because I’m not a person who can say much that’s useful about it.
But some of these weirdnesses that make me personally feel uncomfortable? I can interrogate them, and I thought it might actually be helpful (and at least possibly amusing) to others who feel like me if I did. Because the academy generally sometimes acts like its own little hermetically-sealed self-contained world, and so does librarianship, and unless you’re steeped in them, they look absolutely bizarre from the outside! And sometimes even from the inside! So I’m going to try to explain why I don’t feel welcome here. I hope it helps.
As I lay awake at night ruminating (with the cat stomping all over my kidneys; he’s a great cat but he will do that), I kept imagining and reimagining this conversation between a couple of imaginary conference attendees, Serious Academic Types or Very Important Librarians, who are both rolling their eyes practically out of their heads. And the conversation these eyerolly people in my head keep having goes like this: they see my name in the conference program and one person says, “Oh, her,” with that eyeroll. And the other person says, “Why’d they invite her?” with a matching eyeroll. And the first person says, “She…” and there I just fill in the blank; it’s different every time this conversation unrolls in my head.
Now here’s a thing. A whole lot of people in this room just filled in that blank in their head. Whether they actually know me, or heard about me from other people, or just read my bio on the conference website, they filled in that blank. They instantly came up with a reason I do not belong here! So no wonder I don’t feel welcome, if it’s that trivial to come up with a reason I don’t belong. And it’s no surprise either that I’m not the only one not feeling welcome, because I’m not a special snowflake. Anything making me feel uncomfortable or unwelcome or unwanted is also making others feel that way, guaranteed. So if you have eyerolly people in your head too, let’s get together and talk about it.
Part of how this happens is that there’s just something in the way people think, in the academy and in librarianship, that’s ineluctably Calvinist, this habit of reflexively classifying other people into the Elect and the Damned. And unlike Calvin, it can’t be blamed on a deity or on pre-established fate—it’s coming from within, it’s everybody, all of us are implicated! Our treacherous evil little brains do their level best to exclude people! Am I immune to this? I only wish I were. I’m trying to be, but I don’t always make it either!
The academy doesn’t talk about this much. Neither does librarianship. Now, I do talk about it, but I can only talk about it as much as I do because I am one of the Damned, both in the academy and in librarianship. They seriously don’t want me any more! And there’s basically nothing I can do about my damnation—it’s fixed and it’s irrevocable—so I take advantage of the only useful privilege it confers, which is speaking some of the unspoken aloud.
So, first question. If we, we all of us, inside and outside the academy, inside and outside librarianship, don’t want this exclusionary Calvinism in our DH, what do we want? Here’s how I ended up answering that question for the eyerolly people in my head, so I could finally get some sleep: “Anyone curious enough to want to be here should feel welcome here.” This is what I really desperately want, and what I hope and believe everybody here also wants. Anyone, anyone at all, curious enough to want to be at a DH gathering in the first place, anyone like that should feel welcome at DH gatherings. Me included! I would like to feel welcome here! That would be great!
But I don’t yet. I’m totally still stuck on this imaginary conversation between the imaginary eyerolly people in my head. So let me try to guess how some folks in this room and outside it would fill in this blank, because I know that in reality some of them did, and as I guess, I’m going to enlarge the context a bit, to see how that blank-filling plays out in who does and doesn’t feel welcome in DH.
Here’s one. “Oh, her. Why’d they invite her? She is not a theoretician.” Now, when I was studying for Ph.D comprehensive exams in Hispanic philology way back in the day, the hot thing in Hispanic philology was this guy named Roger Wright, whose big thing was when we can call Spanish “Spanish,” as opposed to calling it some kind of Latin. I read his book three times to be sure I could follow and reproduce his dense, highly theory-driven argument, and when I was done reading, my reaction was who cares? Who cares about this? It is a stupid useless argument based purely on definitional hairsplitting that does not usefully expand our understanding of anything!
Oops. One is not supposed to say that about theory in the academy, not ever. One of the biggest insults floating around DH in the academy is that DH is “insufficiently theorized,” whatever that even means. So, is this talk I’m giving insufficiently theorized? You bet it is! Theory is not what I do, it’s not what I teach, and it is not the world I live in. The world I live in involves:
- actively preserving analog and digital materials before entropy claims them
- coming up with concrete actions in response to new open access and open data policies
- navigating titanic changes in how libraries and archives describe what they collect, and
- changing the way scholarly communication works so that it’s less broken.
Some of the stuff that I teach and do relies on theory, but it is not itself theory. I’m not waving this as a flag. I know a lot of people live in Theoryworld and I respect that; they’re not all Roger Wright. I live in a world of praxis, however, and I’m actually basically all right with that. So when my utter uselessness at theory means people don’t find me worth listening to, wow, I don’t even know where to go with that, except to remark that yes, this reaction feels amazingly unwelcoming to me.
But that reaction is minor, in the grand scheme of things. I’m guessing this one was about half the room, give or take: “Oh, her. Why’d they invite her? She doesn’t even have a Ph.D.” I mean, it barely takes three seconds on a search engine to find somebody with a Ph.D dissing librarians in public online. Am I right, librarians? I am so right; try it. Or just read comments on the Chronicle of Higher Education for a while. No, actually, don’t do that, don’t read comments at the Chronicle; it’s bad and you will feel bad.
But you can’t tell me this isn’t a thing in DH. I mean, DH is part of the academy, and this is absolutely a thing in the academy. As I said, I’m a Ph.D dropout. I didn’t even make it to comprehensive exams—Roger Wright just broke me—and when I dropped out finally, my own father the Ph.D anthropologist made a huge point of telling me how much of a thing this is! So, if anybody here is squirming right about now, I am not sorry, because this dismissiveness and bullyragging is not acceptable. There are a whole lot of people without Ph.Ds, librarians and students and IT professionals and others, interested in and actually doing digital-humanities work who deserve better.
One place this mode of thought that only values Ph.Ds and writes off everybody else hits DH really hard is what I call the Academic Library Space Wars. It’s like clockwork, right? Every month or so another story in the Chronicle or a retweet frenzy because another tiny branch humanities library is being merged into the main library at another university, and humanities faculty are up in arms about it.
First, this is incredibly insulting to professional librarians, who somehow never get mentioned, much less heard from, in Academic Library Space Wars. Usually (though admittedly not always) it’s us librarians making the closure decision, and faculty who protest that decision without even talking to their librarians about why it was made are undermining those librarians, consciously or not.
Second, you know what’s invariably—I mean, always—missing from these faculty protests? Any concern at all about library staff, that’s what. It’s always about the books. Now, I dig books, and I dig library spaces, but when I see these protests that don’t even include the word “librarian,” it tells me loud and clear that I am invisible to humanities faculty. They do not have my back as a librarian, much less a digitally-focused librarian. They will not defend me; they’ll only defend the books. Is that part of why I feel unwelcome here in DH? Oh, you bet it is; I’m not necessarily among friends and I know it. And don’t get smug, librarians, because faculty get away with this nonsense when we don’t stand up for one another and our decisions. And we do not stand up for one another when faculty attack us; we duck and cover and tell ourselves “oh, whew, at least they’re not mad at me.”
Third, libraries are not plentifully endowed with space or money or staff these days, so any space dedicated solely to books is space that can’t do anything else at all for DH. And any book-only space that is kept open despite low usage means a library staff complement that could be doing DH work but isn’t, because keeping a space open even if nobody’s using it takes work. So if you sense a kind of friction sometimes between librarians and faculty, you’re not imagining things; it’s real.
Another site of Ph.D-or-not friction, of course, is the DH Labor Wars: who actually gets DH jobs, especially in libraries. I won’t lie, I have a dog in this hunt. I teach library school, and some of my library-school students want to do DH work in libraries, or want other library jobs that DH skills will give them a leg up on. Of that group, some of them have humanities Ph.Ds and some don’t. It’s really unclear to me how I’m supposed to explain their options to them. Am I supposed to say “You can’t do library DH work if you don’t have a humanities Ph.D?” I don’t want to say that. I’m pretty sure it’s not true. I don’t even think that DH wants it to be true, though I could be wrong. But that sure is the message a lot of DH employment announcements are giving me. Ph.Ds only! MLSes need not apply! There are grant agencies like CLIR and ACLS who will fund Ph.Ds but not MLSes, for example.
Here’s where I plant my flag: I believe some of my students without Ph.Ds are legitimately competitive for library DH jobs, and excluding them solely on the basis of degree is unfair. I’m not even convinced it helps the Ph.Ds sometimes, because librarians aren’t stupid— librarians know what the score is; librarians know this is unfair; and librarians know that Ph.Ds do not automatically have the competencies that libraries need. If I’m wrong and my non-Ph.D students aren’t legitimately competitive, they just won’t get the jobs, and that seems fine to me. But if I’m right, that’s bad for DH; DH isn’t getting the best people because it’s excluding some. Moreover, as Miriam [Posner] alluded to yesterday, excluding MLSes a priori gives libraries excuses to be suspicious of Ph.Ds hired into library DH jobs, to treat them really badly, and to set them up to fail. As a sometime academic librarian, I wish we wouldn’t do that! It’s not those Ph.Ds’ fault that grant agencies are trying to sell out academic librarianship for a mess of pottage! I don’t like that either, I won’t lie, but librarians who take out that frustration on the Ph.Ds are bullies, and I don’t want to train people to enter a profession full of bullies.
It turns out that academic librarians have their own version of the you-don’t-have-a-Ph.D thing: “Oh, her. Why’d they invite her? She isn’t even a librarian.” And librarians do this to technologists and Ph.Ds who work in libraries, but they do it to other librarians too. This makes no rational sense whatever, so I feel like I have to explain it—it’s based partly on whether the work a librarian does is relatively new to libraries or not, partly on whether a librarian actually works in libraries. Since I gravitated to new-to-libraries work right out of library school, I’ve been getting this since practically the day I graduated. A whole lot of librarians have taken considerable pains to make me unwelcome in librarianship, and I am very much not alone in being that kind of target.
You know what? Cheers, those librarians won. I’m not a librarian—not in the sense that I don’t have the degree, because I do, but in the sense that I don’t work in a library and probably never will again, not because I don’t want to, but because I am one of librarianship’s Calvinist Damned: no library anywhere will take a chance on me. Jobs aside, I never know when that’s going to jump out and bite me. It could be anywhere, including here. I do know that a lot of really sharp, bright, skilled librarians and technologists and other DHers I know have fallen afoul of librarianship’s amazingly weird unwritten rules about what you can and can’t say, and about what is “acceptable” expertise and “acceptable” library work, and what is “acceptable” public exposure. If you leave libraries for that or any other reason, suddenly you’re not a librarian any more and you’re absolutely supposed to feel uncomfortable in librarian gatherings. This is another thing that just really bothers me and I hope that saying it out loud helps us stop it! Not even for me—I’m a lost cause—but for my students, some of whom have been badly hurt by it.
But here’s the real kicker, for librarians: “Oh, her. Why’d they invite her? She teaches library school.” That horrible woman teaches library school. Eyeroll! What business does she have talking to anyone about anything? This is just a librarian thing. If there’s anyone in this world that librarians hate more than library-school instructors, I do not know who it is! We are worthless! We are the living embodiment of fail! How am I supposed to help defend libraries’ and librarians’ value to DH when librarians constantly undercut me and my teaching work like this? A shred of retained credibility, that’s all I ask!
The Ph.Ds add to the weirdness. Oh, library school, that’s just professional school, it isn’t real grad school. Frankly, given my experience with so-called “real grad school,” I consider that a feature, not a bug. And oh, say the Ph.Ds, they let practitioners teach, people who don’t even have Ph.Ds; clearly library schools aren’t serious about graduate education.
I hear and read this stuff constantly; I cannot escape it, though I try. If you happen to follow me on Twitter, you might have seen one of the times I just boiled over about it, because I am trying so hard to be good at what I do, and to do good with what I do, and the absolutely constant stream of negging I get back, it just hurts. And I shouldn’t have boiled over on Twitter, and I know that, and these days I just mute tweeps who make me feel like boiling over so I don’t do it again. But this is so unwelcoming.
This is especially problematic because digital humanities has still not resolved its internal question of how DH professionals get praxis training. It just blows my mind, how library schools get left out of that discussion, because a lot of the stuff we teach, fun nerdy stuff like metadata, digital preservation, online digital libraries, XML, linked data, database design, project management, scholarly communication and copyright—all this is stuff DHers often need to learn. That’s just the stuff I personally teach; it’s not even everything on this slide, and it’s not even close to everything library schools have to offer DH! But it feels to me like DH hasn’t noticed that, much less welcomed it. I feel like I’ve been written off in favor of DH education reinventing wheels, and yes, that makes me feel unwelcome.
Here’s where I admit that I, I myself, have contributed to my own Calvinist damnation. How have I done that? Miriam nailed it yesterday: by teaching workshops. And I’m even going to go beyond Miriam to extend that to the two-day or one-week-bootcamp variety of workshop. I hereby declare that I’m done with that. I’m just done. When I let people think that a one-week bootcamp is enough to teach anybody, Ph.D or no Ph.D, the library-schoolish parts of DH praxis… well, one, that impression is just wrong, and two, it totally sells short the complexity and the perceived value of what I teach and the school I teach it in and the students I teach it to. If it only takes a week to learn, how important can it be? It takes seven to ten years to get a typical Ph.D! So weeklong workshops are practically begging people to disrespect and undermine me and my students and make us feel unwelcome. I can’t ethically do that. I love my students, and I owe them better than that. No more workshops, no more bootcamps—my checkbook is crying because they actually make me money, but forget about the money, I’m done. If people want me to teach them, they need to make more of a commitment than that: the kind of commitment my library-school students make. A week is not enough.
Ultimately, what all these imaginary conversations between the eyerolly people in my head boil down to is, whatever it is I am, I’m not a real… something. Not a real librarian, not a real humanist, not a real DHer, not a real professional—sometimes I get to wondering if I’m actually even a real person! Maybe I’m imaginary, I don’t even know any more! That probably makes me sound like a total conspiracy theorist, what with all the weird voices in my head, but I don’t believe anybody much is actually out to get me, and I know I can’t trust what goes on in my head in the middle of the night when the cat is tenderizing my kidneys.
So if all these very real, very real-world phenomena I’ve just talked about are not a conspiracy to belittle and dismiss me, what are they? I think it’s an uninterrogated thought pattern that repeats over and over and over again just like the eyerolly people in my head. And it’s a thought pattern that I absolutely believe that you, you people here, you who use the products of digital librarianship and the digital humanities, can help interrupt.
This is the thought pattern: Don’t Make Me Think. (This is the actual talk title; you were probably wondering when I’d get to it, right?) If web usability is your thing, you might have recognized the phrase already, because I stole it from my favorite web-usability book, Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug. The title is just a fabulous summation of good usability. When I’m just trying to find information, or buy something, or ask a friend a question, don’t make me think about how to do that! It should be obvious. Perfect guiding principle for usability in design… but it doesn’t work outside that context. It completely doesn’t work if “I don’t feel welcome here and neither do a fair few other people” is our problem. “Don’t make me think!” answer the eyerolly people in my head, and no, that doesn’t work. Don’t Make Me Think will not get us to this place we want to be, where anybody with curiosity feels welcome. It won’t help us fix the frictions I’ve laid out for you, much less fix the underlying cultural weirdnesses that lead to those frictions.
My sense is that this exact principle—don’t make me think!—guides much too much of the academy, much too much of librarianship, much too much of DH. Got a hard problem? Like fixing scholarly publishing so everybody everywhere can have access to scholarly work, or weighing credentials fairly in the DH labor market, or allocating library space and staff so digital projects get a fair chance at them? Talk to the hand, don’t make me think!
For example, “Don’t make me think about hard problems! Just let me pontificate about them!” This, I firmly believe, explains a lot about comments on the Chronicle of Higher Education. But it also explains way too much about faculty behavior in the Academic Library Space Wars, doesn’t it?
I don’t actually think it’s hard to make people stop and think when they’re just spouting off. Sometimes it just takes one question, like asking an outraged faculty member, “Did you talk to the librarians?” during the Library Space Wars. Seriously, everybody, say it with me, “Did you talk to the librarians?” Did you treat them as fellow professionals who don’t make arbitrary decisions? And librarians, when was the last time you talked to a library-school instructor? Not lectured, not dissed, not yelled at, not talked at, I mean talked to. Maybe, just maybe, that would be a productive thing to do?
“Don’t make me think that someone else might know more about something than I do. Much less that it might be an important thing.” I’m sure a lot of you in this room have felt this, maybe from Ph.Ds, maybe from librarians, maybe both. And it’s not cool, and I encourage you to stand up to it.
Where I get this is facultysplaining about open access to the scholarly literature. Good heavens. Faculty have shopped their dissertation to university presses and maybe done a few reviews, and check them out, they’re scholarly publishing experts. I used to mark up and typeset scholarly books and work on ebook content standards, I’ve been an author and editor and reviewer and six years an institutional repository librarian and run a journal-hosting service and watched events closely for a decade and written about them and talked about them and taught a course for three years about various book and journal economies, but guess who’s the expert on scholarly publishing and open access? It ain’t me!
I absolutely think this plays into why library schools don’t appear more often in DH education discussions. An august doctoral candidate might have to learn something from a mere totally untheorized librarian, so let’s all have the vapors! I don’t know how to fix this except to encourage us all not to just accept it. We all bring something useful to DH, every single one of us in this room—even me sometimes—and we all, even me, deserve to have that respected.
And sometimes it’s “Don’t make me think about this hard problem! Just let me go right on doing what I do because I’ve always done it.” Because that has to be all right! And anyway you aren’t the boss of me, you can’t make me. You can’t make me think, and you can’t make me change. This explains way too much about theory-theory-theory as well as coding-coding-coding, and it helps explain why nobody shows up to workshops. While I’m at it, this also explains way too much about library approaches to new service models and new collaborations. You know, I’ve learned not to reflexively refer faculty I meet at conferences who are interested in DH to their libraries, because I don’t know what response they’ll get from their librarians. It might be great, or it might absolutely be “don’t make me think.” And what on earth is that, librarians? Thinking is only for other people? Lifelong learning, which we talk about a lot as a central part of the library mission, is only for other people? Come on, we call ourselves information professionals, we’ve got to do better than this. It’s our example to set, right?
Or sometimes it’s “Don’t make me think! Make somebody else do that! Even better? If it’s somebody I don’t actually care about as a fellow professional, or worse, a fellow human being.” If it’s somebody I can force into supplying what Miriam called “hope labor” yesterday: no credit, no pay, no nothing. So if you’ve been on the wrong end of that, you are not alone.
A few years back I sat in on early DH discussions at an institution that will remain nameless to protect the guilty and also myself. During the initial faculty-only focus group, this idea came up of a group of people who were going to do all the work of bridging faculty theory with technologist and librarian praxis. These people would know it all, the theory and the praxis, and they’d mediate between people who sometimes have a hard time communicating across those boundaries. And the faculty just loved this idea, and they gleefully volunteered—not themselves, of course not; they volunteered their graduate students to do it.
Having been a grad student myself, I felt danger signs there, and it turned out that I was completely right. A week later, we had their grad students in for a focus group. And of course a lot of them were already doing that translation work, not exactly by choice, along with a giant wodge of the actual tech work. I don’t even need to tell you what those grad students said about how these same faculty treated them and compensated their work, do I? I didn’t think so, no.
Librarians, we do this too. It’s absolutely part of the Calvinist damnation thing for us, and also part of how we treat library school instructors. It also fuels hope labor in libraries and especially in archives. It fuels the staffing anti-pattern that both Miriam and I have talked and written about (and that we’ve even seen today, frankly), where the library or an academic department hires one person, usually a new MLS or a grant-funded Ph.D postdoc, as Digital Humanities Coordinator and then it dumps that person in a dusty corner with no authority and no budget and no support or community whatsoever, and then it proudly proclaims that now the library does DH! Well, no, whatever that library is doing, it is not DH. This conference shows that DH is in large part community, and one person stuck in a dusty corner is not community. This is not acceptable! I have been railing about it my whole career, and I’ll keep railing about it until it stops. I do believe that a a lot of times when this comes up, it comes from a “make somebody else think so I don’t have to” place.
So why is “Don’t Make Me Think!” a thing in DH, and what can we do about it? I really believe that this isn’t usually actual conscious evil, just unconsidered reflex. Librarians, faculty, me myself, everybody, we just do not think about it before it comes out of our mouths. And it’s that not-thinking, as much as the responses themselves, that causes a lot of the unwelcomeness that I, and maybe some of you, and certainly others like me feel in DH.
If we got into this mess by not thinking, we get out by thinking. So I’ll just say that I don’t know that I have all the answers here. I’m not even sure I’m always asking the right questions. So make me think! Seriously, make me! And think along with me! Because from the bottom of my heart, I don’t believe DH has to be this way, and I believe thinking, and making one another think, is what fixes it.
So I’m going to close with a few things I think we can all do to deal with this unspoken baggage that makes me and others like me feel unwelcome in DH. And they’re pretty small actions, which I like because in my way I’m a pretty small person—not physically, obviously. But seriously, I’m no good at making big things happen; I know this about myself because I’ve tried, and really, I’m just useless at it. Keeping it small, then…
Can we all, all of us, just stop the immediate talk-to-the-hand conversation-enders, the flat statements that don’t allow for discussion? “Open access will never work in the humanities.” That’s one. Wow, I’m not sure where to go with that. When somebody puts it that way, they’re making it clear that it doesn’t matter what I say, so I shut up and feel unwelcome. “Library school sucks.” Wow, I’m not sure where to go with that either. The slightly less blunt version in which Ph.D education is automatically and forever better than library school isn’t really any better, nor is some of the wagon-circling I see in librarianship about the MLS. We’re a mongrel profession, we always have been; I consider it a strength rather than a weakness, and it’s on us to negotiate it properly! “No DH without theory” is just as bad as “no DH without coding.” It’s more complicated than both of those, so why shut down the discussion of what we all have to contribute? “I can’t because tenure and promotion,” tenure-track folks. “I can’t because I have no time,” librarians. “I can’t because, I can’t because.” I get that a lot, and I know what it really means. It really means “I don’t want to talk to you, I don’t want to help you, I don’t want to know anything about you, I don’t even want to admit that what you do might be important, so go away.” And that’s profoundly unwelcoming.
One way to deal with this is to have a standard response that politely points to how hurtful that is and asks for a little conversational space. You’ve heard mine already, and you’re all welcome to steal it: mine is “Wow, I’m not sure where to go with that.” Say it with me: “Wow, I’m not sure where to go with that.”
There’s an even better way, though. Last week I was in a meeting where I nerded out briefly (I admit it, it was really bad of me) and a colleague who isn’t heavily into technology said, “I didn’t understand a single word you just said.” And if she’d stopped there, that would have been exactly the kind of conversation-ender I’m talking about, right? But she didn’t stop there. That’s the key. The next words out of her mouth were, “Could you back up and explain?” So I apologized, backed up, and explained. And that is how it’s done, folks. I love where I work with all my heart, and you just found out one reason why. We can all do what my colleague did. We can all reach across gaps in knowledge, from both directions, and teach each other, and learn from one another.
Another thing I think we can do is work together to do what I call “reducing the excuse space,” inside and outside the various communities we’re part of. Reduce the rhetorical space people think they have to make excuses about why they are special snowflakes who don’t have to think, or learn, or listen, or have some basic consideration for people who are not exactly like them. To be honest, I think the conversation after Miriam’s keynote yesterday about training-by-video is partly about that. We throw workshops that nobody comes to, but everybody still yells and screams about how they need training, so we put together an online video and say “ha, what’s your excuse now?”—and the thing is, they’ll still have one. So what do you do? I actually think the video strategy still has merit, because it’s an excuse-space reducer, and reducing the excuse space bit by bit really is useful, slowly and cumulatively over time.
I’m writing a book called Expanding Your Skills to be one way I’m personally reducing excuse spaces, because I just cannot endure that thing in librarianship where lifelong learning is only for other people any more. Some librarians put up a bazillion excuses for why they can’t learn things—things like DH skills!—and a lot of those excuses are bogus, and some of them are not bogus but are surmountable with some thought and effort. That’s what the book is about.
Now, you don’t have to write a book to reduce excuse spaces, thank goodness. All you have to do is not let people stand pat on excuses. Instead, sympathize and suggest. “I can’t because tenure and promotion.” Yes, tenure and promotion are rough, have you considered self-archiving or blogging to raise your professional profile? “I can’t because time.” Yes, time’s short, I find that a newsreader helps me keep current efficiently. It’s not even about whether they follow through, really. It’s about quietly making clear that threadbare excuses do not cut it with us. Sympathize and suggest. Because once we all strip ourselves and each other of the excuses, we’ll stop turning away people that those excuses devalue.
Another thing we can do that I think DH particularly is really good at is documenting and analyzing patterns, especially rhetorical patterns, speech patterns. If we apply this skill to some of the things I’ve talked about today, it should reduce some more excuse spaces, maybe even make some people think instead of falling back on their usual don’t-make-me-think behaviors.
Consider the Timeline of Incidents from the Geek Feminism wiki, because it’s a great example of what I mean. Before this existed, there was unbelievable amounts of “psh, you gals, you’re just making things up” about sexism in information technology and computer science and fandom cultures. While the sexism is emphatically not gone yet, the making-things-up excuse pretty much is gone, because the wiki has gathered a whacking lot of evidence in one place, which both enables analysis of, and to some extent forces recognition of, the problematic patterns. So, some homework for you all, just by way of example: go document and analyze the Rhetorical Absence of Librarians from the Library Space Wars as they’re fought in the higher-ed trade press and on Twitter and in blogs. This is absolutely a DH kind of thing, right? Go for it!
Because for all the shade I’ve been throwing this whole talk, here’s one more thing I believe: where there’s real thought and action about practical issues in the humanities, not to mention real thought and action about exclusionary patterns in the academy? It’s in DH. DHers are doing this work, here at Digital Frontiers and on Twitter and in blogs and in open-access scholarly venues. I think that’s hugely necessary, and I personally, from the weird kind of liminal position I’m in, I’m deeply grateful for it. So I’m turning everybody loose now to do more of it! Thank you.