What we make of Code: The Role of Programming in the Digital Humanities

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Diane Katherine Jakacki

    Bucknell University

  2. 2. James Christopher O'Sullivan

    University College Cork

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1. Introduction
Digital Humanities remains something of an embryonic field; precise definitions of its multifaceted aspects still very much open to debate. The role of software development has proved problematic, with scholars divided on the level with which digital humanists should be actively engaged with programming. Using both quantitative and qualitative methods, this paper seeks to present a diverse range of perspectives from within the Digital Humanities community, all of which address the question: "To be a digital humanist, do you need to be building things?"

By surveying active members of our community, this paper will present findings on development practices within DH scholarship, specifically in relation to what technologies are being used, how they are being deployed, and what geographical and cultural differences, if any, exist. In taking such an approach, this paper will not seek to offer a novel definition of the field of Digital Humanities, but rather, present some objective findings on relevant attitudes in relation to development within DH projects. In doing so, this paper will present the first complete and specific study of the role of software development and programming in the Digital Humanities, developed through the responses of researchers, teachers and practitioners from across the community. Our preliminary findings have indicated that traditional understandings about technical competencies among digital humanists do not bear out, and that commonly held paradigms need revisiting. Presumptions surrounding technical competencies and attitudes, particularly in relation to age and formal qualifications, do not hold true.

This issue was raised by Stephen Ramsey at the 2011 MLA. Ramsey remarked in his paper, “Who’s In and Who’s Out”,1 that “Digital Humanities is not some airy Lyceum. It is a series of concrete instantiations involving money, students, funding agencies, big schools, little schools, programs, curricula, old guards, new guards, gatekeepers, and prestige. It might be more than these things, but it cannot not be these things.” He then puts forward the question, “Do you have to know how to code?” His answer is clear: “I’m a tenured professor of digital humanities and I say ‘yes.’ So if you come to my program, you’re going to have to learn to do that eventually.” This paper is will present the results of the first survey to invite members of the community to give their attitudes on code and its necessity to scholars who describe themselves as digital.

2. Methodology & Initial Findings
Our study avails of a mixed method approach, with our 96 participants, all of which were identified as being actively engaged in the Digital Humanities, responding to a series of quantitative and qualitative questions. The purpose of these questions was to establish, firstly, the level to which Digital Humanities scholars were actively engaged in programming, and secondly, how they view the importance of any such engagement. Questions were divided between two general types: those which asked respondents to give their views on the relevant issues, and those which challenged users to explain their understanding of generic technical details. The purpose of the latter was to help discern if Digital Humanities scholars could demonstrate a fundamental understanding of some of the key terms associated with programming. Before analysing responses as a complete set, we filtered respondents by demographic information that we considered to be of interest, specifically age and gender.

2.1 Age
We were curious to filter respondents by age in an effort to explore any correlations between the practices of scholars and what is often perceived as “generational differences”. The commonly held notion of digital natives suggests that a new generation of scholars is transforming the academy as a result of their increasing familiarity with technology. Our results demonstrate that this is a naïve assumption, with the responses from our 25-35, 35-50 and 50+ age range offering some interesting points of comparison. We only had two respondents in the 18-25 category.

In particular, when asked if “software development is an element of Digital Humanities scholarship”, we found that the majority of respondents over 50 “strongly agreed” that such was the case, as outlined in Figure 1. This contrasts with the other two groups, the majority of which only “agreed” with the aforementioned statement.

When asked to indicate “the type of development practices with which they are most frequently engaged”, as shown in Figure 2, the majority of the 50+ group stated that they do most of the programming themselves, while the majority of the remaining groups either contribute an equal amount to collaborative developments, or have other individuals do the bulk of the project’s coding.

Our findings suggest that the sense that established scholars are more entrenched in traditional views is naïve. The general expectation is that younger scholars, as a result of their perceived familiarity with technology, may be more inclined to take on the development aspects of projects themselves. Our findings demonstrate that the opposite is the case, with the 50+ group being the most self-sufficient in relation to more technical activities. There are some interesting interpretations on academic culture that will to be teased out on this point. These findings could arguably be the product of younger scholars having come up in an interdisciplinary environment and having a genuine appetite for collaboration, with the older generation indicating that they prefer a “traditional”, more isolated approach to research. Alternatively, digital natives may not be as technically proficient as many commentators suggest. Technological ubiquity has led to a new generation of scholars who are increasingly familiar with consumer electronics and intuitive graphical interfaces, but our results suggest that these scholars are avoiding more complex technical challenges. This is perhaps supported by a question later in the survey, which finds that of the 25 – 35 age group, the majority of respondents admitted that they did not consider themselves technically proficient. These results might also be representative of a changing academic culture, whereby students are demanding increasing supports from their institutions. In the relevant qualitative portions, it was clear that this age group connected “learning” to “privilege”, in the sense that technical expertise were reserved for scholars with access to appropriate support from their universities. The older groups, conversely, cited the need for scholars to pursue independent development of their technical skills.

2.2 Gender
There were few distinctions between respondents based on gender, the only significant separation being in relation to the use of software development as an element of one’s work. Considerably more males claim that software development is an aspect of their work, and furthermore, consider themselves technically proficient. This survey, of course, is no indication that this is actually the case, although there were a higher proportion of male respondents possessing formal qualifications in technical subjects. It would be worth comparing these results with data from wider technical disciplines and industries, to see if they are merely a symptom of a wider situation.

2.3 Collaboration
When all respondents were taken as a single set, the key themes to emerge from both the qualitative and quantitative data was collaboration. Most significant in this respect was arguably the way in which respondents with technical expertise expressed a conscious desire to understand the requirements of Humanities scholars, and vice versa. This was somewhat surprising, as the expectation was such that collaborators from across differing fields would have a vested interest in their own areas. As can be seen from Figure 3, respondents possessing formal qualifications in Computer Science agreed that they have a responsibility to understand Humanities scholarship, while Humanities scholars expressed the belief that they should further develop their technical understanding so as to better communicate with collaborators. These results are arguably a product of the sample group, which was comprised of scholars who considered themselves as working within the Digital Humanities. However, what it demonstrates nonetheless is that there is a genuine desire for collaboration within the discipline, and that this desire is supported by an awareness of differing expertise, requirements and mindsets.

2.4 Leadership
It is clear from the activities of respondents that digital projects are being managed by Humanities scholars. Of those respondents that stated they had worked on a digital initiative, the majority did so in a project management capacity, as illustrated in Figure 4.

This is a positive finding, as it suggests that technology is being used to support the agendas of the Arts and Humanities, rather than dictating what such agendas might be.

1. stephenramsay.us/text/2011/01/08/whos-in-and-whos-out/

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2014
"Digital Cultural Empowerment"

Hosted at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Université de Lausanne

Lausanne, Switzerland

July 7, 2014 - July 12, 2014

377 works by 898 authors indexed

XML available from https://github.com/elliewix/DHAnalysis (needs to replace plaintext)

Conference website: https://web.archive.org/web/20161227182033/https://dh2014.org/program/

Attendance: 750 delegates according to Nyhan 2016

Series: ADHO (9)

Organizers: ADHO