One of the biggest challenges for digital humanities newbies is getting a handle on the vocabulary. The digital humanities community is open, welcoming, and willing to answer questions. They even created a website for that, DHAnswers. But, most newcomers don’t have enough vocabulary to be confident in framing a question.
This challenge was brought home to me by a twitter conversation in April, in which several of us debated whether newcomers would feel welcome at THATCamps and if not, how we might change that. Pete Powers had prompted Ryan Cordell to start that conversation because he and a colleague:
went to a THATCamp and spent the first two or three hours feeling completely lost and at sea, unable to fully comprehend half the language that was being used or the tasks that we were being asked to implement.
This experience and the ensuing twitter debate led Powers to write a blog post reflecting on a disconnect felt by many who are trying to enter the digital humanities community. As Powers explains,
The reason digital humanities can be difficult and alienating for beginners like me is because we don’t know enough of the language to even know what to ask for.
In other words, beginners need a phrase book or dictionary with definitions of digital humanities jargon.
This need for more definitions may surprise some digital humanists. After all, defining digital humanities is like an initiation for joining the community. Everyone who participates in the Day in the Life of Digital Humanities project writes one; you can pick your favorite from the accumulated definitions of several years on this wiki. But newbies don’t want to pick or write a definition. They want a reference point from which to understand those definitions.
At the 2012 THATCamp Liberal Arts Colleges earlier this month, I saw this desire in action. Most participants came from small liberal arts colleges and many were new to digital humanities, so they weren’t interested in who’s in or who’s out or deciding which approaches or practices fit under the big tent or any of the other Debates in the Digital Humanities. Rather, they wanted to define digital humanities against digital pedagogy and digital teaching. In one session we created a twitter definition for each—our homage to the elevator speech—with definitions and discussion documented in this storify. Here’s what we came up with:
Digital Humanities: (rhetorical opportunity) reflexive engagements w/ digital tools and methods to investigate the human. (?) #THATCamp #lac
Digital Pedagogy: engaged and reflexive practice and scholarship of teaching and learning through digital technologies. (?) #THATCamp #lac
Digital Teaching: Using digital technology to teach. (?) #THATCamp #lac
I don’t think any of us were completely satisfied by our final definition tweets, but the discussion gave us a place to start by defining digital humanities against more familiar activities at liberal arts colleges like teaching.
A Beginner’s Glossary of Digital Humanities
As NITLE tries to encourage the growth of the digital humanities at small liberal arts colleges, I have ample opportunity to think about how to help beginners enter the community. I teach introductory workshops and coordinate our Digital Scholarship Seminars, which are great tools for digital humanities evangelism. Many campuses have told me that their digital humanities working groups are watching the archives to learn more about examples of digital humanities at and for liberal arts colleges.
Normally, academics getting to know a new discipline would read about it before doing it. But, the ethos of doing in digital humanities is so strong, that THATCamps ask beginners to engage in doing digital humanities (more hack, less yack). To that end, at my last workshop (at the Institute for Pedagogy in the Liberal Arts hosted by Oxford College of Emory University), I came up with a strategy to let beginners do and help the digital humanities veterans be sensitive to specialist vocabulary. I asked my workshop participants to write down on a post-it note every term they heard from me or other workshop participants that they didn’t know. Then we added them to our workshop wiki and set about defining them. We accumulated quite a few terms (35 total). Although my co-teacher Sean Lind, Digital Services Librarian at Oxford, ended up contributing most of the definitions, I think the list was still useful as an indicator of terms veterans need to be prepared to define.
I repeated the experiment at THATCamp LAC 2012 by proposing a session on a digital humanities glossary and setting up a google doc for the glossary. I think that session happened, though I didn’t make it. Certainly terms were added to the doc throughout the THATcamp, with a final total of 28 terms.
Looking at this admittedly small sample, let me share some preliminary conclusions. There were only five terms that both lists shared (one of which I had contributed by initiating each list with the acronym DH):
- DH = Digital Humanities
- Open Access (OA)
- TEI= Text Encoding Initiative
Terms fell into a range of types including terms common though not unique to digital humanities, e.g., metadata, technology terms, e.g., Regex, some slang, e.g., hack, various methodologies or practices, e.g., crowdsourcing, specific platforms of technology tools, e.g., Storify, and organizations, groups or communities, e.g., Creative Commons. Some of these are unique to digital humanities, while others come from the larger domain of technology in general. There was a smattering of terms from other domains, as well, such as FERPA from the higher ed domain.
So, what does this give us? A starting point, I hope. I think it would be worthwhile repeating this experiment with other groups of beginners without first sharing the developed glossary. There’s nothing like finding or creating your own definition to help you learn something, and it would give beginners an activity to do during those first few hours of helplessness Powers described at a THATCamp. At the same time, I hope these glossaries can benefit veterans as much as beginners by giving both groups a starting point for conversation and helping the digital humanities cognoscenti realize where and why they may be incomprehensible to everyone else.