Some Advice for DH Newbies

In preparation for a panel session at DH Commons today, I was asked to consider the question: “What one step would you recommend a newcomer to DH take in order to join current conversations in the field?” and then speak for 3 – 4 minutes. Below is the 5 minute version of my answer. . .

With all the folks assembled here today, I figured we’d get some pretty good advice about what constitutes DH and how to get started, so I decided that I ought to say something different from what I’d expect others to say. I have two specific bits of advice, and I suppose that the second bit will be a little more controversial.

But let me foreground that by going back to 2011 when my colleague Glen Worthey and I organized the annual Digital Humanities conference at Stanford around a big tent, summer of love theme. We flung open the flaps on the Big Tent and said come on in . . . We believed, and we continue to believe, that there is a wide range of very good and very interesting work being done in “digital humanities.” We felt that we needed a big tent to enclose all that good work. But let’s face it, inside the big tent it’s a freakin’ three ring circus. Some folks like clowns and others want to see the jugglers. The DH conference is not like a conference on Victorian Literature. And that, of course, is the charm and the curse.

While it probably makes sense for a newcomer to poke around and gain some sense of the “disciplinary” history of the “field.” I think the best advice I can give a newcomer is to spend very little time thinking about what DH is and spend as much time as possible doing DH.

It doesn’t really matter if the world looks at your research and says of it: “Ahhhh, that’s some good Digital Humanities, man.” What matters, of course, is if the world looks at it and says, “Holy cow, I never thought of Jane Austen in those terms” or “Wow, this is really strong evidence that the development of Roman road networks was entirely dependent upon seasonal shifts.” The bottom line is that it is the work you do that is important, not how it gets defined.

So I suppose that is a bit of advice for newcomers, but let me answer the question more concretely and more controversially by speaking as someone who hangs out in one particular ring of the DH Big Tent.

If you understand what I have said thus far, then you know that it is impossible to speak for the Digital Humanities as a group, so, for some, what I am going to say is going to sound controversial. And if I hear that one of you newcomers ran out at the end of this session yelling “Jockers thinks I need to learn a programming language to be a digital humanist,” then I’m going to have to kick your butt right out of the big tent!

Learning a programming language, though, is precisely what I am going to recommend. I’m even going to go a bit further and suggest a specific language called R.

By recommending that you learn R, I am also advocating learning some statistics. R is primarily a language used for statistical computing, which is more or less the flavor of Digital Humanities that I practice. If you want to be able to read and understand the work that we do in this particular ring of the big tent you will need some understanding of statistics; if you want to be able to replicate and expand upon this kind of work, you are going to need to know a programming language, so I recommend learning some R and killing two birds with one stone.

And for those of you who don’t get turned on by p-values, for loops, and latent dirichlet allocation, I think learning a programing language is still in your best interests. Even if you never write a single line of code, knowing a programming language will allow you to talk to the natives, that is, you will be able to converse with the non-humanities programmers and web masters and DBAs and systems administrators, who we so often collaborate with as digital humanists. Whether or not you program yourself, you will need to translate your humanistic questions into terms that a non-specialist in the humanities will understand. You may never write poetry in Italian, but if you are going to travel in Rome, you should at least know how to ask for directions to the coliseum.

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