The digital humanities as the DIY humanities

A few months back I participated in my forth year of the humanities and technology camp at the Center for History and New Media. This year the conference ended with a bake off. Many of the definitions of the digital humanities hinge on the idea that digital humanists like to make things. It looks like they also like to bake things.

We don’t just make for the humanities, we just make

I don’t think it is a coincidence that Amanda French’s twitter bio explains that she is a singer songwriter, that Karin Dalziel of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities blogs about digital humanities work alongside gardening, cooking and photography, or that Jason Kucsma, director of the Metropolitan New York Library Council, worked for years driving around the Midwest to promote a zine he helped create. One of the defining features of some of the best and the brightest in the digital humanities isn’t digital per-say, it has to do with a pervasive kind of scrappyness. It’s about having a do it yourself mindset.

The DIY technical education

Reflecting on my own experience, I think I can say that the most important digital skills and ability to carry things through did not come from my training in the history of science. It came from my attempts, from the age of 14-18 managing a band in Milwaukee Wisconsin.

  • I learned HTML to build a band website. (which is sadly lost to the ages, although the terrible one I had created before that persists at the popup riddled .50megs.com)
  • I picked up Illustrator and Photoshop when we wanted to get our CD pressed and the only templates the press offered were for Adobe products.
  • Over those years I learned a ton about digital audio as we improved our microphones and upgraded from transferring from a real-to-real, to a 4 track cassette recorder, to a digital 8 track and ultimately to working with a all digital studio in the area.

More important than any of the specific tech competencies, I learned that when I needed to figure out what software and hardware I needed to accomplish a task, that I had the wherewithal to figure it out and make it work.

marzapan at summerfest

The band playing at Milwaukee's Summerfest

The Audacity of Doing it Yourself: Renting the American Legion Hall

More important than self taught hardware and software skills was simply taking stock of the fact that if someone was going to do make a given project happen it would be me. Further, that I was going to need to do this with the resources I had at hand. Generally, I think this translates to a lesson that in many situations it is valuable. There is a version of whatever it is that you want to do that you can do right now with only an investment of your time and energy.

There were, more or less, zero options for places to put on all ages shows in West Milwaukee. So I took cash out of pocket and rented an American Legion hall. I think it originally cost me $100. I made up some fliers on colored paper at kinkos, got four other bands to agree to play as openers and negotiated how we would cut any money. I bought a PA system and the bassist picked up lighting equipment circa 1970 at a rummage sale. We used our bassists van to get all of our equipment to the hall. We handed flyers to any and everyone who would take them in an effort to get people to show up and pay 5$ at the door. Our moms collected money at the door. It was exhausting. I was always sick to my stomach that no one would show up to the shows and I would be out the upfront money. But we got up and did it again, and again, and eventually made the money we needed to make to pay for studio time. That is until the band broke up and reformed without me.

The moral to the story is, that instead of waiting for something to happen, or someone to let us be musicians, we just decided we were and started making plans with the resources at hand. If you take a look at many of the most interesting things going on in the digital humanities a lot of them started with just that kind of scrappyness and tenacity.

The Tenacity of the Cockroach or: the Henry Rollins School for Digital Humanists

Required reading for a DIY Humanist

Part of the reason that there are so many DIY folk in the digital humanities is that making things came natural. I think another part of this is that many of us had acquired what Henry Rollins described as “The Tenacity of the Cockroach.” If you want to get your head in this space I strongly suggest reading the edited collection of Onion AV club articles which uses the quote as its title. Imho, the DIY part of this thing we call the digital humanities is the part that is keeping it interesting, lively, and innovative.

Required Reading for the DIY Humanist

Deep down, I think DIY and the web are inextricably linked.

Here the lesson from nerd-folk-rock-troubadour  Jonathan Coulton, about finding and making your own niche is invaluable. QFT

We now have an entirely new set of contexts and they come with a whole new set of tools that give us cheap and easy access to all of them – niche has gone mainstream. It is no longer necessary to organize your business or your art around geography, or storage space, or capital, or what’s cool in your town, or any other physical constraint. And this is not to say that anyone can become a moderately successful rockstar just by starting a blog – success is still going to be a rare and miraculous thing, as it has always been. There are just a lot more ways to get there than there used to be, and people are finding new ones every day.

In the same vein, Robert Krulwich’s  advice to aspiring journalists, that “some just don’t wait” is equally important for the aspiring humanist.

I’ve seen people, literally, go home, write a blog about dinosaurs (in one case), neuroscience, biology. Nobody asked them. They just did. On their own. By themselves.After they wrote, they tweeted and facebooked and flogged their blogs, and because they were good, and worked hard, within a year or two, magazines asked them to affiliate (on financial terms that were insulting), but they did that, and their blogs got an audience, and then they got magazine assignments, then agents, then book deals, and now, three, four years after they began, these folks, five or six of them, are beginning to break through. They are becoming not just science writers with jobs, they are becoming THE science writers, the ones people read, and look to… they’re going places. And they’re doing it on their own terms! In their own voice, they’re free to be themselves AND they’re paid for it!

Going from here

I would love to know if there are other DIY pasts in the closets of other Digital Humanities folk. Is this a general phenomena, or is this just about the company I keep. So if you have DIY pasts please share them in the comments. Further, are there other must read pieces you would suggest for the aspiring DIY humanist?

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11 Responses to The digital humanities as the DIY humanities

  1. amandafrench says:

    HOTNESS, Trevor.

    I think that one of the reasons I glommed onto Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody as hard as I did was because his vision of not needing organizations to get things done was something I became passionate about from hanging out with independent musicians in Charlottesville. All the singer-songwriters I knew were getting things done all by themselves, pretty much. Entrepreneurial doesn't begin to cover it.

    And then, eventually, when I went down to Emory Libraries and got frustrated by the perpetual gridlock brought on by excessive discussion, I kept flashing back to how things worked in the band I was in in Raleigh. We definitely had clashes, but in general, everyone knew their job and did that job, while letting everyone else do theirs. I'd play rhythm guitar and sing, and Mike would play his banjo on top of that, and I had no idea what he was doing or how, but it sounded great to me. If I ever made a suggestion, it was along the lines of "That sounds a bit too happy for this sad song; can you make it sound sadder?" rather than "You need to modulate to the F there." They'd do the same for me. I secretly believe that a lot of what looks and sounds like teamwork in a band is actually several separate individuals doing their own thing as hard as they can while happening to stand next to each other. You just have be sure to take turns soloing.

    I have to admit that one of my favorite movies about education has always been "School of Rock," because it really encapsulates for me exactly what can happen when everyone is given a job to do, some help when necessary, none when not, and the freedom to figure everything else out themselves.

    And on a final note, I'd say this about tenacity: technology requires it, that's for sure. I still acquire a lot of my skills from simply vowing not to be beaten by whatever damn bug it is this time. I will figure that sucker out even if I have to LEARN stuff to do it.

    • tjowens says:

      Thanks for sharing!!

      I love "a lot of what looks and sounds like teamwork in a band is actually several separate individuals doing their own thing as hard as they can while happening to stand next to each other." So true!

  2. Michael Lascarides says:

    Great post! Definitely true in my case as well (as Amanda and I have discussed before!). I've been a singer in a punk rock band, a bicycle mechanic, a zine editor and a painter. I still get called upon to make the odd album cover or music video, usually for friends, for the hell of it. I learned my digital design chops as an apprentice in a sign shop, tracing corporate logos to engrave onto metal tchotchkes with a pair of very loud computer-controlled engravers. That gig led me to newspaper layout, which led to advertising, which led to web design, which led to information architecture, which led to the library. In a way, I've always felt that the foundations of my digital skills are, Bauhaus-style, rooted in plastic, metal, and machines that require eye protection.

    In my current artwork, I treat my software more as a collaborator than a tool. I tell it: "Follow these rules, throw in just this amount of random choices", and, oh what's that? Something unexpected. Not only does digital tech provide social networks to connect with the like-minded, but it's getting sophisticated enough to interact with as the fifth Beatle on its own merits.

    • tjowens says:

      Treating software more as a collaborator than a tool is a cool concept. In my mind it gets at the same point that proponents of changing the metaphor of software architecture to software gardening. Ex: http://chrisaitchison.com/2011/05/03/you-are-not-

      In both cases, software as the fifth beetle or software engineering as gardening there is a very real recognition that to an extent we need to let our software "do it's thing"

  3. findsandfeatures says:

    This post hit a real note with me – thanks so much for expressing this so well! I totally agree – my first experiences with DH was learning HTML and SQL for a course assignment publishing a database on line. I just read, experimented, and got going.

    Now I'm effectively working backwards – from DH back to DIY at its most basic. This summer I decided to build my own furnace to do some experimental bronze casting. I did some research, adapted it to the available materials (hoover, cat litter, bricks and potting compost additive) and got going. Worked just fine!

    I think you're right about the fundamental ideology of most DH'ers – it's about just getting down to it, doing your research, being tenacious, making do with what you can scrounge and never, EVER stopping learning new things.

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