Please Write it Down: Design and Research in the Digital Humanities

As Theory Fight 2011 rages on among the DH twitter folk I feel compelled to interject in something that is more than 140 characters. Which brings me here.

Last night Tom Scheinfeldt provocatively suggested,

DH arguments are encoded in code. I disagree with the notion that those arguments must be translated / re-encoded in text.

It struck up quite a back and forth over twitter, which anyone interested can peruse on Natalia Cecire’s blog. The conversation makes for a good read.  What I see as the key issue to think through here is not so much should Digital Humanists also need to “re-encode” their work in writing. Reflective designers of all stripes are already doing a lot of writing. They are creating documentation, making wireframes, etc. The question here is what kinds of writing should humanities scholars who design software and make things in code be doing.

Writing is Thinking and Designers Write Things Too

Everybody working on a DH projects needs to be writing. I am suggesting that this is simply a fact of life. If you don’t have at least a one-pager for your project  you don’t have a project, you are just fiddling around. In fact, the process of doing purposeful design involves the creation of documentation at nearly every step.  As I recently suggested, every document and artifact that you would create in the process of design could serve as a new genre of humanities scholarship. For starters, practically everything in Dan Brown’s Communicating Design already almost looks like the kinds of things we already write.

As I see it, it is not that you need to translate what you did in code into text. Instead, to have made something interesting in code you have to have gone through a reflective process that inevitably creates a wake of valuable texts that were central to both the creation of the argument the code makes and are the most potentially viable at communicating that argument. You probably only need to clean them up a little bit. Even better, many of these projects are the result of grant funded work. In those cases the text already exists. The creator needed to make an argument for what the thing we were going to make was supposed to do.

With this said, I would also suggest that at the end of a project (Or whatever it is we are calling donetaking time to sit down and write out what you learned is invaluable as part of reflective practice. Again, in my own experience, far from being a moment when you translate something you already knew into another format, this is the reflective moment in which what it is that you actually learned comes into focus. This is not about writing it up, instead taking a few moments at the end of a project to reflect on what it is you wanted to accomplish, what actually happened, and what it is you learned from the process is invaluable not only for communicating these things but for actually really coming to know them.

With Design and Humanities Research we are Still Only Beginning

So people who make stuff have to write a lot about what they are doing as part of the process of making stuff. This kind of writing is simply part of being a reflective designer. With that said, I think we are still only scratching the surface of what the process of design could mean for humanities scholarship.

Having my feet in both the DH world and the world of educational research I would also like to point people to a conversation that has been going on about design and research in work in instructional technology. About 12 years ago educational technologists started talking about something they call design based research. In this case, the idea is that instead of contriving wonky experimental designs it would be better for researchers to take on the role of designer and think through how the iterative practice of design could be made a bit more formal and thought of as a research method. The idea behind design based research is that there is some kind of hybrid form of doing, theorizing, building and iterating that we should turn into a methodology.

For anyone interested I would suggest reading Design-Based Research: An Emerging Paradigm for Educational Inquiry (pdf) and Design Based Research: Putting a Stake in the Ground  (pdf). A quote from the first article does a nice job showing how this might pull together some of the threads around theory, practice and method.

Design based researchers’ innovations embody specific theoretical claims about teaching and learning, and help us understand the relationships among educational theory, designed artifact, and practice. Design is central in efforts to foster learning, create usable knowledge, and advance theories of learning and teaching in complex settings.

In short, Yes, design’s always have explicit and implicit arguments inside them. However, I reflective designers produce a range of artifacts and documents in the process of design that, if shared, could both help them become better designers and help others learn to become better designers. Further, the idea of design based research offers the potential for us to think more deeply and not simply absorb the design practices of others. What would a design based research method look like if we translated it from the educational context and into the context of a particular humanities research question?

5 Replies to “Please Write it Down: Design and Research in the Digital Humanities”

  1. I enjoyed this very much – thanks. Perhaps it was naive but I was surprised to learn that there is such a prejudice against documenting work in words – an expression of a false critical-creative split? It reminds me of students in a writing class who say, “I don’t need to read other authors, because I am creative and write myself”. Plus, the whole point of scholarship is that you find a way to communicate your discovery. This discussion has been going on for some time in other practice-based disciplines so the more cross-border thinking, the better.

  2. Thanks for the comment Susan! I should clarify this a bit. I don’t necessarily think there is that much of a prejudiced against documenting work. Part of the point behind this is that everyone working on these kinds of projects is already doing this writing as part of their professional practice. I think this is much more about the anxieties around publication in the academy and potentially realizing that the stuff people write in the process of design can easily serve as the basis of digital humanities scholarship.

    I think a big part of this is tied up in some mixed up feelings about what it is that scholars, particularly humanities scholars, are supposed to produce. It is impossible to separate out the professional tensions around what books count for or how many points articles are worth in the treadmill of tenure and promotion from any conversation about scholarly work. (I should add that it is disappointingly impossible). In response to this, I have seen several folks who build really cool tools turn around and say “I would like to submit my cool tool as my work.” In this case, I largely agree that said cool tool should count as their work. However, the tool can’t speak for itself and it needs some text to put it into a context.

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