Digital Humanities: Of Failure, Faults and Flaws
by Britta K. Meredith
We all have them, encounter them in some form or another, and sometimes feel frustrated by them: failure, faults and flaws. The truth is, they are a part of the process and line the path to success. Rejections of proposals, articles, and abstracts are part of everyday life for scholars. However, we usually do not see, or read about them at all. Instead, we are left with a finished, polished and refined product to enjoy. Various blog posts have advocated for successful scholars to think about an inclusion of “Anti-items” or “Shadow CVs” in their vita. However, not only renowned scholars and professors are asked to partake in this movement, blogs argue for graduate students to keep track of their own academic failures and thus prevent the (Stanford-) Duck Syndrome.
Never mind the question of how to define DH. One might wonder: What does all this have to do with DH? The answer to this is manifold. Let me start with a personal narrative: When I first took a class on Digital Humanities, I had to create a digital project. I opted for what I assumed was a relatively straightforward undertaking: the creation of a bi-lingual website. I do think that faults, flaws and failures are part of life, chances for growth, and they can offer us the possibility of becoming better, but OH THE FRUSTRATION. Anyone
remembering their first dealings with website software
might remember the infuriation when the outline (once again!) did not come out as intended; when (once again!) there was a flaw in the code that made the whole page look odd, or when (once again!) there was a fault, a mistake, or typo so that you had to go back in and fix it, or say “that’s it” and give up, leave the project unfinished, not making it public.
Digital Humanities and in particular electronic publishing that goes “beyond the paper” as Jason Prime calls it (such as blogs like this one, academic networking platforms and open access journals like flusserstudies, websites e.g. DHMS, or e-books such as my own) are obviously different from the traditional print humanities. You create your blog post, you review, rethink, rewrite it, and you decide at what point you click “publish” to make it go live. Once you do so, just like that, your work is out there, for anyone to see, for the world to take apart, for renowned scholars (and anyone else) to comment on. Of course the same is true for publishing with traditional print media, however, the review and editorial process is much longer, the chances of finding a venue which features your work smaller, the possibilities of your work actually being read around the world…well, you get the idea. So does DH mean living with imperfection? My personal answer to this is no, or at least not more than life in general forces us to do so. Instead, I see DH as an opportunity to show the process, the frustrations, and the successes. English scholar and fellow PhD student Gabriel Morrison put it quite felicitously when he said, “we have this strange idea that we publish something we have learned, with a definitive emphasis on the past tense. We’re just presenting an artifact. But DH and multimodal scholarship challenge us to think of publication as learning. And isn’t that the point of scholarship anyway?” (Morrison, online conversation LCL-5020, SEC001-1173, 2017).
I have come to realize that a major part of DH is to reveal the learning process. The road to production is often just as important as the product itself, and projects in progress are frequently presented at conferences, talks and events. The difficulties, failures, faults and flaws that needed to be overcome for a project to reach the stage of being presented are discussed openly and challenges not yet overcome are brought up as well. Imperfection is not something scholars in DH just put up with, accept or resign themselves to, and neither is it something that is overcome in secrecy. Instead, it is showcased, discussed and revealed to share with others in the experience, collaborate, communicate, and interact. One Week One Tool for an example showcases the “collaborative strengths of the digital humanities community to produce something useful for humanities work and to help balance learning and doing in digital humanities training” (ibid.). DH is full of teachable moments: of community and of exchange (see e.g. Lisa Spiro’s Article here). Any person who either becomes actively or passively part of the discussion, and hears about the struggle (and not just the finished product) might feel encouraged to join in the journey and embrace imperfection.