Making Things and Drawing Boundaries

If you read my About the Author page, you will see that I have a BA, an MS, and a PhD, all in Computer Science. What you won’t see is that I hated many of the CS classes I was required to take. I often felt like the classes focused on the technology for the sake of the technology, with no acknowledgement that humans needed to use the technology or that the technology should support the needs of those humans rather than requiring the humans to adapt to the technology. This particular piece of information explains all the moves that I’ve made in my professional career.

And it also explains why my latest sabbatical read feels like it was written especially for me at this particular time in my professional life. Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities is a collection of essays written by digital humanities (DH) practitioners and theoreticians that was published January 15, 2018. The essays are organized into five sections: Making and the Humanities; Made By Whom? For Whom?; Making as Inquiry; Making Spaces and Interfaces; and, Making, Justice, Ethics. I’m only going to focus on the first section in this post but there are a couple of the essays later in the book that I plan to write about because they have helped me to think more clearly about some aspect of the cluster initiative in general and pedagogy in General Education in particular.

The book asks the question of what it means to “make” things in the humanities. Because of DH’s focus on technology as a tool for making things, the book is also concerned with the artificial boundaries that we typically draw–between disciplines, between communities of practice, “between thinking and doing, hacking and yacking, writing and building, scholarship and service, creating and critiquing, breaking and repairing, innovation and maintenance, and making and not making (p. 9).” The articulation of these boundaries and their implications was particularly helpful in getting me to think about technology use in new and exciting ways.

The author of the first essay (Julie Thompson Klein in “The Boundary Work of Making in Digital Humanities”) provides a bit of history concerning the dichotomy of thinking versus doing, tracing the distinction back to the Greeks. Plato in particular argued that knowledge is found, not made, “distinguishing discovery of true knowledge from actions producing practical knowledge (p. 22).” Because of this long-standing distinction, DH from the beginning had to confront the higher status given to “interpretation, analysis, and abstraction over fabricating, application, and production (p. 22).” As might be expected, Klein goes on to argue that the working at the boundaries of thinking and doing (what some researchers have called “thinking-through-practice”) “brings the creative practice of design to the center of research, favoring process over product as well as versioning and extensibility over definitive editions and research silos (p. 25).”  The “emergence of making” also “dismantles the dichotomies of thinking versus doing, production versus interpretation, and application versus theory (p. 27).” These ideas appeal to me for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that this seems to me to be the main work that an integrated cluster curriculum is trying to accomplish.

David Staley in “On the ‘Maker Turn’ in the Humanities” provides more context for a turn toward making. He argues that digital humanists will use technology as tools “to fashion and trace new forms of evidence of their readings” of various kinds of texts (p. 32). He provides a definition of “digital humanities” that starts with an examination of what we mean by “humanities.” He acknowledges the challenges of defining the humanities but ultimately settles on a definition proposed by Geoffrey Harpham (p. 23): “The scholarly study of documents and artifacts produced by human beings in the past enables us to see the world from different points of view so that we may better understand ourselves.” Staley goes on to state that “humanists interpret texts, and the evidence of that reading is a written performance (p. 34).” Text is, of course, defined broadly to include pretty much anything that is created by humans. Staley’s argument is that, given the broad definition of texts that humanists interpret, there is no reason to privilege writing (academic writing, in particular) as the mode through which humanists provide evidence of their interpretations.

Staley’s essay is definitely worth a read for anyone who is interested in DH or project-based learning or interdisciplinarity or what we’re trying to do at PSU with integrated clusters. He makes the point that the traditional interpretative texts created by humanists are manufactured objects but we rarely acknowledge their material production. We have templates for what the final product should look like (in the form of guidelines for what constitutes academic writing and persuasive arguments). Digital humanists provide evidence of their interpretations using digital tools, creating interpretations that take forms other than writing. We have few templates for what these artifacts will look like and so we end up spending a lot of time talking about the particular material production of the interpretation.

Staley’s main point is: “In the same way they have expanded not only the definition of a text but also the range of texts to read, humanists may approach the maker turn as an occasion to expand their definition of reading and interpretation by treating creativity as a scholarly act (p. 40).” This feels like a strong justification for project-based learning in classrooms where it has not traditionally had a place.

Several other essays in the collection articulate the affordances provided by digital tools so that we can create different kinds of interpretations than we can with writing alone. Bill Endres, for example, in “A Literacy of Building,” writes, “DH scholars recognize that the digital brings something new to the table and can contribute to answering questions that could not be answered prior to the computer (p. 47).” Endres studies manuscripts and recognizes that “comprehending a text requires more than interpreting its symbolic meaning. … For a manuscript, especially an illuminated one, size, layout, and grandeur are part of its expression, part of the complex layering of embodied knowledge (p. 47).” Like Marshall McLuhan, Endres believes “the medium is the message.” The physical embodiment of the message matters as much as the content of the message. Endres’ DH projects include creating 3D digital representations of manuscripts which “renders the contours of a page and restores an awareness of text as three-dimensional (p. 47).” But unlike the physical page, the digital rendering allows new kinds of exploration of the manuscript. For example, some features of manuscripts such as dry-point glosses (“etched with a stylus but no ink and meant to go unnoticed (p. 49)”) are difficult to see in the original manuscript but digital rendering can highlight them.

I can’t do justice in a short blog post like this to breadth and depth of what I learned about DH from this collection. It is an inspiring set of essays which I think will inform the way I think and talk about project-based learning (especially in the humanities) moving forward. And as I said, there are a couple of essays that I think warrant more exploration and so I probably will be writing about this book again.

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