Friday, April 8, 2011

I'll dig with it?

I already mentioned it on Twitter, but I'd just like to make another plug for Bethany Nowviskie's great post on data mining and gender, "What Do Girls Dig?"

I was actually slightly shocked to see the estimable Brett Bobley tweet that the organizers of Digging into Data had noticed the gender imbalance (of two women out of a total of thirty-three speakers!) and were scratching their heads over it.

Really? Not that keeping track of these things is Brett's full-time job, but didn't we just have this conversation about the VIDA stats? Aren't there standard, time-tested answers to these questions of which all people who care about equity are aware? Maybe I'm projecting, but I felt as though the many responses Brett received on Twitter included a strong subtext of "duh"--and rightly.

Tanya Clement's comment that highly educated, capable women often play important but disempowered roles in DH projects is spot on; as Brett writes, "The speakers are the project PIs." No kidding! As Katha Pollitt recently wrote in response to the VIDA stats (you know, that conversation we just had), "Women are often managing editors, a position with lots of work and not much power."

There are a lot of factors that contribute to these circumstances, as Bethany notes:
I'm sure that gender imbalance in this area has little to do with the "Digging into Data" process and more with broader issues, going all the way back (yes, that chestnut) to STEM education for girls in the public schools -- but mostly, I suspect, it is about the number of female academics both qualified and inclined to do this work, and who find themselves both at a stage of their careers and possessed of adequate collaborative networks to support their applications for such grants.

But to me, her most interesting observation was about the gendered language with which data-mining itself is often presented.
Although it wasn't really what I was going for, I respect my pals' advocacy, highlighted above, for funders' launching of an aggressive campaign to identify and mentor more women applicants for the "Digging into Data" program. And clearly there's institutional work to be done on the level of our schools, colleges, and universities. But personally, I feel less strongly about both of those things than I do about the need for the whole DH community to be as thoughtful as possible about the way we describe this kind of work -- the language we use.

I've heard three kinds of responses from female colleagues and students about the "Digging into Data Challenge." One (the rarest) is simple enthusiasm -- though it's interesting that presumably few women applied and none of their projects were compelling enough to fund. Another is trepidation: "Is this too hard-core? Involving too much math or statistical analysis I never learned? Do I understand the scholarly possibilities and have the support network I'd need?" In other words: this is a challenge. Am I competitive? (in every sense of that word).
As Micah Vandegrift commented on the post, "mining" is very much a gendered occupation! Add in the fact that the "digging into data challenge" sounds like some kind of extreme sport and you have a very odd rhetoric for scholarship.

The title of this post is of course a reference to Seamus Heaney's ode to masculine labor, "Digging." (Yes, I was forced to study this poem in high school. Mr. Lilley, you were cool, but no love for this one.)

The poem's speaker contemplates the pen that "rests[] snug as a gun" in his hand, contrasting it with the spades that his father and grandfather wielded in their work. There's a moment of anxiety as the speaker realizes, "I’ve no spade to follow men like them," before remembering that he has his pen. "I'll dig with it."

If you think you can hear Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar gently inquiring, "Is the pen a metaphorical penis?," Heaney pretty much hits you over the head with the answer, and, spoiler, it is "yes." The PIs (the speakers, the authors, the creators...) were all male? You don't say.

"By God, the old man could handle a spade./ Just like his old man." Seriously.

I'm on the fence about issuing the standard disclaimer about the good intentions and real efforts of Brett and the NEH to make equity a priority. This is a sort of cop-out solution, with my mini-sort-of-disclaimer here. Of course they are well intentioned and they do make real efforts. The NEH has done a lot to support digital humanities, and I'm thinking of them as the government prepares to shut down. This is not in any sense a personal criticism. But, institutionally speaking, two women speakers out of thirty-three is manifestly absurd, and having no notion about how to address it is also seriously odd. I find it disheartening that these disclaimers are still obligatory, because this is 2011, and we are long past the point where having good intentions but not good results yet is okay.

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