Saturday, August 10, 2013


One thing I wish to observe about the UVa Scholars' Lab's upcoming "Speaking in Code" symposium is this.

A call for diverse participation rings hollow when the lineup of invited speakers is 100% white and cis male. I can think of some things besides "impostor syndrome" that might keep a developer from an underrepresented group from applying.

It is doubly problematic when "tacit knowledge" has been used in DH (idiosyncratically; see Collins and Polanyi) to represent software development as a minority culture imperiled by "dominant, extravagantly vocal and individualist verbal expressions." This is an ideological reversal of the fact that software development is a prestige domain both within DH and in contemporary U.S. culture at large and that, far from being a marginalized culture, it is marginalizing, insofar as it is structurally exclusionary of women and racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities.

Saying "you are welcome here" (as a student or participant but not as a leader or invited speaker) may ameliorate this structural exclusion, but not much.

I see the demystification of "tacit knowledge" as a salutary project, and I wish this symposium all success. But this is not a model for inclusivity. We can and should do better.


Collins, Harry M. Tacit and Explicit Knowledge. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Polanyi, Michael. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

———. The Tacit Dimension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.


Unknown said...

One of the speakers here. Yeah, that was my first thought on seeing the roster. To be fair to the organizers, if you're looking for senior DH developers who've written about this stuff, you are in a small pool indeed.

As a white, straight, cisgendered male, and an introverted one at that I really don't know what to do other than be as welcoming and supportive of all my colleagues and potential future colleagues as I can.

I do think "imperiled" is a bit tendentious, and not the argument Bethany was making. Programming isn't going anywhere, and you're quite right it's a prestige domain. And further, that there are major structural problems with the profession excluding women and minorities. But at the same time, I'd argue DH programming is insufficiently examined as a place where theory and practice collide and that the voices of its practitioners are often not part of the larger DH conversation. And I think that silence can itself have an exclusionary effect. So having a highly public symposium talking about these topics at which all are welcome can't hurt and may help.

I work in a profession that is too often sexist, ageist, and if not actually racist and heteronormative, at least cliquish enough that it can seem that way. I find it hard to express how profoundly I think that sucks. It should not be, and it must not remain so.

Unknown said...

Wrote my comments as a stand-alone post here.

Bethany said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bethany Nowviskie said...

Natalia, thank you for this. I wrote something too long for your comments form to accept, so have posted it over here.

(And sorry for the deleted/oddly attributed comment! I haven't used since I was blogging in Gaelic!)

Natalia said...

Thanks for your responses, all. As Bethany obliquely suggests in her post, it is indeed surprising that I was the first person to mention the discrepancy between stated policy and the list of invited speakers. Hugh mentions that it was the first thing he noticed (which leads me to wonder whether you mentioned it to anyone?), and Bethany writes that she anticipated posts like this one. But instead of more posts like mine, the announcement of the symposium was met with an outpouring of praise for the inclusivity language.

Maybe that really is evidence, as Bethany argues, that the inclusivity language is having its desired effect. I hope that's true.

But I'm going to suggest that it may also be evidence of something else: that everyone knows, and junior people most of all, that nobody wants to hear the words this is a problem. What builds social capital, especially in a subfield as committed to "niceness" as DH, is saying "great job!" to people who worked hard (and we are all aware that Bethany and everyone at the Scholars' Lab works very, very hard). Bethany, you say you agonized over your decisions. I don't doubt it. It might come as a surprise that I agonized over writing this post. The first draft was twelve pages long and I asked five separate people with PhDs to comment it for me. Twice. (Hugh: I don't think "imperiled" is at all tendentious, but trust me, you don't want to read the twelve-page draft that explains it.)

The fact that I, your friendly local mean feminist, would be apprehensive about noting something so plainly egregious that Bethany anticipated its being pointed out, and that I was the first person to note it publicly, should tell us something. The difference between Bethany's agonizing and mine is that Bethany is the actual president of the actual ACH. Whether it feels like it or not, you have power, and it ramifies accordingly. You're not trying to suppress conversation—the reverse, I imagine—but it comes ex officio.

Alex, thanks, too, for your response, but I must say that I don't appreciate your intimation that I suggested or called for anyone to "wait for the next event, with the right set up at the top." As you can see above, I plainly said the reverse. Likewise, Hugh, it is inaccurate of you to suggest that I am somehow against turning a theoretical eye to DH programming. As you can see above, I wrote that "I see the demystification of 'tacit knowledge' as a salutary project." I'm not sure what you think we disagree on there.

Unknown said...

I don't think we disagree at all. My point was just that I think the event is worth having even though the setup is imperfect. I've no reason to suspect you think otherwise.

I do still think "imperiled by," with its implication that DH programming is somehow thought of by Bethany as being under threat, is the wrong idea. "Unheard over the" would be a better turn of phrase. There's no threatening going on, and not much of any subordination in either direction (in general). It's a partnership that could be made to work better. There certainly are cases where developers are exploited (particularly students), but it would be ridiculous for software developers as a class to pretend to be an oppressed minority.

Natalia said...

Yes it would, Hugh.

Bethany Nowviskie said...

Natalia, Hugh, and Alex, I want to thank you for your comments. Natalia, especially: your points here and in the original post are very well-taken. This overhyped "digital humanities" moment is a complex one for members of the longtime ADHO community to choose to become engaged in deeper introspection and efforts at openness and understanding. That ours is a choice at all is a reflection of the inherent privilege of which I think many are, or have more recently become, acutely aware. It's also the moment at which it first becomes possible for this work (some of which is longstanding in the DH/humanities computing community) to be more widespread and recognized. The contributions you make, and that come from initiatives like #DHpoco and the GO::DH SIG are key. Keep pushing.