A Hacker in Every Department

by Sara Allain

On April 21st, members of the DSU had the pleasure of hearing Claire Potter, Professor of History at The New School, speak about the role of digital humanities and its practitioners in academic departments. There were two areas in particular that resonated with us in the DSU: professional acceptance of digital scholarship and the gap in digital competencies.

Digital humanities reopens classic texts to new forms of scholarship.

Claire talked in depth about the problems facing humanities departments, and the problems that digital scholarship has had in addressing those issues. The presentation cited the privileging of codex-based research - that is, deep reading and other forms of book-focused knowledge generation, culminating with a monograph -  in the hiring and tenure process as an ongoing struggle facing researchers in digital scholarship. She noted that the AHA just wrote their first hiring guidelines for digital scholars this year. This area also concerns the DSU   - our lifeblood is the scholars who come to the library seeking a partnership that will support, sustain, and expand their digital projects. UTSC is a good place to be a digital scholar.  But, in order to create a professional culture that can sustain projects across years, digital scholarship must be understood as on par with codex-based research. We often wonder, "What scholarship isn't digital nowadays?" Building that understanding into hiring and tenure practices will make digital scholarship stronger as it brings a wider representation of the scholarly population into these conversations.

Computers too often feel like brooms, not pens.

Claire's second point resonated with us directly - a digital competency gap still very much exists within our institutions - in particular, to quote her verbatim: "The idea that young people are digital natives is crap." Faculty members, researchers, and students all face a steep learning curve. It is hard to envision the possibilities represented by digital scholarship when concepts like text encoding and relational databases are little understood. Claire suggested that the place to start addressing this is with our graduate students - as the next generation of scholars, they will be the individuals who lead the charge towards widespread adoption of scholarly research using digital technologies. While they may not be digital natives, there's certainly potential for them to become digital converts. Introducing graduate students to browser coding (HTML and CSS), markup (XML), encoding (TEI), and programming languages (python, Ruby, whatever's hot) will give them a point of contact is a great place to start. Let's introduce graduate students to programmers and developers and give them a vocabulary to communicate with tech people - librarians included. After Claire's talk, it seems obvious that this will improve digital literacy and stand them in good stead in both academia and the business world.

The point led to an in-house discussion of how we serve faculty members, researchers, and students here at UTSC - not just the ones that are already embedded in the unit, but also the ones that might be peeking into digital scholarship from the edges. We want to bring those people in - we want to make them feel comfortable in a digital environment. Which is why, this summer, we're participating in several events that will introduce digital scholarship tools like Islandora and OpenRefine to faculty members from a variety of subject areas - at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, the Roots and Routes Summer Institute, and through our own pedagogical institute following August's Islandora Camp GTA (details TBA). We hope to see you there!

Check out a Storify of tweets from the event.