A Kit for Hosting "Speaking in Code"

By Bethany Nowviskie posted 07-24-2014 10:00


This is a belated follow-up post to last autumn’s “How We Learned to Start/Stop Speaking in Code,” in which I described the motivation for us, at the UVa Library Scholars’ Lab, to host a two-day summit on the scholarly and social implications of tacit knowledge exchange in digital humanities software development. But the timing is good!—because today, the Scholars’ Lab is releasing a web-based toolkit that any group can use to host a similar gathering. We also want to make the community aware of some venues in which distributed discussions of the social and theoretical side of DH software development can continue online: using the #codespeak hashtag on Twitter, and at the #speakingincode channel on IRC.

“Speaking in Code” was generously supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library, and it brought together 32 competitively selected, advanced software developers with expertise in humanities applications of computing, for an extended conversation about the culture and craft of codework in DH. The group that met in Charlottesville last November paid special attention to knowledge and theoretical understandings that are gained in practice yet typically go unspoken—embodied in systems, techniques, interfaces, and tools, rather than in words. This is a brand of humanities work that can seem arcane and inaccessible to scholars, or worse: because its methods and outcomes are not always broadly legible, it is easily assumed to be devoid of critical thought and contextual (historical, theoretical, or literary) understanding. To quote my last post:

Communications gaps are deep and broad, even among humanities-trained software developers and the scholars with whom they collaborate. Much (not all) knowledge advances in software development through hands-on, journeyman learning experiences and the iterative, often-collaborative development of built objects and systems. Much (not all) knowledge advances in humanities scholarship through fixed and fluid kinds of academic discourse: referential, prosy, often agonistic. A real division exists in style and practice, even when the subjects and objects of humanities inquiry are the same. What might bridge a gap like that? And can we move past an historical moment in the academy, in which the onus is almost entirely placed on archivally and theoretically trained humanities scholars to become tech-savvy digital humanists—to build a concomitant sense of momentum, responsibility, and opportunity in our community of DH software engineers? Can we build greater community itself, just by making a space in which such problems are addressed?

Perhaps most interesting and important about our summit was the remarkably high level of diversity among its participants—particularly for a fairly homogenously white, cisgender male, and middle-class field like US-based academic software development—and the frankness, honesty, and depth of the conversations opened up over the course of our two days together. This was due in part to the organizing group’s consciousness of imbalances in the field (stemming largely from the very challenges the summit topic addressed!) and the clarity of our call for new voices—titled You are Welcome Here and described in detail in the “participants” section of our Codespeak Kit. Nearly half of our summit attendees were women or people of color, and a large number of Speaking in Code participants volunteered that they spoke to the concerns of the summit from the perspective of another under-represented group—for instance, as LGBT developers. Their intellectual impact, both on group discussion and plans for further work, was enormous.

A white paper describing outcomes of the summit (including a more in-depth look at our conversation—which was conducted under the Chatham House Rule) will soon be available through the NEH’s database of funded projects. In the meantime, check out the Speaking in Code website (especially our original participants list and growing collection of origin stories, to which you can contribute) and consider hosting your own, local gathering, using our website kit!

Bethany Nowviskie directs the department of Digital Research & Scholarship at the University of Virginia Library and serves as special advisor to the UVa Provost on digital humanities concerns. She is also a CLIR Distinguished Presidential Fellow.