Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Twenty-First Century Literacies: Navigating works in progress

I've seen a lot of discussion recently about 21st century literacies: at Cathy Davidson's HASTAC blog, Howard Rheingold's series of posts on "infotention," and Annette Vee's blending of programming and writing as "proceduracy."

The posts, and their comments, are better read than summarized; so I'm not trying to encapsulate them by saying that they address the ways that digital productions command and affect attention differently, and promote different sorts of interactions among readers than print productions; and that it's important to reevaluate how we define the units of production: a tweet, a blog post, an essay, a command, a method, a program...

There's one topic that I don't see being discussed; or not directly. Perhaps it's because it's a type of reading, i.e., a type of literacy, and already ingrained in everyone's thought on this issue; but to me, it seems absent when it needs to be in the foreground.

Is there a literacy for works-in-progress? At first it sounds redundant, because most, if not all, of the digital humanities projects online are "in progress" -- so many, that the Spring 2009 issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly featured a cluster of articles on "completion and incompletion in the digital humanities." Sometimes, this is the result of the creators' particular position on editing (for me, Morris Eaves' introduction of the term x-editing will always spring to mind first, but it's not the only strategy of its kind). And part of the point of electronic productions was that they were more flexible than their printed counterparts. I'm using "production" rather than "edition" because this applies whether what's being produced is a scholarly edition or an essay, or a project like the Keyword Collaboratory for the volume Keywords in American Cultural Studies. From another standpoint, all digital productions must be forever works-in-progress because they continually require funding and maintenance.

In short, we're already evaluating works-in-progress, all the time. Why say that reading them requires a new literacy?

First, because the ways that digital productions are dramatically different from print productions includes the fact that printed books are nearly always finished, Hyperion and Edwin Drood not withstanding. In discussions of authoritative sources vs. non-authoritative ones, like Rheingold's Crap Detection 101 or Clay Shirky's Speculative Post on the Idea of Algorithmic Authority, I see talk of good sources and bad sources (and often, discussion of single-author or small-author-group vs. crowdsourced sources), but not consideration of finished and unfinished productions. Can a clearly unfinished site contain authoritative (and unique to it) statements; or can it be presenting valuable ideas while obviously incomplete? Do we have ways of teaching students to evaluate authority on sites that are clear works-in-progress (an evaluation that is surely more complex than identifying the site owner, or being aware of the implications of a .com vs. a .org or .edu domain name).

I recognize that it's easy to be suspicious of clearly unfinished productions because ambition is free, and often, so is registering a blog name or putting up an index.html page on a university website. In a course I took a couple of years ago on hypertext and digital editions, a classmate pointed us to a Swarthmore edition of Tristram Shandy -- or at least, the first two volumes of it. I have no doubt that there are similar projects in existence, whether left incomplete at the close of a class, or because the creator's attention was drawn elsewhere. However, other productions are incomplete because they are in early stages. (Full disclosure: I have one such production.) Clearly there are ways of evaluating these early stage works-in-progress, because they are the recipients of grants that help advance them. But the type of evaluation done in grant giving is usually done by the most authoritative experts available. It's not quite the same as a literacy for reading works in progress that a majority of participants in a field would be conversant in.

Secondly, one of the primary goals of literacy is to promote composition (or production, if you prefer a term that is not quite so verbal). Or, even more broadly, response. What format that response takes is uncertain: a blog post, a contribution (to an exhibit-based production supported by Omeka), or in some cases, a purchase. It's fair to say that the mix of litcrit and technological skills that are involved in digital humanities makes this a challenging issue, and I have listened to those who have substantial skills in one area complaining about those who lack them (and who are usually experts in the other area.) The danger is that these conflicts tend to move immediately into evaluating end-products with little or no consideration of the literacies from which they developed. And by literacies, I'm referring to several mentioned in Cathy Davidson's post: participation, design, narrative/storytelling, among others. Several of these could also be called "standards" -- or as Mark Sample suggests in comments, "practices." But Sample's suggestion gets at a subtle but important aspect of learning: literacies, as they are gained, become practices. Standards. Techniques. But they start as something different. Nor are they entirely encompassed by any single programming language, or indeed even a group of programming languages and tools.

What I see most when I'm talking bout any mixing of technology and humanities with people who are new to DH is the assumption that they are barred from participating because they don't know any HTML (or XML) (and feel they have no aptitude for programming); or that if they could afford to hand off their research to someone with tech skills, their work could be "digitized" within a matter of weeks or months. Anyone who's started building a new tool or a new project knows that this isn't the case -- that there are decisions to be made that don't fit neatly into either programming skills or lit-crit acumen. But it's difficult to teach this sort of understanding by showing users around a fully-developed or well-advanced website.

I'm resisting writing more about this today, when it's a topic that warrants more than one blogpost. There are other reasons for thinking about a literacy for works-in-progress that are more based in constraints, such as a lack of funding necessitating that the production be developed in small parts, or a lack of time. The second is an issue that's particularly relevant to graduate students and to professors on the way to tenure, since the value of digital productions as compared with monographs and essays is still in debate. For now, I'll end on a question: how do we assess the potential of a resource as it's being developed? How do people with different levels of experience assess a project differently? And, if Matt Kirschenbaum asks "How do we know when we're done?," then I'm asking "How do we know when we've started?"

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