Ramsay & Rockwell: “Developing Things: Notes toward an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities.”

Ramsay, Stephen and Geoffrey Rockwell. “Developing Things: Notes toward an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Web.

Key Words
Making
Building
Scholarship
Theory
Prototypes

Summary
Ramsay and Rockwell examine what counts as scholarship in the realm of the digital. They briefly survey attempts to capture, define, and evaluate digital projects in the humanities. Ramsay and Rockwell further discuss whether or not a digital artifact needs written discourse to count as scholarship. They discuss the making/building of tools as forms of scholarship, along with the complications such projects would entail. They distinguish between textual accounts of how tools act as theory and the unaccompanied tool itself an argument and manifestation of theory. Prototypes, in particular, hold significant promise as potential thing theories; built things that function, in and of themselves, to make a theoretical argument. Prototypes become more appealing than tools-in-use for such tools work best when their theoretical underpinnings are (usefully) opaque to users, whereas prototypes, with their bugginess, uniqueness, and idiosyncrasies, surface their theoretical potential in a more transparent way. All this is to discuss how scholars should get credit for the work they do building the digital humanities.

Key Quotes
“If [Davis] Baird is right, then ‘building’ may represent an opportunity to correct the discursive and linguistic bias of the humanities. According to this view, we should be open to communicating scholarship through artifacts, whether digital or not. It implies that print is, indeed, ill equipped to deal with entire classes of knowledge that are presumably germane to humanistic inquiry.”

“To ask whether coding is a scholarly act is like asking whether writing is a scholarly act. Writing is the technology—or better, the methodology—that lies between model and result in humanistic discourse.”

“If highly theorized and self-reflective visions of tools as theories fail to be sufficiently tool-like, one might say that so-called thing theories of the instrumental sort outlined here err in the opposite direction by being insufficiently open about their theoretical underpinnings. A well-tuned instrument might be used to understand something, but that doesn’t mean that you, as the user, understand how the tool works.”

“To ask whether coding is a scholarly act is like asking whether writing is a scholarly act. Writing is the technology—or better, the methodology—that lies between model and result in humanistic discourse. … We do not mean to propose that the act of putting words on a page is scholarship. We seek, instead, to capture metonymically the quality of the intervention that has occurred as a result of the writing. Scholars conceive the world and represent it in some altered form. That writing stands as the technical method by which this transformation is made is almost beside the point.”

“If the quality of the interventions that occur as a result of building are as interesting as those that are typically established through writing, then that activity is, for all intents and purposes, scholarship.”

Further Reading
Baird, Davis. Thing Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Galey, Alan, Stan Ruecker, and the INKE team. “How a Prototype Argues.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 25, no. 4 (2010): 405–24.

Turing, Alan. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind: A Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy 59, no. 236 (1950): 433–60.

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