How I Got Started as a Digital Humanist

[In November I had the privilege of attending the Speaking in Code conference at Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia. One of the outcomes of that conference will be a collection of brief essays that Jeremy Boggs is putting together. This is a draft of my contribution.]

Though I didn’t know it at the time, I had two starting points as a digital humanist.

The first was in high school, when I set up my own website using WordPress. WordPress was fun, but it wasn’t very slick. To get things working properly I had to copy and paste a lot of PHP. I understood very little of what I was doing, but gradually I was able to decipher such cryptic utterances as the WordPress loop:

<?php if ( have_posts() ) : while ( have_posts() ) : the_post(); ?> 

By playing around I learned a few things about PHP and got a vague idea of how web servers and programs built on top of them worked. More important I gained a habit of inveterate tinkering. Tinkering was a way of learning, which I refined into a carefully thought-out process: change the code until it breaks, then back up one step and change the code some more.

My second starting point came while I was writing a master’s thesis in history. The thesis was the longest thing I had written, so I needed a reference manager. Eventually I found Zotero. What I found in Zotero was not primarily a tool; my use of Zotero has waxed and waned since then. What I found was a community of scholars at the Center for History and New Media and other universities who were using technology for academic research. I probably didn’t know the terms “digital humanities” or “digital history” at the time. But I was picking up the main ideas of the digital humanities: that digital technologies could transform research and publication in the humanities, and that such a transformation would happen through collaboration and sharing.

Back to websites again: I wrote to Dave Lester and Jeremy Boggs and asked for permission to imitate the designs of their personal websites. I suppose borrowing from them was an attempt to fit into the community of digital humanists through CSS. I’ve been trying to keep up with many graduate students like Dave and Jeremy (from whom I picked up web design) and Jason Heppler (from whom I learned Ruby) and Ben Schmidt (on account of whom I learned R) ever since. But what I learned from Dave and Jeremy’s generosity was the ethic of open source: code should be shared openly and freely so that anyone could use it.

What got me started in the digital humanities, then, was the confluence of a hobby and a community. Tinkering taught me I could learn technologies. But that learning was hardly “do-it-yourself.” Quite apart from scores of people who built the tools and wrote the documentation, my learning became embedded in a community of practice and of discourse, who taught me how digital technologies could be turned into digital scholarship.