What Digital Humanities Could Learn from Journalism


Last week, I asked Twitter whether anyone was teaching humanists to code. The answer was a resounding “no”, with one or two suggestions that, hey, that would be a really cool idea.

Yeah, it would. I know that because there’s already a program – several, actually – teaching journalists to code. I mentored at one called Code With Me last month. It was an awesome time, all around – but there was a twinge of envy there, too. I think journalism shares a common skill set with the humanities; but, as I observed the admirable 2-1 student/teacher ratio of the Code With Me class, I wondered: Why is journalism doing so much better at this stuff? I’ve had that thought many times since starting my new job.

Bringing Coding to You!

Journalism had a head start. It was hit by the Wikonomy several years before the advent of the MOOC-plague. It’s had time to work on its branding: Data reporter. Data-driven journalism. Computer-assisted reporting Journalists go to J-school, the analogue of B-School and L-School and other schools that make money. Whereas the minute you say digital humanities, you’re fighting an uphill battle, partially because humanities is such a terribly clunky term anyway.  H-school, maybe?

Journalism also has a general savviness about the world that academia doesn’t. For example, Code With Me is held on weekends, and comes to your town, rather than expecting you to fly out somewhere and spend money on a hotel. It recognizes that many people have demanding jobs and lives and can’t put everything on hold to acquire the skills they need. And overall, journalists are much more interested in getting involved rather than just letting the resident technologist take care of things. I’ll get back to that in a moment.

For now, the conferences.

Back in March, I attended the conference of the National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR). And yeah, I had a helluva good time on the Bourbon Trail, learning how ridiculously charming journalists are compared to tech people (myself included).  But in the midst of all the karaoke and food and war stories and “work flirting” (don’t ask) there were tons of workshops where attendees could get their hands dirty with some code – right there! At the conference! This is a good idea.

Then, in April, I attended the International Symposium of Online Journalism (ISOJ) conference. That was more academic but also included a good number of practical, industry-driven panels where you could get an idea of how to (e.g.) best run your responsive web site. A rough equivalent would be practical panels for academics on the best tools for a class WordPress blog, or how to store/understand digital research data, or how to use Github.

On a different note, NPR’s Andy Carvin gave the ISOJ keynote, and told journalists to get over the idea of being the “sole arbiters” of news. Twitter is here to stay, he continued, and journalists need to be on it, helping would-be citizen journalists understand the responsibilities of that role. And when a questioner objected, Carvin pulled out a proper post-modern retort: who were we  to determine the story? Or the “important” parts? And who said there was only one story, anyway? At that moment, I was once again depressed to see another field actually applying the concepts you’d  learn in a lit class, focusing on practice rather than theory, and doing so in public. Q.E.D.

Humanists cannot see themselves as sole arbiters, either, and they need to get out there and talk to the public. Not just other digital humanists, if you know what I mean.

Real Disruption

The reason I asked Twitter about coding programs was this: I don’t particularly follow digital humanities, but when I do find myself on a self-branded DH blog, I quickly grow irritated by all of the theoretical navel-gazing (“Is there an article on that? Can we put it into a theoretical context?? What does it all MEEEEEAAAAAAN?!?!?!”). There’s no actual instruction, whereas I see some how-to for journalists pretty much every day (and look, here’s one from this weekend!). But I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, before I ranted too hard.

But here it is: humanists need to learn the effing tools, already. Yes, I know. You hate your current tools. They were chosen by someone else, whether it be the administration who also has no idea about the current state of technology, or the sales department of the company whose software you are now being forced to use. No, this is not fair. I agree. It’s based entirely on a huge amount of information inequality. Thing is, if you don’t understand the tools, that inequality will continue, as will the shenanigans.

For instance, even if you’re primarily a writer, there is no way you’re going to avoid a content management system (CMS). So you might as well know something about how it works. Let’s say more educators can run their own CMS, or build a database, or use data viz tools. In that case, we’d have more educated consumers deciding whether the famously technophile Gates Foundation is sincere in its new, “teacher-friendly” efforts. And wouldn’t it be easier to build the tech co-op that Paul LeBlanc suggestedOr let’s say you decide to run your class off your own platform, and only use the school’s system to upload final grades. Why not?  It’s really easy to upload your material to WordPress. Hell, I bet someone could build their own grading software if they were ambitious.

I’ve heard people argue that you have to use someone else’s platform. That it’s just not feasible to do it yourself. I used to agree, and I still think DIY is a lot more problematic than many admit, eating up your time when often it is worth paying someone else – but not if that means giving up your content, and you classroom autonomy. I’m sure all those tech entrepreneurs would applaud the all the disruption you’d cause if you refused to use their product, went your own way – right?

My point is this: you don’t have to get as deeply into technology as I have. But you need to understand it. And if you’re an academic of any stripe, you have no excuse for not understanding it because I’m going to assume you already have enough brains and persistence to learn the necessary concepts – though I will acknowledge, after my Twitter question, that the tools aren’t readily available. Yet.


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