Building as Writing: Writing as Building
In their recent article, "Developing Things: Notes Toward an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities," Stephen Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell liken building to writing, suggesting that both can function as forms of argumentation and thus be considered scholarly work. Their claim reiterates a now common trope in digital humanities: building and making are, or should be treated as, valid modes of scholarship. However, this formulation also works reflexively to inform the way we think about writing—as a process and mode of understanding, as much as it is a final product. Ramsay and Rockwell's point that students are assigned writing in order to demonstrate not simply that they have thought about something, “but rather to have that thinking occur in the first place" (82), offers the important reminder that when it comes to writing and building, we engage in these activities in order to better understand something. While this point is perhaps well-taken in the disciplines of writing and rhetoric, whose product is, in a sense, these very processes, it is often lost upon other humanities scholars, as evidenced by the difficulty with which the humanities has struggled to incorporate and validate the work of DH scholars within its current modes of assessment.
In his 1970 treatise on reading, Roland Barthes wonders “[h]ow then to posit the value of a text?”, articulating perhaps the question the humanities must contend with, particularly with the introduction of digital humanities scholarship that resists traditional modes of evaluation. Barthes goes on to explain how “[t]he primary evaluation of all texts can come neither from science, for science does not evaluate, nor from ideology, for the ideological value of a text (moral, aesthetic, political, alethiological) is a value of representation, not of production” (4). Instead, Barthes continues: “Our evaluation can be linked only to practice, and this practice is writing” (4). If, as Ramsay and Rockwell suggest, building is in fact like writing—a kind of scholarship—then to apply Barthes’s theory (that evaluation must be linked to practice and not production) to the kind of scholarly building now prevalent in DH seems a tenable way of not only dealing with the problems DH has introduced into modes of assessment but also illuminating the ways in which evaluation has more generally veered away from Barthes’s emphasis on process over product. If nothing else, perhaps DH work is forcing the humanities to grapple with the very issues of what does and does not constitute scholarship, thus affording an important reflexive turn upon the kind of work all humanities scholars are doing—digital and otherwise.
Authors: Alyssa McLeod, Jana Millar Usiskin, and Emily Smith
Word Count: 424
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