On Changing the Rules of Digital Humanities from the Inside

By Melissa Terras (@melissaterras)

There has been a lot of talk recently about how my field – Digital Humanities – has to change. We are too insular. We’re excluding those who want to partake in it. The structures that have been built within the discipline preclude the type and means of research which we claim to do.  Issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and class raise their heads. There are a few online resources that exist which sum up these feelings: see “Toward an Open DigitalHumanities” google discussion document and, more recently, the Open Thread on “The Digital Humanities as a Historical“Refuge” from Race/Class/Gender/Sexuality/Disability?” over at Postcolonial Digital Humanities.

I’m not denying that there are issues in Digital Humanities. One need only look at the recently published program for DH2013 and cast your eye over the authorship of the accepted papers to see that this year’s Digital Humanities presenting cohort is around 65% male, 35% female. But what I would say, speaking on a personal level and not representing any authority here, is an obvious point which I don’t hear often voiced. Most people “within” Digital Humanities – that is those within the ADHO committee structures, those helping to run the conferences, those helping to allocate student bursaries and prizes, those helping to review papers and manuscripts, and heck, even the cool kids on twitter, are people who want Digital Humanities to be as open and as great as possible. This whole field has been built on the hard work of many academics who have given up their free time to try and entrench the use of computing in humanistic study into an academic field of enquiry, and it wouldn’t exist without them, even if the form it exists in is currently imperfect. I would say, from where I sit on various committees, that people want to keep DH growing, and growing healthily. So if there are things wrong with DH, then do give concrete examples, or propose concrete solutions, so they can be taken forward. They’re listening – we’re listening.

There are things that have really frustrated me within DH, and it is only recently that I’ve started to actively question and pursue them, to get them to be changed. For example, in 2006 I first noticed that the TEI guidelines encouraged the use of ISO5218:2004 to assign sexuality of persons in a document (with attributes being given as 1 for male, 2 for female, 9 for non-applicable, and 0 for unknown). I find this an outmoded and problematic representation of sexuality, which in particular formally assigns women to be secondary to men, and so, in one of the core guidelines in Digital Humanities, we allow and indeed encourage sexist structures to be encoded. I was shocked to hear this – and have often brought it up when discussing entrenched issues in DH about gender balance. In a recent conversation on twitter about this topic, Stephen Ramsay summed up the issue:

sramsay gender

James Cummings responded to our tweets, asking why, if it bothered me (and others) so much, hadn’t anyone submitted a feature request to TEI about it? And you know, it had never occurred to me that there would be an easy route to question this sort of stuff. He pointed me to where to submit a request, which I did here.  The discussion which follows is really very interesting – look out for the “you cant possibly be offended!” argument, or the “but we’ve always done it this way!” response. Also look out for very vocal support from Gabriel Bodard, in particular, who helped steer the discussion forward to ensure that at

“the TEI Council meeting in Brown, 2013-04, we agreed to change the datatype of person/@sex, personGrp/@sex and sex/@value from ISO 5218 to data.word, so as to allow the use of locally defined values or alternative published standards to be used in these attributes.”

Women are secondary in the TEI rules no more! Hurrah! – and all it needed for that to happen was for someone to raise the issue in the correct forum, and explain the issue to those who did not understand it, until they finally did.

I’m Program Chair for DH2014 and issues of diversity and equality are currently on my mind as we discuss and choose plenary speakers for the Lausanne conference. It was recently pointed out to me, though, that the ADHO conference protocols don’t allow issues of diversity to be taken into consideration when choosing plenary speakers, originally saying

“Keynote speakers are decided by the International Program Committee in consultation with the Local Organiser, and should ideally represent a range of disciplines, interests, and geography.”

This isn’t good enough, as it means that you cant say “We’ve got a man to be one of the speakers, how about having a woman for the other one?” without being at risk of being accused of breaching protocol. I’ve recently chased an amendment round the ADHO committee structures, which means the ADHO conference protocols, since last week, state:

“Keynote speakers are decided by the International Program Committee in consultation with the Local Organiser, and should ideally represent a range of complementary disciplines, interests, and geography, with consideration given to issues of gender equality, and economic, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity.”

Perhaps a small deal, focussing on the choice of a couple of speakers a year at our international conference, but pointing to the fact that the ADHO constitution needs to be looked over, to see where we can enshrine issues of gender equality, and other issues of diversity, within our communities. We need to make the rules that people have to abide by. We can make the rules, and we can change the rules. What rules would there help to be?

Of course, changing rules and guidelines wont make everything change overnight, and I wouldnt like to naively claim they will solve everything, but they are a start. I guess what I’m saying here is that, in general, folks “within” Digital Humanities are doing their best, and open to discussion and improvement, and are not willfully obstructive to those of a different gender, race, or economic class, etc. Criticism is helpful, and if there are things that need changing, or unconscious biases that need rectifying, then point them out, tell us. Tell us where concrete things are that we can act upon. We all want Digital Humanities to be the best it possibly can be, and I, for one, don’t mind changing the rules from the inside, in the time that I remain there.

This post has been cross-posted on Melissa Terras’s blog


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