Translating DH Work

As I prepped for the ImagePlot workshop in the seminar this week, I was reminded again about the difficulty DH scholars often confront in translating their work outside of (or even sometimes to!) DH circles. ImagePlot can be very bewildering the first time one encounters it, and I remember the first time I presented on it at a conference I spent most of the time fielding questions about what ImagePlot *is*, rather than what it can do or show us. I think there are several reasons for this. First, ImagePlot as a visualization tool requires a decent amount of abstraction: it’s taking a lot of images, making them small, and arranging them according to particular qualities such that a pattern emerges. Because of these things, it can be difficult to figure out exactly what it is you’re looking at, and it can take some time to explain that. Second, while ImagePlot is open source, it’s not eminently accessible: it involves a number of steps that are easy to get stuck on if you don’t know Command Line, don’t have the right settings or directories, etc. It’s even more confusing (speaking from experience) when you don’t know what the different steps you’re doing are actually doing, or why they are necessary. Finally, ImagePlot as a method is what we might call distance visualization (as opposed to distance reading), because it gets away from particular images and looks at a large collection of images in order to discern patterns. These distance approaches are themselves tricky to translate to traditional scholars, because it can be difficult at first to see what they show us that we couldn’t figure out otherwise–what it is that’s new or original about them.

Because of these realities, it’s especially important that DH scholars practice and be able to translate their work to audiences outside of DH. If no one can tell what it is that we’re doing, then what we’re doing actually isn’t worth much–it’s not helping anyone then. So we need to be able to explain what we’re doing: what our questions are, what our methods are, and, importantly, how the technology works that we’re using to accomplish these things. In my own experience, this involves a lot of trial and error in order to see what makes sense to folks, and what does not. Or perhaps rather what is recognizable, and what isn’t. For ImagePlot, this involves being able to quickly explain what the final product of the process is, and what it shows us. I don’t typically go through each step of the process–that would just be more bewildering–but I have developed quick summaries of the overall process because that helps folks understand what’s happening in it. I learn a bit more every time I translate this work to a new audience, and modify the explanation to help make it more understandable.

I think that’s crucial to improving the legibility of DH as a field, and is something that all DH scholars have to practice. It’s not easy, and it is a bit of an unfair disadvantage: we don’t get to operate under the assumption that everyone knows what we’re talking about, the way folks do when we talk about a symbol or theme in a novel. We have to both do the work and constantly explain it at the same time. But I think this can also work to the advantage of DH studies. It keeps us honest, and keeps us critical about the work we do. And, hopefully, it results in better scholarship in the end–more critical scholarship that is more able to help people.

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