Language Acquisition

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Language Acquisition

Alice Lynn described the early challenges of this fellowship, in which we were tasked to create a local installation of WordPress, and began to manipulate CSS and PHP. It was a crash course in the elements of hacking a wordpress theme. I came to the Fellows program with some level of familiarity with wordpress but no real experience getting my fingers dirty in code. Many people around me compared the process to learning a new language, an apt comparison to some degree. But learning a language also requires learning about a culture, and the culture around wordpress hacking is one whose points of access can mystify. At moments it felt less like something that can be acquired and more like gaining entrance into a new universe– could it be visited without total submission, without adopting it as a new object of obsession? And is it required knowledge to compete in the world of content production as digital scholars? If it isn’t, what is? How and why do we privilege the tools that we gravitate towards? If I’m starting at ground zero on wordpress hacking, but am also at ground zero on ArcGIS or Photoshop, which tools should I embrace first, given the realities of time and energies?

Some of these questions were answered by Boone Georges, a developer extraordinaire and the creator of a very cool wordpress-to-e-book plugin, Anthologize. His workshops reinforced this line of inquiry around why one needs or wants these skills. How might they function in our lives as educators or scholars? For if some of these skills are akin to learning a language, what is the territory of my chosen language, and why have I chosen it? Because I like Sangria, or because I’ve always wanted to go to Cinque Terra, or because Mandarin is really in demand? Where does my work coincide with the variable difficulty of any one of these tools?

Motivation, process, and product are, as in so many forms, entangled. Let’s say you’re reading this post because you’re curious about landing a job in the digital humanities, maybe as a lab manager or a digital technologist at a university. True to their names, the skills required for many of these positions highlight a whole range of other languages, and demand a range of familiarity– perhaps even expertise– in them: PHP, MySQL, CSS, ArcGIS, Adobe Creative Suite, Javascript, web best practices, Flash and Adobe Flex, SPSS, SEO, Omeka, WordPress and Drupal. If you’re a doctoral student in the humanities who knows what even half of those are—not to mention Ruby, Python, Perl, AJAX or JQuery—you’re probably ahead of the game. But ahead of what game?

When a colleague from my department asked me what the Digital Fellowship was all about, she wondered if her reliance on excel spreadsheets, shared docs, and other digital files during her research process would be considered digital scholarship. Based in New York, she works closely with an archive in Iowa, and routinely emails photos back and forth with a research assistant there. Definitions of digital scholarship are appropriately inclusive, I told her, and she’s probably right where she needs to be in terms of the tools required for the task. But if she wanted to take a next step, perhaps to consider a method of visualizing her findings, or sharing a public component of her work, she’d have to address a whole slew of new questions and expand her knowledge of available tools. How is she sharing, on what platform, and why? These are the needs that the Fellowship has forced me to consider more thoughtfully. What if the public phases of our research are not restricted to the requirements of a well-rounded online identity, but framed instead as choosing the most effective and appropriate language through which to communicate our work in the sphere of public ideas?

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