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Stephen Ramsay's Blog

Page history last edited by Meaghan Skahan 12 years, 1 month ago

Research Report by Meaghan Skahan


By Meaghan Skahan,  Playful Visualizations at Work/Working Visualizations at Play Team



Ramsay’s blog is an eponymous site that contains his blog postings on the digital humanities and coding, beginning with posts from 2007 up to the present day. The site also contains links to sites or PDFs that contain transcripts of talks and essays written by Ramsay on the digital humanities, as well as five links to various video and audio clips of presentations. The final component of the site is a link to a CV, a blogroll, and a brief explanation of the code used to produce the site.



Stephen Ramsay is an associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and a fellow at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. His blog is a compilation of posts, papers, presentations, and information about his work in the field and his thoughts about coding in the humanities. The blog was created at the beginning of 2007, using a program called Jekyll which “converts text files written in Markdown to HTML, which is then formatted using a combination of CSS and Liquid templates” (http://lenz.unl.edu/). The blog is regularly updated by Ramsay and represents a solid point of departure for any novice in the digital humanities, as the majority of the posts reference other important digital humanists and link to other important essays, websites, and the like. For the purpose of this report, all of the links within the page were read and explored to produce a fuller knowledge of the field, especially the contemporary and currently trending topics of discussion. The most regularly cited text that is reproduced on the site is “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with a Million Books, ” written in 2010 for an unconference and in which the term “screwmeneutics” was coined. Ramsay’s short but highly philosophical text engages with the human impulse to categorize, organize, and synthesize. The exposition of the essay deals with the variety of ways in which humans try to make sense of the seemingly infinite number of things to read in the world, most of which revolves around making lists which take the forms of syllabi, curriculum, “best of” lists, essentially all moving toward the canonizing of certain texts and the loss of all others.


The most important distinction Ramsay makes in “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around” is between searching and browsing. Searching, or directed research, relies on typical academic training, and search engines like Google support this type of work because they provide lists of sites/ideas that algorithmically “fit” the search command given by the researcher. Ramsay, however, gives a personal example of a project that came to fruition through browsing, which benefits from more aimless, less linear thinking and looking and clicking through. The browsing, as opposed to the searching, functions of the internet, in this case, introduce new possibilities because surfing without direction through hyperlinks can support and encourage an important and far more interesting intellectual process. From this argument, Ramsay derives the term “screwmeneutical imperative” which encourages “community, relationship, and play” (11).


Other important texts found on the site include Ramsay’s 2010 response to Dan Cohen’s “Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values,” which is part of the crowdsourced Hacking the Academy project. In response to Cohen, Ramsay states that resistance to open access publishing is a function of a larger structural and potentially ideological problem within academic life. Scholars simply don’t have enough time or interest to be responsible for reading the work of their peers, which is why publishing houses continue to be an integral part of the process. This text can be linked conceptually to a recent post of Ramsay’s from February 2012, in which he mentions his recent publication in The Journal of Digital Humanities. Here, Ramsay solicits written responses from readers of the journal, without which the trial process that supports open access publishing will fail:

"But, of course, this only works if people do, indeed, have at it. So this post is a quiet plea for people to participate in the process – with all of the work that’s being reviewed for this first issue. I think this is an opportunity for the DH community to demonstrate that we can conduct an open peer review process that has as much integrity and usefulness as the older systems of anonymous, invitation-only review."  At the time of the recent post, only one person had commented on Ramsay’s piece, and the comment was short and rife with errors.


Another post, “On building,” is a response to his own remarks at the 2011 MLA conference, in which he stated that all scholars who consider themselves digital humanists must be able to code. Apparently his brief talk stirred up a fair amount of controversy, to which he does not link, but it is understood that some attendees resented the exclusion of those of us who do not speak/use any computer languages. In this text, Ramsay explains:


As humanists, we are inclined to read maps (to pick one example) as texts, as instruments of cultural desire, as visualizations of imperial ideology, as records of the emergence of national identity, and so forth. This is all very good. In fact, I would say it’s at the root of what it means to engage in humanistic inquiry. Almost everyone in Digital Humanities was taught to do this and loves to do this. But making a map (with a GIS system, say) is an entirely different experience. DH-ers insist – again and again – that this process of creation yields insights that are difficult to acquire otherwise.


He concludes the post with an acknowledgement to those in the field who are sick of the “who’s in who’s out” discussion, but reiterates that there is something different about what DH is doing that separates the field from the world of humanities in general.


A final post worth mentioning is “Prison Art,” a transcript of a paper given in 2011.  This post recounts the negative reactions of “traditional” academics to a presentation Ramsay gave with other digital humanists, a presentation that emphasized the importance of their visualizations and play. Ramsay’s final words on the topic (excepting later posts and essays) are these:


Perhaps we should ask of this project (and of all the projects we’ve looked at thus far): Is it just art? I, for one, am ready to say “yes.” You come to it to be changed, but also to be reaffirmed. You struggle with its novel logics and modes. You sometimes marvel at it. Often, you don’t understand it at all. It rewards patience. It values adaptation. It speaks to the individual and to the group. It lies to you. It tells you the truth. It makes you look good.



Stephen’s blog is an extremely helpful point of departure for many of the ideological concerns with which our project, Playful Visualizations at Work, Working Visualizations at Play engages. As we attempt to challenge, push, and prod the boundaries that exist between the ludic and the useful within the digital humanities, the work of a scholar like Ramsay is integral. In “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around,” Ramsay advocates for a more playful use of the internet that prizes browsing sites over directed use of search engines. His work makes strong statements about participation, center building, coding, and open access publishing; while often nodding and linking to those who are either in agreement or at odds with the direction his work has taken. One of the most important ideas from Ramsay in the last year has been the briefly aforementioned statement about the necessity of coding for all digital humanists. From my vantage point in the project, as the group member whose technology skills and understanding of DH are certainly the most wavering, this statement seems at once valid and problematic. In a post entitled “The Hot Thing,” Ramsay articulates a very important point about fear that was instrumental in helping me understand one aspect of my resistance to DH:


Graduate students and recent Ph.Ds, it seems to me, feel it in the most profound way. Perhaps you were trained in theory or in some more conventional (and you love hearing that word!) form of humanistic study. You probably spent the better part of a decade learning to write a certain way, engage in certain kinds of conversations, and participate in certain kinds of scholarly activities. It took you years to do this, and it wasn’t easy. Now none of that seems consonant with the hot thing. To be hot, some say, you must now learn statistics, document encoding, and C++. That should take you another ten years. And at the end of it, you’ll be suffering from the same anxieties as the blessed. But not to worry: you won’t have a job anyway, because you’re just too late.


If any one statement might honestly capture my attitude toward our project, this might be it. The most important and fruitful tension of our group work has been the varied degrees of commitment, knowledge, and enthusiasm toward DH work. Ramsay and I may be at opposite ends of the technology spectrum, but he still effectively explains the fear I experience in approaching this type of work. He does argue that this fear often produces provocative discussions, food for thought, and excellent collaboration. The tension between Ramsay’s call for play, and his rigorous requirements for coding knowledge mirrors the (productive?) struggles that exist within our current work. The only example of Ramsay putting his play into practice that was available was an audiovisual file of his presentation “Textual Behavior in the Human Male.” 


Resources for Further Study:










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