This week’s blog post also serves as a transcription of the introduction to the podcast that our class did (to be posted soon).
Good evening, everyone. It’s Tuesday, October 9th, and we’re coming to you from our ENGL 985 class at IUP. This class is geared around Digital Humanities, specifically as it relates to the Victorian time period. I thought that this week it would be interesting to do a podcast, so here we are.
Basically the structure of this podcast will be this: After this brief introduction, I’m going to give a quick run down on some key points from a couple of our readings from Debates in the Digital Humanities from this week. I want to state right off the bat that we’re going to use these readings as a starting point, and what I’m presenting from them for us to use is not necessarily what the authors were arguing for, but what popped up in my mind as I was reading them.
After that we’re going to take a short break in order to set up the next portion of our podcast. I put everyone else in the class into groups last week, and each group was given one of the websites that we were to look at. I set up a forum page on my blog for them to discuss their interactions and findings with their sites as the week went on, so that we could focus on specific aspects of the sites for tonight’s podcast. During our break (which, breaking the fourth wall here, is a lot longer than it appears on here for listeners), the groups will be exploring their respective websites with specific focus coming from this week’s readings and then we’ll come back and each group will get about ten minutes on air to share their findings and proposals. That about sums it up, so I think I’ll jump into the readings so everyone knows where we’ll be coming from.
The first of the two chapters from Debates in the Digital Humanities that we had to read for this week was “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities” by George H. Williams. The basic gist of his argument is that we, when designing or proposing digital projects, need to have Universal Design principles in mind when doing so. Universal design, very basically, means that we should keep the largest possible audience in mind when designing. It should not be confused with something like text-to-speech technology (or vice versa) by itself (which is considered a disability assistance technology), but when designing a digital project that technology might be included in your design if you’re approaching it from a universal standpoint (it helps more users access your project more freely). An example of universal design that is given in the article is the automatic garage door opener. Williams cites Ronald L. Mace’s use of this example of the door opener “as a consumer product created with universal design principles: it is affordable; it appeals to and is useful to people both with and without disabilities” (205). Basically designs like these move beyond essentialisms. When it was designed it didn’t assume that all people opened their garage doors the same way. This should hold true as we design and propose digital humanities projects. So far, DH projects have tended to favor the quote-unquote traditional user. People with computers, internet connections, working eyes and ears. Obviously, I make this very poor joke to prove a point (and I mean no disrespect to any individuals in making it). The point is that those who do not share even one characteristic of these traditional users face greater difficulty in becoming a part of the digital humanities. If only traditional users are considered, how can Digital Humanities consider itself a part of the humanities as a larger body? Universal design moves away from the essentialisms that hinder the digital humanities from being as collaborative and all-inclusive as it hopes to be.
Shifting slightly, I want to move to the other chapter that we read from Debates: “Digital Humanities and Its Users” by Charlie Edwards. Edwards gives a nice quote from Tom Scheinfeldt on page 220 that I think sums up this idea of universality. He quotes, “Digital humanities takes more than tools from the internet… It works like the internet. It takes its values from the internet.” He goes on to explain that digital humanities, like the internet, welcomes “all comers, [assumes] that their contributions will be positive, and [expects] that they will share their work for the benefit of the community at large.” The one stipulation he closes with, however, is that DH is not there yet. It has every intention of be completely collaborative and all-inclusive, but it still fails to meet that desire on many levels. From universal design issues like Williams discusses to the lack of sharing of coding work from Edwards, DH has to make some significant steps in order to get to where it hopes to be. Granted, chapters or articles like these are helping to make those strides forward happen, and those of us designing and proposing new projects need to take these to heart as well in our own work.
Okay, now to step off of my soapbox and give some other people the chance to speak. As they continue to critique their websites during our short break here, they will be looking specifically at universal design issues within these sites. One of the first things they will be asking themselves comes from the Edwards article on users. Edwards writes that universal experience designers tend to ask themselves one question in beginning a project: “Who is to use the system and for what ends?” (215). I guess that’s technically two questions, but you get the point. After that, I am asking the groups to focus on finding holes in universal design within the website and to offer up some solutions or proposals for what they would add or change. In addtion, groups should feel free to consult the Web Accessibility Initiative at www.w3.org/WAI in determining issues and proposals as best they can in the twenty minutes or so they’ll be working together.
Full disclosure, these suggestions come with some caveats: 1) that the proposal does not take into account financial aspects (we’re basically saying that its already been funded), 2) the solution proposed might not exist yet (in other words, the best possible solution might be a technology that no one’s invented yet), and 3) we’ve only spent about a week looking at the site as users. We have no access to the backend of the site, to the full scale of the projects, or to what the designers really have planned for them. This activity is merely a way to get our class thinking about universal design principles from the standpoint of both users and future proposers/designers of digital humanities projects of our own.