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"Difficulty manatees" after the swan song

It’s once again the season for the “DH Awards”, an international DH-themed popularity contest with an award category for “best exploration of DH failure” that debuted in 2014, the year “What Ever Happened to Project Bamboo?” was published. Alas, that year I lost to Melissa Terras’s “Reuse of Digitized Content”, and I haven’t had anything worth nominating in that category since.

This year, I decided to revisit and submit my keynote from last year’s “On the Benefits of Failure” symposium at the University of Alberta, recently made available through their digital repository

Truth be told, I hate watching videos. I also never write out my talks in advance, so I have nothing written to draw upon, beyond my slides. A text version, then, was only possible as a derivative. I ran the video through YouTube’s auto-captioning, cleaned up the transcript, and did a light edit before posting the text on my website.

This cleanup workflow was well-suited to the failure-centric topic of the talk, producing numerous creative and amusing failures of transcription. In addition to “difficulty manatees” as a rendering of “digital humanities” (which has gone viral on DH Twitter, complete with John Unsworth’s creation of a “You Manatees Computing” image), other gems included:

  • “Full audit” for Philologic
  • “Deleuze many projects” for digital humanities projects (props to YouTube for the humanities reference, even if completely wrong)
  • “Mighty people” for IT people
  • “Pee eyes” or “API” for PIs
  • "Law heuristics" for Slavic linguistics
  • "the business" for linguistics
  • "Romantic mystics" for Romance linguistics
  • “Tape work” for TAPoR
  • “Bone puzzle” for grant proposal
  • “Dean of Arts vanities” for dean of arts and humanities
  • “Paralyze” for catalyze

The fact that YouTube’s transcription performs as well as it does is nothing short of remarkable, but I’m nonetheless grateful that I’m not currently working on any projects that primarily rely on videos in need of transcription. Difficulty manatees aside, the substitution of “paralyze” for “catalyze” and similar changes that fundamentally shift meaning, while being undetectable without an attentive manual process of checking against the original video, certainly gives me pause when considering it for research at scale.

“Towards a Taxonomy of Failure” captures a strange, liminal moment: I was nearly 7 months pregnant, and it was my last trip before my youngest was born. What’s more, I meant this talk to be a swan song for my involvement in DH. I make reference to being, in a sense, “post-DH”; I saw my future in central IT and research computing. At the same time, inequities in the expectations and compensation for staff in my group were becoming more difficult to brush off. Watching the video now, it’s painfully evident how hard I was trying to make the best of a situation where I wasn’t happy, but thought I had enough agency to fix things. I wouldn’t realize until months later that I was wrong — that I had, once again, failed to probe assumptions. Because I thought I was done with DH, I took the opportunity to reference a wide range of failures — the collapse of my academic field, my own failed projects, and failures to do the right thing including those I saw perpetuated  by well-established DH staffing models and organizations.

It’d be easy enough to let this talk disappear quietly, an un-transcribed video hidden in plain sight in an institutional repository. But, despite my sense of strangeness and estrangement looking back on this talk, I think it still has some ideas worth sharing. Nominating it for a DH Award gives it a larger audience than humanities grad students at the University of Alberta in March, and it transforms what was intended as a final statement into a living challenge to myself to fail better in my new role at Stanford.