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Addressing Equity and Access in the Digital Humanities: An Interview with Daniel Cox

Daniel Cox is a full-time instructor in the Games and Interactive Media program as well as a part-time Ph.D. student in the Texts & Technology program here at UCF. His research interests include code pedagogy and narrative games. He looks at how people learn programming languages and tools, and then how those skills translate into creating different works. He has been focused on open access learning for interactive storytelling tools for many years.

Many of the projects Dan has been involved with have been made openly available on a variety of platforms. For example, he has a YouTube channel with many playlists focused on different programming languages and tools. He was also the managing editor for three years of The Twine Cookbook, a 400+ page resource on learning the hypertext authoring tool Twine. He has also co-authored the book-length project The Unofficial Ink Cookbook on the narrative scripting language Ink and have been slowly working on another for learning Ren’Py, a tool for creating visual novels. Many of his Open Access resources have been used in classrooms and some of his Twine resources have been cited in articles focused on different interactive design tools.

The following interview was conducted in advance of Open Access Week with a particular focus on how the themes of equity and inclusion are relevant in the Digital Humanities.

 1. Can you tell us about yourself and your research interests.  How did you become involved with developing interactive storytelling tools?

I first got involved with interactive storytelling just over two decades ago. While I have always been a voracious reader, my family did not get a computer until late 1997, so I missed out on many of the early, now-classic interactive projects and video games. However, starting with that first computer, I developed an intense interest in systems and rules. I quickly dove into learning programming languages and then using that knowledge to write programs. As my skills slowly got better, they eventually led me to a degree in Computer Science and research into how computers and digital tools affected how people perceived what could be created with them in different contexts.

While I would not have known to call it by the word at the time, my interests in programming also coincided with a deeper fascination with pedagogy. I would often find myself explaining concepts to my family, friends, and then, much later, even in classrooms. When I finished my Computer Science degree, I decided to pursue a path in studying rhetoric as part of a MA program. During that time, I started to create online guides and tutorial videos. These first began as a form of external note-taking, but they quickly moved into more complex projects to explain how to use different tools and the concepts behind how they worked.

In the almost eight years since that start, I have worked on several open-source projects through contributing documentation, creating examples, and have created over 350+ videos on YouTube explaining different programming languages, tools, and other, related concepts.

2. How do you see your interest in interactive storytelling progressing from here?

In the last two years, I have begun to write longer book-length projects to teach different tools such as a project I co-authored on the narrative scripting language Ink and a project currently in development on Ren’Py, a tool for creating visual novels. In both those cases, the difficulty in learning the tools comes from needing to understand other, connected terms and processes before people can use the tools themselves to create works. I am interested in ways we can lower the barriers between thinking of an idea and implementing it in code. I am currently researching how online code “sandboxes,” online, interactive areas where people can write and run code in a browser without any other tools, can help students learn programming concepts without them also needing to learn complex tools at the same time. As I write this, I am working toward incorporating this research into my dissertation and studying different authoring tools, how they encode conceptual models, and how people understand these models when they create work using them.

3. Where, when, and how did you first learn about Open Access? How did this discovery impact your research and scholarship?

I come from a strong background in open source code and resources. Much of the Computer Science field is build on public code released under GNU GPL, MIT, and Creative Commons licenses. While I have encountered the term “Open Access” more commonly in humanities circles in the last five years, much of my life has been connected to releasing code, documentation, and other resources under permissive licenses. I cannot imagine a world where I would not continue to put out my code, videos, and other resources under permissive and particularly Creative Commons licenses.

4. How do the values of the Digital Humanities (or Texts & Technology) scholars align with those of the Open Access movement?

No tool is neutral. Digital Humanities scholars challenge us to critically think about our software, processes, and data. The software I used to compose this sentence influenced my choices on multiple levels, for example. It limits how I think about the words I am typing and the possibilities of composing them in particular ways. At the same time, the Open Access movement challenges us to share our data, tools, and resources with others. This pairs nicely with Digital Humanities scholars. The more inclusive we are in our designs, the more we help each other. In open source development, there a “law” named after the inventor of the Linux kernel that goes like this: “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” Put another way, the more open we are, the more we design for inclusivity and invite rather than exclude, the more likely we are to solve programs both large and small. The more “eyeballs” we can put on problems, the better we can critically examine them and help others do the same through sharing our results.

5. The theme of this year’s Open Access Week is “Taking Action to Build Structural Equity and Inclusion.” In your experience, has open Access enhanced equity and inclusion in humanities research? What are some key opportunities and/or challenges to be addressed in these areas?

Absolutely! Too often, the data developed by academics is locked away or hard to access. This can be for a variety of reasons, and sometimes even against the authors’ wishes. In their book Data Feminism, D’Ignazio and Klein (2020) raise a question that should be a root of all resource sharing. They write, “How can we use data to remake the world?” If it is in our power to improve the lives of others, we should.

Simply sharing data is not enough. Most government grants demand that the data be presented to the public in some way. However, this access and presentation is completely in the hands of the authors. While we should share our data and resources, we should also do so in compatible formats and we should follow standards. Much work has been done on creating protocols for building application-programming interfaces (APIs) for large datasets. While the first step should always be to share, when possible, the second step should be in such a way that others can “consume” the data in a meaningful way.

6. Do you feel the OA movement has changed humanities research in any way?

I am not sure I can answer this. For the entirety of my experience with higher education, I have worked with and contributed to open source projects. To me, Open Access is an extension of this mindset of presenting resources to others and acting towards the public good. I cannot write that I have ever experienced a time when OA and OSS have not influenced me.

I do not know a humanities outside of the influence of OA.

7. In an interview with The Right to Research Coalition, Dr. Martin Paul Eve states that “ECRs [Early-Career Researchers] have both the most to gain and the most to lose from being at the forefront of changes to scholarly communications.” Do you agree? If so, how do you and other ECRs negotiate that dynamic?

I like to joke that I am technically a millennial, despite being in my mid-30s. In many ways, I am among the first wave of early-career researchers who have a “web history.” I have been creating videos on YouTube for nearly eight years and I maintain a blog that has been around for over a decade. I have also been on social platforms like Twitter for longer than that. With the right usernames and knowledge, much of life and things I have produced online can easily be found. This large body of work has helped me get jobs, showing that I have dedication towards creating tools and writing tutorials freely accessible to others over many years. However, it also hurts me, as it points to a larger interest in pedagogy than individual research.

Academia does not always reward service, too. In the trinity of research, pedagogy, and service, the work I have done and continue to do with open source and interactive fiction organizations can be considered exclusively service. Showing a strong interest in bettering the external community is always good but dedicating too much time helping other organizations can also register as a lack of interest in the university and the local community. As an ECR, this is a constant balancing act, moving between helping make resources for an external public and focusing on helping my own students and program.

8. What would you like to see more of from the Libraries or UCF in general to better support your research? Have you identified any gaps in our services? 

I do not have a good, actionable answer for this. Greater access to databases of resources and academic articles would, of course, always be good, but access is often tied up with companies and how they handle who does – and does not – have that access. That is beyond any one university to change at this point.

9. Can you recommend any books, articles, or other resources for future OA advocates should read?

Data Feminism! I cannot stress how important this book is for upcoming scholars and those interested in how we understand ourselves and our research. D’Ignazio and Klein (2020) did an amazing job of outlining what a feminist approach to data means and how scholars should approach understanding the role people play in creating, using, and being affected by data. Another strong book that came out this year, Design Justice, looks at the way that the design of systems should be carefully considered. Costanza-Chock (2020) examines how too many systems create “dysaffordances” for groups who must misidentify themselves in order or otherwise conform to the options they give users. As we consider how we present our resources, we should always be mindful of the ways we might be accidentally creating “dysaffordances” for others.

10. Any final points?  

I would like to end this with something I share with my students when we have our virtual meetings: “We live during a time of national trauma and an uncertain future. Take breaks. Drink water. Be kind to others. And, most importantly, take care of yourself.”

Interview conducted by John Venecek, Humanities Librarian, October 2020.

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