In the last post on this blog, the penultimate of the semester, I spent some time thinking about pedagogy and what work in DH looks like going ahead, but those questions can be taken further. How do we talk about a kind of critical, expansive DH in an environment where all of the language around higher education is that of scarcity and deficit? Where administrators suggest cutting positions in the humanities are in favor of precarious, contingent faculty labor? This is worrying for the humanities writ large, but would seem to threaten nascent programs or support for development of non-traditional research centers like those in the digital humanities/digital history (and more so considering the uncertain lifespan and ongoing need for support of digital projects and tools). The coming months are certain to be a test for universities, though arguably this reckoning has been a long time coming as public conversations and perceptions around higher education continue to shift.
I had this in mind while reading Katrina Anderson et al 1 and considering what this means for current and future students in the digital humanities. The authors critique the rhetoric of digital humanities, which trades on ideas of openness and access while largely leaving students unsupported in their development of technical methods or with limited opportunities for collaboration or more substantive contribution to DH projects. The authors propose a variety of possibilities to address the structural issues, including access to training centers and mentoring of students, but also caution against approaches that simply shift the burden back onto individuals (i.e. “just take a coding course on your own time”). Not only do these solutions potentially worsen/compound the problem of underfunding (that is: if you can show you can do it without the support, you’re not going to get the support); they also would seem to isolate coding and technical work from the larger ethos and ethics of digital humanities practices, and reinforce the “hack vs. yack” dichotomy that Elizabeth Callaway et al also discuss 2. As an alternative, Anderson et al consider William Pannapacker’s solution of offering DH as a complementary kind of training program (in this case, something like a minor in DH). It seems like there may be opportunities to involve students in projects or activities outside of this, too, especially for those who might look at “digital humanities” and have no idea of how that might relate to their work. Wiki edit-a-thons, datathons, and transcription efforts have real potential to involve student contribution, especially when students can make connections between their own research and learning interests and the content of DH projects and questions.
This provides a good point of connection to other issues raised by Callaway, but also more directly by Roopika Risam’s “Intersectionality and the Digital Humanities” 3. The call for intersectional, critical, or feminist approaches to digital projects will probably ring true if you’ve read any of my other previous posts: these conversations are just as relevant in the domain of libraries (and it was very good to see Fobazi Ettarh included here, who has crucially contributed to critical library discussions with her concept of vocational awe!). Risam examines several projects to consider how intersectional approaches can be taken within DH projects, from the content and subjects of digital projects to the way the tools are designed, and how these can make visible relationships, identities, and historic contexts. This raises a question that was asked a few weeks ago, though, and that I asked another studentin our Slack channel: what does it mean to tell someone else’s story? When projects look to surface or highlight marginalized persons, what efforts must they also take to ensure that the story is one that is factual as well as truthful? That is: how do you build projects that support contemporary users and researchers, but without any retroactive or ahistorical flattening of race, gender, sexuality, or other identities? For instructors, this could support productive and nuanced discussions of how these are historically-bound and unfixed concepts, but it also provides an opportunity to discuss/problematize the power held by senior researchers, catalogers, students, or anyone else who contributes to the building of historic archives.
I’m hoping to end with that positive note, because after this semester I am tired and can feel the easy creep of cynicism, but we can’t afford that or defeatism. It just remains (as ever!) that we have a lot of work to do together.
- Katrina Anderson, et al. “Student Labour and Training in Digital Humanities,” DHQ 10.1 (2016).
- Elizabeth Callaway, et al, “The Push and Pull of Digital Humanities: Topic Modeling the ‘What is digital humanities?’ Genre,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 14, no 1 (2020).
- Roopika Risam, “Beyond the Margins: Intersectionality and the Digital Humanities,” DHQ 9.2 (2015).