Thinking (and Reading) About Digital Humanities III

Last week I talked about some of the critiques that have been made of digital humanities, including its replication of previous academic biases, the overrepresentation of white, particularly male perspectives, and its complicity in the corporatization of the university as an institution. There are few things more annoying than pointing out flaws without offering solutions, but fortunately for us, lots of scholars and activists have been developing pedagogies and practices to facilitate the development of more inclusive digital humanities. Today then, we’ll wrap up our exploration of this reading list by highlighting some of these works.

One way that scholars have been addressing the historical oversights of both digital humanities and more broadly academia is using theoretical frameworks that account for marginalized groups. In New Digital Worlds, for instance, Roopika Risam adopts a postcolonial approach that addresses the overrepresentation of the Global North in the digital humanities canon and other biases by using her DH scholarship to expose and explore colonial roots. Additionally, she seeks to empower people of color, indigenous populations, and other marginalized groups by concentrating her research on the Global South and highlighting smaller projects that emphasize community participation. Through this focus, she decenters large, lab-led projects as the DH ideal, proposing instead smaller, more intimate work that focuses on community needs over product. Such an approach shares affinities with Moya Bailey’s work with black transgender communities, which she discusses in “Transform(ing) DH Writing and Research.” Much like Alana Kumbier’s theory and praxis of queer archiving in Ephemeral Material, Bailey puts the needs of communities she works with first, with the ultimate form of her projects reflecting their needs and choices rather than her individual need or want for tenure.

Intersectional feminism is another important theoretical framework for digital humanities, as explored in works such as Bodies of Information, edited by Jacqueline Wernimont and Elizabeth Losh, and Data Feminism, co-written by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein. In Data Feminism especially, intersectional feminism explores power structures, and the ways that constructs such as race, class, ableism, and gender intersect to both enable and curtail power for individuals, communities, and other populations. Rather than reduce oppression or power to a single cause, intersectional feminism regards it as a complex matrix, with contextualization being key to both comprehending and ultimately addressing it. It is also a framework that values affect and embodiment, qualities traditionally disregarded as irrational by more logical, masculine-oriented epistemes, as both legitimate subjects of research and a means of conducting research itself. Through this flexible yet complex theoretical framework, these authors explore everything from the tenure process in academia and its privileging of individual publications over collaborative, community-based research, to the introduction of emotion to the visualizations as a legitimate research focus, to the ways local communities use mapping and other DH projects to map trends in their areas.

These theoretical frameworks not influence what kinds of topics these digital humanists explore, but how they conduct that research. Consent, the acknowledgment of labor at all levels, and treating community partners as equals all underpin intersectional research. Related to this recognition of service as key to scholarly production is a focus on pedagogy within these academic practices. In works like New Digital Worlds and Data Feminism, the authors dedicate at least one chapter exclusively to teaching, underscoring its quality to research and writing in terms of scholarly output. One edited volume, Digital Humanities Pedagogy, focuses entirely on teaching, with each chapter highlighting a different project or approach.

Underpinning these practices is an emphasis on social justice. Rather than simply report the facts, these authors argue that scholarship, digital or otherwise, should actively seek to create a more inclusive, accepting society, both through the kind of research it conducts and its faculty representation in academia. Rather than operate independently of society’s political and economic concerns, academia should be immersed in them, using its distinct skills in research and organization to empower different groups.

Not surprisingly, a lot of these readings connect back to the works I read in the archival theory section of my list. Works like Archives and New Modes of Feminist Research and Ephemeral Material underscore the significance of community collaboration both as a means of acknowledging labor and undoing the pernicious effects of colonial by recognizing the autonomy and expertise of historically marginalized groups. Texts like Archives Power and “From Disclaimer to Critique” also serve as a call to action to archivists to take a more active role in combatting oppression through their own scholarly expertise, whether by reaching out to different groups or annotating historical documents to highlight themes of oppression. Through these interventions, these scholars argue for the relevance of these disciplines, positing that they can and should play a crucial role in the betterment of society while recognizing their own historical role in perpetuating oppression through their archival documents.

I found a lot of these readings very exciting. What I appreciate about intersectional feminism as a theoretical framework in particular is its refusal to reduce oppression and power to simple binaries. Rather, they weave a complex, interconnected web of causes, and with individuals often experiencing both depending on their gender, race, economic standing, and so forth. Intersectional feminism’s recognition of oppression as a palimpsest of causes and effects, as well as its close dialogues with adjacent theories such as postcolonialism, queer theory, critical race, class, ableism, and others, makes it a very flexible approach to studying society. I also appreciate how these readings emphasized both practice and community. For them, the way you conduct research is just as important as the results, and if you’re going to undertake an intersectional feminist project, you’d better be prepared to practice what you preach when it comes to working with others.

Installation shot from “Collecting Roswell,” the first group-curated show I did in Roswell. For this exhibition, I invited three of my co-workers to curate part of the show, which included selecting objects, writing the text, and as a group, determining the layout. I also invited each curator to give a public talk. Throughout this process, one of my top concerns was making sure each co-curator received credit for his or her work.

Looking back at my previous work, I can see how the ideas I’ve been reading already informed my practice, albeit less overtly. When I was a curator, I took the idea of acknowledging my co-workers’ labor on exhibitions very seriously, in part because I know what it’s like to not have credit given to your effort. I pointed out their efforts in staff meetings, for example, as well as during gallery talks. For group-curated shows, I made sure my co-curators received authorship credit on their text labels or panels, and invited them to give gallery talks about their work.

Community curation was another idea that interested me when I was in Roswell. In these kinds of shows, the curator invites members of a group or community to put together a show. The curator acts as a facilitator, helping community members meet their deadlines while also acknowledging and respecting their roles as the exhibition’s experts. I learned about this approach during my first couple of years at Roswell, but at the time I was a relatively new curator and felt insecure in my position at the museum. Looking forward, however, I would definitely be interested in trying this approach, as it would introduce stories and subject matters I cannot think of due to my own relative matrix of power and oppression.

More immediately, the ideas of intersectional feminism could be very useful for my own research. While putting together my Scalar book, for example, I became very interested in highlighting the labor of all the staff who had worked at the museum, as opposed to its administrators who wrote the majority of its surviving text. What kinds of skills and knowledge did these other people bring to the museum, and how did they enhance its operation? The idea of working with communities as opposed to drawing information from them for my own use also seems like a beneficial practice. Asking how my work should benefit their community, as opposed to focusing solely on my own needs, seems like a more ethical approach.

In short, I have learned a lot from this list, not only in subject matter, but in how to go about conducting my own scholarly practice. It’s left me with a lot to think about, but isn’t that what all reading lists should do?

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