A new academic year means a new assistantship at William & Mary, and while conditions are very different from previous semesters, I’ve still got plenty to do for the College. Today then, I’d like to talk about my assistantship with the Equality Lab.
The Equality Lab, as the name implies, is an organization on campus focused on providing equitable opportunities for students of all backgrounds and interests. It encourages collaboration and interdisciplinary research through the digital humanities, and explores questions of representation, intersectionality, and the nature of equality as a concept. It’s open to both undergraduate and graduate researchers, and hosts various symposia, workshops, and other opportunities throughout the year.
I first got involved with the Equality Lab during my first year at William & Mary. Elizabeth Losh, the professor teaching my digital humanities seminar, encouraged me to start attending events and activities because she thought my interests in representation and labor as rendered through my archival research resonated with the overarching objectives of the Lab. Over the past couple of years, I’ve attended various workshops and talks, and have had the opportunity to meet such seminal digital scholars as Amy Earhart and Lauren Klein, among others. Since I was still in coursework, I didn’t get to attend everything, but I knew I’d want to get more involved once I was finished with classes and comps. When it came time to pick a new assistantship then, I put the Equality Lab as my first choice.
The Equality Lab typically has two graduate fellows per year. My cohort is Laura Beltran-Rubio, who also started W&M’s American Studies Program in 2018. She’s a fashion scholar researching colonial dress in 18th-century Latin America, specifically Colombia, and is interested in questions of labor, maker-based modes of academic research, representation, and ethical practices. She’s a highly engaged scholar participating in seminars, podcasts, the digital humanities, and other media, and you should definitely check out her work on her website.
Naturally, the pandemic has changed the way we do things, at least for the fall semester. As a graduate fellow, one of my duties pre-Covid would have been to hold office hours at the Equality Lab’s space in Morton Hall, a place where students can come to work or projects, study, or ask questions, but that’s unavailable for the foreseeable future. In-person workshops and seminars are also out of the question for the sake of safety and public health. Instead, we’re organizing virtual symposia and workshops for at least the fall semester, and possibly into the spring. So instead of working in Morton Hall, I’m at home, but there’s still plenty to do in terms of reaching out to potential speakers, organizing workshops, updating the website, and all-around thinking of ways to be available to students.
The pandemic has also informed the underlying themes and questions of the events we’re organizing this year. The flagship event is a series of symposia centered on the concept of home and its many connotations, from a sanctuary or shelter to a place of confinement or violence. We’ve got at least three events planned. The fall will focus on home as explored in the spatial humanities, while the spring will delve into questions of representation through disability studies, indigenous studies, and other critical frameworks. In addition to the symposia, we’re also planning different workshops throughout the year. We recently had Ravynn K. Stringfield give an excellent presentation on crafting an academic presence through Twitter, for instance, and Laura is planning on doing a similar session with Instagram in November. Given my experience with virtual conferences, I plan on putting together a workshop on conference videos in the spring.
Even though things are different this year, I’m excited to be working at the Equality Lab. I appreciate that the American Studies program endeavors to diversify the professional experiences of its students, and as much as I enjoyed TAing last year, I’m glad to be trying something new. Especially given how easy it is to isolate these days, I’m looking forward to getting the opportunity to meet and interact with other students and scholars, virtually or otherwise, and to continue working on expanding my network. Most of all, I’m happy to help foster an environment of safety, acceptance, and intellectual curiosity for students, which is more important than ever now.
I’ve been in a holding pattern since finishing my written exams on August 27 because I still need to complete the oral component, which is happening this Wednesday. In the meantime, I’ve been catching up on nonacademic projects that I’d sidelined while reading for comps. My main website, for instance, now features a brand-new page about my curatorial and academic writing in the main menu. On this page, I’ve not only included links to open-access materials published online, but also provided downloadable PDFs for all my exhibit brochures and other print-only materials.
This exhibit is a collection of drawings I’ve made depicting various COVID-19 facemasks. I initially started making these drawings because sketching has always been an important way for me to process my thoughts and emotions. I initially had little desire to draw because I felt overwhelmed, but I finally took an interest in sketching again when I began taking a closer look at the facemasks in our house. Brandon had brought home several cloth facemasks made by employees working in the textiles department at Colonial Williamsburg, and over time, I became interested in their visual qualities. One day, I draped one of the masks over some pushpins I’d applied to the wall in my study, and started sketching. I liked this display method because it mimicked the effect of them being worn while also suggesting the appearance of pinned butterflies and other natural history displays. In keeping with those presentations, I decided to draw the masks in a naturalistic way, with an emphasis on their physical presence as conveyed through modeling and cast shadows.
I drew the masks using pen and ink with ink wash and paint, arguably my favorite way to sketch. In drawing the masks, I thought about them primarily as sites of labor and expression. I wondered about the choices made in fabric selection, the time needed to complete them, the labor that I had been spared by having these masks available for use, and whether I would ever find out who made them. I also thought about facemasks within contemporary American visual culture, and their associations with public health, individual freedom, distrust of authority, and personal expression. Through these drawings, in other words, I began to process my feelings about the pandemic.
Around the time I started drawing facemasks, I came up with the idea of an online exhibit. As a curator, I’ve been following how museums have reconfigured their collections through online exhibits, and while I’m currently not working in a museum environment, I wanted to use my previous experiences as a museum professional to explore new ways of sharing material. Since I knew there would be an online component to the project, I also decided to expand my collection by inviting my contacts on social media to send photos of their masks. I also encouraged participants to send any text they wanted to include about their mask in the form that worked best for them, whether as a caption, poem, short story, or something else. The captions that you see come directly from the users who submitted these images, and is used with their permission.
Admittedly this took longer than anticipated. Soon after I conceptualized the project I developed tendonitis in my dominant hand and had to halt all creative activity for several weeks. As much as I wanted to get on with the exhibit, I knew working through the injury would only make it worse, so I reluctantly put the project on hold until my hand healed (for blog posts and comps notes, I actually switched to voice typing). I’ve since been able to resume my usual activities, albeit with greater attention to rest and stretching.
Once I finished my drawings, I turned them into high-quality JPGs using a fantastic portable scanner that Brandon had gotten me for Christmas a couple years ago (I also used it to create the PDFs on my writing page). I created the actual exhibit on Omeka because it’s a popular platform that I’ve been wanting to learn how to use. During a few afternoons, I figured out how to add items, create collections, and from those repositories, form exhibits. Like a lot of digital platforms I’ve used, I learned through trial and error, but between my own tinkering and the online tutorials available, I figured it out enough to create this project.
Facemasks in its current form is an intimate project with eight different masks and stories on view. I had initially hoped for more submissions, but I’ve also come to appreciate its small scale, given the importance of intimacy in digital humanities projects. As digital scholars such as Roopika Risam and Jacqueline Wernimont argue, small projects provide a crucial counterpoint to large-scale undertakings because they remind us that quantity alone is not the sole measure of quality or significance. Given the emphasis on big numbers with pandemic research, it’s important to counterbalance those statistics with more intimate data that highlight the humanity of the pandemic.
Not that the project has to end here. On the contrary, new submissions are always welcome. If you would like to participate, all you need to do is take a picture of your mask and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org, along with any text you’d like to see featured alongside your mask. Submit your thoughts as a caption, a short story, a poem, a song, or any other form that suits you. You may also include any information you feel comfortable sharing about yourself, or remain anonymous. I’ll draw the photo you send me and add it to the site, along with any other information you choose to include.
I initially made this project to work through my own feelings, but as a space for sharing, I hope that it will also benefit other people.
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.
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?
Last week I talked about some of the texts I’ve been reading that emphasize the general excitement and scholarly potential surrounding digital humanities. Today we’ll take a look at some critiques of DH.
One of the main critiques of digital humanities is that, rather than revolutionize humanities scholarship, it has perpetuated the biases of academia. As Amy E. Earhart argues in Traces of the Old, Uses of the New, digital humanities scholarship has often replicated both the questions and formats of established academic disciplines such as English or art history, with digital editions of journal, archives, and other formats replicating established forms of scholarship. While this can be advantageous, uncritical replications can continue previous biases or overlook other bodies of scholarship, including older websites that are no longer compatible with current technologies. In the case of digital archives, the extensive resources tend to be based on the most extant available materials, which, unsurprisingly perhaps, belong to white writers and creators. As Amardeep Singh argues in “The Archive Gap,” by gravitating toward readily accessible, extensive paper archives, we replicate the overrepresentation of white writers because their works tend to be better preserved than those of more marginalized groups in the first place. Such a preference for readily accessible written material also hearkens back to Diana Taylor’s discussion of the archive and the repertoire, with the dominance of written texts overshadowing knowledge expressed through more bodily forms.
Additionally, DH has been accused of replicating the flaws of the university through its treatment of service-related work. Although DH has been celebrated for its emphasis on collaboration and teamwork, not all contributions are acknowledged equally. As Roxanne Shirazi posits in “Replicating the Academy,” librarians, archivists, and other university workers whose jobs concentrate on service-related tasks play a critical role in the implementation and maintenance of digital humanities projects due to their technical expertise and access to various academic resources. Yet they rarely get credited for their efforts to the same degree as professors or other faculty members, who often manage the conceptual side of the project. Such omissions, Shirazi argues, perpetuate an ongoing bias toward service-related work such as librarianship, nursing, and other tasks, jobs that are considered more technical than intellectual and consequently regarded as less serious.
Not surprisingly perhaps, such service-related careers are devalued due to their history as feminized positions, with women dominating the field. As John Hunter points out on “The Digital Humanities and ‘Critical Theory,’ An Institutional Cautionary Tale,” women entering the workforce underscored the affinity such jobs held with housework, nurturing, and other feminine roles, qualities that made them less controversial with regard to allowing women into the workforce, but also devalued them in the eyes of white male administrators. Yet DH scholarship as we know it, and more broadly academia, would not exist without the labor of librarians and other service-oriented positions, despite their relative invisibility.
The overrepresentation of whiteness, and by extension the Global North, through digital archives mirrors a broader issue of whiteness in the digital humanities. According to Moya Bailey in “All the Digital Humanists are White,” historically digital humanities has consisted of white male academics. As a result, marginalized groups are not only underrepresented through faculty appointments, but through digital project choices as well because the economic and social privilege underpinning whiteness makes it difficult for white faculty members to discern issues specific to marginalized groups. Bailey also resists the idea of simply “adding and stirring” a few token diversity faculty members into the overall white DH mix, arguing instead that digital humanities, and more broadly academia, should be recentered altogether, with white scholars becoming just one facet of a scholarly practice that embraces women, people of color, queer theorists, disabled people, and other groups.
Connected to the homogenized, white character of the digital humanities is its complicity in the neoliberalization of the university. While DH is not directly responsible for the increasingly corporate nature of universities, scholars have observed that the DH projects that tend to receive the most funding originate from large lab environments and have a decidedly apolitical character. As a result, smaller projects that focus on marginalized groups, the kind of scholarship that should be getting attention, receive minimal to no funding, an omission that gets perpetuated in the DH canon. As Dr. Catherine Knight Steele mentioned in her CDHC talk, for instance, black digital feminists have been active on the Internet for years through blogging and other platforms, but because their work often exists outside the academy, or doesn’t originate in a large lab with ample funding, it gets neglected or ignored altogether.
Another facet of DH’s complicated relationship with neoliberal policies concerns the use of data. As discussed in the 2019 anthology Debates in the Digital Humanities, consent policies when it comes to collecting big data can be murky. While datasets like historical literature are open source, searching Twitter, Instagram, and other commercial repositories are more grey. While it’s presumed that people who post images or other data online accept that their information may be used for other purposes, offensive memes, the commodification of data via Google and other commercial search engines, among other issues, underscores the controversial nature of online data. Using people’s data for a project without them being able to knowingly consent, then, is a questionable practice.
Interrogating the mechanisms behind computational data itself has been another topic on inquiry. As Tara McPherson famously argued in “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White?” the computational methods of UNIX and other early systems, with their 0-1 language, demands a clean, rational approach to data that overlooks the messiness of reality, and omits people or data who don’t fit into that neat model. In a more recent but related article, “Against Cleaning,” Kate Rawson ad Trevor Munoz turn a critical eye to data cleaning, or the work we do to render archival documents and other forms of data ready for computer reading. As the authors discovered, cleaning usually prepares the documents for only one kind of machine reading, such as seeking out a certain word or phrase, at the expense of discovering other kinds of information or insight. Consequently, the recommend creating indexes for documents, and enabling different users the possibilities of creating new lists and categories for the documents they search. All of these readings hearken back to the observations made in Bowker and Star’s Sorting Things Out, which argues that for every classification made, an omission occurs that leaves other information out.
This lack of critical engagement with the tools we use to create digital humanities projects also underlies another major critique of the field in general: the need for critical theory. As a discipline grounded in projects, DH puts greater emphasis on practice than a lot of humanities fields, the result in part of being able to explore producing knowledge in ways beyond the textual. Yet many scholars have argued that there’s been a greater emphasis on producing dazzling projects with minimal critical engagement than on interrogating both the tools we use to create works, and using those tools to critical ends. To put it another way, if the balance between theory and practice in DH could be described as “hack vs. yack,” there’s been a more pronounced emphasis on making, or “hacking,” without the deep investigation or reflection as enabled through critical theory, or “yacking.” In short, DH has been accused of perpetuating the biases of the academy because its primary focus in on creating cool-looking projects without a deeper analysis of the questions, data, and tools driving our research.
A lot of these critiques have resonated with me. As a white woman, I know that my demographic is overrepresented in both academia and museums (to the point that Brandon has joked on multiple occasions that I’m a ‘type’), and acknowledge that a lot of my previous work was fairly apolitical. Additionally, the years I spent working in smaller museums in the west brought me first-hand experience with the frustrations of larger, well-funded institutions receiving the bulk of grant monies because they had the time and resources to file the paperwork. Regarding my research on community art centers, I’m working with older material, but the communities in which these centers were based are still around, and I want to be mindful of consent moving forward.
While there are plenty of critiques of DH, however, there are also scholars who are working hard to develop a more inclusive version of digital humanities, one that recenters the field away from white, male dominance through considerations of race, feminism, class, postcolonialism, disability, and other theoretical frameworks. We’ll take a look at some of these readings next week.
While the first two sections of my second reading list focus on archival theory, the last group of readings have focused on digital humanities. I added these readings because DH is a field I’ve gotten really interested in since taking a seminar on it during my first semester at William and Mary. Like the archival theory list, this section consists of two parts: one focusing on the appeal of digital humanities, and one addressing issues of representation and ethics, with a lot of overlap in between them. There’s also a lot of overlap with the archival theory list, since a lot of the readings I selected focused on both digital archives and more broadly frameworks of power.
Today, I’d to share my thoughts of this part of the list and its applicability to my own work.
As with the archival theory list, I started off with the works that focused on the allure of DH. For DH proponents, digital humanities isn’t just about putting humanities work on a computer, but a whole new approach to conducting scholarship through three interconnected qualities: collaboration, big data, and a shift away from text as the primary means of creating and expressing knowledge. In works like Digital Humanities, Anne Burdick and her co-authors juxtapose the traditional approach of solitary scholarship with a team-based method (the book itself was written collaboratively to demonstrate this point). To put it simply, DH encourages collaboration because computer-based scholarship is too expansive a field for any one person to completely master. The chances of finding someone who can code, create visualizations, and do humanities-based scholarship such as close textual readings are pretty slim, so more often than not you team up with other scholars with different skills sets. The potential of this cross-pollination, Burdick and others argue, is that you have scholarly dialogues occurring across the humanities/science divide, which opens up new research questions and project possibilities. Given that academia has been accused of siloing itself off by departments, such interdisciplinary collaboration has been regarded as a good thing.
Another theme that comes through this first part of the list is an emphasis on design. As Burdick, David Staley, and others have argued, written texts in the form of monographs and articles have been the primary means of creating and expressing knowledge in academia for centuries, a form that encourages solitary research and production. By privileging this form, other ways of making sense of the world, such as visual art, textiles, and other creative means, tend to get summarily dismissed as being less serious than written texts and regarded simply as a supplement to the printed word. Yet as digital projects in the form of graphs, spatial renderings of history, and other forms have demonstrated, visualizations are not just a means of illustrating textual knowledge, but of producing knowledge in its own right by exploring themes or ideas that text can’t render very well.
Related to the enthusiasm over visualization in these works is the excitement over big data, or the use of computers to process large amounts of data. As scholars such as Franco Moretti and Mathew Jockers argue in works such as Graphs, Maps, Trees and Macroanalysis, traditional humanities approaches that emphasize close readings of finite amounts of information (in their case, literature), results in a distorted understanding of a particular academic field. Since humans are only capable of reading a finite number of books, or looking at a finite number of paintings, we only see a small percentage of the total human output, resulting in an overemphasis on so-called masterpieces at the expense of all other works. What these authors argue for is adapting quantitative approaches to humanities scholarship through machine reading. Since computers can process a lot more text than we can in a faster amount of time, we should use their abilities to “read” large amounts of text and then write codes for them that enable them to look for specific words or themes (for example, how often texts use articles such as “the”). In its way, we can better contextualize the so-called masterpieces we tend to highlight in our close readings within a broader literary landscape, and see how they fit in with the vast body of other lesser-known works.
I’ll admit, I found a lot of these readings exciting in their optimism, even if I know from my coursework and conferences experiences that DH is, like every academic discipline, a flawed field. The years I spent in museums taught me that all projects are collaborative in one form or another, so seeing a field actively embrace teamwork with all its complexities and messiness is both exciting and a little daunting, especially for an introvert who finds networking overwhelming sometimes. I also found the readings on big data and visualizations exciting, particularly as someone coming from an art history background. One thing that has always irked me about the field is its emphasis on “greatest hits” at the expense of understanding works by lesser-known or less-skilled artists. While newer fields such as Visual Studies have attempted to address this issue by expanding the field of study beyond the so-called fine arts, art history remains a pretty conservative field in a lot of respects. As digital humanists such as Lev Manovich demonstrate in their visualizations, however, computer-based scholarship offers a way to process a large number of paintings or artworks and not only observe patterns or trends, but also underscore the diversity of human creativity.
I could potentially see such visualizations working well for my own research. As I mentioned in my CDHC talk, the logistical complexity of the Community Art Center Project makes it difficult to describe its operations through text, but mapping it digitally could offer a way to better discern its exhibition shipping patterns. Additionally, applying quantitative methods to the thousands of art works shown through the program could offer insights into the overall program itself regarding the kind of work it selected for exhibition, whether it’s the prominence of specific color palettes or preference in subject matter. These kinds of distance readings, combined with a close reading of a specific exhibition or two, could be very useful.
While these texts tend to paint digital humanities and its potential in a glowing, uncritical light, more recent texts have debated whether DH has actually revolutionized academia or replicated the biases of the university, and offer their own suggestions for creating more inclusive scholarship. Big data and macroanalysis-based methods, in particular, have been questioned for their flattening effect, and in the case of contemporary texts or images from living people, the ethics of using their works without permission or acknowledgment of their labor. Moretti’s assault of graduate students also underscores the ongoing issue of ethics in scholarship.
We’ll take a look at some of these critiques next week.
Life in the age of Corona has changed the way we do a lot of things, including how we consume art and other museum artifacts. I may not be working in museums right now, but I’m still concerned for their long-term well being. More immediately, I’m interested in how museums have been using the closures of Covid-19 as an opportunity to engage their audiences digitally. Today then, I’d like to share some observations I’ve made over the last couple of weeks.
First I’ll tell you a little about my process. I’ve always followed museums on social media, but I’ve been focusing on them more recently as a way of managing my time online (i.e. preventing downward spirals into anxiety and despair). I’ve been paying particular attention to how art museums have been responding to Covid-19, since my background is in art curation, but other kinds of institutions have been posting content as well (in arguably the cutest examples, of course, aquariums and related institutions have been letting the animals out to tour the museums). Of all the social media sites, I tend to use Instagram the most because it accommodates both text and image, but I’ve also been following individual museum websites, Twitter, and Facebook. I’m not especially familiar with TikTok or the other more recent platforms, but if I were to turn this into a research project I might look into them to see if and how they reach younger audiences.
I initially started thinking about museum responses to the Coronavirus when I started seeing the hashtag #MuseumFromHome on a lot of recent posts. From there, I began following different museums that either used that specific hashtag or otherwise related their content to the Coronavirus closures. The rhetoric typically goes something like this: “hey, we know you’re at home and can’t visit us, so we’ll bring the content to you!” Or something along those lines.
When it comes to actual content, art museums have usually been sharing works from their collections, but certain themes have recurred. A lot of posts have a domestic element to them, whether through sharing works that focus on the home, or having staff members share works while working from their own houses. Such tactics not only establish a sense of empathy with viewers who are likely homebound, but also enable museums to align themselves with the familiar comforts associated with domesticity, underscoring their desirability as social media sites to visit. In one of the more extensive examples I’ve seen, Shelburne Museum, in addition to its blog and Instagram posts, has been offering tours of Founder Electra Havemeyer Webb’s house via Facebook Live, led by curator Kory Rogers. A lot of posts also feature humor in them, with various museums like the Dallas Museum of Art, Colonial Williamsburg, and other institutions offering moments of levity in a serious time.
Other posts have a decidedly less domestic character, in an effort to help visitors feel less confined. Some Instagram posts feature photographs from recent gallery tours, for example, encouraging visitors to reenact the experience of walking through the museum’s distinct spaces. In the most extensive examples, museums have enabled visitors to take actual virtual tours of their spaces. Places like the St. Louis Art Museum have also been recording new events and posting them online to maintain social distancing, such as a gallery talk by Kehinde Wiley. Other posts show works that depict different geographic locations, enabling viewers to embark on a virtual world tour through art. Sometimes these works will reference famous holidays or artist birthdays, offering a celebratory angle to the posts. What all these myriad efforts share is a sense of escape.
For the most part, the content has also been apolitical, with a focus on providing a sense of comfort and pleasure to visitors. That said, some places like the Allen Memorial Art Museum have taken a current events angle by sharing works on Instagram that address issues of health access and well-being. The Allen Museum also makes a point of including works by women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups, and rotates its posts among different staff members. These posts are among the most extensive I’ve seen on Instagram, and read like detailed, scholarly exhibit labels.
There’s also a strong personal element to these posts. A lot of museums will have curators and other staff share their favorite works, for example. Sharing staff favorites is an effective way to personalize museums with their visitors (heck, I did it at the Roswell Museum), but again, it’s the scale at which this is happening interests me. In one of the most popular recent examples, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum has handed over its social media reins (forgive the pun) to its Chief of Security, Tim Send. Describing collections objects and other aspects of the museum through a distinctly humorous, folksy lens, Send introduces a personalizing element to his posts while also allowing visitors to experience the museum through the perspective of a staff member who might not usually get represented in social media. Additionally, Send’s wholesome and apolitical posts provide an optimistic element that associates positivity with the Western Heritage Museum’s brand, right down to Send’s hashtag #HashtagTheCowboy.
What also intrigues me is the way museums have been engaging audiences through participatory means. A lot of these methods have been used before, but it’s the scale at which it’s happening that’s struck me. Museums like the Smithsonian Institution, for instance, have recently provided free coloring pages based on objects in their collection. Other museums like Shelburne have made music concerts available on Spotify and other channels so that visitors can re-experience those events from their homes. In perhaps the most playful example of inviting visitors to recreate or complete works of art through their participatory engagement, museums like the Getty and the Rijksmuseum, taking inspiration from the Instagram account @tussenkunstenquarantaine, have been inviting viewers to dress up and recreate works from their collection with items found in their own homes. Again, people have been dressing up as paintings for years, but it’s the scale and direct invitation to participate that’s caught my attention.
So what are my takeaways from all of this? Honestly, these are only preliminary observations because this social media work is still very much evolving, but here are some thoughts:
How will this affect traveling exhibitions? Walter Benjamin argued in his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that photography would render the uniqueness of the original obsolete, but the scale at which people travel to see art in person, whether through traveling exhibitions or contemporary biennial, suggests that we still consider viewing the original significant. Yet ecocritics have rightly pointed out the ecological unsustainability of such a model, and that we should reevaluate the necessity of viewing originals. As these social media posts have suggested, viewers can have meaningful experiences digitally, if altogether different from the visual and tactile experience of the original. At the same time, I worry that this whole pandemic response could used as a means to justify cutting operating budgets to museums, since virtual experiences are possible.
Social media can question or reify extant biases: While engaging visitors through a museum’s collection of greatest hits is a guaranteed way to secure visitor engagement, museums can and should also use social media as an opportunity to share lesser-known facets of their collection, or enable other staff members to contribute content.
Everything depends on access: The world of the digital has often been hailed as the great democratizer, but as recent articles discussing the recent shift to online teaching have underscored, everything depends on web accessibility. If you can’t access the internet, you can’t experience this content, and not surprisingly, internet accessibility patterns tend to reflect the infrastructures of institutional racism and class-based separations.
Ecological impact: the internet is often envisioned as an ethereal network that can liberate us from detrimental effects of climate change, but in reality it’s a massive physical and electronic infrastructure demanding large amounts of energy while also relying on toxic chemicals to make its connections work. In moving their work online, to what extent are museums assuaging or aggravating the current ecological crisis?
Museums are more fun when visitors participate: Whether they’re dressing up as their favorite paintings or requesting that specific works be highlighted in Instagram posts, the whole #MuseumFromHome moment we’re experiencing is definitely a dialogue occurring between museums and they’re respective viewers, and that often makes for the most interesting posts.
So those are some preliminary thoughts. Overall, I find the work museums are doing right now to be exciting, and I’ll be interested to see how it continues to develop over the coming weeks.
When it comes to my digital humanities work, I’ve learned that I’m most likely to follow through with my aspirations when I assign myself deadlines and hold myself accountable to others. During my first semester, for example, I took a class on DH that required completing a substantial project, an undertaking that became my Scalar book. During the winter break, I took a week-long workshop in order to learn the basics of Python. One of my reading lists for comprehensive exams includes several seminal theoretical texts on the digital humanities. And most recently, on February 21st I participated in the first annual Symposium for the Chesapeake Digital Humanities Consortium, or CHDC.
The CDHC is a new organization intended to bring together digital humanists from around the Chesapeake region. All too often, we academics tend to feel isolated working at our respective institutions, and forget that there are numerous other professionals out there with similar ideas or ambitions. The CDHC and other groups like it offer an opportunity for DH scholars from various colleges and universities to come together, share their work, and discover new opportunities for collaboration. As an emerging digital humanist myself, I appreciate being able to join organizations that provide the chance to meet new people and expand my professional network.
Conveniently for me, the CDHC decided to hold its first symposium right at William and Mary, so unlike other conferences I’ve attended, I didn’t have to travel very far. Throughout the afternoon, I had the opportunity to learn about a wonderful array of digital projects, from Paul Martin’s study of the use of historiography in video games, to Liz Losh’s analysis of the use of emojis in Donald Trump’s tweets. While their work is very different from what I study, I appreciated being able to learn how they used DH to produce meaningful scholarly inquiries.
The highlight of the afternoon was the keynote speech from Dr. Catherine Knight Steele, a scholar who focuses on Black Digital Feminism (for a more detailed analysis of Dr. Steele’s talk, visit my colleague Ravynn Stringfield’s blog, Black Girl Does Grad School). Over the course of her talk, she shared key principles from her practice that could be applied to digital humanities as a field, including an emphasis on praxis over product, focusing on people rather than tools, and the importance of adhering to principles that emphasize an ethical digital scholarly practice. Of particular significance to her talk was the significance of slow, meaningful work, and the willingness to take the time to reflect on your practice and ways to improve it. Acknowledging the labor of all participants, and empowering them to take credit in a way that suits them best, was another key part of her address. Her emphasis on praxis especially resonated with me. When you always feel pressured to show results for your work, it’s important to remember that the means are at least as significant as the ends, and that sometimes it’s better to diminish output in order to concentrate on mindful scholarly practices.
Another highlight of the conference was being able to learn more about the work of my fellow cohorts at William and Mary, with one standout session focusing on the use of digital scholarship outside of the academy. Erin Bartram highlighted her work on Contingent, a magazine dedicated to publishing and paying underrepresented scholars such as graduate students or adjuncts. Ravynn Stringfield talked about her blog, Black Girl Does Grad School, and the importance of blogging for black women scholars as both a retreat from, and resistance to, barriers within the academy. Laura Beltran-Rubio highlighted her work as a fashion scholar on Instagram, which developed out of her teaching experiences in Colombia and her desire to make Spanish-language resources on fashion history available to wider audiences. Christopher Slaby focused on his experiences as a historian on Twitter and its potential for engaging in scholarly debates with both other academics and other audiences.
What I appreciated about this panel is the emphasis all the speakers placed on media projects outside the academy as work. Far from a distraction from scholarly endeavors, social media and other platforms can be a powerful way to reach audiences outside the academy. As such, it demands significant labor with regard to both the production of quality content and the cultivation of an online persona. I’ve never been especially proficient at using social media to advance my own scholarly work, but as a curator, I do believe in the importance of engaging audiences outside of the academy. It was inspiring, then, to see how these scholars use these platforms to extend their academic practices. Moving forward, I’ll remember the work my colleagues do as I think about using my own accounts more effectively.
I also had the opportunity to introduce my own work, or rather my aspirations for a future project. During a five-minute lightning talk, I shared my desire to map out the Federal Community Art Center Project with the intention of highlighting the networks established through the sharing of exhibitions. Using an image of a map in my study as a springboard, I speculated about the advantages of setting the art center project to an animation that would enable viewers to follow the project chronologically, allowing them to see when exactly art centers opened or closed. I also discussed how I’d like to have visitors be able to click on individual sites and learn information such as when they opened, closed, which exhibitions they hosted, and who worked there. Finally, I talked about how I thought a digital platform would be an effective means to map out the actual travel routes of exhibitions, and to see how those routes contributed to different communication networks among the art centers. Through all these methods, I emphasized that a digital project could effectively evoke the dynamism of the Community Art Center Project.
This was a good experience for me. I’m not used to sharing speculative research when I present at conferences, but it was a great way to test out my ideas, and better yet, get good feedback for moving forward. One attendee, Marie Pellissier, was especially helpful in that she recommended Omeka as a potential platform. While I was aware of its effectiveness as a site for object-based online exhibitions, I didn’t know that it also has powerful mapping capabilities. Since I already have access to Omeka through Reclaim Hosting, I can start experimenting with it as soon as I’ve taken care of exams.
Overall, this was a great experience. I got to meet a lot of interesting people, learn about some great projects, get suggestions for my own work, and overall think about the significance of developing a mindful, ethical scholarly practice. I’m glad I attended, and I look forward to staying involved with this group.
As you know from my post about my DH semester project, I made a Scalar book about the Roswell Museum’s WPA archive. Scalar was still quite new to me at the time, so I hadn’t discovered all the cool things I could do with it yet. Today then, I’d like to take another look at that project and share some of its conceptual framework with you.
The advantage of Scalar is being able to build nonlinear narratives or repositories thanks to the use of links and paths. I wanted to apply that openness to the archive, allowing viewers to let their interests dictate their exploration of the materials. As I worked, I kept three different genres or experiences in mind to help me think about creating paths or links.
The first was the choose-your-own-adventure story. I admittedly didn’t read a lot of these as a kid, but I remember having to write one in middle school for an English assignment. It wasn’t a great story, something about a troubled teen running away and getting into shenanigans, but the experience of crafting multiple narratives within the same overarching plot stuck with me.
I also thought about immersive art or theatre experiences, more specifically The House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe. Designed by the art collective MeowWolf, this super trippy installation has become one of the most popular attractions in the City Different since it opened in 2016, Set inside an old bowling alley, viewers are presented with a Victorian house that acts as a portal to a multiverse. Your objective is to figure out what happened to the family that lived here, but the narrative is really just an excuse to explore a variety of rooms or environments. Since there’s no set path through the house or its various worlds, visitors decide where to go and how they’ll get there, whether it’s through a portal in the refrigerator, or bypassing the house altogether and walking through the backyard. Unlike choose-your-own-adventure stories, which put you on a specific narrative path depending on your choices, MeowWolf’s work is more opened-ended, presenting you with the material and letting you decide what you want to see.
The strongest influence on my Scalar work, however, was the archive itself, and my own experiences with exploring it. I did not go through these materials in a linear fashion. Initially, I tried doing that, but I quickly found that it was not the most efficient way to begin constructing the museum’s narratives, as the first five folders consisted of only time sheets. Instead, I jumped around between folders and boxes as I tried to figure out the museum’s early histories. I would spend months working on nothing but correspondence folders, for example, then focus on a folder filled with exhibition checklists or timesheets once I had gotten the context from the letters. I might spend weeks working on documents from 1938 only, or progress from 1937 to 1942 in a single day. Or I might focus on photographs and try to figure out which room I was looking at, or which exhibition was on view based on what I had read in the correspondence and checklists.
In short, my own exploration of the archive was open-ended, especially in the beginning when I wasn’t sure what I was even looking at. I wanted to give viewers the same opportunity to bounce around the materials and make their own discoveries.
Aside from open-endedness, the other main factor dictating my Scalar content was acknowledging other voices or perspectives, particularly staff contributions. The primary voices represented in the archive are directors and administrators since they completed most of the paperwork. I wanted to make sure that the custodians, gallery attendants, or carpenters, got their credit too.
We frequently discussed the idea of invisible labor and giving contributors their due credit in my DH class, but it also informed my curatorial practice. From my experience, fewer things build resentment faster than not having your work acknowledged, so I avoided that by giving credit where it was due. An exhibition is a collaborative effort, not a solo endeavor, so I always made a point of highlighting my teammate’s contributions in staff meetings, gallery talks, and lectures.
I applied that same philosophy to the archive by making the staff contributions more prominent. I gleaned names and job duties from correspondence, time sheets, memos, drawings, and other documents. From there, I created separate pages for each of the staff members I could identify and listed their job duties and contributions. I cited documents that mentioned them, and when available, uploaded documents that they had worked on, as is the case with the drawing above, attributed to a carpenter named Leonard Hunt. I took the references that were buried in the archive and made them more prominent, giving visitors an opportunity to learn not just about what was done at the museum, but who did it.
The other voice you rarely hear from is that of the visitors themselves since there aren’t a lot of written documents from them. Whenever I could, I uploaded documents from visitors, giving them a chance to express their thoughts on the museum.
In the long run, this work is no substitute for a full digitization of the Roswell Museum’s archive. On its own, however, I think the Scalar book has its own merits as a document by not only providing a narrative for the museum’s history, but also by giving visitors a chance to explore the materials according to their interests while highlighting staff efforts. It may not house of all of the archival documents, but for what it is, I’m proud of it.
Semester breaks are for rest and relaxation, but they’re also a great time to learn new skills through workshops and other opportunities. Such was the case with the Digital Humanities bootcamp I took last week, which I’ll be talking about today.
This intensive workshop met from 9-4 Monday through Friday. Each day focused on a different activity, including visualizations, optical character recognition, and social media analysis. For the actual coding, we used Python, one of the more accessible programming languages out there, as offered through the open-source distributor Anaconda. To help concretize what we were learning, we used examples from our own research, empowering each of us to conceptualize how these various methods could benefit our work.
One of the techniques that particularly excited me was machine reading, known as Optical Character Recognition. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I would like to expand on my work with the Roswell Museum and its WPA documentsas part of my ongoing research with community art centers. In addition to scanning and uploading every scrap of paper from that archive, we would need to produce a transcription for each text so that readers would not have to rely exclusively on the original, faded documents for content. As you can imagine, typing out a transcription for every document would take years for a human like myself, but a python program can enable a computer to read and produce a preliminary transcription in a fraction of the time.
As an example, let’s take a look at the checklist above for an exhibition selection of textile patterns shown in October 1938. To get the computer to recognize and register the individual characters of the letters, you have to heighten the contrast between the text and the page as much as possible. To do this, you first have the python program convert the photograph to grayscale. Once you’ve done this, you further convert it to black and white. While you’re doing this, you can add command filters that help adjust for shadows and other imperfections that interfere with the clarity of the text. This is especially useful for photographs taken on smartphones, as was the case with this checklist.
Once you’ve got your black and white image, you can have the computer read it. Here’s the transcription that I generated for the checklist:
CALIFORNIA PRIFT!D TExtires
Received Cctoper 4, 1938
Yaxichilan on Linen Costa Rica | History of Music Hall Guatamalna –
Figures with Still Life
Carnival Kinston From & Dorming Garden
ixhibited October 10
While there are a lot of typos in this document, it’s reading at more than 50% accuracy, which is great for character recognition. Since computers can’t intuit (yet at least, take what you will from that), they process things exactly as they see them. When it comes to historical documents, then, it’s a given that you’re going to have to clean up the text, but the rough transcription is there. Once I had the program working, it only took a few seconds to generate this transcription, something that would have taken me a couple of minutes, at least. Multiply that by the hundreds or even thousands of written pages in an archive, and you’re saving yourself a substantial number of hours. Transcribing an archive will still take a long time, but Optical Character Recognition makes it a lot more manageable.
We also explored visualizations such as graphs and charts. I generated the bar graph below using a sample data sheet, in this instance opinions about commas. In addition to presenting the information itself, we learned how to change the palette, in this instance to correspond with William and Mary’s Pantone colors.
I’ve made graphs before in Excel, but python programs allow you to create a much wider array of visual explorations. A particularly exciting one we all liked was the heat map below, with more saturated colors corresponding to higher concentrations of numbers. By altering the data within the various columns of the program, we could change the layout to emphasize different sets of information.
The last day explored social media scraping and mapping. For scholars working on contemporary topics, Twitter, in particular, is a vast repository of information and opinions but can be overwhelming to process alone. Python, however, enables you to create programs that organize tweets. While I personally don’t foresee myself using this program that much, it’s still good to know about.
I was more interested in the mapping exercise. Using python, we were able to not only map specific locations and mark them with pins, but also add captions, descriptions, photographs, and other information. I ended up making a test map featuring community art centers in New Mexico:
What excites me about this program is that it can develop alongside my research. As I find out about new art centers, I can add photographs, dates, and other information. Beyond simply plotting locations, I learned I can also use python to potentially draw the travel routes of different exhibitions and begin plotting the networks these art centers shared with one another. Python can help me expand my focus beyond Roswell, and start to incorporate that research into a broader national framework.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a programmer, and my knowledge of python remains fairly rudimentary. Fortunately, William and Mary has a computer science department that is more than eager to collaborate, so I’ll have plenty of help as I continue to expand and develop my skills. If I’ve learned anything about Digital Humanities, it’s that collaboration is key to every project, so I’m happy to know that there are plenty of other students who would be able to help me.
In short, I had a terrific experience. I not only learned a lot of new things, but have access to resources that will let me continue to grow and develop my DH skills.
Last week I talked about what I’ve been doing in my Intro to American Studies class. Today I’ll talk about my main project in Digital Humanities.
The first part of this project is something you’ve already been looking at: this website. Since I had already made a website for myself over the summer to document my museum work, I had a head start on this endeavor. Once I picked WordPress as my platform and settled on a template, I copied and pasted material while updating the text to emphasize current work.
The second part is what you see when you click on the link “Roswell Museum Federal Art Center,” located in the main menu. This takes you to a Scalar book I’ve been working on about the early history of the Roswell Museum.
Scalar is a platform that allows for more open-ended browsing than conventional books, and allows you to easily incorporate text, images, visualizations, video, and more. I like to think of it as a super blog.
Like my website, this project is based on preemptive work I did when I was still working at the museum. Shortly before I left my position there, I completed two projects relating to its archive. One was an exhibition, on view until mid-2019 or so. The other was a draft for a guidebook. The museum last published a guidebook on its collections in the early 1980s, so it’s been due for an update. Rather than create one big guidebook covering everything, however, the director and I had been mapping out a plan to publish a series of smaller guidebooks on different facets of the collections, allowing visitors to pick and choose which holdings they’d like to learn more about. We imagined having different experts write these books, whether it was the curator, a contract scholar, or someone else. To kick off this project, I wrote the draft for the WPA guidebook. Since I keep all of my writing in cloud storage, I still have access it, so I had a working text that I could revise and expand for a new project.
I’ve also been thinking about the need to digitize the museum’s historical archive for a while now. Back in 2016, when I was starting to explore the archive in earnest, I gave a paper at the annual Mountain Plains Museum Association conference suggesting that the museum eventually create an interactive website. Visitors to that site could track different exhibitions on their cross-country travels, follow a day in the life at the museum through the perspectives of the different people who worked there, and other activities. What I was describing was essentially a DH project, though I didn’t know it at the time because I wasn’t as familiar with the terminology then.
The Scalar book I’ve been working on is a modest version of what I recommended in that presentation. A project like that would take years to complete, and I simply don’t have enough time in the semester to do that. Instead, I opted for a platform where I provide a basic narrative of the museum’s early history to give readers context, and then go into greater detail into certain areas rather than try to cover everything. My discussion of exhibitions, for example, provides a survey of all the shows for 1937-1942, but goes into greater analysis for the first year of operation, 1937-1938, largely because this one is the most complete in terms of documentation. For this year, I use graphs, timelines, and other visualizations to provide readers with some kind of analysis.
The long-term objective of this project is to help gather interest in the long-term future of the Roswell Museum’s digital presence. Over the next several years, I’d like to fully digitize the museum’s archive and upload it to a platform such as Omeka, which specializes in online archives and collections. I’d also like to see that Omeka site include several online exhibitions that delve into the topics I had mentioned in my 2016 talk in order to give visitors context for what they’re looking at.
My ultimate objective for this project extends beyond the Roswell Museum itself. I envision linking that Omeka archive to a national project that maps out all of the different art centers and recreates their travel infrastructures. I imagine visitors clicking on an individual site within that map and being taken to a site like the Roswell Museum’s, where they can learn about specific institutions. While my dissertation will be a written project, ideas like these make me think it should have a digital component too, something that people around the world can use.
So yes, this is definitely something I can’t complete in a semester, and it’s something I can’t do on my own. If I can attract interest and potential grant funding through a project such as the Scalar book though, something that provides a sufficient overview and explains why a larger project is necessary, that’s a good start to me.