The Challenges of Turning Inwards

(95/365) Eh?!
Creative Commons License photo credit: Sarah G…

Over the past few years I’ve approached the digital humanities with a touch of skepticism. Much of this has had to do with my own career path and anxieties: I did digital history from the mid-1990s through 2003 or so, and since then — even while writing a traditional history dissertation — have worked primarily as an educational technologist focused on pedagogy, curriculum development, and open learning initiatives. These two fields overlap in many important ways, and have much to learn from one another (a dynamic that I and others have attempted to tease out). Yet I regarded the rise of the digital humanities with a certain amount of bemusement since much of what was regularly being heralded as new felt to be the logical next stage of something already familiar to me. I finished my Ph.D. in 2009 and found that there were better opportunities in educational technology awaiting me than on the history job market. As I was making this move, the excitement and celebration and “woo-hoo!” that surrounded the digital humanities put me off a bit. It seemed discordant with the state of the field that I had come to know watching very few of my colleagues and friends land desirable jobs.

Over the past six months I’ve pushed myself to examine these feelings more closely, an effort that began when my pal Matt Gold asked me to contribute to a volume he’s editing on debates in the digital humanities and culminated in my attendance at my first THATCamp this past weekend at George Mason’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. I’ve emerged with a fuller and more complex take on the digital humanities, one that’s softer if still a bit critical (then again, I’m critical of everything). I was struck by a few things about THATCamp in relationship to other academic conferences: the earnestness of the curiosity that infused the enterprise, the genuine commitment to openness and sharing that so many attendees possessed, and the democratic willingness so many folks had to engage with whomever approached them. I was pleased to leave with a handful of ideas for projects to pursue. I needed a shot of adrenaline at the end of a relatively demanding year where I regularly felt that my professional autonomy was being made tenuous by circumstance. THATCamp delivered some inspiration, and for that I’m thankful.

Still though, after submitting an essay to Matt and my trip this past weekend, I feel as though some of the assumptions I had about the digital humanities have been reaffirmed even as I have come to understand them more deeply. One common theme threaded through several of the sessions and conversations that I had and observed at THATCamp: many attendees are working through some sort of frustration with their home institution.

The first session I attended, on whether or not “digital literacy is a done deal,” emerged out of attempts at the University of Mary Washington to launch a “Digital Knowledge Initiative.” Jeff McClurken, who proposed the session, argued that the DKI grew out of a sense that much of the experimentation that has been happening on UMWBlogs wasn’t filtering throughout the entire school and hadn’t been institutionalized in a way that was sustainable, scalable, and truly transformational. Martha Burtis, who also contributed to the proposal, noted her discomfort with an initiative that might disembed the building towards digital fluency from other curricula. Separating out those pedagogical processes ultimately might weaken them. Both positions reflect the desire to compel others at the institution to embrace lessons that can be drawn from the digital humanities about the role of technology in nurturing humanistic inquiry which revolve around openness, sharing, experimentation, visualization, embracing discomfort, and tapping into imagination. Much of the rest of the discussion focused on the challenges of compelling reticent colleagues to integrate such values into their own work, particularly the self- de-centering required of so many who’re steeped in research and teaching from very narrow niches.

A subsequent discussion that I attended extended a morning conversation about “inclusion” in the digital humanities while absorbing a session that had been proposed by Sheila Brennan on “documentation.” I have to say that while this investigation emerged out of earnest self-reflection and a genuine desire to make the digital humanities into a more fully representative field, parts of the conversation unsettled me. Though it wasn’t directly articulated, it was pretty clear from the conversation in the afternoon that most of the concern was about bringing scholars of color into the DH fold. While I agree that ensuring that tools and projects emerging out of the digital humanities are accessible is extremely important, the notion that those committed to the field need to put forth significant effort to make events like THATCamp more ethnically diverse is problematic. The THATCamp “movement” prides itself on openness and welcoming, and those feelings were certainly in full effect in Fairfax last weekend. A working group that focuses on targeting populations of humanities scholars who aren’t present in force at THATCamps risks reifying the insider/outsider us/them constructs that spurred the organization of this session in the first place.

There’s no easy answer to the conundrum of diversity in DH, but I do think that those trying to address this question would be as well or better served by looking inwards at the field than by organizing outreach. For instance, I’m curious how many disagreements there are at THATCamps, and to what extent real diversity might challenge notions of the “niceness” of the field? There’s also the question of politicization. Black and ethnic studies departments emerged in the wake of the civil rights movement, as part of broader efforts to explore untold histories in an effort to empower. I’ve not done research to verify this, and I feel a bit uncomfortable making the observation, but after a lifetime around higher education it certainly seems that scholars of color are still more likely to do their inquiry within this mission than outside of it. Research in these fields rarely pursues knowledge simply for its own sake, but rather does so regularly out of the sense that the process of making knowledge is political. That vibrancy and purpose has drawn me intellectually to the history of race and ethnicity. Does the fact that the digital humanities “movement” hasn’t articulated an explicitly radical agenda contribute to the lack of diversity at events like THATCamp? I really don’t know, but it seems a question worth asking. This is not a call for a more self-consciously radical digital humanities, but rather a call for more reflection about the nature and implications of true diversity within higher education.

Talk in that session turned to how digital humanists might reach out to such scholars on their campuses and draw them into projects or at least the conversation, and it was here where integration of documentation made the most sense. Good documentation is the best tool to make accessible what humanists are doing with technology, and ultimately to draw additional scholars in. A second conversation on documentation on Sunday morning extended this discussion, and it was particularly useful in suggesting tools for creating documentation and methods for integrating the creation of supporting materials into the production process. This discussion also focused on the frustrating art of imagining and addressing audiences not necessarily familiar with the language, methods, or processes of the digital humanities.

A final session asked “what can we learn from journalism?” Part of this conversation again constructed digital humanists as conduits for innovation to filter into their home institutions. A significant chunk of the work I do with Blogs@Baruch involves finding and sharing new models for teaching with technology across the curriculum and helping faculty members adapt those models to their pedagogical purposes. It’s here where I think the work of educational technologists and digital humanists most overlaps: for our work to be effective, we must have the ability to compel people into it, and that requires quite a different skillset than those that go into producing a new tool, visualization, or archive.

One of the most useful things that I got from conversations at THATCamp was some necessary perspective on how positively folks on the outside view the initiatives that I’m involved in at CUNY. Admittedly, most of this was likely out of broad familiarity with the CUNY Academic Commons, to which I’m a Community Advisor, but Blogs@Baruch is the Commons’ sister project, sharing an ethos, a politics, and circumstance that go far beyond software. I’m not shy about muscling Blogs@Baruch in on some of the Commons’ shine. What I think each of these projects shows — along with our other sisters — is that as frustrating as this process often is, a digital project becomes stronger as it grows organically within and in response to the concerns and uses of a distinct community, whether that be a college or an imagined user base. So much is to be gained from the networked conversations and experiences that happen within the digital humanities and at THATCamps. But the difficult work of turning that knowledge inwards — which often entails productively engaging resistance that can originate from both inside and outside our own selves — is at least as important.