Last night at Salem State, we capped off a productive year of ongoing work building a digital humanities community with our inaugural Digital Humanities Lecture delivered by Elizabeth Hopwood of Northeastern University. Hopwood covered a range of issues, from ethics to collaboration to labor to community. While talking about her work on the Early Caribbean Digital Archive, she offered an important proposition: students are radical contributors to digital scholarship.
This idea resonates with the ethos of Salem State’s burgeoning digital humanities community, where we have been positioning students at the center of our work. In fact, our undergraduate and graduate students are our only rationale for doing digital humanities. This is true for many of us who work outside the world of elite private or flagship state universities and small liberal arts colleges. As part of a regional comprehensive public university that grants master’s degrees and does not have a history of courting foundation support, we aren’t well-positioned for multi-million dollar grants to develop our digital humanities programs.
We couldn’t be farther from the cartoonish fantasy of digital humanities that circulates in the clickbait du jour. Neither are most of our colleagues in higher education in the United States or around the world.
Schuyler Esprit offers a compelling account of the ways that anti-digital humanities thinkpieces elide the work of scholars of color who are using digital humanities for social justice-oriented research and teaching. A year ago, Alex Gil and I made similar arguments (here and here) in response to another offering from the cadre of scholars who constitute the DH Darkside Revue. As a scholar whose work, like that of Esprit, Gil, and others, is the first to be jettisoned to bolster critique about the pernicious nature of digital humanities, I share these concerns.
Moreover, I’m struck by the many other contexts for digital humanities that are noticeably absent from narratives deriding the digital humanities. What of the work of digital history, digital rhetoric, new media, and more? Whither digital humanities in India, Poland, or Nigeria? Can digital humanities be done without $1.5M grants?
Institutions like mine – whether regional comprehensives like Salem State, access universities, or community colleges – are left out from trenchant critiques of digital humanities. At the same time, we are the institutions that serve the vast majority of students receiving post-secondary education, often the most diverse groups of students. And we’re envisioning practices for digital humanities too.
What does digital humanities look like at these institutions? Chuck Rybak, for example, has been fighting the good fight at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay, while Anne McGrail has created opportunities in digital humanities for community college professors. Like our work at Salem State, Rybak and McGrail’s work in digital humanities is inextricable from teaching. They are prime examples of Hopwood’s contention that students can benefit from understanding themselves as contributors to knowledge production.
At Salem State, we have slowly built our digital humanities capacity over a few years by thinking creatively about the few resources available to us. During my first year, I saw a call for proposals for faculty learning communities (FLCs), funded work time for pedagogical professional development, and applied to run one on digital humanities. In that FLC, which ran during my second year at Salem State, I befriended one of the participants, Susan Edwards, our university archivist. Together, we applied for one of the university’s strategic plan grants to pilot the Digital Scholars Program, a digital humanities intern program for our students. ($7467 feels like $1.5M when starting with $0.) This year, we launched the program and were joined by a new hire, digital initiatives librarian Justin Snow, who has a background in digital archives. Sharing the belief that our projects should be student-forward, we introduced our interns to two collections from our archives and mentored them through the iterative and circuitous process of developing small-scale digital humanities projects, from design to implementation. We’ll have another seven new students working with us in Fall 2016. Susan and I successfully proposed another FLC for next year, to work with a new, interdisciplinary group of faculty from seven departments and the library on digital archival projects on the culture, history, and literature of Salem. With the support of the School of Graduate Studies and in collaboration with programs in English, History, and Library Media Studies, I have also launched an online and face-to-face graduate certificate in digital studies. Last night’s event featuring Hopwood, therefore, was a fitting capstone to several years of work at Salem State to create a culture and community around student-centered digital humanities that fits our university’s mission and institutional context.
But none of this work to create a digital humanities of the students, by the students, and for the students would be possible without the broader, complex contexts in which digital humanities exists.
First, there is no digital humanities without community. My own practices as a digital humanities scholar are indispensably shaped by my relationship with the larger field. This is as true of my own cohort – my fellow early career scholars, a diverse crew of creative and nimble thinkers – as it is of established scholars who are continuing to create foundations on which we are building. At places like Salem State, we have access to platforms like Omeka or tools like Voyant because colleagues at other universities had the resources to develop them and then made them available publicly. Though my conference funding is negligible, I have opportunities to build connections and networks when colleagues – often people I don’t know – invite me to their campuses. While resources are distributed unevenly across universities, digital humanities is well positioned to promote a culture of sharing across institutional and national contexts, as well as inside and outside of the academy.*
Yet, there is also no digital humanities without complicity, which comes in varying degrees based on context. I am a tenure-track faculty member, complicit in the neoliberal university by virtue of my job title. While I collaborate with our librarians, the structure of our union contract creates disparities in how our work is compensated. When I talk to my administrators, I appeal to our strategic plan and the university’s bottom line. If I receive a course release for digital humanities, that’s one more class taught by an adjunct. I use this knowledge to shape the choices I make in relation to our work building digital humanities at Salem State. However, no one within the academy, whether a digital humanist, critical theorist, or some combination thereof, is not complicit. There is no island of pure critique. There are only places for action, advocacy, and the amplification of voices leading the charge for change at our institutions and across higher education.
Where, then, is the ethical imperative for digital humanities scholars? Certainly not in the drafting of clickbait. Perhaps, as Hopwood suggested in her talk yesterday, it’s to do ethical things with data. Indeed, the contexts in which digital humanities takes shape are the most significant datasets to which we must attend. These contexts influence decisions about design, method, tool, and platform, inform our acts of interpretation, and determine our approach to labor. By examining them, we affirm that all digital humanities practices are local and contingent. In doing so, we might create spaces to imagine new modes of critique possible at the intersections of digital worlds and humanistic disciplines.
*The digital humanities sharing economy has both affordances and challenges that warrant attention to the politics of shared resources. See Mark Sample’s work on sharing, Domenico Fiormonte’s work on monoculture, and my article on digital humanities accents for multiple takes on sharing and collaboration.