Digital Humanities: Egalitarian or the New Elite?

paper, specified "long paper"
  1. 1. Lee Skallerup Bessette

    Morehead State University

  2. 2. Liana Silva-Ford

    University of Kansas

  3. 3. Roopika Risam

    Emory University

  4. 4. Jarah Moesch

    University of Maryland, College Park

  5. 5. Alyssa Stalsberg Canelli

    Emory University

  6. 6. Tressie McMillan Cottom

    Emory University

Work text
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Who is represented within digital humanities and how? This question guides our paper, which focuses on dynamics of representation and exclusion within digital humanities. The field has been subject to a range of criticisms, from its very definition to its relationship to data, building, and hacking. Yet, only recently have scholars begun to raise questions about raced, gendered, and heterosexist assumptions within digital humanities. By exploring these assumptions, we take up the question of how to define digital humanities in ways that are not radically reductive.

Authors Peter Lunenfeld, Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp write the following in their new book from MIT Press, Digital_Humanities:

Perhaps, then, the utopian impulse of the Digital Humanities can be characterized as a modality of radically opening discourse to participation for everyone. What if there were no conditions on participation? What if utterances were neither admitted nor denied based on gender, sex, race, ethnicity, language, location, nationality, class, or access to technology? We are not saying that these facticities do not matter or cease to matter in the digital world; instead, we are saying that the utopian element of the Digital Humanities is to at least posit, if not fully enable, a future in which participation is possible for everyone, anywhere, anytime. It would be as if it were possible to bring about a public sphere in which no one was excluded. This is a core human value of the Digital Humanities. (95)

The authors present DH as a “work around” for the issues of race, class, and gender as they have been posited in the “zero-sum game” of the culture wars that have been taking place in the humanities (and elsewhere) for more than 50 years (23-24). We contend that in order for us to even approach the Utopian future of creating a public sphere in which no one is excluded, we cannot work around these issues, but instead confront them head on. The inequities are still too great to ignore.

At the heart of this question is the very definition of “digital humanist.” Ernesto Priego has outlined what he calls the new “super-humanist” who can quote literary theory and create DH interfaces from scratch. Are these super-humanists, armed with large research grants, hardware, and human capital, becoming the “face” of not just DH but the humanities in general? If this is, in fact, the presumptive definition of “digital humanist,” what roles are available to academics and aspiring academics without access to the resources, support, and training that seem to be necessary to be a successful digital humanist? How are gendered, racialized, and queer bodies represented or not represented in such an articulation of DH? How can we begin to address multiple forms of privilege that proliferate in DH? Does DH challenge existing authority structures that define in-group and out-group status? Is it a tool for dismantling those structures?

With these questions in mind, this paper draws attention to the fraught relationship between DH and those who have been marginalized and silenced within traditional power structures both within and outside of academia. As illustrated by Amy Earhart, in her essay in Debates in the Digital Humanities, the promise of open and egalitarian access to materials has largely turned into a funding arms race prioritizing the same texts and projects long favored by academia. In the same collection, Tara McPherson raises questions about the historical separation of technology from studies of race. Accounting for these concerns, who has access and the ability to really do digital humanities? Is digital humanities egalitarian, or is it opening the door to a new elite? Cherie Ann Turpin recently investigate the National Endowment of the Humanities funding numbers to understand who was being funded and found that the vast majority of them went to large, R1 institutions and not HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), Primarily Hispanic Institutions, or regional public college, which are often located in rural and/or economically depressed areas. Not only are the kinds of projects being funded not representative, neither are the kinds of institutions, limiting the size, scope, and reach of DH.

The questions of representation within digital humanities that we raise take many forms but center around the tension between macro and microscales of legibility and labor that emerge as scholars define digital humanities. For example, if big data repositories or significant digital archives translated into visualization platforms come to symbolize the work of digital humanities, who is counted and uncounted by absences in big data and silences in the archive? If we foreground technologies and metaphors of visualization and mapping, how do we navigate the imperialist histories that will inevitably be encoded in the structures of digital humanities? We are arguing, as have scholars like Alan Liu, that the collaboration sequence, and its implied hierarchy, needs to be questioned. To borrow and repurpose some phrases from Gayatri Spivak, the active ideology of imperialism provides the discursive field from which the Digital Humanities emerges as both a discipline and a signifier.

Through such definitions of digital humanities, we examine the likely effects on labor, particularly labor performed by women and people of color, who are already plagued with disproportionate service demands in the name of diversity. We will examine where digital humanities fits in with demands on our time made by academic institutions and how we render digital humanities work visible and legible within the broader trajectories of our careers. As put by Julie Flanders, the time and effort that staff who work in DH centers is measured in fundamentally different ways than a “normal” academic. We will discuss further whether digital humanities labor “counts” as teaching, research, or service and propose how those of us in marginal spaces within the academy might best advocate for how digital work is evaluated in our professional portfolios. As such, this paper outlines the issues faced by individuals whose identities render their work marginal or invisible within stringent definitions of digital humanities, identifying solutions for redressing these inequalities.

Earhart, A. (2012). Can Information be Unfettered? Race and the New Digital Humanities Canon. In Gold, M. K. (ed), Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 309-318.
Earhart, A. (2012). Recovering the Recovered Text: Diversity, Canon Building, and Digital Studies. DH2012 Programme.
Flanders, J. (2011). You Work at Brown. What Do You Teach? #alt-academy: A Media Commons Project.
Liu, A. (2012). The State of the Digital Humanities: A Report and a Critique. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 11(1): 1-34.
Lunenfeld, P., et al. (2012). Digital_Humanities. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
McPherson, T. (2012). Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation. In Gold, M. K. (ed.), Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 139-160.
Priego, E. (2012). Various Shades of Digital Literacy: The New Digital Divides.
Turpin, S. A. (2013). Digital Humanities: Access and Empowerment.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2013
"Freedom to Explore"

Hosted at University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Lincoln, Nebraska, United States

July 16, 2013 - July 19, 2013

243 works by 575 authors indexed

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Series: ADHO (8)

Organizers: ADHO