Room for Everyone at the DH Table?


by Roopika Risam and Adeline Koh

In case you missed it, our open thread “The Digital Humanities as Historical ‘Refuge’ from Race/Class/Gender/Sexuality/Disability” has engendered rich debate and a number of different conversations.

We value the range of comments that we received. The following are a few branches of thought that emerged. We invite you to continue the thread in the comments below.

Thoughts from the Open Thread

  • Language and DH

    • DH and Anglophone imperialism (Domenico Fiormonte); English is an imperial language – both in terms of colonial histories and its grammatical hierarchies, such as subject-verb-object (Martha Nell Smith)

    • Other languages have imperial implications as well or, like Spanish, have in contexts in which they have been imperial (Spanish colonization in the Americas, Salvador Barajas) and minoritarian (status of Spanish vs. English in the US today) (David Golumbia)

    • Please, God, let’s do some DH work outside of English already (Heather Froelich; David Golumbia)

    • You still gotta read code to have a conversation, you guys (Elijah Meeks)

  • Pedagogy

    • “What do I as a digital humanist want to teach my students?” (Alan Liu)

    • DH, class, and community colleges (Aaron Kashtan)

With a fresh comment section waiting below, we’d love to hear from you. Couldn’t navigate the open thread? Think we’ve gotten it all wrong? Care to expand on your contribution? Please add your $.02 below.

EDIT: Think you could improve our parsing? Here’s an open Google document with the summary. Edit away! (Please leave a comment in the thread about what you changed/any comments. Thank you!) – R&A 

Link to the open Google document here!



on “Room for Everyone at the DH Table?
29 Comments on “Room for Everyone at the DH Table?
  1. I respect the effort you guys put into this summary: the comment thread became huge, and this does make it more legible.

    But summarizing academics is like herding cats; I imagine you’ll get some push-back.

    For instance, I’ve got to pause to note that I explicitly don’tt believe the statement attributed to me above by summary: “that DH has always been cultural.” In fact, I’m actually on record in the thread affirming that this would not be a meaningful or important statement.

    I think it’s hard to generalize about DH at all, and perhaps especially problematic to generalize about the genealogy of DH — because the term was not widely used before 2001, and it’s really not clear what its “ancestors” were. Would you focus on the works of Alan Liu and Jerome McGann, and on the Brown Women Writers Project? Certainly. But what about the science-studies and media-studies side of the project — what about, for instance, Katherine Hayles or Donna Haraway? I tend to think they should also count as ancestors. And then there are other threads to trace, leading off into disciplines like history and library science, not to mention computer science. Given how complex this story is, I think it’s really hard to trace a genealogy, and impossible to claim that “DH has always been” anything.

    This is why, if you go back and look at my earlier comments, I actually don’t use the term “DH” at all. Instead I say, for instance, “I don’t think anyone is reluctant to fuse digital methodologies and questions of politics or identity. ” The vagueness there is deliberate. I’m specifically refusing to defend an entity called “DH,” or even to decide what counts as “DH.” Instead I’m saying “applying digital methods to political questions is an obviously good idea, and I don’t see evidence that it frightens anyone.

    Sorry to be a stickler about this, but these are important questions, and I’m afraid a mischaracterization of my views here might have endless ripples.

    • Ted – we have provided a very general and rough index on where comments appeared on the spectrum of responses we received. We imagined no one would take our often tongue-in-cheek categories and descriptions as definitive statements. Here’s what you said:

      “I don’t think anyone is reluctant to fuse digital methodologies and questions of politics or identity. On the contrary, this is a combination of approaches that’s very likely to interest a wide audience. No researcher would want to avoid that sort of topic, unless they have a morbid fear of getting published in a prestigious venue.”

      Short version: more or less, yes.

      What I find troubling is that any time questions are raised, they are sidestepped with statements like “it’s hard to generalize about DH at all” or “which DH are you talking about?” or “that’s not MY DH.” It’s a dismissive and disingenuous response to legitimate questions.

      At any rate – sorry you feel misrepresented. Fortunately, you are comment #1, so no doubt your objects will be registered by various and sundry. However, we would be more than happy to create a separate category to accommodate your deliberate ambiguities if you like!

      • Wow. “Dismissive and disingenuous.”

        I assure you I’m not being disingenuous. I really, truly only care about specific research projects. I’m interested in literary history, in social history, and in computer science. But I really, sincerely have little interest in defining or defending a nebulous interdisciplinary field like “digital humanities.” I think there are a lot of specific, cool projects going on underneath that vague umbrella. (I would include #dhpoco in the list.) But if someone tried to create a department of DH at my university, I would say “sorry, don’t think it exists.”

        For that reason, I tend to avoid comment threads that are about “defining DH,” and I’m currently refreshing my resolution to avoid them in the future. I made an exception in this case because I thought it might be important to affirm my interest in gender, class, race, sexuality, and colonialism.

        I’m much more interested in all of those categories than I am in this dubious entity called “DH.” Look up my print publications if you doubt me. I’ve had a whole lot to say about the history of class, and a moderate amount to say about gender. You won’t find me making a lot of assertions about DH.

        I admit that I was deliberately ambiguous in my comment. But not because I hesitate to wear my politics on my sleeve. I love talking about left politics. Friend me on facebook and I’ll bore you to tears.

        I was being strategically vague in the comment thread to avoid hurting the feelings of people who have spent a fair amount of time and energy building/defining/accusing/defending this entity called “DH.” But — if you really insist on stripping away all of my evasions — the honest truth is, I don’t think that matters. I think “digital humanities” is probably a short-lived tactical alliance between projects that were separate in the past and may end up belonging to different disciplines in the future. I have no interest in defending it. Truly. Say whatever you like about it: I won’t be hurt.

        But I am a little hurt when people call me “disingenuous.” I mean what I say. I’m not obliged to mean what other people would prefer. I’m not obliged to believe that a coherent tradition “X” exists so that you can have an interlocutor in the thread defending “X.”

        • Ted – I see where you’re coming from on the topic of DH, though I don’t agree. I initially read your comment as overly semantic, but perhaps that’s unfair. Mainly, I was expressing my dissatisfaction with the trend in so many DH conversations of avoiding salient issues by appealing to some other form of DH. But I see now that DH isn’t a concept to which you subscribe. In fact, given your remarks here, perhaps we actually agree that there is something to the nebulous nature of DH that can get in the way when trying to have a conversation.

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  3. I’ve dithered for days about posting these remarks, reading with interest and disquiet the discussion in the previous post’s comments, though my threading is confused so in the end I’m not entirely sure I’ve read them all.

    Perhaps these comments will come across as digression, but I feel I have to say them, underlining some of the comments which have been made on race, feminism and whiteness. To do this, I’m going to fall back on Chicana feminist praxis, which means locating myself and speaking from that position, with the hope that from that self-situated ethnography some insight into my concerns may come.

    It starts here: My interest with digital humanities began three years ago, online. I’d been involved in online communities going back to usenet in the mid 1990s, a space where I’d met my partner, who at the time was working on a PhD in AI / story generation and had thought of in terms of communities of interest. What had happened slowly was my interest in Chicano/a literature and archives began to merge with my teaching and I became interested in digital pedagogy.

    When MLA came to Los Angeles, I went to several of the digital humanities sessions. I left with nothing to say, something that’s unusual as I’m generally a loud mouthed sort of woman. Most of us, men and women, understand that it’s hard being the only woman in a room of 50 to 100 men. For people of color, it’s just as hard to be the lonely only. That’s how I felt. Alone and painfully self-conscious. When I’m one of the onlys, however kind and welcoming the environment, I experience stress. There’s a fear of asking questions least I be seen as speaking for my race / culture and somehow reinforcing biases. I left those DH sessions and moved back into the Chicana/o Latina/o / Asian American / African American literature sessions.

    As a scholar of color, there are few things as rare and wonderful as getting to be in a room with a multitude of scholars of color. There’s a feeling of intellectual safety, that I can take risks without risking being found intellectually naive, or worse still, reflecting badly on all Chicana/os. I feel I can be wrong, that we can build theoretical castles in the air, find their flaws, send them crashing down.

    I attended DH sessions at MLA in Seattle and in Boston (including THATCamp). And yes, I stayed longer and spoke up more, asking the simple questions which trouble me in DH and digital pedagogy. But I struggle with finding a place, with feeling at home. There are a lot of spaces where I’m one of only a few people of color or one of the only women and they all are, to varying degrees, stressful. Much as I’m excited about DH, I think some of my reluctance has been to add another intellectual space where I feel like one of the onlys.

    If DH can learn from cultural studies and feminism to recognize and unsettle its privilege, to demand diversity of itself and its communities, that would go a long way in bridging these discourses. It means not waiting for scholars of color to find DH and ask us about it, but going to them, understanding and listening to their theories and practices and discussing with them how the digital works in connection with the work they’re already doing. We need to understand what it costs for a scholar of color to admit to not knowing or “getting” something and don’t take it lightly.

    For the Chicana/o communities I’m part of, live tweeting a conference or a session of a conference is still a rare and exciting thing, they’re literally dazzled when I do it. They think I’m a technical wizard because I can construct the CSS on a WordPress blog. Meanwhile, I know I speak English only. My code is as stumbling and ungraceful as my Spanish. I feel like Cherrie Moraga, trying to find a way to be a bridge and not being adequate to the task.

    • Annemarie, thank you for your comment. It resonates with me in some ways because I haven’t really felt like there was a space in DH for me. I haven’t really felt like I could intervene with my ideas or that I spoke their language – for me it was akin to witnessing conversations about theory in a graduate seminar before I learned any. In fact, I said little on the open thread because though this is ostensibly my site with Adeline, I felt alienated by the conversation and felt like it had been co-opted.

      Back when I learned about TransformDH, I was really happy to hear people speak what sounded more like my language. Before that, I didn’t even feel like I had the right to call myself a digital humanist. Twitter mostly did not help either. Working with Adeline on DHPoco has felt like a way that I could engage with DH on my own terms. It’s not without its own problems – for example, I am strongly opposed to tendencies within postcolonial studies to speak in a language inaccessible to most while purporting to care about vulnerable groups of people. But I still hope that Adeline and I can create a space where those of us who haven’t found other homes in DH or in postcolonial studies (and beyond) can hash out our ideas and make unique contributions based on what we bring to it.

  4. i added two bullet points pointing toward my post about indigenous peoples & minority & endangered languages.

    it’s clear in the comment thread itself, but I feel I should elaborate just a bit on the second bullet point that I wouldn’t describe my position exactly as “DH has historically shut down cultural critique,” so much as that, as Martha’s prompting paragraphs say, it has served as a place where those who don’t want to engage in cultural critique, especially along race/class/gender/sexuality/coloniality lines, can go to get away from it, to a greater extent than in other areas of literary studies. As many posters have rightly pointed out, there is and has from the beginning been a substantial amount of DH work that does authentically deal with what I see as questions of cultural critique.

  5. Here’s how I edited the Google Doc: I took myself out of the section “DH has always embraced cultural critique” because I never posited a genealogy of DH (see above). I changed the other summary of my remarks from “DH has always been cultural” to “There’s no evidence of a ‘refuge’ and scholars have no reason to want one.”

    That’s not intended narrowly as a remark about “DH.” My point was that the categories named in the title of the thread play a central role in the 21c humanities, and present huge opportunities for research. We may approach those categories in different ways — which is healthy — but seeking a “refuge” from the categories themselves seems to me obviously self-defeating. If there are a few timid souls hunkered down in such a refuge, I seriously doubt it would be worth anyone’s time to hunt them down or flush them out.

    I took myself out of the section on “identity politics” because that’s a phrase I deliberately avoided in the thread. I’m aware that some people prefer to frame questions about “difference” or “power” rather than “identity” and I tried to avoid taking sides in that debate.

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  9. Hoping to make the Google Doc changes more legible, I added some strikethroughs and moved a few bits around. As you make changes, consider how you can make your edits clear and obvious at first glance. Thanks!

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  13. The academy is disproportionately white and male–that is a given. Does it fall upon us as people of color to always call for a change in representation. Am so tired of that. I can’t do it anymore except I continue to do so by calling attention to it everywhere I can and then get dismissed a s discontented SAsian aggressive woman. Well, then so be it. Even, in my department, where most folks are quite sensitive about the subject more often than not one fails to think about diversity in terms of including other voices. We recently had a two day conference on Complexity with folks from various disciplines and including speakers from science, science studies, literature, media studies and DH. There was not a single person of color. And as one of my colleagues noted “Black folks don’t do complexity?” a comment both ironic and poignant. When I asked my colleague who organized the conference and who is a close friend, the response I got was we tried. My response, not hard enough.I was the president of CSA and there was a similar pattern to that even though a few of us worked hard to make it less so. I haven’t gone to it lately but I hear its still predominantly white. How do we speak to each other and not over and above each other is significant. Lets hope DH can change this.

  14. And in response to Ethan Gruber–my answer would be. Are you kidding. Poco Studies has been characterized by many as a self flagellating discipline from its very inception. Think about the significant essays by Anne McClintock and Ella Shohat in Social Text. Arif Dirlik as well. See also the critique of Dirlik’s essay by Henry Schwarx and myself. But also Bruce Robbins’ much more nuanced and well thought out critique of the tendency in poco to be our worst critics.

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