Disrupt DH?

NB: I wrote the first draft of this post the morning after Amy's talk. I didn't take notes at her talk, so I've kept the majority of what I wrote then to emphasize the immediate impact Amy Earhart's plenary had on me. I embedded some tweets to help demonstrate how powerful her talk really was. Click here for the link to the Storify record of her talk.

I'm sitting on a plane flying from Ottawa to Victoria, thinking about Amy Earhart's powerful keynote that ended the CSDH/ACH conference last night. I think I understand now why Amy was so intrepid in making her way to the conference, in spite of weather and travel challenges that turned others back. She came to talk from her heart to the people who work in DH across North America. In the best, most generous, most thoughtful, and at times emotional way she came to shake us out of our complacency and bemusement and challenge us to take responsibility for the place of DH in the academy. What she said really rattled me (as I expect it did to many in the room) and I feel the need to think out loud for a while.

What I heard Amy say is that we who think of ourselves as digital humanists, who work and teach in digital registers, have to think more carefully and critically about our work and how it is perceived more broadly in the academy. Indeed, we need to be more conscious about how we talk to and about one another and our work. We need to stand up to criticisms that are growing increasingly strident from outside and inside the DH community and disrupt the discourse. That word - disrupt - came up again and again in Amy's talk and in the backchannel around the room. It rattled us.


Hers was a provocation based on personal experience. Amy is a well-known and highly respected scholar, an Americanist whose specializations are Africana and African-American literature and 19th-century literature, as well as digital humanities, with a forthcoming book Traces of the Old, Uses of the New: The Emergence of the Digital Humanities (U Michigan 2015). She has also begun to curate a list of early DH projects as a result of the Digital Diversity 2015 conference. She spoke of going through the tenure process and her feelings of insecurity because of her DH work, and how she feels that now she has tenure she has the cultural capital to speak truth to power - not only to academic administrations but to us as well.

She reminded us that by nature of being within the academy, regardless of how marginalized and insecure we may feel, we actually do wield power, and that we must not squander it. Rather, we must use our power to challenge and to advocate, to fight against exclusion and privilege within the DH community: to disrupt the dialogue swirling around the digital humanities and think seriously about why we've become this lightning rod. We need to stop playing the outsiders, stop complaining about being misinterpreted and misperceived, and start taking an active part in that discourse.

I agree with most of what Amy said, but the challenge to be disruptive was hard to hear. Brian Croxall, Alex Gil, Toneisha Taylor and I had a brief back channel exchange about what this means and how we are supposed to manage it.

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Brian in particular resisted Amy's challenge to disrupt, stating that the rhetoric is unhelpful and that a rigorous dialogue about scholarship is more important at this point, and that the expectation of disruption is too much for us to take on on top of that. I see his point - so many have put their careers on the line by agitating for the acceptance of what we do: I think that Brian, Miriam Posner, Ryan Cordell, and so many others have been honest about ways in which they have had to serve as a kind of metonymy for DH as they re/shape their professional identities very openly - and perhaps not always with a sense of satisfaction. In the process they have sometimes placed themselves in positions of insecurity. And to be frank, advocating for DH seemingly all day, every day can be exhausting. But Toneisha reminded us that we are just one of many groups who do this all the time; I took her reminder as an important point that we should be careful about claiming an insecurity and marginalization that many feel so much more strongly than we do, and that we're far from alone when it comes to considering questions of inclusion and exclusion in the academy.


Earlier in the afternoon Brian chaired the job slam and noted that for the first time there were more jobs on offer than there were people presenting themselves as job candidates. But Susan Brown was quick to point out that only one was a TT job (and an advanced-level Canada Research Chair position at that), and that most of the jobs were terminal contract jobs similar to mine - designed to establish a DH presence on a campus, to in effect (I sometimes fear) sustain the perception that DH is fun and not threatening and that everyone should give it a try. Do those available positions really just sustain the unhelpful image of DH digital humanists as the golden retrievers of the academy. Do we really need to keep playing the role of puppy?

I want to get on with it already and work with people who are ready to engage at a high level of DH as part of their research and teaching. Of course experimentation and outreach are part of that model. My colleague Janine Glathar describes the process as a trajectory that involves much experimentation and many decisions about how and whether to proceed with work in the classroom and in one's own research as one develops one's own abilities and interests in digital humanities methods. She's right. It takes time, and interest, and encouragement to keep experimenting for all of us to get where we need to go. But let's be honest - not everyone should do digital humanities. Not everyone needs to conduct their literary or cultural or media studies research so as to be reliant upon text encoding or geospatial analysis or data negotiation. Not everyone is able to engage with humanities scholarship that is only possible through thoughtful and rigorous integration of computational analysis at the core of that scholarship. And it's more than ok that not everyone is interested. It hadn't occurred to me before that perhaps I present what we do that way (e.g. your work would be so much better if you presented your monograph in this way). I truly hope I don't, but there's a fine line between being enthusiastic and wanting to share that enthusiasm, and suggesting that one methodology is better than another.

I mean that we need to foreground our methodology/ies and theory/ies just as any other scholar does. I think this is one of the things Amy was trying to get us to see. The Big Tent metaphor needs to be put away; it did not help us. If anything it has made it harder for us to act confidently and not defensively. We unconsciously gave our colleagues the impression that even tweeting constitutes DH. That isn't even DH-lite. That's communication. It can be valuable, but don't equate the two. We have to push back and model the distinction, to be frank and ready to tell a colleague (even one or especially one that holds power over us) that this and not that is digital humanities. I don't know how to articulate a metric for what *this* is, but I want to help those who work to establish that metric.

The day before, Chad Gaffield1 gave a very different talk, one that was designed to reassure and ameliorate, one in which he told the same group to keep up the good work and that everything is going great. At one point he talked about the importance of training and showed a bar graph of DHSI attendance over the past decade. It was alarming and unsettling to me to see the spike in attendance over the past two years (in 2014 over 700 people attended DHSI in Victoria). You can't tell me that 700+ people are flying to Victoria once a year because they're digital humanists. Of course it's a training institute, so most are going to learn a new method or tool. Many are going to see what all the fuss is about. Some are going, I suspect, to report back to their home institutions that DH is not for them. That it's unexceptional and shallow. That it's a fad. That if it's just let to run its course, we'll all go find a home in computer science where we belong. That's all wrong. So what are we going to do about it?

I'm about to participate in my eighth DHSI, four of those as an instructor of the Digital Humanities Pedagogy course. But this time I'm raising the bar. I am changing my rhetoric. I'm emphasizing the importance of being intentional about high-level critical engagement with DH methods in a learning environment. I want to demonstrate to my colleagues within the community as well as the participants in class that teaching and learning DH is hard - it can be extremely rewarding, but it's hard. And it's at its best when it incorporates an instructor's own DH research. That's what my colleague Katie Faull and I have been doing and talking and writing about.2 I think it's time I stop reassuring instructors that digital humanities pedagogy won't hurt; that it's not about trying to find a cool way to keep a student from falling asleep over Shakespeare. We need to get past "just add DH and stir". I'm interested in the discussion that focuses on how a student will discover something new about their engagement with a play by doing a close reading *and* a distant reading. I want students to learn what it means to be a scholar. I want to challenge students as I challenge myself.

What I took away from Amy's talk was that I need to be more explicit about what I do, to be bold enough to advocate for and advance the work of colleagues that is important and transformative. I need to do more thinking out loud and get over my fear of offending or my fear of being perceived as unsupportive - especially when I feel vulnerable or insecure. Ultimately I think Amy's rhetoric of disruption and advocacy was meant to be positive and constructive. In the Q&A that followed she invoked the 90s Riot grrrl movement and how that helped reframe concepts of feminism in popular culture. In fact, by the end of the session the term #grrrldh had started percolating around on Twitter.

I can imagine how disruption is a means of pushing back at the status quo and challenging myself, my colleagues at Bucknell and more broadly in my research circle to use our powers for good (to paraphrase Katie Faull). Sometimes I feel that I have been skulking around: I go to SAA and I soft-pedal the computational analysis component of my scholarship so as to avoid the derision of that conservative group. I walk around campus and dissemble so as to avoid being perceived as ... what? A humanist? I have to do a better job of explaining what I/we do and why it's important. I have to do a better job of mentoring those who are right behind me and try to help them figure out where they fit. I have to do a better job of being inclusive - more in the sense of thinking about how to address issues of race, gender, socio-economic status, and accessibility when it comes to digital humanities pedagogy than in an "everybody in the pool" sort of way.

Thank you, Amy, for rattling me; for disrupting my sense of satisfaction and complacency at being surrounded by people who alleviate my feeling of liminality because of our shared vocabulary and experience. Thank you for offering your vision and sharing your vulnerability. You showed that you expect disruption of yourself, and I aspire to do the same of myself. Is the ultimate act of disruption then modeling the kind of behavior that you want others to adopt?

  1. Gaffield stepped down as President of SSHRC in 2014.
  2. We've presented and reported on our work at DH2014, at CSDH/ACH, and will again at DH2015; see Katie's reflections on her experiences this past year at http://katiefaull.com.

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