Digital Humanities as Resistance

We spent our first year as DH Fellows tracking and discussing the blog posts that filtered through DH Now, and were asked to track specific themes. I decided to follow posts where DH and activism intersected, especially as the recent campaign, election, and administration made political conversations hard, even irresponsible, to ignore. Before Donald Trump’s election in November 2016, the grey literature of DH had had a slightly more intellectual focus. There were certainly many people thinking about critical theory in DH, but those advocating for DH as activism in its own right was not as visible of a conversation. Of course, there are some exceptions here, most obviously in the form of media scholars, and particularly those who incorporate feminist critical theory into their work (for instance the #TransformDH community that formed in 2011). Aside from these groups, much of the DH discussion was focused on how to study or support activists doing activism in the age of multimodal movements like Black Lives Matter. Not surprisingly, the discussion has become not only more critical but more urgent. It seems that DH scholars from all disciplines started to take stock of what we do well—promoting open access knowledge with a balance between theory and praxis (although not always an equal balance)—and found new ways to deploy those skills as acts of resistance.

What we see now is representation from a large group of digital humanists—archivists, educators, artists, historians, media scholars, librarians, literature scholars, sociologists, and others—working towards common political goals. Not only is DH facing a large-scale crisis over funding and resources (nothing new except for its scale), but, more importantly, over the emergence of a rising tide of fascism and anti-intellectualism. For example, conversations about open access have shifted focus from intellectual goals to political ones. Pedagogical posts are refocusing on ways to not only promote computer literacy, but also how to teach strategies of resistance in the era of misinformation. In this new climate, public engagement, critical studies, and activism are informing each other, and seem to be working to break down the disciplinary boundaries that have divided digital humanities into distinct fields of theory and practice. It is probable that the narrowing of these gaps is part of DH’s natural evolution as a field, but the current administration certainly seems to have sped up the process. This selection of posts that follows is a very small sample of the many groups and voices working to reshape DH into a field of resistance.

Beyond the hashtags: #Ferguson, #Blacklivesmatter, and the online struggle for offline justice (February 29, 2016)
This report from the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University represents an early, concerted effort by scholars to explore Black Lives Matter and other web-based activist movements. With attention to the various groups and platforms involved in the fight against police brutality, this report explores the nature of protest on the open web and how multimodal approaches to activism can work to level the playing field for oppressed groups.

Creating Culturally Sensitive Solutions to Digital Violence (September 29, 2016)
This post, from the Digital Media + Learning Central blog, announces the Center for Solutions to Online Violence. This effort, funded by DML, seeks to find new ways to address intersectional experiences of violence online. This post showcases the project’s PI, Jacqueline Wernimont who speaks to the importance of applying feminist theory as we approach archives of knowledge and spaces of digital learning in order to build trust and foreground safety. From Wernimont: “a person’s ability to navigate what is an increasingly complex digital life is really important…We have to attend to those costs and how they are differentially born by particular people first — not as an afterthought.”

Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump (February 2, 2017)
This post by Audrey Watters on Hack Education traces computing machines to their military roots— “Command. Control. Communicate. Intelligence.”—and interrogates the implications of these ideas on our educational systems. She connects the potential uses of student analytical data collection to prior fascist attempts (both in Nazi Germany and the US) to track, control, and eradicate groups of people. She calls for a reevaluation of the relationship between student and institution, and implicates higher education institutions within the growing surveillance state. Watters’ desire is clear: “Now is the time for an ed-tech antifa, and I cannot believe I have to say that out loud to you.”

Our Work, Our Selves: Using Our Tools for Resistance (February 16, 2017)
This post by Des on Hack Library School calls for archivists to realign their personal and professional goals with their political ones, and provides a brief historiography for inspiration. The title, a reference to the landmark feminist text Our Bodies, Ourselves (now a digital source for knowledge about and access to women’s health care), plus the choice to open with an Audre Lorde quote situates this post squarely within a long tradition of feminist theory in DH activism. The questions raised here are meant to inspire ideas for HLS’ first Twitter Chat, and represents how new groups are forming as a reaction to the Trump administration.

The Urgency of Public Engagement (February 26, 2017)
In this post, Katina Rogers joins a number of scholars in reacting to the anxieties of the Trump administration’s effect on DH, and on the Humanities largely. Drawing from her experience as Director of Administration and Programs of the Futures Initiative at CUNY, Rogers calls for a new framework of academia in which we no longer prioritize insular paths to tenure, but rather recognize and reward outward paths to work with and serve communities. She centers the relationship between “innovation, equity, and public engagement” as one that can transform academia from an ivory tower to a public resource. She calls not only for a cultural shift, but for a concerted effort to train graduate students to pursue public-facing work.

Foregrounding the Question (March 15, 2017)
This post by professor Elizabeth Lenaghan argues not only for computer literacy in undergraduate writing seminars, but to find ways for students to engage with questions of source verification. Her approach, in her words: “we examine the way that concepts such as truth, authenticity, and originality—though often presumed static and absolute—are constantly shifting and morphing in relation to time, context, and audience.” They focus on both identifying and creating “media hoaxes, plagiarism, and remix culture” in order to develop the skills to easily recognize these in their online practices. Although she has been teaching this way since 2013, she argues that it is even more critical in our current “post-truth” era.

Teaching Digital Rhetoric in the Age of Fake News: Media Literacy and Source Evaluation in the First-Year Writing Classroom (March 17, 2017)
This post by composition instructor Elizabeth Fleitz argues for a new conception of digital literacy in the composition classroom. She first makes a plea that we not take the idea of “digital natives” for granted by assuming they have the skills to both use and assess their online worlds. In order to provide her digital native students with the skills to assess web content, Fleitz employs the strategies of fact-checkers in the classroom. She argues that not only does this fulfill requirements for students to learn to question and challenge sources broadly, but will equip them to develop political ideas and identities in the age of fake news.

What is the role of the digital humanities in transforming and responding to the arts? (March 2017)
Art has largely been considered a realm of political action, while the humanities has largely been seen as one of knowledge production. This survey question posed by MediaCommons received several answers from vastly different disciplines—artists, art historians, ethnographers, ecocriticism, #TransformDH feminist scholars, and others—demonstrating the ways that similar concerns are connecting DH scholars across disciplines. One respondent, Jarah Moesch who identifies as a “queer artist-scholar” offers this answer: “Perhaps, then, these rigid lines between so-called disciplines are actually the ‘problem’…I am also wary of the idea that the Digital Humanities should somehow transform “The Arts,” that this type of scholarship should necessarily play a role in art, while not considering how art might also transform the Digital Humanities.”

How Libraries Can Trump the Trend to Make America Hate Again (April 24, 2017)
In this post, Jarrett Drake, an important voice for archivist-activists and advisor for the Documenting the Now community and toolkit, argues that not only do libraries have a responsibility to serve the needs of their communities, but that this agenda should—must—extend into activism. In his words: “libraries should be on the frontlines to fight fascism because the control of information and ideas is central to the spread of fascism, and thus libraries will be forced either to endorse that spread or encumber it.” He traces earlier moments when libraries and librarians were active voices against oppressive regimes and ends with three main calls to action: assert authority, center communities, and never normalize.

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