1) While there is quite a bit of scholarship in Digital Humanities that does deal with social justice oriented themes, in its early period the field seemed to be largely oriented towards digitization and analysis of canonical, Anglo-American texts (see my essay from earlier in the fall on “The Archive Gap”). Scholars like Alan Liu have pointed out the strangeness of the fact that while DH ideas and tools were being pioneered in the 1990s, many important scholars in the field seemed not to be very engaged in the intense conversations about gender, race, and sexuality (queer theory, postcolonial theory, and critical race theory) that were also occurring in parallel during that same period of time.
As a result of my own training and orientation as a scholar, I wanted this assignment to explicitly speak to social justice issues in some way. I believe that minority authors in the Anglo-American tradition as well as non-western authors are underrepresented or overlooked in prominent digital archives, so I had a strong interest in asking students to do a digitization project with an author in that category.
2) It’s been noted that many digital archives and digital thematic collections that tend to be posted online can have very small readerships. Is that because the texts being digitized are too obscure (I doubt it), or is it rather because we haven’t been thinking enough about issues of access and audience in designing our digital projects? What is it that the average web user might be looking for when searching online for particular texts?
My hunch is that the average reader isn’t that preoccupied with a precise digital recreation of the original printed texts they are encountering online. Rather, the interest is much more likely to be thematic (“poems about the resistance to racism”), contextual (“early black poets”), and presentist (“how does this matter today?”). In designing this assignment, I nudged students to consider these issues and build a site that might have an expansive and somewhat revisionist approach to the original material. In our DH class, we did present students with examples of digital archives that were invested in a textualist methodology (foremost being the Whitman Archive), but I at least made it a point to suggest that there might be other models for presenting digital collections to consider.
In effect, I see the project in its current form as more a digital thematic collection based on Harlem Shadows than a technical digital edition of Harlem Shadows.