Monday, June 06, 2016

#MyDHis... (Text of my Presentation at DHSI)

(I'm doing a 5-7 minutes presentation at DHSI in Victoria this afternoon. This is the text of what I'll be presenting.)

Admittedly, I'm not using the hashtag quite right -- it should be #MyDHis. But I like the flexibility (and brevity) of just making it "MyDH"... 

1. I feel presumptuous saying #MyDH; I have until recently been more a kibitzer than a doer. But ok, I’ll own it. #MyDH, here goes #dhsi2016

2. #MyDH explores social justice issues as a starting point and as fundamental to project architecture. Not as an afterthought. #dhsi2016

3. #MyDH allows that people who agree with #2 might not necessarily agree on what social justice looks like. #dhsi2016

4. #MyDH encourages projects that mitigate the uneven access to the internet outside of privileged, western academic centers. #dhsi2016

5. #MyDH: Just as women writers were once excluded from the Canon, contributions of women scholars have been marginalized in DH. #dhsi2016

6. #MyDH is oriented towards communicability and teachability. Don’t skimp on documentation, roadmaps, explainers, and How-Tos. #dhsi2016

7. #MyDH uses technology as a subset of humanities scholarship, and advocates for all humanities work, including non-digital work. #dhsi2016

8. #MyDH opposes technoutopianism and worries about depending on commercial cloudware. I prefer presentism, realism, autonomy. #dhsi2016

9. The focus on #MyDH needn’t diminish the DH ethos of collaboration (i.e., #OurDH). #MyDH is a way of recognizing differences. #dhsi2016


10. #MyDH doesn’t need six-figure grants. We can do a lot with off-the-shelf tools, patience & a willingness to learn/ screw up. #dhsi2016


I would be more than happy to talk more with you about any or all of those Tweets in the Q&A later. But in the time I have left, I’d like to just briefly expand on Tweets 2 and 3, related to social justice. In the fall of 2015 my colleague Ed Whitley and I co-taught our first-ever Introduction to Digital Humanities course at Lehigh. One of the prominent units we lined up related to digital archives; what I discovered was surprising and disconcerting. (Incidentally, I wrote about this in detail in a blog post called “The Archive Gap: Race, the Canon, and the Digital Humanities.”) The essential point is that there is a huge gap between the archive frameworks that exist for canonical writers and those that exist for minority writers and writers from the colonial world.

There’s no doubt that this problem has been recognized and that there’s been a growing effort to address the conservative and canonical legacy of some early digital archive projects. But in my view, simply aiming to match archives of canonical figures with works by writers from the emerging canon isn’t sufficient. Going forward, I would be interested in seeing if we can design digital archives differently. Established archives of canonical figures tend to emphasize the neutral and idealized presentation of the materials. Any references to politics, and any specific points of editorial advocacy are carefully downplayed. What if we reconceived of our role as archivists and editors? Perhaps our role in presenting materials should be as much to advocate for the authors themselves – and along the way, offer actual interpretations of their works – as it is to present their textual materials. 

I’ve been aiming to do some of these things with a new digital project I’ve been developing in Scalar with a pair of graduate research assistants (the project is presently at a very embryonic phase). We aren’t exactly hiding from the canon – the project is called “The Kiplings and India.” But there are two ways in which our thematic collection might be different from earlier projects. One is that it emphasizes the extensive degree to which the famous Author, Rudyard Kipling, collaborated with his other family members, including especially his sister, Alice Kipling. (In my Tweet #5 I mentioned that women writers have been written out of the Canon; here we could say the women Rudyard Kipling collaborated with have been written out of the story of his emergence as a writer, and I would like to write them back in.) Second, we are designing the journalism component of the archive with an eye to social movements and conversations that were happening all around British India (including the voices of actual Indian people, especially Indian women), but with which the Kiplings themselves may not have had extensive direct engagement. The idea is that someone interested in issues related to, say, Indian women and divorce law (a topic which was being hotly debated during by both British and Indian participants in the 1880s) could gain access to useful editorial insights and archival materials from our site without necessarily having to see that interest mediated through the Kipling family.

To go back to teaching. After we talked about the Archive Gap dynamic in the DH class I was co-teaching last fall, I designed a collaborative class project assignment around a groundbreaking 1922 book of poems by Claude McKay, Harlem Shadows (which includes the famous statement of rebellion, “If We Must Die…”). Admittedly, there is already a pretty nice presentation of those poems in a project by Chris Forster and Roopika Risam, but it’s very textually focused and offers minimal editorial commentary. With my graduate students at Lehigh, I encouraged them to think about a project that might appeal to a broad constituency of readers, including undergraduates and high school students as well as non-specialists.

The students were given certain encouragements, but then we let them loose to make their own design and editorial decisions. What they came up with was surprising and deeply impressive. First, they retitled the project to differentiate it from a standard digital edition. Second, they created two presentations of the poems in Harlem Shadows, one version that corresponds to the poems in the order in which they were originally printed, and another version that presents the poems thematically. All of the poems are thematically tagged based on a set of tags agreed upon collaboratively by students in the class. The site includes a clickable Wordcloud of student-generated tags that leads users to lists of poems oriented around specific tags. They also generated a substantial number of contextual and biographical essays that help bring the poems in Harlem Shadows to life for today’s readers. And finally, students built the site themselves, including menus, graphics, and text. I directed them to use a public domain, “dirty OCR” version of Harlem Shadows derived from the Internet Archive. They proofread and corrected the OCR and produced unique pages for each poem in Harlem Shadows. (As a side note, if we did the project today, we would do it in Scalar -- but I hadn’t really gotten my head around Scalar last September.) 

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