Schultheis Post 1: Techpower Disparity

During the Q&A following Claire Bond Potter’s keynote address at the 2015 conference Women’s History in the Digital World[1], Potter suggested that resistance to DH may stem from an “intellectually conservative” population. Describing this conservative as an academic who prefers independent research, eschews collaboration, and champions for the continuation of the monograph as the ultimate standard of professional success, she went on underscored one of her address’s key arguments: every academic is responsible for knowing DH. My eye twitched. While the Q&A’s truncated structure allowed for only a cursory glance at such a complex conversation, there it loomed: the binary, requiring that I pledge allegiance to the dreaded conservatives or to radical DH-ers working to disrupt academic hierarchies.

My eye has since stopped twitching, but it wasn’t until reading Cynthia Selfe’s article “Computers in English Departments: The Rhetoric of Technopower” (1988) this week that I felt capable of tackling my initial aversion to the conversation I’ve described. Selfe’s article, despite being written nearly three decades ago, resonates today as she addresses the power dynamics associated with technology. While today these dynamics seem less likely to play out because of limited access to devices, the “darker side” of tech—financial and social costs—are still manifest in academia, and their presence disrupts the conservative-DH binary and makes clear that sometimes those who do not do or know DH are not fuddy-duddy scholars but rather are academics who lack techpower due to limited resources—particularly time (64).   Depending on the institution or moment in an academic’s career, a scholar may not have the disposable time to devote to DH, and as a result, the scholar may not be able to access or understand what Selfe calls the “multilayered literacy associated with computers” (63). In other words, to “speak” tech is to speak powerfully, but this discourse when known by a privileged few tips academia in their favor.

Admittedly, I’m in a DH course and working on DH projects because I recognize the power that comes with being able to connect the stories I tell to people, and since humanities programs should, in part, exist to explore the humanness of our fields and reach outside our academic community, we have to embrace DH or risk not only talking to ourselves but also contributing to the perceived obscurity of humanities programs. Of course, academics should make every effort to embrace DH; after all, it’s likely that we will eventually drop the “D” entirely, and rather than set these methods apart from our research, we’ll simply say, “this is how we do the humanities.” Yet, as Selfe warns, we must also recognize our own privilege and power over the conversations being had and ask ourselves how to mitigate techpower disparity within our communities.


Potter, Claire Bond. “Putting the Humanities in Action: Why We Are All Digital Humanists, and Why That Needs to Be a Feminist Project.” Women’s History in the Digital World. Bryn Mawr College: n.p., 2015.

Selfe, Cynthia. “Computers in English Departments: The Rhetoric of Technopower.” ADE Bulletin. 90 (Fall 1988): 63-7. Web. 29 Aug. 2015.

[1] I’d also note that the context of this address is particularly important. Addressing a room of feminists, Potter rightfully drew attention to DH’s disrupt potential and how feminists should harness that potential to invite more people into our conversations and research.

2 thoughts on “Schultheis Post 1: Techpower Disparity

  1. ebcousins says:

    I think it’s also interesting to look at the current binary you’re discussing in relation to the one brought up by Snow – it’s almost as if we’ve entered into a Saussurian flowchart, moving from one binary to another. I wonder if in the future, once we’ve dropped the D, as you’ve said, and incorporated the digital into the humanities, if we’ll be left with another form of binary opposition? Humanities (now digitized) vs……….?

    I’m also really drawn to the notion that DH can aid with connecting stories to people and reaching outside the academic community – I wonder if the dilution of academia’s isolation is one of the reasons for the polarization you’re noting. Perhaps not everyone is interested in bursting the insular bubble? I’m really curious to see in more depth what kind of connections and reaches can be made!


  2. georgie a says:

    I’m really interested your recognition that “to ‘speak’ tech is to speak powerfully,” a powerful sentiment itself, and the fact that many scholars do not “speak tech” due to limited resources such as time. I think that one of the most powerful factors of the DH movement is the continuing realization that it is a collaborative discipline, where rarely does one individual possess high level skills in the areas of scholarly research, archiving, programming, aesthetic design, social networking, marketing, copyright legalities etc—or, as you’ve highlighted, the time to learn many of these skills! Therefore for a traditional humanities scholar to become DH-savvy, it might require the acquisition of some new technical skills, but more so it could entail networking and cooperation to form new interdisciplinary relationships. This would cause increasing problems as to the authorship of academic and creative expression, due to DH projects’ blending of scholarship, design/programming, and machine cognition itself. As Erin notes, there will likely continue to be significant pushback from the insular academic bubble, where many are entrenched in the traditional behaviour of advancing one’s career via individual publication, but the opportunities for an increasingly collaborative academic community and reaching beyond specialized scholars are exciting. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!


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