McGehee Post 3: Academic Colonization and Digital Humanities

As I read through piles of Digital Humanities scholarship week by week, the issue of accessibility and who controls the conversation in academic scholarship constantly plagues me. There is much to focus on in this week’s reading, but one article in particular resonated with me on this subject. Amy E. Earhart’s, “Can Information Be Unfettered? Race and the New Digital Humanities Canon,” tackles these insidious issues of academic discourse.

In the introduction to Debates in the Digital Humanities, Matthew K. Gold states:

“Indeed, fault lines have emerged within the DH community between those who use new digital tools to aid relatively traditional scholarly projects and those who believe that DH is most powerful as a disruptive political force that has the potential to reshape fundamental aspects of academic practice” (Gold).

I, of course, fall into the disruptive-political-force camp. As a writer, activist, graduate student, and teacher, my submersion into higher education has been chaotic, bumpy, and full of questions regarding the actual, you know, humanity in the humanities.


The cannon of which Earhart speaks is something I have questioned throughout my academic career, even more so in the past 2-3 years as I’ve delved further into feminist theories.

Coming from the state of Louisiana, one of the bottom five in education, I found theory, at first, completely inaccessible, even with a bachelors in English, and there are still times where I find classroom discourse not only inaccessible, but indulgent and inapplicable to my relations with people outside of school. For instance, trying to explain theory to my mother, a sales clerk at Home Depot with a high-school education, feels beyond patronizing and more importantly, inane.

Watching my freshmen students of color internalize racism, feels hard to address in a way that actually reaches them and typically fails to abstain from the frequent whitesplaining that accompanies a predominately white, campus, especially when the required syllabus material tokenizes them frequently.

As I read through some of my classmates posts on Digital Humanities, the utter distance from which they write, the disengagement from the reader, reinforces in my mind how far we have to go in terms of accessibility. Even now, talking about my personal relations and views without evidential support feels like a political action deviating from academic standards and thus illegitimate.

How can we expect anything but the unquestionable praise and commemoration of what we political, academic writers refer to as “old, dead, white guy lit,” when the structure for academic scholarship, and academia in general, is modeled after capitalist, hierarchal structures?

This model is the very reason why humanities scholars pre-legitimize themselves, and why we must have specified literary courses such as African-American literature. The only reason to create a course such as African-American, Chicanx [gender neutral] literature, women’s literature, etc. is because they are excluded in the regular curriculum, reflecting the value of such writers in our current academic climate.

Further writers of color must legitimize their place among white humanities scholars, and women must prove that they are as competent as any man in the classroom. Student evaluations/FCQs, riddled with racism, sexism, sizeism, and other isms, are largely viewed by higher-ups as inarguable data to determine the outcome for many collegiate teachers. “Data” expedites this. Earhart encourages us to consider what happens when we take into account “scientific data” over cultural critique/theory:

“It was as if these matters of objective and hard science provided an oasis for folks who did not want to clutter sharp, disciplined, methodical philosophy with considerations of the gender-, race-, and class-determined facts of life …Humanities computing seemed to offer a space free from all this messiness and a return to objective questions of representation”

There’s this pervading, universal idea that as we move into the future, social equality can only evolve, when in reality, we see several holes in this notion, inside and outside of the classroom, taking place.

Earhart tells us that: “To understand the current position of race and digital humanities work, we must turn to the emergence of the World Wide Web. As the web began to gain popularity in the 1990s, it was portrayed as an idealized, democratic, and free space.” The natural expectation at that time was that POC would have a voice, but she finds, through empirical evidence, that the traditional canon produced by print scholarship has merely transferred onto digital scholarship. Rather, many academics seem to be missing the point and possibilities that Afro-futurists discovered quite sometime ago. Afro-futurism, in fact, is a boundless model most academics have yet to tap into, but I digress.


When it comes to contemporary, academic scholars in the digital world, it appears that change is hard and the endless possibilities of the digital have escaped many. Earhart discusses hypertext theorist Jay David Bolter’s, “abandonment of the ideal of high culture (literature, music, the fine arts) as a unifying force. If there is no single culture, but only a network of interest groups, then there is no single favored literature or music” (233)” (Earhart). Of course, academia has yet to abandon the capitalist structures that would level discussion beyond elitist language and standards of literature and music.

Last week, we [the class] discussed the computer as a neutral tool. Earhart’s article crucially dismantles the idea of literature as a neutral field, and the canon as a neutral set of data deployed and reinforced by the university: “Without careful and systematic analysis of our digital canons, we not only reproduce antiquated understandings of the canon but also reify them through our technological imprimatur.”

In this way, “the computer” is used as a tool of colonization.


Earhart lays out the original intention for this space:

“Advocates of the free web were interested in three ideas: “1) Access to computers should be unlimited and total; 2) All information should be free; 3) Mistrust authority and promote decentralization,” all designed to allow “bubbles” of information to rise from the bottom, sowing “seeds of revolutionary change” (“Battle for the Soul of the Internet”)” (Earhart).

According to Earhart, the digital aspect of humanities allowed pursuit of lost texts to be added to the cannon, but such projects receive little to no funding, additionally, “Catherine Decker argues that the canon crops up in these projects because of their funding and institutional affiliations” (Earhart). Implying that, through the university, such important projects cannot exist without white, male, contextualization, and that white scholars show no interest in this material without this contextualization.

“While there are grants to support work on indigenous populations, African and African American materials, and Asian American materials, in addition to others, the funding of named great men of history deserves scrutiny and even, perhaps, a specific funding program to encourage recovery efforts (NEH)…We need to examine the canon that we, as digital humanists, are constructing, a canon that skews toward traditional texts and excludes crucial work by women, people of color, and the GLBTQ community. We need to reinvigorate the spirit of previous scholars who believed that textual recovery was crucial to their work, who saw the digital as a way to enact changes in the canon” (Earheart).

Well said, Earhart.

It is apparent in Earhart’s article that this is the dominate side of humanities facilitated through the university, but in my own research, I found scholarship as well as many institutes working to change this problematic aspect of digital scholarship in the humanities. I-CHASS (Institute for Computing in Humanities, Art, and Social Sciences) is one of many DH institutes facilitating projects around these controversial topics. Projects such as,  “Language Prescriptivism,” “Climate Change and Native Cultures,” “The Cartography of American Colonization Database (CACD),” and so on.

Again, I reminded of Earharts call to analyze the content behind the collected data. Such groups have a right to their own narrative, and deserve the same canonization as the old, dead, white guy scholars. Bringing attention to work by POC, women, and GLBTQ is not enough–we must engage with the humanity in digital humanities. We must assign the same value to personal narrative that we give to scholarly articles, just as we must value the humanities as much as we value the sciences. We must let people speak their truths without contextualization. We must see people the way they want to be seen. We must end this translation for purposes of capitalist digestion, production, and financial gain. We must end the removal of the human from humanities.

Works Cited:

Earhart, Amy E. (2012). “Can Information Be Unfettered? Race and the New Digital Humanities Canon.” In Debates in Digital Humanities, edited by M. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


One thought on “McGehee Post 3: Academic Colonization and Digital Humanities

  1. cdeagon says:

    I appreciate your discussion of accessibility in the academy and where DH fits into that. As a feminist scholar, I think about these issues often. And while I realize DH has its own set of accessibility issues–from funding, to computer devices and programs, to technical knowledge/skill, etc.–it also seems to me that DH also breaks down some of the academic hierarchy (or at least has vast potential to do so). For instance, many more traditional scholars (and tenure review boards) still view print publications and independent work as the end-all-be-all. DH, however, encourages digital publications and collaborative work. In other words, DH seems to see value in (some) work that has been under- or devalued by high academics. Subsequently, I think DH–as the rebel child of academic work–really does have the potential to “end the removal of the human from humanities.”

    Liked by 1 person

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