Author Archives: cdeagon

Feminist Doing: The Potential of Lab Spaces

Reading about lab space, I’m struck by what it means to embrace feminism in digital, humanites, and media work. For instance, in Jentery Sayers’s blogpost “The MLab: An Infrastructural Disposition,” he discusses “how the development and maintenance of humanities labs must be informed by precedent, anchored in relations (e.g., with existing models), and understood as cultural practices,” which he posits as the reasons deciding to “share the MLab’s inventory in spreadsheet form to communicate aspects of our physical computing and fabrication research.” The emphasis here on relations and sharing evoke a feminist work ethic that is often neglected in more traditional humanities studies where a scholar writes alone and then tries to share work in the most prestigious (and, consequently, often fiscally and institutionally restrictive) publication.

Moreover, Sayers’s description of the MLab as a lounge continues to highlight a feminist emphasis on openness through sharing: “lending library […] Notes are added. Dialogue emerges in the margins […] several tackboards to share announcements, ideas, and work in progress.” Sayers is stressing the importance of open communication but also of space, which are concepts I keep coming across in my own work.

I work as a research assistant for the Stainforth Library for Women Writers Project, and we recently had a few days of meetings where almost the entire team sat in a conference room for hours talking, working, and thinking. The result was that everyone learned something new about the project, we had a breakthrough about one of the more puzzling aspects of the manuscript, and we all gained a better understanding of how to get the project to the next level. Although the team communicates regularly via email, being in the same physical space offered us a certain productive energy that we don’t otherwise tap into.

On a similar note, I recently conducted an interview with Gabriel Wolfenstein of the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA) at Stanford. When I asked him about how CESTA’s lab space has been conceptualized, he said that, “the conceptual space here is as horizontal as possible” and that, “The layout of the lab is meant to encourage that.” Wolfenstein, like Sayers, also emphasizes the significance of open space for open ideas.

In class discussions, we’ve questioned the importance and relevance of lab space for (digital) humanities work, asking “do we really need a designated space for work that we can just as easily do at home or our favorite coffee house?” After the readings for this week, my answer is yes. I think lab space has tremendous potential for a feminist way of doing DH work with its opportunities for open communications and the sharing of ideas.

Embracing “Situated Knowledges”: How to Do Feminist DH

Donna Haraway’s notion of situated knowledges as feminist objectivity seems to me a perfect defining concept for Digital Humanities as well as all academic fields. Twenty-seven years after the publication of her essay on situated knowledges, her observations, criticisms, and suggestions still hold weight. We still see “automated academic battlefields, where blips of light called players disintegrate (what a metaphor!) each other in order to stay in the knowledge and power game” (577). To illustrate this observation, I could point to Stephen Ramsay’s notion of DH as building, or the fact that many institutions don’t count non-paginated publications toward productivity, or the fact that scholars working in DH fields have been denied tenure. Clearly, we can see a policing of what “counts” as knowledge in our field. While I see the need for Haraway’s proposition in all disciplines, I think DH has more potential to make her plan a reality than some other fields might.

By some definitions, DH should be a community (here I point once again to Jean Bauer’s recent blogpost). Certainly, the fact that there is so much debate of the field and what it is and what counts as DH demonstrates its potential to be multifarious—at least, if the white, male, tenured professors would quit policing it. Haraway argues that, “Feminists have to insist on a better account of the world; it is not enough to show radical historical contingency and modes of construction for everything” (579). DH gives us new and diverse ways of doing humanities work. We don’t have to just have show what we know through stodgy academic writing; we can go beyond that.

I’m looking at Aphra Behn Online: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640-1830 (ABO) as an example. While ABO is still a journal producing academic writing, it takes a more feminist approach than many journals. For one, it’s online and open-access, and—as their readership map demonstrates—this allows people from around the world to read the journal. Also, instead of focusing solely on critical historical readings of texts, ABO includes articles on teaching texts and on digital humanities work thereby offering a more “situated knowledges” of the profession. Even their peer-review policy for submissions highlights their goals: “Because ABO is committed to community and interaction, the review process is partially open […] Our goal for every essay under review is to make it a stronger work through multiple readings, constructive criticism and collaborative feedback.” There’s no single voice of authority here, but rather a collaboration of voices working together towards knowledge.

For me, the interactivity and community that ABO emphasizes represents just some of the possibilities available when we take a feminist approach to DH. Subsequently, I see it as our responsibility as feminists and humanists to make Haraway’s vision a reality for Digital Humanities.

Brainstorming DH: Reproducing Material Agency for Human Experience

Andrew Pickering’s discussion of the differences and connections between human agency and non-human material agency has me thinking less about machines and more about the Brontës. (This is what happens when a Victorianist takes a DH class). Bear with me.

Anyone who’s read a Brontë novel is probably familiar with the importance of landscape and ecological environment in their writing. For instance, Catherine and Heathcliff spend all their time on the windy moors, and Jane first meets Rochester out on the road when his horse slips on some ice. What if machines could reproduce the material agency described in these novels—which is undoubtedly associated with scenes of high emotion for the characters and arguably impacts their human agency—in some sort of exhibit? I’m imagining a museum space set up with various interactive installations. In one corner, you climb a makeshift hill. At the top, a wall of screens depicts a moving image of the moors in north England while hidden fans recreate the windiness of that environment. On a pedestal, there is a book or a screen from which you can read relevant passages from Emily’s novel, poems, and letters.

I think it’s fair to say that this doesn’t seem like a very digital project; but if DH includes machine-produced work in a lab, could it also include a machine-produced experience in a museum? Doesn’t this project depend on machine-technology to recreate a human experience that would offer perspective on famous literary figures? I’m thinking of this imagined exhibit as something similar to the incredible DH project What Jane Saw produced by Prof. Janine Barchas at the University of Texas at Austin, which digitally recreates the Sir Joshua Reynolds Retrospective Exhibit at the British Institution that Jane Austen visited on May 24, 1813. The main difference is that my Bronte exhibit takes up physical space, but it still utilizes machine-technology to reproduce an experience.

I’ve gotten way off topic from the reading. Essentially, I’m providing all of this fodder to ask whether Pickering’s discussion of science and how humans and machines make science gives us a broader realm for what constitutes as digital humanities.

HuMANism through Machines: The Marginalization of Women in the Lab

Reading Stewart Brand’s The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T., I was really interested his notion of finding “humanism through machines.” I began focusing on how he creates this connection. This emphasis on the human goes beyond the continuous reminder that Nicholas Negroponte “would use computer technology to personalize and deeply humanize absolutely everything” (7). Brand himself highlights the person throughout this book. He persistently juxtaposes his descriptions of machines and programs with a human being who is either talking about the device or using it. For example, Brand’s description of Barry Arons and his computer secretary, his discussions of how future media will be impacted human behavior, and his account of the Hennigan School all demonstrate how machines can help aid our humanity by giving us more time, preference, and knowledge.

In addition to this theoretical association of human and machine, Brand literally inserts the human into his book with each portrait he includes. Notably, however, these portraits of very important people that are reasonably meant to add a human element to his discussion of tech are all white men. Where are the women in the Media Lab?*

Brand mentions women a few times. We get a brief look at two female graduate students in his opening to “Vivarium” (95). When discussing MIT programmers, he tells us that, “a number of them are female (one-third of the 1986 MIT freshman class were freshwomen)” (57). Last I checked Stewart, 33% wasn’t that big a number. He also mentions that, according to Seymour Papert, , “At Hennigan the girls play with computers just as much as the boys, unlike most schools, where computers are competed for, and the girls drop out of that game” (122). Papert also says that, “Girls find it easier, and they learn about gears quicker” (125). Otherwise, his mentions of women are few and far between.

I can’t help but see that both Brand and Negroponte’s vision of humanism through machines is really a vision of (white) man and the machine. If these are the people running the tech industry—if they think 33% is a good number of women—we need to work on how to make the lab a space for women too.

___________

*Obviously, I could also ask “where are the people of color in the lab?” and create an entire discussion on that topic as well.

Off Topic: DH and Community

Reading Latour and Woolgar’s anthropological study of labs, I am interested in how their emphasis on the relationship between science and the social realm connects to a blog post I read this week by Jean Baur called “Baking Gingerbread, as a DH Project.” As Jonas Salk concisely notes in his introduction, “One of [Latour and Woolgar’s] main points is that the social world cannot exist on one side and the scientific world on the other because the scientific realm is merely the end result of many other operations that are in the social realm” (13). Whether positive or negative, L&W demonstrate that social factors inevitably affect the scientific process. I think most would agree that the (digital) humanities—or any fields of study for that matter—are the same way.

So much of our reading has emphasized coding, building, and even theorizing as DH work; and much of traditional humanities work involves presenting papers, publishing essays, composing manuscripts—alone. As we’ve discussed in class, it seems that the human sometimes gets forgotten in the humanities. Somebody learned to write that code from someone else. Somebody presents that paper to other people. Social factors are inherent in everything we do, even those activities we consider solitary. Yet academia largely dismisses the social as less important than individual activity. For instance, literary scholars rarely co-author papers and, according to L&W, social factors inhibit scientists’ success (21).

Baur addresses this issue of the social in DH stating that, “DH should be a conversation, a process, and a community.  It should not be a checklist, a test, or yet another way to exclude the people that major structural forces already exclude.” Like BRANCH: Britain, Representation, and Nineteenth-Century History—which offers an open-access compilation of short, peer-reviewed articles by scholars from History, Art History, and English—the (digital) humanities should embrace the benefits of the social. Not only should we should support the idea of DH as a community, but we should make it about community as well.

I realize in reading over this that my post this week really doesn’t have anything to do with labs—although I think there is a connection to be made between the lab and the social that I’m running out of time and energy to make here; maybe someone can start that train of thought in the comments—but, nevertheless, I think the social is an important facet of DH to consider.

“Doing”: An Inclusive Look at DH

Last week, I wrote about defining digital humanities; this week, I find myself still interested this topic. More specifically, I’m interested in Kirschenbaum’s definition and—what I see as—his defense of DH: “[…] do some thing that is sufficiently noteworthy that reasonable people who themselves do similar things must account for your work, your thing, as part of the progression of a shared field of interest. That is what being a digital humanist is; it is almost all of what being a digital humanist is” (11).

Here, Kirschenbaum points out that Digital Humanities really is doing. However, it’s not really different from any other kinds of doing. Perhaps doing really is the most important word in understanding DH. As our readings have demonstrated, naming this field has been a process of sorts. We’ve discussed dropping the “D,” considered dropping the “H,” and questioned what to call the work of underrepresented people. But the one common denominator amongst DHers, DH theorists, librarians, literary scholars (what are we called anyway?), and we blogging DH graduate students is that we’re all doing some thing.

That doing may look different, but I think it matches up with Kirschenbaum’s definition across fields. DHers do all kinds of things. One of my personal favorite examples is the Mapping Emotions in Victorian London (MEVL) project, which gathers data from literature to generate maps that reveal the emotional geography of London in the nineteenth-century. Moreover, as a crowdsourcing project, MEVL is also getting other people to participate in this doing. DH theorists like Stephen Ramsay—despite not having a “project”—are building theoretical frameworks that help us conceive of the field, its possibilities, and its limitations. Librarians and literary scholars alike are doing archival research. Each time we write a blog post, we are also doing something that adds to this discussion of the field and many of us will be doing building (to use Ramsay’s word) of our own projects at the end of the semester.

Maybe I’m just an optimist or not as critical as a scholar should be, but I like Kirschenbaum’s definition. I like it because it’s broad enough to include a variety of things that are expanding and creating knowledge—and isn’t that the point of all of this?

Debating Digital Humanities: What is it really?

We’ve only had three weeks of reading for this class so far, and, already, I can see that Kathleen Fitzpatrick seems to be on the money when she writes that “every ‘What is Digital Humanities?’ panel aimed at explaining the field to other scholars winds up uncovering more differences of opinion among it practitioners.” I find these various perspectives about what constitutes DH (and what doesn’t) both interesting and thought-provoking. What is/are digital humanities, really?

For Michael K. Gold, DH “contributes to the sustenance of academic life as we know it, even as (and perhaps because) it upends academic life as we know it.” This certainly seems to be true of DH as a theory—as we from the debates of the aptly named book for this week’s reading. And, as Gold notes, Stephan Ramsay believes the its about “building things” and that “if you are not making anything, you are not a digital humanist.” I think most projects (of those I’m aware of) that label themselves as DH adhere to this standard. For instance, the Stainforth Library of Women’s Writing Project (SLWWP) is building a database of women authors dating from the fifteenth to nineteenth century. Kirchenbaum, offering another opinion, writes that DH is “about a scholarship (and a pedagogy) that is publicly visible in ways to which we are generally unaccustomed […] bound up with infrastructure in ways that are deeper and more explicit than we are generally accustomed to, […] collaborative and depend[s] on networks of people and […]live an active, 24-7 life online.” The SLWWP has a team of people (from different departments and universities) making a private, manuscript database available online—so this definition also fits. Fitzpatrick raises the question of whether DH can be interpreting as well as making. The SLWWP interprets data that can further lead to interpretations about the culture of women’s writing in the nineteenth century. And, finally, Rafael C. Alvara argues that “digital humanists are simply humanists […] who have embraced digital media and who have a more or less deep conviction that digital media can play a crucial, indeed transformative, role in the work of interpretation, broadly conceived,” and the SLWWP is arguably doing this work.

Of course using a strong DH project to test the definitions of DH itself may be slightly unfair; but I think it also goes to show that perhaps some of these definitions have more in common than all these debates might suggest.

DH Academic Programs: Where are they?

Reading Susan Hockey’s description of academic programs in DH has me thinking about the potential career opportunities this field can open up. It’s certainly no secret that the market for tenure-track jobs these days is bleak. So humanities studies graduates, equipped with critical reading, writing, and thinking superpowers, run the risk of not securing the dream job and not knowing what other careers to pursue. It’s an unfortunate situation to be constantly told, “There are no jobs for you,” but never, “You could do this or this or that and here’s how.” But I believe DH can help us find career alternatives wherein we can still exercise our very particular set of skills.

The prospect of still finding a career is one of my reasons for pursuing DH—it also helps that I’m sincerely interested in computer technology and it’s usefulness for archival work. But it’d be great if I didn’t have to pursue this path all on my own. Fortunately this class is being offered, which is already helping me feel validated in my pursuit. However, if this is the future of humanities (and top universities were starting such programs eleven years ago), why aren’t academic programs and opportunities in DH more prevalent? Why don’t we see any English classes cross-listed with computer classes? Why don’t more universities offer a certificate in DH?

It seems to me that the move toward DH studies and practices is a slow one. Perhaps what I see as potential for career possibilities institutions see as a fear of losing their surplus of low-wage workers otherwise called graduate students and adjuncts. It just doesn’t make sense to me that in the “Digital Age,” our English departments don’t seem to be taking more advantage of what that might mean not just for the field but also for our students and their future livelihoods.

Considering Unsworth’s Conflicting Definitions

Reading John Unsworth’s “What is Humanities Computing What is Not?,” I find myself conflicted by his argument. To claim that humanities computing is “a practice of representation, a form of modeling” as well as “a way of reasoning and a set of ontological commitments” and that it is “shaped by the need for efficient computation on the one hand, and for human communication on the other” seems to be a pretty solid definition—even if a little heavily theoretical. But I take issue with his idea that work “may be computer-based (for example, it may be published on the Web), and it may present very engaging content, but if it doesn’t have a way to be wrong, if one can’t say whether it does or doesn’t work, whether it is or isn’t internally consistent and logically coherent, then it’s something other than humanities computing.” I don’t believe this is the definition of what humanities computing is not, or that this type of work makes one a charlatan.

Given Unsworth’s definition of what HC is, can we really say any work that attempts to be HC/DH isn’t? For instance, I’m using D2L discussion boards as a platform for my students to write, think, and talk about our readings in a digital space. There’s nothing right or wrong about that; internal consistency and logical coherence don’t really apply. But I am modeling scholarly dialogues that participate in reasoning, etc. So, am I participating in DH or am I charlatan?

In my reading, Unsworth’s definitions of “is” and “is not” are not mutually exclusive. He broadly defines HC, but then restricts what qualifies based on what he considers important enough. I would argue instead that not all DH work is equally rigorous—perhaps not even equally important—but if it attempts to be DH, and I don’t really see how it can fail.

Work Cited:

Unsworth, John. 2002. What is Humanities Computing and What is Not? Accessed August 30, 2015. http://computerphilologie.uni-muenchen.de/jg02/unsworth.html.