Border Trouble: On the Frontiers of Digital Scholarship

My slides and the rough speaking text from my presentation at the Fourth Texas-Jalisco Conference in Education and Culture, March 22 at the University of North Texas. This talk was part of a panel, “New Frontiers for Research, Teaching and Learning: Digital Scholarship and Latin@ Archives/Nuevas Fuentes para Investigación, Enseñanza and Aprendizaje: Estudios Digitales y Archivos Latin@s.”

[Slide 2] When we discuss “frontiers” in the academy, what we want to invoke are spaces of discovery and invention. This is where change happens, where we can see the futures from our desks and our podiums, and where we can imagine a legacy from our scholarship that is larger than the efforts of just one scholar, or just one research team. But any student of the borderlands knows that frontiers are also spaces of conflict, the bright future imagined by one group may seem dire to another group, and new discoveries may be threatening to old orthodoxies, and those not pressing forward may find themselves left behind.

[Slide 3] Over the course of the last fifteen years or so, Digital Humanities has followed psychoanalytic theory, deconstruction, and new historicism (among others), as the latest paradigm shift in humanist inquiry promising to reinvent and reinvigorate the fields of literature and languages. This supposed renaissance has seen the vigorous implementation of vast digital archives of primary source materials, and the development of a stunning variety of digital tools for quantitative and qualitative analysis to analyze and extract data from these archives. A growing percentage of the already limited federal funding for humanities research has been directed toward these projects, under the auspices of NEH preservation and digital humanities grants.

As Richard Grusin, Director of the Center for 21st Century Studies and a Professor of English at UWM, cautions,

“institutional support for digital humanities by administrators, foundations, and legislators can work to conceal or compensate for reduced support given to the traditional humanities, and as such can contribute to the undermining of the liberal arts in higher education.”

At their best, these projects creatively advance humanist inquiry, putting the digital tools into the service of the core humanities disciplines; at their worst, they are expensive, tax-payer funded heuristic exercises, vaguely suggesting that “new questions” can be derived from the tool, without being clear what the humanities payoff is for using it.

One of the obvious problems of relying on soft money to implement the archives on which these projects rely is that the archives themselves have remained largely canonical, and in some ways nationalistic, driven as they are by Federal funding agencies, which seem to tailor calls for proposals to reflect the legislative tenor of particular administrations. [Slide 4] Just skim the list of flagship projects at University of Nebraska’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities: The Whitman Archive, The Willa Cather Archive, The Journals of Lewis and Clark, The National Digital Newspaper Program. These are the cornerstone projects for the Center, the bread and butter that fuels their endowment. These are good projects, robust humanist projects, with significant value to the fields they represent. But they appeal to a particular niche audience in the field, a niche that may, perhaps, be resistant to digital methodologies, but when they come bundled with, say, Whitman, they may be more palatable. [Slide 5] To be fair, other projects from UNL are more diverse. American Indian Treaties Portal, The Good Person contains a representative collection of Yoruba proverbs, and others, provide unprecedented access to non-canonical literary materials, and historical primary source materials. This is a trend in digital preservation and digital humanities projects, but as with any movement on a frontier, this trend has been uneven, proceeding in fits and starts, and is not uncontested.

The place of Studies area projects in the digital humanities, as well as the presence of women, persons of color, and queer scholars in the digital humanities, has been the subject of heated debate over the past couple of years. Digital humanities has tended to be hostile to critical theory, emphasizing the development of digital tools over critique, and allowing disciplines like history to revert to a pre-Foucauldian, indeed, a nineteenth century position that digital resources can offer proof for assertions of “fact.” [Slide 6] These debates recently culminated in the now-infamous “Dark Side of Digital Humanities” panel at the 2013 Modern Languages Association Conference. As characterized by William Pannpacker in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the panel argued that Digital Humanities:

  •  is insufficiently diverse.
  •  suffers from “techno-utopianism” and “claims to be the solution for every problem.”
  •  “a blind and vapid embrace of the digital”
  •  insists upon coding and gamification to the exclusion of more humanistic practices.
  •  are detache[d] from the rest of the humanities (regarding itself as not just “the next big thing,” but “the only thing”).
  •  are complicit with the neoliberal transformation of higher education; it “capitulates to bureaucratic and technocratic logic”;
  •  are support[ed by] administrators who see DH’ers as successful fundraisers and allies in the “creative destruction” of humanities education.

Naturally, many digital humanists don’t recognize themselves in these critiques, arguing that the Digital Humanities described in the Dark Side panel is a straw man that doesn’t reflect the real state of the field. But it remains the case that, with the turn to information and computing as core competencies for digital humanities praxis, the field has begun to mirror the lack of diversity of the computing and information sciences, in which women and people of color are underrepresented and undervalued. Because of the self-consciousness and self-scrutiny humanities scholars are – to their credit – prone to, awareness of this growing problem has produced its own heated debates, as in Miriam Posner’s blog post on women learning code, that pretty much blew up the internet for a good week or so and, in the comment storm that ensued, exposed a deeply entrenched misogyny in the boys’ club of computer science.

[Slide 7] These tensions are exacerbated in the Digital Humanities by the reliance of scholars on digital archives for doing their work. As with the projects described earlier at UN-L, traditional archives, and the mass digitization initiatives that emerge from them, tend to be canonical. For a variety of reasons – which archivists might argue are practical, but which are unquestionably underscored by ideology – it is easier to secure Federal and foundation funding to digitize resources that reflect the traditional Western canon, or which support conventional ideas of State or National identity and cultural heritage, than to get a project reflecting the history and values of marginalized or under-represented groups, whether that category is defined by race or ethnicity, sexuality, or religion. The converse of this is also true, and is an aggravating factor, that is, archivists are more likely to pursue funding for projects that they think will a) get funded, and b) have some degree of appeal to an imagined mass public beyond the academy. These decisions on the part of archivists are of course fueled by their personal biases and ideologies, as well as by the realities of the neo-liberal university, and the priorities of funding institutions.

This has led many under-represented communities to view archives in general, and academic archives in particular, with mistrust. Archivists often approach these communities from a position of power and privilege, as though the archive were doing the community, or the individual a favor by taking their materials. Insisting on traditional donation contracts, in which the donor must relinquish the materials before they can be digitized, and in which the donor loses all real property ownership of the materials upon donation, can further alienate potential contributors to these archives. Archivists must learn to adapt their collection development strategies to the values and needs of the communities they are attempting to collect from, and to approach these communities in a spirit of service, not from a position of power.

[Slide 8] An excellent example of a digital archive that has done just these things is the University of British Columbia’s “Chinese Experience” archive, which documents British Columbia’s vibrant Chinese immigrant community from the 19th century. In many cases, these collections are derived from the private archives of individuals, families, and community organizations, and, upon digitization, were returned to the community. The result is a vibrant, ever growing digital resource, for which the community it represents feels a degree of ownership.

Latino archives in the United States have been developed unevenly, and have largely not been priorities for Federally-funded digitization efforts. The U.S. Department of Education’s Title V Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program has funded some projects, like the CSU-Northridge Oviatt Library’s Latino Cultural Heritage Digital Archives. [Slide 9] And the Council on Library and Information Resources “Cataloguing Hidden Special Collections and Archives” program has funded several projects relevant to Latino studies, though this program serves existing collections, and does not support the development or acquisition of new collections.

Scholars of Latino cultural heritage in the United States should be anxious – it’s impossible to know how much material is being lost to scholarship and to posterity, and a vast swathe of American history is being erased by this loss. [Slide 10] I would like to suggest that some sort of clearinghouse of Latino collections should be developed, on the model of UNT’s own Portal to Texas History. The Portal engages community partners – local historical centers and archives, supports their applications to foundations and agencies for funding for digitization, provides a central IT infrastructure for the digital archive, and allows the partners to retain their physical collections. Imagine a Portal to Latino History that brings together the collections of many different communities throughout the U.S. and perhaps beyond, where scholars of the digital and traditional humanities, social scientists, genealogists, teachers, and individuals can explore the richness and diversity of Latino cultural heritage.

To make this vision a reality, the roles of historian, activist, and archivist to some degree must blend to ensure that this loss does not continue apace, and to bring together the communities that these archives must serve. In the corporate university, this blending of roles can be as dangerous as it can be rewarding, and archivists daring to step up and advocate for these collections should carefully take the temperature of their institutions before doing so. Training young scholars in the humanities and social sciences, and in the library sciences, to advocate for underrepresented communities in both the physical and digital archives, can only serve to enrich future scholarship.


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