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Digital Humanities futures: Conflict, power, and public knowledge

Digital Humanities futures: Conflict, power, and public knowledge

Amy Earhart, Texas A&M University: aearhart@tamu.edu

Reviewed and accepted by: Susan Brown, University of Guelph; Padmini Ray Murray, Srishti Institute of Art, Design & Technology; and Jon Saklofske, Acadia University.

Abstract / Résumé

This article interrogates tensions in Digital Humanities (DH) and calls for critical introspection of our practices. Arguing that digital humanities (dh) has become a site of struggle for the future of the academy, the essay rejects a monolithic understanding of dh, arguing that such a representation encourages tensions by hiding the varying disciplinary knowledge productions, national structures, and local contexts that form specific dh practices. Insisting on specificity as a counter narrative to that of the sweeping representation of DH's revolutionary change, the article suggests that the current analysis of dh as a battle between insiders and outsiders is a potentially destructive form of resistance. Attending to continued problems with the treatment of race and gender in the field, the essay argues that such issues are core to particular dh practices.

Cet article s'interroge sur les tensions dans les Humanités numériques (Hn) et fait appel à une introspection critique de nos pratiques. Affirmant que les humanités numériques (hn) sont devenues un lieu de lutte pour l'avenir de l'académie, la thèse rejette une compréhension monolithique des hn, estimant qu'une telle représentation encourage les tensions en dissimulant les productions de connaissances disciplinaires, les structures nationales, et les contextes locaux variables qui forment des pratiques précises en hn. En insistant sur la spécificité comme moyen de contrer la narration à la représentation absolue du changement révolutionnaire des Hn, l'article suggère que l'analyse actuelle des hn comme une lutte entre internes et externes est une forme de résistance qui pourrait être éventuellement destructrice. S'attaquant aux problèmes persistants du traitement des races et des genres dans le domaine, la thèse soutient que de telles questions sont au cœur des pratiques particulières des hn.

Keywords / Mots clés

Conflict, nation, discipline, ADHO, race, gender, tenure, disruption, power

As the worldview of code assumes comparable importance to the worldviews of speech and writing, the problematics of interaction between them grow more complex and entangled. --Katherine Hayles, My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts (Hayles 2005, 31)

At the 2010 digital humanities conference held at King's College London, Melissa Terras gave a plenary entitled "Present, not voting: Digital humanities in the Panopticon." As I prepared to present my keynote at the joint Canadian Society for Digital Humanities (CSDH/SCHN) and the Association for Computing and the Humanities (ACH) Conference at Congress in Ottawa, I was drawn back to Terras's talk time and time again. In her "Preamble, the First" Terras positions herself and her work in relationship to the community to whom she is speaking noting, "I'm aware that, in a room that holds 250 people, there are 249 people other than myself who are more than qualified to stand up for an hour and say what they currently think of the Digital Humanities" (Terras 2010). Such a self-deprecating move is not only a smart rhetorical gesture, but it also is a move that I see as intrinsic to the shared values of community in digital humanities. Terras continues her introductory remarks by positioning her comments within her localized environment, contrasting the history of University College London with that of the host institution, King's College London, emphasizing the importance of understanding one's relationship to the institution in which one resides, in which one works. The two ideals exhibited in Terras' talk, respect for the community and the recognition that the practice of digital humanities is altered by the structure in which it is enacted, were the values that I wanted to remember as I penned a talk that was, in some ways, deeply critical of the Digital Humanities. In this paper, the distinction I draw between lowercase digital humanities and capital Digital Humanities is crucial to my argument. The lowercase dh is the practice of digital humanities, the highly specific and localized way that each of us enacts the multitude of technological manipulations and interventions of the materials with which we work. The capital Digital Humanities, however, has come to represent a field that is monolithic and rigid, often exclusionary and uncritically dominant in its outward face. While I consider myself part of the digital humanities community, a scholar who regularly defends the practice, the small dh, we are at a moment that deserves critical introspection of the field and its structures, of the big DH.

As a trained nineteenth-century African-American literature scholar, I learned, early in my career, that successful scholarship includes an interrogation of one's own position. As a white woman who is interested in studying African-American cultural expression, I spend a good bit of time evaluating my own position with respect to race, rethinking how my cultural situation or my ingrained assumptions impact the way that I evaluate my subject matter. I follow research principles articulated by autoethnography, a research practice that requires the scholar to analyze the individual's personal experiences within their involved cultural context and which "treats research as a political, socially-just and socially-conscious act" (Ellis, Adams, and Bochner 2011). For the scholar engaged in autoethnography, research is not objective nor could it ever be so. Instead, the researcher is intimately involved with the research subject, and the researcher's personal experiences provide a lens through which to understand the subject. Others involved in digital humanities have similarly evoked the need for self-reflection and transparency. Moya Bailey's recent "#transform(ing)DH writing and research: An autoethnography of digital humanities and feminist ethics" squarely situates autoethnography in our current research practices (Bailey 2015). Jacqueline Wernimont, Chris Bourg and Bess Sadler likewise see such "self-disclosure" as "an important design and accessibility feature in feminist work" (Sadler and Bourg 2015; Wernimont 2015). By positioning myself as fully within the practice of digital humanities, in interrogating my position to the field of Digital Humanities, I want to make it clear that I see myself as part of the critique and, for every indictment that might be made against those in Digital Humanities, the indictment is personal as well.

In order to articulate my relationship to digital humanities, I want to highlight my digital humanities story, stories we all have and stories that we might increasingly tell to understand the lens through which we understand our work and our position within academia and the field of Digital Humanities. I came to the Digital Humanities by chance. I went to an undergraduate institution that was small and regional (read—not a storied program) because my parents believed that my education should be debt free, financed by scholarship monies. I received my Ph.D. in 1999, my scholarship positioned within the cross-sections of African-American literature, 19th century American literature, new historicism and race studies from a research institution that is not known for producing English Ph.Ds. My institutional history is important, given the way that hierarchies work in academia. I actually left the field for a while, working as a personal chef when my job offers didn't allow me to live with my partner. When we decided to have a child, I took on a lectureship—low pay, high teaching load, no respect, though my gig was much better than many as I had a yearly contract and a 3/3 teaching load. I was part of the temporary work force for five years. It was during my lectureship that I applied for the very first NINES workshop held in 2005 at the University of Virginia. That workshop launched my interest in digital humanities. In addition, I was the first digital humanist that was hired in my department, termed a "retention hire," and, as such, have remained a controversial hire. I have spent much of my time defending digital humanities work and defending my right to have a tenure track position, all of which makes for a skewed relationship to traditional scholarship and to those who, in uncharitable moments, I view as latecomers to DH who haven't bothered to learn the field before they lob critiques. My traumatic tenure case, which I will discuss later, has further soured my belief in the possibility of working within traditional humanities structures. All of these experiences position me in a particular way to academia and DH. Add to this my new historicist training, and I spend a lot of time thinking about my power and privilege as well as that of the work I do and the environment in which I engage with this work. I've learned to carefully interrogate my position and power, and I continue to have much to learn.

Such critical reflection is necessitated by our current milieu, where digital humanities scholars are increasingly viewed through a narrow lens of social media. In reference to her participation in the Transcribe Bentham project, Terras discusses Bentham's interest in penal reform and "his design of the Panopticon, a prison which allowed jailors to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the incarcerated being able to tell whether they are being watched. This ... prison was never built, but the concept has lived on as metaphor," a metaphor that Terras views as intimately connected to the sort of surveillance and judgment that plagues digital humanities (Terras 2010). "Indeed," writes Terras, "the Panopticon can be taken as a metaphor for Western society, and increasingly, online communication, particularly social media. Every time you tweet, do you know who is paying attention? What audience are we performing for, and can you be sure you are in control of how our actions are viewed and used? (2010)." Terras' 2010 concerns about surveillance have been realized in 2015 as DH is fully functioning within the panopticon of social media. As the academic venture is increasingly surveilled, as our scholarship is interrogated for worth and value, we must self-reflexively ask: What does it mean to be a digital humanist at this particular moment? Where are we going, given the current climate of power, position, and surveillance? I want to suggest that the Panopticon's relationship to digital humanities is complex, but that it will always start with us, the practitioners, and our honest assessment of our relationship to digital humanities and the power structures in which we work.

We are at a treacherous moment in digital humanities. Many of us feel surveilled and, increasingly, the verdict of surveillance is that Digital Humanities is a symbol, for those inside of the academy, of what is wrong in academia. We are a representation of neoliberalism, the corporate university, the attack on and dissolution of the humanities, and whatever else might be laid at our doorstep. With a cutting wit, Matthew Kirschenbaum compiles his own list of the perceived horrors of DH, which stem from charges of anti theory, to thick glasses, to "Silicon Valley solutionism" and to "an oasis from the concerns of race, class, gender, and sexuality." He even asserts that "digital humanities is something separate from the rest of the humanities, and—this is the real secret—digital humanities wants it that way" (Kirschenbaum 2014). These are shocking charges, and they have had a chilling effect on the field. Those of us in DH feel like we can't tweet something, blog something, or say something at a conference without a firestorm erupting. While folks in academia should be prepared for disagreement, the responses to DH have gone beyond disagreement. I could tell numerous ugly stories of how academic disagreements have crossed beyond the pale, but let me return to Terras because she gave me permission to reveal her story.

Given the current state of academia, where faculty might be removed from positions for political views, and where highly charged discussions often condemn digital humanities, graduate students, junior scholars and alt-ac scholars are increasingly fearful of repercussions from public disagreements. Both Terras and myself are in a protected position due to our tenure and, as such, are able to reveal what often is concealed for fear of retaliation. However, tenure does not protect individuals from personal attacks. In a Twitter argument with fellow scholar Adeline Koh over the charge of digital humanities being touted as the "savior of humanities jobs," Terras asked Koh for a citation of such a statement from a DH scholar. Asking for a citation seems a legitimate and appropriate form of academic debate. While a few scholars on Twitter provided some suggested sources, an ugly Twitter firestorm erupted that overrode discussion and ended in an anonymous bot tweet that told Terras that she should "Go get raped by niggers." See Figure 1.

Figure 1: Tweet to Melissa Terras

Tweet to Melissa Terras

What started as a disagreement by two academics over a request for a citation (academic evidence) turned into an anonymous racist rape threat on Twitter. The public nature of social media, then, activates multiple specters. Public disagreement in such a compressed social media format may lead to escalated conflict due to the problems inherent in the format including tone and compressed argument. But even more problematic, it seems, is that such disagreements are subject to trolls who view such debates as invitations to cause as much damage as possible, as is evidenced by this tweet. Whether this troll comes from within or without academia is unknown and unknowable, but what we do know is that the damage to the individuals involved in such conflicts, the damage to those who are bystanders who are emotionally invested in such discussions, and the damage to our ability to discuss contentious issues is dramatic and lasting. What is it about our current position in the Panopticon that is driving such extreme reactions? What this moment, and other related incidents, reveals to me is that there is a struggle for power occurring within and for academia and digital humanities has become a major site of this power struggle.

My analysis of the historical emergence of contemporary digital humanities reveals that such tensions are actually embedded within digital humanities, and, as such, we should not be surprised to see DH as a site of contention.[1] Our current digital humanities approaches (as detailed later in this piece) were developed the late 1990s in conjuction with the rise of the Wide Web, the digital humanities crystallizing into academic structures, and the construction of a new identity out of traditional humanities and computing practices.[2] Our current tensions might be traced to the way that digital humanities was constructed at this emergent moment, where our originating fields consolidated under the rubric of digital humanities and merged into a practice that had, at its heart, conflicting understandings of knowledge construction. When I began writing my monograph Traces of the old, uses of the new: The emergence of digital literary studies (Earhart 2015) in 2008, we were at the height of what Kirschenbaum has called the digital humanities "genre pieces" (Kirschenbaum 2010). Blog posts, tweets, conference panels and publications were focused on definitions of the digital humanities. I too wanted to engage in this conversation so I began to write a book that would historicize the big DH, a coherent field. I was so innocent. I was a literary historian by training. I was supposed to know better, but I had been seduced by the narrative of the big tent. As I began to research and write, the glaring discrepancies of knowledge production that were contained by the digital humanities forced me to rethink my underlying assumptions that constructed DH as unified.

Much current digital scholarship analysis, within and without the field, has defined the digital humanities within a contemporary framework and as a monolithic structure. Panopticons depend on such replication, as surveillance is easier to apply to simplistic structures, structures without nuance. Mark Sample has called the flattening of our field "facile thinking" which "ignores contradictory evidence, dismisses alternative ways of seeing, and generally places its critiques of the digital humanities in the service of some other goal having little to do with either technology or the humanities" (Sample 2014). In reality, the digital humanities owes a debt to a number of theoretical strains, as I argue in my recent book Traces of the old, uses of the new (Earhart 2015). At the same time, the digital humanities' ability to morph, to alter structures, whether theoretical or institutional, is robust, but DH is always already contained by the very infrastructure in which it currently exists, the academy. To argue that digital humanities is a brand new field seems naïve at best and destructive at worst, as it creates an inaccurate binary that leads to increasingly hysterical readings of the Digital Humanities as usurper of traditional fields and ways of knowing. Adam Kirsch's "Technology is taking over English departments: The false promise of the Digital Humanities" is one of many popular press anti-DH articles that have made waves within the academic community with charges of the "obviously anti-humanistic manifestations of digital humanities" (Kirsch 2014). The screed of Digital Humanities as anti-humanist is driven by willful ignorance of the humanistic traditions, theories and practices that construct the subfields of digital humanities, whether linguistics, literary studies, history, religious studies, philosophy, archaeology, or other disciplinary formation. But the charges of anti-humanism are also driven by our insistence on viewing Digital Humanities as a big tent devoid of the messiness of conflict of disciplines within the practice(s) of digital humanities. There is certainly a power in a field's bigness, yet the lumping together of various practices and approaches, of theoretical and methodological differences, ignores the long history of borrowing and modifying from traditional humanities practices and fields, and ignores the scholars who were traditionally trained in disciplines and then leapt into the unknown of digital humanities.

I resist the notion of the Digital Humanities as "big tent," a field or practice or theory that is broad, expansive, and inclusive, instead insisting on specificity as a counter narrative to that of the sweeping representation of revolutionary change. While some may see the segmentation of the digital humanities as counterproductive, I argue that digital humanities must be particularized because dh, as enacted, is so broad, diffuse and flexible that a generalized definition does not adequately address the various digital approaches currently in use nor how certain humanities fields are being altered by digital practice. As Tom Scheinfeldt argues, "I believe an examination of our different disciplinary histories will advance even our interdisciplinary purposes: understanding what makes us distinctive will help us better see what in our practices may be of use to our colleagues in other disciplines and to see more clearly what they have to offer us" (Scheinfeldt 2014). While I agree with Scheinfeldt that we do need to develop an understanding of multiple histories, I want to resist seeing multi-disciplinarity as merely a catalog of items that other disciplines might offer to digital practice, as such an approach suggests co-opting and exploitation. A far more productive understanding of our collective histories is to identify the borders of practice and to look for disciplinary overlaps that benefit all partners.

Digital humanities might be an amorphous and fluid concept, particularized in various disciplines, national contexts and even local environments, but the field is represented as a coherent body of practice by intact structures that include the annual Digital Humanities conference, the various global organizations that form the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO), and journals published by the various societies. Digital Humanities, as represented by the yearly international conference run by ADHO, is a Digital Humanities which elides the borders of practice, masks areas of dissent and normalizes the field to a particular form without a contour. However, the center does not hold and recent conferences have experienced ruptures, revealing the constructedness of a coherent Digital Humanities. What we find instead is that Digital Humanities is deeply divisive and fragmented. Such ruptures were apparent at the 2013 Nebraska conference where the 2014 conference announced an all-male keynote lineup; the 2013 conference where the awards committee admitted publicly that they made an error in the graduate student awards selection and had not considered gender,[3] resulting in a skewed awards distribution; the 2015 conference where the conference program featured an announcement of the all-male board of the Frontiers journal; and the 2015 conference where the opening set of speakers was all male. Scott Weingart's analysis of DH2015 makes clear that "The DH conference systematically underrepresents women and people from parts of the world that are not Europe or North America" (Weingart 2015). Gender representation in the Digital Humanities conference, while not unpredictable given the issues I have outlined, is a galling problem.[4] As Weingart's analysis shows, 46% of attendees to DH 2015 were women, but only 34.6% of authors were women (Weingart 2015). He goes on to argue that much of the bias is topical, though I would suggest this is perhaps overstated given previous issues at conferences that turn purely on gender. Ultimately, though, whether gender or topic or a combination of both, the DH conference has a problem in that the public structure of Digital Humanities does not represent the diversity of work occurring within the field nor its practitioners.

The problem remains, however, that such ruptures at the annual ADHO conference are treated like aberrations, temporary mistakes by individuals rather than structural to the makeup of the conference. In part this is caused by our insistence on understanding digital humanities as a big tent or a monolithic entity or field, ignoring the ways that digital humanities is practiced in its localized and cultural environment. Whether it is the way that gender issues are addressed (or not), how funding works in varying countries, the permanence or impermanence of jobs, and other such structural differences, my participation in the international DH conference reminds me that digital humanities is, in many ways, a living term, ever evolving, ever shifting in response to particular pressures of scholarship, the academy, national, political and technological contexts, and the individual. Instead of the Digital Humanities Conference, then, the conference is best imagined as digital humanitie(s), small d and h, and multiple, a conference that represents a field that functions inside and outside of borders. Professional organizations cross national boundaries, scholars move to jobs in different countries, and ideas are shared internationally. Yet formulations of digital work are constructed by national contexts shaped, in part, by funding and reward systems. GO::DH co-founder Alex Gil argues that a diversity of approaches is the key to accessibility:

We must not forget either that… [digitization] will not happen evenly across the world and even within national borders. I for one expect that some countries outside of the rich north will produce very innovative and striking forms of digital scholarship because they are not bound by the same institutional histories. For that to happen, though, we must overcome the same assimilationist forms of thought that anti-colonial and even postcolonial thinkers have combated. Perhaps those forms of scholarship will come from citizen scholarship, a secret hope of mine. (Gil 2013)

As Gil suggests, resources and support vary by borders and by institution. Given the influence of the localized academic environment on the formation of digital humanities, it is pertinent to examine the practice within a particularized context and to recognize that the international digital humanities conference, as well as the concept of digital humanities, is constructed and fluid, porous and alive.

The complexities of positioning the practice of digital humanities within the complex intersections of national and cultural context have been with us from the start. Milena Dobreva's prescient comments in her 1999 digital humanities conference presentation, "Overview of computer supported medieval Slavic manuscript studies in Bulgaria," show an awareness of such structures even before the merger of multiple societies into the Digital Humanities conference (Dobreva 1999). In her conference abstract Dobreva highlights how cultural differences impact digital humanities practices, noting that TEI encoding guidelines are narrow in cultural interpretation, unable to adequately represent Slavic manuscripts. She further focuses on the inequitable funding of digitization projects, particularly in developing countries, resulting in an uneven and inaccurate digital canon. Such structural issues remain hardwired into Digital Humanities, leading to discrepancies such as Weingart's charge of a "very clear bias against submissions by people with names non-standard to the US" (Weingart 2015). Again, the international representation of DH, held in various international locations and inclusive of a broad number of international participants, tends to hide some of these built-in tensions. Instead, as Weingart's work reveals, the reality is that the majority of participants are from the Americas and participation from Africa, in particular, is almost non-existent, pointing to ingrained structural issues within the field that not only impact representation, but also perceptions of representation. Until we are frank and introspective about the impact of national context on Digital Humanities, until we see where nation is obscured by conventional understandings, we will continue to limit our work and our community.

In addition to understanding how Digital Humanities functions within national contexts, we must locate and recognize disciplinary influences on the practice of digital humanities. Often represented as encompassing multiple areas of scholarly inquiry—from literary studies, to linguistics, to classics, to history, to computation, and more—the reality of digital humanities is that it is a practice embedded in the institution that fuels scholarship, the academy, which has made little progress away from traditional disciplinary structures. The impact of interdisciplinary groups, departments, and scholarship is growing, but most scholars continue to be trained and practice scholarship in a disciplinary manner. Conflicts within the larger Digital Humanities are driven by long-held, often invisible and naturalized, disciplinary approaches, methodologies, and values. Fields "do" scholarship differently. Digital humanities scholars have long operated under the false conception that new technological approaches and collaborative research negate the particularities of disciplinary training. We must reject such naturalized assumptions of interdisciplinarity in digital humanities as such erasure of difference, much like a normalization of nation contributes to current tensions within DH.[5]

Despite the increasing centrality of digital humanities to academia, digital scholars continue to insist that they/we retain an outsider status. For example, blog writer bitnetted denies that dh scholars exert institutional power;

On the whole, DH people are not as structurally empowered within the academy as the theory leaders of the 80s and 90s were. That there are some senior 'names' in the field is great, but the field itself is still heterogenous and developing. As was pointed out in several sessions, many DH people are grad students, non TT, or staff. Those who are attempting to do such work from the TT are stressed about whether any of it will count towards T&P, especially if they are of the making or coding variety of digital humanists. (Pannapacker 2011)

Lisa Spiro jokes that dhers as "in-crowd" is "an ironic label for a group of people who have long felt like misfits" (Spiro 2012). The resistance to seeing digital humanists as those who have some sort of academic star quality or power in the profession has become the norm, paradoxical in the face of the increasing opportunities for those who are visible digital humanities scholars. When Stephen Ramsay's "Who's in and who's out" (Ramsey 2011) caused a firestorm at MLA, how much of the shock was caused by the in and out question being situated in a community that has always imagined itself as outside? (Ramsey 2011). We believe, as Rafael C. Alvarado writes, that, "To a disconcertingly large number of outsiders, the digital humanities qua humanities remains interesting but irrelevant" (Alvarado 2012). I have a great deal of sympathy for those who view digital humanities scholars as outsiders in academia, given my own academic history. Yet here we are. The Digital Humanities does exert power within traditional academic structures. Perhaps the best articulation of the way in which power and privilege works within the system comes from Kirschenbaum who argues that while certain forms of technology can act as a "democratizer: the individual with a 4/4 load at an isolated teaching institution can wield influence in ways that would have been unthinkable in the theory-era," DH stardom and power "is not any less divorced from the real world balance of academic power, which (still) manifests in the form of jobs, grants, publications, invitations and all the rest of the apparatus" (Kirschenbaum 2011). We need critical attention to the fluid relationship of power structures and their relation to academic infrastructure, and we need dh scholars to be sensitive to how such power dynamics replicate privilege.

Current critiques couched as battles between insiders and outsiders are unnuanced and potentially destructive forms of resistance to what could be productive dissension. In 2012 Roger Whitson wrote on his blog, "movements like #transformDH (a group that has criticized digital humanities for its lack of attention to race, ethnicity, gender, class and sexuality) baffle me… if my experience with the MLA is any indication, the digital humanities doesn't need to be changed" (Whitson 2012). Whitson's dismissal of #transformDH lacks a critical positionality that replicates exclusionary practices. Much like those who continue to insist on the outsider status of DH, Whitson doesn't recognize when he slips into a position of power or at least comfort from which others might continue to be excluded. I suspect that this is because Whitson would have, when he wrote this blog post, been functioning from a negative position of power—he was a graduate student looking for a job in a dismal climate. We must, instead, remember that this isn't an individual error.[6] We have all slipped into uncritical positions of power. As Alexis Lothian noted of the controversy, we often presume "that racialized and gendered experiences in and out of the academy won't affect people's experiences in the big welcoming tent," an assumption that is patently false and, worse, damaging to individuals and to the field (Lothian 2012). We owe it to each other and to the field to point out these slips, to engage with the real issues such gaps reveal.

While some in the field might continue to see race and gender as peripheral to the concerns of digital humanities, it is clear that the very language of discussion in the field has often turned on the specter of race and gender in increasingly uncomfortable, problematic ways, often within the context of the debate over the value of digital humanities work. In one recent conflict over the position of theory in digital humanities, race as a trope was referenced by scholars who sought to condemn and defend dh. Jean Bauer's "Who you calling untheoretical" use of the phrase "who you calling" connects linguistically to accusations of racial impurity (Bauer 2011). As early as the 19th century Southern apologist and plantation myth author Thomas Nelson Page used "Who you callin' nigger" in his work In ole Virginia. Page recirculates the phrase in Unc' Edinburg and, throughout the 19th and 20th century, the skewed grammatical construction was used when charging a character with racial taint. So, in this case, I read the use of the phrase as a means of defending digital humanities from the charge of tainting the purity of humanities, that digital humanities couldn't possibly be charged with the dark stain. The lack of critical awareness of the problematic historical legacy invoked by the phrase is particularly poignant when we recognize that the blog is a response to Natalia Cecire's "When the Negro was in Vogue; or, THATCamp theory," a conscious play on a Langston Hughes essay critical of whites who frequented Harlem during the jazz age to view the exotic spectacle of blackness (Cecire 2011). I am sure that such a usage was completely unknown and unintended by Bauer, who inadvertently adopted the cultural use of race to represent contagion. Certainly Bauer was interested in highlighting the centrality of theory in digital humanities project production, which is, to my mind, absolutely correct. Digital project production is steeped in theoretical interpretation, from the interface to the code to materials selection. However, the tension between those trained in critical race studies, such as Cecire, and those who come from other disciplinary fields unengaged with the complexities of race means that unconscious adoption of such representations are far more visible to some and, at times, perceived as an indictment of the larger Digital Humanities, rather than lack of knowledge. While Bauer's article inadvertently steps into the use of the trope of race as contagion, too often the same form enters our contentious discussion of digital humanities and suggests that there are those that view the technological intercession into the humanities as the source of contagion of the purity of the humanities, a dark form that will violate the field.

This trope is so prevalent that it appears in scholarship that seeks to critique the digital humanities' lack of attention to race. A recent difference journal special edition, "In the shadows of the Digital Humanities," problematically includes essays that invoke the specter of DH as dark contagion. A dispatch from the darkest wilds of the discipline with all of the colonial implications, the introduction to the edition, written by Richard Grusin, focuses on the "crossroads" of digital humanities (might we all remember the devil and Robert Johnson) (Grusin 2014). Perhaps most baffling of the essays included in the issue is "Working the Digital Humanities: Uncovering Shadows between the Dark and the Light." Co-author Lisa Rhody seeks to dissolve the binary of light/dark by arguing "long-standing, unresolved issues not just for digital humanities but for the study of literature and language at large," but is countered by Wendy Chun's insistence on a binary, albeit a reversed binary (Chun and Rhody 2014). Chun's sympathetic critique of DH turns on a retaking of darkness, the darkness which is "the side of passion,""the inhuman." Clearly the treatment of darkness, of blackness, of the shadow as overly passionate, as inhuman has deep roots in representations of race and invoking such a metaphor in a critique of American culture necessarily utilizes such trope. Just in case you think I am over-reading Chun's metaphors, note that she says that, "The dark side, or what has been made dark, is what all that bright talk has been turning away from (critical theory, critical race studies—all that fabulous work that #TransformDH is doing)" (Chun and Rhody 2014). The charge then, is that Digital Humanities has claimed the lightness, a place that is without critical race studies, and a solution to such a problem is to flip the binary and embrace the darkness, "the side of passion," "the inhuman." To Chun, DH is contagion, is problematic because it is a "blind embrace of Technical skills," "the blind embrace of DH" (2014). Here DH is disability, is blindness. I take seriously the way that metaphors of race, and in this case disability, play out in current critiques of Digital Humanities. We should not be surprised to see such a treatment of race show up within such discussions, as the American academy is, at heart, connected to deep inequities based on race and class. Universities have deep connections to racial inequities; many are built on such inequities—figuratively, and literally in the case of those institutions constructed by slave labor. Yet until digital humanists directly confront the issues of race and gender within our field, until we recognize how our language is reinforcing the exclusionary impulse of Digital Humanities, until we call out our supporters and detractors for relying upon such tropes rather than relying on intellectual engagement, we will not be able to have the field that we imagine.

We need to engage with cultural studies criticism because it is within such criticism (queer theory, post colonial theory, race studies, etc) that we might locate a model of power that must be integrated into digital humanities if we truly want revolutionary shifts in academic culture. I believe that dh might provide a way to deconstruct power dynamics within academia if we want it to do so. By this I do not mean a capitalist or start-up model or a neo-liberal model, but a model that examines hierarchies that are implicitly built into academia and which are driving the continued and growing gaps within the system. I do not think that digital humanities is, by its very nature, anti-hierarchical. Instead, I think there are moments presented within the digital humanities that allow us to use it to dismantle systems, but we must be brutally introspective, and we must want to dismantle. While individual dhers are interested in such dismantling, I am not convinced that we have an organizational commitment to this type of revolution.

In February 2010, Willard McCarty posted an analysis of a Yale graduate student conference "The past's digital presence,” to the Humanist listserv. Referencing Ed Ayers, McCarty agreed that the conference might prove "a watershed even in the history of our field in the U.S" (McCarty 2010). McCarty's comment drew numerous responses to Humanist. Some questioned if we should celebrate such initial explorations just because they were happening at an Ivy when scholars on the ground at places like Maryland, Virginia, Nebraska, and Kentucky, among others, have been working with digital humanities for years, often at great expense to their own careers. As Amanda Gailey eloquently argues, "I view the late arrival of the Ivies as a worrisome indicator that DH will soon be locked down by the same tired socio-economic gatekeeping mechanisms that prevent many people with talent from succeeding at so many other academic disciplines. . . it is quite possible that a hitherto unproven field, within which smart people not housed at the most selective and expensive universities could actually earn influence and rewards, is becoming less egalitarian" (Gailey 2010). Gailey's response to the conference is one which is worth taking seriously. If dh is going to effect change, then we must continually evaluate power dynamics. If we do not, then dh will be subsumed into the larger academic culture and the revolutionary impulse will be denied. This is what I want us to learn from those who critique DH. I'm not interested in a dh that reifies current power structures. We have become anxiety displaced. We have skill sets that are unfamiliar to the average humanities scholar. We are largely self-taught outside of the system of the academy. Many of us that are known within the field are not from the fanciest and most ivy of graduate programs. Some of us, who don't have pedigrees, have received the coveted job that those who came from far "better" programs believed was rightly theirs. In others words, we have bucked the system and are gaining while others who believe themselves to be better positioned are losing power and prestige.

This resistance is very real and has a huge impact on those who self-define as digital humanists, even on those of us who have been engaged in digital humanities for a long time, who look like we have achieved the ideal situation in academia. Investigation and back-channelling has revealed that numerous well-known dhers have struggled with tenure and promotion due to the resistance of traditional scholars to their work. I had thought that our discussions about tenure and promotion, a discussion that seemed to occur at every DH gathering and every DH panel in the late 1990s and early 2000s, would have been resolved by now, but clearly we still have issues. I want to quote a few things from my recent tenure review to illuminate the continuing problems that we in DH experience. At my institution, tenure candidates are vetted by the department and then moved to a review on the Dean's level, where they are evaluated by a Dean's advisory committee (DAC) which will then recommend a tenure decision to the Dean. The Dean may accept or reject the recommendation. The committee produces a report, and that report is revealing. In my case, the report noted that:

Overall, Dr. Earhart has published "1 co-edited book; 1 co-edited special issue of the journal Digital Humanities Quarterly contributing with an essay and introduction; 3 peer-reviewed articles, two of them invited, two in the most prominent journals; 2 invited, peer-reviewed book chapters, one of them in a book that is among the most prominent book in the field of digital humanities that has been published to date, Debates in Digital Humanities (University of Minnesota Press, at the forefront of digital humanities theory publications,) one in the Oxford Companion to Transcendentalism." She has 4 peer-reviewed articles total, published and forthcoming; 3 peer-reviewed book chapters total, published and forthcoming; one monograph, accepted "as is" by the University of Michigan Press. (DAC 2013)

The report continues by noting, "Since 2008, Dr. Earhart has co-submitted and been awarded a significant number of grants (11 as PI, 2 as Co-0I [sic], 2 as Participant), both externally...and internally." Additionally, "Dr. Earhart has been invited to several conferences, workshops and talks, nationally and internationally, some in highly prestigious institution [sic] such as MIT, the National Humanities Center in North Carolina Research Triangle Park, Vanderbilt, Amherst College, Emory, Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Her work is extensively referred to in different scholarly venues"(DAC 2013). While this sounds like a positive tenure review, the rest of the report chronicles the problems with my work because it is not "like" traditional humanities scholarship. The report even ignores my monograph, a traditional proof of humanities scholarship, as the monograph, I might guess, is about digital humanities, which is somehow not deemed an appropriate subject. Here is the rest of the review: "The DAC was aware that there are not yet clear directions established on the necessary academic standards re digital humanities. DAC members requested and obtained more information and guidelines to proceed further with the discussion of the case." This affirms that my department included specific guidelines from our tenure criteria and the MLA and, when requested, gave the DAC additional information; "the bulk of Dr. Earhart's research was evaluated by the DAC by traditional means"; "Some articles were also qualified as not distinctively academic"; the monograph "while accepted 'as is' by the University of Michigan Press, is still too under-developed at this time to make the cut for tenure"; "The edited book, while relevant and important for the field of digital humanities, was considered not sufficient to make up for the book" which was in production, as substantiated by a letter from the Editorial Director of the press (DAC 2013). I was extremely fortunate to have a supportive department and a Dean that overturned the advisory vote against my tenure, but clearly the committee was judging digital scholarship, even print-based work about digital humanities, such as my monograph, against traditional standards and decided that the topic itself, along with dh structures and methodologies, were subpar. I wish I were the only person that could recount such a story. I'm not. We must continue to fight for dh to be understood as scholarship within traditional academic structures. Those of us with power, with tenure and with administrative appointments, must vigorously defend those who don't have such power. We need to find a way to institutionalize digital humanities work. We need to think about why an advisory committee might seem so threatened by digital humanities scholarship that they would ignore the home department, scholars in the field, written documents that proved a monograph was under contract, and even good judgment to try to rid the university of such work.

When I initially gave this talk I discussed such dh as disruption. Audience members, most helpfully Miriam Posner and Quinn DuPont, pushed back on this term, reminding me that disruption has been used by theorists such as Clayton Christensen in incredibly problematic ways. It is absolutely true that disruption in the name of innovative capitalism is a problematic construction and does not strike me as a useful model for digital humanities. Instead I want to think about how critics have historically understood the position of particular people within society, such as how black bodies, by virtue of being black bodies in the space of the dominant discourse, are perceived as disruptive. As Roopika Risam rightly notes, "Black lives, histories, and literatures historically have been viewed as disruptive to dominant cultures that preserve a white status quo" (Risam 2015a). While I obviously do not want to equate race and the long-term, horrific treatment of black bodies within our culture in any way to something as insignificant as slights against privileged academics who do digital humanities scholarship, I think there is something to be learned from the notion of disruption occurring without action, disruption by being within a space in which one is not viewed as part of the dominant culture. In the case of digital humanities, I want to imagine the type of work that challenges traditional structures of academia and, most importantly, acknowledges what Risam calls "the complicity of technology in creating and magnifying inequalities" (2015a). What does it mean that we are working within an academic structure that is built on hierarchy and inequality while at the same time we are actively trying to restructure those hierarchies?

Beyond the audience's legitimate concern that disruption is entwined with Silicon Valley's technocapitalism, many in the audience responded that I was asking too much (Croxall 2015). At first I was surprised that others didn't see digital humanities as a force of change, yet, upon reflection, I have come to understand that many in the field hope that the excellent scholarship that we conduct will make us part of the existing structures of academia, acknowledged and legitimated. Many of us feel like we are on the outside of academia, whether because we are alt-ac, because traditional scholars challenge our work, or because of the way that we work. Because of such a position, as Diane Jakacki wrote, the concept of disruption is "hard to hear" (Jakacki 2015). On reflection, I think that it is much easier for me, a tenured person at an R1 who has battled her way to a positive outcome despite and because of my digital humanities work, to accept that digital humanities is an agent for change. Understanding of digital humanities as strategy for disruption has worked for me, but I also think that it would be incredibly hard to hear if you didn't have a certain position within the academy.

At the same time postcolonial theory, queer theory and critical race studies have taught us that political work might occur in tandem with academic work. Or, as my friend and collaborator Toniesha Taylor noted during my talk of our ability to make change, to disrupt, "isn't it what feminist, race, postcolonial, lgbt scholars are ask(ed) to do?" (Taylor 2015). As Diane Jakacki responded to Taylor's tweet: "Toneisha reminded us that we are just one of many groups who do this all the time; I took her reminder as an important point that we should be careful about claiming an insecurity and marginalization that many feel so much more strongly than we do, and that we're far from alone when it comes to considering questions of inclusion and exclusion in the academy" (Jakacki 2015). I want to embrace digital humanities as the politically charged field it might become, rather than retreating to dh as merely a "neutral" academic study. By acceding that dh is just another research area, by denying that we might take on crucial issues of power, we will create just another area that, quite frankly, has little to say. However, I want to recognize that power differentials in the academy may mean that some of us have to bear more of the burden of this action than others. In "Pivot point: Mid career feminist academic" Aimée Morrison points out that "I need to acknowledge my own power and position not so much to seize it more fully…but to wield it more lightly. To fight less hard to take up space as the [sic] dragon-slaying rebel, but learn instead to use my dragony fire breath to make the clearing a little larger for more rebels to set up larger and better camps, use my wings to shelter them" (Morrison 2015). I'd like to use my fire breath to make the clearing a little larger and to shelter the rebels to come.

So many of my fellow dhers are helping us to find a path to more than disruption, to a new structure that is more equitable than that in which we currently work. Morrison and Risam both remind us that disruption cannot be our sole goal. Instead, we must strategize and build. Alexis Lothian and Amanda Phillips ask, "What would digital scholarship and the humanities disciplines be like if they centered around processes and possibilities of social and cultural transformation as well as institutional preservation? If they centered around questions of labor, race, gender, and justice at personal, local, and global scales?" (Lothian and Phillips 2013). We cannot back down from the fight for the direction of the digital humanities, for we do hold possibilities for all of academia. We might use the digital humanities as a political force for change within the academy. For those of us that view the digital humanities as an integral component of our scholarship, of our politics, then we must continue. At the same time, we must be honest about how each of us holds power, how we each replicate power. Without such brutal honesty, we might as well call ourselves humanists who use digital tools.

In 1989, Rosanne G. Potter called for a revision of literary studies; "What we need is a principled use of technology and criticism to form a new kind of literary study absolutely comfortable with scientific methods yet completely suffused with the values of the humanities" (Potter 1989). We might say the same about this moment of digital humanities. We need to work together, in the shared spaces, to develop working models that best articulate our hopes. To function within this panopticon, we must be frank and honest about our power. If we do indeed believe that digital humanities is transformative, then we must continue to excavate and to rebuild the structures that underpin our work and our community. Our scholarly work at the intersections of technology and humanities is important, but our work that challenges power structures is crucial. Yet to challenge such long-standing power structures we must be mercilessly introspective. We must be willing to accept and learn from criticism. dh might shift exclusionary practices that have long run roughshod over the best impulses of academia, but to shift practices we cannot become what we battle.


[1] There have been numerous conflicts which escalated in surprising ways, many occurring on Twitter and the blogosphere. What seemed to be blog posts or tweets regarding crucial academic debates have spiraled out of control, with sniping, personal attacks and even threats similar to what Terras received. Matthew G. Kirschenbaum's “What is Digital Humanities and what's it doing in English departments?” (2010) and Stephen Ramsay's “Who's in and who's out” (2011), generated two of the original conflicts, followed by Bethany Nowviskie's “Don't circle the wagons” (2012), Jean Bauer's “Who you calling untheoretical” (2011), Natalia Cecire's “When DH was in Vogue; or, THATCamp theory” (2011), and Miriam Posner's “Some things to think about before you exhort everyone to code,” (2012). William Pannapacker's The Chronicle of Higher Education posts on digital humanities, such as “Pannapacker at MLA: Digital Humanities Triumphant?” (2011), have generated a good deal of conflict, as has the Dark Side of Digital Humanities panel presented at the 2013 MLA (see http://differences.dukejournals.org/content/25/1.toc). More recent firestorms were launched by Deb Verhoeven's “Has Anyone Seen a Woman?” from Digital Humanities 2015 (2015), Isabel Galina, Elika Oretga, Ernesto Priani and Paola Ricaurte's “RedDH and Latin American Contexts: Self-representation and Geopolitics in DH” (2015), Alex Gil's “A Non-Peer-Reviewed Review of a Peer-Reviewed essay by Adeline Koh” (2015) and Roopika Risam's “Revise and Resubmit: An Unsolicited Peer Review” (2015b), paired blogs in response to Adeline Koh's “A Letter to the Humanities: DH Will Not Save You” (2015), the various blog posts in response to the Syuzhet package by Annie Swafford, “Problems with the Syuzhet Package (2015) and Matt Jockers, “Some thoughts on Annie's thoughts….about Syuzhet” (2015), Melissa Terras' “Why I do not trust Frontiers Journals, especially not @FrontDigtalHum” (2015), and, most recently, a twitter debate between Matthew Gold and Jesse Stommel regarding the funding of Hybrid Pedagogy. It is unfortunate that the conflicts spun out of control, as each of these posts were directly addressing crucial issues in digital humanities.

[2] I recognize that digital humanities has a much longer history, but the sort of institutional Digital Humanities that has drawn such critique has a much newer history.

[3] I have the greatest respect for the 2013 awards committee, who publicly admitted their mistake and corrected the error. We need more honesty in the field and should look to the awards committee as an example of best behavior.

[4] It is incredibly frustrating that our most visible arguments have been focused on gender. Given the near equivalent representation of women in the field, it seems that this issue would be apparent. More difficult, and perhaps even more disheartening, is the erasure of race from the conference both in terms of representation of delegates and in presentations that reference scholarly work that considers race.

[5] In my own home field, literature, critics have argued that Digital Humanities is an anti-humanistic outlier to literary studies, a misnomer that I have disproved in my analysis of American practices of digital literary studies in my book Traces of the old, uses of the new: The emergence of digital literary studies (Earhart 2015). Foundational fields in digital humanities will vary by discipline and national context.

[6] See Roger Whitson's recent blog post for his revised thinking about this issue (Whitson 2016).

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