Week 1: Question 2 - DH's Genealogies
  • Q2: Liu provides an important genealogy of the field debates between cultural criticism and New Criticism, and the way in which the close/distant reading matrix reshapes this debate. What would you add to his genealogy?
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  • @adelinekoh asked me to drop by! I can't respond to a lot of this conversation, but I can respond to some parts. I'll note that I've blogged in some form or another since 1998 (back when we called them "web journals," ha ha), and I co-author Threadbared, a research blog on fashion and beauty, but haven't posted new material (interviews yes, new writing, no) since two springs ago, for one reason or another. I am, however, not a digital humanities scholar (as in, not my field of inquiry).

    Some months ago, an essay circulated on FB encouraging junior scholars to blog and tweet in order to raise their profile as "public intellectuals" and demonstrate "public relevance." There are some things that bother me in such a call, not least among them the measures through which "relevance" are determined. As someone who has a semi-well-known public research blog, I can attest that it required a lot of ongoing labor condensed into short increments of time, often in order to respond to a news item that caught "public attention" for a brief moment (e.g., "hipster headdresses"). The time frame requires constant blogging in order to maintain presence as well as "relevance," and if you are adjuncting or on the tenure-track (on top of whatever personal obligations you might have), finding the "spare" time is no easy feat. One of the reasons I stopped blogging consistently was because I had to finish my manuscript, and prepare for tenure review. But another reason is my belief that some arguments require time to unfold and deepen; and the tempo of blogging doesn't allow for this unfolding and deepening, and might even cut it short. Furthermore, there are no standards in place for counting this labor as intellectual productivity for tenure, and likely there won't be for a long, long time, seeing as how existing standards for tenure are already so specious and arbitrary. 

    Which brings me to another argument about compensation and precarity. As is, writers and journalists are hard-pressed in this moment to be paid for their labor. Increasingly, digital platforms like the Huffington Post are demanding their labor in exchange for nothing more than a byline. What would it mean if junior scholars are encouraged to participate in this same economy for reasons of "public relevance"? Not only would their labor also be uncompensated, but as writers and journalists increasingly refuse to write for nothing, and call upon others to refuse to traffic those sites that demand such labor for nothing, it would not serve anyone but those platforms to push junior scholars into that void. 
  • Not to mention an "excuse" to continue perpetuating their marginalized position, @roopikarisam
  • What about a reference to what came after May 68 in the context of cultural Sudies: the Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s? Berube's done some useful writing analyzing their impact. Or, some acknowledgement about the tensions that pervade ethnic studies/area studies/postcolonial studies?
  • Great comments Vivian! Could you give some specific references? How would this help broaden Liu's argument?
  • Picking up on Vivian's point about tensions in ethnic-etc studies, that's what I was thinking about too.  As a scholar of Native American literature, I've never lost much sleep over close-v-distant kinds of arguments (except in the occasional department meeting, where close reading is invoked as though it amounts to the one and only way to "appreciate" "Great Literature").  What seems to preoccupy my immediate colleagues more is the apparent oscillation between identity-based (or tribal-national) scholarship and more "universalist" or "cosmopolitan" approaches.

    So I wonder how those tensions are underwriting DH work.  Given that large-scale, machine-assisted readings call for just that--large scales, and machines to assist--do you all know: how many such projects are being devoted to the writing of people of color? 
  • hmmm well as a historian of course I'm going to have a very different genealogy as much as we all loved the historicist turn in literature.  Sharon Leon has given what I think a FAB overview of how digital history evolved in a talk at Rice (on youtube).  One of the things that is hardest for me in DH is the heavy lit bias.  Honestly, I didn't "see" my intellectual genealogy in that part of the article.

    However, there are lots of similar issues, such as those raised by Ssenier.  I do worry a lot that "canonical" history topics (i.e. civil war) are getting more work done than the histories that emerged out of social history of the 1970s.  At the Bryn Mawr women's history in the digital world I did hear lots of promising work being done with "machine-assisted" analysis of sources (our version of reading texts) which gives me hope that more projects that focus on diverse topics will emerge from digital history
  • I share @professmoravec's concerns about canonicity in terms of literature. When I think about prominent projects like the Walt Whitman (and there are others on canonical writers) or look at NEH grant lists, I worry that DH replicates knowledge value hierarchies of the canon. Yet, there is so much room to do more. For example, Adeline and I are working on a project she founded, Digitizing Chinese Englishmen (http://chineseenglishmen.adelinekoh.org/) to think through how digitizing and academic commentary can be marshaled to bring new texts, particularly from Southeast Asia, into conversation. As we know firsthand, undertaking a project like this with little support and with the range of other responsibilities we both have means we have to move at a snail's pace. 
  • not to mention the blocks on copyright for those of us who want to work in 20th c. literature. my c├ęsaire project is 4 years in the making now, and i have tons of behind the scenes work to show for it, but it would be nice to hit the stage at some point. at the MLA13 I argued that we should seriously consider shadow libraries and p2p as viable ways of doing scholarship. we have many colleagues in countries with less than ideal internet and governments who do LGBT and race scholarship under the radar using email and intranets. it doesn't have to be fancy. it doesn't have to get us tenure (make sure you do other things to get you tenure). guerrilla DH if you will.
  • You're absolutely right, @elotroalex. A friend has created a fantastic Omeka site using materials from Emory's special collections (at the direction of people at Emory) but the library's IP lawyer won't let it go live. She can use it for her portfolio by giving people logins, but it's not allowed to be public - and these are materials that Emory owns, some of which they hold the rights. 

    As for your point about how the work doesn't have to get us tenure, those of us who aren't hired for DH positions are hard-pressed to figure out how to make it count. (And, from what I hear, so are the people hired for DH positions sometimes). I agree that at the level of information exchange and knowledge production, the guerilla approach is effective. But then it can't really begin to solve larger problems about what forms of DH knowledge/projects are valued. All of this to say, it seems like a multi-pronged approach is necessary here.


  • Alex and Roopsi, this makes me think of the many ways in which poco studies itself has been neutered for the purposes of P&T committees and the academy. It sounds like you're suggesting that pocoDH should have a more activist role than academic poco? 
  • we can definitely do without the agon of our counterparts who are trapped in the prestige wars. i say follow the risk takers and merrymakers (says the scholar/librarian). it helps that our risks are not that grave in the grand scheme of things. we all know scholars who are in jail for speaking out against their governments. i remember when i started in dh all the what is dh?s, all the who's ins, who's outs and what counts. i did notice something was a bit imbalanced in the beloved subject matters and the racial allegiances of most practitioners. i didn't know why then, learning as i go now.

    when i started #arounddh i knew i was taking a risk. picking 80 projects from all over the world leaves 8000 out after all. at the same time, i knew that the "all over the world" part would be a way of redefining dh without having to answer the question. we now have an editorial team with an editor from every major region of the planet. like Roopsi taking ownership of the dh moniquer. we can take ownership at all times of dh itself by creating or aggregating projects (cheap and expensive). like the man by heaven's door in the jewish legend or the purloined letter on the table. 

    i don't know if we can get our funders to see proposals through our optic. i don't know many of them who share our sensibility and our reading adventures. same goes for departments, who in addition are still caught up in haunted houses. i love this house, the summer dhpoco house. not haunted at all. maybe those who bestow will see how beautiful it is. it would be nice if they do, but i wouldn't wait for them. 
  • You know I'm all for a "just do it" ethos for DH, but I think we have to (I can't believe I'm saying this) tools or at least resources to help those who want to just do it, but don't know where to begin. I've always been really inspired by the DH-on-a-stick project, where we can provide DH tools and other resources on a memory stick to bring into places where there might not be consistent internet access or heavy censorship. When even taking pictures becomes a political act of defiance, "just do it" can sometimes be an immense act of bravery. 

    I guess I'm still entrenched in the traditional ways of thinking about academia and academic work; just do it seems just as terrifying to me (which is ridiculous, I know). Perhaps this is the kind of de-colonizing, at least of the Western academic mindset that I'm thinking of. 
  • @ReadyWriting: Not at all, many people I know are in the same boat, and are also wondering to what extent these demands also relate to the "scope creep" of our professions. Mimi Thi Nguyen has made some excellent points to me privately about the doubts she feels about "making" our younger scholars blog/use social media etc. as academic labor, but not actually "counting" that labor for P&T. All of this points to why this is such a difficult issue. 
  • Yeah, and I'll bring up Ernesto's piece on the pressure to become a "Super-Humanist" who is expected to be able to do all the things (http://hastac.org/blogs/ernesto-priego/2012/10/22/various-shades-digital-literacy-new-digital-divides). 

    Which things will count? Which things won't? There's being an open and public intellectual and scholar, and then there are those things that we can't/shouldn't do because it doesn't pay, either immediately and often even down the line. 

    And this idea of being able to do all-the-things also then creates a closed version of DH where only certain people (with privilege) are allowed to the table. Which comes back around to Alex's comment. 
  • @MimiTNguyen I'm happy you jumped in - love Threadbared! Over at Emory, there has been a huge push for public scholarship. I ended up giving a talk on how to use Twitter effectively on a panel on social media and public scholarship, and the entire audience was grad students. Meanwhile, the faculty who tended to engage in public scholarship (and social media) at Emory are ones who already had a reputation. We have some downright resistance too - I was giving a talk to new grad students and mentioned Twitter, only to get the smackdown of all smackdowns. I still maintain that Twitter has been an incredibly important networking tool (#dhpoco is an outcome of it!) but I have seen rewards from Twitter (collaborations, opportunities, friends) that are worth it. Conversely, it's hard for me to see how blogging into the void as a junior scholar has the same value - except if by blogging I'm able to figure ideas out for myself.

    It's this feeling that makes me grouchy about DH that doesn't "count" for our tenure cases because on one hand I agree with Alex that those of us playing with DH on the margins need to embrace a Just Do It ethos - or it won't get done. But it's so often the people in the margins who have the burden of educating the majority (without compensation or recognition for the contributions).
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  • Hi dhpoco. I apologize for the delayed response.
    As a literary practitioner, I value word economy and understand the potential of close readings and how close readings can real some of the largest glitches in the hegemonic matrix, and illustrate the cultural complexities that are often overlooked in distant readings.

    I am using a close reading approach to a DH research project that I am working on. The project examines how digital images of Black women influence popular culture's perceptions of beauty and ethnic femininity. The research is a close reading of the politics of physical appearances. I aim to embrace Lui's suggestions of framing my closely read conclusions into critical discussions about "the power, finance, and other governance protocols of the world." One prong of my research question hopes to frame how digital images of Black women shape the cosmetic industry or continue to create binary standards beauty rooted in racial stereotypes/sciences. These binary standards of beauty have a 400 year history in the Western World and fuel billions of industries from commercial publishing to pharmaceutical retail chains. This binary standard of beauty has also helped to stimulate a resurgence of minstrelized depictions of ethnic femininity in popular culture.
  • I found @ssenier's comments about the 'universalist vs. cosmopolitan' approaches to tribal scholarship really interesting. I began brainstorming. Her comments inspired me to consider how distant readings of DH scholarship can act as a frame for comparative studies in tribal-nation scholarship and research questions. I am not sure if this is appropriate for @ssenier's specific research and I am sure that it requires DH practitioners interested in specific areas of cultural studies to devote more time and resources to our projects. As @roopikarisam and @readywriting alluded to "often the people in the margins who have the burden of educating the majority (without compensation or recognition for the contributions)." 

    But let's consider the optimistic possibilities that these types of comparative projects, along with archives such as Digitizing Chinese Englishmen (http://chineseenglishmen.adelinekoh.org/), may become foundational works that build the bridges DH needs to continue to expand and evolve as a discipline.
  • I agree about optimism and the emergence of new projects that have the potential for changing how DH is perceived. It is important work but it's labor that is largely uncompensated - and I don't just mean in the financial sense. One of the frustrations I have in this line of work is how predictably DH replicates larger trends within academia and outside of it about the acceptability and legibility of work that pushes back against its own canon. I love #dhpoco Summer School in part because it has reminded me of the different projects others are working on and that there are others who share the commitments that led @adelinekoh and I to start #dhpoco - and it has brought many of us together to have these converstions. Ideally, the more we pool our thoughts, share our ideas, and so forth, we are able to get something back for the work we do - at least in an affective sense.

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