#ASA2012 panel transcript: What can digital humanities bring to American Studies? And vice versa?

I’m at the American Studies Association Annual Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s an amazing experience, as ASA always is. I’ve become very committed to documenting the conferences I attend when I can, usually via Twitter. With no wi-fi at this conference, I found myself intensively note-taking in order to retain and to be able to think later about what I was hearing. The transcripts are incomplete and certainly have many errors, but I’ve decided to share them here anyway. Perhaps the speakers will find it interesting to see which parts of the talks I picked up on and which I missed…

This will be the first of several panel transcripts I’ll post over the weekend –– though I doubt I will have the stamina to do this in every panel I attend.

ASA Digital Caucus panel: What can digital humanities bring to American Studies? And vice versa?
Susan Garfinkel
Natalia Cecire
Lauren Klein
Alex Gil
Matthew K Gold
Miriam Posner

Susan Garfinkel chairing: hoping for open dialogue between audience/panel

Origin of the session: DH caucus in ASA. Caucuses at ASA began with lobbying to get programming on sessions; interest groups that are entitled to sponsor 2 sessions. DH are sponsoring the lightning talk session and this one.
Inspired by Tara McPherson: “why is the digital humanities so white? Why isn’t American Studies more digital?” AS theorises practice in a way that DH, with focus on tools and methods, hasn’t necessarily done.
Garfinkel: material culture background, works at library of congress. DH has lots of problems/discussion defining itself. American Studies similar: discipline? field? method? community of practice? Can these questions of definition offer something to DH?
Natalia Cecire, ACLS new faculty fellow at Yale. @ncecire: In project runway, Heidi Klum tells contestants that “in fashion one day you’re in, one day you’re out.” — labor principle repeatedly intoned as necessary and inevitable logic of reality TV. Real so-called creative professions / labor industry mirror logic of reality TV. The work of the many goes into the one. Dana Solomon: academic labor done on spec, manuscript leading to the monograph challenge, recognition of tenure, making the work done something other than a waste of resources. Only wining can retroactively “make it work.”
What can DH do for American Studies? DH appeals to academics because it is collaborative, networked, antihierarchical: ways out of academia’s labor death spiral? DH seems to get funded, lines seem to get approved. Concreteness and visibility of “building” research makes intellectual labor refreshingly legible as work. Metaphors of virtuous manual labor: getting your hands dirty! Combined with possibilities of funding, cluster hies — visible labor and fair compensation? Metaphors are questionable but hires, and visibility of academic labor in public, are real. 4humanities: site for a broader defense of the humanities?
DH poses methods of scholarship that reject the cult of romantic genius of academic meritocracy: distributing labor, problematizing authorship. DH reconfigures what knowledge production looks like when the academic mode of knowledge is clearly on the rocks.
AS can tell us why this shouldn’t look like the labor models of digital labor: facebook, google, etc. Like the academic hunger games, these models depend on an extreme form of alienated labor: everyone posts on facebook, everyone produces, but only facebook gets paid. The information age has not been the age of intellectual workers’ ascendancy but rather the age of casualization, deprofessionalization, alienation of labor. Too many assume that DGH programs will not only be self sustaining but turn a profit like facebook — though facebook and google work by alienating labor. As with the chess-playing automata of the 19th century, there is secretly a human inside the machine. DH could look like that (some might hope it will) but we need not be captive to a technological determinism that says digital media can only contribute to capitalism. Alternative models of knowledge production?
New directions. 1. Learning not alienation. “Crowdsourcing” often means alienated uncompensated labor of the sort that drives the digital economy–eg ecaptcha. But compare with crowdsourced archival transcription projects: their volunteers who labor are also archive patrons, connecting to the work rather than just being a conduit or transferring information.
2. non-portable digital tools. Portable and modular tools are valued highly… but what about tools that value historical and material specificity of particular objects? Reintegrating the importance of expertise.
Alex Gil. UVA, defending his diss next week! Digital Scholarship coordinator at Columbia.
Implied in Q “what can american studies bring to DH” is the idea that we are recruiting. I am an American Studies scholar and a digital humanist and we need you.
Our 21st century task as scholars is to oversee the remediation of our past. If we don’t do it, somebody else will: Google books has already stepped up to the plate and they haven’t done such a great job. We come to the past with critical acumen, with patience and discipline, with attention to detail that Google doesn’t have. As we build a new form of consciousness where a particular kind of past is dominant, there are archives and forms of knowledge that have fallen by the wayside, that have to fight again for attention even if they won or found a site in the age of print. In the new world we have to catch up again.
Works with Caribbean archives that are physically vulnerable — salt, sea, heat. Records that tell us the story of slavery, of anticolonialism.
Why does DH need American Studies? He doesn’t believe DH is undertheorised; it just doesn’t have the theory that we like in American Studies. DH has many lively debates that could be called structuralist, even poststructuralist — but not inflected in the way that we inflect our theory.
Walter Mignolo, who could be said to be an American Studies person, said that we need to see maps a little differently. Google Maps have the words United States, Mexico etc stamped on them; a particular vision of history. We need to attune ourselves to other visions of space. DHers like interactive maps; maps depend on a vision of space. DH needs to hear the voice that says we don’t need to come in with a preconceived notion of what the world looks like. We can shift, the way that American Studies shifts, the way that the word America disappears under your feet.
And DH will bring a means of how we can take over the means of production of our own knowledge.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick, director of scholarly communication at MLA & prof of media studies at Pomona. Author of Planned Obsolescence; cofounder of Media Commons.
“Digital Humanities” as it is used today includes lots of very different things: visualization, mapping, corpus building, preservation, computational exploration. Approaches bear same kinds of methodological differences that play out in more traditional fields; put to use in service of strikingly different intellectual questions. DH is a field in the same way that the humanities is a field: we all read culture but what reading is, what culture is, varies enormously.
Thinking broadly about what DH can bring to AS means thinking about that modifier of the “digital.” How does networkedness and digitization affect how scholars communicate with one another? Scholars gravitate to informal online means of sharing ideas, links and projects. The web’s gravitational pull, there with HTML, gets stronger with blogging platforms: scholars have greater speed, greater audiences, across fields. Digital humanists take networked communication forms as themselves fodder for experimentation; work that cannot be reduced to print. Media archives not textually oriented at all. Online modes of communication not ‘mere’ conversation of stages toward a real publication but scholarship in itself.
Experiments in new communities, new forms of scholarly communication in DH. The results of these experiments are useful to AS and to the humanities in general. What does AS in particular bring? A clear sense of responsibilities of public intellectual, relationship between public and academy of how public work can be not only evaluated but also valued.
We need not just more platforms but more critical work on platforms. More thoughtful post publication review, supported by better metrics and filters, more naunced engegement with ore readers. Better scholarship and better work done by that scholarship in the world.

Matthew K Gold. Assoc prof at CUNY. Editor of Debates in Digital Humanities.
Concentrating on specific project he has worked on on pedagogy.
DH and American Studies: Place, Context, and Pedagogy in AS/DH Projects.
His origin story in DH: did web design and academic work and considered them separate. DH opened up links between the two; project Looking for Whitman, between several schools teaching classes focusing on locations and moments in Whitman’s career. Students connected and shared projects were undertaken at same time, from annotation W’s work to creating a material culture museum where students took an object and created exhibits.
Aggregation from I to You: words in Whitman’s poetry, students publishing on blogs and work disseminated to class and project sites.
Place as a common site of participatory exchange. Still image: a student in Serbia translated Whitman’s work and had people speak his lines.
Rita Felski, recent argument: “context stinks”! History is not a box; we must return to messy details of how and why we read, to the messy transtemporal movements of texts. Time is a profusion of whirlpools and rapids in which objects and ideas tumble, swirl.
5 pats for DH/AS multivalent/transtemporal projects. Algorothmic text mining; visualization; networked pedagogy; mapping geospatial humanities; #transformDH (illustrated by a macro: an old white guy with the line YOUR BIBLIOGRAPHY WORRIES ME.)
Lauren Klein. Georgia Institute of Technology.
Digital Origin Stories.
Superheroes and scholarly fields: each one has an origin story. Two such tales to tell: one about origin of the digital, one about the origin of the digital humanities. How can lens of AS refract these into something more complex and more meaningful?
Digital origin: 1945. Amid global tumult 6 women assigned to Project X in Maryland: ENIAC, the enterprise that would culminate i the first digital computer. Deployed to calculate firing tables for long range ballistics; the ENIAC girls were acknowledged as first computer programmers only 50 years after the fact. DH and AS viewed as ontologically, methodologically distinct, but this shows that they are intertwined.
Humanities computing, a close knit field that was renamed digital humanities in early 2000s; field has since grown to encompass more. If DH is umbrella term for general epistemology of the digital, we must understand origins oft he digital itself.
DH origin story, 1949: Italian Jesuit priest, Roberto Busa, suggests using a computer to compile an index of Thomas Aquinas. Stories about punch cards taken through narrow Italian streets, meetings with CEO of IBM/… The story established intellectual ambition, tech resourcefulness, and a bit of whimsy as foundational values of the field.
Taken together, these stories show a prehistory shot through with contradiction. History of DH is also necessarily a history of gender, labor, empire. Uncharted space for scholarship includes more targeted media histories, but also maps, intermedia art, different forms. If AS is to understand the transformation of cultural life in the 21st century, we must fully engage the digital and its structure and scope: bring together diverse forms of scholarly work; embrace technical rigor as we do ambiguity; insist on connection between scholarship and public life. An American Studies that does not merely deploy the digital, but employs it…

Miriam Posner, UCLA. Video presentation (slide show with voice)
DH-Curious at a DH-Less School?
What is useful for people at schools without DH programs to know about? tinyurl.com/asaDHcaucus
What to do if you want to do DH but your school doesn’t have a program? Look to the library! Library professionals might hook you up with affinity groups.
Reach out! You’re probably not the only person interested in DH at your campus. Maybe funding for a working group or conference is available. Not only students and faculty do DH; tech, library people.
Interested in particular tech or tools? Lynda.com video tutorial site; many universities have institutional subscriptions. $25/month if you can’t persuade someone.
The Programming Historian: set of programming lessons online, designed to be useful to humanists. Miriam is community outreach lead.
DH community developing resources. DH Summer Instittute at U of Victoria, Winter Institute at U of Maryland; Leipzig, Oxford –––– SILENCE FALLS.
Susan: this is a great lead in to say that we will be posting versions of our remarks on ASA website, under DH Caucus blog feature. Including a transcript of Miriam’s talk. There will be room for comments there,
Session is being taped and will be posted.

Question: talking about engaging with larger publics rather than just academics. How about public history or other realms that already have longstanding public conversations?
KF: this is key point of conversation that needs to take place, DH needs to acknowledge long tradition of public intellectual work, thinking about what that eans and what kinds of conversations we engage in. When are we talking in public, when are we having internal conversations among scholars? Public history thinks about these things.
At this point, I momentarily accessed internet via Marta S. Rivera Monclova’s mobile hot spot, and switched to Twitter:
#asa2012 talking about public intellectual practice. @laurenfklein: teaching online opens public conversations!
#asa2012 Alex Gil: the DH classroom teaches students to be producers of knowledge in public ways, students feel they’re doing something real
#asa2012 on subject of public teaching events, @ncecire tell the story of the trolls who appeared in my Twitter hashtag. http://torify.com/alothian/121machine-and-the-trolls
Talking about writing requirements in liberal studies classes; how can digital and writing requirements blend? @mkgold suggests blogging etc as part of writing process; different kinds of requirements can work together.
Then the internet went out again, so I switched back to to notes:
@kfitz: DH Commons is useful for people
SG: use online resources that don’t require infrastructure, from blogger and flickr to Omeka, Juxta; some scholarly some not. Tools where you can get students involved
Aud: back to the question of labor, the darker side of the digital. Threat of the digital humanities as sweatshop. Everyone on the panel has multiple books in preparation as well as digital projects. People are trying to do traditional labor and digital labor at the same time, looking down the throat of unfriendly tenure and promotion processes; a sea of adjuncts underpaid and expected also to be doing this work. AS should have a social justice perspective on exploitation of labor, on failure to invest in infrastructure. What about our subjectification of ourselves to these expectations? When do the panelists sleep at night? To what extent is there a robust literature of resistance to this?
Alex: Recently consulted about a DH hire; school was surprised to learn that DH is not necessarily aligned with online education. He thinks that DH is our best line of defense against the encroachment of online massive courses as THE model of how we will do humanities. A labor issue; the adjunct nation becomes more and more attached to online course delivery. In DH we understand the language of technology and of the humanities and we advocate for a different use of tech, different use of technology, We want to save the infrastructure of good jobs, we want people to be pushing the intellectual agenda not just running Blackboard. We see that the erosion of public funding for education is the problem.
Lauren: would like to see a page about PROCESS on every digital project. This is how we did it, these are the steps we took, these are the people involved and these are the things they did. We need to document labor and put it out there if part of our project is to make labor visible. Show what work is required to reach an end state.
KF: labor needed to make DH work is often taken on by non teaching staff; faculty and staff hierarchies, where faculty retain intellectual property rights over work done while staff have to concede all credit to the institution. Strong push in DH circles to be explicit about method and about credit. Projects should list everyone who has participated.
Matt: Nowviskie’s Monopolies of Invention; area of alt-ac. Many in DH are doing double duty of public and digital work; senior scholars have responsibility in opening tenure/promotion processes to digital projects so there can be less of that.
Audience Q: this isn’t the first time it has happened that people involved in something new do double duty. See women’s studies, Queer studies, ethnic studies — AS has long history pushing back against people hired to do cutting edge work then doing something else. 
The arena for pushback against exploitation already exists and it is unions! 
There is also a push for tenured and TT faculty to be teaching online at her institution — so students on campus can do hybrid degrees. Teaching many non traditional students. But FT faculty must be integrated into process. There can be very fruitful outcomes to collapsing DH and online education!
Audience: Intellectual property question. Practicalities of hosting on university sites–-for faculty digital projects, or commercial sites?
KF: has struggled with this in doing a project that her own institution couldn’t host; difficulty that she didn’t have the kinds of access and control she would have if it were her university. But it is hosted at a library, meaning that preservation is baked in to the structure of the project itself. Bringing the library in at the outset to focus on preservation is important.
Gold: many DH centers do their hosting through Amazon or external servers; avoiding the thorny infrastructure of IT departments. He supports building infrastructure at our own institutions.
SG: constraints of institution may make it difficult to do the project you want; a small scale self hosted pilot can help.
Audiecne: value afforded to disclosure in the heroic narrative of an alternative to trad academic labor. Francoise, Open Secrets: questions equivalence in humanities between interpretation and disclosure. Coming from social and hard science work with digital tools; questions that big data has raised about the value of archiving everything, when the archive expands to an infinite number of data points.
Is disclosing our work prior to publication necessarily a good thing?
Natalia: rhetoric of openness imputes an ethical value to what is actually a formal value (people can get at stuff). These should be disarticulated — but how? Openness, transparency, disclosure, don’t have ethical values as obvious as they might seem to some. SG: open source, electronic frontier foundation, idea that openness in all ways is always a good thing. Has this terminology come into DH without the kind of theorizing we might want?
Alex: we have the task to take knowledge to places where it hasn’t been accessible. Profs at U of Puerto Rico not being able to access articles. Disclosure of labor, disclosure of our knowledge, free the data.
KF: two forms of openness, formal and ethical, are so imbricated. A broader public involved in funding the kinds of work we do — a shift in the US mindset from education as public responsibility to ed as private good. The more we hold our work private the more that we might risk reinforcing that. What can openness do for shifting that understanding of higher ed back to being a public good?
Q: we’re talking about openness and disclosure at end of project. We need that at the beginning: a contract with collaborators that says what people will do, what people will deliver. What is valuable for a computer scientist is not the same as what is valuable for a humanities person.
Alex: part of experiment in grad ed at UVA. Worked on a charter. DH open to the idea of the work in progress: “I go out in my pajamas all the time on the internet.”
Q: the question always is : where do we get the money? Unionization projects so important to creating an ethical workplace and a scholarly environment that can sustain itself. Can we reach out to unions with argument that this work os part of a larger democratic project that can make the university accessible? We keep going to the same people who are suspicious of us, looking for money, instead of seeking other resources.
Someone on panel: maybe we are looking to people who are insufficiently suspicious of us.
Conversation turns to academics doing Kickstarter projects: Stephen Duncombe’s Kickstarter for Open Utopia. This is unsustainable funding… the hope is that something will come along to sustain things, but will it?
Q again: unions have a lot of money, and might be persuaded to contribute to making the university more porous.
SG: 10 mins left, returning to initial question: what can AS and DH do for one another?
Q: came into academy when crisis of representation was the hot topic. Maybe the words are different but the main academic product (the printed page) hasn’t changed at all. Not trying to be utopic, but what new avenues are opened up to us by the digital?
Alex: as a Caribbean scholar, in the Caribbean, most people access internet through phone. Libraries aren’t very big don’t carry work that AS scholars are producing. A digital project can be accessed. Will peope actually access it? That depends on the links we create, our search optimization, who is quoted at the bottom of a Wikipedia article. Our work can be discovered by people with phones and specific questions.
Matt: new platforms exploring this question: USC’s Scalar; online open access version of Debates in DH; how can we open up texts in different ways? Finding ways to allow people to add text, to comment, to build collaborative indexes, sharing highlighting etc. We are very early on in the creation of our own forms to take advantage of the affordances of media.
SG: to go back to the very basic stuff, when we got the hyperlink on the early web it was a way to think nonlinearly. When it got easy to publish images (if not to get permission) we can suddenly use images in a much more intensive way. We can use them in a hyperlinked way. Maps, text, popups. We rely on what the web browser has to offer and don’t necessarily think about making our own versions of these things… AS has ideas about how to present things conceptually in new ways; DH might offer the tools.
Last comment from audience: a place to begin is to read the last 20 years of ASA Presidential Addresses. The revolution in the association is astonishing, done often in public arguments about race, gender, politics, imperialism. Will there be an ASA DH Presidential Address?

2 thoughts on “#ASA2012 panel transcript: What can digital humanities bring to American Studies? And vice versa?

  1. Paul O'Shea

    Thank you for posting the panel transcript of the 2012 ASA Caucus. It’s excellent! With the info. available here, I’m not as disappointed now for not being able to attend.

    Best wishes,


    Alexis Lothian Reply:

    You’ve very welcome, and thank you for your comment! I am so glad this is useful.


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