THATCamp and diversity in Digital Humanities

I’ve been meaning to post about THATCamp SoCal since I got back, but I’ve been busy with the new semester.

THATCamp is an unconference about technology and the humanities. It’s open to anyone working on or interested in that conjuncture, and the schedule is set and sessions organized on the fly by the attendees. It’s a well established conference in the digital humanities, and I was slightly nervous about attending. For a literature and cultural studies scholar I’m very technologically proficient, I consider digital media to be one of my research interests, and I’m working on using alternative digital forms to present my scholarship––but I know enough people who are coding, building, and in other ways shaping the landscape of new media and digital scholarship to know just how much I don’t know. I went knowing I would learn a lot, but unsure how much of the conversations would go over my head. I also didn’t know how many people would be interested in the conversations I wanted to have: about what the sometimes inflated rhetoric around digital humanities enables and obscures, and about the politics of access, participation, and institutionalization and how those relate to racialization, gender, economics, and other matters of social justice.

In the end, I didn’t attend as many of the Bootcamp sessions on the basics of code and tools as I had intended, mainly because I soon realized that even at an unconference all the panels you want to go to are liable to be taking place at the same time. I’m a little sad that I didn’t manage to leave Orange County with something approaching a working knowledge of CSS. But I did get to have the conversations I’d been yearning for.

For me, the highlight of THATCamp is probably the highlight of every conference session I have ever attended: the Diversity in Digital Humanities conversation proposed by Marta S. Rivera Monclova and Amanda Phillips. It felt as if everyone there––about 15 people, I think, but I may be misremembering––had been longing to talk about how spaces like THATCamp could be useful to so many more people who engage with the humanities and technology than currently attend: people outside the university or in underfunded parts of it, ethnic studies and queer studies and cultural studies scholars, schools, activist organizations, radical bloggers, artists, fans.

We exemplified the radical possibilities of technology within the session, creating a Google Doc that collaborators inside and outside the session could contribute to. Toward an Open Digital Humanities. We even came up with a Position Statement that everyone could sign.

In the Diversity session, we talked a lot about the statements around “if you don’t X, you aren’t a digital humanist” that had emanated from MLA’s twitter stream, where X is sometimes “build” and sometimes “code.” For many of us, those statements often felt exclusionary: why insist on boundaries based on the possession of a particular kind of knowledge? Why do only some activities count as properly digital or properly humanities? Some of us wondered why the feeling of exclusion stung when we were unsure of our investment in being “humanists” in the first place; wouldn’t it be better to be digital antihumanists? (A phrase I love and must attribute to Marta S. Rivera Monclova.)

Since THATCamp, I’ve been thinking about these questions off and on, aided by the various blog posts on the subject that have appeared since. I’ve found that there are two ways to look at it. Saying ‘you have to make something’ can encode the assumption that making digital things requires knowledge not everyone will be able to access, creating a possessive investment in coding ability and excluding those who have not been able, for whatever reason, to gain it. Or it can sound more like ‘you CAN make something,’ where the capacity to do digital scholarship is opened up by showing people that making things is easy, coding isn’t so hard, and the digital world looks different when you understand a little about how its pieces are put together. The second is the message I’ve been lucky enough to get from my interactions with the Institute for Multimedia Literacy at USC and from professors like Tara McPherson and Alice Gambrell. I think that’s the intention that underlies many digital humanities scholars’ comments about the importance of building. But––as the HASTAC Critical Code Studies forum that has just begun will doubtless insist in many fascinating ways––the building blocks of digital worlds also include race, gender, capital, and every form of privilege.

I’m not saying anything in the least bit new here. But as Digital Humanities becomes an ever more widely recognized buzz term in academia and as it is reported to be the only field not endlessly losing out on funding and jobs, I think it is massively important that we keep having this conversation––that whatever institutional power accrues to this work doesn’t accrue only to the most privileged parts of it. I hope it can continue not only online but at other conferences, particularly queer and ethnic studies-focused ones. (The American Studies Association proposal deadline is soon…)

Crossposted at HASTAC.