Reflections on HASTAC2011, politics, institutions

I’ve just come back from the 2011 HASTAC Conference. And if this blog leads you to think that I’ve been to an astonishing number of conferences recently, you’d be right. It’s a sign both of my having an open schedule this semester, since I have a final year fellowship, of my dissertation being in good enough shape for a projected March defense that I can raise my head and look around, and of my having begun to reach a point in my career where people invite me to speak or to be on panels (could it be time to make a tab on this site for travel plans and speaking engagements?). I was invited to HASTAC to tweet and blog, however: a marker of the organization’s focus on online connection and of the conference’s theme of digital scholarly communication. And so, in the spirit of open sharing that prevailed, I’d like to share some of my thoughts––even though they are still provisional, not fully formed.

When I first joined HASTAC, I wasn’t too sure what it was for, even after the excellent Queer and Feminist New Media Spaces online panel; attending the conference made me realize just how central the network’s intellectual community has become since I started to take a much more active part in it. Cathy Davidson has written a great summary of HASTAC’s history, if you’d like some larger context.

The conference was a real culmination of the excitement I’ve felt at being part of HASTAC in the past year. It felt so great to be surrounded by other scholarly geeks: to be sharing ideas on twitter and scarcely be able to tell who was following the conference in person and who was elsewhere. Karen Petruska did a great job of liveblogging the keynotes, which are also available to watch online. Fiona Barnett links her blogs and many others at her roundup post here.

I tweeted fervently from the conference––as I tend to do––and made a couple of liveblogs. One was from the opening workshop on “alternative academic” careers. I wasn’t wholly the expected audience for that, since I am a candidate on the non-‘alternative’ academic job market and quite passionately in love with my life of research and teaching and writing––but I also think it’s incredibly important not to get tracked into a single path, to keep our options open. One of the advantages of living in a different culture than the one you were raised to is always having slightly more open eyes; the idea that a PhD opens only the door to a life lived in academia and closes all others is, in my experience, much more widely believed here in the US than the UK.

I learned a lot from the workshop, but felt that something was missing from its tone of purely professional advice. I tweeted it:

The missing piece in this conversation for me is the content of intellectual work; the excess to academe as industry.

In other words: what if people choose to pursue scholarly work not because they think it’s a good living, but because they are seeking a way to pursue an intellectual project they believe matters––and not just to themselves? I know I’ve linked to it many times, but Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The University and the Undercommons never stops being relevant. Critical content, radical content, is an excess in the university that we hope will slip the bounds of its commodified form.

#alt-ac in the workshop was largely about how to use your skills to become part of the machinery that shapes the university’s logistics and frames for delivering knowledge; there are plenty of creative and radical ways to do that work, but they didn’t come up a great deal. I don’t talk too much about subverting the neoliberal academy in my job market workshop either; but (largely because my job market workshop is led by one of its major critics) it comes up. As Micha Cárdenas said in her post #occupyHASTAC, the ailing tenure track job market is just one minor symptom of neoliberal education and shouldn’t be considered alone. If we think about #alt-ac in these terms, it seems to me, we ought to include not just the technological and organizational jobs in the structure of the university but also the category of the public intellectual, and how to do intellectual work that matters on the borders of the academic industrial complex or outside it.

In fact, the rest of the conference offered plenty of scope for thinking about public and politicized intellectual work in the context of the digital humanities. I am beginning to develop a sense that #transformDH is growing into a critical mass. I had so many conversations with scholars who’ve felt frustrated about the relative absence of discussions of race and other forms of critical structural analysis within the digital humanities, and met people who had felt––as I used to––that ‘digital humanities’ simply didn’t apply to them, until they realized they weren’t the only ones who felt that surely there must be a place within that big tent for critical cultural analysis in and of various digital forms, for work whose stakes are infinitely higher than tenure and promotion, for the possibilities of changing the ways we think about education and knowledge production altogether.

The second panel I liveblogged, From the Center: Facilitating Feminist Digital Theory and Praxis in a Digital Environment with Margaret Rhee, Isela Gonzalez and Alysse Gray, was exemplary of what that could be. They were talking about work they had done with the San Francisco-based Forensic AIDS Project and the Center for Digital Storytelling, working with incarcerated women in San Francisco; they screened some of the stories the women had created and they were moving, powerful, complex works. My blog is rough, but I want to share some fragments from Margaret’s talk that resonated powerfully for me, when she spoke about working simultaneously in the academy and outsde it.

Praxis, pedagogy, technology: meanings can be transformed. Utilizing your degree to bring resources back outside academy is one of the most fulfilling experiences you can have.

Approach the work humbly. There is much you cannot learn from a textbook; seeing and experiencing are very different from reading.

The academy fosters individuality, Collaboration is hard, but you can learn to support social change, Collaboration teaches us to imagine otherwise. Being reflexive and mindful is key.

The heart of this work is counterintuitive to the logics and rewards of the academy.

This is a very different perspective from the one suggested by the #alt-ac workshop, but it’s what we’ve been trying to emphasize with #transformDH; it’s the work that queer and ethnic and feminist and marxist-materialist studies can and must bring to the emergent ubiquity of the digital, and it ought to transform us and those we encounter.

I didn’t have the laptop battery to liveblog it, but there was another talk that also inspired me as an example of #transformDH in action. This was Maria Cotana’s Chicana por mi Raza archive of Chicana feminist documents; I tweeted the talk from my phone and gathered the tweets on Storify; the embed won’t work and I’m too tired to troubleshoot, so I’ve pasted them––in all their ephemeral glory––below. Some more information is here.

#hastac2011 laptop battery gone, tweeting from phone. Maria Cotera talking about Chicana por mi Raza project in process. cc @anneperez!

#hastac2011 Cotera’s mother Marthe P Cotera was Chicana activist; helped her digitize 70s histories of intersectional critique #transformDH

#hastac2011 Cotera collaborating with feminist filmmaker also daughter of activist. Creating online project w wiki for public collaboration

#hastac2011 I love the combination of activism, archive, pedagogy, personal in Cotera’s project #transformDH

#hastac2011 Cotera material lost bc not recognized by archivists. Democratizing the archive; open access vital for communities of color

#hastac2011 Cotera: goal is to reunify what was once a vibrant counterpublic; connecting regional narratives

#hastac2011 Cotera showing a scanned to do list from young woman involved in campaign: making histories of labor visible

#hastac2011 Cotera showing queer women of color anthology 2 years before Bridge Called My Back

#hastac2011 Cotera pedagogy: taking undergrad students on research trips, they meet agents in the histories they are learning

#hastac2011 2 of Cotera’s students got tattoos of images from archive material. Histories marking bodies, political commitments reactivated

It’s worth remarking that neither of these projects are well represented online; no shiny and easy-to-find websites. From The Center, run by overworked and underpaid activists, is working on getting their materials online, and I think Chicana por mi Raza is in the process of doing so –– but it does make me think that one common factor among #transformDH projects is that they are not easy to fund.

The last HASTAC keynote was from Chairman Jim Leach of the National Endowment for the Humanities and, like Micha, I was fairly taken aback by his discussion of the humanities as a “civilizing project” that would spread from a “new digital class” based in the US out to the rest of the world. Comments on twitter and to Micha’s post suggest that this unabashedly imperial notion of civilization is what we must accept if we want to be funded for our digital projects, and discussions I had informally at the conference reminded me that anything that seems overtly ‘political’ will (after so many years of the culture wars) be unlikely to appeal to US government bodies.

The hallmark of both the projects I described above is that they are absolutely *not* “civilizing projects.” They are committed to creating knowledge without creating hierarchies: to teaching as something that changes the teacher as well as the student, to the possibility that digital tools can let people in the worst situations narrate their lives and engage differently with the world by doing so; to not losing sight of radical, revolutionary activities from the past just because the transformations they produced were not large enough for them to be written into official history. They work with technology to create knowledge from below.

I don’t know enough about either project to really discuss them in depth, nor do I want to presume that they will never receive government funding. Anything is possible, after all. But I do think they offer us a possible throughline to consider the implications of #transformDH at an institutional level, and some reminders that we must continually look out for the ways our institutional locations get under our skin.