Making DH inclusive: A case study

In this post I will try to make a case for why and how the discourse surrounding digital humanities can become more inclusive. As I said in class, the specific language of “bigger, better, faster” may seem like a viable and even true “justification” for the inclusion of digital humanities into the academy, where justification is necessary for funding among other practical concerns. However, it serves to alienate those who hear in it an implicit (and sometimes explicit) suggestion that their work without DH is currently deficient in some way. While this may not be the intention of DHers, we must all be sensitive as humanists to this possible interpretation.

My concern then is two-pronged. Alienation is one part. The second part considers the ramifications of this kind of discourse on DH itself and on the limited possibilities it will allow for institutional inclusion in academia. Basically by positing DH as “the new gold rush,” “the tech revolution” and crafting a language of “get with this to be up to date or else be left out,” DHers  may justify (that word again) departments’ acceptance and inclusion of DH but to a very limited point. The parallel I can think of here is with “francophone studies” and the strong case that was made in the not too distant past to “update” the limited focus of French departments because francophone studies was the future (in terms of demands for teaching positions, research and also of course for political reasons). While all this may be true and important, the result has been first of all that the position of francophone studies in French departments has usually been additive and not constitutive. A quick example would be our own department’s MA reading list with the small “Francophone” section tacked on at the end. This immediately creates an artificial boundary between French and Francophone and coupled with the periodization of the rest of the list suggests that no “francophone” literature was produced before the 20th century. While I am sure that the position of francophone studies in our department does not necessarily mirror the impression created by the reading list, I use that example to show the possibility that a small, comfortable, demarcated space will be created in a corner of academia for DH to satisfy the “we’re now up to date” requirement and that there will be no real way for non-DH scholars to grasp and even propose ways in which this field could merge seamlessly with the work that people in the humanities do. That would be a loss.

In short, I think that positing technological tools as the better alternative to old methods (eg. geo-referencing vs. paper maps) could lead some departments to pay lip service to DH (eg hire one DHer) for image reasons and continue on their merry way because that conversation about how there could be a real, meaningful, symbiotic relationship between the digital and the humanities halves that make up this complex and compound field…that conversation could not happen with the language of exclusivity and the implicit notion of “we are here to replace you.”

So here is a quick example of one way in which that positive, inclusive conversation has happened. The Golden Notebook is a 1962 (note the date!) novel by 2007 Nobel Prize laureate Doris Lessing. In 2008 Lessing began The Golden Notebook project, ” an experiment in close-reading in which seven women are reading the book and conducting a conversation in the margins.” I like this example because it does not present itself with language that indicates value judgement. Nor is it simply a digitized version of the book that is implicitly better because everyone can comment on it and therefore it shows the limitations of paper books. Rather, it takes a text that is about a female protagonist’s intimate, sacred, inner space (her journals) and puts it out on the web. Then it invites 7 outstanding (imo) readers including British writer of Nigerian descent Helen Oyeyemi (and personally my favourite writer of all time…sorry Cesaire) and Haitian-American poet Lenelle Moise, to read the text and make comments in the margins. Then there is a blog where the readers can write more extensively about their reading experience and finally a forum where everyone (else) can have a conversation. I think this project incorporates the essential elements that Cory pointed out in class of interactivity and collaboration, and is particularly successful to my mind because it weaves together seamlessly an intricate conversation about technology and literature where the two are mutually dependent and not necessarily where one can only be made better by shoring it up with the other. The notions of close reading and textual analysis are not secondary, nor are the important implications of representation and polyphony that characterise this symbiotic relationship between literature and the internet.

If this project relates at all to our future discussion of open access or really anything else I would love to do a small show and tell (shameless plug). This project has fascinated me for a while!

  • Anonymous

    Annette, this is an interesting post and it answers a lot of the questions that you posed in class.  I do remember you saying that you weren’t sure if you have any answers to your inquiries on this matter.  Have you, perhaps, found a few?

  • Anonymous

    OK, I just thought of you while reading this weeks chapter from Fitzgerald.  I quote, “And so the shift from print into the digital; what we gain in ease and speed of copying and transmission, we apparently lose in permanence; the ephemeral nature of digital data threatens our culture and intellectual heritage with an accelerated cycle of evanescence. ”  While it does not treat discourse, specifically, it does touch upon some of your other questions.

    • Annette

      Todd I picked up on this quote too and while I think the author makes a convincing case for why we need to act fast on preservation, I think the “ephemeral” nature of data concerns some for readons beyond preservation…and now I need to go and think more about what those reasons may be…haven’t put my finger on it yet…