Digital Humanities: Egalitarian or the New Elite?

Roundtable Panel Proposal for DH 2013
Digital Humanities: Egalitarian or the New Elite?

*update: this roundtable has been accepted as a single paper at DH2013.

Roundtable participants:

As digital humanities and practices of open access and collaboration have become more prominent within academia, so too have their critique. Often these criticisms come from humanists who remain deeply skeptical, if not overtly hostile, to technology and moving from books to bytes (or, as put in a recent screed, “data”). However, critique also must come from those of us inside DH who have begun asking questions about who can access the infrastructures, knowledges and culture of DH.
The exciting possibilities of DH also must allow for the examination of the field’s human aspects. With that in mind, this roundtable draws attention to the fraught relationship between DH and those who have been marginalized and silenced within traditional power structures both within and outside of academia. As illustrated by Amy Earhart, in her essay in Debates in the Digital Humanities, the promise of open and egalitarian access to materials has largely turned into a funding arms race prioritizing the same texts and projects long favored by academia. This leads us to the question of who has access and the ability to really do digital humanities. Is DH egalitarian, or is it opening the door to a new elite?
At the heart of this question is the very definition of “digital humanist.” Ernesto Priego, in a recent post, outlined what he calls the new “super-humanist” who can quote literary theory and create DH interfaces from scratch. Are these super-humanists, armed with large research grants, hardware, and human capital, becoming the “face” of not just DH but the humanities in general? If this is, in fact, the presumptive definition of “digital humanist,” what roles are available to academics and aspiring academics without access to the resources, support, and training that seem to be necessary to be a successful digital humanist? How are gendered, racialized, and queer bodies represented or not represented in such an articulation of DH? How can we begin to address multiple forms of privilege that proliferate in DH? Does DH challenge existing authority structures that define in-group and out-group status? Is it a tool for dismantling those structures?
The participants in this panel (all of whom have committed to attend DH2013 if the panel is selected) will be offering their unique critical perspectives on the current DH moment. Lee Skallerup Bessette will look at the implications and challenges for contingent faculty. Much of the discussion around re-training had focused on current graduate students. What about those who completed their PhDs 5-10 years ago and are now struggling to make ends meet, let alone retrain and join in on collaborative DH projects? Roopika Risam will examine the role of racialized and gendered labor in DH. With women and women of color taking on disproportionate service responsibilities, how do we negotiate our DH labor and commitments to social justice in relationship to gendered and cultural presumptions about our role in DH? In what ways do the demands of the academy encourage, contravene, and prohibit women and women of color from carving out empancipatory spaces in the DH community? Liana Silva will consider the idea of safe spaces for graduate students to try, fail, and try again. The traditional humanities classroom (and, by extension, the papers written for those classrooms) has commonly been considered the privileged space where that trial and error can happen. Some, like Lisa Spiro, have mentioned that the digital humanities embrace failure. Can the digital humanities become a different place for students to try out new ideas? Or will they try to perfect DH in the pursuit of an academic position? Can they afford to try new things? Through queer theory, Jarah Moesch will explore how digital humanities itself functions as an organizing principle that frames how race, gender, sexuality, and ability are embodied (how particular bodies are both understood and articulated) – focusing on the impetus of “making” and “coding” for humanities folks, while the comp sci / engineering / STEM folks are not required to think about, learn, or even consider how their designs create structural inequalities in (computer) code. Alyssa Stalsberg Canelli will consider practices in place to mitigate default heteronormative reading practices in DH, and will explore what it means for a digital humanities project or a digital humanist to be read and recognized as queer. She also will raise questions about what happens when LGBT and queer histories (which are linked to material, embodied, radical, and subversive activist practices) become linked to an institutional server and elite institutional access protocols. Tressie McMillan Cottom will bring her experience in digital community building, higher education research, and sociology to bear on questions of the macro processes of competition and structural change in the academy. Through case studies of two representative conflicts in which DH figured prominently, she interrogates how DH can be used as both a tool of democratization and marginalization.