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Approaching the Digital Humanities

Each of the digital scholarship projects under review (Torn Apart/Separados, The Early Caribbean Digital Archive, Colored Conventions Project, and Reviews in Digital Humanities) exemplifies particular aspects as well as the general spirit of the field of Digital Humanities as described and presented in articles by authors Matthew Gold, Lauren Klein, Lisa Spiro, Kelly Baker Josephs, and Roopika Risam in Debates in the Digital Humanities (DDH). From an information technology perspective, the projects demonstrate a close alignment between implementation and a general analysis of requirements for the development of digital projects and social infrastructure whose goals are arguably the extension and enhancement of research, teaching, and social engagement within the humanities and higher learning.

In Torn Apart/Separados, the Mobilized Humanities team demonstrates its commitment to social and political engagement identified in the 2019 essay “A DH That Matters” through data mining and a series of hard-hitting data visualizations that expose the financial links between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and elected officials and corporations.  With the Colored Conventions Project the team led by co-founders Gabrielle Foreman and Jim Casey also carries out its commitment to social justice by combining access to free and open source databases and digital exhibitions–that document African American conventions organized in the years before, during, and after the U.S. Civil War–with crowd sourced digital scholarship activities and community support for contemporary civil rights activism. Through the online journal Reviews in Digital Humanities, the journal’s editors offer a fast-track model for peer review of digital scholarship that contributes to needed academic reform in peer review processes discussed in the DDH’s 2012 essay “The Digital Humanities Moment”. Leveraging  technology opportunities for curated digital content preservation and memorialization, The Early Caribbean Digital Archive self-consciously centers the public memory of history-from-bottom-up through primary sources of early Caribbean cultures that speak to the truth in the African proverb “until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.”

While the digital projects implement only a small subset of the new techniques and applications identified in the DDH’s “Expanded Field” of 2016, each of them contributes to a digital culture-sphere reflected in the growing number of conferences (such as the recently held Virtual DH2020 conference of the international Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO)) and associations making up and constituting an expanding world-wide-web of digital humanists. Of all the issues mentioned in the DDH’s “state of the field” essays, perhaps the least explicitly addressed are the “controversies over tenure and casualized academic labor” identified in the DDH’s 2012 initial essay “The Digital Humanities Moment”. As a potential avenue for filling this gap, the interdisciplinary (and transdisciplinary) field of Critical University Studies would seem to offer possibilities for cross-fertilization between conceptualizations of academic labor and power in higher education and applications of the Digital Humanities.

As a contribution to Lisa Spiro’s call to establish a set of core values for the Digital Humanities, in which she argues for the core values of “openness”, “collaboration”, “collegiality and connectedness”, “diversity”, and “experimentation”, I would emphasize the “self-reflexiveness”  discussed in the 2012 “The Digital Humanities Moment” and “multilingualism” as secondary and supporting values to the core values of “openness” and “diversity”. Self-reflexiveness and multilingualism offer a path to the consideration of long standing efforts in University reform outside of the United States, including for example aspects of social engagement with civil society formulated in the Third Mission initiatives in European Higher Education and the Extension movement in Latin American Higher Education that traces back to the 1918 University Reforms initiated by the students and faculty of the University of Cordoba, Argentina, in alliance with Argentine labor unions. These formulations are historically grounded in the hard-won recognition of the autonomy and social responsibility of the university as an institution critically situated along side (and as an agent of) government, business, and civil society. To the extent Digital Humanities in the United States can participate in and learn from efforts outside of U.S. institutional geography, the field of global DH might arguably find fuller sails and a more assured trajectory.

One additional contextual reference prompted by the digital scholarship under review is the experience of universities with modern authoritarian regimes and associated technologies and cultures of repression and resistance. While the histories of modern authoritarian regimes are very different and any comparisons are arguably problematic, U.S. universities and digital humanists at the current juncture stand to benefit from recalling the ways in which universities in such regions as Latin America (and in other areas of the Global South) responded in dark times to the impact of authoritarian regimes on civil society.  In particular, the role many universities played during the period of Latin American military dictatorship (1920–1990) offers a historically grounded reference for universities facing regimes that are implementing increasingly similar programs of brutality, trauma, and erasure of the truth.  Universities in Latin America responded by offering themselves as sanctuaries and informal social networks of resistance that addressed in various ways the need for connectedness and community as a means of coping with an unprecedented scale of trauma and violence directed at civil society. While the nature of repression in Latin America during this time was different than the brutality and trauma of the current moment, digital spaces organized, curated, and maintained by digital humanists offer one of many kinds of similar havens and avenues of resistance for civil society during a time of the resurgence of authoritarian brutality, repression, and trauma.