Author Archives: Kristine Riley

Last Call: a reflection on my final class in higher ed

This was the last class I’ll ever have to take. After four years of undergrad, two years in my master’s program, and two-and-a-half years into my PhD program, this was the last class I needed to complete my coursework. I feel so lucky to have chosen a class that truly centered students’ learning experiences, and even more lucky to be in a learning community that established a class culture early on of collaboration, enthusiastic inquiry, and vulnerability that made our Wednesday classes something I looked forward to each week.

My plans for my final project changed so much over the semester because I was excited and inspired by so much of the syllabus, but I’m glad I was ultimately able to make the practical decision on an idea that is relevant to the field, my current fellowship, and has already opened up new opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration. Mapping Our Humanities, my digital project at the intersection of sociological research and public humanities, will allow me to use my expertise as a social scientist to work with political science and humanities activist-scholars to drive change. I’m finalizing the Human Subjects protocol over break and moving forward with the domain and social media plans so that me and my collaborators can hit the ground running Spring semester.

After submitting the proposal, I’ve already identified things I want to change. I’ve been sitting with the tensions of “mapping” discussed in this class–the ways it can reflect or problematize colonial thought, and the importance of intentionality and reflexivity. I’ve been struggling to commit to the name and whether developing pieces that explore these tensions are more helpful than a new name for the project. Similarly with the survey’s use of machine learning, I want to be mindful of the “broken world thinking” embedded in academic methods and structure, but not to the point where I am immobile and too scared to produce anything for fear of imperfection. I feel a little stuck in this tension, but I am thankful for the discourse this class provided because it inspired dimensions of thoughtfulness I could not have explored on my own.

I’m also looking back and finding ways the social science research questions and humanities questions meant to facilitate discourse need a tighter framing to accomplish the survey’s goals. Simultaneously navigating CUNY’s Human Subjects while finalizing the project’s design makes me feel like I’m in a constant state of frustrated revisions, which feels a little ironic considering I submitted my final a week ago. I am thankful my collaborators and I designed this project to have a pilot phase that focuses more on our learning from the project’s design before taking the survey and digital platform to scale.

While I am anxious, frustrated, and a little scared, I also realize I feel this way because I’m genuinely excited and passionate about this project. And part of my hesitancy comes from the ways this class consistently centered digital humanities’ commitment to social justice praxis; critical race theory, intersectionality, and political strategies were treated as central, rather than niche areas of DH, and I feel incredibly lucky that this is my introduction and foundation. The skills I acquired over this semester have enhanced my approach as an activist-scholar, a public sociologist, and an accidental humanist.

iMovie Workshop: How to be bold by learning the basics!

I attended the Publics Lab’s iMovie workshop, led by Mike Mena. I’ve never used iMovie or even owned a Mac, and I was nervous about how much I’d be able to follow or even apply after. However, Mike’s pedagogical approach and extensive experience giving this type of workshop for a wide range of audiences made phenomenal workshop. And not because I left feeling like an iMovie magician, but because I felt I had concrete skills I could see myself using, in addition to feeling less intimidated. Specifically, Mike did three critical things that made a simple workshop simply perfect: (1) he created an inviting environment; (2) he talked about strategy and prep work that would maximize our experience with the software; and (3) he set appropriate expectations and stuck to those guidelines throughout the seminar.

First, Mike started the seminar by dispelling myths people have about themselves being “bad with technology” and discussed how small, everyday interactions with technology intimidate and frustrate people, dissuading them from trying new things. He used the example of entering a password on a tiny phone and acknowledge that can be difficult because of design limitations—not the user’s abilities. This made me think about the readings from this semester that cautioned DH practitioners from making assumptions about user’s experiences and history of accessibility. It also made me think of the self-fulfilling prophecy I was discussing with my students in Intro to Sociology, and how stereotypes damage or even rob marginalized folks from accessing and innovating DH and tech. It inspired me to develop intentional moments to acknowledge and deconstruct these barriers in my future teaching opportunities and DH projects.

Second, he began the workshop by talking about the organizational steps one take’s before opening iMovie that make editing and experimenting less frustrating. Looking back on my experiences with QGIS, almost all of my frustrations can be traced back to ignorance or lack of intentionality about all the different files I would need. He also talked about the different spaces that held the files you’ve (maybe intentionally) organized would show up and where old files the software holds onto would reside. One of the things that became clear to me, as a non-Mac-user, that there were sometimes multiple shortcuts for certain functions, even when the direct method was easily accessible or straightforward. Having an expert advise new users how to navigate these decisions based on extensive experience, I believe, prevented me from going in circles and figuring out what worked through trial and error.

Finally, Mike set appropriate expectations for what the one-hour workshop would cover, kept his demonstrations focused on the basics, and didn’t distract the audience with interesting or complicated features. I think a lot of experts struggle to stay focused on the mundane aspects of their field, or to avoid going off on interesting tangents that go over their audience’s heads—I know I’m guilty of this when I teach. I was also worried because I had to leave the workshop 30 mins early, when the Q&A portion would take place; however, the workshop was straightforward and well moderated in the chat, so minor clarification questions were answered along the way but other Publics Lab staff, which created space for the more advance users to ask questions during the Q&A.

This workshop made real the invitations from DH scholars we’ve read throughout the semester who are looking to democratize DH as a field and as a praxis. I feel confident I could return to my notes over the next several months to successfully import media, identify and correct volume issues, and trim the video files for tight narratives and smooth transitions.

After going beyond the hashtags….

TW: anti-Black police violence

After this week’s readings, I’m left thinking about the connections between Marlene Daut’s piece, “Haiti @ the Digital Crossroads”, and the Center for Media and Social Impact’s report Beyond the Hashtags. Both represent some of the foundational themes of digital humanities we’ve seen throughout the readings and sites of learning. Daut’s call to action for scholars to work against colonial discourses and their caution to be wary of reproducing or reinforcing the very structures and ideologies of colonial-logic. Daut argues a minority-centered discourse “involving content, context, collaboration, and access” offers a better guide to Haitian studies scholars navigating where the field is headed, while being critical of tendencies to legitimate or reinforce colonial hegemony. The authors recognized the significance of the moment where two social phenomena converged (Black Lives Matter and Twitter) to significantly contribute social justice movement. The report’s narrative and major findings are further accentuated by its direct ties to the current political moment. And yet, there were moments throughout the report where I felt it veered into reproduction of oppressive dynamics that are worth discussing.  

I’m approaching my critique that this disconnect is evidence of how far the public discourse has evolved, and not necessarily of the report’s authors and their relationship to the movement or activism in general. It is possible this gap is reflective of the academy being off-centered in its critical discourse, but that is beyond the scope of this blog. By approaching with curiosity–and acknowledging it is nearly impossible for anyone to do social justice and movement work outside the confines of the oppressive systems they battle—I am hoping to participate in the generative intellectual discourse Cameron Blevins calls for in “Digital History’s Perpetual Future Tense.”

Two examples standout in particular. The first example I wanted to highlight, which I think is getting much more critical and nuanced attention in the current moment, is the use of the qualifier “unarmed” to describe the victims of police violence. This term fails to account for situations like Philando Castile and Kenneth Walker (Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend), who legally owned guns, or Tamir Rice, who was executed by police officers for having a toy gun in an open carry state. The use of “unarmed” subtly creates good and bad victims, even when both may have been complying with the law. Additionally, tis sentiment fundamentally violates the rights and presumptions legal rules and norms. Now more so than before, there is also an acknowledgement that even if someone was armed or posing danger to themselves and the community, it in no way justifies police lynchings or summary executions of members of the public.

The second example is the narrow focus on Black men killed by the police and highlighting male activists like DeRay Mckesson and Shaun King, while simultaneously acknowledging queer Black women were responsible for creating the language to move the discourse and activism forward. In 2014, the African American Policy forum launched the #SayHerName campaign to bring attention to the Black women and girls victimized by police. Recently, the campaign was formally adopted by the WNBA in the wake of the most recent series of uprising following the summer of 2020. The current moment has also brought more scrutiny to the men that have presumptively been held up by mainstream media sources as movement leaders.  DeRay has been accused of being more of a media-activist from outside Ferguson who capitalized on a moment. Moreover, his latest campaign—8 Can’t Wait—itself relies on the oppressive permanence of the police state and was excoriated by statisticians and abolitionists for both its faulty logic.

And yet, Beyond the Hashtags also advanced critical intellectual dialogue around issues that are marginalized or devalued in traditional academic spaces. It’s important to acknowledge that these types of reports are useful and cannot be everything social movements need. Moreover, the authors correctly identified the significance of Ferguson, Black Twitter, and the disenfranchisement of Black youth in the US political system. Additionally, I think the framing of Twitter’s trifecta of successes–to educate a broader public, amplify the work of grassroots activists, and influence movements for structural change—is useful analytically and practically, embodying important parts of DH praxis.

What sociologists can learn from the digital humanities

Week 2 Blog Post

Sometimes I forget that as a sociology PhD student, I’m in an academic discipline outside the Humanities. Granted, there are numerous similarities. Sociology—the study of humans, behaviors, relationships, and social structures—shares the central focus on people with the humanities. I felt some relief in reading Digital Humanities: The Expanded Field, learning it is common for digital humanities scholars to have other “home disciplines.” Despite entering my program wanting to become a real researcher—the kind recognized by the academy and thinktanks—the majority of my funding and support from the Graduate Center has come through humanities centers and initiatives that have done much more for my activism and political education. And while sociology and many other social sciences have historical roots in disciplines belonging to the humanities, I sometimes feel stuck in the space that delineates the two disciplines.

It seems that the histories and origin stories of both sociology and digital humanities are characterized by an insecurity of being taken seriously within academia. Both areas boast a rich interdisciplinary origin, which seems to have contributed, somewhat counterintuitively, to the respective debates on their validity within academia. Emile Durkheim’s evangelizing of sociology’s legitimacy as a science in the 1800’s shares narrative similarities to the tensions Gold descries in the three introductory pieces on digital humanities: a discipline that knows itself and its value, but is not fully recognized or accepted by the academy. By some measure, it would seem that the interdisciplinary nature and transdisciplinary utility of each would be an argument for their belonging. For instance, in learning about the debate among humanities scholars on whether digital humanities is a methodology or a discipline, the binary option felt reductive—why can’t it be both? What became clearer with each piece is that the emergence of digital humanities represents a significant social evolution that sociology—with its emphasis on being considered a legitimate science—has not (yet?) accomplished. Sociology’s quest for acceptance emphasized its neutral empiricism, capable of producing objective truth. Digital humanities, and possibly the humanities in general, seems more comfortable with its political orientation and emphasis on doing, rather than knowing.

The grounding in the history of the digital humanities and contextualization of the current moment in time in the three Gold pieces prepared me to approach Spiro’s chapter, and the considerations proposed, with ambitious optimism: Is digital humanities about solidifying or challenging scholarship? I hope the latter, but maybe both. Ultimately, these readings helped me begin to understand why I have unintentionally found a home in the humanities: because of its core values of mentorship, collaboration, community, and driving change.