Justice-Based DH, Practice, and Communities

Vika Zafrin (vzafrin@bu.edu), Boston University, United States of America and Purdom Lindblad (purdom@umd.edu), University of Maryland, United States of America and Roopika Risam (rrisam@salemstate.edu), Salem State University, United States of America and Gabriela Baeza Ventura (gabines1022@gmail.com), University of Houston, United States of America and Carolina Villarroel (carolina@central.uh.edu), University of Houston, United States of America


In the last 25 years, advocacy- and justice-based research has seen development in sociolinguistics, social policy, history, and many areas of digital humanities. We take cues from past literature (Cameron et al., 1992; Risam, 2015; Bailey, 2011; Wernimont and Losh 2016) to define this as research that aims to benefit not only its audience but also its subjects, and is conducted from an intersectional awareness of compounding oppressions.

What does justice- and advocacy-based work look like from different vantage points within the knowledge work/cultural heritage ecosystem — infrastructure, research, support, organizational change, community outreach, teaching, co-learning? What does being a practitioner look like in the current international political climate?  

Supporting digital scholarly practice—at its best, an active research practice of its own—has recently seen new challenges. Discourse on the inherently political nature of what we do has picked up (Risam et al.; Bourg, 2016; Drake, 2017; Jules, 2018; Hathcock, 2015; Johnson and Dinsman, 2016; Nowviskie, 2015); and the recent upsurge in volatility of U.S. politics has reverberated across DH and digital libraries work. Institutions like Digital Library Federation and Association for Computers and the Humanities have published statements responding to U.S. actions; begun and enabled conversation around more inclusive representation in knowledge production; taken hard looks at our own complicity with perpetuating the socio-political status quo and made funding available toward doing better. Some organizations—notably Global Outlook::Digital Humanities—have questioned their own institutional contexts. Do we continue consolidated efforts? At what point is a break away from even our relatively young establishments warranted?

In fall 2016, two of the authors began a conversation with digital scholarship support practitioners in which emerged a need for a collaboratively created online space to help us work from a more consciously justice-based perspective. This space needs to enable anonymous and attributed conversation around vulnerable topics, contain a list of resources for a socio-politically active framing of our work, encourage mentoring, and enable us to build and consciously deploy institutional infrastructures in volatile times.

At DH2018, we will present first a prototype of this community resource, and then specific examples of our own justice-based digital scholarship work from a variety of institutional contexts. Represented will be large and small, public and private U.S. institutions; “miracle worker” DH support professionals working largely on their own, those working in established centers, and more traditionally situated scholar-academics.

We will discuss formal institutional structures needed to support these efforts, describing ways to take advantage of existing structures informally, flexibly, at times opportunistically—and the benefits, drawbacks, and risks of doing so. We will invite discussion that we hope will inform further development of the online resource.

The panel will offer a range of possibilities for justice-based work in different academic and cultural settings. We hope audience members will leave with new ideas for incorporating or enhancing a justice-or advocacy-based perspective in their work without leaving their professional context.

Presentations 1, 2, and 3 will be given in English. Presentation 4 will be given in Spanish. Translated outlines of each presentation will be available.

Presentation 1

Vika Zafrin will discuss Boston University Libraries’ institutional thinking behind mobilizing their Research I resources and a rare opportunity for organizational redefinition to orient new projects towards working with an explicitly anti-colonialist mindset.

In the last year and a half, BU Libraries began several simultaneous conversations: some with faculty members who tend to work in small, sometimes personal, archives; others with area librarians about collaborating to amplify each other’s existing and nascent efforts towards social justice.

BU Libraries have long supported digital scholarship informally, but the Digital Scholarship Services department (DiSc) is young. This allows it some freedom in setting its own direction. The charge is to help create better infrastructure for digital scholarship at BU — including a technically stronger and more sustainable institutional repository, increased and strategic digitization of our holdings, increasing the number of technically competent staff able to work on digital projects, and community education around both tools and issues of digital scholarship.

All this accommodates a variety of possible projects. DiSc has chosen to dedicate part of its efforts to building relationships that allow for discovery of small analog archives of social and political activism materials vulnerable to either disappearance or obscurity, and using what resources (power) the Libraries have toward beginning to assist in their digitization, curation with an eye to research, and preservation. DiSc staff are conscious of the perils of appropriating such materials, and are taking guidance from recent digital humanities and libraries work on anti-colonialism in digital collection creation (Risam et al.). In addition, the team is guided by the notion of slow DH (Hyman via Corona, 2017) and the work of our colleagues in libraries and DH around representational belonging (Caswell et al., 2016), the tricky notion of empowerment (Mckesson, 2017), and community control of the narrative around digital objects (Christen, 2012; Cushman, 2017).

Zafrin will also discuss the ways in which a justice-based mindset changes daily work as a research library effects major organizational change. How does it inform the search for a new university librarian? How are we making decisions about what student employees and interns do and don’t do? How are we treating our supervision of young or less experienced workers as pipeline work — and articulate that it deserves our scarce time regardless of what professional path they take later? How does a higher ed library balance serving its university constituency and serving the larger community in which it is situated? How do we combine forces with other institutions to do activist infrastructure work that requires relatively little effort from each participant and brings disproportionately positive results? How does justice-based work inform what resources we ask for, what do we do when most of the resources we have are people, how do we start a community outreach project without a history of such? How do we expand our thinking about the social aspects of knowledge creation and propagation by learning different ways of knowing?

Presentation 2

Purdom Lindblad’s presentation focuses on questions of how those new to digital humanities are introduced to advocacy and justice-based work? How do we collaboratively articulate and frame responses to the overlapping and compounding oppressions that are both inherent and tacit in digital work? What practices and approaches are needed to render the theoretical underpinnings of digital work more accessible (and how do we teach such practices)? Situating the collaborative design and teaching of Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities’ (MITH) “Anatomy of Digital Research” course as a case study, Lindblad will describe the specific decisions and practices used to design and teach an advocacy and justice-based digital humanities course.

Drawing from the open, cohort-based model of the MITH digital humanities incubators — which are collaboratively designed with the African American History and Culture and Digital Humanities (AADHum) initiative — and Advocacy by Design practices outlined by Jeremy Boggs and Purdom Lindblad, the MITH 498 “Anatomy of Digital Research” course centers intersectionality and justice as foundational to digital work. The course modules move from a broad introduction to the varieties of common methodological and technical approaches to project management to literature reviews and finally to the social and political aspects of digital humanities work. The course modules act to frame discussions of what research is centered, technical choices — from data selection and cleaning to manipulation and analysis — and design can expose or render invisible the theoretical and ethical underpinnings of the work.

The MITH course development team leaned on the lessons learned from the MITH – AADHum collaboration, which explicitly centers black studies, blackness, and black culture as core to digital work. Such centering meant naming openly our shared commitment to black studies and referencing this concern through every decision made around the digital humanities incubators. Thus, the most consequential actions were those of imagination-specifically, our expectations of who the “right” people are to do the work of digital skills incubators within the framework of AADHum; the right people were those who centered black people and the concerns of black studies, who could have limited (or amazing) technical skills. Hiring and staffing for the AADHum project then shaped the research questions and approaches which guide the digital incubators. MITH 498 fronts how decisions around what is core to the research then shape subsequent decisions, from raw materials, citations, what collaboration looks like for this research, to how the final designs reflect or obscure what is center and why. Boggs and Lindblad’s work on Advocacy by Design lends questions of how people are represented in, or are subjects of, academic work. MITH 498 borrows Advocacy by Design’s emphasis on fronting the ‘why’ of research, articulating particular stances on interrelated concepts (principles) and using specific approaches (elements) to make visible these principles in the workflows, interactions, and research products of the course.

Presentation 3

Roopika Risam will discuss designing a network of digital humanities practitioners at regional public universities, as a justice-oriented intervention. While initiatives like the Institute for Liberal Arts Digital Scholarship and the Digital Liberal Arts Exchange promote engagement and shared infrastructure between research universities and small liberal arts colleges, there are no cooperative initiatives addressing the unique challenges of undertaking digital humanities pedagogy and scholarship at the poorly-funded lower-tier public universities that serve the majority of students in higher education in the United States. The demographics of students who attend these universities are diverse in race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, age, career goals, and paths to college. Consequently, models and initiatives for digital humanities designed for elite university students at flagship research universities or small liberal arts colleges do not meet the needs of this vulnerable student population.

Digital humanities practitioners who work in this context face a number of barriers: the challenges of their student population; high teaching loads; lack of research funding; and the imperative to serve as their own project managers, developers, designers, and IT support for digital humanities initiatives. Yet, they have two important, justice-based perspectives that those at other institutions do not: 1) the possibility of engaging students who typically do not understand themselves as producers of knowledge in digital humanities research and 2) a sense that their universities are “stewards of place” and thus have an ethical responsibility not only to their students but also to their local communities (Saltmarsh et al., 2014). Without a mechanism for collaboration, like a national network, individual initiatives cannot be properly leveraged and are limited by the already-strained fiscal and institutional constraints of these universities.

In response to these challenges, this paper explores the work undertaken by Risam and her colleagues to design a network that responds to the unique circumstances of digital humanities practitioners at regional comprehensive universities, supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Museum and Library Services. It begins by discussing the results of a study of regional comprehensive digital humanities practitioners around the United States, identifying the successes, challenges, and barriers that these practitioners encounter when undertaking digital humanities initiatives with underserved student populations who stand to benefit tremendously from learning experience with digital humanities. The paper then considers the primary areas where a collaborative network can help support practitioners: place-based curricula and pedagogy, faculty-librarian-student collaboration, shared infrastructure, and professional development. It also discusses the challenges of maintaining and sustaining a distributed network of digital humanities practitioners while fostering connections to existing networks and communities of practice. Through this network, this paper suggests, digital humanities practitioners are better positioned to create learning experiences that meet the diverse needs of student populations at regional comprehensive universities, ensuring that opportunities to engage with digital humanities are not limited to elite students in higher education.

Presentation 4

The majority of digital projects (especially those funded by major granting institutions) tend to focus on canonical texts that reinforce Western epistemologies. Scholars at the University of Houston’s Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage are committed to calling attention to the gaps in digital scholarship and highlighting work in fields such as US Southwest studies, US Latina/o studies, Indigenous studies, border and transamerican archives, and racial and ethnic literatures and histories.

Gabriela Baeza Ventura and Carolina Villarroel will focus on transcultural and transamerican digital scholarship and the ways in which diverse projects contribute to and de-center the growing field. They will discuss the steps taken to establish the first Digital Humanities Research Center for US Latina/o Studies at the University of Houston. A process that begins with a Mellon Foundation planning grant to visit various DH centers in the US, which has been fundamental in understanding and seeing first-hand infrastructures and methodologies that document the need of a center such as theirs. The center is based on the foundational work of the Recovering the US Hispanic Heritage and aims to foster, produce and promote Latino scholarship in the digital humanities. Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage is a program to locate, preserve and make available the written legacy of Latinas and Latinos in the United States since colonial times until 1960. Through 26 years of successful work Recovery has not only being able to inscribe the excluded history of Latinas/os, but also has created an inclusive, vast and interdisciplinary digital repository that facilitates scholarship in this area of studies. The foundation of a digital humanities center becomes then a natural step to continue what Gloria Anzaldúa refers to as “doing work that matters” and Chela Sandoval as enacting the methodology of the oppressed to revert the exclusion in the digital humanities and other humanistic discourses of a fundamental component of the culture and history of the United States, the Latino community.

Furthermore, in order to decentralize and decolonize the archive, they demonstrate the need to keep building on the work of Recovery scholars—researchers who recover the legacy Latinas and Latinos who live in the United States prior to 1980. The use of DH resources in Recovery scholarship will lead us (scholars, community, students, etc.) to rethink how research projects are conceived and to challenge archival traditional modes of representing knowledge. In this sense, their goal is to demonstrate that minority archives and digital humanities (DH) projects that highlight minority voices disrupt the mainstream perception of history and literary canon through these unacknowledged histories.

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