Reimagining the Humanities Lab

Tanya Clement (tclement@utexas.edu), University of Texas at Austin, United States of America and Lori Emerson (lori.emerson@gmail.com), University of Colorado at Bouldre and Elizabeth Losh (lizlosh@gmail.com), William & Mary University and Thomas Padilla (tgpadillajr@gmail.com), University of Nevada, Las Vegas

A recent article has propped up the strawman that is the scientism of Digital Humanities (Brennan, 2017). This is not the first time that DH has been called out in terms of its supposed lack of success as a science (Allington, Brouillette, Golumbia, 2016). To be sure, scientific achievements are wonderfully measurable; they can be measured in terms of a year of progress – or ten years or the last 100 years – are marked by notions of societal impact. What has science done for us lately? We ask, as we point to discoveries and solutions. Likewise, a reputable humanities scholar asks, what has DH accomplished with all the money it has been bestowed? DH hasn’t “reveal[ed] the secrets of complex social and cultural processes” and perhaps it is has not even made one of its central cases well since the author finds activities such as the “digitization, classification, description and metadata, organization, and navigation” of our cultural artifacts to be uncritical, apolitical work; rather, it is “a list, which leaves out that contradictory and negating quality of what is normally called “thinking” (Brennan, 2017). Yet, while these critics posit DH as a neoliberal pursuit to change higher education and thus the liberal arts into an education-for-hire endeavor, those who are the loudest critics of such a DH tend to measure DH’s “success” according to a pay-for-hire scale. We paid for it, they seem to be saying, What did we get?

In marked contrast, DH scholars have long maintained “that scientific method and metaphor is, for the most part, incompatible with the terms of humanistic endeavor” (Ramsay, 2011; Drucker 2012; Binder 2016; Witmore 2016). To be sure, what have the Humanities “accomplished” in the last decade, digital or no? Have the Humanities revealed The Secrets? As humanists, we tend to work towards fissures and fractional tectonic shifts that resut in longer, slower, more nuanced and, in many cases, immeasurable impacts. For many of us involved in DH scholarship, singular accomplishments and “success” measured in terms of “done and out” or “problem solved” are not typically our goals.

This panel interrogates the polarities that remain present in the perceived differences between the proposed scientism of the “digital” on the one hand and the “humanities” on the other by discussing a current trend in DH towards establishing “digital humanities labs.” Often, this oxymoronic title points to spaces of seemingly unscientific goings-on, of small doings, little happenings, and turtle-paced epistemological shiftings at the level of, and articulated through, infrastructure development. In the DH lab, “infrastructure” is understood as a “socio-technical phenomenon that enforces constraints on human experience at the same scale, complexity, and general cultural impact as the idea of ‘culture’ itself (Liu, 2016). This role of the DH lab has its roots in feminist inquiry by imbuing DH with science only in the sense of the “science question”, which considers the politics underlying epistemologies of “purportedly value-neutral claims and practices” [ Harding 1986 , 23] and resonates with the work (the research, theory, and practices) being done to build information infrastructure in the humanities today. Ultimately, this panel situates “lab work” in DH as a site for humanistic rather than scientific work, as a site for interrogating what it means to be a “ lab”; for generativity, legibility, and creativity; for exploring what is engendered by ad hoc arrangements, small scale problems, and low tech tools; and for considering how the co-construction of knowledge with stakeholders and community members can introduce participants to the theoretical, practical, and political implications of considering collections as data in the humanities.

Framing Potential

Thomas Padilla, Visiting Digital Research Services Librarian, University of Nevada Las Vegas

Collections as data represents a mode of engagement that aims to surface the data driven potential of digitized and born digital library, museum, and archival collections. In the United States the Institute for Museum and Library Services supported Always Already Computational: Collections as Data project and the Library of Congress’ Collections as Data events represent significant development initiatives that extend the aim of contemporary efforts like the Hathitrust Research Center into a more diversified set of institutional contexts. In Europe, related projects like DARIAH run apace. Increasingly, the collections as data concept is bolstered by attempts to play out the implications in theory and practice. Praxis in action spans emergent research library initiatives, national library initiatives, museum initiatives, cultural heritage position formation, and Information Science and Digital Humanities curricula development. It stands to reason that labs, including but not limited to those operating in the Humanities, can benefit from partnering on collections as data efforts. Collections as data provide malleable grounds for enhancing cross campus, cross institutional, and cross community partnerships that aim to support research, pedagogy, and civic engagement in a contemporary knowledge environment that shifts ever toward de facto digital knowledge creation. Possibilities in this space can be effectively pursued via resolution through three conceptual collections as data frames: (1) generativity - a question of meaning making capacity (2) legibility - a question of ability to convey provenance and possibility and (3) creativity - a question of the extent to which the effort provides the means or a context for empowered experimentation.

Surfacing the data driven potential of collections works toward the purpose of cultivating contemporary agency in a digital environment. Collections as data work within and beyond labs constitutes a social imperative. With predominantly smooth GUI and application driven commodification of digital environments it becomes more and more difficult to push past the surface to gain purchase on the subjective forces that shape the data that constitute the digital objects that are trafficked throughout them. For many within and outside of academia it is not readily apparent that a Word document is not just a document, a website is not just a projection on a screen, an image is not merely a surrogate, and a tweet is much more than 280 characters. Meanwhile the facility and concordant power to control these composite environments with their composite objects resides in the hands of those that take a data first, representation second mentality - namely corporations, governments, law enforcement agencies, and researchers that exhibit ethically questionable engagement with digital traces of life. The collections as data imperative entails cultivation of the means to help all members of society, across all classes and backgrounds, working within the academy and outside of it to engage critically with digital traces of human activity in the fullest manner possible, native to the complexity of their form, and critically attuned to the possibilities and perils that come with their use. In what follows collections as data frames will be used to evaluate salient data driven research, professional practice, and lab oriented efforts in order to support speculative development of what a collections as data oriented lab could be.

The Unbearable Open-endedness of ‘Lab: A Variantology

Lori Emerson, Associate Professor of English and Intermedia Arts, Writing, and Performance and Director of the Media Archaeology Lab

The second panelist will first discuss findings that she and her co-authors have accumulated in the course of writing THE LAB BOOK: Situated Practices in Media Studies (forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press). The project investigates the history as well as the contemporary landscape of humanities-based media labs - including, of course, labs that openly identify as being engaged with the digital humanities - in terms of situated practices. Part of the book’s documentation of the explosion of labs or lab-like entities around the world over the last decade or so includes a body of over sixty interviews with lab directors and denizens. As the third panelist will discuss, the interviews not only reveal profound variability in terms of these labs’ driving philosophy, funding structures, infrastructures, administration, and outputs; but they also clearly demonstrate how many of hese labs do not explicitly either embody or refute scientificity so much as they pursue 21st century humanities objectives (which could include anything from research into processes of subjectivation, agency and materiality in computational culture to the production of narratives, performances, games, and/or music) in a mode that openly both acknowledges and carefully situates research process as well as research products, the role of collaboration, and the influence of physical and virtual infrastructure. While, outside of higher education, “lab” can now refer to anything from a line of men’s grooming products to a department store display or even a company dedicated to pyschometric tracking, across the arts and humanities “lab” now has the potential to capture a remarkable array of methodically delineated and self-consciously documented entities for experimentation and collaboration.

Panelist two also views THE LAB BOOK as an opportunity to position the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) in the contemporary landscape of these aforementioned humanities/DH/media labs. Since 2009, when panelist two founded the MAL, the lab has become known as one that undoes many assumptions about what labs should be or do; unlike labs that are structured hierarchically and driven by a single person with a single vision, the MAL takes many shapes: it is an archive for original works of early digital art/literature along with their original platforms; it is an apparatus through which we come to understand a complex history of media and the consequences of that history; it is a site for artistic interventions, experiments, and projects; it is a flexible, fluid space for students and faculty from a range of disciplines to undertake practice-based research; it is a means by which graduate students come for hands-on training in fields ranging from digital humanities, literary studies, media studies and curatorial studies to community outreach and education. In other words, the MAL is an intervention in “labness” insofar as it is a place where, depending on your approach, you will find opportunities for research and teaching in myriad configurations as well as a host of other, less clearly defined activities made possible by a collection that is both object and tool.

False Equivalencies: Addressing Scientific Positivism from a Feminist Digital Humanities Perspective

Elizabeth Losh, Associate Professor, American Studies and English, William & Mary

The Equality Lab unites diverse cohorts of scholars, students, and community members working broadly on inequality research in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. It provides space for digital humanities teams working on community-based archival projects in which descendents and fictive kin may be important stakeholders. For example, its current partners include the Lemon Project, which uncovers and reconciles histories of slavery and segregation in higher education, and the LGBTIQ Research Project, which works with gay, lesbian, and transgender community groups in Virginia. The Equality Lab also provides technical expertise and material support for a broad range of individual student projects by humanities Ph.D. candidates that represent a variety of disciplinary affiliations and theoretical interests in American studies, such as ethnic studies, disability studies, and environmental humanities.

As a digital humanities initiative, the Equality Lab foregrounds the ways that “equality” as a concept may suggest mathematical and scientific equivalence and thus it partners with the campus center for geospatial analysis and the university’s data sciences initiative to assist in producing DH projects that foster what has been called “counter-data action” or “statactivism.” (For example, its regional partners have worked on data projects involving redlining in housing policy and police shootings of unarmed persons of color.) Yet the Equality Lab also tests, tinkers, and examines scientistic assumptions about measurability, rationality, and surveillance in digital humanities work by approaching equality as a process rather than a product. The Equality Lab also explores the possibility that other formulations (equity, inclusion, etc.) might be more valuable as descriptors for social justice work in the digital humanities than equality itself.

Although making decisions about specific digital scholarship authoring platforms -- such as Omeka, which the Equality Lab uses to facilitate information exchanges with similar projects -- may be important, the Equality Lab avoids an exclusively tool-centric approach and validates the importance of what Christine Borgman has called “little data” as well as “big data.” In creating a multi-functional digital humanities lab space, the Equality Lab adopts perspectives from feminist science and technology studies and its important work on lab culture, such as Adele Clarke and Joan Fujimora’s The Right Tools for the Job , which argues that “tools,” “jobs,” and “rightness” are all situational and may reflect the specific contexts of ad hoc arrangements, doable problems, and disciplining tools. This feminist STS approach also validates craftwork and tacit knowledge practices as integral to digital humanities work, just as they are central to the labor of more traditional types of laboratories. The Equality Lab often builds on small-scale and relatively low-tech digital humanities interventions, such as a Wikistorming project with FemTechNet or programming bootcamps in Python or Processing with campus computer scientists.

The Equality Lab emphasizes the importance of working with communities as sites of the co-construction of knowledge to build trust, acknowledge expectations of reciprocity, and give appropriate credit for contributions, as exemplified in its recent three-day symposium on Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities that featured digital humanities innovators like Jessica Marie Johnson, Gabrielle Foreman, and Marisa Parham.

Data as products of human intentions and world views

Tanya Clement, Associate Professor, School of Information, UT Austin

While collecting institutions at UT Austin such as the Harry Ransom Center (HRC), the LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections Library, and the Perry Castañeda Library (PCL) all have large repositories of images, audio-visual materials, and text around which UT researchers can conduct scholarly research, basic research around theories and practices that consider how we should prepare, provision, and support the use of these collections as data remains largely uninitiated. At UT Austin, we are conceiving of DH labs as providing new points of access to “collections as data” while also serving as invaluable opportunities for basic research on the very nature of humanities objects and the systems that circulate and represent them to us, now, in the past, and in the future. DH Labs can provide secure and scalable access to digitized and born-digital UT collections as data and support programming but DH labs can also introduce participants to the theoretical and practical implications of considering collections as data.

There are three particular “proof of concept” areas where we are focusing our intervention.

Ethics and Post-custodial Archives : In working with the Guatemalan National Police Archives, LLILAS Benson has made post-custodial archival development and digital scholarship strategic goals its institutional mission. In the post-custodial realm, the physical collection stays with the creator but digital collections can be accessed from other custodians, such as the Benson. The theoretical and political ramifications of this very sensitive work is heightened in the context of human rights documentation initiatives. To further these efforts, LLILAS Benson has been able to secure a Mellon grant to expand its digital holdings and international partnerships, and to establish a dedicated endowment to support digital scholarship initiatives, including a Digital Scholarship in the Americas Speaker Series, workshops, internships, and fellowships for UT and international faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students.

Sound Studies and Audio Preservation and Access : The HRC is home to world-class collections of images and audiovisual materials. In particular, recordings in the collection belonged to some of the 20th and 21st century’s most notable writers, artists, and performers. As of January 2017, there are 14,682 audio recordings cataloged in the HRC’s Sound Recordings Collection database; of these, 3,226 have been digitized and are available streaming onsite in the Reading and Viewing Room. These are often unique and rare non-commercial recordings often made for private use. A DH Lab with sound analysis technology will provide scholars with an opportunity to reflect on issues of infrastructure development--including data modeling and management; systems for security, integrity, and privacy; and the use of big data and machine learning algorithms—in the context of literary audio scholarship.

Design Thinking and Object Cataloguing : The Alexander Architectural Archives, The Benson Latin American Collection, the Fine Arts Library, the Blanton Museum of Art, and the HRC all seek to modernize and coordinate their cataloguing processes in the visual arts and to implement shared technologies in order to improve efficiencies, leverage economies of scale, and promote the discovery and use of collections across campus. Structured Design Thinking workshops at the DH Lab at the Perry-Castañeda Library (PCL) will focus on cataloguing methodologies that incorporate multiple internal and external stakeholders; on evaluating available technology platforms; and considering current best practices in cataloguing, universal design, and user experience. A test corpus would include collections data for at least 500 objects-- an encyclopedic collection of approximately 2,000 works with particular depth in Western European art from the fourteenth through twentieth centuries and modern and contemporary art of the Americas from the Blanton and the Gernsheim Collection of approximately 35,000 images amassed by photo-historians Helmut and Alison Gernsheim between 1945 and 1963 currently held at the HRC. Both collections have little-to-no object-level cataloguing, making them ideal subjects for the project for building theory in design thinking and human computer interaction using collections as data.

Data are products of human intentions and world views. Empowering humanities scholars and students to better understand and to act with data entails building an ecosystem that provides opportunities for recognizing, interpreting, and acting upon the affordances of the cultural heritage artifacts that humanists have always studied refigured as data. “Labs” can provide opportunities for basic research in the organization, preservation, curation, analysis, representation, interpretation, and communication of data as well as in the digital tools and platforms, the publishing and open access models, and the social and technological systems these activities afford and inhibit.


Appendix A

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