My colleague Bernardo Michael in the History department here has been pressing me to understand that properly understood Digital Humanities should be deeply connected to our College-wide efforts to address questions of diversity and what the AAC&U calls inclusive excellence. (Bernardo also serves as the special assistant to the President for Diversity affairs). At first blush I will admit that this has seemed counter-intuitive to me and I have struggled to articulate the priority between my interest in developing new efforts in Digital Humanities that I tie to our college’s technology plan and my simultaneous concerns with furthering our institutions diversity plan (besides just a general ethical interest, my primary field of study over the past 20 years has been multicultural American Literature).
Nevertheless, I’ve started seeing more and more of Bernardo’s point as I’ve engaged in the efforts to get things started in Digital Humanities. For one thing, the practices and personages of the digital world are talked about in cultural terms: We use language like “digital natives” and “digital culture” and “netizens”–cultural terms that attempt to articulate new forms of social and cultural being. In the practical terms of trying to create lift-off for some of these efforts, an administrator faces the negotiation of multiple institutional cultures, and the challenging effort to get faculty–not unreasonably happy and proud about their achievements within their own cultural practices–to see that they actually need to become conversant in the languages and practices of an entirely different and digital culture.
Thus I increasingly see that Bernardo is right; just as we need to acclimate ourselves and become familiar with other kinds of cultural differences in the classroom, and just as our teaching needs to begin to reflect the values of diversity and global engagement, our teaching practices also need to engage students as digital natives. Using technology in the classroom or working collaboratively with students on digital projects isn’t simply instrumental–i.e. it isn’t simply about getting students familiar with things they will need for a job. It is, in many ways, about cultural engagement, respect, and awareness. How must our own cultures within academe adjust and change to engage with a new and increasingly not so new culture–one that is increasingly central and dominant to all of our cultural practices?
Adeline Koh over at Richard Stockton College (and this fall at Duke, I think), has a sharp post on these kinds of issues, focusing more on the divide between theory and practice or yacking and hacking in Digital Humanities. Adeline has more theory hope than I do, but I like what she’s probing in her piece and I especially like where she ends up:
If computation is, as Cathy N. Davidson (@cathyndavidson) and Dan Rowinski have been arguing, the fourth “R” of 21st century literacy, we very much need to treat it the way we already do existing human languages: as modes of knowledge which unwittingly create cultural valences and systems of privilege and oppression. Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks: “To speak a language is to take on a world, a civilization.” As Digital Humanists, we have the responsibility to interrogate and to understand what kind of world, and what kind of civilization, our computational languages and forms create for us. Critical Code Studies is an important step in this direction. But it’s important not to stop there, but to continue to try to expand upon how computation and the digital humanities are underwritten by theoretical suppositions which still remain invisible.
More Hack, Less Yack?: Modularity, Theory and Habitus in the Digital Humanities | Adeline Koh
I suspect that Bernardo and Adeline would have a lot to say to each other.