In the last three years, I have tried to engage in the Digital Humanities in three ways. When I first applied to graduate school at MSU and visited the campus I was told about LEADR and MATRIX. Having run more than my share of blogs and websites into complete silence in the past, the presence of LEADR and MATRIX gave me a lot of confidence. When I first applied to be a CHI fellow, I had a version of my ODH grant proposal in mind. During my time, as a CHI fellow, I realized (very quickly) that that was too ambitious a project, for the aims of the fellowship at least. The fellowship itself, however, was an immense learning experience. When I first entered graduate school, I thought DH scholarship was all about creating access through a website. I did not think about the importance of cultivating the necessary back end skills that could make an open-access website. I had not thought about the effect—both on a practical and a philosophical level—of being able to design my own website. I must confess that when I first realized that I had to learn some basic training as part of the fellowship, I was a little aghast: I thought I had chosen well to be a historian so I would not need to learn to code. And although I went into it a little apprehensive, I learned a tremendous deal. Those preliminary skills gave me perspective about the magnitude of a project like the one I had proposed and brought a quick rescaling. The project I ended up doing—on the TVA and the planned town of Norris—was vastly different in scale and focus but was similar in the challenges it threw up. I am ashamed to admit it but I had not always thought about copyright access and infringement when thinking about a website. Through the course of the CHI fellowship, I had to change my goals for the website based on the kinds of material I could exhibit on the website that was either copyright free and/or I had gained copyright access for. The narrative arc of the website was no doubt affected. But I was also pushed to find creative solutions: could I design a website in which users could access archival material without necessarily downloading it? How could I offer the most possible information without necessarily infringing on copyright laws? The solutions I found were not perfect but were an important lesson in how I approach the building of a website from the ground up. Learning coding skills was an important part of the process, facing the access question through the possibility of copyright infringement was an unexpected but important learning curve.
In summer 2018, I attended the Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching (HILT), a Digital Humanities Summer School at the University of Pennsylvania where I did a course entitled “Digital Methods for Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies.” The course was based on an inquiry of what and how sources might be understood, especially cultural artifacts: how might digital methods complicate cultural studies as they are practiced across various disciplines? Furthermore, how might digital methods speak to one another? Considering how traditional ideas of primary, secondary and tertiary sources could be studied individually, the course explored various approaches to finding and evaluating; cleaning and exploring; analyzing, visualizing, and communicating data. Through the week-long summer school, we discussed and learned various methods of data preparation whilst being aware of potential pitfalls. In so doing, I became aware of the impact of decisions about methodology, data representation, and tool selection could shift the overall goals of the project. Doing/thinking of all this whilst trying to keep a digital research project that remained accessible was an interesting challenge. During the summer school, I went back to my original CHI project, but this time I wanted to look at dredging data to see how dredging might have affected border relations/tensions across the Detroit River and therefore increased surveillance on freedom seekers. While most of the dredging data were open access, trying to visualize, analyze, and explore the same were interesting challenges that I had not thought about earlier. The DH summer school was especially useful as it provided hands-on experience in using various digital methods as well as thinking about data as a category and resource. Based on the summer school, I am currently in the process of putting together a pedagogical project proposal for the CHI fellowship as a returning fellow. Thinking about what data might be in the first place, I came to realize was inextricably linked to how that data might be analyzed, visualized and communicated. Thus, spending time on what it is what I consider data and making that vantage point clear would go a long way in deciding the end product. In terms of my project itself, I came to realize that in order to understand any impact that dredging, commerce, and territorial questions might have had on the Underground Railroad, I would need much more fine grained data on where it is that dredging took place, the possible border issues each of these sites might have brought up, and then juxtapose those with known crossing sites to reveal the interplay of these factors.
And then this semester I did the HST 812 class. As a redesigned class, I was not sure what to expect of it. now, having attended (most of) the course meetings, I can safely say that one of my biggest gains was the interdisciplinary class discussion. I didn’t think of it at the time that I signed up for the class but having an interdisciplinary cohort was seminal in pushing all of us to think beyond our disciplinary boundaries. We often talk about pushing disciplinary boundaries but can sometimes do so without being fully aware of the silos we continue to operate inside. Being in an interdisciplinary class helped me push the boundaries of how I might think of my scholarship and its eventual reach. The readings for the class stood out for me. I particularly enjoyed the weeks on open access and scholarly communication as they hit at the core of my problems with academia. Thinking about philosophical, disciplinary issues when it came to open access made me realize that while DH is often seen, at least in history, as being an important ‘add-on’ to traditional scholarship, to break into its own DH would need history and historians to break free of their own ideas of scholarship. In particular, reading Bill Cronon’s essay in Perspectives in Historybrought the point home to me that the change that DH can bring to history is inextricably tied to the change historians—especially tenured historians—can bring top down to the profession in addition to the bottom up changes that younger scholars are seeking to make. If digital scholarship is to truly inform the historical profession, then the profession itself needs to be reinvented. We cannot talk about digital scholarship whilst still upholding the superiority and almost monotheistic allegiance to the monograph. It is heartening to see more scholarship that is using digital methods to complement traditional scholarship (e.g. Railroaded the website and book). There however need to be more interventions such as this. for instance, could a dissertation be an open-access book/digital publication? Would such an intervention count towards tenure in an academic setting? In the non-academic world, such an intervention would probably be seen as a positive. If non-tenured faculty are to not to be pushed to publish or perish, then senior faculty could perhaps take the lead in pushing the profession to do better, since their livelihoods are not hanging in the balance. While these questions may not have easy answers, they do need to be asked if we are to truly give DH the place it deserves in pedagogy, philosophy, and practice in the humanities.
Thus, through the CHI fellowship, the DH summer school and HST 812, I have come to realize the importance of making (and breaking) things, the need to think and rethink what constitutes data—how, why, where, when to use, as well as think about the philosophical questions that digital methods raise. While there are no easy answers, asking the questions is perhaps an important starting point. After having been a CHI fellow, attending a summer DH school last year, and now having taken a course, it is safe to say that I am intrigued by the Digital Humanities. Yet, I also want to unequivocally say that I am ambivalent about the impact of the digital humanities. Why? Simply because I think DH raises a fundamental question at the heart of academia. During the course of my graduate career, I have heard (as I am sure we all have in some shape or form) about the importance of sharing our research, of being publicly oriented intellectuals. To take these roles seriously, we are often told we should engage with the digital because it is accessible and perhaps one of the most effective means to stop mistruths. A blog, an online presence, a website, we hear are the easiest and perhaps most effective means to reach more people. Yet, what we are not told is if these are actually as efficient are effective as we think. Knowledge dissemination is at the heart of the academic enterprise. Yet, current market realities do not make knowledge dissemination a truly open possibility, let alone reality.