Last week I attended the Media Places: Infrastructure | Space | Media conference at Umeå University. The conference was sponsored by The Peter Wallenberg Foundation and universities of Umeå, Stanford, and Lund. The conference was invite-only and I was honored to be asked, not only to attend, but also to give a short presentation as part of a panel on “Moving the Field Forward.”
This was the second conference I attended this semester and each was an interdisciplinary approach to a narrowly focused topic. I really like this format. Media Places had only one track of sessions, so it was great to know that everyone saw the same things and heard the same ideas. This made for frictionless conversation and “networking” as we gathered during breaks and meals. It was as painless as networking can possibly be.
As I mentioned above, I was asked to participate in one of the panels. Patrik Svensson asked myself and two other “junior” faculty members to speak to the issue of moving the field forward, and if possible, to tie it into the conference theme. What follows is a recreation of my talk from my notes. I actually had to edit some of this out on the fly as I was bumping up against the 8-minute time limit. Since I can’t remember what I cut, I’ll just include it all here, as I initially rehearsed it:
I am really glad that Patrik framed this presentation as an invitation to tell a story based on our experience. It seems as though any time I am asked to address “the” field, I end up telling stories based on my experiences. So I am glad it is authorized and expected in this context.
I am in a program in Emerging Media and Communication. If you were looking to place us on the map of Digital Humanities, we fall into the area of applying humanistic modes of inquiry to digital objects. Each of our students, undergrad and Master’s, completes a capstone project in order to graduate. I joined the program in 2010 and immediately found myself doing quite a bit of capstone supervision.
Students were coming to me who wanted to work on issues of identity and social justice, but they had never had any coursework in this area. They had their own lived experience, which is, of course, very powerful, but for the most part they were unfamiliar with the rich scholarly traditions and frameworks that could be useful in doing their capstone work. So we would do the best we could within the confines of one semester, but I saw a gap in our curriculum and developed some classes to help fill it. So this semester I am teaching two new classes, one undergrad and one grad, on race, class, gender, and sexuality in digital environments. The first 6 weeks we spent on foundational theory and then for the last 8 weeks we turned our attention to issues related to technology and computing.
For both classes, I started out with readings on the concept of privilege. And in thinking about connecting the field with the conference theme, it seemed like that would be a good place to start here – with the idea of privileged places and open and inclusive spaces. DH itself has its own registers of privilege and dis-privilege, so it seems appropriate.
One of the classes read a short piece by damali ayo, called “You Can Fix Racism.” This piece includes 5 steps for white people and 5 steps for people of color to address racism. I think we can extrapolate from this to 5 steps for people in a position of privilege and use it to think about digital humanities. Included among ayo’s first step is the call to take notice. As people of privilege, you have to train yourself walk into a room and look around and notice who is there, who is missing, and how people are being treated. In academia we have to notice who is there, but also what kind of work they are doing.
And indeed, there are people who are already noticing. There is Tara McPherson’s work on race and UNIX, the Fembot Collective just launched the first issue of the new journal Ada. There is also Alan Liu’s essay in Debates in the Digital Humanities, “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?,” and there is the work of the #transformdh collective. So people are noticing. But I think we can do better.
On paper, our EMAC program looks pretty good. We have a pretty diverse student body, we have gender equity among our tenure track faculty (though including lecturers and other adjunct faculty may paint a different picture). But it would be easy to look around and think we are doing okay. But as I said it is not enough to look at who is there, you also have to look at what they are doing.
And this is where I think we have some room for improvement. If you look at our graduate student TAs, we have two different kinds of positions. We have creative coder genius type positions, and we have teaching and lab management positions. And looking at who is doing what kind of work reveals a pretty standard gender dichotomy. Granted, our program is only a few years old, so I have only a three years of data to work from here. But I am sure you can guess how these break down. Almost across the board, the creative coder genius position is held by men, while teaching positions are held by women.
Now, to some extent this is reflective of larger cultural patterns. We know this is a cultural issue from looking at all of the initiatives meant to encourage more girls to pursue STEM fields, or from the multiple ongoing discussions about the hypermasculinity of programming and coding environments. But, to return to ayo’s piece, her final step is to Take Action, to consider [racism] your problem to solve. Partially we attempt to solve these types of problems through our research. But in EMAC we also consider it our problem to solve with our students. How can we create more open and inclusive spaces for our students?
There are three threads* to how we are currently approaching the problem. One is that one of the coder genius type TAs has expressed dismay at the lack of people in our program who code. He and I have had multiple discussions about how to open up the space in our small lab to encourage more people to get involved in this way. We’ve talked about having some kind of hacker or maker space in there. The next thread is related to work I do with students on wearable media. We have a blog called Fashioning Circuits and the two times I have done this with students I have found myself teaching them to sew and work with electronics, and we’ve been learning to use Lilypad arduinos together. This semester I am including more than one project in that class and will be incorporating workshop time from the beginning. And the third thread is that I’ve been involved in multiple summer camps that introduce young girls to the idea of coding through arduinos and wearable media. In fact, one of our graduate students started an organization and offers these camps freelance to girls in the DFW area.
So next semester we are going to start doing something that I’m currently calling OpenCreativity Lab**, based off the idea of OpenHack meetups introduced by the aforementioned TA. I am kind of a theory optimist and so the theoretical foundation for this is based off of Pierre Lévy’s Collective Intelligence and knowledge space that values all types of knowledge and encourages a system of reciprocal apprenticeship. In addition, I really like McLuhan’s ideas in The Medium is the Massage of the amateur as one who is able to create free from the dogma of professional training and framing. So pulling all of those ideas together we want to create a space in which people feel free to experiment and fail, without over-privileging coding.
Obviously I think it would be great if more people wanted to learn to code, but I do think that it is key that we not over-privilege it within this space. There are two reasons for this: one is that I already know that our students do not think of themselves as coders. We have a PhD program with a coding requirement and many students express hesitation about applying because of this requirement. The other reason is related to coding and DH in general. I don’t want to rehash the entirety of DH coding debates, but I do think it important to acknowledge that there are multiple strands to that debate. One is that it is valuable to learn to code for coding’s sake. Another is that it is important to understand the logic of code because of the way it influences culture and environments. And the third, to me at least, is that the idea of learning to code is very much about the spirit of making. It embodies a willingness to experiment and fail that can be applied to other forms of making. I would include writing as a type of making but I think experimentation and failure operate differently in our practices of writing. So the idea is to open up a space that is safe and inclusive; one in which all kinds of making and a diversity of experience are valued. If someone wants to come work on their scrapbook, that’s fine. But maybe in this space, students will learn to see coding as making and open up to the idea of themselves as coders.
So basically we are tired of working through all of the “what ifs.” It is time to just start doing it. Let’s throw something at the wall and see what sticks. So we’ll get started on that next semester.
To close, I want to share with you a quote from a post written by Amanda Phillips of the #transformdh collective. She wrote a guest blog for ProfHacker on #transformdh at the recent American Studies Association conference. I was reading this in my hotel room at 5 o’clock this morning and thought it would be a provocative way to close and maybe start discussion:
“A high-profile scholar remarked to me after our panel that our work was important and would be easier to achieve at ASA than other major conferences; social justice scholars might be more receptive to computational and digital methods than those scholars would be to social justice. Is this a fair assessment? I’m not sure, but the state of the tech industries on which much of DH models itself might suggest so.”
I hope that to move the field forward we’ll all commit to looking around at our privileged places, considering it our problem to solve, and prove that senior scholar wrong.
* A fourth thread would be the classes that my colleague Andrew Famiglietti has been offering on hacking and hacking culture. I wish I had thought to mention it at the time.
** After discussions on the closing day of the conference, I’m re-thinking the term “lab,” and may be leaning toward “studio” instead.