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Humanidades Digitales: From TXDHC to the Comparative Literature Roundtable

The program in Comparative Literature will be hosting a Digital Humanities & Comparative Literature roundtable this Friday, April 17 at noon in PAR 203. Everyone is invited to attend.

Digital Humanities is a loaded term in the academy. It sounds a little too trendy, with its hashtags and passion for twitter, and a little too quantitative, with its focus on computation, processing, and programming. The emphasis on the anglophone canon within the DH community has given the discipline a decidedly insular feel.

Ultimately, there is an overarching sense that DH is a Western project, shaped by an imperial epistemology. Where does scholarship from and about the rest of the world fit in this rapidly growing field?

This week I will be hosting the event “Digital Humanities & Comparative Literature,” a roundtable discussion at the University of Texas focused on how digital humanities may extend beyond the English department, and how other literary perspectives can be important in shaping the future of digital humanities.

Along with myself, the conversation will be moderated by Fatma Tarlaci, a PhD candidate who works on the global circulation of Turkish literature, and Jennifer Hecker, a manuscript archivist and digital archives outreach strategist at the UT Libraries.

In preparation for this event, I wanted to lay out some thoughts I’ve been having about the digital humanities, particularly in the Latin American context. For the last few weeks, I have been reading the archives of Humanidades Digitales (RedHD), one of a number of groups dedicated to the theorizing of digital tools, practices, and scholarship in Latin America. The vibrant community of digital humanists working in and on Iberian and Latin American topics made me rethink my own sense of where the center of Digital Humanities lies.

With these questions in mind, I attended the  Texas Digital Humanities Consortium conference (#TXDHC15), which was held this weekend in Arlington, Texas. This exceptional conference drew my attention to three key aspects of Digital Humanities that I hope to address this Friday.

1. DHPOCO

We were fortunate to have Adeline Koh, the co-founder of Postcolonial DH, give a keynote presentation “Social Media & Revolutions: Imagined Communities and Political Action“). Koh has been an important voice for bringing postcolonial theory to the practice of digital scholarship both through her digital scholarship (“Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen‘”); her traditional scholarship (“Marriage, Métissage and Women’s Citizenship“); and her critiques of race and gender in the discipline itself (“Niceness, Building, and Opening the Genealogy of the Digital Humanities”).

My car broke down en route to Arlington (a TXDHC tradition) so I wasn’t present at Koh’s talk, which opened the conference. I know from her work, her slides, and the conversation, that Koh’s presence at the conference set the stage for a conversation that was decidedly focused on pushing back against stereotypical ideas about DH as – to use a term more than on person dropped this weekend – a heterosexual white man’s club. This involves bringing in diverse participants, amplifying traditionally silenced voices, and making ethical choices about digital projects.

2. Digital Pedagogies

I was astonished by the radical pedagogical innovation on display this weekend. Charlotte Nunes, a UT graduate and CLIR postdoctoral fellow at Southwestern University, was particularly inspiring with her fully integrated course on prison literature and archives, in which students read fiction and poetry alongside archival materials, work as volunteer transcribers for prison archives in Texas, and participate in public conversations via twitter and the course blog. Similarly, at UT Arlington Rod Sachs invited his students to present their work transcribing (and translating into Spanish) video footage from the decolonial summer school run by Walter Mignolo. These courses raise the stakes for student participation, take undergraduate scholarship seriously, and push against traditional models for literary study.

UT’s history department has offered a similar course using the Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive (AHPN). How might our literature courses do the same?

Curate Teaching, an MLA project still under development, will be a useful resource in modeling not just fully integrated courses like those of Nunes and Sachs, but also smaller projects from editing wikipedia to building course twitter accounts.

3. Digital Archives

Digital Archives are my particular area of interest, so I hope you will indulge me here. Archival presentations ranged from the local Austin Fanzine Project (a side project of Jennifer Hecker, joining me at the roundtable this friday) to Texas A&M University’s work building scholarly communities around major collections like NINES and 18th Connect.

The Houston Public Library’s Mapping Houston History project, a collaboration between librarians and scholars to produce thematic maps of the city ranging from churches to queer history, stood out.  “Houston has a deep history of LGBT culture that predates World War 2,” one presenter remarked, “but you won’t find it on search engines.” The project, which makes an implicitly political intervention in the digital sphere, seeks to change that.

Matthew and David LaFevor spoke about efforts to digitize precarious archives across Latin America, and to use them for research in history and the natural sciences. Unspoken in their work – and articulated frequently elsewhere – was the question of boundaries in digitization projects. Are there ever moments when archival material shouldn’t be digitized? Are there times when intended use or cultural preferences should be respected, despite the lacuna in digital knowledge? To address this point, Adeline Koh presented Mukurtu, a “grassroots project aiming to empower communities to manage, share, preserve, and exchange their digital heritage in culturally relevant and ethically-minded ways.”

Continued conversations: 

The final keynote presentations for the TXDHC conference, by Alan Liu and George Siemens, were about the role of digital humanities in shaping the academy, particularly as the academy becomes an increasingly corporate institution. One thread that tied the two presentations together for me was the absence of a global – or even transnational – context. For me, this implied that regional concerns can disappear under the weight of corporate power. I wonder whether this disappearance of the national is the future of a truly global scholarship, or whether a return to local concerns is necessary.

I’m looking forward to continuing this conversation next week at the Digital Humanities and Comparative Literature roundtable. Not just for complit students, we hope to help develop a community for everyone interested in expanding the vision of digital scholarship at UT beyond national and linguistic borders.

* featured image is from Chris Jordan’s Intolerable Beauty. 

About Hannah Alpert-Abrams

Hannah Alpert-Abrams[avatar by Neely Goniodsky]

Hannah Alpert-Abrams