"Why (digital) humanities?" - Community and Networks

"Why (digital) humanities?" – This question was presented in black and white as the last slide of Josh Greenberg's keynote presentation at HASTAC 2011. Greenberg (@epistemographer) is Program Director for Digital Information Technology and the Dissemination of Knowledge with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The title of his HASTAC 2011 keynote presentation was "Data, Code, and Research at Scale."

So "Why (digital) humanities?" One of the primary values of digital humanities according to Greenberg is the role of community and network building in digital humanities. My attendance, participation and observation of events at HASTAC 2011 were living witness and testament to Greenberg's pronouncement.

In 1992 after having spent time serving in the Peace Corps in Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo), I entered the doctoral program at the University of Michigan in the department of anthropology with the aim of doing research in cultural anthropology with a focus on the African diaspora.  I undertook two years of course work in the doctoral program in anthropology at Michigan before withdrawing for personal reasons and began working at the former Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor on State Street. I never returned to the doctoral program at Michigan and departed Ann Arbor in 1997 to pursue a career in Boston in academic and scholarly publishing.

It was significant for me that so many of the main events of HASTAC 2011 were held in the Rackham Graduate School Building. I had spent numerous hours studying in the study rooms of Rackham as a doctoral student at Michigan. I also had spent time selling books and hosting events for Shaman Drum Bookshop in the Rackham lobby, so a slight chuckle and smirk came to my face as I entered Rackham for day one of HASTAC 2011 to see the University of Michigan Press with a table assembled full of books related to the conference for sale, staffed by members of the press.

My attendance at HASTAC 2011 held at the University of Michigan in early December 2011 marked the first time I had returned to Ann Arbor since leaving in 1997. I literally broke down in tears of joy and some sorrow (Shaman Drum Bookshop closed a few years ago and is now inhabited by a Five Guys hamburger store) after checking into the Campus Inn in Ann Arbor and walking up State Street when I arrived on Thursday, December 1. Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan, and Shaman Drum Bookshop were all part of a significant community for me during my experience living there. It was good to be back in Ann Arbor and run into so many old friends and colleagues, and revisiting my community.

Now here I returned to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan as a HASTAC Scholar and part of a new community.

"HASTAC is the kind of conference that can change your life." - Edmond Chang (@edmondchang)

I am not a programmer. I am not a coder. I haven't yet built any tools or significant models. Yet I consider myself a member of the community of digital humanities. Currently I am a second year student in the MLS program at the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland (College, Park, Md.). During the first year of my study at Maryland I had the great opportunity to work at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH). My experience at MITH has influenced me profoundly as I have set a trajectory for myself in information studies as a scholar with an interest in the science of technology, a social science approach to information and diverse populations, and a humanist interested in the ways in which technology and digital humanities can be used to promote human values.

The keynotes and conference sessions of HASTAC 2011 have been well documented by HASTAC, conference attendees, and other HASTAC Scholars. To that documentation I would like to add some commentary about two events of HASTAC 2011 that were prominent for me.

Communication and Collaboration in International Digital Humanities Projects

I'm still very much interested in Africa and no doubt will remain so until the day I expire from this earthly existence. A great deal of the work I have done as a MLS student at Maryland has focused on the future of internet architecture, internet governance, and the role of information and communication technology in Africa.

On Friday, December 2, I attended the "roundtable" discussion at HASTAC 2011 entitled "Communication and Collaboration in International Digital Humanities Projects." This discussion featured several members of the staff from MATRIX, a leading digital humanities center at Michigan State University. MATRIX has devoted itself to digital humanities projects that focus on Africa and I was impressed to have further insight into the role and value of collaboration and partnership that MATRIX places on these projects, particularly seeking to collaborate and partner with scholars and researchers based in Africa.

The passion and engagement that Ethan Watrall, Associate Director, MATRIX, Assistant Professor, Anthropology and Director, Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative at Michigan State; and Peter Alegi, Associate Professor, History at Michigan State brought to the discussion was infectious. I particularly enjoyed having the opportunity to discuss Africa and digital humanities with Ethan and Peter after the session was over.

The portion of the presentation led by Catherine Foley, Digital Librarian at MATRIX was particularly noteworthy as she focused on the South Africa – U.S. Higher Education Partnerships project and the Community Video Education Trust (CVET) in Cape Town, a digital archive of videos taken in South Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s that contains raw footage that documents anti-apartheid demonstrations, speeches, mass funerals, celebrations, and interviews with activists. 

Iterations of Change: How Digital Technology Is Transforming Asian American Studies

Diversity in digital humanities has also been a focus of mine during my study as a MLS student. I am interested in how can digital humanities pay more attention to race, gender, class, and sexuality as reflected not only in digital humanities projects but also in representation of more diversity amongst its practitioners.

One of the main parts of the experience of attending conferences such as HASTAC 2011 are the numerous opportunities for serendipitous conversations and networking that take place in hallways, cab rides, lunch and dinner gatherings, over coffee or tea, etc. I had several such opportunities and conversations at HASTAC 2011, most notably with Tara McPherson, Associate Professor of Gender Studies and Critical Studies at the University of Southern California and Editor, VECTORS, Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular. As we sat in a darkened studio, wearing 3D glasses waiting to view a presentation of a 3D film by the OpenEnded Group, Tara McPherson and I chatted about diversity in digital humanities. I eagerly await reading McPherson's piece, "Why Are the Digital Humanities So White?, or, Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation" in the forthcoming University of Minnesota Press publication, Debates in the Digital Humanities edited by Matthew Gold.

In the HASTAC 2011 session, "Iterations of Change: How Digital Technology Is Transforming Asian American Studies," Lisa Nakamura, Director of the Asian American Studies Program, Professor in the Institute of Communication Research and Media and Cinema Studies Department and Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, led a very spirited discussion that attempted to answer the question of "What can digital humanities do for ethnic studies?" One of the outcomes from this discussion included talking about the ways in which various ethnic communities can use digital technology to talk amongst themselves regarding common concerns and objectives in a struggle for representation in the larger debates of digital humanities.

Community and Networks

Another one of the serendipitous conversations I had at HASTAC 2011 took place with Elijah Meeks as we stood outside the Rackham Building awaiting the shuttle buses that would take us to the Duderstadt Center on the North Campus of the University of Michigan for the final events of HASTAC 2011 which included the most interactive events of the conference. At the Duderstadt Center, HASTAC 2011 attendees were treated to a tour of several components of the Digital Media Commons of the Duderstadt Center, which are pleasantly, and notably a service of the University of Michigan Library. I was most impressed by the Audio Studio, the Electronic Music Studio, and the University of Michigan 3D Lab where I witnessed a Virtual Reality Cave and examples of experiments in 3D printing.

Before our trip to the Duderstadt Center, I chatted with Elijah Meeks, Digital Humanities Specialist at Stanford University. It was great finally meeting Elijah after following his web presence for quite some time now. As we both expressed our total enjoyment and satisfaction with HASTAC 2011, Meeks told me that he felt there are "three pillars" that comprise digital humanities: geospatial scholarship and technology, text mining, and network analysis.

Networks and community are fundamental to the success of digital humanities. The further along I go in encounters with digital humanities I am struck about how open, how collegial, and how collaborative networks and communities are in digital humanities. The keynotes and sessions at HASTAC 2011 were stellar, thought provoking, and engaging. However it was through my attendance, participation, and observation of events at HASTAC 2011 that provided me the opportunity to meet friends and colleagues as well as make new friends and colleagues, all as a part of a community and network of scholars and practitioners interested in the use of technology to promote human values and enrich knowledge.

HASTAC 2011 changed my life and continues to transform the way in which I approach library and information science.