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HASTAC Interview Collection: Q&A with Zac Zimmer

HASTAC Interview Collection: Q&A with Zac Zimmer

Zac Zimmer–assistant professor of Spanish at Virginia Tech and faculty affiliate with the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) and Science and Technology in Society (STS)–received his PhD from the Department of Romance Studies, Cornell University. His research explores questions of literature, aesthetics, politics, and technology in Latin America.

His current project, tentatively titled First Contact, is a comparative study of Latin American science fiction and narratives of the sixteenth century conquest of the Americas. Previous publications on contemporary Argentine literature, utopia, post-apocalyptic fiction, and the commons have appeared in The Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, Latin American Research Review, Chasqui, Modern Language Notes, and Revista Otra Parte.

-from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Foreign Languages and Literatures Department website


1. How did you come into the field of the Digital Humanities?

           I got into the digital humanities because I was writing my dissertation on Latin American utopias, and historically there were connections with utopian communities in Latin America, for example, the Jesuits or the indigenous movements in Peru that were trying to connect 20th century political activity to the history of the Incan empire.  All of these Utopian formulations were concerned with the status of land and the enclosures of private property.  I saw these issues in contemporary discourse around the internet talking about the new digital enclosures and thinking about the internet as a utopian space and a common community.  Part of the dissertation was tracing the way that contemporary debates around technological infrastructure, openness, private property, enclosure, liberty, and freedom in the digital realm were tracking back to historical debates about enclosure and private property, specifically looking at those in a Latin American context.  So I arrived at the digital humanities as a critical theorist of utopianism and enclosure in the digital realm.  My work has always been grounded in Latin America.  It made a strange fit, but then when I was participating in HASTAC, in 2014, they had a conference in Peru.  It was rewarding to have the opportunity to attend and discuss digital structure in Latin America.  I was able to do a lot of work with my colleague Anita Chan who wrote a book on digital and technological infrastructure in Peru.  I found a community in HASTAC.  I was part of a group of people who really helped to expand the network of HASTAC. 

2.  What are some of the current opportunities or challenges that you see in the Digital Humanities?

            A continual problem is accounting for what we have historically called the digital divide, and also cultural differences in the use of technology, such as Latin America, or more generally developing nations, like the Global South, and also thinking about the cartographies of capitalism in relation to technological penetration.  For example, if you are talking about mobile money and payments, which are very much on the mind of financial industries, they are utilizing anthropologists to do research for Master Card, to figure out how new technologies for payment infrastructure are used in developing nations.  I think it is important for the digital humanities not to get too far away from real concerns about technological adoption.  Not to insulate ourselves from what these technologies are doing on the ground.  We need to guard from technological utopianism: the notion that technology will be the answer, and we need to counter balance utopianism with the recognition that digital technologies are actually being used in daily life.  We need to live up to our role as humanists.  I think a spirit of collaboration between scholars who are working on building archives and accessibility need to also be able to dialogue and have conversations.  We need to try to connect the things we are interested in and find ways to carry on those conversations with other humanists who are interested in climate change, resources and water scarcity, finding ways to participate in conversations that deal with the natural world.  In other words, to not confine the digital humanities to the computer.


3.  What role do you see HASTAC in addressing these issues or in opening opportunities?

            To network and bring people together around shared interests. It is precisely the space where we can start to develop these dialogues.  Hopefully it can serve as a tool to find commonalities and advance interdisciplinary research agendas and not get hung up on a lot of the turf battles and struggles over definitions that have been part of the growth of the digital humanities.  This is not to discount these turf battles because it is important to figure out the intellectual contours/geography of the field, but I think that HASTAC can also continue to refocus research agendas so as to include things that fall out of other discussions in the humanities, such as, gender and race as it relates to both digital humanities and other humanists. 

4. How do you see the digital humanities or your field changing?

            The main thing that is changing in my field is the bringing together of international scholars.  Reconceiving university affiliation as the scholarly passport for research.  Since universities function differently in Latin America, we can produce affinity groups who work with community organizations and digital spaces.  It is not only a matter of bringing geographically diverse voices and spaces into the conversation, but also, realizing that the things we are interested in researching are not exclusive to the universities. 

            There are very interesting people doing work on electronic literature and e-poetry in Latin America, but this community does not consider themselves part of the digital humanities because the digital humanities have been very closely tied to English departments and computer science departments, so it is not a field, at its heart, that is considering periphery cultural studies.  In considering how to continue researching and understanding the global digital we need to expand geographically. 

5. What excites you about the future of the digital humanities or of HASTAC?

            We are certainly at a transitional moment.  A problem we have to face as a society, both regionally and nationally, on every level, is that it is no longer acceptable to ignore complexity in considering problems.  I think humanistic inquiry is going to be very much a necessity in trying to figure out where we are going and what we need to do in sustaining a future.  It will be become more apparent these questions that have been sequestered to the realm of STEM are profoundly humanistic questions.  I think that for scholars and researchers who are able to communicate in the public realm and also across disciplinary divides, to be able to communicate with scientists and engineers, in a substantial way are going to be in a position to not only be able to develop interesting research agendas, but also to reshape the world around us.

            I think a lot of the kinds of tropes, themes and topics that have been very important to humanistic inquiry, like thinking about the problems of representation, at the aesthetic, cultural and political level, things like cultural appropriation and the meaning of diversity or of understanding gender, class and race implications in policy making, are entering the public discourse/popular discourse.  In a sense we are setting a certain societal research agenda, and HASTAC can set a platform for engaging with the public in order to have a re-vindication of the public intellectual.  An organization like HASTAC is very well positioned to give a platform for researchers who do want to engage the public as a public intellectual. 

5. Do you see a role for digital humanities in your teaching?

            I have always been a fan of student blogging.  Because of my research into intellectual property I have a very idiosyncratic way that I do it, so I am always encouraging students to respond to the cultural text I’ve given them; they can use whatever medium they think will best capture what they want to say.  They can make a blog, make an audio recording or video.   I think it is worthwhile to allow students to engage with a cultural artifact and in a trans-mediated way.  They can read a book, then make a short video and then upload it to whatever media source they want to use.  I also like to show my students how they are quantified and tracked by the learning technology that I use in the course.




This is a great interview.  Thank you.  I learned a lot---and I want to know more.  Zac, you say:  "I also like to show my students how they are quantified and tracked by the learning technology that I use in the course."

Can you give us some details about how you do this, what technology, and how others can do it as well?  I would like to and would love to learn more about your methods.  Thanks much.


Thanks, Cathy, for the comment, and to Caroline for conducting the interview.

My university just switched to the Canvas Learning Management System (LMS), which has even more pervasive built-in surveillance features than our previous LMS, Scholar. I like to spend part of the first day of class (regardless of the course content) giving the students a behind-the-scenes tour of the LMS. The students usually don't realize how extensively they can be tracked and quantified (and, honestly, few of the faculty realize the potential, either). I let them know what features I'll be using in our course, but I also show them the other features that I do not use. Bascially, I move through the course pages, gradebooks, metrics, statistics, activity reports, access reports, etc. while projecting my display on the big screen. Since it is early in the semester, the students only have a few grade entries, so as long as I don't display a class roster with student ID (as per FERPA), there shouldn't be a student privacy issue.

If I'm teaching a course that specifically deals with themes like surveillance, privacy, intellectual property, digital labor, etc, we'll spend some additional time exploring the University LMSs, and that will become a reference point for the class.

In other courses, I simply want to inform the students about their learning environment (although it is frequent for students to come to office hours later in the semester to talk more about those issues). My committments, both pedagogical and other, won't really allow me to use these tracking and surveillance technologies unless I actively explain them to students.