Blog Post

HASTAC V Conference Reflections, Vision, Disappointment, Praxis

#alt-ac #hastac2011 scholars @nazcathemad and @alothian sitting in the front blogging in this "add techno environment"

The HASTAC V Conference at the University of Michigan covered an incredibly broad span of approaches to the digital humanities, and above all demonstrated that it is a field still rich difference, providing significant fuel for discussions. 

The morning started out with an impassioned and inspiring keynote from Cathy Davidson. Her talk discussed the link between neuroscience and social resistance to transformation. Throughout a talk that included an interactive and collaborative exercise, which was highly illuminating, Cathy discussed the many social conventions that shape our approaches to learning, including the learned habits from timed tests that force people to work alone instead of collaborating. Cathy pointed out how in some indigenous or asian cultures, or when considered by greek philosophers, individualistic, silent approaches to knowledge and learning would be unthinkable. 

In her talk, Cathy talked about how both grading and bubble tests are horribly reductive and problematic. I still think a dog is a farm animal. I appreciated Cathy talking about trying out other grading systems and "getting in trouble" for it. My biggest question after the talk was if we all agree that grading is not just reductive, but some profesors like K. Wayne Yang at UCSD call it immoral that the job of professors is to "sort out" students, then how can we make real concrete gains towards ending letter/numeric grades, now?

Her talk ended with a call for people to not simply blame institutions for problems, but to take responsibility for their own complicity with and participation in institutions. I couldn't help but hear a resonance of her recent excellent article on UC Davis police brutality and resonance of the Occupy movement more broadly in this part of her talk. 

Later in the day I felt very differently about the keynote speech by Jim Leach of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which I was deeply troubled by. A primary claim of Leach's talk was that the digital humanities must take up a "civilizing project". I missed some of the talk, but I found this claim to be unacceptable. The talk revealed to me what deep splits exist in our field, to see a keynote speech that was so egregious to my own values. Certainly, if there is a need of a civilizing mission, there are people who are uncivilized in Leach's view. I was troubled by his reference to "our" conflict with "the Arab World", which seemed to act as the Other in need of civilizing. This forumlation made a troubling conflation between "us" and the United States, a claim which I already have trouble accepting. 

Leach went on to propose a new digital class which would take up this civilizing mission, based on choice and access. This was, to me, a troubling conflation that smoothed over the fact that many don't have a choice to join the digital class because they lack access and often access is determined by social structures of inequality including gender, race, ability, sexuality, immigration status. Here is where I find myself firmly in the post-humanities with Donna Haraway and Judith Halberstam and many other theorists working to address the limitations of the liberal humanist subject and the way that it forecloses discussion of its own limitations, of who gets to be a rational subject and who is deemed irrational and uncivilized, often on the basis of the social structures I listed above. In Halberstam's new book The Queer Art of Failure, he claims that certain CIG based children's "cartoons expose the fact that what parades as civilization is actually barbarism," the barbarism that the United States is currently involved in, killing innocent people in "the Arab World" on a daily basis in the name of a civilizing project of democracy. Such a project is not one I can accept or parcipate in as a digital (post)humanities scholar. 

Perhaps the most deeply troubling part of the talk was then Leach discussed slavery. While he said it was unfathomable that people were made into commodities, he also framed slavery as part of "our" country's "imperfect" history. Again, at this moment I had to recall Tara Mcpherson's essay "Why Are the Digital Humanities So White?" and look around the room and ask the same question. Only in a huge full auditorium with only a handful of African-American people in attendance could people accept a statement claiming that slavery was imperfect, as opposed to murderous, tragic and genocidal. I do not find the murdering of over ten million African people in the slave trade to be imperfect, but far, far worse. This moment indicated to me the very serious work that needs to be done by digital humanities to address the lack of understanding of work being done around race, gender, sexuality and other forms of social inequality, by scholars like McPherson and Lisa Nakamura and how it shapes our understandings of technology. 

Perhaps my favorite moment of the conference was the roundtable "From the Center: Facilitating Feminist Praxis and Pedagogy Through Collaboration" with Margaret Rhee, Isela Gonzales and Allyse Gray. This inspiring project is not simply theorizing about what needs to be done by digital humanitists, it is deep in the challenges and contradictions and work that is involved with applying a digital story telling approach to HIV/AIDS prevention with women incarcerated in SF County Jails. As I am attempting to do my own current research from a prison abolitionist framework, I found their talk not only deeply inspiring but also incredibly important and relevant to the questions that I am working with. 

Overall, the HASTAC conference was an incredibly rich experience, and perhaps the most important moments were the wonderful receptions where we could discuss our own work and our own concerns with other scholars in attendance. Over and over again I would start up a conversation with someone only to be amazed by the high caliber of their work and the many resonances their work had with my own. I am so deeply grateful to the conference organizers, to HASTAC and specifically to Fiona Barnett for facilitating the HASTAC scholars participation in this year's conference. I feel that all of their hard work resulted in an incredibly well executed conference, one of the best events I have been to in a long time, and I will cerainly see you in Toronto!

RT @NazcaTheMad: @alothian and @michacardenas, expert HASTAC Scholar commentators at keynote this morning. #hastac2011



Thanks for these remarks, Micha. And fabulous to meet you.


 On grading:   at present, some universities do not require letter grades but most do.   So I compromise by working around and within the system.   If you haven't seen the "How to Crowdsource Grading" blogs, you can search for them on this site.   They caused quite a stir!  I write about that in Now You See It.    Here's a link that includes lots of other links, retrospectively, a round-up:


I tinker with this all the time.  Also, the reason we are working on badging is because, if done with introspection, it can be an incredibly nuanced way that an institution can look inward and decide for itself what counts and how to count it.  People think the badge is the point---but, like a grade, it is only the visible sign.  UNLIKE a grade, once you click on a badge it gives you all the metadata leading to that badge, there is a one-to-one relationship between the badge itself and the process of earning it in the Web community.  The whole history of everything you have done contributing to the badge is there for anyone you want to see it to see.  It's a quite brilliant way that open web developers can understand the credibility, accomplishment, level, helpfulness, and ability to conclude a contribution to a coding project based on not their PhD from MIT or letters of recommendation but their own past contributions.  That isn't perfect, but if I have a deadline and I find a coding partner, maybe someone I have never met and maybe someone who does not even speak my language, if I am going to rely on them, I want to know if they are reliable and their history is one piece of evidence that helps me shape my judgment.  It sure beats the self-promotional resume or the impoverished A, B, C, D or 1400 on an SAT since it combines coding skills with personal skills in a way I need.    338 organizations ended up competing in our Badges for Lifelong Learning competition and it is all public so you can go on line and see the applications and get a sense of what different organizations are thinking about in terms of alternative credentialing systems.   Not all of them are great, not all are useful, but they all inspire the imagination and, more to the point, the praxis.  Who knows if badging will be workable?  That's not the point.  The point is to nudge people out of assuming ABCD and bubble testing is the only way to establish standards.  Other models help us envision other futures.


On race:  I so agree that we must do a far better job (and I think it has to begin very early) at not only writing about race but making sure that people of color are not the recipients of tools and technologies that they do not participate in thinking through, developing.  You go to a developer meet-up and it is mostly white and mostly male.  This is a major issue that all of us need to be committed to changing, on every level from tools and training to theory and archives.   Chairman Leach, of course, is not an academic, but a thirty-year Congressman who now is the head of NEH, not a practitioner.   The slavery studies he noted are partly based at the University of Michigan (Rebecca Scott gave a presentatiton on her incredible multi-university Law in Slavery and Freedom ongoing project) and I think that is why they were included in his remarks.  That project is archival and pedagogical and often the same course is offered simultaneously in universities in the US, Europe, Africa, and South America, each using/exploring/digitizing a different archive on a very specific subject and then with students putting the pieces together in a way no one historian ever could.  That is so crucial, such fundamental and foundational work. 


I agree with ou 100% on the importance of race.  Thank you.  The issue you raise about race is absolutely key, central, vitally important.  The project by Margaret Rhee and others that you mention here is amazing, inspiring.  I'm so glad you had a good conference.  Thank you again for all you contributed.





I was really looking forward to the Jim Leach keynote since I have a strong interest in media policy--hearing from government types how they conceive of education, research, and technology can provide important insights.  And I do think the talk by Leach taught us a few things that are worth a moment's pause.  

I did not post my notes from the Leach keynote as I did with the other four because I found the entire event rather unsettling.  Certainly, I share some of the concerns you address above, but I also think we, as scholars, need to consider how we approach government figures, particularly as they often hold the purse strings (noting the number of Alt-Ac positions dependent on funds from government and other funding agencies, this point is particulary urgent).  

We need advocates inside the beltway, so Leach's embrace of the importance of supporting the humanities is edifying.  We need to view him as an ally but we also need to approach figures like Leach with our goals clear and our mission describable in simple terms.  Despite the fact that scholars also function as teachers, it is amazing how often we fail to translate our work into popular cadence when making the case for our work to those outside academia.  The Q&A demonstrated the danger of miscommuncation--which can lead to a marginlization of our efforts.

I very much appreciated that the HASTAC organizers had the forethought to include a non-academic in the conference schedule, but it seems the keynote became a missed opportunity.  Academics need to build bridges with people like Leach--those who are in positions to aid our work, to help explain its import to other members of the government, and to partner with other non-profit organizations that support research and education.

The fact that Leach and the conference attendees speak such different languages, however, concerns me.  Do we kowtow to the powerful because the shifting priorities of academia (away from the tenure-model, for example) make us more vulnernable?  Or are there ways to negotiate our position with respect to government figures even while we hold true to the values that underlie our efforts?



Karen, I'd like to take this opportunity to point you toward, an organization partially backed by HASTAC whose mission is to do precisely the kind of popularizing of humanities discourse that you call for here. For example, the UCSB Chapter of 4humanities is working on some concepts for "Humanities, Plain and Simple" shorts that we might use to advocate and explain what it is we do to people who don't find our discourse terribly compelling.

That said, it's a difficult struggle with a lot at stake. I'm reminded here of Brian Croxall's tweet preempting the righteous fury of many of us in the crowd: "Leach's use of 'civilizing' won't play well with academics, but we have to remember that he's not talking our language." While I understand this sentiment, I have to contest the idea that a word like "civilizing" is something that isn't understood by non-academics in the same "sensitized" terms (from a later tweet of Croxall's) that academics do - and if they don't, then part of our mission should be to educate them on precisely why they should be sensitive to this language instead of letting it slide for the sake of peace or a paycheck (or a piece of a paycheck?).

Any bridge building we do needs to be done carefully. Are there any terms (both in the sense of vocabulary and conditions) on which we can't afford to compromise? Perhaps this comes from my position as a queer antiracist scholar who sees the toll that compromise has taken on the GLBT rights movement and within feminism itself - see, for example, all the recent women of color feminist blogs critiquing the silence of white feminists surrounding the Slut Walk n-word poster. Also as a queer antiracist scholar, I know our work will be the first on the chopping block in any compromise deal with government institutions that use words like "civilizing" to describe themselves to the public at large.

I could go on, but this discussion bleeds into my thoughts on the HASTAC Steering Committee meeting about Community Standards that happened just before the conference - look for that soon!