HASTAC’s 2017 Interview Collection
An Interview with Bruce Janz: Place and the Digital Humanities
By Nicholas DeArmas
February 3rd, 2017
Bruce Janz is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at UCF, a graduate faculty member in the Texts & Technology Ph.D. program, and co-director of the CAH Center for Humanities and Digital Research. He has been at UCF since 2003, and was chair of the Philosophy department from 2008 to 2013. Previously he was at Augustana University College (now the Augustana Faculty of University of Alberta), in Alberta, Canada. His Ph.D. is from the University of Waterloo in Canada. He has taught in Canada, the US, Kenya, and South Africa. His research includes the digital humanities, African philosophy, philosophy-in-place, and culture. He is a Steering Member of HASTAC.
Dr.Janz, how did you, as a scholar and leader, come into the field of the digital humanities? Could you extend any advice to current and incoming HASTAC Scholars?
My path to the digital humanities was indirect. I’m trained as a philosopher, and there is likely no humanities discipline with less representation in the digital humanities than philosophy. I had always had a tech side – I worked in a TV station in high school, was the classic A/V club geek. I went to the University of Waterloo for graduate work. Waterloo is a strong technical school and a solid humanities school, and I was faced with questions in philosophy and technology while there. The point is that for me to find my way to digital humanities, especially in a discipline like philosophy that has relatively little history of the digital, or even sympathy to it, meant that I had to broaden my sense of what my discipline could do or ought to do.
I’d say that if you are a HASTAC Scholar and thinking about your path into these areas, the best thing you can do is to find the thing that people think can’t be done, or shouldn’t, or is perhaps unwise to do.
"If you are a HASTAC Scholar… the best thing you can do is to find the thing that people think can’t be done, or shouldn’t, or is perhaps unwise to do… the fact is that it is a combination of solid disciplinary training and a streak of contrariness that opened some doors for me”
I’m sure I am making dissertation directors everywhere nervous by saying that, but the fact is that it is a combination of solid disciplinary training and a streak of contrariness that opened some doors for me. It is no doubt different now that we have graduate programs much better tailored to digital questions and related things, but even there, one can end up with a kind of accepted wisdom.
How do you see your own research on the concept of “place” as connected to HASTAC’s interdisciplinary focus?
A great deal of my work has revolved around thinking about place as something other than a kind of regressive or traditional concept. Exploring what place means – what it means to construct a place, find it, yearn for it, lose it, hate it, and all the rest – is, I think, a key to breaking down some disciplinary boundaries. Place asks us to rethink our hard-won disciplinary methodologies and questions, and reconsider human experience, what it is and what it might be. So, yes, place is, for me, central to how I see the world. I guess it ushered me into interdisciplinarity in part because my own discipline of philosophy has historically been so poor at thinking about it. We’ve always thought of ourselves as above place, as living in the conceptual realm. I never really bought that. So my task has always been to try to think about what it means to do philosophy in a place.
HASTAC is an interesting space in which to think about that. The interdisciplinary space of HASTAC is a space where questions are live, not settled. They are a task, and as such they can be grounded. Working on a digital project with people from a range of disciplines always reminds me that the most interesting questions come when you realize your own blind spots and unwarranted assumptions. Don’t get me wrong, I love talking to philosophers. But I also love that very creative space that HASTAC and interdisciplinary spaces like it afford.
Sometimes academics have a tendency to be isolated. On your website, you say that Philosophy “has much to learn from the way that other disciplines conceive of place, even as those disciplines have drawn on the resources of philosophy in order to reflect on place.” Would you say that HASTAC is fighting against that tendency to isolate in one place?
HASTAC has always been committed to making connections that are not bound by specific disciplinary constraints, not to mention locations. One might think that it is ironic that an essentially virtual community can be the space of places, but of course it can. The thing about place is that it is as much about practices, affects, borders, and many other things as it is about the physical or geographical. HASTAC, as a fundamentally virtual social network, has established places in its practices and in the material engagements it has fostered. So, what it has resisted is abstraction, which is really what undermines place.
“Exploring what place means– what it means to construct a place, find it, yearn for it, lose it, hate it, and all the rest – is, I think, a key to breaking down some disciplinary boundaries.”
In your Fall 2016 article, “Free Space in the Academy,” you describe academic freedom as “a space where the interaction of concepts and experiences creates virtualities, which creates new concepts adequate to a new set of circumstances on a continual or at least regular basis” (13). What role do you see HASTAC playing in creating a free space to fight for academic freedom or academic justice?
That article came out of an address I did at Rhodes University in South Africa. They have an annual lecture series on academic freedom called the D. C. S. Oosthuizen Memorial Lecture. I wanted to do something a bit different for that than the standard call for academic freedom – I wanted to think about just what we really mean by freedom in this context.
I think HASTAC is a perfect example of a space in which the virtualities I was talking about in that lecture can happen. What I meant by a virtuality was the creation and activation of a concept that allows us to ask new questions. Freedom, then, is not just about being left alone and allowed to pursue whatever an academic wants, it is about striving to open a new space of inquiry. At our best as scholars, what we do is to propose new methods, concepts, and experiences which reconfigure our world. We don’t just put another brick in the disciplinary edifice, we make new doors and windows. A virtuality is an event of thinking, a turn that makes us look at something in a new way. We build a great deal around those events, when they are really good – whole new disciplines, sometimes. That is what I see HASTAC as pursuing since its inception, and, at its best, that’s what the digital humanities can do also.
HASTAC stands in a transitional moment for the Digital Humanities. As a Steering Member, what is your vision for HASTAC's 2017 conference, its future goals, and what HASTAC Scholars can do to make that possible?
I’m very excited about this upcoming conference, both for what it can mean for HASTAC and also for the digital humanities in Florida. HASTAC has always been very forward-thinking in terms of imagining the ways that the digital can contribute to a rich and vibrant academy.I’m hoping that this conference will push forward some of the conversations currently happening, concerning the place of the academy in the future, the place of the digital as a space for diversity and critical innovation, and the role of education in society.
The conference is hosted by the Florida Digital Humanities Consortium (FLDH), a group of a dozen entities interested in digital humanities across Florida. We are all committed to collaboration in these areas, and see this conference as a significant step for us to understand where we might go in the future.
HASTAC Scholars have a significant role in this conference, as they have in other recent ones. We’re anticipating some events for the scholars who can come (and we hope there will be many), including on the Thursday before things really start rolling. The exciting thing about the Scholars program is that in it HASTAC has a great mechanism for harnessing the innovation of young scholars from across the country and around the world, and at the same time helps them to see just what can be done by their peers elsewhere. So, I’m hoping that we can get some of that energy in the conference itself. Some HASTAC Scholars are volunteering in the conference, others will be involved in sessions. Some are proposing talks or showing demos of their work.
Finally, What excites you about having the University of Central Florida as the upcoming HASTAC Conference site? What does the Conference title “The Possible Worlds of Digital Humanities” mean to you?
We decided on that name because it evoked several things. It was forward-looking. It has a slight science fiction slant to it. It suggests visualization, simulation and gaming, something that we’re strong in here in Florida.
“The most interesting questions come when you realize your own blind spots and unwarranted assumptions.”
It was open enough to encompass many approaches to DH, but still pointed us in a direction. And, for me, I wanted to get at what I’m calling the “hard problems” of the digital humanities. I’m struck by the fact that there are many projects that people have worked on across the nation and around the world. Many of these are focused on a specific outcome – exploring a data set, or representing a set of experiences, or uncovering some aspect of culture. This is all good. We’ve developed tools and techniques for this. But I’m interested in taking a step back from all this activity, and looking at what we’ve excelled at and what remains to be done in understanding, imagining, and creating culture. I’m interested in the problems we know are there – monolingualism in DH, for instance, questions of cultural diversity, questions of whether the digital is in fact potentially emancipatory or whether it is too tied to corporate or political interests to achieve that. Questions about new digital divides. All these are things that we know exist, at some level, but continue to be challenges to a truly daring digital academic practice. Making and thinking go hand in hand, and I want this conference to emphasize those equally.
I want to extend my gratitude to Dr. Janz for making time to conduct this interview. Also, to Kalle Westerling, for organizing the HASTAC Interview Collection.
Nicholas DeArmas is a PhD candidate in the Texts and Technology program at the University of Central Florida, completing his dissertation focusing on the rhetorical implications of the hashtag. Nick’s research interests concern the intersection between rhetoric and digital writing. He is an adjunct professor in the English Department, and teaches both technical writing and digital rhetoric courses.