Blog Post

Feminism, Activism, and the Digital Humanities: An Interview with Danica Savonick

Headshot of Dr. Danica Savonick

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Danica Savonick over the phone on May 18, 2020. I am grateful for her time and energy towards this project and especially appreciate the opportunity to elevate her important insights about the transformative power and potential risks of using digital technologies in the classroom. As the pandemic ravages on, her considerations here remain all too relevant as teachers continue to adapt to the online classroom while working to equip students with the critical thinking skills necessary to grapple with this historical moment.


Rebekah Aycock: How did you come into the field of digital humanities?

Danica Savonick: Well, I think like a lot of us I came into the field indirectly. 

In 2012, when I began grad school, I was involved in some organizing, especially organizations coming out of the Occupy Wall Street movement. With Occupy Sandy we were trying to help out in the aftermath of the hurricane that had devastated the city and we were trying to get resources to people who needed them. I was also involved with the Free University of New York City where we would host pop-up universities throughout the city, and professors from Columbia, NYU, CUNY, The New School, and Rutgers would come and hold their classes outside in these parks alongside activists and local community organizers who taught workshops and skillshares. With this organizing, I was interested in the behind-the-scenes ways that we were using technology. I worked with the website and social media and became interested in the power of platforms to get the word out and spread awareness about things, and also how tools allowed us to collaborate on large projects. Through these activist efforts, we used technology to bring people together, share resources, and support marginalized communities. I became interested in how technologies can be used to do good in society. 

I also pursued a PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center where there was a lively digital humanities community. The majority of the DH I was exposed to was people using technology for activist purposes, and to support pedagogy, students, and advocacy for marginalized communities. I was really excited by Cathy Davidson’s arrival at CUNY. She brought HASTAC and started the Futures Initiative, programs dedicated to equity and innovation in higher education. So it wasn’t necessarily the kind of distance-reading version of the digital humanities, it was exploring how we can use technology in service to social change. 

The last key moment that I’ll mention was that I went to a summer HILT workshop (Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching) organized by Roopika Risam and micha cárdenas on de/postcolonial digital humanities. That gave me broader exposure to these activist traditions of digital humanities - people who were using technology to do feminist, anti-racist, queer, post-colonial research. 

RA: How did being involved with the HASTAC community contribute to your graduate education and now your career? 

DS: HASTAC changed everything. There’s no way I would be where I am today were it not for HASTAC. I started as a HASTAC scholar, writing blog posts, contributing to collections like The Pedagogy Project, and attending HASTAC conferences.

Participating in this kind of online scholarly community raised new questions for me. How does a blog post differ from a peer-reviewed journal article? How can we write about complex research in a way that is exciting and engaging and will keep someone wanting to read even if they are exhausted after a long day of teaching? For decades, famous feminists like Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde, and Toni Cade Bambara have been urging readers, writers, and publishers to consider the material conditions that underscore reading, writing, thinking, and teaching. Readers might work multiple jobs, maybe they have a family, maybe they can only read for a few minutes here and there. All of that is to say that HASTAC has taught me a lot about audience. 

HASTAC also gave me the sense that my research was in conversation with audiences beyond my graduate program and even beyond my discipline. This interdisciplinary audience forces you not to use jargon and also to try to provide vivid, tangible examples to support your points. Writing is kind of like teaching in that sense, right? Students aren’t going to believe something is true because you say it, you have to provide them compelling evidence and examples without jargon.

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"...when students have a sense that their words are going to be read by someone beyond the classroom, that a student in another college classroom might be reading it, then it’s going to actually have an impact and they’re more motivated to create something that they are proud of and that they care about."

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HASTAC also impacted my teaching. Every semester now my courses conclude not with a final paper that’s submitted only to me but with some kind of public project or blog post that can be read by audiences beyond our classroom. Sometimes this takes the form of an actual post on HASTAC. Stephen Berg, a member of the HASTAC community, created a group called Scholarly Voices within HASTAC to showcase undergraduate writing. Students can read the work of other undergraduates and then write their own post for that group. I’ve been so excited by the ways that these kinds of public writing assignments increase the quality of student writing. Sometimes when students are only submitting something for the professor it can feel tedious, like, “Why are you torturing me? Why are you making me revise these sentences over and over and over again?” But when students have a sense that their words are going to be read by someone beyond the classroom, that a student in another college classroom might be reading it, then it’s going to actually have an impact and they’re more motivated to create something that they are proud of and that they care about. 

HASTAC has also taught me about the importance of networks and communities. I came to realize that for those of us who are interested in teaching and social change, part of that activism is sharing what has worked well for us in our own classrooms so that other people in other classrooms and contexts can learn them and build off of that.

It's interesting how a contemporary online network like HASTAC has shaped my archival and historical research on feminist pedagogy. For decades, scholars, activists, and teachers have created these kinds of teaching communities and shared resources, syllabi, lesson plans, and assignments. They’ve reflected on their teaching and written about what works, as well as other failures and missteps along the way. My research only goes back to the 60s and 70s - I’m sure you could find activist communities going much farther back than that.

RA: How can the digital humanities gain greater legitimacy in traditional academic spaces? How does this work count, or not, when often it’s not taken as seriously or is seen as supplemental, or it just doesn’t get recognized by the usual metrics evaluating scholarly work? 

DS:  I think that institutions need to shift what counts as knowledge. Katina Rogers’ recent book Putting the Humanities PhD to Work argues that expanding what we value and what we reward as scholarship can make higher education more equitable, inclusive, engaged, and responsive to the needs of diverse communities. The Torn Apart/Separados project always comes to mind as an example of what engaged, transformative, digital scholarship can look like. 

RA: I really loved your piece “Timekeeping as Feminist Pedagogy.” It was something I could relate to as a student and brought up concerns I’ve tried to address as a teacher - thinking about our responsibility to actively make space for student contributions. How do you think the digital humanities can serve as a radical feminist space for teachers?

DS: I love that question. In some ways, digital humanities is bringing attention to some of the things that feminists have actually been doing and saying for years. At least in terms of feminist pedagogy, something that may seem new - like having students do a collaborative, public project instead of a paper - has roots in feminist and anti-racist activism. 

For years, intersectional, Black, and women of color feminists have been exploring how women and people of color have historically produced knowledge in ways that have not necessarily gotten to count as legitimate or important and that have not been valued by academic institutions. I think of Alice Walker’s essay "In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens" and how gardening and quilting have been key artforms for Black women. I also think of Barbara Christian’s "The Race for Theory," which looks at how Black women’s creative, intellectual work - plays, poems, songs, and stories - hasn’t gotten to count as theory. All of that applies to academia as well. We don’t all think and produce knowledge in the format of a scholarly monograph. I think it’s a feminist project to expand what counts as research, in classrooms and at every other scale of the institution. Digital humanities has brought attention to the fact that research can take the format of a timeline, or a website, or a podcast, something that Black, intersectional, and women of color feminists have been saying for many years now. 

Another example: Since at least the 1960s, activist educators have been developing assignments that challenge students to write for different audiences and communities. For example, author, activist and “cultural worker” Toni Cade Bambara told students “do not write term papers for me… make sure they are useful for someone else as well” and would suggest formats, such as a magazine, puppet show, annotated bibliography, or activist event on campus. 

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"At its best, digital platforms can help us nurture students’  activist sensibilities: that idea that when you see something that is missing, when you see a problem in society, how can you use whatever skills, resources, knowledge that you have access to in order to address that problem in some way?"

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This resonates with contemporary digital humanities pedagogy. Cathy Davidson writes really well about having students make a public contribution to knowledge. At its best, digital platforms can help us nurture students’ activist sensibilities: that idea that when you see something that is missing, when you see a problem in society, how can you use whatever skills, resources, knowledge that you have access to in order to address that problem in some way? As someone who works at the intersection of feminist pedagogy and digital humanities, I often think of that as my job: helping students figure out where are the gaps, where are the omissions in dominant narratives in society, what information is missing? How can I help students develop a project that is interesting and meaningful, that makes an impact not only on them as learners but on audiences and communities beyond the classroom?

RA: With the current situation with Covid-19, which has really exacerbated disparities across the board as we’re increasingly dependent on online spaces, how do you see the digital humanities stepping in in the coming months? 

DS: I think scholars who have been warning us about the dangers of proprietary educational technologies are especially important right now. I teach a course called "Digital Divides: Race, Class, and Gender in the Age of the Internet" and we spend a lot of time talking about how digital technologies often exacerbate existing inequalities in society, but also how they can be used to promote equity. I’m thinking here of figures like Jesse Stommel and everyone involved with Hybrid PedagogyErin Glass and the Ethical EdTech project, Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression, everything by Audrey Watters, and Chris Gilliard and Hugh Culik’s work on digital redlining. Universities spend a lot of money to make sure students aren’t cheating on tests, but those technologies often discriminate and are grounded in surveillance and policing. Instead, we should invest in creative, meaningful, and exciting assignments that help students develop transferable skills like collaboration. 

I think we have much to learn from those who have been teaching engaged, student-centered, transformative, activist online classes for decades: people like Lee Skallerup Bessette and the members of FemTechNet. This pandemic has also shown us how important it is to have networks like HASTAC where people can share ideas and resources and information quickly, when academia is not at all known for its speed. As we abruptly moved online last spring, HASTAC helped circulate Brandon Bayne’s “adjusted syllabus,” Jacqueline Wernimont’s “Resources for Those About to Start Teaching Online Due to Covid 19," and has since served as a space for us to share strategies for online teaching. What do you think? 

RA: Well, I feel what you’re saying, and I’m just very grateful to be in a department that understands and is trying to, imperfectly, put a lot of these things into practice. It’s hard to reckon with online teaching normally, let alone right now. Now is so not the time to prove a point about rigor or productivity. This is an opportunity to put a lot of what we teach in American Studies into practice. If we really do believe that disparities, like with race and gender, exist, if we say we take all of that seriously and it doesn’t resonate in our response to moving online, then it doesn’t mean much of anything. So I think what we pull from DH should be about these creative responses, but not in an attempt to recreate or add to the burdens of students or teachers. 

I did finally want to ask about your book manuscript. Could you share some about that project?

DS: Yeah, definitely. I’m completing a manuscript Insurgent Knowledge: The Poetics and Pedagogy of Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich in the Era of Open Admissions. In the late 1960s, amidst the height of the Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, and protests against the Vietnam War, these authors were teaching down the hall from one another at Harlem’s City College. Through archival research on their syllabi, lesson plans, and assignments, the project explores the reciprocal relations between teaching and writing in their work. I’m interested in the ways they drew on their activism and work as writers to develop creative methods of teaching students to advocate for social change, and the ways that their work with students impacted their writing. I’m also interested in their advocacy for public higher education. 

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"...for these writers, teaching was a meaningful form of intellectual, creative, and political work, deeply related to their writing. I’m hoping that by sharing some of their stories, we can think more deeply about the collective value of learning, not just for individuals, but for the collective flourishing of our society."

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I do think there’s a real devaluation of teaching in our society. It’s seen as the less important thing that professors do and is often treated as secondary to research. But for these writers, teaching was a meaningful form of intellectual, creative, and political work, deeply related to their writing. I’m hoping that by sharing some of their stories, we can think more deeply about the collective value of learning, not just for individuals, but for the collective flourishing of our society. 


 

Danica Savonick, PhD is an Assistant Professor of English at SUNY Cortland, where she teaches courses on multicultural literature, feminism, and digital humanities. 

Rebekah Aycock is a PhD Candidate in American Studies at the University of Kansas. This interview is part of her fellowship as a HASTAC Scholar with the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities (IDRH).

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