Moya Bailey, Anne Cong-Huyen, Alexis Lothian, and Amanda Phillips
What happens when we shift difference away from a deficit that must be managed and amended (with nods in the direction of diversity) and toward understanding difference as our operating system, our thesis, our inspiration, our goal? From this perspective, highlighting the brave side of digital humanities isn’t an act of transformative resolution, but is about reframing and recognizing which links were already there and which links are yet to be made.
—Fiona Barnett, “The Brave Side of DH”
We have been invited to write a manifesto for #transformDH—a hashtag, perhaps a movement, that the four of us had a part in beginning. We prefer not to operate within a formal structure, however, or to lay out our shared aspirations as a set of concrete demands. Nevertheless, we can begin by identifying the following key claims as constitutive of #transformDH:
1. Questions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability should be central to digital humanities and digital media studies.
2. Feminist, queer, and antiracist activists, artists, and media-makers outside of academia are doing work that contributes to digital studies in all its forms. This work productively destabilizes the norms and standards of institutionally recognized academic work.
3. We should shift the focus of digital humanities from technical processes to political ones, and always seek to understand the social, intellectual, economic, political, and personal impact of our digital practices as we develop them.
We need a digital humanities that will center on the intersection of digital production and social transformation through research, pedagogy, and activism, and that will not be restricted to institutional academic spaces. #transformDH is the name some of us gave to that digital humanities as we recognized it in our own and others’ work. Seeking to situate #transformDH within its social, economic, and institutional contexts, this chapter tracks the emergence of the collective and some of the challenges that have accompanied it. In so doing, we hope to model an ethical approach to that which we have been assigned ownership, but over which we have little control. Our desire is to deflect the academy’s imperative to take personal credit for work that is always collective. We will end, as we have in the past, with a call to action. We invite others to join with us, or to claim the hashtag for themselves, and to actively seek a more transformative DH: a DH that explicitly names the radical potential of doing scholarship with and about the digital, a DH that addresses the most pressing social justice concerns of our day.
Origin Stories: Forming a Collective
#transformDH was born out of a sense of absence. It was 2011, the year that “Big Tent DH” surfaced as a term to describe digital humanities as inclusive and welcoming of different disciplines. But for those of us whose academic homes were in gender and queer studies, race and ethnic studies, and disability studies, and whose personal and political work embraced the digital, it appeared as if the “big tent” was not big enough. Our social justice concerns seemed to enter so rarely into conversations and research, even in the “big tent” of the field. Instead, DH seemed to be replicating many traditional practices of the ivory tower, those that privileged the white, heteronormative, phallogocentric view of culture that our home disciplines had long critiqued. The cost of entry for many of us—material demands, additional training, and cultural capital—as queer people and women of color was high. Evidently, big tent digital humanities still demanded a certain legibility, as panels and talks such as Stephen Ramsay’s intentionally inflammatory “Who’s In, Who’s Out” at the Modern Language Association (MLA) that year made clear. The few of us tweeting queer and critical race studies panels looked across empty social media tables—set up by the MLA in recognition of digital media’s emerging dominance, unused at most of the panels in our home fields—and recognized one another as allies.
We were not the first to think about queer studies, critical race studies, disability studies, or other forms of activist scholarship in relation to digital humanities. Feminist critique has been central to many of the foundational projects that set the terms for the field, as in the work of Martha Nell Smith, Susan Brown, and Julia Flanders. Anna Everett, who chaired the first #transformDH panel, and Lisa Nakamura, who was in the audience that day, have both demonstrated the centrality of the knowledge and labor of people of color to digital knowledge production, as well as to the material conditions that enable that production to take place. In addition, digital tools and networks have been consistently, innovatively, and radically used by communities of activists, fans, and other nonacademics working for gender, racial, economic, and disability justice, from IRC and newsgroups to Twitter and Tumblr. Yet, as Moya Bailey argued in her 2011 essay “All of the Digital Humanists Are White, All of the Nerds Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave,” the disciplinary formation of “digital humanities” had thus far developed in opposition to so-called identity politics, with its ostensible openness occluding unexamined assumptions about whiteness, straightness, and masculinity.
Immediately following the 2011 MLA, a group gathered at the Southern California THATCamp in a session on diversity in digital humanities and drafted a document titled “Toward an Open Digital Humanities.” The document chronicled the various barriers to entry in the digital humanities and suggested a number of ways to increase the field’s inclusivity. Within the next few weeks, some members of that group organized a panel for the American Studies Association conference that would take place later that year. “#transformDH” was originally a shortened version of the panel title, “Transformative Mediations: Queer and Ethnic Studies and the Politics of the Digital” (Cong-Huyen, “Thinking Through Race”). Only six or seven people joined the audience, yet it soon became clear that something larger had been created as the conversations expanded online. The #transformDH hashtag quickly emerged as a rallying call on Twitter and Tumblr, as well as at other conferences and institutions (Phillips). The organizers of the panel and several other colleagues began to self-identify as a collective. The #transformDH movement had begun.
Transforming a Hashtag
If #transformDH was born out of a sense of absence, we made that absence visible in the form of our hashtag. In 2011, the hashtag was emerging as the tool of choice for individuals and groups hoping to rapidly spread news or other information and to cohere communities in person and online. A precursor to the hashtag activism that has flourished in social movements of the 2010s, #transformDH was meant to be distributed and used by anyone who saw the need to highlight marginalized work or issues in the field. The right hashtag at the right moment can spread very quickly, if—and only if—other people begin to use it. Its efficacy is directly tied to the ease with which other users can take it up as their own. As Chris Messina, inventor of the hashtag, explained, “[Hashtags] are born of the Internet, and should be owned by no one” (Messina). As a hashtag, then, #transformDH was no longer owned by the collective that had originated it; it had been set loose into the world.
It was not long before #transformDH gained enough traction to attract critics. The slippage between “transformative” and “transform,” originally an effort to conserve characters for Twitter, was interpreted as a hostile gesture. DH understood itself as friendly and welcoming (Koh; Scheinfeldt). Why did the field need transforming? It is true that we outliers, the few women of color and visible queers at DH conferences and panels, had used the hashtag to voice our distress openly. Ironically, it was this perception of the collective (made up entirely of graduate students) as rabble-rousers who wanted to upset the status quo that highlighted what #transformDH had been too timid to say at the outset: DH really did need to be transformed. It was a growing field that was becoming increasingly institutionalized, and that was beginning to evince many of the problematic racial, gender, and economic biases that had plagued other fields as they emerged. We had accidentally become academic hashtag activists.
“Hashtag activism,” a phrase coined by Guardian journalist Eric Augenbraun to describe the #OccupyWallStreet movement, was not intended as a neutral term, but rather as a critique of the ease with which millennials could express concern for an issue while doing nothing substantive to solve it. But as more and more hashtags emerged to mark issues and events that would have otherwise gone unnoticed—for instance, #Jan25 or #BlackLivesMatter—it became clear that hashtag activism had the power to mobilize people, to question governments, and to enact change. Hashtags such as #NotYourAsianSideKick and #YesAllWomen initiated wide-ranging conversations on important issues around race and gender. Our confidence in the possibilities of #transformDH as a distributed, open movement increased as we saw the work that other hashtag activists were doing, and we began to recognize that work as transformative digital humanities in itself.
In the most active and ongoing #transformDH project, Moya Bailey curates the #transformDH Tumblr, reblogging information about the latest digital technologies created by queer folks, women, and people of color as well as the impact of digital scholarship on underserved communities. This curatorial work operates outside of traditional archives and functions to expand the range of projects understood as DH. For example, a recent post showcased a menstrual cycle tracking app, “No More Flowers,” built by a group of queer and trans programmers to challenge societal assumptions that only women have menstrual cycles and that flowers are the most appropriate symbols for menstruation. This type of app applies critiques from the fields of women’s and queer studies to popular technology; including it in an archive like #transformDH places pressure on existing DH communities to understand app production as both scholarly and activist in nature. We deliberately showcase a wide breadth of material, placing scholarly critique and creative projects in conversation with one another, with the goal of transforming what “counts” as a DH project both inside and out of higher-ed institutions.
People interact with our content on a daily basis and employ the #transformDH hashtag to flag work or events that address questions they perceive as central to the collective. Rather than perpetuate the existing model of large-scale, grant-funded, project-based scholarly work, we operate as a widely dispersed, distributed network. In redefining the term “collective” for a networked context, we bring our commitment to digital social justice to disparate academic and public spheres: game studies, queer studies, ethnic studies, libraries, online spaces, and more. #transformDH moves through cyberspace as a signal, highlighting conversations, blog posts, conference papers, articles, and other media objects that may be of interest to people concerned with how race, class, gender, disability, and sexuality shape our world.
Over time, we have seen transformative digital humanities scholarship gain visibility. The work that we longed to see as we started #transformDH has materialized in many shapes and forms—not always explicitly connected with #transformDH, but often enacting many the transformations the collective has called for. In 2013, the Dark Side of the Digital Humanities conference brought together senior scholars like Wendy Chun, Richard Grusin, and Rita Raley in person and on paper to challenge DH utopianism. Elizabeth Losh and Jacqueline Wernimont have led “Feminist Digital Humanities: Theoretical, Social, and Material Engagements” at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute two years running (Wernimont). The FemBot Collective, which publishes feminist research about technology in long and short form on its blog and in the journal Ada, has swelled to over 350 members worldwide. FemTechNet organized and supported two years of a Distributed Open Collaborative Course (DOCC) on feminism and technology as an active pedagogical critique of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). Angel David Nieves founded the Digital Humanities Initiative at Hamilton College, which supports critical digital humanities projects such as the American Prison Writing Archive, the Soweto Historical GIS Project, and the Virtual Freedom Trail Project. Adeline Koh and Roopika Risam founded the influential Postcolonial Digital Humanities with the aim of decolonizing digital practices. Wendy Hsu brought ethnography and diasporic studies to the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. Global Outlook::Digital Humanities organized “Around DH in 80 Days” to curate and highlight digital projects worldwide. William Pannapacker has fought for “Digital Liberal Arts” and the recentering of digital scholarship and pedagogy at teaching-intensive colleges in addition to resource-rich R1 research institutions. This list is only a partial accounting of the projects that have emerged in the past few years, but each of them gives us reason to hope that DH will continue to be more “ambitious,” as Miriam Posner exhorts in chapter 3 in this volume, “to hold ourselves to much higher standards.” If our involvement has helped the field to get there, either through direct participation in these projects or by facilitating connections between them, we have only been successful with the cooperation and support of many, many others.
Even as scholars such as Alan Liu point toward the work of #transformDH in leading these changes, it is important to ask whether assigning the success of a broader cultural shift to particular groups of people dulls the transformative potential of our distributed collective. Do we, a handful of named “founders” of #transformDH, get recognition even as the most challenging projects—projects that are not necessarily traditional academic ones—get ignored? Contributing our voices to venues like Debates in the Digital Humanities requires us to name names, fix dates, and quantify contributions in ways that, while necessary for scholarly legitimacy, run directly counter to the hashtag ethos. #transformDH was started by graduate students, and now that we are advancing in our careers, we find ourselves paradoxically with more access to resources and fewer ways to make the impact that a simple hashtag did years ago. Grant funding, for example, requires quantifiable outcomes that may not recognize the types of nontraditional output at which #transformDH excels. Even when the work that we create, from Twitter and Tumblr posts to peer-reviewed articles, adds to our CVs and helps us to advance as individuals employed in the academy, that advancement embeds us further in the systems we are critiquing, encouraging us to set our sights on the horizons of disciplinary legitimacy rather than more expansive change. After all, the transformations that #transformDH at its most radical has called for would not be compatible with the institutional power that some of us are beginning to accrue: dismantling institutional hierarchies, prioritizing collective rather than individual achievement, amplifying the voices of those whose perspectives have not traditionally found a place in academia, and so on. We initially envisioned this piece as a manifesto, but that stance felt disingenuous given our new academic positions, our shifting obligations, and the changes to the field itself.
Higher education in the United States is in a moment of simultaneous hope and despair. While individual actors recognize the need for a deeper commitment to social justice in the academy, universities have fired professors at the behest of powerful trustees and donors, threatening academic freedom. On a national level, the United States elected its first Black president, but experienced an upswing in racist violence. Feminist voices are making measurable changes in the games and tech industries, but they have been punished by collective mobs of anonymous harassers. Gay marriage was legalized, but less-privileged queer and trans people, especially trans women of color, are still targets of violence. Every triumph produces its own backlash, because hegemony is persistent and reproduces itself, even in progressive movements.
Are our institutions embracing us, or are they consuming us in the name of diversity? We must take seriously the warnings of scholars such as Roderick Ferguson and Sara Ahmed, who expose how universities incorporate ethnic studies and other interdisciplines into the fold in order to forestall more radical progress. How can we make our success, and the success of #transformDH, something that leads to transformation rather than assimilation? Or, to put it in more concrete terms: how can academics who are receiving institutional recognition and funding also support community-based digital activism and internal structural changes? We must be public scholars, ethical researchers, promulgators of hashtags, and always teachers. We must attend political hackathons, host Wikipedia edit-a-thons for underrepresented communities, champion our underserved students, and lead transformative digital humanities projects. We must continue to acknowledge, assign, and amplify work by women of color, indigenous, disabled, feminist, and queer activists in community and digital spaces. We must, above all, insist on the relevance of social justice to our work as academics.
By expanding who and what counts as DH, we can model for other academic communities the transformative power of collaborative energy to address the questions of our time. We ask for practitioners of DH to be attentive to the ways that social hierarchies of oppression inform their research. The digital provides the opportunity for a more democratized relationship to scholarly production, and DH can continue to be central to the transformative process of shifting academic investment in cloistered knowledge. Our roles slowly shift as our positions as junior scholars, precarious workers, faculty of color, queer faculty, administrative staff, or alt-ac continually change, but we are committed to a tactical media approach to DH, as Rita Raley suggests, “remain[ing] adaptable to new situations and collaborations” rather than getting settled in comfortable roles (40). As we learn to balance our family, community, and professional responsibilities, we have come to know even more fully that we cannot do this work alone. We therefore end with another call for action. The work of #transformDH is always open to new conspirators, and we invite you, the reader, to participate in claiming, transforming, and expanding the digital humanities with us.
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