What I’m Reading This Summer: Kristen Mapes

Note: As the dh+lib Review editors work behind the scenes this summer, we have invited a few members of our community to step in as guest editors and share with us what they are reading and why the dh+lib audience might want to read it too. This post is from Kristen Mapes, Assistant Director of Digital Humanities in the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University.

As summer shifts into fall planning, I find my reading oriented toward articles that I may assign to my students alongside writings that speak to the DH values I try to put at the center of my work as a practitioner. After reading these three articles and providing a bit of a summary, I have noticed a common thread: we are still working out what DH really means in practice. What rhetoric do we use to frame our relationships to each other, or how we introduce people to our practices? What infrastructures shape what is possible and how we carry things out? And truly at the center of it all: how can we avoid being spread too thinly, whether on committees, in consultations, or across methodologies?

Morgan, P.C. (2018). The consequences of framing digital humanities tools as easy to use. College and Undergraduate Libraries, DOI: 10.1080/10691316.2018.1480440 (Pre-print available at https://scholarlyrepository.miami.edu/librarypapers/3/)

Morgan challenges librarians working in digital humanities to look closely at the way we teach and frame DH tools when giving workshops, presenting in classrooms, and conducting consultations. Too often, we characterize DH tools as ‘easy’ without thinking through what is ‘easy’ about them and forgetting that ‘easiness’ is a relative concept for each learner we encounter. By framing a tool as ‘easy’, we hide the challenging data modeling and methodological work that underlies the work behind the tool.

Morgan posits that librarians rely on ‘easy’ DH tools due to issues of scalability in DH infrastructure. By placing the burden of learning to the learner and relying on the ‘easiness’ of the tool and pre-existing documentation for it (often created by the tool-creators themselves), we are doing two things: making up for the lack of time and support we can give to each person or project, and shifting the risk of success or failure to the learner. This shift of responsibility leads learners to blame themselves if they have trouble with the tool. Morgan points out that this decision to shift risk and rely on ‘easy tools’ is understandable in the labor contexts in which librarians operate, and it is often necessary considering the non-scalability of humanities projects due to the humanities’ complicated relationship to data.

If we want to grow participation in DH, we need to think carefully about how we frame introductions to its methods and tools by keeping in mind the situatedness of “ease” and the future infrastructures available to support nonscalable DH projects.

Risam, R. (2018) Diversity work and digital carework in higher education. First Monday 23.3 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v23i3.8241

In this article, Risam critiques the academic environment, in the form of the neoliberal university, by applying the theoretical frameworks of affective labor and digital carework to the field of digital humanities. Risam argues that diversity work is a form of affective labor that is disproportionately taken on—willingly or unwillingly—by women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and others whose labor writ large has been traditionally unseen and undervalued. Affective labor is baked into DH through expectations of ‘niceness’ and interdisciplinary collegiality. Digital carework—“a form of affective labor that relies on the deployment of affect through digital media to remediate inequalities within higher education”—is also baked into DH through expectations of community building, mentoring, and collaboration.

DH is seen as an opportunity to expand the archive and provide inclusivity by breaking canon, and yet the work of challenging the archive and challenging systems of oppression is itself disruptive and not “nice.” The promise of DH as functioning to support diversifying the archive and/or the academy is in direct odds with the rhetoric around DH as “nice” and the expectation that people performing DH work take on the affective labor of building community and being “friendly” and “supportive.” Risam returns several times to the critique that diversity initiatives in academic settings expect inclusion to be “visible but not transformational,” that diversity and inclusion are seen as boxes to check but that the academy has no real interest in shifting academic culture to live out those values. Risam centers her concern around the people undertaking this labor, asking us to consider at what point the labor of community building and visible representation venture into exploitation and where the balance between waged and unwaged labor lies in the academic context.

Caplan, L. (2016) Method without methodology: Data and the digital humanities. E-flux 72 https://www.e-flux.com/journal/72/60492/method-without-methodology-data-and-the-digital-humanities/

This article is a critique of the Selfiecity project, and while not particularly new, something I just discovered. Caplan pushes against the tendency of digital and/or statistical projects to prioritize experimentation and visualization over analysis. Referring to Borges’ warning against creating a map the size of the place it is intended to represent, Caplan shares the context of Durkheim’s introduction of statistics into sociology and the revolution (albeit flawed) in method that followed. Big data, which at once provides granular, detailed data about individuals and operates on an unprecedented scale, tempts researchers into projects that seek to create such a doomed map.

The critique of Selfiecity focuses on the scale of data explored in the project. Caplan makes a strong point about the role of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk in the data processing from a labor ethics and humanistic perspective.

While Caplan discusses Selfiecity (as well as Phototrails) in particular, the caution against projects that lack methodological grounding and focus could be applied to many DH projects, large or small. This critique touches on a tension around the field of DH, as most practitioners find themselves encountering and embarking upon new methodologies which require new training and backgrounds before they can be fully engaged with.

Kristen Mapes

Kristen Mapes is Assistant Director of Digital Humanities in the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University where she collaborates with colleagues from across departments and around campus. In particular, she is on the planning team of the Digital Scholarship Lab in the MSU Libraries and is a Core Faculty member in the DH@MSU program, teaching introductions to DH for undergraduates. Kristen’s research interests include academic communities online and exploring new ways of visualizing digitized cultural material. She also runs the Global Digital Humanities Symposium and is committed to finding ways for DH to advance social justice and equity in the academy.