An honest and open discussion regarding diversity in the digital humanities?

University of Maryland, College of Information Science, Maryland’s iSchool where I am pursuing my MLS has recently created a concentration in the MLS program called Information and Diverse Populations in which I am actively engaged. ischool.umd.edu/content/information-and-diverse-populations

What are the ways in which we can have an honest and open discussion regarding diversity in the digital humanities? How do we move beyond paying mere lip service to the concept of diversity in DH and actually include, promote, and engender a more diverse group of DHers?

This tweet from Mark Sample has stuck with me since March of 2011. Perhaps it serves as a basis to begin the discussion?


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  1. dorn

    Important topic. THATCamp in Southern California in January had a session on diversity, and I should probably talk with one of my campus’s distinguished professors who’s pushed diversity issues inside ALA for years. I think the growth of local heritage sites provides both a call and a connection DH can make to diverse local communities.

  2. tcarmody

    One thread of this that I’d like to draw out is accessibility for students/users/patrons/instructors/etc with disabilities. It’s a big, under-discussed theme that hits on everything from social access to technology and technical education to how digital humanities projects are conceived and designed.

    But there is SO. MUCH. POTENTIAL. HERE to do some really powerful, enabling, democratic, world-changing stuff.

  3. James Neal

    Tim … I believe George Williams (@GeorgeOnline) will be in attendance at the event. He’s a great resource on that particular issue.

  4. Jennifer Sano-Franchini

    I’d love to attend a panel on this topic.

  5. George H. Williams

    This would make for a great session, James. Here’s a GoogleDoc version of notes that sprang up during the Southern California THATCamp: “Towards an Open Digital Humanities.” I don’t know that it accurately reflects all that was discussed in the session, but it might be helpful in kickstarting another conversation on the topic.

    And, like Tim, I’d love to get a conversation going about accessibility, so please see my just-published “Making the Digital Humanities Accessible: A Session Idea + A Survey.”

  6. Craig Bellamy

    Still James, go make something mate. What is stopping you? Make an excellent project on an important and significant project of your choosing. Ask your mates to help you if you run into problems.

    But please don’t make it too difficult. I am Australian and we aren’t too bright.

  7. Craig Bellamy

    I was being contrary 🙁 Still I would like to see you bring a challenging project to the table that addresses some of these concerns.

  8. Mark Sample

    James, this is a great session idea, and I’m glad my tweet might serve as a kind of impetus for the discussion. I should explain the context of that particular statement (“even people who want diversity don’t see it when IT’S RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM”)—which arose out of a very specific moment at the Society for Textual Scholarship Conference, held in March 2011 at Penn State.

    We were at a roundtable devoted to the future of the Society for Textual Scholarship (not to be confused with the future of textual scholarship), and one audience member (an older, white male) stood up, looked around, and declared that everyone in the room was white and that we needed more diversity in the organization. The backchannel immediately noted that while we should indeed strive to be more representative, not everyone in the room was white. See, for example, Paige Morgan’s response and thoughtful followup, in which she observes that “by assuming everyone is white, we don’t help diversity situation any more than if we intentionally exclude.” This expresses a similar sentiment to my own tweet that you quote.

    It’s worth mentioning that the very people the speaker ignored when he glanced around the room had a sense of humor about it. Barbara Bordalejo joked that she should be invited to deliver a plenary talk “to compensate for not noticing me” and Alex Gil constructively pointed out that if the organization is “worried that it is racially homogeneous” then the “first thing it should do is approach the few minorities that already participate.”

  9. James Neal

    Thanks Mark … I was hoping to provoke a comment out of you that would give the tweet some context. As I was watching the conference unfold on Twitter I didn’t have much context. Thanks again for clarifying and refining. See you soon.

  10. Patrick Murray-John

    Clearly the comments already here speak to this need. I want to throw out many thoughts, but there are two that are most prominent right now.

    One, is that I wish we had more data to help us see the extent of the problem. I have a gut instinct that, from the perspective that “Digital Humanities” is a subset of “Humanities”, we’ll see different demographic slices across different disciplines within the humanities. That is, are different branches of the humanities (e.g., history, literature, archaeology, etc.) more or less prone to this issue in general? That might help us understand the anecdotal evidence that I think we’re working from.

    Another, is from the other angle, and this is what I’m actually more interested in. Can Digital Humanities do things to help alleviate some problems of representation in the humanities in general? In what ways could we work within DH as a way to encourage people into fields in the humanities that are lacking in diversity?

    For example, can getting people involved digitally help to open up new fields of inquiry that make more sense for a broader population? Or can DH provide a broader inroad to humanities that we’ve seen so far? It seems like the museum and archive folks might have insights and doors to help the academic folks in this area?

    Last, deeper note: do we need to examine whether some tools and technologies embraced by DH might be analogous to the short hoe, or otherwise causing harm that we’re not seeing?

  11. Cathy Saunders

    Okay; the comment below didn’t come out right at all; sorry. If anybody has the power to delete it please do. I’ll try it again without tags.

    I like the idea in general, and the questions Patrick raises, especially these: “can getting people involved digitally help to open up new fields of inquiry that make more sense for a broader population? Or can DH provide a broader inroad to humanities that we’ve seen so far?”

    As a European-American who works on issues of race (mostly from the 19th-century American debate about slavery and its aftermath), I’m interested in diversity both of scholars participating in the conversation, and of texts and other objects being digitized and interpreted. I tend to assume that getting texts, objects, and other information out there, even if later, more diverse generations of scholars will interpret them differently than I do, is a step in the right direction. At the same time, I’m aware that the form and context in which material first appears can exert a possibly-undue influence on later interpretations.

    I’m not sure whether that’s exactly where you were headed, James; it’s just my two cents.

  12. dorn

    A fellow faculty member at USF is assisting the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor commission. She’s also written a few articles with critical perspectives on the construction of heritage sites, such as this ($$sub) article in Transforming Anthropology on heritage resource management in historically segregated communities.

  13. dorn

    A quick check of African-American historic sites in the South (okay, a range I could find) shows that the bulk of online material is for visitors. Where sites are part of state or national networks (especially the National Park Service), the institutional support for websites is both a support (the NPS websites for historical places often includes some good resources for K-12 teachers) and a bit of a straightjacket in terms of support unless there’s a “friends of” side organization.

    Private organizations range considerably in terms of the website materials — my favorite right now is the site for Hannibal Square Heritage Center in central Florida. One of the better sites (the Harvey Gantt Center) has links to the private webmaster used for the site, and I suspect that’s true for others. Most local heritage sites (including those focusing on minority communities) will not have the curatorial/academic staff of a Montpelier or Monticello, so contracting out for a webmaster makes sense. Interesting things to talk about at the session…

  14. Amanda French

    Hey, Cathy, I went ahead and deleted your comment, since you asked. (The formatting wasn’t that weird.)

    Can I ask a stupid question, one that I hope isn’t offensive? When we say “diversity,” are we talking only about race, or also about sexuality, gender, and disability? Not to mention class.

    Obviously, since I’m a woman, gender issues are more often on my mind. Frankly I sometimes wonder whether part of the reason I’m attracted to digital humanities is that it seems to offer a respite from identity politics: on the face of it, it’s a meritocracy. However, I’m regretfully certain that that’s only a seeming, and that the seeming might even be more pernicious than outright bias.

  15. James Neal

    You’ve touched on precisely my point Amanda. What DO we mean we say diversity? I did a presentation at UMD this past semester on how diversity is represented within research library websites. My understanding of diversity is one that includes not only racial or ethnic diversity, (i.e. underrepresented groups, including Hispanics/Latinos, Native Americans, African Americans, and Asian Americans), but also representations of diversity related to disabilities, sexual orientation, religion, geography, age, education, income, etc. I’m hoping a proposed session on diversity would touch on all of these issues. Obviously racial and ethnic diversity are most important and obvious to me but also so are gender/sexual orientation and disabilities, in my humble judgment.

  16. Alex Gil

    Having been part of the context that generated Mark’s tweet, and being involved in a couple of initiatives that address this issue, I am glad Neal’s proposal has generated so much energy. I can already tell from folks thoughtful responses that we will have a very candid and measured panel.

    Re: What is diversity? I think that’s a great place to start discussion, especially if we reformulate it as, what are the underrepresented groups in DH? Then I would really hope we can have time for Why? and What can we do about it?

  17. James Neal

    Alex … thanks for the comment … small pet peeve of mine … I’m James not … Neal … 🙂 Looking forward to seeing you soon.

  18. Sarah Werner

    For both and political reasons I’m interested in questions of what is visible as diversity (let alone what we might include as diversity). Given the ways in which DH conversations often intersect with questions about whether it’s a service field (see all the #alt-ac debates) and with questions about how the digital itself is a visible medium–both questions that intersect in important ways with what James has brought up in his post and comments–I think this would be a valuable and stimulating conversation.

  19. Jennifer Sano-Franchini

    Hi Amanda–I kinda get what you’re saying about how DH seems to offer a respite from identity politics and that can be refreshing in a way, but I think certain activities like coding and gaming are still seen as dude activities. Also I think serious considerations of access and culture (and cultural difference) complicate the idea of DH as meritocratic as I think you’re hinting at…

    Also, would we include representation of different institutional positions in our discussion of diversity, i.e. 2-year college people, administrators, community members?

  20. Brian Croxall

    I can sympathize with Amanda’s POV here. I’ve often felt like DH is a great way to do an end-run around theory. Not that I don’t like getting my Derrida on at times, but DH has often felt refreshingly like the chance to do or build something. But Jennifer is right to point out that meritocracies are always imagined to a greater or lesser extent.

    On the subject of diversity, I’m particularly interested in thinking about how we can attract a plurality of undergraduates and graduate students to thinking that DH is something that they can do. How do make the practices of digitally-assisted scholarship more grok-able for a wide audience of people? (I’m aware of the irony of using “grok” in this context…)

    It’s also worth mentioning the excellent Collaborators’ Bill of Righs from the Off the Tracks workshop at MITH. As Mark, Alex, and others noted at STS, we might find that DH is already more diverse than we might think if we start acknowledging all of those with whom we must collaborate for DH.

    Finally, I’ll point to the “Messy DH” session that happened at THATCamp Southeast as another node in this conversation. Session notes are available on Google Docs, as well as a proposed series of posts for ProfHacker.

  21. Luke

    How would folks at THATCamp feel if someone showed up today in a suit? Or someone offered a well-thought out defense of BlackBoard and copyright?

    Too often “diversity” in the context of higher education is limited to conversations about race/ethnicity and gender and inclusion. You’ll regularly find organizations that proclaim their “diversity” because they have people of all shapes and sizes… who share pretty much the same politics and worldview. But is that true “diversity”?

    This is something that has been part of an ongoing conversation on my campus (Baruch College), which has regularly been proclaimed “the most diverse college in the United States.” But what does that really, truly mean, and how does the discomfort it can provoke add value to the academy? Could it suggest an investigation that needs to go beyond efforts towards inclusion and really force us all to regularize the critical examination of our own wide-ranging prejudices?

    Just a half-baked thought…

  22. George H. Williams

    Here are the session notes for “Inclusion and Digital Humanities.”

  23. George H. Williams

    If you are interested in help make THATCamps more diverse, please add your name and contact information to this document.

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