Can the Digital Humanities Be Decolonized?

I was recently party to a debate, conducted mainly on blogs and Twitter, about an online journal’s decision to put a cluster of essays through an extra round of editing.  If that sounds arcane, it is, kind of; but readers of this blog should care about it, because it points to some very old problems in academia, which are showing up in the hot new field known as Digital Humanities (DH).  And DH is playing a bigger and bigger role in Native American literature and heritage preservation, whether that comes through the creation of large online archives (as at Yale), collaborations between academics and tribal communities (as in the Gibagadinamaagoom project), or the study of indigenous people’s use of computing tools in language revitalization.

To keep this as brief as possible: this past July, two up-and-coming young professors, Adeline Koh (Richard Stockton College) and Roopika Risam (Salem State University), hosted an online “dhpoco summer school”--a 4-week conversation about DH as it relates (or fails to relate) to the field known as postcolonial studies (or “poco,” which studies the relationships between nations and individuals—like Native nations and individuals—and the powers that have colonized them).  The summer school was fantastic; I learned a ton.  Koh and Risam invited a group of us (including me) to revise some of our commentary into short essays for the well-known Journal of Digital Humanities (JDH).  They had an agreement to work on the essays through August, so that JDH could publish them in early September.

After submitting the essays, Koh and Risam were told that, after all, JDH would not be publishing them in early September, but would instead send them out for what is known as “blind review.” [“Blind review” is used by most academic journals: it means you submit your essay to a journal’s editors, who then send your piece—anonymously—out to expert academic reviewers, who are also supposed to be anonymous.] This system has a lot of problems, and JDH is much admired (and quite brave) for using something else, which they call “post-publication peer review.”  In this system, JDH selects material that has already, in a sense, been “edited” on the internet, and gives it a more formal publication setting.

JDH admits that it is an “experimental” journal; but in this case, it changed course mid-stream.  Koh and Risam were furious, and you can see why: the change would be annoying for anyone, but JDH had suddenly raised the bar on two junior faculty (one recently tenured, one newly hired) who “just happen to be” women of color, and who “just happen to be” scholars who look critically at race, institutional power, and inequality. Koh was disgusted enough that she published a blog post about what happened. To be fair, she emailed the post to JDH before publishing.

Koh is already a widely-read blogger, and this post in particular got over 3000 views, though (curiously) only a handful of people posted comments, despite Koh’s express desire, in this and a follow-up post, to stimulate discussion. Unfortunately, LOTS of people weighed in, instead, on Twitter. Most of the conversation was thus hasty, heated, and sometimes just silly; and I suspect (or hope) that most of it will work itself out soon.  Still, I’m afraid that one thing will not work itself out so quickly, because it is all too familiar: Koh (and by extension Risam, and by extension other women of color who call out discrimination) was accused of over-sensitivity and even reverse racism.

I am not going to quote any of that discussion directly here, or mention any names: in the first place, if you really care to see it, you can look for @adelinekoh or @roopikarisam on Twitter around August 29-30 (or see a compilation here); in the second place, I saw what happened when Koh (knowing her account would be challenged if she didn’t give supporting “evidence”) published some of her correspondence with the JDH editor: she was attacked for being mean!  The JDH editors, it turns out, were also younger faculty, non-tenure track (sometimes called “alt-ac”), though not women of color. (This is another—probably riskier—departure from usual academic journal methods:  most are edited by senior, tenured faculty, people with longer publishing experience, and--more importantly—the power to take the heat when disagreements arise.) So people rushed to the defense of these young editors, sometimes failing to acknowledge the complex intersections of power between two non-tenure-track white women editors and two tenure-track women of color.  (These defenders included, interestingly, a few tenured white men; and, interestingly, this is more or less the only place they made themselves heard.  I will quote one amusing Tweet from @roopikarisam on August 29: “Discovery: want the vast majority of white DH men to fall silent? Mention #dhpoco.  True story.”)

Koh and Risam (and a few others) made the point over and over: that in telling her story on her blog, Koh was not making an ad hominem attack, but trying to point to a structural problem, and trying to make DH a more hospitable place for everybody. Eventually, I hope, she was heard by most reasonable people.

So.  Why should readers of this blog—or anyone outside of this small cohort of academics—care about this tempest in a teapot?

(A) The problem is not unique to DH; you can’t separate it from the larger American myth that we are now “post-racial” (and so-why-can’t-“these-people”-just-get-over-the-past-already). The #dhpoco flap shows that this way of thinking is unfortunately ingrained even in people you’d think ought to know better—trained humanities scholars. But while even professional humanities scholars might be well-trained in certain fields (e.g., history, literature, and—increasingly, in DH, in sophisticated computing), they might not necessarily be trained to think about racism, sexism and other forms of inequality as structural, as being embedded in entire systems and institutions, as opposed to being just character flaws of individual people.  Michelle Moravec nailed this in her response to the debate—in a blog post, by the way, not a tweet.  Even with a full 140 characters, the very idea that “racism is structural” just doesn’t compute with many people, who are still inclined see any such calling-out as a personal attack (or that ridiculous construct, “reverse racism”). (For some nice primers on key terms like “structural racism” and “intersectionality,” see here.) What happens then, of course (and what happened here) is that the burden falls on the person of color to explain to everyone, all over again, what structural violence is, and to reassure individuals that “no, I was not saying that you are a bad person.” This is the very definition of micro-aggression, and it’s incredibly debilitating for people to deal with on a daily (hourly) basis.

(B) This daily “dealing-with” could be a disincentive for more diverse voices to get involved in DH.  In fact this is not the first time that DH has expressed some resistance to the idea of self-reflexive criticism: back in early 2012, there were some complaints about an earlier movement to elevate critical race (and gender) studies in DH, which went by #transformdh.  In a deft response to scholars who asked, “why can’t we all just get along?,” Natalia Cecire explained why most fields of inquiry need “the jolt of the oppositional”:  “A liberal, inclusive, always-collaborative, never-oppositional digital humanities is a digital humanities that can afford to be above the fray, a digital humanities for which theory is, well, theoretical, mere yack, and not a tool for activism or indeed survival.”

So it was dispiriting to see a Tweet like this one, from @mixosaurus on August 30: "Such discussions are not new. Things turning ugly in a place we thought was ours is not new.  It's so wearying & sad & never stops. #DHpoco."  Is this why—as of right now, at least—that indigenous involvement in DH is still so low?  I’m not saying indigenous people are not using digital tools or social media in their communities, which they most assuredly are.  But I am  saying that the academic  field of DH, with its access to university, funding resources, and prestige, does not have enough Native participation right now. (If anyone knows of Native scholars publishing articles in DH journals or presenting at DH conferences, or acting as PI’s on major DH projects, I would very much like to know about them.) Instead, indigenous representation in DH, at least in the U.S., appears when non-Native institutions (like Yale) make the decision to “digitally repatriate” some of their holdings, and are wise enough to involve Native elders and community members in the process.  This is important work.  But it's not really enough.  If DH wants to be an experimental, “open” and “innovative” field, it needs to do better than its partnering fields of History, Literature, Anthropology and so on, not worse.