As part of our recent Digital Humanities Doctoral School's programme, participants were asked to write a blogpost capturing their experiences with the digital humanities. This week, we bring the series to a close with a blogpost from River Ramuglia. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, River is a PhD candidate at Ghent University, where he works with Professor Stef Craps on the project "Imagining Climate Change: Fiction, Memory, and the Anthropocene". His is researching the metaphor, symbol, and theme of shelter as it is deployed in contemporary climate change fiction and ecocriticism, as historicized by the cultural proliferation of the “fallout shelter” during the Cold War. River holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon and an M.A. from King’s College London. Most recently he taught at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas and managed political campaigns in Alaska.
Who Minds the Text Miners?
In Macroanalysis, Matthew Jockers uses the metaphor of colonization to describe the dynamic between “traditional” literary studies and new analytical techniques offered by the Digital Humanities:
For the Irish, British oppression made for an imposing stick and the promise of opportunity in America an enticing carrot. Here, however, the migration to digital humanities appears to be mostly about opportunity. In fact, the sudden motivation for scholars to engage in digital humanities is more than likely a direct by-product of having such a wealth of digital material with which to engage. With apologies to the indigenous, I must acknowledge here that the streets of this “new” world are paved with gold and the colonizers have arrived. (Macroanalysis, 12)
Elsewhere, Jockers attributes the genesis of his interest in digital humanities to a Thanksgiving dinner during which he apparently broke bread with a researcher in the hard sciences, back when he was “only” a literary scholar, not yet a digital one (5). I ask: what does it mean to suggest that an entire class of scholarly laborers is now a colonized population? Although Jockers suggests that “the literary scholar of the twenty-first century can no longer be content with anecdotal evidence” (8), I offer a brief anecdote to answer this question.
Before I moved to Belgium to pursue doctoral studies in contemporary literature, I was teaching an Administrative Assistant course at a community college in Austin, Texas. It was an intensive computer skills course designed to help people to update their skills and reenter the workforce. I had the opportunity to work with young people who had dropped out of high school, single mothers without access to reliable daycare, people just coming out of incarceration, middle-aged people who had just lost their jobs and/or homes, and people who were coming to the United States for the first time. In Austin, where rent is astronomically high because of the technology boom in that city, many of these students were desperate for work. My job was to teach them how to use Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access, among other computer-based skills. Having grown up around computers, I thought this would be easy – after all, I knew these programs like the back of my hand.
I will never forget the first day I taught this class. I was astonished to discover that many of my students – ranging in ages from 18 to 65 – had never used a computer before. I first had to explain that the “essence” of the computer was not in the display unit, but that the real drama was happening in the little black box underneath their desks. When we finally got all the terminals turned on, logged in, and ready to go - I instructed the class to move their cursors over the “My Computer” icon. The person sitting at the terminal next to me—a lovely, vibrant, enthusiastic woman who had come to Austin from Nigeria—picked up her mouse from the table and placed it on the screen to touch the icon labeled “My Computer.” It became clear that this computer did not belong to her. Not yet.
I tell this anecdote because I think framing the advent of the Digital Humanities as a movement toward a somehow richer field of study replete with tools we’d be wise to pick up, if we know what’s good for us, is deeply problematic. For many of my students in Austin, computers were not greener pastures; they were the bars of a prison they were fighting to escape. If we insist on this colonial analogy (and I do not think we should), it is incumbent on all of us who pick up the tools of our colonizers to ensure that our work is helping the subaltern speak (to quote Gayatri Spivak). Put another way, unless their humanistic value can be clearly articulated, I do not care about sentiment analyses of Madame Bovary or any other Victorian novel (“Resurrecting a Low Pass Filter”), for the same reason that I have no interest in mimicking (to quote Homi Bhabha) what Jamie Bianco calls the “affective techno-euphoria of the libertarian (white, masculinist, meritocratic) tech boom in the 1990s with its myopic focus on tools and technicity and whose rhetorical self-positioning is expressed as that of a deserving but neglected community finally rising up to their properly privileged social and professional prestige” (98).
Bhabha, Homi. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” October, vol. 28, 1984, pp. 125–133.
Bianco, Jamie. “This Digital Humanities Which Is Not One.” Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold, U of Minnesota P, 2012, pp. 96-112.
Jockers, Matthew. Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History. U of Illinois P, 2013.
Jockers, Matthew. “Resurrecting a Low Pass Filter.” 12 January, 2017.
Spivak, Gayatri C. Can The Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea. Columbia UP, 2010.