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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · October 18, 2017

American Studies Goes Digital

digital projects 7 min read

Today’s post is by Elizabeth Losh, Associate Professor in the American Studies program at William & Mary. She is the organizer of the upcoming conference “Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities,” October 26–28 on the campus of William & Mary. The Omohundro Institute is a sponsor of the conference.

by Liz Losh

The Digital Humanities Caucus of the American Studies Association is committed to working across “the various areas of digital humanities,” including but not limited to  “born-digital work, computational methods (such as network, spatial, and textual analysis), cyberculture studies, digital editions and collections, digital tools (cyberinfrastructure) for humanities scholars, and new media.” The American Studies Program at William and Mary consulted with the caucus’s leadership to assemble an exciting roster of digital humanities speakers to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of African Americans in Residence on the historic campus. These efforts have been helped by months of collaboration with the Omohundro Institute, which is developing more digital projects and more interactive articles in its signature publication, The William and Mary Quarterly, including many that address the legacies of slavery and the racist dogmas of colonization.

An upcoming Omohundro-sponsored conference on “Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities” reflects a number of recent conversations about using digital technologies to archive and interpret the cultural record with more attention to the contributions of communities of color. Although just a few years ago Tara McPherson bemoaned the lack of diversity in the digital humanities in her groundbreaking article “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White?” digital scholarship that approaches race as a critical issue from the traditional archive to online communities has become a vibrant and expanding field. From digitizing records on slavery, colonialism, and 19th century political organizing by free and fugitive Blacks to interpreting Afrofuturist science fiction, digital music, and hashtag activism, the contributions of scholars of African-American history and culture to the digital humanities have been significant.  Digital humanities work that explores race and memory even incorporates cutting-edge technologies like 3D computer animation and virtual reality, which Angel David Nieves of Yale will discuss.  Many of the speakers – including Moya Bailey, Alexis Lothian, Amanda Phillips – were founding members of TransformDH, which is devoted to “a digital humanities of transformative research, pedagogy, and activism for social justice, accessibility, and inclusion.”

In the wake of the demonstrations by white supremacists in nearby Charlottesville, many would argue that this is a particularly timely conference. It is possible that this new direction for the digital humanities can help public audiences understand contemporary social movements and debates about free speech and racial injustice. For example, speaker Marcia Chatelain was named a “top influencer” for creating the Ferguson Syllabus, and she regularly makes news appearances to discus protests in cities and on campuses in connection with #BlackLivesMatter. Gabrielle Foreman’s award-winning Colored Conventions project looks back on social movements of the past.

This kind of digital humanities may also help audiences understand online hate and abusive uses of technologies for racist and sexist ends. Several of the speakers are affiliated with the new Center for Solutions to Online Violence at Arizona State University. I’ve interviewed both Jacqueline Wernimont and Moya Bailey about their work creating the center’s resources for survivors, perpetrators, bystanders, instructors, researchers, and journalists.

Many of the speakers are also committed to recasting digital literacy narratives to show how communities of color can be seen as productive digital pioneers rather than supposed victims of the digital divide. Jessica Marie Johnson has co-edited a special issue of The Black Scholar on black code studies. Moya Bailey’s celebrates the work of science fiction author Octavia Butler and other Afrofuturist authors. And performer Pamela Z will rock the Kimball Theatre as she did at New York’s famous Kitchen.

A “story map” of the conference from the Center for Geospatial Analysis shows the global reach of the speakers’ research sites. (To see photos and bios of the speakers, use the navigation to the left.) The Los Angeles Review of Books has also interviewed a number of the invited experts, including opening keynote speaker Jessica Marie Johnson of Johns Hopkins University and Marisa Parham of Amherst.  Recently Inside Higher Education profiled some of these “rising stars” of the digital humanities. Two of the five “stars” are speaking at the symposium. For more information readers can check out this article previewing highlights of the conference. Of course, the symposium will also feature many of William and Mary’s own digital humanities initiatives, such as the Georgian Papers Programme, The Lemon Project, the LGBTIQ project, and the Equality Lab to showcase how they are enacting principles of equity and inclusion in creating robust online collections to share with the wider world.

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