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“Some of us are brave”: On DH leadership

Tuesday, November 17th, 2020

Conversation post: “Some of us are brave”: On DH leadership: Cristanne Miller 11/17/2020
Reply: Alexandra Juhasz
Reply: Sharon Irish

Name: Cristanne Miller
Biographical Note: Taught for twenty-six years at Pomona College; since 2006 at UB. SUNY Distinguished Professor and Edward H. Butler Professor of literature.
Institutional Affiliation: University at Buffalo SUNY
Information relevant to your DH activity/publications: Founding Editor, DH Net/Works; Co-Director, DSSN; Founding Director Marianne Moore Digital Archive.

In 1982, African American feminists Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith co-edited a foundational volume of essays designed to map a program for African American women’s studies and research on issues such as racial bias, sexism, and homophobia; it was entitled All the Women Are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave. In 2011, Moya Z. Bailey took up the challenge of that volume to reflect on the current state of affairs in DH, in the Journal of Digital Humanities, titling her essay: “All the Digital Humanists Are White, All the Nerds Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave.” As she writes, “The ways in which identities inform both theory and practice in digital humanities have been largely overlooked. Those already marginalized in society and the academy can also find themselves in the liminal spaces of this field. By centering the lives of women, people of color, and disabled folks, the types of possible conversations in digital humanities shift.” Bailey points to significant work being done by people of color in DH (in 2011) and to programs initiated to increase the participation of women, people of color, and the differently abled. She concludes, “There is still a need to challenge the ‘add and stir’ model of diversity, a practice of sprinkling in more women, people of color, disabled folks and assuming that is enough to change current paradigms. This identity based mixing does little to address the structural parameters that are set up when a homogeneous group has been at the center . . . . Work that is already aligned with the digital humanities and perhaps even pushing the field in new directions should be celebrated and sought out, a process that will no doubt reveal, that some of us are brave.”

What has changed since 2011? There has certainly been an increase in female leadership within DH, in part through women’s direction of new projects—(to give just one example, the multi-award-winning Colored Conventions Project). Has there been a similar increase in projects or DH units headed by men of color? By those outside traditional gender/sexuality norms? The otherly abled? What’s the data on the field? Does one still need to be “brave” to step from the margins to the center of DH leadership?

Cristanne Miller


Full Name: Alexandra Juhasz
Biographical Note: Distinguished Professor of Film; feminist scholar, media activist, lesbian-Mom
Institutional Affiliation:  Brooklyn College, CUNY
Title or Position (optional): Distinguished Professor of Film; scholar, media activist, lesbian-Mom
Information relevant to your DH activity/publication: most recently: Really Fake, with Nishant Shah (U MN Press, forthcoming) and

One of the core commitments of  FemTechNet, from its outset in 2014, was to respond to the question Moya Bailey raises about feminist leadership in technology, DH, and academia more generally: “FemTechNet is fueled by our civil rights, anti-racist, queer, decolonizing, trans-feminist pedagogies as we work within the belly of the beast of neoliberal austerity, normalized precarity, neo-colonial techno-missionary evangelism and MOOC fever towards the radical redistribution, reinvention, and repurposing of technological, material, emotional, academic, and monetary resources” (

Beginning with this and other acknowledgements of our fundamentally patriarchal, sexist, racist, and hierarchical work and digital environments, we were invested in transforming such environments by overtly leveraging the hard-gained power and authority held by some (usually senior) members of our large and diverse collective (through mentoring and sharing available funds and institutional support, for instance), while supporting the work of those with less institutional authority or sanction (students and the precariously under-employed; people of color, queers; those outside of academia). Not the “add and stir” model in the least, we understood our work as structural and inter-personal—about how leadership can work differently within a feminist context and structures. This took many forms: intimate, practical, and organizational.

Let me quickly highlight two. As we progressed over our years together, we chose to create a shared and moving leadership model. Anne Balsamo and I first led the group, then passing on that baton to three new leaders:  Sharon Irish, Liz Losh, and Lisa Nakamura We wanted the vision and methods of FemTechNet to adapt and represent our diverse styles and interests, and one could only do this work for so long, as leading this large and ungainly “organization” was exhausting! At this point, senior scholars and/or older women were still at the helm, even as we ran this through a mobile and distributed model (it seems critical to note that our internal differences in institutional authority created their own complications within our shared-leadership model). Next up, the even larger and more diverse group called “The Fabulous Five” (with TL Cowan, Jasmine Rault, Paula Gardner, Anne Cong-Huyen, and Veronica Paredes ). (Seeing what has happened professionally for these women since our time together by reading the bios I have included links to here remind me that FemTechNet has worked hard to help each other gain and retain employment as one of our key commitments). Finally an even larger and looser collective of young scholars (all un- or under-tenured at the time, and all people of color) led our collective. Sharon Irish explains it thus in an email, helping me remember for this writing: “CRES [a FemTechNet committee first known as Critical Race and Ethnic Studies] essentially took over, though it was more of a dissolve and rethink into a Situated Critical Race and Media Committee”  . . . Veronica, George Hoagland, Anne, Alex Agloro, Ann Wu, and occasional others, including TL and Jasmine, and Jacque Wernimont

In FemTechNet’s case, our leadership structure was self-aware, reflexive, and loose, it evolved and was responsive even as or because we were always attempting to attend to power imbalances of many sorts while also relying on what leaders could do, bring, and change. Here, I think it is important to note that there are real costs and benefits of moving leadership, gingerly and with self-awareness, to the least empowered (in academia’s hierarchies)—just as the reverse is true. Less empowered workers are by definition less supported financially, in what and who they have access to and must please, are more burdened by worries of finding and keeping employment, and are more directly impacted by systemic racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and so on. As leaders, their voices, actions, and commitments tell us much about the perils and pleasures of authority in these working conditions, and can help move an organization to better account for structural imbalances, even as we all stay encumbered by systemic lack and fixity.

My second example of feminist leadership models at FemTechNet includes work that Moya Bailey contributed (as did so many others), in a collective project—itself with distinct models of leadership, funding, and workflow—that resulted in our Center for Solutions to Online Violence,  which “functions as a virtual hub for a distributed community working to address the myriad forms of violence women and femmes experience in digital spaces. In addressing online harassment, our goal is to improve equity, access, and engagement with digital tools and culture.”

As TL Cowan explains in her email to me today: “CSOV was another manifestation of FTN, which was headed with great sacrifice and love by Jacque, and a crew of folks including Moya Bailey, me (T.L. Cowan)—(Moya and I became co-directors), and Veronica Paredes, Amanda Phillips, Marlene Tromp, Jessica Marie Johnson and Rebecca Richards 

A distributed community and leadership commitment, based in “sacrifice and love,” was one of our feminist methods for critiqueing and transforming DH and other hierarchical models and spaces. I hope that other members of FemTechNet will join me in talking about the more affective, structural, or inter-personal ramifications of our attempts to distribute leadership not just by putting women, people of color, femmes, queers, and others into positions of leadership within DH but by changing leadership models and structures, even as we work under their very strong limits (if we are employed, but also outside of the workplace). Much of this is hard-baked into our work practices. It is very hard to see and shake this; this is our feminist commitment.

I’ll end by demonstrating what I mean by being forthright in regards to one small example of my own positioning in, and being positioned by, these systems. In the fields that I need to enter to post this contribution to the conversation about DH Leadership, I am asked to type in my “Title or Position.” I waffle and then I build. If I say I am a Distinguished Professor (hard and recently won!), I already position myself hierarchically with all the responsibility and ease this carries. If I say I am a feminist scholar, media activist, or lesbian-Mom, I challenge the stratifying function of this normative field, acknowledging that I share much with my feminist comrades. My title gives my post and the new enterprise on which it sits some authority and sanction; my title links authority and expertise into feminist communities. If one is a senior professor, it isn’t really so brave to call out structural biases and formats. If one is a woman, or a lesbian-Mom, or an aging American in the time of COVID-19, there are other risks to our words and actions, ones I am most eager to share in community.

Alexandra Juhasz


Full Name: Sharon Irish
Biographical Note: I walk a lot outdoors and, currently, as a post-retirement gig, I am working through boxes and boxes of materials about US housing, stored in a large shed full of cobwebs and decades of mold and dust. Truly affordable and decent housing has long been elusive.
Institutional Affiliation: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Title or Position (optional): Grandmother, mother, sister, spouse; Research Affiliate, School of Information Sciences; walker
Information relevant to your DH activity/publication: Stephen Willats and the Social Function of Art: Experiments in Cybernetics and Society (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021)

Alex Juhasz’s response brings to mind a paper that Ann Wu and I wrote, and Ann presented in 2017 at The Second Maintainers conference in New Jersey, “Maintaining Difference: Experiences from FemTechNet.” It’s only 3-1/2 pages long, so I will just note a key point: “The ways in which we maintain these technological infrastructures [described in the essay] that keep the network running smoothly resemble the often unpaid and invisible labor that many women do in domestic spheres. Some of these labor practices embody the love, and investment that maintainers hold for the web of relationships intertwined with their lives; the purpose of this maintenance work lies in fostering these relationships so that they thrive.”

In 2016, I wrote a blog post for New Criticals, thanks to Tamsyn Gilbert. Called “Archiving a Network, Networking an Archive,” the post contemplated how to capture the messiness and emotional aspects of our relationships in FemTechNet, and I have yet to find a clear resolution to that dilemma. I doubt the vibrant, disparate, passionate voices can be captured, and that is likely a good thing. Dr. Jeanie Austin worked with me on the archive and reflected on the challenges in 2019 in “Affective absence: Risks in the institutionalization of the FemTechNet Archive,”  Digital Humanities Quarterly. 13(2). There are, of course, ways to activate archives. One of my favorite works by artists Leslie Labowitz and Suzanne Lacy is “The Performing Archive” now on view in Seville, Spain at the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo (through March 2021). This collaborative work documents the work of Ariadne: A Social Art Network (1977-82). Just as we improvise responses to our pasts and present, I hope we continue to push digital tools, so that a continuum of “online” and “in real life” challenges white supremacist structures, practices and beliefs.

Sharon Irish