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Who Are We Building For? Community, Power, and Generous Thinking in DH

Tuesday, November 17th, 2020

Conversation Post: Who Are We Building For? Community, Power, and Generous Thinking in DH: Cody Mejeur 11/17/2020
Reply: Sarah Handley-Cousins
Reply: Kathleen Fitzpatrick

Full Name: Cody Mejeur
Biographical Note: Visiting Assistant Professor in DMS at UB since 2019. Co-Director of the Palah Light Lab, a queer/feminist new media lab at UB. Diversity Officer for the Digital Games Research Association. Advisory board member for DH Net/Works.
Institutional Affiliation: Department of Media Study, University at Buffalo, SUNY
Title or Position (optional): Visiting Assistant Professor of Game Studies
Information relevant to your DH activity/publications: Researcher with the LGBTQ Video Game Archive conducting visualization work; Director for Trans Folks Walking, video game about trans experiences; Two recent articles in Digital Humanities Quarterly:

If the guiding questions for digital humanities in its developing years were what humanistic things can we do with digital technologies and why might we do them, in the past decade a new and essential question has emerged: who are we doing these things for? Is digital humanities primarily for privileged (mostly White?) humanities scholars seeking more institutional support and grant funding? Is digital humanities primarily or even exclusively for the institutions that house it, or does it connect with and support the communities around academia in reciprocal ways? Finally and crucially, is digital humanities interested in or capable of contributing to social justice work in and beyond higher education?

A number of digital humanities scholars have actively answered these questions and pushed the field to center marginalized peoples and their experiences in its work. For example, scholars such as Roopika Risam, Dorothy Kim, and Babalola Titilola Aiyegbusi have called for decolonizing digital humanities, challenging established narratives and histories, and redirecting resources toward communities with the least support and recognition. Safiya Noble, Moya Bailey, and others have demonstrated the biases and violences encoded both in our technologies and in the institutions and field of digital humanities. And in Generous Thinking, Kathleen Fitzpatrick encourages digital humanities scholars and higher education more broadly to build better relationships of support, reciprocity, and collaboration with communities instead of relying only on competition, critique, and individualism.

So how do we continue this work and orient our digital humanities projects toward community relationships and support? How do we challenge, bypass, and even tear down the institutional barriers between digital humanities and our local, regional, and global communities? And how do we do these things now, in the midst of a pandemic and in the face of online violence that continues to target marginalized communities? Explorations of these questions through particular existing or proposed projects are welcome, as are reflections on specific individual or collaborative practices that can support these efforts.

Cody Mejeur

Full Name: Sarah Handley-Cousins
Biographical Note: Clinical Assistant Professor, History; Associate Director, Center for Disability Studies; Producer, Dig: A History Podcast
Institutional Affiliation: University at Buffalo, SUNY
Title or Position (optional):
Information relevant to your DH activity/publication: Producer, Dig: A History Podcast

Hi Cody. This is something I think about a great deal, and that we have kept at the center of our project at Dig since we launched. What might have begun as a fun side project (with, as you say, perhaps the added benefit of maybe getting some interest on the job market) became something bigger after the fall of 2016. As white supremacist violence seemed to increase, and issues of sexual harassment and assault seized the nation’s attention, we suddenly felt like it was cowardly to have a “fun” side project. Instead, it seemed like our little podcast might be a way to use a public platform to get real, complex, and difficult history outside the academy. Now, we make it central to our mission to highlight both diverse topics and signal-boost the work of women historians, queer historians, and historians of color.

That said, I do think that we have a ways to go. The producers of my podcast are all straight, white cis-women, undeniably privileged. This raises questions about teams in DH projects. Our team is small and tight-knit, and to expand it would fundamentally change the nature of the project–but it would also provide an opportunity to further diversify and “practice what we preach” in a sense. I would be very interested in hearing others’ experiences with this!

Sarah Handley-Cousins


Full Name: Kathleen Fitzpatrick
Biographical Note: Kathleen Fitzpatrick is Director of Digital Humanities and Professor of English at Michigan State University, where she also directs MESH, a research and development unit focused on the future of scholarly communication. She is project director of Humanities Commons, an open-access, open-source network serving more than 25,000 scholars and practitioners across the humanities and around the world, and she is author of Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019).
Institutional Affiliation: Michigan State University
Title or Position (Optional): Director of Digital Humanities and Professor of English

Thanks for opening up this conversation, Cody, and thanks for the generous (!) reference to GT! The questions you’re asking are I think exactly right — we need as a field to do much more thinking about who our work is for, in order to ensure that it’s as open as it should be to the communities we want to engage.

In that same fashion, I’d love for us to think some not just about who we’re building for, but also who we’re building with: how can we cultivate practices and processes that ensure that those communities are not just audiences for or users of our work, but are in fact full partners in its design and development?

There’s far too much of a history of the university showing up to “help” communities without having deep enough knowledge of those communities and their goals. We too often see the university as the place where knowledge resides, and we want to share that knowledge generously. But unless we recognize that in fact knowledge of the community resides in the community, we’re likely to find ourselves working at cross purposes.

So we need project design and development processes that encourage us all to show up as learners, rather than as experts, I think.

I’ll look forward to following the conversation from here!

Kathleen Fitzpatrick