Sunday, June 26, 2011

DRSI, Day 1 Thoughts and Questions

I'm very lucky to be a Fellow in the UW Simpson Center for the Humanities Digital Research Summer Institute, led by my recently graduated colleague from the English Department, Jentery Sayers. The other Fellows are from a range of different fields: genetics, social work, anthropology, comp lit, women's studies, and musicology.

The DRSI is a pilot program, so what each of us will take away from it is uncertain (though I have no doubt that it'll be useful). One of the points that came up in that first meeting is that reflective writing and documenting process is valuable -- not a new insight, but it's good for me to be reminded of it.

There are a few useful questions that I thought were raised just in the first session, and that I want to hang onto.

Neena's Sindhi Voices Project is working to provide an archive for narratives from Sindhi elders (defined as "individuals that, after the 1947 partition of India, left Sindh, stayed in Sindh, migrated from India into Sindh, and those that received emigrant Sindhis"), and a field kit, available in multiple languages, to help people gather those stories. The archive is ubiquitous in literary and historical studies, so I was thinking of the project as an archive, but on reflection, 24 hours later, I think I'm wrong to do that -- the field kit, and other materials like it, that the SVP produces, are central, rather than just being apparatuses that allow the archive to be created. I say this thinking of Neena's comment that one of the responses to the project is excitement from young women who have helped gather stories, because the project is helping them gain primary experience in what journalism is. However, as she herself acknowledged, one of the challenges of the SVP is finding a way to bring the stories to the elders themselves, and that will probably involve something like a traveling exhibit, or other hybrid version.

The question that this raises, for me, is how does the digital facilitate and support the nondigital?

Mary's Georgian in Seattle website is also what I think of as a community cultural site, bringing together stories, and eventually film and music. Its title ties it directly to the population in Seattle, while its eventual goal (if I understand correctly) is to present Georgian culture that informs users both about what Georgia is, and its conflict with Russia. Listening to Mary speak, I was struck by her emphasis on how many people assume that Georgian means "a subset of Russian" (-- in fact I made the same sort of careless mistake in thinking that Velimir Khlebnikov was Georgian because he'd been associated with the Futurist movement in Tbilisi). In one sense, then, the website is meant to be a repository of art that might help outsiders get a clearer sense of what it means to be Georgian. Emphasizing both Seattle and Georgia prompts me to think about the relationship between the local and the global, because the local will never go away, at least; I doubt it will in my lifetime. Can a local area become a satellite of advocacy/culture for a different local area, or for a place to which it's only connected through the technology of globalization? In regards to Mary's website, this is a geopolitical question; however, it has ramifications for the development of digital humanities resources, specifically digital humanities centers, as the landscape of academia shifts towards distance learning.

The other thing I heard, however, was how small the Georgian community in Seattle is: everyone knows everyone. And what I hear in her presentation, and see in her website, is the importance of creating a digital homestead, and I hear in that the echo of the excitement of Geocities neighborhoods, back in the late 90's. Her site, I think, will have a different meaning (and serve a different purpose) for those people who produce it, than for those who read it. When we evaluate the worth of a site, we need to look at its value for both producers and users. Sometimes those will be the same group of people -- but not always.

I'm still thinking about this, because near the end of the day, we were reading Sharon Daniel's narrative of her Public Secrets project in her article "Hybrid Practices," which appeared in Cinema Journal 48.2, as part of a thematic section on digital scholarship and pedagogy. In the article, Daniels writes that "the women who have participated in Public Secrets are highly politicized and are seriously committed to this endeavor. They are quite literally historians and theorists who speak out in an effort of collective resistance" (157). I reacted poorly to that statement, because Daniel was defining historian as someone who had undergone a particular experience, rather than someone who had completed a specific program of formal studies. It's the problem of evaluating the authority of primary vs. secondary sources -- and it's not a new problem to be sure, but it feels perilous when I think about it in terms of digital humanities projects, because the goal of so many technologies is to create the illusion of unmediated, raw, data. The intro to Public Secrets, in which Daniel provides the context for the project, is accompanied by a button in the lower righthand corner of the screen, inviting users to "skip sequence," as though the "real" substance of the project.

And the voices of the women who contributed are the substance of the project -- and they are historians and theorists, and anyone who says otherwise, including me, probably needs to check their privilege. I'm still struck, though, by Daniel's self identification as a "context provider" (her phrase), when the most overtly visible sign of her contextualizing is something that people are invited to skip. Every aspect of the site is part of the context that Daniel is providing, of course -- but it's a graphical context, and easy to dismiss as presentation, rather than as part of the research.

On the one hand, this reminds me of scholarly editions whose editors have attempted to minimize, or erase entirely, their editorial presence, as though they made no decisions, and came as close as possible to traveling back in time to bring you the original texts. I find these efforts disingenuous, even when having a seemingly pristine edition seems useful: the Editor(s) made decisions in producing it; and chances are, the Editor(s) got the privilege of making those decisions by exerting their authority and knowledge in overt ways, i.e., by demonstrating their comprehensive scholarship regarding the author and text.

No one has said, "oh, digital humanities is all about producing primary sources and getting rid of those nasty pedantic scholars," at least, not to my knowledge -- but in thinking about Public Secrets, and how Daniel herself presents it, I realize that it needs to be. (ETA: Or rather, I'm acutely aware that it makes me feel highly vulnerable as a young academic to describe myself as a context provider, in terms of how people might interpret that role, and its connection to the years I've spent in a formal uni program. And I'd like to feel less vulnerable, or figure out why I'm feeling vulnerable and what I can do about it.) Digital humanities methodologies are attractive because they facilitate making primary sources accessible -- but how do these same methodologies affect our standards for good secondary criticism?

This last question is probably the one that has the most relevance for my own project (link coming soon!), which involves specific mentions of prices in a wide range of different types of documents: partially, because my project, like so many, can give the illusion of magically summoning prices together, untouched, from their source texts, for users to compare -- and also, because the project develops directly from an argument that I'm making about the grounds for literary economic criticism. However, I think that needs to be its own post. Suffice it to say, DRSI is going to be a really interesting workshop, and I think I'll get a lot out of it.