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Social Justice and Digital Humanities

Part 1: Door 1: Tools and Technologies

Introduction

As I start my journey of learning about Digital Humanities I want to discover how it relates to my interest in Social Justice.  We are witnessing immense human suffering around the world e.g. DR Congo, South Sudan, Haiti and the Phillipines. Neoliberalism, environmental degradation and climate change have put additional stress on human rights around the globe.  In Ireland we are witnessing the unfolding stories of the effects of institutional abuse, corruption, health care cover up, recession and emigration.

The humanities explore what it means to be human and allow us to respond to deeper questions about suffering, justice, and power.  Therefore we must ask “How can Digital Humanities be mobilised in the service of social justice”?  “ What is the relationship between the Digital Humanities and social transformation”?  It is important to analyse the potential and also the limitations of the intersection between Social Justice and Digital Humanities.

This Blog is Part 1 of a series of Blogs I intend to write as I develop my understanding of how we can “do” what I call for short-hand “Digital Social Justice” work.

Questions about the relationships between technological literacy and social change are part of ongoing discourse within the Digital Humanities field. For instance THATCamp PNW came together for the Unconference “Technology, Social Justice, and the Humanities Intersect” in 2011. Invited participants—including scholars, librarians, programmers and community activists—came together to explore topics ranging from activism, digital access, and gaming to pedagogy, curriculum, cultural studies, and the digital humanities through the theme of Technologies and Social Justice.   (“Simpson Centre for the Humanities,” 2011).  Jentery Sayers, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Victoria said of the theme “it is commonplace and often tempting to separate the technologies most of us routinely use from the belief systems and inequalities they enable. What do you do in the face of such complicity?”

Like Sayers I would like to understand and explore further collaborative, creative and critically informed responses to this question.

In my brief time studying Digital Humanities I am beginning to see some of the “ways in” to understanding the intersection between Digital Humanities and Social Justice. This first blog relates to question of usage of web tools and technologies.

Door Number 1: Digital Tools and Technologies

The “Tools of the Digital Trade” are important no matter what discipline you apply them to. I have a sense that there is some criticism on the one hand of DH as being “just a set of tools” and some defensiveness by Digital Humanists that they are not “just that”.  (Adams and Gunn, 2012).  This tension can at first glance appear to trivialize or dismiss the importance of the “tools of the trade”.  While I understand that Digital Humanities as a Discipline wants to emphasise that it is not “just a set of tools” I also feel that it needs to unashamedly embrace its nuts and bolts not only for their practical value but as tools which in themselves can be interrogated for their value and limitations. To dismiss them is in itself elitist and perpetuates the traditional closed academy which has indeed served to also perpetuate inequality of access, participation and outcomes in education in the past. In addition, in the “real” world of work and “making a living”, such tools are now essential, so why should they not be taught as a core part of learning and meanings in the Humanities? We do not frown at them in other disciplines such as Engineering and Science. We would not dismiss “archiving” in a course on librarianship so why should we now dismiss the tools of “digital archiving”?  Is it that many of us are ignorant and do not fully understand the sophisticated nature of such tools or are there more complex dynamics at play such as holding on to power or remnants of “that is women’s work” mentalities? Is this uneasiness about a letting go of an ownership of “how things are done here in universities, who gets to make decisions and who gets to access information, research and knowledge?”

These are broader questions but in the field of social justice web-based tools are transforming how we do things, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.  We have seen for instance how public information supplied by social networking websites has played an important role during modern-day activism, as in for example, the Arab Spring. (“CNN at SXSW,” 2012).  But we have also seen a myriad of campaigns coming into our email and social media pages which allow us to believe we are “making a change” or “doing something” because we press the “like” button.

However even at a more day-to-day level new technologies are profoundly changing how we engage with the Humanities in general.  Tools such as “Storify” (a way to create stories using soical media posts), video capturing, web-design, games, location based services (eg the digital mapping of the Occupy Wall Street movement), and Omeka, a free, open-source web-publishing platform for the display of scholarly exhibits, to name a few.

It  is important to continue to explore how we can use these technologies to empower, educate and enable humanity to become more socially just.  Research such as Crabtree for instance (Crabtree and Sapp, 2005) illustrates the capacity for intentionally constructed online and direct-action educational experiences to stimulate innovative and transformative approaches to student learning about global social justice issues.

I would to explore how using web-based technologies can help us to go beyond the patronising model of Western students learning about “the other” “less fortunate” in “developing” countries by investigating the impact of the inclusion in the classroom of marginalised voices as instigators and participants in the learning process. This would never have been possible in a non-digital world.  I may well find that this model also perpetuates injustice but my point is that such questions are valid research questions and should form part of a debate within Digital Humanities.

Conclusion

A new infrastructure is being created which is changing the nature of education and scholarship. Students and lecturers are collaborating to produce projects which are available to a global, online community. This raises numerous humanity-related questions and  as Pannapacker (2011) states “DH is moving us—finally—from endless hand-wringing toward doing something to create positive change throughout academe”.  Rather than becoming caught up in debates about where “digital tools” stand in the discipline, I would prefer to interrogate how we can use, embrace and benefit but at the same time rigorously interrogate these tools.

References

Adams, J.L., Gunn, K.B., 2012. Digital Humanities Where to start. Coll. res. libr. news 73, 536–569.

CFP: Digital Humanities, Public Humanities, 2013. Maker Lab in the Humanities.

CNN at SXSW, 2012. . Social media in Arab Spring.

Lothian, A., Phillips, A., 2013. Can Digital Humanities Mean Transformative Critique? Journal of e-Media Studies 3.

Pannapacker, W., 2011. Big-Tent Digital Humanities: a View From the Edge, Part 2. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Sayers, J., 2012. Making Things in the Digital Humanities | The Project Room.

Simpson Centre for the Humanities, n.d. Technology, Social Justice, and the Humanities Intersect at THATCamp PNW Unconference.

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