Two Conferences: One Students’/Women’s Media Power

April 2, 2012

Home after back-to-back events where I wore one hat that just might be construed as two (an interesting slip [of the tongue] or tip [of the hat] that helps point out some of my unease with [my place in] the “Digital Humanities,” more on that to come).

The first was just that: Re:Humanities, a student-run undergraduate conference where a day of really impressive student presentations were book-ended by addresses by professors (myself and Katherine Harris) who spoke on our own pedagogic commitments to undergraduate research.

While there was much to note here, I’ll focus my observations on the related themes and contradictions of expertise, authority, authoring, and professional(ism)(ilization) in the realm of the digital (humanities). We enjoyed polished, first rate and diverse student presentations on topics ranging from the mapping of Soweto, to websites devoted to postcolonial feminism, Paris monuments, and global street-art, to pleas for better digital design or citation practices, to the digitizing and narrativizing of rare books. It was crystal clear that digital humanities opens up a place, multiple methods, and voice for qualified young participants who would otherwise not be so readily enabled to “publish” or circulate their work while also being so creative and impassioned about both the content and forms of their fledgling scholarly endeavors. Many of the students commented that doing work for an audience larger than one professor (and maybe their Mom), promotes a higher degree of commitment, professionalism, and passion then they feel when writing a paper, and this reminded me of something I already knew and already do…

The subject of the second conference: Women, Social Justice and Documentary, held at Smith College. Granted, this group of faculty, artists, and students had not really heard of the “digital humanities,” although they were also interested in thinking about the relationship between making things like documentaries, and their academic (arts and humanities) studies, and (feminist) passions and commitments. In this case, a decades-long struggle to find and circulate a voice by those deauthorized by gender, race, sexuality, and other forms of patriarchal oppression has created a substantive history of media objects, and an infrastructure that holds them (including distribution, festivals, scholarship, and pedagogy).

Why, we might ask, doesn’t Digital Humanities know about the work and struggles and conquests of (see Hammer Retrospective at the Tate above) the speakers at the second conference like Lourdes Portillo, Barbara Hammer, or Rea Tajiri who have been interpreting their impassioned, politicized ideas into forms of media and pedagogy for decades and this to an enthusiastic audience who has responded in kind with criticism and media production of our own?

I’d have to say the answer to this is why I don’t whole-heartedly embrace the digital humanities (while I’m happy to be embraced by them). The “field” does the amazing potentially radicalizing work of asking humanities professors (and students) to take account for their audiences, commitments, forms, and the uses of their work. But this was always there to take account of, merely being obscured by the transparent (and patriarchal) protocols of publishing and pedagogy that have suddenly been miraculously revealed because of the confounding force of the digital. However, this turn is occurring, for the most part, as if plenty of fields, and professors, and artists, and students, and humanists hadn’t been already been doing this for years (and therefore without turning to these necessarily radical traditions of political scholars, theoretical artists, and humanities activists).

I wrote just such a comment recently on Miriam Posner’s blog:

“Just got turned on to your blog. How thrilling! When I think (and write and d0) about doing as making as thinking I have often made videos as well as books, and more currently “ video-books” (which are really just big web-pages), so what I think has been lost in this “all Digital Humanities are communities of practice speak” (and particularly that this is a radicalizing moment for humanists) is not simply that people crafted before in that twee sense, but that academic writing is and always was doing, as it was craft, and that these added digital technologies have merely exposed that scholars were always making things, in ritualized ways, for particular users, with machines and for special(ized) uses (and now actually have to be accountable for this). I spoke with Victoria Szabo about this at length for a panel she co-ran recently, Evaluating Digital Work for Tenure and Promotion: A Workshop for Evaluators and Candidates at the 2012 MLA Convention. I love your four points at the end for the reason that it marks practice as political, and hope you’ll take a peek at some of the similar principles I’m working through at my Feminist Online Spaces site (a work in progress to be sure).”

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4 Responses to “Two Conferences: One Students’/Women’s Media Power”


  1. [...] am doing my best as I follow timidly in her footsteps. She had covered this conference on her blog Media Praxis: Integrating Media Theory, Practice and Politics long before I had even gotten [...]

  2. annedalke Says:

    Alex–
    am so interested by your pairing here of the conferences on digital humanities and social justice, and by your noting that the former hasn’t attended much to the history of work in the latter realm. I

    agree, and join you wholeheartedly in trying to create feminist on-line spaces that attend to both these points of genesis. See, for example, http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/courses/360/f12

    I was inspired by your mantrafesto, btw, to get the students in my current critical feminist studies class @ Bryn Mawr

    http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/courses/critfemstudies/s12/

    to write a series of these, collaboratively–great fun and a great alternative to Kate Bornstein’s “Ten-Minute Gender Outlaw Exercise,” which we’d done the week before, and which plays the trick of beginning w/ a question, followed by the trick that the answers have to be phrased in questions…which keeps the questions open. Having to write declarative statements, my students found, was much harder … Which are the
    feminist acts? Questioning? Declaring? The freedom, of course, to move back and forth between….

  3. annedalke Says:

    Alex–
    I appreciate both your juxtaposing the two conferences on digital humanities and social justice, and your question regarding why work in the former doesn’t acknowledge its roots in the latter.
    I agree, and join you in creating on-line feminist spaces which attempt to combine the two realms; see, for example, http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/courses/360/f12

    I also loved your “mantrafesto,” which inspired me to get the students in my current critical feminist studies class @ Bryn Mawr

    http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/courses/critfemstudies/s12

    to write a series of these–great fun, and a great alternative to an exercise we’d done earlier, based on Kate Bornstein’s “Ten-Minute
    Gender Outlaw Exercise,” which involves beginning with a question–and answering it with a question–which keeps the questions endlessly open….

    My students found relentless question-asking much easier than the declarative statements I asked them to write, following your model. Less “feminist,” they thought, less open, less inviting of further conversation….

    Hmmmm…..

  4. MP:me Says:

    Anne: I’d love to see what your students wrote! In the OFS project I’ve been engaging several call and response projects and I think of the mantrafesto in that vein (given its circular nature). My recent writing has been about inhabiting feminist power (see most recent blog here) and I do think your students’ understandabe hesitation to or critique of the declarative sits somewhere in this line of thought and action and interaction. Your cluster of classes at BM seems amazing, and I have thought about prisons myself (my video RELEASED: 5 short videos about women and prison and related writing), although not in relation to classrooms! So nice to hear more about your teaching.


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