Beyond the Femfog: Feminist Medieval Digital Humanities – A Round Table Discussion
International Medieval Congress
University of Leeds
July 4, 2017
Today I am thrilled to be on a panel discussing feminist medieval digital humanities. That’s a mouthful .. and it’s amazing. As someone who identifies as a medievalist but who operates on a daily basis as a Digital Humanities Professional, I am excited about the opportunity to bring the discussions that I care about most in DH into conversation with my ‘home’ academic discipline.
Let me preface everything I say by echoing something not original to me: Digital humanities is not one thing. Once we let go of that idea, we can move forward.
The world of digital humanities has been wrestling with its past to acknowledge its role in being built on and reinforcing structures of bias and inequality. The field (I’ll say field as a shorthand, but that’s its own conversation) absolutely must do this work within itself if we ever want to fulfill what I consider the real opportunity and purpose of DH, which is to use the digital to work against structures of oppression writ large, especially in cultural heritage contexts.
The values of digital humanities as elaborated by Lisa Spiro – openness, collaboration, collegiality and connectedness, diversity, experimentation – push us to do just this. If we want a diverse and inclusive digital humanities, then we must have a feminist digital humanities. We must have a DH that listens to and is in conversation with critical race theory. These critical perspectives have been doing the work that we want to be doing for a while now – we just have to listen.
The same issues that DH has faced are just as important for medieval studies to work through. We heard yesterday in the “Academics against the alt-right” session and the “Decolonizing Medieval Studies” roundtable about strategies to take and people to read to begin taking these steps.
In the work that I do and that I especially pay attention to, Global Digital Humanities is an area of growth. As you can imagine, the global offers huge promise of repairing the archive by working with people who may not have resources to digitize materials or to work with them digitally. But equally, the global in DH could re/colonize the archive. Roopika Risam points out that “digital humanities, as a field, can only be inclusive and its diversity can only thrive in an environment in which local specificity—the unique concerns that influence and define digital humanities at regional and national levels—is positioned at its center and its global dimensions are outlined through an assemblage of the local”. We need to focus not on sweeping projects that envelope the global and ignore cultural and local differences but instead focus on those differences as vital areas of cultural value.
Risam draws connections between the rise of theory and the rise of the digital in academic humanities. Risam roots her argument in the work of black feminist theorists, especially Barbara Christian’s 1987 article The Race for Theory, which saw black feminism as under threat from the “anointing” of theory in academic departments. We can learn from the value of difference Christian points to as well as the framework of intersectionality (developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw) to empower a locally-driven, grassroots, global DH.
Similar to the trend in global dh, medieval studies is seeing a rising interest in the “global medieval.” These same lessons – to value difference and to respect the local – hold true in our field as well. It is easy and so tempting to whitewash over cultural differences to seek connections, but we must consider what that does.
One fantastic example of a Global DH project that de-centers the western hubs of DH (US, Canada, UK, Europe) is the Around DH in 80 Days project, led by Alex Gil. It is simple in concept: showcase one project or initiative from around the world each day for 80 days, sharing a link to the project and an annotation describing it. By simply showcasing work from around the world, the project stretches traditional western definitions of DH, foregrounds local scholarship, and even opens the user to some of the challenges faced in local contexts (ex. OCR problems for non-latin characters or funding for archival work).
What can feminist medieval DH do? Let’s make a version of this project for global digital medieval studies projects.
Another impetus pushing DH forward is the #transformdh movement. #transformdh started in 2011 as a push by younger scholars engaged in queer, feminist, and critical race theory work who were seeing their fields absent in the world of DH. They make three claims to the field of digital humanities, which I think could be well suited to adaptation for medieval DH:
- Questions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability should be central to digital humanities and digital media studies.
- Feminist, queer, and antiracist activists, artists, and media-makers outside of academia are doing work that contributes to digital studies in all its forms. This work productively destabilizes the norms and standards of institutionally recognized academic work.
- We should shift the focus of digital humanities from technical processes to political ones, and always seek to understand the social, intellectual, economic, political, and personal impact of our digital practices as we develop them.
What if we simply brought in “medieval studies” into these statements? What would doing so mean for our aims to build a feminist medieval digital humanities? We have conversations in medieval studies about engaging the public and whether or not to ‘let in’ non-academics. #transformdh pushes against this ivory tower hand wringing and seeks to break down the authors of content and the means of production to include artists and the community in the creation of works of value. As Bridget pushed us yesterday to think of the archive and the dead as meant to serve us (rather than the other way around), we also need to consider how we and the medieval studies we transmit/share/study is meant to serve the world in which we live.
I’ll finish with a few simple prompts or ideas of what medieval studies can bring to the conversations that digital humanities is working through. And then finally, I’ll share a few places where you can find out more. I look forward to discussion both in person now as well as online (feel free to comment below or message me on Twitter):
- Challenge: Digital Humanities operates in an English language-centric universe
- Opportunity: Medievalists know many languages
- Challenge: Archives, libraries, and museums are built on collecting histories that reflect colonialism, prejudice, and misogyny
- Opportunity: Medievalists are scrappy. We know how to work with absences in the archive to critique and learn about the past and the present.
- Challenge: Digital humanities tries (and often fails) to work across disciplines.
- Opportunity: Medievalists have been wrestling with this challenge since the inception of the field. We don’t have the answers, but at least we are used to the problem.
Places to find out more (not remotely comprehensive):
- Debates in the Digital Humanities book series
- Global Outlook DH
- FemTechNet generally, and the Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Pedagogy Workbook specifically
- Postcolonial DH (currently only on Internet Archive)
- Global DH Symposium (work I’m doing at Michigan State, which I am especially proud of – we are trying to promote truly locally-driven, ethically done projects in DH. Join us in 2018 on March 22-23!)
“In 2016, the impact of #femfog resounded across medieval studies. At the Leeds IMC round table discussion ‘Embracing the #Femfog’, many of the participants noted that issues relating to equality, diversity, representation, and access were not simply concerns for Anglo-Saxon studies, but for medieval studies in its entirety. Only one week later, the digital humanities (DH) community at their international conference in Krakow held multiple panels directly addressing issues of diversity in that field, echoing many of the discussions heard at the IMC. These debates clearly indicate that #femfog is not simply an issue for medieval studies, or DH, but the academy as a whole. But what if your work intersects these two disciplines, medieval studies and digital humanities? What is it to be a medieval digital humanist? What are the issues if you work in medieval DH? Who polices entry to medieval DH, and deems what is ‘acceptable’ within these disciplines? Have medieval DH projects to date done enough to elucidate female voices, past and present? How do we encourage wider participation in medieval DH, and what are the (perceived) challenges/barriers to such engagement? This session therefore seeks to provide a platform for discussion of what the medieval and medieval DH community believe to be the issues in the state of these fields.
Participants include Johanna Green (University of Glasgow), Katharine Jager (University of Houston-Downtown, Texas), Roberta Magnani (Swansea University), Kirsten Mapes (Michigan State University), and Bridget Whearty (State University of New York, Binghamton).”