Digital Humanities, Public Work, and Safety: a #digped Chat

“I consider myself pretty damn fierce and fearless. But I’ve sat staring at a blinking cursor trying to figure out what to say and, I admit, a little apprehensive about potential reactions, particularly if I call out -isms and/or name names.”  ~ Audrey Watters

Women are not safe on the Internet. Women of color are not safe on the Internet. Queer and trans women of color are not safe on the Internet. The crowded rooms of Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere too often become spaces where self-interest confronts sincerity, and the damage done to individuals who venture there is more than just textual. The bite of social media can inflict real — bodily and psychological — injury. And fighting back can end a career.

For all its posturing as a liberational space, the Internet remains entirely too hegemonic.

I may be part of the problem. I’m white and male and, even though I’m openly gay, my privilege has thus far turned any trolls away. Even when I write bluntly about another figure in education, I do not receive threats, I receive praise, the admiration of men, women, queer people, and people of color. This may be part of the problem because the more I am listened to, the more white men generally are listened to. Or I may be part of the problem exactly because I only know enough to say it may be.

Being and working in public is troubled action. We must do it — there is an imperative to speak, even as I am speaking here, or as Audrey Watters speaks, or as Jesse Stommel speaks, or as Adeline Koh speaks, or as Tressie McMillan Cottom speaks, or as bell hooks speaks. When we see something, we are meant to say something. And yet our speech can draw daggers.

How do we — as academics, as digital humanists, as pedagogical critics, as social activists — find safety for our voices? How do we provide safety for other voices (is it even safety that we need)? How do we address the clear inequalities in how safety (and abuse) are distributed online? Is there a need for a radical revision of the way we each behave and speak online? How does the human enter upon the digital?

Jesse Stommel says about the Digital Humanities that,

As a discipline, the Digital Humanities has not endeared itself to me. I find considerably more solace in the feminist community, in the queer community, and in motley subsets of digital humanities outliers. To be fully honest, I have never found the Digital Humanities as a discipline particularly welcoming, for all its proclamations of being ‘nice.’

Is niceness even a virtue? Niceness and civility, as Adeline Koh puts it, “play important gatekeeping roles within the digital humanities public sphere.” We must be civil to be accepted, even if what we have to say is radically uncivil. Civility, too, is only a virtue if nothing needs shaking up, if the established ground of the Digital Humanities is plenty good enough for everyone it includes. And it does not include everyone. Women are not safe in the Digital Humanities. Women of color, queer women, trans women, or gender nonconforming people, either.

I am not mincing my words. And perhaps I am inviting trolling. Perhaps I am finally inviting trolling. Yet I fear I will be disappointed in the rise I get. Because you see, public work is important, public voices are important. Writing scholarly articles that will grow pensive as the uncracked spine of the collection they inhabit ages under flickering fluorescent lights is not enough. Martin Bickman insists that “The problem is writing articles instead of making sure the articles actually change the world.”

Writing for our peer reviewers is as good as sitting on our hands. Especially when we know the world is not safe for women. Especially when we know that pedagogy suffers in the university, that educational technology dominates our classrooms, and that “the institutionalization of the Digital Humanities has made it largely inaccessible to those who remain outliers to the institution.

This Friday at Noon Eastern, Digital Pedagogy Lab will host a live Twitter chat using #digped focused on the necessity and trouble of public work. The chat will lead into a backchannel discussion of a “Disrupting DH” presentation at the 2016 Modern Language Association conference in Austin, TX.

Some questions to consider in advance of the chat:

  1. What constitutes a safe digital space? Is it possible? How is it safeguarded while also remaining open and liberatory?
  2. How and in what places and with what rhetoric can voices meet one another within fields like the Digital Humanities and social justice? How can silencing end and listening begin?
  3. What does exclusion look like in public digital spaces? What does inclusion look like?
  4. Can there be liberatory rules of etiquette (no sub-tweeting, for example, no character assassination, etc.) without tone policing, or the gatekeeping of civility? How do we make the digital a raucous space without making it a dangerous space?

If you are interested in this conversation, join us Friday, January 8 at Noon Eastern. For those unable to join the conversation this week, the #digped chat happens on the second Friday of every month at Noon Eastern. If you have suggestions for future topics, feel free to add them to the comments on this entry or tweet them to @Jessifer or @slamteacher.

[Photo “what you need to say” by Fio]

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