Christina M. Spiker

Christina M. Spiker

Art Historian | Professor | Digital Humanist

Lessons Learned: Global Digital Humanities Symposium @ MSU

So the symposium has ended. I still have a few hours to enjoy the snow outside in Lansing, Michigan and the amenities of this hotel room before I fly back to Minnesota. There was a lot to like about the Global Digital Humanities Symposium at Michigan State University (#msuglobaldh), and I was able to meet a lot of interesting people doing digital humanities work in a variety of disciplines (many of whom will now populate my twitter feed). But let me recount some of my personal takeaways.

1. Good things can happen when you intentionally include indigenous and global voices. In the same room. And more than one. In my experience, many conferences and symposia that I attend dedicated to a large topic, like “digital humanities,” tend to mostly focus on Euro-American projects and perspectives. If racism is brought up, it is about racism in America. If feminism is brought up, it is specifically a white, American feminist experience that rises to the forefront. In my own experience presenting, although I am not Ainu or Japanese, if I speak about indigenous Ainu historical representation in Japan, it always has to be framed and situated in this Euro-American context to be legible. I’m forced to repeatedly explain (a) who the Ainu are, (b) how they fit into Japan, (c) issues of indigenous representation broadly, and (d) why I am interested as a white female scholar and what my relationship is to that community (in addition to the ethical implications of this visual work). All of these things are important to address, but instead of feeling like an outlier or novelty project, it was nice to be taken seriously and be situated amongst projects asking similar questions about race, representation, visibility, and erasure. I was really interested in Rebecca Wingo‘s presentation, “Archival Repatriation: Reuniting the Crows with their Ancestors,” as there are facets of the work she is doing that reminds me of the work of Miyatake Kimio with regard to the Ainu and reintroducing lost photographs and objects from the St. Louis Exposition to their living descendants, and I learned that Rocio Quispe-Agnoli’s work has a lot of research questions in common with mine from a Latin American perspective.

2. Data is political and connected to the lives of real people, and we need to be mindful about how we mine it, cite it, represent it. We also need to consider how we ultimately label the work that we do. I think we all leave this symposium feeling a little more vigilant about these issues. Andrea Ledesma‘s paper “Witnessing Hate: Case Studies in Data, Documentation, and Social Justice,” asked us to consider what is means to bear witness to hate and then the implications and challenges of representing marginal identities when data becomes a statistic. Today, Viola Lasmana examined what a digital humanities that was engaged with freedom, revolution, and social justice might look like through the lens of post-1965 Indonesia. She channeled Edward Said on amateurism, and asks us to be critical of the term “global digital humanities” when there are many small, local projects that are not considered part of that corpus. To use a turn of phrase used by Anelise H. Shrout in her presentation about Irish immigrants and institutions like Bellevue, data needs to be humanized or we risk perpetuating archival violence. Real people are complicated. In the quest for clear or representable data, we can’t forget those border spaces that resist easy categorization and are thus rendered invisible.

3. The role or partnerships and collaboration in the digital humanities. This question was forcefully raised by Jennifer Hart‘s presentation “Accra Wala: mapping roads, mapping history, mapping partnerships,” where she spoke about building bridges between communities in Ghana and America. But from involving indigenous developers when designing games that represent the indigenous community, as raised by Elizabeth LaPensée, to considering institutional partners when working between one’s own project and the state to our student workers who assist in data collection and interpretation, collaborators take on many forms. The presentations over these past two days remind us that we rarely do our work alone.

4. The need for public funding for the arts and humanities. So many of the projects discussed over the last two days would have been stopped dead in their tracks without National Endowment for the Humanities or National Endowment for the Arts funding. In a scary intellectual environment where the NEH, NEA, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute for Museum and Library Services are being threatened to be cut from the budget, we must remain vigilant in protecting these. MSU Dean Christopher P. Long invokes Hobbes in saying, “For in the end, without the arts, without the humanities, there is no shared future; there is no society at all, but rather, a collection of increasingly isolated individuals for whom life has become ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.'”

I totally underestimated the challenges of attending a conference while getting over a nasty cold, but I’m so glad that I made it here in one piece (even though I had lost my voice for my own presentation… C’est la vie). However, lots to mull over as I move forward with my own work in this area.

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