Inclusivity/Exclusivity within the Digital Humanities

I am writing this blog post from the Vancouver airport, five hours in on my 23-hour-long journey back to Loughborough. It’s a long journey, and I will likely be horribly jet lagged for the next few weeks, but it was worth it for the chance to spend two weeks at the University of Victoria for the annual Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI).

The DHSI is one of the biggest annual gatherings of digital humanities folk in the world. It advertises that it ‘combines the best aspects of a skills workshop, international conference, and summer camp’.

Now, I don’t know what kind of summer camps y’all have been going to, but I would not classify the DHSI as anywhere close to a summer camp. Maybe whoever came up with that description has never been to a summer camp. Maybe summer camps were different when that person was a kid. I don’t know. It’s not a summer camp – it’s going back to first year undergrad.

And there’s no real issue with that, aside from a few quickly-overcome moments of loneliness sparked by thoughts of ‘HOLY CRAP, I KNOW LITERALLY NO ONE IN THIS ROOM’. I learned so much during my classes, the unconference (a series of informal discussions over lunch), and the keynote lectures. I met lots of really cool people from around the world, who do a bunch of different things, and had time to explore the local area. I even got to make my own piece of electronic literature, using Nick Montfort’s recently-released won’t you as inspiration. Click here to see my ‘I DAMN WELL WILL’.

The DHSI really has been one of the highlights the final year of my PhD. It’s been a great opportunity to explore some new topics (Retro Machines & Media and Electronic Literature) and be exposed to new perspectives.

I was particularly impacted by one of the unconference lunch sessions, which was called ‘Digital Humanities Beyond Academia‘. During this session, a group of us discussed the exclusivity of the DHSI, and the field of digital humanities more generally. This is something I had thought about a bit, but hadn’t articulated aloud in any cohesive way. For example, to attend the DHSI is hugely expensive. I was lucky to get some scholarships and financial assistance to offset my costs, but others were not so fortunate. Tuition, accommodation, travel, food – it adds up quickly. On top of the financial costs, there are the costs related to time – to attend, one has to take at least a week away from work, school, or whatever one is doing. Need childcare, or have other caring responsibilities? That’s another thing you have to organise. And don’t forget your laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc.! Don’t know how to use those digital technologies? There is an assumption that you have already at least nailed the basics. And so on.

 

This is not to fault the DHSI, which is doing a great job trying to make itself accessible to people of varying abilities from around the world. The point I am trying to make is that we as ‘digital humanists’ really do seem to be neglecting many of the people who could make a positive societal difference by engaging with the field: teachers, public librarians, early career academics, program developers, industrial partners, yadda yadda yadda.

How can we open up the conversation to include those who may also benefit from it? How can we include those who are doing digital humanities without calling it digital humanities? How do we work towards developing media literacy that doesn’t just serve those who are card-carrying digital humanities but also members of the general public?

I haven’t reached anywhere near answers to these questions, but it did help having issues of accessibility and inclusion be hot topics throughout the DHSI – full courses were being run about these things. Still, once we talk these things out with other digital humanists, we need to more strongly feed what we’ve learned into the public sphere. There are lots of non-academic people already talking about digital methods, but how do we expand our discussions to include those folks?

The DHSI is not a summer camp. It is not a place to escape your life for a week or two, nor is it a place to schmooze your way up the career ladder. The DHSI is a place to change the way you think and the way the world thinks. It’s absolutely a wonderful time but – as you may have gotten from this post – it can also be a bit unsettling (and thank God for that).

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