Digital Humanities Futures: #transformDH, #2015ASA, #QGCon, Pt. 1

(featured image – Logo/stitching: Melissa Rogers, Photo: Reed Bonnet)

I’ve just returned from a three-conference streak to kick off fall quarter, and each event left me with so much to say that I’m struggling a bit with where to start. Over the next couple of days, I’ll talk about my experiences of each one in turn, and eventually give an update on what has been happening in my research and teaching over the summer. There are some exciting things happening this year, including the return of GameCamp! at UC Davis.

My conference season so far has been full of alternative modes of doing academic work, which is so important in sustaining those of us coming from underrepresented communities, following nontraditional professional paths, or doing social justice work within our institutions. The first conference I attended, the Transformative Digital Humanities Conference, was also something of a dream come true for those of us who align ourselves with #transformDH.

The #transformDH Collective has been active since 2011, when we formed over a series of THATCamp and other conference panels in order to connect with and signal boost the work of other folks doing critical cultural studies in the humanities. We were all graduate students at the time, and we are slowly working our way through our careers and figuring out ways to transform our institutions from within. Alexis Lothian (University of Maryland, College Park) is the first of our group to get a tenure-track job, and she set to work right away putting together a conference that can model a future for justice in the digital humanities.

The #transformDH Conference was short and intense, but full of so much love and support that the whirlwind was entirely worth it. We opened with a plenary session featuring myself, Prof. Lothian, Moya Bailey (postdoc, Northeastern U), and Anne Cong-Huyen (Digital Scholar, Whittier College), which was moderated by Prof. Martha Nell Smith, a feminist professor of English and founder of the UMD’s Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. The conversation gave us an opportunity to talk about #transformDH then and now, how our advancement in the academy is affecting our ability to do radical work in DH, and offer gratitude to those who have gone before and lifted our work up with them.

But the really shining work at the conference that day were the video presentations, which we solicited in the hopes of having a wider range of participants than might be able to physically travel to the venue. Lothian modeled these sessions after the vidding showcases at WisCon, the feminist science fiction convention. When we put out the call, we expected recorded talks that could be assembled into traditional-looking panels. What we actually got were creative pieces that combined scholarship and storytelling in innovative ways.

The topics ranged from menstruation to speculative fiction to environmental justice – and more. You can watch the full video showcase here. One project I want to highlight, however, is the Digit(al) Shakespeares video by Tyrone Giordano and Jill Marie Bradley, which pushes back against the notion that Shakespeare is a verbal (rather than gestural or visual) playwright. The emphasis on reading Shakespeare out loud is ubiquitous in literature classrooms, but Giordano and Bradley approach him from the perspective of deaf studies and ASL. Weaving commentary with ASL Shakespeare performance, the video makes a compelling case for reevaluating Shakespeare’s plays as visual language.

I wanted to highlight this video because of its connections to our own project in the ModLab, Play the Knave, which takes a similar gestural approach to Shakespeare performance. Play the Knave is a Shakespeare karaoke game played with the Microsoft Kinect. It is built on our own in-house motion capture software, MeKanimator, running on the Unity game engine. I had a great conversation with Giordano about the potential of this kind of technology to Whether PtK will ever be compatible with ASL is an open technological question at the moment, but these two projects really work in tandem to think about Shakespeare, gesture, and ASL in new (and fun!) ways.

If there was a theme for #transformDH this year, it was accessibility and disability studies. Lothian put a lot of resources into having ASL interpreters on hand, all videos were captioned (and the livestream archive will be, as well), and our one traditional conference panel was a fantastic disability studies panel featuring M.W. Bychowski (George Washington), Angel Love Miles (UMD), Izetta Mobley (UMD), and Jarah Moesch (UMD), and moderated by Beth Haller (Towson University). This panel was not livestreamed, but it was a really stimulating exploration of disability justice as it intersects with technology and speculative fiction. I was particularly taken by Moesch’s call for a dystopian imaginary in which people help one another successfully, instead of the bleak survival-of-the-fittest narratives that are so popular right now and leave differently abled folks, the young, the weak, or the unpopular out to die. For me, this provocation cuts across so many questions of power and privilege. We need to imagine futures, even terrible ones, in which we all have a chance.

We wrapped up the day with a keynote by Lisa Nakamura, who presented some of her new work on Internet call-out culture and the labor of women of color online. This conference structure, which offered different modes of presentation and conversation and ample body breaks, really helped keep everyone engaged. Once again, I found so much inspiration with these colleagues, and filled up my tank with the intellectual community that keeps me engaged in this work. As I said before, I would not and could not be here without the love and support of these individuals.

See Moya Bailey’s Storify of Day 1 here: https://storify.com/moyazb/transformdh-2015

Watch the livestream of the Plenary, some discussion, and Nakamura’s keynote here: http://transformdh.org/2015-conference-thatcamp/livestream/

Stay tuned for more on THATCamp #transformDH, #2015ASA, and #QGCon

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