Open DH? Mapping Blind Spots (DHd2023 Report)
With this report, we – the DHd Working Group Empowerment – would like to document the panel that we organized for the DHd2023 conference in Trier/Luxembourg, 13–17 March 2023. We also organized a workshop on data feminism, a report on which will follow soon. You can find the abstract of the workshop here and the abstract of the panel here. See also the slides from the panel here (in English) and here (in German).
The panel took place 15 March, 11:15 am – 12:45 pm CET in HS 4 C, University of Trier. It was hosted by Tessa Gengnagel and co-submitted by Anja Gerber, Sarah Lang and Nora Probst. The panelists were Sarah-Mai Dang, Tinghui Duan, Till Grallert, Jana Keck, and Julianne Nyhan.
Generally speaking, topics concerned with the social and political dimension of Digital Humanities work have gained traction over the last ten years, but they have not yet found a home in the discourses of the German-language DHd community. Our goal is to change that. The DHd2023 was the first major event where we submitted a panel (as well as a workshop) to that end.
In her introduction, Tessa Gengnagel outlined the broad approach that we – as the Working Group – had chosen for the panel. We regard this panel as the start of a conversation, something to put questions of diversity (or the lack thereof) on the DHd map. This has multiple levels to it: On the one hand, we are dealing with injustices and imbalances on the level of work environment. On the other hand, the content of our work is subject to biases. And then there is the effect of our work. While all these topics would provide ample grounds for discussion in and of themselves, we wanted to stress that they are intersectional and look at the bigger picture.
This bigger picture was framed by the theme of the conference: “Open Humanities, Open Culture”. In the German context, this is usually associated with open science, open access, open peer review; ethical aspects of transparency and decommodification. It also raises the spectre of the ‘big tent’ debate which we did not centre since it often leads to a conflation of disciplinary delineation and policy-making by the associations in the field (see, for example, the ‘diversity vs. theory’ argument recently advanced by Fabio Ciotti, current president of the EADH). This anxiety might be for another event to address.
When we talk about access in German DH, we usually talk about data. That is what we refer to when we talk about FAIR and it is what we refer to with CARE, generally in the combination FAIR and CARE, without acknowledging – in the German use of the term – that the CARE principles are rooted in Indigenous Data Governance and therefore specific considerations of access control. It is important to understand that data interfaces are not the only vectors of exchange. As humans, we, too, must communicate among ourselves as well as with the computer and we have to take those realities of our work (and the political-social dimension they inherit and amplify) seriously because they have a significant impact on what is done, what is not done, how it is done, who does something and who gets something out of it.
Statements by Panelists
The first of our panelists, Julianne Nyhan, took us back to the past by shining a light on a hitherto underrepresented part of DH history: the invisible labour of the women who worked as punchcard operators for Roberto Busa, the man widely viewed as the ‘founding father’ of the field. Based on the research for her monograph Hidden and Devalued Feminized Labour in the Digital Humanities: On the Index Thomisticus Project 1954–67, she briefly detailed this hidden history and closed it with an empowering appeal: That by understanding the complicities of the digital humanities in this erasure, not only in a past that can be brushed aside as ‘those were the times’ but in a present dominated by the outsourcing of labour and ‘menial tasks’ in technology-adjacent fields to often impoverished workers in the Global South, we can take ownership of our agency and play an active role in abolishing the “asymmetrical economies of esteem” that benefit us (to the disadvantage of others).
Next, Jana Keck, virtually participating from Washington DC, took us around the world by presenting the network activities of the Working Group Digital Humanities, a joint venture by eleven institutes from the Max Weber Foundation, operating abroad in many different countries. This perspective of transnationality added a valuable experience in negotiating the kind of questions and inequalities that we hope to address for the DHd community at large. Based on discussions within this geographically and linguistically diverse group, Jana Keck highlighted shared challenges such as language, funding, activism, and interdisciplinarity. She also identified common denominators like a commitment to open science, more ethics in DH, and the acceptance of multilingual approaches. Finally, she emphasized that while some problems may require local solutions, we must always keep a global perspective in mind since most issues affect us on a global scale.
Till Grallert picked up this thread by focusing our attention on less privileged world regions outside of the Global North. While decolonization has been a topic of discussion in Anglophone DH discourses, there is still room in the German-speaking DHd community for reckoning with the heritage of colonialism in our collections (as also became clear in panel 7 on postcolonial perspectives). There is another dimension to this, however, which is the dimension of neo-colonialism: the disparity of resources and infrastructures (e.g. in terms of electricity, connectivity, literacy), and the dominance of standardization best practices according to Anglo- and Eurocentric idealizations of their own situational capacities. Accordingly, Till Grallert elaborated on (1) the digital divide and affordances of the Global South, (2) linguistic imperialism and the Absence of Arabic, (3) survival and collection biases leading to digitisation bias, and (4) networked digital infrastructures and global capitalism.
The following panelist, Tinghui Duan, continued the global theme of issues that tend to be invisible in the German context by detailing why multilinguality poses a particular challenge that should concern us all. Based on his research and experiences working in multilingual areas of study, he presented the example of the Romantik movement in literary history and how this notion is flattened by the equation of Romantik – romanticism – 浪漫主义 in the knowledge graph logic of Wikidata. While these different national phenomena might intersect in some ways, they are not identical and should not be mapped onto each other as is already happening. The Anglophone hegemony of knowledge representations (also evident in the Romantic Period Poetry Archive which did not include a single Chinese writer before three Chinese writers were added at the suggestion of Tinghui Duan) will reduce the diversity of knowledges in the long term and lead to an impoverishment of cultures, as Tinghui Duan theorizes. Digitization could further this or counteract it, if efforts are undertaken to support multilinguality beyond the mere translation of or linking between allegedly corresponding terms: This would require (1) technical infrastructure, (2) expertise in languages, including less common languages, (3) an end to the monolingualism of DH and its direct relation to the legitimization of scholarship.
As the final presenter, Sarah-Mai Dang bridged the previous statements by returning to the question of labour and the invisible labour of women specifically. In referencing the data feminism definition by Catherine D’Ignazio und Lauren F. Klein from their eponymous monograph, she focused on one of the seven aspects that the authors stress: in this case, namely, that we must make labour visible. There are multiple layers to this since it can apply to our view on history and historiography as researchers as well as to our awareness of our own work environments and whether and how we make contributions visible. Sarah-Mai Dang addressed this duality by showing the Women Film Pioneers Explorer (WFPE) which offers interactive visualizations of data gathered in the Women Film Pioneers Project (WFPP), centred around women who worked behind the scenes during the silent film era. Not only does this bring the work of these women to the fore but also the work of the scholars who spent a lot of time and effort revisiting this history and who continue to encourage participation in expanding the data. This connects to the question of academic credit and publishable outcomes which would also feature in the later discussion.
[Antonio Rojas Castro, who was originally going to partake in the panel, could not join, unfortunately, but we want to use this opportunity to draw attention to the Proyecto Humboldt Digital and the work that is done in this German-Cuban collaboration, https://habanaberlin.hypotheses.org/, which remains of interest for future discussions in these contexts.]
After the panelists had provided us with this important survey of generally neglected aspects of DH research and work, the discussion began with the following question: Many of the highlighted issues are rooted in traditions and practices from the humanities in general as well as bigger social and political contexts – what is specific to the digital humanities about these issues, i.e. how are they specifically affected and how might they specifically react to them? Do they have a special responsibility to do so, as was also the tenor of the opening keynote of the conference?
All panelists agreed that the digital humanities exacerbate existing problems, such as when they establish standards that are then applied to everyone regardless of inequalities, as Till Grallert called to mind. DH also transforms work environments and research in rather specific ways. Sarah-Mai Dang pointed out that DH projects are rarely if ever realized by a single scholar and necessitate collaboration in group settings which might present a chance to address former invisibilities but could also reproduce them, just as when data visualizations reproduce the assumptions inherent in the underlying data. Such visualizations, while ideally easy and intuitive to use, are furthermore very resource-intensive which is another reason why DH projects generally require higher budget volumes.
On the resources issue, Jana Keck advocated for active engagement – to not only use something but to contact responsible institutions and exchange ideas on how to alleviate problems that may exist due to underfunding; to not make assumptions but to ask questions and take it upon ourselves to fully engage with everything that the field has to offer. Tinghui Duan suggested that countries and research communities that have access to a lot of resources (such as Germany) might have to make the conscious decision to share their privileges and support countries, cultures, and languages that are less well-endowed.
In Julianne Nyhan’s view, the field of DH is a special site for inequality. Academia is about esteem and hierarchy and so is technology, as has been argued by Mar Hicks in Programming Inequality and cited by Nyhan. One particular issue of DH is the issue of decontextualization, of both sources and labour, which is why digital hermeneutics and source criticism are crucial in order to contexualize more and better. Computational and algorithmic interventions on historic archives could help re-focalize what has been hidden historically.
All panelists agreed that DH has a responsibility to address these issues, derived from their complicit role in them. Another aspect to this is the relationship of DH researchers with tech companies, something that can already be raised with the underresearched role of IBM in DH history (both in Busa’s work as well as in the origin of digital art history). It was suggested by Tessa Gengnagel that the open science movement is one of the answers of DH to this in terms of championing independent approaches towards software development and information accessibility even within the system of other dependencies.
The next question jumped ahead to the rather specific consideration of how the discussed issues can be addressed, for example, in the context of grant applications: The DFG Sachbeihilfe form includes a section on gender and diversity where researchers are asked to specify how their project relates to them, if at all. But what about sections on methods, goals, work programme, etc.?
Till Grallert took issue with the question or rather a line of questioning that is always looking for solutions before having discussed the problems properly. He also noted that individual responsibility, while important, should not be the focus of discussion since we are talking about systemic issues – therefore, the solution has to be systemic. This was a reminder that several panelists (as most in German academia below the professorship level) are subject to precarious employment and not in the position to have the impact asked of them (effecting change is usually expected of those most affected themselves). One larger initiative that was named in this part of the discussion was the NFDI, the German National Research Data Infrastructure initiative, in which the (digital) humanities are represented with four consortia. Whether and how these consortia could make a positive contribution, e.g. on the topic of data bias, remains to be seen. Raising awareness and drilling down on the specifics of the challenges would still appear to be the required step in the German discourse at the moment.
Questions from the audience tended to focus on the format of the panel itself. One big point of contention was the decision to host the panel in German and not in English (despite the original announcement which can still be found in the abstract as the abstract could not be amended anymore by the time the decision was taken to change this). Here it should be noted that the organizers of the panel were not aware that the German vs. English debate has been a long-standing issue in the DHd community, having been discussed in the general assembly as well as in a community forum before. To summarize only some of the arguments that were exchanged: Requiring the DHd conference to be held in German (unless substantive reasons are given for presenting a talk in English) excludes researchers in Germany who are not proficient in German. Tinghui Duan pointed out that the Anglophone monolingualism of the field is part of the problem, not the solution, however: While it may grant access to some degree, it also threatens the diversity of local expressions of thought, the need and willingness to learn other languages, and the legitimation of non-English scholarship (only those who write in English are widely read and cited and those who are native English speakers are at an advantage in that regard).
Tessa Gengnagel explained on behalf of the organizers that the decision to hold the panel in German after all was taken due to the fact that it would make the panel more accessible to native German speakers and the goal of the panel was to bring these discussions – which are already present in the Anglosphere – into the German DHd community specifically. As was also explained at the start of the panel in a brief English interlude, there was going to be a summary of the panel in English and the slides would be provided in English. Rather than furthering Anglophone monolingualism beyond that, it might be a better idea to support translation efforts, also (perhaps especially) where research literature is concerned. While this debate was one that evidently connects to previous discussions in the DHd community, it could be seen as exemplary for the type of issues that need to be addressed in multilingual environments. One person’s access is another person’s lack of access. Most people will discuss and understand something differently in their native language.
The next question returned to the issue of solutions: While the purpose of the panel has been to sensitize the audience for the problems presented, it is difficult for a single researcher to understand how this can be turned into actionable items – so what can we do, immediately, in our own work to improve on these aspects?
Sarah-Mai Dang agreed with Till Grallert that naming and examining problems is an important first step. The next is to ask what kind of agency we have in our individual positions. Something that can be changed very easily and immediately is thinking about how we credit contributions to our work and different roles of project members. Incorporating the awareness of the discussed issues into our work would already alleviate issues if everyone did it. We would also like to recall Jana Keck’s point here about the need for communication with others, informing oneself but also listening – this costs little except for time and doesn’t require extensive preparation. And similarly, we would like to recall Tinghui Duan’s point that sometimes, how we conceptualize our projects, how we allocate resources, who we cooperate with, can hold the answers to a specific issue that we may encounter. Additionally, Tinghui Duan had pointed out in an earlier part of the discussion that we mustn’t forget about the role of teaching and pedagogy – educating ourselves and educating others go hand in hand. Publication and output formats and the academic visibility and accreditation accorded to them are another area where the DHd community could enter into an exchange of ideas (and has already begun so, in some cases, such as with the Journal of Digital History with its multi-layered articles).
Towards the end of the discussion, an audience member commented on the importance of community-driven open-source approaches, once again emphasizing the agency that we have in choosing our own tools and levels of reflection.
The panel certainly revealed a need for discussion that must go far beyond what we attempted to add to the DHd agenda here. As a Working Group, we will continue our activities, some of which will be more focused on specific topics (e.g. recommendations for inclusive job advertisements in German DH as well as a mentoring programme for early career scholars), others on a general discussion of intersecting issues. At the DH2023 in Graz, 10–14 July 2023, we will be hosting another panel, this time with an international scope, organized by Sarah Lang and Luise Borek: “Exploring the Borderlands. A Revolutionary Potential for DH” with the panelists Quinn Dombrowski, Domenico Fiormonte, Daniele Metilli, Padmini Ray Murray, Dibyadyuti Roy, and Melissa Terras.
We very much look forward to the discussion and to continuing our work at the next DHd2024 as well. Anyone interested in joining our Working Group can do so by contacting one of the convenors (https://dig-hum.de/ag-empowerment). More general information can be found here: https://empowerdh.github.io/.
We want to thank everyone who participated in the panel and worked to make this happen, namely, in this case, from the Working Group: Tessa Gengnagel, Anja Gerber, Sarah Lang and Nora Probst. And, of course, the panelists: Sarah-Mai Dang, Tinghui Duan, Till Grallert, Jana Keck and Julianne Nyhan.
We are hopeful that this can be the start of a longer discussion and look forward to the debates.
 Cf. Fabio Ciotti, “What is the problem with the DH conference, really?” in: Blog dell’AIUCD (10 March 2023), https://infouma.hypotheses.org/1431.
 See https://www.go-fair.org/fair-principles/.
 See https://www.gida-global.org/care.
 See https://www.routledge.com/Hidden-and-Devalued-Feminized-Labour-in-the-Digital-Humanities-On-the-Index/Nyhan/p/book/9780367685980.
 Cf. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7715307.
 See https://www.romanticperiodpoetry.org/; cf. https://twitter.com/naudgnit/status/1511794387298263056.
 See https://data-feminism.mitpress.mit.edu/.
 See https://www.online.uni-marburg.de/women-film-pioneers-explorer/index.html and https://wfpp.columbia.edu/.
 See https://dhd2023.dig-hum.de/page/keynotes. This question also connects to a discussion that the DHd Working Group Theorie had hosted in January 2023, on the initiative of Torsten Roeder, querying not necessarily the ethics of DH but the ethos in the field, e.g. whether members of the community perceive their activities as part of an ethical mission, cf. https://dhtheorien.hypotheses.org/1306.
 See https://mitpress.mit.edu/9780262535182/programmed-inequality/.
 This ties into recent debates about #ichbinhanna/#ichbinreyhan and the proposals for a change of the #WissZeitVG. For statistics on the employment situation in German academia, see the example of Baden-Württemberg: https://www.statistik-bw.de/Presse/Pressemitteilungen/2023069.
 See https://www.nfdi.de/ and the consortia NFDI4Culture (https://nfdi4culture.de/), Text+ (https://www.text-plus.org/), NFDI4Objects (https://www.nfdi4objects.net/) and NFDI4Memory (https://4memory.de/).