Dhanashree Thorat on a Postcolonial Digital Humanities

Dhanashree Thorat and a Postcolonial Digital Humanities

Julian Chambliss

This conversation was originally published in Reframing Digital Humanities: Conversations with Digital Humanists ( 2021). The conversation is between Dr. Julian Chambliss and Dr. Dhanashree Thorat.

The Conversation

Chambliss: The first question I ask everyone is: how do you define Digital Humanities?

Thorat: Okay, the tricky question right off the bat. I guess a couple of different ways. I mean, when I taught my DH class last time, students didn’t know what DH was. I like to start with, I think it’s Kathleen Fitzpatrick who talks about the age of using digital tools to do humanities research, but also applying humanities frameworks to think about digital cultures, data, and so on. I find that to be a fairly capacious definition. It gives people some idea of what we are doing, especially if you give people examples, right? So, [in cases where, say, you] are studying Twitter data, you’re collecting Twitter data, [and] you’ve got your big data analytics, but then you’re asking humanities questions of Twitter data.

But in the other kinds of contexts—I work in India, or in Asian American studies, and postcolonial studies—I think we need a different kind of specificity because that’s a really broad definition. And what exactly does it mean in these other contexts, right? In India, for example, I’m thinking about issues of language. In what language do we do Digital Humanities when India has so many languages? How do we reckon with our history of colonialism, which really permeates everything we do with academia, with humanistic inquiry, with digital humanities? And how do we grapple with things like cost and class and gender in the context of this new field in a place like India? I think what’s really important for me is to not just think about that kind of broad definition, but to also think about the challenges or specific contexts, and what those contexts add to [what] we do. I will say right off the bat that I do define DH as very much [part] of the political field, very much of an activist field. And that this is not just about studying digital culture [and] doing humanities, but really about taking a stance and trying to transform some of the systems we see around us.

Chambliss: Right. I think [that’s] a really interesting answer because I think, and I will of course post links to your website and things, when people encounter your work, they often encounter it in a sort of intersectional narrative in the sense that a lot of your work is sort of dealing with postcolonial studies [and] really concerned with Asian American experience. And you’re thinking about infrastructure, right? You make an argument that you’re really thinking about how a kind of codification of hegemonic narratives happens. How does the world [and] what we think of as normal, how is that made? You’re really using digital humanities as a way to talk about that. And I think a lot of your work is really interesting in the sense that you get us to push beyond the surface right down to the core. How did you find your way to that kind of practice in the context of Digital Humanities? Because I think it makes a lot of sense if you recognize that your background is sort of like English. How did you get there?

Thorat: It feels a little bit like that Wikipedia rabbit hole, right? If you click on a Wikipedia article and then you see one [of] those links [and] you click on that, and then, you know, 10 clicks later, somehow you found yourself in a very random place. I do worry about this because I don’t quite know how I got here, but I think for me, the most important thing has always been to study race and to think about colonialism and race and capitalism as very interlinked systems, and how they have shaped the world that we have around us. And I think what was really exciting for me [was] to realize that the kind of training I had as an English Ph.D., whether that was, you know, close reading analyses [or] working with archives; to some extent, all of those skills transferred really well to thinking about digital. And so, I can in fact think about very different things. I can think about Twitter data, but I can also think about internet infrastructure using those same kinds analytical frameworks with that kind of attention to race and thinking about systemic oppression in these very different contexts.

Chambliss: This is a really important question because I think one of the things about digital humanities in the popular imagination and, at some level, as I mentioned to you, I think these conversations we’re having, that I’m having in the context of Reframing History aren’t necessarily going to be revelations for people who are practitioners, right? Like, there’s a whole cadre of people who do Digital Humanities, but my standard answer to people [is] why are you having these conversations? Like, you don’t have to go very far, you are involved in this group, right? But when you go a little bit away from the group, it becomes very not clear what is happening in terms of Digital Humanities. This is my argument. And you can experience this [on] differing levels.

I mean, you start thinking about the institutional support around these activities at different educational institutions, right? This idea that race and power and identity are wrapped up in the Digital Humanities at some level. I think [that’s] one of the things that’s emerged as the field has evolved and matured in a contemporary context. If you go back and look at early writing about Digital Humanities, [it] is not necessarily explicitly talking about how race is inflected. Although race is often at the center of it, right?

Like, one of the first digital humanity projects I ever saw was the Valley of the Shadows Project, right? The granddaddy was all about the Civil War and Ed Ayers and all these other things. And a lot of Ed Ayers’ work, I think, is being shaped by these questions of race that are sort of buried in the question of the American South. But you, in particular, your work is very much talking about how those racialized geographies are being recreated, I would argue, within this digital world. Like, you’re really sort of thinking about this relationship. And I think that’s really interesting because that is part of like a very ardent subset of DH practitioners that have increasingly talked about the dangers of inequality. And I’d really like you to talk a little bit about…some of the concerns you have in the context of this question around power and DH.

Thorat: I mean, this is really interesting because I will say I also came to this intersection of postcolonialism and DH through a project, which was very critical—the Postcolonial Digital Humanities Initiative that Roopika Risam and Adeline Koh started. I was a grad student at that time and encountering it really changed the way I was doing my work because I began to see there was a space to do this kind of intersection[al work]. But it’s really interesting because I do think there have been more people taking up this kind of work we’ve had #transformDH and some really amazing people working in ethnic studies and DH. I’m thinking about Jessica Marie Johnson’s work and really interesting provocative stuff.

But you know what was funny? I was looking at the Wikipedia page for Digital Humanities, the place that so many people go to, right? So, when you go to the references and bibliography on that page, most of the people cited on that page are white. And how do we get to that kind of situation despite all these conversations we’ve been having? I mean, every year, the DH conference continues to have a lot of recurring issues around power and about whether it (DH) is inclusive, and whether it is welcoming; whether people of color are getting into this conference. We still have a lot of these recurring questions, I think, around DH centers, DH initiatives, and I don’t think they’ve gone away.

Chambliss: Right, yeah. And I think it’s one of the things that’s interesting… It’s funny, you should mention Wikipedia because one of the projects I always talk to students about when I teach things that are digitally inflected [is] about the Rewrite Wikipedia project. And [I] talk about some of the issues that are structurally hidden. [I] talk about [how] the average editor of Wikipedia is a white male, age 30, who lives in the West. And then there’s all this activism by groups to Rewrite Wikipedia, be it wiki edit-a-thon around women or [a] wiki edit-a-thon around the global south or African Americans, things like this. So much so it’s almost I think like a canonical cottage industry around rewriting Wikipedia, right? I don’t mean that in a bad way, but you know, if you normalize the fact that it’s kinda racist and so this is a way for you to fix it, did you really? Yeah, it’s good that you’re fixing it, but…

Thorat: Can it be fixed? I think that’s the question. Can you actually fix it?

Chambliss: It is growing every day, right? It’s not like it’s frozen in time and you come through and [fixing] it. And no one’s ever going to make a change. It is literally growing every day. Are there enough people there? Are there enough hands concerned with this liberatory narrative to balance out the hands that don’t care about the liberatory narrative? I’m not saying you should not have wiki edit-a-thon, but it goes to this question; especially since you do have a choice about what you consume. And you’ve not ever confronted these questions [even though] we are in academia every day? There are some things that only happen in academia. And I say that to my colleagues all the time. They ask me what do you mean by that?

I’m like, “I guarantee you no one ever is concerned about the number of X that are hired in a given day in 95% of all organizational structures.” They never talk about it. It doesn’t work. They talk about [it], but their goal is to make money nine times out of 10. And if that is happening, they will ignore any number of things, whereas we won’t stop and go wait a minute, right? And so, this is a really important question. But I want to think about this and then [the] context [of] some of your other work, because I think one of the other ways you define yourself is [by], at least in my mind, the effort you made in terms of actively organizing structures linked to teaching and learning in DH.

And what does that mean in terms of the future digital humanities? Like, how has that process been for you as a very young academic, right? Like, an early career academic. This is another one of these hidden questions around academia, especially, again, you get a little inside baseball, but there’s a difference between your role as a teacher and a scholar at the kind of R1 institutions that we’re at versus my old institution, which was literally characterized as a teaching institution. So, how has that whole pathway mattered in terms of your approach to DH and [how has] that been beneficial to you as a practitioner, as a theorist, as a scholar?

Thorat: I would say it has been very beneficial, that it has been very productive to be involved in what would probably be called “service work,” organizing events, leading workshops. And it is tricky because I feel like I still look at my CV and I have a much longer list of service work than I do publications. Then that’s a challenge as I move into a tenure track position, but I do need to check off those traditional boxes of work. But, for me, it’s been really important to be involved with a DH center in India. In Pune, they’re doing a DH winter school every other year. And do we also be involved in the US with THATCamp Florida, which we did for quite some time together and THATCamp Gainesville, as well.

I think what was really important for me, especially in India, was to think with people there and to see the kind of DH emerging and [how] people there were defining [it] for themselves. I didn’t want this to be a kind of less important “cool new thing” that’s happening in the West, but really [more about] how people are interested in shaping that field in India. Given the kind of work I do, which is postcolonial [and therefore] does have a connection to India. I do think having that connection is really important. For me, that was also about ethical collaboration, about giving back to a community that has sustained me. And it ended up being very enriching for my work because I had new ideas talking to people, sharing ideas with people, brainstorming specificities of work. I think, on the one hand, those kinds of events were really useful and productive and enriching.

But the teaching, I think, is the other piece that I’ve really enjoyed; [like] bringing digital methods into the classroom, and we do actually do Wikipedia edit-a-thon in my class. [In] my class last term, [we] edited Edwidge Danticat’s Wikipedia page. We added sections of her novel and added themes from her novel to one of the pages. And it’s been really fun to do that with students because  students begin to think about these technologies that surround them. And how can you actually change these technologies? How can you change these platforms so you’re not just consuming them?

Having that kind of opportunity to transform systems is really important for students, and to connect that to local community [by] thinking locally about what’s going on around that. For example, this term, I’ll be teaching in Mississippi and we are going to be working with Fannie Lou Hamer speeches. And she was a Mississippian, a local civil rights activist. Thinking about somebody like that, and then thinking about that in the context of DH [for] students who are very local, I think is very, very important. I’m not sure all of this work will count for tenure at the end of the day, but I think this is something I value. I intend to keep doing it.

Chambliss: It’s funny you should say that. I mean, I had a conversation like that in my job. They asked me [if I] was I still going to keep doing the digital stuff? I said “Yes, and it’s always going to be about Black people, too!” It’s really interesting to think a little bit about this question of does it count, right? Because this is also one of these classic DH questions: is the thing you’re doing counting? But it’s interesting because we usually couch that in terms of, “is the project you created gonna count towards something,” right? As opposed to [when] you’re actually teaching about the infrastructure of the universe that we live in, does that count?

Thorat: Yeah. The question of impact is so interesting, right, because how do we measure impact? Like, who is it impacting? If this is really about educators, if we are teaching our students to think through certain systems, that is an impact, right? If you are reaching community members who were enabled to do their own work, that is its own impact.

Chambliss: That should be enough, right? Like that should be good, right? And this gets me to another question, because I think one of the things that’s really interesting about talking to you is that your work is less defined by tools and more defined, at some level, by trying to understand the nature of technoculture. And that question really becomes a question of, at least I want to ask you: are we asking the right questions when we’re talking about DH, right? From your perspective, as someone who’s thinking about this, you’re stepping back and going like, “This is the nature of the world that we live in,” are we having the right set of conversations? Are we asking the right questions when we think about DH?

Thorat: I mean, I’m probably going to be totally biased when I say this, but I foreground identity and power when we talk about DH and, for me, that is the most important thing. All questions begin there. And I think a lot of people will probably disagree with that. And I think that’s fine. Some people may have other things they want to do, but I do think thinking about how power and how gender and other systems of power intersect with our work is really crucial for me. Questions either begin there, or in some ways those become important analogies [and] questions, regardless of the kind of work we do.

Chambliss: And I think that that’s not an unreasonable answer.

Thorat: We might both be biased here.

Chambliss: Well, I think it’s definitely a question [of] how do we approach the question of what DH is. Obviously, I always tell students [that it] doesn’t matter what tool you use, which is a horrible thing to say if you’re a certain kind of practitioner, right? Like, I don’t care, tools are not the most important thing here. The most important thing is the idea, right? The simplest tool is the best is my first answer, right? So, these questions about power, I think, are increasingly becoming definitional; not because of anything that you and I might think, but because [it’s] one of the things that happens as a field matures. And I think we’re getting to a place where we’re in these questions of what are we doing when we do DH, I’m being more and more inflected by the goal of the kind of work that’s being produced in this field.

I often talk about the stuff I do as a project of recovery, [like, that] very particular way of thinking about it because, you know, it’s not that we don’t know what happened. We’re trying to recover a fuller picture of what’s happening to African Americans. And I think the same could be said for a lot of people who are dealing with minority groups or marginalized groups and doing digital projects or trying to recover some sort of sense of depth and nuance and complexity to their experience. Other people may not necessarily be [doing] so, but I do think that’s one of the things that may unify some of this work—that’s much more inflected by questions of ethnic studies or Black studies or social history questions, and things like that. But that does mean that there are questions about the path forward, right? And so, for you, as a practitioner and as a person thinking about these things from a structural standpoint, what do you see as big obstacles for you and what are a big opportunities as you project forward in terms of your work?

Thorat: I mean, I think in terms of challenges, funding is always a question. Getting funded for the kind of work we want to do, which is often very critical. And [it] can seem threatening to white institutions or to white supremacy. How do you get funding for that kind of work without compromising the kind of work you want [to do]? I think that is always an issue for me. But I think a lot of the really interesting opportunities that I see—and I think it’s okay if I’m not part of this because I think sometimes you do kind of have to step back and let other people do the work they want to do—but seeing the way DH is developing in other contexts, for example, in India, where I am involved. But again, I have to kind of step back because I am located in the US and seeing those kinds of developments in India and even seeing questions adjacent to DH being asked outside of academic institutions.

NGOs, for example, [are] doing work around feminism or issues of sexuality in digital culture. We have a number of these kinds of activist NGOs in India that are doing very interesting work but obviously don’t claim DH as their operating field. So, I think there’s a lot of fascinating, important work that’s also happening adjacent to academia that we may not be involved in. But I think that is totally fine. Seeing those kinds of conversations has been very exciting and I do think we will be seeing more of those in the future.

And then, just personally speaking, what’s exciting is to see where students take this work. As a postdoc at KU (University of Kansas) I’ve worked with HASTAC scholars and seen folks come into DH in their first year of their masters. Then, two years later, they are doing this amazing work in very different areas. And that to me is really important. How do we enable that new generation of scholars and really bring in that vein of critical DH very early on? They are thinking in that kind of approach going forward. For me, [it] is really important to see where students will take that [and make] more [of what] you want to see out there.

Chambliss: Yeah. You know, I think it will be interesting because the next generation of students are going to be much more tech savvy. I think one of the things that’s interesting is the question about tools, especially for people in graduate school. Maybe one of the limitations—if they’re in a good program—they’re going to pick up some technical skills and be able to do something. Cause I don’t think necessarily that you’re going to be able to continue to be in DH, projecting forward and just simply doing something using a digital tool. There is going to be a question about you [did] that was different. What did you do that was paradigm shifting? And so, there’s going to be a push, I think, for people that have the skills to do something in terms of explanatory or interpreting a new space that is clearly pushing the boundaries. That has its dangers because you’re going to have to be at a place that has resources to provide you the tools.

Thorat: You can’t do it without resources.

Chambliss: You can’t do it. You know, I always talk about the Death Star Problem. When you build the Death Star, you blow up planets, but you got to get the Death Star to blow up planets and that costs money. It’s always about money, the dirty little secret [of] DH.

Thorat: You’re right. And, I mean, I’m not sure, but I do look around and I wonder. I mean, are PhD programs training grad students in digital methodology? Then, I’m not sure of the answer is “yes.” I think there’s a lot more of us who are interested in training grad students, but I’m not sure it is common.

Chambliss: I think that’s true. I mean, I think that’s actually been one of the things we’re really interested in about my new position, right? Like, MSU has a really robust digital community and finding the pathway as a graduate student, I think, [is] complicated. You can do it, but I don’t think it’s as simple as you might think it might be from the outside looking in. I think that’s a good place to stop. “It’s more complicated than you might think” is the answer.

Thorat: It’s always the answer, right?

Chambliss: Yeah. It’s always [the] answer. I want to thank you again for taking the time to talk to me. If people want to find you online, they can find you at…

Thorat: They [can] find my website, dhanashreethorat.com. They can find me on Twitter. They can find me at a lot of places. I guess that’s what it means to be a DH person.

Chambliss: That’s true. You gotta [have] a fierce DH profile. This will be a highly downloaded episode.

Thorat: I will keep my fingers crossed. I will look for my emails in my mailbox.

 Chambliss: All right. Well, thank you.


Dr. Dhanashree Thorat is an Assistant Professor of English at Mississippi State University. She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Florida in 2017. While at the University of Florida (UF), she served as co-convenor of the Digital Humanities Working Group and was lead coordinator for the first THATCamp Gainesville. She was also part of the committee that developed the Digital Humanities Graduate Certificate at UF. She has organized and led DH workshops on various topics including digital archiving, feminist digital humanities, and digital pedagogies. Thorat is a founding Executive Council member of the Center for Digital Humanities in Pune, India. She serves as the lead organizer for a biennial winter school on Digital Humanities and advises the center on digital archival projects and DH curriculum development. She has written about her experiences with building DH networks in the Global South as a HASTAC Scholar (2015-2016) and as a postdoctoral researcher in Digital Humanities at the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities, at the University of Kansas from 2017-2019. In our conversation, we discussed her vision for postcolonial digital humanities praxis.


Postcolonial Digital Humanities, Critical Race, Gender, and Pedagogy


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Dhanashree Thorat on a Postcolonial Digital Humanities Copyright © 2022 by Julian Chambliss is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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