Consortium for Critical Diversity in a Digital Age Research (CEDAR) and a Community-Centric Digital Humanities

The perfect way to wrap up these reflections on Digital Humanities is with a conversation among members of The Consortium for Critical Diversity in a Digital Age Research (CEDAR). The members of CEDAR include the following people. Kristin Arola, Associate Professor in the department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures (WRAC); Kristin’s work focuses on the intersections between American Indian rhetoric, multimodal pedagogy, and digital rhetoric. Christina Boyles, Assistant Professor of Culturally Engaged Digital Humanities in the department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures (WRAC); Christina’s work explores the relationship between disaster, social justice, and the environment. Julian Chambliss, Professor in the department of English; Julian’s work focuses on real and imagined urban spaces with an emphasis on race, power, and community. Sharon Leon, Associate Professor in the Department of History; Sharon’s research focuses on American religion with a concentration on US Catholicism and in digital methods with a focus on public history. Since 2018, the core faculty have been on the Michigan State University campus working on the vision for CEDAR. The vision statement says, in part, CEDAR is “critically and culturally engaged” and dedicated to “communities and publics.” Those words define the work we pursue individually and provide a common grounding for what CEDAR might accomplish.


Diversity, Digital Humanities, Community, Race, Culture, Data, Teaching, Praxis

The Conversation

CHAMBLISS: We’re here with my colleagues from CEDAR, which stands for the Consortium for Critical Diversity in a Digital Age Research, which is a new initiative at MSU and it’s also the reason I personally came to MSU. I thought it’d be great in the context of this episode of Reframing History to talk to them because, of course, the theme for this season is: was what about Digital Humanities? I can’t really do that without talking to my colleagues, who I think of as people who are deeply engaged with Digital Humanities. We’re going to do a round-robin, introduce ourselves, and we’re going to start with Sharon, who you’ve heard before on the podcast, but [who is] coming back in a different iteration as part of the team of CEDAR.

LEON: There we go. Well, happy to be here with Julian again today. I’m Sharon Leon, and I’m in the history department here at MSU, but I’m also a core faculty member in CEDAR.

CHAMBLISS: Right. Christina?

BOYLES: Hi, I’m Christina Boyles. I’m an Assistant Professor of Culturally Engaged Digital Humanities. I think that title is super cool, so I like to share it. I’m in the Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures department at MSU.

AROLA: I’m Kristin Arola. I am also in the Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures department at MSU. I’m also affiliate faculty in the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program, as well as Digital Humanities.

CHAMBLISS: Right. Of course, I feel like I have to say it. I’m Julian Chambliss, your host, and also core faculty in DH and a member of CEDAR. As always, I ask people: how did you get here? In this context, how did you become a member of CEDAR? I always use [a] comic book analogy, so I always think about CEDAR as the X-Men, but that’s just me. How did you guys make your way to MSU to become a part of the consortium? Let’s start with Kristin. 

AROLA: Yeah, I ended up at Michigan State after being at Washington State University for 11 years, where I directed an undergrad program on digital technology and culture. [It] aligned really neatly with my research interests, which are in American Indian studies and digital rhetoric, more specifically. Putting those things side by side, [I look] at the ways Indigenous communities engage with visual technologies and what we can learn about our own teaching by looking at Indigenous making practices. With that experience behind me, coming to MSU I was actually a CEDAR hire, so I was hired to work with this group. But I think as other folks in the group will say, as we’ve merged and coming together and talked about our shared interest and overlaps, I think we are also figuring out first what CEDAR can be, and second, what our role in it is. I guess I came to be here through my interests, but also probably, in large part, which connects to my interests, would be that I am always interested in humans first and digital technology second. I have a very human-centered approach to digital work. 

CHAMBLISS: Christina, how did you make your way? 

BOYLES: Yeah, I think I want to say a lot of things similar to Kristin. Before coming to Michigan State, I was running a digital community center at Trinity college, which is a small private liberal arts school in Connecticut. I had seen just a handful of jobs that seemed [up my alley], so I did a very small run of the market in Digital Humanities in particular. I was really drawn to MSU’s ad because it did put humans first. It was looking for someone who worked with community organizations, who was interested in cultural issues, and really [in] the ways identity intersects with digital technology. All of the other interviews I went on, especially given my background being from literature, most of those other jobs were focused on things like text analysis, and they wanted to know did I know R. And while I have some experience in those areas, those are not the things that excite me about digital communities, although I do see value in them. I was really drawn towards CEDAR and this particular position because it really framed our relationships with digital tools as being human-centered and human-sourced. 

CHAMBLISS: And, of course, Sharon? 

LEON: Yeah, I also was a CEDAR hire and the way the hires for CEDAR were structured, they were looking for some kind of elder states people in the field of DH and some newer folks to the field. I fall into the old folks category to some degree. I had spent 13 or 14 years at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, where I had been the founding director of the Division of Public projects, which was really focused on doing broad linkage digital public work. I came with that as the base of my connection to the proposed CEDAR mission, wanting to build infrastructure that made it possible for a larger group of people to get engaged with digital public history and those kinds of things.

But, in addition to doing that work, I was in the early stages of a project I’m a little bit further along on now about the history of enslavement, really focusing particularly on the lives and experiences of enslaved people in a particular location and trying to represent them in an ethical way in a digital space. I guess the connection is both at the broad range about building useful technologies for doing this work that is critical about the ways a broad group of people engage in a digital space, but also in some very specific research goals. 

CHAMBLISS: I guess I should say that I, too, was a CEDAR hire in the English Department. I still don’t know exactly how they found me, but I was asked to apply. Of course, I research comics. I’m a historian in an English department, which isn’t weird at all. I thought this was a great opportunity. I freely admit I was really intrigued by the idea of CEDAR as an entity, as it was described in my interview process, because I did a lot of community-based work. My old job, was [at] a teaching intensive institution, but we did a lot with the community. A lot of my classes were in the community and [we did] all the digital things. The only reason I really started to do it was because I wanted to work with the community—in particular communities of color—around questions of erasure and community narratives, and helping to give voice to community concerns.

At some level, the whole idea of CEDAR, at least as it was explained to me, made a lot of sense to me. Of course, making the move to a place like Michigan coming from Florida was…yeah. This is something I want to try to do, want to explore. I think the idea represented by CEDAR was really intriguing, but that doesn’t really get us into a place where we get to talk a little bit about what CEDAR is. It’s important for people listening to the podcast [to know] we are all in different departments, which means we’re tenured in different departments. I think it’s fair to describe CEDAR [as] a dean’s initiative, meaning the Dean’s office—at least in the context of the English department as was explained to me—really is working with the departments.

You say [when] you want to hire, “I really want this program called CEDAR, and I’ll give you a line if you’ll hire someone in terms of CEDAR.” Initially, when I first learned about the position, CEDAR was supposed to be six people in the original definition. It’s no longer going to be six people. The four people you’re listening to are going to be the only people in CEDAR. When we came in, we had to go through a process of figuring out what CEDAR is, right? We’ve been going through a series of conversations about that since we’ve arrived.

I want to ask each member of the group to think about what that process meant to you as you envisioned the possibility of CEDAR and how does that relate to both the work you’re doing, [like] visual work, and the possibility of collective work represented by CEDAR as we define it (a research collaborative within the broader MSU landscape). Let’s start with Christina because Christina recently was on the Liberal Arts Endeavor podcast, which I listened to [and] she did a great job. Those were great. She talked a little about CEDAR in that interview. That was a really good answer, so you can start and then we’ll jump in. 

BOYLES: Well, I think one of the most important things for me, given that I’m the most junior member of this group, is I see CEDAR being vital to me as a cohort of people who understand the kind of work I do—who share the same kinds of values and who are interested in the same kind of things. As I mentioned before, my background is in literature, but I’m in a writing and rhetoric department. So, while many of those two fields’ interests do overlap and are shared, there are some areas where I feel less knowledgeable. So, I feel like I’m able to call on members of CEDAR. I’ve looked at Sharon for advice on oral history and grant writing and Kristin on how to translate the kinds of work I do into writing and rhetoric more clearly. I’ve talked to Julian about all his work, being [in] a great community, working with community organizations, and being a leader in the field. So, I see this group as a great source of mentorship and support, in addition to a group that can help move the mission of community-engaged research forward in Michigan and at MSU. 

CHAMBLISS: Sharon, I know you talked a little bit about the work you’re doing and your ongoing project, but you also have—as listeners to the earlier episode of the podcast will know—a really strong relationship in terms of the digital infrastructure and working with public humanities. I think for you, CEDAR is perhaps both an opportunity that’s different but, at some level, maybe it resonates with other things. Can you talk a little bit about how you see CEDAR and that landscape of possibility? 

LEON: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think you’re right about that. I think lots of the values we’ve come to put at the center of the way we talk about CEDAR really do echo the kinds of things that have arisen both out of the community that’s developed around the open source software project that I run, Omeka, but also the values at the heart of public history practice. [Those values are] so deeply built around a commitment to shared authority and co-creation, as well as a deeper practice. That’s not necessarily, nine times out of 10, the kinds of things most historians will tell you about their work, so there’s something different there in community-engaged history with digital means attached to it that is, at its heart, interdisciplinary in a way that CEDAR is also interdisciplinary but focused [on] those core values.

You may not think about like…well, software development is this culture of broey guys who are hacking things together and things like that, but I would say really successful open source software development is about focusing on those values as well. Because the creation of a generalized software that lots of people can successfully use really means that we have to have a vibrant conversation about what the needs of the user community are and what the needs of the developer community are, and how we can all work together to do those sorts of things. There’s a nice layering of these continuing conversations in lots of areas of my life. I really enjoyed seeing CEDAR grow out in those similar directions. 

CHAMBLISS: Kristin, I know that you talked about how you got here. You talked specifically about being interested in the human. When you think about CEDAR and your interest in the human, how are they aligning? How is the pathway that we’re on fitting into that?

AROLA: [I’m going to] try not to make this too long. I never really considered myself a digital humanities person. I considered myself a computers and writing person. Which, if you come from Digital Humanities, might not mean much to you. If you come from computers and writing, you’d be like, “Yeah!” That was my fists up there. But the point being that I come [from] and was trained by my PhD— Cynthia Selfe in particular…she started the Journal of Computers of Composition—was really interested in the ways word processing at the time was changing the face of teaching and of writing pedagogy, in particular. But she was always very interested in…when I say human first, she was very interested in not so much what’s the new cool zoomy thing that technology can do for us. It was more [like] “What are the communities around us and the people with which we engage, what are they looking for? What might they need and how is technology interfacing with those people in particular ways for the particular context we’re in?”

I guess when I think about that lineage and my own work in this group, and then particularly my work with American Indian communities and epistemologies, I’m hesitant when I say human-centered and I’m only saying human-centered insofar as I want it to mean not tech-centered. [That’s] what I mean when I say that, right? I don’t want it to be tech-centered, or I want it to be more in this relational model of…when I ask a question about how people work, what people need, the ethics of a situation, whatever, I want to look at the humans in the situation, the land they’re on, the politics in that situation. The technology is part of that too, right? All those things in constellation and relation to each other and the ways they pivot and circulate and constellate with each other. But when I say human-centered focus, especially when I’m thinking about CEDAR, I really just say “human-centered” insofar as I don’t…and I don’t think any of us, and myself in particular, are focused on the tools solely without all those other things that constellate around it.

CHAMBLISS: Yeah. I mean, I think for myself, I do think of CEDAR as a community-centric exercise. I’m like Kristin, at some level. At some point, someone just said to me, “You’re our DH person because you’re at school and no one else is doing it.” That old saying, “In a room full of blind people, a one-eyed man…” It’s that kind of thing. Then you start to think about, at least from my own perspective, I started thinking about, “Well, what does that actually mean given my focus on community?” Because, if forced, I always say like, “Yeah, I do Black DH. I’m working on Black community around [a] very particular set of things.” There are very particular kinds of people I’m trying to emulate and trying to understand what they’re doing. The goals are not necessarily academic goals. It’s like, “Did the community enjoy what I did? Did they get some value out of it?” It did not matter [to] my own job because I would get tenure on other things. I literally would just be like, “Is everybody okay with what we did?” And [it] really inspired my praxis that was informed by our conversations because, after a while, when you work with a group, their needs become clear and you can follow up on them, right? Even if they don’t necessarily say, “We want you to do this,” if you work closely enough with them that they want X at some level, then you can check in. I always thought that CEDAR was supposed to be down at some very basic level, but at the same time, we are a collective.

For a lot of people who might know about Michigan State University, I sometimes joke, but it’s not really a joke. It’s like the Mecca of digital things. There are a lot of digital things we can associate with MSU. Some of those things are, in digital terms, I don’t mean this in a bad way, ancient. Like H-Net, Matrix, these things are old. In digital terms, they’re super old. They’re very important, but they’re super old. They have a lot of cultural currency; so, as a group, we’re coming in and, at some level, having these conversations about what CEDAR is as a group and it fits into the infrastructure of DH. That really, I think, has been one of the most interesting and rewarding conversations for me as we talk about what could CEDAR do. What could CEDAR do? Is it going to be a CEDAR thing or is it going to be—to continue with my X-Men analogy—we’re all off on our individual adventures and only come together when there’s trouble. That really opens up the question of this evolution, and it’s important to recognize as a new initiative we’ve had really just this one year [to] all be here together because we were hired [from] rival campuses at different times.

We’ve gone through a process of stabilizing, getting to know each other, meeting, writing bylaws, and this bigger question of what could CEDAR be given our values. Because, I think we share a lot of the same values. It’s something we’re still talking about. There’s no right answer or wrong answer to this next question: how do we forecast CEDAR moving forward, or what do we hope for? But I think it’d be really interesting to think about what CEDAR as an entity, as a research collaborative. [In that way, what] might [it] possibly do for us as individual members of the collaborative, but also as a collaborative act? What is CEDAR going to take on for itself? I want to throw that question out to Sharon first and then we’ll go around and talk about that, too. What could CEDAR be in that context? 

LEON: You had to start with me because, just like everybody else in the conversation at the moment, I’m still trying to figure that out. One way to go about this is for us to decide we want to undertake some shared ventures. I think the ways we could undertake those shared ventures might be about trying to identify people who share our values, who might need some support and scaffolding and infrastructure to do similar kinds of work that the rest of us have undertaken in a variety of places throughout our careers. All of us have had winding careers in lots of little pockets here and there, and [we’ve] done a lot of different things. But I think together, the four of us could think about the ways we could try to provide some of that metacognitive stuff for other people in the field. Digital Humanities is so often a field, and I’m fully in sync with this—doing things we often don’t get the excuse to really step back and articulate the values around the choices we make and those sorts of things. Or how to articulate frameworks that let people carry those values forward. I think that that could be one of the really valuable things we could do together. 

CHAMBLISS: Kristin, I know you’ve been really key in helping us organize. I really appreciate the work you’ve done and like, “Yeah, we need to work on this.” You know our mission statement. I know you know it by heart. That’s a joke. She doesn’t know it by heart. 

AROLA: I sure do, Julian. 

CHAMBLISS: I’m making that up. She doesn’t know it by heart. 

AROLA: I do happen to have it in front of me, though. 

CHAMBLISS: We all worked on this collectively, but [it’s] the jumping off point for you to [perhaps] voice your own views on what CEDAR could be. 

AROLA: Yeah, it was kind of fun to go back to this because we spent a lot of time in conference rooms together with this Google Doc open trying to figure out, “Okay, what is our mission, what is our vision, and what are our goals? What are we trying to do with this?” I like where we ended up, it was nice to go back and look at it, quite frankly. We talk in this [document] about being a catalyst for MSU human-centered digital scholarship and public engagement, specifically anything that’s working to promote a diverse future. We talked about being critically and culturally engaged, and then we have these three major goals—reclaiming, preserving and interconnecting—which I think are pretty cool goals if we can make that work. I’ve [been] thinking about riffing off what Sharon just said. I really like that notion of having a space where we get to take the time to think about why it is we’re building the infrastructures and [why we] want to do the things we’re doing in the first place, right? Or some slow infrastructure building that’s mindful and considering all those constellations, I guess, that’s around the things people actually might want to do and want to achieve. I think the four of us together are pretty good at doing that work. A lot of, “Wait, why? Wait, why? Wait, how? Okay. That’s cool.” It’s not that we’re naysayers. It’s just that I think we’re all pretty mindful of like, “Okay, that sounds awesome, so if you want to do that, who’s community is that impacting? What are the levels of access and infrastructure and human labor and all the things [like] histories that come with the choices that you’re making?” And [CEDAR] provides a space to have those conversations. I think [that] is pretty cool.

Also, to provide a space at MSU [for it]… Slowly, I think we’ve been having…[well], Gordon Henry and English has come to us now a couple times for a few things and he works in American Indian studies specifically. But he came to us looking to hook up with the National Archives Strategic Planning grant on this call’s project they’re doing. It’s the Center for Anishinaabe Language, Literature, and Storytelling, and that’s just getting started. There was going to be a summer retreat, so we’ll see what happens with that. But the fact we can be a place where someone could come to say, “Hey, we want to do this Anishinaabe language and storytelling thing. We need a digital component to it. How can we have that conversation together?,” [is amazing]. For the four of us to talk that through and think about it, I think is pretty cool and pretty exciting moving forward. 

CHAMBLISS: Christina, I know the work you’re doing in Puerto Rico and the research you’re doing into equity in DH is really important. Does that factor into the vision you have for CEDAR in a particular way? Is it an amplification of that work? A clarification in some ways, or are there spaces you want to really cultivate in terms of your work and how CEDAR can be a part of that? Talk a little bit about your vision for what CEDAR could be. 

BOYLES: Yeah, I think in many ways the work I’m doing in Puerto Rico has been informed a lot by the conversations we’ve had as a group [like] talking about ethical strategies for building digital infrastructure and working with groups. I’m working on a project called the Maria Memory Bank, which collects stories of Puerto Ricans’ experiences during and after Hurricane Maria and is now going to be expanding to include stories of the Guinea earthquakes, which occurred on the South half of the main island, and of COVID-19. That project tries to work with community organizations on the ground that were able to enact disaster response strategies quickly and effectively. It works with them to document and preserve the kind of materials they created, so that could be [the] strategies and pamphlets they handed out to community members or that were within that organization itself for guiding principles, as well as hearing oral stories from members of those groups about their experiences.

One of the greatest things I’ve learned through working with that project is that infrastructure is often the question we come to last when we work on a digital project, but really should be the one we focus on first. So, I’ve spent a couple years working with groups and we’re constantly reestablishing terms of consent [and] terms of engagement because it’s an open dialogue with horizontal collaborators. We all see each other as equally valuable to weave in [and move] the project forward. To me, those are the exact kinds of conversations we are having with CEDAR and the kind of value we can bring to MSU.

I know this past fall some of us on this team were able to go to the University of Alabama and do what we were calling a CEDAR clinic, so this was kind of a hands-on moment to enact these values. We talked about, particularly in that instance, the use of Omeka S and the ways in which you can enact some of the values we’ve been talking about through the use of that tool. But I could see a growth [to] that. We could talk about different topics or different tools we’re using and the ways we think about the ethics behind those decisions first. That could then inform community groups or other digital humanists in a variety of connected fields on the choices they’re making as they start to build these kinds of projects.

CHAMBLISS: Well, I think this idea of consulting and really, just from personal experience, having [the] opportunity to talk with people about the work, especially digital work. We talk a lot about how much we love it [and] we struggle with how we actually support it. I think DH is probably really one of the worst elements of that because it’s neither here nor there. It sits as a very public entity that can be attached to a person or institution, so it has a weird kind of traction for administrators. I mean, I have a lot of stories about conversations with people in charge about DH and they’re always good at some level because they care. But the reason they care has a lot to do with public persona, which is attached to a very big question about the value of education and almost always gets you involved in discussions about the decline of the humanities or our neoliberal influence in terms of the academy. At some level, those conversations about what matters in terms of education—what matters in terms of higher ed and its impact on society—they’re impossible to get away from, I think. They’re just impossible to get away from.

So, to me, yeah, it’s really interesting we have an opportunity to think about that and the name they came up with kind of suggests stuff to me. I’ve always felt [that, for] The Critical Diversity in a Digital Age Research, “Well, you’re asking us to ask questions basically.” I think that’s probably going to continue to be a focus. We’ll see how that goes over overtime. We’re all living in the current pandemic world so there’s a huge question for us, [too]. As a group, it really is this podcast. Probably by the time this gets out, we’ll be deep into the summer and hopefully you and your family and all your friends and your institutions and your communities stabilize and we’re in a post-Covid world. I’m not going to say go back to normal because I just don’t believe in that at this point but, for us, this question of the future is going to be caught up in broader institutional discussions.

Some of the things we want to do—some of the things we can do—are going to be attached to our institution how it is, as it’s going to be for many, many, many academics across the country and around the world. But this was a great opportunity for us as a group. We talked a little bit about CEDAR and, again, to think about when [we] talk about the Digital Humanities, what do we mean? Well, for our group, it means a lot, as you heard. [It means] engaging with the community, thinking about the consequences of technology, thinking about culture in a very particular way. I’m happy my colleagues were willing to take the time to talk a little about themselves, talk about the work as a group, and hopefully you’ll be able to hear more about us and find out more about our stuff as we move forward. We don’t actually have a website. Usually I ask people, “Oh, if they want to follow up with your work, where do they go?” CEDAR technically doesn’t have a website right now, right? 

LEON: Not yet. 

CHAMBLISS: You don’t keep your eyes out. Google MSU and CEDAR. We do stuff. 

AROLA:  We don’t have a website because we’re not technology first. 

CHAMBLISS: Boom. Drop the mic, walk away. That was a great answer. We’re going to end on that answer because that was so awesome. It was so rock hard. It was awesome. Thanks for talking to me, guys.

AROLA: Thank you, Julian. Bye. 

LEON: Thank you, Julian. 

BOYLES: Thank you.



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