Maryemma Graham and the Black Imagination

I first met Dr. Maryemma Graham during a digital humanities presentation I gave at the Zora Neale Hurston Festival. Learning about the History of Black Writing Project at the University of Kansas, I was intrigued because Graham and her project have been quietly doing their work for decades. Graham is a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of English at the University of Kansas. The author of 10 books and numerous articles, Dr. Graham is an accomplished scholar who turned to using digital methods before we fully embraced the narrative of Digital Humanities we have today. In 1983, she founded the Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW). HBW seeks to recover literary works in Black Studies, promote innovative scholarship linked to book history and digital humanities, professional and curriculum development, and public literacy. The project started at the University of Mississippi in 1983 and moved to the University of Kansas in 1999. In our conversation, she recounts the origins of this project and the potential impact on our understanding of the black literary legacy in the United States.


Frank Yerby, Zora Neale Hurston, African-American Literature, African-American Materials Project, Black Women Writers, African-American Novels Project (AANP), Black Periodical Fiction Project

The Conversation

Chambliss: Thank you for joining me, Dr. Graham.

Graham: Thank you for the invitation.

Chambliss: So, for those of you who are joining us for this episode of Reframing History. I’m here with Dr. Maryemma Graham, who is a distinguished professor at the University of Kansas in the Department of English. And I’m really happy to talk with her in part because I’m really—for this season of Reframing History—really intrigued with the great variety of these humanities projects happening out there in the world and recognize that there are so many things happening that are slipping through the cracks, at least my own cracks. In fact, I had this whole conversation with a colleague recently about the rich variety of projects that are happening. Dr. Graham’s project is a prime example of this. [It’s] a really important project and I’m really happy that you have the time to talk to me about it today. And the project I’m talking about here is the History of Black Writing, which is a digital humanities project that’s actually been going on for, I’m not exaggerating here, decades.

Graham: Yeah, 35 years and pushing.

Chambliss: 35 years and pushing.

Graham: Not giving you my age, yes.

Chambliss: Right, yeah. I’m sure you started when you were 12.

Graham: Absolutely.

Chambliss: And you’re an accomplished scholar, author of several books and articles including The Cambridge History of African-American Literature and The Cambridge Companion to the African-American Novel. You’ve done great work on Margaret Walker, but you’ve been the founder and director of this project for the entirety of its 35 years. So, how did you come to this project? How did this sort of emerge as a field of study for you because I assume when you started, what we call DH was not as defined as it is now?

Graham: That is true. And our early name actually indicates the birth of the project. It was a really clunky name: The Computer-Assisted Analysis of Black Literature, or CABL. We were trying to go for an acronym. But again, in those pre-digital days, we just knew that technology’s important and technology and race is even more important. So, what do you do if you apply some of those new tools? Even though I didn’t start at 12, the fact is I did start when I was in graduate school because I was raising questions and the experience I had was doing research at the Schomburg in New York when Ernest Kaiser was still alive. . . . If there’s anything we can see as living digitally, it was certainly Ernest Kaiser, who knew everything about everything [and] every book with his own taxonomy. Just fascinating. When I went in to look for some stuff, they hadn’t processed what I wanted from the 1930s, so I was basically sitting on the floor going through boxes at his instruction to try to get what I needed. I was sitting there very frustrated, thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if this information I wanted [and that] other people might want were available and accessible?”

And in a form that you wouldn’t have to go from Cornell, which is where I was at the time, to New York on the weekends on the night bus to be there when the library opened in the morning and go through all this material, and take it down by hand. It was a very extensive, labor-intensive process. So, at that point, it was just thinking, “Okay, I’ll do this work and then somebody else will come behind me,” because I was looking at the 1930s, which is kind of a blanked-out period. Except for Richard Wright and a few writers, we didn’t talk about that period at all. I was really interested in who was writing and I discovered a lot of writers that nobody ever talked about. Some of those have come back alive in our Project on the History of Black Writing. The digital project that we, of course, have embraced is the Black Book Interactive Project or BBIP. So, almost everybody who’s been associated with us since 2010 has been associated with BBIP in one way or another. It’s our latest baby. It’s now, what, nine years old? That is our birthing period.

But the project itself was really about that. It was very simple. Why can’t we just consolidate information and make it more available? Yes, you can go to the library if you know what you’re looking for. But what if you don’t know what you’re looking for [and] you just have a question? To answer that question, the idea of bibliographies, databases…I don’t even think that term was in use at the time, the word “database.” We actually decided to use the term “computerize the database” in the early days. We were just going to pull together a massive bibliography, put in on the computer, and therefore make it available by circulating it to people who were teaching Black literature. If you were choosing books to teach and you were focusing on periods, let us tell you more books that were published in particular periods, so you don’t just focus on the top three or four. We actually did an early interview, or I should say a “survey” with people, asking what books they taught. We discovered that people used a very, very, very small number of books over and over again.

This is, of course, 1983. Hurston’s work has just begun to re-circulate [and] re-enter the canon. But for the most part, lots and lots of writers were left out and I was aware of a couple of things that were going on. I guess I should step back and say I’m a child of the library. I don’t know why I didn’t become a librarian because I spent my childhood working in the library, living in the library, [and] staying in the library because that was where I was supposed to be when my parents picked me up after school. It was across the street from the school, so not to get in trouble, you go to the library.

I knew a lot about what was in the library. In the stage of the segregated libraries, I grew up in the south. We did have more books in our libraries, for instance, that existed in, say, the main library downtown. I would know about books written by people in my community. I’m from Augusta, Georgia, Frank Yerby’s hometown, James Round’s hometown. [They] didn’t make it to other libraries because those writers were not as significant in terms of what their work meant.

Yerby, one of those writers who was “popular,” [was] a historical romance writer for a long time before he became more canonical. I think there’s work on him now, but for a long time, he was just a pot-boiler writer whose work actually was adapted to film early on. The early period was really just about collecting and recovering. Collecting work, recovering work. Now, I have to give credit to another outfit because this project started 1983, but early in the ’70s, at North Carolina Central University, there was a project called the African-American Materials Project. It was probably before you even were born. I mean, most people I work with now, this is way before them, right? But librarians were trying to get a handle on where Black authored books were. Now, everybody knows Fisk University. Everybody knew the Schomburg. People knew Meineke. But there were collections in institutions all over the country, particularly in the South, white and black, that nobody knew about. This project was aimed at bringing together or trying to gain, in library-speak, bibliographic control over Black authored material. They simply named it the African-American Materials Project.

You can imagine what happened. They had federal funding, I think it was from the Office of Education. This is before some of the other agencies became involved and they couldn’t finish the project. They got very far, and I was the fortunate beneficiary of their reports to the federal government. Now, I don’t know if I’m revealing confidential information or not here, but they had…the manuals they compiled and spiral-bound books of all the books in various libraries. They created their own code or taxonomy for what was what, and I got that. I saw that they had started a project that really needed to be finished in terms of African-American materials. But I also did more research and found that, by 1970, we had about a 600% increase in Black fiction writing. About a 600% increase.

Chambliss: So is that in the sense of actual writers being—

Graham: Actual writers publishing. Now, you know what happened. To put this reference here, [in] 1970, who publishes their first books? Tony K. Bambara, The Black Woman. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye. Alice Walker, Meridian. I mean, the list goes on. 1970 was a banner year, particularly for Black women writers. But lots of writing occurred, and I knew at that point I didn’t have the power [or] capacity that the African-American Materials Project had because they really were training librarians alongside building this project. It was really a massive undertaking, but I thought I would just focus on fiction because of the growth of fiction. The project on the History of Black Writing was kind of born because that wasn’t our original name. When we had to go for funding, we needed a simpler name that would identify ourselves, and we became the African-American Novel Project, AANP. That was where our first grant [came in]…it was really a pre-digital grant because we were consolidating bibliographies. We were just building a computerized database with NEH funding.

Chambliss: Right, so this is one of the things that’s really interesting. As I was doing research, I found your timeline for your project and, of course, it covers a tremendous amount of funding and a tremendous amount of evolution of the project. Your project’s unique I think, in part because it kind of comes before our contemporary definitional conversations about digital humanities, so it makes for a really interesting question because I always ask people this question: How do you define Digital Humanities? And you’re really in a unique place to answer this question because you started before the current landscape of digital humanities. How has [the] transformation that’s happened in the last decade or so matter in the narrative of the life of this multi-decade project for you?

Graham: The convergence, of course, occurs with several things [like] the Black Periodical Fiction Project that Henry Louis Gates was involved in around the same time. A lot of projects converged, but what was fundamentally different I think, for us, was that we wanted to put our hands on every book we had in our computerized database. We wanted to say, “We need to see this book, we need to verify.” Because part of the method we developed was what we call a “verification procedure.” We discovered bibliographies were filled with errors in terms of who the authors of certain books were. White authors were included and we could even find the source of errors. We could see where the first error was made and all the people [who] subsequently published the error.

If we’re going to do this, we’ve got to do it right. We had a method. We were thinking methodologically from the very beginning. How do we do this? We collected books. We did inter-library loan. We found collections. You would hear about a house or a sale or a home. We would tell people, “If you see any books, don’t throw them away. Call us.”

It was really as simple as that, and we found books in attics. We recovered books. We had people driving us books and saying, “I hear you all looking for Black books. This is my grandfather’s, blah blah blah.”  We were in the process of recovering and collecting…it’s what Kim Gallon talks about. Fundamentally, it’s recovery work we’re doing. It’s where we were in the very beginning, recovering a history, an unknown history, an unwritten history. So that meant that, for the first three, four, or five years with that NEH funding, we were just collecting all the books. But we also said, “Okay, this is an inter-library loan. We can’t keep these books. We don’t own them. What are we going to do?” We scanned them. We photocopied them. We didn’t use the word scan. We photocopied every book. We had a grant from the federal government that gave us high school students for the summer and they were the best staff people we really ever had because they were at college.

At 15 and 16, they were on a college campus, the University of Mississippi. Their parents were proud to have them associated with the summer program and they helped us [to] what we would say today, “digitize,” except they didn’t make them OCR, machine-readable. [We] photocopied 1,200 or more books and we still have those physical and photocopies of those books. The transition came to, “Okay let’s digitize these books,” which means “let’s make them machine-readable so we can do the text mining and the research on the text in this database.” The problem is that we were ahead at one point and then we fell behind because the technology moved ahead so rapidly. So, you’re right. DH entered in, and here we are still with this collection of texts, mostly unknown. These are not the famous writers. They are the most unknown texts that we have sitting in our offices that moved from Mississippi to Boston and ultimately to Kansas 20 years ago. We came to Kansas with these boxes and they were in file cabinets. We literally had the Allied Van Lines [go] across the country with books.

Now, clearly that was a very manual labor-intensive process. [We] couldn’t go on like that because the more books we got, we started getting physical copies because people knew who we were and they would send us novels. First published novels [and] first editions because they know we would need to have it and we would talk about their work. Nobody else would talk about it. We would do reviews of the book. We would do collections. We served a purpose for about 10 years that really was collecting and recovering at that level. The second stage for us was, okay, we know about these books but nobody else does. We just have the photocopies. We started developing our professional development programs. That’s where a lot of the funding came in. NEH has funded about 14 of our teaching summer institutes and we use these books. We introduce books to teachers and younger scholars, and we want people to know that they exist or to be curious enough to ask more questions when they are developing their curriculum.

Chambliss: Yeah, this is really one of the things that’s really impressive about the program, and I think about some of the programs that have emerged to a popular consciousness in the last few years like the Color Conventions Project, for instance. You’ve done a lot of the same stuff. You just did it in a less-digital way. I don’t mean that in a bad way. In the sense that…you’ve got a number of students, a number of professionalization programs. You have these summer seminars. You had a publication that was spun out of these works. I noted that you had this relationship with the Cambridge University Press where you put out collections. A lot of work, on some level, [was] creating a canon of these unknown Black writers, making them known.

Graham: Yeah, well that was the purpose of the project, like I said. We knew, but we had to share this information. Now, before social media, you had to do this at conferences. You had to do it in teaching contexts, and we would try to get as broad as possible. The summer institutes meant that we were sharing with people around the country. And because I’m the product of an HBCU—I graduated from Chapel Hill but I did my early career and my family is centered in those institutions—I felt that, whenever we did those institutes, we made sure they were inclusive from the very beginning. We would include people from community colleges, HBCUs, and PWIs. We made sure there were a large number of people who are going to go out and take this information. I think that that’s probably what people most know about our work. That is, they are in these institutes. They can see the projects on their own and they go out and publish, and they attribute the kind of questions they began to ask to the work they were doing in one of our 12 or 14 summer institutes.

People would come as graduate students. We argued with NEH years ago that you’ve got to bring graduate students into these summer institutes. Back in those days, it was only for faculty. I can say now, publicly, I broke the law sometimes and I brought in graduate students even though they were not supposed to be technically funding participants. That was the best law that I broke because had it not been for those graduate students who were already advanced and also much more, who were born digital, they brought to the project the missing component. So, you probably know more of our sort of products. I should say, Ken Ramsey is one of them who does all kinds of work. These are people who came to KU in this particular period, the 20-year period, took the nail by the head, and said, “Okay, we really want to do this kind of work. What can we do?” And they brought a lot to the process. Our digital component started around 2010 or so, and then we called it our Digital Project Initiative, the DPI, and later on that evolved into the Black Book Interactive Project, which is really our digital component today.

Chambliss: Right. And one of the things that I think will be really interesting for people who know DH is that your database, it’s basically something that a scholar [can] come to and pursue any number of different kinds of research questions, right? If they have a question, you have a dataset, basically.

Graham: And the basis is to really make this very simple because it can be very complicated, and I think there’s an intention to make something so complicated, like poetry. Make it so complicated nobody can understand it and make criticism of something that has to be trained or taught. But we wanted to be able to say, “You can come to our database.” We have a database. If you know novels out there that we don’t have… And that is exactly what is happening right now as I speak; our latest, most recently funded program for BBIP is a scholar’s program. The Black Book Interactive Project is a database. The interface is done by our partnership with the University of Chicago. It’s a philological interface. It has our HBW corpus in it, all of our novels. We send the novels to them. They do the digitizing and, therefore, that interface is what people can access. People come up with different projects. We’ve got people who are interested in looking at how Afro-futurism predates the term itself. So, how do we the, do text-mining—whether it’s through word searches or phrase searches or looking at setting or looking at the use of the word “history”? We can pull text and point us in the direction of questions that we could ask of those texts.

It’s simple in the sense of doing the kind of searching through our database. You’re right. Once you get the text you need, it leads you to other stuff. You don’t start with a predetermined set of books. We’re saying, “We’ve got the whole database you can search, but let’s find a shared language or a common vocabulary…but it might, in fact, appear in some of these books.” We looked for all the terms and we generate lists. You can then take that list and develop a research schema to work with. That’s what the scholars right now are doing—they are helping us expand the database, first of all, because we have the same numbers of books we started with. We’ve digitized all of them. We have created a metadata scheme, which is one of our grant projects. We argued that the current schema people are using did not pay attention to factors of race and racialization. We came up with a schema that did that; we created our own.

Every book that enters into our database will be described in a particular way that pays particular attention to race over time. People develop projects once they see how many books were concerned with X, Y, or Z, mostly books we don’t even know or can talk about. That’s kind of the way it works. People come to the database. Right now, the BBIP scholars are funded to do that. They are part of a nine, 10-month program through webinars and on-site meetings. They come to do the work. We learn how to do it together and they practice. We supply support staff for them, and they do their research. There are varied stages of research and various kinds of projects.

Chambliss: How does a scholar get on that track? Is there an open call?

Graham: We have a website. We have people communicate with us directly. BBIP has its own website and people can communicate, reach out that way. We have our offices, the University of Kansas. We thought the BBIP Scholars Program would be the best way to do it because then we have 14, 15 people around the country who are doing things with the database, and they can therefore invite other people. They would spread the word.

Basically, we’re sort of using the “each one, teach one” model. We’ve got 15 people, different institutions. We encourage people to do work together. There are teams in many of the projects. That is, two people from an institution or someone working with a similar institution nearby and them [all] working on projects together. The projects vary. Some people want to know how the idea of a diaspora operates in Black fiction, [so] you ask questions that’ll relate to that. Some people want to know the specificity of certain themes ([like] how do we look at the thematic ideas?) because that is one way of looking at literature, thematically.

One real project right now is Dr. Trudy Harris doing a new book on the theme of home in Black literature. She wanted us to see how home figures in our database. We were pulling all the texts and we looked at the way “home” is used [and] all those words that stand for home. We always do that. Now, of course, she’d be writing 20 volumes if she were to do a study on every book that we had. We don’t know how many books we have but we do have a lot of books, so she can at least set up something and, in our view, she can set up something for other students to come behind her and do the additional work because they see the beginning of something very new. I think the strength we feel we have is that we put something out there. We get you started and we let you see what you can create and generate on your own, and then you start your own pod. That’s what we’re doing.

Chambliss: This seems like a really powerful model, the teaching model to get the information out there. You’ve been, I think, extremely successful in maintaining the integrity of the project. What do you see as your biggest challenge?

Graham: Very good question because, as DH becomes its own—I hate to use the word “animal” or “monster”—it is now such a big thing in the field. The interesting thing about it is the very notion of the digital humanities seems to have taken off without serious thought to the term “humanities” or “human” [or] “being human.” [What] we’re saying is that we put the humanities back into the work that’s being done. We’re saying, “Here are all these human beings whose work exists that has been excluded from the vast majority of the work that we’ve done.” When people like Kim Gallon argue that recovery is a central element, that is true. We still are recovering work. We’re naming the unnamed. We’re bringing things to the surface and we are trying to understand what those traditions tell us that we don’t know. And how can we say we know what the history of the human experience is without that? This is a powerful tool and process but also a questioning of whether a field like the Digital Humanities can really exist without the kind of work that we’re doing that’s Black studies related.

Chambliss: I think that’s really interesting. I don’t know that a lot of people understand some of the complexities around DH that’s sort of inflected by Black studies. You mentioned Kim Gallon, who wrote a really seminal essay about Black DH. I think for some people doing DH, there is a great, great emphasis—a sort of spinning out of the post-colonial DH conversations a few years ago—that these spaces, the Digital Humanities, are basically replicating the same kind of omissions that happened in the original space, the physical spaces. A lot of Black DH work, I count myself among this, is about recovery. About recovery, about discovery, right? You’re trying to bring these things [that] are hidden to public light and you use digital humanities techiques to do it.

But one of the things that’s interesting about your project is that it sort of straddles this divide, because [it’s] basic level recovery work but also really strong interpretive work, right? You have a dataset and the creation of that dataset in itself is its own sort of interpretive project. You have to create the taxonomy, you have to create the metadata. You create the ways of knowing, basically. And the tools, right? Once you have a dataset, there are a number of tools you can bring to it depending on your training and your background.

Graham: Well, the text-mining part of it, if you go the reverse engineering route, you’ve got to think about “Okay, what do I want to know at the end of the process?” I think the difficulty…[is] that there is a deep learning curve in DH for people; so I would argue that, if you think about it as something foreign to you and not something that might in fact be more central to Black culture generally…that is, the use of technology is something that is not at all foreign to Black people.

We can create out of anything. If you’re looking at MCs, if you look at any of the work we do that comes through hip-hop, there [is] technology, [like] Adam Banks’ book, Digital Griots. Those kind of ideas of technology are not foreign to us. We kind of demystified what DH is. Race and technology coming together. Race and technology. Now, that’s a big sweep here. You get a corner of that. Which piece are you doing?

I would say what we’re trying to do is create a model. I’m doing fiction. Who’s doing poetry? Who’s doing theater and drama? Who’s doing any kind of work that has some kind of generic base to it? Who’s doing the work? You can create a dataset or art. Visual stuff. You can create a dataset with all of it because the technology does exist and the dataset simply allows you to study, to mine it. That’s not complicated.

Chambliss: Right, so is that, at some level, the next stage for you? Is it a question of, “Okay, we, at some level, have the history of Black writing [down]? Now we need to start thinking about non-fiction or poetry.” Or is that your next developmental stage?

Graham: Yeah, and I think [it’s] because we always felt like we needed to train as we go. That is, as we move [through] these different stages, we want everybody to be on the same page, too, as many people as possible. And it’s intergenerational. I want to be the first to admit that my level of skill with our project is far inferior to those of my students because they are born digital. They have an immediate kind of response and an intuitiveness about it that I struggle to achieve. But we’re working together, so this is always collaborative work. It takes teams of people. I mean, we’ve got teams of people.

That’s something that people have to get over too: the lone scholar doing work. All of us get credit. All of us are doing this work together. We’re doing different pieces of it. We have specializations that we bring together, and we’re also crossing the disciplinary boundaries. We’re working with librarians. We’re working with staff people. In the very beginning, as I said, we weren’t doing computers, but I did my work primarily with the computer engineering staff at the University of Mississippi because nobody knew what I was doing. I’m not sure I knew what I was doing, but I knew there was a better way to bring information together and to organize it and make it accessible. That was just a principle. But right now, it is training people who can take this project and run with it and adopt the model to whatever they’re interested in.

But you’re right, it starts with the dataset. You’ve got to build the dataset. It can be small, it can be large. We felt like we could be the master dataset for African-African fiction, the novel in particular. That’s what we started with, [what] we’re still with. . . . It’ll never be complete. It will live long past me. I know this. Or you, for that matter. But we’re talking about succession. We have to talk about that. Who will keep adding to the state of this? Right now, it’s the only one out there like this. It’s the only one.

Chambliss: Right, yeah. I was struck by that. If you think about it…you can’t find it anywhere else. Not even the Library of Congress.

Graham: No, you can’t. We know where stuff is, which is one of the first things we did. There’s a consolidation of where stuff exists, but we thought it also needed to be available to people. . . . And that’s why I’m saying, when you come to this project, my view is that you also become part of it, and you own it. I may have founded it in 1983, but the people who work with us also own this project. Many of them bring titles that are added to the database. People have work invested in here, it belongs to them as much as it belongs to me. In that sense, it’s a public space. You could look at this idea of DH as being a public space where people can enter and have certain kinds of conversations that are not being held anywhere else. I think that our ownership over this, in a sense, is probably much more powerful than we realize, way beyond the debates that other people are having. I was asked for a quote for a newspaper article recently, and it was saying, “There’s a lot of controversy over DH, about what it doesn’t do, blah blah blah.” I said, “My question is what has it not done?”

We know what it has not done because the exclusionary practices, as you say, have continued and there’s a hierarchy in the digital humanities arena… If you just [look at] Amy Earhardt’s term, “DIY,” the do-it-yourself project, we are an original do-it-yourself project, right? But do-it-yourself-ers don’t get very far. They drop off the radar. The URL disappears.

Chambliss: Right, yeah. There’s no infrastructure.

Graham: Right, so what do you do? Then, if you talk about Black collections at HBCUs—under-resourced, under-funded, closing by the day—then what’s going on? We have a lot of work to do in terms of making sure that things come into the digital domain so that they can be preserved. It’s also cultural preservation. It’s that as well. Recovery is one thing, discovery is one thing, but preservation is another. There are technical questions we have to ask, [like] why we need the people who talk about what technologies are going to remain, which is going to be fleeting. What are we doing? Is it going to be available in the next 10 years? We have those kinds of critical questions, but the bigger questions are really the exclusionary practices that continue and the hierarchy—and hierarchies drive funding.

Chambliss: Right.

Graham: I know I’m fairly lucky because I’ve been pushing that door as much as I could, but I don’t get nowhere near the kind of funding that’s available for DH. I mean, a lot of money has been going into this arena. I’m saying we are doing some of that. I think we’re doing the groundwork. We’re doing the groundwork that’s pushing the field itself to be more humane and human, to live up to your reputation. It’s not just quantifying. Now, I can also say that there is a question of how technology has disadvantaged Black people. We know this is also the case. You may not remember the cliometrics, do you remember that era?

Chambliss: I do remember that. Yeah.

Graham: That did not serve to our advantage.

Chambliss: That was not helpful, yeah.

Graham: That’s why cliometricians were arguing, “Well actually, the number’s not as big as we thought, whatever, whatever.”

Chambliss: Yeah, “The numbers say the calories for a slave were…”

Graham: That’s right!

Chambliss: Yeah.

Graham: You do have times when you have to question what that was about and part of that is who’s at the table when these decisions are being made. I think that’s the argument for a lot of people in DH. When you’re talking about these projects and shaping and defining [them]…the knowledge production and creation that you’re doing, who’s at the table? Who’s part of the conversation? If you’re not part of the conversation, you very likely will be left out.

Chambliss: Yeah, what are the questions that are being formulated at that table also are really important.

Graham: Right, and so you change the nature of the questions. You change the spaces [in] which the questions are being asked and you force to table questions that people would prefer to keep hidden.

Chambliss: Right, and answers become different too, right? Answers are not the same if—

Graham: Yeah, alternative notions of the human. All of this comes to the table when we sit there and babble out hard questions that have always been central to the humanities, in my view. I think it’s correctly named. That is, “Digital Humanities,” but it hasn’t lived up to the human part. It’s lived up to the digital part, but the human part is a little lacking.

Chambliss: So, that’s a good place to come to an end because that’s the classic question of DH. I know that you guys have a great website, so if we want to find you online, it’s

Graham: That’s right.

Chambliss: If people want to reach out to you, can they meet you through your website?

Graham: Yes, you can. And you can reach us through that website or and I can redirect you because one of the advantages of the BBIP team that’s working on this—that is, the staff right now—is that we have a team of advisors who literally help people do the work they want to do. Right now, with our first class of BBIP scholars, our hope is that we will secure additional funding to have ongoing classes of BBIP scholars. More scholars are coming in to do more work, and to be able to expand the database but also develop their own models across the board…

Chambliss: The CLA journal’s also where some of the publications for the some of the scholars are.

Graham: Actually, the only dedicated journal or special issue to DH was done by CLA, and the editor was Howard Ramsey. That’s the only one that I’ve seen that’s been focused on what we would call Black DH. We might be running behind, but I think we have the structure to really build and make a major contribution. I hope people see this as not something that is too foreign, too strange, too unusual, but [as] something they probably are already ready to do without realizing it.

Chambliss: Well yeah, I think one of the things about this project is that now, as people learn more about it [and] the opportunity to come work with your dataset, it’s a tremendous opportunity because you have the questions. Making the dataset is often one of the hardest things about DH work.

Graham: It’s labor intensive but I think we can also help people formulate questions. If you just sort of say, “I’m curious about blah blah blah,” we can help you refine [the] questions that would allow you to get what you need from the corpus when you go and insert some words and phrases into the interface. The philologic interface it’s called. Then, you generate text that will help you. Now, it’s not an excuse. We’re having to do hard work now. Let me make sure that’s clear to—

Chambliss: No, no, but I think for people who are interested in DH, [they] understand you have a ready-made corpus here with a taxonomy and there’s a way you can shake some research questions and start pulling out some results. That really opens the door to a lot of different things. There [are] a couple ideas I’ll probably want to contact you [about] myself.

Graham: We’re here.

Chambliss: But I always try to keep these things under an hour. I really appreciate you taking the time to tell us about this great project. I really do appreciate that.

Graham: Thank you for the invitation, as I said. I’m looking forward to meeting more people and hopefully asking more questions collectively that can push this field forward to our advantage.

Chambliss: Yeah, I think there’s going to be a lot more attention given to the kind of questions you’re talking about. I do not think you’re alone in these questions but you’re at a very particular place because your dataset allows you to really facilitate a set of conversations. Hopefully people will follow up and learn more about your project. Of course, we’ll put links in the show notes and let people know.








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