Roopika Risam and New Digital Worlds

Roopika Risam is a key figure in the postcolonial digital humanities discussion. She is Associate Professor of English and the Faculty Fellow for Digital Library Initiatives at Salem State University. Dr. Risam’s research interests lie at the intersections of postcolonial and African diaspora studies, humanities knowledge infrastructures, digital humanities, and new media. Her book, New Digital Worlds: Postcolonial Digital Humanities in Theory, Praxis, and Pedagogy, was published by Northwestern University Press in 2018. A central concern for Risam is how we think about digital humanities as a knowledge practice. Not surprisingly, her path to this concern is linked to questions of race and power. As a digital humanist and a public intellectual, she’s paving a path for scholars who hope DH will be a tool for a more equitable future.


Digital Atlantic, Digital Infrastructure, Black Studies, Latinx Studies, Computational Design

The Conversation

Chambliss: I wanted to talk to you for a couple of reasons. One, when people think about digital humanities, especially a particular strand of digital humanities, I think your name is one of the names that comes to the fore. I also think a lot of the work you do foreshadows pathways that are important to the evolution of [the] digital humanities field. I know for you, like everyone, [this is] going to be a difficult question, but the first question I always ask people is: how do you define Digital Humanities?

Risam: Well, so I may have my stock answer, right? And my stock answer is that it’s anything that’s at the intersection of humanities research and technical inquiry. But to dig down a little bit into that, I think about it primarily having two components, the first of which is using a range of digital tools to interpret humanities data. And then, on the flip side, using all of the lenses of inquiry we have for analysis from the humanities and applying that to digital cultures, digital platforms, how the Internet works, how algorithms work, to how surveillance is working. I favor the more expansive definition because what I really think is most useful, interesting, and provocative about digital humanities is that it’s not a closed method; that it’s a method of possibility and a method of exploration. I like the idea of leaving space for kinds of scholarship that, right now, we can’t even imagine.

Chambliss: Right. So, one of the things I think that’s really interesting about you as a figure in Digital Humanities—and I don’t want to impose definitional descriptors on you—[but] I think one of the things that’s very noticeable about you as a scholar is that you’re a very public scholar. Like, you’re a public intellectual. And the work you do is [often] transmitted through a robust ecosystem of digital humanities communications that people who are involved in the field participate in. So, like, these online forums, [etc.]. And in terms of some of the work you do, the projects you actually do are deeply inflected by public debates and broader questions of policy and practice, history and power, and things like that in the United States and in the hemisphere, right? It’s like a postcolonial project, I would say.

I think your work is often unified by a concern about equity and structure. And I wonder, from your perspective, how did that pathway emerge for you to intersect so strongly with the digital? Because I think you could make the argument that, in terms of your training and your background and where you are, it doesn’t necessarily have to be digital. What is [it] that digital gets you in terms of your work and your development as a scholar? How did that become “Yes, this is how I’m going to do it”?

Risam: That’s a really great question because often I struggle with feeling like I’ve cemented my reputation as a scholar of digital studies, which in many ways is really a very meta thing. It’s really about how we do digital humanities research more so than it is about actually doing research with digital methods in the areas in which I’m trained, which are African diaspora and postcolonial studies. So that’s been a really interesting and unexpected development for me. I mean, I really find that my greater interest is in how we create equitable structures for scholarship, particularly for communities of color. So, that’s why the meta research really captured my attention. But actually, my inroad into digital humanities was very much a practical response to trying to solve a research problem. So, when I was writing my dissertation, when I was a graduate student at Emory, I was doing research on Black radicalism and transnationalism and trying to think through the intersections of different radical activist movements in the US and in postcolonial cultures as well.

And I really found that I struggled to write about them. Like, I struggled to write down on paper what seemed to me to feel like this very fluid multi-directional, exchange of knowledge and exchange of practices and exchange of values. And so, I was in the Huey Newton Papers at Stanford, in the archives, looking through the material in there. And I came across the rolls of subscribers to the Black Panther newspaper and I was just kind of looking through it. And it was very interesting because it was really showing this kind of global exchange of information. It was finding subscriber addresses all over the world. And it was one of those moments where I thought, “Wait a minute, if I could map this and then potentially think about other ways of mapping different routes of communication between other groups…” because there are also telegrams from the Viet Cong.

I mean, there was a lot of exchange beyond the subscriber rolls in the material in [the] Newton Papers. You know, maybe this could be a way for me to just think through some of these connections in a way I couldn’t when trying to write them down in just textual form. It was that multimodal dimension, that possible ability of spatial representation that allowed me to think through some of the ideas I was working with. Ultimately, I would write a textual dissertation, but it turned into a useful tool for me for thinking.

And, you know, I’ve always been interested and inclined towards technology, even since I was a child. When I did my master’s degree at Georgetown University, I was a fellow at their Center for New Designs and Learning and scholarship. We were doing a lot of work then with digital storytelling, with this brand new thing called wikis. [That] shows my age, [but] we were really thinking about different ways we could use programs to engage students with texts like Dante’s Inferno. I had a little bit of a background from there in terms of thinking about the intersections of technology in the humanities. And so, it wasn’t a surprise that I would come back to that as a potential solution to a problem. And what I found then, you know, while simultaneously working on my dissertation and just trying to solve this very practical problem, was that I was really interested in the way that so much digital humanities scholarship tended to reproduce all of the canons of literature and history that we already have existing in analog forms. That became a subject in and of itself.

And that’s how I got into this meta infrastructural-level research, because I was sort of interested in thinking through how this area, which at that point was relatively new [to] digital humanities, was really reproducing a lot of the hierarchies of knowledge that already exist while simultaneously having so much potential to challenge them. So, really what ended up shifting into was focusing my research on [the question of] how we actually use the affordances of these digital platforms, these digital tools, to push back against that reinscription of canon through digital humanities scholarship.

Chambliss: Wow. Okay. I think that’s really interesting because, of course, when we think about Digital Humanities now, one of the things that really dominates the public understanding around it is tools and what those tools do. And this is a kind of long-standing tension within the field. I think one of the things [that’s] also interesting about hearing your pathway into the work is it wasn’t necessarily about tools [as] it was the implication of what kind of knowledge [was] being created that really animated your involvement with these things.

That kind of leads me to my next question. When people talk about digital humanities, they often are mired in this idea around it that, unlike the other humanities (which “don’t have any value”), [DH has value] because we put “digital” on top of it. They have the kind of tangible element. People understand computers do things. So, therefore, these humanities scholars are doing something because they are doing things digital. And it obscures a whole level of thought, debate, [and] critical conversations that are trapped at some level in a kind of materiality that we assigned digital things.

And one of the things that’s really interesting about you is that a lot of your work is about structure. It’s about thinking about how the world knows something, it is about epistemology. And so, for you, and when you think about your pathway as a scholar, where do you see your work going in terms of this bigger question of Digital Humanities? Like, how do you see yourself fitting into this ongoing scholarly evolution? Because I do think it’s evolving. I don’t ever want to say anything is settled. I just think there’s always a question, there’s always some dominant narratives, and some of these narratives under the radar can be very interesting, but are always sort of obscured from public view. How do you see that whole process playing out?

Risam: So, I mentioned earlier that something that really drives me is this question of how can [we] continue to build and sustain the capacity of scholars in areas like African diaspora, Latinx, Indigenous postcolonial, [and] critical ethnic studies to undertake digital scholarship. In many ways, it feels like there are some barriers to entry, particularly around the technical dimensions [and] particularly if you don’t have experience with coding. For example, although there are so many out-of-the-box tools that obviate the need to even learn to code, I’ve found myself having a shift in thinking around this question of what kind of level of technological competency scholars of color need to be able to effectively do the work to intervene in [the]—what I call in my book, “new digital world,”—the digital cultural record to ensure that record isn’t just of Anglophone culture and Anglophone white culture.

What I’ve been coming around to is this thinking about the ways we can build up the capacities of our communities to do more technical research. And I came to this in a very strange way, which is that, last summer, you may have seen the project Torn Apart / Separados [that] a number of us undertook in response to the immigrant detention and family separation policy. And the series of data visualizations, mostly map-based, [on] which we did some analysis of the locations of immigrant detention centers, the location of shelters that are being used to detain children. We did some data visualization around the finances and government contracts that ICE gives out to support the immense infrastructure of immigrant detention. And what happened was, when we did the first part, which was just about where the detention centers [are], everything was coded by one person on our team.

And he just did everything. The rest of us did research. We did [it] thinking we were applying our backgrounds in postcolonial, border, and Latinx studies to how we were designing the project, but the actual coding was done by Moacir, who’s now at Columbia and a data librarian. What happened with the second volume was I ended up scraping all the government contracts for five years of ICE money. And then, we had a larger dataset and we spent some time prototyping how we wanted to visualize this dataset. And we were understanding that we had another person who was willing code on that team and it so happened that, by the time we finished prototyping the visualizations, the coder said, “You know what? I have other priorities and need to attend to those. And can’t work with you.”

I mean, totally understandable [because that] graduate student [was] also involved in unionization at the university. We totally understood. But then we came down to this problem, which was [that] we had imagined a project that needed to be done relatively quickly, but that was so large we couldn’t just rely on the work of a single coder. I had to learn how to code in JavaScript and I had to learn how to do D3 data visualization. And I actually had not really thought I could. It was this moment where, when the rubber hits the road, where we needed the labor. I discovered that it wasn’t that I couldn’t do it, it was that I just [hadn’t] ever had a compelling enough reason to sit down and learn how to do it. And I think that, in some ways, we’ve had these debates in Digital Humanities for the last decade over, [whether] you have to code [and] who has to code or not?

I’ve always fallen along the side of the argument that Miriam Posner made in 2010 when she said, “Think twice before you exhort everyone to learn how to code. There are people who, for gendered and racialized reasons, have been disincentivized and socialized to think they can’t learn to code. I had just kind of patted myself on the back for nearly 10 years saying, “Okay, see, I can’t code because it turns out I had just been using that as an excuse to not learn how to code,” because I thought, “well, I don’t have to.” And, you know, I was able to functionally do the projects I needed to do with the out-of-the-box tools available to me. But then I found that, once I had a better understanding of the foundations of computation, and once I understood a little bit about how this code worked into what was happening, it actually opened up so many more possibilities for the research I could do.

What I’m doing right now is actually that dissertation I mentioned on Black radicalism [that] focused a lot on W.E.B. Du Bois and reframing him and the global dimensions of his career. Because a lot of the biographies say his global turn comes later in his life. Really, if you look at his work, it doesn’t mean it was not there from the beginning. I started envisioning a series of data visualizations that would actually make the case for this kind of long-term global commitment in his career. And that’s one of the projects I’m working on right now and it was something I couldn’t have even imagined from a research project design perspective without having even just a very, very basic understanding of the foundations of computation. And so, I mean, that’s something I’m really interested in now going forward, is thinking of ways of designing collaborative projects. I can bring people in who, like me, thought they couldn’t do it and help them gain some of the skills to actually do it. And then, who knows what’s possible for our research.

Chambliss: You sound like a convert. I want to go back to one of the things you said. You mentioned you had previously been able to do everything you needed to with things that are out-of-the-box. I find that really interesting because I also don’t code and I’m probably the same way. It’s like, “well, no,” and [at] no point has my life depended on me being able to code. If it did, I would code. Like, I know that if anything was deterministic, then I would be like, “Oh God, if I don’t do this, I die.” So, I would do it, right? I mean, that’s what tenure is built on—threat, not love. I know people don’t want to believe it is, but let’s be honest here. It’s built on threat.

I think [the] interesting thing about the dichotomy that developed—and you alluded to—is, if you don’t make something, then you didn’t do DH at some level. I personally have thought [it] a fairly elite statement that did allude to a kind of differential in resources available to people. So that, the vast majority of projects that people know… And when I say “people,” I mean, a general educated public that might be on online. Not academics per se, but they may be academic. You know, they read Slate Magazine. Slate is a publication that a lot of people read [who] have this interest in DH. And for that public, they see certain digital projects and that’s DH for them. And it’s for lack of a broad generalization, but for the most part, [it’s] coming from a very small set of actors who are coming from very heavily resourced places.

And then there’s a whole set of other people, myself included, who are drawn to digital things because [of] its ability to democratize information and its ability to create relationships and actually, at some level, recover community narratives [and] stories that should be a part of the canon but can’t be because of the way the canon was built. And so, by creating these digital projects, you can sort of create these connections, right? It’s almost like an insurgent thing. And I hear in your answer a real evolution in your thought, but also perhaps an evolution in the field in the sense [of] this empowering of the individual to create work and how that will change question. [It] is, I think, something we do see with, quite frankly, younger scholars.

So this requirement to do more I think of as a really interesting point, and I hear in your answer something that touches on a really complicated transformation that’s taking place because [of] the desire, [the] requirement to produce something that will generate new knowledge has always been part of academia. But when you add the digital to it, like what you just described, what kind of questions—[what] kind of things—can I do now that I know the coding?

Do you see that as, as perhaps another complicated burden for people? [I ask] especially because I think some of this is about training in academia. What kind of consistency do we have around training and [the] digital humanities practice? My personal response is there is no consistency. I honestly [think] there’s not a lot of consistency here. We all talk about it, but how you arrive at actually doing it [is] totally different. I want to ask you about that. What do you see as the implications of this transformation?

Risam: Well, just back up a second and say that I consider, if you, for example, make a digital exhibit using Omeka or use WordPress, that’s as much making something as coding is. I don’t want to privilege or over-privileged coding as a particular form of knowledge and insight that you can’t get from working on a platform like Omeka. I think Omeka, too, raises questions that complicate how we think about humanities research and coding is just another dimension raising another set of questions. Because it partially [is] because of this over-privileging, the elitism around coding, that was really a part of the discourse of Digital Humanities, particularly about a decade ago [it] was disenfranchising to people like me who did not have the resources, the time, the job, to be able to learn how to do this. And I very much was excited about the fact that there are platforms like Omeka, WordPress, and Gephi that allowed me to do this kind of work and lowered that barrier to entry.

I think it is a both-and in the sense that I believe we continue building up people’s capacities to use the out-of-the-box tools and to think about how those change the questions of our research. But then, I think there’s also this added dimension that, if it’s useful to your research, if it allows you to work with the dataset that you wouldn’t really be able to work with as effectively without it, then it’s worth taking the time to learn. But I think this does get back to this question of how we are training graduate students. And I think this is a particularly interesting question in light of certain ideas. There [was] an article in The Chronicle in the last couple of days around Columbia University’s English Department not placing any students in tenure track jobs and then bringing in a cohort of 19 students for their new class and suggesting they need summer internships in art galleries and that’s gonna solve everything. There are so many art gallery and museum jobs out there just waiting to take Columbia PhDs in English.

But yeah, this question around this environment, where there are so many streams on the humanities in particular in higher ed more generally. I mean, we [write] at public institutions, we know this. Our institutions battle with this financial question and defunding from state legislatures, as well. I think what we need to be doing is thinking about how our graduate programs are preparing students for the existence of humanities at a moment in time when it’s deinstitutionalized. And we can’t count on the existence of PhD programs in humanities. I gave a talk last spring. Now, the university I will not name, and I was sort of making this point. I was saying, “You know, we really need to be thinking about how we’re training graduate students and for what purpose.” They can learn to code, and they can learn to use these digital humanities out-of-the-box tools, even more easily. And this will open up new questions [and] new audiences for their research. This will open up new possibilities for their careers if accompanied by the right kind of professional development.

The professor who invited me said, “Well, if my graduate student told me she wanted to take two weeks and work on Torn Apart / Separados I would have said, ‘you know what, [it’s] a waste of time. You should be writing your dissertation.’” And I said to that professor, “You are preparing your students for a future that is fictional. And it is a future where the humanities continue to thrive in a way that it isn’t presently. And instead, we need to be thinking about preparing people to sustain the humanities and sustain the digital cultural record beyond that.” And this is not just at the graduate student level. It’s also at the undergraduate level because the vital survival of the humanities right now can’t hinge on funding from universities because it’s not working for us. I like this as a backup plan for the humanities, too.

Chambliss: This is the black box generation. We’re going to have to train a whole set of people who are going to be, at some level in their core, able to preserve the record through this dark age and then turn around and say, “This is the record. It’s in structured data form. We can slot it into the new thing that you’re going to fund.” [And] you know, at some level you’re right. Because I actually think this is one of the things that is really important when you start thinking about institutions at a lower level, [like] more localized institutions that are very interested in documenting community. [They] often reach out the scholars or develop relationships with scholars that help them do that work.

I recently came from the Association for African American Museums meeting and that was central. You have administrators for super small organizations, sometimes with a staff of four to seven people who are serving a small community; they are a cultural institution and they produce programs and bring people in. They want to know how they [can] create digital work. How can we sustain it? What are some of the practices? Because we’re there, we’re doing that work. And that’s a legitimate point. We need to have some conversations with those people and help them develop their infrastructure and help them sustain themselves.

And so, when you think about your future work—and I know you’re working on a book built [on] your dissertation work—but is the pathway you’re on looking at these things in a more traditional but also in an alternative mode moving forward? Are you going to develop these things that are traditional academic projects but also be developing things that may be outside that and sort of live in a public place and rely on public infrastructure? How do you see your work developing as you suss out this future where the humanities isn’t in the same mode as it used to be?

Risam: One of the questions or issues I’ve been thinking of a lot lately, and it’s definitely going to be a chapter in the new book that I’m writing. [It’s] this question around expertise and the way the university has tried to consolidate itself as the locus of expertise. Whereas, if you go to your colleagues in the museum world, they have expertise too. If we go into communities or people just doing whatever they’re doing, they have expertise too. And there’s a way the university tends to try and prove its value by claiming they are the sole inheritors of knowledge and the social stewards of knowledge. And so, what I’m really interested in [in] the work I’m doing—yes, some of it is traditional, right? I’m reading another monograph. I’m doing this Du Bois data visualization project that’s based on my dissertation, because I never wrote a book from my dissertation. Instead, I’m turning it into data project maps about communicating mostly with other researchers, not so much with the general public.

But then I also have a number of projects I’ve been working on for some time about how we build connections across the lines between university and community. And how do we think about public humanities and digital public humanities as a way of recognizing and valuing expertise that resides outside the academy and outside the reward structures of the academy? For example, I’ve been running a high school digital humanities program in partnership with a local high school in Salem. We take students at this school, who are predominantly Latinx, and engage them with a history of Salem and the history of immigration in Salem, and help them articulate their place within the rich history of immigration in the city and Massachusetts. And, in the meantime, they learn about the history of Salem. They learn how to do archival research. They learn about writing for multiple audiences and publics. It’s really been an interesting [experience].

I mean, on a cynical level, it turned into a really awesome recruiting tool. At the beginning of the semester, none of those students were coming to Salem State and, by the end of the semester, five of them were coming to Salem State. I was working at orientation and I ran into them and they were so excited to already have a connection into the university. You’re bringing them into the university and bringing them into the archives and working with them. But really what was most meaningful about doing that with the students who, you know, these were not AP students, these were not honors students. We intentionally partnered with a teacher who wanted to give an opportunity to the kinds of students who don’t always get these kinds of pre-college [or] early college special opportunities. We wanted the kind of students who do come to our regional public university. [We wanted to have] them in this position where they became the experts and used their own knowledge and their own experiences. And to put that into conversation with the research they had done, that was really exciting. That’s [the] kinds of interventions you need to simultaneously be taking place.

I’m working with Carol Stabile from University of Oregon and I created a publishing collective to find writing by women and women of color in media industries. [We’re trying] to find the material in their archives and get the rights and publish them as eBooks so people [can] teach them. A part of this is trying to intervene in the need to diversify curriculum, particularly in making this material openly available for high school teachers, as well. So, that’s another way public focus comes into the work. And now, the downside of this is that the traditional reward structures of the university don’t really recognize this. They recognize the book [but] that’s about it. So, there is that side. I think some of us doing this kind of work are trying to also think through, theoretically, how we make the claim for the value of this work to get it recognized within [those] reward structures as well.

Chambliss: I think both of those projects [and] working with the community, of course, is a really important part of what institutions say they want. It’s often sequestered under that “general service” category in tenure and promotion. And for the listener who doesn’t know, the general academic rewards are divided between research, teaching, and service. Depending on the institution you’re at, those percentages are very different, right? They tend to be 40% research, 40% teaching and 20% service. At least that is how it is written on the page, but once you’re in the system, that research part is more like 80%. And that teaching part is like 15%, and the service thing actually doesn’t count toward anything, unless they’re looking for something to screw you over [on].

Risam: Yes. I mean, we don’t even have percentages. I could be optimistic and look at that and say, “Oh, you can decide where you choose to focus your research.” But no, really you have to divine [what] this provost…and that Dean…thinks you should be doing.

Chambliss: Right. How do they feel about what you just did? Which just puts a lot of pressure on people of color and women because they’re often saddled with a lot of invisible service. There’s a huge [body of] literature about visible service. And I think in digital work, there’s also a tremendous amount of invisible labor. There’s always labor involved in anything digital. It is either painfully individualistic labor you did it all yourself and that was a horrible, or it’s painful group labor you all did working together, and that was also horrible because you did not get credit. It’s really interesting to hear you talk about those projects because it does point to these broader questions. And, as you know, there’s a lot of discussion about the rules and regulations around how we build these projects to recognize labor. And we’re not going to exploit students.

I think about this a lot because a lot of work I did was with undergraduates, and they walked into a classroom, like, “we’re gonna do this thing as digital. We’re not going to write a paper.” And they weren’t necessarily happy about that. They were trained to expect papers and they’re making this digital thing and it turned out okay, I guess, but who knows. But it is a question. And I think about that at a public institution even more because I’m often saying, “Yeah, we’re not going to do a paper. We’re going to do a digital thing and we’re going to put it in something and it’s going to be a repository.” And hopefully this is going to help with public understanding about X. And that’s a goal for this project, right? That’s a goal for us. And it’s not settled. So, I wish you luck with all those things, I think all of them sound really cool.

I always think it’s really interesting to hear practitioners talk about the work and talk about their goals around the work. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk through some of these things. I know a lot of people know you from online and I think you can Google your name and get a sense of hearing you talk about the importance of community cultivated digitally. I think it’s great to have the opportunity [to] talk through some of the intricacies of your work. I really appreciate you taking the time to do that.

Risam: Thank you for having me.


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Reframing Digital Humanities: Conversations with Digital Humanists Copyright © 2021 by Julian Chambliss is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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