Photography & Sociology

Unfortunately my blog seems to be turning into a harsh critique of the Digital Humanities. It wasn’t what I intended to begin with, it just seems to have happened, and at the end of the day I have to be honest: The Digital Humanities are seriously problematic for me.

However, I’m going to keep my critique minimal this week and turn towards a topic that this week’s reading is making me think about: What is the role of technologies for us the educators? But, first one critical point.

The term ‘digital humanities’ has been bothering and finally I figured out while reading ‘What is Digital Humanities and What’s it Doing in English Departments?’ why it bothers me. It’s exclusive. As stated in my previous post I came from Science & Technology Studies. We take people of all sorts of backgrounds and interests. My friends in graduate school had bachelor degrees in areas ranging from anthropology, computer science, history, chemistry, literature studies, and electrical engineering. All were welcome.

Digital Humanities. So where does the social scientist fit in? I don’t like the name. And, sorry, but names matter. Names send a message. This name sends a message that I’m not wanted. Which hurts my feelings.

On to more positive things! ‘Picture my Gender(s)’ by Maloy, Poirier, Smith & Edwards was genius. They tasked students with creating photo essays reflecting on gender. Some of their measures of success are different than ones I would use but the overall project, implementation and results are stunning.

When I used to teach Introduction to Sociology I made my students examine the visual cues we use to make assumptions and determinations about others. They would be put in groups of four to five, and would have to list the status symbols they saw on other students in the room. At first they were extremely uncomfortable examining each other in such a manner, and I would always have to break the ice by pointing out that by wearing a Star-of-David pendant (which I made sure to do that day) I was sending a message about my ethnic-religious status.

Slowly they would start listing things, starting with religious jewelry – follow the successful example, right? – and then move on to things like wedding bands or engagement rings. From there they would move to other jewelry. Then to other accessories like handbags. Or cell phone covers. From there they would eventually go to clothing, hair, and the brave ones would go as far as to comment on glasses or tans.

Sometimes these led to very humorous moments. (All names and specific details have been changed.)

Student: Clearly Jack is a fan of the Lakers because he’s wearing their T-shirt.
Jack: Actually I hate the Lakers, but I’m out of clean laundry so I borrowed my roommate’s shirt.


Student: Megan is willing to spend a lot of money on a handbag, or someone paid a lot for the Coach bag.
Megan: Um, this is a really good knock-off, I paid twenty dollars for it.

I would like to think that I helped them become more aware of the snap judgments they (we) make when we see people.

And so I say, this project of photo essays about gender is in the same family as the exercise I conducted. It goes towards the application of these new technologies to enhance student understanding and learning experience. Or, put more bluntly, digital photography is a tool here towards learning new concepts, a tool and usage I heartily approve of.

This segues into a question I’m pondering this week, namely the conflicting responsibilities of educator, specifically at the college level.

In my mind we have dueling responsibilities, we are meant to teach them content/skills/competencies (both to make them more informed individuals and to prepare them for the work place) and then evaluate if they have learned these things. It’s a tremendous pressure, because if they come away not knowing these, if we have to serve in our gatekeeper capacity as a barrier, then we have to ask ourselves if it was the students or how we taught. And if the fault somehow lay with us, do we let them pass through the gate as it wasn’t their fault, or do we still keep the gate locked because the knowledge hasn’t been acquired?

Of course most of the time this isn’t much of an issue as we have generally learned how to impart both the material and the methods of evaluating the learning. Still, it’s a dichotomy worth keeping in mind.

Enter these sexy new technologies. Assuming we start using these technologies in the classroom, are we fulfilling our obligation of teaching them material that will make them better people and better prepared for the work place? Will they be asked to produce a photo essay in a future job? I’m pretty sure knowing how to deconstruct their visually based gender and other assumptions will be useful no matter what they end up doing, I’m just not sure that it isn’t still more useful to use the traditional essay format. They will very likely be expected to be able to summarize positions on things in their future professions in an essay format.

I’m not nay-saying the project that Maloy et al did. If anything I’m a little jealous as an amateur photographer, and contemplating how I might use some of their techniques in the future. But I am left wondering: Is this the best way to prepare our students for the ‘real world?’ At this point I genuinely don’t have an answer.

(I like taking pictures of people too.)

A Haiku & STS


The first of our readings this week inspired a poem in me.

Trust not Unsworth work,
For he formats without thought,
His non-signs confuse.

I struggled with this piece. There was much verbiage to sort through. That, and I tried three different browsers, but in every one the text was littered with black diamonds with question marks in them instead of certain punctuation marks. Like such:

If I get his meaning, the basic point is that we’re still employing the same critical skills as humans long before us, just using different technologies to achieve this. I’m pretty happy with that interpretation of reality.

Oh Svensson…

The Svensson piece finally clarified for me why I find so much of the digital humanists’ work irritating. Put bluntly, they’re reinventing the wheel, and not very efficiently. A large part of Svensson’s work seemed to be asking – or commenting – that digital humanities manifest either as the attitude that these technologies are merely tools, or that they are something to be studied. In my mother field of Science & Technology Studies (STS) we rather figured this out a long time ago. Around the 1980s, if I’m not mistaken. It’s both.

When I was being inducted into the hallowed and hollowed hallways of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s STS department, it was explained to me by an older graduate student as follows: “We are the field that studies the impact of science and technology on society, and vice versa.” Added to that was the explanation that STS really worked because it was inter- or multi-disciplinary, taking elements from psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, policy studies, ethics, history, literature studies, gender studies and anything else it could get its hands on to enhance said analysis.

So the answer to me seems pretty simple, this isn’t an either/or (oh God, I’m being post-structuralist, yech) it’s a whatever goes. Sometimes we just use the tools to get at an the answer to a question (incidentally Svensson is terrible at laying out a clear question that he’s answering, and maybe that makes an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, but I like to know what question is being answered in a piece of writing). Sometimes we study what the tool is doing to society. Sometimes we use the tool to study the impact it itself is having on society. Sometimes we study how the tool is fashioned by society. And sometimes – and this is really fun – we study the way society takes a tool with an intended purpose and use it an alternative way.

So this is truly what is bothering me about much of what I have encountered so far in digital humanities: It isn’t original, and it isn’t taking advantage of the thinking and doing that others have already done. Dear digital humanists, please go study some STS theories. Because, and I will expand on this below, expertise is useful and we should draw upon it when we can.

Now, on to a few specific comments about this piece:

  1. It seems that a number of digital humanists think we need to rip up the old disciplines and replace them with something new. Why? First, won’t these changes happen organically? Do we really need to try and force some awkward and inorganic structure? Second, I’m pretty convinced that we still need sociology to crank out social workers, law enforcers and marketers (among other things), political science for lawyers and policy wonks, and history for… Well, I don’t know what historians do specifically, except that my financial advisor has a degree in history and he seems to be pretty fabulous. So maybe we should just back off and let the disciplines sort themselves out over time.
  2. And while we’re at it, why are so many DH people like at the HASTAC conference worried that humanities are going to disappear? Are we suddenly not going to need art in all its forms and analysis of the past, present and future? Will we stop needing ethicists? This hysteria mystifies me.
  3. DH, much like STS, has an unfortunate tendency to obsess over its own belly button lint. Sometimes the trick to becoming something is by doing rather than self-examining all the time.
  4. I was a big fan of the quote from ACTLab: “Make sure you’re taking advantage of technology, rather than waking up to find that technology is taking advantage of you.”
    This, and that they view these technologies as tools, of course means that Svensson is less impressed with them because he doesn’t think they’re self-reflexive enough. Chill Svensson, sometimes the Zen is in the not thinking about it.
  5. The description of the ACTLab working space didn’t sound stunningly different than the architecture studios where I was a student for a year and a half. Well, except ACTLab is probably cleaner. And I suspect less acts of deviance occur in that space, which is a pity.
  6.  Speaking of spaces, I’ll grant one of Svensson’s points about spatial arrangements: “This is a tendency I have come across in labs and university environments around the world — the difficulty of controlling and planning the spaces that often are at the heart of educational and research programs.”
    It is hard to convince administrative people that an investment in a certain kind of new space will yield great results. Forget for a minute a high tech studio learning space, I’d be happy with a  faculty lounge where ideas could freely mingle.
  7. Another interesting point was regarding academics producing non-textual work. “The reward structures, however, do not always stop Ph.D. researchers from expressing themselves alternatively, but it is often seen as an “extra” undertaking which does not replace the traditional work needed to qualify academically. Indeed, this pressure sometimes seems to result in securing very strong academic merits as we well as engaging in alternative practices and modes of production.”
    On the one hand I agree that it would be good if we had more ways of expressing knowledge than the traditional journal articles, conference papers or books. But on the other hand, have we figured out the equivalent of peer-reviewed for these other formats?
    I insist, old-fashioned as I am, that peer-reviewed matters. The public should be a participant in discussion and dialogue, but recognition of expertise and learned opinion is not just important, it’s critical. This is best summarized by Tom Nichols in the ‘The Death of Expertise.’
  8. And now, now I get to a part of the article that sent me off to do my own research, which resulted in me walking away from my computer shaking with outrage. Glibly Svensson refers to the horror suffered by Danah Boyd, “[p]art of the challenge ahead is about exploring digitally inflected modes of academic expression, how they interrelate, and their importance for humanities scholarship.”

    Really buddy boy? That’s all you have to say about the atrocious thing that was done to Boyd? Here is the story from Boyd’s perspective. This is where the field of digital humanities turns out to be not just repetitive, but downright evil. This woman was experimented on, by people and in an environment she should have felt safe with and within. It is a violation of so many ethical rules it makes my blood boil just writing about it.
    Take a page from the STS field you DH people, don’t run experiments on people without going through an IRB. And hey, is it possible that this disgusting thing happened because she’s a woman?
  9. While we’re on the topic of gender, I’m going to close out by pointing out that technology is just another force acting on society, much like shifting gender roles. Just as a thought experiment, take Svensson’s first paragraph of his conclusion, and every place he says ‘digital humanities,’ insert ‘gender studies’ instead.
    “The territory of the digital humanities is currently under negotiation. While there is no doubt that the field is expanding, it is not entirely clear what is included and how the landscape can be understood or structured. These ongoing negotiations occur on multiple levels, from an individual graduate student and local institutions to national funding agencies and international institutional networking. They are consequently situated institutionally, physically, politically and epistemically. These negotiations, which tend to be located “in between,” are particularly important to any attempt at analyzing or advocating an inclusively conceived digital humanities.”
    Hmmm…. Seems to fit very neatly to me.

You are all cordially invited to explore the STS field. It’s a great playground and will provide some time saving theories and (dare I say it?) epistemic tools.