Participants of this week-long digital humanities training institute—archivists, librarians, and scholars of human culture—were asked to consider a world in which the life of the mind takes material form. Tara McPherson, Associate Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, challenged the audience of her keynote lecture to move their research into “more tactile registers.” This would represent a fundamental shift in focus for those studying the humanities. Historically, academics enmeshed in these disciplines have relied on deconstruction (of a theory, a work of art, etc.) as a means by which to develop and test academic arguments and inquiries. But what if the axis of their work turned on building new systems, and reconfiguring pre-existing systems? The promotion of this idea is the vocation of the digital humanist.
Thanks to a scholarship from the Digital Library Federation, I was granted the opportunity to enroll in one of the specialized courses offered by HILT this summer. In my class, “Refracting Digital Humanities: Critical Race, Gender, and Queer Theories as [Digital Humanities] Methods,” our wonderful instructor Jarah Moesch led us in an exploration of the historic significance of the public restroom — a space designed, enigmatically, to be both shared and private simultaneously, and thus exceptionally fertile ground for cultural analysis.
Throughout the week we utilized digital methods to examine the ways in which bathrooms on the College Park campus have been gendered, raced, and classed throughout the university’s history, directing most of our attention to Morrill Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus and the only academic building left standing after The Great Fire of 1912. A number of research questions were posed: Were there segregated bathrooms in Morrill Hall? How were the bathrooms gendered over time? Can any insight into the institution’s history be gleaned from the location and form of the bathrooms as they exist today?
We photographed Morrill Hall and recorded video and audio within its corridors. Some of my classmates combed through the University Archives for related archival documents, while I met with the UMD’s Facilities Library Manager, who was kind enough to share with me Morrill Hall’s floor plans from the 1930s, 1950s, and 1990s, enabling us to compare structural changes to the building over time.
But once we had gathered all of these photos, videos, audio recordings, and archival documents, what, as digital humanists, were we to do with them? Well, we uploaded them, edited them, and compiled them to create narratives that we posted on our class website, Refractive Mapping. Accepting Tara McPherson’s challenge to move into “more tactile registers,” we used MaKey MaKeys to build circuits that shared our meditations on the lived experiences of women and minorities as they related to restrooms. In addition to interrogating the content captured and displayed by these digital methods, our class also discussed how different platforms mediate the experience of perceiving such content. In other words, instead of simply grappling with the subject of an image, we scrutinized how an image is created, and what implications its creation has on race, gender, and class.
Some consider the coupling of “digital” with “humanities” to be an ungodly union, making the case that time given over to coding siphons away energies better spent on more traditional academic processes of research and contemplation. But after a week at HILT, I would argue that the more closely we tether the abstract and the figurative with the physical and material, the more authentic the humanistic study we undertake. As humanists, we must not forget that what we are studying are human beings — physical bodies moving through time and space. If we edit the physical out of the narratives we create, we run the risk of deleting the actual people from the story.