DH Awards and African Visibility

A colleague of mine tweeted out that it is revealing that no African projects were among the nominations for of the DH Awards (http://dhawards.org).  After taking a gander at the list, I not only found this to be true but they also left off Oral History in the Digital Age (http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/).  Then I was really peaked.  How could they leave off OHDA in the category of “DH projects for public audiences”?  This was a scandal only eclipsed by leaving  Joaquin Phoenix off the Oscar list for Best Actor for his performance in Her.

After all, OHDA gets 15,000 unique hits every month, used in classrooms around the globe, cited by many library reference sites, and even appeared in AARP magazine (really how many DH projects appear in AARP).  Of course, then one slaps the forehead and says “doh, it is my fault.”  Given that the folks (many I  know) on the Nominations Committee are kind, generous, and all-around excellent DHers, and given the process of the DH Awards, the committee would have given consideration to OHDA, but more important, would have jumped at the chance to put an African project(s) on the lists.  The fault does not lay at the feet of the DH Awards but ours (we did not nominate the projects); thus next year we will need to be more proactive in bringing African projects to the attention of the committee.

This is not to say that my colleague did not have a point.  There is something revealing about the lack of African projects on the list (but in no way the fault of the DH Awards folks).  Africa, in general, has been invisible within the DH community and it is time to shake this up a bit.  Like one of my favorite sites, Africa is a Country (http://africasacountry.com) that seeks to “deliberately challenge and destabilize received wisdom about the African content and its people in Western media,” we need to destabilize the ways in which the DH community makes sense of the world.  To do this, I intend to write a series of speculative posts about possibly (no causality but bits of correlations) why Africa is in the DH blind spot.

However, before I do so, I want to stress the importance of DH Awards.  This is a great way to give credit to the hard work people put into DH projects.  Within our space, there are actually very few avenues to get credit for projects and it is great to see that there are more and more avenues for recognition.  And in the good-old DIY collaborative mindset of DH, DH Awards has created an open and creative space for making awards (it would be nice to see large sums of money tied to the awards but we are in the humanities).

Having our projects recognized by our peers is critical to moving the field forward; it is particularly true in the humanities where the single-authored printed text still remains the primary site of value.   And one needs to emphasize the term “authored” because for some reason we like to fetishize the notion that an author can only be an author if he/she has physically written the words, has physically written words (and, of course, the written words must appear in only selected places).

In the sciences, highly published authors may never write the final words (just scratch notes or design the study) but still can be authors.  They also often do things, like experiments and studies, that lead to results that can be published and shared with others.  In the digital humanities, often our result is a “project” — a collection of voices of those who fought against apartheid; a scholarly platform for exploring diversity and tolerance in the Islam of West Africa; a space for story telling and preservation of African languages; interviews about Africa past and present; and so on.  Lots of words (not published — at least in a proper sense) but mostly voices.

On a similar note, I recently attended a meeting in which the college was trying to figure out how to encourage more grants and large grants in the Humanities.  They proffered answers were typical sticks and carrots: force all faculty to write at least one grant, put more funding into getting people together, and so on.  All strategies guaranteed to fail. I asked the simple question — if we get a big grant, what does the college do?

This was met with silence because, of course, the answer is nothing.  As one colleagued noted, I am better off locking myself in my office and turning out two or three articles, alone, writing words.  At least at the end of the year I will get something in terms of merit pay.  Get a big grant and complete a big digital project and …. nothing (in fact it may hurt).

What one needs to do to increase large grant production in the humanities is pretty simple.  Go find folks who do not really care about traditional careers.  Find it fun to collaborate with others.   Enjoy venturing beyond the confines of the of the department, field, college, institution and muck around with folks in museums, libraries, archives and sundry non-profits.  And can be gleefully blind to the ways in which they are ignored and slighted by traditional measures of merit and scholarship.  Of course, again stating the obvious, the #alt-ac folks have been saying this for years.  #Alt-ac is not simply about preparing students for alternative career paths (an important part), but also about the ways, many in the DH, live their lives and do their work.

I do apologize for retreading the well-worn space of merit and #alt-ac.  Many of my DH peers have much better posts on this (and more complete).   MLA has been doing wonderful work in this area for years both on the level of panels and policy statements.  But it is an important context — not only for pointing out the importance of the DH Awards — but it is precisely in what we value, how we define ourselves, and how we tell our history that shapes the invisibility of Africa within DH.

But that will be speculations for next time.  For now, I am off to vote for DH Awards and support their efforts.  And promise that next year we will bring many African projects to the attention of the nominations committee.



Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *