Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Notes from THATCamp Feminisms West #tcfw

I'm just back from ten days in the US where I attended two events, both closely related to digital history, feminist digital humanities and women's history (whether intellectual, science, education, etc related). I'm posting to mark the moment and to collect some links - I think I'm still digesting the many conversations and moments of insight.

THATCamp Feminisms West #tcfw

A THATCamp is a technology+humanities unconference, a format much loved in the digital humanities world. This one was conceived from a twitter conversation and organised by the wonderful Jacque Wernimont of Scripps College in Claremont, California for March 14-15. Two other THATCamp Feminisms were held simultaneously in the south and east. I was invited over to do a workshop, and thought 'data visualisation as a gateway to programming' would be useful - I prepared two exercises, one of which involved thinking about how to match visualisation types to the structure of the selected content in ManyEyes, while the other was more about learning about how code works by playing with a pre-coded (and heavily, chattily commented) working visualisation that used SIMILE's JavaScript libraries - 'view source' and save the file to your hard drive to get started. It was a good chance to talk about the issues that messy humanities data create for generic visualisation tools, the risks in the 'truthiness' of visualisations, the importance of thinking critically about algorithms and issues around primary sources and women's history, etc, with people who'd thought deeply about some of these issues and could make their own contributions to the workshop.

The day started with the #tooFEW Wikipedia editathon (storify of results), which gave everyone a chance to learn and try out something new before the THATCamp had even officially started. It was a nice way to ease into things and achieve something together before working out the THATCamp programme as a group.

Over the day and a half I went to sessions including Feminist digital pedagogy and Feminist Collaboration. After a week of further travel across the US and another conference, the sessions are blurring into one, but overall they were a great chance to think about what a feminist digital humanities might be like (see for example Transformative Digital Humanities projects or read Toward an Open Digital Humanities from an earlier THATCamp for things to move towards or be careful of), to ask questions like 'what would a feminist Digging into Data look like?', to ask 'does it matter if feminist projects are made with people who don't share their politics'? (Probably not, though academic work might be attractive to people who value work/life balance.)  What's the right mix of openness and shared authority, how collaborative can a class be, and how can we help students fail safely in the cause of experimenting (especially when using public technologies like YouTube or Twitter)? It's important to remember that, as Alex Juhasz said, feminism is about process (or praxis), doing and making things, which in turn made me realise that one reason I value teaching coding is that it gives people DIY tools to make things that suit their own research needs and styles (see 'Why learning to code isn’t as important as learning to build something' but please also read Code: Craft and Culture and the comments below it). I also loved Alex's statement that she's 'less interested in feminism that starts from danger than feminism that starts from agency' and being fearless about taking up space.

The value of meeting in person was an underlying theme of the event, and eventually a conversation about Building a DH Regional Hub, and the difficulties in collaborating between institutions and organising in-person meetings with the huge geographic coverage of the Los Angeles area lead to the invention of Mindr: 'Grindr for travelling DHers - who's nearby and what do they want to chat about?', or as @ described it, a 'geo-aware interface to DH Answers', an app that lets you know when someone with similar scholarly interests is nearby and might be up for a chat.  I would *love* this to actually happen, and who knows, if someone is able to shepherd the enthusiasm for it, it might.

Beyond the value in the discussion, just being surrounded by people who were digitally savvy and were also aware of the effects of implicit biases and tech-as-a-meritocracy, the role of disciplinary gatekeepers, assumptions about gendered work, emotional labour and the pressure to be 'nice' as well as the peculiarities of academia was brilliant. It was also a bit intimidating at first as I don't feel hugely qualified to comment on feminist issues (it's a long time since I've been caught up on theory and 'feminism' online has probably made it sound scarier than it really is) unless conversation moved to 'women in tech' issues or I could contribute observations on my experience of academia and workplaces in the UK. Perhaps that's one reason I was encouraged by discussion about possible models of feminist scholarship and mentoring (including asking male allies for help) - I don't have to figure this out on my own. That said, as Anne Cong-Huyen said:
'At an event like this one, where we come together to address or at least share about gender and sexual equality in dh and the academy it leaves us to ask: Where does the burden of addressing that inequity fall? [...] And how about those of us who are junior faculty, adjuncts, or graduate students (like myself) who have even less power within the academy?'
Or in Amanda Phillips' words:
In this way, THATCamp Feminisms felt a bit different than other THATCamps I’ve attended. The infectious enthusiasm of DH was tempered here by the political, professional, and market realities that disproportionately affect marginalized communities.
I think it's important that those realities are widely understood and shared, or some of the promise of the digital humanities will have failed to blossom. Creating space for those hard questions perhaps highlights how positive, supportive and constructive the environment at THATCamp Feminisms West was.  I don't have a witty or concise conclusion, except to say that I met a bunch of amazing women and came away encouraged and inspired, and you should definitely go to a THATCamp Feminisms if you ever get a chance. Or run one yourself and see what happens. To quote Alex Juhasz again:
To me it is was less the DH, or even the digital, that made this conversation matter, but the feminist: because we shared values, the will and capacity to be critical as well as intellectual while being supportive and trying to distribute authority and voice around the room all the while working, quick.
Other posts:
(For the clarity, my personal definition of feminism is something like 'working to create a world in which the choices available in your life aren't determined by your gender' - of course, ideally the same would be true for ethnicity, nationality or class, and they're all inter-related, and they all work to create a better life for all genders. I shouldn't have to offer a definition of feminism as 'equality of opportunity' but somehow the term has been twisted to mean all sorts of other things, so there you go.)

From Claremont I made my way back to LA, then over to DC, then Philly, catching up with or meeting various ace people before heading to Bryn Mawr for Women's History in the Digital World, but I've run out of time and space so I'll have to post about that later.

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