“I’m Going To Get a Little Technical Here”: An Interview with Amardeep Singh

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Literature & Social Justice
Deep Solo (1)

Preparing for the keynote address…

James McAdams: You mentioned in your March 4th keynote address to the 2nd annual Lehigh LSJ Conference a certain moment in time (circa 2004-2008) where social media and various open access publishing platforms manifested a “technoutopianism” where the spirit of sharing, collaboration, and community was, in fact, “real,” before being co-opted by economic forces, trolls, ads, etc. Could you mention an example or two of inspirational Public Humanities (PH) or Digital Humanities (DH) work during this period and speak to whether it would be possible to revive these pursuits in 2016, or has everything been monetized beyond redemption?  If there are reasons for hope, could you sketch out some of the necessary elements that might ensure (at least for a while) a “playful space” free of market commodification?

Amardeep Singh: It seems like it might be helpful to give a little personal history here.

I discovered the idea of academic blogging late in 2003, oddly enough, when I read about what people like Daniel Drezner and Michael Bérubé were doing on their blogs. I quickly became addicted to the intellectual communities I found in the comments threads at places like Michael Bérubé’s blog [JM insert: archived here] and the group blog Crooked Timber, which is still, amazingly, going strong. By spring 2004, I had started my own blog running on my Lehigh webspace [JM insert: here]. At first it seemed an act of vanity – since I knew I was a young academic that no one had heard of, how would they find my blog? I soon discovered that since I was a frequent commenter on other blogs, prospective readers were starting to find me through my commenter’s handle. I quickly discovered my average readership was in the hundreds. Within a year, my daily readership was more than 1000 readers a day.

There were many amazing things about the community of academic bloggers that existed for roughly four or five years (peaking in 2004-2008). One was the clear sense that affiliation, rank, and status didn’t matter very much to most people. Some of the most prominent bloggers in English literary studies were 1) graduate students, 2) pseudonymous figures who were clearly academics but who kept their real identities a secret (the most famous of them being “Bitch Ph.D.”[JM insert: I had to look her up; sadly her blog hasn’t been updated in 6 years]), and 3) mature scholars at what we might think of as second- and third-tier colleges. Many of the writers in this virtual intellectual community were exceptionally smart and incredibly generous with their time. I felt that if I put something out there that made a real contribution to the conversations that were in motion, it would likely pick up a fair number of readers, highly intelligent and valuable comments, and get links from others in the community.

Blogging also helped me break my dependence (learned in graduate school at Duke) on a kind of artificially complex, theoretical prose style. While the people in the academic blogging community I have been describing as active about a decade ago were all well-versed in theory, they all seemed to prize clear, efficacious prose over more conventional academic style. [Editors’ Note: If you are interested in more discussion about this topic, head over our recently published piece, Ex Academia ‘Merica, for another conversation exploring the limits of academic style when writing online.] You saw a preference for strong claims, the use of the active voice, and a willingness to take a chance on risky (but interesting) arguments. In effect, what people were modeling in this academic community was exactly the mode of effective writing we ask our students in composition classes to aim for – but which we, in our academic writing, often feel we can’t actually employ if we want to be taken seriously.

I don’t think the idea of a community like this has been monetized beyond redemption, but I do think that neither Facebook nor Twitter are architecturally suitable for replicating (or indeed, extending) the kind of virtual intellectual community I felt myself to be a part of during the heyday of academic blogging. We need a social network design that encourages 1) thoughtful longer-form writing, 2) non-anonymous commenting (with a preference for people using their real names, 3) reading frameworks that make it easier to find things that might have been published weeks earlier that we might have missed. Ideally this social network would also be owned by a non-commercial entity (i.e., a university-funded project). I would also suggest people be given the option to opt out of public metrics of approval (“Likes”), but if we really did that I worry no one would use it.

LSJ Conference Flier

JM: In terms of social justice, DH has often been criticized for being too white, too male, and too Euro-American. Indeed, it is curious to think of how it can operate as a tool for social justice when 85% of the globe (completely made that percentage up!!) doesn’t have the bandwidth or technology to access these projects. This problem has resulted in what I find to be the most interesting work being done in DH now, the GO:DH (Global Outlook/Digital Humanities) initiative, which seeks, under the term “minimal computing,” to develop software and coding practices that allow for robust archives and digital projects that can, for example, be accessed on a 2G phone by a person in Haiti. Could you speak to me about whether I’m just being idealistic about this movement or whether you too share in thinking that this, in some way, represents a genuine social justice movement in the digital humanities (or part of it)?

AS: Ok, I’m going to get a little technical here!

The “minimal computing” (or “mincomp”) concept in GO:DH is a really interesting idea that hasn’t yet gotten a huge amount of traction, in part because it’s pretty demanding from a technical point of view. For advocates of this particular idea, conventional blogging platforms and CMSes are all out because they use too much dynamic HTML (which is more bandwidth intensive). And minimal computing advocates like Alex Gil at Columbia also feel strongly that the way forward is through a strong DIY ethos that eschews proprietary software and operating systems – no Mac OS, no Windows, no Google Docs. But only a few people (even in DH) have the technical expertise to hand code their web projects and run everything in Linux.

That said, there is really a need for more work in this vein. Even if we can’t go as far as the advocates in the minimal computing are encouraging, I would love for a commercial blogging platform or CMS that would allow me to render low bandwidth versions of my writing online for readers in other parts of the world (I have a fair number of people reading my work in India, perhaps not too surprisingly). We already have the option in WordPress and Blogger for mobile-friendly versions of our posts, why not Mincomp versions as well? In the long run, the goal would be to move towards CMS frameworks that are run by non-commercial entities rather than the big corporations that own Blogger, WordPress, and Tumblr.

Deep speaking at 2016 LSJ conference.

The keynote itself!

JM: Along with Ed Whitley, you recently taught the first Digital Humanities class for Lehigh in the Fall of 2015.

  1. I’m curious if you can talk about this process—what did you take away from the class?
  2. If you would teach the course again, what do you suspect would be the main changes to your syllabus design and general teaching approach?

AS: First, let me say that it was really fun and exciting to co-teach with my colleague Ed Whitley. In addition to it being my first DH class, it was the first time I was co-teaching anything at all. I really enjoyed the daily give-and-take with my incredibly smart and knowledgeable colleague, and I hope that seeing us talk to each other was instructive for students in the class. I also, needless to say, appreciated the fact that on days when I felt my colleague could do a better job on a given topic, I could actually just sit tight and let him take the reins.

More to the actual subject, it’s a truism—which turns out to actually be true–that you can learn quite a lot while teaching. And I felt I learned a huge amount from the experience of working through a pretty vast array of different DH sub-fields, concepts, and methods in the DH course last fall. While I was most proud of the collaborative digital project I designed for the students around Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows, that project turned out to only be one of the many interesting projects students created in the class. Some were considerably more technical; by the end of the semester, students in the class were experimenting with fairly advanced technical projects in quantitative text analysis, topic modeling, data mining, and natural language recognition [JM insert: INDEED, they all probably know more about DH now than I do!]. And people doing these highly technical projects included some students who, at the beginning of the semester, gave us feedback to the effect that “I came into this class not really knowing what DH is; the stuff you guys [Ed and I] are talking about is all Greek to me.” So the fact that the class helped students feel much more confident about their digital skills suggests we were doing something right.

If I do it again (probably on my own), I might give over more of the class to talking about digital editing, TEI (textual encoding initiative), and “digital thematic collections,” and also some of the technical things we were doing (topic modeling and so on). I might reduce the amount of time spent talking about Eliterature and digital media studies, since in some ways that is actually a field that is distinct from DH proper.

JM: Thanks for your time, Deep!  It was a great class, as well as a great keynote address. No matter what happens in DH/PH in the coming years, to paraphrase Casablanca, we’ll always have Crooked Timber!…

And since we’re here among friends & colleagues at Drown Unbound, we’d love to hear what you have to say about DH’s role in the humanities, past and future, particularly with regard to literature and social justice.  Is it simply the most recent pretentious academic buzzword (I can think of thousands of examples but don’t want to offend!), or do the various archives, network analyses, thematic collections, and data mining projects, inter many alia, provide new possibilities of interpretation and understanding for our research, scholarship, and, perhaps most importantly, pedagogy?  Likewise, in addition to its technical capabilities, DH (and PH) has also been celebrated for its DIY open source (Deep’s example of the Linux OS) /open access/collaboration ethos, which is introducing tremors into the academic infrastructure of The Solitary Scholar, peer review, tenure track review, and so forth. How do you predict this will all play out in the decades to come-will DH revolutionize academia, or will it simply be effaced, tamed, and redirected to perpetuate traditional academic values?  We’ll hang around the comments, so let us know…we’re still here….stilll….here…


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