Order of Multitudes

Fancy Digital Humanities and Enacting Change: A Conversation with Kelly Baker Josephs

Dr. Kelly Baker Josephs is Professor of English at York College/CUNY who specializes in World Anglophone Literature with an emphasis on Caribbean Literature. She is the author of Disturbers of the Peace: Representations of Insanity in Anglophone Caribbean Literature (University of Virginia Press, 2013) and most recently co-edited the collection, The Digital Black Atlantic (University of Minnesota Press, 2021). In this conversation, Dr. Josephs shares some of her insights on expanding the possibilities of scholarship through the Digital Humanities. 

Allison Chu: Let’s start with a quick introduction: what are some of your research interests, and what are some projects that you are most excited about?

Kelly Baker Josephs: My research interests are Caribbean literary studies, within Caribbean Studies more generally. I feel that that’s my home field. Digital Humanities intersects with that, and the intersection has over time continued to grow, but I feel like I always claim Caribbean Studies as my first place. What I’m working on now is split between the two, or sometimes at the intersection. I’m finishing up a special section and a special issue, both on the Barbadian poet and intellectual, Kamau Brathwaite. The special section is for the journal Small Axe, where we’re republishing an essay by Brathwaite that is hard to get but really influential in Caribbean Studies. The special issue I’m guest editing is for the Journal of West Indian Literature. They happened at the same time partially because Brathwaite passed away in early 2020. For both, there will be some intersection between DH and Caribbean Studies. Most of what I write about Brathwaite considers his theories and writing practices in conjunction with digital theories and practices, but the other pieces in these collections span different aspects of his work. I am also working on a monograph on these intersections between Caribbean studies and technology.

Allison Chu: This semester, some of the PIs of this seminar have been talking about how to introduce the broader Yale community to the Digital Humanities. What is the field of Digital Humanities to you, and what was your path into this field?

Kelly Baker Josephs: For the moment, I’ve settled on the simplest and broadest definition of DH that I can get away with in the myriad spaces I have to speak on it, which is the use of digital tools to examine, explore, and sometimes explain how humans interact with each other, as well as with our environments. That’s a very large definition: humans and the digital. What do they do together, and how can we use them to think about all of that? I get this question outside the Digital Humanities community from family and friends, who ask, “what is that thing you’re doing?” I try to keep it at that level of thinking. When undergraduates who have never heard of Digital Humanities ask what that is, you also have to think about how they’ve never really thought about what the humanities are, and we don’t have a good definition for that either. But then we throw “digital” on top, so I try, without saying the same words, to be as simple and clear and broad as possible.

One example would be our Keywords Project from the Caribbean Digital that we launched in 2020. It’s a good example of this because it uses digital tools to bring people together to produce something digital. In this project, we have twelve keywords that are words we feel are important to Caribbean Studies as a field. Some of them you may not think about as a keyword, like “capitalism,” “carnival,” “genealogy,” or “spirituality.” We even have “failure,” as a way of thinking through the history and present of the region. We have curators for each keyword, and they use digital artifacts, based on what the MLA did for Digital Pedagogy. Let’s take “failure” for instance, which was edited by Nicholas Laughlin. For pedagogical reasons, we wanted to think through how we could present little snapshots of things that might give us an understanding of how the Caribbean became what it is—the Caribbean as a region and the Caribbean as a diasporic entity, space, or concept. We wanted to include things like the West Indian Federation from 1958-1962. Take the Federation’s flag, for example—this is an artifact that documents the failure of the Federation, because islands became independent nations. But in the project, it becomes a digital artifact, and it’s constellated with all these other artifacts, including a photo archive that is no longer owned in the Caribbean, which gives you an idea of the complex history of the region. 

Allison Chu: I’m struck by the curatorial nature of the project, where you’re not just creating a resource, but you’re also creating an archive that students can have immediate access to.

Kelly Baker Josephs: Yes, and then they can make their own! I’ve done that for classes too, (though I call it a resource guide), because then students can see that there are all these wonderful digital artifacts/resources out there that other people have made. I’m not trying to redo those things, but what does it mean to bring those things together? About a year ago, my students created a digital resource guide on Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones. Her novel is set in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which has struggled with gentrification and real estate issues since the 1950s. My students found videos about activism specific to the area, and they wove that into the resource guide. It doesn’t have to be something about the novel; it can be something that gives us a different way of entering the novel. There’s so much that can be done with digital tools without rebuilding entire projects.

Allison Chu: I want to pivot to talking about the Digital Black Atlantic, an interdisciplinary collection of essays of which you were an editor. The volume includes contributions from both scholars and practitioners, a mix of perspectives that we at the Sawyer seminar have also been trying to curate. Could you talk a little about the impetus of this collection, and how you and your co-editor, Roopika Risam, conceived of the “Digital Black Atlantic” as a field, as method, as culture(s)?

Kelly Baker Josephs: Even five years from now, when you look back at the Sawyer Seminar and think through how you got to where you are now, there are going to be shifts that you don’t remember. The frame that we had at the beginning of The Digital Black Atlantic was a guide, but not necessarily where we ended up. In the Introduction, we wrote that we had this grand idea, and then we had to see who contributed essays that made it through the whole peer review and revision process. That was enlightening as well—who would review a collection like this? We were not breaking ground in the sense that there have been studies of the intersection of Black studies and digital technology, though no collection like this that we knew of; so how would we articulate not just the essays, but the frame in order to be legible to both peer reviewers and, later, readers of the published collection? We wanted to juxtapose the parts of the Black Atlantic that don’t necessarily get put next to each other, while also thinking about the parts of Digital Humanities that don’t get put next to each other. There could have been another organization that would have been illuminating in different ways. Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic was a guiding text for us, but what his text left out for us were ways of thinking about the global aspects of Blackness and what is happening in local spaces. We were trying to have as much coverage of the variety of the Black Atlantic and the variety of Digital Humanities practices that we could.

Allison Chu: I’d like to dive deeper into the content of the Introduction that you wrote. This introduction illuminated the inherent power dynamics of the field, and how the production of knowledge in the Digital Humanities has been centered on the Global North, and how Digital Humanities is at risk of replicating problematic and colonial relationships, particularly with communities that have been historically marginalized, oppressed, and exploited. Would you mind discussing some of the critiques and interventions that your collection makes in the field of the broader digital humanities?

Kelly Baker Josephs: We very much wanted the decentering of the Global North to be one of the interventions of the volume, but this was very difficult for us. We are scholars in the Global North who interact with scholars in the Global North, so our circuits of knowledge—our networks—land in the Global North. We had to work really hard to get outside that, because you don’t just put up a call for papers and hope for the best. There’s a mix of lengths of pieces, because we included people who did not see themselves as “doing” DH work, in terms of their position inside or outside of the academy. In those cases, asking someone to write a long piece about their practice just didn’t make sense. It’s still an academic book, and it was still going to be reviewed, both peer reviewed and post-production reviewed, in those spaces. So we needed to think: “All right, we want this person who’s doing this local work to tell us about it, but also reflect “academically” on what it means to be doing this work—how do we do that?” Some of that was about being flexible with length and some was about inviting more co-authoring of the essays, which is a common Digital Humanities practice. It also required taking stock of what we had after the close of the CFP, and realizing that we didn’t have, for instance, enough contemporary work on the continent of Africa, and asking ourselves and our networks: who can write about that? And later, if something didn’t make it through review, asking, what are we missing now? We tried very hard to not reify the Global North bias, but we still feel like we did a little bit because we’re here. We tried to straddle that divide by thinking about content and authors.

Allison Chu: In The Digital Black Atlantic, I see you making an intervention, and there are some critiques baked into this project of the field. What does your ideal field of digital humanities look like?

Kelly Baker Josephs: It’s hard to say if I have an ideal, because I am me only, and I have blindnesses and biases as well. But Digital Humanities remains very white and very Global North. What is thought of as traditional or formal Digital Humanities, or a thing that people feel they can claim as Digital Humanities practices, remains quite fancy. I hear hesitations like, “am I doing Digital Humanities if I have a blog?” If someone has been dedicated to a blog for 15 or 20 years, and therefore has this massive archive of information and various connections and analyses are possible as a result, of course that is digital and humanities-oriented. But the acronym DH, especially as capitalized D-H, is thought of as not that. Many think of DH as something that is financially supported, very big, flashy, and uses all the technology possible (and where what funding there is in the humanities gets invested). The focus is usually a combination of the digital tools that enable textual analysis or data visualization, and the tools for digital presentation of that information. There’s the praxis part, and there’s the theory part that is very much invested in being a discipline. When I say fancy, I mean there are the fancy,  flashy projects, and also the fancy words, citations, and theories. I came to this field through the use of digital tools to solve/answer questions in Caribbean Studies, and the more I used these tools (and the more tools I used), I began to see  that they were more than just functional, that they were key in shaping how I was seeing  things that interest me in Caribbean Studies. They were key in shaping the questions I was asking of the humanities more generally. Then I began delving into the fancy theory stuff and that opened more avenues of inquiry and practice.

My ideal DH, if I have one, would be to allow for more interaction between these different levels of engagement with both practice and theory across disciplines and epistemologies. Meaning, how can I bring my fancy Caribbean studies theory into play with DH theory and the same with practice, rather than only thinking diagonally.  So there would be more integration of other epistemologies that are not the ones already undergirding the technologies that we have or are using. There are ways that Digital Humanities praxis and theory are already just building on the epistemologies that are white and Western, including the language we use for digital tools and practices. My ideal Digital Humanities is not just a broadening of what we call “the big tent”—which includes a variety of forms of praxis—but also includes space for, requires even, interrogation of the hegemony of the language and theories of digital technologies. 

Allison Chu: I see you doing this with the Digital Black Atlantic, and earlier you had mentioned co-authoring, so are there other strategies that you’ve seen to be really helpful in moving beyond the very white and Global North-centered field?

Kelly Baker Josephs: Pandemic conditions have changed so many things. We fostered a dependence on the digital and reached for different tools to do things that we didn’t need digital tools to do before isolating. Then we often realized that there were things lost in translation, that is, that a digital tool didn’t actually or fully allow us to do the thing that we used to do in person, whether in the classroom or interpersonally or for research. There are ways that those failures—that inability of the digital to replicate things that we are used to doing in person—open up space for us to realize that the digital is built on an assumption about the world that doesn’t necessarily allow for other epistemologies and cultural understandings of the world. The pandemic has created an aperture that could transform our field. In some ways, it’s a threat to the field, and it makes it seem as though everything is digital now—“there’s no Digital Humanities!” I don’t see it that way, but I feel that we can be more reflective about how we use these tools and the assumptions that we have made in the application of these tools.

Allison Chu: My last question dives deeper into these reflections. How has the experience of editing the Digital Black Atlantic influenced, changed, and inspired your thinking and future work?

Kelly Baker Josephs: Recently, both me and my co-editor, Roopika Risam, were separately successful in obtaining large collaborative Mellon grants that were influenced by the volume. Roopika’s collaboration for the grant is with contributors from the volume. The project, DEFCon, focuses on research and teaching at the intersection of ethnic studies and Digital Humanities, and it thinks especially about regional institutions, examining how these tools work toward social justice in places that don’t have large pots of money. My collaboration for the Mellon grant is on Caribbean Digital Scholarship. We were just awarded this grant in December, and it’s a four-year big vision. We’re not just going to build digital projects per se—though those will come—but there’s so much more, like the teaching that leads to the projects, the theorizing, the talks, the practical skill-building and so on, that help us build a Caribbean digital scholarly community. With the support of the Mellon grant, we also get to build on the relationship between digital archives—the way that they allow for certain juxtapositions to be made—and research methods more intentionally. There are six scholars on the project, including myself, and three of the six are based in the Caribbean and will be thinking through developing curricula and resources in the region. I think that for both Roopika and myself, as well as some of our collaborators, our work on these grant proposals came out of our work on The Digital Black Atlantic volume. The volume made it so clear that a lot of the money for DH support is not going to the places we’re thinking about—it’s here in the Global North, and often at already well-resourced institutions. So what are the ways that we can use this tool of collaboration that we hone in the Digital Humanities to reorient resources in such a way that people in the spaces we think and care and talk about can not just access these tools, but also participate in the very building of such tools. So Roopika is doing her thing, and I’m doing my thing, but I think that the volume was really instrumental in leading us in these directions.