In this essay, I reflect upon lessons that I have learned from engaging with Digital Humanities (for the first time) during my Masters in African Studies, and how I have come to understand the values that they can bring to us by helping us challenge established forms of traditional academia. In the first part, I will address the initial reluctance I faced towards the idea of engaging with Digital Humanities. Then, I proceed by acknowledging some current flaws within traditional academia, which will be of use particularly in the latter part of the essay as we think about how Digital Humanities might help remedy some of those flaws and to what extent. Based on those points, I then locate myself as an ‘academic thinker’ on why challenging the systems and accepting the flaws of traditional academia might be difficult,
and yet how Digital Humanities has helped free some of those constraints. Following that, I outline more specifically some ways Digital Humanities help us challenge our knowledge, even without necessarily focusing on its contents. Lastly, I end by reflecting on which aspects and methods of Digital Humanities appeal the most to me personally and for my future research endeavours.
My entry within the field of Digital Humanities was honed with reluctance and judgement, as well as lack of understanding as to what extent it could be classified as ‘true’ academia. I struggled to understand how and why it made sense to fit them into already pre-agreed upon structures and what value this would add. I understood digital technologies to be useful, that I had never questioned, however, I perceived them to have benefits that served other purposes and goals than those of academic writing. Perhaps, to put is extremely crudely, I understood digital productions to serve the main purpose of informing people of existing problems and/or debates and therefore spark conversations and curiosity of the consumers of those productions. On the flipside of the same coin, I viewed traditional academia as serving the purpose and ability to engage on a deeper level with those
problems and/or debates in the quest of finding truth (which I am aware of is inherently subjective) as they cater to audiences more familiar with the particular topic. Digital media, as such, was associated by my preconceived ideas to rather deal with width and traditional academia dealing more with depth. Thus, in a sense, I had a biased idea of the two being opposites end of the spectrum, as well as mutually exclusive since I perceived them two serve two different purposes.
As a result, my preconceived ideas of the value of the digital made me struggle to engage with it at an academic level. I felt there was a lack of theoretical and methodological grounding, which Pauwels (2012) argues is something that could be improved in the roam of the visual. Understanding the writing of Sarah Pink (2012) and making sense of it was an initial challenge for me, as I perceived the content of many chapters in her book, such as Chapter 1, to be in contradiction with the way she was conveying knowledge. On the one side, the content focused much on the idea of the digital and how it fills an important gap in our knowledge and therefore should play a bigger role in academia. Yet, her book is written in a traditionally academic style, without the use of all these visual methods she was advocating for. Not only was this at the time proving my initial bias towards traditional academia that certain ideas are best conveyed in pre-existing and pre-decided forms of knowledge, but it also took away from her legitimacy as she was not ‘practicing what she preached’.
However, at this point, it is important to clarify and reflect on my own initial biases that I mention. Whilst I originally, and still to some extent, prefer a traditional academic style (perhaps as this is how I was previously trained), it does not mean that my biases make me blind to the flaws present within my own preferences. Traditional academia certainly has its
deficits and I will touch upon those in the next paragraph, as it is important to address those when talking about challenging knowledge.
Academia, as known in its traditional sense, exhibits flaws, both in its form as well as in its contents, which are too often overlooked. It is not the scope of this essay to go in depth about the debates within these discussions, but rather to give a general overview in order to position this essay. Outlying these debates also serves the purpose to clarify what I imply when I refer to ‘challenging knowledge’ (and which knowledge I refer to) within this essay, and what direction these challenges are taking.
Conversations about the content of academia and the need to decolonize it have sparked in great numbers over the recent years, and have been emphasized by movements such as Rhodes Must Fall. Perhaps the most addressed and self-evident aspect of the discussion of the decolonisation of the curriculum is the aspect of the discussion that concentrates on the
need to decolonise the contents of our teaching and knowledge production.
Decolonisation of the content, so to say, addresses many various aspects of our knowledge production and teaching. However, to summarise its essence of the conversation is about who gets to create knowledge and whose voices are silenced. Decolonising the curriculum does not stop at changing the canons by reducing the dominant presence within them of
white cis males, but it also means that we need to include other epistemic traditions aside from the established prevailing Western modes of thinking and knowledge production. Essentially, even if we are diversifying, it is not enough if we do so by only letting in other authors which have the same knowledge base as us.
Further, and inherently linked to the aspect of the discussion on content, is the need todecolonise the form in which we convey the knowledge. These criticisms link more to the way in which universities are organized and take shape and form. Mbembe (2016) argues that ‘universities today are large systems of authoritative control, standardisation, gradation, accountancy, classification, credits and penalties’ which have turned higher education into no more than a marketable product. Yet, despite the rise in those conversations and their importance, change remains slow in pace to come to fruition. In the next paragraph, I reflect a bit upon my experience in trying to reposition myself into academia as I become more aware of these flaws of higher education, particularly in their form and organisational culture.
Despite being aware of the flaws and deficits of academia, trying to reposition myself within it is not easy. In a sense, I too became trapped by deficits mentioned before. Perhaps, this is one of the important reasons that kept me from accepting the digital and truly challenge knowledge. My traditionally academic training allowed, and also encouraged, me to critique academia and its contents, but yet my voice didn’t matter. There is a certain hierarchy that is very difficult to climb up and surmount, and people at the very bottom of the ladder – students like me – have minimal to no influence within discourses. Of course, we are expected to challenge thoughts and ideas within classes and essay, but our opinions and voices have no weight outside of the classroom. This critical thinking is merely encouraged as it will become a tool that eventually can help us climb the ladder of hierarchy, however, without a certain status on the ladder that critical thinking has no value. This ladder is complex, and despite there being certain clear ways known that help one climb the ladder – number of citations or publications, title, position within a university – the process still
seems nebulous and daunting. Yet, despite these challenges, following and subscribing to this structure often seems like the only way to gain respect and recognition within the field. As an aspiring researcher, I struggled to see how I would be able to use digital techniques and still be taken seriously and given legitimacy in the, because, to a certain extent, it would take me outside of the pre-existing structure and hierarchy.
However, coming to Leiden University, and especially studying African Studies, challenged my preconceived notions and ideas of how academia and critical thinking should be the way it had been instilled in me from my previous education. For the first time, I understood that I was able and had the right to position myself within academia, instead of merely being subjugated by the system. This ‘newly gained freedom’ largely resulted from engaging deeper about the digital aspect of the Humanities, and how it can make me evolve as academic thinker and hopefully future researcher. I go more in depth about the various aspects about Digital Humanities that are insightful for thinking of further challenging my knowledge in the next paragraph.
In order to achieve successfully this repositioning within academia, offering attention to the Digital Humanities is crucial, even by the act of merely studying them. I don’t believe that Digital Humanities alone are able to enable us to achieve a decolonisation of traditional
academia. Especially because it leaves out other academic fields of research and knowledge, such as natural sciences (although they are starting to play a role within those fields too in some cases). However, I am convinced that Digital Humanities spark conversations and thought processes which can help us to engage more meaningfully in conversations of decolonisation of higher education at a general level, pushing us in the right direction. Furthermore, I believe that reflecting upon the outcomes and ways that Digital Humanities challenge traditional academia can enable us to become more comfortable in their use. As I was facing the aforementioned challenges of reluctance towards Digital Humanities,
thinking about digital technologies as opposed to directly using them or using them without questioning made it easier for me to appreciate them.
One important aspect that is to be understood through Digital Humanities, is that the digital is inescapable in academia today, thus making the Digital Humanities inevitable. Even the way we write and share academia is digital today, showing that academia does indeed evolve (despite the doubts raised in relation to that in the earlier parts of the essay). Although this is a simple point, it is an observation that can escape us easily as the digital has become so intertwined with our lives that we almost forget about its existence due to how seamless it has become. This is a point that transpires very interestingly through Ardevol’s (2012) writing and encouraged me to rethink my awareness of our digitalised lives. As the authors describes how not only we can research through the internet, but also research the internet itself, it became evident that the digital has added a layer of complexity to our already highly complex lives to the point that it has become a new field of studies. Resultingly, we can only accurately understand this complexity by the means with which it is created. Something that might not directly seem digital or isn’t digital by nature
still can only be fully understood without the digital, as it locates itself within a digital world, and thus the non-digital is impacted by the mere existence of the digital. Resisting the use of the digital to understand a world that is deeply digitalised will only yield an incomplete picture.
To further add onto this previous point, not only are we complex but we are also irrational beings. Traditional academia often does not leave enough room to account for our irrationality and when it does it is hard to understand whether we are simply faced with the unknown or irrationality. By using various digital techniques (podcast, video etc) we are able to be better aware of it and understand it, even if it is just by just a bit more. Using various techniques to analyse those digital contents helps us to understand the unknown by giving us the ability to ‘read between the lines’. Video formats enable us to see facial expressions, body language, environments and surroundings which are able to convey much more than a mere interview transcript. Similarly, through the use of podcasts and other audio recordings, we can hear hesistances, changes in style and genre, code switching and much more that also is able to contribute to our understanding how and why ideas are shared in a certain way. It gives colour to a picture that was previously black and white. Whilst we may
still not fully understand what the story behind the picture was, the colour brings us closer to doing so. Linking to the idea of irrationality, not only do Digital Humanities help us better understand our human irrationalities (or what we conceive as irrationalities but in fact are just the unkown), but also makes us accept them. For example, the use of a multimodal platform such as Tumblr when presenting ideas can help portray the agitated switch of
thoughts our minds can sometimes experience, without undermining this human reality by trying to a condescending this sometimes irrational reality to a rationally understandable explanation.
While there are more aspects that are interesting and different with the use of the digital, the aspects of complexity and irrationality were the ones that caught my attention more. As I have already explained, using digital technologies to better understand those is able to better our research, but also just thinking about how the digital changes our ideas about these aspects (without necessarily using it) can help us learn more. On the topic of complexity, the digital challenges us to explore the ways in which our existences are complex and how the complexity is increased through our globalising and digital world. This in turn, can help us challenge our knowledge and adopt different epistemic traditions and points of view, especially because we are so complex and different that one point of view or epistemic tradition is not able to give the whole truth. If our current understand of complex human natures and interactions is just on piece of the puzzle, we need to challenge our knowledge in order to find other pieces of the puzzle. However, merely finding one piece of the puzzle is not enough (here understood as the tokenistic use of non-white knowledge in
the name of diversity) as we also have to find out how that one piece fits into the complexity of the puzzle (through use of different epistemic traditions). On the idea of irrationality, it challenges of notion of what we categorised as irrational and thus it pushes us to think and see where we can fill in the gaps and better understand human existence and interactions. The digital is able to access a part of our understanding of the human experience which we are not able to grasp through writing. By being more aware of the aspect of human irrationality, we can challenge our knowledge by differentiating between the unknown and the irrational, embracing Rivoal and Salazar’s (2013) idea that trying to question and understand the unknown (and how it differs from irrationality) can lead to
serendipitous findings through the embracement of arisings out of unplanned findings.
Lastly, despite initial reluctance to usefulness of Digital Humanities and a current lack of feeling the need to strongly incorporate them within my own research, some methods have sparked my interest for future use. One of those methods that I plan on using in my research is contemporary ethnography. Whilst ethnography has long existed in the field of anthropology, new and digital methodologies are able to complement it in ways I wasn’t previously aware of. As outlined by Marsha Berry (2017) in her book, a creative practice research in the exercise of carrying out ethnography is important as the creative helps to ‘investigate and communicate discoveries and insights made through fieldwork’. I believe
that complementing this with a video format can enhance the experience and knowledge sharing by visually complementing a thick description, and plan on making use of this within ethnographies.
Furthermore, I plan on making use of audio materials in the future. What sparks my interest particularly within the field of audio is ‘surrounding sound’ rather than voices. Of course, I will make use of the audio recording methods during interviews, as it is important and helps recall information from interviews in a more accurate way and lets linguistic choices be better explored. However, I am most interested in recording snippets of those surrounding sounds to fabricate a better immersion within the context, and in this way add to the digital thick description. Consequently, this is an important aspect which lead me to carry out the project for this class on arts and music, as I think that music is one of those ‘surrounding sounds’ that gives a livelihood to research and better immersion within what is addressed in the written content. An academic written piece on art and music can never capture the entire essence of the lived experience that is investigated unless the sound and music is conveyed within the research. Thus, I was interested in merging this idea of art and music within an academic project.
In conclusion, I have outlined how my interaction with the Digital Humanities has evolved over the course of my studies so far. I began by outlining my initial position and view towards the use of the digital within the humanities. I explained that it was a rather negative perception, partly due to the nature of my previous academic training. I moved on to explain that despite my bias towards the digital, there are problems in traditional
academia which contain flaws and need to be challenged. I did so by outlining the debates of the need to decolonize academia, both in its form and content. Then, I reflected on my own experience within academia and how it was dictated by the flaws mentioned prior, making my own repositioning difficult. Consequently, I outlined aspects of the Digital Humanities which helped me challenge my own knowledge, as some aspects of Digital Humanities enrich academia and challenges its knowledge structures in a way that isn’t possible without the digital. (Un)awareness of our digitalized lives, complexity an irrationality of human nature are aspects that I mentioned that we can now explore in more depth and rethink thanks to the digital. Lastly, I finished by mentioning how I believe that I will make use of video as part of contemporary ethnography as well as surrounding sounds to better make sense of lived experiences during my future projects.
Ardévol, E. (2012). Virtual/Visual Ethnography: Methodological Crossroads at the Intersection of Visual
and Internet Research. In Pink, Advances in Visual Methods. Sage Publishing.
Berry, M. (2017). Creating with mobile media. 1st ed. Palgrave Macmillan.
Joseph Mbembe, A. (2016). Decolonizing the university: New directions. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 15(1), pp.29-45.
Pauwels, L. (2012). Contemplating the State of Visual Research: An Assessment of Obstacles and Opportunities. In Pink, Advances in Visual Methods. Sage Publishing.
Pink, S. (2012). Advances in visual methodology. Los Angeles: SAGE Publishing.
Rivoal, I. and Salazar, N. (2013). Contemporary ethnographic practice and the value of serendipity. Social Anthropology, 21(2), pp.178-185.