Digital Humanities for Indian Higher Education

Posted by Sara Morais and Subhashish Panigrahi at Jul 18, 2013 07:50 AM |
The digital age has had a huge impact on higher education in the last decade transforming the modalities of both teaching and research. To discuss these changes and what it means for research work, a multidisciplinary consultation was held at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore on July 13, 2013.
Digital Humanities for Indian Higher Education

Participants of the Digital Humanities Consultation

Hosted by HEIRA, CSCS, Tumkur University, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai the Center for Cultural Studies (CCS) and Access To Knowledge Programme of Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), the consultation addressed what it meant to be a Digital Humanities researcher and how to curricularize something that refuses to confine itself to disciplinary boundaries. The introduction note had Tejaswini Niranjana of HEIRA-CSCS & TISS speak of the promise of free and democratic education on the Internet, which had so far failed in a sense that scholarship was having difficulties with justifying work produced online. Especially in India the question of integrating scientific work in local languages was of importance, as mainly research is happening in and for the English-speaking world.

However, as Vishnu Vardhan, Programme Director, Access to Knowledge at CIS pointed out when taking over the second part of the introduction, projects like the Indian language Wikipedia project are making an attempt to fill that gap. One of the key aspects to digital humanities is that knowledge should be free and open source and providing Wikipedia in Indian languages is a step towards more accessibility. Of course the field is not easy to define. The digital humanities embrace everything technological, which means that often one could be doing digital humanities work without actually realizing it, as Vishnu Vardhan exemplified with the media archive work he had been doing before the term "digital humanities" was properly coined.

This example serves for one of the many ways in which digital humanities is work that involves not just reading theory but actually "building", as Stephen Ramsay had called it. As has been hinted at in the previous blog posts on digital humanities, this calls for a new set of tools and skill sets for students entering the "field". Again, there is little clarity on whether or not the digital humanities can be seen as a field, however, for the sake of simplicity, I address it as one. It should be stated, though, that this field does not have the classical confines and closed boundaries of disciplines, but is conceived as an open, ever-changing space in which work is being done in a trans-disciplinarily way. Within this field, new questions arise: What exactly is this producing? Is the archive the number one research output? And if yes, what does that mean for the humanities field? As the way archives are produced influences the very content of knowledge, digital technologies being implemented must have an impact on today's knowledge inventory. Passing knowledge and improving scholarship is therefore an important factor for accessibility and an equalizing societal factor.

In the first session of the day Amlan Dasgupta from Jadavpur University, Kolkata addressed the problems of curricularising digital humanities. As it is a field that deals with contemporary social factors, which are ever-changing, it is difficult to set up a course much in advance, which will match the expectations it produces. Nonetheless, the instability of digital platforms is not only negative. While a course should have a certainty about what it needs to deliver, the openness of digital humanities seminars enable venturing into unknown research territory with possibly unpredictable and therefore fruitful outcome. While the internet suggests a world wide collaboration possibility, little research is being done in local Indian languages, as optical character recognition is a problem online. Which is why India has experienced what Dasgupta calls an 'archiving moment', several older texts and research work are being digitally archived so as to make them more accessible and increase the native language portfolio. This is part of what can be called the first wave of digital humanities, where mainly non-digital material are transferred into a field of digital operability.

The so-called second wave of digital humanities focused on things "born" digital, inherently digital experiences, like computer games, 3D modeling, GIS mapping and digital surrogates. In the digital age, all cultural experiences have a digital part. While aforementioned categories are purely digital, cultural and societal objects are not necessarily that easily defined. We are experiencing the merge of the digital and analog, it is impossible to think the one without the other. This is where the digital humanities step in, as they are not only about using these experiences, but actually about making them. Therefore, the field could be about evolving tools, free and open-source tools, which ensure access, build databases and create metadata. It is essential that one develops ones own methods and tools to do digital humanities work. Metadata should be community held and a collaborative process, not only to include many voices but also because authorship is evolving and there is no one single heroic individual who processes data.

Nishant Shah, joining in on Skype in digital humanities manner, explained his first encounter with digital humanities arising the hopes of his science fiction dreams finally coming true. The encountered reality, however, faces many challenges amidst the number of possibilities it brings. Digital humanities are complex as the field incorporates the object of study, just as it uses it as a methodology. As it uses the very tools and methods which define its existence, questions of humanities scholarship are getting reframed. Digital humanities rephrase questions of the social, cultural and political, making them more and more about infrastructure, turning the information society mainly into a data society. The critical skills of human intervention are now being replaced by new skills required in the time of data. This leads to a naturalization of data, which carries the danger of seeing knowledge once again as a given. As was explained in the last blog post, data is just as subjective as information and hiding this factor by neutralization and naturalization is a concern digital humanities need to address, as data has now become a structural component of being. When it was just information we were talking about, it was easy to distinguish between information and reality, as information was about reality. With data, however, this distinction is no longer possible as the data produces a reality. Therefore, data is a metaphor, which stands for the structure of our experiences. The problem is that most of the data being created is invisible to the human. What we post, blog or tweet creates a lot more behind the surface of computer interfaces. Facebook is not information technology like cinema was. It produces data which is not for human consumption, namely algorithms, which are read only by artificial computer programs. We are in the service of producing data which cannot be neutral as we can not read it. In this way data dislocates the human and traditional humanities work is no longer sufficient. So in digital humanities work we need to see what it cannot reflect. How do we translate humanities political idea to data management? This implies that digital humanities are not a continuum from traditional humanities, as digital humanities challenges aspects of humanities skills and beliefs. However, this does not mean that humanities have become dispensable. In fact humanities and digital humanities should not compete with, but add to each other. So the thought process should not be what the digital can do for the humanities, but what the two fields could do for each other.

Returning to scholarship, Tanveer Hasan and Sneha PP introduced the Pathways to Higher Education project they had been working on, which focuses on language and technology in the undergraduate space. The aim of the project is to improve the quality of access in higher education and focused on the linguistic and digital divide in India. Workshops were organized on social change and collaborative learning, in which students could look at technology not just as a tool but also as a form of political and critical engagement, raising the question of how that defines the way someone looks at a project. As students are stakeholders in knowledge production, their input is much required and forms academia. There seems to be the perception that the digital is only for a certain group of people and predominantly produced in english. However, the course of the project showed that the digital can be produced in alternative, non-hegemonial spaces and realities. Digital platforms join debates based on global and local knowledges, so it is vital to employ them so as to strengthen community knowledge. However, digital debates are not easily accepted in the classroom, as social media platforms like Facebook are frowned upon by teachers, who see them only as a socializing tool. One of the challenges digital humanities face therefore surely is the skepticism it receives upon trying to produce knowledge outside of classical academic institutions. Related to this the question arose on how this 'doing' in digital spaces translates into 'learning' in an academic sense. Many of the scholars in the project were very happy to produce visual material. However, when they were asked to write in their local languages, text production was reluctant or not happening at all. One suggestion the project made to this was to stop devaluating Wikipedia as a source and scholarly tool, and instead to get students to contribute to its knowledge repositories as it is included in academia.


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In a session of participants responding to the presentations, many anxieties in doing digital humanities was addressed. A fear was voiced that digitization might be destroying archives, just as it attempted to reconfigure them. The relationship with text was becoming more difficult, as digital humanities tend to reject written work, feeling it was becoming more and more of just an add-on, which felt artificial. This could result in an analytic vs. artistic divide and the question formed was how to play with text in digital humanities work in a less frontal and confrontational manner.

It was noted that even as data is becoming synonymous with reality, interpretational challenges persevere. Entering a google search query can generate meaning, however its outcome is obscured by algorithms. A difficulty, especially in India, is that databases are only being implemented in a low percentage, once they are produced. So creating data is not enough to overcome knowledge gaps. Digital humanities are faced with the challenge of making information and data literacy increase. This needs to happen in collaboration with governmental organs, as India's government has difficulties with patent licenses and digital rights. As the perception remains that the digital is natively english-speaking, less value is given to resource material in local languages. As all computer updates, etc., run in english language, the fact that knowledge can and should be produced in one's own native language is obscured.

The expressive potential of these minority languages is therefore decreasing, a matter of concern for Indian academia. Knowledge production of educational material must be included into scholarly work, to work against this decline. In this sense, the importance of the community was addressed. When experimenting with tools and technology, it is vital to exchange experiences and build a communal exchange. However, it was lamented that often ICT courses remain at a basic office-tools level. The content of digital humanities work cannot remain at a simplistic level but must include values and methods which go into greater detail and implement guerrilla methods. If we are not able to articulate a way of understanding the problem through these contexts, what is the good in sources of voices? The fear is that digital humanities is undergoing a shift from representation to segregation of knowledge repositories.

The digital age does not only influence knowledge repositories in the academic sense. In his talk, Ashish Rajadhyaksha describes the political perspective of digital humanities by the example of the UID project in India as something that has inhabited the digital ecosystem. Within the digital, what used to be public space is now perceived more as public domain – a trend towards making data compulsory. As one can see with UID and the condition of transfer from a state to an e-state in which India seems to find itself, forced digitization can increase the digital divide and marginalize certain groups of people. Rajadhyaksha's "Identity Project" looks at what it means to have a digital identity and how it can occupy space within digital ecosystems. This project is transparently documented under Pad.ma, encouraging alternative publishing methods, such as QR-codes in text sequences leading to the video interviews they refer to. With this explosion of data being created, it should be considered that it impacts on personal views of privacy. One theory is that the anonymity rises in the sea of data, another could be that personal inhibition thresholds are lowered. It also gives rise to the question, what it means to have free digitization. As we can see with the example of google's data mining, free internet does not mean you are not paying in some way. Apart from the data you provide in exchange for online services, these are of course always gadget-based, forcing users to invest in new appliances. If digital humanities relies on the hardware and software of mainstream corporations, can it express capitalistic critique?

In several ways the answer to that question remains unclear. While traditional humanities addressed social inequalities and expressed critique, a technologized humanities concept has different aims, as Arun Menon of CSCS explains. Digital humanities has a scientific approach which does not reflect in humanities work. The computational turn has taken scientific work towards an affirmative and essentialist perception of truth, which claims to be exact and precise. This is the crisis the humanities are facing and that require a reshaping of the new arising field that is the digital humanities in India. Menon believes that digital humanities does not have content per se, but works along the boundaries of the humanities and the sciences. In this sense it cannot be a discipline or a field of its own, but can address the gray areas being left out by other disciplines and create new research paradigms by co-opting humanities with sciences.

James Nye addressed the materiality of digital humanities by discussing what it meant to have and to hold them – materially and physically, as well as virtually. Physical resources are not enough but must be provided in local languages and virtual spaces. Good dictionaries are important resources for language knowledges not only on the basis of the commonest meaning but also its social connotations. The need is for librarianship to change to accommodate these diverse features.

The last presentation of the day had Souvik Mukherjee addressing the non-boundaries of digital humanities again, stressing the fact that the digital humanities did not exist. Rather, a multiplicity of digital humanities had arisen to incorporate topics like data mining, games studies, software studies and digital cultures. These study areas, rather than disciplines, are not always connected with concerns of humanities, but still make up a large part of digital humanities work. They, too, produce narratives as does any other research, however, often these narratives can be completely fictional and take place in digital realms. Facebook micro story telling serves as an example, just as gaming narratives do. While involved in gameplay, users create, read and write narratives as they play. At the same time they create identity and involvement, which can be diverse according to the digital space that identity is occupying. Therefore it definitely plays a part in deconstructing rigid ideas of identities. Tools like Poll Everywhere, Zotero or Posterous make academic work just as playful in a digital realm and create narratives similar to the ones in videogames as they construct an informational cloud on a discourse, which is not limited to ones immediate peers but invites a collaborative process. The suggestion is that discussions and research will remain fertile as long as they are not limited. Therefore digital humanities should be seen as an emerging field of enquiry rather than a discipline or even a non-discipline, embracing the intellectual culture of convergence that is happening online.

Summarizing the consultation, Ashwin Kumar articulated four rubrics under which the single presentations could be grouped. A large part of the presentations discussed digital humanities for and in pedagogy. These talks discussed what digital humanities was doing for the classroom, for teachers and teaching situations and academia in general. A second module saw digital humanities as a research modality and a tool developing discipline. The third rubric formed around seeing digital humanities as a new social skill, which enables a new way of sociality and mirrors society for it to be open for scrutiny. Another fourth rubric was around seeing the digital humanities as a new way of archiving, of storytelling and transmitting knowledge.

The question now is how to collaborate so as to take each of these areas forward and to evolve in the digital humanities under its redefined premisses. The data being produced cannot just be categorized and put on an x/y axis. So when humanities seems to have the systematic problem that it struggles to find the technology to accompany its work, for the digital humanities it seems to be the other way around. This implies a certain lack of content in digital humanities and it is a necessity to look beyond algorithms. The questions of digital humanities cannot simply be how many times a word comes up in a text. Digital humanities will generate this kind of enormous data which in itself is meaningless but will push us to ask the right questions. It will strengthen research by adding a new dimension to data. So anxieties about what it will do to the field are misplaced. Much more, the hope is that it will introduce new objects in questions on the paths we take to find new tools.

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