New Modes and Sites of Humanities Practice

An extended survey of digital initiatives in arts and humanities practices in India was undertaken during the last year. Provocatively called 'mapping digital humanities in India', this enquiry began with the term 'digital humanities' itself, as a 'found' name for which one needs to excavate some meaning, context, and location in India at the present moment. Instead of importing this term to describe practices taking place in this country - especially when the term itself is relatively unstable and undefined even in the Anglo-American context - what I chose to do was to take a few steps back, and outline a few questions/conflicts that the digital practitioners in arts and humanities disciplines are grappling with. The final report of this study will be published serially. This is the sixth among seven sections.

 

Sections

01. Digital Humanities in India?

02. A Question of Digital Humanities

03. Reading from a Distance – Data as Text

04. The Infrastructure Turn in the Humanities

05. Living in the Archival Moment

06. New Modes and Sites of Humanities Practice

07. Digital Humanities in India – Concluding Thoughts


Introduction

From a brief exploration of the problem of new objects and methods of research in the digital context, we have come to or rather returned to the problem of location or contextualising DH, and whether it may be called a field or discipline in itself, in India. As the previous sections may have illustrated, most of the prominent initiatives around DH in India have largely been within the university context, or have at least focused around the university as the centre of the processes of knowledge production, and emphasise a move away from more traditional ways of doing humanities, and at a larger level the more established and disciplinary modes of knowledge formation. In the context of pedagogy, DH seems to be developing in a very specific role, which is that of training in a certain set of skills and topics, which the existing disciplines have so far not been able to provide or even accommodate. These include tools for working with digitisation processes, digital archives, and the use of computational methods in the study of cultural artifacts. Thus processes such as topic modelling, data visualisation, cultural analytics, sentiment analysis and several more become increasingly prominent in discussions about DH. The university or more specifically the traditional classroom offers a particular kind of teaching-learning experience which may not always have within its ambit the necessary resources or strategies to foster new methods of knowledge production, and a lot of DH work has been posited as trying to plug knowledge gaps in precisely this area.

Wikipedia and internet-based sources of information are entering classrooms with the proliferation of gadgets and tools, and with this there is a tendency towards adopting a more open, participatory and customised model of learning based on collaboration. DH has been characterised by many as a space, or method that intervenes in the traditional ‘hierarchies of expertise’ (Davidson and Goldberg, 2010) – not only in terms of people, but also spaces, methods and objects of learning - to present a significant ‘alternative’ that is now slowly becoming more mainstream. A rather direct example of this in the global discourse on DH is the growth of a number of ‘alt- academics’ [1]: people with training in the humanities who now inhabit what earlier seemed to be a rather nebulous space between academics and an array of practices in computing, art and community development among many others. But it is the in-between, or the liminal space that holds the potential for new kinds of knowledge to be generated. The connotations of this notion however are many and problematic, as seen particularly in the emphasis on new kinds of skills or competences that are now required to inhabit such a space, as also the narrative of loss of certain critical skills that are part of the disciplinary method and the resistance from certain quarters within the university to acknowledge such a trend. Conversely, it is also reflective of how certain kinds of skills in writing, reading, visualisation and curation have now become essential and therefore visible. While the DH discourse in India has developed mostly within the university space, given its multidisciplinary interests and methods, it is often seen as bearing potential in terms of working outside the academic norm. Through an examination of changes in teaching-learning methods, creative and critical practices that come about with the adoption of the digital, it may be useful to explore whether it indeed opens up such alternate modes of humanities practice and how it informs the way we do DH in India; as practitioners, researchers, students, teachers or the lay person. The growth of the internet and digital tools and technologies has led to many changes in teaching-learning practices, and engendered new methods and forms of humanities practice, all of which may now be found within the university or academic space. It is therefore imperative to examine these new modes of research and practice, to arrive a better understanding of the changes in and possibilities available for humanities work after the digital. The notion of the ‘alternate’ is also an important concern here, and the emergence of these new modes of humanities practice help unpack and understand this term better.

 

Technology in the Classroom

This state of being within and to a certain extent outside of a certain predominant discourse is a peculiar one with several possibilities, and DH, owing to its interdisciplinary content and methods, seems to be a suitable space to foster new and alternate knowledge-making practices. India is also still a multi-layered technological space very much in a moment of transition, and the debates remain largely confined to the English and History departments and to some extent library and archival spaces. Outside of the university circle however, there are a number of initiatives, such as online archival efforts, media, art and design practices and research, where one may see DH–related work being done. What remains an important part of the discourse in the context of the university is the access to and a more substantial and critical engagement with technology in the classroom.

The use of technology in education has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade or so in India, as evidenced by the number of initiatives taken to introduce ICTs in the classroom [2]. However, the digital divide still persists, as a result of which many initiatives come with problems of their own, the most important being the lack of connection among practice, content and pedagogy [3]. Vikram Vincent, a doctoral scholar in the Interdisciplinary Program in Educational Technology, Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, attributes this to a problem of understanding technology itself and what it can do for learning. He looks at technology as an extension of the human body and not something alien to it. Over the course of his research, he has found that the prevalent attitude to the use of technology in the classroom, particularly in early ICTs in education projects, has been more techno-centric rather than learner-centric, which is not the most effective approach [4]. Technology has always been around in some form or the other, from drawing on walls to the blackboard to now the smart board; it has always been in the classroom. How you choose to use it determines the outcomes, and one needs to ensure that the learning environment evolves with the new technology that is introduced, because it does not happen automatically but over a period of time.

The Wikipedia India Education programme pilot project, implemented in Pune in 2011 is an example of the number of challenges that the introduction of a new technology in the classroom brought forth, in terms of skills, content and pedagogy [5]. The need to focus on the educational component of the technology, the improvement of skills of the learner in writing, research and communication, rather than on the tool itself has been an important learning from the programme, even as it continues in a different university today. As Vincent adds further, the problem arises with looking at technology as a disruptive element or merely a tool to aid learning, which prevents institutions from envisioning a more holistic model of learning that takes some amount of time and effort. This also requires the appropriate stimulus and other conditions such as training of teachers, access to resources and training in certain required skills, addressing barriers of language and so forth, which is a feature of some programmes, such as the IT @ school in Kerala which have seen a measure of success [6]. Vincent further mentions examples of programmes he has been part of, some of them under the MHRD-NMEICT initiative which focussed on the teaching-learning process rather than the technology itself, key to which is building teacher capacity to use new and already available resources better [7]. These would be crucial steps to take before envisioning a model of teaching-learning that is premised largely on digital technologies and the internet.

While educational technology is a separate field in itself which looks at better interactions between teaching-learning practices and technology [8], it does form part of the context, or landscape in India within which DH would perhaps develop as a discipline, practice or a pedagogic approach.

Another predominant discourse that informs DH is that of Information Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) which is often used as a rather broad, catch-all term, and has been variously defined and used by different groups and stakeholders across domains (Saith et al, 2008). ICT4D is premised largely around the question of access, and seeks to bridge the digital divide in terms of knowledge, resources, people and infrastructure, among other things. This has also been an intensely debated term, given its social and political implications, particularly in the manner in which it informs a larger discourse on development, technology and globalisation in the global South.(Sundaram, 2005) It is important to understand whether DH has been posited as making an intervention into these prevailing systems of knowledge – so that the mode of understanding both technology and the humanities, and the interaction between the two domains (assuming that they are separate) undergoes a significant change. What then goes into promoting more institutional stability for DH, in other words, in teaching and learning it – will be a question to contend with in the years to come, as more universities take to incubating research around digital technologies and related components and incorporating this into the existing curricula.

 

Towards a Digital Pedagogy

Dr. Abhijit Roy, Assistant Professor at the Department of Media, Communication and Culture, Jadavpur University is positive about the changes he sees in pedagogy and research with the advent of digital technologies. According to him, while a media or film studies department would be close to the concerns of DH, and use some form of digital technology such as video clips or blogs as part of coursework, it is particularly important to see what change it has brought about in traditional humanities disciplines like History and languages. While some of these changes are elementary, such as the use of digital technologies in classroom teaching and learning exercises, it is in the practice of research that he sees a vast change now. Many researchers, many of his students also, have found this a useful part of the research process, through the use of blogs and social media and the possibilities to publish and engage in discussions with other researchers through platforms and tools like Academia or Scalar [9]. It not only makes the process more transparent, but also encourages an ethos of constant sharing, dissemination and a network of usage and storage online. This has transformed the way research and pedagogy can be imagined now, and opened up several possibilities for teaching-learning practices.

It is in realising this potential for new research and pedagogical models that universities have slowly begun to adopt digital technologies, but the institutional efforts at building curricula specifically around DH-related concerns have been few, with the prominent ones in India being the courses at Jadavpur University and Presidency University in Kolkata, and more recently Srishti School of Arts, Design and Technology in Bangalore. The change is recent, as several researchers have pointed out. There have always been concerns about privacy and regulation of content, whether on a university archive or its network. The enthusiasm towards ‘anything digital is good’ is relatively new, and comes from a larger (and sometimes rather utopian) development discourse focussed around modernity and technology. Curricularisation comes with its own issues too, and they stem largely from the fact that one is still unable to understand fully the nature of the digital and its facets - we also inhabit a time when there is a transition from analogue to digital, and both modes exist simultaneously - but the rate of change is faster with the digital than with other domains of knowledge, so much so that the curricula developed may often seem provisional or arcane, which makes it doubly challenging to demonstrate its various facets in practice, particularly in the classroom. A useful distinction would be between DH being brought in as a problem-solving approach to address the extant issues of the humanities, thus also seen as threat to the disciplines themselves, but to see if it has its own epistemological concerns which may be related to but also distinct from the humanities - in short to help us ask new questions, or provide new ways of asking old ones.

The development of courses on DH in three universities in India, and the manner in which the field has been ‘curricularised’ so to say, would be an indication of its specific academic concerns in the Indian context, and the disciplinary challenges and questions that it may throw up for the teaching-learning process. Expectedly, the three courses mobilise a set of resources and expertise that the schools have built over the course of many years. In doing so they also foray into areas that existing humanities courses at the university may not have explored enough, within their own disciplinary framework. For example the course on Digital Humanities and Cultural Informatics at Jadavpur University [10] comprises of components on software studies and digital music preservation, building on work done at the large archives at the School of Cultural Texts and Records. Similarly, the course at Presidency University [11] has components on storytelling in digital media through video games, while the course at Srishti [12] has a focus on design practice and critical making amongst other interests. The courses therefore follow a decidedly interdisciplinary framework, which no doubt interesting, also makes curriculum development and course assessment a challenge. While the ‘digital’ aspect of ‘DH’ forms a significant part of these explorations, the manner in which it is being studied is an important point of focus – whether as a condition, space, concept or object, rather than just a set of tools and methods that facilitate the enquiry of the humanities. Digitisation significantly alters the cultural artifact, and there is a need to understand and theorise this digital object better. As Padmini Ray Murray points out, the digital is one way to mediate the material object, particularly those that are not textual, since that kind of experiential access can only be provided by the digital, especially in the case of archival objects. A critical understanding of the digital needs to therefore be a key aspect of such an enquiry in DH.

 

Alternate Spaces of Humanities Practice

While these are the developments within academia or the university space, there are a number of spaces outside this circle that have also been asking similar questions, and producing new kinds of scholarship and research around these ideas. The Indiancine.ma and Pad.ma archives have not only served as rich repository of material on film and video, used by scholars and film enthusiasts alike, but also as a pedagogic tool in spaces like the Media Lab at Jadavpur University. Through an innovative fellowship programme, Pad.ma has supported research and film making using the archive as a platform. An interesting example here would be a documentary film on power plants in Chhattisgarh made by Sunil Kumar. Available as a film treatment/script on Pad.ma, Kumar’s work is based on research in mainly two districts of Chhattisgarh, where he met and spoke with people, collected documents and shot several hours of video, which he then published in the form of 80 footage series on Pad.ma [13]. There are several other examples on Pad.ma, such as the video-art project on the Radia tapes, and the work on "perfume arts" in Bangalore [14]. The Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW) through its workshops on oral and visual history has tried to engage with the more pedagogic aspects of the archive [15]. While the possibilities are many, the uptake of such platforms in universities has been slow, due to issues that range from lack of internet connectivity to a discomfort or unfamiliarity with the internet and other kinds of technology. This eventually relegates initiatives like these to the space of an alternate, extracurricular or outlier, even though they seem to be asking the same questions as the mainstream institutions and doing similar work.

What this also refers to is the space for new modes of knowledge production that an increased interaction with digital and internet technologies now engenders or even brings to the fore in already existing practices. With these however, also come the questions about the legitimacy of these forms and methods of knowledge production, as seen in the rather polarised positions around DH in its global discourse. The Wikipedia is one example of this, and illustrates some of the core concerns of and about DH as it calls into question notions about authorship, expertise and established models of pedagogy and learning. Lawrence Liang (2011) describes this as a larger conflict over the authority of knowledge, the origins of which he locates in the history of the book, and specifically in the print revolution and pre-print cultures of the 15th -18th centuries. He likens the debate over Wikipedia’s credibility, or more broadly over technologies of collaborative knowledge production ushered in by the Internet to similar phenomena seen before in early print culture and how it contributed to the construction and articulation of the idea of authority itself. He says:

The authority of knowledge is often spoken of in a value-neutral and ahistorical manner. It would therefore be useful to situate authority in history, where it is not seen to be an inherent quality but a transitive one 6 located in specific technological changes. For instance, there is often an unstated assumption about the stability of the book as an object of knowledge, but the technology of print originally raised a host of questions about authority. In the same way, the domain of digital collaborative knowledge production raises a set of questions and concerns today, such as the difference between the expert and the amateur, as well as between forms of production: digital versus paper and collaborative versus singular author modes of knowledge production. Can we impose the same questions that emerged over the centuries in the case of print to a technology that is barely ten years old?

He further goes on to elaborate that the question of the authority of knowledge should ideally be located within a larger ‘knowledge apparatus’, comprising of certain technologies and practices, (in this case that of reading, writing, editing, compilation, classification and creative appropriations) which help inflate the definitions of authority and knowledge even more.

The above argument throws into sharp relief the notion of the ‘alternate’–often posited as the outlier or a vantage point, or even as being in resistance to a certain dominant discourse or body of knowledge. While resistance itself is discursive; the ‘alternate’ has also always existed in various forms, such as the pre-print cultures illustrated in the argument above, and particularly in India where several kinds of prominent practices and occupations are but alternatives - from alternative medicine to education - to the already established or mainstream system in place. As mentioned earlier, these practices may just be increasingly visible and acknowledged now. The attempts to subsume these alternate practices under a unifying term such as DH, which began as and may perhaps have been relegated to the status of a sub-culture for long, within academia then seem to be one way of trying to circumvent the authority of knowledge question.

 

Humanities and Technology: A Twinned History

Another factor in this reduced visibility of the alternate and now re-emergence is the invisible ‘technologised’ history of the humanities, which prompts us to rethink the separation between the humanities and technology as mutually exclusive domains. Therefore by extension then, the term DH itself may be a misnomer or yet another creative re-appropriation of various knowledge practices already in existence. David Berry (2012) in his essay on the computational turn speaks of possibilities that computationality, and specifically new software and code offer in terms of unifying multiple kinds of knowledge in the university. He says that:

In trying to understand the digital humanities our first step might be to problematize computationality, so that we are able to think critically about how knowledge in the 21st century is transformed into information through computational techniques, particularly within software. It is interesting that at a time when the idea of the university is itself under serious rethinking and renegotiation, digital technologies are transforming our ability to use and understand information outside of these traditional knowledge structures. This is connected to wider challenges to the traditional narratives that served as unifying ideas for the university and, with their decline, has led to difficulty in justifying and legitimating the postmodern university vis-à-vis government funding. (5)

Berry therefore indicates that this turn towards computationality is the result of an emerging need to demonstrate the relevance of the university structure to processes of knowledge production, therefore reiterating the ‘crisis’ argument. The notion of the postmodern university has been examined in detail by Bill Readings, who Berry quotes in his paper. Readings (1997) is sceptical of the term postmodern, preferring instead the idea of a post historical university, which is divested from the notion of the nation-state and further culture as a unifying idea, and is moving towards a notion of excellence that he sees as techno-bureaucratic, a result of several factors including globalisation and the fact that processes of knowledge production and institutionalisation are no longer centred around a liberal subject. If the demonstrated project of the university has changed, the emergence of such new discourse, and specifically concepts and terms such as the ‘alt – academy’ has relevance to how one may now imagine new spaces, objects, processes and figures of knowledge itself.

The significance of the university system to knowledge production has been a recurring point of much debate and discussion in India. Although not explicitly stated as a crisis in humanities by the people interviewed, there are problems of content, pedagogy, infrastructure, and vision that continue to plague higher education at large [16], and very often technological fixes are seen as a solution to these, in some part due to the imagination of a techno-democracy as described in the introduction to this report. As Berry points out then, computationality is a promise, or possibility to do things differently, which is then also inherently assumed to be a way of doing things better. The computational possibilities of DH still need to be explored, but how much of these contribute qualitatively to addressing or even furthering certain disciplinary concerns, still remains an open question. As Jan and Sebastian point out from their experience of working on Indiancine.ma and Pad.ma, the computational aspects of the archives are still to be developed, as there are still restrictions in terms of speed and feasibility (see chapter on infrastructure [17]); the kind of new questions it produces for cinema studies at large will remain a contention. Further, as Padmini Ray Murray observes, drawing on archival material, or data to develop new computational hypotheses would be a direction to work towards, as not much work has been done in this respect in India (See chapter on archives [18]). The challenges with computationality then demand, as Berry argues, a more critical exploration of the term itself, and in fact can be extended to a critical analysis of the state of digitality more broadly.

 

Final Notes

The problems with the crisis in the humanities and the contribution of technology to these changes could be located to this change in what has traditionally been seen as the space of culture and reason, which has now moved on to something else, a notion of excellence in Readings’ example, thereby changing the questions at the centre as well. This is perhaps the underlying challenge to the ontological and epistemological stake in the field. At best then DH may be seen as the result of a set of changes in the last couple of decades, the advancements in technology being at the forefront of them, whereby certain new and alternative modes of humanities practice have been brought to the foreground, but have also challenged the manner in which we asked questions before to a certain extent. As the field gains institutional stability, it remains to be seen what the new areas of enquiry that emerge shall then be in the years to come. Some of the questions or points or focus that open up are as follows:

  1. The role of extra-institutional/non-academic or alternate spaces in humanities practice, and in producing and creating new kinds of knowledge.
  2. The increased visibility of new objects and methods within informal and marginal spaces of knowledge production. This demands different, and often innovative methods of enquiry, and whether they alter disciplinary modes of humanities practice and research.
  3. The notion of a moving away from established modes of humanities practice, research and scholarship (therefore the question of a ‘crisis’) which would open up a larger debate around the authority of knowledge.
  4. The ontological and epistemological stake of DH, in short the kinds of new questions it enables us to ask.

As important and visible as the idea of the alternate is in DH, it also presents the mainstream itself as fractured space that imbibes several contradictions of the practices in question, which cannot be confined to these watertight silos of formal/informal, academic or creative. Nevertheless, the mainstream spaces remain crucial for widening and deepening creative digital practice and research in arts and humanities disciplines, and will be the spaces to watch to understand the development of a substantive DH discourse in India.

 

Endnotes

[1] For more on this see: Nowviskie, Bethany, (Ed.) Alternative Academic Careers for Humanities Scholars, July 2011, http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/alt-ac/cluster/alternative-academic-careers-humanities-scholars, last accessed December 23, 2015.

[2] The largest and most ambitious has been the Ministry of Human Resources and Development’s National Mission in Education through ICT programme (NMEICT), started in 2009. See: http://mhrd.gov.in/technology-enabled-learning-0 Last accessed December 23, 2015.

[3] To stay with the example of the NMEICT, an evaluation of the programme pointed out several challenges to technology-enabled learning, namely in the areas of connectivity, content, and pedagogy. See http://www.sakshat.ac.in/Document/NMEICT_Evaluation_Report.pdf. Last accessed December 23, 2015.

[4] For more see this position paper by the NCERT on education technology in India: http://www.ncert.nic.in/new_ncert/ncert/rightside/links/pdf/focus_group/educational_technology.pdf. Last accessed December 23, 2015.

[5] See an evaluation report on the programme by Tory Read: http://oceanwork.com/portfolio/wikipedia-education-program-reputation-management/. Last accessed December 23, 2015.

[6] See: http://education.kerala.gov.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=51&Itemid=59. Last accessed December 23, 2015.

[7] For more on these projects see: http://www.et.iitb.ac.in/sanket/?p=87. Last accessed December 23, 2015.

[8] See: Spector, J. Michael. Fundamentals of Educational Technology: Integrative Approaches and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2015; and Toru Iiyoshi and M.S. Vijay Kumar. (Eds.) Opening up Education. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2008, https://mitpress.mit.edu/sites/default/files/titles/content/9780262515016_Open_Access_Edition.pdf. Also see: http://ciet.nic.in/. Last accessed December 23, 2015.

[9] See: https://www.academia.edu/ and http://scalar.usc.edu/scalar/. Last accessed December 23, 2015.

[10] See: https://sctrdhci.wordpress.com/. Last accessed December 12, 2015.

[11] See: http://dhgenedpresi.blogspot.in/2014/01/welcome-to-digital-humanities-presidency.html. Last accessed December 12, 2015.

[12] See: http://srishti.ac.in/programs/pg-program-ma-in-digital-humanities. Last accessed December 12, 2015.

[13] See: http://pad.ma/texts/sunil_kumar:Future_Power_Plants_in_Chhattisgarh:_a_Documentary_Film_Treatment_%2F_Script. Last accessed December 12, 2015

[14] See: http://pad.ma/texts Last accessed December 12, 2015.

[15] See: http://www.sparrowonline.org/.

[16] See the report of 'The Committee to Advise on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education: by the Ministry of Human Resources and Development: http://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/document-reports/YPC-Report.pdf; and Roy, Kum Kum, "Decoding 'New Education Policy,'" Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 50, Issue No. 19, May 09, 2015, http://www.epw.in/journal/2015/19/web-exclusives/decoding-new-education-policy.html, last accessed December 23, 2015.

[17] See: http://cis-india.org/raw/the-infrastructure-turn-in-the-humanities.

[18] See: http://cis-india.org/raw/living-in-the-archival-moment.

 

References

Berry, D.M. "The Computational Turn." Culture Machine. Vol 12, 2012 http://www.culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/article/viewArticle/440. Last Accessed April 12, 2016.

Davidson, Cathy N and David Theo. Goldberg. The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010.

Iiyoshi, Toru and M.S. Vijay Kumar. (Eds.) Opening up Education. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2008.

Liang, Lawrence. "A Brief History of the Internet from the 15th to the 18th Century." In Critical Point of View: A Wikipedia Reader. Geert Lovink and Nathaniel Tkacz (Eds). Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011.

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Saith, A, M. Vijayabaskar and V. Gayathri. ICTs and Indian Social Change. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2008.

Spector, J. Michael. Fundamentals of Educational Technology: Integrative Approaches and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Sundaram, Ravi. "Developmentalism Redux." In Incommunicado Reader. Geert Lovink and Soenke Zehle (Eds.). Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2005.

 

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Author

Puthiya Purayil Sneha

Sneha is a Programme Manager at CIS, and co-leads the [email protected] programme. She is engaged in a mapping of the emergent field of Digital Humanities in India, and is also interested in questions on the nature of textuality, reading, and writing practices in the digital sphere. She can be reached at sneha[at]cis-india[dot]org.