Minimal Digital Humanities

MLA 2017 | Philadelphia | DH Forum

Elizabeth Losh (download paper)
Anne McGrail (download paper)
Alex Gil
Kim Brillante Knight (download paper)

Minimal Digital Humanities: Choice or Necessity?

Session 477, 2017 Modern Language Association Convention
Saturday, 7 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., 106B, Pennsylvania Convention Center

Presiding: Jentery Sayers, Univ. of Victoria
Program arranged by the forum TC Digital Humanities

Hacktivism, Live Streaming, and Crisis: Toward a Truly Big-Tent Digital Humanities

Elizabeth Losh, Coll. of William and Mary


Download Elizabeth Losh's paper, "Hacktivism, Live Streaming, and Crisis," in PDF


In imagining the user experience of the digital humanities – even in the contemporary era of ubiquitous computing, mobile devices, and smart objects – the dominant model for interface design remains the screen that emulates the traditional codex. In this way reading is privileged over sensing, representation is privileged over registration, and metalingual communication is privileged over phatic communication. The exigent conditions of rhetorical expression are also suppressed, and the fantasy of infrastructural independence is maintained.

The many ways that science fiction writer Octavia Butler described access to survival kits in the Parable and Xenogenesis series provides a different model for considering assemblages of tools, weapons, currency, sustenance, disguises, maps, contraception, reference works, and supplies for hygiene and shelter as much more than instrumental goods. Since Robinson Crusoe, the inventory has long been a feature of novelistic discourse, but Butler’s communal vision questions the survival kit's status as private property and redesigns its colonizing functions.

This presentation builds off recent conversations among European hacktivists about how best to help refugees, who have—much like Butler's characters—often been reduced to the conditions of bare life. It considers what might be in a contemporary survival kit from both an artistic and activist perspective—from wifi routers and mesh networks to speculums and rape kits—using work by Metalab, Mz Baltazar's Laboratory, Tactical Tech, Gynepunk, and the Center for Media, Data, and Society as possible models.


Elizabeth Losh is an Associate Professor of English and American Studies at William and Mary with a specialization in New Media Ecologies. At William and Mary, she is the Co-Director of The Equality Lab, a space for digital scholarship. Previously she directed the Culture, Art, and Technology Program at the University of California, San Diego. She is the is the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009) and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014). She is the co-author of the comic book textbook Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2013) with Jonathan Alexander. Her forthcoming edited collection MOOCs and Their Afterlives will be out in 2017 from University of Chicago Press.

Open Source in Open Access Environments: Choices and Necessities

Anne McGrail, Lane Community Coll., OR


Download Anne McGrail's paper, "Open Source in Open Access Envrionments," in PDF


How can minimal computing support maximal equity in higher ed? I have been teaching "minimal" (perhaps heretical) digital humanities through necessity for five years: at open-access, under-resourced institutions such as the community college where I teach, "minimal digital humanities" has been the only kind possible. Delayed and uneven development have characterized community college DH, which is unfortunate given that digital projects offer empowering tools for students to represent their communities and to challenge inequalities. Those inequalities are increasingly stark: students from the lowest socioeconomic quintile are more likely to begin post-secondary education at community colleges, and community colleges serve proportionately more women, more students of color, more first-generation college students and more returning adult learners than four-year schools and research institutions. At the same time, pressures on community colleges to make degrees more "relevant" for job creation have led to gutted humanities departments.

As a field, Digital Humanities has been grappling with theoretical and practical issues of equity and inclusion. At the same time, the MLA has belatedly, perhaps grudgingly, acknowledged that graduate degrees may lead to community college careers. In my remarks, I urge researchers and scholars to actively consider outreach to open-access institutions such as community colleges and to use curricular design as a lever for increasing equity in the field. This outreach can occur at the level of pedagogy and course content, I argue, in which explicit backward design and agreed-upon threshold concepts provide a blueprint for shaping meaningful student engagement with DH at any level of the curriculum.

The research and scholarly imaginary that drove "maximal" digital humanities projects and centers was slow to incorporate community colleges into its narrative. But as the field matures beyond scaling up for its own sake and settles into a consideration of the local and the "minimal," the time may be ripe for DH educators to consider both knowledge transfer (techniques of scaffolding) and credit transfer (models for articulation agreements with community colleges).


Anne B. McGrail is on the English Faculty at Lane Community College. She has received two NEH Office of Digital Humanities grants for bringing digital humanities to community colleges. She shares her work on and maintains the DH@theCC Commons (, supported by a 2015 NEH ODH grant). Her essay, "The Whole Game: Digital Humanities at Community Colleges" was published in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016 (Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, eds., U of Minnesota Press).

Minimal(ist) Design in Digital Humanities: Traces, Materials, and the Question of Pronouns

Alex Gil, Columbia Univ


Coming soon.


In previous debates of what's at stake in an exploration of the value of a minimalist approach to certain areas of humanistic computing, I have tied such value to taking over control of the materials and conditions of knowledge production. Often I have been asked reductio-ad-absurdum, "Where do we stop? Should we take over the internet? The electric companies?" In this presentation, I will elaborate on my counter-question, what do scholars need? If our need is to renew (research), activate (social justice, teach) and steward (archives and libraries) a scholarly record, then I argue the limits of the minimal begin to surface. My own practice has focused on careful design around static site generation and sneakernets, as my sample projects will show, because one of our most pressing needs is to design for a sustainable future out of the scandalous swindle of the author-publisher-library vicious circle—a future ready for global relationships built around new intersecting histories that undermine the patriarchal and colonialist record we inherit—while slowly demystifying the layers of obfuscating metaphors that have accrued around our digital lives.


Alex Gil is Digital Scholarship Coordinator for the Humanities and History at Columbia University. He serves as a collaborator with faculty, students and the library leveraging non-trivial technology use in humanities research, pedagogy, preservation and publishing. Current projects include sx archipelagos; Ed, a digital platform for minimal editions of literary texts; the Open Syllabus Project; the Translation Toolkit; and, In The Same Boats, a visualization of trans-Atlantic intersections of black intellectuals in the 20th century. He is founder and former chair of the Global Outlook::Digital Humanities initiative and the co-founder and co-director of the Group for Experimental Methods in the Humanities and the Studio@Butler at Columbia University.

Making Space: Feminist DH and a Room of One's Own

Kim Brillante Knight, Univ. of Texas, Dallas


Download Kim Brillante Knight's paper, "Making Space," in PDF


But, you may say, we asked you to speak about minimal digital humanities—what, has that got to do with a room of one's own? I will try to explain. When you asked me to speak about minimal digital humanities I sat down on the banks of a river and began to wonder what the words meant. They might mean simply a few remarks about funding; a few more about space; a tribute to the human collaborators who are anything but minimal; some witticisms if possible about university administrators; a respectful allusion to the work of feminism in the academy; a reference to the NEH and one would have done. But at second sight the words seemed not so simple. The title minimal digital humanities might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, underfunded DH projects and what they are like, or it might mean a mode of humanities in which the qualifier "digital" becomes minimal; or it might mean a foundational embrace of minimalism, or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together and you want me to consider them in that light.

But when I began to consider the subject in this last way, which seemed the most interesting, I soon saw that it had one fatal drawback. I should never be able to come to a conclusion. I should never be able to fulfill what is, I understand, the first duty of a roundtable participant to hand you after seven minutes’ discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece for ever. All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point—a scholar must have money and a room of her own if she is to do digital humanities . . .

(abstract based on A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf)


Kim Brillante Knight is an associate professor of emerging media at UT Dallas, where her research and teaching center on gender and intersectional feminism in networked environments. She is the founder and director of Fashioning Circuits, a public humanities project that is celebrating its 5th anniversary this year.