The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Jessica Marie Johnson

Click here for the complete series of “The Digital in the Humanities.”

FOR AT LEAST THE PAST DECADE, the term “digital humanities” (DH) has captured the imagination and the ire of scholars across American universities. Supporters of the field, which melds computer science with hermeneutics, champion it as the much-needed means to shake up and expand methods of traditional literary interpretation; for most outspoken critics, it is a new fad that symbolizes the neoliberal bean-counting destroying American higher education. Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes lies a vast and varied body of work that utilizes and critically examines digital tools in the pursuit of humanistic study. This field is large and increasingly indefinable even by those in its midst. In fact, “digital humanities” seems astoundingly inappropriate for an area of study that includes, on one hand, computational research, digital reading and writing platforms, digital pedagogy, open-access publishing, augmented texts, and literary databases, and on the other, media archaeology and theories of networks, gaming, and wares both hard and soft. As Franco Moretti said to me in the first of these interviews: “‘Digital humanities’ means nothing.”

For Jessica Marie Johnson, assistant professor of Africana Studies and History at Johns Hopkins University, the digital humanities offers the academy and public alike the opportunity to proactively work for social justice. In fact, for Johnson, much like for the previous interviewee, George Mason’s Sharon Leon, working in DH provides new means to interact and engage with local communities and populations that exist outside the ivory tower of the academy. But for Johnson, the need for the academy to engage with society’s “marginalized or discriminated against” is more urgent. Throughout our conversation there is a sense that, for Johnson, working critically in DH is akin to a call to action, one that if done correctly will take seriously the humanities’s larger purpose — one that is in her words inadequately met — as a “social justice actor for diverse communities.” Speaking on everything from black history and life, to the Confederate flag, to the debate around gender and bathroom use, she articulates the need for the digital and the humanities to engage with these larger societal questions and practices of discrimination. Johnson pushes the boundaries of this series to speak more specifically to the need for public engagement in DH. In so doing she articulates the “beyond” part of “The Digital in the Humanities,” which aims to explore the surprising lines of overlap as well as outright disagreement in DH.

But Johnson also wants to push the boundaries of what the academy understands as “digital humanities” work. The field is not made up solely of programming and computation, which she says is just another way the academy tries to “limit who has access” to the DH label and conversation. Instead, Johnson’s work in the digital, which stems from her research on histories of race and gender, and in slavery studies, is by necessity replicable by those with fewer institutional resources. Thus her current digital projects include African Diaspora, Ph.D. and Diaspora Hypertext, the Blog; the related Tumblrs, Twitter, and Facebook spaces; and collaborations on the LatiNegrxs Project, the Queering Slavery Working Group, and Black Code Studies. Her work on the intersection of race, social justice, and the digital has also appeared in differences (2014), Uri McMillan’s Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance, The Black Scholar (2015), and Debates in the Digital Humanities (2016). Johnson’s interest in social media networks and archives as overlooked spaces of digital culture in discussions of the digital humanities is essentially tied to her research into and recovery of lost narratives of marginalized people. And if these narratives and digital work fail to count as “digital humanities” then we are, as she rightfully claims at the end, “having a faulty conversation.”


MELISSA DINSMAN: How did you first come to enter what I am broadly going to call the “digital” field?

JESSICA M. JOHNSON: I first started doing digital things through radical media work: radical black feminist blogging. I was originally working under the pseudonym — what became a kind of digital performance and identity — Kismet Nuñez, and was writing the blog Nuñez Daughter in a community of folks including: Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Moya Bailey, Sydette Harry, I’Nasah Crockett, Maegan “La Mala” Ortiz, BFP, Bianca Laureano, Renina Jarmon; folks around the Allied Media Conference, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence; many, many more, here and gone. This radical media work led to an article for The Black Scholar called “Alter Egos and Infinite Literacies, Part III,” which is third of a trilogy on this work and topics of digital performativity, avatars, and digital feminism. So that is how I first entered into it. I started by doing that kind of radical media, what became social media later on, and digital conversations and writing and work online.

What, then, is the current role of the digital in your humanities work? Do you think this qualifies as “digital humanities”? Do you care?

I am a scholar of slavery, and the digital work I do is around slavery and enslaved women and free women of color in the Atlantic African diaspora. So the United States, Caribbean, West Africa, some would say Europe, definitely Brazil, from the period of slavery up to emancipation, which in Brazil is about 1888. One of my first blog projects, which I started in 2008, is a blog that is still running called African Diaspora, Ph.D. It is a kind of radical bibliography bringing texts and scholarship on these topics together into one space as a project. At the time I started, there were no spaces that were really compiling these in a directed way and they certainly weren’t making them public. For example, the journal Slavery & Abolition was running a kind of bibliography component to their journal every year, but it wasn’t public; it wasn’t accessible to people beyond the academy or expensive subscription. That was my first project, and that project literally married the work that I was doing in radical media, which was blogging publicly and from the perspective of histories of race, gender, and sexuality, and the work I was doing at the time as a graduate student and that I am now doing as a professor. So in that sense I think the digital is related to and intersects with the actual work and research I do on the ground.

But I think more importantly, the way I understand how I do humanities work and how I approach history is deeply informed by what I understand to be my digital world and the digital landscape with which I engage. The digital influences the way that I approach the archive; my understanding of how to read sources and how people in the past and present are engaged with each other; and how to read into things that are more ephemeral, like the moments in which we laugh, in which language changes, and the shorthand languages that we use among each other that define who is kin, friend, or enemy. Those moments or spaces that are more ephemeral are both analogous to me of social media spaces and also of the ways and moments that diasporic black folk have played in the fragments of the archives.

Does this qualify as digital humanities? Yes, I think social media qualifies, and in that sense I do care because I think social media work is a labor that gets short shrift in the upper echelons of power in the academy.

So do you think social media is a digital subfield that yields the most benefit to the humanities? Or is there another field of inquiry that you think humanists should be paying more attention to?

I would put forward three. I would definitely say that social media needs to be better understood and appreciated as a subfield in its own right. I do think it becomes a nephew of a lot of other fields or projects that are happening, such as text mining or network analysis. But I think there are ways that social media, as a kind of work and way of organizing knowledge, is actually an interesting subfield that has not been fully engaged. I’m thinking of work by Aleia Brown and Joshua Crutchfield around #BlkTwitterstorians and the Twitter chats they hold every month; the hashtag syllabi created by African American Intellectual History Society bloggers; and work by Bergis Jules and Ed Summers and their team on Documenting the Now which is archiving tweets appearing around the killing of Mike Brown, #SayHerName organizing, and the Baltimore Uprising. I honestly find more people doing this type of work outside the academy, folks like Mikki Kendall who created the #FastTailedGirls hashtag, Ahmad Greene who helped organize #FergusonFridays and #BlackChurchSex twitterchats; organizations like Dream Defenders, Black Youth Project, Black Lives Matter organizers; all kinds of other folks who are doing digital black feminist work online, digital organizing. There are conversations that are happening that social media can provoke because you have to be social and deal with other people. That means questions about difference, hierarchy, how we relate to each other in a real way, become really salient and very public. And I think there is something very radical there that we are not tapping into except to “research” it, and that’s just exploitative.

I think another subfield is archive work, and this intersects with social media nicely. Archivists are using social media in particular ways to generate knowledge around police violence, prison abolition, social justice, etc. Our job as scholars is a) to be invested and involved in that organizing practice and b) to think about how the digital tools we have and the practices behind those tools also finds use here. I think people who work in archives are really on the ground and doing really great work thinking through these ideas.

The last subfield would be in histories of Atlantic slavery folks who have been at the forefront of doing digital humanities and digital history work. I’m thinking of William Thomas at [the University of] Nebraska on the Civil War, or projects around digital archives of runaway slave ads, Vincent Brown’s map of slave revolt in Jamaica, and Jerome Handler’s database of slavery images. So when people say that digital archives are just a way to compartmentalize knowledge, I scoff at that, because the way that slavery scholars have approached digital tools is to unearth these amazing archives of material and use that to confront ideas that are still prevalent about what relationship black people have to enslavement and what relationship plantations had to black life. These are debates that we still have now, as you can see with the Confederate flag debate. So the idea that these are just archives is foolish to me and it talks down to important work that is being done in this field.

People often speak of digital work (and more frequently the digital humanities) as a means of making the humanities relevant in the 21st-century university. Do you think this statement is a fair assessment of digital work and its purpose? Do you think it is fair to the humanities?

I think there is a tension in how the humanities views itself and is understood within the context of the 21st-century university. I don’t think the digital humanities is or is not the answer to that tension. I think there are questions that the humanities has struggled with and for me those questions relate to issues of accountability: Are we accountable to students? Are we accountable to the communities our universities are in? Are we accountable to all of our students? Are we accountable to transgender students who want to use different bathrooms? On the surface those seem like things that are aside from humanities work and scholarship. But I think that what the humanities is grappling with is how to be relevant to a changing demographic and changing communities, both at the university level and within the communities in which universities are situated. I don’t think digital work is or is not going to be the key to answering these questions. I think the humanities has a justice imperative that it has not quite fulfilled as a mission (even as individuals continue to work and push that). I mean, what is your university’s investment in black studies, in ethnic studies, in women, gender, and sexuality studies? How are those being cultivated as spaces that serve students, communities, in productive ways? What kind of scholarship is being supported and about who, by who? So I think the 21st-century university has a lot of struggles and tensions that aren’t about the digital being the new fancy tool, but are actually about the extent to which the university is or is not accountable to increasingly diverse and stratified communities.

In a C21 post titled “The Dark Side of Digital Humanities,” media scholar Richard Grusin draws connections between the emergence of DH and the increased “neoliberalism and corporatization of higher education.” Do you think such a comparison has merit? Is there something about the digital humanities’s desire to produce that creates an alignment with neoliberal thinking?

First of all, I think that “The Dark Side of Digital Humanities” is a really great piece. I also think there are people who have engaged in this critique in more interesting and generative ways than most people who are talking about it right now. I am thinking specifically about the folks at #TransformDH and HASTAC; folks at the Dismantling the Ivory Tower Network Gathering at AMC last year; as people who have been challenging the neoliberalization and corporatization of the digital humanities and the academy. I think that the digital humanities is just low-hanging fruit. This isn’t to say that the digital humanities is not part of the neoliberalization and corporatization of the university, but I think many things are part of this. And what’s been interesting about DH is that it has created this opportunity for people who work in radical media to also offer their own kind of critique of the academy as a project.

I do think “dark side” conversations need to be had. But I think that when they go too far, we actually lose the point, which is to continue to think systemically about what is the university, but not lose the power and potential of people doing the work who use digital tools and, more importantly, are thinking about change in the world from digital and radical means. I think the digital gives us the opportunity to move in several different directions at once — it is the contradiction, right, because it is binary code but it’s not a binary; it’s not only a left-to-right reading pattern. The digital allows us to enter into projects and sites at different moments and we all get to be a part of how it works. The “dark side” is that there are places we don’t see, push out, abuse, erase. So we need to appreciate that there are those spaces, but also that there are spaces that are being carved for critique, creativity, fantasy, and possibility.

To put together a solid digital humanities research group, a fair amount of funding is needed. How is this funding typically achieved? Are universities willing to pay for DH projects despite massive cutbacks elsewhere, or is funding most likely to be found from external sources?

Being at MSU [Michigan State University] was fantastic because we had MATRIX [Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences]. Dean Rehberger, the director, has always been supportive of a whole range of projects. For example, I run, along with Vanessa Holden, the Queering Slavery Working Group, which is a community of scholars around the country who are working on links between queer studies and history of slavery, and who come together using digital tools like Skype, Google Hangouts, Twitter, and Tumblr. MATRIX also supports huge projects from archives to text mining. I was also based in the history department where there was a digital history lab and a studio for podcasts. So MSU had really great support, both institutional and structural because there was also great support in terms of tenure requirements for DH. I think there are special places like MSU, including Nebraska, George Mason University, MITH at the University of Maryland, and the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia, where you have an infrastructure that has been built at a cost and through many battles, but as a result there are now labs, IT support, equipment, and people to help you conceive of projects. And yes, this does require funding from a whole host of places, including federal grants and grants that come out of university coffers and from supporting departments. For me what has become really important is doing projects in a way that can be replicated with few resources. For example, the blogs and Tumblrs that I run are all on free platforms — that doesn’t mean that they aren’t corporate — but they are still free and this is purposeful. These are projects that you can take and recreate for your own communities and purposes.

It seems like you are thinking about a broad range of digital projects, some that require coding and some that don’t. In the past coding has been put forward as a condition of DH. Do you think full engagement with the digital humanities requires programming skills and if so, should programming become a requirement for humanities students?

No, I do not think DH requires programming skills. I think these skills are very important and useful, but I do not think they should be a requirement. I think the digital humanities are rich and broad enough for coders and non-coders. As our graduate students begin to craft their projects, they determine along with their advisors what methodologies are best suited for their projects. I think the challenge digital work provides is to rethink what we consider to be scholarly input and output because if we are only going to consider an analog dissertation — hardcover, alphanumeric text, and in your hands — as the only way to get a PhD, then we are already limiting the kinds of options that are available. That’s also where this programming question comes in. I think programming and quantitative work gets thrown in there as a way to limit who has access to the label of “digital humanist” or to control the conversation happening in digital humanities and I don’t think that’s scholarly or rigorous and I certainly don’t think it is accurate or just.

Speaking of exclusionary practices, we also hear quite a bit about the significant underrepresentation of women and minorities across digital fields, including the digital humanities. Is there a remedy to this? How has your own work tried to challenge this lack?

The answer is obviously yes; there is an underrepresentation of women, of people of color, of folks who don’t identify with a heteronormative category in the digital humanities as it is recognized by the academy. What’s interesting is that there is an overrepresentation of those same folks doing digital things. I think there needs to be a conversation about equity within the academy, not just about digital things, but about how folks who are people of color or queer people of color are organizing and creating knowledge in the 21st century, and how the academy can support them in that regard. I think it means changing the way we teach, the kinds of things we put on our syllabi; I think it means appreciating things that are not considered digital tools as digital tools, like social media as a literacy, as also scholarly production, protecting and compensating intellectual work before it migrates from Tumblr and into our classrooms. I think it means making the university accountable for making sure that people have access to digital tools.

It’s also about making sure that projects proposed by undergraduate and graduate students that are perhaps different in topic or form are recognized for the brilliant projects that they are. I think departments want to play it safe and want to recognize the projects that they think will get through. But the “brave side” of the digital humanities, to use Fiona Barnett’s phrasing, requires us to be a little bit more adventurous if there is going to be a kind of change. I think we need to look at who is getting fellowships as graduate students, who is getting mentored regardless of whether their project is digital or not, and who is getting tenure-track jobs. All of these things are tied to the question of exclusion. We need to look at what we are doing wrong and how and where we recognize digital production as skill and work.

Much of the talk around the digital in the humanities today also concerns physical location — namely, does the future of digital work lie in individual departments or libraries? Do you have an opinion on the best physical place for digital scholarship, and what does this say about its future role in the university?

I am biased toward both libraries and centers. If we are going to go with the university structure, I think libraries and centers have a way of being beholden across all facets of the university and departments don’t necessarily have the same incentive or charge. Centers are accountable much more broadly and I’ve found that a lot of really great work has come out of places like MATRIX or MITH at Maryland or the Center of New Media at George Mason. These have been really productive places that have been able to bring people together from across various parts of the university and beyond, and be extremely interdisciplinary in practice and in purpose in ways departments might be struggling with. I think libraries do the same thing, and librarians have just been so fantastic about really pushing the boundaries of how to access digital tools, because their charge, even more than centers, is to get people to use their materials. So librarians are excited and enthusiastic about anything that gets people in the door, using the sources, using the library as a space, and that’s been really amazing. Some of the best digital events come out of centers and libraries too.

You’ve been speaking about the tension between a more public digital work and academy-oriented DH throughout, but how do you think the general public understands the term “digital humanities” or, more broadly, the digital work being done in the humanities (if at all)?

I think the general public is not so interested in digital humanities. I don’t think the digital humanities is a phrase that resonates. In fact, I think it can be a phrase that turns people off because it feels too heavy with scholarship and the ivory tower. I think the general public may find DH interesting for a time, but I don’t think it’s a real buzzword. But I do think the digital work being done resonates really well. An example is the Schomburg [Center for Research in Black Culture] at the New York Public Library. I don’t think the folks who hang out in Harlem understand the Schomburg Center as doing “digital humanities,” even though that is what they do and they have been doing it for years. They have online exhibits, live-streamed events, Twitter chats, and a beautiful digital archive. But people who are experiencing that work aren’t going to necessarily call it DH. But that digital work in the public humanities is extremely important, and (especially in slavery and African diaspora history) has been central to how people are engaging with the past and the present right now.

In an age that has seen a decline in the public intellectual (as Nicholas Kristof opined in The New York Times), what role, if any, do you think digital work plays? Could the digital humanities (or the digital in the humanities) be a much-needed bridge between the academy and the public, or is this perhaps expecting too much of a discipline?

[Laughs.] I would definitely say there is still space for the public intellectual. I’m thinking of folks like Brittney Cooper, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. I also think that the digital humanities plays a role in making intellectuals accessible, which isn’t the same thing as being a public intellectual. There are more tools out there, whether it is live-streams or blogging or Twitter chats, for scholars to have conversations about their work with the public. So yes, there are still public intellectuals (especially working in social justice, black history, black work, black life, and black futures) and there is something to be said for digital tools and technologies making those conversations more accessible and connecting intellectuals more closely to communities beyond the university. I think this is of special importance for academics who understand themselves as marginalized within society and potentially within the university itself. So for women of color, queer folks, and scholars of the Caribbean, the Global South, I think there is a special role digital tools play; they have given us the opportunity to be accessible in ways that we find important, in part, because we have a community well beyond our university we feel accountable to.

My last question is going to ask that you look backward and speak to what you think the digital in the humanities has accomplished so far.

I think the digital in the humanities has accomplished quite a bit so far. And I think, again, it sort of depends on whether you are speaking from the ivory tower, the DH “big tent,” communities on the ground, or, as Stefano Harney and Fred Moten describe it, “the undercommons.” The digital — doing digital work — has created and facilitated insurgent and maroon knowledge creation within the ivory tower. It’s imperfect and it’s problematic — and we are all imperfect and problematic. But in that sense I think the digital humanities, or doing digital work period, has helped people create maroon — free, black, liberatory, radical — spaces in the academy. I feel like there is a tension between thinking about digital humanities as an academic construct and thinking about what people do with these tools and digital ways of thinking. DH has offered people the means and opportunity to create new communities. And this type of community building should not be overlooked; it has literally saved lives as far as I’m concerned. People — those who have felt alone or maligned or those who have been marginalized or discriminated against or bullied — have used digital tools to survive and live. That’s not academic. If there isn’t a place for this type of work within what we are talking about as digital humanities, then I think we are having a faulty conversation.


Melissa Dinsman is the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for Visual Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics During World War II (2015).