LASTS DH conference at PSU


At Helene Huet‘s urging, I wandered into day two of Penn State’s Liberal Arts Scholarship and Technology Summit (LASTS) this past Saturday. Though a Digital Humanities neophyte, I thought it might be worth checking out a gathering of Penn State’s leading DH minds (even more compelling when you consider Penn State’s prominent position in the DH pantheon).

I’m glad I did. I heard really compelling and provocative talks by Brian Croxall, Chris Long and my colleague Katie Falvo (on DH and graduate education), as well as an incredible lightning talk by Helene on her awesome and ever-more-robust Mapping Decadence project.

No need for a full summary of the conference here. Thanks to some intrepid live-tweeting by the participants (#LASTS), you can follow the conference retrospectively on Twitter.

I did, however, leave the event with one lingering question, a variation on Audre Lorde’s “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Call me a digital skeptic, but I worry that by inviting technology into the classroom on the scale advocated by some of the speakers, we invite the ideology of Silicon Valley with it (tech entrepreneurs’ insistence, for ex., on quantification and data analysis as the only valid modes of knowledge, their devotion to ‘social entrepreneurship’ and ‘market solutions’ to nearly also social ills, their neoliberal commitment to ‘disruption’ over tradition, competition over cooperation [or workers’ right, for that matter — cf. Uber, Foxconn, etc.]).

Obviously, I don’t want to push this analogy too far. Books and the written word have long been instruments of power. But I’d be a sorry scholar if I didn’t acknowledge that language and print can and have been harnessed for liberatory ends as well. Perhaps the same is true of digital tools. Perhaps they’re merely means, their ideological ends yet to be determined.

Consider, for ex., the purported (and likely exaggerated) role of social media in everything from Tahrir Square and OWS to Ferguson and today’s Scottish independence vote. On the other hand, consider the beholden-ness of Vine, Twitter, Facebook — even the WordPress platform on which I currently type — to their shareholders. One needn’t too much creativity to imagine a situation in which a popular social media classroom assignment might become the subject of a targeted marketing campaign. In other words, at what point does ‘meeting students where they are’ morph into providing data fodder for digital marketing firms?

Consider me, therefore, a skeptic when it comes to the place of digital tools in the classroom — one tantalized, if not convinced by the notion, that one of the greatest virtues of a humanities education resides in putting humans in conversation in a space unmediated by technology.

I look forward to thinking more about this topic at future forums like LASTS.


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