Story, Truth, and Agenda

(I apologize in advanced for what turned out to be a very long reflection!)

The theme that repeated itself among our resources this week was the relationship between DH and story. I would further unpack story to include truth and agenda. From an information literacy perspective I often think about the following questions (not in order of importance):

“What agenda is influencing story and truth?”
“Whose story is considered the truth?” 
“How do we recognize the truth?”

On the most universal level stories and truth are curated, and there is great power in curation. Throughout history we’ve witnessed colonizing powers curate the stories we’ve come to believe as true, without mention of agenda. For example, David Scott refers to the question of agenda in On the Question of Caribbean Studies when he asks, “What is the point (political, conceptual, disciplinary, moral) of mobilizing this particular image, rather than some other, of the Caribbean in these particular discourses?” He goes on to reflect, “The ‘dependent’ character of the existing literature ‘reflects the fact that hitherto most of the researches in this area have been conducted by visiting social scientists from the United States or Britain, and have been guided by theories and themes of interest developed in studies of societies and cultures outside the British Caribbean.’” 

Even with the best intentions scholars and librarians categorize and archive materials with their own language, which may curate the community out of its own story. In Introduction: The Digital Black Atlantic Kelly Baker Josephs and Roopika Risam include two essays about practices of neglect that ultimately shape the story of the Caribbean. In “Dividing the World for Library Collection Development” the authors “wrestle with the need to free Caribbean sources from sedimented library practices of categorization while keeping them detectable within the new worlds of access offered by digital technologies.” In “A Paper Archive Sojourner’s Notes to Black Digital Humanities,” the author, Nadine Chambers, “queries the digital sedimentation of human error and neglect in archives of the black Atlantic.” Even unintentionally we sow the seeds of incorrect stories, and those stories have a lasting impact on the world outside of the academy.

The Digital Humanities grant us the opportunity to use data and narrative to question the stories we take for granted, or know little about, and to create new stories in multimodal formats. This is a great plus for access. Story has the power to mobilize, and I am excited that the “definition” and scope of Digital Humanities in 2019 includes resistance. In  their chapter “A DH that Matters” in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019, Matt and Lauren state:

“We are convinced that digital humanists can contribute significantly to a larger technically and historically informed resistance. By enabling communication across communities and networks, by creating platforms that amplify the voices of those most in need of being heard, by pursuing projects that perform the work of recovery and resistance, and by undertaking research that intervenes in the areas of data surveillance and privacy.”

Torn Apart / Separados is a powerful, participatory DH project that can be used for resistance and mobilization. It gives urgency to the stories of the humanitarian crisis of asylum seekers to a much wider audience than academia. It allows the public to ask new questions about curated information, and to tell comprehensive, true stories that we definitely do not get in the news media if consumed on an article by article basis. Even though this project also has a social and political agenda, I really appreciate the efforts the team has taken to make their work transparent, open, and arguably inclusive. The project team makes a point to note that the visualizations and data are just one part of a larger story, and the site as a whole contextualizes reflections on the data from the team itself, as well as historians, activists, artists, and writers who provide their own readings of the visual stories. That said, even this team, like the authors included in Introduction: The Digital Black Atlantic acknowledge that with best intention data is “imprecise, impure, and as much a tool for incarceration and control as it is revealing the truth.” They make it possible to investigate their work, because the site includes a fantastic bibliography with links to a full Zotero resource, an open syllabus on immigration, and nearly all of their data in an open repository in GitHub. They include data sources, and their visualization tools in the credits portion of the site. 

Not only is the data and visualization component transparent, but I also appreciate all of the background information on the contributors. For example, author bios link to personal websites and Twitter accounts, as well as other publications from said authors to see the landscape of their portfolio / with whom they affiliate. For example, I love that Gaiutra Bahadur writes about memory maps and story maps to give a humanistic story about immigration in addition to geodata.

I also thought about social aspect of DH, and decided to look at the hashtags about this project on Twitter to see how the public is engaging with it. A quick review illustrated that the story about the project has been shared by WIRED, DH contributors across the globe, NPR Latino USA, Library Journal, and researchers in many disciplines. One wonderful use of Twitter from a contributor, Manan Ahmed links a Trump tweet including a non-truth to a section of #TornApart v2. 

There is so much potential for this project and others to influence open pedagogy, and the stories we learn in classrooms. I intend to share this with the OER community, which is always looking for new and relevant teaching materials. I wonder how else this has been circulated in the education community?

On a final note, this project put action in perspective for me as an individual. I often feel powerless around issues like immigration, as I am not near the border. But seeing V2 of this project illustrated that there is a very local way to engage. In fact, my local representative received $19M ICE dollars since 2014. This will definitely be a visual story that I will use when she’s up for reelection!

1 thought on “Story, Truth, and Agenda

  1. Shani Tzoref

    on the twitter hashtags– the word i was trying to think of in class today about your following up on these was Operationalization. Wikipedia definition: “… Operationalization thus defines a fuzzy concept so as to make it clearly distinguishable, measurable, and understandable by empirical observation.” It’s not exactly applicable, but the aspect i was thinking of was that tweets are an observable and possibly quantifiable means for assessing the more abstract quality of “impact”.

    on what we can do as individuals: a couple of weeks ago, i joined a group of protesters for a takeover of the Amazon store on 34th street, which was one part of a nationwide event. at a subsequent meeting by the main organizing group, JFREJ (Jews for Racial and Economic Justice), there was discussion about how to reach out to employees at Palantir to inform them of how their tech work is being used., and we learned about this venture:, #NoTechForICE.
    When i saw the Torn Apart /Separados website, my first thought was to pass the link on to JFREJ and mijente, then i thought that they surely know it already…. but now I’ve sent JFREJ an email, as at least a small step in using this new knowledge and the challenge posed esp. by you and Meg of, what can we do with it.

Comments are closed.