If you read this thread that I posted on Twitter Wednesday night, then you’re familiar with the story I am about to tell.
Two years ago, I would have told you quite confidently that I was not a digital humanist. My first year of graduate school was established scholars telling me which boxes I fit into: I was a cultural historian, I was an intellectual historian, I was a comics studies scholar, I was a digital humanist. I scoffed at all of them because while I might have identified as a comics studies scholar, that was not all that my work was, and in fact I preferred to self-identify as a literary scholar who happened to do comics. Even though identifying as a comics studies scholar sort of fit, I knew with certainty that I was no kind of historian– which left me with the mystery of the digital humanities.
The first advisor that I was matched with when I came into William & Mary was a Digital Humanist (capital D, capital H). Based on my writing sample, which was an exploration of identity in Issa Rae’s YouTube series “Awkward Black Girl,” I think it was assumed that I would want to come to do digital humanities, media studies and literature– in that order. The truth? That was the only 20 page paper I’d written in English during undergrad so it was the only thing I had on hand to submit. Former French major problems.
During my first advising meeting, my advisor asked me all kinds of questions about long term goals, publications I was hoping to write, conferences I wanted to attend, books and articles that I hadn’t read. I felt so in over my head that the only possible answer was to retreat into the world that I knew and had always excelled in: literature. Instead of diving head first into an unknown that I was attracted to, I crawled back into my comfort zone. I switched advisors, stopped going to Equality Lab meetings and I kept my head down.
I did well in my comfort zone. I did my master’s thesis. It was passable. It was interesting. It was exciting. After I wrote that thesis, however, my energy started to fizzle out. Then came Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities last fall. It was my first time being in an academic space with so many women, particularly Black women, doing incredible work. Watching rockstars like Gabrielle Foreman, Jessica Marie Johnson and Marisa Parham dazzle the audience was the equivalent of watching academic Beyoncés perform. I knew I wanted to be like them, but I didn’t know how. At the time I was still not considering myself a digital humanist; I was an outside observer, a literary scholar come to watch the festivities.
Another year passed. No conference presentations, no talks, no potential publications on the horizon. I told myself that I was just feeling burnt out after my Masters, which is probably at least partially true, but really I was feeling uninspired by my work. I was existing, but I wasn’t excelling.
Enter “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black.” I enrolled in an Introduction to Digital Humanities class and my professor urged me to go to “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black.” I knew Catherine Knight Steele from Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities and from Twitter, so I knew it would be a good time. Once I got there and was surrounded once again by Black women scholars doing incredible work, I finally started to understand where I fit. I was inspired by the words of Timeka Tounsel and Grace Gipson and their work on Black women digital content creators. I saw work that I could contribute to based on my own identity as a blogger. They showed me an opportunity to work smarter not harder. My former advisor has been telling me from the beginning that my identities as a blogger and a scholar do not have to be mutually exclusive but I didn’t have a model for how I could have them work together. “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black” gave me models. Black digital humanities stitched my identities together.
And then I read Steele’s articles on Black women bloggers and for the first time, I finally had a good answer for “who do you want to be in scholarly community and conversation with?” My former advisor told me that half the battle of grad school is finding the communities where you feel supported. That’s what helps you finish. My community is in digital humanities. It’s where I fit.
So am I digital humanist? Not yet, I still have a lot of work to do– lots to read, lots to write, lots to think through. But I’ve decided to redirect, or even just add to, my identity as a scholar. I’m still figuring it out. But for the first time in a long time, I feel confident that I’m moving down the right path. This feels right. It feels both good and hard all at once, but it also feels very, very right.
So hi, digital humanists, it took me a while to realize this is where I belonged but I’m here now and I’m ready to get to work.