If the “digital” in your DH project isn’t causing discomfort, you’re doing something wrong. Digital discomfort — any intellectual, inter/intrapersonal, pedagogical, and emotional discomfort mediated by the digital — is not only useful to DH research, it’s crucial. This lesson became apparent to us through our own research on The Suffrage Postcard Project (SPP), a digital humanities initiative founded by Kristin Allukian and Ana Stevenson. We believe our lessons of digital discomfort to be applicable broadly, especially now when so many schools and universities are shifting to virtual classrooms. Using examples from our work on the SPP, we offer DH researchers and labs new perspectives on digital discomfort and potential ways for others to leverage this valuable tool. Before we share some of these lessons, we want to pause for a moment and offer some background on the project:
Today’s social media has given us Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook. The social media of the early twentieth-century, it could be argued, was postcards. The popularity of suffrage postcards as a social phenomenon is the starting place for The Suffrage Postcard Project. In the “Golden Age” of postcards, the decades before World War I, postcards circulated with the same fervor, if not speed, of images on popular social media apps today. The SPP, a feminist digital archive, looks back at the early 1900s in the context of the women’s suffrage movement, a movement that gained momentum in the same historical moment of the Golden Age of postcards and produced hundreds of pro- and anti-suffrage images. Undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty researchers collaborate in a lab setting, utilizing a range of digital tools to explore how postcards and feminist DH practices might engender new historical narratives about the suffrage movement, especially in the United States and Britain.
As members of the SPP research team, we experienced digital discomfort arising from three perspectives: 1) pedagogical framework, 2) researcher agency, and 3) research methodology. Because our goal as feminist researchers is always to explore how gender, race, class, and other identity markers operate within structures of power, we leveraged digital discomfort to open new ideological space to pursue our research. We experienced both individual and collective instances of digital discomfort and learned to work through them — even benefit from them — as our research progressed. When we embraced digital discomfort as an inevitable experience and discussed it among the research team with emotional transparency, we found that it contributed to heightened research consciousness for scholars of all career stages.
Digital Discomfort of Pedagogical Framework
Digital discomfort begins on the first day of SPP orientation. After an introduction to the project’s framework, tools, and lab space, the training concludes with a deceptively simple question: What direction should we, as a team, take this project in? Using the SPP as a digital sandbox for DH research, a new set of researchers embarks each year on the journey of learning the project’s inner workings, wrestling with its methodology, and making collective decisions about that year’s research goals. The pedagogical framework of the project asks team members, through digital decentering, to challenge their willingness to invest in the research field, methodology, and co-researchers; to challenge power structures and dynamics inherent to almost any project; and perhaps most importantly, to challenge their sense of intellectual autonomy (or lack thereof). These challenges encourage team members to develop research agency — to identify and claim individual interests; to pursue primary research based on those interests; to present their research in academic forums; and to add their voices to scholarly communities across varied platforms including conferences, publications, and social media. Digital and in-person collaboration became crucial sites of support where researchers help each other mediate digital discomfort and experiment with research agency within the sandbox of the SPP.
Digital Discomfort of Researcher Agency
For many undergraduate researchers, the SPP is the first time working on a group project outside of the expected institutionally-determined hierarchy. Undergraduate researchers in our most recent cohort were under the impression that, as is the assumptive norm in many academic projects, the project operated solely under the direction of the faculty. Because they expected to be assigned responsibilities and receive corrective oversight, when asked to contribute equally to theory-based methodology decisions that could change the trajectory of the project, discomfort arose. While the discomfort was unintentional, the methodology was purposeful: a goal of the SPP is to decenter authorial control through feminist research and communication methods. And because all of the SPP’s content exists in digital spaces — primarily Omeka but also ImagePlot, Gephi, Google Drive and Hangouts, Skype, email, GroupMe, and iMessage — our work presents challenges in digital spaces. Such decentering forced adaptability in the research team that, while ultimately productive, caused initial discomfort. Ironically, due to the project’s digital nature, oversight was possible by all team members at all times. And yet, undergraduate researchers voiced a desire for someone to “look over their shoulders” and ensure they were using appropriate tags and sub-tags (a digital archive methodology inspired by Wernimont and Flanders). Graduate researchers found it difficult to walk the line between teaching incoming teams the project’s inner workings without overshadowing their ability to meet challenges on their own, and faculty researchers had to adapt quickly to the project’s shifting pedagogical and methodological parameters as students suggested new directions for it.
The above instances of discomfort came immediately to the forefront while others took more time to surface. Perhaps most important to the humanities, a field that encourages critical thinking, there was discomfort identifying individual research interests when presented with academic freedom. This often shows up in pedagogy scholarship as a call for instructors to trust students as they have shown up, to begin with the student experience rather than the instructor experience. The focus on research agency in our feminist DH lab raised a different but related question: how does the SPP researcher — or any researcher — learn to trust themselves as they show up? The concept of trust is not always part of academic conversations about research and yet, it appears in all parts of our project. Digital decisions around our tagging system, the foundation of the archival project, were often tied to issues of trust, whether in one’s research intuition, interest, rigor, or self. The digital nature of the project and of its management exacerbated this discomfort. But it also created a space to ameliorate it, when used to build trust in ways that face-to-face situations didn’t offer. Because the digital simultaneously offers spaces of exploration, experimentation, and peer collaboration and feedback that ultimately further the larger project, we learned together to trust in the feeling of digital discomfort as part of an individual practice and to follow that discomfort and bring it, not always to resolution, but at least to the attention of the team.
Digital Discomfort in Research Methodology
Though throughout this article we emphasize the importance of digital discomfort, we want to make clear that such discomfort didn’t take place solely in digital spaces. Oftentimes, as with the digital decisions mentioned above around tagging, we worked on our laptops while together in a lab setting. In the physical space of a classroom, a researcher could make a digital decision that would go into effect immediately and it could be difficult not to instinctually override those decisions behind the scenes digitally, a readily-available option in Omeka, when researchers were in disagreement. Such discomfort around digital decisions could be compounded when the act of critical reflection and group revision leads to the team to overwrite one’s idea. One of the ways we leverage this digital discomfort is to move it from the realm of the individual to the realm of the group.
As a team, we would analyze the visual rhetoric of each individual postcard, employing feminist methodologies that give close attention to how gender, race, and class operate in the postcard alongside other signifiers like domestic items, emotions, spaces, activities, and animals. Working in real-time within a digital environment makes nuanced discussions about gendered, raced, and classed historical context even more challenging. For example, in reviewing the tagging system for an overhaul, one tag stuck out as a possibility to be excluded going forward. The possible exclusion of that one tag raised larger questions regarding methodology. The tag, which at the time applied to only five postcards, was “Rolling pin.” The team member who brought the tag to the team’s attention proposed that it was unnecessary to include a “rolling pin” tag because so many other tags captured the main idea — domesticity — that the postcard conveyed, and the overlap between the rolling pin and other tags was significant. This minor suggestion created a domino effect that called our whole methodological framework into question: it suggested we rethink the meaning of “domesticity,” a central theme to the suffrage movement. After some critical reflection in a group setting, we decided that rather than delete the one, individual tag, we should re-imagine the concept of domesticity. A new, group-led analysis recontextualized the rolling pin to signal domesticity, but also hinting at the use of the rolling pin as a blunt weapon signaling potential violence.
The instance brought forth a new methodological practice for the SPP: a living dictionary designed collaboratively in Google Sheets to help clarify the research team’s intentions and biases in determining the definition of a tag and then the application of those tags to certain cards.
By creating these annotations, SPP researchers are transparent in their intentions and biases when determining the definition of a tag. Making these coding decisions transparent better situates future researchers to build on the work and allows website visitors to understand the ways in which our data are not neutral. Digital research always involves iterative, subjective data development, but the usual presentation of data in digital archives can appear static and faux-objective. By creating tag annotations, we acknowledge the archivist behind the archive, and the research grown out of the project — predominantly our tag-dependent data visualizations — can be traced through the specific decision-making process of researchers.
The experience of over-writing another’s work, discussing the ambiguity of language and image, creating new tags and subtags, and developing methodology such as the living dictionary taught the group that data is never neutral. We were reminded of this on a regular basis, as a seemingly minor digital decision by one person inputting data can make all the difference on the user-end of the SPP. In addition to being cognizant of one’s influence on data, the group was also cognizant of the importance of the data’s history. While preparing for their DH conference presentations and reviewing past team’s presentations, the most recent group of student-researchers came to the realization that it was not just their team that struggled with these decisions, but all the teams that came before them as well. The data’s history gave new context and helped clarify what they wanted to accomplish with the project. While the digital nature of the project allows us to show past thought processes (in blog posts and methodology pages), it also forces us to choose one way of approaching that system — making changes to Omeka feels final, rather than processive. But because of our teams’ knowledge of these previous theoretical lenses, and because of the ability for student-researchers to continuously edit the tags of every postcard, curation became an ongoing act of productive intersectional feminist creativity and discussion.
While the digitally informed methodology of the DH project alleviated discomfort in some respects, such as through the collaborative living dictionary, it created digital discomfort in other respects, such as through distant project surveillance. As the digital archive is live online, the SPP team is able to see, in time-lapse, an individual researcher’s processing based on how and whether changes had been made in the Omeka site. There was discomfort in watching others grapple with ideology within the Omeka interface in real-time, without immediately offering guidance or defending one’s methodological choice as it is over-written. Members digitally watch the group work together toward consensus by directing, redirecting, and/or correcting each other, a process that can easily lend itself to discomfort. Each of us experienced a range of emotions — from frustration to embarrassment to confusion — to be a natural byproduct of such open and direct collaboration. The degree of surveillance these tools allow requires us to think carefully about issues of consent and comfort; it demands that researchers--faculty and students alike--trust each other to make decisions about the when, where, what, and even if of their work.
Because the tone of the project is set within a larger feminist DH lab, being transparent with digital and ideological methodology, both formally on the site blog, on various digital communication platforms, and in in-person, peer-to-peer communication helps address this discomfort. The discussion, questioning, and challenging of digital choices in group forums, in-person and digitally, often led to productive conversation that promoted intersectional feminist analysis. While the goal of the project is to build those levels of trust in self as well as between researchers, digital discomfort, we argue, encouraged trust in the collaborative process, which necessitated and helped build individual research consciousness.
Of course, the move from digital discomfort to research consciousness was rarely linear. While our non-hierarchical structure was explicit and our methodology transparent, communicative restructuring of power sometimes nested itself within sub-groups. In an attempt to use digital tools to solve methodological issues by listing out observations, posting questions, and proposing directions in a Google Doc, researchers quickly found that while all members were contributing to the document, only one person was responding to those contributions. A single team member had become a de facto leader. Since divesting ourselves of hierarchy was so important to us, it was frustrating to see its reappearance. The undergirding methodological practice, for which all members strived, was one that promoted collaboration, reflection, dissent, and discussion. In practice, that meant each individual researcher had to learn the practice of feminist power divestment, less a single dominant voice become the sole force of the project. While digital tools can offer another mode of feminist decentering, they are not implicitly tools that decenter. When practiced across a healthy mix of both physical and digital communication platforms, researchers who divested of power not only became a model for others’ divestment but also illustrated what such divestment could look like in different spaces.
Digital Discomfort and Research Consciousness
Most significantly, feminist DH researchers learned that their research interests are just as important if not more so than those dictated to them by institutional parameters. Both undergraduate and graduate researchers presented their individual work at DH conferences. They used their DH research on the SPP to — literally — stand alone with their ideas in front of an audience unfamiliar with the project. Individual agency via research consciousness, we argue, was evinced, in part, by both an individual researcher’s increased willingness to voice contributions to The Suffrage Postcard Project over time and by their single-authored conference papers. These pedagogical practices are undergirded by bell hooks’ work in Teaching to Transgress: “the physical experience of hearing, of listening intently, to each particular voice strengthens our capacity to learn together” (186). Making the voice audible is empowering: it gives individuals a physical and metaphysical presence in the classroom and in this case, at a larger academic conference. Making the voice audible within the lab and conference settings, researchers came to understand, went hand-in-hand with the responsibility of a visible digital footprint.
The potentially infinite versions of the SPP, with each new iteration responding to and sometimes over-writing the previous iterations, challenge its researchers to reconfigure their understanding of a research project that will never be fixed. In Electronic Literature, Scott Rettberg explains that a key element of electronic literature is that it “is not finished just because it has reached its public — it could change right before the reader’s eyes” (7). Such is true with a digital archive. And, in our case, the archive could change not only before the reader’s eyes, but before the researcher’s eyes. The very experience of the digital discomfort that is inherent in a project of this type taught students what they might have learned from taking a class in feminist digital humanities: that data is not neutral and that it is instead reliant on the ideology of the person inputting that data. And that, more than a transactional treatment of data, digital archivists must “co-evolve with our technologies” (12). Feminist DH researchers on the project, we would argue, co-evolved, not only with “our technologies” but often with their treatment of the data itself.
When embraced, digital discomfort can, first, convince you to let go of an intellectual idea that you want to hold on to and, second, convince you to rethink your relationship to that idea or emotion around that idea. We might define this form of digital discomfort as the experience of co-evolving with our data: as we worked on the data, the data worked on us. If we did not allow the data to change our methodology as we progressed, then we weren’t really conducting primary research; we were merely inscribing our predisposed beliefs on the data.
The discomfort identified in this article underlies the process by which student-researchers may develop self-trust, and the barriers (imagined or otherwise) that are sometimes placed in the way to that development. Additionally, some researchers feel resistance in a non-hierarchical, feminist research system, a healthy risk that is ultimately necessary to achieve project goals. In his web post, “Why I Don’t Grade,” Jesse Stommel writes that “Agency, dialogue, self-actualization, and social justice are not possible in a hierarchical system that pits teachers against students and encourages competition by ranking students against one another.” While all SPP researchers agree with this and worked against an ingrained institutionalized hierarchical system, we also came to understand that non-hierarchical research structures may invite researchers to invent their own hierarchies within their research teams in digital and non-digital spaces. Vigilant divestment of power in both spaces, in addition to dialogue, self-actualization, and social justice, was crucial for SPP member’s increasing sense of individual agency through research consciousness.
Embracing “digital discomfort” as a necessary component of DH work will bring a fresh perspective to DH projects. Establishing digital discomfort along with the possibility of no resolution for such discomfort as framing principles of a DH project can promote research consciousness. Encouraging researchers to make digital discomfort (ideological, interpersonal, technological, emotional, etc) visible to oneself and team members can heighten the consciousness that is driving such research: What part of this methodology is unsettling to me? Am I using this digital tool appropriately? Why am I hesitant to ask this question? Incorporating “digital discomfort” in a project’s methodology, naming it when it occurs, invites academic and interpersonal trust among research peers. Additionally, demarcating a safe space solely for this reason — in a Google Doc or a GroupMe chat as done in the SPP — for researchers to voice and reflect on that discomfort allows a DH Lab to both advance its research and provide a parallel avenue for individual agency and critical research-consciousness. On the digital discomfort that is inherent to continuous DH projects, we ultimately propose digital reflection — a key to all successful feminist efforts.