The 2023 Turner Lecture will be presented by Dr. Roopika Risam, an associate professor in Dartmouth College’s Digital Humanities and Social Engagement cluster. Risam, who teaches film and media studies and comparative literature, will talk about “Community-engaged Digital Humanities: Rethinking University-Community Partnerships” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 2, in Hall Campus Center’s Memorial Ballroom.
In her lecture, Risam will focus on how a social justice-driven approach to digital humanities can facilitate advocacy, collaboration, and relationships with distant and local communities.
“Digital humanities has always been connected to social justice for me,” Risam said. “As I learned about it … in graduate school, I was awed by the power of creating digital archives and exhibits to share research about stories that aren’t told, about people whose lives aren’t at the center of cultural or historical narratives.
“But I was shocked to find that many who were creating digital humanities projects were using these powerful tools to share the same old stories, the same old histories — ones that excluded communities of color and Indigenous nations.
“I wanted to change that — and that became the focus of my research, both in the digital projects I create but also in more traditional types of publications, where I write about how we can do digital humanities differently and more fully realize the possibilities of digital tools that make these voices and stories heard.”
One of her projects, Torn Apart/Separados, is a series of data visualizations that explore the landscape of immigrant detention in the U.S.
“Through that project, my collaborators and I are trying to help public audiences start wrapping their minds around the relationships between jail and prison systems, companies, and money that make immigrant detention possible,” Risam said.
Another one, History Lives Here: The Freeman Family of Gloucester, is a project she’s working on with a community partner that “operates out of a house owned by a Black family in the early 19th century,” Risam explained.
“The aim of this project is to put together an exhibit in the house and a digital toolkit to encourage others in Gloucester, Massachusetts, which is now predominantly white, to investigate the histories of their homes — especially the many historic homes intertwined with Gloucester’s glossed-over history of slavery.
“What we’ve found while doing the research is that a lot of the ‘history’ of slavery that circulates about Gloucester is actually lore and wishful thinking that isn’t based on historical records.”
Building on her experiences with these projects, Risam will explore data ethics, how digital humanities projects can contribute to advocacy, and ethical collaboration across universities and communities.
“For me, the power of digital humanities lies in the ways we can use it to help people see the world around them differently and to interrogate the histories they take for granted as true,” she added.
Professor of English Dr. Robin Bates was intrigued by Risam’s approach.
“I wanted to invite Dr. Risam to present because her work shows how studying the humanities is a modern, meaningful field and has broad social impact in a really powerful way,” Bates said. “While much work in digital humanities looks broadly at how collaborative work between technology and humanities study can expand our tools for study, Dr. Risam looks further.
“She demonstrates how the creation of digital archives is not neutral but has colonial violence embedded in it. Our technological systems perpetuate our own biases, and so technology is not some neutral thing but something that can carry forward the oppressive beliefs of those who created the systems.”
Bates added that as the University becomes increasingly invested in community partnerships — “particularly those that help our community preserve and interpret our culture and history” — Risam’s work on data ethics and ethical collaboration “can help us think about how we move forward.”
In fact, those kinds of community partnerships are the topic of Risam’s upcoming book, “Insurgent Academics,” about the history of public and digital humanities through the work of scholars of color and Indigenous scholars since the late 19th century.
“Right now at universities, community-engaged research is very popular — partnering with a community organization or group on a project — but it’s positioned like something new that white scholars invented in the last two decades,” Risam said.
“In my book, I show that scholars of color and Indigenous scholars have been doing precisely this kind of work for over 100 years, from the first moments we were allowed to step foot into institutions of higher education — and it’s important that their stories be told.”
Risam has also started working on a book for public audiences called “Data Empire,” which “explores how colonizers have used data to gain power over the course of human history, and how colonized people have used data to resist oppression.”
Several digital projects are also underway. Risam launched the Digital Ethnic Futures Lab at Dartmouth, where she’s working with students on a “range of projects using data visualization to explore the stories we can tell about colonialism and the Black diaspora.”
Risam is the author of “New Digital Worlds: Postcolonial Digital Humanities in Theory, Praxis, and Pedagogy” (Northwestern UP, 2019) and co-editor of “The Digital Black Atlantic” (“Debates in the Digital Humanities Series,” University of Minnesota Press, 2021). She is a co-founder of the journal Reviews in Digital Humanities, principal investigator of the Mellon Foundation-funded Digital Ethnic Futures Consortium, and co-founder of the New England Equity and Engagement Consortium.
For more information about the John M. Turner Lecture in the Humanities, contact Bates at firstname.lastname@example.org.