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The Dartmouth
May 23, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Q&A with film and comparative literature professor Roopika Risam: Exploring the “Digital Humanities”

Risam sat down with The Dartmouth to discuss her work in the digital humanities, such as media and data visualization.

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Courtesy of Roopika Risam

Roopika Risam is a researcher, writer and historian, as well as a new addition to the Dartmouth faculty this year in the film and media studies department and the comparative literature department. Her research centers around the digital humanities, which seeks to combine digital tools and disciplines with the conventional study of humanities subjects. She uses the digital humanities to understand and prevent historical biases and exclusions from continuing into the modern age as digital technologies grow and evolve: Currently, she is exploring how postcolonial scholars and critical theorists have shaped the field of public humanities, and she is maintaining an online project that features a data visualization of W.E.B. DuBois’s intellectual trajectory. This week, The Dartmouth sat down with Risam to discuss the power of the digital humanities. 

How do you define the digital humanities and how did you get involved in this field? 

While I was doing research for my dissertation, which was on how Black radicalism traveled throughout the post-colonial world and influenced anti-colonial movements, I was doing research on the Huey Newton papers at Stanford. I came across the subscriber lists for the Black Panther newspaper, and something sort of clicked in my mind looking at all these addresses. At the time, I was struggling to write down my ideas and get multi-directional flows of knowledge down on a piece of paper, and for some reason I thought about a map. Then I started looking into whether other people who studied English were making maps to visualize data.Digital humanities scholars use different digital tools, like maps or computational text analysis, to examine literature, history and culture in a visual way. I ended up down a rabbit hole in the world of digital humanities. And I quickly realized that the digital humanities seemed like this really powerful tool for shedding light on stories of people from post-colonial cultures and minorities in the U.S.At the same time, everybody who seemed to be doing digital humanities was using it to reinforce canonical histories and figures and voices. And I thought, well, that's silly. We have this powerful tool for greater representation  and we’re not using it. So the focus of my research actually became: How do we do digital humanities better?

What writing projects are you working on right now?

RR: I am writing a book called “Insurgent Academics: A Radical Account of Public Humanities,” a project recovering the stories of academics of the past who've done community engaged scholarship that has bridged between academic audiences and broader communities. Then, I'm also working on a proposal for a trade book for general audiences called “Data Empire.” The book is looking at the ways that empires have created and manipulated data to gain power over time and to show how imperialism today –– on behalf of the US, Russia, and China –– is a series of, in many ways, data practices that we can trace back to the European empires of the 15th through 19th centuries.

How are digital humanities helping to alleviate the historical biases and exclusions characteristic of more traditional art forms? 

RR: When researchers create digital projects, they're drawing on data sets that other people have already created. But if a piece of knowledge hasn't been preserved, then the chances of us finding it from the past are pretty low. Digital projects tend to not only reproduce absences, but also amplify them because now people go  to the internet to look for information, and they come upon a project which reflects those very biases and those exclusions. That's really been the area where I've been concerned. With my DuBois work and the Pan-African work, we're actually compiling these data sets ourselves. It was a lot of painstaking archival research to try and find programs of events of Pan-Africanism around the world. It is really exciting to see the work that I've done and the work of other colleagues who've been working on making digital humanities more aware of issues of colonialism,racism and the influence of the patriarchy. One really cool example of this is a project called Livingston Online about David Livingston, who was a missionary in the interior of the African continent in the 19th century. A group of researchers redid the project, influenced by ideas that my colleagues and I have developed over the last decade, and reframed Livingston, putting the geography of a white missionary in a more complicated context. I see a project like that and I think people really are listening and changing the way they do digital humanities.

 How are you adjusting to Dartmouth so far, and how is your work translating to campus? 

RR: I’ve found that the community is really welcoming.  It’s way more diverse than I expected, which is really exciting. What I really love about Dartmouth is the way that it emphasizes to professors that we’re both scholars and teachers. I love teaching, so blending those two things together and bringing students into research — I have 13 students working for me right now on various projects — has been so exciting. The students are synthesizing all the things that they're learning in their classes, or from their other experiences. and bringing it to the projects that they’re working on. It’s really incredible. And what's really interesting is that one would think, with the research I do, that the students working for me are all English and history majors. But I have a lot of students who are economics majors, computer science majors and students at Tuck Business School.

What inspired you to pursue a career in academia, and what motivates you to keep researching? 

RR: You mean, you don’t wanna go to college forever? I wish I could go to college all over again. I would do it much better this time. I really care about the knowledge we produce. I really care about ensuring that our students are going out in the world ready to think about and question the knowledge they attain. At the same time, I also believe that those of us who work in universities have a responsibility to think about the ways we can redistribute the resources that are centralized in our universities to communities, particularly around this question of preserving knowledge. For example, I'm working with a social services and adult education organization here in the North Shore of Massachusetts called Wellspring. According to the lore of their city, there was a house that was given to a formerly enslaved man by his master, and then passed through generations to his family. We dug into the history of this house, constructed the family tree, and, it turns out, the house was never owned by the formerly enslaved man. It was actually purchased by his son, who was a formidable real estate investor and speculator. We really reframed the way the town thinks about its history of slavery. That's the kind of thing that keeps me motivated.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.