Introducing “Portraits in DH”

— Patricia Hswe, ACH Communications and Outreach Officer

This past summer, in the wake of nationwide protests against police brutality and the murder of George Floyd, the ACH Executive Council published a statement expressing our solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.  We are committed to strengthening our anti-racist practices in Association governance, in the activities that we sponsor—such as the ACH Conference—and therough the ways in which we engage with ACH membership, such as this newsletter.

Thus, with this fall 2020 issue, we launch a new section called “Portraits in DH.”  It will feature emerging and established figures in digital humanities who are BIPOC, or involved in DH efforts that are focused on areas such as ethnic studies and postcolonial studies.  The inaugural portraits below highlight two scholars, Hadassah St. Hubert and Kenton Rambsy, each of whom has had compelling trajectories in the field and is rapidly making their mark in the humanities.  These glimpses into their careers also touch on how the pandemic has affected each of them and how they work.

Hadassah St. Hubert – Promoting Primary Sources about Haiti and the Caribbean

Serendipity in the archives.  Hadassah St. Hubert is currently the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Florida International University (FIU).[1]  Ask her about how she got interested in the topic of her dissertation (the role that the cultural phenomenon of world’s fairs played in Haiti’s history), and she talks authoritatively about the evidence that primary sources held—and still hold—for her research.  “I was studying women’s roles in dictatorship and came across records about the 1949-1950 World’s Fair in Haiti by accident.”  As St. Hubert learned, the planning and development of the infrastructure for such a large-scale exposition gave Haiti the international recognition it had been lacking up to that point, drawing the attendance of 250,000 people during the seven months that the Fair was active.  The event essentially put Port-au-Prince on the map as a tourist capital.  

The Digital Library of the Caribbean.  Some of the archival materials that St. Hubert consulted, such as old sketches of the exposition area in Haiti, may be found in the Digital Library of the Caribbean, also known as dLOC.  dLOC is also the effort that St. Hubert has been helping to oversee as a CLIR postdoc.  In this role, she has gained administrative and project management experience and notes the close and welcome involvement of the Executive Committee and Scholarly Advisory Board.  St. Hubert has also been a prolific grant collaborator.  One of the achievements of St. Hubert’s tenure at dLOC has been engaging the Institut de Sauvegarde de Patrimoine National, or ISPAN, which is an organization devoted to the preservation of national historic sites and monuments in Haiti, as a partner in dLOC.  A related effort—which St. Hubert also worked to secure dLOC and ISPAN—is the grant awarded by the University of California, Los Angeles, under its Modern Endangered Archives grant program (funded by the Arcadia Foundation), to support dLOC’s digitization of the ISPAN archive.  Finally, St. Hubert is also the Scholarly Lead on a dLOC project funded through the Collections as Data program, in which dLOC is enhancing access to existing Caribbean newspaper collections by making texts available for bulk download to users.  This effort will facilitate modes of scholarship that depend on image and textual data at scale and enable a new level of access to titles not yet included in newspaper data resources such as Chronicling America.

Pandemic thoughts.  St. Hubert notes that while the pandemic persists, all digitization projects for dLOC have been put on hold, and schedules for library staff have been staggered to protect people as much as possible. dLOC staff are currently working remotely and focusing on grant projects such as those mentioned above.

[1] Full disclosure:  The author of this blog post is the program officer for Public Knowledge at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which funds this CLIR postdoctoral fellowship program and the Collections as Data grant mentioned at the end of the second paragraph of the profile about St.

Kenton Rambsy – An Advocate for Domain Knowledge

Data as a key access point.  Kenton Rambsy is an assistant professor of African American literature and digital humanities (DH) at the University of Texas at Arlington (UT Arlington) and the author of #TheJayZMixTape.  His digital monograph, #TheJayZMixTape, takes rich computational and analytical advantage of the extensive “Jay-Z Dataset,” created by Rambsy and his brother, Howard Rambsy (himself a professor of African American literature at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and author of Bad Men: Creative Touchstones of African American Writers).  They have also partnered on a rich dataset about African American texts.  To hear Rambsy talk about his research is to acquire more appreciation for humanities data, especially since his datasets have had more reach than most of his other outputs.   Through this collaborative data-intensive work, Rambsy is arguably helping to change what the academy considers tenure-worthy. 

It’s about domain knowledge.   Rambsy received his PhD at the University of Kansas, where he became active in the Project on the History of Black Writing.  It’s a background that has impacted his teaching in positive ways.  Rambsy believes that an effective approach for getting students interested in literature is to offer them ways to connect their own likes and preferences to literary study.  It’s a key reason why he teaches courses like “The Jay Z Class” and “Storytelling with Data: The Beyoncé Edition.”  As Rambsy puts it:

In my class on Beyonce, we use a Black Feminsit Framework to explore Beyonce’s artistry.  Here is an example where a student created an essay that compares Beyonce’s Grammy wins to BET wins.  Ultimately, the student surmised that Beyonce is type-cast as an urban artist at the Grammy awards. [. . .] At the BET Awards, however, she wins most in the “General” category and not R&B or Urban awards.  In short, students have to have domain knowledge to even understand how to derive insight from data and highlight significant findings.

Pandemic thoughts.  A key takeaway has been a new understanding of what research and learning basics should be for faculty and students as they face a different kind of normal because of the disruption caused by the pandemic.  For students, this means reliable wifi network access while confined to their homes, and for faculty like Rambsy, it means access to books and to digitized primary sources.

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