Toward a Contemplative DH, Part Two: What It’s (Maybe, Probably) Not

In my last post, I explored a set of questions I’ve been thinking about since I started my new job at the University of Virginia’s Contemplative Sciences Center: What does labelling DH work as contemplative make possible? Might the framework of contemplative learning help us answer the question of what the humanities bring to the digital?

I’m still working toward answers for those questions, but this Twitter exchange helped me start mapping out what I’m actually talking about when I talk about “Contemplative DH.”

So, in this second post of what is apparently now a series, I’m going to talk about what Contemplative DH is (maybe, probably) NOT as a way to set the stage for imagining what Contemplative DH might be.

NB: I’m not working toward a fixed definition in this series, so much as I’m working toward a more nuanced understanding of the different, sometimes overlapping and sometimes mutually exclusive ways we could be imagining and doing Contemplative DH.

But first…

To effectively talk about what Contemplative DH is NOT, we need to return to the question of what contemplation actually is, both in and beyond academia.

So what is “contemplation,” anyway?

On their website, the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society (CMind), provides the above infographic, which uses a visual tree metaphor to map out varying areas (or branches) of contemplative practice. While this is not intended for a scholarly frame (or, rather, not intended to map contemplative academic practices), it offers a process- and results-based perspective on what we might call, broadly, “contemplation,” including “communication & connection,” “awareness,” “ritual/cyclical,” “stillness,” “generative,” “creative,” “movement,” “activist,” and “relational” practice categories.

Conversations about contemplation and inquiry, in addition to articles and books about contemplation in/and education, abound. I’ll touch on some of these in subsequent posts.

In the realm of higher education, The Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education (ACMHE), has, since 2008, been working “to advocate for contemplative practice in higher education; to encourage new forms of inquiry and imaginative thinking; and to educate active citizens who will support a more just and compassionate direction for society.”

But while CMind (and other organizations and academic centers, institutes, and programs around the country and world) has not only been advocating for but also educating folks about this complex away of contemplative practices for some time now, odds are if you drop the term “contemplative” in a conversation, the people you’re talking to are going to assume you mean mindfulness.

What’s mindfulness, you ask? UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center defines it this way: “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.” (For slightly more in-depth explanation, see the video below.)

Of course, mindfulness is part of contemplative practice. But contemplative practice is a larger umbrella category. The conflation of terms has a potential limiting effect. Which brings me to the meat (or protein, if you’re a vegetarian like me) of this conversation…

Contemplative DH =/= mindfulness about technology

This probably goes without saying, but I’ll risk stating the obvious anyway. Contemplative or mindful approaches to our digital lives, valuable as they may be, do not, to my mind, a Contemplative DH constitute. At least, not in and of themselves. Why? Because technology =/= digital humanities.

From my perspective, Contemplative DH will take one (or more) of the following forms:

  1. Digital Humanities methods and practices as Contemplative practices (i.e., bringing DH to contemplation by, for example, practicing coding as meditation or using text analysis to visualize patterns in your journals) [edit: But also, DH that helps us be contemplative.]
  2. Contemplative inquiry in DH (i.e., bringing contemplation to DH to conduct scholarly inquiry)
  3. DH scholarship about contemplation (i.e., text mining Victorian novels for examples of mindfulness)

In terms of the first form, while transforming email into a meditative practice verges on DH practice as Contemplative practice, it feels more opportunistic than intentional. And in terms of the second form, mindfulness about my online habits and the affect of email, while beneficial, are concerns prior to, if also revelatory about the conditions enabling and limiting the production of, scholarship.

I don’t mean to say that mindfulness about our relationships to and use of technology can’t or won’t lead to scholarship. I think it can, and (in the case of my dissertation, which is focused on print instead of digital technology) already has. What I am saying is that if we’re thinking and working toward a Contemplative DH, we can’t stop here.

So, in coming posts, I’ll talk about these two forms at more length and provide examples of what they might look like in practice.

Disclaimer/ invitation: I think things through by writing about them, and I have a tendency to overcomplicate ideas in my excitement about them. So, this is by no means a conclusive or fixed or definitive take on Contemplative DH. I’d very much like to keep having conversations about this here, in person, and on Twitter.

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