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.

Toward a Contemplative DH

Let me take you back in time. (It’s not far, don’t worry; I promise we’ll be back by lunch.) The year is 2018. It’s autumn in Oregon, but the rain hasn’t ousted the sun for the year–not quite, not yet. I’m in the middle of finishing my dissertation and searching for jobs. One posting, in particular, has captured my attention: “The Contemplative Sciences Center (CSC) is hiring a Learning Technologies and Digital Humanities Associate Director,” it reads. I pause, curious. What are contemplative sciences? I wonder, and what do they have to do with the digital humanities? And then I click through.

Fast forward to the present. I am the Associate Director of Learning Technologies and Digital Humanities (a mouthful of a title, I know) at the University of Virginia’s Contemplative Sciences Center, and I’m still thinking about those questions. A lot. To be fair, it’s really the second question, more than the first, which has my attention. My wonderful colleagues have done lots to get me oriented to the contemplative sciences, a community of practice I was, in many ways, already participating in–just without precise terminology. Within the umbrella category of “contemplative sciences,” we talk about a lot of different things. I’m interested, largely, in contemplative learning and contemplative pedagogy and how DH might intersect with those things.

To risk a bit of oversimplification, contemplative learning is centrally concerned with the cultivation of personal well-being or flourishing. It promotes self-awareness, self-reflection, and self-training (i.e., mindfulness practices). It is undergirded by a foundational belief in the human capacity for positive change. 

So what does any of that have to do with the digital humanities? 

We DH practitioners don’t often talk about our work as “contemplative”–at least not that I’ve been aware of. But DH is often both contemplative in nature and highly conducive to the aims of contemplative learning. Or, so I would contend.

Let’s pop back to 2018 for a quick example. To deal with the stress of the job search (and the mountains of information and documentation that searching for a job requires one to keep track of), I found myself turning to a number of DH skills. And I’m not (only) talking spreadsheets, here. I used Stanford’s Palladio visualization tool to map jobs I’d applied to so I, my partner, and interested family and friends could keep track of where we might end up. I used Voyant Tools’ Cirrus word cloud generator to analyze my job materials for unconscious patterns and themes, thinking through not only how I was presenting myself to potential employers but also how my own needs and goals factored into the jobs I was considering. I put my CSS skills to work to turn this website into a DH and public humanities portfolio. And that’s just to name a few. These DH activities weren’t answering research questions for me, they were answering personal ones, geared toward self-reflection, self-training, and personal well-being. Could this be a form of contemplative DH?

What about a project like Torn Apart, which is “a deep and radically new look at the territory and infrastructure of ICE’s financial regime in the USA,” designed as a “tool to equip broad social awareness and help in global critical situations”? Doesn’t documenting and reflecting on shared lived realities work to promote human flourishing in the form of individual and social well-being?And if that’s the case, can or should it be considered “contemplative”?

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 thinking through these questions, so I don’t have clear cut answers to provide. But something my advisor once said to me (drawing on Felluga and Kirschenbaum and others) makes me keep working for answers. She said that new DH practitioners often tend to fixate on what the digital can bring to the humanities, but that maybe a more exciting question is: what can the humanities bring to the digital?

Mainstream and academic media outlets alike have been setting the terms of our conversations about the digital by asking how technology detrimentally affects humans for as long as this millennial can remember. But it might surprise you to know that these conversations predate our period entirely. In my dissertation, I wrote about the Victorians’ very similar concerns about print (particularly the newspaper). But along the way, I discovered something fascinating. Although they, too, were worried about the effects of technology and of their own mass (social) media, they didn’t stop with negative questions. Literature from the period is full of examples of people asking themselves how technology might affect them for the better, how they might use technology to be better and do better. In other words, the Victorians learned to be contemplative in their usage of technology in order to flourish as individuals in a chaotic world.

Maybe working toward a contemplative DH can help us make the digital more human(e), and maybe that’s what some DH has been doing all along.


If you want to learn more about contemplative sciences and contemplative learning, the executive director of the CSC, David Germano, touches on some of the core tenants of contemplative learning in this video:

And Karolyn Kinane, Associate Director of Faculty Engagement and Pedagogy here at the CSC, has written some helpful posts about contemplative pedagogy on her blog, which you can find here.

Listening Outward at NAVSA 2018

This year for the National Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA) Conference, I transcribed two songs which were printed in The Weekly Telegraph in 1894. My paper, “Printing Synesthesia: Sensory Epistemologies in the Nineteenth-Century Newspaper,” was part of a panel in which I, Kate Nexbit (U Iowa), Miranda Butler (UC Riverside), and Shannon Draucker (Boston U) explored the intersections of sound, embodiment, and knowledge. It was a fascinating panel, and I’m so delighted to call these brilliant women my colleagues and friends.

For my presentation, I converted these songs to midi files and shared them with my audience. Because of the publication context, I think it’s fairly safe to say that panel attendees were the first people to hear these songs for about 120 years. You can listen too, below. I’ll also be posting excerpts from our panel over on Victorian Scribblers.

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Unifying Structures in The Weekly Telegraph (1894)

As promised, this week we are going to take a look at the unifying structures in the later iterations of The Sheffield Daily Telegraph supplement (which is called The Sheffield Weekly Telegraph and then just The Weekly Telegraph). I took extra time to put together this post, because I needed to prepare some supplementary materials for your entertainment and edification. Thank you for waiting patiently.

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On Unifying Structures in The Sheffield Daily Telegraph (1879-1880)

In The Nineteenth-Century Press in the Digital Age, James Mussell argues that to fully appreciate and understand the material produced by the nineteenth-century press (and how that material interacted with and informed 19C culture), “we now need to cultivate two sets of skills…familiarity with the forms and genres of the periodical and newspaper press; and the ability to interrogate the resources that present them in digital form.” He goes on to argue that two of the most important characteristics of nineteenth-century periodicals and newspapers are miscellaneity and seriality or random/unique elements that appear once or twice and then disappear and serial elements that stay the same over time. Noting that the use-value of these print texts “imposed contradictory conditions of stability and fluidity upon periodical form: each ‘number is different, but it is the same periodical,'” Mussell argues that “both miscellaneity and seriality might be predicated on difference – this article is different to the others on the page; this issue is different to the last – but this difference is tempered in each case by various recurrent features.” And, he concludes, “it is these predominately formal aspects of the publication, running across and between issues, that permit it to assert its identity and establish its persistence over time…Repetition is a vital and overlooked component of periodical form. It operates both synchronically, within the issue, and diachronically, between them in order to posit unifying structures that can manage difference.” 

Today, as you may have guessed, we’ll be taking a look at these unifying structures as they exist in Saturday supplement of The Sheffield Daily Telegraph in 1879-1880.

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Tracking a Masthead Over Time

This week in the Print Culture blog series, we’re taking a brief look at newspaper mastheads and how they change over time.

To do so, we’ll look at Saturday supplements of The Sheffield Daily Telegraph from the early years of publication, and then take a look at what’s changed or stayed the same every five-ish years after that until around 1894. As I noted in my last post, this blog series is possible because of The British Newspaper Archive, which is an amazing resource for periodicals and print culture scholars.

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A Brief Introduction to The Sheffield Daily Telegraph (1855-1950) and The Sheffield Weekly Telegraph (1884-1920)

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According to my research (via The British Newspaper archive), The Sheffield Daily Telegraph ran from 1855-1950 under varied ownership. It was originally published by “bookseller, printer and patent medicine dealer, Joseph Pearce” and “sold…to Frederick Clifford and William Leng” in 1864 (source). Pearce’s third credential is part of the reason for my interest in this particular newspaper, as my dissertation looks at the intersections of print culture and embodiment from a variety of perspectives (including medical humanities).

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On Plasticity: Book History Series Update

One of the most important traits I’ve worked to develop in graduate school is plasticity. Schedules change every term; life throws random things at you at the most inopportune times; working with students, faculty, and colleagues is invigorating and challenging in all the best ways, but also creates unanticipated challenges and dilemmas; administrators inform you that there are a handful of degree progress requirements nobody told you about; scholarship, conference, and professionalization opportunities present themselves and you have to drop everything to get your applications in on time.

Plasticity. Critical to making it through this crazy obstacle course.

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