23 May 2019 - Courtney Floyd

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.