So, that post. I’ve never written anything that’s gotten much attention before, and the experience has been strangely, intensely stressful. Is it too divisive?, I wonder. Too hastily written? When I wrote the post, to be honest with you, I was livid about job-market news from friends, not to mention the latest VIDA stats. Should I have been more constructive? I was short with people in the comments, and I regret that. (Sorry, Ben.) Should I have said more about how much I love the community of DH? Because I do, because it’s been life-changing for me, because I love spending time with you. Am I now Gender Lady? I hope not, because I really don’t want to talk about this all the time.
I was glad to see the post gain traction — and I prodded it along — because I want the conversation to take place. But I’m extremely self-conscious about being near the center of it.
On Sunday, it felt like time to shut down the computer and dig out my sewing machine, which is something that consoles me. I first learned to sew from my mom, but I was too impatient to stick with it. It wasn’t until college that I picked it back up again. I really came of age too late to be a riot grrl. But this was in Portland, where, as we all know, the dream of the ’90s lives on, and stuff like sewing and crafting was part of DIY feminist culture. (Just as it was for Jacqueline Wermont!) We taught each other to sew and knit, and, yes, we put many a bird on it.
I got older and sold my record collection, but I kept the sewing machine. Later on, miserable in grad school, I sought out stich-n-bitches, where I found community with other women. Instead of writing my dissertation, I read the message boards at craftster.org, where crafters — mostly women — posted tutorials and congratulated each other on what they’d accomplished. (Motto: “No tea cozies without irony.”) Back home, my mom helped me figure stuff out, too. (I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to follow a sewing pattern, but those things are like hieroglyphics.)
Maybe this is all too twee for you, too redolent of a particular cultural moment. But I love, and I’ll always love, the way that women talk to each other through the things we make together. I even love the stern, chiding voice of sewing patterns, unchanged for decades.
So when you talk to me about a community of practice, I get that. When you talk about making as a way of knowing, I understand that, too. I hear you about building things together, about the pleasure of craftsmanship, about the quiet thrill of untangling tacit knowledge with other practitioners.
I don’t think we’re quite there yet. Or, rather, I don’t think all of us are there yet. We’re not at a place where we can share knowledge generously and with joy, and the trouble feels pressing to me. This thing, this gender and diversity thing, is a problem, even in this wonderful community that we’ve built. (Or that you’ve built, and to which I’m a callow latecomer.)
Here’s what I think, though. Digital humanities, as a community, has been almost scarily good at jettisoning old saws. Old publishing models suck, we said. Let’s not do that. Academic conferences are boring. Let’s not do those, either. The staff-faculty divide? Screw it. Crusty, irrelevant journals? Out the window. And while we’re at it, fuck academic hierarchies.
Let’s make inequities of power something else we decide to abandon. Let’s say to each other, yes, this is a thing, but it doesn’t mean that we’re bad people, and this is our opportunity to show everyone else how it’s done. We are truly, frighteningly good at dismantling and reassembling the levers of incentive and disincentive that steer academic decision-making. Why not turn this knowledge to gender and race, too?
I am no organizational mastermind, but here are some things I think might help:
- Let’s think about ways to build communities of underrepresented people. We have some great models here, in women’s development groups, in the Praxis Program, in MATRIX, in the Crunk Feminist Collective, and, yes, even though it might not be your bag, in groups like Craftster. Women and people of color are really, really good at building and maintaining supportive communities. Let’s make sure that they (we) have spaces to do that, and that they (we) know we value these communities, even when they say things we don’t totally want to hear.
- Let’s acknowledge that we all do racist and sexist stuff sometimes. I should know. I do it all the time. All. The. Time. I don’t mean to, and I’m not a bad person, but I do. Let’s just figure out together how we can stop doing this when it counts, when we’re depriving someone of an opportunity to learn or do something important.
- Let’s talk about when our niceness could be shutting down important conversations. As anyone who doesn’t know me very well will tell you, I am a Nice Person. I instinctively recoil at unpleasantness. But sometimes — not always, but sometimes — it might be necessary to have these really uncomfortable conversations.
- Let’s believe people when they tell us they feel uncomfortable. It’s so easy to correct someone when she tells you she feels slighted because of race or gender. I’ve done it many times. But I’m trying, really trying, to take a minute or two to think: She’s probably the expert on her own experience.