by Daniel Chamberlain — Occidental College
May 13, 2013 – 01:36
The previous contributors to this discussion have done a fantastic job of reflecting on the importance of professional context, personal growth, and depth of inquiry as valuable frames for considering the relationships between media studies and the digital humanities. In addressing this question in other contexts, I have argued[PDF] that the richest possible intersections between these “fields” would bring together the theoretical sophistication, attention to history, and concern for the practices of actual people that has characterized the most productive turns in media studies, as well as the emphasis on praxis, collaboration, and experiments with new modes of scholarly practices that are often associated with digital humanities work. Building on Aaron Kashtan’s recent post, I would like to pull on the thread of this argument that is nearest to my own concern with digital scholarship program building in and around disciplinary environments.
As I work with colleagues on my own small campus, I find that the rhetorical frame of my discussions changes based on specific contexts - I might talk about “media studies” with fellow travelers, “digital scholarship” with colleagues trained in the sciences, and “Digital Humanities” with those who keep up with the Chronicle and the New York Times- but that our conversations often gain traction when I suggest that much of the best work covered by such labels share a concern with practices of “critical making.” In the simplest terms, I take this phrase to mean producing cultural objects from within the critical frames of a discipline. I use it to describe coding, prototyping, fanvids, complex data visualizations, zine-making, webmaking, geo-spatial analysis, network visualizations, and the set of critical reflections that are baked into or built around such activities. Building on long-traditions of praxis-based pedagogy and project-based learning, the notion of critical making appeals for a number of reasons. At first glance, it is quite simply that scientists/artists understand lab/studio work, people familiar with the digital humanities are aware of the debates around building and coding, and media studies folks might already appreciate the value of production training for critique or the importance of fandom and participatory cultures as forms of knowledge production. At a deeper level, an emphasis on robust forms of critical making includes a process of production, reflection, reformulation, and reconsideration, or making as a way to ask better questions. For students who are not fully persuaded that academic papers make a difference in the world, critical making projects often open an avenue to critical intervention, and help them understand that making is something done by authors, scholars, and audiences, and that students themselves may occupy these roles. Beyond the bounds of our current discussion, I think that a critical making framework also connects such academic work to a broader terrain of contemporary cultural change, in the form of hacker spaces, physical computing projects, slow food movements, cultural remixing, urban farming, bike garages, and the like. Students engaged in critical making might develop transferrable skills, but more importantly they might develop a transferrable (critical) disposition that they can apply in other curricular and non-curricular contexts.
I have been engaged in the discourses of media studies and digital humanities long enough to know that the idea of critical making is not central to the practice of everyone who might identify as being associated with these disciplines, and I certainly am not trying to reinforce any perceived boundaries about which forms of making count in either field. I do want to suggest that such a framework is becoming more urgent as emergent media increasingly becomes an object of analysis, as technologically-inflected techniques inform scholarly method, and as new forms of scholarly communication rely on digital and networked systems.
Image on front page by mandiberg and available on Flickr.