This following post is an interview that I recently conducted with Adeline Koh, Assistant Professor of Post Colonial Studies at Richard Stockton College. With a PhD in Comparative Literature, Koh’s research interests include global feminisms, British, Southeast Asian and African literature and the digital humanities. During the 2012-2013 academic year, Koh will be a visiting faculty fellow at Duke University with the Humanities Writ Large Program. The following interview is largely comprised of Koh’s interests around the topic of Race in the Digital Humanities and her two digital projects, The Stockton Postcolonial Studies Project and Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’.
FR: So, tell me about your research interests and background.
AK: I work in the intersections of postcolonial studies and the digital humanities. I am trying to see how the digital world can change how we see the postcolonial world.
I’m actually working on a project based on my dissertation project. It’s called ‘Cosmopolitan Whiteness and Practices of Privilege in the Postcolonial World’ and what I look at is how Whiteness is assumed by people of color in postcolonial countries. I do a comparative study in Southeast Asia and West and Southern Africa in how Whiteness functions in the postcolonial world. There are a lot of people who have written about Whiteness from an American perspective, but…little has been done in non western settings. Generally, they have focused on the Whiteness of people how are of European descent and I’m interested in how Non-White people appropriate Whiteness.
FR: I really enjoyed your website and found your MLA proposal on Race and DH fascinating. This is definitely a topic I think has been underdeveloped in the field.
AK: It’s an interesting discussion. My understanding is that I think these discussions have gone on for a longer time in terms of media studies [and] the field of communications. People like [Lisa] Nakamura…and Alondra Nelson. I think the digital humanities is a relatively newish thing though some people would say its actually not that new because the old name for digital humanities was humanities computing. Recently, in the last 5 to 10 years, [it] has become rebranded into the digital humanities and has become the new big thing that everybody is interested in. So, the discussions about race….The people who do talk about race in the digital humanities borrow language from people who have previously written on race and the new media studies. A new book that has recently come out about this is Race After the Internet edited by Peter Chow-White and Lisa Nakamura. It’s an edited volume with really interesting essays. [Deals with] how people are grappling with this topic.
AK: On and off, people have been talking about this in terms of asking why the digital humanities really hasn’t been dealing with cultural studies. So, on the one hand, the people who do talk it borrow the language from communications and new media studies. People are articulating that digital humanities [are] resistant to cultural studies and cultural studies approaches. This, I think, also has to do with this debate between more hack/less yack. It’s been growing for awhile. So, this introduction of theory into the digital humanities has [been] met with some kind of resistance. So, I think this resistance to cultural studies is [related] to the resistance theory in general. We should have more hacking and less yacking. The digital humanities, or parts of it, are skeptical of theory. We are starting to talk about it.
AK: You’ve heard of Transform DH, haven’t you?
FR: I’ve seen parts of it.
AK: They post things under the hashtag #transformdh. It came out from the American Studies Annual Meeting. They are basically asking why the digital humanities doesn’t talk about race and this implicit Whiteness that undergirds the digital humanities. So, we put together a panel called ‘Transform the Digital Humanities’ where we are supposed to be talking about race, gender, all these things. We put it together for the last ASA. Apparently, their attendance was quite small. So, the question is being articulated, but it’s not really that mainstream. I don’t know if it will be mainstream.
FR: How did you first come across the discipline of digital humanities? Do you remember your initial thoughts on how your discipline can contribute to the field?
AK: I don’t remember when I first came across the digital humanities. But, I have always like computers. I have always been kind of nerdy that way. When I first started my position at Stockton College, I thought [of] the idea of creating a digital postcolonial studies project with my students. I think postcolonial studies have really important things to say. But, I think that the way in which it is usually said by most post colonial scholars is so obscure and difficult to understand that most people get turned off and just don’t want to engage with it. I thought one of the ways to make it more accessible was to try to is to get my students to explain things in simpler English in a more lively way. I worked with my students individually to produce different projects. I think the digital world is the way to make whatever you are interested in more findable and accessible. I got into what I do because I really care about the messages of postcolonial studies. I’m trying to bring a more fun and accessible version of postcolonial studies to the web.
AK: A few months ago, I launched a new website called ‘Digitizing Chinese Englishmen’. I’m trying to digitize and put content online of this journal that was published from 1837 until 1902. I wanted to be online the contents of this English and Mandarin language journal that was published in Singapore. It is a really interesting journal, because its about Chinese subjects of the British Empire were trying to present themselves as loyal English subjects as well as define themselves as Chinese diasporic subjects. There are 3 main contributors to the volumes: one were people who had migrated from China and presented themselves as British, as well as European officials who were stationed in Malaya, as well as people living in the region. I wanted to put this project together because there is a lot of material on 19th century subjects and writers but mostly they are about White people. I think that the more of these supposedly obscure texts that we can find online, the more we will change how we look at the 19th century. The more we can find out how people who are not widely represented. I want people to have access to these stories.
FR: Thank you for your time.
AK: No problem!