Are Digital Humanities More Of A Digital Dystopia For The Pakistani Student?

"DH is a challenging approach to research in English studies: it questions our pedagogical practices, and the social and cultural behaviours which condition these practices"

Are Digital Humanities More Of A Digital Dystopia For The Pakistani Student?

With Digital Humanities (DH) being very much in the humanities’ air, I am alarmed by this new whiff called digital dystopia. I hear academics in English studies translating digital humanities into digital imperialism, surveilling people of colour and their coloured literature in English. In doing so, ironically, they are borrowing terms from DH: like ‘Black Digital Feminism’, ‘Digital Imperialism’, ‘Racial Literacy’, ‘Digital Intersectionality’, ‘Digital Cultures’, ‘People of Colour’, and ‘Gendered Data.’ There are some who find digital humanities to be a traitor in English studies, that intends to sabotage the grand narratives of writers of colour and their position in the Global South; there are others who are shouting out to be wary of this paperless space of DH because it is taking us away from the fine aesthetics of hardbound English literary texts, or literatures in English, and their literariness.

Interestingly, the humanities critics warning us of digital dystopia are necessitating the need for digital humanities in English studies in Pakistan. These critics are making use of the digital literary spaces for voicing their opinions on the Englishness of literature in the digital age, and they themselves are choosing to publish their manuscripts digitally because of the following reasons: first, digitalised literary texts are a quick way to get published and known, as the digital page and its meta-data makes one unforgettable to a global audience; secondly, approaching big white publishers has always challenged the perseverance of writers of colour. 

Since this use and abuse of digital humanities is going hand in hand, it brings me to think about this matter in a broader perspective within the discipline of English Studies. In our universities, we encourage original research in MPhil and PhD research programmes. Where does this original research in English literature begin from in a third-world country? It begins with the exhaustive effort of fishing out white and coloured texts from online and open-access sources. We do not have access to international repositories, as much as, to our indigenous public libraries which still hold on to outdated books, and old card catalogues, which are of little help. These libraries carry a big ‘no’ for students of English studies when it comes to subscription of journals, international databases in the discipline, and access to literary magazines. To top it all, the librarians are either not trained for digital literacy, or their half-baked knowledge shows that they are still not ready to embrace digital knowledge and skill wholeheartedly. Rather than learning to be humanists and serving mankind with the provision of data in many shapes, and with new skill sets, in this role of a librarian we celebrate ignorance. 

This is why, for all these problems, we look up to the international digital footprints to request books from humanists around the world, to hunt for open-access collections, or look for free downloads, register for free humanities research workshops or enrol in online courses, which can help us in developing different skill sets for research.  

Isn’t digitalisation rescuing us from our woes? Isn’t it making us think of the humanitarian spirit of digital humanists at large? Someone out there is helping, providing, and facilitating our rickety research environment. Then, in hindsight, is it fair to dub digital humanities as digital dystopia damaging the literariness of our English studies and ruining our literary research culture? 

DH provides me with that missing vantage point from where I can clearly see that our MPhil/PhD research exists in a vacuum. Since long, our research students are conducting isolated research in English literature. They are breathing in a culture of self-centeredness, isolation of knowledge, and exploitation at the hands of supervisors.

As an academician in the discipline of English studies, I question myself: is it possible to achieve autonomy and purpose in our higher research programmes?  

Well, the answer is yes, if I leave my current position of a traditional humanist, and become a digital humanist, who makes use of a combination of traditional and digital methods for research in English studies. On one hand, our MPhil/PhD students, indiscriminately of gender, are nurtured in a culture of selfishness. The academic environment allows them to think ‘inwards’, and about their ‘self’, as success lies in being secretive about the acquisition of knowledge and making others miserable about it. Research students shy away from sharing their knowledge and sources during discussions with fellow students and executing academic tasks with them. This practice of building up knowledge in isolation needs to be weeded out.  

On the other hand, the situation becomes complex when these students are marginalised in the position of becoming supervisees. They are controlled by the supervisors in determining the literary trends, choosing topics, and executing them in the form of a thesis. Ironically, our traditional education system doesn’t let supervisees think entirely on their own; their research topic is an outcome of their subservience to the position of the supervisor as a demi-god. The research student is not autonomous in making choices; he/she does not think of research as an enthusiastic pursuit for acquiring various skill sets. As a result, such dull research journey has no purpose for the student, but to suit the whims and desires of his/her supervisor. Hence, the thesis is nothing else than a piece of extensive writing churned out to earn a higher degree and a ‘better’ job. 

Through DH’s approach of openness, inclusivity, and ethical considerations in understanding literary data, the research student can think expansively about literary texts

The dissertation remains a private affair between the supervisor and the supervisee. It is a possession that sees little light of the day! Most of the time, it makes its way into journals as its destination. But it fails to fulfil its purpose of reaching out to an expansive audience as groundbreaking research work: it does not invite other researchers to explore and engage in a continuous dialogue; it doesn’t have a public face to talk to. Therefore, this research in English doesn’t serve the purpose of humanities. 

The research in English studies can only sustain itself by answering questions which baffle other researchers in many different disciplines; it should inspire others to think and create for the betterment of the society. The researcher should not celebrate the death of research once his/her thesis gets approval and submits itself to the library; the researcher should champion plurality of being by keeping his/her research alive in the digital space for others to participate in its meaning formation within the field of English literature, and across disciplines.    

The supervisor’s success comes with the supervisee’s intellectual growth as a researcher, and not his/her pathetic humility as a slave to his/her supervisor/demigod. Thus, the supervisors need to understand that they are instrumental in the process of research. The supervisors can instruct and facilitate research students, but they cannot dictate them to follow their personal dreams and address their dilemmas.  

Believe it or not, it is the digital humanist’s good practices of mutual respect and inclusivity, which can give autonomy to the supervisee and the supervisor. Through DH’s approach of openness, inclusivity, and ethical considerations in understanding literary data, the research student can think expansively about literary texts and discuss thoroughly to identify a research topic from the largest dataset with his/her supervisor. At the same time, DH gives autonomy to the supervisor to assess the research topic with the eye of an expert and not with a lens of a demi-god hovering over the worshipper to manoeuvre his mind and actions. DH practices put the supervisor and the supervisee in a dialectical relationship. 

Research culture everywhere demands mutual consensus and respect between supervisee and supervisor. This understanding can be inculcated through the teaching of DH as a subject, conducting of workshops in DH skills, and using DH as one of the methods to conduct research in English studies. 

It is time to put DH into action by making it understandable for those academicians in English studies who are misreading it due to fossilisation of their approach towards reading and writing  of English literature. It is time that the supervisors focus on encouraging their supervisees to start contributing to the building of indigenous databases for making a systematic availability of literary texts, literatures in English, and recent critical discourse for future researchers in English studies in Pakistan.

DH is a challenging approach to research in English studies. It questions our pedagogical practices, and social and cultural behaviours, which condition these practices. However, DH can help me, and other teachers of English literature to learn variable skill sets, incorporate them in our classrooms, and facilitate researchers with the openness, collaboration, and purposefulness of facilitating others – such as  researchers, public institutions, common people, people from social and discovery sciences anywhere in the world looking for answers to questions requiring cross-disciplinary approaches. I believe DH, as a method, can help us celebrate disparities rather than allegiances in research in English studies. 

I emphasise that DH is a nuanced and cutting-edge research approach, which is what the postgraduate students, and the broad discipline of English literary studies, require for sustainable development. I feel that linking this approach with TS Eliot’s desire for "new wholes" in his essay "Tradition and Individual Talent," and his reference to Johnson’s remarks that ‘the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked together by violence’.