Tagged Critical Digital Humanities

This photograph shows several students from behind, collaborating on the DHSI privacy plan by writing on a chalkboard.

Finding Fault with Foucault: Teaching Surveillance in the Digital Humanities


This article outlines the risks posed by Foucauldian logics and provides alternative pedagogical strategies grounded in a culture of care. Failing to address surveillance culture through this critical framework exacerbates its effects by encouraging its continuation and intensification. Modern surveillance tools make it challenging, if not impossible, to pinpoint the characteristic(s) against which the tool has been programmed to discriminate. The treatment of such automated surveillance decisions as impossible to question has enabled the further entrenchment of inequality and injustice. As such, scholars, activists, and the public need to band together to fight against unethical surveillance practices; one effective way is by providing our students with the tools needed to critique the surveillance machine and to envision more equitable futures. Teaching them to question Foucault, and thereby the premises of Western surveillance, is vital to this process.

“Where are the digital humanists critiquing the growing surveillance state?” 
       —Michael Widner, 2013

Citing events such as Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing and the passing of the PATRIOT Act in the US Congress, Widner argues that digital humanists are doing little to nothing to intervene in the ever-increasing infringements on privacy in the Western world. His argument, however, is framed around a specific type of DH—male-dominated, highly computational scholarship that emulates the data mining projects of organizations such as the NSA. For critical digital humanists, surveillance is a site where issues surrounding race, gender, and sexuality intersect with our digital lives. Works such as Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (2018), Miriam Posner’s “See No Evil” (2018), and  Jacqueline Wernimont’s Numbered Lives: Life and Death in Quantum Media (2018) reveal a growing concern with surveillance, with groups such as SurvDH and the Digital Library Federation’s Technologies of Surveillance working group providing outlets for digital humanists to explore these topics in more depth. Similarly, rhetoric and composition scholars are developing new work on the effects of surveillance in the university by examining how digital composition tools, data-sharing platforms, social media networks, and learning management tools place our students’ data at risk. Although these fields have distinct approaches, they articulate the ethical concerns raised by surveillance culture’s pervasive invasion into our classrooms and our lives.

Since 2016, I have taught four courses focused on surveillance and data ethics. Two were geared towards undergrads—one in a women’s and gender studies department at a large public university and one in an American studies department at an elite, small private college. The other two iterations were taught at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria, BC, a program that provides graduate students, faculty members, librarians, and technologists a chance to learn about a key theory or methodology within the digital humanities. While the course has seen slight variations over time, its overarching goal has always been to interrogate the ethical issues of state, corporate, and social surveillance mechanisms. To that end, I included texts written largely by women and BIPOC to demonstrate the ways in which surveillance culture exacerbates ongoing discrimination against marginalized groups. Some of these texts include Simone Browne’s Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (2015), Kim Tallbear’s Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science (2013), and Shoshana Amielle Magnet’s When Biometrics Fail: Gender, Race and the Technology of Identity (2011).

While my goal has always been to advocate for decolonial and anti-colonial approaches to surveillance, the first iteration of the course began with a discussion of Foucault’s panopticism. At the time, I argued that Foucault provides a foundation for understanding the structures of Western surveillance, which, once understood, can be applied to the U.S. imperial enterprise and can shape our analysis of events such as the Standing Rock protests or the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Although I sought to demonstrate the inequities of the surveillance machine, structuring the course in this way elided many of the flaws within Foucault’s argument. Perhaps most damaging is Foucault’s (1995) assertion that surveillance, by virtue of being everywhere, affects everyone similarly. He states, “Bentham dreamt of transforming into a network of mechanisms that would be everywhere and always alert, running through society without interruption in space or in time. The panoptic arrangement provides the formula for this generalization” (Foucault 1995, 209). In other words, the panopticon is designed to penetrate all communities, spaces, and cultures; causing many to ask, “If the panopticon is everywhere, then aren’t we all the equal victims of its repressive machinations?”

Students are incredibly responsive to this argument. They love to expound upon how their homes, schools, sports teams, and extra-curricular activities are all part of the system that Foucault describes, and who can blame them? It helps to clarify the basic tenets of Foucault’s argument, and it gets them excited about surveillance and privacy issues. Yet, it is only now after many years that I realize the extreme disservice this has done to my students. By allowing them to conflate varied surveillance mechanisms and contexts, I failed to implement a culture of care in the classroom. At that moment, I did not explicitly affirm the central premise of the course—surveillance is a tool of state and corporate oppression that has disproportionate consequences for women and people of color. This had one of two possible consequences: it either overstated the severity of their experiences or downplayed real (and unspoken) traumas. Conversations on surveillance tend to be problematic because much of the canon encourages readers to believe in two false premises—that all surveillance is equal and that surveillance is inescapable. These premises are not only dangerous for readers of Foucault, but also for our culture at large. As the foundational theory surrounding Western surveillance culture, Foucault’s views have pervaded our daily lives, making us docile when we experience monitoring from our co-workers, classmates, employers, retailers, and devices and reinforcing colonialist hierarchies of power and marginalization.

 This image depicts a chalkboard with the question, “What is surveillance?” written in the top left. Below this are a variety of answers written in multiple people’s handwriting.
Figure 1. Classroom explorations of surveillance.

To push back against these misconceptions, it is crucial that we present students with different perspectives on surveillance, privacy, and power. As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012) note in their groundbreaking work, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” language is a powerful tool by which to address inequalities pervasive within surveillance culture and inherent to the colonial enterprise. They note:

One trend we have noticed, with growing apprehension, is the ease with which the language of decolonization has been superficially adopted into education and other social sciences, supplanting prior ways of talking about social justice, critical methodologies, or approaches which decenter settler perspectives. Decolonization, which we assert is a distinct project from other civil and human rights–based social justice projects, is far too often subsumed into the directives of these projects, with no regard for how decolonization wants something different than those forms of justice. (2)

By adopting the language of decolonialism into our social justice initiatives, settler scholars (myself included) are allowed to ignore the long histories of settler colonialism that have shaped our perceptions of justice, allyship, and activism both inside and outside the academy. Our reliance upon teaching surveillance theory through Foucauldian principles similarly is flawed, as his discussion of surveillance negates the settler enterprise by eliding it entirely.

One of the ways Foucauldian logic contributes to this elision is through its choice of analogies. Instead of structuring his core discussion of surveillance around strategies of conquest and colonialism, Foucault references a seventeenth-century document that outlines procedures for towns affected by the plague. According to these rules, citizens are coerced to acquiesce to surveillance upon pain of death. By describing surveillance through this metaphor, Foucault (1995) explicitly misrepresents the harm wrought by state surveillance and ultimately enables its continuation. His discussion of panopticism begins as follows:

First, a strict spatial partitioning: the closing of the town and its outlying districts, a prohibition to leave the town on pain of death, the killing of all stray animals; the division of the town into distinct quarters, each governed by an intendant. Each street is placed under the authority of a syndic, who keeps it under surveillance; if he leaves the street, he will be condemned to death. On the appointed day, everyone is ordered to stay indoors: it is forbidden to leave on pain of death. (195)

Without context, his narrative is one of conquest—citizens are cut off from neighboring communities, their resources are destroyed or placed under foreign control, and individuals are forced to acquiesce to this system upon pain of death. These characteristics are not relegated to one particular colonial experience, but are inherent to processes of conquest. Moreover, Foucault would have been familiar with the processes of colonialism. In The History of Sexuality, he asserts that the rise of repression occurred in the seventeenth century, but his argument focuses on the cultural repression of sexuality. He fails to mention that the seventeenth century also marks the peak of the African slave trade, the expansion of Spanish missions, and the founding of Jamestown. Each of these events is a key component of settler culture’s colonial enterprise.

Indigenous peoples across the globe were subjected to the surveillance systems embedded within the conquest apparatus. In the United States, the conquest of indigenous peoples occurred in many forms—through the development of reservations, the allotment of land, and the use of residential schools. Similarly, indigenous resources were killed off to ensure that each nation’s way of life was no longer sustainable. One of the most common misconceptions is that all indigenous peoples were treated similarly during these processes, but this is patently untrue. Some indigenous nations, such as the Miami and Delaware, lost their federal status, meaning that their economies, customs, cultures, and homelands were stripped from them entirely. The Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota’s economies were toppled by the killing of the buffalo in the Great Plains; however, many other communities faced similar economic devastation. The Osage, who maintained mineral rights over their federally appointed lands in Oklahoma, garnered great wealth during the oil boom; however, they were only allowed to access these profits through their government-appointed guardians, each of whom was white. As such, few Osage received the money owed to them for use of their land; instead, the federal government developed a system that systematically stripped them of their economic well-being. Although many indigenous nations filed lawsuits against the United States government, noting the particularly cruel and discriminatory nature of many federal laws pertaining to indigenous peoples, the vast majority of these systems are still in place. Those who have rebelled against this mistreatment via force have been sentenced to death. Similar processes were implemented in the United States colonies, including Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Marshall Islands and Hawai’i. In each case, the islands were cut off from neighboring communities and forced to acquiesce to U.S. rule upon pain of death. Military bases were established across the islands, and indigenous ways of life were subsumed by industries beneficial to the colonial enterprise, particularly sugar and coffee. In some cases, such as in Puerto Rico, multiple waves of colonial rule sought to eradicate indigenous communities and identities.

So, why is it important to discuss indigenous peoples in the context of the panopticon? Indigenous peoples have been subjected to the harshest forms of surveillance, yet they appear nowhere in Foucault’s analysis or in the work of his intellectual descendents. Andrea Smith (2015) notes that “the manner in which Foucaldian analyses of the state tend to temporally situate biopower during the era of the modern state disappears the biopolitics of settler colonialism and transantlantic slavery” (23).[1] In other words, many scholars of surveillance, either implicitly or explicitly, erase the ways in which the formation of the state was dependent upon the subjugation of indigenous and black bodies.

To counteract these texts, scholars such as Simone Browne, Virginia Eubanks, Shoshana Amielle Magnet, and Safiya Noble theorize about the relationship between surveillance and colonialism by demonstrating the ways in which marginalized peoples often experience the greatest consequences of surveillance culture. Browne (2015) notes that “When particular surveillance technologies, in their development and design, leave out some subjects and communities for optimum usage, this leaves open the possibility of reproducing existing inequalities (162–3). At other times, communities are more explicitly targeted by surveillance culture for speaking out against the colonial machine. Andrew Crosby and Jeffrey Monaghan (2018) note that “Indigenous activists are policed using the powers and resources of the national security apparatus, demonstrating the extensive reach of the ‘war on terror’ into the traditional domain of colonial governance.” Groups such as #BlackLivesMatter and the protesters at Standing Rock have faced similar scrutiny, with critics using the rhetoric of terrorism to incite their critiques of what bell hooks terms “imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy” (1984, xv). To address this marginalization, Browne (2015) offers up the framework of “dark sousveillance” which “speaks not only to observing those in authority (the slave patroller or the plantation overseer, for instance) but also to the use of a keen and experiential insight of plantations surveillance in order to resist it” (22). She then extends this framework to contemporary physical and digital environments that continue to discriminate against black bodies. Looking at historical sites of surveillance and resistance can help us develop strategies for countering discrimination in the modern world.

This image lists the biographical information students located about Joyce Semmler displayed on a dry erase board.
Figure 2. Learning about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) movement by remembering the life and death of Joyce Semmler.

Analysis, however, is not enough. We must imagine possibilities for pedagogy and activism that operate outside of surveillance culture. We can only do so if we interrogate the second false premise offered by Foucault’s model: the panopticon is inescapable. According to his analysis, citizens of the modern world always operate within the realm of surveillance, and individuals can only move from one controlled environment into another. This view normalizes surveillance culture in unhealthy and unethical ways; by claiming that surveillance is inescapable, we tacitly agree that corporations, predators, and the state do not need our consent or our approval to monitor us. According to Smith (2015), “reliance on state surveillance prevents us from seeing other possibilities for ending violence, such as through communal organization that might be able to address violence more effectively” (36). Although numerous alternatives to surveillance culture exist, most seem to rely on a sense of communal ties. Foucault himself posits the antithesis of the panopticon to be carnival—a celebration in which citizens are free from surveillance, monitoring, and order. While living in a permanent state of celebration may not be conducive to the functioning of society, adopting an explicit set of communal values does subvert surveillance culture by resisting individualization, isolation, resource allocation, and assimilation. Organizations dedicated to studying the ethics of surveillance, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, provide a series of best practices—consent, revocation, decentralization, and protection. By giving individuals the opportunity to control when and how they are surveilled, and by protecting the information they choose to provide, they suggest that we can develop a culture that values human health and well-being over power and profits. But how do we implement these strategies in our classrooms? Below, I outline a number of strategies I have used to counteract Foucauldian logics and to emphasize the injustice created by surveillance culture.

Start with something other than Foucault

Consider what voices you are centering and what effects this has on your pedagogy. All subsequent iterations of this course have begun with settler colonialism. By examining the surveillance mechanisms deployed against indigenous peoples—relocation, allotment, assimilation, and erasure to name a few—students begin to understand the varied contexts in which humans experience surveillance. Course readings include excerpts from Tommy Orange’s There There (2018), Sandy Grande’s introduction to Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought (2015), and Andrea Smith’s article “Not-Seeing: State Surveillance, Settler Colonialism, and Gender Violence” (2015).

In class, I demonstrate the undue surveillance experienced by indigenous peoples by talking through problematic laws such as the Dawes Act (1887), the Indian Citizenship Act (1924), and the Indian Relocation Act (1956). During the discussion, I tape off sections of the floor to depict the ways in which indigenous lands were systematically privatized, stolen, and/or devalued for the sake of settler profit. Seeing the classroom broken into pieces, with each one subject to unique rules and governance, helps students gain an understanding of settler surveillance and the ways it was used to destabilize, destroy, and decimate indigenous communities across the United States. This framework also provides opportunities for challenging Western knowledge systems. One way to do so is by highlighting organizations that resist surveillance by upholding indigenous values and data practices. The Sovereign Bodies Institute, an organization that “builds on Indigenous traditions of data gathering and knowledge transfer to create, disseminate, and put into action research on gender and sexual violence against Indigenous people,” is one such example. Their model challenges many forms of settler culture; in particular, they collect data on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) and share it with organizations fighting against the mistreatment of indigenous women. Additionally, they refuse to share their data with settler enterprises—including police, academic researchers, and colonial governments. They even go so far as to refuse funding from settler agencies, ensuring that they retain sovereignty over all elements of their work. As such, the Sovereign Bodies Institute serves as a powerful model for engaging in anti-surveillance work that is communally-engaged, socially-conscious, and intentionally indigenous.

There are many other valuable pedagogical strategies to consider. Simone Browne’s work interrogates the trafficking of enslaved peoples, noting that many surveillance mechanisms were deployed to control the movements, bodies, wealth, and opportunities for black bodies. Her work, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (2015) pairs well with texts such as Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (2018) and Shoshana Amielle Magnet’s When Biometrics Fail: Gender, Race and the Technology of Identity (2011). Each explores the ways in which surveillance technology disproportionately targets black bodies and provides useful strategies for subversion and resistance.

Skip Foucault entirely

I have taught four iterations of this course, two as undergraduate seminars and two as special topics courses at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI), which is geared toward graduate students, librarians, faculty members, and technologists. In most of these cases, Foucault has been unnecessary for the function of the course. Undergraduates are well aware of the omniscience of the surveillance machine and are happy to engage with other theories or examples. Professionals in the field, on the other hand, have often read Foucault already and are interested in analyses that move beyond his arguments. In either case, Foucault is unnecessary and may even hinder students’ ability to engage in meaningful critiques of surveillance culture.

Conduct surveillance self-assessments

One strategy surveillance specialists use to assess their physical and digital vulnerabilities is threat modeling, a technique that helps to identify, analyze, and prioritize security risks. In Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance (2015), Julia Angwin uses threat modeling to assess her own security practices. Using her work as a model, I ask students to think through how their positionality, employment, family, peer group, shopping habits, and social media all influence their participation in surveillance culture. This helps students untangle the numerous and overlapping modes of surveillance woven into their day-to-day experiences as well as to identify often overlooked components of their privacy practices.

Discuss more than digital surveillance

Scholars such as Safiya Noble and Cathy O’Neil note that the biases within digital systems are often obscured or invisible. One reason algorithms are so harmful is that they discriminate along many vectors simultaneously. Algorithms can weigh factors including race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, income, education, and age within a single formula, making it difficult to determine the source of their biases. To help students understand the function of these networks more clearly, it can be beneficial to point out their operation in the physical world. Often, physical surveillance is designed around one or two vectors, which can be traced through data collection, observation, and/or analysis. Our world is rife with examples—the disproportionate policing of black and brown bodies, the undue violence experienced by protestors and dissidents, the illegal detainment of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the harassment experienced by othered bodies at Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints. Once students begin to understand these forms of surveillance, they can more easily apply this knowledge to our digital systems.

Implement an ethic of care

When teaching surveillance related topics, remember that your students may experience anxiety or trauma around certain topics. Do not ask students to expound upon invasions to their own privacy unless they offer them up freely. Talk to them about stress-management techniques and mental health resources in addition to privacy practices.

Similarly, be sure not to place others at risk for the sake of learning. In March 2019, the following privacy assignment went viral on Twitter:

This image depicts an assignment developed by Kate Klonick, an Assistant Professor at St. John's University Law School, which asks students to observe and identify members of the community using surveillance strategies.
Figure 3. Learning how surveillance pedagogies can place vulnerable communities at risk.
Numerous individuals expounded on the creativity of this assignment, and the professor was even featured in NPR.[2] What Klonick failed to consider; however, were the ways in which this assignment infringes upon the privacy of others and disproportionately polices bodies deemed to be divergent and/or diverse. Picture yourself walking into a coffee shop. Who do you expect to be there? What do they look like? Who would be out of place? What do they look like? In a culture dominated by Western thought, many are likely to be perceived as “out of place” in public spaces, including people of color, the itinerant, and the differently abled. Klonick’s assignment therefore invites increased scrutiny of people who are already policed in public spaces. Instead of serving as innovative pedagogy, this assignment reinforces the discriminatory practices baked into all aspects of surveillance culture. Countering harmful surveillance practices is harder than it sounds. Discriminatory practices are so ingrained in our behaviors that it takes careful and intentional planning to design assignments that are built upon an ethic of care. We must constantly assess and re-assess the risks our pedagogies pose to our students and update our methodologies as the affordances of surveillance mechanisms grow and change.

Imagine different possible futures

One of the greatest tools we have for resisting surveillance culture is speculative thinking. By imagining new possible futures we allow ourselves to think outside the restrictive structures of modern society, such as capitalism, colonialism, or consumerism. In fact, futurisms have long been a tool of critical race scholars working at the intersections of race and technology. Grace Dillion (2012), who coined the term “indigenous futurisms,” notes that this technique “can create estranged worlds of the future in which the writer can foreground … the intersection of indigenous nations with other sovereignties, race, technology, and power” (11). In the same way, futuristic thinking can provide our students with a means of escaping the oppressive elements of surveillance culture and imagining new strategies for resisting its machinations.

This photograph shows several students from behind, collaborating on the DHSI privacy plan by writing on a chalkboard.
Figure 4. Students developing the ideal privacy plan for DHSI. This process encouraged students to speculate about new possibilities for responding to surveillance culture.

We must give our students the tools to speculate about such futures. Teaching them to question Foucault, and thereby the premises of Western surveillance, is vital to this process. As Kari Kraus (2018) notes, speculative thinking requires that we segment existing structures into their component parts: “Without the ability to segment an everyday object into its constituent parts, each of which can be manipulated independently of the others, Morse could never have conceived of his invention, let alone built it. Fault lines yield the fragments that artists, inventors, designers, writers, and conservators use to make, unmake, and remake the world” (163). One of the ways we can start to break surveillance culture into fragments is by challenging the primacy of Foucault. We must fight against the false premises presented in Foucault’s argument or risk becoming complacent to the inequalities proliferated by surveillance culture. Failing to address the harms of surveillance in our communities only exacerbates their effects by encouraging their continuation and intensification. Modern surveillance tools make it challenging, if not impossible, to pinpoint the characteristic(s) against which the tool has been programmed to discriminate. Cathy O’Neil (2016) notes that “Like gods, these mathematical models were opaque, their workings invisible to all but the highest priests in their domain: mathematicians and computer scientists. Their verdicts, even when wrong or harmful, were beyond dispute or appeal. And they tended to punish the poor and the oppressed in our society, while making the rich richer” (8). As such, scholars, activists, and the public need to band together to fight against unethical surveillance practices; one effective way is by providing our students with the tools needed to critique the surveillance machine and to envision more equitable futures.


[1] To quote Sandy Grande in her book Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought, “I would feel remiss if I did not mention the controversy regarding Smith’s claim to indigenous identity. As someone who is neither a citizen of Cherokee nation, nor her relation, I don’t see it as my place to comment on her identity but I am compelled to speak to the impact of the controversy on the field of Native studies” (10). Smith’s scholarship, particularly on indigenous feminisms, has been widely cited by indigenous and non-indigenous scholars alike. The challenges faced by indigenous communities, and especially indigenous women, ring true regardless of Smith’s identity.
[2] The feature can be found here https://www.npr.org/2019/03/10/702028545/googling-strangers-one-professors-lesson-on-privacy-in-public-spaces.


Angwin, Julia. 2014. Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance. New York: St. Martin’s.

Browne, Simone. 2015. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Crosby, Andrew and Jeffrey Monaghan. 2018. Policing Indigenous Movements: Dissent and the Security State. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Books.

Dillion, Grace L. 2012. Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Eubanks, Virginia. 2018. Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. London, St. Martin’s Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. Reissue edition. New York: Vintage Books.

———. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.

Grande, Sandy. 2015. Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought. 10th ed. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

hooks, bell. 1984. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press.

Kraus, Kari. 2018. “Finding Fault Lines: Approach to Speculative Design.” The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities, edited by Jentery Sayers. London and New York: Routledge, 162–73.

Magnet, Shoshana Amielle. 2011. When Biometrics Fail: Gender, Race, and the Technology of Identity. Durham: Duke University Press.

“New ‘Technologies of Surveillance’ Group,” Digital Library Federation, accessed 15 May 2019, https://www.diglib.org/technologies-surveillance-dlf-group/.

Noble, Safiya. 2018. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: NYU Press.

O’Neil, Cathy. 2016. Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. New York: Crown.

Smith, Andrea. 2015. “Not-Seeing: State Surveillance, Settler Colonialism, and Gender Violence.” In Feminist Surveillance Studies, edited by Rachel E. Dubrofsky and Shoshana Amielle Magnet. Durham: Duke University Press, 21–38.

Sovereign Bodies Institute, accessed 28 September 2019, https://www.sovereign-bodies.org/.

SurvDH, accessed 15 May 2019, cboyles.msu.domains/suvdh.

Tuck, Eve and K Wayne Yang. 2012. “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1: 1–40.

Widner, Michael. “The Digital Humanists’ (Lack of) Response to the Surveillance State,” accessed 28 September 2019, https://outline.com/TSMafb.

About the Author

Christina Boyles is an Assistant Professor of Culturally Engaged Digital Humanities at Michigan State University. Her research explores the relationship between disaster, social justice, and the environment. She is the director of the María Memory Bank, a project that works with community organizations in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean to collect and preserve stories about Hurricane María. Her published work appears in Digital Humanities Quarterly, Bodies of Information: Feminist Debates in the Digital Humanities, American Quarterly, Studies in American Indian Literatures, The Southern Literary Journal, The South Central Review, and Plath Profiles.

Image depicts the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal. People walk in various directions as birds fly overhead. Pigeons, strollers, and passersby surround Boudhanath Stupa in the morning.

“So You Want to Build a Digital Archive?” A Dialogue on Critical Digital Humanities Graduate Pedagogy


This article presents conversations between an Assistant Professor and graduate student as they negotiate various methods and approaches to designing a digital archive. The authors describe their processes for deciding to develop a digital archive of street art in Kathmandu, Nepal through an anticolonial, feminist perspective that highlights community knowledge-making practices while also leveraging the affordances of digital representation. Written in the style of a dialogue, this article illustrates the various tensions and negotiations that interdisciplinary student-instructor teams may encounter when deciding how to design a digital archive through critical frameworks. These challenges include making decisions about how to represent cultural practices and values in online spaces, negotiating technological and cultural literacies to make an accessible, usable archive, and putting together a team of researchers who are invested in a specific digital archiving project. The purpose of the article is to extend a conversation about possible approaches and challenges that new faculty and students may encounter when engaging in digital archiving work.

Image depicts the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal. People walk in various directions as birds fly overhead. Pigeons, strollers, and passersby surround Boudhanath Stupa in the morning.

Figure 1. Image of Kathmandu streets by Bibhushana Poudyal.


I want to start with a particular incident to introduce and contextualize myself and my project, though this was not the only or the most significant thing to trigger my interests in my current work. It happened during my first semester in graduate school, in my second month of living in the U.S. I was waiting for the campus shuttle to get back to my apartment. A guy came up to me and started talking. After some casual exchanges, he asked,

“Where are you from?”

“Nepal,” I said.

“Where is that?” He asked.

I felt like he had to know Nepal without any further references. Then, I remembered that there are countries I don’t know about, too. Because “no one” talks about them. [The question here is also who is/are “no one?”].

And so I said, “It’s in South Asia.”

“You mean the Philippines?” He asked.

“Isn’t that a different country? Maybe you should try to Google Nepal,” I told him.

At this point, I just wanted to be done with this conversation.

“Yeah, you are right. I will,” he said.

I smiled and turned my head to the street, continuing to wait for the bus. Then, something even more dreadful occurred to me. I considered what Google might say about Nepal, aside from providing some tourist guide kind of thing. Earthquakes? Floods? The Chhaupadi system? Discrimination against women? Some local rituals? And so on. Well, all of these statements are true. But is that all that’s true about Nepal? What about the other multiple narratives that are easily overshadowed by the dominant and much disseminated, algorithmic, exotic, and damaging narrative of Nepal? Don’t I, you, she, he, they, it, we, that, this also exist? I feared that this man from the bus stop might Google Nepal and start feeling sorry for me in a way I would never feel for myself.

I hastily turned towards the stranger and said, “Actually, I don’t recommend you Googling. Google doesn’t tell you much about the places you don’t know and want to know more about.” I knew he wouldn’t Google anyway. Perhaps he did not even remember my country’s name anymore. But from then on, I knew that I would never again say, “why don’t you Google Nepal?” to a stranger.

I always knew there is something “wrong” with Google. Consider, for example, Safiya Umoja Noble’s (2018) Algorithms of Oppression, where she discusses the multiple ways in which digital algorithms oppress non-Western communities and communities of color. The representation of Nepali culture in digital spaces started becoming a major concern for me after I moved to the U.S. I felt like postcolonialism and its debates (which I had studied in Nepal) started making much more sense after my move to a “new” or “foreign” country. In the U.S., people frequently conclude things about me based on my skin color and the way I speak English in an “un-English” way. Why would—or what makes—someone conclude things about me in an absolute manner before even knowing me? These questions and experiences, among many others, triggered my curiosity in and decision to make interventions in digital archiving. Specifically, I decided to create a digital archive of street photography in Kathmandu, Nepal (non-West) from the physical location of the U.S. (West). The purpose of this archive is to illustrate the many artistic expressions and ways of being that may not traditionally or inherently be used to describe my culture and my country in current digital spaces.

Through some preliminary research, I found some digital representations of Nepal that may be considered archives, even if they are not formally identified as such (see De Kosnik’s (2016) discussion of “metaphorical instances of ‘archives’ in the digital age”). What I found is that most of these digital representations of Nepal are created and maintained by non-Nepalis, most of whom are situated in Western contexts. For example, the Digital Archeology Foundation was founded after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal to collect data “for research, heritage preservation, heritage appreciation, reconstruction planning, educational programs and 3D replication to aid in rebuilding and restoration work.” Data collected through this site is “sent to the IDA in Oxford for referencing and preservation.” The site is privately funded by David Ways through his travel-guide project The Longest Way Home. Another example, Archive-IT, hosts an archive of the “2015 Nepal Earthquake.” The purpose of the archive is to host “a collection of web resources related to the April 25th, 2015 earthquake and its after effects in Nepal. Contributors to this collection include Columbia University Library, Yale University Library, and the Bodleian Library,” none of whom are identified as being from Nepal.

Academic representations of Nepal in online spaces also portray essentializing notions of Nepali culture. For example, many U.S. Universities established websites of their South Asian Studies departments (see for example: https://www.southasia.upenn.edu/, http://southasia.rutgers.edu/, https://www.brown.edu/academics/south-asia/, and http://piirs.princeton.edu/sas). While much of the information on these sites is useful, all of these sites include photographs depicting Nepali culture (or South Asian cultures) as subjects of inquiry, with images of traditional Nepali religious rituals and ceremonies countering images of classroom discussion and intellectual engagement used to depict U.S. students in U.S. classrooms. In short, contemporary digital representations of Nepal remain largely what Said (1978) describes as a “great collective appropriation of one country by another,” leaving much room to expand and (re)build Nepali online identities (84).


During my graduate program at a large, public, Predominantly White Institution (PWI) in the Midwest, I had the opportunity to participate in and lead a few Digital Humanities projects. As a South American, White-presenting Latina immigrant in the U.S., it was my dream to apply my training in Digital Humanities in a context that would directly benefit (and stem from) minoritized communities. I dreamt of designing digital platforms that were not only designed “for” minoritized communities, but that were also co-designed with communities for our communities’ specific expertise, desires, and ideas. After graduating and coming to work at a university in the Southwest with an 80% Latinx student population, and in a graduate program that has the privilege of hosting a large international student population, predominantly from Southeast Asia, Africa, and Mexico, I was immediately motivated to start working with our brilliant students to not only critique the current normalized Western-dominant state of technology innovation in and beyond Digital Humanities, but to also build, along with students and communities, tools, technologies, and platforms that were designed by and for non-Western, non–English-dominant audiences.

It was in this context that I met Bibhushana, a brilliant PhD student who has interest and experience in Digital Humanities and who also entered our PhD program with extensive experience in critical theory (one of my favorite first memories of Bibhushana is from one of the first days I had her in class, when she told a story and casually mentioned that a year back she was “having lunch with Spivak and discussing critical theory”). In short, Bibhushana, like many of our international students pursuing graduate education in the U.S., has extensive training, experiences, and ideas that can and should inform U.S.-based institutions and disciplines and their orientations to Digital Humanities research. Yet, even in my short time at an institution that hosts a much more diverse student population than where I had my own graduate training, I note drastic discrepancies in how this innovative digital building work is supported when it stems from “non-traditional” students—students who are positioned by the institution to need “traditional” training in canonical disciplinary texts and practices (Sanchez-Martin et al. 2019). The flexibility, trust, and material support for innovative DH work is something that needs to be fostered and grown in the context in which Bibhushana and I met, and, we imagine, in other contexts hosting historically minoritized student populations.

As researchers with interdisciplinary research interests and from significantly different backgrounds, we are working to establish ethical protocols for building digital archives that are culturally sustaining rather than representative, and that intentionally avoid cultural essentialism. The stories and perspectives that we share in this dialogue illustrate some of the ways in which we are aiming to practice this type of ethical protocol both in the development of an archive and by reflecting on our participatory, community-driven methods. Drawing on Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E Kirsch’s (2012) notion of strategic contemplation, we write this piece in the style of a dialogue to search for, reflect upon, and make visible the ways in which feminist rhetorical practices and relationships influence this critical digital archiving project and Critical Digital Humanities projects more broadly. According to Royster and Kirsch (2012), strategic contemplation “allows scholars to observe and notice, to listen to and hear voices often neglected or silenced, and to notice more overtly their own responses to what they are seeing, reading, reflecting on, and encountering during their research processes” (86). In this way, using strategic contemplation through our dialogue structure helps us both reflect on and illustrate the importance of embracing a critical awareness during decision-making processes in DH work.


October 5, 2017

Dear Dr. Gonzales,

I am Bibhushana, RWS doctoral candidate, 1st semester …. I just wanted to ask you ‘are you into DH?’ I was just searching for someone in UTEP to talk about it. It’s my newly found curiosity about which I don’t know much. Right after [attending a] DH seminar in Nepal, I was curious (and excited) to know about UTEP’s approach to ‘rhetoric and technology’. Only couple of days back, I got to know that you will be teaching the class. I am very much looking forward to be in your class next semester.



From the time I got into my PhD program in the U.S., I started searching for people who are working or willing to work in DH. For me, it was difficult to even imagine having to spend my doctoral years without being engaged in conversation with DH scholarship, theories, and praxis. I am not implying that every researcher should do DH work, but I do think that every university space should have some established DH infrastructures. My email to Dr. Gonzales was driven by my desire to work in DH after learning about this field during my last two months in Nepal. During this time, I participated in a #DHNepal2017 Summer Institute led by Professor Scott Kleinman, director of the Center for Digital Humanities at California State University at Northridge. During this workshop, I became interested in creating DH projects through postcolonial and feminist lenses that connect to my own disciplinary background in critical theory. However, I also realized that in order to create such projects, I would need to be connected to other DH scholars and have access to DH infrastructures and resources after the conclusion of the workshop. Professor Arun Gupto, director of the Institute of Advanced Communication Education and Research (IACER) in Nepal, where the #DHNepal2017 workshop was hosted, insisted that despite our lack of formal DH infrastructures in Nepal, we should keep trying to establish DH projects and programs in collaboration with other scholars. Having more opportunities to engage with DH projects would allow students and scholars to establish a broader network and audience for the critical humanities work that is already taking place in Nepal and in South Asia more broadly. Thus, as I began my doctoral program in the U.S. with many questions, I continued seeking opportunities to bring together work in DH, literary theory, and critical cultural studies.


When I first received the email from Bibhu asking if I was “into” DH, I wasn’t sure how to respond. Sure, I had worked on DH projects myself, but did I really have the training and expertise to guide a graduate student into this field? What would this guidance require, and how should I prepare? And, perhaps more importantly, what resources could I really provide Bibhu, particularly given the fact that I was only in my second year as an Assistant Professor in my current institution, and that I hadn’t heard the term DH be used on our campus? I was excited that Bibhu had interests in DH and that she would be in my “Rhetoric and Technology” course the following semester. In that course, I try to incorporate opportunities for students to define for themselves what the terms “Rhetoric and Technology” might mean in their careers, finding ways to combine our course readings with their own projects and interests. Although the “Rhetoric and Technology” course that is incorporated into our PhD program in Rhetoric and Writing Studies does not always cover Digital Humanities scholarship, my hope was that Bibhu would continue to develop her interests in DH and find ways to make connections in our course content. So, on the first day of class, I asked Bibhu (along with all my students) to describe their interests, and I encouraged them to continue pursuing this work throughout our class. Bibhu mentioned she was interested in DH and was thinking about building a “non-representational Nepali digital archive.” I was immediately intrigued, and I suggested that she might look into building this type of archive as her final course project. Our first class took place on January 17, 2018.


January 19, 2018

Hi Dr. Gonzales,

It’s Bibhushana.

I wanted to tell you that I liked … your idea [from class] about creating a database from South Asia. I talked to my professor Arun Gupto about it and he too liked the idea. We discussed about the ways I can use it in my other research projects as well. But the problem is I have absolutely no idea about creating a database. I am excited about this project because it is a kind of initiation towards working with technology the way I have never done before. Even if it’s very intimidating to start from the scratch, I am looking forward to it. So, I will be needing your guidance from the very first step. It would be wonderful if you could tell me how and where do I start. What should be my first step? I know it’s going to be very challenging and I might tire you with my questions too. 🙂




Shortly after I received the message from Bibhu expressing her continued interest in building her digital archive (i.e., database), I decided to try to connect her with our university library resources to provide some background in the “technicalities” training that Bibhu mentions above. I know that Bibhu has extensive training in postcolonial and decolonial scholarship, and that she is incredibly qualified to build the archive she wants to build. However, I also recognize and understand her hesitance toward identifying as a “tech-savvy” DH scholar who can build an archive from scratch. Further, I recognize Gabriela Raquel Ríos’s important clarification that terms like “colonial” and “decolonial,” while now deployed frequently “in recent scholarship on the rise of new media and digital humanities,” should not be used metaphorically without considering “the relationship between colonization and indigeneity (broadly) that the trope evokes” (Cobos et al. 2018, 146). As Ríos explains in Cobos et al., (2018), “for scholars of indigenous rhetoric, the trope of colonization matters differently … than it might for other scholars, and it probably matters differently for students and faculty who are marked as indigenous or who identify as indigenous as well” (146). Thus, to say that we want to build Bibhu’s archive through anticolonial frameworks means that we have to have the resources, awareness, skills, and community commitments and connections to do so in ethical, participatory ways.

Although our immediate university resources at the time were not able to provide much training in programming and digital archive design, what Bibhu and I learned through our early conversations is that the core of developing this archive lies in the willingness to try something new, and in the understanding that despite what may be perceived as a “lack” of “tech-savvy” knowledge, students like Bibhushana have the critical and cultural knowledge and experiences to help digital archivists rethink their approaches to cultural (re)presentation in online spaces. What Bibhushana had, even in our early conversations, was a willingness to engage and experiment with various interfaces and to fail and try again when certain digital elements did not work as she as initially hoped. She also has a clear understanding and commitment to avoiding fetishization and false claims of representation in her work. Thus, as we began exploring platforms and resources, Bibhushana and I were able to also continue expanding our theoretical, practical, and disciplinary frameworks for approaching this archiving project.

Bibhushana and Laura Discuss Critical DH Methodologies

As we began the process of conceptualizing and collaborating on Bibhushana’s archive, we found it important to also read and write together about the specific epistemological groundings that this project would entail. For example, to work toward decolonizing knowledge production and representation in Digital Humanities research and pedagogy, we embraced a shift from Digital Humanities (DH) to Critical Digital Humanities (CDH). Arguing that the Digital Humanities, as evidenced in its “digital humanities associations, conferences, journals, and projects,” lacks cultural critique, Alan Liu (2012) writes,

While digital humanists develop tools, data, and metadata critically (e.g., debating the “ordered hierarchy of content objects” principle; disputing whether computation is best used for truth finding or, as Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann put it, “deformance”; and so on), rarely do they extend their critique to the full register of society, economics, politics, or culture. (n.p.)

In building our archive, we want to remain mindful of the ongoing, continuous relationship between critiquing and building, embracing the value of strategic contemplation while also remaining grounded in the everyday tasks and skills that DH projects require. As Liu posits, to frame the beginning of our project, we wondered, “How [do] the digital humanities advance, channel, or resist today’s great postindustrial, neoliberal, corporate, and global flows of information-cum-capital?” and how do we build an archive that tells many stories, from multiple perspectives, without claiming to represent a perceivably homogenous country, culture, and community?

To work toward these aims, we looked to examples of existing critical digital archives and decolonial DH projects, including: Slave Voyages (Emory Center for Digital Scholarship), which maps the “dispersal of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic world”; Torn Apart/Separados, “a deep and radically new look at the territory and infrastructure of ICE’s financial regime in the USA” that seeks to peel “back layers of culpability behind the humanitarian crisis of 2018”; Mapping Inequality, which offers “an extraordinary view of the contours of wealth and racial inequality in Depression-era American cities and insights into discriminatory policies and practices that so profoundly shaped cities that we feel their legacy to this day”; and SAADA: South Asian American Digital Archive, which “digitally documents, preserves, and shares stories of South Asian Americans.” In addition to these post projects, we are inspired by feminist digital archives such as Rise Up!, a digital archive of “feminist activism in Canada from the 1970s to the 1990s”; and Digital Feminist Archives, which offers “a snapshot of feminist history in the 1960s and 1970s.” Together, these projects, along with others listed in a Women’s Studies online database of the University of Michigan Library, provide us with useful models and inspiration for developing a digital archive of Nepal street photography that is both feminist and decolonial in its orientation to and claims about cultural (re)presentation.


Through my decision to build a digital archive in the U.S., I thread my own experiences of gender discrimination in Nepal with racial and gender relations in the U.S. Engaging with “questions at the intersections of theory and praxis as we consider how tools can be theorized, hacked, and used in service of decolonization,” (Risam and Cardenas 2015), my goal is to problematize “imperialist archives that establish Western tradition by collecting and preserving artifacts from othered traditions” (Cushman 2013, 118). As Miriam Posner (2016) argues, CDH (and, we argue, decolonial digital archiving specifically) is “not only about shifting the focus of projects so that they feature marginalized communities more prominently; it is about ripping apart and rebuilding the machinery of the archive and database so that it does not reproduce the logic that got us here in the first place.” This is no easy task.

As alluring the idea of building a digital archive might sound, it is even more challenging. Digital archiving is collaborative work, and this kind of project needs a team, which I was still in search of at my new institution. In addition, I had another conceptual dilemma. As Kurtz (2006) explains in his discussion of the relationship between postcolonialism and archiving, archiving “is a literal re-centering of material for the construction and contestation of knowledge, whereas postcolonialism often works toward a figurative decentering of that same material” (25). With digital archiving, this contradiction between postcolonialism and archiving takes another dimension. As challenging it is, my aim in this project is not (only) to build a digital archive, but to document the journey itself, acknowledging my own positionality in this process. It is important not only to talk about what should be done to decolonize digital archives, but also to document and tell the stories of what happens when one undertakes this journey. My confusion and lack of tech-savviness is not only my personal story, but it is also a story that reveals a lot about resources within and beyond academia and many other socio-cultural-economic ecologies, particularly those situated in non-Western contexts.

Currently, I am building a prototype of the digital archive, which can be found at http://cassacda.com/. I named the project Rethinking South Asia via Critical Digital Archiving: Political, Ethical, Philosophical, and Aesthetic Journeys to emphasize the necessity of studying and building digital archives through critical lenses that help me relentlessly dig out and exhibit the complexities involved in the performance of archiving. If the goal is to decolonize and depatriarchalize digital archives and/in DH, then the purpose of my digital archive is to demonstrate such complexities and to show that there is no way one can represent any phenomena, country, or culture in an ethical way.

In order to work toward building this archive through anticolonial and feminist frameworks, I designed my site with an emphasis on collaboratively selecting and showcasing visuals and metadata. My goal is to avoid any insinuation of a singular, homogeneous representation of my home country and its various communities. Based on feedback from an initial IRB-approved online usability study that I conducted with participants in Nepal, I plan to insert my audiences’ experiences of and responses to the photographs in my archive as metadata. In this way, I seek to tell multiple narratives through various layers of the archive, remaining only one of many authors and designers on this project. Currently, I include both Nepali and English in the archive, and hope to extend to include other languages through further usability testing and collaboration.

Rather than categorizing collections in the archive through conventional tropes of religion, rituals, and landscapes, I continuously change photographs on the landing page of the archive, all of which depict Nepali community members partaking in everyday tasks like strolling down the streets, making tea in roadside stalls, and riding motorcycles. Figure 2 is a screenshot of the recent landing page of the archive, where four images showcase community members engaging in everyday activities in the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal.

Figure 2: The image depicts the landing page of our digital archive. Four pictures of the streets in Kathmandu are positioned in block format and labeled, Boudhanath Stupa," and "Streets in Thamel, Asan, & Indrachowk."

Figure 2. Archive landing page by Bibhushana Poudyal.

Through a feminist perspective, I also seek to counter conventional notions of Nepali women in my archive, specifically by showcasing images of women in their everyday lives perceivably defying traditional narratives and representations. Figures 3, 4, and 5, for example, portray women of various ages riding in cars and motorcycles, changing a flat tire, shopping, making tea, and going to school.

Figure 3: Two side-by-side images, one depicting a woman in the back of a car holding a baby and waving; the other depicting two young girls with braids walking with backpacks on.

Figure 3. Archive landing page by Bibhushana Poudyal.

Figure 4: Two side-by-side images, one depicting a woman riding a motorcycle down the street and another depicting a person changing the tire of a mini-bus.

Figure 4. Archive landing page by Bibhushana Poudyal.

Figure 5: Two side-by-side images depict women at an early morning coffee stall at San market and walking through its residential square

Figure 5. Archive landing page by Bibhushana Poudyal.

Images such as those portrayed in Figures 3, 4, and 5 are prevalent throughout my archive, and further illustrate the ways in which I seek to rebuild and reposition common portrayals of Nepal in online spaces. My goal is to shift my potential audiences’ and my own expectations and wishes to see Nepal portrayed in certain ways. One of the hardest dilemmas I face in building this archive is the challenge of both weaving and representing visual stories of Nepal through my images without narrowing or limiting representations in one way or another. To deal with that to a certain extent, the images on the landing page keep changing so that the archive does not stick to one (or my) way of de/re/presenting Nepal and Nepalis. As I continue uploading thousands of images, my so-called authorship will be challenged in a subtle and necessary way as I continue building the archive through feedback from various audiences.

Despite my attempts to unpack and decenter a singular perspective of culture, there is always a problem with the concept of representation, particularly in archiving. Archiving is always situated. There is always what Mignolo (2003) defines as a “locus of enunciation” (5). The locus of enunciation, according to Mignolo (2002), references “the geopolitics of knowledge and the colonial difference” in the push for representation, which is never neutral (61). My goal through this project thus is to demonstrate that locus of enunciation and problematize the assurance of representation through depictions that may be deemed unconventional or unusual or that counter established assumptions about a specific group of people.

Currently, the archive hosts several photography collections that illustrate the streets of Kathmandu like those presented in Figures 2, 3, 4, and 5. My overarching definition of critical digital archiving is on the landing page of the archive, stating from the beginning that the purpose of the site is not to represent, but rather to present possibilities to question the whole idea of representation via archiving of my own street photography. On the archive’s About page, I offer guiding questions and exigencies for the project, which include the goal of “building a depatriarchal-decolonial digital archive … in a non-representational manner.”

After conducting a landscape analysis of free and open-source CMS blogging platforms (like Squarespace, WordPress, Wix, Weebly, Drupal) and noting and comparing the affordances and constraints of these platforms, I decided to build the archive using Omeka. Omeka is a “web publishing platform and a content management system (CMS), developed by the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University,” that was “developed specifically for scholarly content, with particular emphasis on digital collections and exhibits” (Bushong and King 2013). Because Omeka is a CMS designed for projects like my archive, I did not have to worry about my “lack” of coding literacy to start building an archive of Nepali street photography. At the same time, however, Omeka does not have abundant online tutorials available. So, it took a long time to figure out how to create items, collections, and exhibitions in this platform and to change themes and insert plugins. Further, working on this project in an institution that does not have formal infrastructures to support digital research emerging from the humanities made it more difficult and isolating to undergo the process of learning Omeka’s features and possibilities. Besides extensive metadata space (with the Dublin Core element set of fifteen metadata sets), Omeka has plugins like Neatline that allow users to weave narratives with maps and timelines and interact with different elements within the archive. My goal after setting up this initial prototype is to continue working with plugins like Neatline as I also continue having conversations and collaborating with various stakeholders who can contribute to the dynamic nature of this project.


In addition to setting up the initial infrastructure, we are also in the process of conducting participatory design and usability studies with several stakeholders who may be interested and invested in the project. As I agreed to continue working with Bibhu on this project as her dissertation advisor, I also made the decision to leave my current institution in the upcoming year. Together, Bibhu and I realized that we needed to find more resources if we were really going to have the time and space to devote to this project cross-institutionally during Bibhu’s time as a PhD student. Thus, as Bibhu was setting up the infrastructure of her project, I started seeking grant opportunities that could help us expand on her work. It was at this point that I found a grant opportunity that allowed us to work with a team of designer and user-experience researchers to develop future plans for this project. Most importantly, this grant will allow Bibhu and I to travel to Nepal in the summer of 2019 to conduct design, usability, and user experience testing with community members in Kathmandu, Nepal, allowing us to incorporate critical perspectives from Nepali communities as we continue building this project from the U.S. Through a participatory research framework (Rose and Cardinal 2018; Simmons and Grabill 2007), user testing in Nepal will allow us to get on-the-ground perspectives from Nepali communities about the things that they value in online representations of their home country. Furthermore, conducting in-person usability tests and participatory interviews with participants in Nepal will allow us to establish a team and a network for updating and maintaining future iterations of the archive.


During our trip to Nepal, we will share prototypes of the archive with Nepali students, professors, and community members, as well as with other (non-Nepali) individuals who want to know more about Nepal. We are hoping that these user tests will help us make careful and responsible decisions regarding photographs and the nature of metadata. In a previous stage of the project, I conducted an online usability study that asked participants in Nepal to visit my archive and answer questions regarding the structure and usability of the site in its current stage. Questions included in this study helped me make decisions about the header text and landing page of the archive, where participants commented that the archive allowed audiences to see “the unnoticeable everyday life of local people in Nepal.” The full list of survey questions can be accessed here.

Although the online survey allowed me to gain some insights into Nepali community members’ perceptions of my archive, I was only able to get 16 responses to my study, despite my many efforts to disseminate my online survey through various platforms. This limited response echoes discrepancies in digital access that are common in communities in my home country who may not feel comfortable sharing their perspectives through online mediums that have historically fetishized and misrepresented non-Western contexts. For this reason, visiting Nepal in person to share the archive and conduct further testing will allow us to gain more responses that can continue shaping the direction of this project.

Through further in-person usability tests, we also hope to see if and how the digital archive is producing and/or reproducing traditional (i.e., colonial) representations of Nepali practices, and if/how the archive encourages further imagining of the multiple narratives embodied in places and people across cultures. Although we may not have all the necessary material and physical resources to consult with at our current institution, by increasing the visibility of this project in its prototype stages, and by working with participants in Nepal to continue designing and testing the archive, we hope to build and connect with networks of DH scholars beyond our local context who have experience designing archives and who may be interested in contributing to the development of this project. As this will be my first trip back to Nepal since coming to study in the U.S., I hope that this will be an opportunity to share my work with scholars and researchers in Nepal who are working in the area of Nepali Studies and South Asian Studies, continuing to develop frameworks for participatory, cross-institutional DH research.


Fostering the space to innovate digital archiving practices is a collaborative effort that requires individual researchers and institutions to move beyond binaries and disciplinary boundaries, engaging in a paradigmatic shift necessary to decolonize knowledge and its production and dissemination. As Jamie “Skye” Bianco (2012) explains, “This is not a moment to abdicate the political, social, cultural, and philosophical, but rather one for an open discussion of their inclusion in the ethology and methods of the digital humanities” (102). As Bianco (2012) continues, “we [in the Digital Humanities] are not required to choose between the philosophical, critical, cultural, and computational; we are required to integrate and to experiment,” particularly through ethical frameworks that value and centralize community knowledge (101).

Our project engages in rigorous conversations and questions that have been central to the work of the humanities, particularly in relation to cultural criticism, capitalism, and digital making. Critical digital archiving, and the process of engaging in CDH work more broadly, does not provide any static formula to decolonize or depatriarchalize digital archives, and neither do we. Instead, developing ethical protocols for creating DH projects, at least as we document in this article, requires researchers and student-teacher teams to explore multiple methods that purposely work against fetishization and essentialism through collaboration and participatory research.

By presenting a dialogue and preliminary plan for creating an anticolonial digital archive of Nepali street photography, we hope to engage in further conversations about the non-hierarchical interdisciplinary methodologies, inquiries, concerns, theories, and praxes that can be incorporated into CDH research. Through our collective conversations, we hope to further illustrate how issues of access, innovation, and cultural training intersect in the design and dissemination of contemporary digital archives and archiving practices, and how collaboration and participatory research, which have always been at the heart of DH, can also be critical components of building CDH infrastructures in perceivably “non-traditional” spaces. We hope that other teacher-researcher DH teams can thus learn from and build on our stories.


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About the Authors

Bibhushana Poudyal is currently a doctoral student and Assistant Instructor in the Rhetoric and Writing Studies program at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). Her research areas are: rethinking South Asia, depatriarchal/feminist and de/post/anticolonial critical digital archiving, Critical Digital Humanities, and Digital Humanities in transnational contexts. She is also a researcher and Honorary Overseas Digital Humanities Consultant at two South Asian research centers CASSA (Center for Advanced Studies in South Asia) and SAFAR (South Asian Foundation for Academic Research).

Laura Gonzales studies and practices multilingual, community-driven technology design. She is the author of Sites of Translation: What Multilinguals Can Teach Us About Digital Writing and Rhetoric (University of Michigan Press 2018), which was awarded the 2016 Sweetland/University of Michigan Press Digital Rhetoric Collaborative Book Prize. In the Fall of 2019, Laura will be an Assistant Professor of Digital Writing and Cultural Rhetorics in the English Department at the University of Florida. You can learn more about her work at www.gonzlaur.com.

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