Reflecting on Digital Labor and Academic Work

Flanders reflects on the early development of digital humanities work, and the relationship between academics and technical experts. She emphasizes the liminality of digital humanities work, with often temporal and disparate funding based around various projects and departments, as well as the para-academic professionals that often exist outside the bounds of the “traditional” academic imaginary. In a broad sense, she argues for the insight that considering knowledge work materially offers in the contrast that these alternative forms of work provide through frameworks of productivity, expertise, and skill. Namely, she suggests such an enterprise emphasizes the importance of valuing of alternative careers in the humanities outside strictly academic positions and a healthier sense of collaborative production necessary to complete the kind of digital projects in the field. It is the latter emphasis that provides the most insight for our own projects this semester. It begs the question: what counts as authorship in a digital or technical project?


First and foremost, this necessitates a better consideration for how “authorship” is recognized in the context of these projects. When I completed my assessment of VirtualMLK last week, I found myself reflecting much longer than expected on the presence and absence of technical labor on the website. Perhaps one of the more interesting, but less obvious aspects of many of the extra-textual objects that we discussed is to what degree they emphasize the technical labor (and laborers) as part of the process. This project has a space for key researchers, but more vague references to technical experts in audio production necessary for even just the recording stage of the process.


In “traditional” academic products, the relationship between an idea, its execution in research practices, and the final written product are often at least theoretically a singular process. Particularly coming from a discipline in which multiple authored texts are much less prominent measuring contribution becomes especially difficult. Flanders suggests “Our expectations of what work should be like are strongly colored by the cultural value and professional allure of research, and we expect to be valued for our individual contributions and expertise, not for our ability to contribute a seamless module to a work product.” In other words, academic paradigms around authorship do not adequately account for the materiality of such work, or the role of technical expertise and consultation in these projects at a more fundamental level. In contrast, Flanders argues for the “structural” role of technical experts in digital humanities work that is often excluded.


At the same time, another significant aspect of Flander’s work is the ways that technical processes necessary from faculty or graduate students to participate in such projects become just another part of the amorphous labor practices that must get done without reflection on how they fit into job expectations. I remember thinking a lot about this when I was doing work with integrating digital projects into my teaching. Namely, in addition to expertise in my field, and in pedagogy (hopefully), I also had to cultivate additional knowledge of technical production and even more significantly how best to teach it. Flanders argues that it is precisely for this reason that work like this offers valuable insight into our own labor practices more generally.

Virtual MLK Review

Extra-Textual Project Review: NCSU’s VirtualMLK

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to look into a project from my own discipline, namely the ever so rare rhetoric Digital Humanities project. The VirtualMLK project is a historical recreation that utilizes 3-D visualization technology to map and recreating the audio from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “A Creative Protest” speech delivered in 1960 in Durham, North Carolina. The project exists in three phases, the audio, the website for circulation, and an immersive lab experience. The project included an installation to experience audio and visual of the speech, a reenactment, and audio and video recordings posted on the website. These recordings allows users to listen to recordings of audio that differs based on where in the Church audience members would have been sitting. Additional resources include historical background, and pedagogical resources based on the project.

As there was no audio record of the speech, the team worked from pamphlets of the speech and hired an audio actor who delivered the speech for the original congregation at White Rock Baptist. They recorded audio from this performance, where audience members were encouraged to participate, as well as from studio recordings. Research is Phase 3 has yet to be completed, but will involved a virtual model in the lab.

A litany of labor (and laborers) is both explicit and implicit in the description of the project. To the former, the VirtualMLK project emerges from collaboration between the Department of Communication at North Carolina State University, the North Carolina Humanities Council and the NCSU libraries, though the degree to which these agencies are involved were unclear. The about page lists Professor Victoria Gallagher as the principal investigator, along with another faculty member and two graduate students as part of the Research Team, though their role is not delineated. “Contributors” include the White Rock Church and three community members. Though not on the same page, the website also leverages the “authenticity” of audience participation in the recordings. The contextual background links to an article from Professor Gallagher, as well as another faculty member and graduate student who are not listed as part of Phase 1. Though the project website emphasizes the audio and visual techniques, reference to research weaves throughout the site but is not as clearly articulated as part of the labor. In general, it seems likely significant research would be need to find artifacts about the speech delivery, the study of other audio recordings of MLK, consultation with community members who were at the speech (as mentioned on the website). This kind of project is far outside the realm of my expertise, and I would be interested in what kinds of more traditional research (and non) would be necessary to attempt a kind of accurate recreation. It is unclear whether any specialists were involved in audio production, the website itself, or the visualizations.

Phase 2 of the project involved the creation of a website to share the audio for “scholars, students, and citizens to explore.” Interestingly though, the project seems to have circulated primarily through regional press. The speech they chose was delivered locally and phase three focuses on creating a lab space to create an “immersive experience” through which to interact with the speech aimed at local community members and students. Despite the digital component, the primary audience seems to be a substantially local one. The project has also involved public events for the local audience.

In the most simplistic sense, projects like VirtualMLK demonstrate a kind of success in use. The local emphasis might allow for a pedagogical use for student field trips, etc. In a more ambitious sense, projects like this have some potential to push forward our understanding of historical public address in interesting ways. The project is interesting for its capacity both to function as a tool for community and pedagogical outreach on a significant figure in the field, but also for what it might tell us about delivery in a historical event. The project coordinators emphasize the historical significance of the speech—for his endorsement of non-violent direct action, the local significance to the Church, and the potential it held to explore digital methods. Trying to merge digital humanities and rhetorical research questions is an explicit part of how the project is framed. Though the project and author escape me at the moment (help Paul!), there is another project that proceeded focused on a kind of digital public address that represents a strictly digital recreation of the visual and audio of a Roman forum. The common narrative about this project is that what it reveals is very few people would have actually been able to hear a speaker.