I was at an activist meeting this weekend to plan for a Dec. 9 city-wide march and rally on the Ebola crisis (NYC: Fight Ebola without Stigma & Racism), when one of my colleagues from that world asked me how grad school was going. We discussed the difficulty of getting tenure in the academy, at which point the colleague said, “Well, just don’t tweet anything.” He was referring, of course, to indigenous studies professor Steven Salaita’s de-hiring from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after he posted a series of tweets critical of Israel during its bombing of the Gaza Strip this year. (Steven Salaita: U. of I. destroyed my career)
I thought about Salaita as I was reading Matthew Kirschenbaum’s depiction of Twitter usage at the Digital Humanities and MLA conventions in “What is Digital Humanities and What’s it Doing in English Departments?” and then Tara McPherson’s article on the whiteness of digital humanities. McPherson writes that “if scholars of race have highlighted how certain tendencies within poststructuralist theory simultaneously respond to and marginalize race, this maneuver is at least partially possible because of a parallel and increasing dispersion of electronic forms across culture, forms that simultaneously enact and shape these new modes of thinking.” However, it seems to me that the Salaita case is a prime example of the complexities of the concept of “access” in terms of technology – Salaita, a Palestinian American, may have had access to the internet and to social media sites like Twitter, but he was severely punished for his presence there.
I think McPherson raises some interesting parallels between the segregation of movements by the repressive state apparatus, in academia, and through the modularity in software design (although I’m not sure I really understand a lot of the technical stuff on modularity). I’m wondering, however, if at this moment we as an academic community should be thinking hard about the ways that people of color and other marginalized groups are systematically denied the kinds of access that Salaita’s case represents – the access to academic freedom in general, including and maybe especially in terms of technology. We’ve talked some in class about what’s in/appropriate to post on our social media sites in terms of professionalization; I’d like to think more about this in terms of UIUC’s calling Salaita’s political speech “uncivil” – such a loaded, racialized term. I think that this has a lot to do with the work Fred Moten is doing around the undercommons, which we’re reading for next week so I won’t get into too deeply right now. But I will say that I’m interested in how digital humanities supports and/or disrupts subversive academic thought and praxis.
Has the digital humanities community (broadly speaking) taken up Salaita’s case? What do you all think about this issue?