Toward an Affordances Approach to DH Literacy

On July 29 (July 28 Eastern Time!), CDH Postdoctoral Research Associate Kavita Kulkarni delivered a paper—“Toward an Affordances Approach to Literacy in the Digital Humanities”—at the Digital Humanities 2022 conference. Kavita shared her experience at the conference as well as her ideas about media literacy pedagogy.

Please give us a quick summary. What were the main points of your paper?

My paper proposes a rethinking of the notion of “literacy” in the context of teaching media studies and critical data studies in today’s world. I make a case for an “affordances” approach to literacy, arguing that the ability to critically “read” and “write” by naming and working through the material and citational affordances of DH tools and techniques and the values they enable marks a logical progression within the critical literacy paradigm from textual literacy to media literacy to data literacy.

Kavita Kulkarni smiles for the camera

Kavita Kulkarni spoke on DH pedagogy at the recent DH2022 conference.

What inspired your paper?

This paper was inspired by the course I designed and taught for Princeton’s Freshman Scholars Institute this year and last, and the challenge of articulating the value of a hybrid seminar-lab format for the humanities. The course was designed to help students make sense of our screen- and data-saturated environments both through reading and discussing texts that offer critical frameworks on the topic and through learning the basics of data collection, curation, and analysis by way of coding and social media data.

How did writing your paper change or clarify your thinking on the topic?

Previously, I had thought of the concept of affordances—developed by psychologist (and Princeton alum!) James Gibson to describe the relationship between organisms and their environments—exclusively as a material phenomenon. That is, I was interested in how the physical design of objects and their environments enable or facilitate certain actions in a way that produces and reproduces certain values, whether instrumental, social, or political values. Writing this paper helped me consider another dimension of affordances, one that is especially relevant to the classroom but also applicable to our everyday lives: citational affordances. By citational affordances I mean the way meaning-making is inevitably shaped by citational practice, whether in scholarly writing, visual culture, or memory work.

On the left is the cover of a book by James Gibson; on the right is a definition of "affordanaces."

The presentation drew from the concept of affordances as developed by psychologist James Gibson (image of slide: courtesy Kavita Kulkarni).

What do you hope your audience took away from your presentation?

I hope the audience left with a new sense of what media literacy in the form of active inquiry and critical thinking might look like when our media and technological landscapes are overwhelmingly shaped by ubiquitous, black-boxed algorithmic technology. I also hope that my presentation informed the audience about the existence of Documenting the Now, which is a fantastic collaborative project between the Shift Collective, Princeton University Library, and the Mellon Foundation. Documenting the Now develops open source tools and community-centered practices that support the ethical collection, use, and preservation of publicly available content shared on the web and social media. In my class, we use Documenting the Now’s DocNow web application as well as their twarc Python library to collect and archive tweets and related metadata from Twitter.

What was one interesting thing you learned at the conference in general?

This was my first major digital humanities conference, and the format was interesting compared to the more traditional humanities conferences I’ve been to—and when I say “traditional,” I mean in discipline-bending arenas of the humanities and humanistic social sciences like American Studies or Performance Studies. You could say DH2022 operates on a different register of interdisciplinarity altogether, for example with components like “poster sessions” that are generally reserved for conferences oriented more toward natural sciences, medicine, and engineering. It was interesting for me to think of humanities research in this context, and the “flavor” humanistic thinking can bring to such formats.

Carousel photo by Jannis Lucas on Unsplash

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