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Seminar 7: Code Switching: Race and Digital Rhetoric

Seminar Leaders:

Catherine Knight Steele and Jim Brown 

How does the study of digital rhetoric change if we center questions of race and racism? Too often, such questions are seen as completely distinct from the digital; however, recent work has begun to recognize that racial logics and digital logics are intimately connected. In this seminar, we will assume that questions of racial identity are at the core of digital technologies and digital rhetorical practices. Whether we are considering software design, digital infrastructure and networks, or how people use and (re)appropriate tools, we will address how race shapes and is shaped by computational technologies. Such an approach is not just about understanding specific racial groups or practices but is rather an attempt to understand digital culture more generally. For instance, as André Brock’s has argued, the study of phenomena such as Black Twitter should not be seen as an attempt to understand a niche part of Internet culture. Instead, it is a way of shedding light on how all digital spaces are culturally coded and to explicitly recognize that white identity is not “normal” or the unmarked term. 

The seminar will address questions of the digital and race through the logic of “code switching,” a term that typically allows us to think about how certain linguistic structures are deployed rhetorically based on shifting audiences and purposes. In this context we also consider how code, platforms and digital technologies are themselves linked with issues of race and racism. From The Black Scholar’s 2017 special issue on “Black Code Studies” to Tara McPherson’s analysis of the history of UNIX alongside racial logics of the late 1960s, there is a great deal of work that is already addressing how an analysis of race and digital rhetoric calls for a constant switching between mechanism and use, code and interface. Code switching presents a model for thinking about race and technology together, toggling back and forth between the two and also considering race as a technology. 

Participants in this seminar will address a range of theories and methods, including both work that falls under the category of digital rhetoric and work that takes up similar questions from adjacent fields, such as Critical Technocultural Discourse Analysis (Brock, 2012; 2016), algorithmic bias (Noble, 2018), and Black Code Studies (Johnson and Neal, 2017). During this seminar, we will read work by scholars such as Safiya Umoja Noble, Kevin Browne, Adam Banks, Lisa Nakamura, Roopika Risam, Jesse Daniels, Jennifer Sano-Franchini, Wendy Chun, Miriam Sweeney, and Anna Everett. We will also address work that is not explicitly digital but that offers ways of understanding the interlaced histories of race and technology.

The University of Maryland is the ideal place to take up this set of questions as it is home to the African American Digital Humanities Initiative (AADHum) and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH). Seminar participants will be exposed to the digital studies, digital humanities and digital rhetorical work and resources here in College Park. 

Contact Information:

Catherine Knight Steele: cksteele@umd.edu
Jim Brown: jim.brown@rutgers.edu

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