“Culture First”: An Interview with Jentery Sayers

Two weeks into the spring semester at the University of Victoria, Jentery Sayers, who is an Associate Professor in the English department there, took an hour between morning meetings to tell me about his involvement with the HASTAC community. Over the phone and later by email, Dr. Sayers talked with me about how he first became interested in digital humanities (DH), how he’s structured his courses around media and culture, and how the HASTAC community helped him to connect to scholars moving in a similar direction as himself. As a member of the HASTAC steering committee, Dr. Sayers is also helping to organize the next HASTAC conference in 2019, and he was able to preview some of the conference committee’s early plans for next year’s gathering. Read the full interview below.


I’m hoping to ask you some questions specifically about your involvement with HASTAC, but I’d like to begin by asking you how you became interested in digital humanities in the first place.

I started my MA/PhD program at the University of Washington (UW) with an interest in the role technology played as a metaphor or representation in post-WWII novels from North America. What I realized over time was that I could integrate some forms of technical and new media practice into cultural criticism, so I started reading work by people such as Wendy Chun, Anne Balsamo, Katherine Hayles, and many others, as well as journals like Vectors, especially Tara McPherson’s work there.

One of my first jobs at UW was in web design. I developed websites that met standards for accessibility—public websites for entities such as the Undergraduate Research Program, directed by Janice DeCosmo. Also, I took about three or four years off between undergrad and grad. During that time, I did a lot technical work, often for attorneys and paralegals in criminal defense firms. I gained some on-the-ground experience developing database systems and software, but I was also interested in the intricacies of how people are categorized, organized, and structured as data, or how their information is presented in these environments.

I was fortunate to work with UW faculty—Kathy Woodward, in particular—with extensive backgrounds in technology and culture. Kathy was writing about this stuff in the ’80s, on topics such as information technology, postindustrial culture, and affect. Tom Foster was also at UW; he wrote a book called The Souls of Cyberfolk, which influenced me and my methods. He was teaching some wonderful seminars at UW, including one called “Cyborg Democracy.” It introduced me to work by Donna Haraway, Sandy Stone, Judy Wajcman, Mary Flanagan, Alexander Galloway, Alexander Weheliye, and Nick Dyer-Witheford. Because of these experiences, I became increasingly interested in the intersections of cultural criticism with technical practice. It was no longer either/or.

UW was also home to the Science Studies Network, based in the Simpson Center for the Humanities. I was a fellow in that network for a year. I attended their meetings, and I learned a lot about STS [Science and Technology Studies] and its applications, including concepts such as the boundary object. Susan Leigh Star’s work, in particular, shaped my thinking, prompting me to take standards seriously as cultural materials that produce similarity and difference.

So, by the time I was done with my doctoral work, I shifted from technology as metaphor, or how it’s represented in novels, toward the entanglements of technology with literary and cultural production. I owe a lot of that shift to Herbert Blau and Phillip Thurtle, who also mentored me as I wrote my dissertation. I had the opportunity to co-teach with Phillip; he nudged me to trouble some of my assumptions about speculative empiricism and phenomenology. Meanwhile, Herb advised me from day one of my graduate studies. He never let me forget that thinking is an embodied performance—that thought is material and messy. I realized way too late how fortunate I was to work with Herb. I miss him dearly. And I still keep in touch with everyone from UW who supported me. 

I should probably note that it was not until very late in my doctoral studies—maybe 2009 or 2010—that I actually started linking my work to DH. I still wonder if those links hold. At UW, I spent most of my time in the literary criticism and theory stream. We studied critical theory from Plato forward, but I started with an introduction to Marx, Freud, Foucault, Butler, and Spillers, taught by Kate Cummings. Then Kathy Woodward pointed me to DH, during the time I was a HASTAC scholar and while I was working on my dissertation. When compared with a lot of humanities computing, I wasn’t trained in anything like bibliography, TEI, or data analytics. I was more interested in media art and media theory. I was writing reviews for the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies, directed by David Silver, who was at UW.


You’ve written about how DH has impacted your pedagogy, as well as your research, and that a number of your classes incorporate collaborative projects. While many DHers have noted the benefit that this type of work can have on their own research, how have digital group projects benefited your students?

There’s a difference between collaborative work and group work. I hope I teach the former.

I’ve had students [in past classes] work in groups throughout the term—groups of four or five—logging their research and creating one document that they add material to: their responses to the readings and components of things they’re prototyping. For example, I have them look at patents from, say, the 1850s to the 1950s. Pick a patent; prototype it in 3D; learn about the limitations of 2D representation, but also how difficult it is to express something in 3D based on 2D illustration. They also consider things like hyperbole in patents, gaps and absences in patents, labor in patents (how often they’re associated with one or two people, when in fact it’s all collaborative, with many people not receiving attribution for their contributions). That kind of collaborative work—through a “living” document that grows—is compelling because you can witness students sharing learning and even changing their thinking over time. Plus, a log consists mostly of low-consequence or low-stakes inquiry. It’s akin to rapid prototyping that way: trial-and-error experimentation that congeals into an argument or a finding or a critical position. It also borrows heavily from research in writing studies. Here, I learned a lot from Anis Bawarshi at UW but also from work by Cheryl Ball, Virginia Kuhn, and Cynthia Selfe, for instance. People in Computers and Writing have been doing DH for decades. 

Where collaboration becomes especially complex is figuring out how to encourage co-work that’s balanced and fair for everyone involved. That’s where collaboration still makes me very nervous. I know many instructors request reports; they have students explain or reflect on what they’ve done. I often do that. Some people also have students assess each other’s contributions. I have students determine whether their work will be attributed to the entire group—a collective author, if you will—or be individuated with attribution—something like GitHub, where you can see who committed what and when. It’s interesting to see which approach students choose, but most choose individuated attribution, perhaps due to matters of trust, accumulation, or documentation. Part of the inquiry, too, is to push students to give feedback to each other and realize that oftentimes what I say is not as insightful as what they say to each other—that they can, in fact, learn a lot through collaborative, messy work.

The problem is that, with a background in English, I’m not incredibly well-trained in collaboration, so I’m still learning. Collaboration isn’t something you tell people to just go and do; you have to teach it, and to be candid I don’t know if I always teach it or do it well.


In your chapter “Dropping the Digital” from the 2016 edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities, you highlighted a phrase of Matthew K. Gold’s from the previous edition—that “the field of digital humanities does move quickly.” Could you expand on what potential challenges and/or benefits this fast-paced field offers scholars like yourself?

The first question for me is, does DH have to move quickly? I’m not sure it does. Or, moving quickly could be a problem. There’s a tendency for hot takes throughout social media. More important, moving quickly is about labor—about how much stuff people are juggling to produce work and to meet expectations or ideals of productivity in and beyond the academy.

This issue isn’t confined to digital humanities. Consider, for example, The Slow Professor. Still, I’m interested in the general idea of approaching digital studies as a labor issue first and foremost—about how to support each other and to think about networks of care rather than networks of objects—to build labs and initiatives with people first and lived experience at the center. That’s challenging when people are expected to produce so much work and there’s this lingering assumption that the digital is fast.

In Mechanisms, Matthew Kirschenbaum unravels and debunks this assumption rather thoroughly—the assumption that digital work is ostensibly lightweight; that it’s labor-free; that, when compared to print, it’s easier and speedier. That’s not been my experience at all. Digital projects take a long time; they have this feeling that they’re never done, that they’ll continue forever, that there are always more changes or edits to be made, or that they can always be improved or expanded in some way. Create that branch. Add that feature. Embed that map. Call that feed. Include that viz. That’s the dead repetition of new media and digital projects. In DH, it surfaces as an ethical matter. Who draws the boundaries between technical, service, intellectual, and creative work, and how? What values are assigned to each? There’s an infinite to-do list of bug fixes, updates, patches, and kludges; somehow it comes together. In 1981, Laurie Anderson said, “I don’t know all the circuitry, but I can do first aid.” That sums it up, and before the mass proliferation of the personal computer, no less.

At UVic, in our Humanities Computing and Media Centre, there’s a fascinating project called Endings. I love that title. The project is about how you conclude a digital project. That’s a brutal question, and all the more important if you entwine it with labor. Of course, the matter isn’t when the project is done. It’s answering difficult questions like, How much more can we put into this? Are we thinking about self-care and each other? What’s reasonable? How do we avoid scope creep? What can be kept simple? How do we communicate an ending to others, especially those whom we’ll never meet? Alex Gil’s been engaging these issues as of late, under the umbrella of minimal computing, which is in some ways an alternative to DH.

All to say, there’s nothing inherent to digital humanities, or to digital technology, that means things need to move quickly. We shouldn’t take speed and 24/7 productivity as a given. Of course, we can’t assume we’re on the outside, either. With any digital project, we should ask difficult questions up front and experiment carefully from there.


Shifting to your involvement with HASTAC, you were a HASTAC Scholar from 2008 to 2010. How did you benefit from being a part of the Scholars community?

It was an excellent opportunity for me. I was working with Kathy Woodward. She directs the Simpson Center for the Humanities at UW, and she recommended that I look into HASTAC. The HASTAC Scholars program, I believe, was brand new at the time. There were many perks for me, but probably the most significant was realizing there were people on other campuses with shared interests and that what I was doing—what I was interested in, the methodologies I was pursuing, the kinds of texts I was reading—other people were doing that, too.

Maybe it sounds trite or cliché, but—between 2008 and 2010—I appreciated having a forum online where people at UCSB, Duke, Maryland, MIT, CUNY, USC, and so on were sharing interesting media work, and I was able to talk with them. I was impressed by what everyone was doing and how they were building—often sideways or elliptically—on existing scholarship. At the time, I guess we were also grappling with whatever “digital humanities” was. But a lot of the grounding I had in media studies and theory, HASTAC nicely reflected—not only through its founding committee members, but also in the initiative and its communications and presence. With forums on race and computation, queer media, games, and feminist new media, social justice concerns and cultural criticism were always foregrounded.

It helped, too, that at UW we had a small group participating in the Scholars program. We met every few weeks at the Simpson Center. Ed Chang, for example, who is always doing groundbreaking work in digital pedagogy, game studies, and queer studies, was there with me. Meghan Trainor, Deen Freelon, Amelia Abreu, Matt Wilson, Peter Leonard, and Tim Welsh were involved in the UW HASTAC Scholars initiative as well, and Tara Rodgers visited for a guest lecture on Pink Noises. Through that HASTAC Scholars network, we basically started our own cohort, and we followed each other along the way—into the market, talking about jobs and life and what kind of work we wanted to do. For that reason, I’ve remained dedicated to HASTAC, the conference, and related efforts as much as possible. I see HASTAC as my place, my scholarly organization.

It really was as simple as having a particular space online that changed my sense of place and made me realize that I wasn’t off writing my dissertation by myself. There were other people with similar goals and methodologies. I still read and follow their research: Amanda Phillips’s mechropolitics, Matt Wilson’s New Lines, Tim Welsh’s Mixed Realism, and Margaret Rhee’s poetry. It’s been rewarding, over a period of eight or nine years, to watch people’s work grow and circulate and gain traction. Everything that Fiona Barnett did was foundational to the HASTAC Scholars group. She really built that cohort up, and she created a whole culture around HASTAC.


Now that you’re part of the HASTAC steering committee, you’ve taken on a number of new roles. For instance, you’re currently co-organizing the next HASTAC conference. Can you tell me a little bit about that? What can we expect for the 2019 conference?

I’m only one part of a much larger group that’s working on HASTAC 2019, which will be on Musqueam territory in Vancouver.

We’re in very early stages, but the proposal for HASTAC 2019 is articulated around the theme of decolonizing technologies and reprogramming education. The program committee is building on HASTAC’s long-standing interest in cultural and social justice work as it relates to technology and education. It’s going to be a great event, and I’m looking forward to HASTAC signal-boosting the important work that early-career scholars are doing.


Lastly, I wonder if you’d have any words of wisdom for current HASTAC Scholars. What should the incoming cohort, for instance, be aware of within the HASTAC community or within digital pedagogy and scholarship more broadly?

Early on, Fiona noted that difference is HASTAC’s operating system. I like that as a kind of tagline. Relatedly, for people who are doing work on technology, it’s really easy to forget that technology is culture first and technical stuff second, even if it’s a close second. I like building collectivities around that position—that when we’re talking about technology, we are in fact talking about culture, social relations, labor. It can be incredibly rewarding and worthwhile to develop interests, conversations, and collaborations around those issues and, even when things are overwhelming and moving really fast, to remember that there are other people who will support you, and who you can support. To me, that kind of community effort—against the storm of progress—has always been one of the founding principles of the HASTAC Scholars group. Others include a healthy skepticism of instrumentalism and positivism.

I know this will change from situation to situation, campus to campus, relationship to relationship, but I learned a lot from HASTAC’s mentoring community. One of my advisors (Kathy Woodward) was involved at the start of HASTAC. She and others, such as Cathy Davidson, Wendy Chun, Tim Murray, Tara McPherson, Simone Browne, Lisa Nakamura, Caitlin Fisher, and Julie Klein, were at the conferences; they listened to graduate students; they had conversations with me and others about our work. And if you had a chance as a graduate student to reach out to those people on HASTAC’s committees—the people who go to and organize HASTAC conferences—they responded. I didn’t always find that at other conferences. At HASTAC, there are people who are willing to share their stories and their advice and go above and beyond. So perhaps my advice is to find your HASTAC crew, support it, and seek support from each other. And don’t hesitate to say hello to new people, the steering committee included.