Building Community and Hustling with Friends: An Interview with Anne Cong-Huyen

Building Community and Hustling with Friends: An Interview with Anne Cong-Huyen

I had the wonderful opportunity of speaking with Anne Cong-Huyen briefly after she joined the University of Michigan Libraries as Digital Pedagogy Librarian in January of 2018. Anne was previously the Digital Scholar and Coordinator of the Digital Liberal Arts Program at Whittier College and a Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies at UCLA. She holds a PhD in English from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Anne is a steering committee member of HASTAC and FemTechNet and was as a founding member of the #transformDH collective. We spoke about the collectives that Anne has been a part of, the connections between DH and Asian American Studies, and how creative projects in the academy often emerge from friendships.

LL: How did you come into the field of digital humanities?
ACH: Funny enough, when I applied to graduate school in 2007, I hadn’t even heard of Digital Humanities. It wasn’t even on my radar. I applied as an Asian Americanist to work with Shirley Geok-lin Lim at UC Santa Barbara, and after arriving there started engaging with Alan Liu, Rita Raley, and then-graduate students like Amanda Phillips and Lindsay Thomas. For me (and others), a formative moment might have been attending the MLA in 2011, and sitting in the audience to a panel featuring many senior folks delineating what “counted as DH,” and feeling like this wasn’t the place for me. Amanda and I, and several others organized a panel later that year for the American Studies Association, where we tried to work out whether there was a place for us. That’s the origin story for #transformDH. 
I have to confess that at the same time, my then-advisor Shirley Lim was so confused by my interest in digital texts and methods, but Alan actually suggested Amanda and I apply to be HASTAC Scholars. HASTAC was really an important space for me in finding my niche in this developing field. Much of this can be credited to the efforts of Fiona Barnett and Cathy Davidson who made HASTAC a really vibrant and inclusive community for DH, and DH adjacent, or DH curious folks.

LL: As you just brought up, #transformDH began at the ASA conference in 2011. How have the digital humanities transformed since then? What do you see as the current opportunities and challenges in DH?
ACH: ​I think, if I can speak broadly, DH is less interested in boundary setting and gatekeeping now. I don’t know if #transformDH helped in this, but I like to think we did. I’ve noticed more courses and conferences on Feminist DH, Black DH, and other critical DH practices, more collaboration with libraries and communities, and this pleases me to no end. And from observation (I don’t have stats on this) it seems like there are more public DH projects and initiatives than 7 or so years ago, and less focus on grant seeking for major archival or tool-based projects. Though those are still important to DH, it also exists outside of that strict institutional sense.

LL: You’ve been involved in a number of networks/collectives (e.g. FemTechNet, HASTAC, #transformDH) that see themselves as both within DH, but also actively challenging and pushing the field in new directions. What do you see as the significance of this form of organizing from within? Do you feel that the burden to do so often falls upon junior scholars? 
ACH: Oftentimes, it seems as if the most effective changes in any field have to come from within. #transformDH could have pushed and critiqued as much as we wanted, but we weren’t going to get anywhere without the support of senior scholars who had a voice in the field. When we started that work, we were all graduate students and postdocs who felt pretty precarious putting ourselves out there like that. I remember being called out by other academics on Twitter and in blogs (some very senior and prominent ones), which really didn’t help us in our positions of insecurity, but at every step there were also senior, mostly women and women of color academics, who were incredibly supportive. These are the same women who later recruited us into FemTechNet, nominated us for HASTAC, who wrote us letters of recommendation, or would reach out to invite us for talks or to co-teach classes. These scholars have been important in modeling feminist scholarship and labor practices: building community, lifting each other up, and signal boosting for each other. This has been instrumental in how I practice digital humanities, and also incredibly important to the success of individual members of #transformDH.

LL: I come from a background of organizing for Asian American Studies. I know you’ve written on the relationship between DH and AAS. It’s interesting to note the growth of DH as a field and the funding DH receives, while AAS is often underfunded and at risk of being cut. Do you feel this tension in your work? What do you think Asian American Studies offers the digital humanities? What does the digital humanities offer Asian American Studies?
ACH: It feels so odd to be getting this question now, but I’m glad to see that the question still resonates for you. I think what is often left out of discussions of digital humanities, media archaeology, history of technology, digital studies, etc., especially some of the fascination in years past with newness and innovation, is that there are communities that have been using digital tools to connect and organize and mobilize for decades, for as long as digital tools have been available, and using whatever tools would be considered “new media” at any given moment. Just this past week, Vietnamese American author Andrew Lam shared images of archived emails from Vietnamese American refugees from 1989, before most members of the public even knew what the “Internet” was. So, I’ve thought for a long time that Asian American Studies, or critical race studies at large, can broaden the work of digital humanities and make the stakes of that work clearer and more concrete. In the current political climate, this is even more critical. I also think that Asian Americanists, as a community, have long been using these methods and can gain visibility and legibility for their digital work from additional funding sources and networks by recognizing that some of this work can be defined as digital humanities. I think there can be power in claiming multiple identities and affinities.

LL: What do you do in your current position as Digital Pedagogy Librarian?
ACH: I feel so fortunate to have landed where I did at UMich. I’m actually one of two Digital Pedagogy Librarians hired at the same time (what riches!). My charge is to support digital projects and assignments in classes through instruction, consultation and collaboration with faculty, helping to coordinate open workshops, planning and hosting digital humanities and citizen science events, and to be the service lead for our library’s online exhibits, which are in Omeka. This past semester I supported classes in semester-long Wikipedia editing projects (one for an African American women’s history course, and the other in global feminisms), and a course that was publishing digital books in Scalar. I also worked with collaborators at the UM Libraries, local art museums and galleries, and the public library to host a local Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon. I’m currently working with another faculty member in history, a subject specialist, and friends in Special Collections to plan a digital exhibit project and transcription project for a large U.S. history course being taught in the fall. In general, we try to take a collaborative and feminist approach to digital pedagogy that centers student learning, is transparent and deliberate, and less hierarchical in nature. My colleague, Kush Patel, and I are working through what critical feminist digital pedagogy looks like for us and how that will shape our work.

LL: You have collaborated with other members of the HASTAC steering committee, including Moya Bailey and Adeline Koh. What are your thoughts on the role of friendships and personal relationships in academia?
ACH: You’re very perceptive! Yes. I cannot say how important making friends, building relationships, and developing networks has been to my survival in the academy. As an immigrant and child of refugees, there’s so much about the U.S. academy that was so foreign and alien to me, and in many ways hostile. The relationships built through #transformDH, FemTechNet, HASTAC, and FemDH have been life sustaining for me. We’ve fashioned our own virtual kitchen tables where we gather and support one another, but also work. A lot of these groups started because we were “the lonely only” on our campus (you know, sometimes we’re the only Woman of Color in the department, or that person who does the “digital stuff”, etc.) and these groups become our safe spaces where we can gather, refresh, and vent. Many projects and collaborations have come out of these meetings. For the Situated Critical Race + Media Committee of FemTechNet, the Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Pedagogy Workbook led to the FemTechSonic Podcast project, and now to our second FemTechNet Network Gathering at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit in June. I do strongly believe that even if you’re not in a position of institutional power, you can still do kick-ass work. You’ll likely need to be strategic in building supportive relationships though, and you have to be ready to hustle. That’s one thing that I think we’ve all gotten pretty good at: hustling. But it’s so much more fun when you hustle with good friends!