Against the Binary of Gender: A Case for Considering the Many Dimensions of Gender in DH Teaching and Research

July 17, 2013, 10:30 | Long Paper, Embassy Regents D

There are genders beyond masculinity and femininity. Genderqueers, bois, gurls and otherwise gender variant people explore and express a wide variety of non-binary gender identities. Joy Johnson and Robin Repta note that “gender is typically theorized as a multidimensional, context-specific factor that changes according to time and place”, but in research practice, gender “is routinely assumed to be a homogeneous category … measured by a single check box” (28). The non-binary gender communities are untapped, underserved, and underrepresented by most scholarly activities. Digital humanities scholars have the potential to move beyond assumptions and to engage with non-binary gender in meaningful and tangible ways. This engagement can help the digital humanities live up to its promise, to “enhance the impact of [scholars’] work and engage with new audiences” (Prescott 63).

Though gender variance is not new, “exposure to new gender norms and social scripts has transformed the ways that some young individuals make sense of gender and gender non-conformity” (Shapiro 21). Shapiro cites technology as a tool that offers “new physical and social possibilities for gender” (24). The technology used in the field of digital humanities is part of this process of renegotiation and understanding, but it is necessary for digital humanities scholars to understand and accommodate these news ways of knowing and being. Mussell (writing about periodicals) notes that “there has been a fundamental transformation in the terms of access” (202) in the digital humanities classroom. This “fundamental transformation” applies to all aspects of knowledge compiled within the digital humanities, and it is perhaps the right moment now for the field to undertake the next step toward a comprehensive and nuanced engagement with new understandings of gender.

This paper is not only a call to catch up to complex understandings of non-binary gender in other disciplines such as queer and feminist theory (Butler), medical research (Johnson and Repta), child psychology (Wiseman and Davidson) and marketing and consumer research (Bettany, Dobscha, O’Malley and Prothero). It is a call to exceed the reach of these existing engagements. We must answer the same challenge Wiseman and Davidson have issued to clinical psychologists, “to continually reflect and discuss the multiplicity that is possible within human experience, recognizing the ways of thinking and knowing that we are embedded in” (536). Because the digital humanities influence how scholars do their work and how students frame their research questions, we are in a strong position to create a comprehensive discipline-wide conceptualization of non-binary gender. This is asking much of the digital humanities. The difficulty of engaging meaningfully with non-binary gender is highlighted by contradictions such as statements that “gender is to be considered as a two-sided coin, as constructions of masculinity, and what it is to be male, inevitably generate and constitute constructions of femininity, and what it is to be female” (Bettany et al 16) resulting from a conference entitled “Moving Beyond Binary Opposition: Exploring the Tapestry of Gender in Consumer Research and Marketing.” What is demonstrated here is the embeddedness of the binary construction of gender that the conference sought to explore and move beyond. It is that very embeddedness that digital humanities should seek to confront and overcome. We have the power to shape views through our construction of digital humanities classrooms and research projects. We should try to answer the challenge offered by Ryka Aoki; “[w]e should provide [genderqueer, trans, and gender variant people] the chance and even some guidance to find their own answers… let us give people the support and affirmation that they may never have experienced” (sec. 4).

Our paper proposes four ways that the digital humanities can engage scholars, research participants, and students in considering the non-binary nature of gender. First, we suggest that the design and development of tools for digital humanities scholarship should enable the exploration of texts according to gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and sexual orientation. In addition, such exploration should be considered a multi-dimensional spectrum, not a series of on-off switches. Second, when constructing engagements with potential users of DH tools, we should employ design testing methods that move beyond assumptions of the gender binary. Third, in designing DH experiments, we might choose to privilege content from non-binary gender sources. Fourth, we can acknowledge non-binary gender in DH classes and seminars and, where possible, include relevant readings and explore the re-imagining of existing DH tools according to non-binary gender. Though these measures cannot provide a comprehensive response to the many issues that Digital Humanities scholarship must address regarding non-binary gender and gender inclusivity, they do represent important first steps towards an inclusive and collaborative solution.


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