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Digital Literacy as a Theory of Power: Critical Pedagogy in a Library Digital Scholarship Centre

Published onJun 06, 2023
Digital Literacy as a Theory of Power: Critical Pedagogy in a Library Digital Scholarship Centre

What is the role of informal learning organizations in fostering digital literacy in Canadian universities? By informal learning environments, we mean spaces like libraries, centres for teaching and learning, academic success centres, makerspaces, and other facilities that make up the function of a contemporary university and which contrast with formal classrooms which have the authority and responsibility to conform to a particular curriculum, assign grades, and confer degrees. In this paper, the authors reflect on several years of operating a non-departmental research and teaching facility by connecting the pedagogical activities undertaken by its academic staff to educational and political theories with a specific focus on technology. The Digital Scholarship Centre (DSC) is an academic center operating out of the University of Alberta Library, which opened its doors in August 2019. This facility joins the Statistics Canada Research Data Centre as a new academic centre of the University of Alberta Library (CRDCN; Ahmed 2019). However, its mission differs from other academic centres in that it seeks to develop research through non-curricular initiatives. Consequently, the people working in the Centre host scholarly events, deliver non-credit workshops, and consult with researchers at any level—such as graduate students, post-doctoral students, faculty, and visiting scholars—on how to integrate computational methods into their study. The center is composed of an Academic Director, Head of Services, Digital Scholarship Librarian, and three Public Services Assistants, with casual staff like graduate students joining the facility as budgets permit.

The use of the term “digital scholarship” is gaining ground across North American post secondary institutions, but in our first year of operations, it became evident that it was not easily understood within the University of Alberta community. In addition to practices like textual and spatial analysis, digital storytelling, data visualization and simulation, and extended reality, our definition of digital scholarship also includes makerspace practices (Ratto; Willett; Resch et al.), such as media production, 3D printing, 3D scanning and modelling, and laser cutting. Because the DSC was established within an academic library, our definition and approach to digital literacy pedagogy work is informed by the work of the American Library Association (ALA). This definition sees digital literacy as an extension of the information literacy, in that they both require “skills in locating and using information and in critical thinking” (ALA). Further, the ALA states:

Digital literacy involves knowing digital tools and using them in communicative, collaborative ways through social engagement. ALA’s Digital Literacy Task Force defines digital literacy as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.”

However, due to our digital humanities training and foundations in constructionist philosophy of education (Papert; Papert and Harel), our understanding of digital literacy as a concept departs from the ALA’s focus on requiring both cognitive and technical skills toward an umbrella concept of digital literacy developed by Aviram and Eshet-Alkalai (2006). Their conceptualization incorporates socio-emotional facets and non-linear organization of digital information for use and creation in the 21st century. Thus, by combining the facets of affect, structure, and function, we strive toward situating digital literacy within education as consciousness (Carpenter and Mojab; Au) rather than simply a set of practices or mechanisms. We believe this broader definition is crucial because it allows us to bring into conversation multiple skill sets housed in our facility, as well as provide a foundation for our praxis with real users in real time and space. Therefore, we seek conceptual models that explain the phenomena observed in our professional practice, which we also strive to integrate into our learning experiences with faculty and students. We even host regular professional development team meetings that allow us to learn and share literature on topics like critical making and queer theory in education.

In this paper, we contextualize the operations of the Digital Scholarship Centre at the University of Alberta in the broader environment of performance-based funding and significant budget cuts at the hands of the provincial government. We explain how these conditions shape the quantity and quality of learning experiences available in such a facility. Further, we discuss our pedagogical framework, grounded in theories of constructionism and anti-oppressive pedagogy, as well as challenges with implementing a materialist approach to digital literacy pedagogy in an informal learning environment. We argue that discursive strategies to advance liberatory pedagogical practices are ultimately stifled by institutional structures, such as policies, and larger conditions of capitalism, such as the integration of proprietary software and hardware technologies into the contemporary university. Therefore, we suggest that operating an informal learning space like a digital scholarship centre may be understood as facilitating access to private property relations rather than eliminating the need for them. Nevertheless, we propose the praxis of education as consciousness and collective strategies like participation in multi-university DH certificate programs as mechanisms to resist the totality of capital in the context of critical digital literacy.

Critical Digital Literacy Pedagogy: A Framework

What is the relationship between digital humanities centres and the emergence of digital scholarship centres in Canadian universities? The former are arguably not new, with organizations like University of Virginia’s Scholars’ Lab (Nowviskie) and University of Maryland’s MITH enjoying a relatively long tradition in the domain of digital humanities (Kirschenbaum; Fraistat). Additionally, most research institutions pursuing digital humanities in some capacity identified the need and committed resources to maintaining DH labs with specific infrastructure to support textual analysis, spatial analysis, database-building, and media production.

In contrast, we observe a trend in research libraries to set up labs, centers, and commons with a specific terminology of “digital scholarship,” beginning around 2015. This process has also resulted in creation of academic librarian positions with the terms “digital scholarship” in the title (two of the authors being representative of this trend). Locating DS centres within the library rather than a specific department has been a common choice for research institutions, precisely because academic libraries are discipline-neutral and this in turn can help “reduce the silo effect and provide space for interdisciplinarity to grow” (Hannah, Heyns, and Mulligan, 696). This relative formalization of DS centres in libraries may be understood in the context of the drive for “innovation” and commitments to services like research data management, research impact, digital preservation, user experience, and other functional roles. As virtually all current scholarship makes use of digital tools, the term digital scholarship seems as if it should be redundant. However, a recent case study by Eichmann-Kalwara et al. indicates that while the term digital scholarship is meaningful to librarians, it remains unclear or laden with discipline specific connotations among researchers themselves.

Since opening our doors in 2019, we have observed the ways in which we are implicated in the larger political power relationships of academia. By this we mean the constant tension between the specificity of faculty priorities, goals, and structures as they come into contact with the practices of academic libraries, which are ultimately rooted in the philosophy of liberal individualism. This philosophy drives librarianship’s “service culture” and resists difference in favour of procedural justice, supposed neutrality, and focus on form rather than content of information. Thus, this philosophy prioritizes instructional interventions “at a point of need” rather than strategic and planned curricular involvements, which would require the Library to make decisions based on material limitations, such as staff time, costs, and spaces available to accommodate pedagogical requests. For example, our very existence as a hybrid space—an academic centre within the library—requires us to explain and, at times, justify our policies, practices, and their underlying values to scholars trained to disciplinarity and specialization at the cost of generalization and universality. Specifically, we draw on the expertise of our academic director as a faculty member and a researcher in the digital humanities when faced with questions around the grant lifecycle or data visualization methods, but we also fundamentally work in a faculty-agnostic manner that very much relies on a “first come, first serve” model of access that is driven by librarianship’s understanding of individualism.

These dynamics are not new, of course, but centres like ours must always remain aware of the environments that envelop them. This includes the ongoing trends to align postsecondary institutions more tightly with the demands of the job market, and to produce value that is only legible to the logic of exchange. We are reminded of this quote from Alan Liu, which remains relevant a decade on:

If the digital humanities are currently in a state of expansion, it follows that in some manner, for better or worse, they serve the postindustrial state. A purely economic rationale for the digital humanities might thus be that they re-engineer higher education for knowledge work […] all the while trimming the need to invest proportionally in the [university’s] traditional facilities, support staff, and perhaps permanent faculty. (10)

Here, Liu is warning us of the perils of sacrificing all our pedagogical values to that omnipresent notion of instrumental knowledge, easily marketed as “job skills.” The survival strategy of many humanities departments, digital humanities included, means marketing their programs as providing viable entry-level job training to an employable populace. That hard tie to the vacillations of the marketplace is a position many educators have cautioned against: Charlie Edwards long ago worried that such instrumentalism might “render DH as ‘applied’ (versus ‘pure’) humanities,” reducing everything to a mere “service orientation” (Edwards). This is, nonetheless, a position in which we find ourselves regularly in the DSC because those sorts of skills are perfect workshop-sized bites. Consequently, we do teach skills like introductory Python and data visualization with Gephi and Tableau. We also teach data cleaning with OpenRefine and version control through GitHub repositories. Yet at the same time, we also seek to expand our preconceived notions of what constitutes a workshop. We want to grow beyond the constraining limitations that Liu warned us about: we do not want to map our Centre’s self-worth too strictly to the mandates of the post-industrial state or follow too slavishly the vacillating definitions of what today happens to constitute an instrumental skill. As a result, we contend that technologies are never neutral and not merely tools but are themselves created within oppressive systems and thus embody the very same assumptions about the world that they try to critique. When building learning opportunities within DSC, then, one of the questions we asked was “how can we use critical theory to envision alternative understandings of technology within higher education?”

One perspective that has been useful in the development of the research services and pedagogical offerings of the Digital Scholarship Centre is anti-oppressive pedagogy, which, although not widely implemented within formal sites of education, has been part of the education discourse since at least the 1970 English-language publication of Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (30th Anniversary Edition published in 2000) and, more recently, with Kumashio’s Towards a Theory of Anti-Oppressive Education (2000). Our planning, delivery, and evaluation of non-curricular instruction within the academic centre has led us to agree with Migueliz Valcarlos et al. that “it is not sufficient to ask what technologies afford educators and students to do, but also how technologies may frustrate aims to enact anti-oppressive education and how educators [can] work around those frustrations” (356). We are limited in the ways that we can enact these theories, however, by the technologies we have on hand, the funding we are allocated, and the affordances and limitations of the tools we use and teach. In other words, our commitment to the Makerspace, our organizational structural relationship to the Library and to the University, and the diminishing staff complement, all set parameters to the material and ideological experience for learners of the DSC.

In order to be effective, our staff team needs to be not only methodology experts but also to have a level of fluency with the technology as it is used by learners around us. Building that expertise, of course, takes time. This means that we sometimes disappoint those who come to us expecting technical support or specific expertise only to find that we are instead learning alongside our users. Our practical experience has demonstrated that co-learning—a model grounded in Vygotsky’s research and adopted by public libraries especially in the area of technology training (Nicholson)—challenges the notions of deep expertise of the academy, and therefore makes some DSC learners resistant to work with us. We see this as a library domain manifestation of research on the student resistance to active learning and the challenges of implementing flipped classrooms in the postsecondary environment (Tharayil et al.; Andrews et al.). However, this can also allow for a model of collaborative peer-based learning that may challenge typical power dynamics found within academic spaces, when the staff of the DSC are working with and learning from our users. Rather than seeing these practices as barriers to engagement, we view them as opportunities to identify campus partners who are committed to a relational approach in learning. While we do not assign grades, framing multiple stand-alone workshops into coherent, synergistic series has been a goal since our first semester of operation. We therefore employ a Makerspace Certification model, which has its roots in the STEM domain, whereby learners have to complete a safety quiz, a sample hands-on activity, and commit to upholding a code of conduct before becoming fully certified to operate the fabrication equipment available in our facility (“Makerspace Policies”). Our micro-curriculum workshops have included the introductory “Digital Scholarship 101” series covering topics like data and metadata, mapping, computational thinking, and data visualization, as seen in Figure 1. More recently, we have sought to design an intermediate level “Digital Scholarship Tools” series to develop skills in virtualization, automation, and minimal computing, which attracted participants from the faculties of Science, Engineering, Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences, as well as the Health Sciences.

Figure 1: Poster promoting the first Digital Scholarship 101 Series at the University of Alberta’s Digital Scholarship Centre. Image by Hanne Pearce, courtesy University of Alberta Library, 2019.

Further, we have been proud to host peer-learning activities such as the Wikipedian-in-Residence program (Holtby), which was made possible through a collaboration between the Library Publishing Program and the Digital Scholarship Centre. Beyond stand-alone workshops, members of the DSC have had twenty interventions with credit-based courses, primarily at the methods stage in the humanities and social sciences. These have included lectures and custom exercises for courses such as Nineteenth, Twentieth and Twenty-first Century Dress in the Western World; Topics in Women’s and Gender Studies, Gender and Social Justice Studies; Information Literacy and Scholarly Communication for Modern Languages; and Media Art: Extended Studio with Digital Media. With the return to campus after pandemic closures in late 2021, DSC’s classroom presence has looked like a tour with a question-and-answer period, thereby still retaining a hands-on component of seeing and touching the learning infrastructure available in the space with an opportunity to reflect on why it may have been installed in it. More recent class partnerships, particularly in Fine Arts and Digital Media, have included a front-loaded tutorial on skills like 3D modelling followed by structured time in the Centre for each student to practice the skills taught or test their digital product on visualization displays in preparation for the end-of-term showcase. As a result, our philosophical commitment to critical digital literacy does not change with the format of instruction, but such collaborations also demonstrate the relative difficulty of “scaling” such instruction beyond 10–15 students per term. For example, in Winter 2022, in order to ensure every student enrolled in an undergraduate Fine Arts course had meaningful opportunity to create, test, and revise their Virtual Reality “scene” (designed in the Google application TiltBrush), blocks of 1.5 hours had to be booked in the Centre calendar with a staff member appointed to facilitate access to the space and the technology over several weeks. However, the DSC would not be able to accommodate more than two such classes, as there would simply not be enough operating hours in the term to provide this kind of “lab” space to the students in the Faculty of Arts. As a result, our work reminds us of the tangible and material ways that digital technologies facilitate learning and their limitations within the context of the contemporary university.

Finally, academic staff in digital scholarship centres are often asked to teach students a specific digital software tool in a single drop-in session. The request usually comes with little time to prepare or to contextualize the skill within the goals of the credit-based course. This pedagogical practice has a long tradition in libraries due to the so-called “one-shot” model of delivering information literacy instruction (Walker and Pearce; Powell and Kong; Belzowski and Robinson). Clearly, such an approach to teaching would not be tolerated in mathematics or history, but it is routine in the area of technology, precisely because of the assumption that technology has no domain of knowledge of its own; it is not a discipline as such and thus lacks a philosophy, a history, or politics. We observe a similar attitude toward teaching digital literacy tools, whether the request is directed at librarians or digital humanists, as it is ultimately driven by an instrumentalist understanding of technology in education (Kruger-Ross; Mejias et al.). It is therefore relegated to the domain of techniques and practices rather than occupying an area of study in its own right. As such, the lack of conceptual scaffolding built into the one-shot instructional sessions might be described as “throwing the learner in the ocean” rather than breaking down the process of swimming into gradual and interrelated steps. One would not ask a first grader, for instance, to write a thesis on theories of change, but scholars are regularly expected to “visualize this data set” without any foundations in statistics, for example. As Bowles-Terry and Donovan have pointed out, the one-shot instructional model marginalizes the expertise of the technical instructor at the cost of a more sustainable and meaningful relationship to the course instructor, students, and broader academic program. Our argument, then, is not for mere recognition of the labour or expertise of informal instructors, but of the larger reflection on the purpose and meaning of integrating technology into curricular design. What assumptions do instructors who “just want students to practice this one tool” carry in their syllabus, assignment choices, and their interactions with non-curricular campus partners? What constitutes success when such collaborators are drawn into the course, for everyone involved? This is the fundamental relational approach to our work with digital literacy, but as research suggests (Gaudry; Tuck and Yang), the academy does not value such relationality, and in fact, relies on multiple structures to resist and alienate it.

Critical Digital Literacy Pedagogy: A Case Study

What, then, can critical digital literacy pedagogy look like within the constraints of a one-shot model of instruction? In February of 2020, Kate (one of this paper’s authors) had the opportunity to teach a three-hour 100-level English class with the goals of introducing students to the technologies and tools present in the DSC as well as to make library processes and labour more visible. By holding the class within the facility (pictured in Figure 2 below), we were able to experiment somewhat with how students engaged with the physical space as learners. In preparation for this class, we placed descriptive labels next to our learning infrastructure (such as collaboration tables, the recording booth, projection displays) and asked the students to spend about thirty minutes exploring the space on their own or in small groups. They were encouraged to use their own devices, most often smartphones, to find out more about the different tools that were available within the DSC, and to brainstorm what kind of projects these technologies could facilitate. Afterwards we gathered to discuss what the students had learned, what they found interesting, and what uses they could imagine for each of the technologies. We rediscovered what others have also seen: Depending on students’ backgrounds, lived experiences, and levels of interest, an academic library space like the DSC can be familiar and welcoming to some while causing library anxiety in others (McPherson). We hoped that by giving students this opportunity for self-discovery and peer-sharing without enforcing preconceived or official uses for the technology, they would not only learn about the DSC but also feel that it is a space in which they were welcome, and where their ideas were valued even if they have no specific technical expertise.

Figure 2: The main thoroughfare of the Digital Scholarship Centre with a view toward the entrance. Photo courtesy of Lydia Zvyagintseva, 2019.

For the remainder of the class, we discussed the labour and processes that make up academic libraries. Doerksen, for example, argues that a lack of institutional literacy contributes to increased library anxiety. As such, by making the typically invisible labour of libraries visible to students, we hoped not only to increase students’ understanding of the technological and labour processes with which they engage when using the library, but also to decrease some level of library anxiety. In addition, to explain the inner workings of library-mediated access to scholarly journal articles, we also needed to talk to students about the ways in which “capitalism necessitates that bodies and labor be rendered invisible” (Settoducato). To understand the current invisibility of library labour, we had to discuss the deliberate historical feminization of library workers, as well as the general lack of racial diversity within libraries (Schlesselman-Tarango). Throughout this discussion, we asked students to think critically about the historical and current impacts that having a workforce of primarily white women has on library collections, library processes, and the value of library labour, particularly within the academy. As Dohe reminds us, the highly gendered and fundamental assumptions about who will—and should—perform care work within higher education with little to no remuneration for that labour are continually reproduced within academic libraries.

What if the role of the DSC precisely as an informal learning space on campus positioned us more freely to raise issues of technology production, use, circulation, and labour involved in making it usable, than perhaps even in the formal classroom? After all, the DSC has no stake in the classroom game, so to speak: we are not bound by end-of-term evaluation mechanisms, nor the pressure to be the knowledge authority in front of the learners. While we may risk upsetting the instructor by taking the discussion in a slightly different direction than envisioned, we would nevertheless develop our relationship with this instructor and their interest in understanding technology in a broader sense. It is possible that some learners will deem any critical discussions of technology production and labour as tangential to the study of design or history but committing to examining such topics is exactly what makes us an academic centre, rather than a consulting firm, for example. In other words, it is during these moments of critical reflection, both during classroom presence and throughout non-credit workshops, that we believe we can aim to integrate the notion of critical digital literacy (Figure 3 below).

Figure 3: Students interacting with “Kitty City” on the Ideum Touch Table at the end-of-term showcase. Photo courtesy of Lydia Zvyagintseva, 2021.

Opportunities and Challenges for DH Pedagogy and Community-Building

Returning to our pedagogical framework, what lessons can we draw from implementing it in the context of a prairie research university library? One major lesson has been understanding the critical in critical digital literacy in terms of material practices: that is, clearly observing the limitations of the contemporary university to enable equitable access, compensation, and labour conditions. In other words, when adopting an epistemological lens explored earlier, one cannot but see our own roles in perpetuating while at the same time seeking to share power within the oppressive structures of global capitalism in which all universities operate. For example, the harm reduction approach to the concepts of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in the academy has been well critiqued by now (Archer; Campbell; Brown). Particularly, Rinaldo Walcott’s work has highlighted how private property lies at the core of the contradiction between EDI and material practices of contemporary digital scholarship, on which we now draw during requested tours of our facility. Therefore, we can understand institutional EDI strategies to be mechanisms by which neoliberalism frames relations of power without significantly changing the conditions in which such relations are produced and reproduced. For example, as much as we seek to design safe, welcoming spaces conducive to learning, we are nevertheless bound by institutional structures which prevent us from compensating graduate students for teaching workshops, from providing free parking on campus to community partners, or from allowing learners to use tools like laser cutters without tracking their personal data—all because the entire purpose of a contemporary library is to manage access to private property relations. As academic staff of the Centre, we find ourselves in a double bind: we are both subjects and representatives of the state. Thus, we feel the need to push back on the individual framing of questions such as “what are you doing to address inclusion and accessibility in the Centre?” by emphasizing why academia is so inequitable in the first place.

Additionally, the consequence of the increasing precarity and proletarianization of academic labour cannot be ignored as we are forced to adapt our operating model due to continued provincial budget cuts. Deidre Rose, for instance, has shown that, over the past decade, 54% of academic positions have been hired as precarious labour. As a result, the crisis of the University is not just that the faculty is shrinking—although that is true too—but that an enormous amount of work has been shifted to short-term contract laborers, to postdoctoral fellows, and to a group that Rose does not mention: graduate students. In 2019–2020, we coached and mentored graduate students—and those of us who are faculty members routinely observe their teaching—all in an effort to make them better teachers, better scholars, and more active members in wider DH communities. We feel it is important to invite young scholars into the DSC to offer workshops, especially in areas in which they are becoming specialists. Thus, we recognize the enormous obligations that we are asking of them—that is to say, to volunteer their time to prepare and to teach and even to follow up with students after their workshops end. Yet we cannot remunerate them for those activities because the Library has no casual compensation category and the University of Alberta defines very specifically who is and is not an employee.

Between 2020 and 2022, we were unable to recruit graduate students and even needed to temporarily lay off permanent non-academic staff to meet the university budget mandate driven by budget cuts implemented by the United Conservative Party of Alberta (CBC News, “University groups”; NASA). Specifically, the University of Alberta received a cumulative reduction in funding of $222 million, equivalent to 33% of its 2018 Campus Alberta Grant (University of Alberta Annual Report 2018–2019 30). After indicating its intentions to grow admissions, the University increased tuition in undergraduate and graduate programs ranging from 40% to 104% for domestic students, including a 29% for a law degree, a 71% increase for an MBA, and a doubling of the cost for a master’s in counselling psychology (Turner; Joannou). These material conditions inevitably translated into a reduction in the quantity and quality of learning experiences provided through the Digital Scholarship Centre at the University of Alberta. Nevertheless, we did not rely on unpaid practicum placements or unpaid teaching sessions to replace labour that would have gone to paid and trained assistants during this time. For political and practical reasons, asking students to perform the same type and amount of labour in the Centre would go against our mission and goals. To pretend that digital literacy somehow exists outside of these forces is to perpetuate mystification on which the administration relies in order to extract surplus value from us. It is a tricky needle that we are trying to thread—on the one hand, we need to achieve a balanced relationship between coaching and mentoring and giving students opportunities to expand their CVs while, on the other hand, we cannot depend exclusively on unpaid labour as a way to do the DSC’s important business of workshops and pedagogy and community-building.

Our philosophy, however, is that these workshops form part of a wider pedagogical and community-building practice. Workshops aggregate to something bigger and more synergistic than just short-term training. We are part of a larger movement now afoot that is producing micro-credentialing and certificate programs, such as the one being led by Laura Estill in forming the Canadian Certificate for Digital Humanities (Estill). Integrating into such a national structure means that our workshops can contribute to a wider community that transcends any individual Centre or even any individual university. Additionally, the DSC’s participation in the newly forming network allows us to achieve several goals: think about a type of scholarly community that extends beyond the boundaries or bureaucracy of any one given institution; redefine the very notions of curriculum and student in the contemporary postsecondary. That is to say, micro-credentialing strategies allow workshops to develop faster and in a more agile way than curriculum reform can (Cirlan and Loukkola). Those of us who have worked in curriculum development know that glacial ice ages come and go before new courses hit the books. These micro-credentialing services also open up the classroom to other kinds of non-traditional students: librarians, faculty members, grad students, and even people from the wider community—people who are not interested in degree-granting programs, and who may not be interested to come into the university via traditional pathways, but who are nonetheless interested in learning and self-development. There is a tremendous opportunity here to implement change and to focus on the political investment of the university.

In our workshops, we want to think about technology’s relationship to structures that reify power and privilege—not just the ways in which they play out within the university, but also how they play out in wider culture as well. To do so, we need to move out into the community as well. The University of Alberta has an active Community Service Learning program, for example, so we have plans to work with this office in order to reach out into the community so that these ideas are not isolated inside the Ivory Tower of Academia but will be able to move outside as well and can engage people in critical assessments of technology. Additionally, we aim to reserve a fraction of the spots for learners outside the University and promote our workshops using a local EventBrite calendar. These mechanisms not only allow us to fulfill the University’s strategic plan, but also put into practice our belief that education has power to raise consciousness.

One area of significant opportunity for the Digital Scholarship Centre is to explore subversive and resistant use of technology, such as the creative experiments of Nettrice Gaskins to test the limits of racial bias in algorithmic computer vision in surveillance technologies. This topic could pair well with non-credit mini-courses on subjects including Critical Use of Technology in Research, Intermediate Digital Literacy, and a Philosophy of Technology—balancing the deep dives into specific tools or methods with theorization and contextualization of the techniques we are teaching. In our quest to deliver the what and the how, we believe the why is also critical. As universities face further corporatization, restructuring, and rebranding, it is clear that few spaces on campus are dedicated to fostering critical aspects of technology by mission or vision.

However, it is clear that this alone will not stop software corporations from charging prohibitive fees for their licenses or prevent students from thinking of themselves as consumers of education, because private property relations shape all aspects of social life. We can lend a finite amount of recording devices to interested individuals, but we cannot address the technology needs of 40,000 students completing their programs. As such, we have experienced tensions from those who saw us as a space that may loan a device or provision a specific software package for the length of their degree, which, of course, comes at a cost to others interested in the same thing. We have been written into grants promising dedicated commitment of our 3D printers while simultaneously advertising universal access for the entire campus community to these tools. We believe such tensions are common for makerspaces and DH labs across North America, in that they are evidence of the process of real subsumption of labour under capital (Das; Zvyagintseva; Popowich). The seduction of technocratic tendencies, as seen in the corporate partnerships with public universities (Brown), is also at play in academic libraries and faculties. Therefore, perhaps a politically aware digital scholarship requires a certain amount of disavowal in the face of the totality of capital, increasingly extending its reach into postsecondary education in Canada.


In this paper, we have aimed to demonstrate how educational, informational, and digital humanities theories as well as continuous reflexive practice have been the Digital Scholarship Centre’s core strategies to develop and deliver our pedagogy, build community, and grow as educators in an environment of continued political and economic crisis at the University of Alberta. Like all institutions around the world, our implementation of envisioned pedagogical plans was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also by massive budget cuts at the hands of the provincial government as it seeks to continue to proletarianize academic labour and implement performance-based funding, a trend observed across Canada (CBC News 2020; St-Onge; Saskatchewan; Spooner; Bettens). Perhaps because our academic facility operates in a province experimenting with the bleeding-edge cases of subsuming the academy into the contemporary authoritarian capitalist state, we have the opportunity to situate digital literacy instruction in the political dimension of critical literacy. We have also sought to examine the limitations of putting our pedagogical framework into practice, as the material structures of the university limit the real distribution of power for a specific purpose. Thus, while discussions of material and social structures of domination in the contemporary education environment are absolutely important to build student consciousness, seeking collective goals, such as integration into educational networks and certification programs beyond the individual universities are also necessary to practice our philosophy. The tensions we have described in this paper are, to a large extent, inescapable under the current progress of capitalism, and thus our goals are of intellectual clarity and collective power with the recognition that academics are workers implicated in state institutions as well.

While our approach to digital literacy instruction is informed by DH principles, we do not advocate that all facilities of this nature adopt them. Since not all universities and colleges may necessarily have DH programs, specific commitments to the values and goals of DH may not be relevant to the particular context of the readers. Instead, we wish to highlight the generalizability of critical pedagogy and the material aspects of education in the postsecondary environment, especially as crisis is deployed by university administrators to continue to extract surplus value from the workers and justify resource cuts. Rather than mystify the processes of technology and treat it as a tangential aspect of postsecondary education, we advocate for a realistic relationship with both concepts, mechanisms, and uses of technology in the classroom and in research.

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