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Mentoring can be a problematic term. According to Google's Ngram Viewer, the word mentoring, despite its associations with unselfish activities, seems to be roughly correlated with the rise of neoliberalism and its associated focus on human capital. Of course, I do not accept broad generalizations that the digital humanities promote a neoliberal agenda, because such conspiracy theories often marginalize alternative variants of the digital humanities that could be placed at the center rather than the periphery of the field.1 But I do think that the concept of mentoring often normalizes assumptions that an autonomous homo economicus should be the prime mover in the academy. After all, a mentor is supposed to adopt a role that mixes the personal and the professional, and as such, a mentor is expected to perform affective labor. Although affective labor is often undervalued, it provides essential maintenance on which institutions depend.2 I do not doubt that such affective labor is important, but I worry that investing too much authority in mentoring roles has a tendency to concentrate power rather than to distribute it, especially since mentoring opportunities are often so unevenly distributed in academe, particularly in largely "alt-ac" fields like the digital humanities.

Recent cultural conversations about sexual harassment have also aired troubling allegations against leading figures in the digital humanities. Even in cases where there might be reasonable doubt about wrongdoing, it is important to recognize that mentoring can be paternalistic at best and abusive at worst. In the close and necessarily shared quarters of a digital humanities lab or other limited access, technology-rich spaces, confinement can be obvious, but the small cohorts of digital humanities work groups can also magnify inequities in power. Although whisper networks may provide informal warnings about persistent predatory behavior, not everyone is included in these cautionary communication loops, and the fear of displeasing influential career mentors can undermine a participant's abilities to avoid or resist violations of personal boundaries. In other words, the same "niceness" that supposedly characterizes the digital humanities can be oppressive.3 [End Page 685]

Instead of using the term mentoring, I suggest focusing on five attributes modeled by those who have mentored me in my own digital humanities career: hospitality, generosity, reciprocity, foresight, and responsibility. Based on my personal observations, similar practices and processes also seem to be at work in the Digital Humanities Caucus of the American Studies Association, which has undertaken a collective process of radical redesign in recent years. The caucus now offers a more capacious range of opportunities for newcomers to the field, which model the equity, criticality, and interdisciplinarity of the profession's goals. For example, caucus members have initiated an ambitious schedule of events at the annual convention to facilitate a more inclusive business meeting, boost attendance at lightning talks to spotlight more types of projects and participants, and host one-on-one consultations about DH works-in-progress, with a focus on pragmatic problem-solving and preemptive advice about platforms, sustainability, and ethics. Throughout the year members have organized more meet-ups with allied groups working on feminist DH, queer DH, and Black code studies. The caucus also challenged the initial review process for digital projects at this journal and suggested different procedures to avoid perpetuating elitism or canonicity. I would argue that the strong commitment to collectivity that the caucus has embraced demonstrates the power of the five attributes that I argue can offer an alternative to the normative mentoring model for supporting digital humanities work.


Hospitality can be an important virtue in digital humanities work, because so much of the intellectual community constituted by interactions online through distributed networks is sustained by live events, such as workshops, institutes, and conferences. However, hospitality needs to be imagined broadly to recognize that many prospective digital humanities practitioners might be caregivers or experience food insecurity. Travel to and accommodations at prestigious international locations can be unaffordable for precarious workers excluded from the ranks of stable and tenurable employment.

As a group of digital humanities practitioners, members of FemTechNet often opened up their homes to be spaces for networking and consciousness-raising, where food, rest, wireless connections, and hospitality were provided for participants. For example, the first FemTechNet workshop in 2012 was held in the house of cofounder Alexandra Juhasz in addition to several distant places connected by teleconferencing technologies. Photographs of the event [End Page 686] document participants working on couches and rugs with laptops at Juhasz's Los Angeles address, while others were virtually present in various windows on large screens. By distributing hospitable interactions to those who were copresent online, the patriarchal authority often associated with the domestic arrangements of family relationships could be destabilized, and indeed Juhasz characterized her role as "cofacilitator" rather than "co-director" to the initiative.

Furthermore, hospitality does not need to be a placid picture-perfect display of bounty to be meaningful. By signaling accessibility to strangers, hospitality is necessarily heterogeneous and risky. As the hospitality theorist Julia Lupton notes, the "ritual scripts, spatial routines, object inventories, and physical settings" of hospitality that integrate sensible and ethical platforms may be "self-divided" as an "ensemble of encounter, experience, and recognition."4 Like Juhasz, Lupton was another of my early career mentors who helped me appreciate the importance of design discourses, as well as aided me by offering considerable personal hospitality herself.

Although an open door to one's literal home can be important, especially for staff and students who may be treated as second-class citizens on traditional campuses, there are many ways to create shared spaces for others and to surrender exclusive claims to proprietary ownership and possession. For example, in an essay for the feminist journal Frontiers, FemTechNet collective members describe opening up their homes, offices, coffee shops, and even vehicles as virtual spaces that disclose the conditions of often messy personal lives.

In the windows of whatever teleconferencing interface we are using at the moment, because it seems to be working for enough of us, we see each other—we see interiors that are not streamlined or designed, with kids, pets, roommates, partners, parents, medical equipment, kitchen devices, nightgowns, and beauty products. We see the assemblages of domestic and feminized labor.

This kind of ethos of online hospitality provides a more capacious space for connection and mutual recognition. Unlike traditional mentoring that assumes the desirability of imitating performances of competency or mastery, hospitality can support a broader range of social performances and provide respite for those needing sustenance or support.


In Designing Culture Anne Balsamo argues for the value of "intellectual generosity," which she defines as "sincere acknowledgement of the work of others" [End Page 687] that "must be explicitly expressed to collaborators as well as through citation practices" and include showing "appreciation for other people's ideas in face-to-face dialogue and throughout the process of collaboration" to "sow the seeds for intellectual risk-taking and courageous acts of creativity."5 As a cofacilitator of FemTechNet, Balsamo also was conscious of the importance of other kinds of generosity, including recommending, refereeing, and reviewing to give more advantages to novices and outsiders who might otherwise be rejected from consideration by academic gatekeepers.

In November 2017 I attended a symposium in honor of another of my mentors, Katherine Hayles, titled "The Futures of Literature, Science, and Media," on the occasion of her forthcoming retirement. Many digital humanists were present, including Alan Liu and Jessica Pressman, and much of the discussion was about Hayles's personal generosity both with her students and with people—like me—not affiliated with her institution and thus to whom she had no formal obligations. As Pressman attested, Hayles also did not assume mentoring required being doctrinaire about following received career paths, and Hayles was one of the few people to support Pressman's decision to resign from a prestigious position at Yale University. Unfortunately, mentoring often becomes associated with occupying a fictive moral high ground in which the mentor's generosity must come at the cost of the mentee's dignity.


The fiction that mentoring is a gift given by senior scholars to junior subordinates also does little to advance equity. As Dorothy Kim and Eunsong Kim have observed, white researchers often merely appropriate the digital labor of women of color without compensation or consent. "Journalists, academics and mainstream media platforms that quote out of context, quote without permission, or plagiarize are not performing acts of kindness—they are abusing their powers as gatekeepers. They are positioning themselves as the managers of relevant information, and disregarding the informational systems and dialogues that are organically taking place."6

As part of the grant team for the Center for Solutions to Online Violence, I benefited from the mentoring of Moya Bailey, who has interrogated traditional models of informed consent promulgated by institutional review boards and advocated for community-informed consent in the digital humanities as a preferable alternative.7 In coteaching the Feminist Digital Humanities course at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria with [End Page 688] another one of my mentors, Jessica Marie Johnson, it became apparent that asking more digital humanists of color to donate their precious time to scholarly service might be a problematic practice, even if it had become common in the community courses like the one I cotaught and kept tuition low across the board for students.

Assuming that mentoring should reinforce generational biases and perpetuate ageism ignores the important challenges that rising scholars offer to fields that might otherwise ossify, and this work should be appropriately recognized as part of the labor of corrective and reparative interventions.


In advising the current digital humanities "parade of patriarchs" to "exit the stage," Deb Verhoeven is clear that preparing to be replaced by a more diverse cohort of practitioners requires planning and forethought.8 When the chair of the steering committee for the international Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations abruptly resigned in November 2015 "to make way for new leadership" after being confronted by those championing more diversity in the organization,9 the manner of his departure midterm did little to effect change in the organization and may have actually impeded it. Verhoeven advises white men in DH to have "a clear, purposeful succession plan and enact it." According to Verhoeven, succession may be achieved by mentoring someone "who doesn't look and sound like you" if the mentor is truly willing to "encourage them and invite them into your role."10 However, the equity that Verhoeven envisions requires mentors to relinquish their privileged positions rather than preserve legacies cultivated by homophily.

Foresight about difficult succession questions requires imagining the cascading consequences of decisions that might only address short-term interests and understanding how a choice that helps one person may harm another, if not dozens of others. As Verhoeven explains, "This is not about learning how to do it better next time—this is about you leaving before there is a next time."11

As a white, straight, cisgender feminist from an Anglo-American background, I am conscious of the importance of also exiting the stage to bring more people who do not look like me or sound like me into the digital humanities. To do this requires securing infrastructural conditions for long-term success, supporting a critical mass of people rather than a few token individuals, and advocating for a different citational politics in the field that debunks the myth that "quality" and "diversity" might be trade-offs. [End Page 689]

I am grateful for all the guidance about succession that I received in my University of California career, because informal situated learning on the job as an academic coordinator proved much more useful than the canned wisdom dispensed from the leadership development program I completed at the Rady Business School. One of my first mentors in the digital humanities when it was still called "humanities computing" was Ellen Strenski, who urged me to come to an International Federation for Information Processing conference, "Building University Electronic Educational Environments," in 1999; helped me to submit a paper successfully to my first digital humanities conference in 2000; and invited me to present at the "Computers and Writing" conference with her in 2004. At the end of my University of California career I had the privilege of working in the Culture, Art, and Technology Program with Wayne Yang and Shelley Streeby of the Ethnic Studies Department, as I planned to turn the program over to them. Yang and Streeby were not strictly speaking to traditional digital humanists, but their interests in world building, futurisms of color, and queer, Black, and Latinx science fiction have been important for bridging American studies and digital humanities discourses. As Bethany Nowviskie has argued, the Afrofuturist alternative to Enlightenment approaches to digital humanities offers an opportunity to rethink what counts as a usable past moving forward.12


This essay argues that the digital humanities should empower practices of collectivity rather than mentoring, which are epitomized by organizations like FemTechNet and scholars like my cofacilitators Sharon Irish and Lisa Nakamura. To serve as a cofacilitator of a digital humanities collective requires considerable responsibility as well as responsiveness, given the multiplicity of tasks and the need to respond rapidly and with interpersonal sensitivity in real time, which was often more ably done by Irish and Nakamura than by me.

It could be objected that all these terms lack the explanatory duties of mentoring in which tacit knowledge practices are discussed explicitly. The didactic functions of a mentor certainly are valuable, but perhaps it might be more valuable to distribute this function to collective bodies that are more likely to challenge the status quo. Such responsibility involves anticipating questions as well as answering them. [End Page 690]

Elizabeth Losh

Elizabeth Losh is associate professor of English and American studies at William and Mary with a specialization in new media ecologies. She is a core member and former cofacilitator of the feminist technology collective FemTechNet, which offers a Distributed Open Collaborative Course; a blogger for Digital Media and Learning Central; and part of the international organizing team of The Selfie Course. She currently serves on the Executive Council of the Modern Language Association. She is the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009) and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014). She is the coauthor of the comic book textbook Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2013; second edition, 2017) with Jonathan Alexander. She published the edited collection MOOCs and Their Afterlives: Experiments in Scale and Access in Higher Education with the University of Chicago in 2017. She is coeditor of a forthcoming volume on feminist digital humanities from the University of Minnesota Press and author of a forthcoming book on the hashtag as a cultural object from Bloomsbury. Her current work-in-progress focuses on ubiquitous computing in the White House in the Obama and Trump administrations. She has also written a number of frequently cited essays about communities that produce, consume, and circulate online video, video games, digital photographs, text postings, and programming code in journal articles and edited collections from MIT Press, Routledge, University of Chicago, Minnesota, Oxford, Continuum, and many other presses. Much of this body of work concerns the legitimation of political institutions through visual evidence, representations of war and violence in global news, and discourses about human rights. In addition to thinking about the intersections of lived realities with digital culture in the United States, this work addresses digital practices in the Netherlands, India, and Ukraine.


1. Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia, "Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities," Los Angeles Review of Books (blog), May 1, 2016,; Elizabeth Losh, "Hacktivism and the Humanities: Programming Protest in the Era of the Digital University," in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 161–86.

2. Michael Hardt, "Affective Labor," Boundary 2 26.2 (1999): 89–100,

3. Tom Scheinfeldt, "Why Digital Humanities Is 'Nice,'" Found History (blog), May 26, 2010,

4. Julia Reinhard Lupton, "Phenomenology and Hospitality," Criticism 54.3 (2012): 367, 373.

5. Anne Marie Balsamo, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 163.

6. Dorothy Kim and Eunsong Kim, "The #TwitterEthics Manifesto," Model View Culture (blog), April 7, 2014,

7. Moya Bailey, "#transform(Ing)DH Writing and Research: An Autoethnography of Digital Humanities and Feminist Ethics," Digital Humanities Quarterly 9.2 (2015),

8. Deb Verhoeven, Has Anyone Seen a Woman?, 2015,

9. "ADHO Announces New Steering Committee Chair," ADHO,, accessed June 16, 2018,

10. Verhoeven, Has Anyone Seen a Woman?

11. Ibid.

12. Bethany Nowviskie, "5 Spectra for Speculative Knowledge Design," Bethany Nowviskie (blog), April 22, 2017,

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