Digitalization and digital culture are not only reshaping the world we live in, they also reshape social sciences and the humanities in particular. Diggit Magazine was curious about the impact of digital culture on academia. Now, at the end of the year, we at Diggit Magazine thought that we could use the traditional end-of-year question-format as a pretext to seduce researchers from all over the world and from many different sub-disciplines to reflect on this impact, and to look back and forward.
Instead of the traditional end-of-year questions, we thus asked them about the impact of digital culture on their research practice and their field of research in general. And we of course also asked them what they expect to happen in 2019. The traditional end-of-year questions, but reinvented from an academic, and more specifically, a digital culture studies perspective.
In this interview, we ask Ana Deumert to reflect on the impact of digital culture on her field. Ana Deumert is Professor at the University of Cape Town. Her research program is located within the broad field of African sociolinguistics and has a strong transdisciplinary focus.
When did you notice that digitalization was substantially reshaping your research field?
Thinking about this question, my mind goes back in time, to the early 1990s when I first accessed the internet. Just sending emails was exciting at the time. We used a program called Pegasus Mail, an email program that was developed way back in 1989. At the time, computers were ugly square boxes, the screens displayed text in green with a black background. The materiality of the experience was so different from today, I remember cables and stationary computers, having to go into the office to log onto my email. Today, as I think back on those times, I am sitting on my couch at home, my MacAir, light and mobile, on my knees – the difference is astonishing.
The materiality of the experience was so different from today, I remember cables and stationary computers, having to go into the office to log onto my email.
When I completed my PhD in the late 1990s, having access to email was vital for my research: it allowed me to connect with colleagues abroad, many of whom were specialists on my topic. In addition, listservs such as the CreoList and the LinguistList were important – they allowed me to follow global debates, and also to ask questions which could then be answered by a global community of scholars.
Can you give a concrete example of the impact of digital culture on your research domain?
My most concrete examples are probably around connectivity and dialogue – having online discussions, sometimes on email, in the 1990s on listservs, now on Facebook. Maybe just one small recent example: I was working on a paper and was suddenly struck by the absence of female linguists in the early days of the discipline. So I posed a question on Facebook, asking whether friends could recommend female linguists I should read. And within hours a lively discussion took place on my wall, involving colleagues from across the globe, considering the gendered history of our discipline. The outcome was a fantastic, collectively produced, reading list.
What was the most remarkable change in 2018 regarding digital culture and your research?
I think this year the impact has not been so much on my research, but much more on my teaching. In the past, we had used Facebook to assist our teaching and to create an online space that would complement the body-to-body lecture and tutorial space. But, over time, we found that Facebook was no longer working well, that student engagement was dropping. Then, this year, we started with WhatsApp, not for the entire class (which is close to 300 students), but in the tutorial groups. And we found that this was a highly effective way of providing additional support for our students. We also saw that WhatsApp is a space that encourages peer learning: rather than waiting for the tutor to explain a concept, students would respond to queries by their peers themselves. This is certainly something I would like to explore more in 2019.
What do you expect will change in 2019 regarding the impact of digital culture on your research?
This is a difficult question – seeing into the future. The most concrete example I can think of is my interest in protest movements, which increasingly organize online. This is something I would like to explore more in 2019. And I will continue to explore digital media as teaching tools, complementing the conventional classroom space.