Embedding Sustainability in the Curriculum

Presenting the Media Arts and Humanities Sustainability Educator Toolkit:

Or if you prefer, here is the Google doc (feel free to leave comments).

This toolkit is aimed at supporting educators (at Sussex and beyond) to build themes, concepts and practices related to sustainability into our teaching. It’s a grab-bag of inspirations, provocations, and helpful signposts.

It covers:

  • Sustainable Development Goals
  • Planetary boundaries
  • Climate change and climate justice
  • Ecocentrism
  • Indigenous knowledges
  • Degrowth and postgrowth

There is a focus on media, arts and humanities, and some focus on the University of Sussex. But we hope it will be useful much more widely.

This toolkit is complemented by a crowdsourced living document of links and resources. We have been inspired by the commitment to decolonising the curriculum in the past few years. Now it is time to embed sustainability – and acknowledge the deep relationship between the two.

The toolkit is published under a CC license.

Other related resources:

SHL Priority Areas: Intersectionality, Community and Community Technology research journey 

By Sharon Webb 

In my last blog I discussed the Sussex Humanities Lab’s priority research areas, and the thinking behind their implementation. This time around, I’d like to focus on the priority area that I lead — Intersectionality, Community and Community Technology (ICCT).  ICCT was conceptualised to bring together and to create coherency across a cluster of activities, and to highlight some of the values that inform the Lab’s work and how we operate as a research community. ICCT also reflects the way in which the Lab, its culture, its people, have offered me a focus that has helped develop and broaden my research profile, and the collaborations I am part of.

Since joining Sussex in 2015, I have integrated my work on digital preservation and digital archives with community archives and heritage work. From 2018, and upon reflection motivated by the explicit feminist values of our original leadership team — particularly Caroline Bassett, Tim Hitchcock, and Rachel Thomson — Cécile Chevalier and I have developed research and teaching that incorporates techno-feminism, and intersectional/queer/feminist Digital Humanities, with an investigation of these histories, alongside practical and creative interventions such as coding workshops and creative coding initiatives.

More recently, Irene Fubara-Manuel and Sandra Nelson have joined us in these efforts. Both contribute to our ‘Techno-Feminism: History and Practice’ MA module and have developed a programme of work for our ‘Feminist Approaches to Computational Technology’ network called Reflexive Re-Tooling: Alternative Workflows for the Feminist Researcher. Irene is also Co-I on ‘Full Stack Feminism in Digital Humanities’, alongside Cécile and I. (You can follow each project on Twitter: @FACT_ntwrk, @FullStackFem). Kate O’Riordan, Dean of the School of Media, Arts and Humanities, has also informed the way in which this research, and community, has developed. It’s also important to acknowledge the inclusive intersectional feminist frameworks, networks, and research that already existed at Sussex: my work and the Lab have benefited from these.  

In many respects the ICCT priority area reflects a research journey. It echoes the myriad ways that we build capacity around clusters of research and how we build community, connections, and networks that are valuable not only in terms of research output but research environments and cultures. The ways in which we manifest our research as individuals become part of a larger collective conversation — and that is the point!

Highlighting and centring community in this area was important. “Community” in this context is not, I hope, empty virtue signalling, but instead echoes a long tradition of working with community groups at Sussex and at the Lab. It acknowledges that perspectives outside of our academic circles should be included. These perspectives have a place within academic work, and are equally important, and sometimes more important, than the perspectives of professional academics. It also encourages us to think more about non-traditional research methods, outputs, and ways of disseminating, about the collective benefit of our research, and about new ways of listening and responding.  

In this regard, I was particularly inspired by the artists who took part in our Brighton Digital Festival event in Nov. 2021. ‘Subverting Digital Spaces’ was co-organised by the Lab (under the umbrella of the ICCT priority area), the Full Stack Feminism in Digital Humanities project, and Laurence Hill, visiting fellow at the Lab and Digital Curator of the Full Stack Feminism project. Artists and activists Teresa Braun, and Jake Elwes both spoke to subverting  

traditional digital platforms … [of] … queering datasets and developing digital tools for social intervention. Collectively, they … [draw] … from Intersectional, Black, Feminist, Queer and Trans activisms to create online spaces that challenge normative social constructs and their omissions.

Subverting Digital Spaces

Both artists represent aspects of ICCT and of the ways in which performance within and across digital spaces can subvert dominant narratives around gender, sexuality, and race. Interacting with technology, like machine learning and AI (particularly deep fake technologies in the case of Jake) highlighted not only how these technologies can be “queered,” but also the way in which queer and intersectional feminism have a role to play in questioning, disrupting and challenging digital spaces and technologies, spaces and technologies that often promote or amplify far-right sentiment and ideals of “normality” (or heteronormativity). Both artists investigate drag performance to subvert technical spaces, as a means to disrupt data sets based on normative bodies and normative abstracted models of the world (as represented/propagated through training data sets in AI, machine learning, and/or neural networks, for example).

What transpires from these experiments and performances are powerful interventions that highlight social, cultural, and techno-social inequities, imbalances, accompanied by methods or ways to subvert these. Jake’s work especially resonated – in Jake’s words, what happens when you introduce 1,000 images representing queer expressions, bodies, drag queens, drag kings

into a standard homogenised data set of 70000 images of human faces which is used as a standard to train facial recognition systems … which contain very little of this otherness? … [The resulting output] shifts all of the weight in this neural network from a space of heteronormativity into this space of queerness and queer celebration.

Jake Elwes

Jake questions whether we want to be in included in these systems, or whether we want to break them, to queer them. In this sense autonomy and agency within and over representation merge with questions of technological surveillance and acquiesces (or consent and unconsent). The big questions here are what models of the world are we building, what models do we have control over, and what models are impacting our engagement (or disengagement) with our world? How do technologies (AI, machine learning, neural networks) reduce our world to classifications and binaries, and indeed how do they perpetuate old systems of classification and categorisation? Both artist presentations offer useful and unique moments of reflection about the digital world we live in – or the digital world that is imposed upon us.  

As a research cluster, ICCT (Intersectionality, Community and Computational Technology) brings together and highlights the manifold ways the digital world (imposed on us) has the capacity and potential to be as systemically unjust, bias, and dis-enfranchising as our “analogue” world has historically proven to be. Yet, (on a more positive note) it also highlights the potentials of individual, project, and community interventions, often collaborative, to mitigate this harm and transform our digital environments and spaces. In this regard, the Lab’s open workshop, organised in collaboration with FACT and under the ICCT umbrella, to celebrate Ada Lovelace day (Oct. 2021), Building a Feminist Chat bot, as well our seminar withProfessor Patricia Murrieta-Flores, ‘The future of the past. The development of Artificial Intelligence and other computational methods for the study of Early Colonial Mexican documents’, highlights some of these interventions and ways of working. Both consider the ethics of building tools using AI and machine learning algorithms. In particular, Building a Feminist Chat Bot which stems from an ongoing collaboration between FACT, the Reanimating Data Project, Suze Shardlow and the Lab, centres a feminist ethics of care with relation to building tools and interfaces. It “builds a chat bot” but this is probably the least important aspect of the work –instead the process of building, the collective coding and skills sharing, are more important than the end-product. Centring work around a feminist ethics of care is not always easy. It requires additional resource and can become emotionally challenging – but it is worth it. Values of care are not maternalistic but instead centred on values of listening, of making space, of empathy (for those in the group as well as those you are building “for”), of ethics. It is a way of working that ideally should be embedded in how we do research anyway, but as a method makes these approaches explicit.  

SHL’s ICCT priority area includes intersectionality — not as a diversity-waving add-on (see Sara Ahmed On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012)), but as a means of working in an ethically, feminist, community, and queer informed approach. Full Stack Feminism in Digital Humanities (a two-year AHRC-IRC funded project) explicitly draws upon intersectional feminism and is investigating how we embed these values within and across Digital Humanities practice and research. It explores what feminist DH methodologies look like and how we can develop a framework to encourage their inclusion through the life cycle of digital projects and creations. Intersectionality has become — alongside equalities, diversity, and inclusion — a bit of a catch-all term, but we use it with intention. It outlines our positionality as a lab, as a research community. In many ways, it also recognises our aspirations, and recognises the need to constantly think and rethink who we are and who we, as the Lab, want to be.  

You can find details and some recordings of some of the events mentioned here in the Lab’s past events listing. For more information on our research projects please visit, and for information on other priority areas.

Researcher Guide to Writing a Climate Justice Oriented Data Management Plan

The Digital Humanities Climate Coalition, which began as an initiative between the SHL Experimental Ecologies group, and working groups within Edinburgh, Southampton, and the Turing Institute, has just launched the Researcher Guide to Writing a Climate Justice Oriented Data Management Plan.

This should be of interest to anyone who’s considering applying for UKRI funding (or any funding), or who is already running a project. It’s a slinky little two page guide exploring how we can reframe data management within research projects, to put appropriate emphasis on climate justice. It emphasises what can be done now, within existing frameworks. In an appendix, it also explores how the DMP section might transform in the future.

We expect to iterate fairly rapidly, and welcome all feedback and suggestions, as well as potential deeper collaboration. If you’d like to signal boost on Twitter, here’s James’s tweet launching the guide.

SHL Priority Areas — what are they and why?

A short reflection one year on 

By Sharon Webb 

In 2021 the Sussex Humanities Lab, one of the University’s four flagship research programmes, reviewed and re-evaluated its research structure. In an effort to amplify voices within the Lab, and to attract new voices and contributors from outside of it, we devised eight so-called priority areas that reflect current research and the expertise of our members. These priority areas allow us to highlight our research and provide a structure for our seminar and open workshop series, as well as a way to support strategic research development and grant capture. A year in, we are reflecting on how this structure has or hasn’t worked. Either way, through this structure we have managed, despite Covid challenges, to develop a programme of work which has provided crucial points of discussion, dialogue, debate, and growth.  

Our priority areas aim to further build research capacity across the University and to provide entry points to new Lab associates and to the wider community. We recognise that for some it can be difficult to know exactly what the Lab “does,” and we hoped our priority areas would help demystify that. The fact is, we do a lot: we are diverse, and we work in such an agile manner that it can be difficult to pin us down – this has its advantages and disadvantages!

We define ourselves as a Lab because we are a space of doing, of experimenting, of making (watch this space for a co-authored chapter on this very topic soon). Our collaborations cut across boundaries and as a group we all work in an explicitly transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary fashion. Our work is also value-driven, with a concern for ethics, equalities and diversity work, and by social justice and sustainability issues. In that regard, we are driven by a set of values explicitly written into the fabric of the University of Sussex, and indeed values embedded in our home school, the School of Media, Arts and Humanities. It is probably no surprise then that many of our priority areas reflect these values and concerns, cutting across disciplines and subject areas – such as ‘Philosophy of AI’ or ‘Uncertainty and Interpretability of AI’ , led by Beatrice Fazi (MAH) and Ivor Simpson (EngInf) respectively. ‘Experimental Ecologies’, led by Alice Eldridge (Music), is concerned with developing wider disciplinary understanding our (human and other organisms) environmental relations in the anthropocene, where the biosphere and technosphere are irrevocably linked.  In this way ‘Experimental Ecologies’ aims to foster:

post-disciplinary research where arts and humanities, natural and computational sciences, traditional indigenous knowledge, and everyday local experiences have an equal footing in addressing key environmental issues at human-environment interfaces.

In this area, “an equal footing” is key, and this perspective and outlook informs much of work in other priority areas developed by Lab members. My own area for example, ‘Intersectionality, Community and Computational Technology’ (ICCT) highlights, challenges, and disrupts the way in which computational technology reproduces and reinforces various inequalities in society. It is concerned with, reflective of, and feeds into the value system of the Lab but it is also concerned with research that is driven by perspectives of equity and inclusion. Above all it is community driven, and its foundations are born from collaborative work with queer and intersectional feminist communities and research praxis – community perspectives are on par (on an equal footing) with academic ones. This priority area reflects existing work within the Lab, specifically through the ‘Feminist Approaches to Computational Technology (FACT) Network, the ARHC-IRC funded network grant, ‘Intersectionality, Feminism, Technology and Digital Humanities’ (IFTe), whose overaching objective is to:

‘un-code’ gendered assumptions, question our digital environments and systems, and embed intersectional feminist methods and theory within DH with a view to the creation of new DH futures

And more recently, ‘Full Stack Feminism in Digital Humanities’, a two-year project jointly funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) and the Irish Research Council and part of their ‘UK-Ireland Collaboration in Digital Humanities Research Grants Call. This project aims to develop feminist praxis, methodologies, and ethics from within and across Digital Humanities projects and research. “Full stack” means we are concerned with issues related to inequalities in DH that span from the infrastructure layer to the representation layer – it reaches, and cuts, across all types of environments. In this sense, the Lab’s priority areas represent critical mass of research that grows through engagement within and across the Lab. 

You can read about all our priority areas and ways that you might get involved here: 

Our priority areas represent things that we care about, things that we want to grow, areas we want to foster and nurture. They are not static or fixed but rather a means for us to articulate our priorities but as we know priorities change as we as individuals, as members of society, as colleagues in a School/University develop. We nurture these areas not for the Lab’s own benefit but for the benefit of those that engage with us.  

So, reflecting a year on, does the structure work? Maybe it doesn’t matter what structure we have if the right conversations are happening, if the right collaborations are developing, and if ultimately our members, our community feel involved. Our research structure can only be judged by the collaborations and research they foster, and in this regard, I think we’re not doing too bad!  

Prepping Robo_Op (2021)

A Brief Backward History of Automated Eloquence

Late in 2020, two SHL researchers collaborated with CDH to run a workshop series exploring the theory and practice of synthetic text. As a follow-on, in 2021 we will be creating a speculative object: a future textbook about the history of synthetic text, blending fact and fiction. Here’s a pre-print version of one of the sections (since it purports to be written in 2070, possibly by an AI, it is a very “pre” pre-print).


GPT-2 language model (via Max Woolf), inflected with training on feminist manifestos
Eureka machine beats poetry-writing bot by nearly 200 years - Arts and  Humanities Research Council
The Eureka. Image (c) The Alfred Gillett Trust-C&J Clark Ltd. See also Exeter’s Poetry by Numbers project.
A plate from Über den Schachspieler des Herrn von Kempelen und dessen Nachbildung (Leipzig, 1789)

CIE Lecture Series

Next week, Thursday 8 October, 1pm BST: Mario Novelli gives the first in a 10-week online lecture series on the Political Economy of Education in times of Conflict, Crises, and Pandemic. Register here. led and Hosted by the Centre for International Education (CIE) from October to December, this series will be:

… openly accessible, free and online and aimed at scholars and students of international development and education, and all those who seek to better understand the complex situations facing education systems around the world in a period of increasing instability, where education systems are challenged by war, environmental crisis, financial austerity and pandemics that threaten the futures of a generation of young people.

Beatrice Fazi at CDH Open Series

SHL’s Beatrice Fazi will be speaking on ‘The Computational Production of the New: On Aesthetics, Creativity and Digital Technologies’ for the Cambridge Digital Humanities Open Series on 24 June at 16:00-17:30 UK time.

Can computation generate the new? M. Beatrice Fazi argues that engaging with such question involves addressing computation aesthetically. Drawing from her monograph Contingent Computation (2018), Fazi will discuss aesthetics as concerning creation and reality’s potential for self-actualisation. This talk will demonstrate that aesthetics is a viable mode of addressing computational systems precisely because such generative potential is inherent to the axiomatic, discrete and formal structures of digital technologies. Novelty in computation is then expressed not by computers doing something strange or unexpected, but by a computational process that does what it is supposed to do.

The Discussant will be Joshua Scannell (The New School, USA) and the Chair will be Caroline Bassett (CDH Director, Cambridge).

Email Karen Herbane to register. More info at Cambridge Digital Humanities.

SHL Environmental Strategy launch

Today we are launching the Sussex Humanities Lab Environmental Strategy.

Sussex Hums Lab Enviro Strategy

This document sets out our current thinking on how SHL stands in relation to the global environmental emergency, and to the demanding and necessary target, set by the current UK government, of achieving net zero carbon by 2050.

It affirms our commitment to explore and mitigate the carbon intensity and ecological impact of our core Digital Humanities work, despite the many uncertainties this entails. Our work can contribute to global heating and ecological destruction, and it can contribute to mitigation and resilience.

It also affirms our commitment to continue to advocate for the wider system change necessary across society, and where relevant, to use our specific expertise to support and to scrutinise, to help ensure that the perspectives of the Digital Humanities are included in these complex transitions.

We believe that these ambitions go hand-in-hand with the small everyday actions that prefigure ecological sustainability. Here’s a snippet from one of the appendices, ‘In Praise of Smaller Actions’:

Smaller actions can demonstrate and cultivate a practical willingness to make changes in our everyday lives. Because the bigger changes of net zero will demand many such changes, it is important that we explore what such changes feel like, and the ripple effects they may have. It is important that we cultivate narratives, skills, and ways of thinking around these changes, so we know what to embrace, what to resist, and what to re-imagine. When done creatively and reflectively, those smaller actions can even be a kind of practice-led research into climate sustainability and climate resilience. They can be ‘cognitive’: they are a way of finding things out, and a form of knowledge in themselves.

Get in touch

This document is a reference point for all Sussex Humanities Lab Members and Associates. But we also hope it will be a way of making connections with the wider world.

The Sussex Humanities Lab includes some STEM expertise, and we frequently collaborate with STEM researchers, including environmental scientists. Our members also include researchers in the environmental humanities. However, we are not the experts on environmental science, policy, or emergency. The SHL Environmental Strategy is a living document which gives current estimation of the situation we are facing. We welcome qualifications, criticisms, and suggested revisions.

We also welcome opportunities to build our own capacity, and to explore future research collaboration with academics and non-academic partners. The Sussex Humanities Lab has an extensive portfolio of externally funded projects, which we continually look to expand. We also host visiting researchers to run seminars and workshops, and welcome enquiries from prospective doctoral students and Visiting Fellows. As set out in more detail in the document, we would be especially interested to hear from those who are working on, or who have an interest in, the following:

  • Covid-19, digital technology, and the environment
  • The materiality of the digital, including the perceived ethereality of the digital
  • Climate futures in culture, policy, and science
  • Carbon coloniality
  • Critical resilience
  • The politics and cultures of offsetting
  • The embodiment of academic research and collaboration
  • Negative emissions and other climate technology
  • Agonistic climate action

Here’s one last snippet:

The world has started to burn. There have been some interesting debates about the usefulness about this apocalyptic idiom: does it really help to convert the urgency of our situation into practical action? But setting aside the complex emotional implications of mentioning it, the world has actually started to burn: the effects of global heating are already being felt around the world through heatwaves, wildfires, drought and famine, as well as wildlife extinction, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and extreme weather events such as storms and flooding. Enormous economic damage, human displacement, and deaths attributable to climate change are no longer mere forecasts: they are daily news. These are tragedies, not omens.

 

What are the digital humanities?

By David M. Berry

Digital humanities are at the leading edge of applying computer-based technology in the humanities. Initially called ‘humanities computing’, the field has grown tremendously over the past 40 or so years. It originally focused on developing digital tools and the creation of archives and databases for texts, artworks, and other materials. From these initial uses, and as computation developed, computers offered increasingly sophisticated ways of handling and searching digitised culture. For example, with recent advances in digital imaging, it is now possible to produce very high-quality reproductions of books and artworks that can transform our ability to study them.

Pianist Shin Suzuma uses a digital score app for ensembles
Pianist Shin Suzuma uses a digital score app Syncphonia for ensembles powered by Sussex University research funded by AHRC

The key to understanding the digital humanities is to reject the idea that digital technology is invading the academy. Computers were used for humanist ends from very early on in their history, and not only, as one might expect, as mere storage for large libraries of text. Computer networks, particularly the internet, have also enabled digital files to be used from almost anywhere on the globe. This access to information has had a tremendous effect on the ability to undertake research in the arts and humanities.

Digital humanities incorporate key insights from languages and literature, history, music, media and communications, computer science and information studies and combine these different approaches into new frameworks. More recently, the disciplinary focus has widened to include critical digital studies, as well as fields more commonly associated with engineering such as machine-learning, data science and artificial intelligence. Indeed, as early adopters of technology, digital humanists were prescient in seeing that computation would have an increasing centrality to research in the humanities.

As part of their work, digital humanists have developed new methods, such as computer-based statistical analysis, search and retrieval, topic modelling, and data visualisation. They apply these techniques to archives and collections that are vastly larger than any human researcher or research group can comfortably handle. These methods enable ambitious projects to be created with large interdisciplinary teams that are brought together to work on difficult or complex projects. Digital humanists are transforming the idea of what a humanities research project can be, giving us new ways of seeing past and present cultures.

These new collections of historical or literary artefacts are often publicly available on the web or in digital databases, and the material they contain is more openly available than previously possible with print. They increase the ability for humanists to combine data sets, social media, sound, web and image archives and also to move between them with greater ease. Equally crucial has been the creation of software for analysing, understanding and transforming these digital materials. Digital tools can also be freely accessed over the internet so they can be easily incorporated into other projects, enabling the rapid diffusion of new methods, tools and ideas across disciplinary boundaries. These digital technologies open up exciting opportunities for connecting the humanities to a wider public culture.

The social network Facebook has authorised giants like Amazon, Netflix, Spotify and Microsoft to access the personal data of its 2.2 billion users, according to the 'New York Times'. Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images.
The social network Facebook has authorised giants like Amazon, Netflix, Spotify and Microsoft to access the personal data of its 2.2 billion users, according to the ‘New York Times’. Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images.

However, with the greater diffusion of digital technologies into our lives, new concerns have arisen about the capacity these technologies have to spy on their users, about digital bias and discrimination, and the emergence of ‘fake news’. Companies such as Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google use our data in very intrusive ways, making collection of both public and private data a public matter of concern. Here too digital humanities, with its expertise across many knowledge areas, can help us understand these problems and provide critical interventions and policy insights.

The academy is now much more comfortable with the use of computation across disciplines. It has brought new powers of analysis, comparison and understanding to a range of research areas. The digital humanities have been exemplary in transferring digital techniques and methods into the humanities and by doing so have laid the ground for a golden age of humanities research in the 21st century. In a digital age, the humanities need to communicate humanistic values and their own contribution to public culture more than ever. The humanities continue to ask the important question: what is a life worth living? The digital humanities are part of this tradition, helping us to reflect on this question and expanding our understanding of human culture in a digital world.


David M. Berry is Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Sussex. He writes widely on the theory and philosophy of computation and algorithms. His most recent book is Digital Humanities: Knowledge and Critique in a Digital Age (with Anders Fagerjord). His forthcoming British Academy-supported research is concerned with the idea of a university in a digital age.


This post originally appeared on the British Academy blog.