Category Archives: Uncategorized

Ada Lovelace Day 2013

October 15th marks Ada Lovelace Day, an annual celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. As I read through posts commemorating the day, it got me reflecting on my own experience. It’s not just that I admire Ada Lovelace and the women that followed after her. It’s that I quite literally wouldn’t be here without them.

My mom, Bridget Baird, went to an all-women’s college in the late 1960s where she considered majoring in philosophy before switching to mathematics. After getting her PhD, she took a job in the early 1980s at Connecticut College in the math department. She got interested in computer programming, and eventually moved into a joint appointment in the computer science department. Over a three-decade career, her curiosity led her (and her thousands of students along with her) to the intersection of computer science with disciplines as far afield as archaeology, music, dance, and art. Along the way she faced the kinds of systemic discrimination that plagued the entire cohort of women entering male-dominated fields in the 1970s and 1980s. In other ways, she was lucky to have grown up during a time of transition when women began carving out new possibilities to enter those fields. She has spent her entire career mentoring female students and colleagues while vocally pushing her institution and discipline to take a more active role in tackling gender equity.

Although I missed the boat entirely on my mom’s math gene, she did manage to impress on me her fascination with applying computers to solve problems. Five years ago I wrote personal statements for history graduate programs structured around my interest in using technology to study the past. My mom since helped me learn how to program and we eventually ended up collaborating on a couple of projects. I’m one of the few graduate students I know who can call their mother to ask her about Thanksgiving plans and Python modules. I am, in ways I can’t even begin to articulate, a direct beneficiary of the legacy left by women like Ada Lovelace.

Which is why I oscillate between hope and discouragement when I look at around my own disciplinary homes of history and the digital humanities. On the one hand, women have made significant inroads in both fields. There are roughly equal numbers of male and female graduate students in my department. Many of the thought leaders and rising stars of the digital humanities are women, with opportunities and support growing all the time. The kinds of daily overt sexism faced by my mom and other women in her generation have, for the most part, gone the way of transistor radios. But that’s the problem: what remains is an insidious, covert sexism that is much, much harder to uproot.

And it’s everywhere. The proportion of female faculty in history departments is far lower than other fields, with the proportion of new female PhDs hovering stubbornly around 40%. Male historians continue to enjoy more time to spend on the kind of research that will get them tenure (as opposed to female historians spending more time on teaching and instruction), while men and women express completely different perceptions of gender equity at their institutions. The digital humanities have unfortunately inherited many of the gender problems endemic to computer science. These problems rear their ugly head everywhere, from the assumptions of a privileged male coding culture to the language of “hard” STEM fields vs. “soft” humanities. When I look around the room at digital humanities meetings and conferences I see the faces of a whole lot of people who look a whole lot like me. At a digital humanities conference on women’s history, though, I found that those same faces all but disappeared. I think about my mom every time I watch a female student grow increasingly silent during a discussion section or read the names of this year’s Nobel Prize winners. We can do better.

Kobe Bryant and the Digital Humanities

What does one of the most successful and polarizing basketball players in history have to do with the digital humanities?

For those that don’t follow the NBA, Kobe Bryant is famous for a host of accomplishments: winning five championships, league MVP honors, and an Olympic gold medal, leading the league in scoring twice, winning the All-Star dunk contest, and scoring the second most points in a single game in history. He has also been accused over the years of placing personal success ahead of the team, undermining teammates and coaches, and most notoriously, of sexual assault in 2003. From a basketball standpoint, however, one of the most enduring aspects of Bryant’s career has been an overwhelming consensus of his ability as a “clutch” player. There exists a widespread perception that no other basketball player on earth is better at the end of close games. Both NBA players and general managers have repeatedly and overwhelmingly voted Bryant as the player they would want taking a shot with the game on the line. Bryant’s name and legacy have become entwined with the word “clutch.”

Unfortunately, this is a flawed narrative. Henry Abbott recently wrote a blistering (and persuasive) analysis of Bryant’s abilities as a “clutch” player. Abbott concludes that, by nearly every statistical measure he examined, Bryant is not the best in the world at scoring points at the end of close games. Depending on the metric, Bryant is somewhere between decent and very good, but nowhere close to the best. Perhaps most damningly, the effectiveness of his team’s offense (the best in the league during Bryant’s tenure) plummets at the end of games.

So the question remains: what does Kobe Bryant have to do with the digital humanities?

The fault line in the basketball world over Kobe Bryant’s “clutchness” largely falls between those that evaluate Bryant’s ability by what they see and those that evaluate his ability by what they measure. For someone watching Bryant, no other player has as many breathtaking, memorable game-winning shots and no other player looks as graceful and impressive while doing it. I draw a parallel between this qualitative analysis with more traditional humanistic research: we read our sources and look for meaningful or interesting patterns that jump out at us. On the other side of the basketball fault-line stands a young but growing movement that advocates for more rigorous statistical analysis of basketball, in the same vein as the sabermetric “Moneyball” movement in baseball. For these stat-heads, the seductive aesthetic appeal of Bryant’s game-winning shots hides the less glamorous reality: that Bryant misses those game-winning shot attempts at an extremely high rate. And this is the side of the debate that I would compare to the digital humanities.

The analogy isn’t perfect. Much of the work being done in the digital humanities field is not, in fact, quantitative (and making the comparison brings to mind the less-successful turn towards quantitative history in the 1960s and 1970s). But the analogy does have  some useful parallels. Like the stats movement in the basketball world, digital humanities has a lengthy history but has only recently begun to gain traction across the wider academy. Like the stats movement in the basketball world, digital humanities is occasionally seen as threatening or, at the very least, promising too much. Like the stats movement in the basketball world, there are those in digital humanities that revel in revisionism and using new techniques to challenge conventional narratives. And like the stats movement in the basketball world, there are divisions within the digital humanities over method, approach, and emphasis.

One of the most important parallels to be drawn is how the digital humanities are increasingly being used to strengthen (rather than replace) traditional humanistic study, just as advanced statistics are being used in the NBA to strengthen analysis. In the past, a basketball player would be evaluated by a handful of traditional statistics, perhaps most importantly: how many points do they score? Today, teams and scouts are looking at more advanced metrics: for instance, how efficiently do they score those points? In the same vein, traditional literary history might look at a handful of canonical works in order to draw broad conclusions about, say, early-19th century British fiction. Today, advocates of distant reading are measuring trends across hundreds or thousands of early-19th century British novels beyond the canonical authors. Most of these digital researchers would continue to acknowledge the literary importance of Charles Dickens over a barely-published contemporary novelist, just as most stat-heads would acknowledge the importance of a player that scores a moderately-efficient 30 points per game over a player that scores a hyper-efficient 5 points per game.

Comparing the two also highlights their limitations. Some aspects of basketball can’t be measured, such as whether or not a player is a good teammate or how likely they are to stay motivated after receiving a contract or whether they’re likely to end up injured. Similarly, human experience can be an elusive target to study with technology. Charting the prevalence of certain phrases across time using Google NGrams offers, at best, a largely superficial indicator that requires careful and more extensive investigation, while cataloging every slave ship voyage might serve to mute and depersonalize the particularities of individual slaves.

In both the statistical movement in basketball and the digital turn in the humanities, new approaches allow for new questions. Henry Abbott and others have not “proven” that Kobe Bryant shouldn’t take the last shot of a game, but they have raised important questions: would Bryant’s team be better served by using him as a decoy? More broadly, is the long-standing convention of putting the ball into the hands of your best player in an isolation situation at the end of the game even a good idea? Using digital methodologies in the humanities can also serve to pose new kinds of questions, but I think the field should model itself more explicitly after the statistical basketball community in having specific questions drive those methodologies. There is a tendency to build tools and ask research questions later. This is useful, but I’d also like to see more focused questions along the lines of “Is Kobe Bryant a clutch player?” Those of us who advocate for the use of digital tools and techniques in the humanities could benefit from taking a break from the library and turning towards the basketball court.

Walt Whitman and Blue Jeans

I’ve really enjoyed Levi’s recent ‘Go Forth’ ad campaign produced by the hotshot advertising firm of Wieden & Kennedy. I first saw one while watching a football game, and the entire room full of people gradually fell silent. That’s pretty impressive for a non-Super Bowl ad spot.

Beyond being visually arresting and creative, the campaign offers up a vision of America that (by mainstream Madison Avenue standards) is fresh and edgy. The basic set-up of the sixty-second commercials is flashing imagery of denim-clad youngsters moving frenetically. Sounds like a fairly typical clothing ad. Except that it includes footage of post-Katrina New Orleans and is set to a Walt Whitman poem – in one of the spots, (supposedly) the reading comes from a wax cylinder recording of Whitman himself. Put in comparison to a concurrently-running ad campaign by Wrangler that involves Brett Favre tossing a football to a George Thorogood soundtrack, and you really get a sense for just how different this campaign is:

The imagery isn’t super sophisticated – a neon AMERICA sign half-submerged in flood water opens and closes the “America” spot. Some people might feel that throwing in a kissing interracial couple (or a kissing gay couple in “OPioneers!”) is tokenizing. But Levi’s has managed to construct a divergent conception of what exactly is America, no small feat for a corporate ad campaign. The new commercials are oddly triumphant, but with a disquieting edge to them. Children are running through fields, but in this new world they’re doing so under a looming electrical grid. There is laughter and muscle-flexing and vibrancy, but it’s against a backdrop of chain-link fences or broken down buildings. Blue jeans have constituted an enduring symbol of rural, down-to-earth, industrial America, an image that Levi’s has helped to cultivate in its lengthy, 130+ year-old history.  The fact that the same company would now stake itself to such a contrasting campaign speaks volumes. Is Levi’s banking on a collective shift in the American psyche? That we are open to moving beyond a cornfields-and-cowboys idea of American denim? What exactly is the alternative vision they’re hoping the American consumer will identify with? I have no idea, and that’s part of what makes this campaign intriguing.

The Blank Canvas

When I sat down to write my first blog post, I was immediately struck by a sense of paralysis. It reminds me of the “blank canvas effect,” the intimidating prospect of attempting to create something within an empty space and running the risk of making a mistake. Every art teacher I’ve ever had always urges the same remedy: pick up your pencil, pen, or brush and fill up that space until you aren’t afraid of making a wrong mark. So here are those marks.

A quick introduction to the road to my decision to begin a blog. I am a recent graduate of Pomona College who majored in American history, and am one of those people who was genuinely excited about their major. My interests led me to uncover history-related sites and blogs such as the History News Network, American Historical Association, PhDinHistory, Easily Distracted, and Tenured Radical. I am also fascinated by the rise of the digital age, and how it affects traditional scholarship. It was this interest that led me down the path to begin subscribing to digital humanists such as Dan Cohen, Tom Scheinfeldt, Mills Kelly, Lisa Spiro, Bill Turkel, and Jeremy Boggs.

After months of reading blog posts and listening to podcasts, I realized they were influencing how I thought, studied, and reflected as much as any class I had ever taken. My approach to history, scholarship, and learning in general had been transformed for the better. This realization ultimately inspired me to take a crack at joining and contributing to this thriving online community. It’s an intimidating prospect, but at least I’m no longer staring at a blank canvas.