The (sort-of) selfies class

Room of boisterous students mugging for the camera
Class selfie! Lotta brilliance in this room!

Last winter I taught a class called Selfies, Snapchat, and Cyberbulles: Coming of Age Online. It was incredibly fun and rewarding, and I learned a ton. Mark Marino simultaneously taught a great class on selfies over at USC, and while we weren’t able to sync up our classes as much as we might have liked, we were able to have a joint Facebook group for them, which was really fun.

(Mark and I were able to teach our classes at all in large part because of the generosity of the scholars involved in the Selfies Research Network, to whom I owe a big debt of gratitude.)

Mark’s class generated a ton of publicity, and because he mentioned my own class, I rode Mark’s coattails a bit as we got mentioned in the New York Times, the LA Times, and elsewhere. Of course, Mark and I knew that the only reason our classes were getting any press was so that people could talk about how ridiculous a selfie class is. But it was still fun, and we tried to inject as much substance as we could into the conversation.

Meanwhile, the ever-awesome Liz Losh took the time to really dig into the substance of my class in this excellent post on the DML blog; I was really honored to be interviewed.

I got an interview request for another outlet, and since the article seems not to have seen the light of day, I thought I’d just post my responses to the interviewer’s questions here.

Incidentally, I don’t really take my own selfies, not because I disapprove of them, but because I’m really bad at it. Much respect to people who can do it well!

What enticed you to teach a class centered around the selfie?

The class wasn’t entirely centered around the selfie. It was about the experience of being a young adult in the digital age and, more broadly, how we should think about the relationship between technological and cultural change. I wanted to teach this class because I’ve heard a lot of generalizations about millennials, both in the media and from people I know, and I felt that many of these characterizations didn’t accurately reflect the complicated, diverse people I encounter in the classroom at UCLA. I wanted to submit those generalizations to rigorous scrutiny, to see whether they held up.

I also noticed that every time I mentioned social media or online culture in the classroom, students were really eager to chime in with their own experiences. I thought it would be fun and interesting for us to carefully study something they care so much about. I also have a sister who’s 21, so I felt a personal investment in countering some of the more pernicious stereotypes about young adults.

What insights and observations have you gained regarding the relationship between students and social media?

My students had a ton to say about social media and its relationship to youth culture. One thing I found most interesting is how worried they are about social media’s effects on their attention spans and relationships. That makes sense, since they’re hearing the same news stories and media messages about millennials that we are! But they’re thinking very hard about technology and social change; no one should assume that just because a young adult has her eyes on her phone, she’s not also self-aware and thoughtful.

Can you give an example of an assignment for the course?

Students’ main project was a digital ethnography (meaning an in-depth study of a particular culture) of an online community. I asked them to immerse themselves, and in some cases participate in, an online community of their choice. We had a couple Tinder papers, one on Yik Yak, and a few on Instagram. Students were surprised at how hard it was! We spent a long time talking about how to be an ethical, honest, and diligent participant-observer.

Based on what you’ve seen among students, are there specific aspects that constitute a typical selfie?

I think it really depends on context. Selfies can have different meanings, depending on who’s taking them and for what purpose, and often you’ll find people consciously imitating or exaggerating elements of the “typical selfie” for ironic effect. For example, many teenage girls will offer up an exaggerated “duckface” to the camera, in a conscious and ironic imitation of the “typical selfie.” Just as any portrait can, a selfie can mean many different things, and one has to be very alert to its context when one’s trying to suss out the meaning of any particular image.

Outside of classroom purposes, do you condone taking selfies? If yes, how do you justify a selfie as something more than an act of narcissism?

I don’t really think it’s my place to condone or not condone any form of participation in a visual culture. Community, as we all know, means a lot to people, and taking selfies is one way that some people participate in a community. I think we should also be very alert to what is connoted by the word “selfie.” As the term is popularly used, it’s closely associated with teenaged girls, who have frequently been the object of scathing ridicule in American culture. I think of selfie-opprobrium as somewhat akin to people’s annoyance at vocal fry: both phenomena are associated with teenage girls, and both suggest a degree of annoyance (perhaps even fear) at girls’ temerity in entering the public sphere.

What do you hope students carry away from the course?

On our last day of class, I asked students what they’d remember about what we learned. They all agreed that “It’s complicated!”  — which is also the title to danah boyd’s recent book, which we read in class. What boyd means, and what my students meant, is that you can’t assume that all online youth culture is one thing, or that every young person experiences life online in the same way. Phenomena that look very similar to outside observers can turn out, on closer inspection, to have very complicated and multilayered meanings. Young people — like all human beings — are complicated, diverse, and multifaceted. Sweeping generalizations about them are unhelpful and usually wrong.

They also said they’d remember our discussions about the need to “hustle,” by which we meant the reality of labor in the twenty-first century. Students carry unprecedented educational debt these days, even as the likelihood of them owning their own homes, or even attaining the same living standard as their parents, is lower than it has ever been. Steady jobs, the kind with pensions and benefit plans, are becoming increasingly rare, and students are facing the possibility of a future made up of freelance gigs and short-term contracts. It’s no wonder they feel compelled to create complex online identities. In an economic moment in which their online identities can determine their ability to earn a wage, it’s incumbent upon them to create charismatic online personae.

What’s in your conference travel bag?

A red purse sits in the backyard. In front are a laptop, notebag, pens, two small gray zippered pouches, a power adapter, a power strap, a pill case, and a striped pouch.
Taken in a hotel room, appropriately. Iphone not pictured, since I had to take the picture somehow.

Anyone else have a weakness for those “What’s in your bag?” features? My stuff is not nearly as nice as the stuff those people carry, but deep in my heart, I seem to cling to the belief that my life really would be better if I could just optimize a few things.

Anyway, I posted on Facebook about a new receipt-filing thing I’d bought, and the response was so enthusiastic (what is wrong with my friends?) that I thought I’d do a quick post about what I’ve been carrying lately. I’ve been traveling for work a ton this year (way too much, obviously) and I’ve been devoting more thought than I’d like to admit to making my conference travel bag efficient.

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“Stronger and Whiter Light Down Deeper and Darker Holes”: Jacob Sarnoff and the Strange World of Anatomical Filmmaking

For some reason, I love this image, from Sarnoff's The Human Body in Pictures. It's so stylish!
For some reason, I love this image, from Sarnoff’s The Human Body in Pictures (1927). It’s so stylish!

I have an essay up over on the National Library of Medicine’s Medical Movies on the Web site about Jacob Sarnoff, a Brooklyn surgeon who made thousands of anatomical and surgical films. I’m also so excited that the NLM posted Sarnoff’s weird 1927 film “The Human Body in Pictures.”

From the essay:

Motion pictures’ utility for surgeons might seem to be their ability to show things just as they appear to an observer present at the scene. But a film like Sarnoff’s suggests that there is a gulf between what mechanical reproduction shows and the way that something like circulation actually appears to the surgeon present.

For surgeons like Sarnoff, the value of film wasn’t only, or even chiefly, its ability to mechanically reproduce reality, but its ability to function as a dynamic college: to offer students of surgery a lesson on how to move back and forth seamlessly between the messy substance of reality and the neat diagrams that populate anatomical atlases.

I was especially happy to write something for the NLM because the Library’s History of Medicine division has been invaluable to my work. From my first, exploratory research into my dissertation, their librarians and archivists have been true research partners (and sometimes cheerleaders!). The History of Medicine division does invaluable work, and I’m so grateful to its staff.

What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities

This is a lightly edited version of the keynote address I was honored to give at the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference at the University of Pennsylvania on July 22, 2015. Thank you to the organizing committee for inviting me!

My sincere thanks, too, to Lauren Klein and Roderic Crooks for their advice and feedback on this talk. I’d also like to acknowledge the huge intellectual debt I owe to David Kim and Johanna Drucker, with whom I’ve argued, negotiated, and formulated a lot of these ideas, mostly in the context of teaching together. David’s important dissertation, Archives, Models, and Methods for Critical Approaches to Identities: Representing Race and Ethnicity in the Digital Humanities (UCLA, 2015), takes on many of these issues at much greater length.

I gave the title of this talk to Dot Porter some time ago in a fit of ambition, and it’s seemed wildly hubristic to me ever since. But it’s something I care a lot about, and so tonight I’d like to outline some ideas about how digital humanities might critically investigate structures of power, like race and gender.

We are doing some of that now, as evidenced by some of the work at this conference, but I don’t think we’re doing it with the energy or the creativity that we might. I’ll argue that to truly engage in this kind of work would be so much more difficult and fascinating than we’re currently talking about for the future of DH; in fact, it would require dismantling and rebuilding much of the organizing logic, like the data models or databases, that underlies most our work.

So I’ll start by saying a little about where I think we are with digital humanities now, and also about some new directions, with respect to these structures of power, that I’d like to see the field go.

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The Case of the Missing Faces

Freeman operating on a patient with his partner, James Watts

As I’ve often mentioned,  I’ve been working for quite some time on a study of the photographs of Walter Freeman. Freeman, a Washington, D.C., based physician, was the world’s foremost lobotomist; it’s estimated that he lobotomized some 3,500 people.

He was also a prolific and dedicated photographer. He almost invariably took photos of his patients before and after the procedure, acquiring reams of these images over the course of his career. In a chapter of my book, Depth Perception, I argue that Freeman was participating in a much longer-standing tradition of psychiatric photography, one that claimed that the human face could reveal the depths of the soul. (You can see a recorded version of the story of Freeman’s photographs here.)
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Humanities Data: A Necessary Contradiction

This is a talk that I gave at the Harvard Purdue Data Management Symposium on June 17, 2015, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The audience was mostly librarians and other data-management professionals. I was the only humanities person on the program, so I wanted to talk about the ways that humanists think about data differently from people in some other fields.

Two mosaics beside each other. The one on the left is made up of largely cool, blue images; the one on the right is composed of warmer, earthier tones.
Sometimes I start class discussions by comparing image quilts of Google searches for “digital” (left) and “humanities” (right).

Today I’d like to talk about the ways in which humanists think about data, and how that’s distinct from the ways in which scientists and social scientists think about it.

Even though I think our issues can be pretty different, I want to make the case that there are some very promising ways in which libraries could make meaningful interventions in the humanities research lifecycle, both for what we might call traditional humanists and for digital humanists. So I’ll start with what “traditional” humanists might need help with and then move on to the needs of what we call “digital humanists” (although I think in practice the distinction is a bit blurred).

I just want to say at the outset that there are people who specialize in humanities data curation, and I am not one of those people. A number of talented people, including Trevor Muñoz at the University of Maryland and Katie Rawson at the University of Pennsylvania, have started to take a very programmatic look at the data-curation needs of digital humanists. And I encourage you to check out their important work. But you don’t have Trevor or Katie; you have me! So what I can do is share my own perspective and experience on what it means to work with data as a humanist, and where libraries can help.

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Google Fusion Table Basics with IU’s Cushman Collection

I’ve used Indiana University’s Cushman Collection of photographs before, in my Palladio tutorial. Google Fusion tables, though, is a slightly simpler way for people to get started with data visualization. So here’s a quick tutorial that uses the same data to create a map and some simple charts.

You can also download this tutorial as a PDF or a Word document (in case you’d like to modify it).

Here’s a preview of the map we’ll make:

Continue reading “Google Fusion Table Basics with IU’s Cushman Collection”

A fun way to introduce DH students to dataviz

As a teacher, I’ve always operated on the assumption that students are primarily interested in each other. Here’s a fun activity that takes advantage of that interest to teach students a little about data visualization. It’s an extremely unscientific Cosmo-style quiz, designed to show students which interests they have in common with each other. It’s just an introductory lesson, but it gives you a fun dataset to play with. You’ll probably want to split this among a few class sessions, since students will need at least one full class to just get familiar with Gephi.

Of course, it’s also a good chance to talk about how authoritative graphs like these can look, and whether the data these contain actually means much at all. (Probably not!)

Make a questionnaire for your students


I’d do this about a week before you do the dataviz lesson. I used Google Forms for this. Just to make things more fun, I called it the Mysterious DH Questionnaire. I asked five questions, each of which had five options. The possible answers were literally the first options that occurred to me.

Of course, you can choose whatever you want; just be sure you have a constrained list of choices (no write-ins).

Make your spreadsheet into a two-mode edge list


Now that you have your data, you want it in three different formats: 1) raw; 2) an edge list for a two-mode network graph; and 3) an edge list for a one-mode network graph. To get your two-mode list, use Open Refine to transpose columns across rows. The idea is to go from the layout shown in the above screenshot to …


… this one. It’s the same data, just rearranged into two columns.

Make your spreadsheet into a one-mode edge list


Then, if you want (you don’t have to, but it can help students see the difference between one-mode and two-node network graphs), you can project your two-mode edge list into a one-mode edge list, using Gephi and this tutorial from Shawn Graham.

Make an alluvial diagram


You can do this with the class. Use RAW to make alluvial diagrams from the raw dataset, experimenting with different categories. It’s fun to see the various relationships between, say, book and movie preferences.

Make network graphs


When the class is ready, move on to using the datasets to show which students have the most in common. Here’s a tutorial I prepared for students to use with this dataset (names have been blurred out). (And here’s a Word version of the Gephi tutorial, in case you’d like to alter it.)

Start with the two-mode network diagram, and when the class is ready, move on to the one-mode. Students really enjoyed seeing who had the most in common, examining the communities Gephi was able to detect, and comparing those communities to their own groups of friends.

Photography and the limits of empathy: Reading Garner and Brown through Saidiya Hartman

I wish I had more time to write this, but I’ve been reading Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection this week and have found that it’s brought some clarity to my thinking about the recent news and coverage of the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases. In particular, it’s informed my thinking about the photographs circulating around these two tragedies: why they seem to compel some people but not others, and the limits of the ability of the photograph (and the video, in the Garner case) to convey deeply entrenched injustice.

So I thought I’d share these extended quotations, in case they’re helpful to anyone else.

On the limits of empathy

Writing in response to a harrowing description of enslaved people by John Rankin:

Properly speaking, empathy is a projection of oneself into another in order to better understand the other … Yet empathy in important respects confounds Rankin’s efforts to identify with the enslaved because in making the slave’s suffering his own, Rankin begins to feel for himself rather than for those whom this exercise in imagination presumably is designed to reach. Moreover, by exploiting the vulnerability of the captive body as a vessel for the uses, thoughts, and feelings of others, the humanity extended to the slave inadvertently confirms the expectations and desires definitive of the relations of chattel slavery. … Put differently, the effort to counteract the commonplace callousness to black suffering requires that the white body be positioned in the place of the black body in order to make this suffering visible and intelligible. (18-19)

The photographs of Mike Brown’s and Eric Garner’s family, and the video of Eric Garner’s arrest, should, it seems, be enough to inspire widespread reevaluation of the justice system. These are human beings in terrible despair, and that should convey the depth and urgency of structural injustice. Yet somehow it isn’t and doesn’t. Again and again, we’ve seen these images submitted to what Tressie McMillan Cottom has called “the logic of stupid poor people”: picked apart, judged on someone else’s terms. If empathy is the act of transposing oneself into another’s body, than perhaps it has limits: We who are not continually besieged by state brutality cannot properly empathize; or if we can, then the very act obliterates the specific body we try to inhabit. The demand must consist of something stronger than identification or empathy. Justice, I guess? Deep and searching scrutiny of structure?

On the Ferguson hug

The simulation of consent in the context of extreme domination was an orchestration intent upon making the captive body speak the master’s truth as well as disproving the suffering of the enslaved. Thus a key aspect of the manifold uses of the body was its facility as a weapon used against the enslaved. (38)

The hug. It appears to have been staged, but that almost doesn’t matter; the excitement with which it was circulated as an emblem of hope says a lot about what we want black bodies to do at this moment.

On what we feel entitled to see

However, what I am trying to suggest is that if the scene of beating readily lends itself to an identification with the enslaved, it does so at the risk of fixing and naturalizing this condition of pained embodiment and … increased the difficulty of beholding black suffering since the endeavor to bring pain close exploits the spectacle of the body in pain and oddly confirms the spectral character of suffering and the inability to witness the captive’s pain. If, on the one hand, pain extends humanity to the dispossessed and the ability to sustain suffering leads to transcendence, on the other, the spectral and spectacular character of this suffering, or, in other words, the shocking and ghostly presence of pain, effaces and restricts black sentience. (21)

We demand, in an effort to convey the depth of injustice, the most exquisitely graphic images of brutality. Should we question our own right to scrutinize the body in pain, and our own hunger to view and circulate these images?