Several new publications

I’ve published several things in the last few months, and thanks to UC’s institutional repository, I’ve been able to make them available to everyone.


“See No Evil”

Logic Magazine no. 4 (buy a copy of this great magazine!)

This is a piece for general readership that investigates the software behind today’s massive, sprawling supply chains. I’m finishing the academic version and hope to have it out soonish.


“Prostitutes, Charity Girls, and The End of the Road: Hostile Worlds of Sex and Commerce in an Early Sexual Hygiene Film”

In Health Education Films in the Twentieth Century. Editors: Bonah C, Cantor D, Laukötter A. 173-187. University of Rochester Press, Rochester, NY 2018.

This piece looks at an American sexual hygiene film from 1919, using it to illustrate the fraught relationship between sex and money in post-World War I American culture. The publishers sent me a discount code if you want to buy a copy of the book. Use BB130 here to get 30% off. (Or just get it from the library!)


“Digital Humanities”

In The Craft of Criticism: Critical Media Studies in Practice. Editors: Kearney MC and Kackman M. 331-346. Routledge, New York, NY 2018.

This is an overview, history, and typology of digital humanities within the field of media studies. It also contains a step-by-step walkthrough of a digital humanities project I created. I think this will be really helpful for anyone trying to figure out what the heck DH is and how people go about building DH projects.

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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New course for winter 2014: Digital Labor and Materiality

[Edit: the website for this course, including the syllabus, is now available here. And here’s a little story about our class field trip to One Wilshire, the largest Internet exchange point on the West Coast.]

Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.

— John Perry Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” (1996)

Wireless internet, cloud-based data storage, devices that fit in the palm of your hand: the language of the digital evokes an airy immateriality, as though digital technology has only the barest physical manifestation. But just out of our sight, hulking server farms eat up mammoth amounts of power, huge satellite arrays feed our information addiction, and ropes of wire coil under the streets and beneath the ocean. Farther afield, people comb through our discarded technology to reclaim precious metals even as workers in great factory-cities churn out new iPhones. This course examines the material manifestations of digital technology, from devices to infrastructure to environmental impact, and asks who performs the labor necessary to maintain the illusion of digital immateriality.

What Alt-Ac Can Do, and What It Can’t

This is a cleaned-up, lightly edited version of a talk I gave on November 22, 2013, as part of a panel on “Digital Humanities and the Neoliberal University” at the American Studies Association annual meeting in Washington, D.C. 

Our original proposal for this session read like a lot of attempts to grapple with controversy in the digital humanities. “Is digital humanities complicit with the neoliberal impulse in the modern university?” it asked. “Some say it is, citing A, B, and C. Others say it isn’t, citing X, Y, and Z.” The framework, if unoriginal, had the benefit of being easy to write.

My copanelist Natalia Cecire pushed us to think beyond this cliché. “Let’s start with the premise that it is complicit,” said Cecire, citing Alan Liu’s “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” “Else why would it be so obviously attractive to the neoliberal university? Let’s start with that and talk about what we then do.”

Borrowing Natalia’s framework, I want to complicate a discourse about labor that has emerged from and become identified with the digital humanities. The term for this work is “alt-ac,” which stands for “alternative academic.” [1]My critique is not altogether new. Liana M. Silva aired some of these concerns in April. Martha Nell Smith has levied similar critiques of DH centers’ hiring practices, and Bethany Nowviskie has … Continue reading Jason Rhody, a senior program officer for the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities, coined the term in 2009 to describe the scholarly work performed by many of us in and in the orbit of the academy who do not hold traditional faculty jobs but do perform scholarly labor. [2]For a history of alt-ac and a snapshot of how graduate programs might equip students for these jobs, see the excellent “Humanities Unbound: Supporting Careers and Scholarship Beyond the Tenure … Continue reading

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1 My critique is not altogether new. Liana M. Silva aired some of these concerns in April. Martha Nell Smith has levied similar critiques of DH centers’ hiring practices, and Bethany Nowviskie has dealt with a number of these concerns in “Toward a New Deal.” I am moved and inspired by this vision of a WPA for the humanities, but I feel that my fundamental objection to some of the rhetoric about alt-ac — that it rests on the flawed assumption that the academic jobs crisis is caused by an overproduction of Ph.D.s — has yet to be answered.
2 For a history of alt-ac and a snapshot of how graduate programs might equip students for these jobs, see the excellent “Humanities Unbound: Supporting Careers and Scholarship Beyond the Tenure Track,” prepared by Katina Rogers for the Scholarly Communication Institute.

How to accommodate a breastpumping mom at your event

Breast pump encased in black tote bag
A decent daily-use electric breastpump like the Medela Pump in Style will run you $269.99 on Amazon.

Breastfeeding has been a pretty damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t experience for me. I’m in an extremely privileged position, breastfeeding-wise — with relatively generous (for the U.S.) maternity leave and a private office with a door — but it’s still been a challenge. New mothers hear a great deal these days about the expense and health toll (though frankly some of that science is questionable) of formula-feeding (or, as Kaiser’s lactation consultant insisted on calling it, “artificial food”). But breastfeeding also has well-documented and significant financial penalties for women who work outside the home. And people who wouldn’t ordinarily pronounce on a woman’s personal decisions feel no compunction, for some reason, about passing judgment on a mother’s decision about how to feed her baby.1

At the moment, I’m on my way back from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, my first real trip away from the baby. The conference organizers were really helpful to me when I asked for lactation accommodation, finding me a room in the sold-out conference hotel so that I wouldn’t have to miss too much of the event. (Though this, of course, meant staying in the conference hotel, which I usually avoid in order to save money.) Still, it’s been a bit of a logistical challenge, involving trekking across airports in search of remote nursing rooms, sending a pump through security checkpoints, and absenting myself from events every few hours.

In a perfect world, we’d all understand the mechanics of lactation so that we can accommodate women who are breastfeeding. But I’d be pretty wildly hypocritical if I condemned others for their ignorance, having until recently been in the same position myself. A few months ago, I was embarrassed to realize I had no idea where to send a woman who needed to use a breastpump at an event I’d helped organize. I didn’t even really know what she’d need, having never dealt with it myself. Which is to say that I understand why this stuff is confusing. So I thought I’d do my tiny part by explaining why we need what we need for the benefit of anyone who might host a breastfeeding mother.

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Notes on DH and sharing your work

Backlit keyboard with a key labeled "Share"
Creative Commons-licensed photo by Niklas Wikström.

These are notes and links for a talk I’m giving on digital humanities and sharing your work at the University of California, San Diego, on November 5, 2012.

DH projects I discuss

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Training grad students for a new scholarly landscape

Here’s what I just said about graduate student training at a workshop (with Daniel Chamberlain, Mary Francis, Tara McPherson, Leslie Mitchner, and Patrice Petro) on “the changing profession” at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual meeting:

As we watch the academy change around us, I think it’s becoming clear to us that the way we prepare grad students has some inadequacies. We talk about preparing them for the job market, but I think we’re all aware that calling this crisis a “market” — implying that there’s some basic equity between supply and demand — is becoming increasingly perverse. I know you’ve seen good, smart, hardworking people washed up on the rocks. I know I have.

What can we do, as the ground shifts underneath us, to prepare these people whom we care so much about? By now, it should be obvious that it is no longer humane or sufficient to tell ourselves that our best students will get jobs. This is a fiction that helps us sleep at night.

But neither is it humane or sufficient to simply despair. So I offer four suggestions:

We need to get serious about tracking statistics about our students once they graduate. What kind of labor are they doing, how secure is it, where is it happening? Entering students need to be able to make better-informed decisions about the programs they choose.

We need to start seeing that caring about our grad students requires caring about the issue of adjuncts and other casualized labor in the academy. We need to see that this is part of mentoring, too.

We need to start countenancing the possibility that not all students will want to be professors. I want to be careful here, because I know not all students will want to follow a path like mine. But you might be surprised at how many grad students are quietly curious about other kinds of jobs. We need to help graduate students see that these paths are OK, too, and part of helping them to see this is visibly taking seriously the intellectual labor of other academic professionals in our orbit — the librarians, archivists, technologists and others.

Finally, I would like to see a reconsideration of methodological training for our students. Students are highly aware that they need different kinds of skills — digital skills, collaborative skills, administrative skills, budgeting skills — and we should see it as our job to meet these needs. For reference, I offer the example of the Praxis Program, at the University of Virginia, where graduate students work in teams alongside developers and administrators to accomplish projects collectively.

I know you’re here because you care about your students, and I know we’ve all been doing everything we can to prepare them for this new landscape. What I hope to say, more than anything, is that truly advocating for grad students requires understanding and intervening in the larger academic ecosystem.

Why I went (back) to the AHA

Last week I attended the American Historical Association’s annual meeting in Chicago. Although I’ve always thought of myself as a historian, I hadn’t been to an AHA meeting since my first year of grad school in 2004. In part, I hadn’t been going because I’m affiliated with so many disciplines that it’s difficult to keep up with all the meetings. But I also hadn’t been going because I wasn’t sure what the AHA would do for me. I won’t be interviewing there, since I’m not applying for teaching jobs, and playing the big-conference game (pretending not to notice the thousands of ways people behave disrespectfully to each other) has started to seem unnecessary to me.

I did go back, though, for a few reasons. First, I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve only recently come to understand how scholarly societies might be important sites of change within the academy. In my mind, AHA, MLA, SCMS, and their ilk were bureaucratic prestige-machines, awarding prizes and manning the gates for the old guard.

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Dissertation advice

Photo of me holding a T-shirt that says "I survived Yale dissertation boot camp."
The T-shirt says "I survived Yale dissertation boot camp," which is a real thing that exists.

Recently, a much-loved friend asked me for advice on dissertation-writing, not because I’m any paragon of efficiency, but because she knew I’d struggled myself. She wanted to know if I had any words of wisdom about getting through the process with a minimum of pain.

My immediate impulse was to decline to answer, on the grounds that I am utterly unqualified to advise anyone on writing without pain. My next impulse was to solicit advice from my friends via Twitter, and I got some wonderful responses. There were some terrifically helpful practical tips, but one that really got me thinking was from my friend Franky Abbott, who suggested the importance of recognizing “that the dissertation is antiquated process training and not a reflection of your total worth.”

This is a truth that’s only become fully apparent to me in my post-grad school life, and I thought that this might be something useful I could offer to my friend. While of course I knew in a theoretical way that what I was writing was an exercise rather than a finished product, this knowledge meant little to me in the hothouse of grad school. Now, a couple years after leaving Yale, I see  that what I was doing was learning how to write scholarship. My dissertation is no great work of genius, I know that, but I feel no need to apologize. The world didn’t need another dissertation, but I needed the opportunity to learn to write one.

So here’s what I told my friend, and what I would tell myself if I could: You are more important than any damn dissertation.

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Some basic things you should know about being in a Ph.D. program

"Cloister, Glasgow University," by _skynet

Disclaimer: This post is not about the politics of humanities Ph.D. programs, the ethics of these arrangements, or whether you should go to grad school in the first place. But if you haven’t already looked into this and you’re thinking of going to grad school, you need to do your homework on this stuff. Start here.

A few days ago I had a nice phone conversation with a recent college graduate who was thinking about applying to Yale’s Film Studies program. Talking to her reminded me of my first year or so as a grad student at Yale, and what I remember most is just all-consuming confusion — the ubiquitous sensation of doing the wrong thing, and, worse, of not knowing what the right thing was.

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