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.

New book chapter

arclight-cover-page-001-e1464474821563I’m really proud to have a new chapter in an open-access volume edited by Eric Hoyt and Charles Acland called The Arclight Guidebook to Media History and the Digital Humanitiespublished by the UK press REFRAME. The chapter, which is called “How is a Digital Project Like a Film?” is really about data and narrative. What does it mean to tell stories with data? On what basis can we call data-based narratives true, and where do they necessarily lie? And what role does the interface play in all of this?

The full TOC includes lots of great stuff, including pieces by Deb Verhoeven, Haidee Wasson, Greg Waller, and Lea Jacobs. I think it does a nice job bridging the gap between traditional film studies and other forms of scholarship, and I’m very pleased to be included.

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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Research tools redux: What I use

Photo of archival binders
Photo by pixelhut

I posted recently about tools for managing a research workflow, and one of the points I made is that no set of tools will be right for everyone. I’ve tried and failed to foist my favorite tools on enough people to know that this is true.

Still, after I wrote the post, a few people asked me which tools I use. I do indeed have a number of favored tools, and since I find myself endlessly fascinating, I enjoyed the chance to consider why I use them and what it says about me as a researcher. I’d also really love to hear what you use and why!

Here’s what I use in a nutshell:

I haven’t used DEVONthink much in the past, but after giving it a more concentrated trial for my last post, I suspect it will make its way into my workflow, too.

Here’s why these tools work for me:

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History, Narrative, and the Body

Want to read a great big chunk of formal prose? Of course you do! This is an excerpt from the introduction to my dissertation, which is called Depth Perception. Here, I attempt to explain why anyone would write (or care) about medical films.

Photograph of a man, with a diagram of a large intestine superimposed
From Jacob Sarnoff's The Human Body in Pictures (1927)

When we picture the human body, what do we see? The answer is less obvious than it might seem, and it depends a great deal on whom one asks. We might care about this question because the answer suggests that seeing the body is not a simple matter of opening our eyes. Making the body coherent — arranging its parts in logical, comprehensible sequences of cause and effect — requires complex sets of cognitive operations. The complexity of these procedures should give us pause: if visualizing something as “universal” as the human body is so complicated, perhaps the body is not so universal or so self-evident as we’ve thought. Nor is the body so immediately comprehensible; indeed, bending the body into coherence takes deliberate, continuous effort. The body, I argue, has a tendency to fall into disarray. It is only by telling stories about our bodies that we can make the pieces cohere.


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Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States

Film-Based Teaching Machine
"1975: And the Changes to Come," by dbostrom. Apparently it's a "film-based teaching machine."

I’m excited that we have a publication date for an essay collection I’m contributing to. Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States will be published by Oxford in winter 2011. The editors are Marsha Orgeron, Devin Orgeron, and Dan Streible. From the flyer:

Learning with the Lights Off is the first collection of essays to address the phenomenon of film’s educational uses in twentieth-century America. Nontheatrical film in general and educational films in particular represent an exciting new area of inquiry in media and cultural studies. This collection illuminates a vastly influential form of filmmaking seen by millions of people around the world. The essays reveal significant insights into film’s powerful role in twentieth century American culture as a medium of instruction and guidance.

My essay is on Thomas Edison’s Red Cross Seal films, which I’ve posted about here. I really liked working with Marsha, Devin, and Dan. Their edits made my work much, much stronger. The full list of contributors:

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Walter Freeman’s photographic forebears

Before-and-after photographs of a craniectomy patient
Surgical before-and-after photographs, like this set from 1906, emerged in the late nineteenth century.

Walter Freeman, the psychiatrist who popularized lobotomy, called photography his “magnificent obsession.” There’s no doubt that Freeman loved to shock, and his lobotomy photographs and films were part of Freeman’s arsenal of attention-getters.

But Freeman was also part of a long tradition of looking at a patient’s face and body in order to deduce the contents of her mind. So, in a way, he’s not as eccentric as his obsession might make him seem.

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Writing about lobotomy photographs

Pages from Walter Freeman's Psychosurgery in the Treatment of Mental Disorders
Pages 418 and 419 from Psychosurgery

It often seems to me that writing history is an exercise in hubris. I never felt that more than when trying to write about Walter Freeman’s photographs of the people he lobotomized.

These are really difficult photographs: difficult to see, difficult to analyze, and difficult to talk about. Lobotomy has become a kind of joke (“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me!”), and yet, here you are, faced with real people caught in a terrible situation. How do you talk about them without reducing them to elements in an argument?

I was reminded of how tough this was when Katherine Wells, a producer at NPR’s Science Friday, contacted me to ask about doing a feature for Science Friday’s Science and the Arts website about the lobotomy photographs. You can see the result here.

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The best-laid plans …

Panic Button by star5112
"Panic Button" by star5112

I’ve been working hard to get the second chapter of my dissertation finished before the end of the month. I wouldn’t say I’m panicking, exactly, but I’m definitely feeling a heightened sense of urgency. It’s been funny to watch all my carefully designed notetaking and citation plans get shoved out the window now that I really have to write. All these months I’ve been carefully entering sources into Zotero, only to completely ignore them now because I feel like I can’t spare the time to figure out how to use Zotero’s citation tool.

This always happens to me, and I feel like it’s basically okay. Sometimes, when push comes to shove, I just need to write and not worry about Getting Things Done or workflow or whatever. As it is, I’ve been inventing dates and approximating quotes, knowing I’ll go back and fix them later.

There was a New York Times article recently on the science of concentration. Winifred Gallagher, the author of the book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, recommends that, when working, “don’t get distracted by anything else, because it can take the brain 20 minutes to do the equivalent of rebooting after an interruption.” For me, this is certainly true, and, while making up quotes is pretty extreme, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about when I say I’ll do whatever it takes to get words on the page.