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Digital Humanities Article

I am excited to share that my Digital Humanities article on digital literacy has been published in the open-access journal Digital Humanities Quarterly (DHQ) in a special issue (11.3) on undergraduate education. The article is titled “A Long-Belated Welcome: Accepting Digital Humanities Methods into Non-DH Classrooms” and argues that there is a place for DH methods in all Humanities classrooms and that women especially can benefit from increased engagement and confidence with digital technology in the subjects in which they comprise the majority of students.

I look forward to reading all of the other articles in this issue and appreciate being able to share it widely because DHQ is open access! Thanks to all those who have supported me in the two-year journey from start to finish.

Hidden Figures of Digital Humanities

Watching the film Hidden Figures reminded me of my research on women in computing and some of the gender issues in the field of Digital Humanities. In a discussion after the screening that I had both attended and helped to organize/promote with other women (as a special fundraiser to help create an undergraduate scholarship for a woman to study STEM), I mentioned how frustrating it was that women had been written out of the history of computing at large, not just in regards to the space program. It was only after seeing the quizzical looks on the women’s faces around me that I realized the presence of women in computing is not common knowledge either. The stereotype that seems to predominate in the popular culture is that computing belongs to Silicon Valley and male computer programmers.  I have been fortunate to have discovered more of women’s history in computing due to my involvement with Digital Humanities, but it is important that the involvement of women become more widely known. So I write this post as a brief introduction to some of the insights I have come across – to share with those who want to learn about some ‘hidden figures’ and to wonder about whose stories are still left to be discovered in the field of Digital Humanities. Because in fact, women have been instrumental to computing since the beginning…

Hidden Figures posterFor those who haven’t viewed the film (highly recommend! – nominated for three Academy Awards), Hidden Figures follows the stories of three African-American women – Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson – in the U.S. during the Space Race whose efforts in computing, mathematics, and engineering were crucial to the success of the mission to put astronaut John Glenn into orbit. Each woman must overcome various obstacles including racial and gender biases in order to be taken seriously and be respected by her coworkers, and to succeed at her job. For example, one building lacks a bathroom for black women (bathrooms were segregated at this time), and it is not until this issue impedes on the mission’s ability to meet a deadline that something is done about it. The film showcases the genius and resourcefulness of these women whom I and others I talked to admittedly had never heard of before. This film did a great job of bringing their stories and brilliance to life.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace, first computer programmer

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), born Augusta Ada Byron, was a gifted mathematician who is now considered to be the first computer programmer, given that she wrote instructions for the first computer program, all the way back in the 1800s. She was the daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron and his spouse, Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron. She met Charles Babbage, known as the father of the computer, when she was 17 and he mentored her and enabled her to study advanced math with a University of London professor. Although Babbage invented the difference engine and analytical engine, after Lovelace was asked to translate one of his articles, she added her own ideas about his machine which were about how codes could be used to handle letters and symbols, not just numbers. She also came up with a theory for repetition of instructions, now known as the looping process that modern computer programs use. Though few paid attention to her article when she was alive, she is now honored through the celebration of Ada Lovelace Day, first held in 2009.

*Source: Ada Lovelace Biography.com (2017)

Women Computer Programmers in the 20th Century

During World War II when there was a need for ‘human computers’ who could solve equations by hand and also program computers, women stepped up to fill these roles. Jean Jennings Bartik was one of six female mathematicians who created programs for a new machine belonging to the U.S. Army called the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), which was one of the first all-electronic general-purpose computers. Men built the hardware and circuits but didn’t think the programming was an important job. Bartik said in an interview in 2008 that even though the women were responsible for getting the machine to work the night before its first demo, they weren’t invited out to dinner the next day and weren’t named in the photos. They were basically invisible. Adele Goldstine was another key woman in the development of ENIAC who created a systematic method of programming and the program manual, yet has only recently been acknowledged for her work in the field.

After the war was over, Bartik and her team moved on to the UNIVAC, a major commercial computer. They worked with Grace Murray Hopper, who was a tenured math professor in the Navy Reserve. Hopper discovered a way to program with words instead of numbers, which became a programming language known as COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) that is still used today. She retired from the Navy with the rank of rear admiral and is sometimes known as being the Queen of Software for her work in developing programming languages. There was even a 1967 article called “The Computer Girls” in Cosmopolitan magazine which quoted Hopper as comparing programming to planning a dinner, where you have to plan ahead and schedule everything.

Computer Girls magazine article

“The Computer Girls” article in Cosmopolitan magazine

She said women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming and her goal was that all people should be able to use and program computers. Another woman who worked on the UNIVAC, Adele Mildred Koss, actually found that working in computing was quite accommodating to female programmers who were mothers, making a work-life balance more possible. Many women did not actually have formal training in computing but took advantage of the opportunities that it provided and found success.

*Sources:

Further information: 2014 documentary film Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II and interactive iPad book app The Computer Wore Heels

Women in Early Digital Humanities

This brings us to the history of women in the field of Digital Humanities. For those who haven’t heard of Digital Humanities, it is a relatively new field which sits at the intersection of digital technologies and the humanities (like English literature, philosophy, and history). It sometimes functions more like the sciences in terms of having labs and teams rather than individuals working alone, and can include projects that involve making websites for cultural material, using databases, creating network analyses, examining social media, and doing other tasks that further the study of human culture and generate new ways of teaching and researching. Before it was known as Digital Humanities, however, it was sometimes called Humanities Computing, and its history goes back to the 1940s with its father, Father Roberto Busa in Italy, and what is considered to be the first Digital Humanities project.

Father Busa was a Jesuit priest who thought that the newly developing computing technology could be harnessed to help him create an index of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. He went to the U.S. to visit Thomas J. Watson at IBM and received some assistance to process punchcard data to make his index, which included some 9 to 11 million words of medieval Latin. What is often left out of this story is the fact that Father Busa then employed dozens of women to do the programming, and he proudly believed he was helping them attain valuable job skills through their work on the project. I only know about these women due to Digital Humanities scholar Melissa Terras’ work on uncovering the stories of these women. In fact, she has written a blog post (for Ada Lovelace Day, 2013) about her research, which included traveling to Italy and obtaining permission to share several photos of the women with permission from the CIRCSE Research Centre at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy with a Creative Commons license (CC-BY-NC), which are also in the blog post. I have included three of them here:

Women in Busa Project

Women working on Father Roberto Busa’s index project (1950s-60s) CC-BY-NC CIRCSE Research Centre

 

Women in Busa Project

Women working on Father Roberto Busa’s index project (back left: Rosetta Rossi Bertolli; bottom right Livia Canestraro) (1950s-60s) CC-BY-NC CIRCSE Research Centre

 

Women in Busa Project

Livia Canestraro working on Father Roberto Busa’s index project, being overseen by visiting dignitaries (1950s-60s) CC-BY-NC CIRCSE Research Centre

(This last photo is my favorite, with Ms. Canestraro reminding me of Princess Leia, surrounded by men but seemingly unperturbed.) I consider it a point of pride that women were so instrumental in working on this pivotal Digital Humanities project. But the pioneering work of women in computing leads me to wonder how we moved from women being so connected with computers to the present, where research continues to show that women often feel alienated from computing.

*Sources:

Disappearing Figures

Despite women’s instrumental roles as ‘computers’ themselves and as programmers, by the 1980s, when Steve Jobs and Bill Gates began to appear in the media and personal computers came about, the number of women who majored in computer science began to drop. From the 1980s to 2010, females went from being 37% of college students receiving bachelor’s degrees in Computer and Information Sciences to 18%. This happened even though the overall percentage of female college students was increasing and women were a majority.

There may have been several reasons proposed for this gender shift. Men may have wanted to get into the challenging tasks of programming and with their entry, the field may then have become more prestigious. Professional associations that excluded women may also have prevented them from entering the field. Personal computers were often marketed as toys for boys and the stereotype of the male computer geek became more prevalent in the popular culture.

In just a few decades then, computing and information technology became seen as male-dominated fields, and computing culture became decidedly more associated with masculine traits. The history of women’s achievements is only recently being recovered, with many girls and women unaware at how influential women have been in the field.

*Sources:

Where are the Women?

I see this as relating to Digital Humanities in that I have seen the field struggling recently with issues of diversity, access, and privilege, and that people are speaking out to try to address them. During Digital Humanities scholar Deb Verhoeven’s speech “Has anyone seen a woman?” at the 2015 Digital Humanities Conference, she boldly took the stage and called for men to exit it to allow more women to be heard and recognized. She was addressing the invisibility of women after a “parade of patriarchs” had dominated the stage on the opening day of the conference.

Deb Verhoeven speech

Deb Verhoeven’s speech “Has anyone seen a woman?” at 2015 Digital Humanities Conference

Soon her words ended up having a direct impact on me because just days later I was asked to speak on that very same stage at a small gathering of people for an annual meeting. At first I balked but then was encouraged by two men who were trying to heed her words, and it ended up being a positive experience. Her voice had raised the consciousness of many, and it helped persuade me that it was important for women to be heard even if they may not feel comfortable with public speaking.

Raising women’s visibility – both past and present – and reclaiming women’s history and stories is an important part of feminism; there are countless achievements to celebrate, from small to large. The question becomes how does a field like Digital Humanities avoid making the same mistakes as the history books have with the African-American women at NASA and women in computing? How does it avoid obscuring the labor that often goes on behind-the-scenes in Digital Humanities projects?

If we were to construct a narrative or timeline of women in Digital Humanities, what would it look like? How many ‘hidden figures’ in labs, teams, and projects might be in Digital Humanities?

Effective Altruism

I first heard about effective altruism through a guest lecture by Dr. Catherine Low from Students for High Impact Charity on “Effective Altruism and the Environment” in December 2016. At the end of the lecture, the audience split into small groups to debate the merits of several charities that she had pointed out were effective in various areas, and then everyone voted on which one to donate $500 to (with the funds provided by her organization). There was also an opportunity to sign up to receive a free copy by mail of a book by William Macaskill entitled Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference (first published in 2015), so I signed up, not being able to resist a free book and wanting to learn more about the evidence behind this emerging movement. effective_altruism_bookThe thinking behind it offers an interesting critique of the personal-responsibility kind of changes we’ve been led to believe we should be doing, and I’d like to offer some highlights from the lecture and book that people may not have considered before (especially regarding Fairtrade and sweatshop goods!).

Dr. Low’s main thesis was that effective altruism is about using evidence and analysis to do the most good we can do, and that many things we might think are really good aren’t actually making the best use of our money, time, or resources. One of the examples was that the BBC in 2006 was freaking out about Brits keeping phone chargers plugged in because of the ‘ghost energy’ they were wasting. But it turns out that they hardly consume any energy (.01% would be saved by unplugging them). Yet people choose to focus on these minor, inconsequential issues rather than looking at the bigger picture. There was also a study by David Anderson that found that up to 75% of social programs in the U.S. had little or no effect. It turns out that many initiatives aren’t really studied at all and are based on someone’s gut instinct on what will do good rather than research. An example that she mentioned and that is in the introduction of the book is the Playpump, which was rolled out in Africa to get children to help pump water while playing but turned out to be quite ineffective. It was created with the best of intentions, but not enough research and design went into seeing if it would actually work.

Regarding New Zealand charitable giving, she asked us to compare the $40,000 cost of training a guide dog (which who could argue against that cause) with the $25 for cataract surgery to prevent blindness in the Global South. It is clear which one is a better value for money, but that doesn’t mean that people donate according to that criteria. There was also the comparison between $9,000 for a Make-a-wish holiday for a sick child compared to a far lower amount to buy bednets against malaria and save a couple lives in Africa. Again, the former is a nice cause, but the latter makes the money not only go farther but can actually save lives.

Dr. Low said that part of the reason why effective altruism is more possible now is that we have more information to make better decisions about giving. She listed the following places that provide this kind of information:

There is also Stanford’s Carbon Footprint site where you can calculate how much greenhouse gas your activities produce. If you see how much your airline travel is producing, for example, you could offset it by donating to an organization like CoolEarth, which for $350 can protect a hectare of rainforest. This might be more effective than buying an electric car, because there are other costs and issues you need to weigh — if you don’t do that much driving, you could have spent the extra money on a more effective way of protecting the environment, for example. In the same way, you probably don’t need to fret over the Energy Star Rating for appliances, because the $100 or whichever amount you would have spent on buying a more efficient device might be better spent on a charity, since you’re unlikely to get as much energy savings as you think, especially if you use it infrequently. One of questions she left us with was: Are we more morally obliged to prevent human-made suffering (like climate change) or naturally-occurring ones (like malaria)? It’s something to consider as we choose which causes to support.

The book reiterated the point that some ideas are good but are not actually the most effective, or the best use of resources, and most are not evaluated to see if they are working. It offered several seemingly harsh realities, including:

  • You probably shouldn’t give to disaster relief because there is likely to be a large number of people hearing about and giving to those causes, so your contribution will make less of an impact.
  • It is possible that people could have been better off without a charitable intervention, or might actually have been harmed by it, so some intervention is not necessarily better than none. Some problems work themselves out.
  • Looking at overheard percentages, which some evaluations do, is not a good measure of effectiveness. Spending a lot on good administration and fundraising does not mean a charity is not also being very effective at its programs. Outcomes are more important.
  • Following your passion in terms of a career is bad advice because you can have impact in all kinds of fields and don’t need to necessarily go to work for a non-profit or charity to change the world. The book states: “Research shows that the most consistent predictor of job satisfaction is engaging work, which can be broken down into five factors (this is known in psychology as the ‘job characteristics theory’): Independence…Sense of Completion…Variety…Feedback from the job…Contribution” (Macaskill pg. 187). Basically, personal fit is a better indicator to go by, and you can gain a passion out of a variety of types of work. You can look up what you might be interested in at the site 80,000 Hours.
  • Sweatshop goods are sometimes providing better jobs for people in developing economies than other forms of labor and are considered the ‘good’ jobs, alternatives to backbreaking farm work or unemployment. In one case in 1993, a child labor bill brought to Congress prompted factories in Bangladesh to lay off 50,000 child workers; UNICEF then investigated and found that many of them had to turn to more desperate ways to survive, including hustling and prostitution (Macaskill pg. 160-163). So although boycotting sweatshop goods may seem like a good thing to do, it may be more effective to work to end the poverty in those countries that makes those jobs so attractive.
  • Buying Fairtrade-certified products is another example of how what may seem like a no-brainer thing to do may not actually be the best use of that extra money you spend for the Fairtrade product. One of the issues is that only a very small percentage of the money you pay for Fairtrade reaches the farmers. In one analysis by the World Bank, less than 1% at a British cafe chain reached coffee exporters in poor countries; in an analysis in Finland, only 11% reached the countries that produced the coffee; and in an analysis in the US, for an extra $5 per pound for Fairtrade coffee, only 40 cents or 8% would make it to coffee producers) (Macaskill pg. 165). A lot goes to the people in the middle, so you would be better to put the money you would have spent on Fairtrade toward a more effective charity to help the poor in those countries (such as GiveDirectly, in which 90 cents of $1 donated reaches the poor).
  • Thinking rationally rather than emotionally sounds harsh–especially because it might mean saying no to local causes or people asking for money on your doorstep–but it is necessary to be able to evaluate charities and see which programs are most effective.

As presented in the lecture and the book, effective altruism makes a lot of sense from a rational perspective. The trick is that so many charitable appeals work on an emotional level (or religious level), and the urge to help others we can see, in our community, probably won’t be going away any time soon. Thinking more abstractly about giving is certainly a new concept to consider thoughtfully.

Flatland: The Movie in Science Fiction Class

The 2007 animated short film Flatland: The Movie featuring the voices of Martin Sheen and Kristen Bell appears to be a popular teaching tool in math classes because it includes angles and other math concepts, but I have found it also works well in science fiction classes [see film website for more information]. Its short running time (around 30 minutes) allows it to fit into a normal class session with plenty of time for questions and discussion. It is based on  Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin A. Abbott and set in a society known as Flatland, a two-dimensional world. The graphics and pace are good, the themes are still relevant today, and there is a delightful irony in one of the characters who brings wisdom to others yet still cannot break free from his own limited worldview. It offers a nice break from the norm toward the end of the semester while still being a science fiction film that allows students to compare their world to the one in the film.Flatland movie poster

Activity for Flatland: The Movie (2007) featuring Martin Sheen and Kristen Bell

Based on Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin A. Abbott

Questions:*

Which character did you identify the most with?

What are the rules of Flatland society? How does your shape affect your status?

Who makes the rules in this society?

What does heresy mean? What kinds of things are considered heresy in your society?

Why can’t the King of Lineland see the square? Why does Spherius resist the idea of a 4th dimension?

Compare our society to Flatland’s society. What are the similarities and differences? Which would you prefer to live in?

Do you think science fiction as a genre helps people understand their world better than more “realistic” fiction? Why do you think science fiction movies have become so popular?

 

*Some questions are from a math teacher’s wiki; others are my own. The possibilities for more science fiction questions are many!

Shakespeare through Digital Humanities Textual Analysis

I wanted to briefly introduce students to Digital Humanities in an introductory-level Shakespeare course I was helping teach, partly because they might not hear about it otherwise and partly because I really enjoy DH. Textual analysis seemed like the quickest and simplest method to choose, and Voyant Tools is a free and easy program (CC BY 4.0 Voyant Tools by Stéfan Sinclair & Geoffrey Rockwell) available with just a browser and internet connection. I also showed them some searches of the plays using regular expressions. The following images are taken from my slides.

Analyzing Shakespearean Plays in Voyant Tools

Hoping to demonstrate just a few of the possibilities of Digital Humanities methods applied to literature, I put the online versions of the four plays we had studied throughout the semester into Voyant to see if there were any interesting insights that stood out which I could then discuss. I first showed the current play we were studying (The Winter’s Tale), then ‘zoomed out’ even farther to show all four plays (The Winter’s Tale, Richard III, As You Like It, and King Lear).

The Word Clouds (Figures 1 and 2) were unsurprising and most students have already seen these on the web.

dh-textual-analysis-word-cloud

Figure 1: Word Cloud of Shakespeare Play

dh-textual-analysis-word-clouds

Figure 2: Word Clouds of Shakespeare Plays

But the Trends charts (Figures 3 and 4) allowed me to point out how we can see the appearance and disappearance (or rise and fall) of certain characters in a visual way.

dh-textual-analysis-trend

Figure 3: Trends Chart of Shakespeare Play

dh-textual-analysis-trends

Figure 4: Trends Charts of Shakespeare Plays

And looking at the word ‘like’ in the Contexts chart (Figure 5), I showed them how this chart can help us see (in one place) and compare what kinds of similes Shakespeare used, for example. My favorite was ‘like the basilisk’ because that creature features prominently in one of the Harry Potter books.

dh-textual-analysis-contexts

Figure 5: Contexts Chart of Shakespeare Play

I also checked out the Microsearch chart (Figure 6), which I believe is similar to one I saw demonstrated at a conference. I’d like to look more into what can be done with these kinds of visual displays.

dh-textual-analysis-microsearch

Figure 6: Microsearch Charts of Shakespeare Plays

Searching Shakespearean Plays in RegExr

For regular expressions, I borrowed a practice activity that was part of a DH workshop at the aforementioned conference. They used the RegExr sandbox website to have everyone look up all of the questions in the play Othello. Since in the class we had already examined a passage in The Winter’s Tale where King Leontes’ paranoia manifests itself through a series of questions he asks himself, I hoped the students could see the potential value in isolating questions to see what they might reveal about a play. I also showed them how to look up certain words along with surrounding words to see the context, such as all of the words ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ in a play about family.

dh-and-regex-exercise-2

Figure 7: Regular Expressions Exercise 1 in Shakespeare Play

dh-and-regex-exercise-1

Figure 8: Regular Expressions Exercise 2 in Shakespeare Play

This brief introduction gave them a glimpse at what one can do with a text once digitized, as Shakespeare’s are. It was enjoyable tinkering with the different tools in Voyant and seeing what connections and insights they revealed about the plays. It does seem to be a good first step into textual analysis.

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