Try to remember: 20 years of living in a post-September 11th World

This anniversary is not the big one for me. That was last year, the 19th anniversary of the attacks on September 11th. Given all the life-altering events of the COVID-19 pandemic, it did not receive much press, outside of the 45th American President’s ongoing attempts to race bait his way into a second term.  But I was 19 when the towers fell in 2001 — a world-shattering reversal of Stanley Kubrick’s no longer prescient imagery — making last year a personal watershed event: for every day following September 11, 2020, I have been alive for longer after the attacks than before.

I’ve written before about the effect of that day on my life, and for want of a better phrase, my “journey to adulthood.” But anniversaries are times for reflection, and the fact that today has arrived in my consciousness “not with a bang but a whimper” feels significant to me. 

Maybe it’s because I’ve done this nineteen times before, and I know the drill. Sleep in to at least 9:30 to avoid the “minutes of silence.” Stay off social media and news sites, as they will be drenched in pictures of explosions or falling bodies. Stay off my phone so I do not have to see today’s date. A therapist friend once suggested I face this day head on. I told him that I already face enough things head on; one day a year of carefully orchestrated avoidance will not break or heal me.

One pattern I have noticed is that the day before is always harder. Every year on September 10th, I see the next day as being an alternate universe’s anniversary of my father’s death. My dad had been invited to a breakfast at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the top floor of the World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001. He didn’t go because we were moving from Connecticut into Brooklyn the next day. Every year on September 10th, my mind goes down what Terry Pratchett termed “the other trouser leg of time” to world where our moving date had been a few days earlier, and my subsequent life turned into a hellscape of personal loss that I cannot comprehend. Once I make it through the 10th and back to my own reality, the anniversary of what actually happened feels doable in comparison.

Today I find myself thinking less about the events of 20 years ago, and more about how the people, places, and symbols I most associate with that day have fared over time.

When I think of that day, I think of two named heroes. The first is Frank, my dad’s friend and then boss, who, after he saw the first plane hit from a top floor conference room in the Flatiron District, picked up the phone and told everyone who worked in the company data center at WTC that anyone who didn’t leave the building within five minutes was fired. He saved hundreds of lives, as the engine of the second plane ripped through now the empty building less than eight minutes later. Within a year he lost a power struggle with the new company CEO, and he himself was fired.

The second, of course, is Rudy Giuliani — whose calm presence on national news as he walked up Broadway from City Hall telling everyone around him to “Walk north. Walk north” temporarily overwrote his damaged and decaying legacy of racist policing and sexual harassment. Overnight he became America’s Mayor and Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. The less said about his actions since the better, but he obliterated his own image of calm leadership by screaming and sweating off his makeup in front of the Four Seasons Landscaping Company, while lying for a man who twenty-years ago today only saw dollar signs rising from the smoking ruins.

Back at the University of Chicago for my sophomore and subsequent years, I dealt with other forms of erasure. The ministry intern who took my hand and gently told me that “the national period of mourning is over.” The pastor who asked if my love of a song that celebrated strength through adversity meant that I wanted “more planes crashing into more buildings.” Even my mother’s New York-based publisher wanted to remove the Twin Towers from the cover of her Newbery Honor Award-winning book on honor in politics, Hope Was Here (first published in 2000), in time for the paperback release in 2002. Mom held her ground, and the towers stayed up for a few years more, at least in fiction. Then she changed publishers and the new branding guidelines switched the cover to an apple pie. 

For over a decade, gashes remained in ground eventually cleared of rubble, and forty-story buildings sat empty, wrapped in shrouds of black containment mesh. The World Trade Center became Ground Zero, first as a casualty of terrorism and then as collateral damage in the only true battle of New York: real estate development. The new building is at least pretty, and it’s tall enough that I can navigate the West Village again.

Of course the biggest erasure came from the Bush Administration, who politicized the tragedy from day zero and swept an angry and grieving nation into the “Graveyard of Empires,” and then, with barely a pause, used our fear to settle a personal score with Saddam Hussein. In the process we traumatized an entire generation of Afghans and Iraqis with drone strikes and shattered infrastructure, and then left them under regimes as intolerant and brutal as the ones we had deposed. Our withdrawal was inevitable, but abandoning to torture and death the people we relied on and the women and girls we empowered was not. Good job America. Have a Gold Star.

As a historian, I have to wonder: When do we stop remembering? Of course those of us who were alive and old enough will likely never forget “where we where” just as those older than I am remember JFK’s assassination or Pearl Harbor.  But that’s not what I mean, although I do wonder how many people who watched In the Heights this summer know that “there’s no 9 train now” because the MTA discontinued it while piecing the subway system back together after the falling weight of the towers obliterated the largest subway junction below 42nd Street. 

Journalism may be the first draft of history, but at some point the historians take over.  Twenty years edges up to the never fully delineated “moving wall” of acceptable topics for history dissertations, even as fewer and fewer documents are declassified each year. What will these new historians make of the event that shaped their lives almost before they were born? Will those of us who, through action or inaction, shaped our national response be able to withstand their scrutiny? Probably not. If history teaches you anything, it is that people never listen to historians. Although if you have managed to read this far, maybe you’ll try.

But for now, The Halal Guys has opened a brick and mortar restaurant in the New Jersey town over from where I live these days. So, I’m going to have some genuine New York Street Food, and “try to remember,” as the old Broadway song goes, “when life was so tender that dreams were kept beside your pillow.” May we all remember, and find new paths to follow.

This is why we can’t have nice things: Elizabeth Warren, Misogyny, and the Death of Expertise

As I watched the results of Super Tuesday roll in I felt my heart breaking. Elizabeth Warren was my candidate, but she was so much more than that. As a fellow woman and policy wonk, Warren’s compassion, indignation, and attention to the small details of structural change made me believe that there was a way out of our current political morass. I lived in Boston in 2012 and had watched her defeat Scott Brown; I still think she was the Democrats’ best chance of winning the general election.

And before my fellow liberals start yelling at me, let me state upfront that I will vote for the Democratic nominee come November, whoever he may be. I would vote for a literal bag of Cheetos over the current Cheeto occupying the Oval Office. But I had hoped to vote for so much more.

Since 2016 I have placed my hope for the United States in three new developments: the #metoo movement, the number of women and minorities who ran (and won!) for office in 2018, and the initial diversity of the Democratic candidates for President. To watch that initial diversity melt away into a contest between two cisgender, heterosexual, white men in their seventies who both have histories with sexual harassment is … depressing … to say the least.

Remember back in 2015 when liberals were saying they wished Warren was running for President rather than Hillary Clinton? Remember when we covered our newsfeeds, coffee mugs, and tote bags with “nevertheless she persisted?” Remember when no one thought a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was possible until Warren made it happen? Do you? Because it felt like all that was all forgotten once she announced her candidacy for president.

Almost overnight, Warren’s reputation transformed from an eloquent, passionate, and effective politician striving to protect the most vulnerable in society into a schoolmarmish, elitist, and insufficiently progressive tool of neoliberalism. It’s as if there is a glass ceiling in national politics. As if folksy trumps informed or blue sky thinking is better than careful planning.

Warren’s withdrawal from the primaries feels like more than the last serious woman candidate leaving the race. It feels like another nail in the coffin of expertise — an erasure of the intelligence and planning required to govern. In an age when the President should be relying on experts in climatology and epidemiology to keep us safe and secure from current and future threats, don’t we want a president who listens, collates, and then plans? Isn’t that how we will survive as a republic and as a species?

But I won’t give up. I will vote for the Democratic nominee come November. Until then, I will support down ticket Democrats, especially women and minorities who will need my money and my time much more than whoever runs for President. Because no matter how much I want to hide under a blanket and eat chocolate, that is not what intelligent, dedicated and prepared women do. Well, we do hide under blankets and we do eat chocolate, but that’s not all we do.

We make plans. And, nevertheless, we persist.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Marie Kondo, and moving on

A year ago today Ursula K. Le Guin died. I cannot overstate the importance of her work to my life. In her honor, I decided to spend a year reading works by women authors only (with an exception for work materials or other necessary texts).

Over the past year I have rediscovered and been introduced to so many amazing writers. I have soared through space, cities, deserts, and oceans buoyed by the prose of Nnedi Okorafor. Jodi Taylor made me laugh until I cried and then resume laughing until I fell off the couch. I have been embraced once again by the loving prose of Madeleine L’Engle, and I read every book N.K. Jemisin has published. And that is just to name a few.

I am so glad to have had these wise women as guides to my imagination in 2018. That was a year. The world has devolved from a trash fire to a receptacle for a never ending rain of trash fires. And my own life has been upended by my decision to leave the academy.

Yesterday I sat in my now-former office in the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton University and packed up my professional life. The hardest part was the books: dense with memories, freighted with meaning, and as my husband and I put them in bags and carried them to our car, so freaking heavy.

I didn’t take all my books. As a graduate student I often expanded my library through the generosity of emeritus professors, who left their office libraries in the lounge where we could pick through their scholarly detritus and find our own (often expensive) gems. I left about half of the books there, and wrote the History Subject Librarians (it’s Princeton, they have two) to let the grad students know it was free-for-all time.

As I sorted my books, I used the KonMari method of “Tidying Up,” made even more popular by Marie Kondo’s new Netflix sensation. Contrary to popular outcry, Kondo never said that you should only keep 30 books. When she is in people’s houses, she speaks about the importance of books as carriers of meaning and statements about who we are. She then taps the books to “wake them up,” and asks her clients to choose the ones they want to bring forward into this new stage of their lives. So that’s what I did.

I am a historian of power and communication, focusing on the eighteenth century. I love John Adams, whom I met through writing a sophomore paper on his wife, Abigail. I don’t need all the 20th century history I acquired in grad school. I don’t need any of my books on the US Civil War. I don’t need multiple copies of Aristotle’s Politics or de Tocqueville’s writings, just the one with the best translation and editorial apparatus. And I certainly don’t need the books with terrible prose or arguments too pathetic to even use as a straw man.

I am a database developer and designer. I don’t need out of date computer science reference books — and I look all that stuff up online anyway. 

And not only do I not need them, I don’t want them. I don’t want them cluttering up my two bedroom apartment, which now doubles as a home office for both my husband and myself. I don’t want them hanging around and reminding me that I will never teach the American history survey. I want the books that I want to read and reference. The ones that will make me feel loved and will help me write my own book on John Adams. I want the ones that will help me find my way to the next adventure.

I am a photographer, and I need all my photos and all my photography books. They spark joy.

Leaving the academy was rough. It still is; I’ve only been out for two days. I imagine the transition will not become easy overnight. But, over the course of 2018, I discovered that what I most want no longer aligns with my job. And I remembered that I did not always want to be in the academy. 

When I was five, I wanted to be James Herriot. Into middle school I wanted to be a veterinarian and live on a horse farm. In high school, my dream job was to work on Level 5 of the Center for Disease Control after I finished my two year stint as a member of their SWAT team, going all over the world to find the origins of new epidemics. I didn’t seriously consider history as a career until college, and as bewildered as my parents were, I know they were grateful I wouldn’t be handling the world’s most dangerous diseases on a daily basis. All of these memories reminded me that new hopes and new dreams happen all the time. 

Academic history put me on a very narrow path and told me that was the only way. It even told me that I couldn’t write the kind of history that drew me into grad school, because it wasn’t fashionable enough to land me a job. I jailbroke my grad program with Digital Humanities and spent my last years in grad school happily nestled in the Scholars’ Lab, until I was hired by Brown University as the first Digital Humanities Librarian in the country. And then I was headhunted to Princeton to start their Center for Digital Humanities. Last summer I became its first Research Director. It has been a good career.

But the reasons I went into the academy are now my reasons for leaving. I wanted to be a historian because I know the power of stories to awaken new thoughts and solutions to intractable problems. Nothing inspires or humbles like a well told story, and true stories have a depth and complexity all their own.

My audience was always the intelligent non-specialist. And so the problem began. I am also a generalist and quickly found the confines of academic history and its ever-narrowing, jargon-filled output to be the opposite of what I wanted to do. Digital Humanities felt like the obvious solution. I am a programmer and a photographer as well as a historian. Digital Humanities allowed me to bring all my skills to bear and to reach wider audiences than almost any academic monograph could hope for. But then I saw the precarious state of alternative academic employment: unbalanced workloads, minimal resources, lack of support, impossible requests, and precious little job security.

So I became a manager. I wanted to find great people, give them good jobs, and create a safe working environment where they could achieve amazing things. It was rarely easy, and I made plenty of first-time-manager mistakes, but I am proud of the team I hired at Princeton and of the incredible work they do. As the manager of a new organization, my model was George Washington’s presidency. I aimed to become unnecessary, and I succeeded. Any organization that cannot exist without its founder is doomed to failure. The CDH is going to do great things from now on, and I will be cheering from the sidelines. 

But I also found that I wanted to do more. I wanted to help people. And not just the people at Princeton who, while they may suffer from the deep stress and anxiety of academic life, are some of the most resourced academics in the world. As I explored more areas of digital humanities, including Public Humanities and Post-Colonial DH, I found that I wanted to move beyond critiquing widely-used technologies to actively making them better. I also discovered that I really want to write that book about John Adams, because in today’s political climate I am dismayed to find that my interest in diplomatic expertise and its relationship to the office of President of the United States is suddenly something people care about.

I don’t know where the path will lead. First I have to integrate all my office books back into my apartment. Then some freelance consulting while I write and look for a new job. After that, no idea.

I am excited for my next adventure. I hope you are excited for yours.

Digital Humanities, Digital Scholarship, and Digital Libraries: Fuzzy Boundaries of a False Trichotomy

If there is one thing that unites digital humanities practitioners, it is our aversion to defining ‘Digital Humanities.’ I get it. I really do. But defining and redefining DH on a regular and ongoing basis comes with the territory. Especially in today’s academic and GLAM sector 1 climate where digital tools and methods are being recognized as crucial components of workflow, access, and analysis.

Like politics, all DH is local. And depending on your local politics, you may find yourself needing to distinguish between the trifecta of Digital Humanities, Digital Scholarship, and Digital Libraries. These three terms usually live in happy, overlapping harmony with each other – until you have to tease them apart for administrative or funding purposes. Then things can get surprisingly complicated, surprisingly fast.

So, in an effort to ease this process, I propose the following interlinking definitions.

Digital Libraries consist of the human and cyber infrastructure required to build and maintain structured repositories of metadata and digital objects designed for access and reuse by researchers with an undelimited set of research questions. Digital libraries vary widely in size, content, and audience. But some examples include:

Digital Scholarship is the set of skills, methods, and tools required for researchers to work with digital materials, as well as the people who teach these skills. Skills that fall under Digital Scholarship include, but are hardly limited to:

  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
  • Proper use and application of statistical analysis (on textual, numerical, or image data)
  • Citation management (Zotero started as a DH project)
  • Data Curation and Data Management
  • Data visualization, physicalization, or sonification

Digital Humanities is a field of research and a labor structure. As a field of research, Digital Humanities is characterized by “using information technology to illuminate the human record, and bringing an understanding of the human record to bear on the development and use of information technology.” 2 As a labor structure, Digital Humanities is designed to maximize collaboration and, in the words of Ed Ayers, “scramble hierarchies” to the betterment of scholarship and the human experience. Digital Humanities practitioners use the skills and tools of digital scholarship and rely on (or create) the metadata and objects in digital libraries to answer their research questions.

Digital Humanities as a field is primarily characterized by Digital Humanities Projects.3

Digital Humanities Projects often have features in common with digital libraries, but DH projects are designed to answer a delimited set of research questions.

So, those are my suggested fuzzy boundaries for the false trichotomy of Digital Humanities, Digital Libraries, and Digital Scholarship. In the wild many organizations use one of these terms to stand for a host of activities that stretch across the taxonomy I have laid out above – The Digital Library Federation being the obvious example.

But sometimes you need just need a short, and not entirely misleading, definition. I hope these help.


Has anyone seen a sheep?: Ada Lovelace Day Tribute to Deb Verhoeven

This Ada Lovelace Day I want to stop and thank a woman who is making the Digital Humanities Community a more just and scholarly place: Deb Verhoeven.

I have had the extraordinary privilege of working with and for many amazing women in DH.  In fact, I would consider my intellectual DH heritage to be distinctly (if not unusually) matrilineal.  These amazing women gave me the gift of their experience [Elli Mylonas], their wisdom [Julia Flanders], their diplomacy [Kay Walter], their technical skill [Bess Sadler], and their example [Bethany Nowviskie].

Deb gave me something else.  Deb gave me her anger.

When Deb stood on the stage at DH2015 and asked the crowd “Has Anyone Seen a Woman?” Something in me uncorked.

The first days of that conference had been stultifying for me.  It was my first real experience with the sexism so many others have felt in DH for so long.  I was sick of the double takes from colleagues (senior and junior) when they heard my title: Associate Director of the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton (really? You?).  I was sick of being ignored by men while they talked over me and mansplained my areas of expertise (technical and administrative, even feminism).  I was sick of everything, including the community that had always felt like my intellectual home.

Then Deb took the stage and called for a reckoning.  She called out the “Parade of Patriarchs” that we had all witnessed the day before as white men, one after another, took the stage to start the conference.  She called out the systems we participate in that somehow always manage to privilege men over women.  And then she proposed a series of concrete solutions that male colleagues could and should take to ensure equity in the field.

And the crowd went wild.  As I jumped to my feet to applaud, so did so many of my fellow DHers – women AND men.  It was a big room, but I could clearly see Glen Worthey near the front on his feet cheering.  And I thought: Yes.  We can fix this.  The system is rigged, but WE CAN HACK IT.

I managed to introduce myself to Deb before I left Australia; we had a beer in a converted church.  I followed her on Twitter.  I friended her on Facebook.  I read her amazing theoretical work on databases [“Doing the Sheep Good“], which I cannot believe no one suggested to me while I was working on my dissertation.  And through Twitter, Facebook, and her scholarship I met a lot of sheep.

By the time I saw her a year later in London, it felt like we had known each other for much longer than a year.  We took a break and vented over coffee when things got too insane.  We attended the Diversity Track at DH2016 in Krakow (why a separate track, seriously?). She and my husband had great conversations over pierogi.  Basically, we had a blast.

And over the past year I have been finding my own voice as an activist as well as a diplomat.  It sounds different than Deb’s, but I hope it harmonizes.  And I am so pleased to be among a digitally connected diaspora of more amazing DH women: Roopika Risam, Amy Earhart, Padmini Ray Murray, Élika Ortega, Melissa Terras, and so many more.

So thank you, Deb.  Before I met you I was mad as hell.  But now, I won’t take it anymore.

Baking Gingerbread, as a DH project

Earlier today I was trying to put together slides for a workshop called “Getting Started in DH.” And I just couldn’t get started.

For the record, I have given versions of this workshop more times than I can remember.  I have slides from those workshops, and looking them over, I despaired.  DH is so big, DH has so many communities, and, like any other community of theory and practice, participating in DH can become a serious commitment.  Getting a group of people “started” in DH over a lunch talk just seemed impossible.  At least given my rotten mood on this particular Saturday afternoon.

I gave up on the slides and decided to make some gingerbread.  Technically, I decided I needed to bake something, and when my husband saw me look over the recipe for from-scratch gingerbread, his eyes went soft.

So I forged ahead even though we were missing a crucial ingredient — buttermilk.

We were also out of milk, which is how I usually make buttermilk (just add a dash of lemon juice).  But, we did have some creme fraiche hidden at the back of the fridge, and a quick google search confirmed that a blend of creme fraiche and water would work just fine as a buttermilk substitute.  Onward.

I pulled out all the ingredients and lined them up on the counter.  I got really interested in cooking the same summer I took Intro to Molecular Biology, so I cook like I’m in a lab. Although baking has always felt more like alchemy than chemistry.

As I measured and poured and stirred the batter into existence, I found myself thinking about the historical and contemporary imperial structures present in a recipe for gingerbread.

I had blackstrap molasses swirling with creme fraiche: need I say more?

My molasses and brown sugar are organic and fair trade (because seriously, if you are a scholar of early America and you don’t buy fair trade sugar products, I strongly recommend that you reconsider that decision), but I had bought them at Whole Foods, that great appropriator of other food cultures.  And fair trade isn’t cheap, so the fact that I can afford to buy it should be an important modifier on that last statement.  The recipe comes from Williams Sonoma, where the appropriation continues.   My last-minute buttermilk substitution was confirmed by a blog post written in 2009 that had been crawled by the Google bot. The list goes on and on.

Systems and structures, past and present.  Not much here that is natively “digital,” except the readout on my oven and the Google search — both of which elide vast systems of industry and manufacturing.  A great deal here that is “humanities,” because what is closer to us than the food we eat and how we make sense of the world?

And so, I decided that my gingerbread was a Digital Humanities project.  I didn’t design a database for this one, or write a single line of code, but that has never defined DH for me anyway.  I did make “a thing.”  I made it using the resources I had available to me, lab procedure, tacit knowledge, and pre-built digital tools.  I decided on the project in consultation with those it would most impact.  But none of that makes it “DH”either  — at least not for me.

What, IMHO, makes my gingerbread Digital Humanities, is that I made it thinking about the systems and structures that I participated in.  This time I didn’t have a research question, I just had a goal.  But I didn’t leave my training in history or information architecture at the door.  I brought them with me.  That doesn’t change the gingerbread.  It should taste the same.  But for me, DH is in the process, not the outcome.

And I am sick and tired of people with strong technical skills sitting on their mountains and declaring that non-programmers can’t “do DH” or that a certain project “isn’t real DH” because it doesn’t meet some imaginary standard of DIY grit and sophistication, or that somehow becoming a more diverse community will mean lowering our standards.

Digital Humanities needs both sides.  It needs all sides.  DH should be a conversation, a process, and a community.  It should not be a checklist, a test, or yet another way to exclude the people that major structural forces already exclude.

I am hardly the first person to say this.  Among the many people I have learned from, I cannot commend enough the works of Roopika Risam, Bethany Nowviskie, Miriam Posner, Deb Verhoeven, Alex Gil, and Bruce Janz.  And that is just for starters.

But I want DH, especially my new DH home, the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton, to be balm as well as a trumpet call.  I want CDH to be a place where people feel safe enough to be brave.  And I want them to feel (and be) protected, because the academy is scary enough all on its own.

So I had better write those slides.

But first, gingerbread.

For the Love of it?: Alt-Ac Reflections on finishing the PhD

When I was a bright-eyed and enthusiastic undergrad, I applied to PhD programs in history.

I have a very strong memory of sitting in my future advisor’s office and asking him the  most important question I could think of:  “What, in your opinion, makes a good dissertation?”

He responded immediately: “Passion.  Passion is what separates so-so research from the real stuff.  Being passionate about your work is what will make you a great scholar and will drive you to produce a truly great dissertation.”

11 years later, I have finally finished my dissertation.  Go ahead and read it if you like.  It’s called Republicans of Letters: the Early American Foreign Service as Information Network, 1775 – 1825.  It’s freely available.  I don’t believe in embargoes.  And, in the final analysis, I’m pleased with what I wrote.

But where was I?  Ah yes.  Passion.

I have no doubt that my adviser completely believed (and clearly lived by) his words.  They just didn’t work for me.  I would offer a different list:

Dedication. Persistence. Scheduling. Selfishness. Ambition.

These are what finally drove me to finish my PhD.  Ok.  That’s a little overwrought.  The real reason I finished was that Bethany Nowviskie told me: “Jean, everything you want to do will be easier if you finish your degree.”

Whether we like it or not, the academy is a very hierarchical place.  And getting a PhD puts you much closer to the top of that pyramid than almost any combination of skill-set, personality, and experience probably ever will.

Getting a PhD doesn’t mean that you are smarter, more insightful, or even more disciplined than other people.  And it certainly doesn’t mean you are more qualified to teach.  But it does mean you have done something most sane individuals do not attempt.  It’s like running a marathon.  You don’t have to do it.  But if you do, you want to tell people about it and get credit for all those long hours of running when no one was chasing you.  And other marathoners welcome you into their club, because, to paraphrase Captain Mal Reynolds, “Lady, you are my kind of crazy.”

This doesn’t mean that everyone looking to have an alt-ac career needs a PhD.  Or that everyone who has started a PhD program has to finish it.  Leaving grad school can be the best choice for your life and your career.  If I hadn’t been so close to finishing, I would never have bothered.  But I was, and my personality is what it is, so I finished.

And there are lots of good reasons to go to grad school.  Ironically, all the training I received to pursue my alt-ac career came *because* I was a graduate student, accepted into a program whose sole stated goal was to train me to become a tenure-track professor.  I could get hired on The Dolley Madison Digital Edition because I was a graduate student. My cherished fellowships at Scholars’ Lab and NINES were reserved for graduate students.

And I learned a great deal about early American history along the way.  I cannot speak to other graduate programs, but the great benefit of a PhD in American history is that it makes you put your events in context.  There is some fantastic popular history out there, and some of my favorite scholarly treatments of early America were written by people without PhDs.  But so often the journalist or professional non-fiction writer will miss a crucial part of the larger stage their actors stand on.  As someone who works on the oft-misused “Founding Era” of American history, I can’t count the number of times I have wanted to pull a talented writer of popular history aside and make him read for comps before publishing another word.

So what is the “value” of a PhD?  IMHO: it doesn’t matter if in the end you go alt-ac, trad-ac, or non-ac.  The value of the PhD is what you make of it.  If getting a PhD gets you closer to your goals, then go for it.  If sticking out a program that is making you miserable has no discernible benefit, than take the gems you have wrested from the earth and build a better life for yourself.  And don’t let anyone look down on you for doing what is best for you.

And if you lose the passion, well, then you lose it.  Somedays it just goes away.  Other days it comes back. But that doesn’t mean you’ve failed and it doesn’t mean you can’t finish, and finish strong.  It just means that you are running an intellectual marathon, and your second, or third, or fourth wind is coming a little late.

Back in those days of brighter eyes and naive (but not entirely misplaced) enthusiasm, I attended a seminar on Applying to Graduate School in History, held by the History Department of my alma mater, the University of Chicago.  During the panel, one of the faculty members said something that, at the time, made no sense to me:

And for pity’s sake, don’t write in your personal statement that you “love history.”  We [faculty] don’t “love” history.  We love our wives, our girlfriends.  We love fishing.  History is our job.  Take history seriously as your job and you will do well.  But don’t love it.  Love something better.

Now that I am finished with my dissertation I am embarking on a “personality reclamation project,” which consists of going back to all the hobbies I abandoned in graduate school: hiking, jazz piano, Spanish literature.

I do love history.  But I need to see other disciplines, and I think she respects that.  I also need to spend time with my husband, and with mountains, and playing Oscar Peterson, and reading Odas Elementales, and oh yeah, being the Associate Director of the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton.

As I start to advise graduate students, particularly those intrigued by alt-ac careers, I hope I can give them a sense of safety and stability.  That their worth as human beings is completely distinct from anything their advisers can say about them (be it good or bad).  I would never talk someone into leaving their program, but I want them to know that staying the course is their choice.  And if they choose to leave (for whatever reason), it does not reflect poorly on them nor will they lose the skills they have gained.

And as I advise undergraduates, I will ask them all the hard questions that angered me so much when I stubbornly told everyone I met that “I was going to be a historian.”  Because even if they can’t answer the questions, they need to hear them.  Because the job market has changed and tenure-track has be to your Plan B.  And because there are so many ways to be a historian.

So, at the end of the day — What’s love got to do with it?

Ads on LinkedIn targeting women make me want to delete my account

I have a LinkedIn profile. As someone who is about to hire three programmers to work in my research center at Princeton University, I may find it helpful in reaching top candidates. That’s assuming I don’t delete my account over the insulting banner ads I am treated to almost every time I log in.

First there are the banner ads for the National Association of Professional Women (NAPW). Google “NAPW Scam” and you will find plenty of blog posts detailing the experience of women who have paid almost $1,000 for an annual membership only to find out that the organization does not do anything for them and will not refund their money. For comparison, my membership in the Association for Computing Machinery (the premier, international professional association for Computer Scientists) only set me back $99. LinkedIn even hosts a blog post detailing these problems from LAST YEAR, The Art of the Scam: Say no to the NAPW and yet the banner ads continue.

Then I opened my account this morning to accept an Invitation and found this waiting for me:

Banner Ad Text: “NYC Egg Donation - Seeking smart, cute under 30 Donor.  Receive up to $8,000 compensation”
“NYC Egg Donation – Seeking smart, cute, under 30 Donor. Receive up to $8,000.00 compensation.”

I’m sorry. WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK. Cute? Under 30? At a bare minimum, if you are going to mine my personal profile at least bother to CHECK MY AGE. I graduated from college 11 years ago. I’m 33. Your algorithm sucks.

But ageism is the least of my concerns. LinkedIn professes to be a place where you can:

  • “Build your professional identity online and stay in touch with colleagues and classmates.”
  • “Discover professional opportunities, business deals, and new ventures.”
  • “Get the latest news, inspiration, and insights you need to be great at what you do.”

(Quoted from Accessed on 31 July 2015 10:04:00.)

Apparently what I can be great at doing (or could have been 4 years ago, assuming I was sufficiently “cute”) is selling my eggs. Not conducting cutting edge research. Not finishing my dissertation. Not writing open source software. Not even looking for a job. No.

Selling. My. Eggs.

At this point I want to take a breath, and say that I really sympathize with people who want to be parents. It is a noble and wonderful calling, and it is a tribute to modern medicine that there are many (still far too expensive) treatments for people who have the misfortune of not being able to conceive the children they so desperately want to love, cherish, and raise to be strong men and women.

But don’t advertise on LinkedIn. Or, more importantly, LinkedIn shouldn’t be taking this money. What LinkedIn is saying by accepting advertising dollars from egg donation banks is that professional women should know they can make some cash on the side by selling part of their bodies.

If you want to be an egg donor, more power to you. Call the number you see on a billboard, or in the subway, or in a newspaper. Or even on some other website NOT DEVOTED TO PROFESSIONAL NETWORKING.

And for those of you thinking, so what?  Why should I care if a social media site has shitty marketing?


Professional women already have to deal with so much crap in their lives — finding a good job, getting treated like a human being at work, not being passed over for promotion — all of these are much harder for women than men.  Heck, LinkedIn sends me articles on this very issue at least once a week.  So when a site that bills itself as helping people succeed in a professional context goes and treats their clients like baby farms or easy marks, it hurts more.  Context matters.  And women who already live with the stress of being female in their profession will feel it more.

What this ad, when displayed on LinkedIn, says to professional women is: we know you have skills and smarts, but we don’t care if you to use them in your life. We just want to you to pass them on to the next generation. We don’t want your brains, honey, we just want your genes.

And given that the other ad I see most frequently is for the NAPW scam, I really don’t think LinkedIn wants my brains at all.

So will I delete my LinkedIn account? I haven’t decided. Partly because I am interested in hearing what LinkedIn will say about my concerns.

And, for the record, saying nothing in this instance definitely counts as saying something.

The value of non-rare books: paperback musings of a digital humanist

Sometime last January I realized I was book-deprived.  Since September I had been shuttling back and forth among my new office in Princeton, my rented room in town, and the apartment I used to live in with my husband in Boston.

One Saturday morning in snowbound Boston I awoke in my old bed to a no-longer-familiar sight: shelves and shelves of books filled my vision.  I immediately felt better: less lonely, less stressed, and a little more wise.  Not to downplay the effect of waking up next to my husband, but I realized it was the books.  When I moved just enough stuff to Princeton to last me the year, I had brought little more than an armful of books, most of which lived in a small bookshelf in my aforementioned office.  Most of my personal reading material I put on my Kindle.

At home, every room was stuffed with books.  None of them valuable.  None worth digitizing or preserving, and with the exception of a complete set of my mom’s novels — all first editions, all signed to me — none worth designating a “special collection.”

And yet, there they were.  Little repositories of memory, sitting on shelves and putting me in context.  There were the YA fantasy novels I’d gotten addicted to in graduate school, stories of girls with swords who killed dragons and saved kingdoms.  Black Beauty and National Velvet neighed at me from another shelf, recalling all the time I’d spent on horseback.  James Herriot smiled at me, full of love for All Creatures Great and Small and the many years I was convinced I would become a veterinarian.  Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin sailed the waves alongside Horatio Hornblower. And, holding it all together, Aslan told Lucy Pevensie she was a lioness and Galadriel reminded Frodo that even the smallest person can make a difference.

I left the bedroom (where we kept the genre fiction) and moved through the rest of the apartment.  Former professors, and all they had taught me, were lined up like shorthand notes in the spines of the books they had assigned.  My own growth as a scholar was detailed in the books I had accumulated for my dissertation.  John and Abigail Adams spoke to each other of love and intellect shared across the years and oceans they were apart.

My husband’s books were everywhere as well.  Some I had read, others I had not, but they interleaved with my library, a literary embodiment of the marriage of true minds.

I sat down in the living room, and looked at our collection of War and Peace (3 copies in two editions) and I thought about the importance of non-rare physical books.

I spend most of my days looking at lit screens.  My job as Associate Director of the Center for Digital Humanities means that I work mostly with digital surrogates of rare materials.  The disc out of alignment in my neck (I fell off several of those horses back in middle school) means that I physically cannot read anything that weighs more than one pound.

Books are heavy.  Books take up space.  And it is the information or the characters or the story that live in our imaginations and direct the course of our lives, that is alive, and not the pulped trees and chemicals which bind them into neat boxes — as fascinating and illuminating as those codices can be in a rare-book context.

And yet.  I don’t look at my Kindle and see memories.  I look at it and see a gadget.  Even though until it was invented I despaired of ever being able to read my favorite novel ever again.  War and Peace weighs substantially more than one pound!

Where does that leave me?  I don’t know.  Physical books are not going away.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something — and it isn’t Digital Humanities, I can promise you that.

But libraries are putting the focus more and more on special collections and moving their non-special/ordinary? collections off site and entering into collaborative borrowing agreements.  I can’t and won’t argue with this.  Space is limited.  Money is limited.  Time is limited.

These days I buy almost all of my books in electronic format, unless they are art books or unless I think my husband (who refuses to buy a Kindle) will want to read them.  Somedays I wonder whether that means my shelves will tell a story that basically ends in 2010.

When we finally moved to Princeton in June, I almost gave away the vast majority of my history books — everything I had kept in the half-hearted belief that I might someday teach an American history survey class to undergraduates.  My husband convinced me otherwise.

“Are these good books?”
“Then keep them.”
“We don’t have the space.”
“Your new office will have more bookshelves, right?”
“Then put the history books there.”
“But I don’t need them anymore.”
“Someone will. And then you can give them a book.”

My favorite professor from college, Margaret M. Mitchell (now Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School and a woman with her own interesting relationship to literature) often invokes St. Augustine to say that the New Testament exists because someone had a letter and then handed that letter to someone else saying: “Take. Read. Good for you.”

Take. Read. Good for you. That to me, is the value of books.

Desiderata for A Digital Humanist: My Ada Lovelace Day Tribute to Elli Mylonas

So I always forget about Ada Lovelace Day.  Maybe it’s because my childhood hero was Marie Curie . . . and Madeline Albright — clearly I was always going to end up in DH.

But this year is important, because I want to highlight a woman I have worked with for three years, and who has taught me more about Digital Humanities than I ever thought I could (or still had to) learn.  I have been especially fortunate in DH, I’ve had many mentors, and despite other trends in the community, they have almost all been women.  But if Holly Shulman got me started, Bess Sadler taught me to code, and Bethany Nowviskie became my grownup heroElli Mylonas taught me how to be a professional Digital Humanist.

I met Elli completely by chance.  In the final hours of the 2010 Chicago Colloquium on Digital Humanities we found ourselves suddenly united in the face of a common enemy: the completely clueless (male) desk clerk who did not believe us when we told him we had already downloaded the new printer drivers AND restarted the machine, so all we required of him was to enter a user name and password so the computer could restart.  We eventually persuaded him to log onto the machine and thus achieved our ultimate goal: printing our boarding passes and getting out of Chicago.

As we headed into the final session Elli said she had enjoyed my talk and started rummaging around in her purse.  She eventually found a business card and handed it to me saying “If you ever find yourself in New England, let me know and I’ll set up a talk for you at Brown.”

When I wrote 2 months later to say I would be in Boston, Elli was as good as her word and better.  She organized my talk, gave me a tour of the campus (beautiful in the snow), and took me around to meet her colleagues — many of whom were already heading home before the blizzard really hit.  Within hours she had completely sold me on Brown University, and I vowed that if I ever had the chance to work with her,  I would take it.

That chance came just 3 months later, and I had the good fortune become the first Digital Humanities Librarian at Brown.

When I started at Brown, I had four years of DH project work under my belt, but only as a graduate student.  Elli offered to meet with me every Wednesday at 8:30am for coffee and conversation.  She told me about what she was working on and then answered any (and really all) questions I had about the university.  She brought me to all her DH project meetings, and graciously attended the few lined up for me.  And when it all became overwhelming, she told me about the early days of the Perseus Project or just talked about the avant-guard music/noise/multimedia concert she had attended the night before.

Have I mentioned at this point that she was never my boss?  And originally was in a different department?  No one asked her to do this, and when I have thanked her for keeping me afloat that first year, she was genuinely surprised that anyone wouldn’t offer this level of mentoring to a new, junior colleague.  Imagine a world where she was right.

From watching Elli (and receiving her advice), I learned not just how to ‘do’ DH, but how to manage DH projects.  She showed me how to write an agenda.  The importance of action items, how to learn the feel of a campus, how to engage stakeholders, how social contacts cut across bureaucracy, and what to do when a faculty member decides they want to apply for a grant that’s due in less than 2 weeks.  How to write a grant quickly, and how to write a grant well (but never in only 2 weeks).

I wish every new DH alt-ac could work with Elli.  And I know I am not the only person she has helped succeed.

One final note of awesomeness — Thanks to her Classics background, Elli refers to Project Outcomes as “Desiderata.”  And, really, what could be better than that?