The “Feminist Methods in Digital Spaces” panel brought together four experts from a range of digital disciplines to discuss their experiences in applying feminist methods to pedagogy and research in digital humanities, online discourse, computer science, and game design. The event was co-sponsored by the NULab for Texts, Maps and Networks and the Digital Feminist Commons, with support from the Women Writers Project and the Northeastern University Libraries Digital Scholarship Group. During the presentations and the discussion that followed, a clear theme of interdisciplinarity and collaboration emerged—each panelist spoke about how important it is to include many different disciplines and perspectives in doing feminist work.
Jacqueline Wernimont, founding co-Director of the HS Collab and Assistant Professor of English, Arizona State University
Jacqueline Wernimont’s talk discussed “Feminist Methods in Four Movements,” emphasizing how all four projects are deeply collaborative. She began with Vibrant Lives, which engages both scholarly and artistic communities, working with phenomena that depend on digital tools and practices but that don’t necessarily manifest in digital ways. Wernimont explained that she was interested in re-embodying data, giving people sonified and haptic (touch-based) experiences of several different kinds of data.
For example, in DataPLAY, Wernimont and her partners set up a installation of sculptures that contain subwoofers; these interact with an app to produce vibrations based on data packets being sent and received through cell phones, essentially giving people the ability to feel their datasheds. The project has also worked on sonifying and haptifying archival data, such as data about eugenics sterilizations in California.
In Vibrant Lives, Wernimont collaborates with experts from a range of fields, including somatics, dance, theater, and computer science. Wernimont spoke of the importance of listening to and accepting others’ practices when doing this sort of deeply collaborative work. She explained that it’s not enough to simply say “I’m working with these practitioners”; academics need to be willing to accept the expertise of others and set aside some of their own assumptions, even when it might be uncomfortable.
Wernimont shared another haptics experiment, the Living Net, which was installed at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in 2016. In describing the inspiration for the Living Net, Wernimont spoke about how she had been reading Carolyn Steedman’s Dust and wanted to think about the tensions between digital networks and more archival collections of objects. She reached out to her own digital network and said “send me things from your junk drawer”; she then spent a day weaving those objects into a frame. Finally, Wernimont sonified and haptified the space, so that people can feel and hear their datashed in real time and think about what it means to weave analog traces into something more digital.
Wernimont also discussed the intersections of analog and digital objects when she turned to her current book project—tentatively titled Numbered Lives—which examines the long histories of technologies used to count human experiences and human death. She showed several pedometers from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including one in the shape of a book that belonged to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Wernimont explained that her work in Numbered Lives gives a deep media history of things we think of as twenty-first-century technologies (such as the pedometer); it is a feminist project in thinking about both the objects themselves and the bodies that were using them and in arguing that the forms used for counting bodies mediate life possibilities in ways that are tied to patriarchal and colonial structures.
Finally, Wernimont discussed the digital archives she has worked on, such as the Women Writers Project. She shared an article that was recently published in the WWP’s Women Writers in Context series: “Women, Mathematics, and the Periodical Tradition in Britain: or a History of Women Rocking Math from the Beginning.” In this piece, Wernimont discusses The Ladies’ Diary, the first mathematical periodical published in Great Britain, showing that that women’s periodicals were central to advancing early modern modes of knowledge production, pleasure, and civic engagement. Wernimont also discussed her work on the Eugenic Rubicon project, which leverages numerical representation to bring alive the story of the 20,000 people who were sterilized in California institutions from the period 1921 to 1953.
Throughout her talk, Wernimont emphasized that her work is deeply interdisciplinary and deeply collaborative—nothing she does can be done alone.
Gillian Smith, Assistant Professor of Game Design, Northeastern University
Gillian Smith positioned her work as offering some feminist perspectives on computing, critiquing software through a feminist lens, and creating computation systems that intersect with traditionally feminine practices. Like Wernimont, she described how important it has been for her to collaborate outside of disciplinary boundaries, to be “inherently interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, even post-disciplinary.”
Smith described what she calls “computational craft,” in which algorithms create physical artifacts. For example, Hoopla is a procedural cross-stitch sample generator; Smith showed several examples of embroidery that was designed by the Hoopla algorithm and then stitched by hand. Similarly, Collaboration is a quilt designed by an algorithm and sewn by hand, while Viv (Visual Information Vases) is an AI artist that takes inspiration from images to create 3d-printable vases.
Smith spoke about her work on politics and procedurally-generated content, which is a collaboration with scholars from several different fields. Their research asks: “What is the formal theory embedded in generative systems?” The collaborators examine how politics are embedded into algorithms, putting pressure on the idea that we can escape culpability for algorithmically-generated content because software is “rational.” For example, Smith showed an avatar generator that randomly creates a range of characters but produces more people with green hair than people of color. As Smith pointed out, the system will always produce people with two legs and two arms; it will never create someone in a wheelchair or missing a limb, thus enforcing certain assumptions about human identities. Smith asserted that there are embedded biases in software systems, often reflecting a creator’s failure to think through identities, and she urged that software should support “richer identity labels.”
Smith described another project, Threadsteading, which is a strategy game played entirely on an embroidery machine. As Smith explained, embroidery machines have computers in them, which means they can be hacked and made into games. The machine literally stitches the game into a piece of fabric and the winner keeps the artifact, which is also a representation of the gameplay. Threadsteading invokes the shared history between craft and computation. Smith pointed out that the first programmed machine was, in fact, a Jacquard loom, which was controlled by a system of punched cards that proved to be a direct inspiration for early programming languages. Looking at digital storytelling through sewing, Smith said, reminds us of how closely intertwined crafting and computing are.
Moya Bailey, Assistant Professor of Cultures, Societies and Global Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Northeastern University
Moya Bailey spoke about her experiences working on a grant-funded project designed to help think through the ways that women, especially women of color, have been targeted by online violence. Continuing with the theme of collaboration, Bailey discussed how she and Wernimont worked together on the grant project, which has led to the Center for Solutions to Online Violence; Bailey and Wernimont have also co-written an article on their experiences.
Bailey spoke about the challenges the project faced in distributing the grant’s funds to all of its participants; in particular, it proved difficult to get funds to people who were not part of the university system. This difficulty was particularly problematic, Bailey explained, because the “collaborative process is part of our principles as feminists.” She spoke about other tensions between the grant administration process and the feminist goals of the project; for example, key outcomes were not yet outlined in the grant proposal, because the project team wanted those to be determined in conversation with the community of people working on online violence against women, many of whom are not part of an academic institution. It was important to bring people into the project, Bailey explained, but that was also one of their biggest challenges.
Bailey stressed that it is crucial to plan ahead and ask what kind of work needs to be done to include people from the beginning of a project in order to anticipate some pitfalls and forestall others. She encouraged researchers to think about what pitfalls might be built into their systems and weigh those limitations in making decisions about where to look for resources.
Bailey called for the research community to think about ways to include collaborators that would allow for funds to be more easily exchanged and to consider what kind of practices for inclusivity can be designed before a project is theorized. “This is my call,” she said “as someone who is thinking through feminist ethics, as someone who is thinking about collaboration”: academics need to be aware of these challenges—and working to address them—to bring a wider community into our research.
“Bodies of Information,” by Bailey and Wernimont, is scheduled for the next issue of Debates in the Digital Humanities. It will be available for peer-to-peer review soon and will be published in 2018.
Carla Brodley, Professor and Dean of the College of Computer and Information Science, Northeastern University
Carla Brodley spoke about her efforts to bring gender parity in STEM fields to Northeastern University and nationally, describing her work as changing the demographics of computer science. Her aim at Northeastern is to achieve a 50/50 gender balance in computer science enrollment by 2021, a goal that was recently written up in TechRepublic.
Brodley explained that she has already seen significant results; 26% of computer science majors are now women, up from 18% when her efforts began in 2014. She spoke about her strategy of increasing representation of women in CS by showing admitted students how applicable CS is to their academic and professional goals. She also described the Meaningful Minors in Computer Science program, which takes as its starting principle that everyone should know something about computer science in today’s world. It is very important, Brodley said, that we understand the tools that all of us use in more than a surface way.
In the Meaningful Minors program, all students take the same two introductory courses, after which they select classes in CS that are also related to their majors. Brodley spoke about the importance of interdisciplinary curriculum development; she is working with faculty to design courses that combine CS with other disciplines and creating combined majors with disciplines that include English, Philosophy, and Criminal Justice. Brodley noted that half of Northeastern’s CS majors are combined majors, which, she argued, creates a productive diversity of thought.
Another program Brodley described is an ALIGN master’s in computer science, designed for students who may have completed their undergraduate work some time earlier (she noted that the average age of students is 28). The program recently received a $1 million grant from the NSF to provide scholarships to students from underrepresented groups who have financial need, one indicator of its success. Another is its 93% retention rate.
Brodley also discussed the importance of interdisciplinarity, describing how theater faculty have successfully taught classes to CS students on how to present their work. She reported that these classes were extended to faculty, who found that they had a great deal to learn from experts in another field. “It is never too late,” Brodley said, “to bring in ideas from other disciplines.”
Below is a list of the resources, publications, and projects discussed by the panelists:
Photographs in this post by Josephine Pettigrew.