On October 1, 2017 I submitted my dossier for tenure and promotion at Northeastern University. I hope at some point to be able to make my full dossier available, but for now I wanted to publish the three statements central to the dossier: my philosophies of teaching, research, and service. There are not many models for these documents in the digital humanities and I hope mine can be useful to others as they draft T&P or similar documents, such as job materials.
Even more, I believe what I’ve written in these statements. They do in fact convey much about how I think of myself and my work, which may be of interest to anyone browsing my website!
My most ambitious aim as a teacher of American literature, book history, and digital humanities is to help students understand the mutually constitutive relationships among texts and the technologies through which they meet readers. Achieving this goal requires close attention to the media—both historical and contemporary—through which texts are composed and circulated, and the cultures which create—and are created by—those technologies. My classes offer neither naive millennialism nor naive apocalypticism about technological and media change. Instead, we study the affordances and constraints of new media across time periods, investigating how textual technologies shape the experiences of writing and reading. As I write in the course description for my “Technologies of Text” class, “Many debates that seem unique to the twenty-first century—over privacy, intellectual property, information overload, and textual authority—are new iterations of familiar battles in the histories of technology, new media, and literature.” By grappling with these historical debates, students gain valuable perspective on today’s computational culture. To move them toward such understanding, I ask students to experiment with technologies old and new, and to think consciously about the ways their own media choices affect the message of what they write for my class and beyond. In this way, my classes have been central to Northeastern’s growing curriculum in digital humanities across departments in CSSH and even across colleges, drawing students from CAMD and CCIS each term.
At both the undergraduate and graduate level, my classes balance close reading and discussion of individual texts with “humanities labs” that give students the opportunity to experiment directly with the materials, media, and technologies we study. These labs include training in computational methods, such as topic modeling, but also in working with historical materials, such as rare books. For literary texts, this hybrid approach stems from a conviction that a full understanding of any novel, poem, or short story requires knowledge of the material circumstances of its creation and publication. In a class on Henry James’ “The Real Thing,” for instance, we meditate on photography, art, and authenticity while comparing the story’s first British publication—in a literary magazine with illustrations—against its first American publication—in a newspaper juxtaposed with advertisements. Students immediately discern how these media would alter the reception of James’ work, and enthusiastically dissect the message of the text in each printing.
One of my primary goals as a teacher is to work against notions of the “digital native” and the ruinous pedagogical consequences following from that designation. That our students have spent their educational lives using digital tools—researching online, using applications to learn math or spelling, watching Powerpoint lectures, or writing on smart boards—does not mean they have learned much about or from digital tools. In many ways, familiarity mitigates against critical engagement. Technological imagination is not now nor has ever been innate. It is one thing to be able to use a particular piece of hardware or software, and another thing altogether to imagine what it might do or mean if pushed beyond its typical use—and even more, to imagine what might be created in its stead. Such imagination depends on humanistic training, which introduces other points of view, other possibilities.
To meet this mandate for twenty-first century education, I weave training in digital humanities skills throughout the content and goals of individual courses. Each year I teach my advanced undergraduate Technologies of Text (ToT) class, for instance, which tells a sweeping history of the book “from the scroll to scrolling (on the web).” In the class we discuss works, from Plato’s “Phaedrus” to Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, that respond to technological change, and we attend to the ways specific media shape readers’ responses to literature. The “humanities labs” in ToT ask students to learn through experimentation, tinkering, and even play. In these labs students edit Wikipedia, learn the basics of computational text analysis, and program Twitter poetry bots using the R programming language. Before students learn to operate a 3D printer, however, they also transcribe manuscripts by candlelight in a simulation of the medieval scriptorium, set type and print on a letterpress printer, and spend significant time in the rare books room at the Boston Public Library. The labs in my courses are designed to help students understand technology as a long continuum of human experimentation and choice: a timeline which could have been otherwise, and one which they can help shape in the future.
In a similar vein, my graduate courses seek to help students imagine new methodological and professional possibilities in an increasingly strained profession. I am skeptical of claims that digital humanities can (or should) “save” history or literary studies, or that “alternative academic” (alt-ac) training entirely answers the crisis of the job market. However, I see the interdisciplinary, collaborative, and public mandates of DH work as profoundly generative for junior scholars and the larger profession. In my introductory graduate classes I introduce students to encoding, digital archiving, textual analysis, mapping, and network analysis, helping them imagine how their own work might be enriched through computational approaches. In my advanced course, “Humanities Data Analysis”, I help students gain proficiency in the R programming language and challenge them to integrate computational analyses into their burgeoning research. Most of the students from that course have chosen to continue working with me on Field and Focus papers (the English Department’s comprehensive exams) and seem poised to deploy computational analyses to support sophisticated dissertation projects in writing studies, early American literature, 20th-century poetics, and a range of other subfields. The work that graduate students do in my classes well prepares them to take up roles on initiatives in the NULab and the library’s Digital Scholarship Group, and in turn to compete for jobs in the digital humanities after graduation.
Indeed, in addition to teaching I have been fortunate to mentor stellar graduate students through comprehensive exams; dissertation work; and the development of large-scale projects such as Our Marathon. While the latter might seem primarily a research project, it should also be understood as graduate teaching. Our Marathon was a fast-developing, public-facing archive with educational, non-profit, and corporate partners. As the founding project manager, I trained an interdisciplinary group of undergraduate and graduate students who then customized a platform, developed standards for collection, crafted a public-outreach strategy, and worked with partners such as WBUR to fund and expand the project. Each project member took charge of one aspect of the project, and I was pleased to mentor them as they became skilled project managers, technical developers, oral historians, event organizers, and public writers. My proudest achievement in this project is that I was, after nine months, able to give it over entirely to those graduate students, who together created an important contribution to public history.
I believe the most pressing scholarly questions in the coming years will require true interdisciplinarity. By this I mean not individual scholars who dabble in many disciplines, but groups of scholars who can contribute their various expertise to a sustained and substantial enterprise. It is this future that I hope to prepare my students to meet with creativity and verve. Doing so requires not a pedagogy founded on particular technologies or tools, but on capacious scholarly and technological imaginations. As reflected in course enrollments and my student evaluations, this approach has resonated with Northeastern students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. “Technologies of Text,” for instance, has grown substantially, such that in Fall 2018 we will offer two sections of the class to meet demand. Students’ assessments of my classes reflect their enthusiasm for their subjects and unorthodox structures. In my course evaluations, students laud the interactivity of the laboratories and the intellectual freedom of the class’ “unessay” writing assignments, which helped them engage in new ways with our subject matter and, in the process, reshaped their thinking about the media of their messages. As one student said in their teaching evaluation last spring, “I honestly wish more courses were like this one. It combines the humanities and the sciences in ways that I don’t feel Northeastern as a whole—or the English department—fully appreciate. This was the most intellectually stimulating course I took this semester—possibly the most stimulating I’ve taken yet in CSSH…I see the world differently, and that’s the sort of thing I want in a college-level course.” Whether intentionally or not, this student echoes precisely my deepest pedagogical hopes: that encouraging students to think across disciplinary boundaries will help make substantive, intellectual connections they could not make otherwise. This idea exemplifies the highest ideals for liberal arts education, and it is these highest ideals that I seek to champion in my teaching at Northeastern.
My research seeks to illuminate how technologies of production, reception, and remediation shape the meanings of texts within communities. While I primarily study circulation and reprinting in nineteenth-century American newspapers, my interests extend to the influence of computation and digitization on contemporary reading, writing, and research. Across this temporal range, I am interesting in bringing popular varieties of literature such as temperance tracts, vignettes, advice columns, jokes, recipes, or even modern “viral media” into critical dialogue with more established objects of literary inquiry such as novels, short stories, or poetry. To serve those aims, my work is collaborative and interdisciplinary, drawing from and contributing to conversations in literary history, American studies, digital humanities, media studies, bibliography, book history, and even computer science. My scholarship insists that deep histories—of the book, of information, of virality, of computational thinking—inextricably underlie the most pressing debates of our own historical moment. By foregrounding these entwined histories, I seek to intervene in two directions: challenging the presentism of much contemporary technological rhetoric while insisting that humanistic inquiry must include engagements, both theoretical and material, with technology.
My research spans not only disciplines but also methodologies, including leading two major digital humanities projects and contributing to several others; writing or cowriting nine peer-reviewed articles and book chapters; building interactive, online exhibits and visualizations; writing four major, awarded grant proposals, as well as several smaller grants; publishing datasets of nineteenth-century reprinting (see also a prototype database using more current data); releasing open access code to benefit other digital humanities researchers; and leading the writing of a “multigraph,” or multi-authored book, which is under contract with the University of Minnesota Press. My research program has been ambitious and far-reaching, and thus has necessitated thorough, interdisciplinary collaboration across all of these activities. The digital humanities are not new, but the field has become increasingly prominent over the course of my career, particularly within the professoriate. I advocate for a digital humanities whose practitioners bring to it the methods of distinct disciplines and take insights from it back to those disciplines. I have sought to model such interdisciplinary dialog by publishing in a wide range of venues, from established digital humanities journals (Digital Humanities Quarterly), to leading publications in American literature (American Literary History) and bibliography/book history (Book History), to prominent computer science conference proceedings, which are the premier publication venue in that discipline. These publications have also been cited widely, including in at least 69 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, across the fields I have thus far listed here, and in many more scholarly blog posts and conference presentations. Moreover, I have committed with my collaborators to make data and code from our project openly available for scholars, students, journalists, and the general public, and whenever possible publish open-access pre- or post-print editions of our publications.
My central research effort is Viral Texts, a collaboration with colleagues in Computer Science, English, and History that seeks to identify frequently reprinted texts in C19 newspapers. We have been fortunate to receive highly-competitive funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities ($50,000), American Council of Learned Societies ($85,000), and the Mellon Foundation (~$20,000 for Viral Texts within a larger $500,000 grant) to support various aspects of Viral Texts’ intellectual and technical development. This project fits the mold of “big data”: algorithms developed from natural language processing help us identify matching texts across large-scale text archives; while tools such as GIS (geographic information system), network analysis, and custom programs help us analyze and visualize dynamics of historical print culture that can be ascertained from those matched texts. However, tools are not the primary ends of our work. I tout Viral Texts as a digital humanities project that seeks first to answer pressing literary-historical questions about C19 circulation, authorship, and media. As I argue in American Literary History (see E.2.2), by disaggregating frequently reprinted snippets from individual newspaper issues, we can read them as a distinct corpus evidencing genres, topics, and styles of everyday writing that resonated with C19 readers. In his review of Viral Texts for the American Historical Association, John Rosinbum shows how he uses our data and exhibits to help his students connect with nineteenth-century readers, comparing the daily concerns of historical people with their own.
Drawing on computational models of textual circulation rather than bibliographies of canonical writers, Viral Texts demonstrates the importance of occasional genres of writing such as popular science, recipes, lists, trivia, vignettes, and poetry for expressing and shaping the public sphere during the nineteenth century. Historians and literary scholars often anachronistically read the nineteenth-century newspaper as analogous to professionalized, mid-twentieth century institutions such as the New York Times. In fact, the mid-nineteenth century was almost a different medium: a hybrid, partisan publication that functioned by aggregation more than original composition. Within this miscellany, I argue that genres of “information literature” popularized through the exchange network helped establish the modern notion of the newspaper as objective and authoritative. By piling up “facts”—morsels of information cast as prior to interpretation—nineteenth-century editors built up a networked authority that seemed to extend beyond an individual, local paper. Examining the dynamic environment of newspaper publishing also gives us new purchase for making sense of authorship. In a complementary piece in American Periodicals (see Appendix B.6), I examine the evolution of authorial myths around “fugitive poetry,” which circulated anonymously or semi-anonymously in nineteenth-century newspapers and exemplified the fluidity of literary conventions in the period’s periodical culture of the time. In contrast to literary histories organized around particular authors, my articles theorize a deeply intertwined system of everyday reading and writing that operates through selection, aggregation, quotation, amendment, and even appropriation to spread ideas across a network of national and regional periodicals. My proposed “network author” offers a structure for understanding the networked operations of literary production in the nineteenth century and intervenes in much broader conversations about how scholars should understand authorial originality and influence, particularly in the internet age.
My research seeks to identify the connections between historical text technologies and the present: to trace the outlines of internet virality in nineteenth-century newspaper exchanges, or to identify resonances of the operations of optical character recognition software in the work of compositors setting movable type. Such investigations necessitate genuinely interdisciplinary methods and extensive collaboration. Thus my work at Northeastern has largely comprised group efforts, most notably in collaboration with David Smith in Computer Science. For me, interdisciplinarity means more than simply borrowing tools, methods, or theories from other disciplines in service of my own: what we might call disciplinary appropriation. Instead, I seek to understand the primary assumptions and questions in fields such as computer science, find points of overlap (or rupture) between those traditions and literary and book history, and from these intersections catalyze rich interactions. This work is perhaps most apparent in my forthcoming article in Book History (Appendix B.5), which pairs a rigorous account of textual materiality drawn from book history and bibliography with a technically-informed investigation of the Library of Congress’ digital newspaper archive, in order to illuminate the essential, overlooked material histories of the resources that underlie much contemporary literary-historical research. The article seeks to challenge both technical complacency on the part of humanists and historical complacency on the part of technologists, to demonstrate how accounts of technology and history must imbricate in our critical conversations.
I am committed to an ethics of collaboration in both research and publication. As often as possible, I seek to publish with my collaborators, following a framework more common in the sciences and social sciences than in the humanities. Journal publications drawn from Viral Texts—and, indeed, the book that will be drawn from the project—give me the opportunity to weave mentorship into research, helping graduate students new to the field understand the theoretical and practical work of publication and offering them a tangible benefit to their early careers. The most prominent project to which I have contributed at Northeastern was Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive, for which I was co-PI and founding project manager. Our Marathon exemplifies the complexities of digital humanities work, bringing together in one project historical research, technical development, teaching, and community service. Our aims for Our Marathon were ambitious: we sought to collect as much media as possible, and of all kinds, to tell the story of the 2013 bombing of the BOston Marathon, its aftermath, and its effect on citizens, as well as to create content such as oral history interviews. As the founding project manager, I trained an interdisciplinary group of graduate students who then worked together to customize a platform, develop standards for collection, craft a public-outreach strategy, and work with partners such as the public-radio station WBUR to fund and expand the project (work I discuss in more detail in E.3.1).
Alongside my commitment to broader cooperation within the academy, I also actively seek to connect my work with journalists and broader public debates, to show for example how nineteenth century print culture might offer a richer context for grappling with contemporary concerns over privacy, intellectual property, information overload, circulation, or even “fake news.” As the Viral Texts project’s name suggests, I believe critical media histories can inform broader social and political conversations in our current moment of rapid technological change. This emphasis on trans-historical comparison has helped Viral Texts resonate across registers. As my many conference presentations, invited talks, and keynotes indicate, I have shared the work the project widely, with audiences as diverse as the University of Pennsylvania’s Humanities Forum, the Library of Congress’s Newspaper Digitization Program, the New York offices of Buzzfeed, and the public radio programs On the Media, Weekend Edition, and Australia’s Future Tense. Viral Texts’ study of historical media has resonated with modern journalists, and the project has been publicized through coverage in a variety of periodicals (see Appendix B.22), from tech publications such as Wired to cultural publications such as Smithsonian Magazine or Lapham’s Quarterly. I deeply value this work of public engagement, seeing it as vital advocacy for the essential work of humanistic research, which is particularly needed in this moment of dwindling public support and governmental austerity toward liberal education.
My commitment to an ethics of collaboration and public engagement will be enlarged to a global scale in the next years as I lead Oceanic Exchanges: Tracing Global Information Networks In Historical Newspaper Repositories, 1840-1914 (Appendix B.25) a project funded by the Trans-Atlantic Platform (~$1.5 million across the OcEx project teams). Between 2017-2019, OcEx will bring together leading efforts in computational periodicals research from the US, Mexico, United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland—and include more than 20 professors, postdocs, graduate students, and librarians—to bridge the boundaries separating national historical newspaper corpora and illustrate the global connections among nineteenth-century newspapers. In addition to generating significant new ideas about international communications in the nineteenth century, by linking research across large-scale digital newspaper collections, Oceanic Exchanges will offer models for data custodians that create and host large-scale humanities data, helping to ensure that these collections can contribute to ambitious text mining projects in the future. Given the diverse expertise and aims of its participants, I anticipate a similarly diverse set of scholarly outcomes from OcEx as from Viral Texts, certainly including conference presentations, single- and co-authored articles, datasets, and code, all of which will further our understanding of how the global filtered through the local newspaper in the nineteenth century.
My work with OcEx will define the primary arc of my research over the next few years. In the near term, I am also drafting two new journal articles and leading the writing of Viral Texts’ book project, which is under contract with the University of Minnesota Press (Appendix B.15). In addition, David Smith and I were invited by the NEH and the Mellon Foundation to draft a report outlining the current state and future prospects for OCR research related to the humanities (see Appendix B.26). This work will be conducted during 2017-2018 and will likely lead to future funding and research activities stemming from the recommendations made in that report. Finally, with NULab colleague Élika Ortega Guzman I am supervising the planning for a new digital archival project. Witnessing Hate: A Social Justice Archive of the Present will be a crowd-sourced, web-based digital archive documenting incidents of hate speech and acts of violence inspired by racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other bias in New England since the 2016 election, and will build on the expertise developed in the Our Marathon Project. Practically, then, I anticipate that the research threads described here will only thicken and expand as I move into an Associate Professorship.
More idealistically, I look forward to advocating a robust and truly integrative digital humanities. After a period of hyperbolic rhetoric (on all sides) over the introduction of computational methods to the humanities, the past few years have seen a welcome transition into genuine dialog. Topics such as computation, data, and quantification have been increasingly addressed not simply as methods we might borrow for the humanities, but as objects of humanistic study in their own rights. Simultaneously—and, I would argue, not coincidentally—the use of computational methods for understanding literature, history, and related fields has matured, as has been evident in recent publications from scholars—among whom I would count myself—advancing arguments that integrate computational and humanistic evidence to powerful effect. The past has much yet to teach us about our own historical moment, even as our new tools can illuminate the past in unexpected ways.
My service aims primarily to enrich critical engagements between technology and humanistic modes of thought in my department, the university, and the wider academic community. I seek not to be an ed-tech evangelist, but instead to foster conversations about the affordances new technologies offer for research and teaching as well as the methodological, technical, and ethical questions they necessarily introduce. I aim to encourage broader technological agency among my colleagues—both at NU and beyond—and my students. I believe faculty, staff, and students should be active participants in the creation and use of scholarly technologies, rather than passive consumers of corporate solutions that do not always meet, or even aspire to, the ideals of a liberal arts education. Integral to these goals are my active efforts to bring digital humanities (DH) work into dialogue with adjacent fields such as book history, bibliography, and American literature, helping articulate interdisciplinary connections and advance intellectual life across academic borders. I have sought service opportunities across my disciplines, seeking to create opportunities for the cross-fertilization which I believe will enliven these fields.
Specifically, I have worked to strengthen the Northeastern’s strategic initiatives in digital humanities and computational social sciences by participating in two interdisciplinary search committees; working to recruit talented DH graduate students; speaking frequently about DH at Northeastern to groups of prospective students, their parents, and alumni; and helping found the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks. The latter role has been amorphous and shifting as the center has grown over the past three years, but I have helped to craft the center’s vision in collaboration with colleagues across a wide range of disciplines; plan DH curriculum at the undergraduate and graduate levels; organize local workshops, many of which I also led; and supervise the NULab Fellows, cohorts of graduate students who assist in the center’s work each year. In addition, I have managed the organization of several DH conferences at Northeastern, such as a THATCamp (an “unconference” focused on technology in the humanities) prior to MLA in Boston; the Boston Area “Days of DH” conference; and the “New Media in American Literary History” symposium, which brought scholars of American literature, book history, media studies, and DH together for a series of much-needed interdisciplinary conversations. Beyond the NULab, I have also worked on several committees for the university and CSSH charged with of information technology and communications policies, which has given me insight into how our DH efforts resonate with broader institutional priorities and initiatives.
At the national and international level, I am deeply invested in infrastructural work that benefits the digital humanities, book historical, and bibliographic communities. Between 2013-2016 I was fortunate to be an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow of Critical Bibliography at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School (RBS). This remarkable fellowship sought to revitalize bibliographic study by training a new generation of multi-disciplinary bibliographers, who would bring to the field a range of approaches (including the computational, as in my research) while taking the bibliographic training they acquired at RBS back to their home disciplines. This fellowship was transformative for many of the fellows, myself included, and we soon began working to conceive and fund a more permanent version of the three-year program that could continue to benefit junior scholars well into the future. We were proud to receive a founding grant from the Mellon Foundation earlier this year, which will establish the Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography we proposed and fund the program for a decade while we Senior Fellows work to raise an endowment (see Appendix C.1). I cite this as one salient example of my service ethic. Whether with NULab or beyond, I work to develop intellectual infrastructure that redounds to the benefit of my scholarly communities.
I actively engage national conversations about technology and higher education, most visibly as a core blog columnist for the ProfHacker blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education, to which I contributed more than 130 posts between 2010-2015 (Appendix C.9). ProfHacker reaches a broad international audience of academics interested in integrating technology into their work and teaching. Within the digital humanities community, I was chosen as a founding Co-Editor-in-Chief for DHCommons (Appendix C.5), the flagship journal of centerNet, the international consortium of digital humanities centers, funded by the international Association for Digital Humanities Organizations. DHCommons sought to bridge the “evaluation gap” facing many long-term projects in the DH field and experimented with an innovative model for digital peer review. In addition to this work, I have been invited to join a number of national or international editorial/advisory boards for journals and digital projects, and have been elected into leadership positions in scholarly associations pertinent to my research. For instance, I was asked to serve as Editorial Board head for the Americanist group of NINES, a group which peer reviews digital projects in nineteenth-century studies (Appendix C.3). Each of these efforts attempts to marry the best possibilities of digital media for rethinking humanities research and publication with tried systems of peer review that can ensure the quality of research in digital media. My field leadership extends beyond the digital humanities as well, as evidenced by my recent election to the Executive Committee for the MLA’s Forum on Bibliography and Scholarly Editing, which plans sessions in its domain for the annual international MLA convention (Appendix C.2).
As I become a more senior scholar, I look forward to expanding my leadership roles in the DH community at Northeastern, the greater Boston academic community, and my disciplines. The NULab has grown considerably during my time at Northeastern. Digital humanists from around the world already look to Northeastern as a leader in the field, which, given how quickly our program was built, testifies to the institution’s forward thinking and savvy program building. The speed of the NULab’s development, however, also means that there is much work to be done consolidating a wider community of scholars around its activities, inviting colleagues to work with us on ambitious projects, and supporting inventive graduate student research that will impact wider academic communities. To cite only one concrete possibility: I would love to spearhead renewed efforts toward sustainable funding for the NULab that could better support collaborative research among faculty and, most importantly to me, underwrite dedicated research time and professional development for NULab graduate students. I am also keen to forge international connections between the NULab and other digital humanities groups, particularly in Europe. The Oceanic Exchanges project represents one step in this direction, but I hope to think even more creatively about how we might connect our research and curriculum with sister programs around the world (see Appendix B.25). Beyond Northeastern, I expect to continue seeking out leadership opportunities in American literary history, book history, and digital humanities that will help the fields cross-pollinate. Making such connections is vital, particularly in this moment for the humanities. My service work has been and will continue to be about fostering generative conversations among colleagues and among disciplines, both at Northeastern and beyond.