Category Archives: Research

Week 10: #MyMotherWasAComputer: An Overview and Lingering Questions

“My Mother Was a Computer: Legacies of Gender and Technology” was a one day symposium (November 2, 2018) at William & Mary organized by my professor, Dr. Liz Losh. The day was packed from start to finish with smart conversation, witty one-liners, and open-ended questions, many of which I will point to here. The symposium featured three panels (Gender and Programming, Gender and Gaming, and Gender and Online Community), an artist talk with Mattie Brice, Lightning Talks by members of the Equality Lab, and a stunning keynote by Dr. Wendy Chun.

One of the most interesting concerns raised from the Gender and Programming panel was the question of opportunity and empowerment. Dr. Janet Abbate spoke on the ways that we praise the talents of children learning to code, thus enforcing the idea that coding is somehow innate and must be fostered if the talent appears early, but Dr. Abbate reminds us that this is a skill that can be learned at any age. In terms of empowerment, Abbate spoke quite eloquently on the fact that we empower girls to code, but then what? Are the skills that we teach then to be used to serve a narrow demographic? How do we empower? Do we get women in the door and let them change from within or do we empower them as entrepreneurs? As someone with a particularly entrepreneurial spirit, I personally like the idea of providing women with skills to go forth and create their own path. As Audre Lorde says, you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools– we either need new tools or to move away from the house and construct a new one altogether. (Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”)

In addition to Abbate’s concerns about opportunity and empowerment, Dr. Mar Hicks and Dr. Sarah McLennan both spoke about absences in the archives when it comes to finding diversity in the history of programming. McLennan discussed the importance of combing through African American newspapers for information about Black computers, because often those communities new about the work they were doing, and filling in the gaps from there, but Hicks points out that locating non-heteronormativity in the archive is so difficult because a lot of that information was simply not recorded at all.

Mattie Brice’s artist talk was one of the most intriguing aspects of the symposium. I appreciated the transparency with which she talked about her journey to being the game artist that she is– but within that title of artist is the work of an activist, as Brice spoke about wanting to create games that “did the work they said they were doing.” She wanted games that “changed things.” And again, a concern that recurred throughout the course of the day was this idea of Do I stay and change things or do I go? I personally struggle with that issue a lot, particularly being within the confines of the Academy, knowing that this system is not set up for Black women to succeed. (Or at the very least, it’s a system that puts up 500 more barriers between BW and success than it does for white men, but hey, that’s just my opinion.) Sometimes it is so appealing to imagine creating an entirely new path but then I think of my future students and I decide to stick this process out, for me and for them.

In the Gender and Gaming panel, one of the first and biggest questions raised by Dr. Amanda Phillips was, What happens if you center queer women of color in games? And then, Where are the moments of absence in games studies? Again, we circle back to these questions of absence– even in what I consider the most innovate fields of study, such as games studies, we always have to ask ourselves, who is absent and what do we do about these absences? Finally, Dr. Bo Ruberg asked the audience to reclaim “sloppy scholarship,” and what it would mean to do sloppy scholarship as a feminist enterprise. It incorporates the messiness of dealing with things that cannot be easily categorized and what is fluid. There is something so appealing to me about thinking of the ways I can free myself as a scholar, and engaging with “sloppy scholarship” is one way of doing that.

The last panel, Gender and Online Community was intense. From Dr. Dorothy Kim’s assertion that “If my mother was a computer, she was also probably a fascist and a white supremacist” to Alice Marwick’s work on online harassment. In all honesty, I’m still reeling from all the information and connections that I absorbed during that panel. I think most striking to me was Dr. Marwick’s comparison of online harassment to street harassment. It’s a spectrum: it can go from something as “seemingly benign” as telling a woman on the street to smile to full out stalker. I inherently know that the internet and having a public persona can be dangerous, but I am exceptionally lucky to have not been exposed to much internet harassment. My twitter community is as much home to me as my actual apartment. My internet friends are just as important to as my IRL friends. It scares me to think that there’s a potential for someone to destroy that positive internet experience for me through harassment. But it happens every day. Marwick points out that women who work on social justice enterprises are even more subject to this targeted harassment, and as a Black woman who does work on injustice and whose work is more and more becoming public, I now have a nagging fear in the back of my mind.

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Ravynn Stringfield giving a Lightning Talk at #MyMotherWasAComputer

The day’s events concluded with Lightning Talks by members of the William & Mary Equality Lab: Jennifer Ross, myself, Sara Woodbury, Laura Beltran-Rubio and Jessica Cowing. I gave a talk on the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation and the digital humanities projects that I have worked on with Branch Out students in 2017 and 2018, as well as a preview of what we will be doing for the 2019 trip. I actually got a lot of positive feedback on my talk from some of the amazing scholars I’ve written about in this piece and so I think next time, I will take another step forward and present on some of my own personal work– maybe even a talk on Black Girl Does Grad School.

After a short break, we all reconvened for the evening’s keynote lecture by Dr. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun. What a spectacular piece of scholarship. She managed to weave together the personal and political with the historical and an unapologetic infusion of Korean language and culture. She began with the story of computing’s star figure Grace Hopper and her rejection of feminism and slid seamlessly into the story of her own mother, who was a keypunch operator. Chun spoke of the fact that English proficiency wasn’t required for a successful keypunch operator, only the ability to input data quickly and efficiently. She moved quickly from this lighthearted discussion of her mother and childhood, into a conversation around the Montreal Massacre, which happened during her second year of engineering school. In the chilling narrative, Marc Lepine killed fourteen women in the engineering program and the story around the massacre blamed feminists for the violence and hate, something that tweeters of the Symposium (particularly Adrienne Shaw) have identified as a recurring theme in many tech spaces.

As I reflect on this symposium, I return to the image of Chun’s mother as a keypunch operator. I think frequently of how I can weave my parents’ stories in to my own academic narrative because their stories intersect with my own. In order to adequately explain my interest in visual culture, it’s necessary to know that my father is a transportation planner, and I grew up with a drafting table and special blue pencils that I wasn’t supposed to play with (but did anyway) in our room over the garage. Because of him, I wanted to be an engineer– I went built popsicle stick bridges, drew my own highways and when I got older, built an electric keyboard at an engineering camp. It’s this love of making and building that I think draws me to the digital humanities, but you wouldn’t know that unless you knew my story, which is also my father’s story.

Wendy Chun gave me a model for combining the personal, the political and the historical in a deeply engaging and critical way and I thank her for that. In her talk, she prefaced it by saying she’d never done anything like that and may never again– but in the off chance she reads this, I hope she will. We need those stories.

My mother wasn’t a computer, but thanks to this symposium, I’m more interested than ever in these gendered legacies of technology. Many thanks to Liz Losh for organizing another great event.

Making the Digital Physical: AADHum’s “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black” Conference

Following the opening session of University of Maryland’s African American History, Culture and Digital Humanities’ (AADHum) “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black” conference on Friday, the first thing I did was run up for a hug from a young man named Nathan Dize. Nathan and I were strangers in real life; but we were also twitter friends. This process of linking up with people that I knew digitally IRL was a huge personal theme of this particular conference. Not only were we in community by virtue of our research interest, but many of us were connected virtually. While the content of this conference, which I’ll get to I promise, was incredible, a large part of the joy I derived from this experience came from the opportunity to be in physical proximity with the people that provide me with a large amount of my academic support. What does it mean to make the digital physical? Better yet, how does it feel to make the digital physical? For me, it feels like the best of me is being seen, supported and loved. Now, how many academic conferences can you say do that kind of affective labor?

I understand that it seems gauche to talk about love in an academic setting, but so much of my intellectual growth stems from Black women scholars at this conference who loved me simply for being a “Black girl [doing] grad school.” Black women scholars both on twitter and in the digital humanities have nurtured me; they have pushed me; they have included me. While enraptured by wonderful panels featuring Black women scholars, such as Always at Work: Black Women Online and Do It For the Culture: Black Humor and Narrative Strategies Online, I found that some of the best intellectual conversations I had with Black women scholars were by chance.

I ran into Dr. Gabrielle Foreman while trying to catch another panel and she talked to me about how she came up with the idea of project CVs, which emphasize collective work for digital humanities projects. Dr. Raven Maragh Lloyd told me about a conversation with her Uber driver on the way to the conference in which she was asked how the work she creates benefits the community. These innovations and questions should lead us to ask our own important questions: who are we serving and why? How can our relationships with community partners be mutually beneficial? How do we adequately represent the work we do on collaborative digital humanities projects? As Dr. Andre Brock and Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson pointed out in their keynote, we also need to be occupied with the banal and the joy that brings— so I point to these examples of everyday joy I experienced while being in an extraordinary, yet admittedly still ephemeral, space.

Though only a temporary space, it was constructed in such a way that everyone could feel included and cared for. From the pronouns on our badges and gender neutral bathrooms at the Riggs Center, to the lactation and quiet rooms, participants were cared for in a way which should be standard. Our humanity was acknowledged, respected and catered to. While I did not take advantage of many of these spaces, it was a comfort to know they were there should I have needed them. These touches (which were by no means “small”) helped effectively translate the communities of safety we have been building online into a physical space.

The lessons I learned while at #AADHum2018 will stay with me throughout my career as a scholar, especially as echoes of the conference will likely reverberate through tweets for months to come. I contended with Timeka N. Tounsel’s idea of “monetized resistance” as I work to reframe the way I think about my own blog for example. Tounsel argued that there’s work to be done in reframing the way Black women think about their digital labor— we should not cast it off as leisure, but acknowledge it for the intellectual intervention that it is. Grace Gipson’s presentation, “Exploring the Black Female in Comics Fandom through Digital Storytelling (Black Girl Nerds and Misty Knight’s Uninformed Afro)” gave me a colleague that discusses everything I’m interested in: fandom, aca-fans, Black girl nerds, superheroes, blogs and podcasts all rolled into one. I didn’t know it was possible to make sense of all of those things together, but then again Black women have always found ways to do the impossible. I’m still reeling from Marissa Parham’s incredible talk on the This Code Cracks: A #BlackCodeStudies Roundtable in which she had the audience consider what it would mean for a reader to remix an essay for oneself, amongst a number of other insanely evocative questions, all while dragging sections of her essay, “Break and Dance”, gifs and graphics around a remixable screen. Seeing these powerful Black women scholars captivating audiences with words and technical skill inspired me to walk in my own truth and power. My words are magic too, I just need to learn to harness their energy.

My primary focus on the Black women scholars at this conference throughout this piece stems from a lack of intellectual and emotional sanctuary and support at my own institution. Nevertheless, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the Black men that did not come to play. Dr. Julian Chambliss took time out of his day to talk with me, a budding comics scholar; Rashad Timmons had everybody retweeting quotes from his paper, “Hashtag Bodies, Hegemony and the Deadly Terrain of Civil Society”; and Dr. Andre Brock snatched everybody’s edges with his assertion that colored peoples’ time is a, “Joyous disregard for modernity and labor capitalism.” (He said what he said, y’all.)

In addition to the wonderful roundtables and panels that AADHum put together for participants, there were also digital poster and demo sessions. This was one of the many moments where I wished I could be in multiple places at once during the conference. I wanted to see all of the posters, but I also wanted to experience a demo, as I had never seen humanities people give poster presentations; nor had I seen a digital humanities demo in the way that AADHum had conceived of it. I intended to stop in at each poster for a few minutes, but during the first session I was so enthralled by Sherri William’s presentation, “Amplifying Black Voices Through Digital Journalism,” that before I knew it, a member of the AADHum team was letting participants know that the session was over. The posters provided an excellent alternative presentation format which encouraged both small group and one-on-one conversations around the presenter’s topic; which for someone like me, who is often too intimidated to ask questions in large group settings, was a perfect opportunity to engage with scholarship on a more personal level.

It was beautiful. It was wonderful. It was Black. It was digital. It was an honor to have been in community with so many wonderful thinkers. It was a thrill to watch my digital world transform from pixelated into reality.

Black Girl Does Oxford

by Kristen Barrett

Sometimes chasing your childhood dreams exposes you to some mind-rattling realities. You dream of writing a young adult novel only to learn about the competitive world of publishing. You dream of pursuing a Hollywood acting career only to learn about the “casting couch.” You dream of attending a prestigious United Kingdom university only to learn about its paucity of black students.

I distinctly remember the first time my mother mentioned the Rhodes Scholarship to me, a bright-eyed eighth grader in love with Jane Austen. In those days, I daydreamed about the British countryside and imagined myself studying Chaucer at one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world.

Fast forward to my matriculation as a Jefferson Scholar at the University of Virginia. I set my sights on a more immediate goal: attending the UVA in Oxford Summer Program. The Jefferson Scholar Foundation pays for every scholar to participate in one study abroad program the summer before their junior year, and from the moment I heard about UVA in Oxford, I knew that would be the program for me. Luckily, the head professor accepted me into the program, and I arrived at University College on July 1 filled to the brim with excitement.

Approaching the other UVA students, I noticed something immediately. I was the only black student in the program. A familiar feeling churned in my stomach. An engulfing self-awareness that can easily morph into a feeling of empowerment or isolation, responsibility or burden, opportunity or affliction. From this moment, I knew that depending on my attitude I would either feel like a representative of black excellence the program needs or merely a cultural outsider.

This feeling became all too familiar to me in high school. Growing up in my 90 percent white all girls school, I carried this awareness with me every day. Almost always, it would empower me to embrace my racial identity and to explore the joy of pursuing interracial relationships. But sometimes, on those low energy days, it would bury me in insecurity.

When dreaming of Oxford as an eighth grader, I never considered how white such an institution would be. Considering Oxford’s undergraduate numbers, only 2 percent of undergraduate students are black, and some of the colleges go years without accepting more than two black students. I did not consider how the United Kingdom’s identity politics vastly differ from the United States’ or that racism toward blacks exists on both sides of the pond. I did not ask myself: what affects my happiness more, the prestige of the institution or the ethnic makeup of the student body and faculty?

This quandary and its accompanying feeling hung over my head during my first few days at University College. It pushed to the forefront of my mind when I saw that all of the program’s professors were white men. It left a bad taste in my mouth when I noticed the only black people in University College were the ones who served us tea. It caused me to question my place in the program.

The story could end there, but it doesn’t. After receiving some motivational words from my best friend back home, I gave myself an ultimatum. I could waste precious energy worrying over whether I belonged or I could claim my deserved space in the program myself. I chose the latter.

For the rest of my time in the program, I chose empowerment, responsibility, and opportunity over isolation, burden, and affliction. I embraced my status as “the black girl,” and I ran with it. This was one black girl no one was about to forget. I incorporated race relations into my political discussions with my friends; I made allusions to black romantic comedies like The Best Man; and most importantly, I expressed all my idiosyncrasies that come along with me — whether they were stereotypically “black” or not. I was not the spokesperson for my race, but I was the spokesperson for Kristen Rochelle Barrett.

This outlook immediately improved my experience at University College. With my insecurity held at bay, I delved deeply into my course on politics of the European Union, frolicked gleefully around Oxfordshire with my new friends, and to no one’s surprise found that my dream university lived up to all of my expectations. The scholarly college town with Harry Potter style cafeterias and boutique store-lined streets won my heart.

Oxford taught me a lesson in self-confidence. What I like is what I like. Given my love for nineteenth century transatlantic literature, it is highly likely that I will end up in a graduate program with very few black scholars. My experience in Oxford reassured me that I can not only survive but also thrive in such an environment. I do not need to be surrounded with people similar to me in race, religion, gender, etc. in order to flourish as a person. As long as I have a support system of dutiful friends and family, I will blaze trails.


Kristen Barrett is a rising third year at the University of Virginia, where she is pursuing a major in English and a minor in Drama. Her hometown is Nashville, TN. Her favorite black intellectuals are Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and her parents. She is passionate about encouraging black girls to pursue higher education, and she wants to attend graduate school herself in order to study depictions of people of African descent in transatlantic nineteenth-century English literature. Only God knows what the future holds, but she is ready for the #BlackGirlMagic!