Bethany Nowviskie

all at once

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Thirteen years ago, I was a graduate student in English literature when the Twin Towers collapsed, a fireball erupted from the Pentagon, and a group of everyday travelers hurtled a fourth involved commercial airliner, in self-sacrifice, into a muddy field. We got an email from our department chair. It read (I paraphrase), “this is why poetry matters.”

I had been watching people leap to their deaths from skyscrapers on the morning news. “Bullshit,” said I, a girl who had been in love with Shakespeare and Pope and Keats and Tennyson since grade school. And that was the end of any more conventional conception I may have had of my own career–the end, for me, of the profession of English.

I was, truth be told, already on the way out, toward my discipline’s methodological and material oddball fringe–specializing by then not in literary hermeneutics but in the mapping of its lessons and techniques to bibliography, scholarly editing, human-computer interaction, and humanities computing. Over time–by applying my teaching experience and past education in Education, and by learning from the side jobs in labs and centers that I held as a grad student–I built some expertise in project management and digital cultural heritage. In that way, I applied myself to work that felt more satisfyingly pragmatic to me. I couldn’t bear to spend my time happily, as a single, sensitive reader and writer–but I could happily spend it struggling: nudging and nurturing people, and helping them find ways to work effectively as teams in the protection and remediation and interpretation and sharing of stuff. Soon I was a mother and a post-doc. Then I was a member of UVa’s research faculty in Media Studies and a mother some more. Finally, I became a librarian and (heaven help me) an administrator.

These days, I run the library-based Scholars’ Lab, a digital humanities center I and my colleagues rapidly developed into one of the most respected in the country. The SLab is noted most particularly for its commitment to creating extensible, open source software platforms for humanities interpretation, and for the model of its graduate fellowship programs, which are helping new cohorts of scholar-practitioners find their own ways to make poetry (or history, or philosophy, or any of a number of humanistic pursuits) matter, in and to a difficult world.

What does that mean, matter? I can only answer from my own perspective. I chose the word “platform,” above, with care. For me, making the humanities matter in the digital age involves the fashioning and iterative refinement and (above all) the bold use of new platforms–systems for accessing, analyzing, and interpreting data. Data are what some disciplines call their “materials,” others their “texts,” and still others “sources” or “evidence:” the stuff.

The thing about platforms is that you stand on them. One might boost you up, so that your voice can be heard. Another might provide a scaffold from which you can scan your surroundings better, from a new, distant or speculative vantage point. Still another might enfold you, helping you intensify your focus, and perhaps see through your frustration how bounded and particular the codes and frames of your perspective have always been. Just as digitization has not de-materialized the humanities, but rather brought its material basis into ever-sharper relief, so have digital platforms failed (dire warnings aside) to flatten and depersonalize our subjective, interpretive response. Instead, the digital humanities foreground subjectivity by making us more conscious of our positions as individual, interpretive agents inside larger systems–inside algorithmic machines.

These are things I know in my heart and down to my bones as a digital humanities practitioner. I should probably write about them more often. I was prompted to, today, by receiving another shock to the system from my comfortable seat at the University of Virginia, and by observing another set of personal, academic, and institutional responses to dark and difficult times. I’m going to make a leap, but bear with me. I write (as I have done for thirteen years) about the relation of individual, subjective agents to complex systems.

Last week, Rolling Stone magazine published the shocking and horrific story of an undergraduate woman who reported being brutally gang-raped a five minute walk from my office, at the house of one of UVa’s powerful and moneyed fraternities, in what the article suggested (most sickeningly of all) could be a regular occurrence–a initiation ritual for the men of Phi Kappa Psi. Since then, our community has been reeling. Initial messages from upper administrators were flat and disheartening, corporatized and inhumane. A first remedy proved to be none, as the “independent” counsel assigned by our Board of Visitors to investigate and advise was revealed to be a brother of the very fraternity under investigation. Later steps and messages have been better, but some are still surprisingly tone-deaf to the fact that (for instance) Thomas Jefferson, whose rape of the enslaved Sally Hemings began when she was as young as fourteen, is not a man to idolize in getting to the roots of rape culture at UVa. Students and faculty and staff have rallied and marched and taught. Remembrances have been pinned up, pulled down, and pinned up again, and as we dig deeper into the legal standards and guidelines that have shaped our collective, institutional response–and into our own personal histories of averted eyes and inadequate acts–we are sick at heart. The scale and systemic nature of the problem makes it nearly too much to grasp, particularly at a moment when we are feeling so shaken by individual horrors and specific crimes.

Time seems to blur: from the 1954 case in which a dozen UVa men were investigated–though not criminally–for the apparent rape of a teenaged girl on Jefferson’s storied Lawn (only two of whom were expelled, with another three specifically pardoned lest the punishment interfere with their military officers’ commissions); to the 2005 trial of William Beebe, who belatedly confessed to being one of then-first-year Liz Seccuro’s Phi Kappa Psi rapists in 1984; to the heartbreaking autumn of 2014, in which the sins of not one but two other Virginia schools–Liberty and Christopher Newport Universities–were visited on Charlottesville, when their early-2000s failure to stop a budding serial rapist and murderer resulted in the death of second-year student Hannah Graham at the hands of UVa employee L.J. Matthew (a friend, awfully, of a friend). This followed on his rape and murder of Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington in 2009. Two girls dumped in our fields and woods. Sixty years since 1954. Thirty years since ’84. A 195-year history since our founding. How many more acts of gendered violence might I list here? Thirty-eight UVa women (surely a tiny fraction of those wronged) came forward as victims of sexual assault on our beautiful, perfect campus–a World Heritage site–last year alone.

“And as much as I love UVA,” said one rape survivor in a harrowing interview, “that’s really part of the foundational culture—the capacity to sustain a deep lie. The whole school venerates Thomas Jefferson, the man who said all men are created equal but also owned slaves.”

The work of one associate dean has come under particular scrutiny amid the mess, not only for her portrayal in the Rolling Stone article (why don’t we provide good stats? because “nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school”), but because of a damning videotaped interview in which she underscores UVa’s apparent slap-on-the-wrist approach to known offenders, the nuances of which stem from local interpretation (perhaps misinterpretation) of complex Title IX laws and guidelines. Dean Nicole Eramo may be the woman we have charged with the most dangerous and difficult emotional labor at UVa. I know her only slightly, as the person who dropped everything to respond immediately and with compassion to a panicked call I once made to the office of the Dean of Students–a response typical of Eramo, I understand, and one that at least one student’s mother, who returned a year later to meet us, credits with saving her daughter’s life. Rape survivors and other students have spoken out strongly in her favor.

I was horrified on first viewing of the interview, in part because I was ignorant of the laws, and oblivious to our institutional approach to sexual violence, intimidation, and other kinds of so-called “misconduct.” And I continue to have grave concerns about whether we have properly interpreted the grievance and mediation guidelines in the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter issued by the DoE’s Office of Civil Rights as they apply to cases of sexual assault. But when I watch the now thoroughly scape-goated Eramo speak a second and third time, I notice other things: a school official lacking the polish and shine of the media training American universities provide to so many of our administrators, in an attempt to make them bullet-proof (and teach them never to tell the unvarnished, short-hand truth, even if it helps a victim understand her part in the inhumane workings of a “rape school”). I see a person who knows that her tacit understanding of a complex, broken system exceeds her ability to articulate it on the air. I see a person trying, perhaps most of all, far too hard to help UVa mother its way out of this horror, by paying close and compassionate attention to individual cases (victims and perpetrators alike)–in a situation that in fact simultaneously calls for something likely above her pay grade: an elevated, larger, and more systemic view.

And here is where I return, to reflect upon my scholarship and work. Balance in perspective. The imperative to zoom freely and efficaciously, from specialist to generalist understanding, from the longue durée to the specific instance–from big data to small data and back again. These are skills, competencies, and toolsets that I believe strongly we must develop, as we learn to perform humanities scholarship in an age of mass digitization and increasing complexity of information systems. Can we become more conscious of this need, the need to take the long view, and to see more clearly the machines that imbricate and drive us, from vantage points internal and external alike? What tools and methods do we need, to grasp and analyze the whole without losing the individual, or (to risk melodrama) without losing our souls?

And why did I make this post so uncomfortably about me, about my personal history, my scholarly work, my progressive shocks of recognition as a student and a woman and a mother? Because that’s what we do when we interpret. We re-position ourselves. I’ve watched with sad pride this week as members of our community have stepped up and spoken out–standing on stages and at podiums, blasting raw words through social media, getting arrested on porches. Those are good platforms. But we need analytical and interpretive platforms, too, that help us embrace our own subjective positioning in the systems in which we labor–which means, inevitably, to embrace our own complicity and culpability in them. And we need these, at the same time, to help us see beyond: to see patterns and trends, to read close and distantly all at once, to know how to act and what to do next. We need platforms that help us understand the workings of the cogs, of which we are one.

[Note: I am proud to say that the University of Virginia Library’s Special Collections department immediately activated its smart protocols for collecting and preserving physical and digital ephemera related to the current situation at UVa, and that the faculty and staff of the Scholars’ Lab are working with professor Lisa Goff and other American Studies colleagues on a digital history project called “Take Back the Archive“–forthcoming very soon. The idea, from our capsule summary, is to crowdsource and curate a countering response to all of the “we didn’t realize” and “we just didn’t know” statements we are hearing around Grounds, by using Neatline to collect and visualize documentation (and possibly later, survivor stories) related to the history of sexual assault at UVa. Please wish us–all of us–well.]

Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.