The NULab’s fifth annual Spring Conference, “What Now?” brought together an exciting group of faculty, students, and researchers discussing their recent findings and ongoing projects at an all-day event on April 1. Dan Cohen, Dean of Libraries, Vice Provost for Information Collaboration, and Professor of History at Northeastern, opened the conference along with Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Distinguished Professor of English and Co-Director of the NULab.
Social Justice and Archival Practice
The first panel, “Social Justice and Archival Practice,” was moderated by Professor Dillon. Presenters included Meg Heckman, Assistant Professor of Journalism; Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, Associate Professor of English, Africana Studies, and Art & Design; and NULab Virtual Visiting Scholar Elena Fernández from the University of Zurich.
Kicking off the panel was Meg Heckman, a critical practitioner of journalism who describes her work as “doing journalism about journalism” and leveraging “feminist media history to understand and dismantle journalism’s pervasive white macho culture.” Heckman’s presentation “Embracing the Mess: A Feminist Exploration of the Boston Globe Collection” discussed the goals of a project that seeks to highlight the many women who shaped Globe history. Heckman shared some initial findings from her project, which has uncovered the pivotal roles that women have played at the Boston Globe. Poet and scholar Lillian-Yvonne Bertram spoke about their text-generation project “Warpland Updates” which explores the robust archive and notes of Gwendolyn Brooks and uses neural network software to generate and stage an imaginary dialogue between Brooks’ poetic texts and the art of twentieth century Black artist Kara Walker. In doing this project, Bertram hopes to imagine how two generationally-divided Black women artists whose work thinks about Black communities and liberation would be in conversation with one another.
The final speaker was NULab Virtual Visiting Scholar Elena Fernández. Her project “Technology, Globalization and Newspapers: A Computational Analysis” comes from her postdoctoral research on how technological advancements have altered the public’s sense of natural time and labor. Treating newspapers as a marker of time and narrative density, the goal of the project is to understand how computational analysis and empirical study make it possible to quantify narratives and determine whether social acceleration occurs within a given time period. Following the presentations, the speakers and audience engaged in a discussion about the processes and impediments to doing archival research in a pandemic, the accessibility of archives, the differences between digital and physical archival research, and how digital tools have impacted and enhanced each of these research projects.
Keynote: Beyond Academia: Latinx Praxis in DH, Archive and Community
The conference’s keynote presentation—”Beyond Academia: Latinx Praxis in DH, Archive and Community”—was delivered by Gabriela Baeza Ventura, associate professor of Hispanic literature, and Carolina Villarroel, Brown Foundation director of research for Arte Público Press, both at the University of Houston. The speakers discussed their work on “Recovery,” an international program which seeks to find, preserve, and share Hispanic culture in the United States. This program has recovered more than 20,000 original books, manuscripts, archival items, and ephemera in languages that include Spanish, English, French, and Ladino. This extensive collection also includes newspapers, photos, personal papers, poems, pamphlets, historical documents, cookbooks, religious texts, and more.
The mission of Recovery, as well as the mission of the US Latino Digital Humanities Project more broadly, is a matter of building community and honoring a shared history.
“When we talk about the Recovery project, we talk about the hundreds of scholars that came before us,” Villarroel said. “We’re constantly having to rethink how we can make our culture visible in a way that will allow us to bring more recognition, more acknowledgement of the communities that continue to be either erased or marginalized.”
COVID-19 in Broader Context
“COVID-19 in Broader Context” was moderated by Sarah Connell, NULab Assistant Director, and featured three closely related projects on the impacts of COVID-19. Sage Gibbons, Graduate Research Assistant from Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI), presented a research project on adaptive strategies of different neighborhoods in Boston in the context of the pandemic. Professor David Lazer then presented findings from the ongoing COVID States research project. The panel was concluded by Jessica Davis, a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory for Modeling of Biological and Socio-technical Systems (MOBS Lab).
Sage Gibbons began the panel by sharing a project focused on the role of collective efficacy in determining the adaptability of a neighborhood to social stressors. When the pandemic started, Gibbons noted, a new landscape of social norms was introduced into our daily lives. Informal control of social gatherings, for example, was something very new. Gibbons and his team were interested in determining whether the enforcement of restrictions against social gatherings could be captured by data such as 911 noise complaints. The BARI team’s findings indicated that collective efficacy can predict the likelihood and severity of the spread of COVID-19. Thus, informal social controls should be taken into account by researchers who are modeling the pandemic.
Professor David Lazer then presented the COVID States project’s ongoing research on the impact of COVID-19. In March 2020, Lazer and his colleagues began collecting representative survey samples from each US state, asking respondents a wide range of questions about COVID and its impact on their lives. As Lazer noted, a lot of research on COVID even now is based on incomplete and insufficient datasets. The COVID States Project seeks to fill this data gap, especially in relation to vaccination rates and predictive models around human behavior. Lazer concluded that it is unlikely that the pandemic will go away completely, but the COVID States Project and similar research endeavors can give policymakers more confidence in implementing and maintaining public health policies.
Finally, Jessica Davis added an important international dimension to the panel. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the MOBS lab has been proactive in investigating the spread of the virus and its variants, establishing close contact with the CDC and other relevant agencies. The lab has amassed a vast amount of data on the networks that impact the spread of the pandemic. Researchers at MOBS have built a global model that predicts the spread of the virus and its various strains. Davis shared some strategies and challenges from this urgent and ongoing research. The Q&A session that completed the panel featured important questions around the assumptions that researchers make when constructing models for predicting and understanding human behaviors and their impacts.
The final panel in the conference, moderated by NULab Co-Director David Lazer, focused on teaching during the pandemic. The first presentation, “360/VR Videography for Historical and Cultural Studies During the Pandemic,” examined how VR technology could be made accessible and inexpensive to provide students with virtual experiences of physical spaces. Lead Researcher Surabhi Keesara started with a VR tour of Boston’s Chinatown, and has since expanded this idea to other areas which students might find hard to access, like museums or even other classrooms. According to Assistant Professor of History Jessica Linker, project advisor, Northeastern’s growing resources for VR production can play a crucial role in helping to create these opportunities.
Next came “Teaching Digital: Pedagogical Lessons from Remote and IRL Instruction,” a presentation by Claire Tratnyek, Assistant Director of the Digital Integration Teaching Initiative (DITI). Tratnyek shared the DITI’s efforts to build modules and workshops that help students learn through digital methods in remote, in-person, and hybrid formats. Just as crucial to Tratnyek are the efforts of getting “back to normal” in a way that might integrate remote learning and other digital tools. Finally, Clinical Instructor Felix Muzny of the Khoury College of Computer Sciences presented, “Ethics and Pedagogy: Unwelcome Visitors to CS Classrooms?” Here, Muzny spoke of his efforts to apply an ethical dimension to computational courses which often focus exclusively on technical learning. Adding ethics to these courses without decreasing technical content has proven a difficult balance, but some experimental interventions have proven fruitful.
Uta Poiger, Dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities and Professor of History at Northeastern, delivered the conference closing. Poiger highlighted the wide range of projects that combine humanistic and technological tools and methods. The NULab’s spring conference
was an exciting showcase of digital scholarship at Northeastern and a catalyst for conversations about future projects. We look forward to another year of innovative teaching and research at Northeastern!