Hello everyone! One of the priorities that emerged out of the Women and Tech blog discussion was to expand the conversation we are having about being a women working with technology. We thought a great way to do this would be to interview other women, both at Brown and at other institutions, about the work they do with technology. For this post, I wanted to highlight Emily Esten, a second year graduate student at Brown studying Public Humanities. Thank you to Emily for letting me interview her!


Emily Esten

1) What is your educational and professional background? What do you study at Brown, and what drew you here?

As an undergraduate at University of Massachusetts Amherst, I worked in public history, digital humanities, and new media. While I loved sifting through primary sources, I felt it was equally important to communicate history to the public. After taking a great “Intro to Digital Humanities” course, I began to see digital humanities as a way to build on my historical research. Eventually, it ended up being more about analyzing how we interact with technology, digital culture, and where scholarship fits into these questions.

Professionally, I’ve done a lot of different things related to cultural institutions – from collections management to education, library science to evaluation research. I’m a big-picture person – I like to think about how all these different aspects help an organization work with communities. Currently, I’m combining my interests in civic engagement and technology as a Digital Humanities Fellow at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate to prototype digital exhibits.

I found my way to Brown’s Public Humanities program as a way to combine all my professional and academic interests. My curriculum has been all over the place, but primarily I think about cultural institutions, community engagement, and interdisciplinary scholarship. In all these themes, I’m working to transition my technological experiences from the theoretical to practical by tinkering, building, and toying around with tools.

2) How do you define digital public humanities? What is most exciting about the field to you?

I think of digital public humanities more as a framework than a field. If public humanities is a field interfacing and engaging with communities, digital public humanities provides methodology and questions for bringing technology to that conversation. How does technology change the way we perform research, interpret cultural heritage, or communicate with publics?

Part of what I love about digital public humanities is that it’s so nebulous – and often, the people I think who are doing this kind of work see themselves first as makers, creators, artists, librarians, or scholars. Rarely do you ever see someone describe themselves solely as a digital humanist! There are so many entry points for this work, and I like connecting the dots, finding areas of focus, and developing the critical thinking skills to build and analyze digital projects.

3) What factors made you want to work in/with technology?

I was pretty late to the game when it came to social media or actually learning technology, but questions around technology/society has always been in the back of my mind. I grew up reading Cory Doctorow and science fiction, and fell into rabbit holes studying digital culture and communities. So falling into digital humanities felt like a natural evolution from experiencing cultural influences of technology to wanting to learn how to wield it appropriately.

I’ve found that a lot of the questions I have from public humanities are the same ones about technology. I keep a copy of Alison Parrish’s “Hacker Ethic Questions” above my workspace, which sums it up nicely. But essentially, I want to think about doing justice for audiences and for content. How does what I make facilitate or hinder access to content and tools? How do we make processes visible and engaging? How can we foster community? What data am I using, and how does it affect the story I’m able to tell? From a career standpoint, I find myself wanting to find ways to bring collections, data, and stories to publics, and to be the person who can communicate back-end/front-end/user-end questions.

4) What are some tech projects you’ve worked on at Brown?

I’m a HASTAC Scholar, which is a student-driven fellowship community that brings together conversations around pedagogy, learning, research, and academia for the digital age. I’ve talked about a few smaller projects and assignments over there, but I love HASTAC for blurring the lines between tech-related conversations and changes in academia.

I worked with Professor Steven Lubar last year on a few projects, most notably the Crystal Palace Visualization. The Crystal Palace was the first world’s fair in the United States, and is well-documented through a series of exhibit catalogs and guides. Lubar and I took two of these catalogs and worked with the Center for Digital Scholarship turned them into databases in order to “re-visualize” what the Crystal Palace was and could be as a digital model. In addition to my first real foray into visualizations and data wrangling, this helped me jump into the museum community discussions of “collections as data,” which is a hot topic at the moment.

I’m currently a researcher and collaborator for Mapping Violence, a digital mapping/memorial project spearheaded by Professor Monica Martinez. Researching lost and obscured cases of racial violence in Texas, I’m helping the team think about innovative digital storytelling practices that can help people engage with the emotionally challenging histories. It’s been a great project for me to think in tandem about the historical and technological work I do and hope to do in the future.

5) What advice would you give to other women interested in working with technology or digital humanities?

Find your community – find people, either in-person or online, who are doing cool things – and join in the conversation. I also made the effort to seek out other women in technology-related fields – there have been a few documents making the rounds with female digital sociologists and women in DH that have been super useful for me.

Consent to learning in public. Sometimes I’m hesitant to call myself someone who works with technology or digital humanities – I’ve been in the field for over 4 years now and I still consider myself new! If I’m struggling with a line of code or figuring out how a program is supposed to work, I share my process and questions with people around me. It makes my work a little bit kinder and a lot more open.

And finally, try a little bit of everything! One thing I’ve learned from public humanities is to focus on what you can get out of varied experiences, and I try to apply that to my work in technology/digital humanities as well. I’ve experimented with building bots, listened to lectures about tech and society, tried topic modeling, and studied system architecture. Sometimes I’m in over my head, other times I get a whole new perspective! Even if I don’t plan on engaging in those situations again, it’s helped me think more clearly about how to further my practice in working with technology as a whole.