In this time of confinement at home for many, as others provide invaluable services and crucial care in the coronavirus pandemic, we will continue to post the blog entries scheduled for this spring. We hope that they will remind and inspire you about the kinds of work – acknowledging there is now much we have yet to know - that we can do in worlds local to transnational. – Ed.
Public and Digital Human Emily Esten graduated from the Public Humanities program in 2018, and from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2016, where she studied history and digital humanities. She is currently based in Philadelphia, where she is the Judaica Digital Humanities Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries. When she’s not delving into the ephemeral world of digital Judaica, she’s the site designer for Contingent Magazine, and is an expert in Twitter bot creation. I spoke with Emily by phone and via email about her experiences in the Public Humanities program, her practicum placements, and the work she’s doing now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you define the “public humanities”?
The question everyone tries to avoid! I think about it as a conglomeration of museums, cultural institutions, and local organizations, and how they work with the public to think about facilitating a discourse around ideas. I think part of public humanities is talking about [these ideas], building these kinds of projects, having these conversations, and it’s all the things that lead up to it all.
So, for example, how are you able to have those conversations, how do you interface with people, how do you use objects? It is these are overarching things, and everyone is able to take them into different aspects in the way they want to use it. Especially—you’ll notice in the MA program— everybody has a different reason for being there, and wants something different out of it. But you’re all connected by this idea that working for and with the public is an important [part] of what we are doing, and that it is a worthy thing to do.
Talk about your practicum experiences.
I approached both practicums with the questions of 1) what do I want to add to my portfolio of things when I leave the program and 2) how do museums use technology?
My first one, I did at the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access, which is their education department, but technology-based, and my second one was with the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.
I treated my first one as an exploratory process. I knew I wanted to work in a big institution, I wanted an opportunity to work with lots of different people, and figure out what digital meant in a museum context, since I really hadn’t experienced it in that setting up to that point. So it was a big picture: “where do I want to be five years from now?”
[The Smithsonian] had built this digital collections platform, called Smithsonian Learning Lab, primarily for teachers and students to engage with their collections. You can go in, create a collection of all different objects, and use them for lesson plans or educational purposes. When I was there, they had just been up for about a year and they were getting really great feedback from teachers and students. But they also were thinking that “this platform exists for the institution as a whole, and so have other units of the organization been using it? How have they been thinking about the ways in which they use digital collections?”
Based on this, I did a study. [I worked with, among others,] the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. They were doing a collaboration with the Institute of Texan Cultures, the DuSable Museum of African American History, Michigan State University Museum, and the Museum of the African Diaspora. They were creating a program with teens to talk about the history of fashion, called The Will to Adorn: African American Dress and the Aesthetics of Identity. The teens were able to upload their own images alongside the museum’s images to talk about how they constructed their own fashion, or interviewed people around them, and see how that creates and relates to culture.
I wanted to produce something tangible for the job market, dive into an institution a bit more, and take on something that was a challenge. [At the Kennedy Institute,] they had hired a couple of fellows for a nine-month period, basically to think about how they could make changes to their technology and their exhibits. I was working on was putting together a proposal for how they could use Ted Kennedy’s family home. It’s on Cape Cod, three hours away from Boston, and in a residential neighborhood. Nobody can get there, but the institute owns it, and it is a really interesting resource for learning about the Kennedy family.
In both cases, I worked with the Center’s resources to figure out places and people.
What was it like working on the Mapping Violence project?
(Mapping Violence is a digital project led by Professor Monica Muñoz Martinez that documents incidents of racial violence in Texas from the early 20th century, focusing on actions undertaken by both legal and extralegal forces against African Americans, Mexican Americans, European immigrants, Asian Americans, and other groups – author).
I think that has been one of my favorite things that I worked on in the MA, because it keeps growing, and at the time it was already pretty big, and people referenced it everywhere. What I really appreciate was that everyone was expected to know about all aspects of the project, right? So you were a researcher. You learned how to do the research, but you also knew how the technological things worked or what kind of things technology could help us do.
And I think it was also a really great example of where public humanities is moving towards in digital spaces. I met so many people who want to do projects similar to Mapping Violence, or who are doing projects like Mapping Violence, who aren’t necessarily thinking about it from a public humanities standpoint. Like, “we want to build this for the community, but we don’t want to build it with the community.” What’s happening on the border today was always at the forefront of our conversations and what we were talking about.
It’s just a really great example of how public humanities projects work as a team. It’s not one person; it’s not one scholar. I think Professor Martinez was always really great about, “let’s put students at the forefront because they’re doing all the grunt work, and the hard work, and they should get something out of this.”
What is your current job?
I am the Judaica Digital Humanities Project Coordinator as part of the digital scholarship team at Penn. I manage the Judaica DH program, which is essentially thinking about how we can use Penn’s collections regarding Jewish history and culture to do cool things. I manage, consult, and develop on three projects. One project is a crowd-sourced transcription project, Scribes of the Cairo Geniza, where over eight thousand volunteers have participated. They go in and sort fragments based on Hebrew and Arabic script, and try to transcribe them. I manage the project in terms of answering questions about the fragments, working with volunteers, working with libraries to share the data, and helping people figure out, “now that we have this data, what do we do with it?”
The second project is building a bibliography-slash-digital archive around Jewish- American publications up until 1900, the Judaica Americana. The person who put together the bibliography, Robert Singerman, has a specific criteria for what is considered Jewish or Judaica. But it varies. It’s over six thousand publications that he’s included, and they’re all digitized. We’ve made lists of where [these works] are located online, whether it’s through Penn, the Internet Archive, or HathiTrust. We just finished the project charter phase and figuring out what it’s going to look like, and now we are moving into the development phase, so building the website, thinking about building a team of people who can review it, who are going to end up using this project. The third one is a digital archive.
Is there an emotional toll of doing this kind of work in the current political climate? How do you deal with that kind of response working on sensitive topics? How has the program prepared you to work on sensitive topics?
Oh, absolutely. Particularly to the work I do now, it’s at the forefront of JudaicaDH. My biggest fear that I’ll come into work one day and have to deal with Nazis or antisemitic comments or what-have-you on the social media that I manage, because not only will I have to deal with it but so will all the followers, volunteers, and people who engage these materials. And because these projects are digital, I don’t necessarily know how people are coming across them or for what purposes, so how do you safeguard your interpretations in that space? And on the basic material level, some of the materials can be emotionally exhausting to read! So it’s absolutely a huge part of digital Jewish studies. And it’s one of the things that my supervisor talked about earlier on in my onboarding process—that Jewish studies involves the diaspora, and digital diaspora is one way to address the concerns. So processing this as part of the work I do, regardless of the political climate, is base level. I take cues from other Jewish history institutions right now, and how they respond to events, and finding public historians of Jewish history who are working through these things in helping me develop my own praxis.
I had a different emotional toll at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute last year. Working for this institution that educates people on the work of the Senate and celebrates the democratic process at the same time as Kavanaugh’s nomination, midterm elections, border crisis, government shutdowns... it was really stressful for me. We had conversations among staff of how to process these events and how visitors were responding, but it was difficult to be tasked with informing and educating, while also feeling like I wasn’t doing enough to address specific matters of critical importance.
[Emily also curated a digital exhibit about the 2018 midterm elections, which you can find here.]
To be perfectly honest, the 2016 election happened my first semester—the political climate was constantly a part of the program. (I was at a museum conference the day after the election, so my whole public humanities experience is probably colored by that moment.) And I think our ability to process and engage critically on that point was crucial. We were always dealing with this, whether it was our classroom conversations or the project we chose to take on! We as public humans take up the charge to facilitate these stories and having discussions about these difficult or sensitive topics—so learning to process the emotional toll and the topics we deal with was a core part of my experience. We spent a lot of time among our cohort, talking about how this burnout affects the people who work on such projects; our classes dealt with case studies for exhibits or programs or institutions dealing with conversations. The program helped me center these concerns and questions are natural to doing public work (and especially historical work), and that radical empathy that we experience is something worth leaning into. Working with Professor Martinez on Mapping Violence and Professor Keene taught me the tools and language for addressing sensitive issues. Also, working with Professor McGrath taught me to challenge how digital projects specifically can reinforce or reinscribe these issues, or ways in which the technologies themselves are also in the service of the narrative we’re working to tell.
When did you learn to do all this coding?
I never learned in a formal setting. You’re not gonna get me to sit in an IT class. I’m just not going to do it. So a lot of it was just project-based things. I did do a one-week workshop in Python, but it was because I had already started using Python to do a lot of Twitter bot building, and I was like, “I don’t know how to actually do this, I just know that copying down this information and making certain changes works, so let me learn the fundamentals.”
For the two apps I built, I just learned on the job. I knew how coding languages worked, and so looking at a lot of Stack Overflow questions, and looking at tutorials that were out there, and then slowly making changes over time. I think anyone will tell you that with coding, don’t learn it in a formal setting. Figure out why you want to use it, and then work backwards.
What was it like to enter the job market after the program ended?
When I graduated, my practicum carried through, which was helpful. Moving into the job market, I split my time between looking at universities, libraries, digital humanities centers, and then at museum work, where digital can be anything from “social media manager” to “front-end developer.” It was complicated, right, because I have this really weird background if a university is looking at it where they’re like, “you’ve been doing a lot of university projects but you’ve also done this wide range of things,” and I think universities were interested in that since those are skills we don’t have, to interact with the public. I think museums were often really interested in how those things translated back to community-based settings.
Some places where I searched for job postings were NYFA, HireCulture, Museums and the Web job list, MuseWeekly, and NCPH job boards. LinkedIn has some museum things, though I don’t think I ever got an interview from Linkedin. I think Tufts and Simmons also have job listing blogs (Simmons for libraries, Tufts for museum studies) that I checked out pretty frequently.
Do you have any more advice for a current student?
When my class started, we each had a two-year Google doc plan. It was designed for us to use with an advisor, but we could basically use it as much or as little as we wanted. You basically set your goals for the program, documented what courses you took, what final assignments you produced, events and/or conferences attended, and then a summary for yourself of how your semester went. And then there were a few basic tasks for each semester—create a website, join the Facebook group, talk to alum or practicum options, all professional-related initiatives. It was a great portfolio, and I refer back to it a lot. So definitely think of how you can make some kind of portfolio that brings all these things together!
What is your dream public humanities (or other kind of) job?
My dream job is definitely a public humanities job! I want to help more people do what I do— engage with digital collections, understand what technology is out there and how we can work with it, and contribute to the process of interpreting our history, world, and culture. In any project I take on, I want to build cool things with cool people, so wherever that may take me, I’ll be satisfied.
Deborah Krieger is a first-year student in the Public Humanities MA Program. Before coming to Brown, she worked at the Delaware Art Museum.