Gothic Care and Keeping: Sir Walter Scott’s Stewardship

By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Samuel Baker, Associate Professor in the Department of English, led the Faculty Fellows seminar on October 11th. Dr. Baker presented the Fellows with a project-in-progress on Sir Walter Scott and “stewardship,” which encapsulates Baker’s conception of Scott’s ongoing influence (and active fostering, during his time) of cultural history. In the manuscripts he distributed to the seminar, Baker argues that Scott, and to an extent, poets like Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, and Ann Radcliffe, each participate in an ethos of “spectral” or gothic care, charging contemporaries and future generations to become “stewards” to British national culture.

This “ethos of stewardship,” Baker notes, pulls together various threads of their contemporary moment to produce our current culture. Scott, an antiquarian, lawyer, folklorist, and Tory, based his literary landscapes off of his studies, seeing himself first and foremost as an editor of antiquarian literature. His literary persona was in turn deeply bound, as Baker argued, to an ethics of care that entreats readers to engage with Britain’s past, and also Britain’s future.

In the seminar, Baker characterized his reading of Scott as “reparative,” citing work by Steven J. Jackson (in the edited volume, Media Technologies) and Eve K. Sedgwick (in her book Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity) on new attention to appreciation. Baker connected Scott’s antiquarian aspirations with the simultaneously “gothic” and “georgic” poetry of Burns and Wordsworth, who likewise mediate an ethos of care for their readers. Baker solicited the Fellows’ thoughts around this connection and thus continued the seminar’s ongoing conversation on audience-specific writing. While Baker admitted he enjoys presenting his research to a broader audience, he usually leans towards more academic and thus more specialized forms of writing. Baker and the Fellows discussed the virtues of “portrait” vs. “landscape” writing, and the Fellows expressed a particular interest in the broader “landscape” question of how Scott has influenced today’s notions of stewardship–whether national, religious, economic, or ecological. They agreed that this topic could speak to a wide range of audiences.

 

Artificial Intelligence and the Medical Humanities: The Ethical Concerns of Data Commodification in Medicine

by Alissa Williams, HI Program Assistant

Dr. Kirsten Ostherr, the Gladys Louise Fox Professor of English, Director of the Medical Futures Lab at Rice University, and an Adjunct Professor at the UT-Houston School of Public Health, gave her talk, “AI and the Medical Humanities: An Emerging Field of Critical Intervention,” at the October Health and Humanities Research Seminar. Discussing the past, present, and future role of artificial intelligence (AI) in medicine, Dr. Ostherr argued that AI and related “datafication” practices are coming to constitute a new social determinant of health, a term that refers to “conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play [that] affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes.” (Datafication is the process of collecting information about something that was previously invisible and turning it into data.) Dr. Ostherr’s lecture was an enlightening take on the potential positive impacts of AI, but also a warning as to how dangerous its reach can become if it goes unchecked. The seminar began with a chronological mapping of AI’s appropriation into the medical field and ended with a call to action for scholars across all disciplines, as well as the public, to participate in the advancement and regulation of AI as it relates to medicine and health.

Prior to 2015, the application of AI in the medical field involved “a lot of speculation,” but “little action” according to Dr. Ostherr. While AI was initially thought to be a threat to the job security of health care professionals such as radiologists, some now see it as a potential tool for making health care more efficient, more effective, and more accessible to historically neglected populations. But AI, especially when combined with datafication, also poses potential harm to patients and others. Dr. Ostherr argues that the health data about themselves that individuals both purposefully and inadvertently make available on social media platforms, websites, and personal wellness devices (e.g., Fitbits) can be commodified for exploitative purposes, largely without the permission or even knowledge of the patient whose data is being commodified. While research into the social determinants of health can be used to promote health equity and health justice, it can also be used to reinforce existing forms of bias and exclusion and even create new ones. For instance, companies can use data about the neighborhoods people live in or even their degree of political participation to deny them health insurance, charge them more for it, or even deny them employment.  Rather than using data to improve people’s health and health care, companies can use it to manage their own financial risks. In other words, instead of making healthcare and its infrastructure more accessible to all individuals, including those belonging to historically marginalized groups, AI and datafication can exacerbate the gaps that already exist by amplifying the biases that helped create these inequities.

On the other hand, however, Dr. Ostherr mentioned two websites in her talk, Hu-manity.co and Doc.ai, that have begun to use AI as a means of enabling patients themselves to monetize the sharing of their data under privacy constraints that the patients choose. Although these websites have not yet garnered a prominent following, they serve as examples of the potential AI has to help develop more positive and transparent ways of using individuals’ health data. Dr. Ostherr believes that the health humanities have a crucial role to play in determining how AI and other modes of information technology are used in the fields of health and medicine. Dr. Ostherr emphasizes that this is indeed a collaborative effort that needs to take place between disciplines in order to ensure the needs of the public are met from all angles with diversity in mind.

Who Can Tell What Story?: Ethical Concerns in Theatre Education

By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Assistant Professor of Instruction in the Department of Theatre and Dance Dr. Sara Simons led the Faculty Fellows seminar held October 4th, beginning with a simple question: who can tell what story? As an educator of future theatre teachers, Dr. Simons noted that her interest in investigating the classroom came from both theoretical and practical concerns. For Simons’ students, the ethics of who can best present a story and whether stories can be told across identity markers quickly become issues of importance in high school theater classrooms. Simons’ students value exposing their own future students to plays and stories from a diverse range of writers and voices, yet many also question how to teach such perspectives. But such conversations are not limited to theatre education, as many Fellows noted.

Simons led the seminar through a series of kinesthetic exercises, many of which she teaches in her own classroom. She began with exercises adapted from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed canon, asking Fellows to follow a series of commands (walk, stop, jump, say your name), then to reverse those commands–to walk when Simons told the group to stop, to jump when Simons asked the group to state their names, and so on. The Fellows debriefed after the activity, noting the activity established new meanings and rules, forcing each of the participants to think before they acted. Simons framed this activity as a way for her to teach students the process of unlearning their assumptions, beliefs, and automatic responses–something, she noted, that is not only continual, but often bumpy.

Simons asked the group frequently to describe what they achieved in the activity, providing the participants an opportunity to reflect on their teaching as well as on their assumptions around teaching texts from authors of different backgrounds from their students (or their own), among other things. Simons noted that theatre education frequently positions theatre as both “a mirror and a window,” representing both the audience’s experiences and experiences that may never have had. But that view of theatre can be complicated by issues of who is permitted to tell stories of marginalized people, and who is represented in theatre as a whole.

Simons instructed Fellows to assemble into small groups to discuss various hypothetical scenarios around storytelling, authenticity, and representation. Fellows debriefed on the assignment as a group, discussing the ethics of writing or teaching stories from different societal positions and perspectives. Many Fellows noted that academic work in a variety of fields involves working in communities outside of their own, requiring researchers to consider how they are accountable to the communities they write about and what materials they need to elucidate or contextualize. Participants also discussed considerations of audience. In theatre, Simons noted, directors and producers frequently need to consider who the show is for, and whether they intend to expand the audience’s horizons or depict the audience’s own lives–the mirror, or the window. Fellows concluded that academics, writers, and others in creative professions often have to make risky moves to promote empathy in their audience, or in their students. Thus, an understanding of the power dynamics at work–in a piece, a production, or in culture broadly–are essential to teaching theatre, and to teaching and writing as a whole.

The seminar closed with each participant stating their final, one word summation of the discussion, providing each Fellow an opportunity to reflect on what they took from the session. Answers ranged widely, but many stated words like authenticity, empathy, context, and other broad topics, making connections to the concerns of past seminars.

The Way She Was: Writing Eve Merriam’s Life Story

By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant

The Faculty Fellows seminar on September 26th was led by Julia Mickenberg, Professor in the Department of American Studies. Building from her previous work on leftist and radical politics in children’s books, Dr. Mickenberg presented a collection of materials that represents her work-in-progress: a book on American writer Eve Merriam. Merriam published a wide range of work from the late 1950s into the late ‘70s, including plays, poems, essays, children’s books, and more, with surprising speed.

Indeed, the breadth of interests, topics, and expressive forms found in Merriam’s work is part of what makes her so fascinating to Mickenberg. Across her career Merriam participated in a number of different literary and political circles, tying together a number of Mickenberg’s own interests, for instance in radical cultures, feminism, children’s literature, and the children’s liberation movement. (These interests are explored in Mickenberg’s books, Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States (2005) and American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream (2017).) According to Mickenberg, Merriam is likely best remembered as a children’s poet, but her influence was felt through a variety of contexts, and a variety of genres. Her legacy was further complicated by the 1973 Barbra Streisand film, The Way We Were. Merriam partially inspired screenwriter Arthur Laurents’ take on the Streisand character, Kate Morosky, providing Mickenberg an unexpected inroad to writing about Merriam herself.

Participants in the seminar were amazed at the amount of ground Merriam covered over the course of her life, creating unexpected communities through her work and presaging the feminist work of Betty Friedan in her political essays from the late ‘50s. Many suggested that readers might similarly want to engage with the fascinating diversity of Merriam’s work, and advised Mickenberg to consider collecting some of Merriam’s writing into a separate edited volume. As Mickenberg noted, Merriam’s “The Diary of a White Liberal Racist” seems remarkably relevant to discussions today about some of the subtler forms that persistent racism takes, including institutional racism, implicit biases, and the benefits that even liberal or progressive white people often enjoy at the benefit of people of color.

Mickenberg’s own project is still taking shape and she is exploring different approaches to telling a life story, including the question of to what extent she wants to focus on narrating and analyzing Merriam’s own life and work and to what extent she wants to use Merriam as a lens for discussing some of the broader historical and cultural developments in which she participated. An enticing facet of Merriam’s story is how many major figures in diverse fields across a long stretch of time she had dealings with, ranging from W.E.B. DuBois to Norman Lear!

Seminar participants, including several who had written biographies or, in the case of Paul Stekler, made biographical films, brainstormed with Mickenberg about approaches she might take to organizing her materials and deciding upon a through-line for the story she wants to tell. Participants suggested focusing individual chapters on different genres Merriam had written in or on particularly resonant creative experiences she’d had. One participant suggested that  a chapter might be devoted to the  community created around The Club, her Obie award-winning play, which debuted in 1976. Mickenberg has interviewed the play’s producer Mary Silverman, and through the interview, she discovered how tightly knit the cast became during the play’s premiere at the Lenox Theater in the Berkshires. The actors bonded over a mutual connection with Merriam’s script, a satirical take on men’s clubs featuring an entirely female cast. Mickenberg closed the seminar by showing a series of clips from Merriam’s work in television, including a TV spot for the bicentennial anniversary of the American Revolution, and All That Glitters, a 1970s TV sitcom, directed by Norman Lear, parodying men and women’s roles by entirely reversing them. Seminar participants also discussed how writers include themselves in their scholarly work as narrators and as characters. Though including oneself in a biography or paper can be prove risky, participants agreed that Mickenberg’s reference to her research process added something valuable to her paper.

Official Blog of the Humanities Institute at the University of Texas at Austin