The NULab and DSG began the new academic year welcoming Dr. Monica Martinez, Assistant Professor of American Studies and Public Humanities Faculty Fellow at Brown University, as the keynote speaker at Northeastern’s Digital Scholarship Fall Welcome. In her talk, “Lives are Not Metadata: Recovering Histories in Texas,” Martinez explored her work recovering lost histories of racial violence along the Texas-Mexico border in the early twentieth century, working to create digital and physical markers for these omissions in public history and knowledge. In discussing the growth of this project, Martinez framed her work on the significance and ethics of representation in light of our current immigration crisis: how did we get here?
In response to this central question, Martinez depicted the forgotten histories of the Texas-Mexico border. From 1842 to 1928, there were over 200 lynchings and other forms of racialized violence, often committed by civilians and police officers. Throughout this time, ethnic Mexicans were dehumanized and portrayed as disposable. Recovering this history, according to Martinez, is essential because the consequences are devastating, if not lethal—today’s immigration crisis and political rhetoric is a “hauntingly familiar scene.”
In drawing the consequential connections between history and contemporary culture, Martinez next discussed the “inherited loss” of these events, stating that these injustices have negatively impacted the communities and future generations of those killed during this period of state-sanctioned violence. Beyond enduring political divisions, Martinez noted that the sites of these events often go unmarked in our history books and at the geographical sites of violence.
Fueled by a desire to mark these events, Martinez discussed the development of her work in public humanities starting at the first iteration of this project: Refusing to Forget, a non-profit created in 2013 as a collaboration between scholars and residents in Texas working to commemorate the centennial of this violence. Refusing to Forget is creating several forms of public markers of this history: temporary and traveling historical exhibits, permanent historical markers in Texas, and the 2016 exhibit, “Life and Death on the Border, 1910-1920” at the Bullock State Texas History Museum.
The next iteration of this project, Martinez explained, was the creation of the current digital project, Mapping Violence. Started in 2016 by Martinez and undergraduate researchers at Brown, an interactive mapping visualization of Texas documents the geographical locations and descriptions of these incidents are violence. Martinez next highlighted some of the questions and concerns in the current development of this project, bringing attention to the “sterile” feeling of early visualizations. In hopes of creating a better ethical representation of this history that feels like a memorial, they are currently gathering metadata on aspects like gender, class, race, and occupation. In addition, the team is collecting information about the strategies that survivors utilized to seek justice.
Speaking to the ongoing discussion of what recovery and redress mean in public history, Martinez ended her talk with a consideration of the ethics of representation and digital humanities; working against sensational representations of history (particularly racialized violence), Martinez asked: what are the ethics of providing this material publicly? What are the dangers of making these events accessible and having them circulate uncritically? Following her talk, discussion continued regarding these concerns and the importance of public record.
After Martinez’s keynote address, there was a round of lightning talks highlighting the ongoing digital work of Northeastern faculty, staff, and graduate students. Molly Nebiolo discussed the use of mapping technology to represent Boston’s social and spatial history in the Birth of Boston project and Tina Eliassi-Rad explored the social implications of machine learning and big data in the Just Machine Learning project. Then Lara Rose introduced the use of text analysis and text encoding to explore intertextuality in the Women Writers Project and Cody Dunn discussed his work using matrices and word2vec models for big data projects. Dan Jackson and Jules Sievert concluded the event discussing the NuLawLab and the development of digital projects and apps for interdisciplinary legal empowerment.