On Oatmeal and Digital Humanities
by Melanie Forehand, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow for the Digital Humanities
Shortly before the coronavirus shutdown in March 2020, I did a podcast interview about a digital project that I had been working on with the Center for Second Language Studies. As a warm-up question, the host casually asked me what I had had for breakfast that day. A giant grin spread across my face and the host seemed a little taken aback. It wasn’t the question, but rather my answer, that was making me smile. I have eaten the same thing for breakfast every day for fifteen years. Every morning, I wake up and look forward to starting the day with a bowl of oatmeal.
This declaration of my love for oatmeal might seem a bit tangential for a digital humanities blog, but it is actually quite relevant to my progression in the DH world. I recently completed an introductory Python course through Vanderbilt’s Digital Scholarship and Communications Office (DiSC). During each class session, I watched a series of explanatory videos about different Python functions and then completed a set of practice exercises. After our first class, the problem set asked me to, “Create a code cell that assigns a string to a variable, then prints the length of the string”(Baskauf). Here is my response:
delicious_cookie = input("What is your favorite cookie? ") how_long= len(delicious_cookie) print(how_long) What is your favorite cookie? oatmeal cookie 14
I chose to build my code around the idea of celebrating oatmeal cookies as a tribute to my favorite breakfast food and my partner’s favorite baked good. These were the first lines of code that I had ever written in Python. They weren’t particularly sophisticated, and I don’t anticipate that my colleagues will be lining up to ask me to share my amazing cookie code, but these codes are a reflection of me. They are an expression of my history and the things I love. They are a reminder of the humanity at the core of Digital Humanities.
They are also a reminder of how worldviews and personal experiences shape the seemingly impersonal digital platforms we so often use. While my proclivity for porridge-themed programming is relatively innocuous, codes and algorithms can have rather pernicious effects. To learn more about this subject, I invite you to consider studies such as Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression and the National Institute of Standards and Technology analysis of facial recognition.