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On Oatmeal and Digital Humanities

Posted by on Tuesday, October 20, 2020 in DH Center Blog.

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)

What is your favorite cookie? oatmeal cookie

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.