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Two New Courses

Image from my archival research process, 2016.

I recently created and taught two new courses, one on “Diversity in the History of Technology” (fall 2019) and a seminar on “History and Historiography” (spring 2020). See the full syllabi here.

The diversity in technology course is a history of technology course that reorients students’ understanding by balancing the often triumphalist, technophiliac accounts of tech’s past with stories from the margins, & histories of technologies that center previously ignored or submerged voices & narratives. For instance, we read Professor Deirdre Cooper Owens’s book Medical Bondage, on how white supremacy was part and parcel of the development of gynecological surgery, and we read Prof. Lisa Nakamura’s work on Navajo hardware manufacturing workers at Fairchild Semiconductor in the 1970s, who protested unfair labor conditions. We read Margot Shetterly’s Hidden Figures and relate this history to the present by reading work by scholars like Prof. Safiya Noble and Prof. Ruha Benjamin on Black producers and users of computing technologies, and the overlapping systems of oppression that large scale commercial information technologies rely on and strengthen.

Annie Easley, scientist at NASA. Photo circa 1981, courtesy of nasa.gov

Over the course of the semester, students expand their understanding of what usually “counts” as history of technology, and who usually gets to count within it. The course asks students to think about how oppression and the power relationships inherent in powerful, centralized technological systems have shaped what we think are the best ways to implement technologies today, and how ignoring these factors (or failing to contend with the history that created them) often leads to problematic, myopic strategies for “diversifying” technological products and workforces today.

The historiography course introduces students to the field of historiography—the study of how history gets written. Readings in the course focus on recent, innovative historical works that reconfigure the way histories of certain topics have been written in the past. We read, among other works, Prof. Hazel Carby’s most recent book on empire and family (Imperial Intimacies), Clyde Ford’s latest on race in the history of computing (Think Black), and Lauren Jae Gutterman’s new book on queer history (Her Neighbor’s Wife). Students investigate what went into writing them, think about why certain stories haven’t been written until now, and begin conceptualize history as a dynamic, changing set of narratives and ideas about the world, rather than simply a static, unchanging record of past events.

In the second half of the course, students also look at how different mediums (written, oral, visual) influence how histories are constructed, conveyed to an audience, and how the knowledge they create eventually becomes taken for granted or “common knowledge,” after initially being seen as novel or even radical.

Find both syllabi here.

Good News!

My book, Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge In Computing, published by MIT Press, has been awarded the 2019 Herbert Baxter Adams Prize from the American Historical Association. (It also won the 2018 PROSE Award for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine from the Association of American Publishers; The 2018 Sally Hacker Prize from the Society for the History of Technology; The 2018 Stansky Prize from the North American Conference on British Studies; and the 2018 Wadsworth Prize from the British Business Archives Council.)

It is currently available in paperback,audiobook, and e-book. And a graphic novel version may be on the horizon!

Drawing I did in a signed copy of Programmed Inequality for a reader.

Learning How to Read Better (In College & Beyond)

The short guide below evolved out of a conversation with Miriam Posner (@miriamkp) of UCLA who was looking for ways to help her students read more quickly and effectively. These tips can help you retain more when reading academic texts and allow you to get through them at a quicker pace.

Here’s what I tell my students if they have trouble keeping up with the reading for my history and STS classes: Continue reading

A new, improved Women in Computing History syllabus

Annie Easley at NASA in 1981. Image: nasa.gov
Annie Easley at NASA in 1981. Image: nasa.gov

This year, at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, I am teaching a new and improved version of my popular course Women in Computing History. It was initally taught at Illinois Tech in Chicago last year, where it garnered some press attention.

Due to the interest the course generated with people beyond the walls of our classroom I annotated the syllabus with discussion topics and class notes to give a sense of what we did in each class meeting–and what kinds of questions might be useful if you do the readings on your own.

See my syllabus page for the newest version of the course–the old version is still available as well, for all you completionists who might want to look at the details of how the course has changed!

The History of Computing is More Relevant Than Ever

I recently wrote a piece for the Washington Post using history to debunk the infamous “Google Memo” and its contention that women are somehow less innately suited to technical pursuits. Truth is, for a long time women were predominant in the field of computing because technical work wasn’t seen as important. Their disappearance has everything to do with structural discrimination and little to do with “innate” differences.

I was also very glad to get a few mentions in The Guardian. See this (delightfully acerbic) article about memogate in general, and this one that’s specifically about the history of computing’s role in helping us better understand power and (the lack of) diversity in our technological landscape in the present.

Quick note about the latter article–it made a little bit of a mistake in the first few lines (read more here and here). Both SUSIE and SADIE were computers. The typist/programmer in the ad was unnamed.

BCL Computer ad from 1967 that talks all about the “typist” that will program your newly-purchased computer for you.

 

What the Google gender ‘manifesto’ really says about Silicon Valley

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Oh the terrible irony.
Photo by Mar Hicks

Five years ago, Silicon Valley was rocked by a wave of “brogrammer” bad behavior, when overfunded, highly entitled, mostly white and male startup founders did things that were juvenile, out of line and just plain stupid. Most of these activities – such as putting pornography into PowerPoint slides – revolved around the explicit or implied devaluation and harassment of women and the assumption that heterosexual men’s privilege could or should define the workplace. The recent “memo” scandal out of Google shows how far we have yet to go.

Continue reading

Why Should We Care About The Failure of the British Computing Industry?

Recently I gave a talk at Data & Society, a think tank in NYC that focuses on issues of social justice and technology. The talk was about how the history of computing of our closest historical cousin, the UK, can help us learn things about the past and present of the US–things that we may be blind to, or perhaps just resistant to seeing. The half-hour talk is an overview of what happens when countries build discrimination into technological order, rather than seeking to make equality a core goal of technological progress. In it, I address how the current state of affairs in the US relates to this, and I offer some advice on solving the problems of underrepresentation in STEM fields today. Watch the talk here.