Meet the lecturer: Melanie Walsh

Each month we chat to a university lecturer about their passion for their subject – and for teaching

Melanie Walsh is an assistant teaching professor at the University of Washington. Working in fields including cultural analytics, social media and American culture, her research centres on how the digital age is impacting traditionally analogue areas of study.

Can you give us an example of how your academic work blends the generally mutually exclusive fields of science and the arts?

Sometimes people think that data science and literary studies have – or should have! – nothing to do with each other, but there is so much fascinating research being done at this intersection. Many scholars use computers to study big trends – like genre – across millions of books, many more than a single person could read alone. In my research, I am interested in using social media data, like tweets or Goodreads reviews, to learn more about what American literature means to people and how they use it in their everyday lives, whether through viral quotations or memes or online discussions.

Cultural analytics is a very 21st-century subject. What does it entail?

The term was first coined by Lev Manovich, and simply means studying culture with computational tools; ‘culture’ here could mean books, songs, art, history, TikTok trends, you name it. While certainly exciting to be part of this emerging field, it can also be frustrating – there’s a lot of suspicion. Cultural materials like books or TikTok videos are complex, and when you reduce them to data you risk losing that; to do it right requires competence in multiple disciplines, the use of multiple methods, a keen sense of limitations, and a lot of care. People are afraid that data science methods will replace traditional ways of understanding culture, but I deeply value humanities scholarship that doesn’t use computers. I just think that using computers or data science methods can meaningfully add to our collective conversation.

Twitter users quoted author James Baldwin in support of the Black Lives Matter protests

Social media increasingly seems to encourage polar extremes. Middle ground, even a willingness to engage, can seem sparse. Can this be overcome?

I’m teaching an information ethics and policy class at the University of Washington, and this is one of the huge questions we’ve been discussing. Many prominent figures – like Timnit Gebru, an AI ethics expert who was fired from Google, or Frances Haugen, the recent Facebook whistleblower – have been calling for government regulation of Big Tech, and that would be a meaningful step toward addressing polarisation on social media. When Haugen testified before the US Senate, she talked about how Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm purposefully amplifies polarising content (because it leads to more engagement), so holding companies accountable for the way their algorithms work is very important.

Where do the most rewarding moments come, for you, in teaching?

I teach computer programming to students from humanities and social science backgrounds. Many initially feel intimidated, and it’s incredibly rewarding to watch them grow more confident.
I also just love working with this generation of young people. They are generally smart, creative, and politically engaged in ways that are different from my generation; I always learn from them.

‘When Postwar American Fiction Went Viral’, the book you’re working on, sounds altogether intriguing…

The basic premise is that the internet has ushered in a transformative new chapter of reading and literary culture, where people share, use and interact with books in new ways (or in old ways at new scales). While some think print literature is dying, readers on the internet are tweeting quotations, writing fan fiction and posting pictures of books on Instagram. I specifically focus on how readers have reshared or reimagined works of American literature, for instance examining how people tweeted James Baldwin quotations in support of #BlackLivesMatter or made YouTube videos about Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street to protest a ban on ethnic studies in Arizona.

Follow Melanie on Twitter @mellymeldubs

You might also like: Meet the lecturer: Dr David Archibald

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