This week’s blog focuses on Dr Rebecca Roach. Rebecca was a postdoctoral researcher on the Ego Media Project, and is now Lecturer in Contemporary Literature at the University of Birmingham. Her book Literature and the Rise of the Interview is available now from OUP.
As someone who has always done interdisciplinary research, Rebecca’s work spanned the whole Ego Media project. She developed the questions for and interviewed the participants in the study exploring how people with epilepsy interact with health-related information online; initiated the work with the Mass Observation Archive and worked on her own project exploring the relationships between computing and literature. Her role also involved reflecting on Ego Media’s methodology(ies) which – given the range of the project’s work, proved a huge undertaking.
Rebecca explains how the project with the Mass Observation Archive came about: “We were trying to explore how we might get self-reflexive material from social media users because we very much wanted people to reflect on their own social media usage and practices, which is quite a tricky thing to do. And I had known about the Mass Observation project – which has been running on and off since the 1930s – through which willing participants are asked to keep diaries and/or reflect on a topic of interest in writing, and then contribute it to an archive where it’s stored anonymously. It’s a really valuable resource and their responses provide incredibly rich, detailed life writing and reflections on different topics.”
I thought why are we trying to reinvent the wheel when we could write a ‘directive’ – a series of prompts which the people who contribute to the Mass Observation Archive could respond to?”
The project worked well. “We got these wonderful responses from people we would not otherwise have been able to reach. While the Mass Observation Archive participant group is not reflective of the population as a whole, it’s really good for getting people who might not actually have engaged in social media at all, and those who are older, who are from a very different social group to those who one might expect to engage with social media.” The responses were rich in detail, and sometimes quite surprising. “I was really pleased with what came out of it,” says Rebecca.
Methodologies and ethics
“I’ve had quite a large role in sort of thinking through methodological question and was also responsible for the ethics application for much of Ego Media’s research” This meant that Rebecca had to do a lot of thinking about different methodological and ethical questions an about how to conduct research. “What kind of methods do literary studies use, versus social science? Do literary studies have methods? How well do we articulate them? How are all these questions changing with the advent of digital media?”
Rebecca also collaborated with Anneleen Masschelein on a special issue of the journal “Biography” focused on the role of interviewing and interviews in life writing. “With the advent of social media, there’s been something of a crisis in the social sciences. Why do interviews when you can use all this social media data? What can interviews tell us that big data can’t? We were interested in responding to this perceived crisis in the social sciences by looking at interviews from the perspective of literary studies, the arts and life writing, and considering the role and place of interviews as part of a larger discussion about methods and practices and the digital realm.”
Literature and computing
Rebecca’s project on the relationships between literature and computing is still on-going. During her time on the Ego Media project, she investigated what’s happened – and is happening – to conversation in the era of computation. “I looked at the author, J M Coetzee, who worked in computing before he worked in literature, and published some research based on his archives, exploring the conceptual influence of his computing on his notion of what literature is and does in the world.”
She also worked on chatbots: “While Ego Media is interested in self presentation, what I’m interested in is interaction. So, for example, in literature and life writing more generally, we tend to be more comfortable with single-authored texts. I’m interested in what happens when you look at dialogue, or conversation. What that does that do to muddy our assumptions? What might that tell us about literature, or, particularly, processes of reading and writing?”
Rebecca is especially interested in the assumptions built into chatbots, how they are conceived historically. “There’s a lot of research to be done into how chatbots are gendered and racialized in really unfortunate ways, into how they are increasingly utilised in a way that isn’t always visible online. I think it’s worth literary scholars thinking about these forms. We have a lot of skills and expertise to bring to these new objects.”
As well as writing about literature and computing for the Ego Media digital publication, Rebecca has also written about the cybernetic metaphor of black boxing, that is increasingly adopted by other fields. As she explains, ‘this is the notion that you look at the inputs and the outputs but can’t see inside the box. It evolved from the notion that, maybe, the box is a missile, so you don’t want to open it up, because it might explode. So you can only analyse input and output.
In terms of methods, that’s a really interesting question for what is we’re doing when we’re analysing something as literary scholars. What happens to our notions of subjectivity and interactivity when we’re thinking about digital media? We’re now in a situation where digital technologies can move faster than human cognition. We don’t necessarily know what’s going on inside the black box of the algorithm. How do you think about analysis or critique in those situations? Those I think have been really formative questions for me. I still don’t have a great answer. But I think they’re interesting questions.”