Becoming Human

This brief presentation was part of a panel at MLA 2020 in Seattle entitled “Being Human, Seeming Human.” The panel brought together researchers from Microsoft with a couple of DH folks (me and Mark Sample) to talk about the history of research into artificial intelligence and conversational agents, some current experiments and challenges in the field, and the possibilities this work creates for literary artists today. The role I took on, as the last speaker in the session, was to raise some questions about how our engagements with these conversational agents might be affecting us.

Becoming Human

My presentation required me to open with a mildly mortifying revelation: When I was young, I took a lot of unconscious cues for how relationships were supposed to work from the ways they were represented on television.

Screenshot from Dynasty

This, perhaps needless to say, was a terrible mistake, which I discovered full-force the first time I ended an argument with an incisive, cutting one-liner and stormed out of the room. The person with whom I was arguing did not chase after me; there was no stirring emotional reunion. There was no sense in which I got to feel like I’d won. There was only a deep breach of trust, leading eventually to the loss of a relationship and the realization that so much of what I’d ingested as a child had been utterly wrong, that real connections between actual humans could not survive the kinds of dramatic behavior I’d been encouraged to think I was supposed to emulate.

This of course seems like a no-brainer now. Perhaps it’s just one of those things you shed in the process of maturing, but it’s hard for me today to imagine taking the relationships I see enacted onscreen to have much to do with my actual relationships in the world.

Screenshot from Friends

I know I’m not alone in my prior mistake, though; I have a close family member who once confided in me that she had been sorely disappointed to discover that as an adult she did not develop a cluster of relationships like those portrayed in “Friends.” I understand her disappointment; I was similarly saddened to discover that the world was not inclined to serve as a receptive backdrop for my self-dramatization.

What does this have to do with the current state of the development and deployment of artificial intelligences and conversational agents in online environments?

Screenshot from Her

Only this: as we engage with more and more non-human actors in technological environments, we may be prone to think of one another — and indeed ourselves — as less than human.

I want to be clear, though: like my failed understanding of the ways that relationships on television distorted and misrepresented actual emotional interactions among actually existing humans, the fault is not in the quality of the writing. “Better” television would not have produced a better understanding of human engagement.


Similarly, “better” conversational agents will not lead to more humane interactions online. The problem lies rather in a prior category error that makes it difficult for us to separate selves from self-representations. And it’s this category error that has led to what I increasingly think of as the failed sociality of social media.

That argument, in very brief, points to the ways that social media has promoted and benefited from a misunderstanding of and mistaking of connected individualism for real sociality.


Yes, we engage with one another’s self-representations on these platforms, but the engagements are not real sociality, any more than the self-representations are our actual selves. We are cardboard characters in a poorly imagined drama, often behaving toward one another in ways that real relationships cannot survive — in no small part because social media platforms are heavily based around and in turn feed our cultural tendency toward competitive individualism, a tendency that slides all too easily, inexorably, into the cruel.

This argument — that social media as we participate in it has never been and in fact could never be social — requires me in this presentation not only to acknowledge my somewhat mortifying childhood failures to discriminate between representations of relationships and actual relationships, but also to acknowledge my much more recent failures to think all the way through the potentials of the proliferating platforms we use for online interaction and the ways they might transform scholarly communication. My assumption in my earlier arguments was that such two-way, many-to-many communication would open up channels for new, better ways of working together. Today, I am far less sure. This is not to say that I want to abandon those platforms or the possibilities they present for communication, but it is to say that I now recognize the extent to which our networked interactions with one another are not going to transform the academy, much less our society, for the better until we become better humans. To the point of today’s conversation: a huge part of becoming better humans is bound up in how we recognize the humanity of others, and the representations we create of that humanity — whether dramatized on television or functionalized as conversational agents — not only draw heavily on our most unspoken assumptions about one another but also set the course for how we’ll treat one another in the future.

Code over a cyborg face

Here’s the thing: what we’re producing in more human-seeming agents is in fact more human-representation-seeming agents, which is to say portrayals of our ideas about what “humans” are. In the case of conversational agents and other kinds of AIs, the emphasis is on intelligence — and intelligence, at least in the ways it can be modeled, is not the same thing as humanity. And perhaps that’s all fine as long as those agents remain tools. But countless examples, from adorable kids talking to Siri and Alexa, to trolls online tormenting bots like Tay, demonstrate the ways we all blur the lines in our interactions with these agents. And I don’t think there’s that much of a leap between trolls tormenting Tay and Gamergate, or revenge porn, or swatting, or any of the other innumerable ways that new technologies have facilitated the violent, racist, misogynist, dehumanizing treatment of people online.

Shadows of people on a beach

So we have to ask some hard questions not just about the AIs and conversational agents being developed, and not just about the algorithms that allow us to interact with them, but also about the ways that we interact with one another on equally technologically mediated platforms. For what definitions of “human” are we building human-seeming agents, and why? If our models for the human mistakenly substitute intelligence for humanity, what becomes of emotion, of kindness, of generosity, of empathy? How do those absences in models for the human pave the way for similar absences in actual human interactions? And how does the consequence-free inhumane treatment of conversational agents encourage the continued disintegration of the possibilities for real sociality online?

Generosity, Humility, Vulnerability

A few conversations in recent days, as well as a bunch of the reading I did during my holiday writing retreat, have led me back to thinking about generosity. One would think I’d have exhausted myself on that concept, but not even close. In the same way that I find myself continually relearning the same lessons via blog posts that retread the same terrain, I find myself returning to the notion of generosity to be sure I’m taking the right things from it, and that I’m emphasizing the right things in it.

I spend a lot of time in the book trying to hone in on exactly what I mean when I talk about generosity. It’s a fraught subject. As I argue at some length, the requirement to be generous is not evenly distributed in our culture — whether by that I mean to point to the academy or to the contemporary US more broadly — and so where I exhort us toward greater generosity, the primary object of my “us” is people like me: centered rather than marginalized, over-represented rather than under-served, comfortably secure rather than precarious. Empowered.

I also note in the book, however, that people like me have everything to learn from the folks around us who have long since grappled with these issues, and who grapple with them daily. There is a reason why many might hear me talk about generosity and the ethics of care in which it’s grounded and hear that as a highly gendered goal, for instance: because it is, and because it is meant to be. I draw many of my models for the kinds of solidarity I hope that we can work toward from social movements and theories of education that have received inadequate uptake from the contemporary university. In invoking those models, I’m asking what it might mean if we were to recenter our approach to higher education around their goals. What if the purpose of higher education were not personal achievement — the building of individuals — but instead a social good — the building of communities? And how, as I explore in the book’s final chapter, would the internal structures of our institutions need to transform in order to appropriately value and reward the labor involved in such care?

There are a couple of other aspects of generosity that I want to underscore. The first is critical humility, by which I mean in part starting an argument with the acknowledgment that I could quite well be wrong — that I could have misunderstood or misread the speaker or text I’m engaged with, that we could in fact be closer to agreement than I think. That whatever I am reading deserves all of my attention. Such humility plays a significant role, as the passage I quoted yesterday from Eduardo Bonilla-Silva makes clear, in our ability to build coalitions and stand in solidarity with communities we hope to support. Our relationships depend crucially on our ability to invert the hierarchies we ordinarily experience as teachers, to become and remain learners instead. We have a lot to learn.

This inversion, however, leads to the second aspect I’d like to emphasize: a willingness to make oneself vulnerable. Vulnerability is of course radically unevenly distributed in contemporary culture, and in the contemporary academy, and far too many people experience it daily in unsought and undesired ways. But if those of us who are able to do so — again, those of us like me, who are centered, represented, secure, empowered — are willing to make ourselves vulnerable, allowing our learning processes and the mistakes that result from them to take place in public, we can clear paths for others to work and learn more safely as well.

Such is the heart of Shawn Graham’s brilliant new book, Failing Gloriously, just out today. All of us fail, after all, but the risks involved in those failures, and the freedom to admit to them, vary enormously for different members of the academic community. As Shawn notes in his introduction:

Learning to fail productively is not without risk and pain. It’s not easy. It’s not a gimmick. Some of the stories I share here hurt. To fail gloriously is to share and use the productive fail to offer others a shortcut. (viii)

Sharing these stories of failure is a radical act, a generous act, one that requires a willingness to be vulnerable so that others can learn from your failures. Doing so, as Shawn has done, can create the potential for helping others through the failures we all inevitably encounter. And that vulnerability likewise creates the potential for connection, for solidarity, for our ability to talk to one another, for a good that reaches beyond the self.

But, as Shawn notes, our institutions are — and in turn train us to be — deeply risk-averse, and those of us who are safest in assuming certain kinds of risk are (as evidenced by our success within the system) the least likely to do so:

competition is everything in academia, and so academia is not set up to recognize productive failure. Indeed, in a competitive system, failure necessarily has to be punished. The systems and meshworks, the entangled flows of power and money and incentives that make up academia are fragile, and failure is seen as a rupture, a breaking, a threat. (3)

We need, in other words, new institutions that do not see failure as a threat, new institutions that support risk-taking and community-building and generous thinking. Among my goals in the coming year is to continue thinking, with those institutions that want to recommit themselves to their mission of public service, about ways we can together create an environment in which we honor and support generosity, in which we engage one another and the world around us with humility, in which we can be safe despite (and perhaps even in) our vulnerability. This is the kind of institution we need to be building together — one that is structurally capable of supporting the notion of together in the first place.

30 November 2019, 18:46

Those of us who labor in academia have a responsibility and a role to play in the transformation of society, but we are not, and should never aspire to be, Comtian ‘sociological priests,’ giving the people formulas of what the new world should look like…. Our job, then, is to work *with* and *for* the oppressed, *join* social movements as well as help bring them to the fore, and help craft ‘radical theory’ and radical knowledge to assist the social movements that are trying to change the world. Consequently, scholar activists must be humble and develop the capacity to listen and learn from the various political and organizational efforts of the oppressed.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, _Racism without Racists_

Loss, Shame, Validation, and Work

This is likely to be a bit of a hike. It’s one of those posts in which some precipitating event has sent me off on a bit of an introspective tail-spin, and sorting out what’s going on in my head and my heart requires putting fingers to keyboard and letting some of the mess out. It’s also the kind of post that has the potential to leave me feeling over-exposed once it’s published, but that I feel nonetheless compelled to get out there, precisely because that feeling of being exposed is often a sign that I’ve tapped into something that many of us have in common and yet don’t often talk about. So here goes.

* * *

I lost two friends from high school last week. Both were kind, caring, talented men, both deeply committed to family and community. Both gone suddenly and utterly unexpectedly.

I hadn’t been in close contact with either of them for some time, though I kept up with them through Facebook. And of course it was Facebook that let me know they were gone, a means of communication simultaneously brutal and anodyne, both a gut-punch and a welcome space in which to share sudden grief. And there was something in the combination of the losses, coupled with the social network’s collective outpouring and my own personal store of regret and shame — seriously, you name someone from high school and the first thing my brain will kick up will be some embarrassing or painful moment that I wish I could go back and undo — that dropped me in a spiral of weirdly retrospective sadness. I was at one and the same time feeling the loss of these two wonderful men, recognizing the pain that their families and closest friends must be feeling, and caught within an upwelling of all of my old high school trauma.

None of this news, this loss, was about me, of course, and my unconscious, reflexive move to make even the death of a friend — of two friends — somehow focus on me and my loss and my trauma brought me up short. It forced me to recognize the extent to which my high school years were characterized by my absolute conviction that no one else anywhere could possibly be going through anything that compared to what I was going through. That recognition deepened the sense of shame that had already resurfaced, making me wonder whether I’ve ever grown up enough to get over the things that happened to me back then, whether I’m in fact still the same insecure, needy, selfish mess that I was at 14 and everything else is just a veneer of professionalization.

And I sit here now questioning my own motives in putting together this post: is this just more self-absorption, more narcissism? Why do I need to write about this?

* * *

I listened to a guided meditation yesterday morning that focused on developing emotional intelligence, something that boy howdy could I use more of. I’ve known for a few years now that I’ve abstracted myself from my emotions to such an extent that I’ll periodically find myself feeling — well, shitty, is all I can tell — and it can take me hours of being still and thinking “what kind of shitty is this? what just happened that precipitated the shitty?” until I’m able to backtrack enough to know that that thing that person said in that meeting really hurt and I’m angry and embarrassed and… phew, okay, I’ve named it and now I feel a little better.

I totally identify, in other words, with Anne Helen Petersen’s description of adulthood as being about “acquiring the skills to feel no feelings at all,” a purposeful movement into our heads and so far out of our hearts that we can, ideally, forget that they exist.

So, developing emotional intelligence; I’m in. Anyhow, the teacher yesterday guided us through a process of remembering something difficult we’ve been experiencing lately, of feeling the sensations of that difficulty as they manifest in the body, and of attempting to name the emotion that’s tied to those sensations. I sat with it for a bit and tried to come up with the right name. Sadness? Sure, but not exactly. Anxiety? Almost always, but not really in this case. Loneliness? Maybe.

And then after a pause the teacher gently listed a number of possible labels, the last of which was shame. Which made my breath catch. There it is.

The next part of the process was to reflect on what it is that emotion needs, what it is asking for. Anxiety, for instance, might be asking for reassurance. Loneliness might be asking for connection. I sat still, aware that the thought “do shame, please” was repeating in the back of my head. And at last, shame, he noted, might be asking for validation.

Asking for validation. It, as the kids used to say, me.

* * *

I suspect that I’m not alone in this, both in a general human sense and among my academic colleagues. And it’s my sense of the commonality within that latter group that has in part driven me to write this post. I think a lot of us share the need for validation as a component of what drives our work. And so when my colleague Beronda Montgomery writes about the importance of working from affirmation, not for affirmation, it feels to me utterly revolutionary: exactly correct, and miraculous if you can do it.

Because here’s the thing: I am at the top of my game. I have the best job I could imagine, working with the best people I know. I’m extraordinarily well-supported in getting to focus on exactly the kinds of work I want to be doing. I have a book out that is by all reasonable measures a success. Things are great. And yet I find myself prone to deep bouts of insecurity about that work, fretting over why the book wasn’t reviewed in that publication and whether I’m really doing anything that matters. And worse, waving off my accomplishments by repeatedly asking myself what I’ve done lately.

That last… is unfortunately not a question I’m alone in asking, at all. I’ve been on something of a lecture-and-workshop circuit this fall, visiting a huge number of campuses and talking with them about ways of cultivating the kinds of generosity that can foster a deeper sense of community on-campus and deeper ties with the communities we ought to serve. These visits have been productive and energizing, but at least once during each of them, someone has asked what I’m working on now that Generous Thinking is out. Or, where they’ve done some research and found the post (to which I am not linking, but you can find it if you want) in which I described the project I thought — and some days still think — would be next on my agenda, they ask more directly about how it’s coming.

These are the kinds of question that I ought to hear as you do great work and I’m looking forward to more of it!, but instead take in as so, no new material, eh?

No, no new material. What have I done lately?

I’ve been in meetings. I’ve been building a new research center. I’ve been attempting to find a way to ensure that an enormously successful and important digital project is able to thrive for years to come. I’ve been learning how to develop and implement a business plan, how to work with heterogeneous teams, how to corral university bureaucracy in ways that support rather than hinder our goals. (I’ll let you know if I manage to figure that one out.) I’ve been running around the country talking about the last book, rather than turning my attention to the next one.

And if I let myself stop long enough to think about it, isn’t that what I ought to be doing? I mean, the work of the book doesn’t stop with the publication of the book, especially not in the case of this particular book; building a conversation that might transform the ways we in higher education work today requires getting out and participating in those conversations. So the book is a step in a larger, longer process, rather than an end in itself.

Except of course for the systems, both institutional and internal, that count accomplishment based on products rather than processes. Those systems are all about ends in themselves, urging us always to press forward to what we’re doing next, rather than lingering where we are, pursuing the now of things to greater fullness.

I increasingly think that many of us might be driven to internalize those systems and to embed ourselves within those institutions that want us to account for ourselves via products rather than processes precisely because of our need for validation. We often don’t publish a book, in other words, because we have something we’re burning to say. We publish that book, rather, as a means of demonstrating that we have had something to say. Having said it, and having gotten external validation for having said it, we are required to move on as quickly as possible to the next thing. External validation demands it: you already said that; got anything else worth hearing?

Anyhow, it’s all got me wondering how much of my working life has been structured — by me; I’ll own this — not just as a retreat from the heart into the safety of the head but also as a means of overcoming shame, as a means of demonstrating my value, most of all to myself.

* * *

So let me correct myself: it’s not only that this is a long post attempting to think my way out of an emotional tail-spin; this has been a career thus far spent trying to think my way out of a similar kind of tail-spin. To find validation through achievement. To forget about feelings and all the difficulty they can cause.

Those feelings don’t go away. But the people you might connect with, the people you might work with, the people you might feel things for and share things with, do.

I had another friend from high school reach out to me over the weekend, a friend I haven’t talked to in years. He asked me to call him, and I’ll admit I was terrified — afraid that I was about to hear more bad news, afraid that I was about to be pulled into some emotional something that I couldn’t handle. What he wanted, however, was to offer me miles for a plane ticket home for one of the upcoming memorial services. As it turns out, I’m already going to be there for other reasons, and was planning to attend the service, but I hope that I’d have taken him up on that enormously generous offer otherwise. What could matter more than taking the time to reflect on the now of things, bringing the best of who we are today, and who we might become, into conversation with the best of who we once were, instead of burrowing into our still-lurking feelings of inadequacy and shame?

It’s a way of being that I’d like to bring to more areas of my life and my work in the year ahead: slowing down enough to recognize the importance of building connection and community, lingering in what I’m doing rather than pressing forward to what I think I ought to have done, focusing less on products and the external validation they bring than on process and its internal rewards, and having the conversations that might help make more of what we’re all working toward possible.


A writer whose work I admire enormously tweeted the other day about the new book they’re working on and the joy they’re taking in it. Reading this tweet left me simultaneously delighted and saddened — delighted because there will soon be more amazing work for me to learn from; saddened because… well, because me. Because I’m not writing right now. Because I despair of my ability to clear out the time and the brain space required to really dig into another serious writing project. Because I know I’ll never measure up to the example of that writer I so admire, who has published two brilliant new books in as many years and is well on the way to more. And who has won numerous awards for those books, so it’s not just about quantity, but about quality as well.

I look at my own body of work and, at my worst moments, feel its painful slowness. It took more years than I care to count after completing my first book for me to have any inkling that there might be a second one, and there was a similar gap between the end of book two and the start of book three. How long, I wonder, will it be before I really get traction on another writing project? Why can’t I be as prolific as that writer, or any of those other ones, whose work I so admire?

At moments like this, I remember a former colleague of mine listening to my frustration and saying “but, Kathleen: how many books do you want to write during your career?” That question brought me up totally short; my first response was going to be “all of them?!?,” but right behind that came the somewhat dumbfounded question, “is there some number that’s enough?” And then: if there were, what would it be, and how would you know?

Part of the issue, then, is this sense of not-quite measuring up to some standard that I’m not even conscious of having set. But part of it is the source of that unspoken standard, which is externally derived, leaving me engaged in the constant work of comparison, anxiously checking to see if my work measures up to that I see being done around me. A mentor of mine (one of the generous thinkers to whom the most recent book is dedicated, in fact) tried to steer me away from this kind of invidious comparison years ago, when I was one year behind an award-winning super-genius on the tenure track. Such comparisons do no one any good. At the pre-tenure moment, I was of course caught up in the (not entirely mistaken if undoubtedly overblown) impression that my colleagues would be comparing my work to that of my immediate predecessor. Now? If there is comparison going on, it’s fully internalized.

These are the moments when I most need to remember what my colleague Beronda Montgomery has taught me: the importance of establishing my own index for what I consider success and keeping myself focused on it. By articulating her own personal metrics for evaluation, Beronda keeps herself focused on values and purpose and ensures that the work she is doing fulfills them. Even more, she ensures that she’s working from affirmation, not for affirmation, as she shows up to the work already valued and affirmed in her purpose.

When I start from a conscious sense of my own purpose, rather than the markers of success I’ve unconsciously absorbed, I remember how much of the work in my portfolio that means most to me has been focused on fostering better conditions within which other people can do their own creative and connective work. It’s been about creating and transforming systems and structures that allow that work to be more engaged and more fulfilling for all of us. Perhaps I could write more if I weren’t doing all that other work — if I weren’t directing a program and two centers, if I weren’t building the Commons. But I think I’d feel less satisfied with a portfolio that focused mostly inward — a deep irony for a committed introvert, but true nonetheless. It’s much too important to me to work on projects that have the potential for building community, and for changing the ways that all of us work.

File this under “things that are perfectly obvious as soon as I say them, but of which I nonetheless have to remind myself repeatedly.” The great news, I guess, is that these reminders present an epiphany every time: light dawning over Marblehead may come as sudden wonder at the glaringly obvious, but it’s awe-inspiring nonetheless. The internal effects of the competitive structures of institutional reward that I described in Generous Thinking are pernicious, and rooting them out may well be the work of a lifetime.

17 September 2019, 08:20

I’ve been thinking this morning about the difference between Planned Obsolescence and Generous Thinking, and why the latter, and the response to it, means so much to me right now. When I was writing Planned Obsolescence, I thought I had answers to big problems, and that I needed to get them in front of a sometimes recalcitrant academy, to press it in directions I thought would be better. With Generous Thinking, I am certain I have more questions than answers, and while I have some thoughts about the approaches we might take in solving our biggest problems, I’m all too aware that my perspective is partial. Even more, I am aware that I am at best an imperfect model of the directions I’d like to see us take. In some key ways, I am the primary audience for Generous Thinking, trying as hard as I can to guide myself toward better ways of being.