Comp Lit in Tech Literacy Postdoc (feat. Lisa Tagliaferri)
Alumni Aloud Episode 31
Lisa Tagliaferri is a postdoctoral fellow in MIT’s digital humanities program. She earned her PhD in the comparative literature program at the GC in 2017, and she spent several years outside academia working as a community manager and developer educator at the cloud computing company Digital Ocean.
In this episode, Lisa tells us about the value of tapping into personal interests that can lead you down seemingly divergent paths, but that can ultimately enrich your academic and professional work in unexpected ways; how to bridge education and advocacy work through radical mentorship; and the advantages of applying your research skills to exploring the wide world of job opportunities beyond academia.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE–OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
ANDERS WALLACE, HOST: I’m Anders Wallace, a PhD candidate in the Anthropology program at The Graduate Center. In this episode I catch up with Lisa Tagliaferri, who’s a postdoctoral fellow in the MIT Digital Humanities program. Lisa earned her PhD in the Comparative Literature program at the GC in 2017 and she spent several years outside academia working as a community manager and developer educator at the cloud computing company, Digital Ocean. In this episode Lisa tells us about the value of tapping into personal interests that can lead you down seemingly divergent paths but ultimately enrich your academic and professional work, how to bridge education and advocacy through radical mentorship, and the advantages of applying your research skills to exploring the wide world of job opportunities beyond academia. What’s your name and what are currently doing for a living?
LISA TAGLIAFERRI, GUEST: I am Lisa Tagliaferri. I did my PhD in Comparative Literature and I defended my dissertation in April 2017. I began working at the cloud computing company Digital Ocean in July 2016. So I started by conceiving of and writing developer tutorials and then I moved into a manager position in community and developer education. And then I started a postdoc in the Digital Humanities at MIT in 2018.
WALLACE: You went from starting in developer manuals. Is that known as technical writing?
TAGLIAFERRI: There is a big swath of what technical writing is. Yeah there are things like manuals but what we really did on the team was more on the developer education side, writing tutorials that would take somebody from top to bottom creating learning pathways. As part of my role I worked on a Python e-book that’s free and open access. And it was not conceived as a book to begin with, it was basically like my tutorial curriculum and then we repackaged it as a book.
WALLACE: So this was a set of tools or resources for teaching people how to use these software programs?
TAGLIAFERRI: Yeah so the Python stuff in particular was supposed to take somebody from learning the beginning of like for loops, what is like a variable, through to object-oriented programming. Historically at Digital Ocean they did more work on cloud-based technologies. So basically how do you set up a server, how do you put Apache or EngineX on your server, and then as time went on and the product became more complex and you know developers had more needs, it would be more about doing containers so like Docker, doing scaling with communities and things like that.
WALLACE: That’s above my pay grade. *laughs* Can you tell me a bit about your academic background?
TAGLIAFERRI: Yeah so going back I did my undergraduate degree at Hunter College as part of the Macaulay Honors Program. I studied Italian literature and studio art and I knew while I was there that I was interested in continuing studying literature and languages. So I took a lot of foreign language courses at the time I guess in preparation. After undergrad I decided not to go right into graduate school and I worked at the United Nations as a copy editor for the General Assembly and Security Council for a year. While I was doing that, I realized that this maybe was not like the right trajectory for me and I started a Master’s in Comparative Literature at Binghamton University. And then from there I moved to The Graduate Center attracted to the Italian program that’s within Comparative Literature just because it was such a rich program. And while I was doing that, I took Italian at York College. I actually took a year away from The Graduate Center and did a Master’s degree in Computer Science at the University of London.
WALLACE: During your PhD?
WALLACE: So you had been somewhat self-taught in computer science?
TAGLIAFERRI: Yes I wanted to formalize that. I started to get interested in the digital humanities and it was actually Cathy Davidson with The Futures Initiative who really encouraged me to bring that into my humanities research in a more obvious way instead of doing like traditional humanities and doing programming on the side, to really wed those. So I really appreciated her perspective there. I taught computer science at Saint Thomas Aquinas College which is a college in Rockland County. So I started to get like exposed like different disciplines with The Futures Initiative. I learned a lot more about alt-act careers and towards the end of my fellowship I started applying to different jobs as an ABD. I mostly applied to alt-ac jobs like digital humanities or digital pedagogy focused. But I also applied to Digital Ocean and it was interesting how I found out about Digital Ocean because it was through my own dissertation research.
So they participate in this program called the GitHub Student Developer Pack, which is an offering that Github puts together that gives students access to different tools. One of those offerings was a Digital Ocean $50 credit, Digital Ocean provides servers. I’m like cool, I could use a server to put my dissertation research online. I put everything on the web but the thing was that Digital Ocean at the time did not have any kind of managed service. It was just like a server so I didn’t have experience in this administration. All of my experience was like more on the developer side without the infrastructure.
WALLACE: More like front end?
TAGLIAFERRI: Well just nothing that’s interacting with the server directly. So what happened was I read a tutorial that was written by somebody who became my colleague later. And you know I was like, “wow this is such an interesting piece of writing.” And it taught me how to set up my server, I got the server to serve like a static website, I put all my stuff on there and I’m like cool. So they were on my radar after that. As I mentioned most of what they did was more on SysAdmin, Linux and DevOps engineering. So it wasn’t really my wheelhouse but eventually I saw a job posting for an engineering technical writer that focused on Python so then I was like, “oh this is something really interesting.”
WALLACE: And you had learned Python already. What was your dissertation about, your topic?
TAGLIAFERRI: My dissertation was on Catherine of Siena is a fourteenth century mystic writer. A lot of the work is traditional archival research. I went to visit a lot of archives, I looked at manuscripts, early printed books. But the digital components were around doing network analysis; she was really good at building a network. And also textual analysis so looking at her writing in comparison to canonical authors. So the project was to recover her as a writer, part of the broader humanities project of recovering marginalized authors. Comparing her work to Dante and Petrarch’s work and seeing how she was able to be a successful writer and mystical person by building her network.
WALLACE: That’s super interesting. Do you feel like it was challenging in the Comp Lit department to do work for dissertation that had a digital component?
TAGLIAFERRI: I didn’t feel like there were any blockers. I think that there’s probably opportunities for humanities programs to offer more technical support to people who want to go down this road. Because you know my dissertation, the writing and like the humanistic rigor was really taken to task by my committee and I am grateful for all of that attention. But I think I could have you know been supported in terms of like the technical side a little bit. Like so there’s no code review, there’s no like is there other tech that I could have done. I mean I’m not sure where something like that would live but I think that there is a need for that.
WALLACE: Do you feel like there’s an interest that ties together your passion for Comp Lit and also your interest in coding languages?
TAGLIAFERRI: Yes I’ve thought about this a lot and actually it was through discussion with one of my colleagues at The Futures Initiative, Danica Savonick, who is an assistant professor at SUNY Cortland now. In doing a collaboration with her and talking to her about the things that are really important to me around access, who gets a say in certain things. I see a big thread within the vernacular period of Italy, so fourteenth century when the vernacular is coming into fruition, and open-source code on the Internet today. So basically thinking about people who were innovating in that time period, right, they’re doing things like writing and circulating text, making text available for wider audiences. Focacco says rather tongue-in-cheek-ly during in the beginning that he is writing this in Italian so the ladies can understand.
And like it’s kind of a joke but he’s actually correct. Tons of people did not have access to those resources. The people who were in positions of power and privilege were doing everything in Latin so people could not understand or be producing some knowledge in those contexts. So once you start to circulate text with others, put things into languages that they can understand, and you know work networks. Catherine of Siena learned how to read through a female community and so it’s outside of formalized education. And I see a lot of similarities with tool sharing and knowledge sharing and the developer community today. So people put things online like you could learn how to code online for free if you have the drive anyway. And you know just having more people be participants in those conversations, developing communities. That’s where I see that there and that’s what I think is important.
WALLACE: It’s fascinating the way you framed it. Now did you always think of yourself as becoming a professor, that you would have an academic career?
TAGLIAFERRI: Yes so when I committed to graduate school that is what I wanted to do. But I did not have a super a lot of exposure to other careers and I think that seeing the work that’s being done by The Futures Initiative and seeing how people were finding other career paths, you know, lots of academics in different contexts. That gave me more texture on like the variety of opportunities. I’d still think that there are like certain spaces that professors have access to that maybe other folks don’t have access to. So that’s something that I’m continuing to reflect on.
WALLACE: Was there any particular turning point or moment that made you shift your perspective to look at these outside opportunities?
TAGLIAFERRI: I think just by being in this career path for a long time and seeing where people end up. The Futures Initiative and the Office of Career Planning and Professional Development, those have been invaluable resources and I think The Graduate Center is a real leader in surfacing different opportunities and different features. You know as I mentioned like Cathy Davidson. And I believe that people who have done radical mentorship of their students has been like really empowering to me personally.
WALLACE: Radical mentorship? That’s interesting.
TAGLIAFERRI: I think it’s people that instead of like waiting for somebody to come to them, like they’re really being proactive with like providing time and resources. So my dissertation advisor Clare Carroll in Comparative Literature, she’s done a lot to understand like different career paths even though like she has a very successful academic career. So it’s really interesting to talk to people like her. Cathy Davidson, Katina Rogers and Lauren Melendez of The Futures Initiative, like all these people that really like foster and like put their money where their mouth is like in terms of like mentoring and structuring mentoring in and empowering graduate students rather than… like it’s not unidirectional what they do. They want graduate students to rise to you know the work that is meaningful to them and to be participants or producers of that work.
WALLACE: You were ABD and then in the meantime you had gotten this job with Digital Ocean and that was developing tutorials. And so was that an easy transition coming from a PhD background?
TAGLIAFERRI: I think there’s definitely like a context shift there. I think that coming from a humanities background in particular, there’s not a lot of recognition of all of the skills that you humanities PhD’s have that could translate well to industry. And I think that the more I spend time in industry and like interviewing with other organizations, like I really kind of understand the value of what a humanities PhD provides. So research. There is nobody better at research than a PhD right. And they know how to research critical thinking and analysis. When you can do it at such a high level like at the level of a PhD, it’s a very valuable skill to have in industry. Teaching and being able to communicate expert level knowledge to non-experts. Like having the on the ground kind of knowing what it’s like in a classroom, adopting a beginner’s mindset, having empathy for people who are learning something for the first time and being able to distill that knowledge is really valuable. And it’s not just in like training or teaching or education kinds of roles, like that is something that’s valuable in all kinds of different roles.
WALLACE: So it wasn’t too much of a learning curve for you in the technical writing role?
TAGLIAFERRI: I think that there were certainly a lot of things that I had to learn but just having the exposure was how I was able to learn that. I think I was fortunate enough to have a really great team because they were also very good at teaching. They were very good at mentoring me as well.
WALLACE: And did you know the technology already or was that something you could learn with your team?
TAGLIAFERRI: So the Python I did know but because we did a peer-review process on the team I learned a lot about other technologies which was really good for me because I would technically test other people’s tutorials and servers. That was like a different kind of learning.
WALLACE: You’re learning by testing the tutorials.
TAGLIAFERRI: In some ways there’s a really good audience because that’s in many cases what the reader would be doing for the first time.
WALLACE: What was a typical day like that in that office and work space, tech world?
TAGLIAFERRI: So in the beginning a lot of what I was doing was creating the strategy and the curriculum for the Python tutorials. I was researching best practices, I did the text that I wanted to write about. So I would create like little programs in the beginning, bigger programs later on, depending on whether it was more reference-based or project-based. So conceiving of what readers wanted and where there were pain points for developers to situate what we were offering to them that would speak to them. A lot of this work was informed by my humanities and pedagogy training.
As I mentioned the team did a peer-review process so if somebody else was writing the tutorial, I would do the tech test and give writing feedback. If it was my tutorial, I would get somebody else. And I was involved in the hiring process and other high-level initiatives. And what was also very rewarding and I think is something that seems pretty common in tech but giving back to the community and participating in need. So I’m giving workshops for colleges, for high schools and different organizations like Women Who Code and things like that. So that was really great and then when I transitioned to a manager there was a shift in that work. So there’s more time spent on coaching and developing the team or strategizing and facilitating initiatives and cross-functional work. And when you’re working at a growing organization there’s a lot of time spent on hiring.
WALLACE: I would imagine. Was there a lot of independence or was it quite structured in terms of what you got to work on with the tutorials?
TAGLIAFERRI: There was a lot of independence I think because there is a lot of work done on hiring really great people, people that have like DevOps engineering backgrounds and people who are really on the pulse of the developer community. There’s a lot of self-direction available within the team but also like supporting you know larger organizational goals. Like that’s something that the team wants to do too.
WALLACE: What did you enjoy most?
TAGLIAFERRI: Everything was rewarding in its own way. I think working with the team and just working with really smart people and being able to be exposed to tech as it’s being developed. Like continuous integration, continuous learning and being able to just be part of that movement.
WALLACE: It’s a way to write in a way that’s more social and collaborative. The team-based context you’re talking about. And it sounds like you had a lot of preparation for this work be it you know through your training and pedagogy in The Futures Initiative at the GC and kind of critical thinking skills as well as the tech skills. What are the things that you wish you learned while you were at the GC that would have helped you?
TAGLIAFERRI: The thing that I would have liked to keep in mind is that people’s goals change and like what they are interested in is going to change over time. And I think giving yourself the accommodation to have these kinds of changing thoughts and changing interests as something to keep in mind. Like I think when you’re in graduate school it’s easy to get like a kind of tunnel vision but giving yourself the time to reflect and giving yourself permission to engage with what your interests are I think is really important. And something that if I were able to talk to my past self maybe that would be what I would advise.
WALLACE: Of course to finish the PhD and the dissertation you have to get that tunnel vision. But to open it up and then reconsider things at different stages can be productive. Were there any particular outside resources that were helpful to you in the career transition or mentors?
TAGLIAFERRI: Having that researcher background was helpful in thinking about possible career futures because you know I was able to think about us like a research project. I did close reading of job advertisements to kind of have a sense of what was available in the field. I think there are a lot of resources, as I mentioned the developer community provides a lot of resources to other folks. If it’s a matter of learning new technology, you know the New York Public Library has a really great offering of different kinds of tools that can help; they provide Lynda.com subscriptions. And some of those things you could think about for different professional features even for academic features.
Kaysi Holman, who is now with The Humanities Alliance, she provided a workshop on thinking about CV’s and resumes. That was within The Futures Initiative like fellowship cohort but thinking about those two things at the same time and how those two documents can speak to each other I think was really useful. Because they’re different documents but trying to capture some of what you have in your CV into your resume and kind of quantifying it and teasing it out. That year of being evaluated by a team of stakeholders and your dissertation, thinking about all of the public speaking that you do, conferences, thinking about things in the language of different careers. So in tech they have tech jargon, you know in finance like whatever it is like just showing the granularity, showing that you are mirroring the language in job posts but capturing all of your experience.
WALLACE: That’s such great advice, learning the language of the field you’re targeting or looking at and then incorporating that into your own materials.
TAGLIAFERRI: Technical writing I think is kind of an ambiguous term and I learned while hiring technical writers that it’s not necessarily clear unless you like tease out what kind of technical writing this is. It could mean that somebody has a lot of experience across different kinds of like scientific writing, bio or pharmaceutical writing or emotive writing, engineering. I think that there’s just so many different flavors of technical writing. So if that’s something that people are interested in, they should see if there is like a focus they want to have or if it’s like the genre of technical writing writ large is what they’re interested in pursuing.
WALLACE: If someone wanted to apply to technical writing in tech itself, are their other skills they should have in addition to obviously critical thinking and writing skills. They should probably know some coding.
TAGLIAFERRI: It depends because sometimes the writing is more product documentation and that’s more like explicative kind of writing, like explaining what a product does. And in those cases usually writers will work with software engineers or product managers and think through like what documentation would be useful to users. Things that are more on like the developer education side, I think if it’s computer science-related they would need to have some kind of computer science background.
WALLACE: Makes sense. And so for the users that could be anything like help pages for instance.
TAGLIAFERRI: Yeah it could be it could be explaining like graphical user interfaces. It could be API documentation which what should be more technical. In different companies and organizations, technical writers sit in different parts of the company and they will collaborate with different folks. It kind of depends on the role and you know what somebody’s interests are, how they could kind of negotiate where to go.
WALLACE: Now you’re a postdoc at MIT and that’s an interesting journey back into the academic side. What was your drive there to enter a postdoc?
TAGLIAFERRI: So I continued to participate in academic work and it was only like a year gap really between defending and starting the postdoc. But I continued to write, to publish, to do conferences. So there was a long time of being unaffiliated. But the thing that I like a lot about academia is how rigorous the research is and the teaching within a classroom context. So the research in academia is special and it’s something that I haven’t seen elsewhere. Being able to go into the archives, like handling manuscripts and early printed books, like they’re something like magical about that.
And doing the work that I was doing to try to recover marginalized voices I think is very meaningful. And that’s something that I think is within the academic confines. Teaching outside of academia, so doing things like workshops, doing things like providing resources for developers, there’s certainly like a corollary and in some ways it’s like a larger reach. The Python book has been downloaded over 70,000 times which is like, I could never teach that many people in the classroom. But it’s still not the same as seeing like that spark when you’re in the classroom and helping students become knowledge producers and take ownership of their education. It’s something that’s a little different and that’s the kind of thing that I like about that kind of like university teaching.
WALLACE: Ideally would you like to have an academic career?
TAGLIAFERRI: I have a lot of curiosities. I’m not sure like you know which direction to go. I don’t really want to close any doors but continue to develop skills across domains and keep learning.
WALLACE That’s a very inspiring message and that’s something that students might not think is possible. They might think well I have to pick one or the other.
TAGLIAFERRI: I think academia has an opportunity to think about interdisciplinary dialogue and how disciplines communicate with each other because thinking through people with different perspectives, seeing different trajectories I think could be really beneficial in terms of like the dialogue that universities have with society and culture at large. I think that there is an opportunity for more of a permeable future there.
WALLACE: Looking back over your graduate school trajectory and training from the other side, what do you wish you knew when you were starting out?
TAGLIAFERRI: Well I think for humanities PhD’s in particular like thinking about what they want out of an academic career if that’s what they want or what they want out of a non-academic career. Those are important things to reflect on. There’s been like a lot of changes I think in the humanities trajectories and where things like digital humanities sit, where digital pedagogy sits within the university. So somebody who has those interdisciplinary interests should be thinking about what they want their career to look like in some respects.
Postdocs in the humanities are very varied from what I understand from my colleagues. They don’t have as long of a history as the sciences has, so there’s a lot of difference between them. And so it’s really important for humanities folks to take the time to really interview programs, to really interview companies if that’s where they want to go. And to think about their career as not something that is like coming to them. That’s something that they have to come for and something that they are a participant in. So interviewing the interviewer I think is something that’s important to keep in mind. It’s not a one-way street, people need to think about like, “is this a step in the direction they want to go,” things like that.
WALLACE: Such a great perspective and I think a very empowering shift because students can fall into that mold of wanting to be chosen by the model of what they think their future should be versus creating their own narrative and taking that time to assess their motivations as you said, what they want to get out of it. We talk a lot about branding yourself or creating your own narrative and I think that all ties in nicely.
TAGLIAFERRI: Yeah I think that’s really important. Having a career narrative going into interviews, that’s a strong position to have that in your back pocket going into interviews. And demonstrating how your experience can be leveraged into your future work whether that is in academia, whether that’s in industry, nonprofits, libraries or whatever the case may be. And thinking about that in two directions so something that I have thought about with applying to postdocs from like having a technical background is how to make the technical experience legible to an academic audience and also doing it the other way, how to make the academic experience legible to an industry audience. Sort of being able to kind of do it front and back. I think it’s important especially if you have like a lot of curiosity and don’t want to close any doors.
WALLACE: And can you tell me a bit about what a typical day is like in a postdoc?
TAGLIAFERRI: Yeah postdocs in the humanities I think are really varied. Speaking to my experience, MIT’s digital humanities program is relatively new so it’s very much a start-up kind of culture which is really interesting. It’s really fun. A lot of the work that I’ve been doing so far has been with undergraduate computer science students and we are developing software in Python that deals with humanities questions and humanities research. The first project that we did was called the Gender Novels project and it’s all Python code. It looks at the long nineteenth century English language novels and sees how gender is portrayed and depicted in these novels. So you know what verbs are associated with female characters, which ones are associated with male characters, does it matter if it’s a male author or female author writing the text and does that change over time. So in many ways this is like a data science-adjacent kind of project. And all the code is open source, it’s all available online other humanities folks can use this to look at the sixteenth century or something else or to modify things.
So yeah that’s our first project and then the second project is a digital archive of the MIT Computation Center from 1950 to 1962. So basically making archives that are on site at MIT available to the larger public. It lets historians have access to the work and you know making digital archives, I think most scholars understand how those are important. So the work that I have done within these projects is helping the undergraduate students doing teaching within the lab. For them to learn some of those computer science skills that they’re maybe not learning in an algorithmic kind of course. So thinking about collaborative coding, working with others, thinking about Git and version control, thinking about accessibility and how to create an accessible website. Also doing like code reviews, doing coaching, we’re going to have a speaker series later on. And also you know working on my own research projects and working on the research projects of the lab.
WALLACE: That’s quite cool. The postdoc, that’s a perfect way to tackle those questions you raised earlier about the bigger picture, building bridges between academia, digital and also the public. You create new communities around knowledge. You get to be a bit of a unicorn in either community whether it’s Comp Lit or tech.
TAGLIAFERRI: Something else that’s interesting about tech is that going into that space with an academic background is there is opportunity I think to make some of those changes that you want to see. So I was able to participate on the diversity and inclusion committee, I was able to work on hiring processes that were inclusive. And something that was interesting is one of the students that I taught in computer science…I was able to, since I continued to connect with him on LinkedIn and things like that, I was able to help him eventually get a job as an engineer at Digital Ocean. I think that’s something that’s really different from kind of an academic experience.
WALLACE: That’s quite cool. It’s an interesting way to make a change from the inside.
TAGLIAFERRI: Yeah, I mean I think that it’s important for the organization to have the values that you have. Like because they did have a diversity and inclusion committee before I joined, but I was able to participate. So that’s definitely something to think about when looking for a job.
WALLACE, VOICE-OVER: That’s a wrap for this episode of Alumni Aloud. I want to thank Lisa for coming on the show to share her experiences at Digital Ocean, MIT and what it’s like to advocate for technical literacy across disciplines. Remember to stay tuned for more episodes of Alumni Aloud, published every two weeks during the fall and spring semesters. Subscribe on iTunes and you’ll automatically be notified of new episodes. Also check out our Facebook, Twitter and career planning website at cuny.is/careerplan for more updates from our office or to make appointments with our career counselors. Thanks for listening and see you next time!
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