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Five Questions for IIT History Professor, Marie Hicks

This summer, the Humanities Department (HD) caught up with Marie Hicks (MH), the faculty most recently added to the department. Hicks is currently organizing a fall seminar series in Digital Humanities and will be teaching some very interesting history courses in the fall. We wanted to find out a little more about her, her work, and her transition to Chicago.

IIT History Professor, Marie Hicks

HD: What current project/research are you working on that you would like to share something about?

MH: My current book project centers on labor in early computing. Specifically, I look at how the proportion of women programmers and operators was actually higher in computing's early days than in its later days (and even now) in the UK. Incidentally, this is also true of the US.

This isn't a triumphal account, however. It's not an attempt to look back into the past and say "see how much better things were then?" The main reason women held more computing jobs in the early days of computerization was because the work was viewed as unskilled, and lacked career opportunity. Hiring managers viewed early computing jobs as "women's work" because it had no career path and was thought to be boring and unskilled labor. This matched up well with the expectation that women would drop out of the labor force after a few years to take care of a family. As the field professionalized and careers in computing became possible, women were increasingly cut out of the work, even though they had all the necessary technical skills. Young men were hired in their places because the work was acquiring an air of importance, and becoming more aligned with management.

So, interestingly, women didn't lose out in the past because there was a stereotype about them not being technically competent (as we sometimes see today) but rather because they weren't seen as workers who could have careers or manage mixed-gender staffs. (In the 1960s, few British men were thought to be willing to take orders from a woman.) My book argues, however, that this isn't just a story about women; it's a story of how underutilization of labor leads to disastrous results on a national level.

HD: What would be irrevocably lost if the record of women in computing was not studied?

MH: We would lose an appreciation of how labor force composition in high technology has broader ramifications. I focus on the UK because its experience of amazing computing breakthroughs followed by swift decline is a warning for the US. Today, the significant gender gap that persists in technical fields means that we underutilize our available labor force, leading to fewer innovations, fewer patents, fewer successful companies, and ultimately a lower GDP. We can look to history for some spoilers on how that will turn out, as we enter into competition with countries with far larger labor pools, like India and China--much as Britain had to compete with us in the mid-to-late 20th century.

HD: Can you tell us about your innovative teaching award?

MH: As a graduate student at Duke I won a fellowship for designing an innovative course on the topic of politics and sexuality. I got to teach the course to undergraduates in the history and women's studies programs. The course looked at how sexuality is a highly political and historically-contingent-rather than natural or timeless-category and idea. It looked at how politics and the law construct and define what is "normal" sexuality, and how heterosexuality and homosexuality (and everything those two categories leave out or obfuscate) are specific political constructs that have changed over time.

HD: What might a student encounter in one of your classes, beyond "mere" knowledge, that could potentially change the way she fundamentally thinks or feels?

MH: This is a tricky question. I'm not out to change how anyone thinks or feels. As a historian, I know that is a dangerous exercise, and quite frankly I'm bad at it to boot (which is why I'm not in advertising or politics). I provide the tools, information, and exercises that allow students to construct knowledge, because knowledge is a process: it is a set of mental and psychological tasks and trials that allows someone to create intellectual insights of their own. That is what pushes it past rote memorization, and incidentally why cheating makes education completely pointless. So students have to do that themselves. I can't impart knowledge to them--I can only give them the tools.

But to try to answer your question, I think that pushing past one's limits intellectually, especially in subjects one might not be very comfortable with, is the key to examining and potentially changing how one thinks and feels, so I try to get students to do this in my classes. Another thing that many students have told me is that when they see things in the past that they didn't expect it gives them a nudge to think about things differently, and not take as much for granted. It gives them hope that things can change.

HD: Has being in Chicago led to any exciting discoveries in terms of interests outside of your profession?

MH: Being here has turned me on to the digital humanities scene in the city, which has both taken me out of my field a bit and changed how I think about my work. On a purely recreational level, I've also been enjoying the improv and comedy scenes here, and the offerings at the many indie and university cinemas, like the Music Box, Northwestern's Block Cinema, and U. of Chicago's Doc Films. Some of the film festivals that come through town, particularly the architecture and design film fest, are terrific.