“The Oldest Profession”: Sex Work through the Lenses of History, Feminism, and Sociology

history, Sociology

By Kayla Pritchard

Prostitution (i.e., the sale/purchase of sexual services) existed in Deadwood, South Dakota, from 1876 until 1980, when the last brothel was raided by the FBI. Many of the citizens fought (unsuccessfully) to keep the brothels, seeing them as an important part of their history and the women as a valuable part of the community. Thus, 124 years of technically illegal prostitution ended in Deadwood, a town that today highly values its “wild west” past. In the fall of 2020, the Deadwood Historical Society opened The Brothel – Deadwood, a museum offering tours and interpretation, in one of the original brothels. Given my academic background, I was consulted to comment on prostitution when the museum was being constructed. Parts of my interview play on loop, along with the interviews of others, in an alcove in the museum.

The sign advertising The Brothel – Deadwood.

Just down the road in Rapid City, I gave a talk on prostitution on August 17th for STEAM Café (that’s science, technology, engineering, arts, and math), a series that represents a partnership between South Dakota Mines and Hay Camp Brewing, offering a talk on the third Thursday of each month. Prostitution and, more broadly, sex work are often viewed as unsavory, immoral, and only something that women do out of desperation. These stereotypes are culturally pervasive, offering an overly simplified view of sex work and sex workers. Furthermore, narratives painting sex work as either empowering or exploitative also miss the point about larger systemic forces at work in the “choice” whether or not to engage in sex work. Ultimately what is missing is a sociological lens that challenges us to look beyond individuals and focus on the structures and systems around them.

STS Faculty Profile: Erica Haugtvedt

STS Faculty Profile

haugtvedt-novum-profile-picErica Haugtvedt is Assistant Professor of English in the Humanities department and regularly teaches both HUM 200 (Connections: Humanities and Technology) and HUM 375 (Computers in Society) as part of the Science, Technology, and Society degree program.

What’s your area of expertise? What do you primarily research and/or teach? And what drew you to this field?

I study the history of fandom. I study the nineteenth-century British novel and its spin-offs as evidence of how people reacted to and thought about narratives and characters. I like to think about how print newspapers, magazines, books, and theatre are all interrelated. Another way of saying what I specialize in is to say that I study the history of transmedia storytelling (for more about what transmedia storytelling means, see Henry Jenkins’ writing here).

I think there were a lot of things that drew me to these topics, but the main memory I’ll relate it back to is being a fan of Harry Potter in high school. Harry Potter books had been coming out since I was in late elementary school, but I hadn’t read them because I thought they were too popular and overrated. Then, during my freshmen year of high school, my best friend convinced me to read Harry Potter around when the fourth book came out. She said that I would love them, and she was totally right. There was a long publication gap between the fourth book and the fifth book (three years), so during that time my best friend and I became part of the Harry Potter fandom online as we waited for more from Rowling. This was a transformative experience for me because fandom was a unique culture that had a sophisticated scholarly apparatus for detailing facts from the books and for interpreting them. You can say a lot about fandom that is derisive, but that mode of reading and looking for more engagement—that really made a lasting impression on me. I’m not active in fandom anymore, sadly, but I will always be ready to defend fans and fandom.

Young Harry Potter fans in costume.

Memos, Efficiency, & Human Decency: The Battle of Two Ethics

The Double-Edged Sword

By Olivia Burgess
The Double-Edged Sword

As someone who grades memos in technical communication classes, I often find myself asking: Is the grammar correct? Is the information accessible? Is it organized and readable? If I answer yes to these questions, I could say that the memo is not only effectively written but also follows what technical communication scholar Stephen Katz would describe as the “ethic of expediency.” But can a memo be ethical in how efficiently it conveys information but unethical in how it impacts human lives? Is it important for information – and technology – to be both efficient and decent?

I can’t help but think of Mike Judge’s 1999 movie Office Space when Bill Lumbergh (played to perfection by Gary Cole) leans into Peter Gibbons’ cubicle to chastise him about forgetting to follow the new company policy of putting a cover letter on a TPS report. “Did you see the memo about this?” Lumberg asks in a cringey, monotone drawl. He blatantly disregards Peter’s apology and reasonable plan to fix the error, instead telling Peter that he’ll send him the memo again – even though Peter has it right in front of him. 


As a dark comedy, Office Space makes us laugh with its relatability and only slightly exaggerated representation of a stifling work environment where efficiency is valued over human decency. History brings us some much darker examples, sans the comedy. 

Humanities & Technology: Defining Terms and the Complexity of STS

Classes, Humanities, Technology

By Christy Tidwell

Today marks the end of the first week back to class for South Dakota Mines, and the STS faculty are hard at work in their classes and enjoying meeting students! We are teaching classes on Environmental Ethics & STEM (HUM 250 with me), Computers in Society (HUM 375 with Dr. Erica Haugtvedt), E-sports (HUM 376 with Dr. John Dreyer), History and Philosophy of Science (PHIL 335 with Dr. Michael Hudgens), Terror & Horror (ENGL 392 with Dr. Laura Kremmel), and Licit and Illicit Drugs (SOC 411 with Dr. Kayla Pritchard) – plus many others! As this list of courses indicates, STS covers a lot of ground. It needs to, given its promise to study science, technology, and society, and there are countless ways to approach the field and the topics it includes.

In addition to Environmental Ethics & STEM (mentioned above), I am also teaching Connections: Humanities & Technology (HUM 200) this semester, which is a great illustration of what the STS major is all about. Since the course description and title are pretty broad, I’ve narrowed things down to focus on the following big questions:

1. How do we communicate with each other?
2. How do we design and build the places we live?

In response to these questions we will explore communication technologies from paper and books to social media, film, and robots, and we will consider urban design issues like curb cuts and plumbing, historical and contemporary ideas about what a home looks like, and what the city of the future could look like.

View of a classroom from the back, looking forward to the large blackboard on the front wall over the backs of many stationary wooden chairs placed very close together.

The Politics of Chairs: What Kind of Classroom Would You Build?

design, The Double-Edged Sword

By Olivia Burgess
The Double-Edged Sword

A chair is just a chair, right? Well, since you’re reading this blog you probably won’t be surprised that my STS answer is not necessarily – there’s a lot more to it than that. 

Dr. Zhu’s campus talk last month began with a fundamental concept in STS that I’d like to revisit: technologies are not neutral. That doesn’t mean, like some of my students first assume, that technology is simply either good or bad, like an angel or demon sitting on your shoulder. It means that technologies are expressions of things that we value as humans, such as safety, freedom, connection, privacy, and so on. 

A still from The Simpsons: Homer Simpson (middle-aged male cartoon character) with an angel version of himself on one shoulder and a devil version of himself on the other.
Technological non-neutrality is not this simple.

Let’s go back to chairs and specifically those you would find in an in-person college classroom. If you google images for “college classrooms,” you’ll find many pictures of traditional teacher- and technology-focused designs – the ones that probably pop into your own head when you think about a classroom. 

An image found searching Google for “picture of a college classroom” shows a traditional classroom arrangement.

But have you ever wondered why a classroom is the way it is, or if that’s the way it should be? That’s a question that intrigues scholars of built pedagogy, the study of the physical representation of educational philosophies. A fundamental principle of this field is that technologies are not neutral. A classroom is not just a space to learn, but a place that embodies beliefs, values, biases, and ideologies. It is, dare I say it, political in nature. For instance, the built environment establishes what bodies can move in space and how easily. A classroom that one student might easily navigate may feel drastically different for a student with a disability or injury.

A laptop with html code and the word Poetry on the screen.

Does Poetry Require Humans?

computers, Poetry, Technology

By Christy Tidwell

To end National Poetry Month and my exploration of the relationships between poetry and science, I want to turn to the process of writing poetry rather than poetry that addresses scientific ideas. More specifically, who – or what – writes poetry? Can an algorithm write poetry? Poetry is usually considered a particularly human thing. It’s an art form that requires linguistic ability, and it is associated with subjective experience, emotion, and interiority. Algorithms have access to language, but they lack individual identity, experiences, and emotions. Algorithms can be programmed to write poetry, so the question is really: does that count as poetry?

Bot or Not (sadly now defunct) takes up this topic by exploring whether we can actually tell the difference between poetry written by a human and poetry written by a bot. Check out some samples and see how you do. Here’s one example to consider:

Red flags the reason for pretty flags.
And ribbons.
Ribbons of flags
And wearing material
Reason for wearing material.
Give pleasure.
Can you give me the regions.
The regions and the land.
The regions and wheels.
All wheels are perfect.
Enthusiasm.

Does this seem like the work of a human poet? If you’re looking for expressions of emotion and interiority – as I primed you to do in the introduction – you might suspect this is the work of the bot. It’s not, though. It was written by Gertrude Stein, who was famous for challenging expectations of language use anyway. Kind of a tricky one. Ultimately, though, Oscar Schwartz, one of the creators of Bot or Not, said that 65% of their human readers failed the test for some of the poems in their database, indicating that it’s not just about Gertrude Stein being Gertrude Stein. There’s some real confusion about what’s human about poetry – and about humans themselves.

Bluegrass band plays in the background, camera focuses on pipe, wallet, and a small in on a weathered wooden table.

Technology and Bluegrass: More Than Just the Electric Banjo

history, music, Technology

By Christy Tidwell and Matthew Bumbach

After Matthew Bumbach’s recent Brown Bag presentation on the history of bluegrass, I found myself thinking about the role of technology in the genre. I’ve long listened to bluegrass myself but have largely taken the technologies involved for granted. I wondered what we can learn about technology by thinking about its role in the arts and also what we can learn about bluegrass specifically by paying attention to its relationship to technology. To find out more, I invited him to discuss the topic.

Christy Tidwell: For any readers who may not be familiar with bluegrass, let’s quickly provide some basic information. How would you define bluegrass in just a couple of sentences? And what is the basic history of the genre?

Matthew Bumbach: Bluegrass music emerged from old time music and hillbilly string bands from the historically isolated region of Appalachia. The primary instruments in the genre are fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar, upright bass, and singers. Bluegrass emerged, as a genre, during the 1940s and 1950s and owes a lot of its character to the unique playing and singing of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs.

One of Bill Monroe’s first appearances on the Opry.

CT: With that established, I’d like to focus more specifically on the relationship between bluegrass and technology. People often tend to think about technology as high-tech or futuristic, and bluegrass is not seen as either of those things. Historically speaking, what technologies were important for the creation and dissemination of bluegrass music?

MB: That is an excellent question and one that we don’t often discuss when we talk about this genre. Bluegrass could not have developed the way it did without the microphone. In the early days of bluegrass, the entire band would gather around a single microphone in both recording and live performance applications. They would create blend and balance through the use of proximity to the microphone.

The microphone was first invented and introduced to the public in 1877 by Emile Berliner, but it would be decades before we had a microphone that was effective enough to do what the pioneers of bluegrass needed. E.C. Wente invented the condenser microphone (or capacitor microphone) in 1916, a much more sensitive microphone than the earliest moving coil mics from the previous century. It took several more decades for condenser microphones to be study and cheap enough for use by the general public.

I mention the microphone as an indispensable technological advancement in the development of bluegrass music because bluegrass was professional music played by professional musicians. Unlike old time and hillbilly music that was played in churches, porches, and barns, bluegrass music developed in part because it could be played live for large audiences. Virtuosic professional musicians toured the country spreading these new sounds. Furthermore, bluegrass spread through recordings and radio. None of this could have happened without the microphone.

Big Problem, Small Form: Climate Change Poetry

Environment, Poetry

By Christy Tidwell

Climate change can seem overwhelming. It’s so big, and responding to it will involve more than individual actions, so it’s easy to feel discouraged or fearful. It’s also tempting to simply deny that it’s happening and hope for the best. In This Changes Everything: Climate Change Vs. Capitalism, Naomi Klein writes about how easy it is for us to “look for a split second” and then look away, joke about it, “tell ourselves comforting stories about how humans are clever,” etc. She writes, “All we have to do is not react as if this is a full-blown crisis. All we have to do is keep on denying how frightened we actually are. And then, bit by bit, we will have arrived at the place we most fear, the thing from which we have been averting our eyes. No additional effort required.” Obviously, this denial does not solve the problem.

Poetry works against this denial in a variety of ways. Some poets simply describe the losses we face. Risa Denenberg’s “Ice Would Suffice” (2017), for instance, emphasizes how “species are lost, / spotted frogs / and tufted puffins forsaken” and observes how we remain “heedless of lacking space / or how long / our makeshift planet will host us.” From its title’s reference to Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” (1920), a poem about how the world might end, to its emphasis on failure and loss, Denenberg’s poem demands that readers face our own human decline and likely extinction.

Who Is Earth Day For?

Environment, history

By Frank Van Nuys

In 1976 my eighth-grade science teacher gave us an assignment that seems as if it possibly aligned with that year’s Earth Day activities. I recall this primarily because of its embarrassing results. We were told to dig up some soil from our family’s yard and bring it to school to develop our own little in-door plot for growing some plant or other. Being part of the only family in southwestern Ohio not possessed of an old coffee can or some other suitable container, I dutifully filled a black plastic lawn bag with what seemed like a lot of dirt and stuffed that in a gym bag. Managing to lug my Earth Day “earth” on to the school bus, I stuffed the gym bag in my locker. When the time came for science class, I opened the locker and discovered that the plastic bag had ruptured. I suppose I somehow wrestled my embarrassingly overflowing bag of dirt into class and eventually grew something, but that sickening demoralization of middle-school level humiliation was all that really stuck with me.

Poster for the ENACT (Environmental Action for Survival) Earth Day Teach-In on the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor campus in March 1970.

My hapless effort at dirt transplantation offers a metaphor of sorts for the Earth Day phenomenon. Well-intentioned individual efforts on behalf of noble aspirations to better the planet, even if more successful than mine, amount to relatively small achievements. The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, was certainly a masterstroke in terms of generating citizen engagement and marketing an increasingly popular sentiment into a mass movement spectacle. It can even be argued that bipartisan passage of significant federal environmental legislation, such as the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, fed on momentum provided by Earth Day. Additional impacts included a surge in environmental organization memberships during the 1970s and growing influence of such organizations in legal actions against corporations and government agencies.

Understanding as Comfort: “The Sciences Sing a Lullabye”

Poetry

By Christy Tidwell

As I noted in my earlier discussion of Robert Kelly’s “Science,” poetry and science are not as separate as we might often think: they are both creative, and they both challenge us to see the world in new ways. In “The Sciences Sing a Lullabye” (2007), Albert Goldbarth illustrates another similarity between science and poetry by personifying the sciences (specifically physics, geology, astronomy, zoology, psychology, biology, and history) and imagining them as comforting figures.

Geology says: It will be all right.

Albert Goldbarth, “The Sciences Sing a Lullabye”

It is comforting to think, as Physics tells us, that our atoms will “dance / inside themselves themselves without you,” or, as Geology says, that “All of the continents used to be / one body. You aren’t alone.” Meanwhile, Astronomy comforts the reader with a reassurance that “the sun will rise tomorrow” while History hands us “the blankets, layer on / layer, down and down.” In other words, the processes of our bodies and of the world will continue, even without our attention. And science is what provides the evidence of this continuation.