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Humanities Reads

Faculty teaching courses in the humanities, or courses with a central humanities-related component, are invited to consider adopting this year's common humanities text as part of their assigned reading and discussion material.

2019-2020 Selection

Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil

This year’s common book for the Humanities Reads series is Cathy O’Neill’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (2016). 

The nominator of the book writes: “This book is thought-provoking in our age of information and data. The world is driven by big data and algorithms nowadays. It is grown deep in our everyday life without most people realizing it. . . . This book talks about the societal impact of algorithms, big data and misuse of statistics in modern society. It shows how these very useful mathematical tools mentioned above can be harmful and discriminative if used without careful justification.”

As the National Book Foundation explains: “Most troubling, they reinforce discrimination: If a poor student can’t get a loan because a lending model deems him too risky (by virtue of his zip code), he’s then cut off from the kind of education that could pull him out of poverty, and a vicious spiral ensues. Models are propping up the lucky and punishing the downtrodden, creating a ‘toxic cocktail for democracy.'"

The Women’s and Gender Studies program at Drake comments on the book’s nomination to Humanities Reads: “Weapons of Math Destruction ​shows how studies in math and data analytics do not take place in a vacuum and do not have narrowly circumscribed effects; rather, mathematicians, data analyzers, and authors of algorithms are affected by and contribute to broader social discourses that are sometimes dangerous and discriminatory (intentionally or not). The Drake community as a whole would benefit tremendously from rigorous discussion of this book, and . . . it would also lend itself to engagement with the Des Moines community.”

The Board believes this is a timely and evocative work and is eager to support engagement on these issues among students, faculty, and staff across the Humanities. The Center is in the process of purchasing a limited number of copies of Weapons of Math Destruction to be shared with any member of the Drake community who would like to take part in Humanities Reads! Further, the Center will make copies available to faculty who are assigning the work in their classes. (If we get more requests than we have copies, we may need to institute some kind of text-share process). These copies will be available August 1. Please contact the Director if you would like a review copy and/or if you have plans to teach the book in fall 2018 or spring 2019. 

Past Humanities Reads books have included:

  • Tara Westover's Educated
  • Mathew Desmond's Evicted
  • Kiese Laymon's How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America
  • Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams
  • Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks
  • George Saunders's In Persuasion Nation
  • Phoebe Gloeckner's Diary of a Teenage Girl
  • J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace

Every year, the Center for the Humanities receives many excellent submissions to the Humanities Reads program, all of which are deserving of wider recognition. Toward that end, we are happy to share the full list of 2019-2020 nominees, with comments from their nominators:

Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett. The nominator notes that this as a "very important text about materialism" that "connects to concepts in religion, philosophy, environmental sciences, political science, literature, and other fields. . . . Bennett explore how we look at 'matter' and where vibrancy or perhaps 'life' is. She also connects the ideas to political economy. Essential for thinking about 'nature' and for discussions on source of life (e.g. religion v science debates; debate about what it means to be pro-life, etc.).

Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self by Stacy Alaimo. The nominator describes this book as "fascinating" and "thought-provoking," containing "chapters on very different issues related to rethinking the human body. . . . ranging from the autobiography of cancer survivors; environmental justice; chemical sensitivity; and posthuman environmental ethics." The author Alaimo "argues for the notion of the 'transcorporeal body,' or awareness that the human body does not have solid boundaries but instead is connected to the environmental (food, pesticides, plastic, etc.)."

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli. The nominator describes this as "the book Americans need to read right now." The book is "a concise autobiographical account of Luiselli’s experiences as a volunteer interpreter, conducting intake interviews of the unaccompanied migrant children appearing each day in a New York City immigration court. . . . The 'Forty Questions' in the book’s title refer to the intake questionnaire used by Immigrant Children Advocates’ Relief Effort (ICARE). . . . Without sentimentality, Luiselli shares these children’s stories and, in so doing, confronts readers with the stark realities of U.S. attitudes toward (and policies concerning) its neighbors to the south." The nominator goes on to note that the current administration's "2018 policy of separating migrant families at the border makes Tell Me How It Ends especially timely, particularly given the book’s final chapter, which offers concrete action steps as well as some reasons for hope. . . . This book would be a great catalyst for discussion in Drake courses focused on creative nonfiction, memoir, human rights, borderlands, American history, Central American history, race/ethnicity, law and society, public policy, and social justice." 

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