Highlight a Woman: Roopika Risam

By Brenda Bethman

For this round of “highlight a woman,” we went outside the field of student affairs to focus on digital humanities. Roopika Risam, the subject of this post, recently completed her Ph.D in English at Emory University and just started a position as an assistant professor at Salem State University. Despite the hectic schedule that entails, she was kind enough to answer my questions and I am very pleased to introduce her to SAWTT readers.

Can you describe your background? Degrees, current and previous positions.

B.A. in English and South Asian Studies from University of Pennsylvania, M.A. in English from Georgetown University, Ph.D. in English from Emory University. Currently Assistant Professor of World Literature and English Education at Salem State University.

Taught high school for four years before graduate school, worked with pedagogy and tech throughout grad school at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Technology at Georgetown and the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence.

What inspired you to work with technology in addition to a “traditional” field? Was it your original plan when attending college?

From an early age, I definitely gravitated towards technology, enjoyed tinkering with it, in college taught myself HTML, Flash, later CSS. But it wasn’t until I worked at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Technology (CNDLS) at Georgetown that technology became more than a hobby. There, I was introduced to what I now recognize as “digital pedagogy” and “digital humanities” – though we weren’t calling it that at the time. I had the opportunity to participate in prototype development for a range of projects including digital storytelling, course wiki notebooks, and the MyDante teaching tool for the Divine Comedy. At the time, I didn’t realize that I was working under a group of leaders and visionaries in educational technology but it led me to think critically about how to integrate technology in the classroom – and why – and to consider how what had previously been a hobby might fit into my scholarship. My scholarship has been largely guided by a political commitment to questions of solidarity across dividing lines of race, national, class, gender, and so forth, and its relationship to imperialism. It ultimately occurred to me that technology has any number of (fluid) roles in relation to solidarities and imperialisms – whether we’re talking about the role of Twitter in the “Arab Spring” demonstrations, outsourced technologies, Indians brought to Silicon Valley on temporary H1-b visas for their labor, or black and brown women around the world whose labor produces the components that comprise technologies. These concerns at the intersections of postcolonial studies and technology that led me to co-found Postcolonial Digital Humanities (#dhpoco) with Adeline Koh.

What role do you feel women play in technology within higher education?

Increasingly, we’re seeing greater participation from women, but more significantly, we’re seeing concrete results from that participation: greater attention to the relationship between gender and technology, from gendered expectations that have shaped our experiences with technology to gendered expectations in the workplace. As we see greater involvement from women of color, we add challenges to expectations based on race, ethnicity, or nationality to that mix. Moreover, we model engagement with technologies for our students – and it’s very important for them to see women working with technology.

What advice would you give other women interested in working with technology?

As in many other fields, we often feel like we have to do everything  – know every technology, code in every language – to keep up with male colleagues. To some degree, women in technology do still have to “prove” themselves in ways men don’t necessarily have to, going back to the gendered expectations by which technology is encumbered. My advice is to keep on top of technologies but be realistic about how much can be mastered and how quickly. Yes, some of the expectations derive from those external, gendered expectations but some are also the result of imposter syndrome and our own worries or anxieties about our relationship to technology. Don’t let imposter syndrome become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What do you like to do for fun when you’re not working?

Traveling off the beaten path, hiking, tennis.

Highlight a Woman: Roopika Risam

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