Meet the Team: Q&A with Jeffrey Shen, Graduate Research Assistant

Photograph of Jeffrey Shen on MIT's campus
Posted November 16, 2022

Meet the Team: Q&A with Jeffrey Shen, Graduate Research Assistant

Jeffrey Shen joined the Digital Humanities Lab as a Graduate Research Assistant in September 2022. He recently shared more about his research and what has been most enjoyable about working with students at MIT.

What brings you to the DH Lab?

I guess the obvious answer is that I’m interested in this issue of humanities. But another thing I really liked about the lab is that its main purpose is framed around teaching. I really like the opportunity to work on these really interesting, hands-on projects with students, and to be able to teach.

I was previously an LA for 6.009 [Fundamentals of Programming], and I really enjoyed that experience of helping students out with their problems and really talking through computer science with them. I really enjoy the opportunity to do hands-on learning with students.

You are a recent MIT graduate with an EECS major and a Political Science minor. What drew you to those fields?

In terms of what drew me to those fields, I've been interested in computer science and technology for a very long time. Growing up in the early 2000s, there was always a lot of really fancy, almost overly optimistic technology, and that was really inspiring for me. It was like, “Oh, look at all this change you can do with technology.” So I learned how to program and do all these things. It was very exciting, because it was a very exciting time in technology. But as I started to get older, I realized that the thing that I really wanted to do with technology, which was to work on meaningful problems and make material change, is not really something that you can do on technology alone. My understanding of this was very sobered by the tech backlash of the mid 2010s, and coming to the realization that technology is not inherently positive. In fact, it's generally used in very evil ways. That sort of understanding, and the broader political climate, pushed me to think more critically about politics and history, which have also been my longtime interests. When I came to MIT, I was like, yeah, I want to study computer science, but I also want to study the humanities. Both have been useful.

You mentioned wanting to do meaningful work and work on interesting problems. Can you talk about your research interests and what kind problems you're interested in grappling with?

As an undergraduate, my research was very focused on questions of surveillance and carceral technologies. Basically, how technology is used to strengthen the surveillance state in the U.S. One of the projects I worked on for a while was in the MIT Media Lab in the Human Dynamics Group. I was working with a grad student, Dan Calacci, studying Amazon Ring, which is a smart video doorbell. And people also post to the social network for this doorbell, which is a really interesting phenomenon of our current moment. There's been a lot of concerns over people racially profiling other folks on the platform, surveilling delivery workers and hyper-scrutinizing their behavior, and just a lot of concerns over does this increase paranoia in the neighborhood? I thought this was a really interesting problem because I've seen these a lot around my neighborhood, and I think it was a clear example of an existing social phenomenon–such as racial profiling, and paranoia about neighborhoods–that was being exacerbated in a new way by technology. So we had worked on this research project of studying the posts on the platform, like where they're being posted, what kinds of neighborhoods post more on the Ring platform, and what kinds of things are posted on the platform.

For my master's thesis. I'm working more on questions about the digital humanities. So thinking about how we can build interfaces mediated through technology, but still responding to user input to make exploring library collections easier. The idea I’m working with is this concept of generous interfaces, which was introduced by Mitchell Whitelaw–this idea that traditional library interfaces are often just a search, and you want to be able to actually invite the user to explore more through interface design. I’m still in the really early stages of that, but that's another question I've been interested in, is also developing speculative technologies that can imagine more interesting use cases for computer science.

Is there anything that's surprised you about working in the DH Lab?

One of the things which has been very nice and very surprising has been the culture of the DH Lab. This is something that drew me to the DH Lab: even though I’m in a more of a teaching role, I don't really think of there being that much of a hierarchy. I think it's been very nice how horizontal and collaborative the Lab has been. The staff, Ryaan [Ahmed], and Catherine [Clark] are all very approachable. There's really not the sense that this is a traditional teaching experience. It's really like we work around each other and we can ask for help whenever it's needed. We ask other folks for help. This is something that I’ve really enjoyed.

Could you share a favorite aspect of working in the Lab so far?

I really like the feeling of helping students get unstuck with problems. There's this tendency to just give students the answers because you identify the problem, and you're like, “Oh, I want to just tell them the problem.” But that's not a very good learning experience for most folks. You actually want to get them to solve the problem themselves by asking them questions and having them see what the issue is, by bridging understanding that wasn't there before. I think that can be more challenging and more time consuming, but it's also a lot more rewarding when you have this dialogue, like a back and forth of questions, and you can see a student come to this understanding rather than just giving them answers in ten seconds.