Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth (ΦΒΚ Kenyon College, 2009) is an English PhD student and Digital Fellow at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY). As someone whose work builds bridges between technology and literature, he came to the attention of the ΦΒΚ National Arts and Sciences Initiative recently because he developed a compelling digital tool to help demonstrate the value of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Thanks to Patrick, we have shared the NEH Impact Index with our members as part of our toolkit, as a way to show the importance of NEH-funded projects, searchable by geographic region and categories such as education and cultural preservation. The Impact Index is just one of his many projects and interests which range from research on Utopian thought and the history of science in 18th and 19th century British literature to digital platforms for research and pedagogy to development of an online archive of science fiction works.


As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I was always pretty unclear on what I actually wanted to be when I grew up—I just knew it had to involve books and lots of reading. I keep this lack of clarity alive in my own descriptions of what I currently do for a living: “I teach English to undergraduates and sometimes teach programming to scientists.” Or possibly “I study 19th-century British literature and make apps for activism.” I get to do wildly different things every day, which is a lot of fun. I also get to confuse everyone (including myself) when I’m asked what I do at parties.

Why do you think Phi Beta Kappa and an arts & sciences education are important in today’s society?

As we are increasingly caught up in the 24 hour news cycle, insights from the arts and sciences allow us to maintain perspective. As a person who feels part of two cultures—the humanities and the sciences—I think our ability to understand other and alien viewpoints can come only from a commitment to seeking out difficult truths, both about the world and about ourselves as people. As individuals, we’re served up many easy truths every day on our phones before we get out of bed each morning. Phi Beta Kappa, and the best scholarly societies and endeavors, help us to remember how to productively disagree with one another. The best scholarship, whether about sonnets or black holes, comes from independent thinking and a broad view, and that’s what I think the liberal arts does at its best.  

What advice do you have for young Phi Beta Kappa members?

There’s a lot of pressure out there to specialize, but it’s often rewarding, both personally and professionally, to resist that pressure. It often pays off to become a “T-shaped person"—someone who is excellent at one or two core skills but who also knows a little in a lot of other areas. Personally, I’ve learned three things so broadly useful that they can be brought to bear on almost any professional situation: writing, public speaking, and programming. Learning each of these was also, in its own way, difficult and scary, but once I learned each it was hard to imagine going without. These might not be the skills you gravitate toward, but don’t shy away from taking on work or challenges that are completely new to you. Even if you’re only a dabbler in a certain skill, you’ll often find that that knowledge colors how you work with others and approach new challenges.

What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you?  

"Never bet on a gray horse.” This is something my grandfather always used to say, and because of his history you had to take it seriously. Before my mother was born, he entered the Irish Sweepstakes, a horse-racing lottery that gave out enormous prizes if the selected horse won in three successive races. In the third race, his winning horse crossed the finish line first, but, unfortunately for my grandfather, without its rider. He won only a consolation prize, but it was enough to travel back to Ireland to visit his elderly parents at a time when few immigrants could afford to ever return.

Though the advice is mostly just an old betting superstition, I’ve always thought of it as an injunction never to do things halfway. Don’t bet on a gray horse—bet on people who are genuine and committed, and be one of those people yourself.

I’m also partial to another piece of Irish advice often repeated by my father: “Paper doesn’t refuse ink.” As an English teacher, I take this as advice to always read critically. I think it’s even more apt in our post-truth digital context.

What is your favorite part about your job?  

I like learning and doing completely new things. Since I’ve joined the English program at the Graduate Center, I’ve gotten to publish papers on paratextual theory and REST APIs. I’ve helped to create a week-long course for teaching programming to researchers. I’ve attended the graduation of students I taught as freshmen, and created a web app that shows why the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) shouldn’t be defunded.  

What book are you reading right now? Anything you’d recommend?  

I just finished Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, a book about the Pirahã people by linguist Daniel Everett. It’s been causing some controversy as a challenge to Noam Chomsky’s universal theory of language, and is much more entertaining than that description makes it sound.

Books I’d recommend from the past year of reading include Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, a haunting account of the murders at the Chicago World’s Fair; Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, superlative historical fiction following Thomas Cromwell and the Tudors; and Impro by Keith Johnstone, superficially about the art of improvisation but engaging creativity, the power of masks, and transcendence.

Two under-appreciated (pre-20th century) books I often recommend are the satirical Evelina by Frances Burney, who is notable as Jane Austen’s favorite author, and The Beetle, an incomparably strange 1897 novel featuring a shapeshifting mesmerist who can only be overcome through Superior Victorian Knowledge of train schedules and the mysterious fluid known as electricity. Those who read it are liable to shout “THE BEETLE!” at inappropriate times, worrying friends and confusing strangers.

Closer to my own field, I’d recommend the important and highly readable Track Changes by Matthew Kirschenbaum, which explores the obscured history of the word processor, including the people (often women) critical to its development and adoption. Anyone curious about the fields of new media or the digital humanities should also check out Reading Writing Interfaces by Lori Emerson and Reading Machines by Stephen Ramsey.

What do you want to learn next?  

I’m currently writing my doctoral thesis, which is, in part, about accessibility—making activities and platforms that most take for granted available to everyone, especially those in the disabled community. I’m currently delving deeper into disability studies and the disability rights movement, and uncovering a largely unknown history of how people with disabilities have built their own infrastructure and otherwise advocated for themselves in unconventional ways. Working with my advisor, Carrie Hintz, who specializes in utopian thought, I’m hoping to combine my own perspective as a low-vision hacker and activist with some wider questions in the digital humanities and literary studies. With luck, the project will bring together my experiences of the last few years as a humanist, a programmer, and an activist, and I’m looking forward to doing a lot more learning!