Tools for Discovery: Molly Wright Steenson

Molly Wright Steenson is a Discovery Fellow at WID and an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Steenson received a Ph.D. and MA from Princeton University in architecture, and a MA in environmental design (M.E.D.) from the Yale School of Architecture. An architectural historian, she is currently at work on a book, Architectures of Interactivity, in which she examines the nexus of architecture and computation, primarily from the 1950s forward.

Molly Wright Steenson
Molly Wright Steenson

What do you work on at WID?

Mostly, I find myself just a part of the community. I am also on the committee that is reviewing and selecting our next Frontier Fellows — undergraduates who work on their own projects in conjunction with WID.

I’m also one of the co-founders of the Digital Humanities Research Network Group, a Mellon seminar funded by the Center for Humanities on campus that meets in the Discovery Building. We’re looking at digital approaches to computation and the interface to literature, history and humanities practice. There’s something really special about meeting at the Discovery Building. I realize we could meet anywhere on campus, and, perhaps, a room is just a room, but having the meetings here shifts and changes the kinds of conversations we have. The transdisciplinary aspect of WID can’t help but have an impact on how you are approaching things and how you are thinking about things when you’re at the Institute.

What are your tools for analysis?

My tools for analysis are quite often folded-in-half 8 ½ x 11 sheets of paper and a set of pens. I do a lot of diagramming back and forth, then put my diagrams on the wall. This is something I am doing this week as I adapt another chapter of my dissertation into a chapter for the book. A lot of my tools for analysis are lo-fi.

I think I find that lighter weight tools, like simple databases, are very useful. I have a very ugly but simple database that I built when I researched Nicholas Negroponte, an architect and founder of MIT’s Media Lab. Simple tools are better for me because they can make the simple inferences. Then I can make the more complex ones myself.

Tools for writing?

As a writer, I’m a heavy user of Scrivener and DEVONthink, a tool that helps to draw inferences between ideas. I find writing it to be spatial. I need to get things out in front of me. The difficult part of writing a long text is that if you just have a window that scrolls and scrolls and scrolls, five pages later I feel as if I’ve gotten lost. I don’t have this feeling when I’m reading a book. I don’t have this feeling when I’m using Scrivener, when I can keep two things working in separate windows.    

Tools for collaboration?

I teach a class called Information Landscapes and Data Cultures in the journalism department in which I use a web platform called It’s a publishing tool that’s easy to use and it produces great looking content, and it folds in photos and video easily, and it connects with your social network. My students have been using Medium to publish weekly collaborations. As we get deeper into the class, everyone has at least one good essay that they’ve written that sheds light on lots of different things. It’s really been interesting to see how using Medium has changed students’ weekly assignments because they are writing for an audience. It also allows me to pull their writings back into the class materials, and, at the end of it all, what I have is not a syllabus but a whole set of materials and perspectives on aspects of digital culture and themes that face us. There is going to be so much to jump off of when I teach this next time. It has been largely fostered by using this publishing technology.

I’ve used Tumblr when I’ve worked on very visual things like a data visualization class I taught. Tumbler makes it easy for people to grab, comment on and collect images. I also teach a 350-student introduction to mass communications class for which I use WordPress to keep all of the moving parts in place, which works like more traditional blogging. Right now we’re doing OK with in-person meetings and mailing lists. Do not underestimate the awesomeness of a list-serve. I am a mid-90s woman (laughter).

Your ultimate tool for discovery?

My memory for people. I joke that I know someone you know, but it’s true. I have a really, really strong memory for people and interpersonal connections, and it’s something that I’ve kind of become known for, as the person who knows everybody. By being able to see somebody and make a connection and remember “Oh wait, you’re in that department, which means you know this idea, and you’ve dealt with this concept, which means that you know these people. You guys, here and here, have to meet. Come with me.”

Interview conducted and edited by Mary Sussman