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UC Doctoral Student in English Awarded NEH Digital Humanities Prize

As a creative writer who built an interactive site compiling data on lynchings in America, Andrew Bales’ versatile skill set exemplifies the power of learning across disciplines. His efforts have earned him recognition from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Date: 9/5/2016
By: Camri Nelson
Phone: (513) 556-4350
Photos By: Provided

UC English doctoral candidate Andrew Bales is a 21st century digital humanist — a coder with advanced research skills and a creative writer with a passion for social justice. As he works on his first novel, he’s also dedicating time to shining new light on “fuzzy” historical documents to make them relevant today.

Bales, 30, beat out stiff competition from professors and higher education administrators from around the county in the 2016 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Chronicling America Challenge. It took him three months and many all-nighters to build the website that won him second place in the contest, which required participants to create a web-based tool and use data visualizations using information found in the Chronicling America historic newspaper database.

His prize-winning, interactive site — American Lynching: Uncovering a Cultural Narrative — references 11 million newspaper articles and maps that help tell the story of thousands of lynchings over the years in America. 

“For academics, it’s a necessary step toward linking statistics and historical documents,” Bales said. “The lynching era is often set aside as a shameful and separate part of American culture, but it’s important to spend time with these articles and consider the lasting effects of this kind of mob violence.”

One of the most dramatic lynching narratives he uncovered involved a quiet and dutiful lynch mob that targeted two black men who were being transported to their trial by armed guards. The mob disarmed the deputies guarding two men accused of rape, hung the men from a nearby tree and then left them there.

“It was both horrifying and surprising,” Bales said. “My hope is that people will be moved by these individual stories and that it will inform their understanding of race and authority in America.”

Bales traces his chosen research fields — which revolve around social and racial justice — to his parents and upbringing in Kansas and his experience studying multiple disciplines as an undergraduate. 

Both of his mother and father work in the world of grants and nonprofits, and Bales himself spent time working at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., before beginning his doctoral studies. As an undergraduate at Wichita State in his home state of Kansas, Bales dabbled in a variety of majors, including psychology and philosophy, before settling on creative writing as a career path.

“I feel really interdisciplinary,” Bales said. “I love technology, I love art. I like when things come together.”

In the College of Arts and Sciences, Bales credits his creative writing mentors as well as the program’s flexibility, which allowed him to work on projects that inspired him, including an independent study with UC IT. It was in that role that he started delving into big data at the city-wide level, specifically civilian complaints against Cincinnati Police. He wound up building a website through which users can sort complaints by neighborhood, gender and race. He is currently looking for collaborators to help him expand on this project, the pursuit of which led him to the NEH web challenge in the first place.

“Andrew is a delight—witty, talented, kind . . . and versatile,” said Michael Griffith, UC English creative writing professor and director of graduate studies. “He always has a dozen fascinating, imaginative side projects going.”

His wide-ranging interests have also impressed English Department Head Jay Twomey, who has helped facilitate Bales’ cross-disciplinary experiences. “I think Andrew impresses everyone who meets him,” he said.