Interview With FI Alum Kalle Westerling

Kalle Westerling, Futures Initiative Fellow from 2014-2018, graduated in 2022 with a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies. Kalle’s research used network analysis to uncover connections between drag and gender non-conforming performers in New York City and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States in the 1930s. At FI, Kalle was the co-director of the HASTAC Scholars Program. In his words, “the Futures Initiative helped me find a voice and a belief that I had something to contribute to the system of higher education and knowledge-building institutions beyond what I thought I could.” He is currently the Digital Humanities Research Software Engineer at the British Library.

Dr. Westerling’s full interview can be read below.

Q: What was your PhD program?

A: Theatre and Performance at The Graduate Center, CUNY, with a certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies.

Q: Research focus?

A: I used network analysis as a method to uncover connections between drag and gender non-conforming performers in New York City and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States in the 1930s. That network turned out to stretch all around the country and be of a quite significant size. The queer archive was there, right in front of me when searching through databases of digitized newspapers, in the form of show advertisements, lodged in-between other content, often poorly scanned and OCR’ed. It was a lot of transcription and alignment of names but once I got rolling, I ended up with a spreadsheet with almost 12,000 registered appearances of a total of almost 1,500 artists. From this dataset, I was able to construct connections made over time between those artists. While queer absence is often palpable in our official archives, this method proved helpful to uncover connections made in secrecy and hidden away from majoritarian culture; yet leaving traces in a major form of communication of that culture.

Q: Preferred pronouns?

A: He/they.

Q: Year of graduation?

A: This year, 2022 — I just walked in our commencement ceremony in June!

Q: Year(s) affiliated with FI?

A: Oh, gosh… I was part of the first group of fellows to join the Futures Initiative in 2014, and I stayed around until 2018 or 2019. I can’t fully remember, but they were such formative years for me. I came in as co-director of the HASTAC Scholars program with the wonderful Fiona Barnett []. In fact, it was Fiona who I believe told Cathy Davidson about me, as she had seen me present at a conference about some of the work I had been doing with CLAGS: Center for LGBTQ Studies at CUNY [].

Q: Favorite FI memory?

A: As part of that original group, we were doing a lot more than what was part of the “job description” for our positions. In my case, Cathy found that my skillset included both graphic design and public speaking. So, I became someone who could moderate events, host our events, and design pamphlets and posters. I was the one who designed the original Futures Initiative logo. Back in the day, the corridor of the Future Initiative’s offices would have our posters on the walls, which was always a point of pride for me. I still remember when my mom was visiting New York City and I got to bring her to the offices, introduce her to the team, and show her the posters that detailed our work.

Q: How did FI contribute to your academic/professional goals? 

A: I guess my “favorite memory” answer already hints at it. But to be clear: the Futures Initiative helped me find a voice and a belief that I had something to contribute to the system of higher education and knowledge-building institutions beyond what I thought I could contribute. This was also instrumental in my realizing that there is a much larger body of water available outside of traditional academia for us to swim in. I’m so happy to have found my path leading down in.

Another very important contribution by the Futures Initiative to my professional life was all of the connections with people that I made. As HASTAC Scholars co-director, I was part of building a large network of folks who were in the early stages of their careers. It has been so joyful to follow all of them in their professional voyages after their tenure with the program. To this very day, I’m still meeting them here and there. Nowadays, I’m working closely with Katie McDonough [] who was part of the HASTAC Scholars program just before I joined. This Spring, I have had two former HASTAC Scholars visit me in London where I live these days: Julia Polyck-O’Neill [], now a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at Sensorium: Centre for Digital Arts and Technology at York University, and Cody Mejeur [], now Assistant Professor of Game Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Q: How would you describe the ways in which FI provides support systems for graduate students?

A: It is a space that allows for graduate students to reflect on their professional life in a way that I think PhD programs have a hard time doing. In all the academic professionalization events that I participated in during my time in my PhD program, the emphasis was always on the fairly traditional academic path, despite the fact that all of us — faculty included (I hope!) — knew that the potential job market for graduate students for the past few years has been absolutely abysmal. Noe Montez, a friend in my own field who is Associate Professor and Chair of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies at Tufts, has done some amazing (and saddening) research []. Montez’s work is really important to show the reality, and places like the Futures Initiative are equally important to help us build out viable alternatives that might prove to even be more rewarding for us in the long run.

Q: Current career? What do you want to do in the future? 

A: Ah, the eternal question – what do you want to do when you grow up? I have absolutely no idea. I am enjoying my current job as a Digital Humanities Research Software Engineer at the British Library [] and the Alan Turing Institute [] in a position that’s tied to a large-scale research project, Living with Machines []. The aim is to use and build new digital tools and methods to rethink the impact of technology on the lives of ordinary people during the Industrial Revolution.

The project has been running for a few years already and we’re “coming in for landing” now. So in about a year’s time, I need to have figured things out. I have quite wide-ranging skills and often find myself drawn in by places where I get to learn and practice new skills in combination with the ones that I already have. I love programming, but I’m also an extrovert galore, deeply in need of being around other people. I also have quite a penchant for community-building and collaboration. I love graphic design and building pretty data visualizations. Lately, I have been thinking about going deeper into developer education and technical writer positions. But I want to find a place where I can grow, and at the same time, contribute to a mission that I believe in. So… Yeah. This is the long-winded answer of: I still need to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

Q: What post-FI accomplishment are you most proud of?

A: As I’m writing this, I’m on the train going to the opening of the Living with Machines exhibition at Leeds City Museum []. I have made three contributions to the exhibition. My first contribution is an animation of how we have used a data science lens to understand how mechanization changed lives in Britain in the long 19th century, with a specific view on Leeds. Using British Ordnance Surveys maps, I have displayed data points from the project in geographical space and made it digestible for exhibition visitors. My other two contributions are interactive data visualizations, focused on some of the results of crowdsourcing tasks around historical newspapers that the project has had running on the Zooniverse platform over the past few years []. The first interactive, “What was a machine?” showcases the many different definitions of machines appearing in 19th century newspaper articles with some surprising results, like bean grinding, root pulper, and stamp perforator machines… The second interactive is one that looks more closely at the accidents involving machinery that took place. We want to show that accidents didn’t always and only happen in big factories but often in small mills and domestic spaces.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share about FI? 

A: Just to say to anyone who may read this and think — wow, this sounds like a great place to be — that it is, and you should get involved in any way that you can. Apply for fellowships, grants, and co-organize events, talks, conferences, or symposia. Think about any ways to involve the Futures Initiative in the work that you’re doing. It will connect you to new avenues for your work, and you may find your life and labor important in and for places that you never even thought of.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309