Todd S. Presner

The former Sady and Ludwig Kahn Director of the Leve Center, Prof. Todd Presner continues to serve as Chair of the UCLA Digital Humanities Program and a co-principal investigator of the Urban Humanities initiative, in addition to being the Michael and Irene Ross Chair; Professor of Germanic Languages and Comparative Literature. Most recently, it was announced that Prof. Presner will serve as a faculty co-lead on a new curriculum development initiative to develop a publicly engaged, data-driven approach to teaching and research on social justice issues at UCLA. The “Social Justice Curriculum” is funded by a generous $5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and along with co-leads Juliet Williams, Professor of Gender Studies and chair of the UCLA Social Science Interdepartmental Program, Safiya Noble, Associate Professor of Information Studies and African American Studies, and Sarah Roberts, Associate Professor of Information Studies, Presner will lend his talents and experience with community-engaged learning and innovative approaches to humanities pedagogy to the initiative. 

We connected with Prof. Presner this week to talk more about the initiative and how it intersects with his work in Digital Humanities and Jewish Studies. 


  • Congratulations on the major Mellon Foundation grant that will fund a social justice curriculum at UCLA!  Please tell us about your goals, the collaborations entailed, and how the project will enhance the Bruin undergraduate experience.


Thanks! The goal of the grant is to build a publicly engaged, twenty-first century Social Justice Curriculum across the humanities and social sciences. Humanistic perspectives have an essential role to play both in shaping and enacting a vision for social change that addresses the defining and cross-cutting issues of our time, including racial justice, economic disparities, health and housing equality, immigrant rights, ethical AI, climate justice, and reparations. Shaped by the interlinking social justice issues at the core of the Experimental Humanities—the Digital, Urban, Environmental, and Health Humanities—our vision is to drive meaningful social change through new collaborations in learning and action among diverse faculty, students, and community partners.


The heart of the program focuses on undergraduate education, and we are partnering with the Division of Undergraduate Education’s Center for Community Engagement to develop and realize the curricular goals of the program. Led by Director Shalom Staub (Leve Center Affiliated Faculty), the Center will play a key role in supporting and developing a new Cluster Course in “Data, Society, and Social Justice” as well as a sequence of upper-division courses affiliated with the experimental humanities, summer workshops and institutes, and a new Master’s in Data and Society.  The Cluster course will be taught by interdisciplinary faculty teams focusing on themes such  as the environment, cities, health, and racial disparities in Los Angeles and will provide first-year students with a critical introduction to humanistic frameworks for understanding social inequalities, while developing the tools to assess the practical and ethical implications of data-driven approaches to interventions for social change. 


  • Can you explain what a Humanistic approach to “big data” looks like, and how it furthers our understanding of each domain?


A defining feature of the UCLA Social Justice Curriculum is the recognition of data and technology as a critical nexus for research and training in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. Prevailing discourses of “big data” and technology tend to set forth a progressive, utopian vision, even as evidence mounts that these same forces are powerful drivers of social inequality and injustice. At the same time, universities have yet to overcome deep intellectual divides that keep those engaged in scientific fields like engineering, computer science, and medicine separated from those in social justice oriented studies in the humanities and social sciences. The UCLA Social Justice Curriculum brings these two worlds together through a humanist-led curriculum grounded in collaborative community partnerships. This training not only will enable humanities students to use data for social change, but more broadly, to spur deeper and creative social engagement with humanistic frameworks for transforming knowledge and producing impact in the sciences, medicine, and engineering.


  • Why UCLA, why now?


Given existing programmatic strengths at UCLA as well as our location in Los Angeles, we are in an ideal position to become one of the world’s leading public universities in advancing a Social Justice Curriculum anchored in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. Over the past decade, interdisciplinary research programs and curricular initiatives that cross UCLA’s “north campus” (humanities, arts, social sciences, and professional schools) and “south campus” (sciences, medicine, and engineering) have blossomed in four major areas of study: the environment and sustainability (environmental humanities), cities and democracy (urban humanities), health and wellbeing (health humanities), and digital technologies and computation (digital humanities). These experimental humanities initiatives tackle the grand challenges that confront our contemporary society: climate change and resource scarcity, police violence and the future of democracy, forced migration and humanitarian crises, urbanization and megacities, disease and healthcare access, and big data and surveillance societies.


We recognize that society’s grand challenges cannot be solved by engineers, business leaders, or scientists working alone. Instead, addressing complex social problems requires the interpretative methods, critical knowledge, historical perspectives, and values infrastructure informed by a deep engagement with the humanities, culture, arts, and society. The humanities, humanistic social sciences, and arts—in conversation with the sciences—can and must generate creative solutions and progressive thinking aimed at redressing long-standing, structural inequities based on race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, and access. 


  • I gather the current initiative grew out of your collaboration with the Bunche Center to develop the “Big Data for Justice” Summer Institute. Can you tell us a bit about what you learned from that work? 


“Big Data for Justice” was a Summer Institute that I co-taught in 2019 with collaborators in the UCLA Bunche Center for African American Studies, the Digital Humanities program, and the Urban Humanities program. The Institute was an interdisciplinary study of urbanism, data science, and critical concepts related to race and criminal justice in the context of Los Angeles.  Using a social justice framework, students learned how to employ computational tools and big data to analyze racial inequities in Los Angeles focused on criminal justice, policing, and imprisonment. Our goal was to combine urban, social, computational, statistical and humanist perspectives to investigate data related to criminal justice. In so doing, students learned how the history of Los Angeles is intimately and unevenly linked with race, policing, and power, which is manifest in in built spaces, urban infrastructures, and “big data.” We wanted to leverage the computational tools and data to advocate for social change, to address structural inequities, and expose practices of differential policing. Hence, the title: big data for justice.



  • What bridges could you imagine bridging, if any, between the Leve Center and this new, exciting initiative?


I think there are many bridges with the Leve Center, including the ongoing commitment to Mapping Jewish LA and 100 Years of Sephardic Los Angeles. Both projects utilize new technologies, data, and digital humanities methods for documenting and telling profound stories of immigration, acculturation, racial and labor justice, and social change. Moreover, the Leve Center’s steadfast commitments to social justice programming and community engaged learning have provided direct inspiration to me for the Mellon Social Justice Curriculum. I look forward to continuing to collaborate with the Leve Center faculty, students, and community partners in the years to come!