Jim Dawes headshot

by Teddy Holt ’22

In academic writing, there are two kinds of books that get published: single author books and books with one or more editors, who then create the framework for the book, solicit writing from experts, and guide the book toward completion. Professor Jim Dawes, who I spoke with this month about his newest manuscript-in-progress, likened these modes of academic writing to the ways in which one can work for a newspaper. Single author books are like writing an op-ed for a newspaper, but serving as the editor for an academic work is more akin to editing the whole newspaper; one must be the vision, the manager, and the final say.

Dawes is the author of four previous books—The Language of War, 2002, That The World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity, 2007, Evil Men, 2013, and The Novel of Human Rights, 2018—all books on which he was the sole author. His current manuscript, however, entitled Technologies of Human Rights Representation, is his first foray into the territory of editing. It is an interdisciplinary collection of writings from the fields of literature and representation, human rights, and artificial intelligence (AI). Most of these topics will be familiar to students of Dawes, who teaches literature and human rights courses in the English Department here at Macalester; he has been teaching and writing on literature and human rights for the past 15 years. AI is a more recent interest, exemplified by his article “Speculative Human Rights: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of the Human” in the August 2020 edition of the Human Rights Quarterly. In our interview, he told me that he considered Technologies of Human Rights Representation a stepping stone to his next book, which will be about AI. He seemed enthused, too, by the work he is doing to pull the three fields in his current manuscript together—as he says, there are “amazing experts” in each field, but “not a lot of overlap.”

Military After Action Reports (AARs) were an example he provided from his book for when these fields might overlap. AARs were first developed by army generals and are still used today to analyze critical procedures in military and business contexts. Dawes spoke on AARs that are written after civilian deaths in countries with US military presence, a context he finds the confluence of representation in literature, human rights, and AI to be particularly important—in his words, “the cleanest picture” is revealed when you bring these fields together. For example, using the advanced AI available to the US military, we can identify a group of five individuals moving away from a car in a zigzag pattern. The military AI labels this a terrorist tactic used to avoid potential airstrikes, but if you speak to people on the ground, the five individuals were actually a family running in panic. Representation in literature comes into play when the family is killed and an AAR gets written up—whether we call them terrorists or civilians matters dearly, as what we find acceptable or consider a “success” is directly influenced by the language we use.

I asked Dawes how he saw this manuscript connecting to his work at Macalester, and he told me about his gratitude for his students over the years, whom he called part of the “long gestational process” of writing a book. He also said, touchingly, “In an ideal world, all of my students would be listed as coauthors.” Words readers, especially past or current students of Professor Dawes, I hope you all have the chance to read Technologies of Human Rights Representation when it comes out and to sit in the fact that Macalester students have helped shape this fascinating collection. Best of luck to Professor Dawes as he completes the manuscript; as always, the English Department is happy to see our beloved professors succeed!