The other Rebecca

It’s been a week since we lost our dear colleague and friend Rebecca Munson. On Monday, I walked into Firestone Library and thought, she’ll never walk through these doors again. I walked into the CDH space and saw her office, full of papers, decorations, detritus from before the pandemic, but empty now forever of her. On Wednesday, the Slack member changes page reported that her account had been detected as inactive. There were moments this week when it felt like she was away for another round of intense cancer treatment and would be back soon. It’s starting to sink in that she’s really gone. But we’re going to keep remembering her and telling stories about her. Here are some of my reflections on working and sharing a name with Rebecca.

In large group meetings, Rebecca would often introduce herself as “the other Rebecca” — as if I were at CDH before her (false), or were somehow more important (emphatically not true). Sometimes she would even do this when she introduced herself before me, saying she was the “other” Rebecca and noting that there were two of us. I don’t know how much other people noticed this, but I noticed it every time. I can’t remember if I ever introduced myself as “the other Rebecca.” I hope I did.

If you have a common enough name, like Rebecca and I, you’ll inevitably experience sharing that name within some community or group. In my freshman year of college, there were five Rebeccas just on my dorm floor, with a variety of spellings and nicknames.

I never minded sharing a name with Rebecca Munson. We occasionally got emails meant for each other; when she got emails intended for me, she was always happy to forward it and would often comment that it sounded interesting anyway. Recently, when someone thought I had gotten a promotion, I was delighted to inform him that it was the other Rebecca, because I was so pleased that she’d finally gotten the promotion that she so richly deserved (delayed due to covid and cancer, not to our amazing CDH leadership, who are fierce champions for all of us). On very rare occasions, we even mixed ourselves up. A few months ago Rebecca put my initials down for something, and while I wasn’t certain I was the best person to do it, I was ready to go along with it if she thought I should. But when I commented, I discovered she’d meant to put her own initials!

When we got to work together on projects, it was like a force multiplier. Occasionally we would joke about “the Rebeccas” or R-squared accomplishing some feat. We worked together in various roles on The Winthrop Family on the Page, bitKlavier, Derrida’s Margins, Princeton Prosody Archive, Shakespeare and Company Project, and the CDH website. We delivered the Shakespeare and Company Project 1.0 release on time in May of 2020 with the features agreed on in January 2020, in spite of a pandemic and shift to remote work — a major feat of successful project management. Technically Rebecca wasn’t the project manager for many of those projects, since we have graduate students take on that role — and we struggled a bit with what to call Rebecca’s role. She was the meta-project manager, training and mentoring the students and helping them manage; she was the project coordinator, keeping an eye on the schedule and all the moving parts across projects and other work.

Network graph of CDH projects and contributors

Network graph of CDH projects highlighting Rebecca Munson and all project managers (PMs indicated by edges in teal). Created for a staff appreciation of Rebecca Munson in June 2020.

The network graph shows several major projects and many more small ones with numerous contributors. Rebecca Munson is located fairly centrally, connected to several major projects; all of the large projects and many of the smaller ones have project managers associated.

I learned recently that some founders of Agile software development wanted to get rid of project managers (PMs); I’m not completely surprised, but to be honest, it’s a shame. Working with an embedded PM who understands and cares about the work and, more importantly, the people is a tremendous experience. Rebecca and I were the ones who took the time and made the effort to publish our project charters after the interest expressed at ACH2019. I wrote the blog post that announced the publication, in part because Rebecca was too busy writing the actual content to go with the charters. So, while I was gratified to see the post get attention, I was a little annoyed that it was my post instead of her (our) work that seemed to be getting the most traction. (This is one of the reasons I asked Nick Budak to write about our most recent charter and revisions to our approach.)

As Rebecca’s work at CDH grew and shifted into education and outreach, she got to work more with the graduate students she was so passionate about mentoring and supporting; and I had to do without her direct support and guidance on our software development projects. I still leaned a bit on her amazing skills for organization, seeing the big picture, and realistically estimating work — but now limited to quarterly consultations, where she taught me more, again, how to take on that planning work myself. Once you get to work closely with an amazing project manager and generous collaborator like Rebecca, it’s hard to do without.

It is a privilege to have my name across from Rebecca’s on the inaugural issue of Startwords. At some point when we were nearing publication, we discovered that both of us had been feeling bad about our pieces in comparison to the other’s. I felt bad because “Data Beyond Vision” is such an enormous, complicated, big baggy monster of a piece (dataviz, embedded 3d models, zoomable images, custom styles, choose-your-own reading order). She felt bad because her essay was so (comparatively) short, and she had no visuals or charts. Grant Wythoff reassured both of us, and said that he loved that the two pieces were so different: they complemented each other, and showed the range of what contributions to Startwords could be. I’m so sorry now that her essay is relevant again in this way; and I recognize now, she must have known that it would be at some point. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to take the time. If you’ve already read it, maybe read it again; or take a look at her other public writing about her experience with cancer. It’s a way to spend a little more time with her, listen to her voice, and learn from her.

As Meredith Martin commented recently, all of our work at CDH will have to shift as we learn to be a place that doesn’t have Rebecca. Understand this: Rebecca was contributing throughout her cancer, with all its setbacks, difficulties, and complications. There were times when she went on medical leave for a particular phase of treatment, but then she would come back because she loved her work and wanted something to involve herself in. We got used to a rhythm of work where Rebecca was out on Thursdays to get chemo, but she’d still occasionally be on Slack or reading documents from the hospital while she waited. We relied on her; we forgot, sometimes — because, in some way she needed to, wanted us to — how deadly ill she was, how hard she was fighting all the time.

I’ve been reading a lot of the tributes and stories about Rebecca on Twitter, and have seen others from Facebook and emails that Meredith and other CDH staff have been collecting in a Google Document (please keep sharing your stories and remembering her — the tweets about Rebecca have trailed off, but our grief has not). It’s been good, and it’s been hard. She was extraordinary, and it is a terrible loss. Everything people have been saying is true about her wit, her brilliance, her bravery. Most of the grief seems genuine, but there are occasional posts that feel performative — it is social media after all; but there are cultures that hire mourners to help grieve, so maybe this isn’t that different. In Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstoff looks at the research notes and outline for his son’s unfinished thesis and asks how much it matters, whether his work would have been such an addition, or if “his death is to be more lamented than another.” Reading social media, I’ve been feeling a bit of that too. Rebecca was human, with her weaknesses, failings, and foibles, just like the rest of us. But she touched a lot of people and had an enormous influence in multiple spheres, with her scholarship (Digital Humanities work as well as Shakespearean), her mentoring, her honesty about her experience with cancer, her love of TV shows and fandom. Because of her presence and her influence, perhaps the circles and ripples of grief are wider than for some. But that’s not why we grieve; we grieve because she’s our friend, and we love her, and she’s gone.

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