The Future is Now: (Re)Training for an Alt-Ac Future

Two weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of visiting Penn State University for the first time. I was one of several invited speakers for the Center for American Literary Studies (CALS) Symposium on #Alt-Ac. Sean Goudie, Director of the Center, was our kind host and the MC for the day’s discussions.

Brian Croxall speaks at the CALS symposium

The day-long event kicked off with an opening discussion led by the inimitable Bethany Nowviskie. Bethany’s remarks referred to her presentation at the 2012 MLA, “Two & a Half Cheers for the Lunaticks.” (Interestingly, she and I both spoke on that panel, which suggests that we’ve been at this for a while.) In addition to discussing the origin story for the term “alt-ac”, she provided a timeline of what the term has meant to her in each of the years since Jason Rhody coined it in 2009. I appreciated this overview of how the term and conversations around it have grown and changed.

Bethany was followed by panel conversations about “What does #alt-ac mean?” and “(Re)Training for an #alt-ac future,” the latter of which I appeared on. The panelists featured other invited alt-ac individuals and both Penn State participants. I was delighted to get to finally meet Timothy Powell and Rebecca Schumann for the first time and to become acquainted with the work of Paul Erickson at the American Antiquarian Society and Megan Doherty from the German Marshall Fund. The Penn State team included alt-ackers—Patricia Hswe and Daniel Tripp, who told us how every department needs “a Dan”—and faculty—Michael Bérubé, Christopher Long, and Rosemary Jolly, who holds so many cross-appointments that she is all but “alt” to herself.

All in all, it was a day filled with stimulating discussion. For some broad coverage of what was said, Rebecca reported on portions of the Symposium at Slate and CALS recently published a summary. Chris Long has posted his comments, and I hope that my fellow presenters will eventually, especially Bethany whose remarks were characteristically considered and delivered with her trademark beautiful slides.

As I note below, we were asked to be brief in our remarks so as to make as much room for conversation among the panelists and the audience. It’s always interesting to discover how much harder it is to brief than to be expansive. I was glad of the opportunity to finally say in a public forum some of the things I’ve been thinking about alt-ac since my 2013 MLA talk and to learn that some of the things I have been imagining are well underway at Penn State and other campuses.

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“Help, I want to do DH!”

Man wearing a shirt that reads "staff can halp?" on the back.

 

I just answered an email about digital humanities. I do this on kind of a regular basis, seeing I’m a certified “Digital Humanities Strategist.” This email was a certain type, however, the one that I think of as “Help, I want to do DH!” I get this question—although it’s not a question—pretty regularly from people, and it’s a hard thing to answer. There’s just so much to say. This is what Bethany Nowviskie was talking about in 2010 when she wrote about the “Eternal September of the Digital Humanities.”

That said, I’m happy to get the question and I’m happy that people are willing to ask me. I just worry, as I expressed on Twitter, that my answers just aren’t going to be satisfactory. Again, there’s so much to say and only so much time to respond to such questions.

Merisa Martinez responded to me on Twitter and observed that people ask these questions because they’re new and because “there’s no one size fits all ‘FAQ’ with DH.” So people ask those whom they think can help them, and when possible I try to answer as best as I can. But given my conversation with Merisa, I figured I might as well share what I wrote to this interlocutor. It’s not a FAQ per se, but it’s a list of things that people might use to get started with digital humanities.

What follows is the text of the email that I wrote to this student. For context sake, he is an MA student who is working with a very good friend of mine from graduate school who now teaches at Illinois State. This friend and I were in different disciplines. The email below has specific recommendations to this individual, but I’ll gloss one of them with a broader rule. I appreciate my friend for referring this student to me and the student for being willing to cold-call someone he doesn’t know and stick out his neck.

Two caveats:

  • It’s still true that even with what follows that there is no one-size fits-all FAQ for DH. This is just my response. You’d get a different one from any number of other (smarter) people in the field. See this post by Paige Morgan, for example, which Merisa and Melissa Terras brought to my attention. Or this post by Lisa Spiro which Ryan Cordell reminded me of. You’d probably get a different response from me on another day.
  • As I say below, it can take a long time to start thinking differently with a computer. Too often we forget that we didn’t start studying a particular field on the first day of graduate school. When I started my PhD in English literature, I had been writing about poetry and fiction for well more than 10 years. If you’re in a language program, you’ve got to count not just the literature classes in college, but those language classes in junior high. We live in an awesome age when you can find most things online—including the answer to “what is digital humanities?”—but the time that it takes for us to learn to think in a particular way is real and it can’t be skipped. Thinking, as Mark Sample has it, can be difficult.

So here you go, my answer on 25 September 2014 to the “Help, I want to do DH!” email.

Hi X,
Thanks for your note. This is a big question and one that isn’t entered into lightly nor, I’m afraid, especially well in an email conversation.

What I’d recommend is that you look for some opportunities:

  • Read. Start with Matt Gold’s edited volume, Debates in Digital Humanities. Take a look at Steven Jones’s The Emergence of Digital Humanities. Hunt down all three of Matt Kirschenbaum’s “What is DH?” articles (1, 2, and 3), even though they’re a bit of inside baseball. Look at Digital Humanities Answers.
  • Explore. Look at different digital humanities projects. Think about how they could affect the work that you’re doing. There are several different things that people mean when they say “digital humanities.” They include the following, and none is “right”:
    • The examination of digital objects from the perspective of the humanities (e.g., media studies)
    • Digital pedagogy
    • Digital scholarly communication
    • Digital collection/archives creation
    • Humanities computing (using computers to help you identify patterns in your text / data that you then interpret)
  • Realize that as far as humanities data analysis goes, there are several different “pillars,” as Elijah Meeks has called them: text analysis; geospatial analysis; network analysis (consider this Coursera course); image analysis; and so on.
  • Look at people nearby who can help. Patrice-Andre Prudhomme in your library might be a resource (http://dhinthelibrary.wordpress.com/workshops/). You’re only 60 miles from Champaign-Urbana, and they have a lot of interesting stuff going on there. Consider attending the Chicago Colloquium on Digital Humanities & Computer Science that happens next month. (The broader rule here is that there might be people at your institution or nearby who are doing this work already. Libraries are a great place to find many of these people.)
  • Get on Twitter and network with people that do digital humanities. It’s where a lot of conversations happen.
  • Think about attending a THATCamp: http://thatcamp.org.

Perhaps the main things to think about here are the following:

  • Digital humanities is, in the end, still about the same humanities questions. You should start with questions and then choose a method for investigating based on what will help you get the best results.
  • It can take a long time to figure out what those questions are to be paired with computational methods. I’ve been doing this for 7 years, and I’m only starting to figure out what I feel like are some GOOD questions. Think about how long you’ve been working in your discipline and you’ll realize that there’s potentially a long time to be engaged in something before you’ll hit a pay off.

None of that is to discourage you so much as a way to say that it’s a big discourse and there’s lots to learn.
Welcome.
BC

EDITED: Included Lisa Spiro’s very good post.

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“If Hippos be the Dude of Love…”: Serendip-o-matic at Digital Humanities 2014

On 10 July 2014, I had the great chance to present a paper at the Digital Humanities Conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, “Play as Process and Product: On Making Serendip-o-matic.” The paper was a collaboration between four of the 12 team members from One Week | One Tool: Amy Papaelias, Mia Ridge, Scott Kleinman, and myself.

Amy, Mia, and I wrote the proposal in October 2013, just two months after we had finished our work at George Mason University. When Scott discovered that he would be able to join us in Lausanne, we were glad to add him and his ideas to the presentation, especially since Amy learned in the meantime that she wasn’t going to be able to join us at the conference because she was having a baby!  While Amy wasn’t with us in Lausanne, she did contribute greatly to the talk. She produced slides for the presentation that maintained the look and feel of Serendip-o-matic. She was wonderful enough to field any request we threw at her, including a feverish moment in which I told her that I wanted “a bureaucratic hippo.” The results were stunning and a clear vindication of what Bruno Latour said in his opening keynote: everyone should have a designer on their team.

What follows here is the final one-third of our talk. Scott spoke first, about how the process was playful. Mia spoke second, about how playfulness informed the design and architecture of Serendip-o-matic. And I went last, covering the results of a playful process. Scott and Mia blogged their portions of the talk that same day; I’m the only laggard on this team, I’m afraid.

Slide01

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Day of DH Starts Early

Today is the ever popular and fun Day of DH. I’ve got a blog on the main Day of DH site, but I’m going to cross-post some of the content here. Because findability?

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As I was explaining to some of my coworkers yesterday, Day of DH started with the goal of trying to make public the work—and the many different types of work—that take place under the rubric of digital humanities. We accomplish this by blogging and tweeting, just making note of what we do throughout the day.

Of course, the not-so-secret part of Day of DH is that one doesn’t get it all done in a single day. And that’s why last night found me in front of my computer, churning through email and the like. In doing that, I found an email from a collaborator with whom I’ve been writing a project proposal. We had been aiming to deliver it on the first of April, but some serious illness interposed. Since she was feeling better, she’d done the last fact check on one of our references. The proposal was ready, so I cleaned up the file and sent it on to one of the Co-Directors of Emory’s Center for Digital Scholarship. Only after I clicked ‘send’ did I realize that it would have been more appropriate to wait to send it until this morning, so I could have #DayofDH’d about it. Oh well.

I don’t think that I’m quite ready to share what we hope to do, but I’ll say that it builds on the work that Rebecca Sutton Koeser and I have been doing on the Belfast Group.

Writing this proposal was an interesting experience. A group of us started brainstorming what we could do right before the academic year started, and we followed with some monthly meetings. Given the schedules of some of our collaborators, monthly meetings were about as good as we could do. When we suddenly found ourselves in January, with not a lot of progress made, I made a suggestion that we move the proposal writing group down to a smaller number of individuals. That’s exactly what needed to happen. Following a 90-minute conversation, Lisa Chinn and I knew what direction we wanted to take. A few writing sessions later, we had a proposal ready to go. I hope that we’re able to keep it within scope.

The real lesson here—apart from timing one’s emails to big blogging events—is that while collaboration is important and often a big part of DH work, collaboration isn’t an end in itself. If collaboration isn’t working for you, then there’s nothing “DH” about sticking to its current form. Adapt and get the situation that you need in order to get your work done. Because, at the end of the day, getting your work done is about the most DH thing you could be doing.

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The Red Herring of Big Data

At the end of August 2013, I was honored to be invited to speak at Fresno State‘s Center for Creativity and the Arts as the first visiting intellectual of the academic year. I helped the Center inaugurate its 2013-2014 theme: “Data and Technology” (PDF). I had the chance to lead a workshop on Voyant, meet many colleagues from English and other departments, and eat some amazing almonds and olive oil grown on campus. I was graciously hosted by the Center’s Director Shane Moreman and a good friend and fellow music lover from when I used to grade AP exams, John Beynon. I appreciated this invitation as it spurred me to organize thoughts that I’d been working on for the last several years.

What follows is the talk that I gave, as well as my slides. TL;DR:

A red, metal fish on a brick wall

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