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.
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.
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:
Herewith, the second quick update post.
A New Cluster at #Alt-Academy
A few weeks ago, on 27 January 2014, I was pleased to join Katina Rogers in announcing a new phase of #Alt-Academy. The open-access collection edited by Bethany Nowviskie first went live in the summer of 2011 and included essays that sought to define “alt-ac” as a concept of labor, employment, and identity within the realm of higher education. I contributed an essay to that original collection that discussed how one went about finding and applying for alt-ac positions, as well as discussing how I personally coped with the “failure” of not being on the tenure track. Myself notwithstanding, #Alt-Academy is an important collection because it was a first attempt to make visible a type of work that many of us found rewarding and as intellectually stimulating as the tenure track. The success of the intervention was such that “alt-ac” continues to be a handy term of art, as seen by the upcoming CALS Symposium at Penn State on the subject where Bethany, Patricia Hswe, and I, among others, will have the pleasure of presenting.
In 2012, I pitched Bethany on an idea for a new cluster of content to be added to the collection. I’d found in the intervening years that the thing people inevitably wanted to know about my position was how I’d got to my job from a very traditional PhD program. Indeed, my essay in #Alt-Academy along with the others in its cluster was intended to highlight the process of “Getting There.” I proposed to Bethany that people curious about alt-ac might need still more signposts, and she agreed. After announcing a CFP in 2012, I began collecting proposals and then several essays in the beginning of 2013.
And somewhere in there is where the reality of an alt-ac job cropped up: it took me far longer to edit the essays than I had thought it would, and while I made some progress it was going to be some time before they were all ready to be published. In the fall of this last year, Katina let me know that she would be taking over general editorship at #Alt-Academy from Bethany. As Katina and I began collaborating, she proposed that I not try to get all the pieces ready to go at once but instead publish them on a rolling basis, and this is exactly what we launched.
The new cluster, “Looking for Signposts” features five essays out of the gate by Kim Yates, Andrew Asher, Daveena Tauber, Maureen McCarthy, and Katina herself. I also wrote a new introduction for the cluster. Spoliler: in it, I confess that our signposts aren’t quite what you’re looking for in the collection. Since alt-ac paths tend to be highly idiosyncratic, what we end up doing is simply bearing witness to the possibility of alternatives. As uncommon as that still is within the academy, I’m pleased to say it’s becoming more and more common.
I’m very grateful to the authors who contributed to this cluster—both those who have been published and those who are yet to come. And I’m also thankful to Bethany and Katina for the help that they’ve provided me along the way. And since we hope to be releasing new essays about every quarter, I suppose I better get back to work!
 It turns out that being in an alt-ac job is also why this post is kind of late. Between teaching my class this semester, all I could manage for the launch in January was tweeting and giving +1s to Katina’s post.
I’m home for the third snow day in a row, for the second time in as many weeks. The snow is already melting and pretty soon there won’t be anything left of it apart from the trace on our cameras. So it seems appropriate that I take this chance (in between brewing cocoa for the kids and charging batteries) to create a similar trace of a couple of projects that have recently come to fruition. I had hoped to blog about each of these previously, but instead they got quick shout-outs on Twitter. So consider this post and those that follow an overdue announcement or two.
Introduction to Digital Humanities (Spring 2014 Edition)
With the start of the Spring semester, I’m lucky to be teaching my undergraduate Introduction to Digital Humanities course again. The course is largely based on the one that I designed and taught for Fall 2011, but with some key differences. Chief among them is that I dropped the majority of the “What is DH?” essays with which I began the class. What I discovered in 2011 and what Ryan Cordell has talked about as well is the fact that students don’t care about this question. Most of these essays are very much focused on a discipline’s historicity or stake some of their claims on issues related to scholars communication. While important subjects and vital for graduate students who want to do something in digital humanities, neither of these are topics that are of much interest to undergraduates. In that 2011 course I found myself having to explain tenure and promotion, just so the students could get a handle on some of what people kept talking about in the different essays and blog posts that we were reading. As valuable as Matt Gold’s Debates in the Digital Humanities is, there just isn’t a good undergraduate-level text/book for digital humanities yet. If only I had time to write one…
Instead, the course continues to be project-based, with a few short essays to contextualize the work that we will be doing in each of the sections. Steve Ramsay is perhaps the patron saint of the class and allowed me to present to the students that the digital humanities is about building (of course) but even more importantly about screwing around (PDF). The projects, I’ve tried to tell the students, aren’t guaranteed to work or to teach us the end-all, be-all about a particular text. But if we get a slightly different perspective thanks to their approach, we will probably learn something. Indeed, I’m contrasting Ramsay’s screwmeneutics with my own preferred definition of digital humanities: computer-assisted pattern recognition followed by interpretation. Hopefully as we play with different texts and tools, we’ll see something new that prompts a need to think differently.
As I said, this is an updated course. The field has moved rapidly in the last two and a half years, and I wanted to take some of that into account. This is what is driving the final assignment for the class, in which my students will be digitizing all of Hemingway’s texts and then doing some topic modeling and learning NOT read his work, à la Paul Fyfe and Jason Jones. And I hope to be doing a little bit of social network analysis, even if that just means drawing the networks on the board rather than using a tool like Gephi of NodeXL. All, again, in the service of pattern recognition. And for the first time, ever I’m using a spoke model (pace Boone Gorges) of blogging, where students have to buy their own domains and create everything from scratch.
But as far as updates go, I wish that I would have had time to consider more changes than I was able to. I very much believe that there is tremendous pedagogical power in being able to say, “I’ve never done this before. I don’t know if it will work.” And so I’ve been conflicted about any of the repeats that I’m using in the course, including the Mrs. Dalloway project. Of course, my wife has told me that it’s also worth occasionally giving students projects that you know will work, so at least one outcome is good.
When I designed my last course, I thanked a number of people whose work directly shaped it. All of those people continue to deserve my good will. But it’s worth calling out a few other individuals who were helpful as I planned this iteration: Ted Underwood and David Mimno were helpful in bouncing around ideas for topic modeling something of an appropriate scale and interest. Stewart Varner was the person who prompted me to stop thinking about Whitman and instead consider someone whose work I knew better. I spent a lot of time looking through Miriam Posner’s recent DH 101 class at UCLA, and asking myself if my course should be more technical. My desire to compete is probably why the students did end up making a domain of their own. Paul Fyfe, again, was an inspiration for the final assignment. But I owe the most to Ryan Cordell. His first “Technologies of Text” syllabus in 2011 (and which he first taught in 2012) was how I decided to emphasize projects in my last class. His newest iteration of that course as well as his graduate seminars continue to inspire me, even as we diverge in important ways in the final product. His influence can be felt in some of my course policies, which I revised this year and even in the choice of URL for the course website, since I realized that distinguishing by semester and year was far easier than trying to write different addresses with variations on “Intro to DH.” My students and I benefit greatly from the generosity of these scholars.
The one place I had to draw the line was picking the theme for the blog. Pedagogy might be more about theft than anything else, but one must have some principles. It’s a good theme. Check out the site: http://briancroxall.net/s14dh/.
The last time I taught this course, I found it interesting to consider the fact that a 300-level English course intended for majors drew so many from other fields and broke gender norms for English classrooms. So as a parting shot, here are the numbers for this iteration.
Although I have 22 students, 10 of them have double majors, which accounts for the total being greater than the number of people in the classroom. Taking the English and English & Creative Writing students into account, only 7 of the 22 students (or just under 33%) come from the discipline where the course is being offered. I’d like to say that this says something about the appeal of the class (or my teacher evaluations), but it probably has more to do with the class being listed as fulfilling a writing requirement.
Perhaps it is also the fulfillment of this writing requirement that is leading to the number of men enrolled in the course. I can say anecdotally that this is a high number for English classes at Emory. And since the undergraduate student body is 56.1% female, there is real evidence that the ratio here is not what one should expect.
TL;DR: Everyone loves DH.
Edited for redundancies.