“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.


I’m going to wrap up our presentation by focusing on what we gained and what challenges we faced when working in a very playful manner.

Two Outcomes of Play

This form of work was high pressure and draining. But as Mia has said, it led us to trust one another and get a sense of what we could do. This led to members of the team knowing each other’s super powers that they could draw on in case of hippo attacks…


…or further collaborations.


A number of different projects came out of the One Week | One Tool team. The most obvious is this paper, which Amy, Mia, Scott K., and myself have collaborated on. But Scott K. also was able to hire Amy to do some design work on a grant. Amy wrote a grant that included Mia and Tom (which unfortunately didn’t get funded). And Scott Williams was perhaps the most practical of us all and actually re-used portions of the code that was written during OWOT for his work in the Yale Art Gallery.

So all this play and screwing around led to additional collaborations. But it also points to a larger accomplishment: a fulfilling of digital humanities prophecy!

In 2010 Stephen Ramsay’s wrote an essay, “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with a Million Books” (PDF). In that essay, Ramsay describes what it’s like to browse in a library:


“I walk into the library and wander around in a  state of insouciant boredom. I like music, so I head over to the music section. I pick up a book on American rock music and start flipping through it (because it’s purple and big). There’s an interesting bit on Frank Zappa, and it mentions that Zappa was way into this guy named Edgard Varèse. I have no idea who that is, so I start looking around for some Varèse. One look at the cover of his biography—Varèse with that mad-scientist look and the crazy hair—and I’m already a fan. And so off I go. I check out some records and discover Varèse. […] This is browsing.”

Ramsay closes his essay by asking how this sort of browsing might be recreated with digital collections as opposed to structured searching, like with Google or most library catalogues:


“Is it possible to imagine this kind of highly serendipitous journey replacing the ordered mannerism of conventional search?” This is precisely what we did with the Serendip-o-matic.


It’s not for search, it’s serendipity! So mark that one fixed, Steve. Send us our X-prize check!

Two Challenges of Playful Projects

Play made it possible for us to envision working with each other beyond the course of the week and to propose a solution to the challenges of search-based overload. But there were other challenges that we faced due to our play-based work.


One of the problems with playfulness is that is sometimes hard to measure. The idea of measuring play is to a certain extent self-contradictory: assessment implies consequences for making or missing the bar, which breaks the magic circle of play. But universities in a late-capitalist environment thrive on assessment. A challenge that a playful project faces, then, is figuring out how to get our work to “count” for promotion, tenure, or annual reviews. You certainly might feel wary about telling your chair that you spent X number of weeks “screwing around,” regardless of whether you get that Steve Ramsay prize or no.

What the Serendip-o-matic team decided to do was perhaps predictable: we found new avenues to make our work countable.


This took a number of different forms:


Writing. Many of us blogged during OWOT but many of the team members have continued to write about the tool and what we learned in making it. A notable example is co-project manager Meghan Frazer who contributed a chapter, “A Mashup in One Week: The Process Behind Serendip-o-matic” to the forthcoming volume More Library Mashups: Exploring New Ways to Delivery Library Data.


Presentations. I think almost all of the OWOT team members have given a talk about Serendip-o-matic, certainly at our home institutions and at other locations as well. Indeed, the desire to provide “countable” experiences is part of what led us to propose this talk for DH 2014.


Teaching projects. Serendip-o-matic has been a feature that many of us have used in our pedagogy. After giving a presentation about Serendip-o-matic in the Fall, Amy Papaelias was approached by a colleague in Computer Science at SUNY New Paltz. This led to a cross-class project that had the CS students working on image-to-text recognition software and Amy’s students doing the visual design for the imagined app, Exposure.


User feedback. We’ve paid close attention to people talking about Serendip-o-matic on social media and other locations. We’ve especially appreciated learning that some researchers have found new primary sources thanks to our hippo-powered creation.


Watching for citations. We’re also on the lookout for people talking about the tool in publications. Indeed, there are three other papers here at DH 2014 that draw on Serendip-o-matic as evidence of “the next big thing.” (Hey, you said it, we didn’t!) We try as best as we can to capture those comments as evidence of our play’s utility.


Fame and fortune. We shamelessly nominated ourselves for the 2013 DH Award for “Best use of DH for fun.” We campaigned hard, and we won. And now it’s on our CVs.

Play is wonderful and important. And universities should give us the room to be playful.


But until that’s more easily done, you need to convert your play into work.


Along with making the work of Serendip-o-matic count in one form or another, the other difficulty that we have faced over the last year is maintaining the tool. Despite having a rough road map for further development on the site and several team phone calls, we haven’t made much progress on developing Serendip-o-matic.

In many ways, this is to be expected given the circumstances. The team was together for less than a week and after our break from reality we all had to go back to our regular jobs that didn’t actually involve hippos (more’s the pity). Even Rebecca Sutton Koeser and I, who work at the same institution, didn’t find much time to talk about Serendip-o-matic after our first week back.

The lack of attention to the hippo is also to be expected given what Bethany Nowviskie and Dot Porter found in 2009 in their survey “Graceful Degradation,” and which they reported on at the 2010 Digital Humanities Conference in London.


It turns out that many digital humanities projects get less and less attention over time.

But there’s one other factor involved: maintaining a tool simply isn’t “playful.”


Maintaining a tool involves things like documentation, usable deployment scripts, and a regular release schedule. Those are all wonderful, valuable things. They should be done. But they’re not about play; they’re about regimentation. And for our project, it didn’t fit the mood.

This raises the question of preservation of the playful and the experimental. Is such preservation worth doing? Unquestionably. Does doing it change the nature of the project. Yes, I think so.


In the end, it’s fair to say that we didn’t specifically plan to have a playful experience at One Week | One Tool. It’s just something that happened. The team and our hippo continue to face specific challenges that arose directly out of our having been lighthearted in our work. But what we gained—both in the final product and in what we learned—more than make up for this.

Perhaps, then, Shakespeare’s Duke Orsino had it right after all: “Play on!”

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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?


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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Announcing “Looking for Signposts” at #Alt-Academy

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.[1] 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!

[1] 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.



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Introduction to Digital Humanities (Again)

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.


Pie chart showing the majors in my class

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.

A pie chart showing the gender breakdown (55% male) of the class.

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.


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