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Constellations at the Convention: 10 Years of MLA Data

Title slide with a tree against star trails with caption 'Constellations at the Convention: 10 Years of MLA Daya'

Yesterday I had the chance to speak on a panel about “The MLA and Its Data: Remix, Reuse, and Research,” which I organized on behalf of the MLA’s Committee on Information Technology. The panel was very successful, due largely to fabulous co-panelists: David Laurence, Ernesto Priego, Chris Zarate, and Lisa Rhody. Ernesto has shared his slides for his presentation on his and Chris’s analysis of tweets from last year’s convention. Unfortunately we missed Jonathan Goodwin, who became ill. Lucky for us, he shared his talk as well.

What follows is the text of my talk, “Constellations at the Convention.” The metaphor of the title suggested itself immediately as I began looking at the network within Gephi, but I couldn’t help but think of Matt Kirschenbaum’s post following the 2011 MLA Convention, “The (DH) Stars Come Out in LA.” I think that the methods I’ve been able to begin deploying here might help us track the star system—if not within the profession, but within the convention.

Even though I say it within the talk, it’s critical that I acknowledge up front the assistance of two people. First, Chris Zarate kindly provided the data from the MLA that I asked for. (The MLA itself needs to be thanked for being willing to support this scholarship.) He made suggestions about the sorts of information he could provide me and gave me exactly what I asked for. Unfortunately, since I had never done something like this before, I didn’t quite know what to ask for. So when I discovered the data weren’t quite as I needed them, my colleague Sara Palmer who took the raw XML and transformed it with XSLT and Python into a format that I could use. Sara and I then spent several hours playing with the data and then talking about the different things that we were seeing. She identified the Midwestern Mafia as a question worth pursuing. Finally, Rebecca Sutton Koeser pointed out the Javascript exporter plugin for Gephi, which is why you can now play with the data easily.

I appreciated the interest from the crowd and the thoughtful questions about “algorithmic cruelty” and where such work might lead in the future. If you want to play with the data yourself, you can download the Gephi file of the 2014 and 2015 Mark Sample data. I will see what I can do about sharing the MLA data set. But for the moment, you can explore the four different networks that I showed.

As always, my work is Creative Commons-licensed. Let me know what you think!

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Links for my 2015 MLA talk

I’m currently speaking at the 2015 MLA on the panel “The MLA and Its Data: Remix, Reuse, and Research,” which I organized on behalf of the MLA’s Committee on Information Technology. I’ll be posting the full text of my talk—“Constellations at the Convention: 10 Years of MLA Data”—shortly, but here are some links that people might want to play with in the meantime.

The latter two might take some time to load. See if you can find yourself in the data!

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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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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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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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