Archive for category Research

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 ( 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:

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.

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?


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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Day 5 of OWOT: We Did It! (Can We Do It Again? Please??)

As you might have gathered from the Twitter storm that barreled out of Fairfax, Virginia, this afternoon, we released and launched the fabulous, amazing Serendip-o-matic. One of the great things about living in the 21st century is that we have a ton of materials open and available to us in digital formats that have been collected in sources like the Digital Public Library of America, Europeana, and Flickr Commons. But since things are digital we don’t find them like we used to. Search makes it possible to pinpoint the exact thing that we’re after, as Shawn Graham nicely points out. Such precision is a bit problematic, however, as it leads us to miss the surprise of finding that unexpected book in the stacks or that item in the archives. Serendip-o-matic is designed to recreate that discovery process. After all, there’s so much stuff out there, if you only get exactly what you’re looking for then you’re missing out on some of the best stuff! Search is great, but this isn’t search: it’s Serendip-o-matic.

The Serendip-o-matic Hippo logo

That’s the pitch, at least, and at this point in the day I think I’m finally starting to get it where I want it to be. Hopefully people are excited to learn more about it in the coming days. We did write the Today Show, so I think we can plan to be coming to your living room by Tuesday.

So what was it like on the ground? Crazy, more or less. I think everyone was on the move by 8am, with some of the design / dev team logging commits by that point. I started my day meeting with the Outreach team, working on their schedule for the day and talking about the press release. This may have involved arguing about parentheses and angle brackets.

Jack Dougherty showing pointy brackets

Once we got over to CHNM, I spent most of the day dodging back and forth between rooms. I helped Outreach workshop some of the final language for the press release, once again focusing on the story we wanted to tell. I dodged over to help file issues on the design / dev team for the dev server of Serendip-o-matic. I bug checked responsive design on mobile, tablet, and web versions, as well as catching other pieces of human-readable content. I put my head down for 20 minutes once I got a request from the Chronicle of Higher Education for an interview request. (Thank goodness for my MLA media training which taught me this technique.) After the interview, it was on to drafting the press release email and identifying a few names from our media contact list to get an early warning email. Then it was dashing around again.

As we got closer and closer to what Mia had determined would be the “code chill” leading up to the “code freeze” at 2pm in expectation of the 3pm launch, we planned for the live launch broadcast while contending with continued difficulties in the Zotero integration and mass, multiple edits of text, CSS and design, and code at every level of the process. At one point, I found myself standing in the room where all the dev/design team was working and all I could think of was to run to get people food or make sure they were plugged into power. In the end, I think I took a picture.

The dev/design team

In the end, we only got to a code freeze and final deploy around 2:55pm. Everyone erupted into cheers and applause, and we tweeted our teaser image. Our fearless leader Tom poured drinks.

Tom and Sharon pour champagne

But then it was a quick dash to the computers for the live launch. Jack had done a great job not only of setting up the technology for the 4-way Google Hangout, but also scripted everything. We had written questions and practiced a bit of what we were going to say, but what I was most nervous about was my live demo of the site. If I had been thinking more clearly when I was doing it, I might not have showed off the Zotero integration. Halfway through to clicking the “Go” button, I suddenly wondered if it would crash. That would have been terrible during a live demo. But fortunately Eli’s fixes held, and everything went perfect. We were genuinely surprised when Dan Cohen was able to join us and very much appreciated both his involvement and that of Brett Bobley and Jen Serventi from the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities. Even better, we were able to highlight the many different types of work that the members of the team did. If for some reason you missed the video broadcast, and want to relive the heady excitement of it all, well, we pressed the “record” button ahead of time.

After we clicked “end” on the video, there was even more cheering and shouts of acclaim. Someone might have done some streaking. Everyone more or less collapsed into a cluster and started watching comments roll in via social media.

The team on their computers

I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to have made something and immediately be able to present it to them to look at and play with. We heard from bloggers who were using it find images and users who were finding new sources for their work. Most of all, the general enthusiasm of the digital humanities community and the rings of Internet that surround them were appreciated. Thanks, all of you, so much for being willing to play a part by paying attention to what we’ve been doing this week.

Amazingly enough, the design / dev team almost immediately got back to work resolving some of the issues we still had outstanding for the code base. (The repo is open and public now. Go ahead and fork away!) We probably hung out in this pattern for an hour or 90 minutes, just soaking in the accomplishment. I think we were all reluctant to break out of the magic circle of the moment because we knew that it would mean that the experience was beginning to end. We had done what we set out to do, but it also means that we’re saying goodbye to each other in less than 18 hours. Some people will even be gone before I wake up.

It’s strange to think that I won’t be seeing these people next week. That we won’t be building Serendip-o-matic any more. Sure, we’ve got a long way to go on improving it, and we have plans for how to expand on the One Week | One Tool experience, but…  Well, let’s just say I’m already looking forward to seeing everyone again at THATCamp next year for the #owot reunion.

The One Week | One Tool team

Picture by Sharon Leon

What lessons do I have to extract from today? First, when you’re going to be doing something in front of other people, you really do need to practice. I didn’t give as good an interview on the phone as I would have liked simply because I didn’t get a chance to talk it through with someone. But I was so much further ahead by having written down my talking points. The second point is related and spins off the work of the fabulous outreach team: when you want people to pay attention, it helps to keep telling a story. It was the week’s worth of tweets and blog posts that gave enough information about what was happening that led to people being willing to spend some time with us on a Friday afternoon. Third and last of all, design matters. There is no way around it.

I’ve got at least two more OWOT posts coming, I think. So at least for you and me, dear reader, it’s not over yet.

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