Digital Humanities in its Most Minimalist Form

Not too many digital humanities talks begin with a discussion of humanistic practices, ecocritical theory, labor relations, and the politics of memorialization. But that’s how Alex Gil, Digital Scholarship Coordinator in the Humanities and History Division of Columbia University Libraries, opened the first graduate DH workshop of the year, hosted by the Fordham Graduate Student Digital Humanities Group on the Lincoln Center campus on Sept. 22, 2015. Twelve aspiring digital humanists gathered to listen to Gil talk about minimal computing, a critical movement based on environmentalist principles which asks for an ethical balance between the gains and costs of digital production in a capitalist-driven global information system.

Photo by Elizabeth Cornell
                                                     Photo by Elizabeth Cornell

More specifically, Gil walked us through the basics of Atom Plain Text editing, Markdown (a form of writing much more condensed and streamlined than HTML), and Pandoc, which can be used to convert files created in Atom into Word documents through your computer’s Terminal command screen. He also touched on building a static site website using Jekyll, which he used for his Around DH in 80 Days project.

Essentially, these tools help us find alternative modes of generating text documents, helping us learn, as Gil remarks, “how to write a dissertation without Word.” Microsoft Word is so embedded in our culture as the academic default that we tend to say “Word documents” the same way we say “kleenex” or “seltzer” in place of the products themselves. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Indeed, as Gil demonstrated, one single letter typed into a Word document generates thousands of bits, or pages and pages of data while a single letter typed into Plain Text requires just 8 bits. In this sense, turning to plain text editing for our scholarly computing needs can help us cultivate minimal computing practices within a medium that is often viewed as ephemeral, lying outside the realm of environmental impact, even though server farms are increasingly occupying natural resources, multinational tech companies facilitate an exploitative capitalist labor system, and, as mentioned on Twitter recently, “We kill people based on metadata.” While Word might not exactly be the NSA, learning to write with minimalist software accomplishes the same thing as recycling in its most idealistic form: helping users become more aware of the impact their quotidian practices have on larger socio-political structures, and giving them practical, everyday means to combat environmental decay and resist the commercial industrial complex. There’s also just something satisfying about creating a digital document on your own, without the corporate muscle of large word processing brands.

Photo by Boyda Johnstone
                                                    Photo by Boyda Johnstone

Gil opened his talk by challenging us to answer what we believed to be the purpose of the Humanities, a question which, during a time when humanities programs around the globe become increasingly defunded and attacked, we should all be prepared to answer. Humanists, we concluded, are “stewards of human memory,” and minimal computing practices can help us transform future memory in more ethically viable ways. In this sense, Gil’s talk beautifully balanced a discussion of why humanism matters with practical digital tools for using technology to aid humanistic practices, and was the perfect way to kick off Fordham’s new year of Digital Humanities workshops and lectures.

Useful links:

For more on Markdown, see here.

For installation instruction and tutorials on Pandoc, see here.

Tutorial on Prof Hacker by Alex Gil on installing and using Jekyll.

Mark Your Calendars!

We are excited to announce these upcoming events for the Fall 2015 semester:

“Minimal Computing” for Graduate Students
Tues., Sept 22, 3 pm (LC)
Alex Gil, Columbia University

In this workshop we will immediately link digital humanities to critical theory by looking at the production of our own knowledge within the context of global capitalism and environmental decay. We will accomplish this by reducing the technological stack you can use for your own production to bare minimums that you can both understand and command. We call this type of praxis (theory + making), minimal computing. Specific technologies you will be introduced to: Terminal, Markdown, HTML/CSS, Pandoc, Jekyll & Github. Bring your laptops (Macs & Linux preferred).

Alex Gil holds a PhD from the University of Virginia in Caribbean Literature and Digital Humanities, and  is the Digital Scholarship Coordinator in the Humanities and History Division of Columbia University Libraries.

Digital Pedagogy: What it is, Why it is and How to do it
Thurs., Oct. 15, 1 pm (RH)
Anelise H. Shrout, Davidson College

We’re often told that our students are digital natives – growing up on and with the internet.  At the same time, digital pedagogy seems to flummox many undergraduates, who are familiar with writing papers but not with making websites.  This talk discusses approaches to integrating things digital into undergraduate classes, introduces a few useful tools (Omeka, Neatline, Voyant, WordPress) and workshops some solutions to the challenges of digital undergraduate pedagogy.

Anelise H. Shrout holds a PhD in History from New York University, and is currently a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Studies at Davidson College in North Carolina.

Social Media as a Professional Platform

A roundtable on using social media for professional purposes as an academic, featuring Erin Glass ( Digital Fellow at CUNY Grad Center), who will discuss her emerging project for online graduate student collaboration, “Social Paper.” Other speakers to be determined.

DH on the Job Market

A roundtable to help you demonstrate your DH skills while on the job market, featuring Prof. Jean Elyse Graham  (Asst. Professor of English and Digital Humanities at Stonybrook University), and other panelists to be determined.

Omeka and Digital Collections

Back in February, the HASTAC group Digital Collections hosted a webinar on the use of Omeka in the classroom. As Fordham has recently acquired a license for Omeka, this webinar was incredibly useful in navigating the basics of both and

One of my current projects attempts to use Omeka to curate a large manuscript tradition with copies spread around the world. The webinar made Omeka much more navigable, and I encourage anyone interested in using Fordham’s license to take a look at the video.

The link to the webinar video is here:

-David Levine

Topics in Digital Mapping: Georectifying Maps and Using Map Warper, Meeting Report

In the third installment of our Topics in Digital Mapping Workshop Series, “Georectifying Maps and Using Map Warper,” David Wrisley demonstrated georectifying to participants, showing us how to code maps and other images onto digital coordinates. David offered many possibilities for why one might want to georectify a map, including:

  • Organization of a catalog by spatial metadata

  • Mining information from analog data

  • Definition of borders that aren’t political or topographical

  • Rethinking the relativity of spatial representations and coordinate systems from an intentionally warped image

  • Map deformance, a way of thinking through the relative spatiality of documents that resemble maps

  • Or just for a nifty background to one’s own map

David also introduced us to some of the tools for georectifying, including the data format Keyhole Markup Language (KML or KMZ) and OpenStreetMap, an open access, collaborative project by rebellious mappers who chart neighborhoods for the public. Workshop participants then practiced georectification with NYPL’s Map Warper, using an 1873 map of Painted Post, NY, found at

For a list of links from this workshop, please visit

Blog post by Heather Hill, MVST student at Fordham University