Social Media and Collaboration in the Digital Age

As the year draws to a close, and the Fordham Graduate Student Digital Humanities group looks forward to another semester of workshops, talks, and wrestling with computers, we realize that we somehow forgot to blog about one of our most successful events. So, here is our ‘better late than never’ post!

On Mon Nov 9, fifteen or so students gathered for a panel on Social Media and Collaboration in the Digital Age, presided over by Erin Glass (Digital Fellow and PhD student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center), Evan Misshula (PhD student in Criminal Justice at the CUNY Graduate Center), and Boyda Johnstone (PhD Candidate in English and Campus Digital Scholar at Fordham University). Each presenter took a different approach to the theme, though the panel worked together cohesively as an invigorating introduction to the collaborative possibilities offered by digital technology and social networking sites.

Glass introduced us to her NEH-funded project Social Paper, which she describes as a “site of radical potential” for student writing. The project takes as its basis the acknowledgement that most undergraduate writing is ephemeral and read by almost no one, while network-writing might help students write more, and better. Ongoing feedback and evaluation from a small group of peers is more useful for intellectual development than one-off feedback from a teacher at the end of a project. Moreover, ethical problems arise when teachers publish student writing on public course blogs, creating an archive of work that could feasibly last forever. Social Paper, in response, is a cloud-based networking writing environment that grants students full control over their own privacy settings, facilitating archived peer commentary for multiple courses, and helping students become invigorated and inspired by peer observance and critique. The “egalitarian peer pedagogy” of this project fosters student empowerment and a culture of healthy accountability over and responsibility for one’s work. Social Paper officially launched in December, and Glass hopes that it will soon become available to institutions beyond CUNY.

Misshula’s talk aimed to render complex technological tools more accessible to students who don’t come from computer science backgrounds, observing that, as he says, anyone can write computer programs! A list of free programming manuals can be found here, and other resources to which Misshula introduced us include The Programming Historian, which provides an introduction to Python, and the website Hack*Blossom, engaged in issues of cybersecurity, feminism, tech, and history. He contends that more communication and collaboration between digital humanists and computer scientists would be mutually beneficial. Offering himself as a resource for those in the audience who had ideas for digital projects, Misshula used the Mozilla-powered tool Ethernet to allow participants to communicate with one another and share tools in real-time.

Johnstone moved the conversation more into the realm of social media with her talk, “Using Twitter as a Professional Tool.” It is now widely agreed that Twitter can be a useful resource for collaboration, networking, and the sharing of ideas, and for those just starting out in the academic Twitter world, Johnstone shared some advice for who to follow: Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 5.37.04 PM.png

She also introduced us to the application Tweetdeck, which attempts to remedy the linear, rapid progression of Twitter by allowing users to create and maintain multiple columns of feed: Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 5.40.47 PM.png

One of the cool things about Tweetdeck is that users can assemble together tweets based around individual interests, so, for instance, Johnstone has created a column for tweets that pertain to the topic of her dissertation, on medieval dreams. She ended her talk by offering some advice for proper Twitter etiquette at academic conferences, as based on her previous blog post published here: always ensure each tweet contains attribution for its ideas, treat tweeting as a conversation rather than a monologue, be aware of the physical space you inhabit while tweeting at a conference panel, and try not to sacrifice complexity for simplicity.

We at FGSDH look forward to another year of open-source, interdisciplinary collaboration, pedagogical enhancement through online tools, and digital project-building!




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.