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.

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Five Digital Tools for Pedagogy and Research

As the academic year tumbles to a close, I would like to use my final blog post to discuss five tools that have made the past semester a little less precarious. Certainly, there are more advanced tools available, and I hope you will share them via the Comments thread. However, for this post, I simply want to focus on tools that I regularly use and rely upon to save time and frustration (if only a little).


ImageA no-nonsense shortcut utility for the Mac, TextExpander ($25 edu) has taught me the virtues of automation. Designed around shortcuts (Abbreviations) and the texts they expand (Snippets), TextExpander allows you to supplement your desktop’s keyboard shortcuts and to build forms using a bevvy of customizable templates. These templates can be as simple as custom email signatures (available system-wide), tools for validating and truncating URLs (Internet Productivity Snippets), or, my favorite, Fill-ins, with which you can create forms around predefined selections (Popups) and open fields (Fill-ins). Fill-ins have already saved me hours in writing midterm and final grade reports. (Thanks to TextExpander’s Statistics feature, which tracks and visualizes usage, I can report that the utility has saved me more than a dozen hours this semester). Once I started thinking about my reports in terms of what could and could not be automated, I realized that much of what I write in my headers and footers can be accomplished using three or four different forms. By creating several such forms, I allow myself more time for rigorous reflections on student work.

ImageWhen it comes to managing that work, TurnItIn (pricing depends upon your institution) has changed the way I evaluate research papers. After discovering that Fordham offers a free license for educators, I decided to use it for my students’ first batch of longer essays. I had noticed that despite our conversations about integrating and introducing research, many of my students were playing it fast and lose with outside sources, and I feared that there might be instances of academic dishonesty. Previously, when I harbored such concerns, I manually searched for phrases that sounded misplaced, a time-consuming and incomplete process. With TurnItIn, you can either ask your students to submit papers through the website or you manually upload files. After a couple of minutes per paper, the site calculates the essay’s originality, providing a deceptively specific percentage of that paper’s derivation (given that it doesn’t parse quotations, it’s advisable that you not take the score too seriously and comb through the document yourself). I found that I could open each essay and see where it might be derivative. TurnItIn annotates the document and provides access to the sources of those annotations. (If the source isn’t available publically, TurnItIn allows you to request access). This semester TurnItIn helped me identify two instances of academic dishonesty, which, on my own, would have required hours of additional searching

ImageMy biggest time saving tool, however, has nothing to do with my teaching. When it comes to tracking, managing, and sharing citations, I cannot sing more loudly my praises of Zotero (free). Zotero lives where most of us begin our research: the web browser. While it was originally designed for Mozilla FireFox (where it still works best), you can also download the standalone application, connectors for Google Chrome and Apple Safari, and word processor plugins (for Microsoft Office and LibreOffice/OpenOffice). With JSTOR and WorldCat, Zotero boasts particularly thorough integration; of search results you can tick off articles whose bibliographic information and content (such as full-text PDFs) you want to save. You can access citations via the Zotero button in your browser, where you can create folder hierarchies, export citations in just about any style, or view downloaded PDFs. If you register for Zotero’s free synchronization service (Zotero Sync), you can even access your citations on other computers. By default, you’ll get one hundred megabytes of storage, more than enough for citations alone, but somewhat miserly for PDFs. (After archiving twenty journal articles with PDFs, I exhausted more than a third of the allotted storage). If, however, you intend to conduct your research from one desktop, however, your machine’s hard drive is your only limitation.

ImageFor stubbornly material resources, the latest version of Delicious Library ($25) tidies up everything on your bookshelf, including books, movies, albums, software, and gadgets. Adding items is easy. If it has a barcode, you can scan it using your desktop’s iSight camera or a barcode reader. I added the vast majority of my books using my MacBook’s webcam, but for editions that predate barcodes, I found that I could add them using keywords, authors, and titles. In addition to acting as my iTunes for everything outside iTunes, Delicious includes a particularly dulcet feature: Loans. You can check out books (or anything else) to anyone in your Contacts, and thanks to the software’s interoperation with Apple Calendar, you set and track due dates. Given that I’m constantly swapping books with friends, this feature applies as much to me as it does my peers. (You don’t keep friends by absconding with their books).

ImageI’ve saved my final tool until the end because it is a summer project unto itself. If Apple’s Pages is Microsoft Word with a fresh coat of paint, Literature & Latte’s Scrivener ($45 with a 15% edu) is a gut renovation. Based on the premise that long texts (e.g., chapters, dissertations, monographs) are comprised of short texts, Scrivener allows writers to collect research, write in smaller, modular texts, and to compile fragments into cohesive manuscripts that can be outputted in just about any imaginable format (form Word docs to ePubs). Whether you’re working on a novel or a recipe collection, Scrivener offers a template; alternatively, you can start Blank, just as you would a Word doc. The interface has three main components: the document at the center (Editor); metadata to the right (Inspector); and text hierarchy to the left (Binder). In the Binder, you can store drafts or just about any kind of research (PDFs, images, documents). Everything in Scrivener can be manipulated using drag and drop operations and a host of different views and layouts. What I like about Scrivener is that is meets me where I am. Although my diss chapter will become a single, continuous text (fingers crossed), it doesn’t start that way. Instead, Scrivener allows me to work in small chunks of text (paragraphs, sometimes more), and to synthetize them into a Word doc suitable for my readers.

Of Lobotomy, Narrative, and Interface

ImageWhen I registered for a dinner discussion with Miriam Posner at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus, I did not expect brains would be on the menu. Posner’s talk, an aperitif to her forthcoming book, Depth Perception: Narrative and the Body in American Medical Filmmaking (under contract with University of North Carolina Press), lingered on early twentieth-century lobotomies, as participants raised pointed questions about the process and documentation of Walter Freeman’s many lobotomies (reference The Lobotomy Letters or The Lobotomy Files). Yet, despite the curiosity of these surgeries, lobotomies provided but a frontal lobe to Posner’s expansive presentation. As the title of her talk suggests, “Thinking Through and with Text: Designing Digital Humanities Scholarship for the Screen” was as much about how scholars today re-present scholarship via electronic platforms as it was about how surgeons captured and represented bodies in medical films. With this post, I want to raise two related questions that, in the second half of the conversation, divided participants: What should a user interface do, and what is its relation to a narrative?

Posner discussed a number of existing digital projects that showcase the “affordances and opportunities of digital publishing.” She described the Negro Travelers’ Green Book Map in relation to three main considerations: sources, processing, and presentation. Beginning with the Green Book, a directory of “safe” destinations for African American travelers during the Jim Crow era (source), scholars scanned, geo-located, and built a database of destinations (processing), and mapped and made that data searchable (presentation). While the Green Book Map was a crowd-pleaser, subsequent projects tested the audience’s open-mindedness about interface design. For example, Posner introduced the multimodal journal Vectors. In concept, the audience embraced the proposition (judging by head nodding), but as soon as Posner opened the Vectors editors’ statement, brows furrowed. Here was a page that purported to speak (a statement of intent), but that required the user to pose a question (a keyword search). What did readers have to do to access the entire statement? Whereas some members of the audience rejoiced in the “problem” that the code suggested, others simply wanted to read to the statement. A glance at N. Katherine Hayles’ Narrating Bits exacerbated the divide. One participant asked, “Who uses it?” “What if interfaces aren’t for use, but for something else entirely?” Posner rejoined.

We discussed several other projects that underscored the diverse uses of digital interfaces. Whereas The New York Times’ Snow Fallemploys an immersive interface that absorbs the reader in a multimedia report on an avalanche, Eric Loyer’s Freedom’s Ring (built in Scalar, the new Vectors’ CMS) enables readers to either follow a prescribed narrative or chart their own paths through its nodes. The defamiliarizing interface of Whitney Trettien’s Plant -> Animal -> Book, meanwhile, requires readers to explore content—and the act of reading—associatively.

If one takes seriously the proposition that user interfaces are more than transparent views of content (Johanna Drucker), Posner’s talk underscores the potential of interfaces to function as windows, walls, mazes, and gateways. I want to think about the relation of interfaces to narratives. Like many students of the humanities, I enjoy a good story. The question is whether writers or scholars ought to, given the availability of flexible electronic platforms, enable readers to construct their own narratives by means of different interfaces.

In our conversation with Miriam Posner, several participants argued interfaces are inherently coercive because they require somatic engagement with prescribed routes (e.g., Scalar’s linking and forking paths). However, I fail to see how the narrative of a digital text is any more coercive than that of certain print novels. The frustration that participants expressed about their inability to read the Vectors editors’ statement is not unlike from the frustration readers value in difficult novels such as Gravity’s Rainbow, Finnegan’s Wake, and Pale Fire. We prize the challenges of those novels and how they coerce us into becoming conscious of how we read.

The issue, as I see it, is not that digital texts are inherently more coercive than print counterparts, but rather that they provide an illusion of control. This issue is only a problem if the reader is recast as writer. Electronic interfaces are worth evaluating critically because they enable writers to cast the seedlings of multiple simultaneous narratives. Interfaces that allow readers to chart different paths through content (such as those built with Scalar) may not allow readers to inscribe their own narratives, but they enable readers to discover other narrative germinations. Those discoveries, coerced as they may be, belong to readers in much the same way as does understanding wrested from an oblique print narrative. In this context, perhaps interface will entangle with narrative and the act of reading, its form, akin to the human brain, replete with unseen passageways, unexpected barriers, and unforeseeable possibilities.

The Future of the Humanities and the (Semi)Public Intellectual

Conversations about the future of humanities tend to follow a predictable recipe: begin with a spoonful of anxiety (see also: fear, despair); add a smattering of nostalgia (for a bygone era when distinguished faculty members landed their first jobs); bring to boil under a fire of realism (kindled by junior faculty); and garnish with pride (enjoyed by all).

Peter Brooks’ seminar at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus was one of the more unpredictable conversations I have attended on the future of the humanities, aided in no small part by Brooks’ superb book, Humanities in Public Life, and an eclectic cadre of graduate students, faculty, deans, administration, and interlocutors from business, law, and the sciences. While the contours of conversation adhered to the aforementioned recipe, we cooked up two ostensibly different dishes: The humanities are an island, in the parlance of one participant, to be preserved; and the humanities are a perch, from which its advocates infiltrate and affect other modes of discourse. I intend to use this post to explore how such goals are not mutually exclusive by placing the future of the humanities in dialogue with the (semi)public intellectual.

No, I’m not going to talk about Nicholas Kristof’s article about why academics are “irrelevant,” Corey Robin’s and Laura Tanenbaum’s rebuttals, or Joshua Rothman’s alternative assessment. You’ve read those pieces already, and if you haven’t, you’ve heard enough about them. Rather, I want to think about how the Brooks’ island/perch divide relates to a particularly generative panel on public intellectualism at the 2014 MLA Convention.

The panel The Semipublic Intellectual? Academia, Criticism, and the Internet Age exemplified MLA’s vibrant DH presence. Attracting a capacity audience, with onlookers spilling into the hallway, this roundtable assembled a diverse panel to discuss the lived experience of scholarship and digital publication. For several panelists in particular, public engagement provides both a reprieve from and complement to their humanities “day jobs.”

As an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Whitman College, Anne Helen Petersen entered the public fray to compensate for the solitude of studying for comps. Her blog, Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style, applies historical and theoretical understandings to celebrity culture. Blog posts range from musings on celebrity scandal (with the touchstones of Miley Cirus and Chris Brown) to Beyoncé’s unsettling feminism. Petersen argued that one way that humanities scholars can intervene in the outside world—and to promote humanistic values—is to demonstrate that they have “smart things to say about things we encounter each and every day.”

Hua Hsu, an Assistant Professor of English at Vassar College, admits that he couldn’t have finished graduate school without writing for public outlets. Contributing to ESPN, Slate, and The Atlantic enables Hsu to embrace new vocabularies and humors, to pursue different research questions, and to make money. For example, Hsu reflects on the sorry state of the NFL as a Grantland staff member, reviews Sianne Ngai as a Slate contributor, and puts The Simpsons in conversation with Ai Weiwei as an Atlantic author. In posts, he brings his humanities work into the public sphere (e.g. Ngai), whereas in other pieces, the two cross-pollinate (Simpsons and Ai Weiwei). Hsu seems to relish the creative tensions between journalists and academics. In his talk, he explained that online writing better connected him with editors and readers than his academic scholarship.

Despite the salubrious effects of public engagement on his academic writing, Hsu admitted that he kept his public work separate, even “secret,” from his institution. Salamishah Tillet, an Associate Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, has also written publicly, in private. Tillet has written about domestic violence and George Zimmerman for The Nation and black feminism (and Tyler Perry) for The Root, and she’s even visited MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry to discuss race relations and abortion politics. Although she’s more comfortable occupying the role of public intellectual today, as a graduate student, Tillet didn’t tell her advisors about her activist writings for fear that she wouldn’t be regarded as a “serious scholar.” If, as Tillet observes, the mandate of a scholar is to act as a cultural worker, institutions ought to embrace semi-public intellectualism because it enables scholars to occupy multiple communities simultaneously and to make humanist arguments to wider audiences.

Each panelist models a both/and approach to straddling the island/perch divide. Certainly, I don’t mean to suggest that semi-public contortions are easy. As evident from the closeted writings of Hsu, Tillet, and Petersen, departments still may not know how to evaluate such engagement. Moreover, writing for a wider public entails subjecting oneself to wider scrutiny, placing texts at greater risk of being read out of context.

Natalia Cecire, a Postdoctoral Fellow of English at Yale University, explained how she began blogging as a means of controlling her online identity (in Cecire’s words, “I have an incredibly Google-able name”). However, when she wrote a skeptical post about statistics wunderkind Nate Silver, she found her online identity—as well as her sex and race—assaulted by young economists who rejected the very notion that the humanities could make knowledge claims. In the words of Cecire, “The audience you’re writing for isn’t necessarily the audience you get.”

Public intellectualism can hurt, but if scholars are serious about charting a path forward for the humanities, these panelists model the courage and entrepreneurship necessary to preserve the island and to expand its terrain.

Upcoming Meeting: Can DH Get You A Job? A Presentation and Discussion of DH Job Descriptions

Mark your calendars! The next FGSDH meeting is in only a few days!

Can DH Get You A Job?
A Presentation and Discussion of DH Job Descriptions
February 26th, 12:30pm
Dealy Hall 115

Come discuss Digital Humanities job postings. Bring one you’ve seen recently, or come to hear more about them and what they want. We’ll discuss what skills DH jobs want, how to read the job postings, and how to make them less intimidating and/or mystifying. We’ll also discuss ways to acquire the skills they want, and how to go about doing so at Fordham and in NYC.

As a reminder: never let “not having done the homework” prevent you from coming to a FGSDH meeting! We’re delighted to see you, and more voices in discussion are always valuable.
–Alisa and Patrick

Debates in the Digital Humanities

After a snow day last week, we met for the first time yesterday and discussed two articles from the book Debates in the Digital Humanities.

Debates in DH Book Cover
Debates in the Digital Humanities

The articles were “This Is Why We Fight”: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities by Lisa Spiro, and Digital Humanities As/Is a Tactical Term by Matthew Kirschenbaum.

The two articles provide quite a contrast: Spiro’s is optimistic and all-embracing, and discusses the usefulness and larger possibilities provided by the process of articulating a values statement for the DH as a field; Kirschenbaum’s article is more pragmatic, and discusses the history of DH and how thinking tactically about the field’s uses, goals, and funding can be not only helpful for getting it implemented, but also for expanding and defining the field.

One criticism the group came up with was that while Spiro’s article does a good job of articulating goals, it is not very ‘digitally’ specific — almost all of her goals and values could be applied to the process of making academia in general, or humanities in general, a friendlier, more inclusive space. And while one attendee pointed out that this may be the goal of DH in the long term (to become the norm for humanities scholarship) in the present, it seems like a little more focus on the digital aspects of DH may be necessary.  Kirschenbaum’s more pragmatic approach seemed to have made our readers slightly more comfortable with his points and his overview of the history of the field provided talking points for discussion about the development of the field.

The variety of viewpoints of our attendees, from those who are relatively new to DH to those who have a more library-centric or more academically-centered focus, made for an excellent discussion. We were only sorry not to see more people there!

We look forward to seeing you at our next meeting:

HTML Resume Workshop
Tuesday February 18th
LL 802 (Lincoln Center) 1:30pm

Learn how to use HTML to make your resume more striking online: in the process you will not only learn how to make your resume look better on sites such as WordPress or other blogging platforms, you will also learn the basics of HTML markup language, which has a wide variety of applications, and is the basis of a number of other markup languages used widely in the digital humanities.

Tomorrow (Dec. 4), 12:30-2:00pm, Dealy 115 – Talk & Discussion led by Kristen Mapes on Digital Humanities Class

Please join us tomorrow, Dec. 4, from 12:30-2:00pm in Dealy 115. Kristen Mapes willl speak about taking “Digital Humanities” as a graduate level course at the Pratt Institute.

Topics to be discussed: What topics are covered? How are they addressed? What is the value of taking a DH-specific class rather than simply incorporating DH into pre-existing classes?

This will be an informal conversation about Digital Humanities as a course topic and  the graduate student perspective on learning about DH in a formal way. Come to hear and discuss (and eat cookies) tomorrow at 12:30 in Dealy 115!

See you there!