Monthly Archives: October 2018

Reaction to How not to Teach Digital Humanities

I related to this article on a more than one level.

Like Cordell, I’ve tangled with our curriculum process, and it can be a frustrating process, especially when proposing a new course[i]. The departmental curriculum committee will strongly criticize a new course This isn’t entirely a bad thing: as a department, we only want to send strong proposals to the college-wide curriculum committee[ii].

Cordell later suggests that, rather than have separate DH courses, that we incorporate DH sensibilities into our existing courses. I think this makes sense: I have been incorporating digital work into my classes for as long as I’ve been at LaGuardia.

Another interesting point is that our students think that they’re better with technology than their professors are. Students have a point, but it’s easy to overstate this. I’ve seen many students have issues with digitally based assignments because, well, if it’s not an app on their phone, they’re just not comfortable with it.[iii]

Interestingly, by the end of the piece, Cordell is giving advice on how to teach DH, rather than the opposite. I think the author makes two points I want to comment on[iv].

  • Start small
  • Scaffold everything

Start small

This is essential. I have been teaching Voce and Diction for well over a decade now. My students do weekly recordings (two of which are digital), a midterm project, and a final project. It took years to get it to this place. I started small, with monthly recordings, then I added my final project, then weekly recordings.

That’s on a curricular level. On a “course project” level, start with one project. Here are some things I’ve learned:

  1. Find the type of technology you are comfortable with. Run with it.
  2. Try doing it yourself first. You’ll see some of the difficulties your students have, and will be better able to help them.
  3. Expect that it won’t go smoothly. ESPECIALLY the first time. That’s okay. Learn from it. Figure out what works and what doesn’t. No matter how much you plan, you will need to adjust the assignment.
  4. Have a hard and fast deadline. Without this, several of your students just won’t turn their projects at all.
  5. Present the final products in class. Students tend to do a better job on assignments because they don’t want to look the fool in front of their classmates. (Well, usually.)

In my case, I use the technology around digital storytelling. I do four small projects with it per term:

  1. The Digital Poem – my students select a poem from a list of poems. They have to record it, find pictures to match, and turn it into a little movie.[v]
  2. Hiawatha—a few weeks later, students are given pieces of Hiawatha, and have to do the same thing as they did with the Digital Poem, though their pictures have to be either Native American or North American wilderness imagery.[vi]
  3. Midterm project. I give my students a choice: a midterm or a project. They never choose the exam. The past few years, they have had to produce a three minute long video about one of the United States presidents.
  4. Final project. This is the States project. Students randomly choose a state and have to produce a three minute long video about it.

I can  do this, because, at my school, Voice and Diction has a lab hour attached to it. They can do their projects (or at least start them) in class.

The other thing I want to focus on is scaffolding. It’s absolutely necessary. It needs to be explicit. Step-by-step instructions. Expect questions.

You also need to show your students how to use the technology. You need to make time for it in your class. I’ve been doing this for so long that I can train students in my tech in a half hour or so.

With the Presidents and States projects, I have lists of questions that they turn in, so I know they’re doing research and I can check it.[vii]

I would encourage you to figure out what technology (or technologies) you want to use and run with them. Don’t get frustrated: accept that you will have to adapt and edit. That’s not a bad thing.

[i] Revising an existing course isn’t nearly as difficult.

[ii] This makes sense. When I’ve gone before the college-wide committee, I didn’t have any problems. Part of that is because the departmental committee demanded edits.

[iii] Yes, I know this makes me sound old. (You can’t see this, but I’m shaking a cane at you, while yelling at you to get off my lawn.)

[iv] Some people might refer to these as “Best Practices”. I hesitate to use that term because what works best for me might not work for you because we are different people and might be teaching wildly different student populations and/or different levels of institutional support.

[v] This sounds more difficult than it is. I do it with Audacity (a free audio recording software) and Windows MovieMaker (which is probably not free anymore, though, honestly, it should be.)

[vi] We also discuss things like cultural appropriation when we do this.

[vii] You would be amazed at the research errors I’ve seen. For instance, the Grand Canyon has appeared in thirteen different states.

Caselaw Access Project

A large new open dataset was announced today:

The Caselaw Access Project (“CAP”) expands public access to U.S. law.
Our goal is to make all published U.S. court decisions freely available to the public online, in a consistent format, digitized from the collection of the Harvard Law Library.

More on Visualization

Much to ponder about visualizations, thanks to Micki’s excellent presentation today of her work. I wanted to note for the class a brilliant piece of visualized data that the great sociologist and educator W.E.B Dubois developed for the American exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exhibition. His goal was the help visitors understand the status of African Americans in the U.S. in that period of racial repression and Jim Crow. You can check out Dubois’s incredibly modern visual presentations on the Library of Congress website:

I think that these charts and graphs are powerful and quite beautiful visualizations that help reveal the world of African Americans in the U.S. (and especially in Georgia) 118 years ago. I believe they remain  powerful in their impact precisely because of their clear and accessible design and brilliant use of color.

Make Space for Ghosts: Lauren Klein’s Graphic Visualizations of James Hemings in Thomas Jefferson’s Archive

In “The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings,” Lauren Klein discusses a letter by Thomas Jefferson to a friend in Baltimore which she accessed through Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition , a digital archive which makes about 12,000 and “a significant portion” of 25,000 letters from and to Jefferson available to subscribers of the archive. In this letter, Jefferson asks his friend in Baltimore to give a message to his “former servant James” to illustrate how a simple word search would fail to identify that “James” as his former slave James Hemings, the brother of Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s slave and probably mother of five of his children.[1] Drawing our attention to how the “issue of archival silence – or gaps in the archival record – [which remain] difficult to address” in graphic visualization, Klein notes that the historians who built the Jefferson Papers archive added metadata to indicate that the James referred to in the above-mentioned letter was James Hemings [664]. I wonder what the metadata looks like; I wonder whether it provides sources or reflection, and what the extratextual conversation going on at the back end of the archive, if conversation it is, reveals.

While meta-annotation may appear to be a good way to fill the gaps of archival silence, Klein argues that adding scholarship as metadata creates too great a dependence on the choices the author of the archive made. The addition of metadata to the letter to the friend in Baltimore makes me wonder where in the archive metadata was added, where not, and why. Are all the gaps filled? Had metadata not been added to the letter Klein discusses, an analysis of the archive could conclude that Jefferson never makes any mention of James Hemings in the letter he wrote to his friend in Baltimore in 1801 to try to find Hemings, or in the ensuing correspondence between Hemings and Jefferson through Jefferson’s friend, in which Jefferson tries to hire Hemings and Hemings sets terms that were probably not met [667]. A word search in the archive, however, pulls up only inventories of property, documents of manumission, notes about procuring centers of pork and cooking oysters (Hemings was Jefferson’s chef) and finally a letter in which Jefferson asks whether it’s true that Hemings committed suicide [671]. How, asks Klein, do we fill in the gaps between the pieces of information we have? She concludes that we can’t. How do we show the silences then, she asks; how do we extract more meaning from the documents that exist – letters, inventories, ledgers and sales receipts – “without reinforcing the damaging notion that African American voices from before emancipation […] are silent, and irretrievably lost?” [665].

Klein calls for a shift from “identifying and recovering silences” to “animating the mysteries of the past” [665] but not by traditional methods. Instead, Klein says that the fields of computational linguistics and data visualization help make archival silences visible and by doing so “reinscribe cultural criticism at the center of digital humanities work” [665]. Through visualization Klein fills the historical record with “ghosts” and silences, rather than trying to explain away the gaps. The visualizations she creates are both mysterious and compelling, and bear evidence in a way that adding more words does not.

[1]Sarah Sally Hemings (c. 1773 – 1835) was an enslaved woman of mixed race owned by PresidentThomas Jefferson of the United States. There is a “growing historical consensus” among scholars that Jefferson had a long-term relationship with Hemings, and that he was the father of Hemings’ five children,[1] born after the death of his wife Martha Jefferson. Four of Hemings’ children survived to adulthood.[2] Hemings died in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1835. [Wikipedia contributors, “Sarah ‘Sally’ Hemings”]

Praxis Assignment: Mapping My Recently Played List

I like to think I listen to music from a range of artists around the world, so I thought I’d test the theory. I used my recently played list on iTunes to see how true this is. I started with a month of music but it was way too large so I limited the list to the last two weeks. It included 59 songs. I listened to two full albums, so the number of artist on the map is way less than. If I listened to multiple songs from the same artist I put my the one I like most that was on the recently played list.

Picking criteria was a bit difficult. Questions I had to consider included deciding whether to use where someone is working now or where a person was born? How am I showing difference between music genres? Can I get sound in here somehow?

In the end I decided to go with the birthplace/hometown. My data comes from wikipedia. For some artists I couldn’t find a city. This happen for a couple African artists and newer American artists. For those I dropped the pin in the state they are from. My little exercise  yielded a few surprises.  For example, Yaeji is a musician that makes electronic music that uses a mix of Korean and English. I thought she was making music in Korea but it turns out she is based in Brooklyn. I did this project using a larger dataset to start (then got super tired and narrowed my list) and some of my favorite Afrobeat and Soca artists were actually from the U.S. and England. This trend got me thinking about heritage, culture, and what things (food, music, ideologies) we adopt from our parents. I wanted the map to be somewhat interactive, so I added the links to the songs in case anyone wants to take a listen. The pushpins have youtube links to the songs.

Overall I think my experiment went pretty well. The only continent I missed was South America. I invite people to take a look and a listen sometime.

Legend: Purple pushpins: R&b, Blue pushpins: Mellow/sleepy time, Green pushpins: Hip hop, White pushpin: Afrobeats, Light Blue pushpin: Electronic, Red pushpin: Rock, Pink pushpin: Pop;   Yellow stick: Songs I thought people should check out by upcoming artists

View Map




The Image of Absence: Klein

I’m 3/4 of the way through this reading and as much as Hemings’s ghost is palpable, the historian in me is quite concerned with WHY Jefferson “for reasons unknown, failed to comply with [Hemings’s] request” for the terms of his employment and shrewdly specifying that it be in Jefferson’s own hand. I’d really like to explore the absent reasons to illuminate them. What could have prevented him, Jefferson, from providing this, or, is there some archival evidence that perhaps Jefferson didn’t want to provide Hemings with this. I find myself angered at Jefferson, given his prolific letter writing, letter-copying and letter filing/archiving, that he didn’t provide this to Hemings. Or perhaps he did but did so via ephemera?

My outrage softened, however, near the end of the reading as I read about the materiality Jefferson undertook in preparing Hemings’s “emancipation agreement” which he “penned in his special ink, encased in his imported paper, copied in his copying press, and then placed in his personal archive to preserve” (682) as Jefferson routinely did with his “significant” correspondence.

Via subjective analysis, then, I echo the call that Klein takes up from Alan Liu “to reinscribe cultural criticism at the center of digital humanities work” (665) and thereby offer the following:

WHAT IF, in preparing Hemings’s “emancipation agreement” — A HORRIFYING, OXYMORON CONTRADICTION-IN-TERMS PHRASE that MUST BE re-thought AND re-named BY ALL scholars ASAP (I mean “agreement” really?!) — Jefferson was actually elevating Hemings to the status of his most respected correspondents? Through his careful and mindful materiality toward this document, and his “awareness of his own historical legacy” (662) perhaps Jefferson is leaving a trail of crumbs for posterity of his regard of Hemings as a person and a chef, and not as a slave who lived and toiled invisibly, reduced to a mere “line of data” and “object of “empirical knowledge” in his farm book.

I do not put it past Jefferson to have scoffed at Hemings’s request for the terms of his employment as the likely reason for potentially not providing it. But I also do not put it past Jefferson to have left a watermark, albeit in quite “invisible ink”, of his friendship and perhaps even very deep personal regard for Hemings, for those of us looking to illuminate it.

Visualization as Argument: Klein

The title of this reading, which is the transcript of Lauren Klein’s talk of the same title, really spoke to me (all pun but an unintended one).

Ever since Prof. Gold attended ITP Core 1, a course that I was enrolled in last Fall, as a guest speaker and posed the topic “Is making scholarship? Yes, if there’s a scholarly argument” I’ve been really hooked on this concept.

So while this reading is brief, Lauren Klein packs much into it. She really made me sit straight up on the couch as I read that the great Transcendentalist and Feminist, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, founder of the famed eponymous book store AND the first kindergarten in the U.S. AND editor of The Dial is ALSO a/the pioneer in datavis?! It doesn’t surprise me given her brilliance, especially in educating, but it does amaze me. (On a related tangent, I’m recalling that American 1-room schoolhouses were also referred to as Peabody schoolhouses? I don’t feel like Googling to fact check this right now.)

Is everyone/anyone marveling at how Peabody took a chronological subject, literally The Chronological History of the United States and translated it to an abstract grid? She didn’t make a vertical list, or a horizontal timeline, but rather adopted a linear-ality of a whole different order, shunning the xy axis in her design to plot the U.S. events-to-date in 1856 — on a grid.

Her use of a grid with bissected boxes/triangles, much like the grid we used in The Object Library to lay out the exhibition’s cubic spaces and elevations to install the objects (which I described in class last week vis a vis my mapping project of TOL, as a difficult task to do from the grid) AND the origin of this low-tech system “developed in Poland in the 1820’s” also amazes me.

Peabody’s Grid of 1856 U.S. (my title) as conveyed by Klein, serves as a touchstone example of Klein’s thesis in this talk which is: “visualization methods help us better understand the process of knowledge production“.

Peabody’s Grid and its intended abstraction “appeal to the senses directly” and Peabody’s even more pressing intention “to evoke pleasure” is really radical. Pleasure in knowledge production. What a concept! I had a moment of pleasure while mapping TOL on the map/globe of beautiful planet Earth as I “played” with placing/plotting the objects’ locations with a “pin” of my choice (an icon I created from TOL artwork — please see my project map at LOCUS for this icon.)

I would plot or characterize Peabody’s “knowledge work” flow (my phrase) as: knowledge of history by way of Peabody’s student coloring in their OWN grids’ triangles — which becomes an act of producing a personal image of history by the student/citizen — leads to an embodiment, a personal investment, in history, and its agent: politics.

Peabody’s Grid is therefore, both her own political stance and her own brand of revolutionary, feminist pedagogy as a “female knowledge worker.” Peabody’s Grid is also inherently democratic to me because by having students (read: citizens) create/color their own charts, “Peabody flattens (literally) the relationship between the putative producer of knowledge and its perceiver” thereby, leveling the teacher/student dynamic.

It stands to reason, then, that Peabody’s Grid Is a strong example of “method as argument”.

Another concept from Klein’s talk that stood out to me is that of laborColor Your World is not a cliche or trite phrase from a pop song because it takes such labor in to account while also connoting the important dynamics of agency and authority in what constitutes knowledge and its production.

What is Visualization? – a deeper look into what data visualization can tell us

Following up on one of my concerns last week and “All Models Are Wrong from two weeks ago, I’m going to write more today on what information visualization does and does not tell us, inspired by Lev Manovich’s “What is Visualization”.

In the beginning of the reading, Manovich seems to support the argument from All Models are Wrong, in that models only tell a portion of the story.

“By employing graphical primitives (or, to use the language of contemporary digital media, vector graphics), infovis is able to reveal patterns and structures in the data objects that these primitives represent. However, the price being paid for this power is extreme schematization We throw away %99 of what is specific about each object to represent only %1- in the hope of revealing patterns across this %1 of objects’ characteristics.” Lev Manovich, What is Visualization?

In this excerpt, Manovich makes clear the advantage of traditional means of information visualization: revealing easily recognizable patterns from data that would otherwise take hours, days, or weeks to analyze. On the contrary, he admits that the downfall of simplifying the data is in the very act of simplifying it. This was troubling to me. I so desperately wanted there to be a way to visualize the data without loosing data, then along came “direct visualization”.

“Direct visualization” is a term coined my Manovich to explain a technique that employs visualization without reduction. He gave several examples that are no longer searchable, but two that had a strong impact on my understanding of “direct visualization”. These are Timeline (Jeremy Douglass and Lev Manovich, 2009) and Valence (Ben Fry, 2001). Both have a very “next generation” feel to them which is another aspect to “direct visualization”; technology giving us the ability to decipher massive amounts of data in a short time, and present it with the use of color, animation, and interactive elements.

This was a fascinating read and “direct visualization” is something I’m looking forward to applying to my own work where possible.