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Author Archives: Nancy Foasberg

Project T.R.I.K.E – Principles and Origin Myths

Hannah’s already provided some use cases that I hope help to illustrate why we think that Project T.R.I.K.E will be useful, and to whom.  I wanted to backtrack and give some context. Although, as Hannah’s post suggests, it’s quite difficult to suggest a specific starting point for our thought processes, which have developed iteratively until we’re not sure whether we’re trapped in a time loop or not.  However, I think I can trace through some of the things I think are important about it.

We really wanted to do something that would be useful for pedagogy. Again, if you want to know how it’s useful for pedagogy, please see Hannah’s post! But we were specifically interested in a resource that would teach methodology, because all of us were methodological beginners who really felt the need for more tools and resources that would help us to develop in that respect.  During our environmental scan, we were impressed by the efforts of the DH community to produce a number of useful guides to tools, methodologies, and processes (in particular, please see Alan Liu’s DH Toy Chest and devdh.org), although none of them were doing exactly what we want to do. There are plenty of dead resources out there, too, and we should take that as a warning.

We really wanted to take a critical stance on data by creating something that would highlight its contingent, contextual, constructed nature, acknowledging that datasets are selected and prepared by human researchers, and that the questions one can ask are inextricably connected to the process through which the dataset is constituted. Our emphasis on a critical approach does not originate in this class; I believe all of us had been exposed to theories about constructedness before this. What’s curious about our process is that we went out seeking datasets and tutorials with this in mind, thinking about what we hoped to do, and this conversation ranged far from the class readings, focusing on our own work and also Rawson and Muñoz’s “Against Cleaning”   but eventually brought us back to Posner, Bode, and Drucker.  None of them, however, came away with exactly the solution we did; we decided that the constructed nature of data is best represented by making transparent the process of construction itself! Project T.R.I.K.E. will provide snapshots of the data at different stages in the process, highlighting the decisions made by researchers and interrogating how these decisions are embodied in the data.

Finally, we really wanted to ensure that we could produce something that could be open to the community. Again, a lot of work in the DH community is openly available, but we also came across some datasets behind paywalls.  One repository aggregating these datasets not only made it difficult to access the databases but also had a series of stern lectures about copyright, occupying much the same space on their website that instruction in methodology would occupy on ours! While it is true that some humanities data may invoke copyright in a way that other kinds of data usually don’t, we’d much rather host datasets that we can make available to a wide variety of users with a wide variety of use cases. Limiting access to data limits research.

Think carefully, though. As part of the environmental scan, we came across an article that argues, on the basis of a report partially sponsored by Elsevier, that researchers seldom make their data available, even when they are required to do so. While I expect this is true, I am also suspicious of claims like this when they are made by major publishers, because their next step will probably be to offer a proprietary solution which will give them yet more control over the scholarly communication ecosystem.  In a context in which major publishers are buying up repositories, contacting faculty directly, and co-opting the language of open access as they do so, I’d argue that it’s more and more important for academics to build out their (our) own infrastructure. Project T.R.I.K.E. has slightly humbler ambitious, for time being, but it’s an opportunity for us to begin building some infrastructure of our own.

I Guess We Should Talk about Tumblr

We talked last week about the oppressive effects of a lot of media-based technology, so I guess it’s a convenient time for Tumblr to have announced their latest policies.

For those whose news stream may differ from mine, what happened is this: Tumblr was removed from Apple’s App Store for child pornography (a genuine problem). They announced that they were planning to change their policies, and yesterday, they announced this policy, which includes a ban on “female-presenting nipples” (???) and vaguely-defined “sex acts,” although there are exceptions for political or medical situations and fine art (who gets to decide what’s fine art and what’s  just smutty art? Tumblr does, apparently). There are lots of news stories about it; this is one: https://www.latimes.com/business/technology/la-fi-tn-tumblr-adult-content-ban-20181203-story.html

In any case, there are several interesting features of in relation to our readings and discussions:

  1. The enforcement mechanism here is Apple.  These changes don’t come in response to the needs of people using the platform. There have been multiple complaints from Tumblr users about the content that’s made available on the platform, but these complaints are apparently ineffective (judging by the fact that this is even happening).  They also don’t come in response to any kind of official regulation.  Noble asks a lot of questions about how companies online are to be held accountable for the content they present; it appears that the answer at present is via rules set by other kinds of corporate gatekeepers (advertisers, of course, also wield a lot of power in this area).
  2. Tumblr is relying on algorithms to do this work.  These algorithms aren’t very accurate — many users have already posted examples of content that has been flagged for no obvious reason at all — but they’re probably a lot faster than humans, and Tumblr apparently has so much trust in them that they’re removing Safe Mode (another algorithmic tool and doubtless with many problems of its own) to rely on this general filtering exclusively. Noble, again, has a lot to say about how relying on algorithms to identify acceptable and unacceptable content can shield a company from accountability; that seems pretty clearly what is happening here. They’ve muted certain hashtags entirely; there isn’t a lot of subtlety to their approach.
  3. The focus on pornographic content, especially when that is poorly defined, puts a particular kind of bracket around what’s considered acceptable and unacceptable.  Child pornography should obviously be removed (and prosecuted), but the particular framing of sexual content in this (and similar) policies tells us something about the platform’s priorities. For instance, Tumblr is not trying to eliminate racist content from their platform. Many users have posted examples of white supremacist blogs that show up quite easily in a search.  On the other hand, by framing this around what is and isn’t considered pornographic, the context and purpose of the blogs is not considered. So they’re not specifically going after pornbots, which are a persistent nuisance on the site. On the other hand, we know from experience with other kinds of “filtering” used on the internet, policies like this often target LGBTQ information because they’re created with the unspoken assumption that sexual minorities are somehow inherently sexualized.  Sex workers who use Tumblr are also likely to be targeted (which is in line with a “no sexual content” policy and which I can understand from a corporate point of view, but which is dangerous to sex workers who’ve been using the platform as a relatively safe place to do their work).  So this is done in a way that is more harmful to the  more vulnerable users of Tumblr. One of the things I really appreciated about Noble’s analysis was that she was critical of pornographic content specifically as it sexualizes marginalized people in an exploitative way; she writes that “[m]arginalized and oppressed people are linked to the status of their group and are less likely to be afforded individual status and insulation from the status of the group with which they are identified” (26). She is interested in how this reflects from online pornographic content into the broader society — but here’s an example where we can see that it also reflects back into how the work created by members of marginalized groups are treated when internet companies decide to take a more active role.

It’s not clear what this will do to Tumblr — a lot of people are comparing this to “strikethrough” which happened on LiveJournal in 2007, and I don’t know enough about LiveJournal to say to what extent that contributed to the decline of that site.

But it’s interesting. I have lots of questions about who CAN be trusted to make decisions about how searching and social media can work; corporate platforms aren’t making a great argument for themselves as the appropriate guardians for this sort of thing.

(aaaannd I should note that as I’m choosing the tags for this post, I’m making decisions based on how it’ll be algorithmically “seen.” If I tag it “pornography” because it talks about that kind of content, will it disappear from the blog and/or from Google? Have I already used the word too many times in this post?? Remember how we talked about the Panopticon in class???)

Archives: Queens College Civil Rights Archive

I’m sorry to make two posts in a row!  But we were asked to share archives that caught our interest, and in a week in which we’re discussing both archives and CUNY history, I’d be remiss not to share this.

The Queens College Civil Rights Archive

It’s a work in progress, and to be honest, I haven’t fully explored the whole thing! But a lot of excellent work has gone into it over the years. Queens College students were very active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and this archive documents that.  There is a special focus on the work of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights activists who were murdered in 1964.  All three of them were from Queens, and Goodman was a QC student. The tower of our library building is named for them.

In any case, institutional connections aside, this archive is very much worth checking out.

Historical Literacy and Good Faith in Public History

The two pieces from “Writing History in the Digital Age” were really interesting to me.  In “I Nevertheless Am a Historian”: Digital Historical Practice and Malpractice around Black Confederate Soldiers,” Leslie Madsen-Brooks considers “the intersection of ‘the public’ with historical practice” and when and how professional historians might intervene.  In “The Historian’s Craft, Popular Memory, and Wikipedia,” Robert S Wolff looks specifically at the moral economy of Wikipedia as it manifested in the edits of the page “Origins of the American Civil War.” As a (very desultory) Wikipedian, I expected that I’d be really interested in writing about the Wolff piece, but as much as I liked it, I was more drawn to the Madsen-Brooks article.

All the readings this week were interested in how the public interacts with history on the internet, but these in particular were about members of the public as the makers of historical claims.  It’s a little bit challenging, because the inclusiveness of digital humanities is really important to me. Cohen and Rosenzweig discuss speed of access and the acquisition of new audiences while critiquing the potential passivity of computers. Blevins, too, writes about democratizing access to the past and engaging the public. Of course, you really know the public is engaged when they write about something, not just read about it, and in the case of history in particular, I think it’s really important for the public to critically engage with it. Public discussion of history is definitely a good thing! But I’ve also come more and more to realize that when we think about public engagement with information, we also have to ask what happens when irresponsible conspiracy theorists with an axe to grind decide that they want to engage, too.

Madsen-Brooks addresses this question when she writes about the myth of “black Confederates,” who supposedly served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War (this, as Madsen-Brooks hastens to clarify, is not at all the case).  She argues that the myth comes from shallow, decontextualized readings of primary sources made available online; readers of these documents jump to unjustified conclusions in their haste to support their position. This myth has gone so far as to be printed in a Virginia textbook in 2010, so it is doing real harm.  (In contrast, Wolff notes that Wikipedia can successfully exclude claims that are not supported by sources, so in this case, Wikipedia has done a better job than at least one textbook!).

Additionally, the expertise of professional historians might not be valued.  In the case that Madsen-Brooks describes, the status of professional historians might even cost someone credibility. The communities in which the notion of the “black Confederate” circulates hold conspiracy theories about the suppression of this narrative and dismiss credentials as “showing some papers” and institutes of higher education as “centers of indoctrination.” Madsen-Brooks notes that engaging with these communities is likely a waste of time and instead suggests that historians address themselves to more mainstream audiences.

However, what I really like about this piece is that despite her focus on a group that is misusing historical information, Madsen-Brooks still supports the efforts of the public in grappling with sources, looking at history, and even calling themselves historians. Instead of a strike against public history, she sees this as an indicator of the need for historical literacy.

I was excited about this, because I’m seeing some parallels between historical literacy and information literacy. The Association for College and Research Libraries puts out a document they call the Framework for Information Literacy, and I’m tempted to call it the new Framework because it’s a significant shift from their previous rhetoric about information literacy, but it’s not really new anymore. In any case, this document argues that information literacy is about understanding how authors gain authority, how information is produced, circulated, and becomes part of a larger conversation, and how the process of inquiry proceeds. Madsen-Brooks is interested in historiography, which (and actual historians, please correct me on this!) studies the documents from which our understanding of history proceeds. Although she doesn’t define historical literacy in any detail in the piece, I am sure that it involves, at least partly, understanding “information creation as a process,” not to mention how “authority is constructed and contextual” (to quote the Framework).

Now the question is: is she (and am I) being naïve about this? And I’m not sure. Clearly, in the example she cites, there are some people who are not learning about history in good faith. They are looking for evidence to support their enthusiasm for the American Confederacy, and are sure to find it whether it’s there or not.

But I think any plan for educating people about the use of information can break down with bad faith.  Like Madsen-Brooks, I think it’s still important to do this work for the people who can engage with it in good faith.

Some Things I’d Like to Read

Matt and Steve asked for requests for readings, and said in class that it’s time to get those in! I guess I was waiting for someone else to start a thread that I could chime in on, but maybe I’ll take a break from watching the anxiety show and should start that thread myself.

I’d like to have a little more about network analysis — we had a lot of readings about visualization, and some of those did touch on network analysis, like Klein’s piece on the images of absence, with its extremely elegant arc diagrams, but there wasn’t a lot. I don’t know what the foundational pieces on network analysis are, although I was really intrigued by Lisa Rhody’s work when I saw her in a panel last month.

If we can just add pieces that we really like, I thought Data & Society’s report, “Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube” is very interesting from a network analysis point of view but also fits in with the unit on race and inequality and algorithms. Anyway I’m rather selfishly interested to know what other people in the class think of it.

Bibliographies, Networks, and CUNY Academic Works

I was really excited about doing a network analysis, even though I seem to have come all the way over here to DH just to do that most librarianly of research projects, a citation analysis.

I work heavily with our institutional repository, CUNY Academic Works, so I wanted to do a project having to do with that.  Institutional repositories are one of the many ways that scholarly works can be made openly available.  Ultimately, I’m interested in seeing whether the works that are made available through CAW are, themselves, using open access research, but for this project, I thought I’d start a little smaller.

CAW allows users to browse by discipline using this “Sunburst” image.

Each general subject is divided into smaller sub-disciplines.  Since I was hoping to find a network, I wanted to choose a sub-discipline that was narrow but fairly active. I navigated to “Arts and Humanities,” from there to “English Language and Literature,” and finally to “Literature in English, North America, Ethnic and Cultural Minority.” From there, I was able to look at works in chronological order. Like most of the repository, this subject area is dominated by dissertations and capstone papers; this is really great for my purposes because I am very happy to know which authors students are citing and from where.

The data cleaning process was laborious, and I think I got a little carried away with it. After I’d finished, I tweeted about it, and Hannah recommended pypdf as a tool I could have used to do this work much more quickly.  Since I’d really love to do similar work on a larger scale, this is a really helpful recommendation, and I’m planning on playing with it some more in the future (thanks, Hannah!)

I ended up looking at ten bibliographies in this subject, all of which were theses and dissertations from 2016 or later.  Specifically:

 Jarzemsky, John. “Exorcizing Power.”

Green, Ian F. P. “Providential Capitalism: Heavenly Intervention and the Atlantic’s Divine Economist”

La Furno, Anjelica. “’Without Stopping to Write a Long Apology’: Spectacle, Anecdote, and Curated Identity in Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom”

Danraj, Andrea A. “The Representation of Fatherhood as a Declaration of Humanity in Nineteenth-Century Slave Narratives”

Kaval, Lizzy Tricano. “‘Open, and Always, Opening’: Trans- Poetics as a Methodology for (Re)Articulating Gender, the Body, and the Self ‘Beyond Language ’”

Brown, Peter M. “Richard Wright’ s and Chester Himes’s Treatment of the Concept of Emerging Black Masculinity in the 20th Century”

Brickley, Briana Grace. “’Follow the Bodies”: (Re)Materializing Difference in the Era of Neoliberal Multiculturalism”

Eng, Christopher Allen. “Dislocating Camps: On State Power, Queer Aesthetics & Asian/Americanist Critique”

Skafidas, Michael P. “A Passage from Brooklyn to Ithaca: The Sea, the City and the Body in the Poetics of Walt Whitman and C. P. Cavafy”

Cranstoun, Annie M. “Ceasing to Run Underground: 20th-Century Women Writers and Hydro-Logical Thought”

Many other theses and dissertations are listed in Academic Works, but are still under embargo. For those members of the class who will one day include your own work in CAW, I’d like to ask on behalf of all researchers that you consider your embargo period carefully! You have a right to make a long embargo for your work if you wish, but the sooner it’s available, the more it will help people who are interested in your subject area.

In any case, I extracted the authors’ names from these ten bibliographies and put them into Gephi to make a graph.  I thought about using the titles of journals, which I think will be my next project, but when I saw that all the nodes on the graph have such a similar appearance graphically, I was reluctant to mix such different data points as authors and journals.

As I expected, each bibliography had its own little cluster of citations, but there were a few authors that connected them, and some networks were closer than others.

Because I was especially interested in the authors that connected these different bibliographies, I used Betweenness Centrality to map these out, to produce a general shape like this:

This particular configuration of the data uses the Force Atlas layout.  There were several available layouts and I don’t how they’re made, but this one did a really nice job of rendering my data in a way that looked 3D and brought out some relationships among the ten bibliographies.

Some Limitations to My Data

Hannah discussed this in her post, and I’d run into a lot of the same issues and had forgotten to include it in my blog post!  Authors are not always easy entities to grasp. Sometimes a cited work may have several authors, and in some cases, dissertation authors cited edited volumes by editor, rather than the specific pieces by their authors. Some of the authors were groups rather than individuals (for instance, the US Supreme Court), and some pieces were cited anonymously.

In most cases, I just worked with what I had. If it was clear that an author was being cited in more than one way, I tried to collapse them, because there were so few points of contact that I wanted to be sure to bring them all out. There were a few misspellings of Michel Foucault’s name, but it was really important to me to know how relevant he was in this network.

Like Hannah, I pretended that editors were authors, for the sake of simplicity.  Unlike her, I didn’t break out the authors in collaborative ventures, although I would have in a more formal version of this work.  It simply added too much more data cleaning on top of what I’d already done.  So I counted all the co-authored works as the work of the first author — flawed, but it caught some connections that I would have missed otherwise.

Analyzing the Network

Even from this distance, we can get a sense of the network. For instance, there is only one “island bibliography,” unconnected to the rest.

Note, however, that another isolated node is somewhat obscured by its positioning: Jarzemsky, whose only connection to the other authors is through Judith Butler.

So, the two clearest conclusions were these:

  • There is no source common to all ten bibliographies, but nine of them share at least one source with at least one other bibliography!
  • However, no “essential” sources really stand out on the chart, either. A few sources were cited by three or four authors, but none of them were common to all or even a majority of bibliographies.

My general impression, then, is that there are a few sources that are important enough to be cited very commonly, but perhaps no group of authors that are so important that nearly everyone needs to cite them. This makes sense, since “Ethnic and Cultural Minority” lumps together many different groups, whose networks may be more visible with a more focused corpus.

There’s also a disparity among the bibliographies; some included many more sources than others (perhaps because some are PhD dissertations and others are master’s theses, so there’s a difference in length and scope). Eng built the biggest bibliography, so it’s not too surprising that his bibliography is near the center of the grid and has the most connections to other bibliographies; I suspect this is an inherent bias with this sort of study.

The triangle of Eng, Brickley and Kaval had some of the densest connections in the network.  I try to catch a little of it in this screenshot:

In the middle of this triangle, several authors are cited by each of these authors, including Judith Butler, Homi Babhi, Sara Ahmed, and Gayle Salamon.  The connections between Brickley and Eng include some authors who speak to their shared interest in Asian-American writers, such as Karen Tei Yamashita, but also authors like Stuart Hall, who theorizes multiculturalism.  On the other side, Kaval and Eng both cite queer theorists like Jack Halberstam and Barbara Voss, but there are no connections between Brickley and Kaval that aren’t shared by Eng. There’s a similar triangle among Eng, Skafidas, and Green, but Skafidas has fewer connections to the four authors I’ve mentioned than they have to each other. This is interesting given the size of Skafidas’s bibliography; he cites many others that aren’t referred to in the other bibliographies.

(Don’t mind Jarzmesky; he ended up here but doesn’t share any citations with either Skafidas or Cranstoun.)

On the other hand, there is a stronger connection between Skafidas and Cranstoun. Skafidas writes on Cavafy and Cranstoun on Woolf, so they both cite modernist critics. However, because they are not engaging with multiculturalism as many of the other authors are, they have fewer connections to the others. In fact, Cranstoun’s only connection to an author besides Skafidas is to Eng, via Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (which makes sense, as Cranstoun is interested in gender and Eng in queerness).  Similarly, La Furno and Danraj, who both write about slave narratives, are much more closely connected to each other than to any of the other authors – but not as closely as I’d have expected, with only two shared connections between them. The only thing linking them to the rest of the network is La Furno’s citation of Hortense Spillers, shared by Brickley.

My Thoughts

I’d love to do this work at a larger scale. Perhaps if I could get a larger sample of papers from this section of CAW, I’d start seeing the different areas that fall into this broad category of “Literature in English, North America, Ethnic and Cultural Minority.” I’m seeing some themes already – modernism, Asian-American literature, gender, and slave narratives seem to form their own clusters.  The most isolated author on my network wrote about twentieth-century African American literature and would surely have been more connected if I’d found more works dealing with the same subject matter. As important as intersectionality is, there are still networks based around specific literatures related to specific identity categories, with only a few  prominent authors that speak to overlapping identities. We may notice that Eng, who is interested in the overlap between ethnicity and queerness, is connected to Brickley on one side (because she is also interested in Asian-American literature) and Kaval on the other (because she is also interested in queerness and gender).

Of course, there are some flaws with doing this the way that I have; since I’m looking at recent works, they are unlikely to cite each other, so the citations are going in only one direction and not making what I think of as a “real” network. However, I do think it’s valuable to see what people at CUNY are doing!

But I guess I’m still wondering about that – are these unidirectional networks useful, or is there a better way of looking at those relationships? I suppose a more accurate depiction of the network would involve several layers of citations, but I worry about the complexity that would produce.

In any case, I still want to look at places of publication. It’s a slightly more complex approach, but I’d love to see which authors are publishing in which journals and then compare the open access policies of those journals. Which ones make published work available without a subscription? Which ones allow authors to post to repositories like this one?

Also: I wish I could post a link to the whole file! It makes a lot more sense when you can pan around it instead of just looking at screenshots.

Not a Map, but toward a Map: A Deformance

I didn’t do a mapping project. I started out thinking I wouldn’t do a mapping project, and ended up not doing one, but in between those two states, I spent a lot of time thinking about a mapping project.  Thus, I don’t have a map, but I thought I’d share what I do have in case people are interested — please let me know if this is out of bounds.  (In case this is weird to Matt and Stephen: I’m definitely doing a network analysis later, so this doesn’t need to “count.”)

The assignment suggested a novel, and after thinking about it for a bit, the novel that came to mind was Octavia Butler’s time-travel novel Kindred. It was short enough that I thought I might be able to look through it again and find all the places, and the role of place is really important in the work.  For those who haven’t read it, Kindred is a time-travel novel about American history. In it, an African American woman named Dana is repeatedly drawn back through time to the assistance of her ancestor, Rufus, a white son of a slaveholder, and eventually a slaveholder himself. Because Dana is brought back through time against her will, not to her own benefit but for the sake of a white person, and with no way out except through near-death experiences, her journeys are a metaphorical mirror for slavery — but she is also very literally made a slave at these times.

As you may imagine, place and time are central in the novel, which relies heavily on the difference between “here” (Maryland in the ante bellum South) and “home” (Los Angeles, 1976) — a difference in both space and time.

I needed a way to keep track of all the places mentioned in the novel, so I found myself doing what I eventually recognized as a deformance! I read through the book and made a note of each time that a place was mentioned.

It turns out that this is not quite as easy as it sounds. Ramsay’s point about a computer being able to do a deformance more completely and consistently than a human is well-taken, even for a work of medium length (in this case, a 300-word novel).  I started out wanting to be quite literal about what did and didn’t qualify as a place — hoping to identify only places that could theoretically be identified on a sufficiently detailed map, at least with the aid of the context provided in the novel. This became difficult and ambiguous almost immediately, but I tried throughout to stick to a few rules:

  • I would count physical places, but not experiences or metaphors. I did include Hell and Heaven when they were treated as places
  • Places that are mentioned but not visited count
  • Where someone is in relation to an object (or at any rate a small object) is not a place
  • A person is not a place, even if they seem like one grammatically

As the novel went on, I found that I really needed to include the domestic spaces that make up so much of Dana’s experience, but I tried not to include where people were in relation to furniture. I made an exception for furniture large enough for a person to go into, like a bed or a bathtub. I’m not completely sure this makes sense when I’m excluding desks and fireplaces…

In any case, I thought I’d share one of the more interesting chapters. This is from section 6 of “The Fight.” In this section, Dana asks what happened to her husband Kevin, who she brought back with her to the past and accidentally left there. Additionally, Rufus finds a history book that Dana brought back with her from the future. Dana, after some reflection on the possible ramifications of his having it, takes it away and later burns it. This section includes more references to places outside Dana’s experience, though many of them are close to the plantation on which she finds herself. When the narrative mentions Talbot County, Dorchester County, and Southampton, Virginia, Dana is thinking of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Nat Turner.   So my deformance looked a little like this:

Baltimore
beside his bed
home
Pennsylvania
where Kevin was
that river
at that river
home
home
Philadelphia
At home
New York
Boston
Boston
Maine
north
West
Maine
Maine
the cookhouse
out here
out of the house
Baltimore
there
there
there
New Orleans
New Orleans
down there
Louisiana
in the cane fields
California
In town
Maryland
Louisiana
slave states
here
where he is
North
onto his bed
New York
South
Maryland
Talbot County
Dorchester County
Eastern Shore
Southampton, Virginia
Maryland
Virginia
to town
the plantation
on the place
Boston
home

You can see the rest of it online. (Apologies for the inconsistent capitalization — I worked on two different devices, one of which automatically capitalized the beginning of each cell, and I haven’t had the chance to clean it up.)

In any case, even though it didn’t  result in a map, this showed me a lot about the book.  I noticed the contrast between “here” and “home” and the often slightly euphemistic feeling of the word “here;” it refers to the plantation, the time period, the condition of slavery altogether. I also noticed how, in the plantation chapters, the focus on domestic spaces creates this sense of a closed world in which movement is limited and the same few places come up again and again.  “Town” (Easton, Maryland) seems no nearer than Boston — neither is really available as a travel destination.

Of course, if I were doing this for a more serious purpose, it would be necessary to go back over and look for things I’ve missed or wrongly included. Ultimately, I think this would be a great job for TEI, which does allow places to be encoded as such in metadata — but encoding an entire novel is far beyond my capabilities at this point.

In any case, I definitely chose too big a project for this assignment and didn’t have time to actually work with maps, but I still think this novel is a good one for mapping.  As I worked through the readings for this week, it provided a focal point from which I could think about the relationship between time and place that Presner describes, and the thick relationships between immediate, personal reality and the larger political and economic systems that Ayers insists on, and I’m still thinking about how those could be visually represented.  Layers for time periods? Maybe, but also maybe layers for the slavery laws at the different times that Dana visits, or a layer showing the sites of resistance with the rebellions and escape routes referenced in this chapter. Or maybe layers based on scale– the relationship between tiny domestic spaces and grander concepts of cities and states is really important in this novel, because Dana is aware of other places and often speaks or thinks about them, but cannot access them.  Instead, most of the actual action of the novel takes places on a much smaller scale (and to some extent I realize this is true in every novel, but it’s thematically important in this one). There’s a lot here, and I’m sorry I couldn’t have this map available for everyone because in my mind there’s a lot that could be done with it. (I really struggled with ArcGIS and played around with GoogleMaps some.)

Expanding the Definition of Humanities Scholarship (Panel Summary)

Today I attended the first day of “Community Colleges and the Future of the Humanities,” which you probably remember that Raven recommended near the beginning of class.  It’s been a great conference so far, but my favorite panel today was “Expanding the Definition of Humanities Scholarship,” moderated by Elizabeth Alsop from the CUNY School of Professional Studies.

The panelists were:

  • Leah Anderst, Queensborough Community College
  • Ria Banerjee, Guttman Community College
  • Kevin Ferguson, Queens College
  • Lisa Rhody, The Graduate Center

Alsop opened the panel by explaining its genesis. She’d found that public scholarship felt like a natural outgrowth of her work, but as she came close to the end of the tenure clock, people started asking her how she would frame this work to make it “count.” So, she put together a panel to talk about some of these questions.

Leah Anderst spoke first, about how finding a full-time position had felt like a small miracle to her, but several members of the older generation of PhDs with whom she was acquainted seemed worried about it, because she was in a pedagogically-focused position.  She spoke about the versatility of faculty members who think and write about pedagogy, and how this work ended up influencing her research. She developed an accelerated program and studied and wrote about it, and although it was not closely connected to the research concerns that she’d come in with, she learned a lot about working with information, especially qualitative information, that she was later able to use in her film studies research.

Ria Banerjee discussed all the conflicting advice she’d received as a graduate student — to publish a lot or not at all, to devote herself to teaching or to treat it as something that happens alongside the “real” work of writing and getting published. She has had a lot of opportunities to speak and write publicly, for audiences she never expected to reach. She’s written some op-eds and blogs, and she’s spoken in events presented by Humanities New York.  This work doesn’t “count” as scholarship, but it does count as service.  Because service isn’t considered as important as scholarship in tenure reviews, this work doesn’t have the same weight that speaking at scholarly conferences and publishing in peer-reviewed journals does, but Guttman does make room for some work like this. They allow a certain number of “substantive” blog posts; there are ongoing conversations about exactly what that means.

Kevin Ferguson works in the English department, but his real focus is film studies. He recently was granted tenure, and made sure to do all the traditional things alongside his more innovative work. He really wanted to help students apply digital humanities principles to film and moving image texts, and to move beyond the mode of film studies scholarship that consists of a written text with some black-and-white still photos. He pointed to his work on MediaCommons. MediaCommons is in collaboration with the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies (formerly Cinema Journal), which is the journal of the Society of Cinema and Media Studies and thus a top film studies journal. This collaborative effort, called [in]Transition, is interesting to him because it takes seriously the idea of writing using the materials of study — in this case, moving images. [in]Transition refers to this as “video essays,” but he prefers “videographic criticism” because it emphasizes the idea that these works can stand on their own, without a written explanation.   The peer review process is also interesting: the reviews are published alongside the videos, which makes for a kind of transparency very unusual in scholarly publications (and perhaps interesting to members of this class?).

Lisa Rhody framed her perspective around storytelling, which is a very powerful tool for connecting with people and changing minds, but can also be used for erasure, colonialism, and exclusionary canon formation. She calls this “the hubris of the humanities.” Her work is on ekphrasis, the literary representation of visual art. There is a certain scholarly narrative about gender and ekphrasis that she wanted to push back on, so she used discourse mapping software to  study it beyond those narratives.  There were a few more technical details than the ones that made it into my notes, but she showed that some of the poets that were usually held up as examples were actually isolated from the poets’ social networks, and that other kinds of languages were used to talk about ekphrasis than the ones on which the current narrative was built. (I want to read a lot more about her work; this is very very interesting to me.) In any case, she did this work as part of her dissertation. It was three times the work of other dissertations, and she also had to work very hard to convince her dissertation advisor that this was a worthwhile project. After all that, it didn’t lead to a full-time, tenure-track position for her, either. But she is working to bring this kind of work to the mainstream, and believes that it’s important. Ultimately, she wants to use messy humanities data to challenge algorithmically designed reading systems.

Rhody also argued that you have to advocate for your own work and take calculated risks. This can be scary, especially since institutions tend to make conservative choices in times of austerity.

There was a question from the argument about talking with peers about this work: Kevin Ferguson made the point that being able to show that the journal was peer-reviewed and prize-winning makes a huge difference, even if people don’t quite understand the work itself.  Being able to show that this work is part of a larger, national conversation with its own vocabulary was also important.

Anderst pointed out that it’s always hard to assess other people’s works because there are so many disciplinary silos, but faculty at her institution are encouraged to publish open access and have a more public voice.

There are several aspects of this discussion I thought people would find interesting, so, enjoy! I’m really looking forward to Day 2 of this conference tomorrow.

Where Not to Screw Around

In “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around,” Ramsay is very interested in the concept of serendipity – the ways that readers unexpectedly come across just the right information at just the right time.  Of course, one of the things you learn in library school is that serendipity is an illusion created by the infrastructure of the library, as Ramsay acknowledges. Serendipity comes from the fact that someone has put all this information in order so that readers can find it.

Ramsay distinguishes between two ways of encountering information; purposeful searching through the use of indexes and the like, and browsing, which he characterizes rather delightfully as “wander[ing] around in a state of insouciant boredom.” He argues that because the internet is not organized in a human-readable way, search engines are very good at searching, but poor at browsing, which means that it’s more difficult to find that thing you didn’t know you wanted.

I’m with Ramsay up to this point.  One major problem with electronic resources is that they don’t support browsing well. There have, at least among libraries, been some attempts to replicate some of the tools that make browsing work offline, but they don’t work as well. OneSearch has a feature that lets you look at books nearby on the shelf, and I’d love to know whether anyone in this class has ever used this, because I suspect not! Part of the problem is that the process still has to begin with a specific search; part of the problem is that, unlike when you are browsing the physical shelves, you don’t have access to the full text of the book.

What really brought me up short when I was reading this, though, was the very casual way he tosses out the notion that algorithms can fix this problem.

A few weeks ago, Data & Society published a report, “Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube.” It’s definitely worth your time to read the whole thing if you can, but it examines the network of white supremacist/white nationalist/alt-right microcelebrities on YouTube. Because many of these individuals have strong relationships with their audiences and are able to “sell” them on their ideologies, they are considered “influencers.” The report maps out the relationships among them based on their appearances on each other’s shows. It reveals connections between the extremists and those who are or describe themselves as more moderate libertarians or conservatives.

The process by which these YouTubers’ audience members become radicalized is a browsing process; the description of how an audience member moves from one video channel to another isn’t, mechanically, that different from Ramsay’s description of moving from Zappa to Varèse, as different as it obviously is in subject matter.  He happens to come across one who then points him to another.

For example, influencers often encourage audience members to reject the mainstream media in favor of their content, thus priming their audiences for a destabilized worldview and a rejection of popular narratives around current events. Then, when libertarian and conservative influencers invite white nationalists onto their channels, they expose their audiences to alternative frameworks for understanding the world. Thus, audiences may quickly move from following influencers who criticize feminism to those promoting white nationalism. (35)

Algorithms facilitate this process by recommending similar videos, but the report points out that this is really a social problem; even if the recommendations didn’t exist, these YouTubers would still be promoting each other and radicalizing their viewers. Certainly we could argue that the larger problem is not the mechanism of discovery but just the fact that there’s so much of this kind of content out there. After all, older kinds of browsing can turn up similar content, and let’s not pretend that the Library of Congress headings don’t have a ton of baked-in bias.

All the same, there are clearly some problems with the rather blithe suggestion that the problems of browsing online can be solved by algorithms when this kind of content is so common on the internet, and especially when these algorithms are largely written by companies that are making money on this kind of content. I’m guessing we’ll talk about this further when we get to Algorithms of Oppression…