Bean (a creative title)

Before I go on my rant, I want to make it clear that I am very glad that I am a part of this digital humanities seminar, and that it is proving to be a learning experience in all sorts of ways. However, that said, I’m finding myself irritable this week after doing the reading, and not for the usual reasons. I’m irritable because I actually really liked it.

So why, you might be wondering, would that make me irritable? Am I such a contrary person that liking something would make me annoyed?

Sort of. Reading this chapter by Bean (I have resisted making Mr. Bean jokes) about formal writing assignments had a lot of food for thought. It brought up all sorts of possibilities – many which are of no use to me – but a few which are. What was so fantastic, was an actual conversation about teaching techniques. Not something any of us outside of education are taught.

This, this type of content, is what I hope to see at every faculty development day. Presentations for different approaches to generating learning outcomes. This is why I keep grousing about having a faculty lounge. Because it is so rare for faculty to have a chance to sit down and just talk about what approaches work for them, to brainstorm ideas, to share successes and failures, to learn from each other.

It’s great that we have the digital humanities seminar. Now I’d like a pedagogy seminar. Every few years. For all faculty that want to participate. This should be a part of the grand revolution in academia. Instead of obsessing over assessment and cookie cutter learning outcomes we should be getting together to discuss the best way to get students thinking critically about content.

Even though this book is clearly dated – Pabst has made a resounding come back thanks to the hipster culture – it provides much food for thought. For me the biggest questions now are how I frame the assignment for my Sociology of Aging course. Do I make a digital component (e.g. a photoshopped image, a home video, or an audio recording) mandatory? Do I have multiple stages starting with a two to three paragraph statement of purpose? How will peer feedback work, and will they get graded on the quality of feedback they give their classmates?

I think I may have to buy this book, or hopefully a more current version of it. And maybe I can turn it into some powerpoints and offer that as a workshop during our faculty development days, because I have a lot of colleagues who could either use the coherency of this or could benefit from a discussion about this content.

TRCs, yo

Amazingly I actually enjoyed this week’s reading and found myself pretty excited about it. As I read Palmer’s “Thematic Research Collections” (TRCs) I found myself contemplating what sort of collection I could put together, or whether my father who has an obsession with a very specific kind of antique would benefit from doing something like this. This is the way that digital advances should intersect with academic pursuits and the development of intellectual capital. It has many advantages and only two significant flaws.

The flaws, which of course I will begin with, are the weakness of some collections and the effort it will take to set up an initial network that will be truly useful to students and scholars of all sorts.

As instructed I chose a showcase in the Omeka website and perused it. HIV and AIDS 30 Years Ago caught my attention for several reasons, the primary being that as a junior in high school in 1994 I wrote my AP US History paper on how badly the Reagan administration fell down on the job of warning the public of the risk of HIV between 1984 and 1986. My argument was that had homophobia not played such a major role in the administration many lives would have been saved just through prevention.

Honestly this Omeka was disappointing. I was looking forward to this, looking to see what sorts of materials and documents had been gathered. It felt very superficial. Fragments of an interview that was not contextualized. Information that was not exactly inaccurate, but definitely incomplete regarding the timeline of the virus’ discovery. Hell, even the movie And the Band Played On had more depth to it. I’m not going to go as far as to say that my junior year of high school paper was better, but I’d definitely say it was on par with this Omeka. Sorry, it just disappointed.

However, the fact that it disappointed does not mean that it has to. I don’t think it is a weakness with the concept, just with the newness of it. And I would say the same of Women Writers Project. (Sorry to any of my friends who are involved in this.) Unlike the Omeka I explored this project has depth, but the layout of the site is counterintuitive and confusing. Were I an undergrad just poking around, I could see myself getting annoyed and giving up on this pretty awesome resource quickly.

Getting back for a minute to Palmer’s piece about these TRCs I agree whole heartedly with the argument that this is something that libraries need to get on. It’s a great concept, and it can be integrated without much difficult into pre-existing structures. Though I want to state very clearly that it should not be added to the already insane level of responsibilities most librarians have, this should be set to librarians who do only this.

I want to clarify my vision for how I see these TRCs integrating into the pre-existing structure. Take for instance the current set up when searching through databases at UNE. A user can go directly into a specific database available through UNE’s library website. Or one can go through a specific field. So one could click on ‘Sociology’ and end up looking at several databases that are useful to sociological research. And political science. And history. And marine biology. And a whole bunch of other things. I’m not critiquing, but the current system is not very targeted. This is where TRCs could be very helpful.

Under Sociology there could be another category called TRCs (there could also be a category in general on the side called TRCs under which there would general categories like sociology, psychology, literature, etc.). Under the TRCs in sociology there would a further subdivision into certain internal disciplines – sociology of medicine, sociology of religion, globalization studies, etc. – and under those subdivisions would be links to TRCs that would be applicable to those areas.

Of course the TRCs would be cross-listed, they would most likely be multi-disciplinary, and that’s a good thing. Users who create them could fill out a form to have them included under a certain category(s), the librarian-in-charge would evaluate whether there was sufficient depth to include it (or perhaps give it a rigor rating out of ten rather than a simple inclusion/exclusion ) and then create links to it in all sufficient spaces. This would create a hybrid system that would benefit all the parties involved.

If this system were to exist, I could imagine several courses where there would a collective class project to create specific TRCs, or to build and improve on pre-existing ones. Were I teaching Sociology of Medicine or Health, I might want to tackle that HIV and AIDS 30 Years Ago Omeka and charge each student to find five more sources that would improve the TRC. This would also have the advantage of getting them to do their work early, as the first person to email/post a source would be the one to get credit for it.

In closing, I really like this concept and I hope to see it grow over time. Yes, for once, I approve. Flabbergasting, I know.

Oh, and um, I’m still waiting for my God powers.

Campbell & DS106

I return from a baby hiatus to the blogosphere. Hopefully I didn’t miss too much, and my beloved fellow DHers will welcome me back to the fold.

But of course, as always, I prove to be obstinately prone to dislike my reading assignments – could it be any other way? Gardner Campbell’s Personal Infrastructures were not immune to my disdain. Yes, yes, I use the word disdain.

I don’t know how many students and how many courses Gardner is teaching, or what kind of pressures Baylor University is facing in terms of curricular overload. What I do know is that his idea that we somehow carve out time to teach our students programming is wasteful, backwards-thinking, and misses the whole point of self-expression.

1. General point: Someone who is creating content for the internet does NOT need to know the alphabet soup of website languages. Take for instance the wildly popular (among a certain set) fake blog Suri’s Burn Book by Allie Hagan. Hagan created the site on tumblr using their template just for fun. It became so popular that she got a book deal out of the matter. I’m pretty sure Hagan didn’t need to learn coding to succeed. And she’s not the only ‘template’ site out there that has gathered a following.

2. General point: Learning these languages is time consuming and some people just truly don’t have the aptitude. Much like I don’t have the aptitude for learning biology. Forcing students to learn coding when what they’re trying to do is be creative is pretty much like telling someone they can’t get their driver’s license until they’ve taken apart and reassembled three different car engines. What’s the point? The net result to turn someone away from the pursuit (in the case of driving maybe not the worst thing for the environment, but in the case of promoting humanities, pretty bad).

3. Random point: Quoting McLuhan doesn’t make a point more correct. McLuhan agrees with me.

4. Specific point: Campbell lays out a terrifying scenario of spending basically an entire first year of college learning how to create websites. There’s a field for that, it’s called web design. There are major specifically designed for that. Unless he’s proposing a double major for everyone, this is just nonsense, there simply isn’t room in the curriculum for this sort of intervention. And again, I don’t see why there should be. Not everyone needs to be a mechanic, it’s why we pay some people to fix our cars for us.

5. The crux of our disagreement: “Print is not advanced calligraphy. The web is not a more sophisticated telegraph.” Actually, yes they are. And there lies the crux, to me they’re still just tools. Even as it is I just had a former very bright and successful student rumble on facebook about her discontent with modern technology and a desire to return to more dependable modes.

Putting Campbell aside, let me move unto DS106. Let me first state that I really like that this website exists. I could not get through all the proposed projects, but many of them looked like they would be fun just to do for their own sake. I found inspiration in three of the projects I looked at.

The first two would be used in teaching Visual Sociology. The first project, Normal to Extraordinary, is one where people pair up and take pictures of each other, first in regular clothing and then in some way that makes them extraordinary. I would use this assignment in a somewhat altered manner, where the students working in pair or trios would first take pictures of each other in their regular outfits, and then try to find props, environments and poses that would completely change their cultural orientation. For instance, what would happen if a female student who is used to a standard Western outfit adopted to the best of her ability a traditional head covering and long sleeved conservative shirt? What if a male student doffed a backwards baseball cap and found a spot to be photographed with broken glass on concrete?

The second assignment I would use in the course, What’s the Meme?, might or might not build off of the first one. The idea is to take a photo and try to turn it into a meme. In my particular imagination I would provide a few examples of photos that have resulted in many tags – probably the most fascinating to me being Old Economy Steve. The catch would be that they would be using photos from the previous project from other teams.

Finally I found an assignment in the fanfic category that might contribute to my Sociology of Aging course. I particularly liked the title of this one, ‘The Way It Should Have Been.’ The idea is that people take a story, book, movie or television series, (really any sort of narrative), change one basic element in it and rewrite the narrative. In the case of my course, they would have to take one or more of the main characters and add fifty years to their age.

So for instance, I would take the television series Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and make Buffy 65 when she first became the slayer. She would have the same physical strengths, but not the same teenaged emotional baggage and dumb behavior. Also, she would be far more independent in not having to go to high school every day and hide things from her mother (at least for the first two seasons of the show). I think a 65-year-old slayer would actually be far more effective than a 15-year-old one. And she certainly wouldn’t be dumb enough to fall in love with a vampire.

Photography & Sociology

Unfortunately my blog seems to be turning into a harsh critique of the Digital Humanities. It wasn’t what I intended to begin with, it just seems to have happened, and at the end of the day I have to be honest: The Digital Humanities are seriously problematic for me.

However, I’m going to keep my critique minimal this week and turn towards a topic that this week’s reading is making me think about: What is the role of technologies for us the educators? But, first one critical point.

The term ‘digital humanities’ has been bothering and finally I figured out while reading ‘What is Digital Humanities and What’s it Doing in English Departments?’ why it bothers me. It’s exclusive. As stated in my previous post I came from Science & Technology Studies. We take people of all sorts of backgrounds and interests. My friends in graduate school had bachelor degrees in areas ranging from anthropology, computer science, history, chemistry, literature studies, and electrical engineering. All were welcome.

Digital Humanities. So where does the social scientist fit in? I don’t like the name. And, sorry, but names matter. Names send a message. This name sends a message that I’m not wanted. Which hurts my feelings.

On to more positive things! ‘Picture my Gender(s)’ by Maloy, Poirier, Smith & Edwards was genius. They tasked students with creating photo essays reflecting on gender. Some of their measures of success are different than ones I would use but the overall project, implementation and results are stunning.

When I used to teach Introduction to Sociology I made my students examine the visual cues we use to make assumptions and determinations about others. They would be put in groups of four to five, and would have to list the status symbols they saw on other students in the room. At first they were extremely uncomfortable examining each other in such a manner, and I would always have to break the ice by pointing out that by wearing a Star-of-David pendant (which I made sure to do that day) I was sending a message about my ethnic-religious status.

Slowly they would start listing things, starting with religious jewelry – follow the successful example, right? – and then move on to things like wedding bands or engagement rings. From there they would move to other jewelry. Then to other accessories like handbags. Or cell phone covers. From there they would eventually go to clothing, hair, and the brave ones would go as far as to comment on glasses or tans.

Sometimes these led to very humorous moments. (All names and specific details have been changed.)

Student: Clearly Jack is a fan of the Lakers because he’s wearing their T-shirt.
Jack: Actually I hate the Lakers, but I’m out of clean laundry so I borrowed my roommate’s shirt.


Student: Megan is willing to spend a lot of money on a handbag, or someone paid a lot for the Coach bag.
Megan: Um, this is a really good knock-off, I paid twenty dollars for it.

I would like to think that I helped them become more aware of the snap judgments they (we) make when we see people.

And so I say, this project of photo essays about gender is in the same family as the exercise I conducted. It goes towards the application of these new technologies to enhance student understanding and learning experience. Or, put more bluntly, digital photography is a tool here towards learning new concepts, a tool and usage I heartily approve of.

This segues into a question I’m pondering this week, namely the conflicting responsibilities of educator, specifically at the college level.

In my mind we have dueling responsibilities, we are meant to teach them content/skills/competencies (both to make them more informed individuals and to prepare them for the work place) and then evaluate if they have learned these things. It’s a tremendous pressure, because if they come away not knowing these, if we have to serve in our gatekeeper capacity as a barrier, then we have to ask ourselves if it was the students or how we taught. And if the fault somehow lay with us, do we let them pass through the gate as it wasn’t their fault, or do we still keep the gate locked because the knowledge hasn’t been acquired?

Of course most of the time this isn’t much of an issue as we have generally learned how to impart both the material and the methods of evaluating the learning. Still, it’s a dichotomy worth keeping in mind.

Enter these sexy new technologies. Assuming we start using these technologies in the classroom, are we fulfilling our obligation of teaching them material that will make them better people and better prepared for the work place? Will they be asked to produce a photo essay in a future job? I’m pretty sure knowing how to deconstruct their visually based gender and other assumptions will be useful no matter what they end up doing, I’m just not sure that it isn’t still more useful to use the traditional essay format. They will very likely be expected to be able to summarize positions on things in their future professions in an essay format.

I’m not nay-saying the project that Maloy et al did. If anything I’m a little jealous as an amateur photographer, and contemplating how I might use some of their techniques in the future. But I am left wondering: Is this the best way to prepare our students for the ‘real world?’ At this point I genuinely don’t have an answer.

(I like taking pictures of people too.)

A Haiku & STS


The first of our readings this week inspired a poem in me.

Trust not Unsworth work,
For he formats without thought,
His non-signs confuse.

I struggled with this piece. There was much verbiage to sort through. That, and I tried three different browsers, but in every one the text was littered with black diamonds with question marks in them instead of certain punctuation marks. Like such:

If I get his meaning, the basic point is that we’re still employing the same critical skills as humans long before us, just using different technologies to achieve this. I’m pretty happy with that interpretation of reality.

Oh Svensson…

The Svensson piece finally clarified for me why I find so much of the digital humanists’ work irritating. Put bluntly, they’re reinventing the wheel, and not very efficiently. A large part of Svensson’s work seemed to be asking – or commenting – that digital humanities manifest either as the attitude that these technologies are merely tools, or that they are something to be studied. In my mother field of Science & Technology Studies (STS) we rather figured this out a long time ago. Around the 1980s, if I’m not mistaken. It’s both.

When I was being inducted into the hallowed and hollowed hallways of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s STS department, it was explained to me by an older graduate student as follows: “We are the field that studies the impact of science and technology on society, and vice versa.” Added to that was the explanation that STS really worked because it was inter- or multi-disciplinary, taking elements from psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, policy studies, ethics, history, literature studies, gender studies and anything else it could get its hands on to enhance said analysis.

So the answer to me seems pretty simple, this isn’t an either/or (oh God, I’m being post-structuralist, yech) it’s a whatever goes. Sometimes we just use the tools to get at an the answer to a question (incidentally Svensson is terrible at laying out a clear question that he’s answering, and maybe that makes an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, but I like to know what question is being answered in a piece of writing). Sometimes we study what the tool is doing to society. Sometimes we use the tool to study the impact it itself is having on society. Sometimes we study how the tool is fashioned by society. And sometimes – and this is really fun – we study the way society takes a tool with an intended purpose and use it an alternative way.

So this is truly what is bothering me about much of what I have encountered so far in digital humanities: It isn’t original, and it isn’t taking advantage of the thinking and doing that others have already done. Dear digital humanists, please go study some STS theories. Because, and I will expand on this below, expertise is useful and we should draw upon it when we can.

Now, on to a few specific comments about this piece:

  1. It seems that a number of digital humanists think we need to rip up the old disciplines and replace them with something new. Why? First, won’t these changes happen organically? Do we really need to try and force some awkward and inorganic structure? Second, I’m pretty convinced that we still need sociology to crank out social workers, law enforcers and marketers (among other things), political science for lawyers and policy wonks, and history for… Well, I don’t know what historians do specifically, except that my financial advisor has a degree in history and he seems to be pretty fabulous. So maybe we should just back off and let the disciplines sort themselves out over time.
  2. And while we’re at it, why are so many DH people like at the HASTAC conference worried that humanities are going to disappear? Are we suddenly not going to need art in all its forms and analysis of the past, present and future? Will we stop needing ethicists? This hysteria mystifies me.
  3. DH, much like STS, has an unfortunate tendency to obsess over its own belly button lint. Sometimes the trick to becoming something is by doing rather than self-examining all the time.
  4. I was a big fan of the quote from ACTLab: “Make sure you’re taking advantage of technology, rather than waking up to find that technology is taking advantage of you.”
    This, and that they view these technologies as tools, of course means that Svensson is less impressed with them because he doesn’t think they’re self-reflexive enough. Chill Svensson, sometimes the Zen is in the not thinking about it.
  5. The description of the ACTLab working space didn’t sound stunningly different than the architecture studios where I was a student for a year and a half. Well, except ACTLab is probably cleaner. And I suspect less acts of deviance occur in that space, which is a pity.
  6.  Speaking of spaces, I’ll grant one of Svensson’s points about spatial arrangements: “This is a tendency I have come across in labs and university environments around the world — the difficulty of controlling and planning the spaces that often are at the heart of educational and research programs.”
    It is hard to convince administrative people that an investment in a certain kind of new space will yield great results. Forget for a minute a high tech studio learning space, I’d be happy with a  faculty lounge where ideas could freely mingle.
  7. Another interesting point was regarding academics producing non-textual work. “The reward structures, however, do not always stop Ph.D. researchers from expressing themselves alternatively, but it is often seen as an “extra” undertaking which does not replace the traditional work needed to qualify academically. Indeed, this pressure sometimes seems to result in securing very strong academic merits as we well as engaging in alternative practices and modes of production.”
    On the one hand I agree that it would be good if we had more ways of expressing knowledge than the traditional journal articles, conference papers or books. But on the other hand, have we figured out the equivalent of peer-reviewed for these other formats?
    I insist, old-fashioned as I am, that peer-reviewed matters. The public should be a participant in discussion and dialogue, but recognition of expertise and learned opinion is not just important, it’s critical. This is best summarized by Tom Nichols in the ‘The Death of Expertise.’
  8. And now, now I get to a part of the article that sent me off to do my own research, which resulted in me walking away from my computer shaking with outrage. Glibly Svensson refers to the horror suffered by Danah Boyd, “[p]art of the challenge ahead is about exploring digitally inflected modes of academic expression, how they interrelate, and their importance for humanities scholarship.”

    Really buddy boy? That’s all you have to say about the atrocious thing that was done to Boyd? Here is the story from Boyd’s perspective. This is where the field of digital humanities turns out to be not just repetitive, but downright evil. This woman was experimented on, by people and in an environment she should have felt safe with and within. It is a violation of so many ethical rules it makes my blood boil just writing about it.
    Take a page from the STS field you DH people, don’t run experiments on people without going through an IRB. And hey, is it possible that this disgusting thing happened because she’s a woman?
  9. While we’re on the topic of gender, I’m going to close out by pointing out that technology is just another force acting on society, much like shifting gender roles. Just as a thought experiment, take Svensson’s first paragraph of his conclusion, and every place he says ‘digital humanities,’ insert ‘gender studies’ instead.
    “The territory of the digital humanities is currently under negotiation. While there is no doubt that the field is expanding, it is not entirely clear what is included and how the landscape can be understood or structured. These ongoing negotiations occur on multiple levels, from an individual graduate student and local institutions to national funding agencies and international institutional networking. They are consequently situated institutionally, physically, politically and epistemically. These negotiations, which tend to be located “in between,” are particularly important to any attempt at analyzing or advocating an inclusively conceived digital humanities.”
    Hmmm…. Seems to fit very neatly to me.

You are all cordially invited to explore the STS field. It’s a great playground and will provide some time saving theories and (dare I say it?) epistemic tools.

And she muttered, “it’s still just a tool…”

One of my favorite television shows of all time is a little known Canadian series called Slings & Arrows. In the opening scene of the series the theater director Geoffrey Tennant claims that a theater “does not need phones” in order to function, all it basically needs are a script, actors and a director. This is actually an ongoing theme in the series, where Tennant (who is clearly not completely in his right mind) repeatedly eschews the use of advanced technology (including pyrotechnics during Macbeth) and yet produces stunning performances.

The reason this came to mind was Ms. Rowe’s assertion in ‘Giving Literature Virtual Life’ by Patricia Cohen that it would be “difficult for students to imagine what it would be like to put on a production in the 16th-century Globe, a circular open-air theater without electric lights, microphones and a curtain.” To this I say, get creative. For one thing Pennsylvania’s Renaissance Faire isn’t very far from Bryn Mawr College if one is looking for some sort of recreation. Or, try staging the play in one of the plentiful outdoor spaces on the college campus. Perhaps even venture into Ashbridge Park or, if that is too loud due to traffic on Montgomery Avenue, head a few more blocks over to Harriton Park.

The possibilities abound. Is the virtual stage a reasonable possibility? Absolutely. It is one of several ways that the content of that lesson can be taught. But, it is still just a tool, just one way to get at a certain base of knowledge or experience, and it is by no means the only way. If Geoffrey Tennant can bring forth the power of the storm at the opening of Tempest using a mostly broken light system and a toilet plunger, Rowe could create the feeling of the 16th-century Globe even without nifty new technology.

I’m not against this technology, I just don’t see it as anything beyond a tool at this point. A handy tool at times, a distraction at other times – who here can beat my record on Minesweeper? – but still just a tool. Not a revolutionizing artifact. If anything has had the greatest impact on the minds and analytical skills of students today, it is the policies incurred by the travesty of No Child Left Behind. Which, makes me a social determinist rather than a technological one.

This opinion I have is not altered by the stories in ‘Scholars Recruit Public for Project’ and ‘Digital Maps are Giving Scholars the Historical Lay of the Land’ also both by Patricia Cohen. The former, is an article about how the University College London is using the public to transcribe Jeremy Bentham’s work from handwritten chicken scrawl to the digital format. This is a very laudable project, and it would be good to have all of his and numerous other historical individuals’ writings available to everyone.

There are two points to be made here: The first is that the transcribing for the Bentham project still has to be “reviewed and corrected by editors.” So it isn’t as if this is a magical solution, it is still something that requires professional knowledge. In fact, this approach was abandoned in regards to Abraham Lincoln’s work. “[Nonacademic transcribers] produced so many errors and gaps in the papers that ‘we were spending more time and money correcting them as creating them from scratch.’”

The second point is that this isn’t terribly different than the role that many monasteries and monks played during the Dark Ages, copying over and over classical texts so that they would not be lost in time. We owe those monks a great debt. In a sense, this is what is happening with the Bentham project, where the older written material is being preserved, although admittedly this is (hopefully) a more finite exercise where it will be done once and won’t have to be done again.

Still, I say, just a tool. A fabulous tool, but a tool nonetheless.

Digital maps, those discussed in the article ‘Digital Maps Are Giving Scholars the Historical Lay of the Land’ are to me the most useful of these tools. But still, just a tool. The goal has remained the same, essentially. Why did General Lee and other military leaders make the decisions that they made during the Civil War (and other wars)? Arriving at that understanding has been pursued through reading their writings, examining interviews with them from the time, and other means. This, while unarguably cool in a cybergeek sort of way, is just another tool.

Admittedly, it is my favorite tool. However, I continue to mutter in front of my laptop with Luddite undertones and a fair amount of hypocrisy, “stop getting so excited about tools, and start getting excited about the content.”