Archive for the ‘Proceedings of THATCamp’ Category

Visualizing time

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

For the last two years, I have been very interested in visualizing data that emerges within my particular field: literature. This interest emerged as I read Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees at the same time that I was experimenting with using GIS tools like Google Earth as a portion of the analysis in the last chapter of my dissertation. In my last year as a graduate student, a fellowship in the Emory Center for Interactive Teaching gave me additional time to begin experimenting with timelines. Timelines in literary studies were nothing new, but I wondered if it would be possible to have a class collaboratively build one in a manner similar to writing a wiki. The result was–in turn–a collaboration with Jason Jones (@jbj) where I coded a timeline, he designed an assignment, and his students created the data for a timeline of the Victorian Age. I’ve since had the chance to play with the tool in my own classes.

Jason and I both thought that timelines would be a fruitful subject for conversation THATCampers. And as many others have done, I thought I would share my original THATCamp proposal and then propose some ideas about where a discussion might go:

I would like discuss the different web-based tools and software that can be used to produce interactive and collaborative timelines. The presentation would involve demonstrating the different tools, showing the strengths and the weaknesses of each one, and producing a finished product. The tools would range from CHNM’s Timeline Builder to xtimeline and from Bee Docs Timeline 3D to the Timeline and Exhibit widgets that were developed in MIT’s Simile project. Having already spent some time with these tools, I think that the tools from Simile might be the most interesting to THATCamp participants due to their flexibility in representing data in multiple ways, including color coding events, sorting events, and with GIS data, as well as the ability to grab data from sources as diverse as a Google Docs spreadsheet or Twitter. Perhaps the best demonstration of the usefulness of a timeline would be to create–during the session/event–a timeline of THATCamp.

My current thinking:

As I’ve been preparing for THATCamp, I have gone ahead and evaluated as many of the timeline tools as I’ve had time for. I’ll be looking at another one or two tomorrow. I’ve gone ahead and created a spreadsheet listing the abilities of these different tools, along with some evaluation. Admittedly, some of the categories that I was using to evaluate the timelines stem from my deep involvement with the Simile widgets, and so the cases might not stack up as being completely fair to the competition.

Also, wanting to blend together both streams of data visualization that seemed valuable to me, I’ve also expanded on the original timelines that I designed for my courses by adding a Google Maps view this week. You can choose to either look at one view at a time or a dual view.

While a conversation could certainly be held about the different strengths and weaknesses of these different tools, most of the timeline tools that are available are going to be fairly easy for THATCampers to pick up and run with. The most complicated among them is the Simile tool, but I’ve heard there’s a fairly straightforward tutorial on building your own. Instead (or in addition to), I wonder if it could be possible to have a conversation about other possible research and pedagogical uses for timelines than those to which Jason and I have put them to use thus far. One obvious apporach would be to timeline a particular text (say, Slaughterhouse-Five) rather than a contextual time period. But what else could we do with timelines to make them valuable?

Moreover, I wonder if a discussion about visualizing time could be a part of a larger discussion about visualization that seems to be on the minds of other THATCampers (at least per their blog posts) such as Tonya Howe and Amanda Watson. How best can we use such visualizations in our research and/or teaching? At what point are there diminishing returns on such projects? Since these tools are relatively easy to learn (as opposed to programming languages), are they a good gateway tool for “traditional faculty” to begin comfortably integrating new technologies into their research/teaching? And, perhaps most broadly, what is the relationship between digital humanities and visualization

(I should meniton that while Jason and I proposed related ideas to THATCamp, this post is my own. So don’t hold him responsible for my shortcomings in expression.)

Archiving Social Media Conversations of Significant Events

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

I’ve already proposed one session, but recent events in Iran and the various discussions of the role of social media tools in those events prompted this post.

I propose that we have a session where THATCampers discuss the issues related to preserving (and/or analyzing) the blogs, tweets, images, Facebook postings, SMS(?) of the events in Iran with an eye toward a process for how future such events might be archived and analyzed as well.  How will future historians/political scientists/geographers/humanists write the history of these events without some kind of system of preservation of these digital materials?  What should be kept?  How realistic is it to collect and preserve such items from so many different sources? Who should preserve these digital artifacts (Twitter/Google/Flickr/Facebook; LOC; Internet Archive; professional disciplinary organizations like the AHA)?

On the analysis side, how might we depict the events (or at least the social media response to them) through a variety of timelines/charts/graphs/word-clouds/maps?  What value might we get from following/charting the spread of particular pieces of information? Of false information?  How might we determine reliable/unreliable sources in the massive scope of contributions?

[I know there are many potential issues here, including language differences, privacy of individual communications, protection of individual identities, various technical limitations, and many others.]

Maybe I’m overestimating (or underthinking) here, but I’d hope that a particularly productive session might even come up with the foundations of: a plan, a grant proposal, a set of archival standards, a wish-list of tools, even an appeal to larger companies/organizations/governmental bodies to preserve the materials for this particular set of events and a process for archiving future ones.

What do people think?  Is this idea worth a session this weekend?

UPDATE:   Ok, if I’d read the most recent THATCamp proposals, I’d have seen that Nicholas already proposed a similar session and I could have just added my comment to his…..  So, we have two people interested in the topic.  Who else?

An actual digital revolution?

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

I’m very new to this kind of community but I’ve been struck by how often a rhetoric of “digital revolution” versus a “conservative” establishment has been used in these posts. I wonder if there should not be time to discuss what appears to be a set of digital revolutions that are actually taking place, such as the current crisis in Iran, the censorship program in China/Burma etc. It’s striking to me how a technology like Twitter that has been widely derided in the US as self-indulgent narcissism has come to play a central role in disseminating ideas and information in situations such as the Bombay bombings and the current Iranian crisis. For me, the humanities must pay attention to developments such as these in making claims for the significance of networked critical practice. Or is this so obvious a thought that it’s taken for granted in digital circles, in which case I apologize!?

Digital Publishing-Getting Beyond the Manuscript

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

Here is the original submission I made to THATCamp followed by some additional background ideas and thoughts:

Forget the philosophic arguments, I think most people at THATCamp are probably convinced that in the future scholarly manuscripts will appear first in the realm of the digital, I am interested in the practical questions here: What are born digital manuscripts going to look like and what do we need to start writing them? There are already several examples, Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence, Wark’s Gamer Theory, but I want to think about what the next step is. What kind of publishing platform should be used (is it simply a matter of modifying a content management system like WordPress)? Currently the options are not very inviting to academics without a high degree of digital literacy. What will it take to make this publishing platform an option for a wider range of scholars? What tools and features are needed (beyond say Comment Press), something like a shared reference manager, or at least open API, to connect these digital manuscripts (Zotero)? Maybe born digital manuscripts will just be the Beta version of some books which are later published (again i.e. Gamer Theory)? But, I am also interested in thinking about what a born digital manuscript can do that an analog one cannot.

Additional Thoughts:

So I should start by saying that this proposal is a bit self serving. I am working on “a book,” (the proverbial tenure book), but writing it first for the web. That is rather than releasing the manuscript as a beta version of the book online for free, or writing a book and digitally distributing it, I want to leverage the web to do things that cannot be accomplished in a manuscript form. It is pretty clear that the current academic publishing model will not hold. As I indicated in the original proposal above, I think that most participants at THATCamp are probably convinced that the future of academic publishing is in some ways digital (although the degree to which it will be digital is probably a point of difference). But, in working with this project I have come to realize that the tools for self digital publishing are really in the early stages, a pre-alpha release almost. Yes, there are options, primarily blogs, but for the most part these tend to mimic “book centered” ways of distributing information. To be sure there are examples of web tools which break from this model, namely CommentPress, but I am interested in thinking about what other tools might be developed and how can we integrate them. And at this point I think you have to be fairly tech savvy or have a “technical support team” to be able to do anything beyond a simple blog, or digital distribution of a manuscript (say as a downloadable .pdf). For me one of the early models we can look to is MacKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory, but he had several people handling the “tech side.” For me I can get the tech help to do the things I cannot on my own, but is seems pretty clear that until the tools are simple and widely available digital publishing will either remain obscure or overly simple/conservative (just a version of the manuscript).

So, what tools do we need to be developing here? Should we be thinking about tools or about data structures and than developing tools around that? (I realize this is not an either or proposition.) I am imagining something like WordPress with a series of easy to install plugins that would open up web publishing to a much wider range of scholars. Perhaps a “publisher” could host these installs and provide technical support making it even easier for academics. I have a fairly good idea of what I personally want for my project, but am interested in thinking about/hearing about what other scholars, particularly those from other disciplines would need/want.

Digital Collections of Material Culture

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

Hello, everyone! I’ve been reading over everyone’s posts and comments, and letting it all percolate – but today’s my day to finally post my own thoughts.

Here’s my original proposal:

“Digital collections of material culture – how to make them, share them, and help students actually learn something from them!

– “quick and dirty” ways for faculty to develop digital collections for the classroom, without giving up on metadata. For the recent workshop we held at Vassar, I’ve been working on demo collections (see ) to evaluate 8 different tools,  including Omeka. In each, you can view the same 8 historic costumes and their metadata, with 43 jpeg images and 1 QTVR. I’m developing my work as a template, with support documentation, for others to use.

-how students can use digital collections and contribute to them, without requiring a huge technological learning curve, especially for students with non-traditional learning styles

-the potential of union catalogs”

Of course these issues cross over in many ways with issues that have already been posted. So, I’m not sure if this needs to be a session, or if it’s more about bringing this material culture perspective to other relevant sessions. That probably depends on how many other material culture people are coming – anyone?

Deep Digital Collections / The Thing-ness of Things

Projects that successfully represent 3D objects are still pretty rare. Current systems of image representation are not sufficient – 1 image per object is not enough. Artifacts also continue to defy controlled vocabularies and metadata schema. For example, one of my current projects involves studying a historic dress inside and out – I have over 100 detail images and complex data (see a sample blog post that shows the complexity of the object).

I’m working to create digital access to the Vassar College Costume Collection, our collection of historic clothing, with about 540 objects dating from the 1820’s to today. Just to clarify, in the field of costume history, the term “costume” refers to all clothing, not theatrical costume.  For about 7 years I’ve been exploring different ways of digitizing this collection, giving students access to a database of the objects, and then sharing their research projects, in a variety of digital formats, as virtual exhibitions.

“Quick and Dirty” Classroom Tools / Low Tech Digital Humanities

In my demos, you can view the same 8 historic costumes and their metadata, with 43 jpeg images and 1 QTVR, in Omeka, CollectiveAccess, Greenstone, Luna Insight, ContentDM, VCat, Filemaker, Excel, and GoogleDocs.

My inquiry has developed beyond the initial comparison of different available tools, to explore a kind of “division of labor” in the process. My approach has been very much on the DIY side, but couched in a collaborative experience. I initially created my demos for a NITLE sponsored workshop at Vassar this past March (entitled “Digital Objects in the Classroom”). Our workshop emphasized the importance of collaboration, and we asked participating institutions to send teams of faculty, librarians, instructional technologists, and media specialists. Perhaps ironically, the demos have mostly been my own work (with wonderful help from Vassar’s Systems Administrator and Visual Resources Librarian). I continue to search for the perfect compromise – for faculty and students to be able to quickly and independently get resources both into and out of collections, while administrators feel comfortable with the security and maintenance of the technology involved.

Student Contributions

Even if you’re not working in a traditional academic setting, I encourage you to view your audience as students. We can use technology as part of a suite of pedagogical tools to provide differentiated instruction for different styles of learners.  What I imagine is a way for students to add to the conversation in ways beyond tagging and commenting – to contribute their own images and research.  Our work in the last couple of years has reinforced this in a backward kind of way. We envisioned a large grant might allow us to carefully photograph and catalog much of the collection, which we could then present to students (on a platter?). Such a grant hasn’t come through yet, but the students have kept on coming! So, each semester brings us a new project, with new research about some of the objects, new photographs that students have taken to support their research, new citations of and links to supporting references. And the database grows. And I wonder, if we did present the virtual collection to students on a platter, would they be as inspired to work with the objects doing their own research? Would it seem as fresh to them? We need to keep the focus on our students and not on technology for its own sake.

Union Catalogs / Federated Searches

For each of our collections we’re working hard to structure our metadata and to define controlled vocabularies. But most of the time we aren’t taking advantage of the sharing that structured metadata allows. Either collections aren’t having their data harvested, or if they are, they’re going into giant collections like OAIster where it can be hard to find them. We need more union catalogs for material culture objects that are oriented for specific disciplines. By harvesting for a more specific kind of union catalog, we can transcend the “dumbing down” of data for Dublin Core standards and create variations that allow for richer data in each of our fields. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but building on Dublin Core or VRA or CDWA can really benefit our specific fields. For collections that have a strong visual component, some form of image needs to be a part of what is harvested and shows up in the federated search.

I look forward to reading your comments – and to meeting you all in person later this month!

Literary mapping and spatial markup

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the uses of digital maps in literary study, partly because I’ve been thinking about the connections between place and memory for a long time, and partly because I got interested in GIS a few years ago, while working in the UVa Library’s Scholars’ Lab along with some extremely smart geospatial data specialists. There’s been talk of a “spatial turn” in the humanities lately, and there are already models for what I’m interested in doing. Franco Moretti’s maps of literary places in Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 and Barbara Piatti’s in-progress Literary Atlas of Europe have helped me think about the patterns that a map can help reveal in a work of fiction. I’m very much looking forward to hearing about Barbara Hui’s LitMap project, which looks a lot like what I’d like to make: a visualization of places named in a text and stages in characters’ journeys.

Since I came to the digital humanities via a crash course in TEI markup, I tend to think first of markup languages as a way to represent places, and capture place-related metadata, within a literary text. The TEI encoding scheme includes place, location, placeName, and geogName elements, which can be used to encode a fair amount of geographic detail, which can then be keyed to a gazetteer of place names. But there are also markup languages specifically for representing geospatial information (GML, SpatialML), and for displaying it in programs like Google Earth (KML). Using some combination of a database of texts, geographic markup, and map display tools seems like a logical approach to the problem of visualizing places in literature.

But (as I’ve said on my own blog, with a different set of examples) I’m also interested in spatial information that’s harder to represent. There are a lot of ways in which literary settings don’t translate well to points on a map. Lots of authors invent fictitious, and even when one can identify more or less where they’re supposed to be, one can’t supply exact coordinates. Consider Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, both set in New York at the turn of the century and in the 1870s, respectively. One of my ongoing Google Maps experiments is a map of named places in both novels, focused on New York and Newport, Rhode Island. Both novels explore an intricate, minutely-grained social world, in which a character’s address says a great deal about his or her status. In some cases, the reader can precisely identify streets, points, and landmarks. And I think you can learn quite a lot about the world of Edith Wharton’s novels by looking at the spatial relationships between high society and everyone else, or between old and new money, or between a character’s point of entry into the world of the novel and where (physically and spatially) he or she ends up.

But in other cases the locations are harder to pin down. One can surmise where Skuytercliff, the van der Luydens’ country house in The Age of Innocence, is (somewhere on the Hudson River, not far from Peekskill), but it’s a fictional house whose exact location is left vague. The blob labeled “Skuytercliff” on my map represents a conjecture. And of course geoparsing won’t work if the place names are imaginary and the coordinates are unknown. So: what do we do with unreal places that still have some connection to the geography of the real world? And what if we want to visualize a writer’s completely imaginary spaces? What if we move out of fiction and into less setting-dependent literary forms, like poetry? How would one even begin to map settings in the work of, say, Jorge Luis Borges? Are there limits to the usefulness of visualization when we use it to analyze things that are fundamentally made out of words? Are some texts “mappable” and others much less so? (I’m pretty sure the answer to that last one is “yes.” I have yet to encounter an approach to literature that works equally well for everything from all time periods.)

So what I’d like to bring to the table at THATCamp is a set of questions to bounce off of people who’ve done more work with cartographic tools than I have. In some ways, my interests resonate with Robert Nelson’s post on standards, since I’m also thinking about what to do when the objects of humanistic study (in this case, literature) turn out to be too complex for the standards and data models that we have. If we end up having that session on standards, I’d like to be in on it. But I hope there are also enough people for a session on mapping and the representation of place.

The ill-formed question

Monday, May 25th, 2009

Since sending in the brief blurb for THATCamp I’ve gone through the latest edition of McKeachie’s Teaching Tips book and spent some time pondering what’s necessary to make a seminar work. In some ways this is designing from the back end: for online graduate programs in the humanities or social sciences to work for a large segment of potential students, the classes have to accomplish a certain number of things, and that requires a certain (but undefined) intensity of exchange. I’m afraid I’ve got the Potter Stewart problem with definition here: I can’t tell you what constitutes sufficient intensity, but I know it when I’ve experienced it as either a teacher or student.

It’s certainly possible to construct that intensity in live chats, but since most online classes I’ve seen or taught are asynchronous, I have to think differently from “Oh, I’ll just transpose.” (Here, you can insert platitudinous warnings about uploading PPTs and thinking you’re done.) But while several colleagues have pointed me to some of their online discussions with deep threads (and at least at face value, it seems like intensity to me), that doesn’t help, in the same way that telling a colleague, “Oh, my seminars work great; what’s wrong with you?” isn’t sufficient.

So let me step back and reframe the issue: the existence of great conversation in a setting is not helpful to the central problem of running a seminar. In some ways, it’s a type of chauvenism (“you can have better conversations in this setting”), and that prevents useful conversations about what a seminar experience requires. Not a seminar class online or a face to face seminar but a seminar class in any setting.

Unfortunately, while I have searched, I have not been able to come across ethnographic or other qualitative research on this. There are plenty of how-to guides for running face-to-face discussion, but I am hungry for something beyond clinical-experience suggestions. There is some decent research on transactional distance, and cognitive apprenticeship is an interesting concept, but neither is that satisfying.

So back to basics and some extrapolation. In my most memorable literature classes, and in informal conversations around books, plays, movies, and poems, I’ve been entranced by how others think that writing works–maybe not in the same way that James Wood would parse it, but in some way.

“What does this mean? Was it good or bad? Why did that appear then? No, no, think about these moments, because she could have done something different. They swept in at the end, and that’s why it’s called deus ex machina.”

That’s the type of conversation I imagine for and remember from seminars: close readings, fast exchanges, excruciating pauses while I tried to piece ideas together, rethinking/reframing on the fly. Never mind that I’m an historian, and never mind the excruciating boredom in plenty of classes; the texture of intense conversation stuck in my brain is derived from conversations about novels, poems, plays, and movies.

And as fellow historians of ed David Tyack and Larry Cuban would point out, I have relied on this experience as a “grammar” that I would be predisposed to impose on online seminars. But as my original proposal for THATCamp pointed out, I don’t think the world (or learning) works in the same way everywhere.

What can be extrapolated from the best face-to-face seminars beyond the setting-specific events? I’ll propose that the best seminar classes are ill-formed questions, puzzles with weakly- but effectively-defined targets. Here, I am using “ill-formed” not in the sense of grammar but in the sense of a question that is not itself the best approach to a topic, and in this case, deliberately so. The best framing of an history class I ever took as either an undergraduate or graduate was Susan Stuard‘s course on early modern Europe. In essence, it was historiography, but framed as, “How do we explain the rise of modern just-pre-industrial Europe?” That was a great focus, but it was ill-formed in that it did not have a closed-form answer. The answers we read about and argued over were hypotheses that led to different questions. The course did not finish with our finding an (intellectual) pot of gold, but it was a great way to structure a class.

In many ways, problem-based learning uses the ill-formed question, “How do we solve this problem?” That question assumes a problem, a problem definition, and a potential solution, and of course the value is not in the solution itself but the development of analysis and the application of important concepts in the setting of problems. In this case, the course goal is not the motivating question, but the question is essential to meeting the goal.

Problem-based learning is great when it fits the goals of the course. Not all courses can be designed around problems, and if a seminar is online and asynchronous, I suspect that the loose “how does literature work?” question is not going to… well, work. But the ill-formed question can appear in more than the examples I have described or experienced.

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