Saturday, June 13, 2015

Notes on DHSI 2015 (part 2): Focus on Tools and Gadgets, #DHPOCO, TEI

I picked up a lot during my week at the DHSI, and it will probably take some time to process all of it. This week, I attended two keynotes, three colloquia (often with younger scholars talking about their work and teaching), three 'unconference' lunch sessions on different topics, two poster sessions, and of course my week-long class on Electronic Literature.

Working through my thoughts on electronic literature, as well as the controversial first keynote address by David Hoover, will take some time -- and I'll save those topics for subsequent blog posts. For this post today, I'll summarize some of the tools I encountered people talking about and using, either as pedagogy tools or in their research.

Tools: Mapping, Social Annotation, GIS, Scalar...

John Maxwell (whose keynote I described earlier) talked about using Wiki writing projects in the classroom. (I've actually done this a little -- last fall I asked my students in "Writing for the Internet" to work together on a collaborative Wiki project on Gender and the Media, with mixed results.) Maxwell's idea is that the openness of the Wiki writing format could be empowering to students and useful in teaching them to think about their writing.

At a colloquium talk, Juliette Levy talked about a teaching tool she had come up with, Zombies.Digital. This is a little like a digitally enhanced treasure hunt to get students to actually go into the library, explore resources, and talk to living librarians (one of the exercises actually asks students to take selfies with librarians; another involves using geotaggging...).

I saw a couple of different talks from people who are working on social annotation tools using Commons in a Box. One is of course the MLA, whose Nicky Agate talked about the new components of MLA Commons that are being built. (The MLA is hoping scholars will upload draft papers to MLA Commons for comment and peer-perusal along the lines of what has already been happening at The difference being that is a for-profit company, while MLA is of course non-profit and specifically focused on literary scholarship. MLA can also help with intellectual property issues by assigning people who post their works to MLA Commons a DOI.

A second social annotation project is afoot with the Digital Thoreau project. In one of the colloquia, Paul Schacht talked about how his project has moved from simply providing digital editions of Thoreau's works, to enabling complex annotation frameworks that would work better for students looking at Thoreau's works on their site. They earlier used, an offshoot of CommentPress, but received a grant to develop a more sophisticated tool called BuddyPress Groups, that which allows "many to many" annotations and structured admin control appropriate to college courses. (Schacht mentioned that he has a forthcoming article in Pedagogy where he talks about his work on Digital Thoreau).

I saw a short colloquium talk by a librarian from U-Vic. named Corey Davis. Davis talked about the troubles libraries are having figuring out how to archive digital artifacts. An earlier generation of web artifacts could be archived by simply scraping and making copies of files, but the current generation of database projects that generate content dynamically are much harder to grab and hold. U-Vic. uses software called Archive-It (developed by to do this kind of archiving currently, but in the future web archivists will need to change their focus to archiving data objects rather than the 'front end' of web projects.

In another interesting colloquium talk, Josefa Lago-­Grana and Renee Houston (both grad students at the University of Puget Sound) talked about some of the digital tools  they use while teaching. These looked excellent:

1. Timeglider. This allows you to make visualized timelines. Perfect for class projects where you might assign students to add entries around a particular literary historical period (say modernism). It could help students see relationships between different kinds of publication events and news events, as well as get a sense of the density of literary periods.

(Another Timeline app. that someone mentioned in another colloquium: TimelineJS. I have not played with these yet to find out which might be the better one to use.)

2. Voyant-Tools is a text analysis tool that does simple word cloud and most frequent word scans on text files that you can upload. This might allow a stripped-down version of a discussion about issues in stylometry. (For more advanced stylometry, involving cluster analysis, you would need other tools.) But it's super-fast and easy, and definitely a step up from something like Wordle.

3. Among other things, Thinglink allows you to easily create clickable objects on maps. Again, the pedagogical value is pretty obvious (see for instance this probably student generated map of Pennsylvania).

The tool CartoDB, also mentioned in a different colloquium talk I saw, looks like much more powerful and sophisticated mapping software. The array of examples of enriched maps created using this tool is pretty vast (some very cool projects). Here's just one example of a site that used CartoDB to give users a sense of the sights and sounds of 1940s New York.

The list of tools I heard people talking about just goes on and on. In my notes I simply have the words "Piktochart" and "JuxtaCommons" -- more tools. (So many tools... *sigh*)

Shawna Ross, at Arizona State, is another modernist (see my earlier post) doing DH stuff. In a colloquium talk, she talked about some of the digital projects she has afoot with Henry James in particular. James made nineteen transatlantic ocean voyages, and Ross has done archival research on each of the voyages, looking at things like the size of the ship, the length of the voyage. She's also been looking closely at the stories James wrote where the ship setting is relevant, as well as James' letters mentioning the transatlantic experiences. This line of research follows a track similar to the line of thinking behind my courses on Transatlantic modernism. Ross has several other DH projects underway, which are documented at her blog and in her research statement here .

The final keynote at the DHSI was given by Claire Warwick, of the University of Durham in the UK. Warwick talked about the rapid institutional growth of DH as a field in the past fifteen years, showing a map of DH centers around the world (as a side note: there are two centers in the middle east, but none that I know of in South Asia... hm!!). Warwick also spent some time revisiting women pioneers in humanities computing, and talked about some of the reasons their names aren't better known to us (some of them were librarians -- and library science in general has suffered from being seen as a 'feminized' discipline). Warwick particularly mentioned Muriel Bradborough of Cambridge University, and Susan Hockey. Hockey is probably best known as the author of a pioneering book called the History of Humanities Computing. (Her essay on the History of HC is also chapter 1 of the 'essential' Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities from 2001.) But as I was Googling, I was surprised to discover that Hockey also did pioneering work developing software for displaying non-western characters, back in the early 1970s.

Then there's Scalar, which I had already been exploring a bit on my own as a possible alternative to using WordPress as a teaching tool. I attended an "Unconference" session led by Paige Morgan and Cathy Kroll introducing Scalar. Paige Morgan showed us some of the advanced visualization capabilities of Scalar using her "Visible Prices" project -- a pretty awesome idea, where the visualization plays an obvious and incredibly valuable role. For her part, Kroll has used Scalar to create a media-rich, teaching resource on Things Fall Apart (though I can't presently find the actual Scalar project online).


Finally, I came to DHSI having already heard quite a bit about the debates in Digital Humanities regarding issues related to gender, race, and colonialism. My friend Roopika Risam was one of the originators of the the project, and I knew coming into the event that this was something I myself wanted to think about while here, even if the class I had signed up for wasn't explicitly focused on this topic (though we did talk a bit about Jason Edward Lewis; more about that later). My department also has a specific focus on "Literature and Social Justice," and I'm hoping to bring LSJ concerns to the forefront when I co-teach Digital Humanities (for the first time!) this coming fall with my colleague Ed Whitley. Along those lines I was happy to get to know Alex Gil and Padmini Ray Murray a little bit and hear about some of their projects. (While on the subject of LSJ, I was also happy to meet George H. Williams in person for the first time, and talk to him a little about his Accessible Future project.)

At DHSI this year, Alex was teaching a course oriented towards Minimal Computing. Minimal computing is a philosophy and a methodology that might be summarized as follows:

This dichotomy of choice vs. necessity focuses the group on computing that is decidedly not high-performance and importantly not first-world desktop computing.  By operating at this intersection between choice and necessity minimal computing forces important concepts and practices within the DH community to the fore.  In this way minimal computing is also an intellectual concept, akin to environmentalism, asking for balance between gains and costs in related areas that include social justice issues and de-manufacturing and reuse, not to mention re-thinking high-income assumptions about “e-waste” and what people do with it.
Concretely, Alex's class worked on designing web publications systems that have the equivalent functionality of today's content management systems (i.e., Wordpress), but which generate static web pages that demand considerably less internet bandwidth as well as less computing power. This is a social justice / critical globality issue: many people in the developing world access the internet over 2G//Edge connections on mobile devices as well as cheap Android / Linux laptops. Platforms such as WordPress, Blogger, and Tumblr run quite slowly in places like India, making them much less useful than formats that might use static HTML (in previous trips to India I have noticed that my own blog takes forever to load, even over relatively decent broadband connections at the houses of relatives... Factor in all of the other DH projects using dynamic HTML and you'll see the problem...).

The Minimal Computing idea involves programming skills and context that I don't really have at present; I might come back and take a course with Alex if I come back to DHSI again. That said, I do have some new ideas about #dhpoco type projects I might want to do -- the next step is to get home and get to work!


I didn't see any talks about the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), a kind of framework widely used by people creating digital editions of literary texts. I did however talk informally with a student in the TEI class offered this session by DHSI; I was able to learn a little about what she was doing and how she was doing it.

There's a very helpful summary of what TEI is and its relationship to XML in this essay by Sarah Ficke here:

The final stage of the digital humanities unit, tagging texts using Extensible Markup Language (XML), continued our focus on the intersection between the work of digitization and interpretation. XML tags are used to describe the data (text) that they surround. For example, I could use the tag [title] to identify the words Moby Dick as a book title in this way: [title]Moby Dick[/title]. XML is called Extensible because, as Julie Meloni writes, “the structure of the document and the language you use to describe the data being stored is completely up to you” (“A Pleasant,” par. 6). This means that instead of using [title] to describe Moby Dick I could use [very_long_book] and it could be equally valid under the rules of XML. Tagging plays an important role in the digitization of texts for analysis because, as Thomas Rommel points out, “[w]ithout highly elaborate thematic – and therefore by definition interpretative – markup, only surface features of texts can be analyzed” (91). Tagging allows for thematic indexing, the conceptual linking of different groups of words, and many other operations, and often (as in my [very_long_book] example above) involves an act of interpretation. Although XML tags can be entirely self-created, many humanities scholars and organizations use the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) guidelines to design their projects. The TEI is an evolving set of standard tags and practices that enable scholars to create their digital works in a format that is readable and accessible to others—a kind of common language, as it were. Though TEI provides structured guidelines, there is still opportunity for invention and dissention within those guidelines. 
The grad student I talked to (she was kind enough to show me her work) was working on a TEI-encoded version of a novel by Anne Radcliffe. First she had gone through the novel with color-coded sticky notes indicating different topics and themes. This past week, the student had been working through a digital version of the text page by page and line by line, putting in the appropriate tags. The end product would be a fully-indexed database version of the digital text that could be searched thematically as well as for actual snippets of text.


I also had some conversations with people about new ways to use stylometry (traditionally stylometry focused more on authorship attribution questions, but new kinds of analysis are opening up the possibility of using statistical methods to answer different kinds of questions). More on that if and when I get around to putting down some notes on David Hoover's keynote address. 


padmini said...

Hello! Thanks so much for the shout-out -- btw, you might want to take a look at for an 'alternative' map of DH -- that features some South Asian centres that do interesting work.

Fantomina888 said...

Thanks for posting this, Amardeep. I thought you would also write about what you learned in the e-lit course.

Amardeep Singh said...

I did!

Anonymous said...

One of the sites you should check out is Jadavpur University in Kolkata, whose School of Cultural Texts and Records is quite active in DH. Its web site has a fairly comprehensive list of things they've worked on in the past, not all of which are necessarily publicly available online. From what I understand, one impetus is of course to digitally preserve materials (they don't have the space or means to take care of print holdings as yet, and of course some of their collections are - and remain - privately held by families etc.); another is to have a wealth of materials available on site in order to retain research postgraduate/PhD students. They routinely get grants from the British Library's Endangered Archives project, and do collaborations as well, as with Jael Silliman's effort to document the history and culture of the Baghdadi Jewish community of Calcutta. They have a growing, historical sound archive, which I believe was written up some time ago in The Caravan, and also recently came into a workers's library (written up in Mint), but I'm not sure what'll happen to that. There is supposed to be a big conference later this year, details forthcoming.

Then of course out of Bangalore - Srishti, Centre for Public History (sorta), etc - but I know less about these.