The Words matter: Digital Humanities Vocabulary 101

I always know that if the hits on my blog spike it has less to do with anything I’ve said than with the fact that some good soul or souls out there have bothered to mention me on their own much more well-read and insightful blogs. This has happened several times with the far flung folks in the Digital Humanities who I mostly only know virtually through Twitter and other social media, as well as with my colleague John Fea over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, who I acknowledge both virtually and when I pass him in the hallway. Just today, Rebecca Davis over at NITLE wrote a blog post mentioning me and some of my own floundering engagement as an administrator trying to get my mind around what was happening in this field.

Just a word about Rebecca’s post. She’s begun a very interesting project, partly in response to the floundering of folks like me, designed to provide a glossary of terms to help beginners get a grip on things and begin to navigate the thickets of the Digital Humanities. She ran an experiment at a couple of conferences to get things started:

Normally, academics getting to know a new discipline would read about it before doing it. But, the ethos of doing in digital humanities is so strong, that THATCamps ask beginners to engage in doing digital humanities (more hack, less yack). To that end, at my last workshop (at the Institute for Pedagogy in the Liberal Arts hosted by Oxford College of Emory University), I came up with a strategy to let beginners do and help the digital humanities veterans be sensitive to specialist vocabulary. I asked my workshop participants to write down on a post-it note every term they heard from me or other workshop participants that they didn’t know. Then we added them to our workshop wiki and set about defining them. We accumulated quite a few terms (35 total). Although my co-teacher Sean Lind, Digital Services Librarian at Oxford, ended up contributing most of the definitions, I think the list was still useful as an indicator of terms veterans need to be prepared to define.

I repeated the experiment at THATCamp LAC 2012 by proposing a session on a digital humanities glossary and setting up a google doc for the glossary. I think that session happened, though I didn’t make it. Certainly terms were added to the doc throughout the THATcamp, with a final total of 28 terms.

Looking at this admittedly small sample, let me share some preliminary conclusions. There were only five terms that both lists shared (one of which I had contributed by initiating each list with the acronym DH):

  • Crowdsourcing
  • DH = Digital Humanities
  • Hashtag
  • Open Access (OA)
  • TEI= Text Encoding Initiative
I love this idea, love the activity, and I hope that Rebecca’s idea for a glossary takes off. The lists she’s come up with to start seem about right. I will say I ended my first THATCamp still entirely clueless about what TEI stood for and I’m still not entirely sure I could define “XML” for anyone else, even though I think I know it when I see it. (In my defense, I actually did know what crowd sourcing, hashtag, and open access indicated, although I hadn’t the foggiest how you did any of them).
Regarding hacking and yacking, I am, so far, more of a digital humanities advocate than a digital humanities practitioner, a position necessitated both by my ignorance and my position as an administrator with too little time to read his email, much less pursue digital humanities projects. From this position as a facilitator, I feel a little reluctant to take a position, other than to say words matter. Having the word for something gives you one way to act on the world. I’ve always been deeply moved by the section of The Autobiography of Malcolm X wherein he describes learning to read by reading the dictionary. This seems right. If you want to act in a world learn its words, start to speak its language even if at first you are only stringing nouns together into something that only vaguely resembles a sentence.Words became the necessary means of action. Thus, I think that Rebecca’s project will be a boon to those who are still at the stage of the DH language game where they are mostly pointing and grunting.

I started this post thinking I was going to write about intellectual generosity. How important it is and what it looks like when you find it. That will have to wait, but I will say I have appreciated the large hearted generosity of the many folks in DH who know they are blazing a trail and are willing to lay out signposts and serve as guides to others on the path.

Hermeneutics of the stack and the list: unreading journals in print or online

The New York Times reported yesterday that The Wilson Quarterly will put out its final print issue in July ( Wilson Quarterly to End Print Publication – NYTimes.com). The editorial staff seemed sanguine.

“We’re not going on the Web per se,” Steven Lagerfeld, the magazine’s editor, said in an interview. “We already have a Web site. The magazine will simply be published in a somewhat different form as an app,” first in the iTunes store and later on the Android platform.

And, to be honest, I’m sanguine too.  Although, I noted a the demise of the University of Missouri Press with a half shudder last week, I have to admit that I don’t greet the demise of print journals with the same anxiety.  I’ve recognized lately that I mostly buy paper journals so I can have access to their online manifestations or because I feel guilty knowing that online long form journalism and feature writing has yet to find a way to monetize itself effectively. I try to do my part by littering my office and bedroom with stack and stacks of largely unopened New York Reviews, New Yorkers, Chronicles of Higher Ed, and a few other lesser known magazines and specialist journals. But most of my non-book reading, long form or not, is done on my iPad.

I will leave the question of what we will do if good journals like the Wilson Quarterly really can’t survive on iTunes distribution (WQ only survived in paper because of the indulgence of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars). I’m more interested at the moment in the fact of the stack and what it signifies in the intellectual life.  Every intellectual I know of is guilty of stockpiling books and journals that  she never reads, and can never reasonably expect to, at least not if she has a day job.  The stack is not simply a repository of knowledge and intellectual stimulation beckoning to the reader, drawing him away from other mundane tasks like reading or preparing for class with an ennobling idea of staying informed. (Side note:  academia is the one place in life where every activity of daily life can be construed as tax deductible; just make a note about it and write “possible idea for future article” at the top of the page.)

No, The stack is also a signifier.  It exists not so much to read, since most academics give up hopelessly on the idea of reading every word of the journals that they receive.  The stack exists to be observed.  Observed on the one hand by the academic him or herself, a reassuring sign of one’s own seriousness, that one reads such thing and is conversant with the big ideas, or at least the nifty hot ideas, about culture high and low.  The stack also exists to be observed by others:  the rare student who comes by during office hours, the dean who happens to drop by to say hello, the colleagues coming in to ask you out for coffee–“Oh, you already got the latest issue of PMLA!” The stack suggests you are uptodate, or intend to be.  The stack communicates your values.  Which journal do you put strategically out at the edge of the desk to be observed by others, which do you stack heedlessly on top of the file cabinet.  Even the hopelessly disheveled office can signify, as did Derrida’s constantly disheveled hair; I am too busy and thinking too many big thoughts to be concerned with neatness.

The stack, like the Wilson Quarterly, is on its way out, at least for academics.  I realized four or five years ago that e-books would signify the end of a certain form of identification since people would no longer self-consciously display their reading matter in coffee houses or on subways, every text hidden in the anonymous and private cover of the Kindle or now the iPad.  While I could connect now with other readers in Tibet or Siberia, I could not say off-handedly to the college student sitting next to me–“Oh, you’re reading Jonathan Safran Foer, I loved that book!”

The stack too is going and will soon be gone.  Replaced now by the endless and endlessly growing list of articles on Instapaper that I pretend I will get back to.  This has not yet had the effect of neatening my office, but it will remove one more chance at self-display.  I will soon be accountable only for what I know and what I can actually talk about, not what I can intimate by the stacks of unread paper sitting on my desk.

Enjoy your summer reading. Faster! Faster!: Technology, Recreation, and Being Human

A nice essay from novelist Graham Swift in the New York Times on the issues of reading, writing, speed and leisure.  A lot of what’s here is well travelled ground, though travelled well again by Swift.  I especially noted his sense in which time-saving has become the means by which we are enslaved to time.

A good novel is like a welcome pause in the flow of our existence; a great novel is forever revisitable. Novels can linger with us long after we’ve read them — even, and perhaps particularly, novels that compel us to read them, all other concerns forgotten, in a single intense sitting. We may sometimes count pages as we read, but I don’t think we look at our watches to see how time is slipping away.

That, in fact, is the position of the skeptical nonreader who says, “I have no time to read,” and who deems the pace of life no longer able to accommodate the apparently laggard process of reading books. We have developed a wealth of technologies that are supposed to save us time for leisurely pursuits, but for some this has only made such pursuits seem ponderous and archaic. ­“Saving time” has made us slaves to speed.

via The Narrative Physics of Novels – NYTimes.com.

To some degree Swift is picking up on a perpetual conundrum in the advancements of technology, a dialectic by which we pursue technological ends to make our lives easier, more convenient, less consumed by work and more open to enrichment. Making onerous tasks more efficient has been the dream of technology from indoor plumbing to the washing machine to email. In short we pursue technological means to make our lives more human.

And in some ways and places, we are able to achieve that end.  Who would want, really, to live in the Middle Ages anywhere except in Second Life.  Your expected life span at birth would have been about 30 years, compared to a global average today in the mid to upper 60s, and it would have been a 30 years far more grinding and difficult than what most of the world experiences today (with, of course, important and grievous exceptions).  You would likely have been hopelessly illiterate, cut off from even the possibility of entering a library (much less purchasing a handmade codex in a bookstore), and you would have had no means of being informed of what happened in the next valley last week, much less what happened in Beijing 10 minutes ago.  It is little wonder that  becoming a monk or a priest ranked high on the list of desirable medieval occupations.  Where else were you guaranteed a reward in heaven, as well as at least some access to those things we consider basic features of our contemporary humanity–literacy, education, art, music, a life not under the dominion of physical labor.  What we usually mean when we romanticize the ancient world (or for that matter the 1950s) is that we want all the fruits of our modern era with out the new enslavements that accompany them

At the same time, of course, our technological advances have often been promoted as a gift to humankind in general, but they have as readily been employed to advance a narrow version of human productivity in the marketplace.  Our technologies facilitate fast communication;  This mostly means that we are now expected to communicate more than ever, and they also raise expectations about just exactly what can get done.  Technology vastly expands the range or information we can thoughtfully engage, but increases the sense that we are responsible for knowing something about everything, instead of knowing everything about the few dozen books my great grandparents might have had in their possession.  One reason the vaunted yeoman farmer knew something about Shakespeare, could memorize vast expanses of the bible, and could endure sermons and speeches that lasted for hours is because he didn’t have a twitter feed. Nor did he have an Outlook Calendar that becomes an endless to do list generated by others.

I do think the novel, even in its e-book form, resists this need for speed.  On the other hand, it is worth saying that reading like this must be practiced like other things.  I find that when I take a couple of vacation days for a long weekend (like this weekend), it takes me about 2/3 of a day to slow down and relax and allow myself to pause.  Luckily, I can do this more readily with novels, even at the end of a hectic and too full day or week.  But that might be possible because I learned how to do it in another world, one without the bells and whistles that call for my attention through my multiple devices with their glowing LCDs.

Novel reading is a learned skill, and I wonder whether our students learn it well enough. Re-creation is a learned skill, one we need to be fully ourselves, and I do wonder whether we lose that capacity for pause in our speedy lives.

Journalistic Haiku, @New_Mexico_News on Twitter

One of the advantages of libraries and bookstores has been the fortuitous discovery of the book that you discover, in the first page or two, was destined for you and no one else but you.  I realize, of course, that this is a form of magical thinking, not unlike the old-time Christian belief that you could take up the Bible to any random verse and that was the verse God meant for you.  

I have to say that I have yet to have a similar feeling that the finger of destiny has reached out of the cyber-ether to tell me who I was meant to do and be, but I will say that I am often surprised and delighted by the fortuitous discoveries that come my way while browsing my Twitter feed.  Most recently I’ve especially delighted in the tweets of @New_Mexico_News, literally a reporter in New Mexico whose tweets become a bizarre kind of town cryer haiku, attending to the literary effects and the journalistic accuracy in 140 characters.

A few recent favorites:

Again, today, the Sun burned without motive or judgment, hurling its light equally to murder, a theft of a paintball gun, the empty desert.–@New_Mexico_News 10 days ago
 
Showing a fake badge, an Albuquerque man threatened a group of teenagers; peed in one’s hat; got caught because his plate read “PUNISHR.”– @New_Mexico_News about 1 month ago
 
To the east, the shadows of clouds lay draped over the foothills. And there, beside Dion’s Pizza, three men removed their pants at gunpoint.– @New_Mexico_News21 days ago
 
Don’t you wish all news were this good.  I recommend a follow.

Revolution and Reformation in Higher Education: Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U

It’s a sign of the fast changing times in higher education that I just finished reading Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U and it already feels just a little bit dated–not terribly so, since it is a kind of futurist fiction about higher education written in 2010–and I feel frustrated at the notion that great new ideas and books to consider are solving yesterdays problems by the time I get around to them.  The shelf life for this kind of thing seems to be about a year and 2010 seems like an eon ago in both publishing and in higher education.  This is too bad because I actually think there is some important ethical thinking about higher education going on in the book that gets obscured both by the speed of the author and the speed with which the educational times are leaving even this book behind.

A few examples: the term MOOC, all the rage since the new cooperative ventures of Harvard, MIT YAle, Stanford and others, is barely mentioned as such–there are a couple of notes about it, but the notion that Ivy League schools would start en-mass to give their educational content away for free isn’t given much attention in this book (indeed, institutions of higher education seem largely to be the problem rather than a part of innovative solutions in Kamenetz’s view).  Similarly, the recent scandals and shennanigans in the for-profit sector barely rate a mention in for Kamenetz, and yet their pervasiveness at the present moment casts an inespcapable pall over the idea that that the for-profits are the best or even a good way forward.  Kamenetz offers a few gestures of critique at the for-profit educational industry, but seems more enamored of the innovations they can offer.  I’m less sanguine about the creative destruction of capitalism when it comes to education, and that shades my own reception of the book.

Overall I liked this book a great deal, but I do think the rosy and largely uncritical view of the present suggests a few problems.  The book catalogues the florid variety of things going on in higher education, championing every change or possibility that’s out there on an equal plane without too much discrimination.  There are a few gestures here and there toward critical thinking about these new possibilities, but mostly things fall into the following rough equations:

Current higher education system = exclusionary + hierarchical + expensive + tradition centered = bad

Anything new = good (or at least potential good)

On some level this strikes me as a convert’s story.  Kamenetz went to Yale College, for goodness sake, not Kaplan University.  So it may be that she is a kind of Martin Luther, or at least his publicist.  One well imagines Kamenetz in the reformation glorifying every sect that came down the pike as good because it wasn’t the catholic church and was returning power to the people.  Or the believer who wakes one morning to realize she believes nothing that her parents church believes, and so is fascinated and wildly attracted to the notion that some people out there worship turnips.

Not sure if anyone actually worships turnips, but you get the point;  its difficult in the midst of a reformation to discriminate and figure out who is Martin Luther, Menno Simons, John Calvin, or William Tyndale, and who is just a the latest crackpot televangelist hocking his wares.  Moreover, it takes a lot of discrimination–and probably more distance than we can afford right now–to figure out which parts of Luther, Simons, Calvin and Tyndale were the things worth keeping and which were, well, more like the crackpot televangelists of their own day.  Are Phoenix, Kaplan, and other for profits really helping poorer students in a way that the bad and exclusive traditional university is not, or are they really fleecing most of them in the name of hope and prosperity–something a good many televangelists and other American Hucksters are well known for?

This book is not where we’ll get that kind of analysis and considered attention about what we really ought to do next, where we ought to put what weight and influence we have.  And I admit, to some degree that’s asking this book to be something it isn’t We need books like this that are more provocations and manifestos than reflective analyses.  We also have to have someone that writes the revolution from the inside with all the enthusiasms that entails.

But that means this is a fast book, subject to the strengths and weaknesses that speed provides, one weakness being a little bit of factual sloppiness and a penchant for hasty and oversimplified analysis that sells well to the journalistic ear.  For instance Kamenetz uses a recurrent metaphor of the higher educational institution being a church that the contemporary world increasingly doesn’t need, and she draws an analogy by saying that statistics show that church attendance has dropped from 40 to 25 percent.  The problem is that the article she cites actually says that regular church attendance has remained consistently at 25 percent for the past couple of decades and has declined only slightly since 1950.  Other studies peg that number at 40 percent.  No study I know of (I’m not an expert)–and certainly not the one that Kamenetz cites–suggests its dropped from 40 to 25 percent.

Another annoying instance is a recurrent statement that administrators of higher education institutions are committed to maintaining the status quo.  This is spoken like someone who never actually talked to an administrator, or perhaps is only speaking about Yale College which for the most part really doesn’t need to change.  Nearly every administrator I know of or have talked to is thinking furiously, sometimes frantically, and sometimes creatively, about how our institutions can change to meet the challenges we face and better serve the public with our various educational missions.  Unless it is the case that Kamenetz is arguing that institutions are simply for the status quo because they are institutions and unwilling to pass quietly in to the night.  But this would jejune.  It sounds good to the anti-institutional American ear, but its doubtful policy for advances in higher education.

These kinds of issues individually are small, but collectively they are annoying and to someone who is involved in the institutional side of higher education and is informed about the issues, they are glaring.  What it might mean is that the book won’t get the kind of attention in higher education institutions that it deserves.

Which is too bad since I think the book ought to be required reading for administrators, if only to debate its urgency.  What the book lacks in critical discrimination it makes up for with passionate and detailed pronouncement–a good sermon can be good for the academic soul.  For one thing, it might help us realize that the way things have always been done isn’t even the way things are being done now for an increasingly larger and larger share of the population.  Just as churches change–however slowly–in the face of historical movements and transformations, higher education is and will be changing as well.  Many of the ideas detailed in Kamenetz’s book help us see the extent to which those changes are occurring and lend new urgency to the question of what those changes mean for us in higher education.  There’s even a good deal available that could help us to think about how to best reform our own practices to meet our current highest ideals, rather than seeing this as a war of good and evil over the minds of the next generation.

I was especially drawn to Kamenetz’s notion of a community of practice–something she drew from Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger:

Such communities  are defined by shared engagement in a task and shared understanding of goals and means to reach them.  In the classic progression of a community of practice, an appentice presents herself to the community and takes on simple beginning tasks at the elbow of an expert.  Everyone is participating in real-world tasks, not academic exercises., so the learner’s actions have consequences right away.  This stage is known as “legitimate peripheral participation.’  As she progresses she continuosly reinforces her learning by teaching others as well.  In a community of practice it is understood that youare just as likely to learn from the mistakes of fellow beginners, or from people with just slightly more experience, as from wizened elders.  Virtual communities of practice are thriving on the internet, among bloggers, gamers, designers and programmers.  These groups have little choice but to teach each other–information technology has been changing so fast for the past few decades that traditional schools and curricula can’t keep up.”

This last, of course, if very true.  I think the question of time for learning and play in higher education is a big problem, as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago.  But even given that, I’m struck by the ways what she describes seems characteristic of the practice already of Digital Humanists as I understand the basics of this particular practice. Something like theHomer Multitext project that includes students from first year Greek classes to fourth year Greek majors is one instance of this.

Beyond this, I am struck by the ethical impulses entailed here and in much of Kamenetz’s work.  She points out that the original meanings of words we associate with universities had to do with something like this notion of community–university and college pointing to the notion of guild or community, a gathering of like-minded people pursuing a common vocation.

This ethical impulse in Kamenetz’s work is what I find most attractive and most usable.  She connects her manifesto to the work of Paul Freire and other catholic priest/intellectuals who were deeply invested in the notion of universal active and engaged education for what my church growing up called “the least of these.”  This is a notion that faculty at my faith-based institution can root themselves in and catch a vision for, and one that I think many other public-minded intellectuals could embrace regardless of the particulars of their beliefs.

What would it mean for us to take advantage of the latest innovations in technology, not because it could take save the institution money and not because it could save faculty time, but what if we could imagine it as a way of taking what we have to those who have need of it?

What if the world were really our classroom, not just the 30 students in front of us who can afford (or not afford) to be there?

What difference would it make to our practice, our politics, our thinking, teaching, and scholarship?