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.

The United States–Land of the Second Language Illiterates

Approximately 80% of American citizens are monolingual, and the largest part of the rest are immigrants and their children. This statistic from Russell Berman, outgoing President of the MLA, in his valedictory message to the MLA convention in Seattle this past January. Berman’s address is a rousing and also practical defense of the humanities in general, and especially of the role of second language learning in developing a society fully capable of engaging the global culture within which it is situated. From his address:

Let us remember the context. According to the National Foreign Language Center, some 80% of the US population is monolingual. Immigrant populations and heritage speakers probably make up the bulk of the rest. Americans are becoming a nation of second-language illiterates, thanks largely to the mismanagement of our educational system from the Department of Education on down. In the European Union, 50% of the population older than 15 reports being able to carry on a conversation in a non-native language, and the EU has set a goal of two non-native languages for all its citizens.

Second language learning enhances first language understanding: many adults can recall how high school Spanish, French, or German—still the three main languages offered—helped them gain a perspective on English—not only in terms of grammar but also through insights into the complex shift in semantic values across cultural borders. For this reason, we in the MLA should rally around a unified language learning agenda: teachers of English and teachers of other languages alike teach the same students, and we should align our pedagogies to contribute cooperatively to holistic student learning. We are all language teachers. For this reason, I call on English departments to place greater importance on second language knowledge, perhaps most optimally in expectations for incoming graduate students. Literature in English develops nowhere in an English-only environment; writing in any language always takes place in a dialectic with others. With that in mind, I want to express my gratitude to the American Studies Association for recently adopting a statement supportive of the MLA’s advocacy for language learning.

Berman goes on to recognize, however, that this strong and reasonable call for educated people to be conversant in more than one language is largely sent echoless in to the void. Less than .1% of the discretionary budget of the Department of Education goes to support Language learning. Indeed, I suspect this is because so many of us, even in higher education, are dysfunctional in a second language. I often tell people grimly that I can ask how to go to the bathroom in four different languages.

Nevertheless, in an age where we call for global engagement and in which we imagine the importance of preparedness for a global marketplace and want our students to be citizens of the world, it is irresponsible to continue to imagine that world will conveniently learn to speak English for our sakes.


Summer’s Guilty Pleasures: Hard Times with Hard Times

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Hard Times is one of those books that English teachers make you feel bad about not liking.

Oh, I forgot. I am an English teacher. What to do that I found what some people call Dickens greatest novel so dull that it was not even engaging enough to be a soporific (Side note about falling asleep to books, books make us fall asleep best not when they are dull but when they are engaging enough that they take us to the edge of dreaming).

Seriously though, consider the first lines “Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.”

Isn’t it plain from this moment that the game is rigged. Who could not know that the speaker is a grind–well actually a Gradgrind–that he will get his comeuppance, and that the virtues of truth beauty and the imagination will out.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, that’s mostly what you get in this novel. The Gradgrinds, Bounderby, the Blackpool’s, they exist to tell us that industrialization has made the world go awry reducing everything to its material usefulness and leaving no room for the more spiritual world of the imagination embodied in things like–surprise!–imaginative literature. Of course there are details. Louisa Gradgrind marries the much older Mr. Bounderby on the basis of the practicalities of the facts and her father’s wishes, and we’re quite sure that she will be ground to nearly nothing, which she nearly is. She ameliorates her desperation by trying to help the laborer Stephen Blackpool and we’re nearly sure that Blackpool will die, which he nearly does. And then does. All parties concerned learn their lessons, including Mr. Gradgrind, who comes to realize that there’s more to life than facts, like his love for his daughter and his wayward son. Still, the love seems mostly to exist to make a point, and the point seems too familiar.

Industrialized Education

There’s nothing wrong with a thesis in a novel–I say this against all those who say novels don’t make points; I agree with those from Kenneth Burke to Wayne Booth who see fiction as a kind of rhetoric. But there is a problem with a novel whose thesis is baldly stated like an essay and whose thesis is never complicated, decomposed, challenged, reconfigured, or developed beyond what we can gather from the first sentence. (For that matter, there’s a problem with an essay written in a similar fashion).

I felt myself slogging along through the mud of the obvious and predictable, waking up just a bit when we finally get to the figure of Stephen Blackpool but descending again in to readerly despair when it’s obvious that Stephen is mostly a foil for the display of Louisa Bounderby’s sentimental charity, and later for the display of the pusillanimity and bourgeois moral corruption of Tom Gradgrind.

Stephen Blackpool and his mad wife

Stephen Blackpool and his mad wife

Stephen Blackpool, cog in Dickens’ sentimental machine.

On the other hand, I found myself wondering whether I found this all so predictable because so much has been built on a Dickensian edifice. In other words, would Dickens’ early readers have found his book dull and predictable or perhaps instead appalling, thrilling in its view of human degradation. Do we have a responsibility as readers to recover the shock of the new in classic works when they are no longer new?

I’m not sure. And I may be trying to cut Dickens too much of a break. I have read both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Douglass’s Narrative a multitude of times, and both are rife with moral sentimentalism, obvious bad guys, and endings that surprise only in their predictability. Yet I never find them dull. I will still be moved to tears by sections of both. So what it is it about Hard Times that leaves me cold, in the grip of something I feel I already know and don’t need to learn again, while I can read Stowe and Douglass (and Faulkner, and Hemingway, and at least some of Toni Morrison) as I read the Psalms, an ever renewing source even when I know everything that will happen.

Side Note: An interesting bit from Hard Times about reading. From the chapter where the town is beginning to hunt the falsely accused Blackpool, believing him guilty of robbing Bounderby’s safe.

“The factory-bells had need to ring their loudest that morning to disperse the groups of workers who stood in the tardy daybreak, collected round the placards, devouring them with eager eyes of those who could not read. These people, as they listened to the friendly voice that read aloud–there was always some such ready to help them–stared at the characters which meant so much with a vague awe and respect that would have been half ludicrous, if any aspect of public ignorance could ever be otherwise than threatening and full of evil. Many ears and eyes were busy with a vision of the matter of these placards among turning spindles, rattling looms, and whirling wheels, for hours afterwards; and when the Hands cleared out again into the streets, there were still as many readers as before.”

Me and My Aura

This is perhaps a fairly typical view of oral reading that occurred with regularity up until the 20th century. Now the only people who sit and listen to someone else read are either children or tony types who attend poetry readings. Still, I’m struck by the mystical aura of the word, the mystery and power that written discourse must have held for the masses of the illiterate underclass. Perhaps still holds for that matter. Still, it seems to me that the ubiquity of print has been bought at the price of its own devaluation. Indeed, the inflated presence of the word everywhere around us, where everyone and their mother can write–and indeed, where everyone does write, so much and so often, that no one really has time left to read–this glut of written verbiage has been bought at the price of writing’s (and reading’s) triviality.

Not that this dismal view applies to my own blog, of course. It’s infinitely valuable and more than worth your time. I’m sure it even has an aura.

For More of my summer’s guilty pleasures, see

Summer’s Guilty Pleasures: Black Snake Moan–June 30th

April 4, 1968

Today is the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The video is a montage surrounding the Civil Rights Movement and the life of MLK with the speech by Robert F. Kennedy playing in the background.

I was in many ways too young to completely understand what was happening in 1968. But even now these words and these images move me.
Martin Luther King Jr. speakingThe words speak for themselves. Related to the general interests of this blog, they make me think of one thing very simply: Words Matter. Whether in the life and preaching of Dr. King, or the eloquence of RFK, summoned from the heart at the instant of crisis.

I think I am no sentimentalist to say that I find myself longing for a leader who could quote Aeschylus by heart, who did not hold words in contempt, who knew enough to see that eloquence isn’t empty. Through words we imagine a life we can’t yet see.

Insomniac dreams; boys who love language

I’m not sure blogging is good for insomnia, but when I lay awake at night I find myself thinking of things to blog about. So why waste all those synapses firing in a haze of sleep-deprived wakefulness. Following up on my post of earlier this evening where I despaired of the new (or not so old, perhaps ancient?) mechanistic view of both reading and writing that seemed, well, deadly, I remembered the following video that I stumbled over at Hopping Into Puddles.

Here at least language is not a machine. I realize that if these kids were older it would play right in to Gilbert and Gubar’s thesis that language, in the hands of men and boys at least, is a phallus. Which also calls all kinds of other things to mind. Still, better this than the dead metaphors of language as a tool, a medium, an interface. If it is, let’s at least say that language is the vehicle of the heart, the hands of one soul reaching out to another.

As Michael over at Hopping Into Puddles observes, this classroom too exemplifies a lot of what could be stereotypically wrong with an educational setting. The teacher reading that private speech aloud says that the only thing the classroom is for is the instrumentality of public speech. Any word that passes sideways is called in to public account. No doubt some techie out there would like a computer to grade this young Romeo’s note for word choice, sentence variation and paragraph length.

Anything so we forget that language is first and foremost a means of touching. My pen is the tongue of a ready scribe. Indeed.

One of my great failed experiments as a teacher of composition was to ask my students to go home and write the most beautiful sentence they could muster and come back prepared to tell why they experienced it as beautiful.

I had forgotten these kids attended high schools in America. Ah well. I’ve also learned not to assign a particularly beautiful bit of prose to my composition classes and ask them to comment on what makes it an effective or ineffective piece of prose. To a man or woman they destroy my icons by describing them as “wordy,” “unclear,” clogged with long sentences, or damaged by short sentences.

My question is, who damages kids this way, having dulled their imaginations, their inner ears into insensitivity to language? It can’t be their fault, surely. They are only 17 or 18 at the most. Too young to think the only thing important in the world is getting the job done as efficiently as possible. Or probably not. This is why we send them to school no doubt.

The boys especially struggle with this assignment, confirming my general sense that the literary theories emphasizing the masculinist and misogynistic biases of language have never been around a teenaged boy who loved poetry. This is a love won at the cost–society tells him–of his manhood, not a way of winning it. What the video above leaves out is the mocking laughter the boy will face at recess, no less from girls than from the boys. And why? Words expose, exposure disarms, potentially humiliates. James Baldwin truly believed that confession of one’s hidden self was the surest way to freedom, but it’s not clear that this wasn’t a romantic dream after all. The Hemingways and Norman Mailers of the world are not exceptions that prove the rule. They are more like men so unsure of their own sexuality they have to posture and preen; their viciousness with words reassures them that, loving words, they are men none the less for that.