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.

Is Twitter Destroying the English language?

Coming out of the NITLE seminar on Undergraduate Research in Digital Humanities, my title question was one of the more interesting questions on my mind.  Janis Chinn, a student at the University of Pittsburgh, posed this question as a motivation for her research on shifts in linguistic register on Twitter.  I’m a recent convert to Twitter and see it as an interesting communication tool, but also an information network aggregator.  I don’t really worry about whether twitter is eroding my ability to write traditional academic prose, but then, I’ve inhabited that prose for so long its more the case that I can’t easily adapt to the more restrictive conventions of twitter.  And while I do think students are putting twitterisms in their papers, I don’t take this as specifically different than the tendency of students to use speech patterns as the basis for constructing their papers, and not recognizing the different conventions of academic prose.  So twitter poses some interesting issues, but not issues that strike me as different in kind from other kinds of language uses.

I gather from the website for her project that Janis is only at the beginning of her research and hasn’t developed her findings yet, but it looks like a fascinating study.  Part of her description of the work is as follows:

Speakers shift linguistic register all the time without conscious thought. One register is used to talk to professors, another for friends, another for close family, another for one’s grandparents. Linguistic register is the variety of language a speaker uses in a given situation. For example, one would not use the same kind of language to talk to one’s grandmother as to your friends. One avoids the use of slang and vulgar language in an academic setting, and the language used in a formal presentation is not the language used in conversation. This is not just a phenomenon in English, of course; in languages like Japanese there are special verbs only used in honorific or humble situations and different structures which can increase or decrease the politeness of a sentence to suit any situation. This sort of shift takes place effortlessly most of the time, but relatively new forms of communication such as Twitter and other social media sites may be blocking this process somehow.

In response to informal claims that the current generation’s language is negatively affected by modern communication tools likeTwitter, Mark Liberman undertook a brief analysis comparing the inaugural addresses of various Presidents. This analysis can be found on University of Pennsylvania‘s popular linguistics blog “Language Log”. Remarkably, he found a significant trend of shortening sentence and word lengths over the last 200 years. My research, while not addressing this directly, will demonstrate whether using these services affects a user’s ability to shift linguistic registers to match the situation as they would normally be expected to.

Fascinating question in and of itself. I think on some level I’ve always been deeply aware of these kinds of shifts.  As I kid when my parents were missionaries in New Guinea, I would speak with an Aussie accent while I was with kids at the school across the valley, which shifting back in to my Okie brogue on the mission field and in my house.  And as I made my way in to academe my southern and southwesternisms gradually dropped away with a very few exceptions–aware as I was that my accent somehow did not signal intelligence and accomplishment.  Mockery of southern white speech remains a last bastion of prejudice in the academy generally.  I don’t think these are the kinds of register shifts Janis is looking at, but same territory.

I’m also more interested in the general motive questions.  If we could prove that Twitter inhibited the ability to shift registers, would that count as destroying or damaging the language in some sense?  If we could demonstrate that Twitter was leading people to use shorter and shorter sentences–or to be less and less able to comprehend sentences longer than 160 characters.  Would this signal an erosion in the language.  We must have some notion that language can be used in more effective and less effective ways since we are all very aware that communication can fail abysmally or succeed beyond our hopes, and usually ends up somewhere in-between.  Does the restricted nature of Twitter limit or disable some forms of effective communication, while simultaneously enabling others.  These are interesting questions.  I’m sure more intelligent people than I am are working on them.

Takeaways–NITLE Seminar: Undergraduates Collaborating in Digital Humanities Research

Yesterday afternoon at 3:00 about 30 Messiah College humanities faculty and undergraduates gathered to listen in on and virtually participate in the NITLE Seminar focusing on Undergraduates Collaborating in Digital Humanities Research.  A number of our faculty and students were tweeting the event, and a Storify version with our contributions can be found here.I am amazed and gratified to have such a showing late on a Friday afternoon.  Students and faculty alike were engaged and interested by the possibilities they saw being pursued in undergraduate programs across the country, and our own conversation afterwards extended for more than a half hour beyond the seminar itself. Although most of us freely admit that we are only at the beginning and feeling our way, there was a broad agreement that undergraduate research and participation in Digital Humanities work was something we needed to keep pushing on.

If you are interested in reviewing the entire seminar, including chat room questions and the like, you can connect through this link.  I had to download webex in order to participate in the seminar, so you may need to do the same, even though the instructions I received said I wouldn’t need to.  My own takeaways from the seminar were as follows:

  • Undergraduates are scholars, not scholars in waiting.  If original scholarship is defined as increasing the fund of human knowledge, discovering and categorizing and interpreting data that helps us better understand human events and artifacts, developing tools that can be employed by other scholars who can explore and confirm or disconfirm or further your findings, these young people are scholars by any definition.
  • Digital Humanities research extends (and, to be sure, modifies) our traditional ways of doing humanities work;  it does not oppose it.  None of these young scholars felt inordinate tensions between their traditional humanities training and their digital humanities research.  A student who reviewed a database of 1000 Russian folks tales extended and modified her understanding arrived at by the close reading of a dozen.  Digital Humanities tools enable closer reading and better contextual understanding of the poet Agha Shahid Ali, rather than pushing students away in to extraneous material.
  • Many or most of these students learned their tools as they went along, within the context of what they were trying to achieve.  I was especially fascinated that a couple of the students had had no exposure to Digital Humanities work prior to their honors projects, and they learned the coding and digital savvy they needed as they went along.  Learning tools within the context of how they are needed seems to make more and more sense to me.  You would not teach a person how to use a hammer simply by giving them a board and nails, at least not if you don’t want them to get bored.  Rather, give them something to build, and show or have them figure out how the hammer and nails will help them get there.

I’m looking forward to the Places We’ll Go.

More Undergraduate Research in the Digital Humanities

This afternoon the School of the Humanities at Messiah College will be connecting to the NITLE Symposium on Undergraduate work in the digital Humanities. Messiah College is currently considering making the development of undergraduate research, and especially collaborative research between faculty and students, a central theme of our next strategic plan.  Like many colleges and universities across the country, we are seeing undergraduate research as a way of deepening student learning outcomes and engagement with their education, while also providing more and better skills for life after college.

The push toward student research has some detractors–Andrew DelBanco and Geoffrey Galt Harpham among them–but I’ll blog at some other time about my disagreement with them on liberal arts grounds.  I’ve been on record before as to how I think Digital Humanities is a (or THE) way to go with this effort within my own disciplines.  I was glad to receive the video below from Adeline Koh at Richard Stockton College, chronicling the achievements of the RE:Humanities conference at Swarthmore.  A nice overview of the conference.  If you look closely and don’t blink there’s a couple of shots of my colleagues, Larry Lake, and one of me apparently typing away distractedly on my iPad.  Although perhaps I was tweeting and achieving a transcendent level of attention and interaction without really having to listen.  🙂

This afternoon, the School of the Humanities here at Messiah College is going to consider some more whether and how Digital Humanities might be applicable to our situation by participating in the NITLE symposium on this topic at 3:00.

Opportunities for Undergraduate Research in the Digital Humanities

There are three compelling reasons for an administrator in the humanities to support efforts in the digital humanities:  first, DH provides opportunities for serious reflection on what it means to be human now using tools central to human being in the digital age, this quest for understanding the appropriately central task of humanists;  second, DH provides opportunities for students to acquire technical skills that are no longer optional for college graduates transitioning in to the world of work;  third, DH provides serious opportunities for students to pursue original research in the humanities, contributing to the basic fund of knowledge that humanists and society at large will build on in the future.

Regarding this last, I’ve done just a little bit of scratching related to the possibilities related to undergraduate research, attending most recently the Re:Humanities conference at Swarthmore.  Adeline Koh, who has become something of a twitter interlocutor on these issues, was kind enough to point me to Richard Stockton College’s blog post on the conference (Messiah College’s own Larry Lake was mentioned), which in turn led me to the Richard Stockton Postcolonial project.  A really fine example of undergraduate thinking at work in a way that will contribute to our broader understanding of the postcolonial experience.  I am impressed that this kind of work is managed at the undergraduate level, and apparently without massive infusions of institutional infrastructure and cash.  I also love the fact that it is clearly collaborative work between a professor and students, it includes not only literature students but a student majoring in biology, and it provides opportunities for students to reflect on their own learning.  The quality of the project is such that MLA is archiving it in its database of scholarly websites.  Nice work.

There’s going to be another opportunity to hear about and review the best student work in this area via the NITLE symposium on undergraduate research in digital humanities.  NITLE has been a strong advocate for ug research in digital humanities.  I hope I can connect to the symposium.