Hello world!

This is my first post to test that the system is working. It is the 12th of March so we have 6 days before THE DAY OF DIGITAL HUMANITIES.

Walking into Work

Stepping out the door

Well, it is snowing in Edmonton. I’m up early because I have to teach from 9:00 to noon. (Why does U of A have 3 hours grad classes?) I walked in through the light snow taking a route to catch a neat piece of graffiti that I had seen the other day since I had my camera today. (Photo will go up later.) I want it for the Dictionary of Words in the Wild.

Note the “Listen” bubble giving voice to the stump

Like most days I fire up email and try to see if there are any fires. In this case I’m worried about Day of DH issues … not too many. It isn’t clear if the PR folk here will promote it – I emailed a bunch of folk yesterday.


Teaching in the Morning

HuCo 530

This morning I taught HUCO 530, Project Design & Management in Humanities Computing. It is one of two graduate courses I am teaching this term and it is a long class going from 9 until noon. The heart of the class are the projects that the students are doing in teams of two for community organizations. I try to have a “lab” atmosphere where teams report and get ideas from others in the class for at least some of the 3 hours.

I realized talking to colleagues about graduate programmes at U of A that it is unusual to have such project and community oriented classes in the humanities and that other disciplines are actually thinking about adding such courses. The advantages are that they give students real experience applying skills and knowledge to real problems. In our case the course follows the technical course so it also reinforces the technical skills they learned in the fall. Such courses are also a form of outreach in that they are a way to connect the program to the larger community which then has the advantage of giving the students experience dealing with “clients” outside the academy. The down side is that I sometimes feel awkward talking about project management as a formal discipline. While I have managed projects and read about project management, I don’t have a background in business or management studies. Further, I find, deep in my soul, a belief that such knowledge (ie. knowledge about project management, teams, IP, etc.) is really something they can pick up on their own. I reassure myself by remembering that Plato thought management was important to discuss as part of philosophy.

Joyce made delicious cupcakes for us

Digging into Data

Today we had our monthly phone conference about our Digging Into Data project which goes by the short name of Data Mining With Criminal Intent. (The long title is, Using Zotero and TAPoR on the Old Bailey Proceedings: Data Mining With Criminal Intent.) One of the things we discussed was setting up a proper web site for the project and pointing the domain we have to it (which is CriminalIntent.org – note that it may be a week before the proper site is developed.)

As an aside, we ended up doing what a lot of people do when building a web site for a project …. rolling out a WordPress instance. WordPress has become a CMS of choice for projects of a certain size since you get all the basics you need:

  • You can have a news feed in reverse chronological order on the main page that announces stuff about the project.
  • You can create accounts for different people from researchers to grad students.
  • You can have pages for the static information like what the project is About.
  • You can choose from skins to find a design that looks suitable and then add a logo to it.
  • You don’t need to do a lot of work to maintain it. Lots of folk know WordPress.

There are, however, problems with WordPress. It takes maintenance and can be hacked, for example.

Any way, it strikes me that the other staple of projects is meetings. I know of few projects that succeed in finishing what they said they would do without resorting to regular meetings to make sure everyone is on the same page. These meetings often function as deadlines for busy people to get done what they said they would do for the next meeting. You don’t actually need the meeting for meeting, but you need it for pacing. Something else I’ve noticed that worries me, is that I rather like meetings (whereas I used to dislike them.) It may be that I am more likely to be in charge or that I have no other social life, or that I rather like the people I’m working with … but the end result is that my weekly schedule is full of meetings now.

I should add that with technologies like Skype the cost of audio conferences around the world is trivial (though I find phone conferences are still more stable and the audio better.) If your meeting is limited to a small number of people then you can even videoconference which sometimes helps.

One final thought about meetings (and this includes classes) – with wireless and everyone having a laptop a new meeting etiquette is emerging about when it is acceptable to be emailing or not. I’ve been at meetings where people were clearly not paying attention because they got caught up in their email and something happening elsewhere. On the other hand one can do things in meetings like live research when everyone has a laptop – a question can come up in class and people can find the answer right then and there. Then, if you add twitter into the mix ….


Stéfan has Voyeur pointing at Day of DH

Checking out the other Day of DH posts I note from a post by Cyril that Stéfan has hooked up Voyeur to the live Day of DH feed. What’s interesting is that the term that comes up highest right not is “Digging into Data”. This isn’t surprising since a bunch of us just got off the phone and probably blogged it. Cyril is, by the way, posting from a favorite coffee shop in Westdale in Hamilton, Ontario near McMaster.

Here is my screen shot of the summary part of the Voyeur screen.

Catching Up

More than most days I have a sequence of meetings with few gaps to catch up with email. Today I had one hour from 1pm to 2pm to catch up and put out fires which is not enough. I will probably leave work with 20 to 40 emails that I haven’t dealt with, which is a recipe for falling behind.

Like many I’ve come to dread email. I vaguely remember the early days when I was at the University of Toronto in the late 1980s using email when it was still a novelty and the only people I knew to write (or receive) were coworkers in computing services and a few humanists. Every email was a gift like a Christmas card. Now email is the rythm of my work life. The days when I get through it all are good days, those when I don’t are days left hanging over. I have started to resent email, but is it really email which is the problem or the breadth of commitments I’ve foolishly made to do things. Is it time, as Brian Cantwell-Smith once told me, to reinvent email? I believe his argument was that email was designed at a time when few were on it, everyone knew each other (and they were grad students.) Now that the patterns of use have changed we should think about a new design. What would I want?

  • The ability to create and track disposable email addresses. When I sign up for something on the web I would like to be able to create an address for that purpose that I could kill if it becomes the address that spam starts coming to. For each address I could set conditions like how long it would last, whether I get a digest and so on.
  • A challenge and response system where no email gets through unless it is from a an address that I have already authorized. Any mail from a new address would trigger a challenge message to me and to the recipient.
  • Better filters.
  • Integration with the phone system so that in situations where we can get more done phoning than exchanging emails we can change channel, so to speak.
  • Special tools that let me graphically blow up messages (with lots of sound effects.) Does anyone remember Kid Pix and the dynamite eraser? Something like that for email.

On the other hand I suspect this is really a human issue. I have to learn to deal with the tasks involved and not blame email. They are just the messages, not the web of obligations and unfinished work.

Meeting about Marking and Teaching

Bob’s knee and notepad

From 2pm to 3pm I met with Bob Luth about marking at the University of Alberta. The provost is concerned about what he is hearing from students about marking on (or off) a curve. Bob is interviewing a number of people and will compile a report. Setting aside the issues about marking practices across the faculties, we had an interesting conversation about how one promotes best practices in instruction across a large and diverse campus. The problem around teaching is that whenever some committee recommends better practices it is the same keen teachers who read it, not those who actually need to change their practices. (The same is probably true for stuff on research.) How can the provost share the insights of commissioned reports with the teaching staff? Here are some ideas:

  • Show that he cares by going to department meetings, saying he cares, telling us about the reports and asking about teaching. You can’t ask people to change (and learn) unless you pay attention to them and notice efforts to change. A good politician knows all our names. A provost (and deans and chairs) who wants teaching taken seriously needs to learn (some of our) names, spend time asking about teaching, and spend time talking about it.
  • I like the way Tomorrow’s Professor sends out bulletins on a regular basis with ideas that have been nicely summarized. Why not have something like that from the Provost. The trick is not too many posts, summarized posts, and useful posts. One steady stream of advice that I can tap into. If they came from my provost and if the ideas he circulated talked about what neat things colleagues are doing (naming so I can ask them for details and praising them so that they know the administration cares), I think that would make a difference.
  • I’m fond of lists (as you can tell from this list.) The way I like help with my teaching is lots of ideas on a subject nicely summarized on one and only one page. Right now I would like “Ten ways to get students to close their laptops and listen when it matters!” Then I can pick and think about the ideas that seem to fit my situation. Ideally there are links for me to follow to learn more about ideas that suit.
  • Empower the students to critique and improve teaching. Some of the best critics of teaching are those who experience it for years on end. Why not work with the student organizations to help them help us. At the University of Toronto the student evaluations are managed by the Arts and Science Students’ Union. Their anti-calendar is an open document that was (when I taught there) as useful as anything I’ve seen from a university about my teaching. What if the student union picked a teaching and learning issue every year (in consultation with the provost) and then developed a student-driven strategy to improve things. How would colleagues respond if a student in every class were trained by the student union to help us teach better? Are we scared of getting help from those that travel from class to class comparing profs?
  • Send someone to my class to help me on the spot. I will never forget the first time (and only time) I taught at the University of Virginia. Someone from teaching services was waiting for me at the door of the classroom the first class to ask if I had any questions or needed any help. I was able to get help on using the data projection system right there the very first time I had to use it. I didn’t have to make an appointment, I didn’t have to find that obscure closet where the AV folk lurk, and I didn’t have to fumble around with equipment. The staff person helped me and while he was doing it he told me all the other services they had for new profs. Most teaching support units seem to worry too much about demands on their time. They carefully manage how they want to help us instead of being open and generous even if it means getting out and around. Get in my face, I can handle it.

I should note (and this is written later as I reflect on this) that this is what Bob did. Came to my office, sat and listened. He even found and read this post!

Histories and Archives

My last meeting was the Histories and Archives Collaboratory.

Some background on the idea of Collaboratory. When I was at the University of Virginia, Johanna Drucker and Jerry McGann invited me to participate in the weekly meetings around the Ivanhoe game which was then being designed. Once a week a bunch of us met to talk through the issues. This included grad students, programmers, visiting profs (me) and the project leads (Johanna and Jerry.) I loved the practice – it provided a form of pacing, discussion and apprenticeship. So, when I came to the University of Alberta, I started introducing the practice of research labs (or Collaboratories) that are a mix of folk interested in a loose collection of related issues. So now we have a number that meet regularly, usually around a grant funded project that needs to get done and which pays for the Research Assistants who need direction. The Day of Digital Humanities, for example was organized by a group of us who regularly meet Mondays (though it isn’t grant funded.) We are now formalizing the idea of collaboratories as we set up the Canadian Institute for Research in Computing in the Arts (CIRCA), a new (and old) institute that was set up when Susan Hockey was here, but which was never developed. The idea is that CIRCA will be organized around and support collaboratories that then involve various people (here, in the community, and outside) as CIRCA Scholars in research programs.

Keavy Martin, Sophia Hoosien, Harvey Quamen, and Victoria Smith in the TAPoR Lab

The Histories and Archives group is looking at how to think about the history of humanities computing. For various reasons we have a lot of interesting ephemeral materials like meeting notes, newsletters, reports and so on from the period in the 1980s – 1990s when humanities computing was forming in Canada as a national society. We are trying to figure out how to build an archive and what research questions we want to pursue. We have recently be joined by two English profs who are interested in thinking about digital archives of literary materials in their fields of research. In both cases they bring interesting issues around the ethics of digitizing the literatures of other communities (like native literatures or African literatures.) So … we are building a collaboratory of faculty and graduate students loosely discussing issues, researching best practices, digitizing materials, building archives (with our Library who have just set up a spanking new Fedora based system ERA) and conducting research with/through these materials. Not sure where this is going, but today we discussed paper proposals for SDH/SEMI, prosopography (what would a prosopographical database of the digital humanities community look like?), and novels that treat the uncanny and technology.

After, Harvey and I stayed on to talk about the CIRCA web site which needs work before we go public (which is why I’m not sharing the URL.)

Back home

A common theme from last year was all the folk who return to work in the evening after dinner. Well … here I am after dinner on the couch checking email and finishing up work. I can only work (on the computer) for so long as I’ve lost the power supply for my MacBook Air and, after charging from a student’s supply in class, I only have an hour or so of juice. (Thank you Sophia.) I can’t help feeling that this is a welcome constraint. Walking home I had to plan how I would use the little time on the laptop that I have and now I am avoiding the aimless browsing that often characterizes my evening computing. Instead I have to use the battery life to finishing my Day of DH posts: a) download images, b) add them to blog entries, and c) tie up the loose ends.

Perhaps I shouldn’t buy a power supply and simply depend on the power I can borrow. Would this be a useful discipline?

Pleased with myself at the end of the Day of DH

(or smiling for the laptop)

Last post

I’m down to 8% power and the battery icon has gone red.

I use my last moments to read posts from others. I wish I could see patterns, but I’m too tired to see any pattern other than people reading the blogs at the end of the day as they reflect back. Perhaps it is the diversity that makes this such a great community. Perhaps this is what makes the humanities not a social science – the recursion of reflection.

4% and time to shut down.