getting ready

Thursday is actually going to be an amazing DH day for me, so I’m looking forward to this.

Context for telegraphic posts today

LogoI am supposed to contextualize the work I’ll blog about today by providing context.  I am more a literature professor than computer scientist, and, as my day will reveal, I wear many, many hats.  They are all very little hats, but I have as many hats as Imelda Marcos had shoes before the Phillipine Revolution.  I am associate director of NINES, technological editor of Romantic Circles, and Director of 18thConnect which is about to get off the ground.  18thConnect is an 18th-century version of NINES, a scholarly community, peer-reviewing agency for digital projects in the field of 18th-century studies, and an aggregator of data. Today, this 18thConnect machine is running like an airplane at the end of a runway.  We have been building, building, building 18thConnect, with research and meetings and more meetings.  Today I’ll begin talking about it at the meeting of the eighteenth-century scholarly society, ASECS, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for which I have prepared by spending over 18 hours on planes and in airports.  I’ll present 18thConnect at a roundtable about the digital, using the pecha kucha method; I’ll recruit people to be on editorial boards; I’ll meet with publishers and data providers; and I’ll spend the next two days describing it in detail to the 12 technological editors, people who have agreed to run with their feet and flap their wings. But I have to take out 1.5 hours to meet with the MLA Committee on Information Technology which I’m chairing (hat number 4 or 5) virtually, in Second Life, a meeting practice started for the MLA CIT by Susan Schreibman (co-editor of the Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities) for whom I am knitting mittens, which I will also work on today. The mittens had better be done by next week when she flies over from Ireland to participate in the Mellon-funded Shape of Things Conference at UVA.  My hat for that conference is mitten-knitter and airport picker-upper, as well as respondent.  As chair of the MLA CIT facing my last meeting and a year of having done not nearly enough, I’m hoping to offer some direction to the committee for next year, which means thinking deep thoughts, preferably Neil Fraistat’s deep thoughts and not Jack Handey’s (see Neil’s status on gmail!).  I will rely on the work of other digital humanists — for instance, Lisa Spiro’s postings on “Digital Scholarship in the Humanities” which are better than most peer-reviewed articles (I include my own).  I am blogging about a day in the life at a moment when a) a day is about a year long, and b) there is nothing in my life but the digital, the humanities, or at least the eighteenth-century sort, and yarn.


6:00 a.m. Albuquerque Time–wrote 10 emails about digital humanities, plus initial blog.

I thought I would blog 20 times….

But only just have time again NOW, hours later.  What did I do?

I spent a number of hours on email, doing the following kinds of work:

  1. helping people with digital projects that they will submit to Romantic Circles (I have one email outstanding to answer);
  2. setting up meetings for next week concerning digital projects coming into existence;
  3. planning visits to collaborators;
  4. inviting people to participate in 18thConnect.

I was able to call Fiona Black, Professor in and Director of the School of Information Management of Dalhousie University.  She has been working for the last ten years or so on GIS for book history, and is in the process of producing historical maps of information about publishing in Canada.  She helped me think thoroughly about how I might map the production of literary miscellanies, anthologies, and annuals, and even sent me the entry manual for her database so that mine can imitate its fields.  This is a pure generosity on her part, and I plan to send her any information I dig up about Canadian book publishing in the 18th century.  Mapping book history on dynamic maps that change historically via a timeline, and/or creating documents for book-history tours in augmented reality: all will be possible.  What kind of research will come of it — what new kinds of questions can be asked based on locatedness within historically accurate physical networks?

I created my presentation for this afternoon, but can’t for some reason turn on the “20-second” advance feature: I keep clicking it, and hitting “apply” — all to no avail.  Will try one more time and then give up.

MLA Meeting in Second LifeAlso, I chaired a meeting of the Committee on Information Technology in Second Life, pictured above.  We accomplished a great deal, despite audio difficulties, one member too loud, another far too soft, my ears now ringing.  We have finished drafting revised guidelines for departments in granting tenure and promotion to faculty who do digital work, and guidelines for those faculty about how to accurately document their work.

We also drafted up a list of concerns, of things that the committee wishes to work on.  It seems to me that this is a crisis moment, and the digital world is front and center as both problem and solution.

But I was miserable because a meeting at ASECS between consumers and proprietors of digital resources took place at exactly the same time as my MLA meeting.  I wanted to clone myself: if I could have gone virtually in mind as well as body, all would have been well, but I couldn’t thoughtfully be in two places, nor even technically — if I had a 3G phone with an SL app maybe? Is there such a thing?

Now to my panel to hear about the work of fellow 18th-century scholars in the digital, and I’ll blog again after dinner.

It’s only 11 p.m. in Albuquerque

so I’m not too late for a final blog.  After being in the field of Digital Humanities for several years, I want to point out that, what distinguishes it for me from other fields is the amount of stamina it takes.  I just got back to my hotel room and the wifi which was available neither in the conference meeting rooms nor in the little restaurant with great sopapillas that we went to in Santa Fe (Tortilla Flats).

The panel called “The Digital Eighteenth Century 2.0 — part I” chaired by Lisa Maruca and George H. Williams was one of the best panels I have attended in a long time.  It was called a “roundtable,” and this time, thanks to panelists who ALL stuck to their allotted 7 minutes, we had an amazing discussion involving the whole room.  I captured some excellent comments and received permission to publish them.

Randall Cream discussed his Human Voices Project, a set of algorithms designed to generate semantically informed textual comparisons in order to generate — really — the very “intertext” discussed theoretically by Julia Kristeva.  His presentation got us all to discuss the relationship between “distant” and close reading.

George Williams made the most amazing comment about data-mining as a form of reading, and it made me think about a conversation I had had earlier in the week with someone resistant to such things.  That professor had said, “I trust what someone is doing when they read a text, but when they read a little chart or diagram of dots, all they are looking at is that little thing, not the actual texts represented by that  little thing.”  Today George said,

In our profession today, there is more than a little anxiety about how these changes in media and searchability / mining will affect what we do.  We do not yet agree on standards for interpreting the results — we don’t have the skills we need to understand what they do.

My friend’s comment plainly reveals this dilemma: he is a careful reader and writer; he wouldn’t make hasty generalizations about many texts based on one text, and our discipline does not yet have as a matter of course, as part of its tool box, and a sense of what counts as legitimate ideas that can be drawn from the dots — there are of course many illegitimate things that can be said.  Randall showed us a “wordle” of his dissertation which was mostly about Richard Sterne.  Stylistically, in writing books about literary texts, we often just write statements as if the text at hand were speaking or explaining itself.  That makes it possible to not repeat over and over again, “Sterne says that . . .”  Those three words are implicitly understood for pages and pages of analysis, until you switch back to a critical voice.  So in this wordle, a dissertation that was in large part written about Sterne, his name appears to be the same size (occurs with the same frequency) as the word “especially.” So what do frequency lists tell us?

Tonya Howe asked some penetrating questions: When we do close reading, is what we do really coded by something of which we are unaware?  Aren’t close and distant reading similarly capable of masking their underlying assumptions?  And then she said something really extraordinary: can’t computers be used to help us uncover these blindnesses?  That idea is precisely the point Jerome McGann makes over and over again in his work, that “seeing” some piece of text (reading / understanding it) is an inordinately complex perceptual and intellectual act, transferring huge amounts of information in ways that we are not yet fully capable of seeing, but modeling those texts via computers teaches us what we were doing without knowing it.

So many more great things were said at this panel — but I’m out of time, out of energy, and must stop for the day.