Editing Modernism in Canada


June 8, 2014

Thirty-three ways of looking at a DHSI week

dhsi_blog_image_2In 2012, after a brilliant week of taking the GIS course at DHSI, I wrote a post with twenty-two reasons to go to DHSI. I did not think it was possible, but this week has been even better than that one, in part because I am now much further in to my work with digital methods, and my comfort levels are much higher. So, herewith a followup post, two years on, with eleven further reasons to convince anyone who hasn’t yet drunk the kool-aid, or to choose a more database-appropriate metaphor, taken the red pill.

1) First of all, the feeling of being stretched and challenged in entirely unpredictable ways: of being taken way outside of my comfort zone, having my object of study taken away from me, exploded into unrecognisable pieces, conceptually reassembled, and handed back to me. It’s a cliche that DH forces us think differently about what we do and how we do it, but the generative experience of actually doing this intensely for an entire week with experts in the room is an immense privilege, in a world where the imperatives to knock out REF-able publications, achieve “impact” with our research, climb ever higher on departmental and university rankings tables and so forth–these are our UK imperatives; there are others in the north American context–militate against the deep immersion that we need to do our best work.

2) I’m going to give the Databases course its own reason to go to DHSI. Yes, really. Databases. It sounds dismal. It’s anything but. Take this course if your research involves even a moderate amount of data-gathering (hint: if you are using Excel and find yourself adding extra columns, putting in lots of null values and becoming dissatisfied with the way your tables represent whatever it is you are studying, a relational database is probably what you want instead). Harvey is hilarious, and long impromptu riffs on an eclectic medley of pop culture texts turn into serious points about the theoretical and practical exigencies of working with relational databases. The pedagogical component of this course is top-notch: he has thought very hard about how to make the material intuitively graspable by people who are not trained as computer scientists. Come for the standup, stay for the profound transformations to your thinking.

3) Almost as good as databases is … free beer! A prize for accidentally walking up to the registration table at exactly three o’clock. I didn’t think I could be happier about arriving in Victoria under deep blue skies, reconnecting with EMiC friends and starting a week of databases, but turns out free beer will do the trick.

4) An antidote to years of finding the command line intimidating. Decades, in fact: our first family computer had an MS-DOS prompt into which my brother typed arcane magic words, and the helplessness I felt watching the screen fill up with glowy green type is a visceral memory. After a 45 minute unconference session with Jonathan Martin, it is intimidating no more, and in fact to my surprise somewhat intuitive. For those who want to try, the resource we used is called Learn Code the Hard Way.

5) The vault of collective knowledge that it is possible to tap into via the #dhsi2014 hashtag. Trying to quickly clean up a data set, I sent out a plaintive cry for help with a regex to remove URLs, and three lovely people answered in under a minute with suggestions. (Happy ending: I figured it out myself! Woohoo! It is the world’s ugliest regex, but it works.)

6) Twitter, which this year was something of a different experience. There was absolutely no chance of following the #dhsi2014 backchannel, given that new tweets popped up on it roughly every three and a half seconds, and in fact the TAGS spreadsheet keeping the twitter archive broke. So, because I couldn’t follow it completely, I dipped in and out. While I know I will have missed many things, I feel like I still got something of a decent sense of many of the most interesting conversations–the conversations about gender happening in #femdh, or Susan Brown’s wisdom about managing large and long-running projects in the #cwrcshop, for instance–which could then be followed up in meatspace by collaring friends who had been sitting in those classes. I do feel marginally less tapped out brain-wise than I have in previous years, so that’s a plus. DHSI is obviously not getting any smaller in the near future, so we’re all going to have to find other ways of filtering the backchannel.

7) Serendipity, which always happens at DHSI: it is like some kind of magic fairy dust that Ray arranges to have sprinkled around the campus. Discovering that the person standing behind me in the line at the Monday night reception was a topic modelling guru who graciously let me pull out my laptop so he could show me around a topic modelling tool with a nice GUI. Finding that Emily Robins-Sharpe also teaches transnational modernisms and swapping notes on texts we put on our syllabi. Giving a paper at the colloquium and getting tweets from people working on similar areas, and meeting afterwards to share resources.

8) Victoria and its serene beauty: the fir trees, the beach, deer grazing on the cluster lawn in the twilight, a faun trotting after its mother, a lone bunny hopping past a cluster house. #comebackbunnies

9) Meeting people, all the people, all the time. People who I have gotten to know virtually and whose work I have admired from afar – Scott Weingart, Paul Fyfe, Alex Gil – and whom it was a pleasure to finally meet in person and continue conversations that had already started online. People with whom there’s lots of common ground research-wise: Paul Barrett, for instance, who is doing some intriguing work on topic modelling the archive of Austin Clarke, and Alana Fletcher, who knows the Queen’s University archives like the back of her hand and who is, happily, willing to work on digitizing the Crawley materials. And of course picking up with everyone with whom the Atlantic ocean gets in the way of hanging out on an everyday basis: my excellent Twentieth-Century Literary Letters project collaborators; my fabulous housemates Hannah, Lee & Karis who have all three had wonderful professional successes since the last time we caught up, which make me happy to know them and to be associated with them through EMiC. Let me have a shot at doing this as a left join …

USE dhsiclub
SELECT firstname, lastname, “, “, role_name
FROM role, person_role, person, dhsi_attendees, dhsi_class
WHERE dhsi_class.class_id=dhsi_attendees.class_id, dhsi_attendees.person_id=person.person_id, person.person_id=person_role.person_id, person_role.role_id=role.role_id
AND dhsi_class.class_year=2014

10) Developing my thinking about the letter as cultural artefact, and about the work of transmission that it performs. Thinking beyond its existence within document culture (see, Harvey, I’m learning) and reimagining it within database culture, its magical power to connect not just people but places, texts and ideas comes to the fore. And tabulating those elements in a database enables us to query them, ie. relate them, in ways that we cannot if we look at them within document culture.

11) Finally, if I had to pick one overriding quality of DHSI, it would be generosity. I’ve had the privilege of participating in DHSI over the past six years because Dean was generous (farsighted? foolish?) enough to invite me, as an early-career scholar, to be a co-applicant on EMiC. The ramifications of this act of generosity will continue to ripple out for a long time for me, and I have a difficult time articulating how important my involvement in EMiC has been, especially as I write this at the end of a week in which all the words have gone because all the brain is full. Along with Dean’s generosity, there’s the generosity of other Canadian faculty and graduate students who have been welcoming to an interloper with a peculiar interest in the literature of their country. (“Why would anyone outside Canada want to study Can lit?” is the question that emerges, politely, sooner or later in most conversations. The answer, for the record, is: because awesome.)

EMiC colleagues, from the most eminent senior scholars to just-beginning graduate students, I can’t tell you how much your friendship and your intellectual company means to me, at DHSI and the other occasions when I’m fortunate enough to hang out with you physically, virtually, or on the page. Thank you all, and may we continue to be left joined connected for many years to come.

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