A little intro to using Drupal and Omeka from my colleague Ben Gehrels and I…
I hope this will provide a bit of perspective and guidance for those of you still wondering which tool you will use to build your EMIC project.
In my “Digital Romanticism” class with Michelle Levy at SFU, we recently hosted Professor Andrew Stauffer, Director of the NINES project at the University of Virginia. The resulting conversation touched on some core questions about the purpose of the digital humanities, and its future potential, particularly as it pertains to the question of scholarly communities. I think EMIC scholars will find there are interesting points of reference here for our own community-building efforts.
In preparation for the class, we read John Unsworth’s article “Scholarly Primitives: what methods do humanities researchers have in common, and how might our tools reflect this?” In this article (taken from a presentation he gave at a symposium in London) he gives a list of scholarly “primitives” - “basic functions common to scholarly activity across disciplines, over time, and independent of theoretical orientation.” These are: discovering; annotating; comparing; referring; sampling; illustrating; and representing.
Unsworth is clear that he doesn’t think this list is exhaustive, and I wonder if he (or you) would think that “creating community” should qualify as a primitive. Scholars have been incredibly good at creating communities (if you agree, contra i.e. Wendell Berry, that a community doesn’t need to inhabit one geographic location). The conversation that happens in these communities across space and time is crucial to scholarly work.
What excites me about NINES is that the community-oriented features of other non-scholarly online spaces are built into it in in a unique way. I haven’t seen other scholarly sites foreground tagging and discussing, with activities attached to personalizable profiles, in the same way NINES and 18thConnect have.
Sadly, these features are under-used. Talking with Professor Stauffer, I can see the clear need for NINES to use its limited resources on improving the more standard database functions that are the primary reason scholars find NINES so useful (improvements include building a tool, Typewright, that will allow scholars to correct OCR scans, for example).
If we agree that creating community is indeed a crucial part of scholarly work, however, then there is ample incentive to persist in community-building online. The added advantage of the web is that it often creates less hierarchical, more transparent communities with a lower barrier to entry than a non-digital community has. The general tendency of DH to reflect the decentralizing and empowering nature of the web within its own projects and communities is part of what, I think, makes it so exciting and potentially transformative.
It would be fantastic to focus on encouraging people to use the community-oriented functions on NINES (especially the tagging, since it has a clear link to democratizing the classification [and therefore control] of knowledge) but, as I said, NINES faces resource constraints and has other tasks it needs to do.
Getting creative, someone from our class had the fantastic suggestion that NINES could mirror the conversations that take place on some of the bigger nineteenth-century listservs. it seems scholars often don’t feel these conversations are the best use of inbox space, but that having a searchable archive of them would be very valuable and perhaps even help these conversations flourish. I also suggested trying to popularize a #nines hashtag on twitter, hopefully creating another conversation that could simply be mirrored on NINES (this would take time and resources to accomplish, however).
It’s not that scholarly conversation isn’t happening on the web – it’s just that it’s often not happening on purpose-built tools like the Nines discussion boards. One major learning in online outreach over the last few years has been to recognize that the phrase “If you build it, they will come” is simply not true. Instead, you need to find ways to meet people where they are, and then integrate conversations happening in different places.
I’m really impressed with the collaborative effort it must have taken just to get all of the NINES federated sites to play nicely with each other (a Star Trek joke just flickered across my mind, but I’ll leave it to your imagination). The EMIC Commons will be another example of a large-scale scholarly collaboration. But the online community-building efforts seem to lag behind. That’s to say nothing of the efforts to bridge academic and non-academic communities. Online scholarly community building will definitely require some very creative approaches, given some of the challenges Professor Stauffer outlined for us.
A quote from Unsworth’s article is relevant here: “The importance of the network in all of this cannot be overstated: with the possible exception of a class of activities we’ll call authoring, the most interesting things that you can do with standalone tools and standalone resources is, I would argue, less interesting and less important than the least interesting thing you can do with networked tools and networked resources. There is a genuine multiplier effect that comes into play when you can do even very stupid things across very large and unpredictable bodies of material, with other people.”
Keeping the potential of the multiplier effect in mind, I’m wondering if people have other thoughts about this question of creating community online. How does the aim of community-building fit into your DH/EMIC work, if at all?
The question of the relevance of the digital humanities came up in my Digital Romanticism class with Michelle Levy at SFU, and I’m hoping EMICites will share thoughts, particularly as it pertains to our own work.
We were reading Matthew Kirschenbaum’s piece “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments“, in which he defines DH via Wikipedia as “methodological by nature.” He continues by saying DH is “a common methodological outlook.”
A concern I raised is that, by focusing on its status as a methodology, we risk eliding the question of whether or not DH is actually a transformation of the humanities, not simply a way of doing the traditional humanities differently.
Are the end goals of DH the same as the end goals of the non-digital humanities? Or even: is DH a way of bringing a shared notion of ends back to the humanities, if we agree that this is something the humanities is missing?
My inclination is to say that DH is actually a transformation of the humanities, and one that we won’t fully understand for some years. There are two distinct paths I see now, and I would love to have a conversation about which one we want to go down (or whether, of course, there is some ‘middle way’).
One path sees DH fitting the humanities more neatly into a managerial paradigm. Because DH can more easily demonstrate that it requires and creates certain transferable, technical skill-sets, because of its work with quantitative indicators and data, etc. it is potentially more appealing to those who see a necessity for humanities work to produce those kinds of measurable outcomes.
This gets directly to the question that comes up almost every time we talk about where the humanities are going: are the humanities still relevant? I generally hear two types of answers to that question. The first is to submit to it completely, and argue that the humanities are relevant because of “critical thinking skills” that are essential in the workforce. This answer comes in the terms of managerial paradigm – I’ve heard the number of Globe and Mail journalists with English degrees cited as evidence of relevance here (and I have to say I question how good an indicator that is of the success of English programs).
The second type of answer to the question of relevance resists its terms entirely, and argues that it’s an unfair one, that it’s antithetical to the humanities to even think in those terms. This is basically the “education for education’s sake” argument.
What we discussed in class, and where I see a second path opening up, is that DH can give us a new outlook on relevance. Instead of submitting to the managerial paradigm entirely, or rejecting the question of relevance, what if we reframed the definition of relevance so that instead of meaning something like “having an effect on our value in a market economy” it meant something like “serving the public good” or even “serving the public good by refining our notion of what that means.”
In his article “Electronic Scholarly Editions” Kenneth Price tells us we should “celebrate this opportunity to democratize learning.” This is the second path opening up, one wherein DH transforms the humanities in ways that I think most DH scholars (certainly all EMICites I’ve talked with) embrace.
But sometimes (and I hope we can talk about this in future posts, and in the comments here) I think we too easily assume that DH will take this path by default. It likely won’t. If the second path is the one we want to take, we are being called upon now to be conscious of, and to clearly articulate, the ways in which our contributions democratize learning and serve the public good.
I’m really excited to hear what EMIC colleagues would say about this. How do these questions play out in your own scholarship and thinking? Have they shaped your involvement with DH or with EMIC, or even your plans for your own edition?
I’m researching at UBC with Professor Mary Chapman on a project to find as much of the work of Sui Sin Far / Edith Eaton as we possibly can, and wanted to share some of my knowledge around Google’s online collaboration tools and their potential usefulness for digital humanities research. I’d really welcome your comments on anything I’ll discuss here, and I’d love to know: would a Google group for all EMIC participants be a useful thing, in your opinion?
Unfortunately, I really can’t help you with the crucial part of this research: actually finding SSF’s writing. Mary is a cross between a super sleuth and some kind of occult medium, and has a process of finding leads that is as impressive as it is mystifying. Through her diligence and creativity, she’s found over 75 uncollected works by SSF, including mainly magazine fiction and newspaper journalism published all over North America.
This project has been going on for years; a dizzying number of different people have worked on various aspects of it. When I joined the project in April, multiple spreadsheets and Word documents (with many versions of each one) were the main tools for facilitating collaboration. Each RA seems to have had his or her own system for tracking details on the spreadsheets, so sometimes a sheet will say, for example, that all issues of a journal from 1901 have been checked, but need to be re-checked (for reasons not made clear!)
This represented a terrific opportunity for me, since like most literature students I’m by nature quite right-brained. Working with technology (primarily in the not-for-profit sector) has been a left-brain-honing exercise for me. My brain seems to be a bit like a bird: it flies better when both wings — the left and right halves — are equally developed.
Imposing some left-brain logic on all this beautiful right-brain intuition was actually a fairly straightforward task. First, I set a up a Google group so that current RAs would be able to talk to each other and to Mary:
Creating a Google group gives you an email address you can use to message all members of the group. Then those emails are stored under “Discussions” in the group, leaving a legacy of all emails sent. This is an extremely useful feature – imagine being able to look back and track the thought process of all the people who proceeded you in your current role? It also prevents Mary from being the only brain trust for the project, and therefore a potential bottleneck (or more overworked than she already is).
I then created a series of Google spreadsheets, one for each of the publications we’re chasing down, from the Excel spreadsheets Mary had on her computer. I also created a template – this both sets the standard that each of our spreadsheets should live up to (i.e. lists the essential information, like the accession number, and the preferred means of recording who has checked which issues) and makes it very easy to set up spreadsheets for any publications we discover are of interest in the future.
Finally, I created a master spreadsheet that tracks the status of all our research. More on how that works later on.
In my next post, I’d like to get into some of the specifics of how to use these tools, especially linking the documents to the group. I’d also really like to talk about the efficacy of this system, and the issues it raises: including the fact that, if any Google products (or Google itself) ever go Hal-3000 on us, we’re screwed.
Emily, Chris et. al. were gracious enough to welcome us into their home-away-from-home for a little get-together this evening at DHSI. Fun was had – there’s photographic evidence:
EMiC has been getting some real love in the #dhsi2010 stream on Twitter. For those of you not using Twitter, here are some of the major observations about EMiC that you’ve been missing:
baruchbenedict: I am now doing my first tweet. I owe it all to Meagan.
Yes kids, that’s Zailig Pollock, on Twitter.