What Makes Computational Evidence Significant for Literary-Historical Argument?

I’ve been invited to submit an initial position paper for the Arguing with Digital History workshop, to be held at The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media in September 2017. Following Michelle Moravec’s lead, I’d like to offer my response publicly, most especially because of the ways these thoughts were written alongside and intertwine with Zoe LeBlanc’s provocative questions on Twitter and the valuable thread of responses to them from the community. We have been asked to come to the workshop prepared to modify our views as a result of the discussion, so I’d like to be clear that these are initial and deliberately provocative thoughts which are very open to amendment or even wholesale rethinking. Also, we were asked to keep these position papers to two pages, which I’m already a bit over, so I apologize if some lines of thought feel truncated. There is so much more to say about…well…about all of this.

Argumentation for digital history stumbles over the ontology of its evidence. I’m writing here about corpus-scale analysis, the digital methodology I know best from my work on the Viral Texts project, and variously named by terms like “distant reading” or “cultural analytics.” Though the specifics of these methods are hotly debated, we might gather them under the sign of scale, a notion of “reading”—and I’d like to make that word do more work than perhaps it should—across wider sets of materials than was typical for humanists prior to computational methods.

Recently in literary-historical circles, Katherine Bode has inspired a much-needed discussion about the corpora on which computational analyses are based. Drawing on traditions of book history and textual scholarship, Bode critiques Moretti and Jockers, in particular, as metonymies for distant reading approaches:

Moretti and Jockers construct literary systems as comprised of singular and stable entities, while also imagining that they capture the complexity of such systems in the process. In fact, because their datasets miss most historical relationships between literary works, their analyses are forced to rely upon basic features of new literary production to constitute both the literary phenomenon requiring explanation, and the explanation for it.

Most incisively, Bode shows how much “distant reading” work reconstitutes the primary assumption of close reading: “the dematerialized and depopulated understanding of literature in Jockers’s work enacts the New Criticism’s neglect of context, in a manner rendered only more abstract by the large number of ‘texts’ under consideration.” The problem may be, in other words, not that computational analysis departs from analog methods, but that we interpret the results of corpus-level analysis too much like we interpret individual texts. To be provocative, I might rephrase to say that we don’t yet as a field understand precisely how corpus-scale phenomena make their meaning, or how those meanings relate back to codex-scale artifacts.

I can pick on myself to clarify what I mean (and here I’m paraphrasing some points I make in “Scale as Deformance”). In the Viral Texts project, we have developed sophisticated methods for identifying reprinted pieces across nineteenth-century newspaper corpora. When we find, say, a popular science article that was reprinted 150 times around the world, that cluster of texts can help us think about circulation, genre, and networks of influence among editors in the period. When compared with other texts circulating around the same time, it can teach us something about the concerns, interests, and priorities of readers and editors as well. But a textual cluster is not singular—it is in fact defined by its multiplicity—and the meaning of its reprinting does not evenly distribute across the 150 individual witnesses that make up the cluster. Some of the nineteenth century editors who reprinted a given piece, and some of the nineteenth century readers who read it, would have known it was “making the rounds,” and may have had a sense of its wide reach. However, no nineteenth-century person had the corpus-scale perspective on a given cluster that we do from the wild surmise of a CSV file. An article embedded in a complex textual system signifies in both networked and highly local ways, but we cannot easily extrapolate from the meanings we assign a cluster (among many other clusters) to the meanings of its constituent texts, much less the readers of those texts.

There has been much written (including by me!) about the need for zoomable, scalable, or macroscopic reading that puts insights drawn from distinct scales in conversation. However, I would argue that thus far digital (literary) history has not adequately theorized the middle ground between corpus and codex, or developed methods that can meaningfully relate corpus-scale patterns to individual texts without pretending that patterns at each scale can be understood under the same interpretive paradigm. I would go so far as suggesting the macroscope is not the most useful metaphor for structuring digital historical arguments, as it implies a seamless movement between scales that the realities of analysis belie. Perhaps new metaphors are needed for expressing the continuities and disjunctures between analyses at distinct scales.

Why do scholarly metaphors matter to argument in digital history? We have been so insistent on seamless movement between scales—and so resistant to appearing like positivists or cliometricians—that we have failed to develop field-specific paradigms for interpreting the results of corpus-scale text analyses. What standards we have are imported from other fields such as corpus linguistics, but as such they must be rearticulated and renegotiated for every article, website, or book we publish. More importantly, as Scott Weingart has shown, “methodology appropriation is dangerous and, frankly, our colleagues are right to look with skepticism on methods imported wholesale from other disciplines. Ted Underwood’s recent “A Genealogy of Distant Reading” offers important context here, noting that, “linguistics may be looming a little too large in the foreground of contemporary narratives about distant reading, so much that it blocks our view of other things,” including forebears in humanities fields prior to computation. We needn’t impugn the practices of disciplines from which we could indeed learn much, but we should insist that imported methodologies be understood, examined, and reimagined to meet the specific needs of literary or historical research.

To cite a specific example, computational historical arguments require models for effective sampling, which might help clarify how analyses at distinct scales relate to one another. To put it bluntly, we have no idea what an effective sample from a literary or historical corpus should look like. What random sample of novels (or newspaper pages, or museum artifact descriptions) could I topic model from a given corpus with some confidence it can represent the larger collection? As humanists we are well prepared to nuance notions of “representativeness,” but those necessary caveats cannot leave us with the answer that sampling must be reinvented anew for every corpus and every study, which would indeed leave us explicating data in much the same way Cleanth Brooks explicated “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” We also cannot default to the answer that humanists can only sample in the same way that sociologists or political scientists or linguists do. My point is: we lack even rough guidelines around which to debate, but we could have those conversations.

I will end with a too-brief reflection on significance: a word with quite specific meanings in quantitative fields that we cannot port entire into literature or history. In the Viral Texts project, there are certain features of nineteenth-century newspapers we can only study—at least as of yet—through their presence, which makes their statistical significance difficult to gauge. When I write, for instance, that “information literature” is an interesting feature of widely-reprinted newspaper texts in the nineteenth century, my standard of significance comes from codex-scale work. I have read a lot of nineteenth century newspapers and so understand these genres in the context of their medium. From that starting point, information literature seems more common in those pieces we identify as widely reprinted than I would expect. But I cannot estimate the presence of “information literature” in articles that were not reprinted, while the fragmentary coverage of our corpora—to return to Bode—ensures that many reprinted pieces are not identified as such, as their source newspapers are either not digitized or are included in other corpora to which we do not have access.

While I mostly agree with Weingart’s more recent claims that “[c]omputational history has gotten away with a lot of context-free presentations of fact,” I would insist that comparative statistics are not the only—or often the most compelling—method for building such context. When I write about “information literature” as significant don’t mean that it appears more often than it would in some theoretical null corpus. I am not talking about a p-value. As Weingart mentions, however, we might look also toward other kinds of “deviations from expectations,” including expectations set by previous field literature. I note the prevalence of reprinted information literature as conspicuous given the dearth of critical attention paid to information literature in prior literary-historical criticism. Very few scholars have attended seriously to short, popular science; trivia; recipes; household tips; listicles; and related genres despite the fact that they filled newspapers and circulated around the globe. There might be a reason to work toward measuring the statistical significance of information literature. We could train a classifier using our extracted information literature, for instance, and then attempt to discern how many non-reprinted newspaper texts are information literature. From there we could compare the proportion of the genres in reprints to their proportion in the larger corpus. But if our goal is to make arguments that will impact literary or historical criticism, it is far more essential that the patterns we trace computationally speak to significant questions or gaps of attention in our disciplines. There is nothing wrong with using statistical measures as evidence, but such measures cannot be the extent of our accounts.

For corpus-scale analyses to resonate with humanities scholars, we must be “more ambitious,” as Miriam Posner has urged, in “rebuilding the machinery of the archive and database so that it doesn’t reproduce the logic” of exclusion and marginalization embedded into computational tools. Posner worries that digital humanists “seem happy to flatten the world into known data structures” to which I would add that we seem likewise happy to flatten our data mining to methods and measures established in other disciplines. Part of rebuilding the machinery requires us to articulate discipline-specific models for relating text and corpus without collapsing them into each other. I am drawn again and again to Lauren Klein’s description of topic modeling as “a technique that stirs the archive,” and such stirring remains to my mind the most compelling use for computational analyses in literary-historical corpora. But we need a better vocabulary for describing the composition of our archives, the outcomes of our archival remixing, and the interpretive space in between.

Objectivity and Distant Reading

Preamble

Recently I was in my colleague Ben Schmidt’s office and spotted a weighty tome I’d not seen before: Objectivity by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison. Ben told me that the book has been the focus of much discussion in history of science circles over the past few years. History of science is not a field I’m well versed in, though I’ve been dipping into its literature recently, and so I ordered a copy of Objectivity and began (slowly, as other work allows) reading. Almost immediately upon beginning the book I began recommending it to colleagues and graduate students, so much so that a group of us decided it would make sense to start a summer reading group around it rather than all approaching the book independently. As we read and that group meets, I plan to document some of my thoughts about the book here, in large part because the book seems to be mostly unknown within DH scholarship. I recently asked NU Ph.D. student Gregory Palermo to help me determine how often the book has been cited in DHQ, for instance, and he found precisely one citation.

I was drawn to read Objectivity as part of my growing interest, following the work of scholars such as Lauren Klein or Jacqueline Wernimont, in pre-histories of computing: around ideas of information, data, programming, quantification, or visualization. I am drawn to such work because I believe deep historicization can help build a more robust and integrative digital humanities. In such a DH computation—and in this post that word is, admittedly, doing too much work, but—in such a DH computation would not be simply a powerful modern tool applied to the past or, equally simply, an impoverished neoliberal framework incommensurate with the nuances of the past. Instead, computation would be both subject and methodology, both of history and capable of dialogue with history. More robust historical contextualization can, I believe, assist on all sides of the DH debates, mitigating both the millennial and apocalyptic rhetoric swirling around the field. Continue reading

A Larger View of Digital American Studies

The following is a short response article that will appear in Amerikastudien/American Studies 61.3 (2016). Thanks to their very generous copyright policy (in brief: authors keep rights) I am glad to share the piece here as well. Obviously I cannot reproduce Alex Dunst’s article, to which I am responding, on my personal research blog, but hopefully my general points of agreement and divergence will be clear enough to readers without access to Amerikastudien/American Studies. With limited space I could not be as capacious as I might otherwise be describing intriguing current research in digital American Studies. I restricted myself to more computational work not because I see it as constituting the boundaries of the field—as I hope this piece does make very clear—but instead to show that even within the subfields of computational text and image analysis we are seeing projects bloom that defy any dichotomy—offered in praise or condemnation—between empirical or theoretical analyses. Side note: for this journal I had to use in MLA style, which I haven’t done in awhile and feel weird about.


By abandoning our conception of the computer as merely a mechanical clerk suited mostly to repetitive routine operations, by learning to know its features, uses, limitations, and possibilities—its nature, in short—we shall be properly re-organizing our thinking for the new age. What the computer will enable us to do in our humanistic tasks has hardly been imagined yet. Even immoderate speculation tends to fall behind the new reality.

Louis T. Milic, “The Next Step” (1966)

The digital humanities are large; they contain multitudes: a rewriting of Whitman that can read equally as commendation or condemnation. To cite a specific example, it might surprise that scholars who devote their work to the textually minute processes of editing and encoding digital scholarly editions rightly consider themselves members of the same field as scholars who develop algorithms for classifying data across millions of works. Yet both of these things are digital humanities (DH). Continue reading

Network Analysis Workshop

I regularly run workshops on humanities network analysis. For participants, I’ve compiled some starting instructions, sample data files, and suggested reading below.

Recommended Reading

Tools for Network Analysis

There are many options at various skill levels for humanists interested in network analysis. Here are just a few:

  • If you’re looking for an especially straightforward platform for basic network analyses, you might check out Palladio which adapts the platform designed for Stanford’s Mapping the Republic of Letters project for other scholars’ use. Martin Düring’s tutorial at the Programming Historian focuses on extracting network data from unstructured text and visualizing it in Palladio, and Miriam Posner’s “Getting Started with Palladio” introduces the tool’s network functionalities (along with much else).
  • You can also create basic network graphs using Fusion Tables.
  • If you are running Windows with Microsoft Excel installed, Node XL aims to make generating network graphs from an Excel spreadsheet as easy as creating a pie chart. Unfortunately Node XL is incompatible with Mac versions of Excel.
  • And of course, if you’re comfortable with programming languages there are plenty of methods for generating network graphs by hand. Taylor Arnold and Lauren Tilton write about using R for network analysis in Humanities Data in R and Lincoln Mullen has a growing resource in Digital History Methods in R, including an in-progress chapter on networks.

This Workshop: Gephi

For this workshop, we will be using Gephi, one of the most widely-used tools for network analysis and visualization. You will need to download and install the application before we can get started. If you find it runs slowly (or not at all) you might need to update Java on your system.

Workshop Data

Sample data can be found in this folder. You can download them all as a zip file or download files separately as we need them.

What Has the Digital Meant to American Periodicals Scholarship?

Note: this is a peer reviewed, uncopyedited post-print of an article that appears in American Periodicals 26.1 (2016), which is now available at Project Muse. It is part of a phenomenal forum on Digital Approaches to Periodical Studies that includes essential pieces (in order of appearance) by Elizabeth Hopwood, Benjamin Fagan, Kim Gallon, Jeffrey Drouin, and Amanda Gailey.

What has digitization meant for periodical studies, and what might it mean in the future? We should first consider how the digital archive changes notions of access, both political and practical. James Mussell notes that “the conditions that permitted newspapers and periodicals” to become the central medium of discourse in the nineteenth century—“their seriality, abundance, ephemerality, diversity, heterogeneity—posed problems for those who wanted to access their contents” in print forms.[1] The periodicals archive is vast and largely unindexed. In ways so basic and fully transformative that we easily overlook them, digitization and its attendant technology, keyword search, have already changed periodicals scholarship entirely, allowing researchers to easily identify topics of interest across swathes of newspapers, magazines, and related materials, and to just as easily incorporate those media as evidence for historical, literary, or other claims. As Ted Underwood reminds us, “[a]lgorithmic mining of large electronic databases has been quietly central to the humanities for two decades. We call this practice ‘search,’ but ‘search’ is a deceptively modest name for a complex technology that has come to play an evidentiary role in scholarship.”[2] Though other forms of computational analysis will certainly influence periodicals research in the near future, the most dramatic methodological shift has already happened.

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‘Q i-jtb the Raven’: Taking Dirty OCR Seriously

The following is a talk I will deliver on January 9, 2016 for the Bibliography and Scholarly Editing Forum’s panel at MLA 2016. It is part of a longer article in progress.

On November 28, 1849 the Lewisburg Chronicle, and the West Branch Farmer published one of the most popular poems of the nineteenth century, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”

The November 28, 1849 Lewisburg Chronicle, and the West Branch Farmer
The November 28, 1849 Lewisburg Chronicle, and the West Branch Farmer

The Lewisburg Chronicle’s “Raven” is one version among many printed after Poe’s death in 1849—“By Edgar A. Poe, dec’d”—interesting as a small signal of the poem’s circulation and reception. It is just such reprinting that we are tracing in the Viral Texts project, in which we use computational methods to automatically surface patterns of reprinting across nineteenth-century newspaper archives.

And so this version of the poem also becomes interesting as a digitized object in the twenty-first century, in which at least one iteration of the poem’s famous refrain is rendered by optical character recognition as, “Q i-jtb the Raven, ‘Nevermore’” (OCR is a term for computer programs that identify machine-readable words from a scanned page image, and is the source for most of the searchable data in large-scale digital archives). What is this text—this digital artifact I access in 2016? Where did it come from, and how did it come to be?
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Scale as Deformance

When I was ten years old my parents bought me a microscope set for Christmas. I spent the next weeks eagerly testing everything I could under its lens, beginning with the many samples provided in the box. I could not bring myself to apply the kit’s scalpel to the fully-preserved butterfly—which is intact still in the microscope box in my parents’ attic—but soon I had exhausted all of the pre-made slides: sections of leaves, insect wings, crystalline minerals, scales from fish or lizard skin. The kit also included the supplies to create new slides. I wanted to see blood—my blood. And so with my mom’s help I pricked the tip of my finger with a very thin needle, so I could squeeze a single drop of blood onto the thin glass slide. I remember how it smeared as I applied the plastic coverslip to the top of the slide, and I remember the sense of wonder as I first saw my own blood through the microscope’s lens. Gone was the uniform red liquid, replaced by a bustling ecosystem of red and white cells, walls and enormous spaces where none had been when I was looking with my unaided eye.

Looking at my blood through a microscope, I learned something new and true about it, but that micro view was not more true than familiar macro images. My blood is red and white cells jostling in clear plasma; my blood is also a red liquid that will run in bright-red rivulets from a pin-prick, or clot in dun-red patches over a wound. At micro-scales beyond the power of my children’s microscope, we could focus on the proteins that comprise the membrane of a red blood cell; at even more macro-scales we might consider a blood bank, organizing bags of blood by type for use in emergency rooms.

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Reprinting, Circulation, and the Network Author in Antebellum Newspapers

This is a pre-print version of this article. The final, edited version appears in American Literary History 27.3 (August 2015). An accompanying methods paper co-written by me, David Smith, and Abby Mullen can be found on the Viral Texts Project site.

I. Introduction[1]

When Louis F. Anderson took over the editorship of the Houma Ceres in 1856, he admitted that he was “not…very distinguished as a ‘knight of the gray goose quill,'” but assured his new readers that “our pen will not lead us into difficulty” because “our ‘principal assistant,’ the scissors, will be called into frequent requisition—believing as we do, that a good selection is always preferable to a bad editorial” (June 28, 1856).[2] Thus, Anderson sums up a set of attitudes toward the production, authorship, and circulation of newspaper content within a system founded on textual borrowing. In the antebellum US context, circulation often substituted for authorship; the authority of the newspaper rested on networks of information exchange that underlay its production. “Nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment,” Alexis de Tocqueville writes, describing circulation as a technology—like the rail and telegraph—compressing space and time, linking individuals around the nation by “talk[ing] to you briefly every day of the common weal” (111). In both examples, the newspaper’s primary value stems from whom and how it connects. Continue reading

Going Viral in Nineteenth-Century Newspapers

The following is an excerpt from my article “Viral Textuality in Nineteenth-Century US Newspaper Exchanges,” which is forthcoming in Vernoica Alfano and Andrew Stauffer (eds.), Virtual Victorians: Networks, Connections, Technologies, May 2015, Palgrave MacMillan. Reproduced with the permission of Palgrave MacMillan. The article draws on the findings of the Viral Texts Project at Northeastern University.

[…]

In the Rossetti Archive, Jerome McGann seeks to represent the “social text” by including all editions of a given work in an online archive, rather than simply the “Reading Text” and “Variorum Text” of the standard critical edition. However, even the social text model remains focused on discrete works—books, most often, though also stories or poems—that can be collated and compared as distinct entities. Virality is messier, aligning fragmentary texts and textual echoes not only through books but also through ephemeral and hybrid media; the latter of these is exemplified by the nineteenth-century newspaper. The “viral text” of a particular poem would include official and unofficial reprintings, but also parodies, quotations, reviews, paraphrases, allusions, and more—what Julia Flanders has named “reception items.” A theory of viral textuality must wrestle with unusually capacious ideas of “the text,” including in its purview the continually shifting penumbrae of readers’ responses that testify to that text’s life within culture(s).

For this reason, virality proves especially useful for thinking about how texts circulated in the increasingly complex mass media ecology of the United States during the nineteenth century. During this time, newspapers and magazines proliferated, and this rapid expansion of the print sphere was accelerated by a system of content sharing among publications. The periodical press in the United States depended on “exchanges,” through which editors subscribed to each other’s publications (paying little to no postage for the privilege), and borrowed content promiscuously from each other’s subscriptions. Texts of all kinds were reprinted—typically without authors’ or publishers’ permission—across books, newspapers, and magazines. Content shared through the exchange system was not protected under intellectual property law. Instead, periodical texts were considered common property for reprinting, with or without modification—much as articles, music videos, and other content are shared online today among blogs and social media sites. And as is the case today, antebellum content creators reacted in disparate ways to these sharing practices. Some writers and editors compared reprinting to theft, decrying a system that popularized writers’ work without supporting them financially. Others exploited the reprinting system in order to build a reputation that could be leveraged toward paid literary employment.

The spread of “viral” content in nineteenth-century newspapers depended on a range of factors, from the choices of editors to the preferences of readers to the material requirements of composing a given day’s issue. The frequently reprinted listicle “Editing a Paper,” for instance, lays out the dilemma that faced nineteenth-century editors considering whether and how much to reprint:

If we publish telegraph reports, people will say they are nothing but lies.
If we omit them, they will say we have no enterprise, or suppress them for political effect . . .
If we publish original matter, they find fault with us for not giving selections.
If we publish selections, folks say we are lazy for not writing more and giving them what they have not read before in some other paper.
(11 July 1863)

The first reprinting of “Editing a Paper” identified by the Viral Texts project appears in the Big Blue Union of Marysville, Kansas, but even here an editorial preface claims that the list has been “going the rounds of the papers. If we knew in what paper it first appeared,” the editor continues, “it would afford us pleasure to give the writer due credit.” This piece and its preface illustrate much about editors’ and, presumably, readers’ attitudes toward reprinting, and how those attitudes might line up with modern ideas of viral media.

Considering nineteenth-century newspaper snippets as “viral media” allows us to frame their spread in terms of “rhetorical velocity,” a term first developed by Jim Ridolfo and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss to describe online composition practices in which writers take reuse and remixing as a given and compose with an eye toward facilitating such reinterpretive acts. Such writers take as their primary assumption that a piece will be recomposed by others—reprinted or otherwise remediated. Ridolfo and DeVoss propose that “when academics uphold distinctions between author and producer, we are left in an uncomplicated, often acontextual space that does not provide the tools we need to best negotiate the ways in which production and authorship become more slippery in digital spaces and within remix projects.” They argue, “The term rhetorical velocity means a conscious rhetorical concern for distance, travel, speed, and time, pertaining specifically to theorizing instances of strategic appropriation by a third party.” In other words, “rhetorical velocity” posits “the text” through multiple dimensions, charting its uses and movements—both social and geographic—alongside its evolving content. What’s more, a piece need not be consciously crafted for a wide audience to have rhetorical velocity; if it is compelling, concise, and easily modified, then it can go viral with or without its creator’s knowledge.

While Ridolfo and DeVoss refer specifically to composing practices online, the frame of rhetorical velocity offers insight into widely reprinted newspaper content during the nineteenth century. Nineteenth-century editors relied on the exchange system to provide engaging content, and they in turn composed (or solicited) original pieces with an eye toward their readers and those of the papers with which they exchanged. In the first post–Civil War issue of the Pulaski Citizen, for instance, editor Luther W. McCord apologizes for the sorry state of “The News” in the paper because “we have no exchanges yet, from which to make up our news items. Our readers can readily appreciate,” the squib continues, “the impossibility of making an interesting paper without something to make it of.” McCord then assures readers that they “hope to have a full list of exchanges by next week and, per consequence, a more readable number of the Citizen” (January 5, 1866). This apology echoes a common notion among editors in the period: newspapers that aggregated content from exchanges were of higher and more consistent quality than newspapers written entirely by locals. In other words, McCord assumes that his primary job will be selecting and propagating writing from elsewhere—contributing to the rhetorical velocity of content written for a distributed network, not for individual newspapers.

We must therefore assume that newspaper editors and writers were concerned with the rhetorical velocity of what they published; a newspaper whose content was regularly reprinted in other newspapers would soon be added to more exchanges, as editors further down the line sought the source of the pieces they encountered in intermediary papers. This would, in turn, increase the popular newspaper’s circulation and subscription fees. Indeed, when considering nineteenth-century newspaper snippets, we might speak of “composing for recomposition” in a more technical way, using “composition” not only in its modern sense, as a near synonym for “writing,” but also as a printers’ term of art. As scholars such as Ellen Gruber Garvey have shown, texts were reprinted in newspapers to help editors compose entire daily or weekly newspapers with small staffs. “By yoking together scattered producers who shared labor and resources by sending their products to one another for free use,” the network of newspapers sustained the proliferation of its medium. In other words, reprinting existed in large part to meet the material needs of publication. Many of the changes introduced into texts as they circulated through the newspaper network—a line removed here, two lines added there—were motivated by these practical considerations, as a given newspaper’s compositors shaped exchange content to fill empty spaces on a nearly composed page. It seems reasonable to presume that as a newspaper’s compositors prepared their pages each day or week, they expected—perhaps even hoped—that other compositors in their exchange networks would later recompose their texts, extending the texts’ rhetorical velocity to reach distant audiences.

[…]

To read the rest (along with fantastic work by other C19 scholars), preorder Virtual Victorians.

How Not to Teach Digital Humanities

The following is a talk I’ve revised over the past few years. It began with a post on “curricular incursion”, the ideas of which developed through a talk at DH2013 and two invited talks, one at the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities in March 2014 and another at the Freedman Center for Digital Scholarship’s “Pedagogy and Practices” Colloquium at Case Western Reserve University in November 2014. I’ve embedded a video from the latter presentation at the bottom of the article. There is a more polished version of the article available in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016.

“À l’ École,” Villemard (1910)

In late summer of 2010, I arrived on the campus of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. I was a newly-minted assistant professor, brimming with optimism, and the field with which I increasingly identified my work—this “digital humanities”—had just been declared “the first ‘next big thing’ in a long time” by William Pannapacker in his Chronicle of Higher Education column. “We are now realizing,” Pannapacker had written of the professors gathered at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention, “that resistance is futile.” So of course I immediately proposed a new “Introduction to Digital Humanities” course for upper-level undergraduates at St. Norbert. My syllabus was, perhaps, hastily constructed—patched together from “Intro to DH” syllabi in a Zotero group—but surely it would pass muster. They had hired me, after all; surely they were keen to see digital humanities in the curriculum. In any case, how could the curricular committee reject “the next big thing?” particularly when resistance was futile?

But reject it they did. They wrote back with concerns about the “student constituency” for the course, its overall theme, my expected learning outcomes, the projected enrollment, the course texts, and the balance between theoretical and practical instruction in the day-to-day operations of the class.

  1. What would be the student constituency for this course? It looks like it will be somewhat specialized and the several topics seems to suggest graduate student level work. Perhaps you could spell out the learning objectives and say more about the targeted students. There is a concern about the course having sufficient enrollment.
  2. The course itself could be fleshed out more. Is there an implied overall theme relating to digital technology other than “the impact of technology on humanities research and pedagogy”? Are there other texts and readings other than “A Companion to Digital Studies”? How much of the course will be “learning about” as distinct from “learning how to”?

My initial reaction was umbrage; I was certain my colleagues’ technological reticence was clouding their judgement. But upon further reflection—which came through developing, revising, and re-revising this course from their feedback, and learning from students who have taken each version of the course—I believe they were almost entirely right to reject that first proposal.

As a result of these experiences, I’ve been thinking more and more about the problem of “digital humanities qua digital humanities,” particularly amidst the accelerated growth of undergraduate classes that explicitly engage with digital humanities methods. In the first part of this talk, I want to outline three challenges I see hampering truly innovative digital pedagogy in humanities classrooms. To do so, I will draw on my experiences at two very different campuses—the first a small, relatively isolated liberal arts college and the second a medium-sized research university—as well as those of colleagues in a variety of institutions around the country.

As an opening gambit, I want to suggest that undergraduate students do not care about digital humanities. I want to suggest further that their disinterest is right and even salutary, because what I really mean is that undergrads do not care about DH qua DH. In addition, I don’t think most graduate students in literature, history, or other humanities fields come to graduate school primarily invested in becoming “digital humanists,” though there are of course exceptions. Continue reading