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

“Many Facts in Small Compass”: Information Literature in C19 Newspapers (MLA15 Talk)

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Ryan Cordell, Northeastern University

MLA 2015 | Vancouver, BC

Download talk slides.

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My remarks today will be drawn from my work on the Viral Texts project at Northeastern University. In brief, I’m working with a colleague in computer science to automatically identify the most frequently-reprinted texts in digitized archives of nineteenth-century newspapers. We have thus far drawn from the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America collection, but are currently expanding the corpora from which we are drawing to include magazines, as well as a broader selection of American and transatlantic newspapers. We have identified nearly half a million reprinted texts from the LoC’s nineteenth-century holdings. The majority of these were reprinted only a few times, but a significant minority were reprinted in 50, 100, or even 200 newspapers from this one archive.

We went into this project in search of the literature, such as newspaper poetry, that flourished in a print culture founded on textual sharing and through a deeply hybrid and intertextual medium. In the broadest sense, I hoped to expand our ideas of which writers resonated with nineteenth-century readers and create new bibliographies of popular but critically-overlooked literature.

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On this front the project has been promising. For every reprinted Longfellow poem we find many more by authors such as Elizabeth Akers Allen, Isabella Banks, Charles Monroe Dickinson, Colonel Theodore O’Hara, Emily Rebecca Page, Nancy Priest Wakefield, or John Whitaker Watson—or, perhaps even more likely, by an anonymous author. Such poems circulated within a system of exchanges and selection—newspaper editors cut, pasted, and recomposed content from their exchange partners and sent their papers to be similarly aggregated elsewhere.

But recognizably literary genres have been only a small part of the project. One of the most dramatic outcomes of this work thus far has been to highlight the importance of understudied genres of everyday reading and writing within the ecology of nineteenth-century print culture. These species of writing include political news, travel accounts, squibs, scientific reports, inspirational or religious exhortations, temperance narratives, vignettes, self-help guides, trivia, recipes, and even, to borrow a modern Internet term, listicles, all of which juxtaposed with poems, stories, and news on the page of the nineteenth-century paper. As a general (and perhaps unsurprising rule), the most frequently-reprinted pieces are concise, quotable, and widely relatable texts that would have been easy to recontextualize for different newspapers and new audiences—and that could easily fit gaps in the physical newspaper pages, as editors and compositors needed.

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My remarks today focus on those genres we might categorize as “information literature”: lists, tables, recipes, scientific reports, trivia columns, and so forth. I want to separate these from news itself, which is certainly a kind of information genre, but which I would mark as stylistically and operationally distinct from the other genres I’ve listed. Here’s one example of information literature, a list of supposed “facts,” primarily about human lives and demographics, which was published under many names in at least 120 different newspapers between 1853 and 1899 (which is approximately one quarter of the nineteenth-century newspapers in Chronicling America). Continue reading

On Ignoring Encoding

Lately we’ve seen a spate of articles castigating the digital humanities—perhaps most prominently, Adam Kirsch’s piece in New Republic, “Technology Is Taking Over English Departments: The False Promise of the Digital Humanities.” I don’t plan in this post to take on the genre or refute the criticisms of these pieces one by one; Ted Underwood and Glen Worthy have already made better global points than I could muster. My biggest complaint about the Kirsch piece—and the larger genre it exemplifies—would echo what many others have said: these pieces purport to critique a wide field in which their authors seem to have done very little reading. Also, as Roopika Risam notes, many of these pieces conflate “digital humanities” with the DH that happens in literary studies, leaving digital history, archeology, classics, art history, religious studies, and the many other fields that contribute to DH out of the narrative. In this way these critiques echo conversations happening with the DH community about its diverse genealogies, such as Tom Scheinfeldt’s The Dividends of Difference, Adeline Koh’s Niceness, Building, and Opening the Genealogy of the Digital Humanities, or Fiona M. Barnett’s “The Brave Side of Digital Humanities.”

Even taken as critiques of only digital literary studies, however, pieces such as Kirsch’s problematically conflate “big data” or “distant reading” with “the digital humanities,” seeing large-scale or corpus-level analysis as the primary activity of the field rather than one activity of the field, and explicitly excluding DH’s traditions of encoding, archive building, and digital publication. I have worked and continue to work in both these DH traditions, and have been struck by how reliably one is recongized—to be denounced—while the other is ignored or disregarded. The formula for denouncing DH seems at this point well established, though the precise order of its elements sometimes shifts from piece to piece:

  1. Juxtapose Aiden and Michel’s “culturomics” claims with the stark limitations of the Ngrams viewer.
  2. Cite Stephen Ramsay’s “Who’s in and Who’s Out,” specifically the line “Do you have to know how to code? I’m a tenured professor of digital humanities and I say ‘yes.'” Bemoan the implications of this statement.
  3. Discuss Franco Moretti on “distant reading.” Admit that Moretti is the most compelling of the DH writers, but remain dissatisfied with the prospects for distant reading.

These critiques are worth airing, though they’re not particularly surprising—if only because the DH community has been debating these ideas in books, blog posts, and journal articles for a long while now. Matt Jockers’ Macroanalysis alone could serve as a useful introduction to the contours of this debate within the field.

More problematically, however, by focusing on Ramsay and Moretti, these pieces ignore the field-constitutive work of scholars such as Julia Flanders, Bethany Nowviskie, and Susan Schreibman. This vision of DH is all Graphs, Maps, Trees and no Women Writers Project. All coding and no encoding.

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Mr. Penumbra, Distant Reading, and Cheating at Scholarship

My Technologies of Text course is capping this semester reading Robin Sloan’s novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which Matt Kirschenbaum deemed “the first novel of the digital humanities” last year. Mr. Penumbra is a fine capstone because it thinks through so many of our course themes: the (a)materiality of reading, the book (and database) as physical objects, the relationship between computers and previous generations of information technology, &c. &c. &c. I will try not too spoil much of the book here, but I will of necessity give away some details from the end of the first chapter. So if you’ve not yet read it: go thou and do so.

Rereading the book for class, I was struck by one exchange between the titular Mr. Penumbra—bookstore owner and leader of a group of very close readers—and the narrator, Clay Jannon—a new bookstore employee curious about the odd books the store’s odd club members check out. In an attempt to understand what the club members are up to, Clay scans one of the store’s logbooks, which records the comings and goings of club members, the titles of the books they checked out, and when they borrowed each one. When he visualizes these exchanges over time within a 3d model of the bookstore itself, visual patterns of borrowing emerge, which seem, when compiled, to reveal an image of a man’s face. When Clay shows this visualization to Mr. Penumbra, they have an interesting exchange that ultimately hinges on methodology: Continue reading

Omeka/Neatline Workshop Agenda and Links

We’ll be working with the NULab’s Omeka Test Site for this workshop. You should have received login instructions before the workshop. If not, let us know so we can add you.

Workshop Agenda

9:00-9:15 Coffee, breakfast, introductions
9:15-9:45 Omeka project considerations

9:45-10:30 The basics of adding items, collections, and exhibits
10:30-10:45 Break!
10:45-11:15 Group practice adding items, collections, and exhibits
11:15-12:00 Questions, concerns
12:00-1:30 LUNCH!
1:30-2:15 Georectifying historical maps with WorldMap Warp
2:15-3:00 The basics of Neatline
3:00-3:15 Break!
3:15-3:45 Group practice creating Neatline exhibits
3:45-4:00 Final questions, concerns
4:00-5:00 Unstructured work time

Sample Item Resources

Historical Map Resources

Omeka Tutorial

Neatline Tutorials

Model Neatline Exhibits