“Between Alexandria and Babel” Dr. Paul Dilley presents at OWU 1

A couple weeks ago, Dr. Paul Dilley visited Ohio Wesleyan as a capstone (of sorts) to Dr. David Eastman’s grant-funded endeavors. Dr. Dilley is himself involved in a number of digital humanities projects at the University of Iowa and beyond, including multi-spectral imaging of ancient books (think here of the discovery of the Archimedes Palimpsest), the creation of Big Ancient Mediterranean (or BAM, an open-access project allowing the exploration and visualization of ancient texts in new ways), and the painstaking transcription and digitization of the Chester Beatty Kephalaia Codex.

Banner image for BAM.Especially in the case of the latter, we might imagine Dilley as any traditional scholar of (and in) the archives, laboriously attending to the minute details of the (barely) visible word, identified only as a trace. In his talk, Dilley led the audience from this imagined space into the virtual space afforded by computational technologies. Indeed, he made this connection explicit in framing his particular brand of digital scholarship as a kind of “digital philology,” which he defines in his forthcoming publication as a set of “[n]ew scholarly interpretive practices that both produce, and are enacted by, the transfer of texts from manuscripts and the printed page to digital files subject to computational analysis and visualization” (“Between Alexandria and Babel,” forthcoming).

The proliferation of these digital textual files affords scholars across disciplines the opportunities to push against the boundaries of traditional scholarly inquiry. Before discussing two ways in which we might do this – rich annotation and distant reading – Dilley underlined the importance of open, clean, and linked datasets. As a case in point he noted how propriety licenses on some collections of digital data may limit a researcher to “keyword search, which reproduces the functionality of the print index.” This, he adds, is to say nothing of the potential unreliability of the search: OCR’d textual data is often suspect, and one never knows what potential search returns may be missing as a result of bad OCR (optical character recognition). [Full disclosure: my last job was with the Early Modern OCR Project at Texas A&M, so bad OCR and/in old books are subjects near to my heart.]

Nevertheless, research opportunities for large corpora will also proliferate, allowing researchers to encode analytical readings into texts and to read them distantly. The latter, you may know, is a way of interpreting from a 10,000 foot view large collections of text that are otherwise unreadable by humans. While it is not dependent upon the former, encoded text, distant reading and other digital research are deepeneded by this brand of “rich annotation.” On this point Dilley cites the “Gentle Introduction to XML“:

“Encoding a text for computer processing is, in principle, like transcribing a manuscript from scriptio continua; it is a process of making explicit what is conjectural or implicit, a process of directing the user as to how the content of the text should be (or has been) interpreted.”

To Professor Dilley’s mind, the kind of large-scale work that one might do on a digital corpus – be it mark-up (i.e. encoding), distant reading, or any other interpretive practice afforded by computational methods – may best be thought of as “extended intelligence”: in no way “artificial,” it is a very real (and heretofore impossible) supplement to conventional literary criticism.

I’m sure Professor Dilley would love to hear from you if you have questions about his specific projects. If you’d like to know more about text encoding or distant reading of textual data (or bad OCR for that matter!), feel free to contact me!

Exceptions [Im]proving the Rules

Or, how exceptional students and their projects improve the rules by which we do digital scholarship.

As a followup to my last post, which was essentially a reposting of an email about why one might use the TEI Guidelines for any given text-based digital project, I’ll post a few observations that stem from Tess Henthorne’s brief presenation of her Independent Study (IS) to faculty and students from the English department. First, though, I’ll say that she did Tess Henthorne's Presentationa wonderful job articulating just why she wants to encode a text as part of her IS rather than just transcribe it. In short (and I hope I’m doing justice to her thoughts here), it enriches her text – Glady Fornel’s Montel – and opens its potential for future scholarship, her own and others’. I’ll also note as an aside how it’s clear that some – maybe most – of the people who are thinking about Tess’s IS as a “digital IS” are thinking in terms of visible, human-readable results. That is to say that folks are thinking about Milton’s Reading Room (e.g.) or a searchable database, neither of which is necessarily Tess’s goal. It will be a challenge for this small team to navigate the distances between different conceptualizations of a “digital project.” From scholars doing the heavy (and often inglorious) lifting of text-encoding, I’d be grateful to hear how you make these distinctions to various constituencies. How have you bridged this language barrier?

But I digress.

Tess’s presentation gave me an opportunity to reflect on the importance of projects like hers that do not fall under the direct jurisdiction of our Digital Scholarship grant. If one of the goals of the OH5DS grant and others like it is to use projects as the springboards for building the larger systems that will create and foster sustainable digital scholarship, then Tess’s project – probably because it doesn’t conform to our scripted workflows – gives us an opportunity to test our systems in the wild. It is a chance to make sure that we are building up an environment that is robust enough to foster the digital scholarship of faculty and students (and staff, ideally). So, how has Tess’s project kept us honest in this way?

  • It builds out from the technical and scholarly concerns of the more directly grant-related projects. The Ohio Five libraries’ 2015 Summer Institute helped frame a conversation about the utility of TEI to the consortium’s digital projects. Whether it is for relatively stable preservation in the face of changing technologies or for enhanced scholarship in text-based research, we have been thinking through how the TEI fits into the ways we talk about projects. Wooster has been the testing ground for encoding projects and the teams here have been pushing the boundaries ever outward; advising on Tess’s project continues this trend and, like the other projects, will inform the work we do elewhere in the consortium long after the term of the grant.
  • It amplifies the conversation about digital scholarship. I have said to anyone who will listen that we need to continue to have our conversations about digital scholarship out loud and in public so that it becomes sewn into the fabric of our scholarly culture. Opening this conversation to student constituencies, in addition to helpfully complicating our frames of reference, brings more and different voices into the conversation.
  • It broadens the audience for that conversation. Perhaps especially in the liberal arts setting, the campus community pays attention differently when students are speaking. Advisors and faculty who might not be invested in, say, “the Digital Humanities” as such, are intrinsically invested in their students’ interests and research. Alongside one another we learn how to think and talk about digitally-inflected work in places where we haven’t necessarily seen it (like Engish departments).
  • Finally, it tellingly resonates with issues of evaluation of digital scholarship. As we wade together through the technical “hows” and the theoretical “whys,” we also come up against the question of what it means to do digital scholarship on our campuses and in our consortium. In the larger world of digital schoalrship, the most visible manifestation of this consideration has centered on evaluation for the purposes of tenure and promotion of faculty in the humanities and social sciences. We see this focus, for example, in the important documents published by the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, and in a special issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities (Fall 2012). I wonder, though, if students’ work forces us to think about evaluation more acutely, more urgently than when we are wrestling with tenure and promotion guildelines. I cannot imagine telling a student that they could not pursue a given research question because we do not know what to make of it; instead, we figure out what to make of it. Projects like Tess’s allow us force us to explore the question locally so that it might inform the broad context.

To conclude I’ll simply say that I am grateful to be a part of Tess’s team, and that I hope we can see other such projects pop up around the Ohio Five. Most importantly, I hope that we can have the resulting conversations out loud and in public so that we can learn, as a community, how it is that we do digital scholarship around here.

Latinos in Rural America Fosters Student Research and Community Engagement

Clara Román-Odio

Earlier this month I attended the second of four exhibit launches for Kenyon professor Clara Román-Odio’s public humanities project, Latinos in Rural America (LiRA). The material exhibit, currently in the Mt. Vernon Public Library, also has a digital component that is held in Kenyon’s digital repository. As we read in the brief introduction to the project’s digital component,

This project pursues the goal of providing an intimate window into the lives, origins and aspirations of Latinos in Knox County, home to Kenyon College.

The exhibit in Mt. Vernon follows the project’s initial unveiling in December at Kenyon College and will be succeeded by exhibits at the Ohio State University (9 – 23 February) and Miami of Ohio (30 March – 12 April).

Román-Odio has folded LiRA into her Introduction to Chicano/a Cultural Studies as a platform for exemplifying the ways in which community-engaged learning (CEL) strengthens undergraduate research and civic engagement. You can read more about this important union of public humanities and CEL and the students’ work therein in Kenyon’s digital repository, and may I suggest a deeper dive to learn more about the student-led implementation of a program that will help Mt. Vernon Latino/a youth prepare for the college application process.

LiRA takes as its model a similar project by Kenyon professor Ric Shefield, the Knox County Black History Archives, digtized under the Ohio Five Libraries’ previous grant "Next Generation Library." Both LiRA and the Black History Archives are imagined as a part of a unified series of similar local oral history projects that would fall under the banner of The Community Within. In the coming year, Sheffield plans to share the concept of The Community Within with other liberal arts colleges, providing a framework for local oral history projects.

To my mind, one of the great foundational principles of The Community Within, a principle exemplified by both LiRA and the Black History Archives, is the necessity of presenting the projects’ research in a material exhibition within the community itself, in this case the public library. Such a presentation not only ties a Kenyon College research project to the local community, but it also gets to the core of accessibility and digital projects. Indeed, the community-based research is the guiding force here; digital preservation and dissemination are peripheral (though important) concerns. As pedagogical enterprises, projects like LiRA ask students to go beyond the simple reporting of archival material – of known histories – and asks them instead to create and curate an alternative archive of underrepreented cultural material.

Ohio Five Digital Scholarship is grateful to have been able to play a part in LiRA and the Knox County Black Archive, but both have come about with the generous support of a number of people and agencies. The LiRA exhibit provides an extensive list of credits and acknowledgements – including Ohio Humanities, a state affiliate of the NEH – but I will take this opportunity to underline the contributions of Jenna Nolt, Kenyon’s Digital Initiatives Librarian who has been creating these projects’ public faces in Kenyon’s digital repository.

What are some of the ways in which you are doing public and/or digital history with your liberal arts students? Let us know on Facebook or post a comment a below.

Oberlin EdTech Winter Workshop and Communities of Practice

Oberlin’s Mudd Library recently hosted the EdTech Winter Workshop for professional staff, organized by Albert Borroni and the Oberlin Center for Technology Enhanced Teaching (OCTET). Thirty or so members of the Oberlin community attended, representing divisions from around the campus: the Allen Memorial Art Museum (AMAM), Language Lab, Center for Information Technology, and the Library.

Because I had to run off to the Mt. Vernon Public Library for the launch of an exhibit — more on this in a subsequent post — I was only able to stay for the morning portion of the meeting, but I drew out at least two significant observations relevant to Ohio Five Digital Scholarship. (And a bonus meta-observation that I’ll reserve for the end of the post.)

First, in back to back presentations Liliana Milkova, Curator of Academic Programs for the AMAM, and Megan Mitchell, Digital Initiatives Coordinator for the Library, spoke about an Omeka project completed in fall 2015 as part of a general groundswell in interest for building object-oriented pedagogies. Milkova mentioned Capturing the Body, a set of digital exhibits that were curated by students in Wendy Kozol’s course, *Visible Bodies and the Politics of Sexuality*.

In addition to discussing specific projects and efforts, Mitchell pointed out that recent faculty interest in using Omeka some of this interest might be attributed to the increasingly-quick-to-demo (share? Not sure where they would have demo-ed) faculty who are invested in the platform, including? Amy Margaris (Anthropology) and Danielle Skeehan (English). This growing interest in Omeka is not as much about the adoption of a relatively low-barrier-to-entry platform as it is about the local, interdisciplinary community of practice that is growing out of the shared investment in digital pedagogies.

Of course with interdisciplinarity come the opportunities for fortuitous cross-pollinations, and it is precisely these kinds of opportunities that Tim Elgren, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, imagined Oberlin might bake into future iterations of the curriculum. He gave a brief presentation on, among many things, a desire to complement the notion of “the major” — that deep domain knowledge that all undergraduates build — with theme-based, in interdisciplinary “clusters.” In the still-under-construction Inn at Oberlin, there are plans for a space called “Studio C” (the “C” is for “convergence”) that will provide space for faculty and students from different disciplines to come together and tackle big questions such as *gender identity in the 21st century*, or *the politics of water*. In the not-so-distant future, Oberlin students might complete clusters of question-based courses offered by several different departments and, in the process, triangulate their opinions and develop plans of action based on the kind of nuanced exploration that a liberal education provides.

This corner of Dean Elgren’s presentation frames my second observation, which is fully (I admit) filtered through the lens of my experience and my agenda of furthering digital scholarship in the consortium: there seems to be great possibility to leverage Oberlin’s convergence clusters, at least as they are conceived at the moment, for pointedly humanistic digital endeavors. Not only might one think about, for example, the delivery of humanities data to different audiences and through different media than we have imagined, but one might also interrogate the tools and media with which we present those data. When we begin to ask whether or not databases present arguments, or about how we share information across the digital divide, we begin to tread a specifically humanistic mode of digital exploration that is interdisciplinary in form and function. In the interest of Ohio Five Digital Scholarship — my admitted and clear bias — I wonder how reimagined curricula, like the version of Oberlin’s that was imagined during the EdTech meeting, will take advantage of the inherent interdisciplinarity of what’s being called “Digital Humanities.”

A common theme between these two observations, to my mind, is the cultivation of communities of practice. In both the reporting of the present state of digital pedagogies and the prospective view of the curricular future, we see a growing culture of digital praxis and the frameworks that will continue to foster such growth well into the future. Indeed, the very gathering itself — a semi-annual meeting of staff who are involved in technologically-informed research and teaching — is an example of a relatively easy way to get local folks together to talk about what they are up to. This example especially resonates with me as I find myself wrestling with how we facilitate such conversations over an entire consortium.

Do you have good models for bringing local or larger communities of practice together? Share with us on our new Facebook page or in the comments!