Category Archives: Digital Humanities

dh and the “discipline” of english studies; UPDATED


[image of Ermenonville, Le temple de la philosophie, courtesy of Parisette and Wikimedia commons]

I spent a few days listening in on the Texas Digital Humanities Consortium conference at UH this weekend, and was impressed by a number of presentations. I won’t try to record everything, but will just blog about a few of the ideas that have stuck with me for the last day or so. (For those seeking a good comprehensive account, try instead keynote speaker Geoffrey Rockwell’s very helpful summary of keynotes and panels here)

For whatever reason, perhaps because of the earlier discussion of the Emory English blow-up, I walked into the conference thinking about English studies, a disciplinary agglomeration that has never had much success organizing itself around any consistent methodology or object of study. If this is indeed our disciplinary home and background, I wondered, why should it feature such persistent, distracting arguments about who belongs inside and who doesn’t?  So I walked into the TXDHC conference wondering whether I myself might belong inside their tent.

I was very pleased to see a presentation from Geoffrey Rockwell (Alberta) on Friday about a collaborative project he is developing (with Stefan Sinclair) called “hermeneutica,” In their introduction they note that includes both a printed text on methods of textual analysis and a suite of tools designed to “instantiate” those principles. They envision users looping back and forth from the printed portions to the embedded interactive panels that display their own processes and results; these panels would also allow users to enter their own values so that they could “recapitulate and experiment with” those results, and compare their own with R/S’s results. This creates an interactive feedback loop between the learner and the book/site that a “mere” printed text could not emulate. They also include case histories demonstrating what can be done with such tools, reflective essays on their analyses, and finally “recipes” that are “tutorials on how to do interpretative things with common tools.”

“Hermeneutica,” we learned at the presentation, were “little hermeneutical toys” that we could use to analyze the texts around us. Rockwell pointed out that these kinds of interactive data visualizations were already becoming commonplace on sites like the NY Times and the NYSE.

I’d need to spend far more time with this project to have more to say about its details, but what I appreciated were the following principles I gleaned from the presentation and the online materials contained here:

  • The emphasis is on collaboration, since it is unlikely that any single scholar will have all the skills necessary to do the kind of work necessary to tackle interesting projects with sufficient scope and depth to satisfy the lay audience;
  • The emphasis is also squarely on interpretation and the open-ended generation of insights, as an “art of making things more interesting” along the lines of cooking, embroidery, etc., rather than a utilitarian model of searching or pattern-matching;
  • Drawing on Franco Moretti’s discussion of “models” (e.g., “Network Theory, Plot Analysis” p. 4) Rockwell stressed that textual analysis produced by hermeneutica’s tools operated upon “surrogates“* rather than texts themselves, in just the way that scholars might work on the indices or outlines of books rather than books themselves for certain kinds of research. (Moretti: “once you make a network of a play, you stop working on the play proper, and work on a model instead”**) At the same time,’s tools were designed to “help you read,” and to “help you get back to the full text”;
  • This stress on the proliferation and discussion of surrogates in the humanities might help explain why preservation and rereading of of older material legacies are always so closely interwoven with the production of new insights; accordingly, in this presentation, Rockwell began with the little-known prehistory of DH in the 1970s and 1980s, in some of the earliest computer-assisted readings of literature like the work of John Smith on James Joyce;
  • Rockwell’s emphasis here was not necessarily on building one’s tools, or all of one’s tools, from scratch, but using and adapting what one could find from ready-made and available tools, which certainly lowers the bar for those, like myself, who would rather adapt existing tools for their own interpretive projects than devote themselves single-mindedly to tool-construction;
  • Finally, by comparing the tools and products of the hermeneutica to the surrogate-like features of 18th-century architectural “follies,” Rockwell stressed their non- or anti-utilitarian character, since they helped to resist or interrupt one’s use or production of texts, in order to draw attention to their theoretical workings;
  • The anti-utilitarian character of the folly-like hermeneutica makes their character as tools paradoxical, since they represent a class of “tools” that work against the purposeful or transparent operations of signification, slowing down or interrupting production to the point where they make their own use more available for conscious manipulation; they make it possible for creators and audiences to move to new, meta-levels when considering the use of a particular element in a composition.

I  believe that it is this conceptually suggestive, exploratory, anti-utilitarian element of the “folly” or hermeneuticon–the tool that acts like something other than a simple tool–that seems especially inviting for folks doing work in English departments.  This kind of exploration, shared I think by each of the interpretive sub-disciplines housed in English departments, distinguishes thinking in the humanities from other disciplinary forms of thinking, and distances our work from the kinds of purposiveness found in other disciplines.


[*UPDATE: GR's discussion of "models" or textual "surrogates" deployed by scholars to interpret an inaccessible "text" reminds me of Frank Ankersmit's observations about the distinction between "historical research (a question of facts)" and "historical writing (a question of interpretation)" ("Six Theses," 2.1). It also seems to me that the most interpretively productive way to regard data visualizations of individual artworks or larger groupings might be as Ankersmit's "metaphors." According to Ankersmit, metaphors help us to organize, understand, and redescribe the past in novel terms that encourage interpretation and debate ("metaphor shows what the metaphorical utterance is about in terms of something else ('John is a pig'), "Theses," 5.1.1).]

[**UPDATE: Bill Benzon (H/T Alan Liu) has posted (here and here) about Moretti's uses of computers and computer-generated networks for literary works.  Benzon observes that while Moretti does not use a computer to create his network diagrams, they are "very much in the spirit . . . of computing." Benzon believes that the point of Moretti's enterprise is the movement from quantification to visualization. Ultimately, this process should produce an "irreducible" visual pattern that can serve as a usefully suggestive model for a literary work or group of works. Benzon writes:

The important point is what happens when you get such diagrams based on a bunch of different texts. You can see, at a glance, that there are different patterns in different texts. While each such diagram represents the reduction of a text to a model, the patterns in themselves are irreducible. They are a primary object of description and analysis.

In my view, Moretti's "irreducible" patterns constitute "primary object[s] of description and analysis” when they fulfill Ankersmit’s definition of “metaphor,” “show[ing ] what the metaphorical utterance is about in terms of something else.”

Moretti himself shows these visual patterns’ defamiliarizing potential when he uses figs. 34 and 35 to reveal the significantly liminal status of Hamlet‘s Horatio as a “good gateway” to the play’s “periphery,” in contrast with the courtly characters tightly clustered around Polonius (“Network” 6).  Here are the figures:

Moretti fig 34

Moretti fig 35

When Moretti is able to transform “Horatio” from a character made of words into a vertex that he is then able to describe as a “gateway,” then the transformation of the model into a new metaphor is complete.


asecs 2013: initiative for digital humanities, media, and culture workshop, wed. april 3rd

Laura Mandell, of 18thConnect, has asked me to post this announcement for all interested ASECS attendees:

The Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture (IDHMC) will be hosting a special workshop at the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Conference (ASECS) to be held in Cleveland this Spring 2013.

Creating a Publishable, Digital Textual Edition

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013
8:30 am – 7:00 pm

For workshop agenda, click here.

To register, click here.

This workshop will be taught and sponsored by 18thConnect. For additional information, please contact Laura Mandell, mandell-at-tamu-dot-edu.


thinking about the asecs dh caucus’s technology survey

I looked at the survey and discussion about this at EMOB today, and found that technology-triumphalism notwithstanding, there is an interesting range of responses to technology going on within 18c studies.  (And I believe that the triumphalism itself is largely imagined or feared by those who don’t actually engage in the difficult work of DH).

What struck me, however, was the generational diversity of the ASECS respondents, with what seemed to be roughly equal cohorts for those whose membership had lasted 2 yrs, 2-5 yrs, 11-15 yrs, 16-20 yrs., and 20+ yrs.  Unsurprisingly, there was also a similar range and diversity of social networking tools in use, from Twitter and Facebook to blogs like the Long 18th and EMOB to traditional email listservs like C18-L. But there doesn’t seem to be a single favored approach to scholarly communication among ASECS members, at least among these respondents.

The other aspect of this report that surprised me was the strong showing of pedagogy and teaching practices in the list of DH topics people want to learn more about.  We’ve featured discussions like this in the past at the Long 18th, as has EMOB, but it seems as if the demand for this kind of information goes beyond what our blogs have offered so far.

I’d be curious whether those following the Long 18th or EMOB would like to see more pedagogy posts, perhaps in a variety of formats.  For my part, I enjoy writing these, but I tend to discuss the strategies used in my own teaching.

For my part, I’d love to see how different instructors use ECCO or EEBO in different kinds of courses (I know that Eleanor has done so in a History of the Book course, but I’d like to see how it might work differently by genre or other organizational schema), or at different levels of the undergraduate or graduate curriculum. If anyone out there would like to share additional information about their own assignments or strategies, or about what works and what hasn’t for them, I would be happy to have them post here.  Just let me know, either in the comments here or offline at DMazella at UH.EDU.

ECCO on JISC and Contextual Word Searches

After Dave’s most recent post on keyword searches, a short discussion followed noting the (currently) UK-only ECCO, via JISC, supports conceptual word searches while the US ECCO only supports keyword searches. To be honest, I was unaware the US had not upgraded to the JISC version and was asked (since I’m a student at the University of London) to post some screenshots of the differences and perhaps write a post on it.

I am fortunate enough to have both access to the JISC Beta and the older version of ECCO–my individual school (Royal Holloway) provides JISC while the Uni. of London Library, Senate House, has the version with which most of you are familiar. There are several key differences between the two that result in completely different search results, as you will see throughout this post. NB: I’ll be providing a lot of screenshots here, so I’ve placed them after the jump.

Continue reading

two more useful follow-up posts to asecs ’12, digital humanities

For those who can’t get enough coverage of ASECS ’12, check out the terrific follow-ups at EMOB (by Lisa Maruca) here, and at the new Stephen H. Gregg blog, digitalhumanistbeginner, here, here, and here.

One of the topics I’m hoping someone will take up will be the issue of conceptual vs. keyword searching brought up by Bill Blake (NYU) at Eleanor Shevlin’s Digital Humanities and the Archive roundtable.  Here’s Gregg’s comment:

Bill Blake (NYU) asked “what makes a good keyword search”, and produced a list of popular search terms (“slavery” coming top). He suggested that many users had an impulse to “retrieve” rather than “search” and that the poorest keyword search terms effectively reproduced what was in the archive (one of the most popular search terms “slavery” was a good example of this). He argued that the best searches operated on a conceptual level. Indeed, that is what I’ve been training my own students to do, many of whose first try at ECCO was using a broad topic-based search term: they discover that the results of such search terms are useless and relatively quickly begin to think about the processes involved in deciding on a better search term . . .

This has implications both for our research and our pedagogy.  Any thoughts?




MLA 2012: The Future of Early British Studies

A Marketplace of Ideas? The Future of Early British Literary Studies

Presiding: Robyn Malo, Purdue Univ., West Lafayette; Manushag Powell, Purdue Univ., West Lafayette

1. “Problems for the Future,” Helen Deutsch, Univ. of California, Los Angeles

2. “Curricular Requirements and the Problems of the Present,” Seth Lerer, Univ. of California, San Diego

3. “Solutions?” Emily Hodgson Anderson, Univ. of Southern California

The subject of this panel was the challenges and opportunities facing Early British Studies in the current climate. What kind of future does Early British Studies have in higher education?  How can we engage students?  The panelists considered these questions in various ways.

Helen Deutsch looked back in order to look forward, we might say.  She implicitly argued against the suspicion that Early British Studies have no relevance to what people care about now.  Her strategy was to demonstrate in fascinating detail the influence of Jonathan Swift over Edward Said.  She reminded us that Said had long planned a book on Swift; she suggested the profound connections between the kind of public intellectual that Said became and vigorous eighteenth-century models for such a position.

The next two panelists focused on student engagement with the period.  Seth Lerer discussed the challenges of teaching Early British Literature to a new generation of students.  He described a large lecture class he was teaching at San Diego, in which the majority of students spoke English as a second language and only one had brought the book.  The rest were reading the material on their iPads, laptops, and even iPhones.  Yet in spite of this set-up, the talk did not turn curmudgeonly.  These students were welcome on his lawn, and he took seriously the challenge of communicating with them.  He proposed that we include the history of technology in the way we teach Early British Literature, drawing connections between the move to the digital and the transition to the codex.  He argued that this kind of contextualized narrative would be consistent with the discipline itself, suggesting that one of the distinguishing characteristic of humanities disciplines was concern with its own history.  The sciences, he pointed out, supersede their history and thus have little interest in what came before.

Finally, Emily Anderson offered some thoughts about the problem of “relevance.”  She noted tensions in eighteenth-century courses between our impulse to historicize and the student desire to find themselves in the literature, collapsing those historical differences.  She pointed out that students often come to literature classes out of a desire to write their own story.  Her strategy, which she has found to be effective, has been to use this to her advantage and cultivate this impulse, but then also, we might say, to theorize the impulse itself.  For this she uses Tristram Shandy, though a difficult text for undergraduates, as a model, which is after all the story of someone writing himself into being. She has even started to offer students a creative option to the usual critical paper, although they also need to discuss their choices and strategies in a critical way.

Overall, a worthy and engaging panel, filled with great ideas about how to bring Early British Studies into the 21st Century.


The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies

As you’re all thinking about panel proposals for next year’s ASECS, we’re going to revisit the conversation from a panel at last year’s meeting:  “The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies.”  Over the new few weeks we will be posting essays based on comments delivered at this panel, as well as some follow-up ideas that were not presented at the panel.

The inspiration for the panel that generated the essays that will follow came from two directions: first, from an observation that the Group for Early Modern Cultural Students (GEMCS), originally conceived to bring together scholars from a range of pre-1900 fields, has been attracting mostly students and professors in the field formerly known as “Renaissance;” and second, from the publication of William B. Warner and Clifford Siskin’s essay, “Stopping Cultural Studies.”  As chair of the Cultural Studies Caucus of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS), I proposed a session that combined these topics called “The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies.”  While these two topics are not obviously related, both share certain challenges.  GEMCS had lively conferences, but never quite succeeded as much as was hoped in opening up the possibility of more integrated and far-reaching considerations of literature and culture across field divisions.  Partly, I think, this is due the fact that while twenty years ago the phrase “early modern” offered a range of possibilities, it has now, at least professionally, simply replaced “Renaissance,” so younger scholars coming into the discipline cannot be blamed for (mistakenly) assuming that a paper on Jane Austen would have no place at a GEMCS meeting.   Perhaps, though, there is a deeper issue as well and that recent stresses on the profession as a whole have made field distinctions even more important. If you can only go to one conference every year, it might be a better investment to seek out other specialists.  While decisions based on travel budgets are understandable, we nevertheless need to continue to think about ways to promote research and teaching that move beyond the limits of periodization.

While some of the papers on the panel considered periodization, most more centrally addressed the problem of Cultural Studies.  Warner and Siskin propose that we abandon the entire enterprise called “cultural studies,” although they do not offer an alternative and insist that they are under no obligation to do so.  They see two main problems with cultural studies as currently practiced: (1) that the term “culture” hides the doubled meanings of Culture (meaning great works of art, literature, etc.) and culture (meaning everyday practices, “non-literary” texts, etc.) and that (2) as a result we have been unable to “transcend previous limits” (104).  Much as we try to move beyond them, we keep getting pulled back to traditional objects of study and traditional disciplinary boundaries. 

            The panel attracted considerable attention, perhaps in part as a result of the rhetorical flair involved in telling one’s colleagues to cut it out.  Warner and Siskin are right that “culture” is a “Teflon category.”  But if the category contains so much slippage, how will we be able to tell when we’ve stopped?  Wouldn’t anything produced after stopping be easily folded back into this category?  How is “remediation”—the only suggestion of an alternative in the essay—not part of “culture”?  Their suggestion to stop cultural studies is so intriguing, disturbing, and puzzling,  I think, because in practical terms—and as defined by Warner and Siskin– it translates into stopping literary scholarship altogether, as cultural studies has become so amorphous as to encompass everything but perhaps New Criticism, to which few are clamoring to return in its original restricted form.  Thus, I think this essay provokes a key professional anxiety of our moment: that we will be stopped altogether.

            Over the next month or two, we will be posting the brief comments written by the panelists who participated, who attended, and/or who have something to say about this issue.   These essays take seriously the possibly of stopping, but also explore ways to get started again.  They look at cultural studies in the broader context of disciplinary survival.  Some address how cultural studies has disturbed, challenged, and stretched departments and curricula.  And yet if, in spite of this turbulence, cultural studies ultimately, as Warner and Siskin suggest, preserves rather than upends, then maybe it has been the ally of literary study all along.  Warner and Siskin observe that cultural studies has insufficiently transformed institutional practice; some of the essays, however, record experiences of grappling with the opposite objection: that cultural studies has changed department offerings too much.  Both objections point to a concern that literature department curricula are somehow not aligned with the needs, desires, or ideal education of today’s students.  I wonder, then, if taking this common ground seriously might lead us to another way into the problem.  Perhaps we might think about ways to move from this one-way street to a two-ways street; that is, to think about what we want students to learn as not only shaped by our research programs, but as itself a partner in further inquiry.


Works Cited

Warner, William B. and Clifford Siskin. “Stopping Cultural Studies.” Profession (2008): 94-107. Print.

Laptop Policy?

I’m not sure I agree with the writer from the New York Times who suggested that technology is turning all of us into Zombies, but I saw a few of the living dead in my classes last semester.

Let me emphasize a few.  Most of my students were lively and engaged; most participated in productively and imaginatively.  A few, however, spent every class period staring at their computer screens.    They barely even lifted their heads.  They didn’t seem to bother the other students (the infamous “cone of distraction” that some lecturers have noticed) because they generally sat in the back or along the side and tilted their screens so they were not visible to others.  Their midterm papers, however, showed no evidence whatsoever of familiarity with the material in spite of regular attendance. The papers did, interestingly, suggest that they were pretty decent students overall: they could write complete sentences, organize a paragraph, and interpret a piece of writing.  They utterly lacked, however, any of the contextual coordinates that classroom discussion so painstakingly provides, and thus made outrageous errors in their reading.

So you’re probably thinking: why do you let them bring laptops to class? Just solve the problem by banning the laptops.

Of course I considered this and have done it past semesters, but I’m not convinced that this is the best solution.  As mentioned, the zombie cohort was tiny; two to three students per class at most.  Many other students, by contrast, used their laptops to take notes.  It’s hard to object to this. Like these students, I find note-taking on a keyboard much easier and digital storage more congenial than the paper kind.  Further, in these challenging economic times, some students download the reading material instead of buying the books: it’s pretty easy to find a digital version of Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver’s Travels.

I was able to bring one of these zombies back into the world of the living.  I wrote to each of them that I thought their web-surfing was undermining their work.  One stopped coming to class. One subsequently looked up a few times. One recognized the truth of this analysis, went cold turkey, and wrote a much-improved final paper.  (So maybe when zombies learn to think for themselves they will no longer be condemned to endlessly demand other people’s brains.)

There has been much discussion in higher ed reporting about whether or not to allow laptops in the classroom, but it seems to me that we need a more subtle negotiation than simply being ‘for’ or ‘against’ it.  An on/off switch for the wireless internet would be great, but my classroom doesn’t have one.   I think overall that technology has improved my classes and I know that students have always found ways to distract themselves.  It might not even be fair to call them zombies: they could be doing engaged intellectual work on their laptops.  The problem is that they are doing it while I am trying to explain the difference between Whigs and Tories, so they end up not even knowing what they don’t know but at the same time have the illusion that they are learning the material because, after all, they came to class.  So as I reflect on what kinds of policies to include for next semester, I wonder how others have addressed this issue.

the “culturomics” approach to literary studies?

This is my belated response to the culturomics postings run by the NYTimes last month. The bottom line is that I wasn’t that impressed by the projects discussed there, but I do feel that projects like these have plenty of implications for the literary studies we might want to pursue over the next decade or two.  

From my own perspective, the biggest issue with both the N-Gram and the “culturomics” derived from it is that they seem to be research tools in search of an appropriate research problem, an impression that was reinforced by the sample problems discussed in the NYT piece.  Admittedly, the N-Gram does produce very suggestive visualizations of the frequency of selected key terms over time. Yet Googlebook’s notorious metadata and OCR problems render any spike or dip in the graphs suspect, and useless as evidence without further investigation. This means that the most interesting portions of the graph, the visible “changes,” are essentially off-limits to public discussion until problems like misdatings are cleared away.

The larger issue, though, as Geoffrey Nunberg has pointed out, is what exactly we think we are learning when we track the frequencies of particular words.  In one report, for example, counting the number of times the term “God” appears in Victorian writings  over time is supposed to tell us something about the long-term, large-scale process of secularization in 19th century British culture.  But even if we refuse to read or interpret the hundreds of novels contained in that database (as prescribed by Moretti’s now familiar notion of “distant reading”), we still need to read the results closely enough to produce a plausible interpretation of what they mean.   

For example, two digital scholars are convinced that the relative frequency of terms like “hope” and “happiness” between the beginning and end of the 19th century can tell us something interesting about the Victorian novel.  I am perfectly happy to entertain this idea. Yet how can this claim be tested except by reading and arguing in a very concrete way about some portion of the novels contained in that database?    In this respect, I think the veneer of positivism attached to this kind of project comes off pretty quickly, like a bad paint job, the moment we talk about the validation of such claims.  Because competing interpretations of the results would not be settled with “better” or more data, but by competing explanations with their respective warrants, evidence, and argumentative self-consistency.

In our own exchanges on this project, Ben Pauley pointed out me to this useful comparison between Mark Davies’ COHA project and culturomics, and I think Davies raises the key issues that should complicate any discussion of word frequencies and their significance for interpreting their shifts as evidence for cultural change:  the first issue, if I understand it properly, resides with the “collocates,” or nearby words, that indicate the conceptual clusters (and contextual frameworks) that particular words are embedded within (e.g., gay New York vs. gay Paris); the second, related to the first, is about synonymy, which again suggests the need to relate words to the specific groups of synonyms attached to a particular use (e.g., gay=brilliant, jolly, joking); the last is about genre, which remains an indispensable context for understanding the tacit and social dimensions of the word and its circulation. 

It seems to me that any counting of word frequencies, in the absence of this kind of information (e.g., in what contexts, in what surroundings, using which synonyms, with what kinds of other terms, do Victorian novelists mention God?) makes this sort of analysis unpersuasive.  And I do wish that the scholars pursuing this kind of analysis would familiarize themselve with the practices of conceptual history. In my view, Koselleck’s pioneering work in conceptual history seems closely related to the culturomics style of statistical analyses of culture, though with a vastly enlarged set of corpora to search through.  But perhaps the main value of such statistical research is to perform a kind of defamiliarization exercise on our historical understandings of a period, so that we can look beyond existing histories to construct our own?

Having said all this, I do wish that there were ways to attach the power of the distant reading paradigm to current practices in literary and cultural history.  Thoughts, anyone?


Advocating for the Humanities

Readers of “The Long Eighteenth” might want to visit this new site on humanities advocacy:

“4Humanities is a site created by the international community of digital humanities scholars and educators to assist in advocacy for the humanities.

“4Humanities is both a platform and a resource.   As a platform, 4Humanities will stage the efforts of humanities advocates to reach out to the public.  We are a combination newspaper, magazine, channel, blog, wiki, and social network.  We solicit well-reasoned or creative demonstrations, examples, testimonials, arguments, opinion pieces, open letters, press releases, print posters, video “advertisements,” write-in campaigns, social-media campaigns, short films, and other innovative forms of humanities advocacy, along with accessibly-written scholarly works grounding the whole in research or reflection about the state of the humanities.

“As a resource, 4Humanities will provide humanities advocates with a stockpile of digital tools, collaboration methods, royalty-free designs and images, best practices, new-media expertise, and customizable newsfeeds of issues and events relevant to the state of the humanities in any local or national context.  Whether humanities advocates choose to conduct their publicity on 4Humanities itself or instead through their own newsletter, Web site, blog, and so on, we want to help with the best that digital-humanities experts have to offer.”