Category Archives: Digital Humanities

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.”

Reading with ECCO

Here and elsewhere, there have been various discussions of exciting projects made newly possible with digitized eighteenth-century texts.  I’m wondering, though, what strategies other people have developed for just reading them.

I have come up with three options.  First, you can read them on a computer screen.  I have done this by opening the ECCO document in the top half of the screen and my Endnotes program on the bottom half, taking notes as I read.  I have managed to get through several novels and travel narratives this way, but it’s not so easy to sit at the computer reading for long stretches and a far cry from curling up in a chair with a book, a pencil, and sticky notes.  Reading directly on the computer screen for that long can also trigger a migraine for me.  Alternatively, then, you can print out the documents and read them like you would anything else.  This, however, gets expensive, generates much clutter, and feels wasteful.  Further, since eighteenth-century books have so many fewer words on the page than most modern books, you get a very bulky document that can’t easily be carried around. The third possibility would be to transfer the files to an e reader.  When I first ordered my Kindle, I thought I would be able to convert ECCO documents to PDFs and load them onto the Kindle.  The first generation Kindles, though, did not do well with PDFs.  Sometime they worked, but other times they would come out blurry and/or tiny.  I have heard that the new Kindles support PDFs better, but that still leaves the problem of taking notes. Profhacker recently reported on an iPad app that allows you to highlight on PDFs.  I was intrigued by this possibility until I saw a guy using an Entourage Edge in the waiting room of the doctor’s office.  He turned out to work for Entourage and gave me and another curious patient a demonstration of this device.  With the Entourage, it looks like you can load a PDF or a Word document and actually take notes on the document.  You can then access only the pages with notes on them, saving the tedium of having to flip through the entire document.  The Entourage is heavier and bulkier than an iPad or a Kindle, but I’m thinking it might be a good way to read ECCO documents, manuscripts, and even student papers.  It has the grayish contrast screen that I like so much in the Kindle and it has a USB port for easy transfer of PDF files.

I’m interested in hearing about how others may have solved this problem before I invest in yet another electronic device.

Teaching with ECCO

Many eighteenth-century scholars I know have been talking online and offline for several years about how to use ECCO to enhance undergraduate classes.  UMD finally acquired this tool, so I am ready to join the conversation.  What I have picked up from various people over the years has been that the classroom benefits of ECCO are not obvious.  In particular, attempts to have undergraduates base research papers on primary sources from ECCO have often produced mixed results.  Students become overwhelmed with the flood of information and don’t necessarily have good ways of sorting through it.

I thought I would share, then, one small ECCO assignment that I thought was effective and that benefited from hearing about these other experiences.  This summer I taught a course on Restoration and eighteenth-century drama, and instead of assigning a research paper based on information gathered from ECCO, I gave them a separate research assignment: Choose one play and find some kind of response to it in three sources found through ECCO.  Post those responses on our Blackboard site in PDFs and write a brief paper (2-3 pages) about what they suggested to you about the play’s reception.  I encouraged them to use The London Stage, which would refer them to specific sources.  For Restoration plays, they could of course use EEBO.  I had imagined that this assignment would generally raise their grades, but it turned out to be surprisingly challenging.  I walked them through it in class twice, and even then a few were still emailing me at the last minute. 

 One lesson here was that although we tend to think of our students as way more media-savvy than we are (and in some sense this is probably true), using research tools is still something that has to be taught.  I had them present their findings in class, and in the end I thought the assignment was highly productive.  They seemed to enjoy sharing their findings with their classmates, and some came up with some interesting sources.  Looking back, I think it would have been much harder if this assignment was tied to a full-length paper, but as a small, discrete project it worked fairly well for most of them. I am planning a version of this for my honors seminar this fall.  I am interested in whether or not others have done something like this, how it turned out, and if you have any refinements you would recommend.


Unless your internet has been cut off in the latest round of institutional budget adjustments, you probably know by now that Cathy Davidson has become frustrated with the superficiality and pointlessness of grading, and many people are upset about her decision to try to do something about this. I’ve never tried peer grading, her experimental solution, but one of my goals is always for students to internalize the course objectives, so in that sense it would not be entirely inconsistent. (In the particular digital humanities course Davidson discusses, it is also related to the content in interesting ways.)

I am interested to hear about how contributors to The Long Eighteenth (and anyone passing through) have confronted this quandary in teaching. It seem like something much grumbled about but little discussed.

It took me a long time to figure out why writing endless comments on student papers felt so unsatisfying. Then once a colleague said to me, “I don’t mind giving the grades; I just hate the part where you have to justify them.” In that moment  it occurred to me that much of what I was doing on these papers was, indeed, justifying my decision to give the paper a B or a C. I was explaining to the student what was good about the paper, but also the various ways in which it fell short. This took a tremendous amount of time and did not feel particularly satisfying. Years of entanglement with outcomes assessment helped me realize why it was all so awful: I was pouring huge amounts of time into evaluating the paper, but only minimally contributing to the student’s learning with one of the most time-consuming aspects of the course. While in theory the student was supposed to recognize the strengths and weakness of her work by reading my comments, it didn’t really feel like this was happening, or at least happening enough. Often, I think, the student would read those comments to see whether or not I had indeed fully justified the grade rather than to see how she could improve in the future.

So now I have students write most of their papers in drafts, which separates the learning process and evaluation into two different phases. I did not, of course, invent this method (I copied it from a colleague), but for me it has turned grading from an onerous chore to something that feels purposeful and seems to contribute to learning. When the first draft comes in (electronically), I add lots of comments and queries using the markup function in Word. I find this engaging because I am explaining to the student exactly how he needs to rethink the argument, the support, the writing, the organization, etc. I try to ask pointed questions about whether or not particular assertions are supported by the text. I note the places where evidence, or a topic sentence, or an argument, is needed. At the comment stage, I am not evaluating and there is no grade. When the second draft comes in, I give a grade but little or no commentary. In this method, all of my commenting steers the student toward better writing, criticism, and analysis, and none of it justifies a grade. By the time the student gets the second draft back, he knows how the paper was supposed to improve and pretty much knows whether or not he has done it. I think I get to know the students a little better this way, and as an added benefit in my experience students rarely contest a grade under this system. I also post a rubric on the course web site, which I don’t actually use for scoring points but that lays out exactly what the paper is supposed to achieve. So in theory, by the end of the course students in fact should be able to grade themselves and each other, although I don’t think they come in being able to do this.

“18th-c studies” meets “digital humanities”

This post by George Williams.

The CFP for ASECS 2010 is out, and I can’t help but notice that several of the panel proposals (including one being organized by Lisa Maruca and me) deal explicitly with digital humanities topics.

Details regarding these panels are available after the jump, but before you make that jump, dear reader, please indulge me for a few sentences.

Does it seem to you that the various academic disciplines concerned with the humanities are at a turning point with regard to integrating digital tools into their research and teaching methodologies? It certainly seems that way to me:

And yet, does it perhaps also feel to you that the benefits of these developments have not yet filtered down to our day-to-day academic lives?

  • The Gale Group’s Eighteenth-Century Collections Online is an amazing resource of primary texts, but it’s priced out of reach for all but the most generously funded colleges and universities, especially in light of what the average library budget looks like since the developments of the previous 12 months.
  • With the exception of Eighteenth-Century Life, our most-read journals provide RSS feeds that are practically useless.
  • Most of us probably don’t even know what an RSS feed is or why we would want to use one.
  • The English Short-Title Catalog is freely available online, which is wonderful, but the interface does not provide any advanced data output options such as useful information visualizations.
  • In 2009, most online conversations regarding our field of study make use of the exact same tool that was used 20 years ago: email.

This is not meant to be a list of complaints, mind you. We clearly have some amazing tools at our disposal. However, there are many new and powerful tools (some of them free) that could be available to us if we worked on developing them or advocated to our most influential organizations to help integrate them into existing platforms.

The idea for the panel that Lisa and I are organizing  on “The Digital Eighteenth-Century 2.0” came out of conversations with several friends at ASECS 2009: many of us have been trained to a greater or lesser extent in digital humanities methods and now work at institutions without major funding for technology. As a result, we’ve learned to improvise quite happily with what happens to be available to us, which often turns out to be tools such as these:

These conversations and our embrace of these tools make me wonder if perhaps we’re entering a new phase of digital humanities research and pedagogy, and so I coined the not-terribly-original term “The Digital Eighteenth-Century 2.0,” playing off of the “Web 2.0” buzz phrase.

  • Is this new phase a good thing?
  • Are we shortchanging what might be possible if we built our own digital tools (a daunting task) rather than using those already created for non-academic purposes? (Zotero, Omeka, and the SIMILE Timeline are, in fact, aimed at academic audiences.)
  • If one is quite happy to work and teach at a smaller, less-than-wealthy, somewhat-teaching-oriented institution, how exactly does one embrace the field of digital humanities with its traditional focus on research and big grants?
  • At what point, if ever, do we internalize the conventions, the strengths, and the weaknesses of digital media such that “The Digital Humanities” becomes “The Humanities”?

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