Although there are only 8 parts of this portfolio, they’re uploaded in reverse order and it may not be entirely clear how they go together, plus there are three bits … Continue reading Digital Humanities Portfolio Index
Category: Digital Humanities
“String Theory”: A Work of e-lit
This is “String Theory.” That link will bring you to my story and you can play it there as many times as you’d like. I encourage you to try it a few times because it changes, especially as it goes on. Below you’ll find an explanation of what I did and how I did it and why, but don’t read that until after you’ve tried the story out a few times because I’ll reveal some secrets there that would be better experienced for the first time within the story itself. Just know that if things seem weird, they’re supposed to. It isn’t broken even if it seems like it might be. Oh, and please try to play it in Chrome because that’s the only browser that I know works for sure.
What this is
It’s a work of e-lit, the final project for my Digital Humanities class. I wrote everything here myself and figured out how to get Twine, the tool/platform I used to create the story, to do what I wanted it to do. It wasn’t easy! I had initially planned on just remediating a story I had written before (and posted here!), perhaps expanding it a bit in the process, but I quickly realized that my previous story, which was written with a kind of nothing-protagonist and in a very purposefully vague way would not work within the structure of the Twine story. Here I needed a definite protagonist with a real life and ambitions and stuff, he couldn’t be an everyman. He’s still a pretty boring guy, but at least he has some personality. I also made the dog a more integral part of the story, gave him a winking name, and even used him as a POV character in a few passages. That was fun.
The story starts off linearly as Jake grows old and discontented. When he takes his dog out for a walk in the woods behind his apartment he stumbles across a long piece of string which brings him to a line of trees, each of which has a peep-hole in a door which opens onto an alternate version of Jake’s life. The first tree is always the same, but the next three can come in any order. They change minor things, mainly his income level as he sees a very rich version of his house and a very poor one, and one in which his interests have shifted slightly. Like I said, you will visit all three of them, but the order will change depending on the random choices in the program. After those first four doors, the fifth through the fifteenth are any random selection of 9 possible passages. Because of how the numbers work out there, you will see at least one door more than once, and you’re likely to see a few doors multiple times while you miss out on other doors entirely. Your fifteenth door triggers a concrete next passage, one which sees Jake think about what he’s doing and determine to take it further.
After another ten doors, you’ll trigger another concrete passage which has Jake determine that he’ll go on for forever if he needs to. The next few passages are likely to lead to some repeated doors and I hope that some readers will just give up, convinced that the story will just loop on these nine passages for forever. But if they make it to their 30th door, they’ll see that Calvin, the dog, takes matters into his own hand. He rescues Jake from his demented mission and brings him back to the apartment. The end!
How this is
This is the full map of the Twine story. Each box is a different passage except for one, “doors visited” in the upper left corner which keeps track of the number of doors you’ve visited and outputs the phrase “Doors visited: ##” and increments each time it is called.
This is the first use of what Twine calls variables and I use that number to trigger the three concrete events later in the story after the 15th, 25th, and 30th doors. You can see the highlighted box which starts the story and how it progresses through many passages to get you into the rhythm of clicking to move on to the next part of the story. This isn’t a traditional branching narrative, you’ll never have a choice except to go on or leave the story mid-way through, so I decided to have each passage end with the link to the next one. It also helped when I had to write modular bits of the story which needed to work in any order. I could start each passage with a version of “at the next door” and end with a version of “he moved on to the next door”. After the linearity ends, you can visit any of three doors, which will randomly be displayed in the passage which is at the end of the reverse-C at the top of the map. After that first door, yet another random selection of the two remaining doors would happen, which is why it forks again in each of the three initial forks. See, it is a branching story! The branches are just hidden.
As you can hopefully see on that map, each of the last of those 3 random doors leads you to door 5, or the hub of the remainder of the story. I kinda stumbled into a way of displaying a random passage inside another passage, so the contents of door 5 are not really there. They are just the container for an “if” statement which tells the program to output any of the 9 individual doors I wrote so long as the door count isn’t at 15 or 25 or 30. If it is at any of those numbers it will display a specific passage, titled “Introspection,” “Forever,” and “Calvin” respectively. It will also display the “doors visited” passage underneath the randomly or specifically chosen passage which will let the reader know where they are in the story.
The story ends linearly, just as it began. Calvin interjects after readers have proven that they’ll keep going and snaps Jake out of his weird loop, quite literally in terms of the program itself. The penultimate page has Jake grasp the door handle to open into his apartment. This links to the “The End” passage which displays one last door count, again incremented to 32 to account for the door he almost entered back at the woods and his apartment door here and the words “The end”.
There are two things that I haven’t yet talked about yet here as far as the programming goes. The first is that two words or objects get text effects in the story. The first is the string which leads the two to the line of trees, which is always red and has a strike through it to indicate the twine itself and to call attention to the danger it poses. By the end of the story though, it has turned back into a regular piece of string and I did not give it that effect on purpose to indicate that the danger had left thanks to Calvin’s interjection into the story. The other is the piece of ice which makes the peep-hole that Jake peers through before he enters each door. I made that a kind of icy blue color and I wanted it to actually shiver but it wasn’t working, so I condensed the text there to at least give the impression of a kind of huddled up word trying to keep warm.
The second is “Door 13” which I conceived of as a kind of Holodeck experience. There is an entirely empty room which transforms into one of two pretty extreme situations (a jungle attack and a space explosion) randomly. It’s hard to demonstrate where these two experiences are separated in the program itself, but I’ve circled the comma which separates one version of the passage from the other. I used the same “either” function as I did in “Door 5” to randomly display a passage but this time I knew I wanted it to start and end in the same way so I knew I should keep the two passages that will get swapped out within the actual passage itself rather than writing them within their own boxes and just calling them out on their own. It was pretty fun to think of this idea and implement it. I hope that people notice what is happening there and see the two different versions of the room for themselves!
Why this is
I’ve already explained most of my decision making process up there, but here I’ll cover some loose ends. Firstly, my motivating force here was first to do a DH assignment, a fun assignment, but an assignment nonetheless. Because I was doing schoolwork, technically speaking, I knew I had to push myself a little more than I might have if I were just messing around. Figuring out the text effects, for example, was surprisingly difficult and was the first big hurdle I had to face. Then I knew that I wanted to demonstrate at least two kinds of randomized storytelling, so I had the more structured bit early on where the order of the three passages might change but you were forced to see each of the passages. Later, I experimented with having the passages be more random, which would inevitably lead to repeated passages appearing in the story. This would happen even if I had more passages than I had doors to open by the end of the story (30, remember, is the trigger for the end of the story, so there are around 23 passages which appear totally randomly from a pool of 9 written passages) which I don’t. And that’s where the other end of the school assignment bit comes in. If I had my druthers and more creativity in my bones I would write 50 (or more!) passages to have the experience be even more varied for each reader. That would certainly reward people’s efforts to read the story a few times, and it would make repeats less likely (though not unlikely or impossible given how random selection works). Heck, if I wasn’t going slightly crazy trying to finish this whole thing before tomorrow’s deadline I would write 5 more passages just to get some more stuff in there. But it’s also nice to have to finish. The story lends itself to the desire to keep improving, but that’s also kind of the point. Sometimes it’s ok to be done.
Perhaps a better way of changing things up would be to use the “either” command how I used it in the Holodeck tree. I could mix up some wording in each passage to say the same thing in slightly different ways. That way each repeated passage would have a chance to be a bit different every time you see it. This fix is both easy and daunting, because while the programming and writing aspects of it wouldn’t be too difficult to implement, the sheer amount of text already there is more than it seems and writing slightly different versions of it would only lead to a kind of crazy multiplication of effort. Certainly a version two of this project would have that kind of mutability in it, and now that I know how to do it I could implement it from the get go rather than go back and edit it in later.
Another thing I wanted to do but didn’t have the knowhow nor the time to figure it out was changing the look of the story more. This is pretty much the standard look of Twine’s most popular version, and only the text effects really change anything. See “Even Cowgirls Bleed” for a heavily edited CSS which totally changes what is still “just” a Twine story. I have visions of a background picture which appears once you get to the trees and some fancier things. But also, text on a page has been pretty good for writers throughout history. It’s not terrible to let a reader imagine their version of a location or what a character looks like without me imposing my own vision. Besides, I’m not sure a picture exists that would fit the story as written, and I don’t know where to go to find an infinite line of trees to take it myself. And I certainly don’t have the artistic talent to draw or paint one myself! Perhaps this is where the DH collaborative spirit could come in. Well, next time.
The last thing I want to do is share a bit of backstory which might explain what I was going for, if that matters to you. I wrote the first, vague version of this story a few years back when several of my friends and I were wandering around the post-college world, free of any real ambitions beyond a vague (aha!) sense of letting our lives drift away and a paralyzing sense that there were so many things that we could be doing so anything we did decide to do would mean giving up the possibility of something better. I noticed both within myself and my friends this strange paradoxical view and wanted to write myself a way out of it. I’m not sure I achieved that end either in that early version, which ends very differently than this one does, or this one, but I think this is a better version of the story. I opened myself up a bit more, having recently taken a big, concrete step towards a definite future when I entered grad school this semester, and examined some other identity questions a bit through this writing process. It was fruitful to examine myself as I wrote for Jake, who is not me but a conglomeration of a bunch of people and ideas.
And we’ll end with the dog, who readers familiar with Italian magical realists might recognize as the inspiration for this kind of story. Italo Calvino wrote a bunch of stories called Cosmicomics which took scientific ideas and weaved fantastic fairy tales and hilarious sci-fi stories out of serious scientific principles. I wanted to participate in the same kind of science-kickstarted storytelling, so I settled on the multiple universe idea that, at least at some point, was a part of string theory to my rudimentary understanding. It opened the possibility of an infinite number of worlds and here, finally, I was able to feint at that idea with the Twine platform allowing both the possibility of randomized storytelling and the ability to use that storytelling to touch on some science-y ideas like the fact that there would be a bunch of universes where nothing noticeable is different from Jake’s own universe, which would also be true for any of the noticeably different universes as well. So the repeated passages would have some grounding in scientific theory, it’s not just me being frustrating!
Ok, I think 2.5K words about this project is enough, don’t you? Finally, if you would like to see in more detail how this project was put together, you can download the full HTML file here and open it with your own (free!) copy of Twine. It’s a pretty fun program to mess around in and I’m glad I was pushed into doing it by my professors. I hope it did something for you, too!
Harlem Echoes: A Reflection
One large assignment in my Digital Humanities class had the entire class work cooperatively to create an online version of Claude McKay’s poetry collection Harlem Shadows and then write some criticism or biographical information or analysis of his style, with each participant writing a roughly equal amount about the poems. This is a reflection on that process and a discussion of how great it was to participate in.
Harlem Echoes is a site the entire class can be proud of. From Heather’s excellent design work and careful use of period appropriate pictures to Jenna’s outstanding color coded analysis of Claude McKay’s use of the sonnet form, everybody contributed above and beyond the parameters of the assignment and created a fantastic resource for anybody looking to learn more about a wonderful poet.
We met in person around five times, often at great length in order to decide exactly what we were doing and how we should do it. One of our first major decisions to make was who our audience was. We needed to decide if we were writing to graduate students such as ourselves or high school students encountering the Harlem Renaissance for the first time or even a more public audience which might not have any background in the time period or poetry at all. In the end, we decided on a late-high school to early-college audience with an eye to an even broader base of eventual users. This allowed us to engage in some higher level ideas but not go so heavy on the theory that only academics would be interested beyond the first sentence or two.
The next step was to decide what the website would look like. We knew we wanted to foreground the poems themselves as the most important element of the site, so they would come first in our top menu (this actually changed later as we realized that the poems would be stronger if a reader had bibliographic knowledge of McKay’s life and our own process of creating the website, so those two bits come first in the final menu). We also wanted to present some alternate ways of reading the poem, by category as well as in the traditional print order. This was accomplished through the use of tags on the poems and some clever HTML. The tags were assigned by each of us as we went through and corrected the OCR text we originally had to work with and cleaned up the formatting. After we all assigned our own tags, we had yet another meeting to vote on each tag. We had to decide if two tags meant the same thing, or if we were missing any important categories that we should have covered. It was a long but fun process, and I was the one in charge of updating our shared list of tags with the revisions.
Next we struggled with the formatting of the poems as we tried to upload them to our WordPress site. Although WordPress is a WYSIWYG platform, it’s not super open to classical poetry formatting, and so we had to figure out how to (and whether to) include the indents from the original text in our versions of the poems. I’m still not sure that we actually achieved parity across the entire class’s efforts, but we tried for it, at least!
After we had the poems on the site, we began to work on our own additions. The end of this project would have a kind of digital critical edition of the Harlem Shadows text combined with our insights into the text. I was intrigued by “If We Must Die” as I cleaned it up, and since it is McKay’s most famous poem, I decided to do a version of Peter Middleton’s “long biography” of the poem in three parts and trace both its origins and its legacy (23). The legacy would be divided into two parts itself, one in which I tried to track down the story of Winston Churchill quoting the poem during World War II and the other in which I examined the way the poem has touched the Civil Rights movement in the United States and its role in the Attica prison riot. These were extremely satisfying short essays to write, as I was able to first discover just how powerful the poem is and its intriguing origin story. I was also able to bring in some textual analysis in order to demonstrate where that power comes from and how McKay wields it. It was especially fruitful in the case of the Churchill example because it turns out that there is no record of Churchill ever quoting the poem nor that he had any knowledge of it. In that case, I decided to look instead at one of England’s most famous war poems, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and see what connections there might be to McKay’s own war poem. That unexpected connection really sparked my interest, and I think even more could be said about the two poems and how McKay’s education means that there’s very little doubt about whether he was aware of the poem when he wrote his own call to arms. I was equally excited about finding Vernon Jordan’s account of reading the poem after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death.
I think I was able to ride that line between academic writing and public writing, though I struggled with going to one side or the other too much and it took some drafting in order to find the right path. I also had a tendency to over-claim some things in my initial versions of the essays in an effort to exaggerate how important the poem was. It was enthusiasm mixed with an unsure sense of how to approach the audience question which led to those few cases of exaggeration, but I have since tamped them down and restored the poem to its proper place in history. I also remembered that this was still an academic endeavor and went back to properly cite all of my information, so users can know where to find more information if they want to. I also added links to things like the archives of the two newspapers McKay was published in and the PBS documentary about Attica from which I drew some helpful information. The power of the INTERNET!
My final contribution was to click a button. Ok, perhaps it is a bit bigger than that, but I knew from my own blog (this one that you’re reading right now!) that there was a tag cloud widget which could be easily placed in our sidebar and would provide yet another way of exploring McKay’s poems. We had already done all the tagging and it was the work of two minutes to get the widget in the right spot and customized to show only the top 75 tags. Though I downplay the effort involved, it is a truly useful bit of the site, as it allows for the hypertext enabled reading that digital archives can do what paper versions can’t. If a person new to the site wants to read all of the poems that have the “nature” tag assigned to them, it’s as easy as clicking the biggest word in the cloud. It is just a different way into the text, but it is a cool example of what is possible in the digital realm.
In the end, I’m glad that we were forced to do this project on a work by a man with whom I had no prior experience. It was fun to learn about him and his work alongside my fellow classmates, and it was even more fun and rewarding to create this really great website with them. The project highlighted the extensive behind the scenes effort that it takes to create something presentable, and it showcased just how important teamwork is in the DIgital Humanities. One person alone would take months to do what we did in three weeks. I am proud of what we accomplished, and I am proud of our class for doing it all without a fuss.
Stirring Shakespeare’s Tragedies: A Text Analysis Project
I wanted to try a new way of looking at texts that I already knew and the Mandala Browser looked like it was an interesting way to “stir the archive” so that these texts would become “weird” and perhaps show me a new way to read them. Once I learned that the browser came with Shakespeare’s tragedies built into it, I began to think of things that I could look for, connections that I already knew existed but which I might be able to prove were a bigger deal or a more wide-ranging phenomenon rather than a thing that English professors just tell their students about so that they can write papers with tenuous connections to the text. Specifically, I was looking for a correlation between the way nature acted and the state’s dysfunction which appears throughout Shakespeare’s tragedies. This involved setting up magnets with groups of words like “storm gale wind tempest” and “anger ire insanity insane angry” to see what overlap there was, but that didn’t prove as useful as I wanted it to be.
I then looked to a different way of finding related words and remembered that topic modeling was an interesting option. It would give me a list of words that were related which I could then input into the Mandala browser to see what those connections would be. This proved to be a fruitful endeavor which separated out my bias and allowed the texts to show for themselves what they were about. Some of the groups of words that I used were more obvious than others, but all provided at least a few interesting speeches that I would not have connected without a lot of time spent trying to match things in my head. This was an effective way to stir the archive and see texts in a new, colorfully connected way.
Methods and Materials
The two products used for this project were Mandala Browser and TopicModelingTool, both of which are free and open source. The Mandala Browser came with a built-in document that has all the speeches from Shakespeare’s tragedies separated and indexed for ease of use. When you create a magnet in the Mandala Browser, every speech which contains that word is pulled from the edge of the screen to orbit the magnet. When you create another magnet with a different word (or words) the same happens and a mini-magnet appears in between them around which orbits the speeches which contain both words (or sets of words). This allows you to see how the two words are used together in the texts. You can create as many magnets as you want and the program will show you how they are all connected with mini-magnets, but anything over 4 magnets quickly became unruly to work with.
Once I realized that wasn’t really doing anything with my initial method, I looked for a quick and easy topic modeling tool and lo, the creatively named TopicModelingTool, found on Alan Liu’s DH Toychest, was exactly what I was looking for. I had to create a .txt document of all the tragedies and strip out excess information from the Gutenberg Project and other sources. Once I had a file, I put it through the TopicModelingTool on the default settings (200 passes through the text, 10 topics with 10 words per topic) and got some interesting results. I tried putting each word of the first topic into Mandala with a different magnet for every word. 10 magnets, though, is too much and the Mandala window became a mess of lines and circles and colors.
So I went back to TopicModelingTool and gave it different parameters (1000 passes through the text, 20 topics, 3 words per topic). This produced much more manageable results and when I put each topic into Mandala in the same way and got a nice, easy to read and work with result. Each one that I tried produced connections from various plays and expanded beyond what I had previously thought about Shakespeare’s plays when I conceived of them as individual works rather than parts of a body of work. What this project provided me was not a deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s methods or writing style but rather an alternative way of reading his plays. The Mandala Browser makes each speech a separate “work” which it then mixes and matches based on the user’s input. What is shows is not groundbreaking new ways to understand a text, it is a way to deform and distort the texts so that the user can read them with new eyes.
Results: Some Case Studies
Good Night Friends
When I first saw this topic appear in the TopicModelingTool it seemed like such an obvious trio, especially in that order. It is no wonder that the words “good” and “night” and “friends” would appear near each other in Shakespeare’s texts because they appear so frequently in my own life. But when I entered them into the Mandala Browser, I found some surprising connections between them, or lack thereof.
It turns out that while there are a good number of speeches where both “good” and “friends” appear (38 total) and even more where “good” and “night” share a space (89), only two speeches in the entirety of Shakespeare’s tragedies share all three words. The first is Hamlet’s in Scene 2.2:
“Very well. Follow that lord; and look you mock him not. My good friends, I’ll leave you till night: you are welcome to Elsinore.”
Here Hamlet dismisses his buddies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern after setting their plan to have a play out his evil new dad’s murderous ways. It is a somewhat standard farewell and only the “good” modifier of friends gives any indication and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are more than just hangers on. The other speech comes from The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra as Antony asks his servants to tend to him one last time:
Tend me to-night; May be it is the period of your duty: Haply you shall not see me more; or if, A mangled shadow: perchance to-morrow You’ll serve another master. I look on you As one that takes his leave. Mine honest friends, I turn you not away; but, like a master Married to your good service, stay till death: Tend me to-night two hours, I ask no more, And the gods yield you for’t! (4.2.24-33)
The “good” in this speech is related not to the quality of the friendship but to the standard of service that Antony’s reliable house servants have provided. And “friend” is modified by “honest,” an entirely different although no less heartfelt descriptor of what a friend might be. Finally, “night” seems to appear thanks to the hyphenated version of “tonight,” but I do not see that as a mistake, rather it is an evocation of a time and a melancholy that haunts the entire scene. It is soon Antony’s end, and he has few to spend his short remaining time with than those whose job it is to serve him. He still has genuine affection for them or he would not call them “honest friends,” but they are no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
This is one of the interesting outcomes in a topic model. Even with a relatively small sample size there are still patterns to see. A brief glance at the speeches which held both “good” and “night” in their length showed a roughly equal number of examples which paired the two together in their standard farewell meanings and those which scattered them among many more words, though they were often used more than once in a given speech if they were not connected directly. It is this kind of nebulous connection made more concrete that topic modeling visualized through the Mandala browser can provide. A topic need not be entirely connected by each element equally and wholly, but strong connections between each element individually will make for a stronger whole. With this topic we can see Shakespeare construct night-time gatherings of friends or people brought together by a common cause across plays.
Life Nature Death
This is the most interesting topic produced by the TopicModelingTool because it shows more of a strong core connection between all three words (7 instances of all three words appearing in one speech), each of which is a huge topic in its own right in Shakespeare’s tragedies, and which also demonstrates a glitch in the system which may yet prove meaningful.
Since this is not a giant research paper, I’ll only examine two of the speeches which contain all three topic words. The first comes from Act 2 Scene 2 of Macbeth as the title character tells his wife of his completed assassination:
“Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep’, the innocent sleep, Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care, The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature‘s second course, Chief nourisher in life‘s feast,–” (2.2.46-51).
Although the scene is entirely about life and death, and the nature of murder, this particular speech is actually about the quality of sleep which Macbeth imagines he has murdered along with his friend and king in his quest for the throne. And yet, all three words appear in the last line of the speech, the point where he extols the virtues of sleep and laments the way he has killed it for the foreseeable future. The topic words combine in a way both expected, all together and in the aftermath of an assassination, and unexpected, in reference to sleep.
I mentioned above that this topic did encounter a glitch, and it is due to the name of one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, The Life of Timon of Athens. I have not read this play and I have no real context for it, but the title’s use of the word “life” means that of the 7 speeches where all three words overlap, 3 come from this play. In all three cases, the only occurrence of “life” is in the title of the play, which counts for Mandala but not the TopicModelingTool. This is an instructive glitch, because it highlights the issues that may occur when going from one tool to another. There is no way of telling Mandala to ignore the title of a play when it searches for these speeches containing a word, even though the other tool does not “see” the title of the play. Perhaps this is also a nudge towards the real use of topic models, which is as a loosely defined and even more loosely connected set of words which may have some deeper meaning to them. Like I said earlier, it is not necessary to only examine the speeches where all three topic words appear and in fact, the number of speeches containing two of the topic words (78 in total for this topic) are probably the more fruitful areas of interest for a more in depth research project.
There are two large takeaways from this project. The first is the efficacy and even necessity of using multiple tools in conjunction with each other. How one tool informs another is a relationship that cannot be fully understood until you just play around with them for a bit. Experimentation and serious playfulness will lead a researcher such as myself to connections that I might not have guessed at on my own and with a rudimentary understanding of how the tools work. It takes fiddling to fully grasp the potential of a tool, it takes breaking it by asking it to do something it cannot do and it takes asking it to do something strange that it ends up being great at to really discover the multitude of possibilities. And then it takes even more fiddling with the tools in relation to each other to discover how they might work together. Each tool is good for some things and not good for others. In this case, the TopicModelingTool is good at creating these topics but it is terrible at actually letting you read the texts or see how the topics are formed by their signifying words. That is where the Mandala browser enters the picture, as it both visualizes those connections and brings the researcher back to the original text. Each tool might serve its own small purpose in a research project, but it is only when they are used together that they become as powerful as they can be.
The other lesson learned is that it is ok and sometimes even necessary to throw out a research question if it is not working with the tools you are using in a data analysis project. I had this initial idea to look at the way nature interacts with the state of a character’s inner mind at the outset of this project. But that yielded no fruit. Instead, I found that the tools led the way, at least in this preliminary, exploratory setting. If I wanted to revisit that initial research question, I might try to find topics using the TopicModelingTool which coalesce around nature, and perhaps see what speeches contain those words and then investigate whether those speeches are in response to a change in a character’s being. I would have never known to do that, though, without this prework of discovering what the tools do separately and together, and how I might use their disparate abilities to answer that initial question. The scope of this project does not align with the scope of that question, but I am glad to have gotten the preliminary discovery work out of the way so that I might use these two tools in future projects, and so that I have a path to follow if I want to find out how other tools work.
A Computer and a Data Set of One’s Own: My DH Future
When I wrote the first paper for my Digital Humanities class, I cheekily didn’t include the last bit of what my professors asked for because I didn’t really know what to write. They were looking for how I thought I might use DH ideas or methods in my own work now that I had learned what those were in a general sense. But I still didn’t really know what the field was or how it all came together, despite my four pages saying that I did. Now, at the end of the semester, I feel like I have a tighter grasp on the kind of work that digital humanists do and I can finally answer that question, so here’s the answer.
As for my own entry into the Digital Humanities, I’m not sure exactly what it will look like. Part of this comes from the fact that I have not yet settled on a specialty or field of my own, and so I cannot say with certainty what kinds of projects I would be interested in doing nor can I theorize what they might look like specifically because I do not know what the data set would be. But the great thing about Digital Humanities is that it is a flexible field. One needs only a computer and a data set of one’s own to do the majority of DH work. One of my projects in this class involved combining two data tools to find and illuminate thematic connections in Shakespeare’s tragedies that might not be readily apparent. Both programs ran in java and were relatively simple to understand, even if intuiting what purpose they served was not quite as obvious as their explicit functionality. That project taught me that tools do no a DH project make, at least not on their own. It took my own synthesis to bring out the best in either tool and to truly mine the data set for what it was worth. But it was also not beyond my means nor a reasonable expectation of time dedicated to figuring out what I was doing. The tinker’s mentality must be strong in a Digital Humanist, and I feel like I have that, so it will not be a barrier to entry for me.
Another project, Harlem Echoes, showcased an even more valuable mentality to have if you want to be a DH scholar: teamwork. There the entire class worked together to first create a properly formatted and error-proof version of Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows, a poetry collection from the Harlem Renaissance. After we had that framework, which was not easy, we came up with ideas for essays which would illuminate different aspects of the poetry and the poet’s life as well as develop some simple tools like a word cloud pulled from the thematic tags we each assigned to the poems we corrected. This was a complicated and drawn out process, but because we were working together towards a common goal it felt like less work and it really fostered a sense of community between us. We had some outside help for especially difficult WordPress things, so we even got to have some appreciation for the way that DH scholars often rely upon the expertise of others when it comes to more technical parts of the work. English students, especially grad students, often feel like lone wolves, out only for themselves and in search of singular achievements, but it was the collaboration that really formed the core of that experience and it is certainly a mindset that I would like to maintain throughout my work.
The final project we did were individual works of e-lit. I made mine using the Twine tool, and through a great deal of trial and error, I finally made something that I could be proud of. During the semester we had Harvard scholar and really awesome guy Vincent Brown visit our class to talk with us about his DH project, an interactive timeline and map of the slave revolt in Jamaica between 1760 and 1761. It is an amazing project and Brown spoke about how he wanted to use DH tools to tell the story of this revolt, a story mostly hidden in diaries and letters. He talked of the decisions he made in order to tell that story, and how they differed from his more traditional telling of the story in his upcoming book. This storytelling mentality really lit a spark in my brain and, when I do create DH projects in the future, it is that perspective that I will likely take. It meshes nicely with the Twine project that I worked on because doing something like that focuses the creator’s attention on the decision making process and the effect each decision will have on the reader’s experience in a way that traditional story writing had not done for me in the past. I quickly realized, for example, that I could not just throw my old work into this new medium and expect to get the same results. I instead had to re-write the entire thing and change what I was doing from the ground up in order to craft the experience I wanted the reader to have. The user experience is paramount in the way one presents DH work, and the creator must take a long look at everything they do in order to make sure that what they are saying is what they want to say. Johanna Drucker reminds us always that every choice means something, that people are not just dots on a map and that the world does not abide by our lines and separations. The conscious decision making process is one central to DH, especially when it comes to visualizing any data connections that I might find.
The last element of Digital Humanities work is the part that is both the most promising and the most likely to keep me from fully embracing it. The unfortunate truth is that nobody quite knows what to make of DH projects yet. Heck, even Vincent Brown asked us what DH is and if his project really fit into its parameters. Because DH is more rightly seen as a set of guiding principles rather than a set-in-stone philosophy or methodology, it is more open to experimentation and new ideas. That is the positive side, the thing that gets Digital Humanists excited to forge new paths and discover new ways of seeing. But the negative side is that the resulting projects then enter a nebulous world where they are often seen as holding less value than their more traditional scholarship counterparts hold when it comes to, say, evaluating whether or not a professor deserves tenure or even at the hiring stage before that. At Lehigh we are still working out how a DH project might count towards a dissertation or as part of a Master’s thesis, and what our school ends up deciding will be different from what every other school decides, so it may be that none of my work, if I were to include a DH section in either work, would mean much of anything to anybody else. That makes it very difficult to dedicate a lot of time and effort in a project that might ultimately be of little value. I suppose that the personal growth from doing such a project would be a benefit, but in the current academic world anything that does not improve your chances at achieving the next step might as well knock you back a few.
The reasons to engage in the Digital Humanities are numerous and varied. It asks you to think in ways that you are not trained to think, and that is always a good thing. It encourages you to work with people outside your small departmental bubble, which can only expand your field of vision beyond what it would normally be. And it encourages you to be thoughtful about your decisions, about the way that your present your findings, and about the effect your words or pictures or whatever have on your audience, these are never bad things to consider. But the perilous reception might cause me to keep away, at least at first, until I build some kind of reputation for myself. I will never rule out DH projects because they can be more exciting than traditional scholarship, but I will be sure to weigh the pros and cons in each particular situation so that I know what I might be giving up and what I might be adding to my work.