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Humanities 2.1: A Follow Up to A Millennial’s Response to the Digital Humanities

Michael Lobocki

October 11th, 2013

ENG 240 – 36394

 

Humanities 2.1

            In week six’s response paper, I was a cheerleader for the possibilities and potential that the Digital Humanities offers to both the classroom and personal scholarly pursuits. In week seven, that stance has not changed. I still believe that the boom of technological advancements born from the ashes of the “dot com bust” carries the possibility of a true explosion of literary competence and community. However, through this week’s reading, I was presented with various complaints of DH and how/why they are yet to be utilized to their fullest potential.

I’ll begin by saying that as a daily suburban commuter via the Metra train system, I have the opportunity to rub elbows with every walk of life for upwards of three hours per day. Recently, I took note of the fact that roughly approximated, 70 percent of the time I see parents escorting their children to the city for a day at Brookfield Zoo or the Art Museum, they get situated in their seats and then throw a LeapFrog learning pad in the child’s lap and tell them to practice their spelling. The LeapFrog learning pad is a children’s version of the iPad, pre-loaded with numerous apps that are designed to make learning fun and colorful to the child using it. Just recently, I began considering the long term effects of the LeapFrog army. By 2025 at the latest, a sleeper cell that has been reinforced in their minds each time they spell “Pineapple” in the Spongebob Squarepants spelling mini-game will emerge. The young adults will instinctively take to the streets and begin their march on the Capital, monochromatically spelling the slogan of the Party, “R-I-B-B-I-T. RIBBIT. R-I-B-B-…” until they acquire what is rightfully theirs; total and complete control.

The ridiculousness of this story[1] is exactly what I’ve felt while I’ve read through a number of the complaints of the Digital Humanities. A majority of the issues raised used slippery slope fallacies not quite as extreme as this one, but a fallacy nonetheless. Certain complaints of search engine dependence have been made intelligently and backed up with facts and figures, but I’ve also heard a lot of blanket statements about society as a whole, suggesting things along the lines of ‘Google will completely eliminate the practice of rational thought and secondary research.’

Not unlike Major League Baseball, America’s oldest pastime, there are a number of diehard fans in the field that feel that the DH is ruining the game. In terms of baseball, DH stands for “Designated Hitter”, or the player on American League teams whose job is expressly just to bat for the pitcher. The rule was introduced in 1973 to the American League teams. National League teams are “old fashioned” in the sense that their pitchers still bat. The DH is often a power hitter that is a breathing testament to just how many steroids a man can take before his body will give up its skeletal structure and morph into a singular bicep. Arguments can be paralleled between the two fields of discussion, because protesters of the DH rule in baseball argue that it makes the game too easy. It dilutes the strategy of putting (historically speaking) the worst batter on the team on the plate and having them use tricky bunts or sacrifice fly balls to advance the team towards success. This is similar—and in some cases identical—to the argument that technological advancements reduce the effort and time spent on a research-driven piece of work.

In David Greetham’s piece, The Resistance to Digital Humanities, unsettling figures were brought up regarding the use of digital technology to produce monographs as a means of acquiring tenure in doctorate-granting institutions. “40.8% of departments [“ “] report no experience in evaluating refereed articles in electronic format, and 65.7% report no experience in evaluating monographs in electronic format.” In most cases, as it seems, the evaluators prefer to receive monographs in print edition. This is troubling because it stifles the evolution of using digital resources to the fullest of their potential. It makes doctorate-seeking students shy away from the use of electronic formats in fear of spending a great deal of time and effort on something in which the evaluators refuse to see. “When that medium is digital, substance is no longer visible to those who will not see it.” Greetham also cited a suggestion to combat these prejudices by “persuading [tenured and senior scholars] to publish something in a digital form. By taking that step it makes it more respectable for junior people to do.” I think this is a great shift in the right direction, and I hope that the idea is put into practice sooner rather than later.

In Cathy Davidson’s paper, Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions, she writes about Web 1.0 (pre “dot com bust” in 2001) and Web 2.0 (“dot com bust” to present). It seems to me that a number of the complaints of the Digital Humanities are being made from the Web 1.0 mindset. The Internet and its technological advancements, while far from perfected, have made significant strides that seem to be rapidly launching forward at an exponential rate each year. Web 2.0 offers new technology and archiving programming that were sleepless daydreams of the computer programmers of the 1990’s. While these technologies are materializing and beginning to show us their potential, I find it shocking that there are protestors who are acting like the term “Online Archive” affects them the same way that a cat is affected by someone shaking a soup can full of nickels at them when they simply won’t get down from the fridge.

We joked in class about the sudden burst of cons that Davidson sprung on us at the end of her paper. While it is important to be aware of the fact that Google has slowly monetized the mouse clicks of the masses, I feel that it is also important to know that as long as capitalism is prevalent, it will be silently encouraged that companies draw a profit from innovations, both tangible and digital. Amazon’s suggested sell bot is similar in his/her pushiness, as anybody who has bought Uncle Buck on DVD—and subsequently spent the next seventeen months saying “Not Interested” to Planes, Tranes, and Automobiles—can tell you. Certain privacy movements are making strides each day, but unfortunately those strides have either been lateral or met with an immediate equal backpedal whenever they gain forward momentum.

Davidson says it best with a great analogy of the DH: “Humanities 2.0 thus needs a software update, Humanities 2.1, a reminder that there are always glitches and bugs and viruses in transitional eras.” This update is desperately needed, but will surely be met with an ever-continuing opposition, but opposition is good. It creates dynamism to a society. Contempt breeds innovation and those who are already utilizing the presently existing innovations will bask in the usefulness of the new ones. Beta testing for Humanities 2.1 is starting soon whether you welcome it or not, and it would be a shame if the programmers could not rely on us for our suggestions and input for something that benefits everyone.


[1] While I find their political views shortsighted and their use of simultaneous riot spelling as a means to rise to political power naïve and uncompromising, I will enthusiastically follow any and all commandments assigned to me by the webbed hands of our new lilypad overlords.
“Kermit be with you.”
“And also with you.”

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A Millennial’s Response to the Digital Humanities

Michael Lobocki

October 4th, 2013

ENG 240 — 36394

A Millennial’s Response to the Digital Humanities

            As a millennial, I feel as if I have a naturally engrained desire to see Digital Humanities succeed. Throughout my entire educational career, the importance of computer literacy has been stressed via numerous typing and computer-aided research courses. Despite sitting through painfully tedious lectures on the “home row” typing technique, I feel as if for the first time, the threat of “pay attention because you’ll be using this for the rest of your life” has—and will continue to—come true. While I haven’t written in cursive in almost ten years and I can’t remember the last time I did manual long division, I use computers and the internet as a vessel for academic research almost every day of my life.

“Digitial Humanities” is defined as “a field of research, teaching, and invention concerned with the intersection of computing and the discipline of the humanities.” (Kirschenbaum, What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?) Implementing technological advancements in the classroom has become a much more complex practice than sitting twenty second graders in front of Oregon Trail to deter them from throwing paper planes at each other. Students have been taught how to search numerous sources and bookmark them while simultaneously judging their credibility on the fly. One thing that I’ve noticed as a result of expanding technological research in the classroom is the trained ability for students to judge academic credibility. Before anybody with Windows ’98 and some free time could publish their interpretations on the internet, the only filter for credibility was, “It’s in a book, so somebody obviously proofread and fact checked this.” There’s no copy editor or peer review involved when somebody grows passionate about a topic and decides to launch a Blogger.com page. As the internet bloats and more users begin to cover more topics, the importance of judging one’s digital ethos will predictably bloat at the same rate.

I think the most intriguing idea featured in Debates of the Digital Humanities comes from Kirschenbaum’s essay in which he told the story of Brian Croxall’s absentee paper from the 2009 MLA Convention. Due to travel complications, Croxall could not make it to the convention and had his paper read in absentia. As a result of his absence, he chose to also include this paper in a post on his online blog. Because of this, his paper went viral and became the most widely seen and read paper of the convention. The reason I found this so interesting is because it seems that in 2013, it should be considered the norm to want your literary work to be featured across as many platforms and forms of media as possible. The internet, in itself, is just that. It’s a sprawling amount of space for ideas to be shared with millions in the form of text, video, audio, etc., and Croxall capitalized on the medium.

Digital Humanities is about building things. It’s a global academic effort to shift from the act of reading and critiquing to a much more productive practice of building and making. I would hazard a bet that anybody that interacts with the general public on a regular basis would have a difficult time not running into somebody that either owns, references, or is explicitly using a tablet computer or iPad. These devices, when connected to a wireless connection more consistently reliable than that of UIC, can shift any book to a community based collaborative effort. I own a Kindle, and in a majority of books purchased from the Amazon bookstore, there is a feature in which you can read and add comments to certain passages. Very rarely do these comments contain useless Sparknote snippets regarding the plot and are instead detailed interpretations from passionate readers from across the country or even across the globe. Perhaps the binary divide between articulating thoughtful critiques and hurling caps-locked racial slurs exists because the “trolls” of the internet face the difficult decision between (a) lobbing unfounded promiscuity claims of one’s mother in the comments section of a video tribute to Spiderbait’s cover of Black Betty on YouTube or (b) belittling the economic plight of Dust Bowl farmers in the margins of the Kindle edition of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Innovations like that of the Amazon Kindle’s communal comment system open the gates of communication and bridge the intellectual gap between scholars—both proven and self-identified—and puzzled High School students who are perhaps having trouble grappling with the use of satire in George Orwell’s 1984.

While certain technological pitfalls exist, such as the unreliability and difficulty to index Twitter posts that are buried by newer posts in a matter of weeks, a change of media or online source can often resolve the issue. I am a supporter of the Digital Humanities in the sense that it expands sources for academic research while simultaneously creating a 24/7 free-flowing conversation on the very pages of your book. As our society moves deeper into the 21st century, I will accept and welcome with open arms the means by which any cooperative collaboration will operate in the coming years. However, in order for those innovations and technologies to branch outward, it will require open mindedness and a cooperative effort between the veteran scholars and rising millennial age scholars-to-be.

Can vs. Should: A Subtle Distinction (?)

Our examination in class of the Digital Humanities has shown the difference between visions of what this movement might mean to the Discipline of English.  The makers of digital tools, the old guard of Humanities Computing, still provide a compelling case for the need to actually create something in order to consider yourself a Digital Humanist.  Users of existing digital tools show how reading and scholarship are rapidly shifting due to technological advances.  And Critics, well, they are struggling to catch up.  What would a critical theory of the Digital Humanities look like and is it needed?

Although there are many objections to the Digital Humanities as a field of study, I think one major point of contention is the rapidity with which digital projects come and go.  To the less technically inclined this seems a waste of scarce resources of both time and money.  Why go to such great lengths to create literary algorithms and electronic collections if you are going to move on swiftly to the next new thing?

So far the only answer that Digital Humanities makers have had to offer to potential users and critics alike is: experimentation is the point.  Try it out.  See what happens.  This is a very different vision of humanities scholarship where articles can sometimes take years before the exit the editorial cue and see publication in a print journal.  If this vision of English scholarship is to shift, then a more compelling case needs to be made for why that is the case.  A new tenure dossier model would be a good start.  A way to get senior faculty more involved in these projects.  As for non-tenured faculty such as myself, perhaps a performance bonus system would be in order.  Just saying……

To give you a sense of the wide variety of projects being experimented on by Digital Humanists associated with English Departments, here is a list of links worth checking out.

The first is http://www.viseyes.org.  This is a mapping project hosted at the University of Virginia.  Among the many interesting maps they have created is one of Faulkner’s fictional county of Yoknapatawpha.

A second project is the fake literary Twitter account.  Although there are many, “Tweets of Grass” by Walt Whitman is perhaps the best.  You can read his 21st century couplet in 140 characters or less here https://twitter.com/TweetsOfGrass.

Other Twitter based Digital Humanities Projects involve Tweet BOTS or computers that are given the literary stylistics of an author and then programmed to create Tweets as that author.  Mark Sample, a Professor of Contemporary Literature and New Media Studies, has created many of these.  This one is my favorite https://twitter.com/JustToSayBot

Infographics are a third way Digital Humanities are exploring how technology might enhance our understanding of literature.  Here is a link to an infographic on Shakespearean insults http://www.nosweatshakespeare.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/shakespeare-insults.jpg.

And, of course, there is literary analysis by computer or as it is being called today “data mining” of texts.  This sophisticated example from Whitman College in Massachusetts (what they call Lexomics) was used to determine what parts of the play Mule Bone had been written by Langston Hughs and which parts had been written by Zora Neale Hurston: http://wheatoncollege.edu/lexomics/introduction-lexomics/

A lot is left to be decided about Digital Humanities as a movement, but one thing is clear–the ways in which we read and write will never be the same.  Stay tuned……

Project Biocultures Talk (Ato Quayson)

On Monday I attended with several of my students from English 240 the Project Biocultures talk by Ato Quayson, Professor of English at the University of Toronto and founding Director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies.

Professor Quayson began by describing his approach to Disability Studies, much of which came from his book Aesthetic Nervousness.  The moderator for the talk, Leonard Davis, rightly noted that Quayson’s approach to disability was broad but in a theoretically enabling way. This observation was born out in the second portion of the talk where Quayson applied his theoretical approach to disability to Samuel Beckett’s novel Murphy (1938).

Professor Quayson contended that any coherent theory of disability had to acknowledge not simply its presence in literature and culture but also the “effect” of that disability in a given society.  Aesthetic nervousness, as Quayson described it, was where representational practices at a particular cultural space and time stumble on disability as something that does not fit within the field of reference.  A disabled figure may thus be present in the narrative but their very presence causes us to question the logic of the fictional universe they inhabit.

The benefit of this approach to disability, Professor Quayson suggested, was that it reminded critics and students alike that Disability Studies is not simply a matter of interpretation but also social justice.  One might ignore religious difference in Milton, he asserted, and still find a way to comprehend and evaluate his work. The same cannot be done, in his view, with a work closely associated with Disability Studies.

As someone not well versed in the canon of Disability Studies criticism and theory, I found Quayson’s talk engaging and insightful.  He addressed a concern that I had often held.  Namely, that Disability Studies scholarship might simply be a hide and seek for disabled characters in published fiction.  Quayson presented me with a way of understanding what to do with traces of disability in the text once they are found.  His method suggests an interesting parallel between the fields of Semiotics and Disability Studies.  There is also a potential link between his idea of aesthetic nervousness and the Marxist conception of “contradiction.”  Disability in a narrative is often a factor contradicting the type of world the author is attempting to create.  This opens a space to consider alternatives to the context created by the author and the world in which he/she was writing.

I also found the chess playing scene Professor Quayson described with Murphy and a patient at the mental hospital where he works particularly striking.   I was strongly reminded of the failure of connection often exhibited by trauma patients who share a similar disability but are trapped within their own visions.  This is a pattern that I noticed while writing a chapter for my book on Civil War veterans and war memoirs.  Even though veterans shared many of the same sufferings and battles, they suffered in silence.  They were, to borrow a phrase from Sherry Turkle, “alone together.”

An excellent talk.  There is a lot still to process.  I’m also looking forward to reading Professor Quayson’s book.

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