Building and Testing Connections: Global Mitford and THATCamp Pittsburgh

This has been quite an exciting, even frabjous week, full of the making and testing of connections! In preparation for our Digital Mitford workshops, to connect with three participants in Reading, England, Los Angeles, and Boston who can’t come to Pitt-Greensburg in person, we’ve been testing Microsoft Lync, because it’s the digital network connection software officially recommended by my university. I’d tested it semi-successfully earlier this month with people on PC-compatible machines, but noted lots of bugs and serious challenges–I doubt I’d be able to efficiently run a workshop and be quite sure of what I’m doing in Lync. (And apparently I’m not alone in my assessment.) It was very easy to break connections in Lync.  Sharing programs online was laggy, and watching someone remotely scrolling through a shared file was a recipe for nausea. I now have two versions of Lync installed, Lync 2013 and Lync 2010, to test the functionality of each–and this week I am relieved to say that we are NOT using it! This is absolutely liberating!

We are not using Lync because it is practically incompatible with Mac users, unless they can afford or have access to Office 365 software and can purchase Lync 2011 for Macs. It seems a shame that Microsoft could not design a more robust and interoperable web interface, particularly since a much better solution exists in Google Hangouts. (Evidently there’s a running feud between Google and Microsoft, and we may begin to see who’s winning…) The only slight drawback is that my project team needs to set up Google Plus accounts for us to hold live meetings and share destkops and programs. Having tested it today with at one point five people, though, we have demonstrated seamless interoperability, with an occasionally laggy connection that can be restored momentarily. People don’t have to restart software, aren’t missing parts of an interface,  and best of all, we can forget the technology and simply meet–and don cartoon pirate hats and funny faces. Compared to the whimsicality and ease of Google Hangouts, Microsoft Lync seems a grim and fragile interface at best.

Our Digital Mitford group  has now experienced its first international meeting–and in the same week I’ve been meeting more colleagues practicing Digital Humanities around me in the Pittsburgh, PA region and discovering wonderful new things to learn and try! A group of faculty, librarians, and students from Chatham, Pitt, Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne, Seton Hill, Washington and Jefferson College, the Mattress Factory archive, and elsewhere met at the Heinz History Center to plot strategies for THATCamp Pittsburgh–the very first THATCamp for our region. Many of us (including this digital Romanticist) are new to THATCamp culture, and discovered the challenge of planning for unscripted spontaneity! I found this a wonderful meeting of minds and was delighted to meet colleagues from Duquesne and Carnegie Mellon who are keen to swap knowledge: In return for my sharing an introduction to TEI XML and autotagging,  I’m delighted to learn from my colleagues more about social network analysis! A most impressive example of this is the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon project at CMU.

Both Digital Archives and Pacific Cultures and our Digital Mitford project would seem to provide excellent bases for social network analysis, and as we develop our personographies for both projects, I look forward to learning how to visualize graphically their connections to each other and to understand more of the statistics involved. My own brief research leads me to want to try Philip Leifeld’s Discourse Network Analyzer (with the compelling acronym DNA): DNA seems especially suited for charting how people are connected, based on shared ideas and frequency of interaction. Of course, we need more coded texts… I’m glad my Mitford project team is as eager to begin work as I am!

Metaphoric Confession: A “DH” Tent and A Digital Garden

I confess to being an outspoken newbie to the “digital humanities,” but I’m keenly surveying the field, and I’m glad to read critiques of it. There are things that I confess both excite and concern me deeply about DH, to do with authority, quality, and inclusiveness. David Golumbia’s blog post on “definitions that matter (of ‘digital humanities’)” shocks and sobers this eager digital romanticist…and it strikes me as yes, quite apt in its critique of the “big tent” metaphor for DH. The big tent disguises its own digital divide, warns Golumbia, and when we consider the awarding of grant funding for “DH” projects, we begin to see a more narrow definition–and we can readily intuit who need not apply.

I am glad of this warning note from the self-pronounced “digital skeptic.” And I confess to the weakness of exceptionalist bias! I want my own projects to be different, to be inclusive and instructive, to educate and uplift and help to transform what we understand of literature and culture of past centuries. I want my practice of coding to reach out and include students and colleagues, to help disclose new topics of discourse, to help build new communities.  Can there be a culture of coding, and a cultivation of the intellect and imagination through the digital humanities? If so, it’s not going to appeal to everyone, and the time and money to do it seems to be limited, as Golumbia warns.

Maybe humanities research needs to be esoteric, and whether digital or not, should not be puffed (to use an old-fashioned 19th-century term) with hot air to outsized tents that blow away and disappear as funding streams are cut.  I can say, though, based on my humble experience, that much experimentation with humanities computing for teaching and research need not require a start-up grant or millions of dollars. Good experimentation of any kind does take time, and that time certainly can be defined in dollar amounts. Is my time well spent? Six months ago I was not sure, but in connecting with people who care about sharing knowledge, and in devoting much time (and losing sleep many a long night of coding!) in the past spring, I am confident in saying, yes, this is worth my energies, where I am placed now. I think it worthwhile, since I can, to try to grow a digital garden, with deep roots and rhizomatic linkages and, I hope, perennial blooms that outlast the current (funding) season.

For very practical reasons, in working with noncanonical texts, I believe that learning to code is the best direction for the kind of feminist archival and rediscovery work we’re doing…but I confess a great concern about the direction of grant funding in our times: Is there money and support for research into *noncanonical texts and topics*? Must the “digital humanities” be defined by dollars? I’d rather it were defined by collaborative connections, like my Digital Mitford project team coming together out of mutual interest on the fly (and on the cheap!) this year and the social discourse we can engage in through organizations like HASTAC.

Down to earth with me! Try googling “digital garden” and…I see one project which is really much more earthy but seems to share my digital idealism about building community and improving discourse! This is as good a moment as any to consider that imaginative constructions in texts script and shape and drive our interactions, that “what is now proved was once, only imagin’d”. . . and written, and coded, and read.

Caught by the Dragonfly’s Gaze

Now here is a wonderful example of a challenging digital humanities in action! I’m delighted to follow the adventures recorded by Christof Schöch in The Dragonfly’s Gaze. I’m just beginning some adventures with topic modelling with the Digital Archives and Pacific Cultures project, as I’m assembling large quantities of text, and MALLET is the first (and only) tool I’ve been planning to use…But I learn of other fascinating possibilities through this site, and see some brilliant experiments with distant reading and graphic visualization here, using Gephi. Very impressed! I can’t say I understand it all yet, but I want to watch and maybe I’ll catch up with the statistics one day.

What I love about this: It’s highly technical, yes, but also very encouraging of adventuring forth into quantitative analysis as a humanities scholar. For example, see the very personable yet highly educational post on “Catching up: ‘Statistics: Making Sense of Data’ on Coursera.” And Schöch enthusiastically investigates topics in literature and about humanities–he’s theorizing about what can be happening–how the digital humanities can change our frames of reference for studying literature and culture.  I confess–I greatly admire this!

New Print Release of Hacking the Academy

Much excitement! See: Last but Not Least: Hacking the Academy–the Print and Ebook Editions.

News of the release of Hacking the Academy as a traditional book seems intriguing and ironic, since this has been the eminent example of the book-that-is-not-a-book, assembled from social media constructions. Can it be reputable in this new bookish edition? It seems a little sad and sorry to say that university press publication gives this text authority and credibility…

…and yet, and yet…consider:

The  print and e-book publication via U. of Michigan gives us a fine example of digital stewardship in action! The famous “Book Crowdsourced in One Week” from 2010 has been transformed after two years into something new, and I haven’t seen what it has become after the heyday of the blogspot has passed. But the transition to a new kind of book format through a university press has something to say about a need to reach a wider audience, a wider audience’s interest, and the transitional life of texts.

What has happened to Hacking the Academy is, of course Backing by the Academy…which was significantly quite the point of Liz Losh in her 2010 piece titled “Will ‘Hacking the Academy’ Be Understood as ‘Backing the Academy'”, duly compiled in the “Criticisms of This Book” section of the original web book. One of Losh’s concerns back in May 2010 (just about exactly two years ago now) was that DH as “hacktivism” and decenteredness and refusal of structure or hierarchy would play right into the hands of budget-cutters and anti-intellectuals—-that universities and professional associations and conferences and publications actually do have something important to offer in fostering the pursuit of quality and lasting research. Does the University of Michigan Press’s new release of a transformed Hacking the Academy derail its high-minded mission? I don’t think so. It expands the reach of the book, and proves its importance within an academy critically contemplating itself.

UX Thoughts: A Confession

I confess to feeling overcome with visions of design at the start of a project–especially a digital project. Launching these blogs has been a comforting detour. I’ve been enjoying the instant gratification of “trying on” site designs that WordPress offers. Our Mitford Project will not have the comforting support of a content management system (CMS), at least not at the start, because I don’t want to be struggling with rigid structures and predetermined choices in site design that might crimp our style with coding. My hope is that we’ll never actually need a CMS—-even though we do anticipate a massive website. I’d like our site to be purely under the control of our project team, and not at the mercy of a product designer’s corporate style.  Designing for an appealing UX (or user experience) can be very difficult: a good CMS can of course streamline the process, but really they are not to be trusted—-and I am determined to make a go of a site design myself. To do this well we will need to be very clear about what we’re representing from our coding projects, and how we expect our viewers to interact with our site.  The more help I have on this matter the better—-provided I can think this through for myself and not surrender to a prefab system.  My readers, do you have thoughts on this vexing subject?

But I did enjoy designing these blogs once I found my way to images that would personalize and distinguish them. The background for this site is adapted from a wonderful colorized illustration of Drury Lane Theatre of August 1808, which I found on wikimedia commons. The commons site reports that it was “published as plate 32 of Microcosm of London (1808)”. I ran it through Photoshop to enlarge it for the site, and then experimented with some of Photoshop’s filters to stylize it. I decided today to try out a different but related background of Regency era Covent Garden Theatre for the Digital Mitford blog, the same I used for our Facebook MRM group.

Why the early 19th-century theatre interiors? Need you ask? They are glorious spaces in which to be writing and reading, are they not? More to the point, these blog images connect with the Digital Mitford project: Mary Russell Mitford achieved remarkable success with staging historical tragedies in London’s Royal Theatres (Drury Lane and Covent Garden) in the 1820s, and studying her plays in the past year has opened a fascinating area of interest: How did playwrights negotiate with theatre managers in the 19th-century to produce plays? How did women playwrights negotiate and network with powerful men who were both celebrity performers and actor-managers in the 1820s Royal Theatres?  Writing for the London theatres, I’ve learned, necessitated some measure of compromise and serious tension, as a famous actor-manager (like William Charles Macready) could agree to perform a  play (like Mitford’s Julian), and then proceed to recommend (demand?) significant alterations of parts. The Royal Theatres were for Mitford a setting for some of her most remarkable accomplishments, boosting her fame (if not her fortune) in the 1820s, and they are also a site of great interest in the negotiation of control over texts—-a hot point of textual alchemy generated in nerve-wracking frictions between actors and authors.

As I think about site design and editing tasks ahead, the sight of the Royal Theatres suggests to me a fascinating challenge: Particularly when editing Mitford’s plays we will need to code multiple versions and begin documenting the differences between manuscript and published play post-production. How we present these differences matters and will demonstrate our editorial approach to vexed and dynamic texts. We shall surely have more to say on this subject on the Digital Mitford blog!

Digital Mitford

I’ve started a new blog for our Digital Mitford project team, appropriately titled Digital Mitford! That will be a blog that all of us involved with transcribing, editing, and coding can work on together to post updates and raise questions and issues as we develop the project. We’re beginning with some collective reading of Electronic Textual Editing, ed. Lou Burnard, Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, and John Unsworth.

my first confession

I’m a Romanticist by calling—-an active teaching and researching academic moved to study literary Romanticism and its precursors and ripple effects and aftershocks. I’m working on projects that are exciting, new and strange to me, all launched within the past year. Hence this new blog, documenting my adventures as a Digital Romanticist. Here I’ll meditate aloud to anyone who cares, and I’ll also work with those involved in projects with me to post materials and discuss issues immediately important to us.

I’m caught up in an Adventure that began when I wanted to find a good way to edit the collected works of Mary Russell Mitford a few years ago. In May 2012 I participated in a wonderful manuscript-encoding workshop hosted by the Brown Women Writers Project, and thanks to the efficient tutelage of Julia Flanders and Syd Bauman, I began learning TEI XML, the markup language of the Text Encoding Initiative. Along the way, together with my colleague Sayre Greenfield, I helped to launch a Digital Humanities course at my campus, the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, and I began teaching TEI to my patient and persevering college students. Teaching accelerated my learning, because I confess(!) all along in the Fall of 2012 I was only days or even hours ahead of my students in learning before teaching, and I keenly felt my lack of knowledge. I attended a second workshop at Brown University on transforming TEI with XSLT, where I met a most impressive computational linguist from Pitt’s Oakland campus who generously offered me and two dedicated companions a spot in his Spring 2013 course on Computational Methods in Humanities. In 15 weeks, we ran through a mill of daily rigorous homework exercises in coding: XML, XSLT, CSS, RelaxNG, Schematron, XQuery, SVG, Javascript. I worked together with a small project team of faculty and students from two campuses, to launch a serious, wonderful, and continuing project in textual analysis, mapping, and graphic visualization called Digital Archives and Pacific Cultures. This project site, its research questions, and its range of coding applications serve as the basis of our next iterations of the Digital Humanities course at Pitt-Greensburg.

As my learning accelerated, projects began to cohere, and I am now launching a collaborative digital archive project of the literary works and letters of Mary Russell Mitford–the very project pipe-dream that set me on my path to learning to code in the first place. Anyone reading this blog who doesn’t know who Mary Russell Mitford was might well begin by consulting David Nash Ford’s bio page. Mitford fans should follow a wonderful blog called “Unearthing Our Village”  by Alexandra Drayton, and watch my pages too as the Digital Mitford project unfolds.  I’m fortunate to have found a project team willing and ready to work with me, thanks to the formation of the Mary Russell Mitford Society (MRMS) at the 18th-and-19th-Century British Women Writers Conference in Albuquerque in April 2013. We’re gearing up to meet in early June and begin work on digitizing and coding texts and transcriptions of the prolific Mitford’s works and letters. This is a huge task, and a welcome new adventure.