Project Overhaul: Pacific Update!

Exhausted, happy, a little anxious about not being prepared for the week ahead, I’ve spent the entire weekend overhauling and updating Digital Archives and Pacific Cultures, and I confess to great fascination and love for this project. I discover that we’re probably better known on our mirror site at obdurodon.org, which is right and proper, since our site was raised in an Australian monotreme’s nest and maintains a home there. I needed to update the site with the results of our course projects from the Digital Humanities course last December: new voyage files, graphs, charts, and maps—adventures with latitude and longitude extraction and conversion from 18th-century records. We’re making a point of sharing resources on the Pacific voyages that are hard to find, and this has sent us to studying the Forsters, father and son, who accompanied Captain Cook on his second circumnavigation voyage and shared an in-depth perspective on their cultural encounters with Pacific islanders.

So, this weekend Georg Forster (the younger Forster) sent me off on an unexpected adventure chasing after, I kid you not, belching seals in ancient Greek with diacritical markings. We autotagged the Forster texts from ancient word processing files sent us by Nicholas Thomas, who’d edited them for print publication–and we’re grateful to have them since they’re the ONLY digital resource we have of their work! But autotagging TEI XML from old word-processing files of gigantic voyage publications is fraught with perils, one of them being that you lose track of ancient Greek text that didn’t manage to be typed in a Unicode font. So, I happened to stumble into a passage of nonsense that, on consulting the printed text, turned out indeed to be the kind of classical Greek with an impressive variety of little accents and circumflexes and suchlike… and after some dedicated research of a few hours on Saturday, I was able to produce this:

We fell in with many herds of sea-bears, and sea-lions, which we did not attack, as another party was sent out upon that errand. We observed however, that these two species, though sometimes encamped on the same beach, always kept at a great distance asunder, and had no communication with each other. A strong rank stench is common to them, as well as to all other seals; a circumstance as well known to the ancients, as their inactivity and drowsiness whilst they lie on shore.

__________Φῶκαι νέποδες__________ 

ἀθρόαι εὕδουσιν, πολιῆς ἁλὸς ἐξαναδὐσαι, 

πικρὸν ἀποπνείουσαι ἁλὸς πολυβενθέος ὀδμήν.

 Webfooted seals forsake the whitening waves,
And sleep in herds, exhaling nauseous stench. 

Rowing along shore, we fell in with a spot where several thousand shags had built their nests, on those elevated tufts which I have mentioned before. Here was an opportunity to provide the whole ship’s company with a fresh meal, which was not neglected. The birds were for the greatest part so tame, as to let our boat’s crew come among them with clubs and staves; by which means several hundreds of them were killed. On this day’s excursion we found a bird of a new genus, which was of the size of a pigeon, and perfectly white. It belonged to the class of wading water-fowl, its toes were half webbed, and its eyes, as well as the base of the bill, surrounded by many little white glands or warts. It had such an horrid offensive smell, that we could not taste the flesh, though at this time we were not easily disgusted. 

It’s a wonderfully stinky passage–redolent of much of what ought to fascinate us about the Pacific voyages if we could only read them in fascinating snippets like this. Forster’s source for the Greek is none other than the Odyssey’s Book 4, as I quickly learned from the Perseus Project.

Meanwhile, the question is whether I’ve mismanaged my time horribly by posting students’ project work from last December rather than concentrating on the steadily aging digital grading piles my students have submitted this semester. I don’t know, but I can say this: I’m glad I had students to help with the Pacific project, and that they’ve had a chance to contribute to some real research resources—their time was not wasted and the Worldwide Web of Ideas is smarter because of their work and my finally getting around to posting it. And the site is actually fun, after all—if you haven’t spun one of our Google Earth KML viewers and read out bits of the voyages, it’s high time to go try that out… Spin Cook’s Second Voyage map over to the Cape of Good Hope and read about the fire-in-the-water from  the wee phosphorescent floating creatures that Cook and company sampled in buckets to study, and be amazed at the sight of strange worlds and the pungent odors of unknown species!

Madcap Adventures Part II: The Work Ahead

“What is now prov’d was once, only imagined.” A project team has formed, has met in person over three days (really four for those who arrived on Sunday and left Thursday), and has actually grown with new consulting editors–two excellent colleagues in the Pittsburgh area who discovered an interest in the Digital Mitford. I wanted to pinch my arm to see if I was dreaming many times last week: Collaboration is a new wonder and a new workflow. We hatched a plan together for a “Phase I” of the Digital Mitford to set expectations for ourselves. Everyone has begun learning new skills, including me!

Leading this workshop was a marathon, combining teaching with intense on-the-spot thinking and long-range planning in a compressed and charged moment. I found myself badly in need of sleep on the other side of it, and today I am taking stock of what must happen now: I review the first coded documents of my team: 11 digital surrogates of some very interesting ms letters and some partly formed autotagged texts of plays and poems that we’ve begun work on. I’ve been scrawling to-do lists and will be posting more about this on the Digital Mitford blog…but in this space I want to seize a moment to reflect on something more fundamental. Everything is changing, shifting in emphasis–in the past few weeks of planning and experiencing this workshop, I’m reorienting my way of thinking about research and teaching–my professional life’s work and work-as-life.

Since I was a student and chose to set off on an academic path, I’ve known myself to be pursuing a calling, that “my life” would be absorbed in it rather than compartmentalized from it. What I thought of my work as a young grad student has altered over time, with the compartmentalized experiences of university life: One’s teaching cannot always be an expression of one’s research, one must write committee reports, one is responsible to others who do not share one’s passions, and one retreats to one’s very real earthy garden or to one’s ball of yarn to take one’s mind away from fret and anxiety. One *is* compartmentalized–that’s life, but…I begin to think *now*–surely as a result of this collaborative adventure–that integration and concentration of one’s driving interests is a source of renewal and direction, perhaps in multiple facets that might not otherwise intersect. What am I contemplating?

My teaching will change this fall. If it doesn’t, I won’t be satisfied with it–I’ll have settled on an old, cold form disconnected from my transformative adventures of the past year. My coding projects lead me to wonder about the methods that matter for my students.  As I think about the stages involved in my project, I think about the stages students might take in researching and writing on a smaller scale. I want to engage students in processes that don’t necessarily expect them to reveal a *totality* of understanding or imply a *comprehensiveness.* It’s a familiar thing for me to scale down and “focus” assignment topics, but perhaps what I’m after now is an *expansion* from the scale of words and phrases.

A key question now: Can I bring my students closer to poetic language by asking them to annotate rather than explicate? Annotation is something I did in a freshman English course with great satisfaction, and without computer tools beyond the word processors of the early 1990s. Now there are more possibilities available for such work. Annotation assignments should *precede* explication at the very least.

A problem: 19th-c. Brit Lit: do I want to sacrifice reading and discussion time to teach XML coding? No–because I’m doing that in the DH class. What’s called for here is a digital tool in place, easy to access–ideally local, though we don’t have such a thing (yet!) Instead:

A feasible practice for my non-DH literature classes: I think I will try a collaborative annotation platform that I learned about from an extensive teaching praxis discussion in the HASTAC community. This is a remarkable project called “Rap Genius” which has been expanding far beyond the annotation and explication of rap lyrics to include texts of poems from past centuries in its “Poetry Genius” extension, and educators can upload texts and assignments here for students to work on. I was amazed to discover  several of Mitford’s short poems in this site, and I’m not really sure how they got here–though likely it’s the result of an automated incorporation of documents from Project Gutenberg or other text-based sources. What’s significant here: The ability to load clean base texts (not bad OCR or image files), and the ability for students to interact with them at the level of the language. The idea that this began as a site to archive and analyze rap lyrics interests me because of its attention to orality of poetic language, metrical patterns, rhymes, dissonance, assonance, consonance. This is worth exploring really as a kind of *lab space* to work closely with the oral/aural intricacies of poetic language.

Here’s another potentially useful site for teaching prosody, though the interface is not quite so open or expansive, but really focused on learning to mark meter and recognize poetic forms: “For Better or Verse.”   This large tutorial site is organized in stages and offers some fascinating selections–though my problem with it is the singularity of interpretation: The design of this extensive tutorial gives little room for variations in reading and emphasis–the human quirks that can’t easily be formulated in code. Yet it may offer students unfamiliar with poetic form a way to recognize structures–a game environment for learning. It’s worth a try.

I hope that digital annotation methods can help students to appreciate poetry rather than avoid close analysis, but my reorientation of literature assignments need not stop with poems–or especially the short lyric poems. Longer forms in prose or poems would be interesting to have students analyze in a digital lab environment, collaborating to investigate contexts and raise questions that might, I hope, lead to individual writing that’s more inspired by active learning rather than receptive, reflexive iteration. One of my colleagues on the Digital Mitford project teaches literature by having students write in collaborative contexts, and much of my writing here is inspired by recent conversations during our workshop.

As I engage in collaboration, I am caught up in learning and hope to share something of the sublime wonder of that experience with students. The realities of implementation and proof follow. I’m caught up in a confluence of ideas and possibilities, but my  implementation must be localized, dependent on the best interface with text and network that works for my group and our conversation. We live and work and dream in communities.

Madcap Adventures Part I: Mitford Coding Workshop

A short post but an effusive one to record an eventful and momentous day:  I absolutely loved what happened in our kickstart of the Mitford workshop today. We triumphed over inevitable odds: Of course, the demons that possess HDMI and VGA cables and ports prevented projection from my computer, but we needed it not! We sat about a round table, and everyone could see each other’s screen so we made a sort of connected chain–so people could readily follow my links through our workshop, and  we all helped each other when we got lost. One especially helpful project participant (our Rebecca Nesvet) wrote up detailed notes to send to our Google Hangouts members to fill in when they had connection troubles–so she helped to ensure that our coding circle reached out to our people with hiccup-y connections in LA, Boston, and England. We worked together and made technology work for us! And my team bravely asked questions and helped each other onward.

Our workshop materials are here, and I’m very much indebted to the WWP (Women Writers’ Project), Their excellent slides introduced me to TEI for manuscripts, and that’s where I’ve started my team. Tomorrow they all start coding their own letters–I’m so proud of our group!

Digital Mitford Site Launch!

. . .and there is much rejoicing! We now have a project site, and a seed start on our digital garden:

http://www.pitt.edu/~ebb8/DigitalMitford/

The site address will be changing in about a month as we move to a new server. For now, it’s a beginning, and you can see something of what we hope to do with the Digital Mitford project! I am very pleased with learning a new JavaScript trick–I’d never cycled images before.  You can see one editing project nearly finished on the site, for a sampling of the TEI and versioning I’ve been working on. As much as I like the ease of use of JuxtaCommons and the Versioning Machine, I would like to devise my own parallel text view, which will take some coding fun with XSLT.

Feedback on site design and project parameters is most welcome.

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.