Surfing the Permanent Revolution: Digital Humanism at NAVSA 2013

This week I’m back from NAVSA. Well — not really back; it was just up the road in Pasadena. But I expect to spend some time nursing this (intellectual) hangover and thinking of the talks that I saw and the questions that were raised there.

Most immediately, it’s clear that digital work has hit the pavement in 19th century studies. Natalie Houston gave a fantastic talk about her “Visual Page” project, which uses Google’s tesseract OCR reader to analyze formal elements in a print corpus of Victorian poetry. It was stunning how much a computer can learn about a poetry collection just from the blank spaces on the page. Maeve Adams gave an intriguing paper that read across key terms in Victorian periodicals as “epistemic communities” and used this to ground a far-reaching argument about formalism in the 19th-century. And Rachel Buurma expanded on her work on Charles Reade and his archives — an eccentric even among archive rats. As she put it, his wildly profuse collections of documents, indexes, and indexes on indexes, add up to archives “on the way to becoming novels.” I’m almost convinced to read more Reade. It doesn’t sound like he would have appreciated YAHOO (I read the marginalia as: “In other words know the contents before you know anything about this”):

On Saturday I participated in a digital roundtable that Anne Helmreich of the Ghetty Foundation organized to field questions about research and pedagogy from conference attendees. The Prezi from my own talk, about some of the tools I’m using in class, (using Facebook as a social CMS and Google Drive for workshops) is posted here. My main point was that English seminars have always been “flipped”: focused on in-class workshopping and intellectual tinkering. Which makes it easy to fold in digital tools. (I take my inspiration here from Jentery Sayers and his Maker Lab.) But I was more interested in hearing what the other panelists and the attendees had to stay about the state of the digital union with C19 studies.

Most questions raised by the participants were about the ins and outs of digital scholarship: how to recruit technical collaborators (find research questions they’re interested in); how to find time and money for the work (no good answer there); how to use statistics (to be avoided while best standards are worked out); how to use undergraduate research more effectively (give them work that is tied to your own research + break projects into discrete chunks). This last point was made by Dermot Ryan, current Undergraduate Research Director at Loyola Marymount. I suspect the dismal statistics for undergraduate research conducted in the humanities at LMU would be matched at USC. It’s a thorny problem. I’ve been thinking about ways to pull undergrads in to my next digital research project. But as I focus on finishing my analogue book, there’s not much I can think of sending undergraduates out for, besides checking references. Clearly this is a problem with hermetic patterns of research. In order to frame more collaborative projects we have to hash research questions into practices that depend less on our own idiosyncratic habits of mind and the idiolects of convenience. We (or at least, I) need to be better at looping others in.

It was also a huge pleasure to meet Petra Dierkes-Thrun and learn more about the “Wilde Decadents” class she’s running at Stanford and its blog. The class generated tremendous interest; the work the students produced was read by visitors from across the globe. I’m frankly envious. She was particularly savvy promoting the course and its Twitter account through academic networks and listserves like the Victoria List.

But perhaps the most intriguing contribution to the roundtable, to my mind, was Andrew Stauffer’s diagnosis of the NINES project. NINES is currently working to redefine itself to better serve the current wave of digital scholarship. As Andrew described it, NINES was originally envisioned as a coordinator and peer-review network for online collections produced by academics — sites like the Rossetti Archive, the Woman Writer’s Project, and Darwin Online. They envisioned an academic internet populated by public research archives. Instead the major commercial publishers and Google have digitized masses of texts and placed them behind paywalls. Gale’s NCCO database is a case in point. A corollary challenge is that NINES’ COLLEX originally provided a solution to the basic problem of finding a CMS to furnish different kinds of academic content. But the widespread adoption of other open source CMSs like OMEKA diminishes the case for further investment in COLLEX. The folks at NINES are now trying to figure out how else they might support digital research — for instance, producing new tools for digital analysis along the lines of DocuScope. I’m looking forward to their public launch of Juxta, which produces a visual codex for textual variants. There’s an undergraduate who’s been asking for a good tool to start DH work with and this looks friendly enough to be promising. Andrew also suggested NINES might start convening seminars which bring humanists and engineers together to test new research avenues. It would be exciting to have an interdisciplinary research seminar that was formatively tied to a technical team rather than an academic department — tied to makers as well as thinkers.

At its heart, NINES is a classic disruption story. It announced a new chapter in 19th-c scholarship when it was launched in 2003 — the same year as NAVSA’s first conference. Both organizations are now at a crossroads (Dino Felluga handed his role as NAVSA’s head and to Marlene Tromp on Saturday). Given the rapid change of our technical tools, no organization or project that locates itself in the digital sphere will we able to avoid a regular reinvention. I spent a considerable amount of time getting the Monk project software up and running for an early experiment with my Darwin analysis. I invested even more time figuring out the Meandre suite, including a trip up to the UVic digital workshop, with hours both in person and via email, drawing on the expertise of Loretta Auvil and Boris Capitanu. That culminated in a single talk at the Seattle MLA on the global network imagined by Oliphant’s novels. The return on investment for this work has been relatively small. And now both Meandre and Monk have exhausted their funding and have begun to recede into history. I’ve just now noticed that “monk-project” is embedded in the permalink for this post — legacy of an early vision for this site.

Like any story, it has been a combination of design and contingency. I’ve been focused on cementing a traditional research profile, using the digital work to keep my hand in, waiting to mount my extended DH project when the book’s off. Each effort has given impulse to that trajectory. It’s still exciting to imagine the tools and methodologies that the next two and ten years will bring. And yet, as I listened to conference attendees ask what it would take to get trained in digital work, how to figure out the appropriate criteria for significance, how to adapt to new technologies — essentially, how to surf a continual revolution — it hit me what DH work signs you up for. A lifetime of fresh tarball installations, cribbed command prompts, endless help pages for new object libraries and bewildering new GUIs. As the tools change we reboot and relearn. We need to be honest about this. Off the top of my head, my current experiments with Python follow upon, in reverse order, exploring Ruby, Java, JavaScript, JQuery and MySQL, XSLT, CSS, VisualBasic, HTML, and TCL (!). This sets aside humdrum life as a sysadmin for OSX, Linux, AmazonAMI, WinXP, MsDos and Unix machines — not to mention WordPress itself. The most rigorous Ph. D. programs require two to three languages, not four or five.

If it sounds like I’m grousing, maybe I am. We need to emphasize the long dead ends as well as the triumphs of DH scholarship when we talk to curious peers. But the big “but” is that, as academics in the humanities, we’re tinkerers by trade — whether on our computers, in the classroom, or at the archive. For my part, I’d be exploring some version of these technologies in any likely case. It’s just so much time wasted stringing zeroes and ones unless I invest this labor in my research. Besides, I want to show my daughter what hacking looks like.

Mapping the World of Oliphant’s Novels

About a year ago, at the previous MLA, I gave a talk on a panel that detailed literary reactions to the Scottish Rising of 1745. I’d thought I’d written about it, but in the process of getting this server back up and running, I found this old draft post. As part of that panel, I gave a talk on Victorian reactions to the ’45, focusing on the novels of Margaret Oliphant and Robert Louis Stevenson. Part of the question I wanted to raise was whether the rising is typically understood at a site of political and historical closure that cements the constitution of “Britain” as a cultural entity. One way to get at this, I thought, was to see whether literature written about the rising emphasized Britain over Scotland and England.

But it was also a good opportunity to experiment with using network analysis and mapping to explore the geographic imagination of the nineteenth-century novel. One way to raise the question of political formation i to look at the locations that are explicitly cited in each novel, and to map out how they are connected. To do this I extracted location entities from several of Stevenson’s novels using the Meandre framework (apparently now defunct), as well as 65 of Oliphant’s, derived from the Internet Archive, and I did a series of network analysis graphs using Gephi to look at which locations are cited most frequently, and which other locations they tend to be cited with. An example of a plot this produced is below, and shows locations referenced in Oliphant’s novels, sized by reference frequency and connected by proximity of references.

Vector graph of locations in Oliphant’s Novels, Sized by Degree

I found it hard to figure out how to visualize the networks effectively in a talk. This was less of a problem for the Gephi visualizations, which are static, though images with a large number of nodes presented a challenge. One strategy I experimented with was to do a screen capture movie and then edit the movie so that I could produce a video that zoomed in as I spoke. In retrospect, it would have been more effective and flexible to use Prezi.

One question that working on the talk raised was how to evaluate the utility of these visualizations in the context of a talk. In the case of Oliphant, the justification accrues in the difficulty of assessing the range and depth of her fiction. An essayist and author of more than ninety novels, works which were often simultaneously serialized across several publications, it is almost impossible to wrap your head around her production. On the other hand, it’s a gives you the chance to make some nice visualizations. Here’s two animations I made using GEPHI and Google Maps. The first is a network map of locations in her novels with node size and proximity scaled to total number of links, the second is a world map with the locations geocoded.

 

 

Hacking: WYSIWYG

Two weeks ago I noted that someone had recently tried to get into my WordPress server. My firewall traced the query back to an IP in China, though I don’t have the ability to figure out where it originated from initially. I linked it to news of escalating activity from abroad; it seems that attempts to get into academic networks are sharply on the rise.

Then a week ago my server collapsed under what seemed to be a DDOS attack. I tried to restart it several times, but everytime I got the server back up it was swamped with traffic. I’ve spent a good eight hours now launching a new server and migrating over content from a backup. Most of my posts are back, but I lost the last year’s worth of images. I’ve only been able to recreate or restore about half.

It’s all kind of creepy. And it may be beyond my capacity to try and stay on top of escalating security problems on a private blog. Apparently there’s a botnet that’s been hacking WordPress servers generally for the last several months. I like having my own site; I like the ability to post whatever content I want and try out different kinds of server technologies; my Omeka-based class last year depended on this capacity. But the bar is getting higher.

Machine Grading

A friend of mine drew my attention to the NYTimes’ recent article on advanced in essay-grading software. It’s technology that will raise hackles at campuses around the country. The claim is that such programs are becoming sophisticated enough to grade college-level writing. Of course, their effectiveness is widely debated. The article helpfully includes a link to a study by Les Perelman which critiques the data being used to support such claims (he argues that sample size problems, confusion between distinct kinds of essays and grading systems, and loose assertions undermine the argument). The software is getting better, but it still doesn’t look like it can quite replicate the scores produced by human graders.

But such criticism is an argument at the margins. There is now clearly room for debate on both sides. Machines are comparable on standardized tests. The long-term trajectory is evident: if machines are roughly as effective as a force of part-time human graders, standardized tests will end up using the software to save money. They’ll keep some humans in the loop cross checking and validating, but the key incentives all point in the direction of greater automization. The reductive structures and simplistic arguments which we train students to replicate for these tests has laid the groundwork. We’ve already whittled essay writing into an algorithm.
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Peries Project Archive

The annual NSSE benchmark study of universities is out and it has a handy “Report Builder” that allows you to generate reports drawn from their broad survey of freshman and senior undergraduates at a huge range of institutions in the US and Canada. I decided to play around with it a bit, and generated these two models of student opinions about their major at competitive research universities in the US:

Freshman Responses by Major

Freshman Responses by Major
Freshman responses by Major

 

Senior Responses by Major

Senior Responses by Major
Senior Responses by Major

 

 

This seems to confirm the counterintuitive reaction I get when I tell people outside the university that I’m an English professor. 9 times out of 10, they tell me how *hard* they found their English courses in college. Continue reading

ICR2012: Zombies, Climate Change, and the End of the Two Cultures

Just got back from ICR 2012 in Tempe, AZ. Huge thanks to Ron Broglio and Mark Lussier for hosting (and to my friend Michael Gamer for organizing my panel). I made some new friends and had a hell of a time — too much fun, really. If you’re interested, I’ve put the talk I gave up here.

But I wanted to quickly jot down some take-aways. First, climate events had a much larger impact on the Romantic period than I’d understood — perhaps even helping catalyze the French Revolution. Second, in an era of climate worries and Zombie apocalypse obsessions, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man may end up having a larger influence than Frankenstein:

Finally, the marvelous Marilyn Gaull gave a talk on Romantic science that was an inspiring opener. Her main point: that the “two cultures” are never so far apart as they seem. But as I was mulling it over later, I realized that institutionally, it feels like the two culture divide is collapsing. At universities, the humanities and sciences are increasingly fighting a joint rear-guard action against the expansion of professional schools into their curriculum. After mulling this over with some others at the conference, I’m pretty sure this trend isn’t particular to the schools I’ve worked at.

Damning Study of For-Profit Colleges

It is probably a little self-serving for me to criticize for-profit colleges, but the report put out by the Senate’s Health, Labor, and Education committee is withering.  Among the findings:

Well over 50% of the students who begin an associates or bachelor’s degree curriculum withdraw without receiving a degree.

For-profit colleges average a 19.2% profit on their revenue, spend 22.7% of their revenue on marketing, and only 17.2% on instruction.  Notable, the figures for publicly-traded schools were worse than privately held for-profit colleges.

A big driver: Federal aid.

Credit: Paso Robles Winery

In 2009-2010 alone, fully a quarter of Department of Education funding (which only discriminated between colleges on the basis of accreditation) went to for-profit colleges.  For-profit schools, unlike community colleges, have substantial financial aid offices that are adept at matching eligible students with federal student aid. The inquiry had been running for two years now, yielding testimony to extensive fraud and an industry that consistently places profit above education and student outcomes.

For me there are two key take-aways. First, for-profit colleges are profitable because they are serving a huge portion of the underrepresented, economically disadvantaged, and minority students who are eligible for various federal aid programs. It would be tremendously valuable public service if they did this while providing a solid education and finished degrees (and the committee singled out schools like Strayer, Walden, and National American University that are doing just that).

Second, the findings should amplify criticism of the trend to model higher-ed’s administrative structures on corporate governance. For-profit colleges should be seen as a test case for whether market forces and the profit motive can serve the public good more efficiently. The committee has found repeatedly that raises in tuition are considered with a view toward profit rather than the cost of instruction. Right now, the primary service of for-profit colleges is to siphon federal funding to shareholders while burying disadvantaged citizens under mountains of debt.

 

Student Debt Headlines and the Humanities Degree

The New York Times and the Chronicle have mounted a one-two this week to publicize the problem of student debt (something I’ve posted on previously here and here and here).  In an extensive front-page story from Sunday, the Times lays out the problem from the perspective of undergraduates, and the Chronicle followed up today with an analysis of graduate recipients, particularly Ph.D.s working as adjunct faculty, that need welfare and other public-service benefits to make ends meet.  Both provide extensive analysis; the Times piece in particular leverages an extraordinary amount of statistical support.

The implications of the problem are broad, now that more than half of graduating seniors are going to college.  If college is fast becoming a prerequisite of stable middle-class employment, it seems clear we need policies that provide education without burying the students under a lifetime of debt.  I was fortunate enough to attend a state school on scholarship; many of my colleagues won’t finish paying off their educational loans for a decade or two.

One place where the Times piece suffers is in its analysis of the sources of the problem.   Continue reading

Teaching with Omeka: Presenting the Peries Project

Yesterday the seminar I’ve been teaching at Penn finished their digital project: an online edition of John Leyden’s “Tales of the Peries,” a handwritten manuscript in the archives of the National Library of Scotland. Leyden was a romantic poet as well as close collaborator of Walter Scott’s, before traveling to Southeast Asia as a functionary of the East India Company. Once there, Leyden established himself as an Orientalist and specialist in Asian languages, and the Tales of the Peries is an example from this fruitful period before his early death in 1811.

As part of a larger class on historical fiction, fantasy, and the influence of empire, my students built an Omeka site that includes digital facsimiles of the manuscript, transcriptions using Scripto, a plugin for Omeka, and a “readerly edition” that incorporates their research into editorial practices and critical editions and links to supporting materials and entries in the Omeka collection and on the wiki. In addition, they built a host of supporting materials for the site, from critical evaluations of the Tales, its verse, and the influence of Urdu and Arabic literature, to information about Leyden, his involvement with the EIC, even an animated Flash map that walks the reader through the geography of the tale and details the main transformations of Melech Mahommed, the main character, over the course of the narrative.

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The David Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project, I Presume?


Yes, groan. But I spent this morning looking through the beautiful online collection produced by the David Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project. Livingstone’s 1871 field diary, from the months leading up to his ‘discovery’ by Morton Stanley, was written in a berry-based natural ink across the pages of newsprint, and has faded to near invisibility. Using spectral imaging (which images at distinct spectra and then recombines them), the team has managed to reveal the journal entries and strip out the original newsprint. The results are simply amazing — it reminds me of looking at Hubble images of distant nebula. Gorgeous, strange, new. In addition the the extensive documentation and supporting bibliographic and historical materials, the snazzy interface, which allows you to coordinate scrolling across the color and spectral facsimiles (as in the above image), is just stunning.

On the one hand, it’s a case of an extraordinary archival find (Adrian Wisnicki and Anne Martin’s recovery and reassembly of the often uncatalogued portions of the journal across several distinct accessions at the David Livingstone Center) combined with an ideal technology (the Archimedes Palimsest team brought their expertise to bear). But when you look at the extensive documentation provided, it’s also a window into the extraordinary challenge of producing collaborative, trans-Atlantic research in the digital humanities.
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