“Webby” Publishing and Scholarly Digital Literacy

HASTAC 2011 has posted videos of some of their panels, and I was taken with two points, brought up by Dan Cohen and Tara McPherson as part of the panel “The Future of Digital Publishing,” which can be viewed here.

First, I was taken with Cohen’s final suggestion, that humanities scholars are “terrible economists” because our pursuit of print perfection causes an inordinate investment in the final stages of publication (proof-reading, reformatting notes into periodical-specific styles). As he notes, we have learned to look past such fastidiousness in some web formats, and this indicates that, in a “webby” mode, we are able to relax those standards and still take work seriously.

McPherson’s wide-ranging discussion canvased the new formats and possibilities which digital archives are opening up to us, and she asked Humanities scholars not to cede the task of figuring out how to manage massive data sets to scientific and computer scientific communities. I was particularly caught by the description she gave of a question that keeps her up at night: ten or fifteen years for now, how will young scholars make sense of the wild explosion of publication formats and approaches which archives and DH work have opened up?

This, for me, raises a third question and perhaps more challenging problem: how will we cultivate scholarly digital literacy? Part of what reinforces the power and importance of print and text-based publication is the high-level textual literacy that humanists develop. I think about how hard it was to develop the specialized literacy it took for me to understand scholarly publishing formats — this demanded a huge evolution in my reading practices, above and beyond what I would describe as my already high-level textual literacy as an undergraduate. When we present something like a simple chart, or even an object as complex as an active network visualization, much less expose users to archives of new material, we tacitly demand some literacy in those formats. Brief textual descriptions and introductions don’t suffice here. Cohen’s observation regarding the relaxed constraints offered by “webby” publishing standards emphasizes the point: we tolerate spelling errors because the effort otherwise put into exhaustive spell-checking is being invested elsewhere, in the aspects of digital scholarship that entail considerable investments in both acculturation and ongoing labor.

I think there is an expectation that great content and great scholarship will cultivate literacy. The iPad certainly shows (as McPherson notes), that a transformative product can drive technical literacy in a way that seems immediate and unreflective — a transformation so profound that it produces what Thomas Kuhn describes as the “gestalt” experience of a new episteme — and the duck becomes a rabbit. And yet, I worry that new technologies and techniques, especially as they are initially developed, pull in precisely the opposite direction. Certainly, this concern weighed on me as I decided which path to pursue in my own work, and I’ve opted primarily for publication in traditional print formats, and the forms of scholarship that would help me achieve that aim. If you watch to the close of the talk, the audience questions are dominated by the problem of tenure and scholarship-evaluation standards. But this is generally cast in terms of accommodation or, alternatively, forcing traditional scholars to change their practices, rather than acknowledging that digital scholarship demands, in effect, a new, and truly complex, set of literacies.

Google Fusion Tables

I’m still working on my Stevenson and Oliphant talk for the MLA, and I thought I’d try to map some of the location data that I’ve been collecting for that talk. My friend Mitch Fraas, a Bolinger Fellow here at Penn, has been using fusion tables to look at the geographic distribution of printed books from the records at Van Pelt. Basically, all you have to do is upload the location data as a table to Google Docs and select the visualization that you want. You can embed the visualization directly, or produce a Google Earth view that adds geographic images. I’ve done both below for Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker. The interesting thing about such a visualization is that it helps to highlight the different imaginary spaces of geography. On the one hand, there are the physical locations. On the other, you can use tools like network analysis to figure out how closely associated those places are in the world of the book. (Zoom & click on icons for count. Count number is distinguished by color.)

Locations in Humphry Clinker (1771); Google Fusion Table Map

Differences between geomapping and other location-based visualizations can help to demonstrate how literary networks distort the geographic spaces of the novel. For instance, in the force-directed network graph at the bottom of this earlier post, Edinburgh is closer to England, and Scotland closer to France, due to the close proximity of these locations in terms of their citation in the novel.

Network Analysis of R. L. Stevenson and the ’45

I’m starting to work on my talk for the Seattle MLA on Stevenson, Oliphant, and Victorian constructions of the Scottish “Rising” of 1745. Of particular interest is the seven-year gap between Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Catriona — a sequel that picks up Kidnapped at the instant it closes. They are vastly different novels — the protagonist in each, David Balfour, is catapulted from a Highland Bildungsroman to a sensational romance and political intrigue novel, complete with radically different characterizations of David. I thought one way I might take a look at this is to examine the network of characters in each novel, as a way to focus upon large structural differences. (I used Gutenberg ebooks, translated into TEI xml using the XSLT transformations described in an earlier post, and the Meandre OpenNLP and Protovis implementations to perform entity extraction and produce the force-directed graphs, linking characters that appear within three sentences of each other):

Characters in Kidnapped (1886); Force-Directed Network Graph

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Amazon “Academic AMIs” find a community

There’s been some larger interest in using Amazon AMIs to do academic research. I took my work installing the SEASR MEANDRE development infrastructure as an Amazon AMI instance to the folks over at SEASR/NCSI last Spring, in time for their visit to the U. Victoria DHSI (which I had the great pleasure of attending back in 2010). They shared the AMI work there, and my friend Jason Boyd (fellow DHSI class ’10) took it over to THATCamp Victoria the following week. This sparked the intests of James Smithies, who coined the term “Academic AMIs” and launched this site to try and support the use of various academic software packages using the AMI infrastructure. I think it’s a fabulous idea, and hope I can encourage some others to head over to James’ site and lend a hand.

It also brings up an infrastructure problem that I’ve been working with here at U Penn. I’ve been consulting with the excellent IT group here at the University in working on a few different projects, including MEANDRE, archive hosting, and demoing the use of TILE in the classroom. The challenge we’ve kept running in to is that it’s much easier to get a net-based project up and running if it is hosted outside the university, because of various security concerns and issues. For initial development, this isn’t so much of a problem, but when you start talking about longer-term projects (even if small), and University support, it gets more complicated. Continue reading