Here and There: Creating DH Community

Thanks a million to the University of North Texas’s Spencer Keralis for inviting me to come speak at Digital Frontiers, a great conference in Northern Texas! I’m having an excellent time. Here’s the talk I gave today.

Around springtime, when universities are making offers for jobs that start in the fall, I tend to get a few similar emails. I’m junior enough that I know a lot of people just leaving grad school (whether it’s library school, a Ph.D. program, or a master’s program) and as universities continue to build DH centers, these people are getting snapped up to help spark DH activity elsewhere. So around May, they’re emailing me (and probably a lot of other people, too) to ask: Where do I start? What do I need to know?

I’ve been frank, as you may know, about what I think of taking someone fresh out of grad school, giving her a temporary gig, and expecting her to be the sole torchbearer for some amorphous DH initiative. In brief, it’s a bad idea, for a lot of different reasons. It’s not fair to the person you’re hiring, who will spend her entire tenure trying desperately to impress you at this impossible task so she can keep her job. And it’s not fair to your university community, which deserves continuity, focus, and the attention of someone who cares about the big picture.

But a number of people have good gigs that involve an element of community-building. And there are also a lot of people who’ve been working in libraries or other units for some time and are newly tasked with the responsibility of building interest in and capacity for digital humanities on their campus.

So for awhile now, I’ve had a mental list of things that I tell my friends who are getting started on the job of starting a DH initiative on their campus. If at all possible, I try to do it over a drink. This work is not easy, and it’s very sensitive, and I’ve only learned what I know by making terrible mistakes.

So in a minute, I’ll give you that list of suggestions for building and sustaining a digital humanities community at a university. Continue reading

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Frequently asked questions about lobotomy

Image from the manuscript for Walter Freeman and James Watts' second edition of Psychosurgery (1950).

Image from the manuscript for Walter Freeman and James Watts’ second edition of Psychosurgery (1950).

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time investigating the history of lobotomy, and particularly the kinds of visual evidence doctors used to support this practice. It’s part of the book I’m finishing, Depth Perception, which is broadly about the ways doctors have used film and photography during the twentieth century. In one of my chapters, I write about the lobotomist Walter Freeman, who was a prolific photographer, describing what he thought his patient photographs showed, and how our understandings differ today.

I get a lot of questions about lobotomy from people who find me on the Web, and I know other people who specialize in the subject do, too. I thought it might be helpful for me to write down some of the answers to the most frequent questions I get about the practice of lobotomy in the United States.

I’m sorry to say that I can’t answer individual questions on this subject, but I do provide references to some excellent books on the subject below.

What is a lobotomy?

The term “lobotomy” (often used interchangeably with “psychosurgery” during the period in which it was practiced) refers to an operation that severs the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex, in the anterior part of the brain’s frontal lobe. Generally, it was performed in one of two ways. From 1936 to 1945, lobotomies were generally performed by drilling two holes in the skull, near the patient’s temples, inserting a long instrument called a leucotome, and severing the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex. From 1945 until 1967, lobotomies were generally performed by inserting a long, thin instrument into the back of a patient’s eyeball, puncturing the thin orbital plate above the eye and rotating the instrument so that it destroyed the connections to the brain’s frontal lobe. This second type of lobotomy is called the transorbital lobotomy.1

Continue reading

  1. Pressman, Jack David. Last Resort: Psychosurgery and the Limits of Medicine. Cambridge History of Medicine. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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How Did They Make That? The Video!

After I wrote my original “How Did They Make That?” post, on some common types of DH projects, I got to thinking about whether there might be ways to help people reverse-engineer digital projects on their own. I used a talk I gave at CUNY as an excuse to think of some of these ways. This presentation, a modified version of that talk, is the result.

Special thanks to my all-star cast: Rachel Deblinger, Moya Bailey, and Elijah Meeks; and to Matt Gold at CUNY for inviting me to give the talk.

Incidentally, I propose a drinking game: whenever you see my tiny Skype avatar taking a sip of coffee, take a drink.

Erratum: The Negro Travelers’ Green Book is a project of the University of South Carolina Libraries, not the University of Southern California, as I keep saying. Also, just a note that while I focus on the mapping elements of that project, they’ve also done a beautiful job digitizing the book itself.

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Reflections on my digital materiality and labor class

Group photo on top of One Wilshire.

DH150 on the roof of One Wilshire. Photo by Craig Dietrich.

I was really glad to get the chance to teach a special topics course on Digital Labor, Materiality, and Urban Space last quarter. I’ve been thinking about this class for years, and the syllabus is the (imperfect) culmination of lots and lots of reading and thinking.

In the event, the class was terrifically generative and fulfilling — for me, and, I hope, for the students. While the memory of the class is still fresh, I wanted to jot down a few notes about some new-ish (for me) elements I introduced into this class, and how well I thought they worked.

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How Did They Make That? at CUNY, March 27, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 4.19.59 PMHere’s a list of links for my talk at the CUNY graduate center, for the audience members who’d like to follow along:

My original “How Did They Make That?” post (with Dot Porter’s Zotero library!)

UCLA Digital Humanities 101

Ben Schmidt, A Year of Ships

University of South Carolina Digital Libraries, Negro Travelers’ Green Book Map

Radu Suciu, Medical Case Studies on Renaissance Melancholy

Kieran Healy, A Co-Citation Network for Philosophy

Rachel Deblinger, Memories/Motifs

Stephanie Evans and Moya Bailey, SWAG Diplomacy

Stanford University Library, Kindred Britain

 

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Commit to DH people, not DH projects

We’ve seen digital humanities in terms of “projects” since Roberto Busa indexed Thomas Aquinas. But lately it seems to me that the imperative to continuously produce something is getting in the way of how people actually think and grow. What if we viewed digital methods as a contribution to the long arc of a scholar’s intellectual development, rather than tools we pick up in the service of an immediately tangible product? Perhaps we’d come up with better ways of investing in people’s long-term potential as scholars.

It’s natural for DH centers, especially newish ones, to want to spread the word about digital humanities. But increasingly I suspect that issuing a faculty call for projects is not the way to do it.

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Advanced Scroll Kit Techniques: The Parallax Effect

My Digital Labor, Urban Space, and Materiality class will be using the drag-and-drop framework Scroll Kit to create multimedia “device narratives.” Here’s the tutorial I’ve created to teach them to use Scroll Kit. You’re welcome to download these instructions as a PDF or as a Word document, in case you’d like to modify them.

This is my second Scroll Kit tutorial; the first covers Scroll Kit basics.

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Basics of Creating a Scroll Kit Narrative

My Digital Labor, Urban Space, and Materiality class will be using the drag-and-drop framework Scroll Kit to create multimedia “device narratives.” Here’s the tutorial I’ve created to teach them to use Scroll Kit. You’re welcome to download these instructions as a PDF or as a Word document, in case you’d like to modify them. 

This is my first Scroll Kit tutorial; the second covers the parallax effect.

With Scroll Kit, you can create multimedia works in a scrolling format suitable for long-form narratives. It’s easy to drag and drop elements to create interesting effects. Your project will have a unique Scroll Kit URL, so you can share your project widely (or you can export the code).

Some examples of projects created with Scroll Kit:

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New course for winter 2014: Digital Labor and Materiality

[Edit: the website for this course, including the syllabus, is now available here. And here's a little story about our class field trip to One Wilshire, the largest Internet exchange point on the West Coast.]

Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.

— John Perry Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” (1996)

Wireless internet, cloud-based data storage, devices that fit in the palm of your hand: the language of the digital evokes an airy immateriality, as though digital technology has only the barest physical manifestation. But just out of our sight, hulking server farms eat up mammoth amounts of power, huge satellite arrays feed our information addiction, and ropes of wire coil under the streets and beneath the ocean. Farther afield, people comb through our discarded technology to reclaim precious metals even as workers in great factory-cities churn out new iPhones. This course examines the material manifestations of digital technology, from devices to infrastructure to environmental impact, and asks who performs the labor necessary to maintain the illusion of digital immateriality.

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What Alt-Ac Can Do, and What It Can’t

This is a cleaned-up, lightly edited version of a talk I gave on November 22, 2013, as part of a panel on “Digital Humanities and the Neoliberal University” at the American Studies Association annual meeting in Washington, D.C. 

Our original proposal for this session read like a lot of attempts to grapple with controversy in the digital humanities. “Is digital humanities complicit with the neoliberal impulse in the modern university?” it asked. “Some say it is, citing A, B, and C. Others say it isn’t, citing X, Y, and Z.” The framework, if unoriginal, had the benefit of being easy to write.

My copanelist Natalia Cecire pushed us to think beyond this cliché. “Let’s start with the premise that it is complicit,” said Cecire, citing Alan Liu’s “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” “Else why would it be so obviously attractive to the neoliberal university? Let’s start with that and talk about what we then do.”

Borrowing Natalia’s framework, I want to complicate a discourse about labor that has emerged from and become identified with the digital humanities. The term for this work is “alt-ac,” which stands for “alternative academic.”1 Jason Rhody, a senior program officer for the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities, coined the term in 2009 to describe the scholarly work performed by many of us in and in the orbit of the academy who do not hold traditional faculty jobs but do perform scholarly labor.2

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  1. My critique is not altogether new. Liana M. Silva aired some of these concerns in April. Martha Nell Smith has levied similar critiques of DH centers’ hiring practices, and Bethany Nowviskie has dealt with a number of these concerns in “Toward a New Deal.” I am moved and inspired by this vision of a WPA for the humanities, but I feel that my fundamental objection to some of the rhetoric about alt-ac — that it rests on the flawed assumption that the academic jobs crisis is caused by an overproduction of Ph.D.s — has yet to be answered. []
  2. For a history of alt-ac and a snapshot of how graduate programs might equip students for these jobs, see the excellent “Humanities Unbound: Supporting Careers and Scholarship Beyond the Tenure Track,” prepared by Katina Rogers for the Scholarly Communication Institute. []
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