What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities

This is a lightly edited version of the keynote address I was honored to give at the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference at the University of Pennsylvania on July 22, 2015. Thank you to the organizing committee for inviting me!

My sincere thanks, too, to Lauren Klein and Roderic Crooks for their advice and feedback on this talk. I’d also like to acknowledge the huge intellectual debt I owe to David Kim and Johanna Drucker, with whom I’ve argued, negotiated, and formulated a lot of these ideas, mostly in the context of teaching together. David’s important dissertation, Archives, Models, and Methods for Critical Approaches to Identities: Representing Race and Ethnicity in the Digital Humanities (UCLA, 2015), takes on many of these issues at much greater length.

I gave the title of this talk to Dot Porter some time ago in a fit of ambition, and it’s seemed wildly hubristic to me ever since. But it’s something I care a lot about, and so tonight I’d like to outline some ideas about how digital humanities might critically investigate structures of power, like race and gender.

We are doing some of that now, as evidenced by some of the work at this conference, but I don’t think we’re doing it with the energy or the creativity that we might. I’ll argue that to truly engage in this kind of work would be so much more difficult and fascinating than we’re currently talking about for the future of DH; in fact, it would require dismantling and rebuilding much of the organizing logic, like the data models or databases, that underlies most our work.

So I’ll start by saying a little about where I think we are with digital humanities now, and also about some new directions, with respect to these structures of power, that I’d like to see the field go.

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The Case of the Missing Faces

Freeman operating on a patient with his partner, James Watts

As I’ve often mentioned,  I’ve been working for quite some time on a study of the photographs of Walter Freeman. Freeman, a Washington, D.C., based physician, was the world’s foremost lobotomist; it’s estimated that he lobotomized some 3,500 people.

He was also a prolific and dedicated photographer. He almost invariably took photos of his patients before and after the procedure, acquiring reams of these images over the course of his career. In a chapter of my book, Depth Perception, I argue that Freeman was participating in a much longer-standing tradition of psychiatric photography, one that claimed that the human face could reveal the depths of the soul. (You can see a recorded version of the story of Freeman’s photographs here.)
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Humanities Data: A Necessary Contradiction

This is a talk that I gave at the Harvard Purdue Data Management Symposium on June 17, 2015, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The audience was mostly librarians and other data-management professionals. I was the only humanities person on the program, so I wanted to talk about the ways that humanists think about data differently from people in some other fields.

Two mosaics beside each other. The one on the left is made up of largely cool, blue images; the one on the right is composed of warmer, earthier tones.
Sometimes I start class discussions by comparing image quilts of Google searches for “digital” (left) and “humanities” (right).

Today I’d like to talk about the ways in which humanists think about data, and how that’s distinct from the ways in which scientists and social scientists think about it.

Even though I think our issues can be pretty different, I want to make the case that there are some very promising ways in which libraries could make meaningful interventions in the humanities research lifecycle, both for what we might call traditional humanists and for digital humanists. So I’ll start with what “traditional” humanists might need help with and then move on to the needs of what we call “digital humanists” (although I think in practice the distinction is a bit blurred).

I just want to say at the outset that there are people who specialize in humanities data curation, and I am not one of those people. A number of talented people, including Trevor Muñoz at the University of Maryland and Katie Rawson at the University of Pennsylvania, have started to take a very programmatic look at the data-curation needs of digital humanists. And I encourage you to check out their important work. But you don’t have Trevor or Katie; you have me! So what I can do is share my own perspective and experience on what it means to work with data as a humanist, and where libraries can help.

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Google Fusion Table Basics with IU’s Cushman Collection

I’ve used Indiana University’s Cushman Collection of photographs before, in my Palladio tutorial. Google Fusion tables, though, is a slightly simpler way for people to get started with data visualization. So here’s a quick tutorial that uses the same data to create a map and some simple charts.

You can also download this tutorial as a PDF or a Word document (in case you’d like to modify it).

Here’s a preview of the map we’ll make:

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A fun way to introduce DH students to dataviz

As a teacher, I’ve always operated on the assumption that students are primarily interested in each other. Here’s a fun activity that takes advantage of that interest to teach students a little about data visualization. It’s an extremely unscientific Cosmo-style quiz, designed to show students which interests they have in common with each other. It’s just an introductory lesson, but it gives you a fun dataset to play with. You’ll probably want to split this among a few class sessions, since students will need at least one full class to just get familiar with Gephi.

Of course, it’s also a good chance to talk about how authoritative graphs like these can look, and whether the data these contain actually means much at all. (Probably not!)

Make a questionnaire for your students

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I’d do this about a week before you do the dataviz lesson. I used Google Forms for this. Just to make things more fun, I called it the Mysterious DH Questionnaire. I asked five questions, each of which had five options. The possible answers were literally the first options that occurred to me.

Of course, you can choose whatever you want; just be sure you have a constrained list of choices (no write-ins).

Make your spreadsheet into a two-mode edge list

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Now that you have your data, you want it in three different formats: 1) raw; 2) an edge list for a two-mode network graph; and 3) an edge list for a one-mode network graph. To get your two-mode list, use Open Refine to transpose columns across rows. The idea is to go from the layout shown in the above screenshot to …

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… this one. It’s the same data, just rearranged into two columns.

Make your spreadsheet into a one-mode edge list

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Then, if you want (you don’t have to, but it can help students see the difference between one-mode and two-node network graphs), you can project your two-mode edge list into a one-mode edge list, using Gephi and this tutorial from Shawn Graham.

Make an alluvial diagram

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You can do this with the class. Use RAW to make alluvial diagrams from the raw dataset, experimenting with different categories. It’s fun to see the various relationships between, say, book and movie preferences.

Make network graphs

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When the class is ready, move on to using the datasets to show which students have the most in common. Here’s a tutorial I prepared for students to use with this dataset (names have been blurred out). (And here’s a Word version of the Gephi tutorial, in case you’d like to alter it.)

Start with the two-mode network diagram, and when the class is ready, move on to the one-mode. Students really enjoyed seeing who had the most in common, examining the communities Gephi was able to detect, and comparing those communities to their own groups of friends.

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Photography and the limits of empathy: Reading Garner and Brown through Saidiya Hartman

I wish I had more time to write this, but I’ve been reading Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection this week and have found that it’s brought some clarity to my thinking about the recent news and coverage of the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases. In particular, it’s informed my thinking about the photographs circulating around these two tragedies: why they seem to compel some people but not others, and the limits of the ability of the photograph (and the video, in the Garner case) to convey deeply entrenched injustice.

So I thought I’d share these extended quotations, in case they’re helpful to anyone else.

On the limits of empathy

Writing in response to a harrowing description of enslaved people by John Rankin:

Properly speaking, empathy is a projection of oneself into another in order to better understand the other … Yet empathy in important respects confounds Rankin’s efforts to identify with the enslaved because in making the slave’s suffering his own, Rankin begins to feel for himself rather than for those whom this exercise in imagination presumably is designed to reach. Moreover, by exploiting the vulnerability of the captive body as a vessel for the uses, thoughts, and feelings of others, the humanity extended to the slave inadvertently confirms the expectations and desires definitive of the relations of chattel slavery. … Put differently, the effort to counteract the commonplace callousness to black suffering requires that the white body be positioned in the place of the black body in order to make this suffering visible and intelligible. (18-19)

The photographs of Mike Brown’s and Eric Garner’s family, and the video of Eric Garner’s arrest, should, it seems, be enough to inspire widespread reevaluation of the justice system. These are human beings in terrible despair, and that should convey the depth and urgency of structural injustice. Yet somehow it isn’t and doesn’t. Again and again, we’ve seen these images submitted to what Tressie McMillan Cottom has called “the logic of stupid poor people”: picked apart, judged on someone else’s terms. If empathy is the act of transposing oneself into another’s body, than perhaps it has limits: We who are not continually besieged by state brutality cannot properly empathize; or if we can, then the very act obliterates the specific body we try to inhabit. The demand must consist of something stronger than identification or empathy. Justice, I guess? Deep and searching scrutiny of structure?

On the Ferguson hug

The simulation of consent in the context of extreme domination was an orchestration intent upon making the captive body speak the master’s truth as well as disproving the suffering of the enslaved. Thus a key aspect of the manifold uses of the body was its facility as a weapon used against the enslaved. (38)

The hug. It appears to have been staged, but that almost doesn’t matter; the excitement with which it was circulated as an emblem of hope says a lot about what we want black bodies to do at this moment.

On what we feel entitled to see

However, what I am trying to suggest is that if the scene of beating readily lends itself to an identification with the enslaved, it does so at the risk of fixing and naturalizing this condition of pained embodiment and … increased the difficulty of beholding black suffering since the endeavor to bring pain close exploits the spectacle of the body in pain and oddly confirms the spectral character of suffering and the inability to witness the captive’s pain. If, on the one hand, pain extends humanity to the dispossessed and the ability to sustain suffering leads to transcendence, on the other, the spectral and spectacular character of this suffering, or, in other words, the shocking and ghostly presence of pain, effaces and restricts black sentience. (21)

We demand, in an effort to convey the depth of injustice, the most exquisitely graphic images of brutality. Should we question our own right to scrutinize the body in pain, and our own hunger to view and circulate these images?

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Getting started with Palladio

Palladio's Gallery view is a great way to get a look at a photograph collection.
Palladio’s Gallery view is a great way to get a look at a photograph collection.

(You can also download this handout as a PDF.)

Palladio, a product of Stanford’s Humanities+Design Lab, is a web-based visualization tool for complex humanities data. Think of Palladio as a sort of Swiss Army knife for humanities data. It’s one package that includes a number of tools, each of which allows you to get a different angle on the same data.

Palladio is relatively new and still under development, which means that you will almost certainly encounter bugs! Still, it’s a very useful tool for getting a handle on a complicated dataset.

When Might Palladio be the Right Tool for You?

You have structured data.
Here, “structured data” means “data in a spreadsheet”: categorized, sorted, and stored in an Excel document or some other kind of spreadsheet application.

You’re interested in time, space, and relationships.
That’s where Palladio excels: showing you how various entities are connected across time and space.

Your data has many attributes.
Palladio’s really good at helping you uncover relationships among disparate attributes over time and space. For example, it can help you see that a diarist was especially interested in trees as he traveled through North Carolina, and especially interested in bats as he traveled through Arizona. One of Palladio’s most distinctive features is that it allows you to drill down through your data using faceted browsing.

When Might Palladio Not be the Right Tool for You?

You have unstructured data.
If you’re trying to analyze a long text, like a poem or a novel, Palladio won’t help you much. You’ll want to look for text analysis tools, like Voyant.

You just want to count things.
If you just want to make relatively simple charts and graphs, like a bar or pie chart, Palladio is too much tool for you! Instead, try using Excel’s built-in functions, or check out ManyEyes.

You want to present an interactive visualization.
One big limitation of Palladio is that you can’t embed or share the visualizations you create, except in static form. So while Palladio can help you explore and understand your data, it’s not great for presentation, at least not yet. Instead, try Google Fusion Tables, ManyEyes, or Tableau.

You want to create complex, fine-tuned maps and networks graphs.
While Palladio can produce maps and network graphs, you can’t customize them to any great extent, and you can’t perform sophisticated network analysis, such as calculating centrality. Instead, you might consider more sophisticated mapping tools, such as CartoDB or ArcGIS, and more sophisticated network analysis tools, such as Gephi and Cytoscape.

You hate bugs.
Palladio is still a baby, and you will almost certainly encounter some bugs. If you prefer not to use unstable software, you might investigate Google Fusion Tables or Tableau.

With that out of the way, we’re almost ready to get started using Palladio.

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New course for winter: Selfies, Snapchat, and Cyberbullies: Coming of Age Online

Photo: "Selfie," by Loren Kerns
Photo: “Selfie,” by Loren Kerns

If you teach anything “digital,” you’ve probably had a similar experience: as soon as you mention Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat, the conversation goes off the rails. Students want very much to share their own stories about these technologies. When they do, I hear lots of sweeping generalizations repeated back to me: that millennials never read, that the Internet has changed everything about social interactions, that none of the old rules apply.

After a few years of this, I got to thinking, OK, let’s really talk about this, but let’s actually do it right. What do we mean when we say “millennial”? How do we acknowledge the effect of technological change on culture without resorting to scorched-Earth, EVERYTHING-IS-NEW hyperbole? So here’s the course description for the class I’ll be offering this winter.

If all you knew about “millennials” was what you heard on the news, you’d think that college-aged people spent every waking hour texting and had never read anything longer than a Buzzfeed list. Of course, we know that isn’t true. People in their late teens and early twenties are as thoughtful, diverse, and interested in the world as anyone else. And the Internet isn’t evenly distributed. While some people count on near-seamless Internet connectivity, others can only access the Web sporadically.

Still, perhaps something about life is different for people who grew up with the Internet. So how do we think about these differences without defaulting to alarmist diatribes about sexting, or utopian proclamations about the Internet as a realm of boundless freedom? How do we talk about generational difference without flattening diversity or ascribing supernatural power to technology?

This class takes on this question by examining other moments of big technological change — film, television, telephone — and comparing them to the way we talk about technology today. We’ll also read the best writing about what it means to be a young adult in our current moment, and we’ll unpack the notions of “adolescence” and “young adulthood,” which turn out to be historically contingent categories themselves. Our goal is to develop a vocabulary for talking about technological and cultural change that accommodates the diversity and contingency of human experience.

There are some books and articles that seem like no-brainers (danah boyd’s It’s Complicated, much of the stuff on the Selfie Syllabus, Emily Bazelon’s Sticks and Stones), but I’m curious to hear from other people, too. What’s the best, least alarmist, most nuanced work you’ve read about adolescence and the digital age? I’m interested both in work that comments on adolescence and the digital age in its present moment, and work that shows how this moment has been constructed.

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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. (more…)

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