historian, author, film producer

Category: Internet and World Wide Web (page 1 of 2)

What is Digital Scholarship? A Typology

At a recent talk at the University of Colorado Boulder I discussed various definitions of digital scholarship and how we might categorize digital scholarship. My forthcoming essay in the second edition of Blackwell’s Companion to Digital Humanities deals with these questions in depth. This chart offers one way to consider a typology for digital scholarship in the humanities. These characteristics are offered as a beginning point. They are not meant to exclude or restrict the definition of digital scholarship. Indeed, I hope these definitions might provoke some further discussion about how to undertake reviews of digital scholarship.

Here is a a proposed typology of digital scholarship as a PDF.

Some definitions are necessary as well.

Assessing the types of data, components, organization, scope, interpretive nature, and character of digital works allows us to separate one category from another. An ISW, for example, differs from a Thematic Research Collection not only because its scope is more tightly defined, but also because its interpretive nature lies in the query structures it provides the reader rather than in the encoded affordances that a Thematic Research Collection builds into its archival materials. The ISW operates around a series of procedural inquiries, whereas the Thematic Research Collection offers open-ended investigatory structures. These characteristics of the categories are not meant to be exhaustive, but illustrative, and as a basis for categorization and review.

Interactive Scholarly Works (ISWs):

These works are hybrids of archival materials and tool components, and are situated around a historiographically significant or critical concern. These works often assert a methodological argument as well, demonstrating that the combination of tools and materials serves as a method worthy of applying to the problem. Interactive Scholarly Works have a limited set of relatively homogenous data, and they might include a textual component on the scale of a brief academic journal article. They feature an API for users to access the data and programming directly. Relatively tightly defined in subject, ISWs provide users with a high degree of interactivity in a limited framework. (Meeks and Grossner 2012)

Digital Projects or Thematic Research Collections (TRCs):

Digital projects, sometimes referred to as Thematic Research Collections, are perhaps the most well defined genre in digital humanities scholarship. Carole L. Palmer’s 2004 review of these works emphasized several qualities, such as their heterogeneous datatypes, structured but open ended, designed to support research, multi-authored, primary sources. Combining tools and archival materials framed around a historiographically significant or critical problem, these projects are sprawling investigations into a major problem. Typically gathering thousands of objects and records from widely varying institutions and in widely varying formats, digital history projects contain “digital aggregations” of primary sources that support research on a particular theme or historical question. Scholars embed interpretive affordances in the collection and use these affordances to open up new modes of inquiry and/or discovery. They are open-ended projects and often support ongoing research by multiple scholars or teams. Often traditional peer reviewed scholarship is derived from the thematic research collection. The next phase of thematic research collections might feature interpretive scholarship embedded within and in relationship to the collection. (Palmer, 2004)

Digital Narratives:

These scholarly works are born-digital, and they primarily feature a work of scholarly interpretation or argument embedded within layers of evidence and citation. They do not and presumably cannot exist in analog fashion. They may be multimodal, multi-authored, and user-directed. They may change between and among readings, either through updates or algorithmic reconstitutions. Unlike the first generation of “eBooks” which transferred analog books into digital formats, these nonlinear, multimodal narratives offer explicit hypertext structures. These works primarily provide multiple points of entry for readers and situate evidence and interpretation in ways that allow readers to unpack the scholarly work. They are highly configured, deeply structured, and strongly interpretive pieces of scholarship. They could be stand alone self-generating web sites, cloud applications, or they could be presented in a media-rich scholarly publishing framework such as Scalar.

Simulations constitute a new form for scholarly research and publication as well. Interpretive decisions are embedded at every level in any simulated, textured environment, and feature a range of media products, including video, audio, and 3D models and game engines. Historical simulations and humanities-oriented games possess varying degrees of interpretive strength. Some are purely representational and feature minimal interpretive or argument-driven analysis. Others offer simulated decision-trees in a game-engine environment with heavily interpretive choices. (Coltrain 2013, McGann and Drucker, 2000) Hybrid media objects that combine text, graphics, live action, and animation sequences also constitute what Lev Manovich calls “a new species” in the digital medium and can be evaluated using Murray’s affordance grid as well as the matrix table provided here. (Manovich, 2013) While simulations will likely become in and of themselves a category of digital scholarship with particular characteristics that set them apart from the above types of scholarly work, at this writing they are most commonly used in a supplementary fashion.

The Promise of the Digital Humanities and the Future of the Liberal Arts

These remarks were presented October 25, 2013 at the Michigan State University Cyberinfrastructure Days conference. I have removed and modified some comments which were relevant to the local context of the conference, and I have removed some of the explanatory footnotes.

“You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?
Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again, after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground
Same as it ever was, same as it ever was . . . ”
Talking Heads, 1980

Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me to the Cyberinfrastructure Days at Michigan State. Shelton Waggener’s fascinating keynote this morning hits on some of the same themes I have this afternoon: just as he suggested that IT needs to change its culture in higher education, I suggest that we need a change of practice in the liberal arts; and just as he has suggested that higher education IT should move toward iterative releases, perhaps most controversially, I will suggest that in the humanities especially we need to shift our expectations about the fixity of scholarship, and move to a similar model–continuously releasing our scholarship.

Based on the sessions at Cyberinfrastructure Days, I have been struck by how many of the questions and concerns of scientists match those of humanists. Fred Dyer’s presentation on computational biology emphasized the lack of adequate training for current students in the computational, statistical, and mathematical techniques that will be absolutely necessary for future research. We face a similar problem in the humanities. Dyer also discussed the vast increase in the number and size of digital images for research in the biological sciences, a problem that humanities scholars now face as well. Imaging, he noted, “freezes the phenotype,” and the processing, analyzing, and archiving of digital imaging has presented new challenges and opportunities. While humanities scholars use images differently, we have a similar problem of scale–hundreds of thousands, even millions, of newspaper page images, for example, capture a complex mixture of temporal and locational information, yet we have few ways of freely accessing and analyzing these images. I think this conference has been extremely helpful in exposing many of these commonly shared issues. It’s time for the liberal arts disciplines to come together on common solutions.
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The MOOC Bubble: where do we go from here?

At long last, a year into the MOOC frenzy, here comes Thomas Friedman with an oped in yesterday’s New York Times, Revolution Hits the Universities. This breathlessly enthusiastic endorsement from Mr. Friedman (The World is Flat) should mark the high tide of the MOOC craze, and for all of us, I hope, the beginning of a more reasonable discussion of these new courses and the future of higher education. With Friedman’s late entry, perhaps we can safely say the MOOC bubble is about to burst.

One reason this seems likely is that his high profile piece in The New York Times elicited barely a whimper from the digital humanities community. Friedman’s oped came on a day in which the twitter stream among digital humanities lit up over MOOCs, but not one of these scholars paid attention to Friedman’s pandering sycophancy. Instead, the real issues came up in Cathy Davidson’s “Why MOOCs Are Not a BandAid For Higher Education’s Budgetary Woes,”  “Spy v. Spy: A Response to the Chronicle of Higher Education”, and “If We Profs Don’t Reform Higher Education, We’ll Be Re-Formed (and we won’t like it).” (see #highered, #MOOC)

Friedman’s piece was just one of a string of “disruptive” “transformative” “revolutionary” flavored assessments about how MOOCs will “reinvent” the future of higher education. To get a sense of the panic MOOCs have brought on, we only need to look to the other side of the pond yesterday and see the Times Education Section‘s report on Cambridge University’s chancellor fretting that MOOCs will transform “the nature of higher education.” (“V-c warns of massive threat posed by MOOCs”)

Because of his public audience, Friedman certainly gets attention. His piece generated over 285 comments before the day was over. But it seems that the hard, serious questions about how to transform higher education with technology are taking place in the digital humanities twittersphere and other similar venues. Ryan Cordell at Northeastern (@ryancordell), Cathy Davidson at HASTAC (@CathyNDavidson), Adeline Koh at Duke (@adelinekoh), Siva Vaidhyanathan at the University of Virginia (@sivavaid), and Edward L. Ayers at Richmond (forthcoming piece on a “more radical online revolution”) among many others in digital humanities are writing thoughtful and fascinating pieces on the real changes underway in higher education–in teaching and learning using technology, of which MOOCs are a part but perhaps not necessarily the most important.

I could not ignore Friedman however. He does at least two things in yesterday’s piece that are very troubling. The first is his hook-line-and-sinker acceptance of Coursera’s sugary story that an autistic student and his parents appreciated the MOOC environment. Friedman and Coursera imply that the MOOC environment could transform opportunities for special needs students. But neither he nor Coursera seem willing to admit that such technologies could be used to exclude or profoundly limit access.

Before going further I should say that my youngest daughter has Down syndrome and so while I do not doubt that this autistic student found great value in the MOOC experience (and applaud that), I want to point out the subtle manipulation of those with disabilities at work in Friedman’s piece. He uses this story in the service of another agenda without any apparent concern for the implications. This sort of scenario occurs daily in the life of my daughter, and it has been discussed among parents of children with special needs regularly from Michael Berube’s brilliant and inspired Life as We Know It to yesterday’s thoughtful New York Times piece by George Estreich “A child with Down syndrome keeps his place at the table.” The frightening and retrograde idea that people with special needs can be set apart (to be special somewhere else) should be seen for what it is–exclusionary. The trade offs are vastly unequal: instead of school, here is an online link; instead of a professor, here is a video, instead of a place at the table, another table is set. Will the MOOCs mean less diversity in our institutions of higher learning? Perhaps. Does Coursera or any current MOOC provider seek to serve students with special needs in any real or meaningful way? Probably not–so why does Friedman bring it up? Why does Coursera offer this particular story to him? It makes those who do not confront the daily challenges of navigating the world with disabilities feel good about something they otherwise might find vaguely threatening–a revolution in higher education. It desensitizes us, however perversely, to the very issue we should be more alert to in this drama: access and equal opportunity.

Second, one of the real issues of concern is that privately capitalized corporations running MOOCs through consortia of elite institutions, as presently described by Friedman, might flatten the landscape of higher education in ways that limit, rather than expand, access to quality instruction. In the name of efficiency public higher education might be stripped of resources. Using the technology to appear accessible, the elite institutions secure their positions by placing the real engagement on campus ever further from the reach of other students. Across the broad second and third tier of institutions, students might find fewer pathways, not more, into the system of higher education, as all sorts of courses are cut from campuses. Then these courses would only be available virtually, “at scale.”

What is needed in this discussion, as Cathy Davidson, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and others in digital humanities so clearly recognize, is first and foremost to acknowledge the wider scope of online  research and practice which the MOOC bubble has obscured. To the amazement of the digital humanities scholars who have been thinking about and building mechanisms to teach more effectively using technology for over fifteen years, the current MOOC model appears to be a puzzling throwback, like suggesting we all take up closed circuit television or organize correspondence courses.

In an episode of Seinfeld, Jerry assesses Kramer and Newman’s never-ending game of Risk as “a game of world domination being played by two guys who can barely run their own lives.” The character and tenor of MOOCs–their potential for realigning credit hours and their hundreds of thousands of “students”–might remind us of the game of Risk, and perhaps some of the leaders involved could appear to be a little bit like Kramer and Newman.

In higher education at the moment we find it difficult to see beyond the next budget cut, the next course enrollment battle, the next assessment strategy. But the debate over MOOCs in our departments and disciplines suggests a much broader opportunity and challenge before us:  in the humanities we need to begin building pedagogy for the digital age. We have seen rapid growth in the availability of digital archives and digital projects, yet our classroom practices have changed little. Students are confronted with millions of digital texts, yet they need skills to navigate the World Wide Web and numerous proprietary databases. They need the disciplinary habits of mind in the humanities to interpret and evaluate digital information, yet they are given few opportunities to participate in the creation of new knowledge. Imagine if we reorganized our classroom experience both in large lecture courses and more intensive seminars to create less anonymity and more dynamic learning, to allow students truly to participate in a “community of scholars.” We will be doing precisely this in The History Harvest course soon–at least we are in the planning stages now for a MOOC-like distributed course next year with participating classes from other colleges, after my colleague Patrick Jones has run the first set of very successful History Harvest courses.

The vast changes in our classrooms and information technology have led to fundamental questions about our higher education enterprise, ones we should be asking. Why go to college when information is at your fingertips? What will we do with ten million books digitized online and searchable? What is a lecture course for? How can we use technology more effectively? The emergence of the MOOC offers another opportunity, one that humanities and STEM faculty should embrace. But the justifications Coursera and Friedman have offered ring hollow and the unrestrained hyperbole about the “reinvention” of higher education could have the reverse effect of shutting down experimentation with MOOCs, just when we need it most. That would be a shame.

History Harvest in North Omaha: A Report on Digital Harvesting

On Saturday, October 22, eight undergraduate students and fifteen graduate students digitized dozens of documents at Love’s Jazz and Art Center in North Omaha as part of our third major History Harvest in Nebraska. Some remarkable stories, documents, and objects came forward as people from the community brought out their history to share with scholars, teachers, and students. The scene was celebratory but earnest, enthusiastic but expectant. And a sense of revival, renewal, purpose, community, and honesty greeted visitors.

KVNO aired a radio feature on Monday during drive time–“History Harvest Finds Treasures in North Omaha.”

Two stories, in particular, struck me personally and professionally as moving and significant. The first is about U.S.C.T. graves, one unmarked, in the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Omaha. Local researcher Creolla Woodall has been working to restore the graves, provide appropriate markers, and bring this history back to public recognition. One soldier, James Adams, was free in 1860, living in Harford County, Maryland, near Baltimore when he enlisted in the 4th U.S.C.T. The 4th U.S.C.T. Co. E was photographed at Fort Lincoln in northwestern Washington, D.C., at some point probably in early 1863 before taking the field in Virginia later that year. Fort Lincoln was located on the Washington Branch of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Adams was wounded in the war, losing his arm at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, Virginia. Later, sometime in the 1880s it appears, Adams moved to Omaha, Nebraska.

Digitizing history at the History Harvest, October 22, 2011 (Photo by William G. Thomas)

His U.S.C.T. counterpart buried at Laurel Hill, Edward Jones, was born in Virginia, most likely into slavery. At some point in 1864, he made his way to Marietta, Georgia, and enlisted in the 13th U.S.C.T., guarded railroads, and after the war made his way to Omaha, Nebraska. The graves of U.S.C.T. soldiers too often go unrecognized and the service and histories of these men unexamined. They tell us much about the wider patterns in the war–two black men, one enslaved, one free, both enlist, both fight, one is wounded, both migrate after the war, eventually to Omaha, Nebraska. They build businesses. They serve their communities. They have deep individual histories we are only able to glimpse though the broader national significance of their stories.

Warren Taylor brought two special, and astonishingly moving, items from his family’s history to the History Harvest. His 1841 U.S. penny was carried by his enslaved great grandmother as was a silver drinking cup. Holding these items, looking at them up close, brings slavery more clearly into focus, into real lived experiences. Both were digitized to be shared with students and teachers across Nebraska and the nation. The stories behind these objects and documents will be made available on the History Harvest web site in coming weeks and months.

There is no question that digitizing history at the community level raises matters of concern, especially about whether history is being expropriated and true partnership can exist. The students worked with churches, businesses, community organizations, and schools. They participated in the Making Invisible Histories Visible project with Omaha Public Schools, and worked with the Great Plains Black History Museum. Indeed, the Harvest is meant to be inclusive and open, as well as to enable a richer, more complete history for our communities.

On Saturday, as people came to talk about their community, their history, and their families, the conversations were rich with significance. Every family has its own history, but we often forget how much our family history is part of the national story. At this History Harvest we had the chance to see this connection and to talk and think about a more inclusive and public history.

The Railroad’s “Green Pasture”, New Media, and Digital Humanities

This week’s reading for our Digital Humanities seminar included Marshall McLuhan and Quinten Fore’s The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects and Helen J. Burgess and Jeanne Hamming’s new piece in Digital Humanities Quarterly, “New Media in the Academy: Labor and the Production of Knowledge in Scholarly Multimedia.”

Marshall McLuhan undertakes among other things a brief discussion of the railway and its social effects in almost the exact center of what one student called his “non-book book.” The railroad, McLuhan explains, “radically altered the personal outlooks and patterns of social interdependence.” He predicts that the “electronic” media in post-war America will have different effects however. The electronic age will produce not suburban worlds but a “circuited city,” an “information megalopolis.”

The railroad, according to McLuhan, created a mythic past even as it transformed society. Clearly drawing on Leo Marx’s 1964 classic The Machine in the Garden, McLuhan calls this effect “the myth of a green pasture world of innocence.” But, my students were interested in the way McLuhan’s polemical piece “runs into the other end of his own ideas.” One student suggested that McLuhan calls for a return to a childlike perception, exemplified in the aural not visual and in the non-linear not linear. Is this not also a green pasture? Does the way media “work us over” circularly create a green pasture?

So, much of McLuhan’s text and presentation rings true forty years later of course. These quotations elicited the most discussion not surprisingly:

“societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”

“all media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.”

“in the name of progress our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old.”

The Age of Anxiety is “in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools–with yesterday’s concepts.”

To many of these students, we are currently in academe forcing the new media to do the work of the old. In fact, this is what so disturbed them about McNeely and Wolverton’s apparent disregard for blogs, wikis, and other forms of scholarly creativity. Pointing out that McLuhan’s celebration of the amateur had special relevance in this context, one student cautioned, “digital humanists ought not overly professionalize. Creativity, especially the creativity that sounds outlandish to professionals, is key to innovation.”

Although we did not have time to discuss the recent Digital Humanities Quarterly article in detail, students focused on the apparent paradox of digital humanities in tenure and promotion. How it is that Deborah Lines Anderson might argue ostensibly for counting digital work toward tenure in Digital Scholarship in the Tenure, Promotion, and Review Process, but at the same time define digital scholarship “as independent from the medium by which it is produced.” In other words, seeing tools only as a “means to an end” and privileging the “act of creation” misses an important series of instantiations or practices worthy of consideration. Using Bruno Latour’s concept of ‘hybrids’, Burgess and Hamming get us closer to understanding why we must reconsider what we mean by new media or digital humanities and how they relate to “the problem of genre and tenure.”

I found myself thinking anew about the railroad as a hybrid agent–something I’d been writing about and considering for the better part of five years. And further what constitutes a scholarly work and how to present that work, and how we need more examples of non-linear digital scholarship to break free of forcing the new media to do the work of the old.

So much scholarly media “relies heavily on graphical interfaces, navigational schemas, and visual layout,” Burgess and Hamming point out. We are building, in digital humanities, new interfaces to knowledge and information, just at the interfaces railroads produced shaped conceptions of time, space, and society–and were represented through Charles Joseph Minard with his railroad-inspired cartes figuratives. Railroads too changed the way we thought of the body and became an extension of the body. Burgess and Hamming call for a radical act of “performing scholarship” but their great insight here is that digital humanities and new media represent a significant watershed in the “materiality of knowledge production.”

We should look out for our own “green pastures” that come with the new media.

(A good part of our class time was dedicated to discussion about our iPad app challenge and this will be included in a later post.)