historian, author, film producer

Building an iPad App for the Humanities?

In our second meeting of the Digital Humanities seminar at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, we tackled the class’s challenge project–to design and develop an iPad/iPhone app to enhance the humanities. The energy in the room was palpable. The class had already met for an hour before class to hash out benchmarks, objectives, follow up meetings, and plans. When I arrived, they were more than ready to go over where they were with the project.

They had settled on three options:
1. an RSS feed/aggregator for humanities content.
2. creating an app for user generated content.
3. developing a showcase of fixed content.

Overwhelmingly, they voted outside of class to develop option #1. They wanted a “living” app, one that refreshed regularly as new material came online. And they were already working on what to pull, aggregate, organize, and categorize. Key questions focused on what would be the standards or parameters for aggregation, and how would they structure the information for the app. Simple questions drove some of the discussion: like what category of iTunes (News or Education?) would best suit their app.

One of the most interesting parts of the class discussion revolved around the process for organizing themselves over the previous week. How did this occur, I asked. And clearly Blackboard was no help. They began with posts on the discussion threads in Blackboard, but after over 150 posts, it was clear that this technology was full of problems. One could not follow posts clearly or easily, the hierarchies in Blackboard only made matters worse. It was tough to see who wrote what about a new topic. They turned to Doodle to poll one another about times to meet and groups to form. And it was also clear that different students could participate in different ways, that leadership would have to emerge from within and among the group.

The students wanted an app that allowed them as graduate students in the humanities to browse through grants, calls for proposals, conference paper calls, and other difficult to locate information. They wanted the app to enable them to consume more information more easily, to see the ways their fields interconnect and overlap, and to make them aware of opportunities they would never otherwise encounter. The group still is working on whether the app will apply to all humanities fields or use largely the digital humanities. In either case, these students are planning to develop a tool with wide applicability, one that enables them to see the field’s activities, key people, and organizations more clearly.

For next week they will undertake an environmental scan of Digital Humanities and Humanities aggregation services that are already in place. And they will also plan further to identify their users.

We discussed both Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think” and Ian McNeely and Lisa Wolverton, “Reinventing Knowledge”. Of these Bush had the upper hand. McNeely and Wolverton came in for much criticism. “Myopic,” “afraid,” and “missed the mark” were phrases that came up. “McNeely fails to understand the ways in which the connectivity, accessibility, and technological capabilities of the Internet enhance scholarship, communication, and knowledge creation,” one student explained. Another said, “I find their criticism of the Internet to be unfounded and shortsighted.” One of the undercurrents in McNeely and Wolverton suggests that humanities scholars are not as technologically advanced as other disciplines. These students were “unconvinced” that humanities scholars are playing “technological catch-up.”

A deeper criticism of Western-centrism in McNeely and Wolverton came up. One student considered their treatment of modes of knowledge production in the East as “an afterthought . . . clearly positioning the West in opposition to the ‘other.'” The Western civilization approach seemed especially discordant.

But the students’ fundamental disagreement with McNeely and Wolverton is that they see the Internet as opening a new epoch, that it is not part of, or merely an extension of, the laboratory epoch. Whereas McNeely and Wolverton seem to be most concerned about how the Internet will promote “our culture,” and suggest that scholars will lose their bearings online, the students seemed convinced that Borgman was right to draw our attention to the infrastructure changes underway with the Internet and World Wide Web. “Anyone how has worked in digital humanities will tell you,” one student wrote in reflection, “the process of creation opens up a new hermeneutic quite different from traditional inquiry–whether you are marking up texts, . . . or building software.”

One question we discussed at some length was whether the Internet constituted an institution, like the university, the laboratory, the disciplines, or the library. Does the Internet have a “culture”? Or is the Internet not culture-specific. Certainly, there is unevenness of access, world-wide, and there are different experiences based on software, hardware, networks, and even energy (electricity). Borgman’s description of the W3C and other organizations, however, that “make” the Internet give us a different picture of the Internet as an institution, something that is indeed structured, controlled, and determined in important ways.

As it turns out, media and content and the relationship between them, will be our subject next week, when we read Marshall McCluhan, The Medium is the Massage. Stay tuned.