Category Archives: digital humanities

Omeka Follow-Up

This post is inspired in part by Ryan Cordell’s ProfHacker post on developing strategies for writing productivity. He describes his current writing group’s use of Wendy Belcher‘s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks and some of the principles he is putting into practice. Those are tools I used a few years ago, and I’m watching with interest to learn how well they work for Ryan and his colleagues.

Another inspiration for this post lies in growing interest in developing principles for evaluating digital scholarship, an interest that I see expressed not only in the American Historical Association’s ad hoc Committee on the Professional Evaluation of Digital Publications by Historians, on which I have the privilege of serving, but many other places as well. Most notable today is the Google doc that Adeline Koh has started for establishing “ideal language for assessing promotion and tenure for digital scholarship.”

And a final inspiration comes from a wish to document the kinds of work I am doing during my sabbatical and the time it takes to do them. This latter comes in part from some things I have noticed as a result of the kinds of work Ryan describes in the ProfHacker piece. For me, narrating the process of research and writing as I engage in them helps me with that engagement. A trick I developed when I was using Wendy Becker’s very helpful tools back in 2011 was just writing about the writing process as a warm-up to my daily fifteen minutes.

Now, I also have the incentive of wanting to think through and be able to express for my colleagues in many contexts the joys and challenges that come with having chosen digital platforms as the best media for publication of the research and teaching that I have been doing for the past ten years. When I began to explore digital scholarship, I did not realize how much I would need to learn myself about the technologies that underlie pretty presentation on the inter webs. And some of my colleagues–including my co-author–have attempted to dissuade me from thinking that I need to learn XPath, XSLT, and a host of other languages that my humanist brain is less than ideally suited to understand.

But I am even more convinced now than I was in 2011 when I started to learn a little bit about WordPress that being able to do the sorts of things I want to do with and for digital scholarship entails learning how to do some technical things for myself rather than relying on technical “experts” to do them for me. (I find myself wanting to do an embarrassing girl power dance here….)

So finally, today’s sabbatical narrative is this:

After I completed the Dreamhost one-click installation of Omeka to this domain yesterday, I recalled something I had already learned when I performed the same task for last year. That one-click installation is for Omeka 1.5.3, and Omeka 2.0+ has been operating for some time now.

As has been the case ever since I started teaching myself applications in the mid-1980s (that was WordPerfect, in case anyone is keeping score), becoming comfortable with each new tool is an iterative process. Bumbling through setting up a sub-domain and a db.ini file and the various other set-up details does get easier over time, even though I do forget how to use each tool in between moments when I take the time to engage with them.

I became reacquainted with this process when I started to learn TEI. Although I say this as though it is a joke, it really did take three times sitting through the Introduction to TEI with Julia Flanders and Syd Bauman before I began to feel comfortable enough with XML/TEI to work with the files. And taking the full week to do that at DHSI with my research assistant Lauren Pfendner helped a lot.

So having taken roughly a week to set up my new Omeka repository and still having ahead of me installing the update feels more like success than it does a setback to me. I have learned that this tortoise-like progress is progress nevertheless. The installation of the update will go more quickly, and the iterativity of my learning is simply a fact of the life of the digital humanist, or at least of the kind of digital humanist I choose to be.

Over the next couple of days, I will be installing the Omeka upgrade, converting TIFs to JPGs, uploading them, and then turning to an old version of a TEI transcription that I will need to update for compatibility with the contextual files that I have been working on with a different research assistant–John Burnett–over the past couple of years.

Doing the work of a digital humanities project happens with almost unbelievable slowness when your day job is teaching at a residential liberal arts college. I document that work here in the hope that it will serve to assist my colleagues who are transforming our understanding of scholarship for our ever more digital age.


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Filed under digital history, digital humanities, productivity

Knitting in a Course about Sex and Work (with thanks to Sandy Coleman)

When I taught my Sex and Work course in fall 2012, it caught the attention of Senior Associate Director of Communications and Wheaton Quarterly Editor Sandy Coleman because the U.S. military had recently changed its policy regarding women in combat. I am not a historian of the military though since I teach the history of the United States questions of war and military service are part of my general teaching repertoire.

Because Sandy saw a connection between the news event and my course, we had a couple of conversations, and she brought a photographer to our classroom the day the class visited the FiberSpace. After the second conversation, which included some excellent prompts to help me sound more eloquent, Sandy published her distillation of the conversations here.

I am publishing our initial written interview here as one way into some of the Digital Humanities ideas behind my including the fiber project in the course. I really do sound more eloquent in Sandy’s version, though. And it’s shorter, too.

Sandy Coleman: Describe the class and what you are covering.

Kathryn Tomasek: The course is called “Sex and Work.”

It’s a 300-level course for students in History and Women’s Studies.  We read about a book a week, and the books are all monographs written by historians.  The books cover the “long nineteenth century,” from about the middle of the eighteenth century through the early twentieth century.  A lot of them are about women and needlework, especially variations on sewing as work for which women were paid in various places and at various times in the United States.

SC: How did the idea for the new class come about?

KT: I’ve taught a version of this course for a long time.  But the current iteration grew partly out of a desire to strengthen enrollments and to give students who are interested in U.S. Women’s History a way to fulfill their major requirements in a course that focuses on intersections of race, gender, and class.

The newest part of the course—the Fiber Project—emerged from an opportunity related to the development of Assistant Professor of Computer Science Tom Armstrong’s MakerSpace and the new FiberSpace that he and Library and Information Services Social Sciences Liaison Lauren Slingluff have set up on the main floor of the old Science Center.

SC: How is this related to your field of scholarship?

KT: I’ve always done work at the intersections of disciplines—Women’s Studies, Utopian Studies—and in the past ten years that has meant Digital Humanities, broadly defined.  In my research, I have been working on developing guidelines for the scholarly markup of historical financial records, and I have had students participate in this transcription and markup in various courses.

My goal in bringing Digital Humanities to the classroom has been to help students understand what’s “under the hood” of the digital tools and media that are so omnipresent in our daily lives.  We think of the current generation of college students as “digital natives,” but most of them don’t know much about the computer code that underlies the Internet, the World Wide Web, and the devices that we use to access information.  So I’ve done a lot of different projects with students who are not in the sciences or math or computer sciences, to give them a bit of experience with code and thereby take away some of the mystery behind the screen. I hope that students find this empowering.

The FiberSpace emphasizes the commonalities between mathematics and needlework of various kinds, including knitting, crochet, and sewing.  The crochet coral reef is a great example of a project out in the world that engages these commonalities.

SC: Why do you think it is important to explore this subject at this point in time?

KT: Women have always worked, but the transition to industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century created new ways of valuing work and compensating people for it.  Cash, which people earned for the most part in jobs they did outside their homes and for employers, became necessary to pay for food, shelter, and fuel as more and more people moved away from the rural household economies that had been more typical in earlier periods.  When women worked for cash, they generally were paid less than men because of assumptions about their needs for cash.  Whereas men were seen to be in the workforce for their entire lives because they were considered responsible for supporting their wives and children.

We would like to believe that work opportunities for women have expanded more and more over time, and as you’ve noticed, the armed services in the United States has recently made it possible for women to serve in combat units.  At the same time, women in most economic sectors continue to be paid less than men.  There are, we all recognize now, variations in the differentials between the compensations received by women and men depending on the jobs that they do.

SC: What are you most excited about covering in this class?

KT: I’ve really enjoyed watching the students learn about the realities of the work lives of women in the past, both within their homes and outside them.

SC: You mentioned a fiber project? Tell me about that and how it relates to the subject matter.

KT: We have a lot of cultural metaphors and sometimes even myths about needlework as women’s work, and historians have done a lot of work to discover evidence about the realities behind the metaphors and myths.  At various points in the past—the 1820s for instance—people felt it was important to instruct girls and young women in “traditional women’s work” because they were concerned that needlework skills were being lost.

At this point in time, we tend to think of needlework as a hobby.  Nobody relies on their mom or sister for socks—we just buy them at the local big box store.  And over the past couple of decades, young women—feminists—have taken on needlework as their own.  We might call this the “Stitch ‘n’ Bitch” phenomenon—that was one phrase that caught on a few years back; the Wheaton College knitting club called themselves by that name at one point.

In part because Tom and Lauren created the FiberSpace and in part because I wanted to rethink this course, I decided that adding a fiber project to the course would give the students and me a way to bring together my interests in the history of women’s work with my desire to find new ways for students to engage with simple computer code.

So this semester, students in the course are each making something with fiber.  They are knitting or crocheting something—most of them are making scarves of one kind or another—and finding a way to incorporate the simply circuitry available in the MakerSpace to make the objects interactive.  Our class will have both a poster and an exhibit in the Academic Festival in April.

SC: What do you think of the lifting of the ban on women in combat jobs?

KT: Since we are a nation at war and have been for longer than ever before in our history, I think it is change that is long past due.  For myself, I would rather we were not at war and nobody had to put their lives on the line.

SC: What is the significance of that decision?

KT: Women have wanted to be in combat and have been told not to worry their pretty heads about it.  Having denied them these roles has not prevented their being raped when they serve in war zones.  Perhaps giving their male counterparts the opportunity to see them as equals on the field of battle will have a positive effect with regard to this kind of horrible gender violence within the armed services.

SC: Why do gender divisions in labor persist? And is that good or bad?

KT: We have a lot of cultural baggage about the differences between women and men.  Despite centuries of efforts on the parts of countless women and men to break down gender assumptions in various places at various times, human beings keep positing these differences.  Personally, I resist them because I feel limited by them and I think that they limit our collective accomplishments as human beings.

SC: Do we need to break down all gender divisions in labor or just particular ones?

KT: I would rather see us required to prove the necessity of gender divisions of labor than the opposite.  In my view, a world that begins from “yes” is always better than a world that begins from “no.”

SC: What are you hoping that students get most out of this course?

KT: I hope they learn to value women’s labor and ways to make arguments for that value.

SC: Why do you think the general public should be considering these issues?

KT: Our world continues to open opportunities for people who have previously been limited by “no.”  I would love to see every single human being have the opportunity to achieve their greatest potential.  I think that breaking down barriers to that achievement is one of the most important projects that women and men have undertaken across time and space.



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Filed under digital humanities, teaching

“Old Stuff”

It’s such fun when students’ affinities echo comments from various spaces in a professor’s life.  In one of my current classes, a student revealed during a recent introductory visit to the college archives that they like “old stuff.”  And this morning, I heard a colleague from the Wheaton College Department of Art and Art History interviewed in an NPR story about a local repository of “old stuff,” the Providence Athanaeum.

As I listened to my colleague and his partner describe the vintage items they were sporting as they attended an event at the Athanaeum, I discovered one reason the student’s reference to “old stuff” prompted my smile.  The affinity is one I share with many people in my life.  More than one member of my family feels a deep fondness for things that remind us of and connect us to the past.

Certainly, my own practices as a historian are firmly grounded in a sometime-fault that Jill Lepore once denoted the vice of “historians who love too much.” And on campus, my colleague from Art History is hosting a faculty salon focused on the place of the personal in our professional research and writing.

As these events converge with an opportunity I had last week to share my own pride and pleasure in the practices of digital scholarship at Wheaton College with visiting members of our Board of Trustees, I feel again sincere appreciation for the privileges that come with doing work I love.

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Browsing the Stacks: Braille, Code, and Digital Potentials

As I rode the elevator up to my classroom yesterday morning, I found myself staring unseeing at the Braille numbers on the panel, and I recognized the positions of the dots as a code.  Which is not of course, much of a discovery since Braille does indeed use a system of bumps positioned in particular ways to translate visual language into one readable through touch.  But even though Braille constitutes an example of code that is present in our daily lives, I would guess that many sighted people fail to recognize it as such.

So imagine my pleasure at seeing yesterday’s post on the blog of the Digital Public Library of America.  In “Redefining Reading,” Ben Naddaff-Hafrey notes that the pleasures of stack browsing have generally been denied to readers who lack the advantage of sight.  He writes about the Internet Archive’s use of the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) to digitize a million books that apps can present as speech for print disabled readers.  He closes by noting that there is more to digital books than simply turning the physical into the digital.

I would add that whilst we often hear about how proponents of digital culture overestimate the potential of the world we are creating, I’m more impressed with how we underestimate it.  Recently I’ve spent a lot of time touting the learning potential for undergraduates in the processes of transcription and coding.  Since the elusive quality of “finished” products in digital scholarship are well known, we would do well to take into account the advantages we gain from including students in the process.  And I would echo Naddaff-Hafrey.  We who transform physical objects into digital ones cannot know the uses to which our “products” might be put.  That’s part of the joy of digital history.

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Inspiration and Call to Arms

Yesterday, I attended a “Tech n Talk” presented by LIS Humanities Liaison Pete Coco and Film and New Media Studies Associate Professor Josh Stenger.  Even though I usually spend Mondays working at home, I consider the time on campus well spent.

Pete demonstrated Creative Commons, whose licenses I use, and showed us the SPARC clause that authors can add to standard publication contracts.  I hadn’t yet seen a demo of a CC image search–or how hard Google makes it to search for freely available images.

Josh offered not only a brief history of copyright from the Constitution forward but also information about ways in which publishers and others interfere with the ways we use devices we have purchased, including but far from limited to protections against “piracy.”  I particularly appreciated his discussion of the way that new iterations of protections of intellectual property assume consumers are guilty without opportunity to prove innocence.

The presentations meshed well with two great pieces I had come across during my morning troll of the web:  Barbara Fister’s “Joining the Movement: A Call to Action” in Library Journal and a blogpost she referenced, Steve Lawson’s “Publishers Hate You. You Should Hate Them Back.”  Both of these pieces affirm my sense of the connections among scholarly communication, libraries, and digital scholarship.

And that change is gonna come.

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SOPA Protest

For information on today’s internet blackout to protest SOPA/PIPA legislation, follow this link.

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2011 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,600 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 43 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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I’ve been thinking lately about the career aptitude test that my classmates and I took in  high school.  I remember the setting well: the high school cafeteria.  I sat at the second or third table down, on the far left side, facing the stage—roughly the place where my friends and I sat at lunch every day.  (How much of this is genuine memory?)

I have always tested well, so I have a generally positive memory of the test itself.  I remember kind of enjoying the variety of questions, though perhaps having been a bit frustrated with ones that required an ability to imagine how two-dimensional images would look once they had been folded into three-dimensional objects.

And I remember the results of the test, a recommendation that I should do work focused on organizing things, like being a file clerk.  Me and Harvey Pekar, right?

What interests me about this memory of the results (I wish I had the actual results, but I think they’re probably long lost) is how it could be read to be connected to the way that my interest in the kind of document markup I can do with TEI tends towards greater granularity.  I tend not to make use of those best practices for libraries that I mentioned last week.

And this reminds me of how I responded to a question Gerda Lerner asked in the first research seminar I took in graduate school.  She asked whether every person who had ever lived belonged in a dictionary of biography, and I said yes.  Which was the wrong answer because she was asking us to think about how, as historians, we would assess significance and apply that assessment to the formation of a research plan.  I didn’t like the idea of making those kinds of choices.

But one of the things I do like about the idea of what we are doing with the Wheaton College Digital History Project is that we are making available (eventually) documents that have not previously been known.  And I understand this activity to some degree as yet another positive answer to Gerda’s question.  In effect, we are saying that the fact these documents have not been used in the past is less a product of their insignificance than of chance.  Which is one of the things historians know about the documents we use as evidence anyway.  Whatever sources we have available to us come to us as a result of decisions that do not actually reflect their significance in some grand scheme so much as their significance to individuals for reasons that often have nothing to do with our research questions.

Sometimes, when my friends reflect on the work that I have come to be doing over the past seven years, they say that I could do this work as a librarian or an archivist.  (I’m not entirely sure whether I agree with them.)  And I wonder how close that means I have come to following the advice that resulted from that career aptitude test I took in the high school cafeteria all those years ago.

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Filed under digital humanities

Digital Humanities, Libraries, and Scholarly Communication

For me, the lines between digital humanities, libraries, and scholarly communication are so faint as to be insignificant.  And my perception of the equivalences among these entities that often seem siloed to my colleagues presents a real challenge as I try to help people–both at my own institution and at other campuses–think about possible futures for higher education in our digital culture.

The source of my perception lies in my having begun to learn about how digital innovations are changing libraries and publishing as a result of my first forays into digital humanities.  In 2004, I participated in a series of workshops at Wheaton College that were sponsored by the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  Those workshops focused on two sets of encoding standards that use extensible markup language (XML): the Encoded Archival Description Document Type Definition (EAD DTD) and the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI).  The hands-on workshop sessions focused on TEI, and I attended the workshops out of interest in testing the use of TEI in teaching my undergraduate history students.  But the EAD component of the initial workshops meant that librarians attended too, so perhaps I have found one source of my elision of digital humanities, libraries, and scholarly communication.

Perhaps I have identified also a significant point about how these three often siloed entities are in fact connected.  I don’t mean to claim originality here.  Folks involved in digital humanities have been working on these questions for quite some time, as is clear from the discussion of the development of EAD at the Library of Congress website.  EAD and TEI were both developed in the 1990s.  Both began using Standardized General Markup Language (SGML), and both shifted to use of XML.  And both are used by libraries.

In fact according to the TEI website cited above, “Since 1994, the TEI Guidelines have been widely used by libraries, museums, publishers, and individual scholars to present texts for online research, teaching, and preservation.” A search of the TEI consortium’s website led me to slides from a talk by Susan Hockey of University College London, “Markup, TEI, Digital Libraries.” The talk was presented at the TEI Members Meeting in 2002, and it offers a good overview of issues about the relationships between changes digital innovations were bringing to libraries and digital scholarship at that time.  The TEI has a Libraries special interest group (SIG), and they recently released an update to their recommendations for best practices for use of TEI by libraries.

So TEI–the flavor of digital humanities that I practice–does have clear connections to libraries that can be traced back for at least two decades.  I’m not making that up.  What a relief!

Scholarly communication, the third of my equivalences, belongs in the set as a result of the ways that digital innovations have affected communication in general, that is in the ongoing shift from print to digital formats.  The most obvious example–the one that has received the most public outcry in the past couple of years–is the case of newspapers.  Like many people, I no longer subscribe to print newspapers; I read them online.  And I resented the introduction of a pay wall by my newspaper of choice, the New York Times, as the publisher sought a new way to make the newspaper profitable as a business.  But eventually I gave in, and I pay my fifteen dollars every month.

Like newspaper publishers, university presses have been changing their production practices for at least the past twenty years, as various word processing programs have become the tools of choice for scholars writing articles and books.  I began to hear about changes in scholarly publication when I attended a NITLE meeting on scholarly communication that was held at Pomona College in January 2008.  (I think that’s the right date.)  Like all NITLE meetings, this one gave me plenty to think about, especially the idea of open peer review.  And in the intervening years, I’ve had opportunities to sit in on discussions in which I’ve heard editors talk about workflows and publishing software.  Now, I have an essay in a volume that is undergoing open peer review and that is under contract (the volume, not necessarily my essay) with the Digital Culture series at the University of Michigan Press.

All of this seems perfectly transparent and logical to me, and I understand digital scholarship–which is the term I use to encompass my three equivalences–to be the future of scholarship and higher education.  My greatest challenge lies in parsing out how that is the case for folks who haven’t had the advantages I have had over the past seven years as I’ve learned from my digital humanities colleagues.

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XML: The Latin of Digital Scholarship?

I’ve been playing with this analogy for a while, and I was pleased to hear the silence of assent when I took it out for a trial run at a session on Big Data at THATCamp Kansas a few weeks ago. It elicited some resistance at another moment that weekend, and I’m interested in the contextual differences.

The second group with whom I discussed my notion represented a couple of constituencies that I’m less familiar with in digital humanities, those interested in the semantic web and those who work with the languages that power social media. These folks mentioned Django, which is based on Python and was developed in Lawrence, Kansas. I haven’t yet learned Python, though I know about it, and William J. Turkel and Alan MacEachern’s The Programming Historian is bookmarked on my browser. (Thank you once again, Canada, for your excellent support of digital scholarship.)

My young colleagues pointed to Web 2.0, Facebook, and Google as examples of common tools not based on XML. I learned a lot from them–I’d never heard of Django before that conversation. But I don’t think their point invalidates my own.

I mean, after all, to point here to certain historical effects, including the use of Latin as the language of scholarship and diplomacy in Medieval Europe. (Easy for me, you may say, since I’m not a medievalist.) Thus, I think the analogy may be apt since XML lies behind long-term developments in what was long ago called Humanities Computing—efforts to consider how computers might facilitate humanities research, in Medieval and Classical Studies in fact.

Since the language also underlies such proprietary applications as MicroSoft Word and Excel, the analogy also alludes to the place of Latin as the foundation upon which the romance languages were built. Apt again, perhaps, since computational linguistics also makes use of XML.

I ponder this analogy because I want to better articulate the significance for liberal education of the effects of digital innovations on scholarship. And as I do so, I seek to understand digital scholarship in the larger landscape of digital culture.

I think that learning to feel comfortable with one type of coding (XML) can help humanities students develop the confidence to explore additional languages–like Python–and become ever more nimble citizens of their digital world.


Filed under digital humanities, education