Teaching with TEI

This week, I’m in a seminar at Brown University, participating in conversations about how we use TEI in the classroom.  What a wonderful opportunity to think about so many topics: pedagogical goals and how we achieve them, what we know ourselves about the universe in which TEI operates, the importance of collaboration in Digital Humanities. Not to mention important things like what a stylesheet does and suggestions for how to distribute materials to students. The latter, of course, a distillation of years of teaching experience at the Women Writers Project.

As ever, I’m adding layers to my knowledge of and comfort with the vast set of stuff that comes with having taken my scholarship and teaching digital. I’m reminded that for my own learning, one TEI workshop has never been enough.

I’ll distill some of this into a post about plans for the first-year seminar I’m teaching this semester.  The post will appear on Digital Culture Week, which I could be doing a better job of promoting….

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Remembering Ernest Callenbach

I’ve just read Ernest Callenbach’s final essay, and I find myself inspired to post some thoughts here.

Callenbach, editor of Film Quarterly, was also the author of Ecotopia and a prequel Ecotopia Emerging.  Born in 1929, he died on April 16, 2012.  An announcement of his passing appeared on H-Utopia, as did the essay.  I encountered the essay, however, through Mark Bittman’s comments in today’s New York Times, and I’m grateful to Bittman for calling Callenbach to the attention of a larger audience.

I had been thinking of Callenbach lately, as my enthusiastic consumption of the Hunger Games trilogy and film reminded me of having read Ecotopia in a Humanities course on utopias that I took as an undergraduate in the early 1980s.  Suzanne Collins’s post-apocolyptic world in which an ostentatiously wealthy Capitol has bought its security through annual “games” in which teenagers fight to the death recalled to me Callenbach’s crunchy Northwestern utopia in which alternative energy, community-owned bicycles, and freedom of emotional expression came at the cost of a football-like “game” in which the losing team died.  When I taught Ecotopia in a First-Year Seminar several years ago, students found Callenbach’s world less appealing than I had as an undergraduate.  I have been wondering whether the popularity of the Collins novels might produce a different response now.

But today I am more interested in what Tom Engelhardt characterized as Callenbach’s “last words to an America in decline.”  In Ecotopia Callenbach had imagined a nation achieved through the secession of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington.   This new nation functioned as an ecologically conscious model for the rest of the world, and in his final essay Callenbach acknowledged that our world’s interdependence makes survival through independent “good living” unlikely to say the least.  Many of his recommendations bring to mind contemporary homesteading as undertaken by some people I know and by some cohousing communities I have been exploring online recently.

It would be easy to read Callenbach’s final essay negatively, but I’m more interested in thinking about how his novels and his essay might help us think about questions of life, publishing, and liberal education in a world that continues to change radically, even if some say we are nearing the limits of Moore’s Law.

I’ll think more about this over the next couple of weeks, I’m sure.  What do you think?


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“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 WordPress.com 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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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.


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