Adam’s Day of DH: management vs. making

I’ve tried to contribute regularly to both the Day of Archaeology and the Day of DH over the last couple of years, in part because I like to feel like part of a community, and in part because it offers me the rare opportunity to take stock of what I’m actually doing, and why.

This is a mixed blessing, because of the timing of those two Days. The Day of Archaeology — at least the international one — falls during the summer, when I should be in the field, and for the last few years it’s been a sad reminder that I haven’t had a trowel in the ground for nearly a decade. The Day of DH, on the other hand, falls in the spring, and often comes around the end of my semester, when I’m desperately trying to dig my way out of a mountain of student work that requires reading, commenting, and grading in a very traditional manner (no digital shortcuts here — human-to-human communication is still required).

Since my archaeological field wings have been clipped for the moment, I’ve had to concentrate on meta-archaeology — archival research, publication preparation — for those Day of Archaeology posts. On the DH side, this time of the year rarely finds me actually making things or conducting research. Instead, the DH side of my work tends to be focused on organizing things: if I’m not grading digital projects to wrap up a class, I’m scheduling or participating in meetings to move my own projects forward.

That’s what I did today. During the morning, I worked on comments for two senior honors theses written by students I taught in a DH-oriented course on Herodotus and networks last spring. One of these used no digital approaches at all; the other did a little bit of mapping, but was otherwise a traditional close examination of archaeological evidence (when she needed to make maps, however, she knew how to do it). Then, in the afternoon, I made calls and wrote emails to arrange a Skype call with the Advisory Board of the PeriodO project (we’re producing a gazetteer of authoritative assertions about the spatial and temporal coordinates of historical and archaeological periods), and made some more calls and wrote some more emails to try to get to Wyoming for a workshop to talk about carbon dating, the Digital Index of North American Archaeology, and issues of historical periodization.

So when I thought about what I’d write for the Day of DH, it suddenly hit me: I’ve moved into management here, too. I’d already come to terms with this in archaeology — that moment of transition when you stop doing the stuff in the field that you enjoy (like digging) and start doing the stuff no one enjoys (like raising money and hassling specialists to write their chapters). It was hard, but I understood it as part of the natural life-cycle of the digger — it came with its own benefits (like being able to offer official interpretations of the archaeological record and answer questions you came up with yourself), and I’d also had a lot of time to dig.

But I wasn’t ready to move out of making and into management in DH, mainly because I hadn’t yet had time to learn how to make things properly. I’m not complaining — I’m glad I’m in a position to get things done, and working with highly competent people who can do them. At the same time, though, I miss the thrill of solving problems on the ground, of learning how to do things with my hands (sort of). I miss the small successes like a spreadsheet properly cleaned with Refine or a heatmap that comes out right.

My DH resolution, then, is to do some learning and making of my own before this time next year. Even more importantly, I am reminded that one of my most important tasks is to expose students to digital humanities as a way that they can make things, too. I’m already doing this to a certain extent: I just finished teaching a Greek Archaeology course in which students added places to the Pleiades gazetteer of ancient places (look for the published versions soon — there are 30 new monuments that will be up in the next couple of months). In the same class, I had my students make 3D models of casts of ancient sculpture with 123DCatch, and one of them actually made a 3D print of hers. And I’ve experimented with various other ways to get students making: I’m no Shawn Graham or Sebastian Heath, but you can find my assignments and some results in this Dropbox folder.

But I’d like to expand these opportunities, and I’ve been inspired by the work MicroPasts has done to get the community involved in tagging, photo-masking, and other citizen-science/crowdsourcing tasks. So I also spent some time today brainstorming about a project I’m planning to propose to UT’s Center for Teaching and Learning, the goal of which would be to build some lightweight crowdsourcing interfaces for document transcription and image annotation, and then integrate them into the current course-management system UT is using (Canvas). There are lots of platforms out there already (including MicroPasts code for photo tagging and Linked Data generation, which I hope I’ll be able to reuse, and Ben Brumfield’s transcription platform FromThePage), but I’ve been frustrated by the barriers to entry in some cases (you have to be part of an existing project, in most cases, or beg your way onto it) and the management of student users in others (I had to become an editor at Pleiades to make sure those projects met standards). I’d like to have a very easy solution where a faculty member could upload documents or images, work with groups of students on annotating them with Linked Data URIs, and then expose the whole thing as JSON or RDF to be mashed up by the larger DH community.

Sure, there will be proposals and administration and reports and all the rest of the management slog — but maybe I’ll get to help make some things, and making digital things so that students can in turn make real knowledge in the Humanities is one of the great contributions of the digital “turn”. I teach best in the field, while working with students on concrete problem-solving and the confrontation of the complex process by which archaeological information comes to be. I can’t do that with my classes on campus — but digital tools have at least made it possible for me to teach them how knowledge is produced by having them produce a little of it themselves.

 

An ironic beginning

As usual, I’m off to a late start with my “Day of X” — one consistent feature to my days seems to be their brevity and overcrowded nature. But I do want to frame the longer post I plan to write soon with a parable of DH, of sorts. I spent the last ten minutes trying to upload an avatar image to my user profile in the Day of DH platform — but my very smallest photos (70×70 pixels) were rejected as too large, with a message that I need to limit size to “200 B”. I didn’t realize that internet files were even measured in single bytes any more. In any case, even an image that’s 8 pixels by 8 pixels is too large to upload, so I’ll stick with the gravatar provided by the site.

This goes to show, however, that the road to frictionless digital communication is still far in the future. My picture upload fail here joins a long list of live demo fails, Powerpoint fails, and A/V fails in presentation circumstances, all of which have made it a truism that conference sessions on digital topics always have the worst technical problems. This is in part, I think, because the same developments that give us more access to tools that used to be available only to coders have also made the user experience much more frustrating for those of us who can’t figure out how to make a WordPress site upload a profile photo that’s larger than 200 bytes. We lifted the curtain to see what was going on — and things look a lot messier in there than they do up on the screen in front.

This is directly relevant to what I’ll write about for this Day of DH: bringing students along to become knowledge makers. When we say they’re “digital natives”, we mean they’re expert consumers of polished, curated digital media. And they get very frustrated by the cobbled-together, home-made, doesn’t-always-work world of DH projects (they’d much rather just use Facebook — at least they can upload a profile photo without trouble!). So how do we convince them that it’s worth it to weather the frustration and lost time to participate in the work of Digital Humanities?