Day of DH, Step by Step

The first thing I did on Sunday morning is the first thing I always do, after getting coffee started: delete as much new email as possible.

Then I had my coffee and a little bit to eat before I went to a book talk about yoga and body image hosted by the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. This coalition is hoping to move yoga in the US a little further from the fashion-industry, body-obsessed culture that dominates so much of American culture. The book we were talking about is this one: Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories about Beauty, Bravery & Loving Your Body, edited by Melanie Klein and Anna Guest-Jelley.

The weather in central Minnesota was bad Saturday and Sunday. A tornado touched down about 5 miles away from us Saturday night, but while I noticed that it was raining really hard, we didn’t find out about the tornado until the next day.

I got back from the book talk and did a little work on my wiki, where I’m keeping track of social events in late-19th-century London. My thoughtful partner gives me a subscription to the British Library’s British Newspaper Archive for 19th-century newspapers every year, so I’m using contemporary newspaper accounts of social events — parties, dinner parties, garden parties, receptions, gallery openings, theatrical openings, funerals, conversaziones, public lectures, royal “Drawing Rooms” — to collect information about any event that the Victorians themselves would have considered to have had social implications.

By and large, people who study literature and the arts have not concerned themselves with social events, because often there isn’t any Art there. The same holds true for historians and political scientists: social events are not the kind of events most historians and political scientists look at, though I can see that history occurs, politics occur, artists converge, ideas move through the culture. So the field is essentially unplowed and the method is undetermined, which is an invitation it seems to me for digital humanities’ questions and methods.

Mostly, I’m collecting evidence of social events in newspaper articles, including who was there, where it took place, what the weather was like, who came with whom, what music was played, what the food was (if possible), and so on. These days, I’m attempting to assemble a list of everybody who came to a social event hosted by the Prince of Wales, Edward Albert (“Bertie”), eventually King Edward VII of England, and the Princess of Wales, Alexandra (“Alix”). Sometimes Queen Victoria attended, and sometimes she did not.

Here’s a screenshot of the top of the page that lists everybody I have identified so far as having attended:

Screen shot of wiki page showing list of names
People Invited to Social Events Hosted by Bertie and Alix, 1880-1901

Here’s a screenshot showing how many tabs I have open to check the names for each new event (in this case, a garden party at Marlborough House that took place on 14 July 1881:


I hope you can see the tabs in this image, which is kind of small: there are 15 tabs open right now, letting me see the page from the British Newspaper Archive, several pages in Vickypedia, my wiki, and some other web pages to help me identify the names when the newspaper copy is damaged. Here’s the home for Vickypedia:

Homepage of Vickypedia, or Social Victorians (Soc Victs)
The Social Victorian: Parties, Performances, Funerals, and Knots that Collected Eminent and Less-than-Eminent Victorians

Besides identifying the names of the people listed by the newspapers, it is also necessary to figure out who that person was. Between 1880 and 1901, the person inhabiting a title might change 2 or even 3 times, and so while the newspaper identify people by title, in order to graph this social network, I’m going to need to know the name of the individual herself or himself.

I worked on this, tracking the Viscount and Viscountess of Castlereagh, trying to figure out who the individuals were and what kinds of information about those people others at the event might be thinking about. It turns out that the Viscount Castlereagh is a courtesy title for the eldest son of Earl of Londonderry, and there were 2 Viscounts of Castlereagh between 1880 and 1901, so which one was present depends on when the party occurred, which will matter when it comes to building the spreadsheet to put into Gephi to graph the network.

Then my wiki quit responding. The server is in my office, and it has a battery backup, so I don’t know why I couldn’t save my work. The only explanation I can think of is that the power went off, so the server turned off and the battery backup couldn’t reboot it, possibly because the power on the server itself got shut off. So that stopped that.

I ended the day watching the weather on my iPhone and something I had DVR’d because the satellite dish by which we get tv also went down.

Here’s a photo of the large radar map, some time after the worst of the storms had gone through but showing the snow coming behind it. The second image shows a smaller radar map, with the big storms already passed and a new small one still to roll through.

BigRadarMap  SmallRadarMap

Between the unresponsive server, no satellite dish, one storm after another and the potential for snow, though this is now late May, I went to bed and read a print book — the selected letters of Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s 4th daughter, and the person for whom Arthur Collins worked. Arthur Collins (Courtier) was my first article in Wikipedia.

To-Do List for the Summer

Since the academic year is over and school is out, I’ve been deciding on what my summer to-do list should be. Most of what’s here is about DH, so I’m putting it on this blog. In no particular order right now,

  • Continue researching the social network of people invited to events hosted by the Prince and Princess of Wales of Great Britain between 1880 and 1901.
  • Finish my paper on the rhetoric and the curation of what I call subjectivities (people’s personal perspectives and sense of their own subjective take on the world) for the 2015 Computers and Writing conference.
  • Continue revising a paper on corsets worn by the performers of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas set in the historical past. Technologies of gender and beauty (images for this research saved in Pinterest). Brenda Wentworth, also at St. Cloud State, and I are co-authoring this paper, following a presentation at a Nineteenth-Century Studies Association conference several years ago that was exciting to do.
  • Work on learning R, to improve my ability to visualize data, especially what I collect in text analysis. I’ve been teaching an introduction to DH class using Voyant for text analysis. Based on my research in social networks in London at the end of the 19th century, I think I’m ready to begin showing Gephi and other network-analysis tools. Diane Cline has done really interesting work linking names mentioned in ancient Greek texts, for example, and Jeff Rydberg-Cox has done very interesting work linking characters in groups of texts, including characters in ancient Greek tragedies. Jeff’s pages on using R in the analysis of literature is where I will begin with this project.
  • Think about increasing the DH in my Victorian lit class so that students’ work developing context for Dracula and glossing early vampire works like Byron’s Fragment of a Novel and Polidori’s The Vampyre for student editions of those works shows up somewhere that other students can find. Also, I need to finish the anthology of primary-source accounts of the 1887 American Exhibition in London that those students over the years have been working on, and maybe find something else for them to work on. What’s good about the 1887 American Exhibition (this is the Wikipedia article on the exhibition, which I’ve worked on) is that students can make use of what they know about 19th-century American and Sioux culture, including Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, Annie Oakley and Black Elk.
  • Finish the exhibit in Omeka on Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake that a group of us, including a student, have been working on, including making the little videos on Atwood’s amazing vocabulary and getting a word-frequency word list from the HATHI Trust of Atwood’s novel.
  • Try to finish reading the series of Outlander novels by Diane Gabaldon.

Day of DH, Day of Research

Normally, during the school year (when I teach for the English department at St. Cloud State University, in St. Cloud, Minnesota (USA), I don’t get much chance to research, though of course, we are required to do so. Also, as “accountability” standards for assessment and self-defense rise, we all spend more time every day doing bureaucratic busy-work instead of working directly with students or improving our own preparation. My own research has become a luxury.

So, Sunday, Day of DH, is a day of luxury for me! 🙂

What is my research? Since I’m lucky enough to be tenured, I don’t have the same requirement to publish that I used to. I have to show scholarly activity, of course, but I’ve decided to pursue Digital Humanities and let the results be what they are. If I get an article out of it, fine, but I’m less concerned about the results than I have had to be in the past.

Oh, before I go to the next blog posting to talk about my real research, my real academic love, my real addiction, I’d like to think for a minute about trying to leverage the institutional love for assessment and what it calls, in a self-congratulatory way, “accountability,” into something DH, something based in authentic questions and research.

To me, “assessment” as it’s done in the US is an exercise in compliance and flailing in the absence of real knowledge. In general, I think people who are pressing for assessment don’t know how to find out what students are learning, so they have made up a few practices that are reductive and taxonomic and do nothing more than show a really limited sense of what learning is.

An orientation toward what students need and do in their classes rather than what we as faculty can offer and provide in the time available is not a bad change. When I was a college student, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was an enormous body of knowledge I had the idea I had to get, and while my teachers gave me assignments, I had the idea it was up to me to figure out how to find, learn and remember that body of knowledge and the disciplinary practices. And in a way, that’s right. It is up to the student to motivate and manage her or his own learning.

On the other hand, what I’m able to provide, the topics I think students should study and think and write about, while they matter, don’t actually tell me anything about what worked, what made a difference, what got in. I can see the value of looking at those things. In fact, I have always been interested in that, and I have revised my syllabi and approaches and assignments to try to make them work better, help students learn more.

So what we really should be doing with assessment is asking authentic questions about what’s working and then find out how well it’s working. We should be doing real research, and the people who don’t actually know what research is should get out of the way. They think they know what research is.

Once, during an interview, another member of the search committee I was on who works for “central IT” (the main office on campus for institutional technology) told the candidate that he did research: he would get a request about software or hardware, and he would look it up, get prices, compare it with other, similar products, and then make a recommendation that the requester should get the product, get something else or go with what we already have.

He was right, this is a form of research, the same kind I use when I need to buy a new mattress or a new car or any other expensive thing I’ll have to live with for a long time, though I read the user reviews for whatever I buy online. So that’s a kind of research.

What it isn’t is peer reviewed, looked at by people who aren’t a captive audience. When faculty and researchers talk about research, we’re talking about ultimately writing something for people who might know as much about the subject as we do, or maybe more. The standard of description is that our readers need to be able to replicate what we have done, and also that it’s worth not only doing but also replicating.

We could do assessment like that, where we ask authentic questions, use authentic methods and get authentic results, letting the research tell us how it went instead of needing to defend ourselves with this “research” that is now called assessment. One effect of this conviction that I have and have been trying to convince others of is that I, an English major, have been fiddling with numbers, though to be honest, in my case, that fiddling means learning how to write about numbers clearly and convincingly, in a way that is centered around what the reader needs. I’m not to the place where I’m doing the statistical analysis myself. Here‘s an example of what I’ve been doing, working with the “quants” to communicate data to the university community. Our little poster is not responsive to devices with different-size screens, and it’s not designed for the web, where it will be read. Very significant weaknesses that DH and Digital Rhetoric might improve.

Interrupt Driven

For the past 3 years, I’ve registered for Day of DH, but when the day came, I missed it. I forgot, even though I put the day in my calendar, and didn’t realize the day had passed until later. This year, because the spring semester ended the week before, I thought I’d have a good chance, but I had the date wrong! I thought that the Day of DH was today, Tuesday.

This is just a challenging time for me, as the academic year comes to a close, and I’m grateful for the chance to catch up!