Electronic Literature, Digital Humanities, & Creative Writing

This morning we met with a professor teaching Fiction Writing who wanted to incorporate a DH assignment into the course that required the students to tell a story through a new technology of their choice.

The students will start by completing a 3-page writing assignment with pen and paper. Then they will be asked to translate that story into a digital medium. The keyword here is translate. Is chopping a thousand words of prose into 50 tweets a translation of prose into digital medium? I would say not. As with any translation, how does the language of the digital medium impact the text? How does the language of the digital medium provide different capabilities (or affordances) that inspires new forms of creativity?

As an assignment, students will have to grapple with the technological platform (the language) that they have chosen for their translation. Students must learn that every platform choice comes with limitations and constraints that have significant impacts on determining the structure of their narrative. While these restrictions appear to be determined by the technology, students should grasp that the limitations are the functions of the underlying software. The code behind the platform reflects the dictates of software developers.

Many examples of electronic literature try to work within or around those constraints. That likely is a simple reflection of the coding limitations of the authors.

I would prefer that students start their translation process not with the choice of platform. But start with creativity. And again with pen and paper. Approach the digital with a blank slate and not with the limitations of an imposed piece of software. Sketch out in pencil what would be ways of representing this narrative if the choice of digital medium was wide open. Have the students describe the capabilities that the software would provide to tell the story. Have the students create a storyboard, a flow of the narrative, with the technologies of their imagination. These tools may not yet even exist. But if they can be imagined, then the algorithms  can be created.

What’s important is not that the students learn to tell a story in prezi or twitter, but that they learn that digital media is software that has capabilities and limitations defined by its creator. The process of software development is a creative act. While students in a fiction writing course will not become coders overnight, this exercise could inspire them to see the linkage between the creative process and the process of developing the tools that we all use to tell the stories in digital media.

Remarks to VICULA on DH

The following is a draft of remarks I gave to a meeting of VICULA (Virginia Independent College and University Library Association) today at its meeting at Washington and Lee. I don’t read my talks directly from a script, so what I actually said varies but this represents the heart of it.

I’m going to give an overview of our digital humanities and some of the issues we’re facing. And my colleagues are going to go into more specifics about the aspects that they are working on.

First, about that term digital humanities: DH. It’s a problematic term in an undergraduate college. It’s very hard to define and is more often associated with graduate education and faculty research. I do like this definition: DH is a set of “convergent practices that explore a universe in which print is no longer the primary medium in which knowledge is produced and disseminated” (Burdick et al. 2012, 122) [pdf] But what does that really mean in practice? What does it mean for undergraduate teaching and learning?

Many liberal arts colleges have adopted different terms, such as the digital liberal arts or digital studies. DH is more than the humanities. These techniques can apply to many disciplines. There’s really little distinction between DH and digital scholarship. My advice is not to focus too much on trying to define the term because that can lead to a lot of non-productive conversations as you pull in people from different disciplines.

At W&L we have a very practical reason for using DH: the dean of our college. She likes the term DH. She started the conversation here about DH about 3 years ago and she is the champion for our DH initiatives. So, here at W&L the term DH has developed a certain brand, a recognition, that works here. I encourage you to find the term that works at your institution. But spend more time talking about what you do and not about a definition.

We do have a lot of momentum going about DH. If you’re interested in the background, a group of us wrote a case study. I’m going to talk about where we are now. Collaboration is the key to everything we’re doing. And we’re very fortunate in having strong leadership, not only from our dean but also our faculty. Again, the case study describes how our DH activities are organized.

As we were writing that case study, we started examining what many other liberal arts colleges were doing with DH. And we noticed that many of the colleges had large grants from the Mellon Foundation. And we started wondering: how can we get some of that funding? So one day I picked up the phone and called the grants officer in our development office. We are very fortunate in that we have a wonderful grants officer. And he told me the process for applying for a Mellon grant.

I want to talk about this process a  bit since some of you might be interested in pursuing this funding source. The Mellon Foundation has an unusual process. It does not accept unsolicited applications but there is a process. Even though Mellon has a reputation for being somewhat exclusive, there are clear indicators that Mellon is expanding the range of institutions that they fund. And it’s important to remember that Mellon is a humanities foundation. The process is simple. Your provost or president simply sends a brief email describing the concept to the appropriate program officer at Mellon.

We were shocked that Mellon replied that day, within hours, that they were interested and wanted to see a draft proposal. We then had a conference call with the program officer: on the call was our provost, the two faculty most involved in DH, myself, and our grants officer. We got clarification as to what Mellon liked and did not like. They are very clear in what they do and do not want to see. So we pulled together a draft, about 5 pages, and submitted that. We were even more surprised that Mellon responded again the same day saying that they would fund the project. Of course, that was a tentative approval. It still had to be approved by the board of Mellon.

I encourage you not to be shy about approaching Mellon but the contact, at least for the liberal arts program, should come from the college’s senior administration. Many people are aware that research libraries often get significant Mellon funding for digital library and digital scholarship initiatives. But that is through a separate process, a different program officer at Mellon. So it’s important to make sure what division of Mellon you are targeting. And Mellon is also very interested in collaborative endeavors and multi-institutions initiatives.

If your institution has not received Mellon funding before, you probably will want to start with a small concept, perhaps a planning grant. In our initial contact, we did not specify a dollar amount. Mellon will tell you the amount that they will fund.

So what are we doing? Our grant proposal is titled DH Studio: a pedagogical innovation. We wanted to anchor our initiative around the curriculum, particularly a series of one credit courses in DH that serve as labs for humanities courses. Mackenzie Brooks will speak more about the DH Studio courses.

Our grant is divided into multiple areas: staffing for the library to support DH studio, incentive grants to faculty, summer research grants, professional development, a speaker series, student workers, and funding to send students to conferences. The about page of our DH website has more details on these initiatives.

So everything looks really great. We have the senior administration fully behind DH, great leadership from the faculty, very positive buzz among the faculty, the library is excited about DH, and we have a large grant. What could go wrong? One very important thing: lack of student interest.

We thought students would be excited to learn this stuff. But our students are very practical, very career oriented. They could not make the connection between DH and their careers. Part of the problem is that term DH. It means nothing to students.

And building interest among students is a major focus of our initiative this year. [At this point in the talk, I spoke about some our curricular activites. A focus was on the courses we’re teaching and the enrollment issues we encountered. I’m going to be doing an upcoming talk at DLF on the specifics of that issue. I’ll post those comments when they’re available.]

Digital history course project

In the second class of the digital history course. We focused on working with data, which is the largest part of the course project.

We started by reviewing two readings involving our case study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership. Appendices 1 & 2 of the book about that project provide insights into prosopography and database development. As we reviewed those readings, I explained terms that were not yet familiar to the students. And we explored concepts around collecting and organization data about individuals. The course project page provides further background on the project and a few sample maps.


Creativity and Code

The third class of multimedia storytelling design is focused on what I call creativity and code. Continuing the focus on Snow Fall, the class reading for today is How We Made Snow Fall. That last link is a really good article, worth reading closely.

Creative thoughts from the how Snow Fall is made article:

  • Making a single story out of the digital assets….”to weave things together so that text, video, photography and graphics could all be consumed in a way that was similar to reading–a different kind of reading.” Talk about the origin of the word text…Latin…to weave (see Latin dictonary)
  • The design process: initial prototyping, collaboration, integration of graphics and video into “the narrative experience”
  • “a lot of trial and error and experimenting”
  • “design revisions and tweaks”
  • filmmaking techniques, but reading centric
  • “We focused on the pacing, narrative tension, and story arc–all while ensuring that each element gave the user a different experience of the story.”
  • moving images…pauses at “critical moments in the text”
  • “Having a tight edit that slowly built the tension of the narrative was the overall goal.”
  • Color palettes
  • Biggest challenge: “managing the path we wanted the reader to follow”


Much of this class period will be getting students to do HTML hands-on. We’ve talked a lot about HTML in the first class and looked at a lot of HTML code, but I want to get a sense as to how far the students are coming along with actually doing something with HTML. I suspect not far.

Some thoughts on topics to cover in today’s class:

  • Have the students open up the W3schools site. A good reference source for tags. But, also, for those new to HTML: the try it yourself  online editor is an extremely simple way for seeing how tags work.
  • Tell students about lynda.com. Not required for this class but a great resource for learning on your own. In future versions of this course, I might think about requiring lynda.com access rather than a book.
  • What is a plain text file? Contrast with binary files using machine code and with WYSIWYG document editors. What’s a text editor? A code editor? Try opening a binary file in a text editor.
  • File extensions. Nice to show those extensions in Mac OS X (Finder>Preferences>Advanced>Show all filename extensions.

I had a student email me with a problem in getting an HTML document display in the browser as a Web page. Instead, the page simply showed the HTML code. The problem was that the student followed the instructions in the Duckett book and used TextEdit on the Mac to create the page. TextEdit, being a rather confusing software program for writing HTML, saved the document as RTF (even though the student had correctly added the .html extension). There’s a non-intuitive option within TextEdit for saving as plain text.

For this class I’m recommending the use of Atom, which is already installed on the iMacs in the journalism lab. But make sure that students know how to install this on their own laptops.

  • Do students understand that a website is a directory (i.e., folder) on a server?
  • Create a basic web page in HTML. Perhaps by just copying over what they had done in the w3schools try it editor.
  • Save the page as index.html…as a way of introducing the importance of index.html as a filename in web site directories. Stress, though, that not any directory can serve web pages. You need a directory that is associated with web server software. In the next class we will look at actually uploading the pages to a server.
  • Play around with HTML. Go over again the head and body. Title. H# tags.
  • Introduce lists and links.
  • Relative and absolute URLs.
  • Talk about text formatting (non-CSS).
  • Take questions.


The simplicity of the web

The second class of multimedia storytelling design is focused on what I call the simplicity of the web. My advancing age, almost 50, gives me the advantage of having witnessed the evolution of the web from a text-based browser to the apparent complexity of modern web sites. I encourage those learning the web to break down the complexity and focus first on the simple, foundational aspects.

For our text in this course we’re using Jon Duckett’s HTML & CSS: design and build websites. Written for beginners, this book presents the basics in an engaging manner (with beautiful page layouts). I did choose, however, not to assign all the chapters in the same order as in the book. For the first class, we’re focusing on chapters 1, 2, & 5. Throughout this class we’ll be using the example of NY Times Snow Fall. It’s a complex piece but useful for these (mostly) journalism students to know how it was constructed.

Here are some of the questions (and occasional commentary) guiding discussion in this two-hour class:


  • What do we mean by structure?
  • Why are we talking about documents?
  • What are the structural elements on Snow Fall?
  • How can you see those HTML elements in the browser? How do you turn off the styles?
    • View Source
    • Unusually, the view source for Snow Fall is the whole article and not just what is visible.
    • What’s happening in the head and body?
    • Chrome needs the web developer plugin to disable all styles. (What’s an extension for a browser?)
    • In Firefox, it’s easier to view a page without styles
      • Firefox – View – Page Style – No Style.
    • A page without style: THAT is the simplicity of the web.
      •  In Firefox, show how you can hover over element with mouse and see the code view.
    • Chrome – Inspect element. I prefer how Chrome hover highlights the full element.
  • Do you see a hierarchy of information? Start with the <html> tag.
  • What’s a title in HTML?
  • What’s a header?
  • What’s the body?

In the view source of Snow Fall, (finally) around line 827, you’ll find:

<h1>Snow <span>F</span>all</h1>
<h2>The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek</h2>

Let’s look at that first paragraph.

  • What’s a heading?
  • What’s an element? What are tags? Any difference between an element and a tag?
  • What is markup and why is it used? What’s the purpose of elements and tags? Why is it necessary?
    • The machine reads character by character. A simple concept. Maybe so obvious that it’s not clearly grasped. Very important to slow down and read a page as the machine, the software, reads the page. The angle brackets are signifiers to the machine. Literally, signs that give directions to the browser about what to do.
  • What is plain text? What’s the difference between a plain text file and, say, a Microsoft Word file? Are there other types of markup languages?
    • Mention the Scholarly Text Encoding course
  • What are attributes of an elements?
  • Can I just use any tag? What tags are possible and how do I know?
  • Key HTML elements for beginners:
    • <body>
    • <head>
      • What’s the difference between the <head> element and a heading?
    • <title>


Think about the separation of content from markup. Then think about the separation of content/markup from style/presentation.

Structural markup: show  examples of each in Snow Fall.

Semantic markup: examples of each in Snow Fall.

Heading tags: choose based on structure and not appearance.

The all important paragraph <p> tag.

Why is Duckett even mentioning <b> and <i> and not <strong> and <em>?

White space collapses on a web page.

Line breaks <br/>, horizontal rules <hr/> and empty elements


Many semantic elements are not used very often

Editors: time to fire up Atom?


Keeping your images in a folder. Remember that a web site is simply a folder, right?


Image formats


Raster & vector images

Animated GIFs



When examining Snow Fall, take a moment and talk about not over linking. What’s the difference between this article and a Wikipedia page filled with links? What impact does that have on readability? On keeping you engaged with the story? Or, possibly more importantly, on the site?

With Snow Fall, what’s the difference between reading just the text and viewing the site? Do you wonder how many people actually read the whole article? Would another format actually have done more justice to the writing? (That’s a strange phrase…”done more justice”….privileging the written word over other forms of storytelling?)