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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.

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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.]

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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:

Structure

  • 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>

Text

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

Blockquote

Many semantic elements are not used very often

Editors: time to fire up Atom?

Images

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

<img>

Image formats

Resolution

Raster & vector images

Animated GIFs

Transparency

 

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?)

 

 

 

 

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A new course: multimedia storytelling design

This morning starts the first class of a new course on multimedia storytelling design that I’m co-teaching with Professor Toni Locy of our journalism department.  The subtitle of the course is “How’d They Do that?” The benefit of co-teaching with a journalist is that the copywriting is great! Here’s the course description:

Have you ever wondered how The New York Times and The Guardian put together their Pulitzer Prize-winning interactive stories, Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek and NSA Files Decoded: What the Revelations Mean to You? This course introduces students to digital tools that will help them imagine, design and create powerful, compelling interactive features with audio, video, graphics—and words—that are on the cutting edge of journalism and mass communications. Students will learn basic web design and programming skills through HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

This course is designed for students with little or no coding experience but who have a burning desire to learn, “How they did that,” so they no longer are mystified by what’s behind the curtain on websites. Students also will learn key terminology and practices that will enable them to envision, report and execute compelling online narratives through the interplay of text, images, sound and video that optimizes the reader experience. By the end of the term, students will appreciate the power and potential of interactive storytelling, and the creative possibilities of gathering and delivering the news in the 21st century.

The course meets Monday and Wednesday 10am – noon in the journalism lab, which is equipped with 15 iMacs. This is a very hands-on class, though we do not expect students to have had any prior experience with web design and development.

Wait!? No prior experience with web design? That does make it challenging since we need to teach the basics of HTML and CSS. Obviously, there’s no way that anyone can fully come up to speed on interactive web design in course of only one term. We aim to showcase the possibilities and to ensure that the students learn the foundations of web design. We want the students to come out of this course with the confidence and excitement that they can pursue careers in this area. Some may be enchanted by the design aspects, others may be intrigued by the possibilities of coding. And others may not pursue a technical career in web work, but at least will know how to converse intelligently with designers and developers.

The course is structured around deconstructing several examples of high-quality multimedia journalism. Among the sites we’ll be examining:

Each class period will start with the students discussing their reactions to various elements of a particular site. We want the students to think about the elements (interactivity, color, typography, etc.) used by each site to engage readers. Then we’ll pull back the curtain, so to speak, to dissect the actual construction of the site. Along the way, we will teach HTML and CSS from the ground up.

The students also will work on a course project as a team. The project will incorporate everything that they’ve learned. Since this is a journalism class, the project will have a significant reporting component. Students will brainstorm and storyboard the project, then implement it as a web site. The result will be an interactive multimedia story.

This is going to be an exicting and intense course!

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Wrapping up the DH 101 course

Okay, so I completely failed at my attempts to blog daily about our DH 101 course. I want to blame the fast pace of the mini-Spring Term that meets daily for 4 weeks, but that would be just an excuse. So, here’s a recap:

Day 4: Visit to the Scholars’ Lab at UVA:  this really turned out to be a highlight of the course. The feedback from the students on this experience was very positive. Undergraduates at a liberal arts college don’t often get the chance to interact with graduate students in the humanities. Providing undergrads with the opportunity to engage in conversation on a scholarly topic with students just a few years older can be a stimulating experience. As our students talked about their project I could see that they were really starting to get into the topic.

Day 5: Brandon Walsh and Sarah Sorti from Scholars’ Lab came down to W&L to teach this session on project charters and Web design.

Day 6: I gave the class an overview about how the Web works, i.e., all those things I take for granted that I’ve learned over the last 25 years about the Internet. By the end of class each student had acquired a Web hosting account and personal domain via Reclaim Hosting. For this course the students ended up not using their hosting account or web site but that was due to the nature of their project. However, I think it’s perfectly feasible for students to use their own hosting accounts for course-based projects. I’ll definitely be trying this approach when I teach Digital History in the fall term.

Day 7: My co-teacher Mackenzie Brooks introduced the students to the concept of metadata and cataloging and why that’s important in creating digital projects. She had the students do a great hands-on exercise where they identified key terms for material relating to the students’ project.

Day 8: Jim Ambuske from Scholars’ Lab came down to talk about history and mapping.

Day 9: Jon Eastwood, Associate Professor of Sociology at W&L, led a fascinating session on social network analysis in the context of the course project. He showed a number of examples of how to use R to visualize and analyze patterns in publishing data from literary history.

Day 10: Project work day.

Day 11: Cecilia Marquez from Scholars’ Lab came to talk about Postcolonial DH.

Day 12: Lesley Wheeler, Professor of English at W&L, gave the class a presentation about the poetry of Ezra Pound since he formed a major component of their DH project.

Day 13 – 15: Project work days.

I’ll add some reflections on the course in a future post.

 

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DH 101: Day 3

This day was divided into two parts. The morning was a talk by Charlotte Roueché of King’s College London, who is visiting campus. Her talk was titled, “Mapping, or Rediscovering? What does the ‘Digital Turn’ mean for the humanities?”

In the afternoon session we talked about the students’ first assignment, a blog post where they described their understanding DH so far. We also had a debrief about yesterday’s visit to Special Collections, and conversations about the videos about DH that they have watched so far. We’re taking a seminar/lab approach to this course. Rather than us spending an hour lecturing about DH, we have students watch videos of various scholars talking about DH. That frees up enough time for a good discussion.

One aspect of DH, or any type of research, is learning what is happening within a particular field. Building off of the visit by the scholar from King’s College London, we created an assignment for thet students to pick a researcher and explore that person’s research profile and research network.

Tomorrow is the visit to the Scholars’ Lab at UVA, so we prepped for that. It’s time that they really started thinking about their project.

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DH 101: Day 2

A short class for day 2, only 90 minutes. (Our mini Spring Term is quite crammed.) This was a really fun day since we met in Special Collections and looked over a lot of material relating to the Thomas Carter Collection, which will be the focus of the students’ DH project. Most of this material we just acquired in the last few weeks. Lots of fascinating stuff including zines from the 1940s and 1950s that Carter collected (and occasionally published in). Also examined a set of rare editions featuring Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis. As a bonus, the students got a tour of the vault by our Head of Special Collections. He never takes students into the vault, so that was quite a treat. He starts pulling out a letter from George Washington, and more goodies. What does all this archival material have to do with DH?

We asked the students to watch a video talk by Jeffrey Schnapp, who posed the question, “What if cultural asssets could live in a browser environment and not in storage?” For the class project, the students have to conceptualize, design, and implement a digital research environment for the study of liteary networks, particulary focused on the Shenandoah literary journal published by Washington and Lee. That’s a tall order for within 4 weeks. Obviously, they won’t complete all of it. Part of the challenge is narrowing the concept to something manageable in the available timeframe. We wanted them to have the base understanding and experience of directly handling archival materials. Seeing the actual letters that Ezra Pound wrote to Thomas Carter with advice about editing literary journals makes the project real.

 

 

 

 

 

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DH 101: Day 1

Our DH 101 class met for the first time today. Washington and Lee (W&L) has this 4-week Spring Term in which students only take one 4-credit course. The way we’re teaching DH 101, it should really have been called Literary History: An Introduction to Digital Humanities. If we teach this again in the Spring Term, then we’ll try to call it that. The reason for this approach is that we wanted to build the course around a specific structure (e.g., literary history) and not just as a survey of DH methodologies and projects in the wild. We felt that it’s important for undergraduates to have a more concrete focus in order to understand DH.

I’m co-teaching the course with Mackenzie Brooks, our Metadata Librarian. This is the second DH course Mackenzie and I have co-taught. The first was a 1-credit course on Scholarly Text Encoding. Our Spring Term course DH 101: An Introduction to Digital Humanities has only 3 students. That’s a great thing about a small liberal arts college. There’s a long story about the low enrollment that deserves a separate post. This is the second time that DH 101 has been taught at W&L. Last year’s DH 101 course was taught by Paul Youngman (Professor of German) and Sara Sprenkle (Associate Professor of Computer Science). Neither Paul nor Sara were available to teach it this year, so the assignment fortunately fell to the librarians. And it looks like we’ll be teaching this going forward.

We completely rethought the syllabus from how they taught it last year, partly to take into account the experiences and interests that Mackenzie and I have with digital information as librarians. The literary history focus comes from my own research interests into literary networks and a significant archival collection we have about the early years of the Shenandoah literary magazine published by W&L.

The class started by getting the students talking, first about themselves, their career goals, and then their experiences with technology. Due to the nature of our short Spring Term we have a lot of time together in the classroom. The students will spend much of that time working on their group project, but we want the class to be very much a conversation about DH. One of our students, a senior history major, should already be fairly comfortable with DH. She was the first student at W&L to do a digital honor’s thesis and used Omeka for that project.

We asked the students to watch a nine-minute video on DH prior to the first class, which we then used to launch into a conversation about different aspects of DH. What terms were new to them? What questions were raised? Knowing that none of these students plan to pursue a PhD, we’re very aware in this course that we need to relate DH to the world outside academia. We point out how DH methodologies translate to skills in a variety of careers, such as accounting and advertising. One student plans a career in librarianship. Yeah!

We had three hours for this class. We talked a lot about the literary history structure we’re taking in this course. And I should write up a post just describing that in more detail. Then we spent the last hour in a hands-on exercise. We feel that it’s very important in any DH course to get the students doing something hands-on during the very first class. Since we’ll be coming back to the topic of network analysis quite often in the course, we had the students download their Facebook friends and mutual friends via givememydata.com and then generate a network graph using Palladio.

The next class will meet in Special Collections & Archives.

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