February 7th: The End of Cynicism

Prior to this week’s readings, as many of my past blogs have shown, I have been quite cynical about how useful digital humanities might be to me as a graduate student. Broadly speaking, I’ve gone through a handful of phases. I first thought that digital humanities was something I wouldn’t be able to tackle. Then, I acknowledged the importance of digital humanities, but ultimately decided that if one were to follow digital humanities projects to their logical conclusions, they would be the reserve of faculty and not of graduate students. After all, history is an incredibly writing-centric discipline (and is getting more so, ironically).

However, this week’s readings changed a lot of my thinking. While I apologize for the overly literary title, I believe that it fits how I feel right now. Whereas before I thought digital humanities was useful for some but not for me, some of the projects we looked at this week show quite resolutely how useful digital humanities tools can be. To that end, I’ll start with the first reading and work through.

The Walsh and Horowitz reading was a good introductory piece. As with many of these tools, however, I’ll most likely understand them best when I get hands-on with them in class today. Nevertheless, I found the section on close reading to be quite revelatory. After reading the section on the various compromises that come with reading on a computer, I came to this section wondering how closely we can read with a computer. In this case, the use of a computer to analyze a text allows us to determine certain pattern that emerge. The example given in the book is an analysis of “The Raven.” This book also raised a lot of question. I found the text encoding section of the text particularly interesting. I am now wondering if scholars use this kind of tool to code oral histories? Any feedback on that matter would be very helpful.

The topic modeling article was also stimulating. This method’s reliance on a large corpus, however, poses some difficulties for scholars working in certain fields, particularly historians who work in countries whose archives are not digitized. Namely, in my area of research this would pose a particular issue. One possible application I see for topic modeling is political speeches. Particularly, this application could be useful in places in which political leaders were in power for a long time and spanning different events.

That’s a nice Segway into one of the projects we looked at for this week – Quantifying Kissinger. This project is incredibly in-depth and thorough. Whereas most projects (to an extent, for example, the other project we looked at this week, Mining the Dispatch) churn out statistics, Kaufman’s project gives us some insight into Kissinger’s motives, anxieties, and opinions over time. Mining the Dispatch does raise certain questions however – for example why does the date look this way. However, Kaufman’s project is a stunning example of what is possible with these tools.

I do not think I would be capable of such a project right now. However, more than any time in this course I feel as though a new vista has been opened up. One of my research interests is the rise of Evangelical Protestantism in post-coup Chile. One potential avenue for these tools in my research would be to use the tools to analyze preachers’ sermons. The response of the Catholic Church could also be interesting. As part of the cultural shifts that are part and parcel of the neoliberal turn, I could use these tools to examine the speeches of Augusto Pinochet, talks by the the Chicago Boys, and perhaps many more. This is the first time I have felt that I could incorporate digital humanities work into my dissertation.

Visualizations

This graph shows the relationship between engine size, displacement, and fuel economy. Fuel economy is represented by color. As the color gets more blue, cars get more efficient.

This graph links the class of Titanic passengers to survival. It shoes that a far higher percentage of first class passengers survived than did third class passengers.

This graph shows each continent by color and its largest cities by size.

January 31st Blog Post

A Brief Word on My Project

In my blog for last week, I outlined a basic project proposal. I described the making of a digital archive for a set of documents on Kissinger that can be found on WikiLeaks. While these documents are enormously helpful, there are literally millions of them, many of them covering mostly mundane things. My goal for my project was to sift through the documents and pull out the ones important to my research, namely the overthrow of the Chilean president Salvador Allende. Then, I would post those important documents online in an accessible fashion. To accompany this, I planned to make a timeline of key events. In addition, I would also have a page with some short biographical information about all of the key individuals in the 1973 coup and its aftermath. My hope was this project would (eventually) be accessible to undergraduate students and that I could present primary sources in a way that made it simpler for students to access information.

The downside of this project was that it would contribute very little to my own research. The Kissinger documents are very revelatory and historically very relevant, but not to my own work. Also, those documents are already quite accessible. Sure, one would have to do some searching, but the documents are there and available. I feel my project would have just been wrapping up someone else’s archive in a pretty bow.

So I’ve decided to make a change. During class last week, someone mentioned that their project would be a private, password-protected place where they would store their research information. Things like photographs, oral histories, and other documents would be stored on a webpage. This enabled the student to organize their information in a way that would be accessible. I believe the student in question mentioned something about certain online tools that enable scholars to transcribe and process online histories.

I believe this would be a more fruitful use of my time and resources in the class. Obviously, I’m not terribly adept with technology. If I were to do a public project, I’m not sure it would actually contribute a whole lot. A private place where I can store and organize my information, however, would be an extremely useful asset to have. In addition, that could also serve as a place to backup my data in case of a hard drive crash or something to that effect. So in sum, my project will now move in the direction of a private place to stash my research data.

Visualization 

Both of the readings this week spurred my thinking about how to visualize information. Whereas most of the digital projects I have come across are in fact very text-heavy, the Champion article asks us to move past these kinds of methods of relaying information. However, unlike what I typically conceptualize as visualization, namely photographs, maps, and the like, Champion makes the case for more processual methods of visualization like games and simulations. As opposed to models, these kinds of visualizations demand more active participation from the user. As opposed to mere photographs or maps which, in essence, display a curated amount of information in a manageable way, the kinds of visualizations Champion calls for ask the user to get involved and to carry out more analytic skills. This by definition broadens the definition of literacy.

The Meirelles e-book was also useful in my thinking about visualization. I feel her conceptualization of visualizations as able to “complement and strengthen our mental abilities” was very important (13). Not only do visualizations convey information, but they convey meaning, render our search for information easier than it would be in text form, and allows us to manipulate and present data. In other words, visualizations, if done correctly, can make our experience richer and our data more accessible.

I am beginning to see the use of digital tools. Certainly, I know it will be a while before I am able to use them. I talked in my first post about how the class structure of the academy prohibits these kinds of projects from use as a dissertation, or perhaps a mere line on a CV. That sentiment remains, but these kinds of projects are, I’m increasingly sure, crucial to public scholarship. Certainly, this course has already given me plenty to think about.

Project Proposal

My research focuses on the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. I am interested in what sorts of changes people experienced in terms of their own political subjectivity. Questions like how did religion change? how extensive was neoliberal hegemony? what new kinds of social interactions occurred given the presence of a dictatorship, and what kinds of social interactions went away? Ultimately, I want to look into what kinds of structures enabled the dictatorship to stay in place for so long, and why it garnered so much support in a country that previously had a vibrant democratic tradition.

Searching around the DHCommons site, I didn’t find too many projects on Latin America in general. One was about the late nineteenth century and the national imaginary, which is pretty far outside my research area. It can be found here:

http://www.bbk.ac.uk/ibamuseum/home.html

While I appreciate this project, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot it contributes to my own thinking.

On the subject of historical memory of historical events, I found this project on the troubles in Northern Ireland. Given my background as a first generation Irish immigrant and that my parents grew up with this on the news on a daily basis, I feel quite strongly about this. I like that there is a repository of oral history. I believe that this is one of the great possibilities of the digital humanities. Such a project would be difficult in a case like mine. Certainly, there are records of oral histories online, however very few of them are in English. I’m not sure what the digital realm can do here – I certainly wouldn’t trust something like Google translate to take care of this volume of information. Perhaps one day I’ll get a nice grant and I can have a research assistant to translate all of the oral history sources I collect. Perhaps over the next few years while I’m collecting oral history sources I’ll put some up on my site as I’ll have to translate them for my own writing anyway. In fact, I think I’ll do that. Here’s the website:

http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/victims/

In terms of what kind of project I would like to do (and think to be possible) for this class, the Prague Spring Archive is  quite inspirational.

http://scalar.usc.edu/works/prague-spring-archive/home?path=index

I like that there is a list of key figures on the site. Certainly, if this website were to be accessed by undergraduate students doing research for a class paper, this feature would be helpful in directing their interpretation of the documents. In addition to this, I like the way the documents have been curated. The scholars who selected and organized the documents into different “boxes.” In each of these “boxes” there are “folders.” For each of these “folders” the scholars have provided a description of what the folders contain.

In another section just below that, there is a section of key documents the scholars have selected from each of the two boxes. The scholars then describe what makes those particular documents important. Most interestingly, there is a section for a timeline here. It contains photographs and videos of key figures and when certain events happened. Again, I feel like this website could reach a broad audience. The timeline and key figures sections are great for undergraduates and an interested general public for purposes of orientation. In addition to this, there is a trove of documents here that could serve serious scholars.

In terms of my own project, something along the lines of historical memory could be difficult for reasons outlined above. In fact, a site dealing with non-English sources could be difficult anyway, seeing as I haven’t had the chance to travel for research yet. Therefore, my own source base is lacking, and while I know there are plenty of sources online, I don’t really know what I could do with them. In terms of digital humanities, I’m starting from absolute zero. That I don’t even own a television should tell you something about my relationship with technology.

One great use of these sources was a mapping project that appears to have been done by another graduate student. The link is here:

 

Concentration camps and torture centers in Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship, 1973-1990

In this project, the student maps all of the detention centers used by Pinochet.  This is a great project and a serious undertaking. While I feel this would be very ambitious for me, it has inspired me to challenge myself. I believe that something more along the lines of the Prague Spring Project could be possible. To that end, I’d like to shift over to my potential source base. The Kissinger Cables is a collection of well over one million documents – namely diplomatic cables that begin in 1973 and end in 1976. Before I go on, here is the link.

https://wikileaks.org/plusd/pressrelease/

While, as you may be able to see, WikiLeaks provides a search engine, there is no curation. As we’ve been talking about, there is a whole lot of data here but very little organization. Organizing the data in such a way that allows for all of the superfluous (and likely mundane) diplomatic exchanges to be left out would be an extremely useful way to present the information. This is very much in the vein of the Prague Spring Project. In addition, I could provide a timeline and a list of key figures. I haven’t delved into the sources a whole lot so I don’t know what’s there, but I feel like this project could become a useful tool for an undergraduate who has to do primary research. I’m sure there will be some diplomatic cables on the United States’ role in the coup of Salvador Allende in 1973.

I welcome all comments and recommendations for this project.

Blog Entry for 1/17 Readings

On the Radical Promises of Digital Humanities: A Critical Reflection

Much was made in this week’s readings of how digital humanities has the potential to broaden the definition of scholarly work (Thomas), show how power relations work and have been constructed (Posner), and question our notion of what an archive is (Theimer). What all of the authors recognize is that digital humanities has, on the whole, failed to live up to these radical expectations. Their reasons for this are mostly the same – the expectation of what constitutes acceptable scholarship has yet to change, and most work in the digital humanities has yet to take the interpretive and analytic turn so needed in humanist scholarship. In other words, these scholars argue the culture of the academy needs to change for digital humanities to become an acceptable part of scholarly activity.

However, and perhaps this emerges from my background in anthropology, I am always skeptical when “cultural” explanations are provided as such rigid causality for social phenomena. I worry that what these scholars ignore is the culture they demand change from has built such a rigid structure of elitism that demands constant academic production over a couple centuries. That structure in turn influences the culture – the expectation is to produce a final product by yourself, publish it in a paywall-locked journal (only the most prestigious, if you please/want a job), read reviews of your work in other prestigious paywalled journals, and on and on and on.

The promise of digital humanities to make sources more available to scholars across the highly inequitable university system (unequal in both prestige rewarded and resources available), perhaps its most potentially radical promise, has met with significant pushback from academic elites. Because are you really doing research if you’re not away on Fulbright? Budding scholars outside of what has been deemed “the upper echelon” of academic production (the R1 university) who would benefit the most from the extension of digital scholarship are far less likely to get jobs anyway, given that the major considerations for employment are now what you published (and, while we’re at it, how well does it fit with what the academic power brokers have said? Normal science only.), where you published it, and where you went to school. Digital humanities certainly won’t change that. In such a system, the idea of a “constant work in progress” that Thomas calls for is a pipe dream at best. Such a work would be impossible in a system that demands a certain kind of work.

As such, scholars will continue to produce monographs and journal articles, because that’s what the discipline, a discipline far less democratic and meritocratic than we often admit to ourselves, demands. Some introspection from Posner on this matter would have been welcome given the argument for digital humanities’ ability to deconstruct power relations.

The Santa Barbara Statement is perhaps the most promising of all of the readings. It calls for open access, low barriers to use, and the ethical commitment to scholarship. If Thomas Kuhn is anything to go by, the highly conservative academy will take quite a while to change. The Santa Barbara Statement represents the only one of these readings capable of allaying my cynicism. Should the next generations of scholars – one that will  likely never face a favorable job market – devote itself to those principles, then perhaps a change will take place. For now though, digital humanities remains peripheral to what has been deemed “real” scholarship. That its potential is so radical, as all of our authors point out, makes that sidelining a real shame.