New Territory for Us: Live multimedia performance

By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France - Lingling Yu au pipa en concert (musée Guimet, Paris), CC BY 2.0,
By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via wikimedia commons

Gao Hong, renowned Pipa composer and performer, has a vision for melding live music with a pre-produced video so that the mix of performance media corresponds with her idea of “Chinglish.” To her, Chinglish is the mixing, clashing, and melding of Chinese and English, and she wants the performance to tell this story in both form and content.

It’s an ambitious project that will be built over several months and by many people, but for us in the DHA program it’s our first foray into helping develop an itemized budget for a grant proposal. We aren’t quite sure what equipment and software will be needed to pull this off, so as usual we’ll start with lots of research. Plenty of people on campus have experience with one piece or another of this type of a project, but we really need to collect all this disparate knowledge and put it to use to make very concrete choices about exactly what to ask for in a grant proposal.

So far we have a few things in place: a looping pedal, access to standard video and audio editing software and hardware, the pipa, and of course the performer. We have a few things we know we’ll need: a pickup mic, a small mixing board for her to use while performing, an external hard drive. But what else? Has anyone pulled together a project like this? Have an equipment list handy?

ARLD Day 2015

One of the most exciting pieces of the digital humanities is the chance to engage in scholarly discussions about the future of digital scholarship. I had the amazing chance to take part in some of those discussions at the 2015 Minnesota Academic and Research Libraries Divisions Day (ARLD Day). This experience definitely gave me some food for thought about the future of DH at Carleton. The theme of the conference was the open library and was integrated in a variety of different ways throughout the day.

The beautiful Minnesota Landscape Arboretum where the conference was held


The day began with a keynote address by Stephanie Davis-Kahl. She discussed the need for academic libraries to be open and accessible to encourage intellectual entrepreneurship. A spirit of entrepreneurship manifests itself when students, faculty, and staff take risks in order to seize opportunities. For us as DHAs, I think this is particularly important. Most of our work falls directly in the category of intellectual entrepreneurship and it is the element of the unknown that makes our work both exciting and difficult.

Davis-Kahl’s talk was organized around three key processes that make up the endeavor of intellectual entrepreneurship: imitation, assimilation, and innovation. Each of these pieces of the entrepreneurial process is important. However, I think innovation is probably where the most excitement as DHAs lies, for it is in innovation that we have the most opportunity to create and put our own ideas into the process.

I also attended a breakout session. The first focused on the future of the role of academic libraries and definitely gave me insight into the challenges academic librarians are currently facing. After a quick wander through the arboretum (how could I go to a garden and not take a walk?) I presented together with other staff and students from Gould Library. Our presentation highlighted the importance of involving students in the work of the library and how both students and the library benefit from this collaboration.

Students and staff celebrating a successful presentation at ARLD day


Writing for the Web

Keep it simple, interesting, and brief. These are three key points on writing for the web, as delivered by Carleton’s own Doug Bratland last Thursday.

This talk was particularly applicable to our blog, as we are obviously writing for the web here. In this post I am trying to apply some of the key points from the talk, such as:

  1. Use lists to highlight key points
  2. Employ bolding to make posts scannable 
  3. Keep writing clear and engaging
  4. Remember your audience

As students at Carleton, it is particularly difficult to transition out of academic writing into writing for the web. Looking back at some of my previous posts, I can see that I sometimes struggled to keep my posts concise and focused.

Writing for the web is particularly important for digital humanities. Oftentimes DH projects occupy a fine line presenting complex scholarship online and making that scholarship accessible and interesting for the web. This is one of the greatest challenges but also one of the most exciting areas of DH work.

Carleton Undergraduate Journal of Humanistic Studies

I have been part of an initiative on campus to set up an online research journal for the humanities and our website just recently went live! We are soliciting papers that present original, polished research. This is a fabulous opportunity for students at Carleton to get their work published, as well as to engage with and practice the peer review process. I recently spoke at the Language and Teaching Center lunch about our project and I thought I would share some of my presentation here.

We chose an online journal format because we want to ensure ease of access to our journal and we are also excited to eventually collaborate with other undergraduate institutions. We are currently working on the formatting and production of a standardized PDF template in LaTex. We are hoping to have high-quality, uniform PDFs that can be downloaded from the web site. But we also want to retain the online reading experience and keep full text of the articles online. Some of the biggest challenges I foresee in this project are dealing with citations and footnotes, particularly as we are accepting papers from a wide variety of disciplines.

Right now our team consists of six editorial board members. We are in the process of accepting submissions and are excited to produce our first issue. Our goal is to get out of the first issue by midterms Spring term.

Steve Hindle, Art History, and the Digital Humanities

Steve Hindle is on campus, and yesterday, I attended his talk, “An Economic Historian Plays with Art History.” It was a really enjoyable presentation, filled with engaging content.

Hindle started with a simple graph depicting seasonality of labor in agriculture (and also the periods when women worked), the result of lots of analysis of records from a well-documented estate in 18th-century rural England. However, he realized that this graph did not convey the information in as compelling a way as he would have liked (an issue Digital Humanists often deal with — presentation). The rest of the talk was a look at the same idea from a different perspective: the analysis of a painting of a harvest scene.

The reading of the painting and its implications was fascinating and a fun dive into art history, but, from a DH perspective, I do wish that Hindle had touched more on the techniques used for analyzing the data from these records in order to compile that initial bar graph. What techniques were used? To what extent was technology employed?

Additionally, in a discussion of various details in the painting following the presentation, a common point of concern was the location of various people and objects in the scene; these locations had significant implications in Hindle’s analysis. I wondered about the possibility of analyzing the perspective of the painting and digitally mapping out the landscape in order to clarify these questions. This may not have been a directly applicable solution to the issue (and perhaps it wouldn’t be possible in these conditions), but it was an interesting thought experiment nonetheless.

Overall, the talk was great. Hindle found a way to express his findings in an engaging and fun manner that certainly was more exciting than the bar graph.

Steve Hindle and Digital Scholarship

“The computer screen has provided a shaft of light that will illuminate, not eliminate, the book.”

I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a joint A&I class session with guest Steve Hindle, the W.M. Keck Foundation Director of Research at the Hutington Library in California. The purpose of the class was to encourage students to think about the nature of digital scholarship today, conceptualizing both its incredible value and some of its shortcomings. For the digital humanities, there are a few points from the class that I think are particularly valuable.

1. Digitization as Means of Conservation: Steve made some very interesting points about the incredible value of digitizing a document as a means of preservation. However, he also pointed out the potential damage that can be caused by high power cameras, as well as the limited guarantee of readability of digital formats in the future.

2. Democratization of Resources: One of the areas of DH that most excites me is the opportunity DH provides to open resources to broader audiences, providing nearly instant access across the world. Here Steve touched on one of my favorite topics, the dominance of English language sources in digital collections (see my post on DH around the world) and the necessity to encourage the digitization of materials in other languages.

3. Monetization of Resources: Along with the rise of access to materials comes the complex question of paying for those sources. Certainly, many of the resources that are currently being digitized are not available to all and require either affiliation with a university or money to access. This raises the interesting question: who should be able to access what? and who should make those decisions?

4. Materiality of Resources: How do we preserve the reading experience of a print text in an online format? Certainly, there are aspects of digitization that enhance reading experience. For example, with digital technology, we can get closer to resources than ever before. High resolution images allow us to zoom in on specific areas of a map and we can handle documents over and over again without damaging them. However, it is crucial to recognize that a 17th century manuscript was created to be read as a manuscript, to be held in someone’s hands, to be leafed through. Preserving that experience is one of the biggest challenges of digitization.

5. Digital Methods of Scholarship: One of the biggest debates currently waging in DH is the question of DH’s role in creating scholarship. Should all projects that use digital resources be classified as DH? Or should projects be required to use digitization as part of the methodology for the research? In other words, is a digital representation of humanities scholarship DH? Or does DH require digital resources as the main tools for creating that scholarship? I think Steve did an excellent job of addressing this question in discussing digital technology in terms of means and ends. Digital technology should be a means to an end, not the end itself. Thus, scholarship must actively engage with digital technology but should not abandon traditional research methods. Merely employing digital technology without critically accessing the results does not create a valuable DH project.

This was a very memorable talk and I greatly enjoyed thinking about some of the questions associated with the digital humanities and scholarship. I think such conversations about the role of digitization in the future are crucial.


Making a Humanities Lab out of Greek Mythology

During this last August, I took part in a 2-week-long Humanities Lab. There were eleven of us students from various liberal arts colleges – Wellesley, Haverford, Grinnell, Denison, etc. – divided into two groups, one focusing on mapping Greek mythologies (my group) and the other experimenting with aspects of preforming Greek tragedies. Our projects are hosted on Mapping Classical Mythology, part of Wellesley’s Omeka site and we used the Neatline editor to map them, an extra feature that can be added to Omeka. We started out learning about ancient artifacts, particularly Greek vases, and discussed how to cite these and which metadata to add to Omeka. Since I had little to no background in Greek mythology, I decided to map the Odyssey, one of the most well-known Greek epics and written by Homer.

Each map looks drastically different. We all went our separate ways when it came to design, and they all turned out great. I went for a minimalist look, whereas other maps are more realistic:

Sara’s (from Grinnell) map of Aeneas’ journey

In conjunction with our maps, we each added an “essay” (a rather loose term) to add additional information and further explanations not covered in our maps. I used mine to provide extra images of ancient Greek artifacts and to discuss contested locations. After all, how do we know these locations existed? While we were delving into museum websites and researching our myths, the other group was busy at work with their masks. They jumped right into the technicalities of how Greek tragedies had been acted out, much of which we no longer know except that they used masks. This group focused on how the actor may have communicated with the audience, particularly depicting emotion through body language.

Ryan (from Haverford) wearing his mask

In my opinion, the Humanities Lab was a success. Both groups experimented with new mediums (in our case, Neatline, and for the other – making masks and reenacting tragedies), simulating a lab-like setting. Given another chance, I would love to participate in another Humanities Lab.

Digital Humanities Retreat

During the first weekend of the term, the Digital Humanities communities at Carleton and St. Olaf got together for a retreat to share ideas, lessons, and news about the field. The event was an excellent opportunity to see what was going on  in the Digital Humanities on the other side of the Cannon River.

We kicked off the retreat by breaking into small groups, each given a DH project to examine. After introducing ourselves and getting to know some other Olaf DH interns, we had some time to view and analyze our respective DH project websites. These sites ranged from the Willa Cather archive to a Civil War project collection created by a similar DH team at the University of Richmond. Each site had their own strengths and weaknesses in different respects, whether with content, layout arrangement, format, graphic design, or other factors affecting user accessibility. After discussing our opinions and potential improvements that could be made to the site, each group presented their analysis of their assigned project. In addition to being a fun ice-breaker, this exercise let us consider projects from a high-level perspective that can be difficult to achieve on your own projects.

During lunch, we discussed the relevance of DH in our growing world, and learned about the current status of DH at both schools. Us Carls shared some of the projects we were working on, while lamenting over our absence of a DH grant (that St. Olaf received). Since DH associates would regularly consult faculty members to assist them on their DH projects, we did a workshop helping us approach and conquer potential awkward situations. Some examples – how to approach a conversation when disagreements on design and usability arise? Or what to say when given limited information and unmanageable expectations? These situations come up more often than we expect, and we must be prepared to know how to effectively and respectfully deal with these matters.

We ended our retreat with an activity to re-design a DH project. Back in our groups, we examined another DH website and made specific suggestions for improvements for website usability, such as modifying specific navigation items and others. Overall, the retreat was an awesome way to get introduced and establish our connections to the DH community.