Data Curation for Humanists

Next week I’m attending a five day workshop as part of DHOxSS. It’s taught by staff from Oxford, as well as colleagues Illinois’ Center for Informatics Research in Science and Scholarship and the HathiTrust Research Center. It’s going to cover conceptual frameworks and ontologies, data curation, management and modelling, accouting for provenance, repositories systems and sharing, among many other things.

It’ll be lovely to be back in Oxford and to expereince the summer school environment again: last year I did the Introduction to Digital Humanities workshop, which gave me a great taste of a whole vareity of differnet methods from text-mining  to multispectral imaging.



Teaching and Learning in Public

I’ve just been nominated for a teaching award by my students: it’s lovely to be appreciated.  However, since I finished last semester’s course, I’ve actually been mulling over whether I should change aspects of it and wondering about how best to tweak it for future iterations.  I don’t mean reading lists and seminar topics, which are easy to update and shuffle around. It’s more a question of balance between the assessments and, most significantly, whether to alter their public dimension.  In this course, students blog each week, sharing their insights into the reading and interesting/useful links to other material they’ve found on line.  They also work in teams to create a collaborative online project. Both of these are assessed, and students get feedback in shaping them over the duration of the semester.  I chose to give them free reign, not to edit their writing and to give feedback in private discussions. I wanted them to feel they were contributing to knowledge rather than just consuming it, to think about who might be reading, share with their peers and identify other interested groups online, and play around with formats and style.  I didn’t want to undercut their efforts by critiquing their writing in public comments and forums. On the one hand, I think it was a valuable exercise, encouraging them to take responsibility both for their  learning and their words. I found it gave them confidence and even the most reluctant among them had begun to cultivate a sense of an authorial voice in the process. On the other hand, in practice what it also meant was that they were exposed. Students at this level always make mistakes in their essays: they misread critical material, don’t give accurate citations, write imprecisely, express themselves badly. They are learning. As teachers we expect these mistake and usually we can gently correct them in private. I was asking my students to make these mistakes in public. Was this fair?   The narcissist in me also wondered if it reflected on my teaching: were my miscommunications making their way into their writing? Would people looking at these sites think that their errors were mine?  Could my students learning processes actually damage my reputation as a teacher?

The two alternatives seem to be to either retreat behind a firewall, which surely defeats the purpose, or edit what my students write. While this latter option might make sense in some scenarios, it seems problematic in relation to reflective blogging and adds a whole new level of correction/feedback/work into a curriculum which is already challenging. As I’ve been contemplating, I’ve also come to think that there’s a bigger point here: trust. When I walk into a seminar to meet a group of students for the first time, the main thing on my mind is establishing an environment where everyone feels comfortable enough to talk about emerging ideas and half-baked thoughts, to ask questions without worrying if they are silly.  Encouraging my students to write in public is about this same kind of trust, about creating a ‘safe space’ (the sites  indicate the nature of the contributions and the level of the course) in which they can begin to speak out and get involved with public discourse. I’m asking them to trust themselves and to trust that those reading their work will recognize it for what it is and respond in the spirit in which it was posted.  In my experience this kind of trust – a belief in the worth of your own contributions and a belief in the generosity of others – is what makes us feel able to take an active part in society. Fostering it is  important. It’s worth the risk of minor misunderstandings. So next year I’m going to be more explicit in what’s at stake in public writing and I’m going to talk through the process of writing and editing posts more often and more carefully. But I’m not going to do that editing.

Words on Walls and in books…

I’ve just recei25. Something In The Place Of Something Elseved the proofs for a book that is coming out soon, published by artist David Bellingham at his WAX366 press. It features some photographs of David’s recent work and the transcripts of a couple of conversations that he and I have had about his work over the past few years. Knowing David’s work, I’m sure the book will be  beautifully produced:  his publications are always a joy to read and look at.  Everything he makes tend to be witty and engaging, but also always very thoughtful and precise.  Here is the shorter of the pieces, which deals with some specific installations. The longer piece deals with David’s approach more broadly and considers older material, particularly that held in the Centre for Artists’ Books at the VRC, Dundee.  I’ll put details of the book on the ‘collaborations’ page of this blog, once I have them.

18. words on a wall

FOR  THE  WALL: A conversation between Lisa Otty and David Bellingham     2012

L.O. Each of these works was created for a different space, from an entire gallery wall to an alcove in a corridor. To what extent did the space dictate the work?

D.B. The words aim to occupy the space rather than refer to something that is already there. In this sense they are not site specific, the works can be made on any suitable wall. Clearly the size and shape of the available space partly determines the choice of work, the work I initially proposed for the DCA show was a two part text that required two separate walls, as only one wall was available we made WORDS ON A WALL THAT’S ALL instead, it is all quite flexible, the important thing is to find something that works in the space rather than forcing something to fit.

When you make traditional pictures the image area is bounded by four corners and four edges, here it is the limits of the wall that frame the image; the drawn marks are integral to the surface of the wall rather than something hung on it or standing in front of it. Working directly onto the walls offers an opportunity to make things on a scale that might otherwise be impractical. Given the time you can make something that fills the available space, whereas if you make something portable on the same scale you have material costs and problems of transport and storage that limit what is possible.

Obviously there is a long tradition of wall drawing, the earliest examples of drawing we have were made on the walls of caves. Frescos, murals, graffiti and the work of contemporary artists like Sol Lewitt, Niele Toroni, Daniel Buren and Lawrence Weiner offer a model for drawing that uses the wall as a ground, my works come as a modest continuation of these traditions.

L.O. In terms of size, colour and density, the pen stroke you used in these pieces makes me think of printed works on paper. Was this deliberate? (Or is it perhaps just the imagining of my print-preoccupied mind?)

D.B. There is clearly a link between page and wall. Text set on a page is conditioned by the white space around it in a similar way to text set on a wall. White page and white wall are equivalent grounds in this sense. The space around the words is of as much interest as the words themselves, the words are inseparable from their surroundings like a trees in a landscape.

Each letter is formed or revealed by an irregular field of small black lines, there are no hard edges so the words appear to float on the edge of registration. This runs counter to the abruptness of signage. I am interested in the immediacy of the sign – however where the unambiguous delivery of a sign might tell you to STOP or GO, I want to see what happens if you replace this directness with a propositional or indirect mode of language.

If you want to place words on the wall there are only so many ways to do it; I was getting a bit tired of the generic use of vinyl lettering on gallery walls and was looking for something less definite, less like signage, a way of integrating the letter into the surface itself. The aim is to avoid the flatness of signage, to have the words hover on the wall indefinitely – both there and not there, provisional like spoken words in the air.

L.O. Why did you choose these particular phrases? While the works share visual properties, there seems to be little connection between the phrases depicted – am I missing something, or is each work intended to stand alone? To what extent is this a series of works?

D.B. It is true that the works appear to have little in common with one another but they do have shared qualities.

The works employ isolated words and phrases as free-floating things, there is no thematic or narrative link between them. The use of language is not metaphoric, the works are not standing in for, or describing, something absent; the words are concrete elements to be read as things. The words are ‘…on the wall’, ‘big’ is ‘upon little’, so in the way language is put together the works have a commonality.

What I have taken from concrete poetry is the proposition that words and letters can operate linguistically and visually outside of the conventions of sentence structure. In sentences words are subordinate to the discursive flow. My interest here is in treating words as concrete elements, as units of material, as things of interest in themselves.

The words should be judged by what they do, by how they are used. There are three active elements, definition, construction and placement: the dictionary definition of the words used, the construction of words into units of sense and the placement of these constructions on the wall.

If we look at a brick wall we are not necessarily concerned with the history of the particular bricks used (an etymology of the brick). Rather we consider the wall as a complete thing, we are concerned with how well it is made and how appropriate it is to its location. The wall texts should be approached in this way. Each work is an image constructed from familiar elements – they are whole things. We intuitively understand that poems and literary forms are composed but, of course, visual artworks are composed too.

Words are treated as building blocks, most obviously in BIG UPON LITTLE where the stack of three words is echoed by what the words say. The word BIG is placed over the word UPON which in turn is placed over the word LITTLE. This piece is derived from the local name given to a rock formation on the grounds of Stonehurst Farm in East Sussex. My father used to visit this farm as a child and often spoke of the place, so I have had the name ‘Big Upon Little’ in my head all my life. I mention this as an aside, to acknowledge that the work has a source – that it comes from something concrete. So we have three secondhand words used as the material for an artwork, where they come from has nothing to do with what has been made. The words ‘Big Upon Little’ in the work do not refer to the sandstone rock called Big Upon Little in the south of England, they refer to themselves to the actuality of the words big, upon and little.

The work is not didactic it does not describe things or tell stories it simply shows things as straightforwardly as possibly. It offers the opportunity to stop still and pay attention to what is actually there. The work shows something but resists saying anything. In part this is a response to a world that is full of information, where everything is moving and attention spans are short.

In WORDS ON A WALL THAT’S ALL the words are where they say they are – on the wall. The qualification ‘that’s all’ is a caution not to expect any more than what is shown. There is nothing hidden nothing to interpret from what is said – what is said is what you get, with the implication that there is as much to see as there is to read. So to answer your question, it is not subject but an approach to language that the works have in common.

‘Sometimes I wonder whether I am painting pictures of words or whether I’m painting pictures with words’. Ed Ruscha

“Neither lines nor words are ideas, they are the means by which ideas are conveyed.”  Sol LeWitt

Note: The works discussed in this interview were made for the touring exhibition,

Poetry Beyond Text: at DCA, Dundee, Scottish Poetry Library, Edinburgh and the Royal Scottish Academy in 2011: and for the exhibition Making Words – Marking Words: at the Cooper Gallery, DJCAD, Dundee in 2012

Mrs Dalloway’s London

I’ve been playing around with Map-Box today, creating a worksheet for students mainly, but in so doing also sketching out the movements of the main characters in one of my favourite novels, Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), to see if any interesting patterns emerge.  I’m not sure the results tell me much that I didn’t already know (or could have guessed), but the process was useful in thinking about the novel in relation to the city. I felt very aware, for example,  of the repetition of key street names –Bond Street and Harley Street– in certain passages and the way in which Woolf was drawing attention to the symbolic/social function of these names as much as the actual locations. Since I tend to think of Mrs Dalloway as ‘a city novel’, I was also struck at how the apparently meandering walks of the main characters are focused in one area, making it suddenly appear more like the depiction of a neighbourhood than a metropolis (of course, I haven’t marked up the minor characters, which would give a different picture). Although you can’t see the entire map here, what is clear is that most of the characters follow roughly the same path through the city: Clarissa (yellow), Peter, Richard and Hugh (green)  all belong in the vicinity of Bond Street, between Green Park and Oxford Street. Septimus and Rezia (purple) come down into this field from Regent’s Park. Peter (blue) also follows this pattern, although he ventures slightly further afield into Bloomsbury. It is Elizabeth, on the bus, that makes the most distinctive journey however, moving in a completely different direction to the older characters.  Given the temperamental and generational differences that mark Elizabeth out from the other characters, this is hardly surprising, but I did wonder about the significance of the area to which she travels, Fleet Street and the Strand. I also noted that while Clarissa, Peter and Elizabeth move out from Victoria Street, it is only Richard who moves in the opposite direction (which is also the same direction as Septimus).  So small observations really, but I’ll be thinking about them next time I read the novel.

Character movements in Mrs Dalloway

On being ‘in’

In the last couple of months I’ve attended a number of conferences, met a lot of new people, taken up a new job, and designed a new course based on my current research interests, which I’ve now begun teaching. Given all this movement and activity, it’s probably not a coincidence that I’ve also been spending a lot of time lately thinking about how I want to position myself in relation to the various fields with which my research engages.

I definitely think of myself first and foremost as working on the cultures of modernism, broadly conceived, and my writing tends to focus on the relationship between literature, visual art and material culture. In the eyes of others, though, it’s been the how rather than the what  that seems to have defined me lately. It was with the promise of substantial new archival research that I won funding for my current project and it was on the basis of my skills and experience with digital tools and methods that I was hired. To me, archival work and digital work are intimately inter-related and mutually implicated. That isn’t the case for everyone, of course, as I was reminded at MSA 15, the modernism conference I attended last month.  There were many great presentations that outlined fascinating insights gleaned from archival work but, to my disappointment, there was much less discussion of the ways in which such work might be changing and the opportunities this might afford us as scholars of modernism, less still of the kinds of implications and assumptions inherent in our methodological choices. It’s important to go into the archive, and to historicise our research properly, but it’s equally important to me to be able to conceive of my work in relation to the contemporary and the future. I’m interested in issues such as preservation and accessibility as well as how archival formats (old and new) shape out work, what they allow and disallow. Through these interests, I find myself engaging more and more with the kinds of practices that are associated with the term ‘digital humanities’.

In fact, although I am officially a Lecturer in Digital Humanities at the moment, I’m quite ambivalent about the label. This is in part because it already carries so much baggage and has become deeply associated with structures and issues, many particular to the US (what is it with ‘badges’?), which don’t really reflect my own academic identity. Tactical moves and politicking would mark the emergence of any field — the stakes are high — but I’m turned off by recurrent discussions of ‘who is in and who is out’ and self-aggrandizing proclamations of ‘niceness’ (surely undercut by the fact that the major conference in the field feels obliged to remind its reviewers that ‘rudeness of any sort is destructive to the morale of the community’). In part, it is because of the way UK academia seems to be moving at present. Here, DH seems to be a buzzword thrown around more by administrators and funders than by academics: it is greeted with the same (justifiable) suspicion that is shown towards terms like ‘impact’. Digital Humanities is ‘in’, it’s fashionable and sexy and it apparently gets money thrown at it: it must therefore be a flash in the pan, a mere trend. Worse, it’s a trend that seems designed to support to what one UK academic has called ‘the managerial humanities’ and the centralisation of resources. Bound up with discussions about new electronic learning formats and MOOCs, it is associated with cost cutting exercises, opportunism and efficiency measures.  In this context, it’s hard not to have some qualms about being identified as a digital humanist.

I might prefer Martin Mueller‘s term ““Humanities in a digital world”,  were it not that this ‘gentler’ and more diffuse idea lacks a certain ambition. Like other people interested how our histories are written and shaped, I see the digital humanities as tackling a  “grand challenge”, which I think is perhaps the most important task facing scholars today. In the words of William G. Thomas, this is “to reassemble the human record in digital form, to shape its interpretive affordances, and to create discipline-based scholarship in digital form.” It’s in contemplating this challenge, what’s at stake and the opportunities that it might open up, that I can get excited about DH. But it’s vital to me, as it is to many others, that this potential does not become overwhelmed by other motivations (such as ‘impact’) and to prevent  that it’s vital that we bring our critical skills, as well as our reading and programming skills, to bear on digital humanities work. Stephen Ramsay and Alan Liu have recently exchanged ideas on how this critical approach might best take shape in a series of interesting blog posts. Ramsay’s original post ‘Why I’m in it’, discussed how one might make manifest a critical digital humanities through the practice of building (a more carefully judged piece than his original conference statement to that effect) , to which Liu responds, in a passage that perfectly captures the dangers and the affordances of DH:

“The digital humanities work on methods and tools that are the necessary technological bridgeway between the academy and powerful players in society–-one that cannot be knocked down if society is to have its future knowledge workers, consumers, and subjects of surveillance.  If it were up to the top-of-system power players, that bridgeway would communicate just technical “skills” and informational “content”–i.e., train professional-technical-managerial knowledge workers and seed harvestable information.  It would not also serve as a span for communicating the relevance, engagement, and activism of individual subjects who aggregate in groups and classes to counterbalance the capitalized and militarized aggregations of the power brokers.”

This vision of a counter-practice, emerging in the same channels but internally countering dominant practices reminds me of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, and seems to be a way of taking that critical gesture that I associate with modernism and the avant-gardes (which are my first loves, after all) and re-directing it at our own working environments and practices. This isn’t a new idea of course, and one would hope that all socially and politically aware scholars would be doing this. Many are. But on the evidence of another conference I attended this month–on critical pedagogy–it seems many aren’t. At this event, many papers focused on the experience of working within the exploitative systems of the neo-liberal university and speakers discussed how we might imagine teaching as activism, the difficulty of overturning entrenched hierarchies and value systems, and the kinds of practical changes this would require in terms of re-thinking assessments and training.  Often, I was struck by the convergences between such concerns and DH discussions. Staging a conversation between these movements might be a good place to start  developing that “ethics of engagement” which, as Ramsay says, DH needs.* We certainly need to carefully consider the implications and assumptions of our individual practices –the things we build and how we build them, the things we use and how we use them, the things we teach and how we teach them. Such an ethics requires vigilance and work, but its also a powerful opportunity to shape the Humanities and HE more broadly for the future. It’s exciting and, to me,  in a period in which I feel I have less and less control over my professional destiny within the rapidly changing and increasingly bureaucratised landscape of the UK HE sector,  it’s empowering. That’s why I’m in.

“Gaps in the archive?  Let’s fill them.  Co-opted by Apple and Google?  Let’s find ways to get out.  Frustrated with business-as-usual in university press publishing?  Let’s create new ways to do it.  Big tent?  Better be.” (Ramsay)

*18/10: As a little coda, I should add that I subsequently discovered this article in the great Hybrid Pedagogy blog, which pointed me to the work of several US scholars who are doing exactly that.

DH Workshop in Four Keys

I’m co-chairing this event at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities next month with Sian Bayne:  it sounds like it will be fascinating. Do come along if you are interested and able.

A Digital Humanities Workshop in Four Keys: Medicine, Law, Bibliography, and Crime

Date: Monday 11 November
Time: 2-5pm
Venue: The Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, Hope Park Square
Booking: email to book a place – and please book early as places are limited.

Alison Crockford
Digital articulations: writing medicine in Edinburgh

The distinct character of the double meaning behind the word ‘articulation’ allows it to take on particular significance in the crossover between literature and medicine; articulation both refers to the action of translating an idea or emotion into words and, in a more specifically medical context, the state of being flexibly joined together. This presentation, and the IASH research project from which it is derived, is inspired by this resonant duality. The Digital Articulations project seeks in part to illuminate the relationship between literature and medicine in Edinburgh through the development of a digital reader. However, at the same time it aims to join together not only the literary and medical spheres, but also the rapidly expanding field of the digital and the medical humanities.

This talk will consider the impact that digital and multi-media initiatives has had and might yet have not only  on research in the medical humanities, but also on dissemination and public engagement. Tracing the project’s development from a series of public events through to an exploration on the dynamic between the medical and digital humanities, it will consider the impact of similar online readers, and explore the possibilities for expansion beyond this format into a more dynamic research tool. The significance that such development might have for the study of the medical humanities, and its potential influence on public perceptions of medicine and the history of medicine will be explored before the presentation considers the application of such a model to other fields of research.

Chen Wei Zhu
Rethinking property: copyright law and digital humanities research

Modern copyright law, which owes its origin to the Statute of Anne as promulgated in 1709, is an institution constantly facing challenges and changes. This three-century old legal regime, which has largely co-evolved with print culture, is again called into question by the latest development in digital humanities (DH). I argue that the entrenched idea of copyright as an exclusive property regime is ill-suited for understanding the hugely interconnected DH research activities. It calls for a rethink of copyright as a relational platform that is capable of accommodating a more decentralised and distributive mode of “ownership” and authorship prevalent in DH research activities.

Gregory Adam Scott
The digital bibliography of Chinese Buddhism as a research and reference tool

Assembled as part of a doctoral research thesis, the Digital Catalogue of Chinese Buddhism is a collection of data on over 2,300 published items with a web-based, online interface for searching and filtering its content. It served as a map to the terrain of publishing and print culture during the development of the thesis, and has since continued to be developed as a comprehensive guide to material published by Buddhists in modern China. While the DCCB was originally compiled to fulfil a specific research goal for a particular field of scholarship, this presentation will explore how the methods and implications of working with a large number of itemized records, whether bibliographic or otherwise, can be applied to a wide variety of projects. It will outline how the raw data was processed from various sources and formats, how the system of organizing the digital data was developed, how the user-visible web-based interface was designed, and finally what the editor envisions for the future of this and similar types of resources.

Louise Settle
Digitally mapping Crime in Edinburgh, 1900-1939

This paper will explore how digital mapping technology can be used to map historical data. My recent research on the historical geography of prostitution in Edinburgh will be used as an example to demonstrate some of the practical uses that this technology can offer historians, but also the implications it has for anyone interested in combining qualitative research methods with textual and spatial analysis. The paper will conclude with an outline of how I intend to use this technology to map female street offences in Edinburgh during the early twentieth century.

Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better….

So this is my shiny new blog… but I’m dogged by a sense of failure already. The truth is I struggle to blog. I want to. I want to share ideas, to record some of the little details and thoughts that won’t make it into any of my papers or articles, to document the kind of work I’m doing and how etc. etc.  I’ve begun and then deserted a number of blogs becoming dissatisfied with the platform or with my own writing or with the way in which I’ve tried to focus it. Time is really the main barrier for me, though. Like everyone else, I’m busy: I have a full-time job, a book to write, a small child, a partner, friends and parents to care for. It’s tough enough trying to get research done around my commitments, never mind trying to carve out the time and space to actively maintain a website. And, while I really value the information-sharing and conversations that social media enable, I’m also more than a bit resistant to the ways in which (especially early career) researchers seem now to be expected to ‘self-brand’ online: a website becomes just another list item, along with the journal articles, the book contract, the grant money and the teaching experience. And, as we all know, a flash website and a coherent ‘brand’ can be built on very slight foundations.

Now my self isn’t very coherent or ‘marketable’: it’s fluid, slippery, hard to pin down, and a bit amorphous. And I like it like that. I make mistakes. I change things. Indeed, to me the mutability of the digital environment and the ways in which my mutable self can play around there is what makes it exciting. I’m also inspired by the ways in which other researchers and organisations around the world are sharing their data, results, and processes as they happen. I’m learning from many others, so it only seems fair to make what I’m doing visible, if only to myself.  I’m increasingly interested in these sorts of methodological issues: curious about how researchers describe and present how they go about their work, how they gather their material, create their data sets, set up their teaching and so on. So this blog is a bit of an experiment for me in trying to set out my own processes, for my own benefit more than anything else.  I’ll probably not post as often as I hope to, but I’ll keep Beckett in mind and be comforted by the fact that failure is not a possibility, it’s inevitable.

MSA 15

I’m taking part in a seminar at the Modernist Studies Assoication Conference next month. The topic of the event is ‘Modernism and Work’ and I’m contributing a paper on Nancy Cunard and how her work at the Hours Press shaped her sense of identity and the development of her career. The conference is being held in Brighton at the University of Sussex between 28th August and 1st September 2013.