Notes on Using Digital Media for First-Year Graduate Students

DH, teaching

My department asked me to meet with our first-year Ph.D. students to talk about “Using Digital Media” in their scholarly lives. It was interesting to try to sketch an outline of what I thought a starting English Ph.D. student should hear on the topic, and I thought I’d post a copy of that outline here. There’s also a pdf version. I also thought there are one or two people who might be amused by my sketch of research in digital humanities.

(Adding the same day after posting the first time: The outline does not say something I emphasized, which is: there is no reason for first-year graduate students to worry about having a scholarly website or profile. They might or might not want one; but I figured most would, by the time they were circulating their work and themselves, and I might as well plant the seed now. By the same token, obviously I do not think that digital humanities research has some privileged status which means everyone has to hear about it more than any other subfield. But it is the kind of thing that’s nice to hear about early if you’re going to get into it at all. Finally, where there are recommendations here, they are only personal recommendations, rooted in a personal experience rather than any kind of systematic survey—though I have tried to make reasonable generalizations from what I know.)

The Basics

  • Your file system is your research database over the long term.

  • You should compile a bibliographic database with Zotero (zotero.org).

  • Set up automatic backups of everything, or else.

Making a Website

Some Types of Sites

Wordpress

  • blog format by default, but can be used to create a non-blog site
  • fairly straightforward web interface
  • customizable, within limits, by themes and (depending on hosts) plugins

Static site

  • no databases, just HTML (and CSS, and Javascript)
  • requires hand-editing and/or a templating system (Jekyll, Hugo)
  • requires a method for uploading files to a host
  • highly customizable, but more time-consuming to set up and use

Drupal or other content management systems (CMSs)

  • same idea as Wordpress, but more flexible and (much) harder to use
  • not focused on blogging
  • not recommended except for elaborate projects

Hosts and Domains

MLA Commons

Personal Hosting

  • yearly costs for the domain and for hosting
  • URL of the form: X.com or X.org (or…)
  • any type of site, but support and ease-of-use for various types varies
  • recommendation: Reclaim Hosting (reclaimhosting.com)

Low-cost Static Hosting: Github Pages

  • hosted at no cost by Github (pages.github.com)
  • free (for now) and available until the end of history (for now)
  • URL of the form X.github.io unless you register another domain separately
  • uses the Jekyll static site generator (jekyllrb.com)
  • requires hand-coding in Markdown, plus HTML/CSS for customization
  • requires git to deploy; tricky, but can be reduced to magic incantations

Scholarly Repositories

  • long-term archiving of scholarly outputs; item URLs via the DOI system
  • not suitable as a web host but a medium of non-peer-reviewed publication
  • Rutgers SOAR (soar.libraries.rutgers.edu): when you have an article accepted, you must either deposit it or file a waiver
  • MLA CORE (commons.mla.org/core)
  • Open Science Framework (osf.io)

Disrecommendations

  • “free” wordpress.com: places ads on your site (paying the extortion rent: okay)
  • corporate social media: Facebook, academia.edu, LinkedIn, Medium, etc.
  • eden.rutgers.edu/~netid: old-school; very serviceable…until you graduate

Web-authoring skills

A few readings on scholarly life online

Digital Humanities Research

Digital humanities (or DH) mainly refers to three things:

  1. computer-assisted studies of large collections of texts (etc.);
  2. digitized archives and interactive digital tools for scholarship;
  3. studies of digital media by the humanistic disciplines.

These three strains are more often in conflict than in harmony. DH sometimes overlaps with the history of the book, library and information science, media studies, and computational social science (computational linguistics, digital sociology, quantitative political science, and so on).

A few overviews

  • Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (Verso, 2005): the one book to read in this domain, if you read just one. It is not explicitly “digital,” but it makes the most important argument for the kinds of literary-historical methods that now seem to require computers.

  • Matthew K. Gold, ed. Debates in the Digital Humanities (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), and its sequel, Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Gold and Lauren Klein (both open-access at dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu): useful, large collections of short position papers. See, especially, the essays by Kirschenbaum, McPherson, and Liu in the 2012 volume.

  • Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, eds., A Companion to Digital Literary Studies (Blackwell, 2008; open-access at digitalhumanities.org/companionDLS). This overview of humanities computing is dated but revealing about the history of DH.

Journals

  • Recent special issues of Representations (on search, 127, no. 1) and MLQ (on scale and value, 77, no. 3) are notable indices of how DH is currently entering into generalist discussion.

  • Stanford Literary Lab Pamphlets (litlab.stanford.edu): not a journal, but a series of essays, most authored or co-authored by graduate students, coming out of the department most strongly associated with quantitative approaches to literary study.

  • Journal of Digital Humanities: a recently established open-access journal that attempts to cover DH in a broad sense.

  • Digital Humanities Quarterly: another open-access journal, of somewhat longer standing.

  • Digital Studies in the Humanities: formerly known as Literary and Linguistic Computing, this journal addresses technical specialists.

  • CA: Journal of Cultural Analytics: the newest entrant in this subfield.

Teaching yourself

DH has a widespread culture of autodidacticism when it comes to computing skills (programming, building databases or websites, statistics for data analysis, etc.) This is rather problematic, since joining a scholarly subfield should not require having the substantial spare time and extra resources that teaching yourself typically requires. It also throws the challenge of identifying what to learn and how to learn it back on the learner. Better to find a course, when you’re ready. In addition to term-time coursework, there are off-season intensive courses to consider (not only the Summer and Winter Digital Humanities Institutes but also the Rare Book School and perhaps the ICSPR summer program).

Gateways for exploration

Bracketing the proviso about teaching yourself…

  • Palladio (hdlab.stanford.edu/palladio) is a web-based program for exploring humanities data. If you have data in spreadsheet form, Palladio can organize and visualize it in some very interesting ways, include social network diagrams, maps, and timelines. For a gentle introduction to exploring data, access Miriam Posner’s tutorial at miriamposner.com/blog/getting-started-with-palladio. Posner demonstrates how to use this tool to explore a dataset of mid-twentieth-century photographs.

  • Voyant Tools (voyant-tools.org) lets you experiment with basic word-counting techniques in one or multiple texts (multiple texts are more interesting: you can compare distinctive words across texts, for example). Click “Open” and choose Shakespeare’s plays from the menu, or paste in your own texts. The documentation is at docs.voyant-tools.org.

  • Alan Liu’s Toychest (dhresourcesforprojectbuilding.pbworks.com) is an enormous catalogue of tools, tutorials, and overviews curated by a senior scholar. Browsing there is an overwhelming experience, but Liu’s aim is to collect everything that is freely available and of potential interest for graduate and undergraduate humanities students, so there is much that might catch your eye.

Voyant and Palladio strongly emphasize visualization. The conflation of visualization technique with analytical method is endemic in DH. Suffice to say that there are many more ways to understand data than to squint at images.

At Rutgers

It’s not about tools

If you look at those websites and find them baffling or dull, never mind them. A better test of whether you might want to look further into the digital humanities is whether you find any of the following questions interesting (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • What does the mass digitization of (some) of the cultural archive mean for scholarship?
  • Should we study literature differently when we access it in digital form?
  • How do access and expertise work in the digital context? Must existing cultural and social hierarchies be reproduced in the digital domain?
  • How do we study aggregates as well as singular objects, operating on larger (or smaller) scales?
  • How can quantitative methods from the social sciences work in our field?
  • How do digitization and computer networks change how scholars communicate with one another and with their broader publics? Does the Web permit (or require) us to work in new genres, alongside the familiar print-digital genres of journal article and scholarly book?

Hobby-horse coda: Preparing digital documents

They don’t have to be that ugly

  • No more Times New Roman. Choose another typeface meant for setting extended text: Garamond, Palatino, Hoefler Text, Baskerville…

  • A really wide line of text is a chore for the reader. Use generous margins, with no more than 75–85 characters in a line of text.

  • Matthew Butterick’s “Typography in Ten Minutes” and the book it is part of give reasonable suggestions:
    practicaltypography.com/typography-in-ten-minutes.html.

You could stop writing in Word

Postscript: social media

We had a very lively discussion of the uses of social media, but I did not put notes on the handout about this, because that struck me as possibly too normative-seeming in a terrain where I did not want to be strongly normative. Here are my notes, in any case:

  • Like other forms of inscription, social media’s circulation is not bounded. It constitutively severs statements from their original contexts (with the potential for “context collapse” or “broadcast”).

  • Social media fosters feelings of immediacy, intimacy, and ephemerality.

    • The immediacy and intimacy can be real and can generate durable personal and professional sociality, but the conventions that govern this sociality are in flux.
  • Social media inscriptions are highly discoverable, easily circulable, durable by default, and quite difficult to wipe out.

    • Limited anonymity is possible (with care).
    • Every user of Facebook and Twitter (especially) is willy-nilly involved in emotional economies of outrage and shame that are sometimes mobilized to exert power, especially against bearers of marginalized identities.
  • Social media strongly encourages the confounding of a single person’s multiple social roles (friend, teacher, student…).

    • Separating them, to the extent possible, is work.
  • Social media is corporate media. Such media is not bound even to short-term fidelity to your intentions (as to how you or your inscriptions will appear, who can access them, where they will be stored…)

Inconclusion

There are reasons to worry over risks (to one’s career, and not only to career) inherent in using these media. But there are also reasons not to be ruled by risk-aversion. Expression is, in general though not always, both a right and a good. There can be no question of absolutely risk-free expression in social or any other media, but there are many risks you might reasonably deem to be worth taking. And the same can be said about participating in (online) communities.