Monday, April 29, 2013

Digital Humanities vs. New Media: A Matter of Pedagogy

Before I begin, I want to thank Professor Chris Forster and my colleagues from Syracuse University’s Digital Humanities course for an engaging and thought-provoking semester on the emerging debates in Digital Humanities.  

When I applied to graduate school a few years back I applied to English programs with “new media” tracks and ended up applying to an odd assortment of English, composition and rhetoric, writing, and Digital Humanities programs, all of which have drastically different understandings of the definition of new media.  Some of the programs concerned themselves with the intersection of pedagogy, writing, and computers, others theoretically examined new media, and others took a more tool-based approach.   When I visited the campus of a university with a more tool-based approach I was incredibly confused when they gave me a tour of their digital lab where graduate students were busy crunching data and digitizing texts.  Wait, I thought, this is not the English studies I know.  

As I work my way through coursework, I’ve remained perplexed by my application process, a process that led me to a lab. This perplexity leads me to question not just “what is digital humanities?” (a very popular and knotty topic, no doubt) but rather, what are the disciplinary boundaries between new media and digital humanities? If an undergrad (albeit an under-informed one) can, with the exact same application materials, gain acceptance into both types of programs, can these two really be so different? Intrigued by the ongoing Media Commons conversation that questions the differentiations and intersections of media studies and the digital humanities, I have decided to use my own digital methods to weigh in on this incredibly vexed question of disciplinary boundaries.  In order to discover intersections and divergences between the two, I gathered 50 syllabi (25 that marketed themselves as new media and 25 that marketed themselves as Digital Humanities), brought them together on Pinboard and tagged the year of the course, the department in which it was taught, the topics addressed and the theorists taught.*  This archive can be accessed here or by searching the tag “sstutsmansyllabi.”  This process has led to some intriguing revelations as I discovered that while the two really aren’t that different, the Digital Humanities appears to be a bit more insular and exclusionary than they might claim to be, a problem that could be fixed in part by looking to their sister discipline.  With this project I aim not to provide tangible definitions of either Digital Humanities or new media nor will I attempt to demarcate a clear boundary between the two, tasks which seem ultimately futile. Instead, I wish to propose a potential new site for investigation. 

A breakdown of DH versus NM classes by year reveals spikes in DH popularity in 2008 and 2012—no big surprise there.  

My other breakdowns, though, produce quite interesting results.  A depiction of DH and NM by department reveals their respective interdisciplinary thrusts with NM spread pretty evenly through Visual Arts, Communication & Journalism, Film & Media Studies, English, Education, and other departments.  DH, on the other hand, while taught in other areas, is hosted prominently in English departments (as is the case for 15 out of 25 of my syllabi).

A look to frequent topics and theorists taught proves spicier.  We start to see some overlap in the topic breakdown with 15 out of the 17 most-frequent topics taught in at least 1 NM and 1 DH course.  Most of the overlap coalesces around questions of social networking and copyright.  A good deal of the syllabi discuss social networking (blogs, Twitter, Facebook) as alternate forms of scholarship and academic community as well as have their students question copyright practices and open-access publishing.  One will notice, though, that there are a greater number of NM syllabi in most of the shared categories, especially with regard to discussing questions of access and the Digital Divide or identity politics, each taught in only 2 of the DH courses.  Often, I found NM courses to be more concerned with cultural studies while DH courses focused so heavily on teaching distant reading methods or visualization that there was only time for maybe one week that questions the lack of theory in DH.  Though that is true, one does see a wide range of topics for both NM and DH.

When we turn to the top 10 theorists taught, though, that diversity begins to wane.  While DH courses teach a variety of topics, they tend to recycle and re-use the same theorists and works, often teaching the work of fellow DH-ers without expanding too far beyond the boundaries of DH itself.  NM courses, though, tend to reach their nets further and wider.  While NM courses do tend to be infected with their own incestuous sense of buzzwords (participatory culture, remediation, etc.), DH courses tend to be infected with their own incestuous use of theorists deriving from the fact that those who write about the field, define the field, teach the field and control what it means to learn about DH and to be a DH-scholar.  This is not universally the case; Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s undergraduate course and William J. Turkel’s graduate course (among others) nicely integrate outside resources. 

I think the fact that DH/NM courses teach so many of the same topics provides a useful solution.  Instead of DH courses teaching the small section that ask where the theory is, one should insert theory, some of the same theory that is taught in NM courses, works about the Digital Divide, copyright concerns or literacy rates instead of theory that asks about the absence of those things.  In searching for definition, DH begins to turn in on itself, defining itself through its own methods.  DH must look outward, look for intersections between it and other disciplines and begin to integrate some of that work into their own pedagogy, shifting what it means to study DH.  

The purpose of my Pinboard project is twofold.  It allows one to observe emerging trends in disciplinary definition and pedagogy but, more importantly, it serves as a useful archive and resource for future syllabus construction.  It brings together an archive of syllabi that teach similar topics in vastly different ways.  Therefore, if DH wishes to expand beyond what tends to be their own insularity, this site provides alternatives as one can explore how other departments and disciplines teach similar topics.  Similarly, if NM desires to incorporate tool-based approaches beyond social networking into their pedagogy, this site provides access to a wealth of DH resources to do so.  Instead of seeking to define and demarcate rigid disciplinary boundaries, scholars should turn to finding and creating more intersections, a move that would open both disciplines up to new questions about what it means to teach and learn in a digital age.    

*In no way do I purport my data to be entirely objective or complete—it is bound by my own knowledge and the subjectivity that enters into any process of archival and selection.  While I cannot claim that my results are definitive, as my sample size is relatively quite small, I can insist that it appears to be at least mildly representative in a way that can open up conversation and, in some cases, present some interesting solutions. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A DH Spectrum of Tool-ness

Though, at this point, Tom Scheinfeldt’s post “Sunset forIdeology, Sunrise for Methodology” is quite dated, I want to focus on it in this post because the questions he raises, and the strict dichotomy he constructs, gets at the heart of some of the issues I’ve been mulling over the past couple weeks.  A few weeks ago, I made a comment on Jordan’s blog with regards to breaking down the dichotomy between close and distant reading—suggesting, perhaps, the ability to use digital tools for closer readings, though not necessarily “close” readings in the traditional sense of the term.  Especially in light of what turned out to be quite a debate over “show-and-tell” versus “construct an argument” last week, I’ve been thinking about the way in which we seem to gravitate toward strict opposing poles when discussing DH. DH becomes a question of close versus distance reading, essay writing versus non-traditional representations, or, in the case of Scheinfeldt’s post, ideology versus methodology.  I think it’s important to break down these binaries in order to explore the ways that we can use DH on an evolving spectrum of close and distant reading while also exploring its potential as an ideology and a methodology on a spectrum as well.

At one point in his post, Scheinfeldt claims that “we are entering a new phase of scholarship that will be dominated not by ideas, but once again by organizing activities, both in terms of organizing knowledge and organizing ourselves and our work.”  This seems to imply that this shift toward organizing activities effaces the focus on ideas, as opposed to working in conjunction with it.  In the comments, both Gavin and Rob call him out on his construction of a false dichotomy and I whole heartedly agree. I think it’s incredibly important to see the ways that new methodologies can grant insight to evolving ideologies.  Tools do not elide ideas—when has that ever been the case? Tools help one in their development of ideas.  In his response to comments, Scheinfeldt seems to grant this as well, writing, “I agree that our current shift towards thinking about new methods will in turn only raise new theoretical questions and ideological debates. And so it goes.”

In trying to understand DH’s place with regards to ideology and methodology, I keep coming back to classifying it as a tool that can assist one in making an argument. Thinking about it in this way, though, places it pretty firmly on the “methodology” side of the spectrum.  Ramsey and Rockwell attempt to answer some of these questions in their contribution to Debates in the Digital Humanities.  As they ask if DH things can be theories, they work their way through the different DH things and how we can classify each.  In their explanations, though, they keep coming back to the classification of DH as a tool, and trying to answer if that tool can be a theory. In reference to DH artifacts, they write, “Where there is an argument, the artifact has ceased to be a tool and has become something else” (78).  They propose, instead, that the way to think of artifact as theories would be to think of them as “hermeneutical instruments through which we can interpret other phenomena” (79). This still sounds like a tool to me. In their section on the digital as a theoretical model they come back to the classification of the digital as a methodology, in much the same way that writing is a methodology (82). Again, this sounds like a tool to me.  In my understanding, this seems like they’re trying to find different ways equate the two poles with each other in what appears to be a futile task.  Rather than this take, I think it would be productive to analyze DH on a spectrum of “tool-ness,” depending on the DH technique you’re discussing. Sometimes it will be more of a tool, sometimes it will be more of a theory, sometimes it will grant greater insight to a theory, sometimes it will not.  Instead of trying to classify it by these hard lines of categorization, we need to use, evaluate, teach, and experience DH on an evolving spectrum, one that can grant useful insight for one’s project and one that can, in some cases, serve as the insightful project in its own right.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

More on Moretti: Distance and Mapping

I found this week’s reading on maps fascinating yet perplexing.  The excited English nerd in me who loves to make character maps while reading complex novels was completely on board: “Maps are a great idea! They can add something to our ‘knowledge of literature,’ as Moretti says!” (35). As I reflected more, though, I became perplexed and began asking, what happens to the space that is not mappable? He elusively mentions how Christmas stories cannot be mapped (?) without offering an explanation as to why.  I began to think of other instances in which space is not mappable. Space is never just a location, space is forever bound with time and consciousness (I’m sure there’s a relevant Bergson quote to throw in here…).  So how does one begin to map out a complex novel like, say, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!?  

When one attempts to map out a storyworld, a world that encompasses so much more than just geographical location, it can never be as simple as placing points on a map.   Moretti makes evident the fact that there are “maps and maps” (meaning maps of real geographical locations and maps of fictional worlds) (63).  Though this is true, he does not seem to take into account the complex spaces of those storyworlds, ones that exist at the juncture of the narrative (or, in Faulkner’s case, the multiple narratives) and the experience of the reader.  There are constructed and forever shifting spaces, unable to be tied down and in a constant process of re-definition through the act of reading.  In my edition of Absalom, Absalom!, a map is included in the introductory material.  This map does in fact recreate the geographical layout of the storyworld, complete with points indicating the location of key plot developments.  This map seems almost facetious and mocking though, as if it mocks our belief that the world of Absalom, Absalom! (a storyworld which extends beyond A,A! to encompass The Sound and the Fury) could be represented on a map.  There are quite a few symbolic spaces that cannot be represented on that map, though, spaces such as Sutpen’s Hundred, a space to which characters return time and again and a space that is always changing, seeking definition.  I think it would be fascinating to attempt to map out the symbolic layers of this space and the storyworld in general—plotting all of the different variations on the spaces, overlaying them on top of one another (I’m sure there has GOT to be a more technical and fancy way to do this than the clear overhead projection sheets I’m envisioning).  

To me though, this task is very tightly wed to close reading. It’s simply, as Moretti defines his own maps, a complex “stylization of space” (42).  This brings me back to the point I made in my previous blog post in which I pointed out that, in his early work, Moretti is hardly conducting any sort of distant reading.  What remains perplexing then, is how his methods are taken up (by other scholars as well as contemporary-Moretti) in current DH distant reading approaches.  What Moretti does in the Maps section of Graphs, Maps, Trees seems worlds apart from what Matthew Wilkens does in “Canons, Close Reading, and the Evolution of Method” in which he plots the geographical locations mentioned in 40ish novels of 1851, 1852, and 1874. Wilken’s task seems so surface level (as it’s intended to be).  Yes, this might lead to a “revised understanding of American regionalism” (253), but I feel like this is doing a vast disservice to the texts.  Perhaps it is elucidating something about the canon (though, we would have to extend Wilkens’ sample size) but I believe it’s getting us so far away from what Moretti was doing when he was looking for interesting narrative patterns.  I guess the real question becomes, when we attempt to expand the canon and pay credence to previously unread texts, is distant reading really the way to do that? I believe if we use maps in the way Wilkens does we relegate those texts to the level of data, one-dimensional plotted points.  If we use maps on those texts in the way Moretti did originally, then we will learn interesting things about texts, but a much smaller number of texts.  How much service does it really do, though, to relegate texts to the sad one-dimensional space that has been derived from number crunching?  The English nerd in me ways to make that Faulkner map (or do that map to another multi-layered text), but at what point does that stop being a valuable task?

Monday, February 18, 2013

How Far is Far Enough?: Questioning Distance and Method in Moretti's Graphs, Maps, Trees

In reading Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees, I found myself asking: how is this different than strands of genre discourse in film studies? Burke, too, in his response to Moretti, brings up this very point.  He writes, “The study of genres has long been shaped by an interest in cycles of publication of the kind Moretti describes” (42).  It seems to me, in Moretti’s focus on “distant reading,” he ends up conducting a sort of analysis of literary cycles and shifts in genre that appears not too different than, say, the work of Thomas Schatz who discusses the film genre system as both “static and dynamic” (691)—analyzing, in part, aspects of convergence and divergence between genres.  Moretti’s tactic also appears similar to that of Bill Nichols, who painstakingly traces the similarities and differences in modes of documentary film making.  The similarities between these cases arise because they all invest themselves in selecting a set of texts (a set that by its very nature can never be exhaustive) and looking for moments of convergence and divergence.  From these structures, Moretti, Nichols, and Schatz (as well as numerous other scholars invested in taxonomy projects) make conjectures about trends as a whole.  Though this tactic by no means falls into the camp of “close reading,” how distant is it? Yes, Moretti is moving further away from the individual text in order to extrapolate on a larger scale, but this has been done before. My question becomes, how "total" is Moretti's outcome? How total can it be? He claims that by focusing on shifts in genre, he is focusing on the larger structure (as opposed to the smaller device) but I think, due to his methods, the size of his project is capped at genre analysis.

It seems like Moretti’s methods remain drastically dissimilar from my understanding of data mining, which also considers itself a sort of distant reading.  In Kirschenbaum’s discussion of his nora project, he discusses the ways he and his team searched for word occurrences in Project Muse. This tactic appears worlds apart from how Moretti derives his tree on detective fiction and the use of clues.  In order to obtain this data, Moretti had his graduate student “find all the mystery stories published in Strand during the first Holmes decade” (219).  Once she had located these stories (a total which came to 108 plus 50 others that sounded like mysteries), Moretti read them all.  From there, he made conjectures about the structures of these individual stories.  He just uses pretty trees to visualize his data, as opposed to the graphs that Nichols uses.

So, again I ask: Is Moretti doing anything different? I believe he thinks he’s doing something revolutionary and different in terms of achieving what he thinks will be (eventually) an exhaustive understanding of “world literature.”  In reality, though, I think he is doing little more than small-scale genre analysis.  Perhaps at a larger level, this might morph into larger understandings of trajectories in world literature, but I doubt it.  I doubt it mostly because this cannot be achieved on that large of scale because one can’t, as Moretti makes clear, read everything.  The option would be, then, to data mine in the sense of Kirschenbaum’s nora project.  There is only so much understanding that those types of projects can provide though.  Prendergast makes clear the level of interpretation that must (and does) enter into Moretti’s project (45).  This level of interpretation would have to wane if one were to conduct this task on any sort of larger scale. I think Moretti’s overall method is a legitimate and a useful one but, perhaps, not in the large-scale way he believes it to be.    

Burke, "Book Notes: Franco Moretti's Graphs, Maps, Trees" 
Kirschenbaum, "Poetry, Patterns, Provocation" 
Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: IU Press, 2010.  
Schatz, Thomas “Film Genre and the Genre Film,”Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 6th ed. Ed. Braudy, Leo, and Gerald Mast. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 691-702.