Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals: Arab Culture in the Digital Age

Discussing his recently published book, Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals: Arab Culture in the Digital Age (Princeton UP 2019), Tarek El-Ariss explores the way modes of confrontation, circulation, and writing shape contemporary knowledge production and critiques of power. Focusing on a new generation of activists and authors from the Arab world and beyond, El-Ariss connects Wikileaks to The Arabian Nights, Twitter to mystical revelation, cyberattacks to pre-Islamic tribal raids, and digital activism to the affective scene-making of Arab popular culture. Tarek El-Ariss is Professor and Chair of Middle Eastern Studies at Dartmouth College. His research interests include Arabic literature, culture, and art, modernity studies, and comparative literature and critical theory. He is also the author of Trials of Arab Modernity: Literary Affects and the New Political (Fordham, 2013) and editor of The Arab Renaissance: A Bilingual Anthology of the Nahda (MLA, 2018).

The DLA is pleased to co-sponsor this event, which is hosted by the IGS Program (Middle East Studies Track)

Date: February 24

Time: 4:30-6 PM
Place: Axinn 229

What Is Deformative Criticism?, or How to Make Weird Videos as Scholarly Inquiry

One of the interesting developments in digital humanities is the emergence of “deformative criticism,” an approach to creatively “breaking” an object of study to reveal hidden facets and create innovative new works. Jason Mittell, Professor of Film & Media Culture and American Studies, will demonstrate a number of “videographic deformations” that he has made by creatively manipulating the classic film Singin’ in the Rain to consider how deformations might be a useful (and fun) mode of scholarship. Lunch will be provided. Please RSVP here by February 13.

Date: February 18

Time: 12:15-1:30 PM

Place: CTLR Lounge, Davis Family Library

Introduction to Text Mining Workshop

Have you heard the phrase “text mining” and wondered exactly what that means? Are you curious about how digital tools can help you analyze large amounts of text? Join Ryan Clement, Data Services Librarian, Leanne Galletly, User Experience and Digital Scholarship Librarian, and Sarah Payne, DLA Postdoctoral Fellow, for an introductory workshop on text mining. This two-hour workshop will introduce participants to the the text mining tool Voyant and provide further avenues for text analysis exploration. No prior experience with text mining is required. Please RSVP here.

Date: Friday, January 17, 2020

Time: 9-11 AM

Place: Wilson Media Lab, Davis Family Library

DLA Summer Institute

The DLA is excited to announce that our videographic criticism workshop, “Scholarship in Sound & Image,” will be offered again during June 2020! During this two week workshop, led by Christian Keathley, Jason Mittell, and Catherine Grant, participants will learn how to conceive and produce film & media criticism via digital sound and moving images. This is a tuition-driven program and applications are due February 1, 2020. Click here for more details regarding dates, cost, and how to apply.

Spring 2019 DLA Review

The Digital Liberal Arts program at Middlebury had a busy spring focused on a range of topics, from scholarship by faculty to continued explorations of issues in digital fluency to work on digital pedagogy.

In January, Data Services Librarian Ryan Clement organized the first of what we hope will be many Software Carpentry Workshops at Middlebury College. The gathering used hands-on instruction to help faculty explore various tactics in digital data management and it focused on introductions to shell scripting in the bash shell (using the command line), version control with git and GitHub, and data manipulation, analysis, and visualization with R/RStudio.

In February, Japanese linguist and Middlebury faculty member Sayaka Abe gave an update on her research about “‘Inauthentic’ Uses of Authentic Materials, Visual and Linguistic Analysis of Manga” as part of our Behind the Scenes Series. Bringing together visual material and linguistics data at the intersection of research and teaching, Sayaka explores “Japanese emotion concepts drawn from mangaas a possible medium for language pedagogy.”

Our Digital Fluencies Series continued with a vibrant discussion of “What’s Fair (and What’s Not) in Digital Fair Use?” with Director of Discovery and Access Services and librarian Terry Simpkins & Middlebury General Counsel Hannah Ross.

In March, Digital Fluencies featured a lively discussion of the possibilities and challenges of inclusive design in digital pedagogy and scholarship at “Got Access? Integrating Inclusive Design Into Our Digital Practices,” organized in conjunction with the Advisory Group on Disability Access and Inclusion (AGDAI).

Faculty member Jason Grant joined us from the Computer Science Department at Middlebury in April to share an update on his project, “Exploring Musical Phylogeny with Deep Learning,” which is an effort to use machine learning and clustering techniques to study differences and similarities among styles of classical music.

Online, Middlebury’s resident podcasting expert Erin Davis shared her observations of the educational audio world at Harvard Divinity School’s Sound Education Conference. Computer scientist Christopher Andrews described his unfolding research in the field of visual analytics on using expression trees to develop an “evolutionary art tool.” Art historian Sarah Laursen showed us some of the case studies that her students completed in Digital Methodologies for Art Historians.

The Davis Foundation-funded group of faculty from American Studies, History, Film & Media Cultures, and Sociology continued to share syllabi, course lessons, and ideas about digital student thesis and senior work. A visit from Jacqueline Wernimont, Distinguished Chair of Digital Humanities and Social Engagement & Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Dartmouth College, proved especially stimulating.

Our DLA Research Fellows—Will Nash, Natalie Eppelsheimer, Brigitte Humbert, and Jason Mittell—met monthly to continue to work on their respective digital projects. It was especially satisfying to watch each Fellow experiment with new tools for communicating their discoveries, from using slideshow/film techniques to probe US abolitionist scrapbook making (Will); mapping experiments (Natalie); digital games and pop culture for French language pedagogy (Brigitte); and videographic criticism (Jason).

Incoming DLA Fellow and Davis Grant faculty participant Kathy Morse attended an AALAC Workshop at Carleton College in Minnesota that brought together faculty and staff members to discuss Curricular Pathways for Digital Scholarship at Liberal Arts Colleges.

DLA continued to award funding to faculty members conducting digital research, most often with student researchers assisting them. A number of ongoing projects made progress toward the finish line, while other exciting ideas got started. In addition to faculty, staff working “deeper in the stack” also received funds to travel to conferences to acquire new skills and ideas for using technology for liberal arts inquiry. DLA also contributed to the acquisition of new and necessary equipment for expanding digital scholarship based on faculty needs.

The “Scholarship in Sound and Image” Workshop, dedicated to videographic criticism techniques and previously funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities as an Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities program, transitioned this year to a tuition-based DLA Summer Institute held on the Middlebury campus in Vermont in June. The hope is for the two-week Summer Institute to continue annually and expand to new topics in digital liberal arts scholarship.

DLA Working Groups Short Survey

DLA seeks to initiate a set of digital scholarship working groups based on existing faculty interests. These would meet approximately once a month for 75-90 minutes to discuss readings and try out hands-on explorations. No prior digital experience is required to participate in the working groups.

This short survey will help us gauge interest in these groups. Thank you for your time responding!

Sonic Gentrification in Berlin Selected for Special Journal of Social History Workshop

Good news: “Sonic Gentrification in Berlin,” a project first developed through the DLA by former Faculty DLA Fellow Florence Feiereisen (Associate Professor in the Department of German) and her colleague Erin Sassin (Assistant Professor in the Department of Art & Architecture) along with a group of talented student research assistants, has now been selected as a digital history essay to develop for a special issue of the Journal of Social History. Florence and Erin will participate in a Mellon Foundation-funded workshop at George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media to develop the article. Congratulations!

Here is a description of the project:

“Sonic Gentrification in Berlin”

Florence Feiereisen, Associate Professor, Department of German

Erin Sassin, Assistant Professor, Department of Art & Architecture

Middlebury College

There is an extensive body of literature on the architectural and socio-cultural ramifications of Berlin’s ongoing gentrification, including the conversion of factory ruins into residential loft spaces, graffiti removal, the reconstruction of historical façades, and most troublingly, the displacement of Berliners to the periphery of the city. While we do not challenge the usefulness and necessity of this work, we seek to lend an ear to architectural and social history—to ask, what did and does gentrification sound like?

In order to uncover the class of sound, we concentrate on one of Berlin’s formerly working-class (and sonically complex) neighborhoods, and employ its oldest nightclub and concert venue Knaack as a case study. For nearly 60 years, people flocked to a building built in 1902 on the Greifswalder Straße in Prenzlauerberg to dance to recorded music (under the GDR) and later to see and listen to Rammstein, Snow Patrol, Tote Hosen, and others. Yet, as the nearby apartment buildings formerly referred to as Mieskaserne (“rental barracks” for the working classes) were given facelifts and converted into residences for affluent (and often) non-native Berliners, noise complaints grew in frequency. Following a court order mandating lower noise levels, Knaack lost its reputation as a concert club and was forced to close its doors in 2010. A large real estate company is currently renovating and converting the shell of what was Knaack into luxury apartments and storefronts for two boutiques.

However, unrecorded soundwaves are ephemeral physical entities and when the original architecture and urban spaces that facilitated their creation are no longer extant, recreating the sounds of the past in situ becomes impossible. How then can we best approximate the sounds of Prenzlauerberg and the gentrification of the Greifswalder Straße? Mining architectural/urban plans, artistic representations, and ear witness accounts in newspaper articles and police reports for sonic clues, we seek to employ digital methods associated with Architectural History, Social History, and Acoustic Ecology to map sonic changes onto 2D and 3D renderings of urban fabric of Berlin, and Prenzlauerberg and the Griefswalder Straße in particular. We hope to visually record the frequency and location of noise complaints directed at Knaack alongside sonic approximations or original recordings of the club and its environs. Ultimately, our case study investigates the relationship between sound production versus sound reception, and reads sonic markers of social well-being and unrest against the backdrop of architectural and cultural history—adding a layer to our understanding of communities formed, dissolved, and reformed.

Getting a Sound Education (With Podcasting)

With the support of the DLA, Visiting Professor Erin Davis attended the conference Sound Education at the Harvard Divinity School. Sound Education was designed for producers of educational audio. It featured nearly 50 panelists from the educational audio community, including radio hosts, academics, and DIY podcasters. Here she reports back on her visit and asks for your participation in a survey of podcasting at Middlebury itself.

By Erin Davis

If were to write a podcast script about the trip to Sound Education, it might look something like this.

COLD OPEN:

SCENE 1

I haven’t been to church in years. But I chose a familiar seat… (rustling chatter of a large room…loose organ music)…In the back. In the corner. Where no one can see me and I can admire the stained-glass windows if I really start to zone out. (music post) But I don’t. (beat – “Hello everyone, welcome to Sound Education…”)  

A woman at the front, in a high turtleneck and sharp bob haircut, tells a parable of a young student walking through a forest…. The student is dutifully identifying birds—from a book—when they notice a rustle in the leaves at their feet. A baby bird! That had fallen from a nest!  The student dropped their book, scooped up the bird and brought it to their teacher.

(bring in music, plunking – references church somehow but not choral)

“Teacher!” (desperate) “IS THIS BIRD ALIVE? OR DEAD?” The teacher responded: [beat] “the bird… is in your hands.”

(bring up music – and fade under)

And out.

WHAT IS AN EDUCATIONAL PODCAST?

Of course, instead of shouting “Amen!” attendees were scribbling in their notebooks, paging through the program, and tapping subscribe, subscribe, subscribe in the podcast apps on their phones. This wasn’t a service, but the opening remarks for Sound Education, a conference for education audio producers and listeners.

Sound Education brought together over one hundred academics and others who are using podcasts in their professional work. Motivating the conference was the notion of a distinctive genre of podcasting: the “educational” podcast.

But what is an “educational” podcast exactly? A recorded lecture posted for the public? A podcast in which the hosts are trying to…’educate’ the listener? Is an educational podcast in danger of being pedantic, or worse yet a boring podcast?

I think one key quality connected the many different educational podcasts: they are being made by people who are obsessed with a topic and want others to at least know, and maybe even start to deeply care, about it. Production values may vary widely, but obsessive interest was at the heart of most educational podcasts.

The gold standard of the “educational podcast” might be WNYC’s RadioLab—a show that “investigates a strange world,” as its slogan claims. A standout panel at Sound Education focused on RadioLab. The show’s production team provided an editing demonstration. At a conference more focused on content than form, it was perhaps the only mention, over three days, of the importance of sound design, character, pacing, and story in the making of a great podcast.

For example, one of RadioLab‘s best episodes ever is about colors. In it, the show’s makers explore both the philosophical and the physical realities of color throughout history and across species. I listen and I, well, learn about how the world I see around me is different from that seen by, say, a dog. Or a mantis shrimp. The whole thing stems from the simple question, “why is the sky blue?” Interestingly, they also end up in a church. (listen here).

There are countless other well-produced podcasts that can be easily described as educational, though they aren’t originating from nor intended explicitly for a classroom—or even a university or college campus.

Recall how “The Giant Pool of Money” from This American Life explained the 2008 housing crisis in plain English for millions of Americans? UnCivil from Gimlet Media is a history podcast that goes “back to the time our divisions turned into a war, and brings you stories left out of the official history.”

Similarly, Seeing White explores and analyzes whiteness in America. What does it mean? What is it for?

I use the first episode of BODIES from KCRW, titled “Sex Hurts,” in my teaching of podcasting at Middlebury College. It leaves my students riveted each semester to hear host Allison Behringer reveal the deeper history lurking behind her effort to seek a cure for experiencing painful sex. Generations of social and medical sexism have shaped her sense of shame and her lack of options in addressing this medical problem. A radio station staff creates BODIES, and the podcast is meant for a general audience, but the power of the narrative is in its almost scholarly backstory.

Are these not educational podcasts?

ABOUT THAT BIRD

Student: “Teacher! Is this bird alive or dead?

                                  Teacher: The bird… is in your hands.

The meaning of the bird allegory is simple. Our goal as educators is to develop the capacities of listeners to become learners-—to inspire, not indoctrinate. I see podcasts at Middlebury being used in two ways currently.

First, they give students a bird. Podcast assignments in my courses such as “make a podcast” allow students an opportunity to direct their own learning. And listening assignments that help them on the path to making a podcast of their own ask students to become more critical receivers of information. This, in turn, enlivens discussions around our readings.

Podcasts also let us become more aware of what it means to be holding the bird in your hands. Keynote speaker Dan Cohen thoughtfully articulated this in his opening remarks for Sound Education. He made the point that, “through the podcast one is able to re-present that curious voice—the cautious, thoughtful voice that is actually there when we are doing the research itself.” The intimate tone that podcasting makes available gives scholars a new way to engage with their own work and to share that engagement in the research process itself more effectively.

Whether in an educational setting or not, the best podcasts use voice and sound as mechanisms for meaning-making and connection building. Whether that connection is between student and ideas in a course, or the academic scholar and the public, or between a me and a you, the value of podcasting is that it establishes a bond.

TO LISTEN IS TO LEARN

Podcasts in an educational institution are a direct outcome of the turn toward “public scholarship” that began in the humanities and social sciences two decades ago. To engage with audiences outside the academy, we need to present scholarly material in accessible and bold formats. Podcasts can do exactly that.

Recording your lecture and putting it online meets the technical definiton of a podcast, but the form can be so much more than that. Character, story, tension, good questions, sound—these are the tools in the toolkit. They are just waiting to be applied to expand the impact of the scholarly work we are engaged in at Middlebury.

JOIN US

The Sound Education conference happened in a church at Harvard Divinity, a glorious place to listen and learn; but so are ordinary classrooms.

In the fall of 2019, we will be hosting a podcasting workshop for faculty at Middlebury. Are you incorporating podcasts into your class? As production or listening assignments? What are you struggling with and what is working? Have you considered making a podcast as an extension or expression of your own research? What support do you need? What questions do you have? I am currently working with the Office of the President to develop a podcast series and I am interested in working with colleagues on the Middlebury faculty to develop their scholarship into compelling audio work.

We hope to expand the capacity of podcast production at Middlebury so that the medium can reach its fullest potential. Let us know if you’d like to attend a workshop by filling out the following questionnaire.

Erin Davis is a documentary filmmaker and podcast producer. She currently teaches FMMC/AMST 0261 Podcasting the Past: Leisure at Middlebury College with support from the DLA. She has been leading podcast production courses at Middlebury since 2012. You can reach her at edavis@middlebury.edu.

Special thanks to Michael Kramer and the DLA for supporting my attendance the Sound Education conference at the Harvard Divinity School this fall.

Designing for Artistic Collaboration with a Computer

By Christopher Andrews

Assistant Professor, Computer Science

Over the past year and a half or so, I have been working to develop an evolutionary art tool based on expression trees. The idea itself is a fairly old one, which can be traced back work done by Karl Sims’ in the early nineties. The underlying idea is that given an arbitrary equation with respect to two variables, X and Y, we can generate an image. Mechanically, we consider the image to lie on the X,Y plane, such that each pixel of the image has a unique (X,Y) coordinate. To draw the image, we visit each pixel of the image and solve the equation using the pixel’s values for X and Y.

This process becomes more interesting when we introduce evolution to it. The computer generates a collection of random equations. The user then selects the most interesting images, and these become the progenitors of a new generation of images. The images can “mate,” swapping pieces portions of their underlying equations, or images can be mutated, the underlying equation changed by swapping variables, changing functions, or even the introduction of complex transformations like mirroring. The user is presented with the new generation, and the cycle starts anew.

Some of the images produced by this process are dross—blank or a confused mass of random noise. Others however, are quite compelling. There are patterns and shapes that emerge, arrangements that can seem familiar yet alien. There is something that draws me to continue to keep iterating, chasing the next surprise.

And yet, there is something vaguely unsatisfying about the process as well. Conceptually, there is an equation that could produce any arrangement of pixels, from a blank slate to the Mona Lisa. The genetic algorithm that drives the process is essentially a search algorithm, exploring the space of all possible images. Leaving aside the (not unimportant) question of whether or not these images are art, we have to ask who the artist is? Karl Sims saw the user as the artist, the act of driving the process akin to being a gardener. Alan Dorin, however, is more dismissive, asking if we would still have respect for Picasso if he produced his works by walking into a Library of Babel filled with images instead of books, wandering the stacks and emerging with a random painting he found that struck his fancy.

One solution to this is to replace the human altogether. The human’s job in this system is evaluation—determining the “fitness” of each image. If some form of aesthetic judgement could be performed by the computer, the entire process could be automated and we could explore the realm of computational creativity. I have been exploring in the other direction. What if the user could be more informed about the process, able to direct the process more? What if we could introduce the potential to attain mastery and to make choices backed by intentionality?

To that end, I have been applying the techniques of visual analytics to this process. The current attempts are centered around “spatializing” the images, arranging them in space based upon some metric or attribute of the image. This should make it easier for the user to quickly evaluate a large collection of images, as well providing new ways to specify to the computer directions to explore based not on random permutations but upon actual features to be accentuated or diminished.

With funding from the DLA, I was able to hire two students last summer to help me begin identifying ways to classify images: Selena Ling and Fiona Sullivan. Selena worked on a machine learning approach to identifying what we are calling “mid-level” image attributes, such as “curviness.” While we have had some early success classifying the degree of curviness of images produced for training, the classifier continues to struggle to produce results that would agree with a human assessment for the more complex images produced by the evolutionary art tool. Fiona’s contribution was to develop a survey asking participants to describe some of these images with an eye towards determining some additional mid-level attributes. While the results were quite varied, we found that there was a clear separation between images that participants described in terms of their structure and images that participants responded to more metaphorically, seeing representations of shapes or emotions. This was not perhaps what we were initially after, but it suggests new avenues to be explored.

Moving forward, we will be taking these varied results and trying to turn them into a useful set of metrics that can be applied to arbitrary images with the ultimate goal of producing a system that is not an independent computer artist, nor a tool like Photoshop, but a collaborator with neither the computer nor the user solely in charge.

Middlebury DLA Summer Institute 2019: Workshop on Videographic Criticism

Interested in exploring scholarship in sound and image? Want to explore new possibilities for conducting analysis and conveying arguments in a multimedia form about multimedia objects of study? Middlebury’s NEH-funded Advanced Institute in Videographic Criticism returns again, this time as the DLA Summer Institute, a tuition-based workshop organized by Middlebury College faculty members Jason Mittell and Chris Keathley, with guest mentor Catherine Grant, Professor of Digital Media and Screen Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. For two weeks, you can spend all of your hours in beautiful Vermont, learning how to make video essays and participating in a robust community of practice fondly known as “video camp.”

The DLA Summer Institute 2019 focused on videographic criticism is open to any participant with a terminal degree (PhD preferred) or currently in a graduate program of study. Participants are not expected to have experience producing videos as the workshop is aimed at exploring the new format and stimulating new ideas. The workshop will strive to create a community of practice among participants, as well as connecting participants to a broader community of videographic critics and scholars.

Please see the DLA Summer Institute 2019 website for details on timing, cost, and participation. Applications are due February 1. Please contact Jason Mittell with any questions, and spread the word!

Digital Methodologies for Art Historians

Sarah Laursen and students discover how digital technologies can enrich art history.

Middlebury art historian and museum curator Sarah Laursen and her students in the Fall 2018 course Digital Methodologies for Art Historians: Ancient Chinese Gold (HARC 355) created an ArcGIS Storymap to share their discoveries. Impressive work, both in form and content, full of exploration and ideas about how digital technologies can create pathways to productive public scholarship.

Here is the link to their findings from the course.