Updates on activities at the DLA.
Updates on activities at the DLA.
Will Nash, American Studies/English and American Literatures—One Cry, Many Voices: The Role of Scrapbooks in the Struggle to End American Chattel Slavery
Abolitionist scrapbooks compiled in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century have been underappreciated and under-analyzed by scholars. Although fighting the anti-slavery battle necessitated overt, often public, action and frequently demanded the collaborative creation of a collective voice to speak against the peculiar institution, the impetus for participation in the struggle necessarily began privately and internally for each individual. If one reads the scrapbooks as illuminating both the subject matter and the maker, then collecting individual maker’s takes on the central moral and political struggle of the mid-nineteenth century provides scholars with an invaluable window of insight into how the struggle arose and how it shaped and was shaped by the individuals, famous and unknown, who embodied and enacted that resistance. It also firmly establishes a connection between the artifacts and our present cultural moment. If, as historian Ira Berlin has asserted, “slavery has become a language, a way to talk about race, in a society in which blacks and whites hardly talk to each other at all,” then exploring the language of the struggle against slavery, and most particularly the language of a collaborative movement like the abolitionist struggle, provides us with a model for thinking about how to address and possibly overcome the inherent tensions and violence that continue to plague America’s racial realities. Within the language of resistance to American chattel slavery, the abolitionist scrapbook stands as a monument both to what an individual can contribute to the struggle and how the preservation and dissemination of his or her insights can help lay a foundation upon which groups of resisters can build. As hybrid texts, the scrapbooks are also ideal candidates for digital humanities work, beginning with the goal of creating a fully-realized, searchable digital edition of the scrapbooks accessible electronically to scholars and teachers who might find the resources useful.
Natalie Eppelsheimer, German—Escape Routes and Refugee Narratives
This project moves from studies of people fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe between 1933 and 1945 to refugee experiences more broadly. It widens the perspective and timeframe by examining escape routes taken by current refugees seeking to reach, rather than escape, Germany. The project will create geospatial visualizations and timelines of refugee stories, use digital tools for text analysis, and harness computational and multimedia tactics to connect WWII-era refugee narratives to a broader geographic and historical context ranging from the writings of German Jewish refugees depicting their lives in British East African colonies to contemporary refugee crises in Europe.
Brigitte Humbert, French—La Grammaire Française: Interactive French Grammar Web Site
This project draws upon materials developed over a career teaching French at Middlebury to build an interactive French grammar website in French with rules, exercises, and activities (songs or games) that are both informative and fun. Explanations of grammar rules are downloadable for safekeeping and further use, as well as readable directly on the site for those who wish to check and confirm a grammar point. Exercises and activities can be downloaded as well, but also done directly on the website with instant feedback. Finally, the site will provide links to more complex French grammar sites for those who wish to study a grammar point more in depth or do further practice.
Jason Mittell, Film and Media Culture/American Studies/Senior Adviser to the DLA—The Characteristics and Characterization of Breaking Bad: A Video Book
This multimedia project will explore the landmark American television series Breaking Bad (2008–13) via the emerging format of videographic criticism, producing a collection of open access video essays interpreting the particular modes of characterization within the series and arguing for the significance of character as an aspect of media storytelling. The resulting “video book” will be intellectually significant in three primary ways: adding to our theoretical and analytical understanding of characterization in moving image media, filling gaps in the existing literature; serving as one of the first extended single- authored studies of one of the most popular, acclaimed and influential contemporary television series; and breaking new ground on how videographic criticism engages with television, establishing a new format of the video book focused on a television series. Given the popularity of the series and the accessibility of and high interest in the video essay format, this video book should make a strong impact on both the academic field of media studies and general audience understanding of Breaking Bad and videographic criticism. Check out a draft of Chapter One, What’s Walt Thinking? Mind Reading & Serialized Memory in Breaking Bad.
Our meeting on algorithmic racism explored how we increasingly live in an algorithmic society, our everyday lives shaped by interactions with Google searches, social media platforms, artificial intelligence software, and myriad devices and programs that rely on the execution of computational algorithms. At the broadest level, We wanted to ask, updating Robert Staughton Lynd’s famous book-title phrase Knowledge For What?, algorithms for what? More specifically, we hoped to explore what it would mean to become “algorithmically fluent” and more critically aware of the ways in which algorithms reinforce or extend larger structures of racism, oppression, injustice, and misrepresentation. And how might we harness the power of algorithms for better ends in scholarship, teaching, inclusivity, freedom, and citizenship in the contemporary world?
We turned to the following readings and case study:
- Safiya Umoja Noble, “Introduction: The Power of Algorithms,” in Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York: New York University Press, 2018)
- Navneet Alang, “Turns Out Algorithms Are Racist,” New Republic,31 August 2017
- Zeynep Tufekci, “YouTube, the Great Radicalizer,” New York Times, 10 March 2018
- Virginia Eubanks, “The Digital Poorhouse,” Harper’s, January 2018
- Zeynep Tufekci, “What Happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson: Net Neutrality, Algorithmic Filtering and Ferguson,” The Message, 14 August 2014
- Benjamin Schmidt, “Do Digital Humanists Need to Understand Algorithms?,” Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016
- Benjamin Schmidt, “Why Digital Humanists don’t need to understand algorithms, but do need to understand transformations,” Sapping Attention, 20 July 2016
- Yeshi Milner, “An Open Letter to Facebook from the Data for Black Lives Movement,” Medium, 4 April 2018
- Li Zhou, “Is Your Software Racist,” Politico, 7 February 2018
Much of our conversation pivoted on two issues: how do we become aware of the effects of algorithms in our lives as citizens, and what kind of curricular interventions at Middlebury might best prepare students for navigating a world of algorithms?
On the former question, we returned repeatedly to the need for awareness, while on the latter we pondered how to enhance this awareness in a liberal arts college curriculum. Our overarching sense seemed to be that not everyone must become proficient in designing algorithms as coders or programmers to develop more contextual understanding of how they function in the Internet and other digital technologies as currently designed. We can learn basic underlying histories and guiding principles for algorithmic construction that help us all better identify when algorithms are causing harm, when they turn into what Cathy O’Neil calls Weapons of Math Destruction.
We can also, fascinatingly, do the reverse: we can use algorithms as a way to glimpse deeper issues of structural racism (not to mention sexism and other isms that name systemic modes of injustice, violence, and suffering). Algorithms, we learned from our readings, get designed and implemented within social conditions that are already systemically racist; is it no wonder that they then, as computational processors of data, information, and knowledge, reproduce racism? What has been most striking, as Safiya Umoja Noble and Zeynep Tufekci show, is how the particular contexts in which algorithms now dominate our lives, amplify these underlying and persistent historical forces? The problem is not algorithmic thinking per se, but rather the frameworks in which algorithms are employed.
And what are these frameworks? We noticed a few from our readings and discussion:
- Advertising as the business model for Silicon Valley. Our authors repeatedly pointed to the ways in which Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other dominant forces on the Internet are all driven by attracting attention to sell advertising. This, as Tufekci contends in the case of YouTube, seems to create algorithmic designs that intensify extremist views and controversy while hollowing out a common middle ground of cultural experience and exchange (although perhaps cat videos might sustain that common space, which is to say perhaps there are certain kinds of kitsch that create commonality!?).
- The bubble effect of social media. Because social media carves up the distinction between private and public spheres in new ways, it undercuts previous assumptions and models about shared culture. Tufekci’s work on Twitter, Facebook, and Fergusoncatches the ways in which the idea of the public sphere has fragmented into a multitude of semi-public spaces. The network models that social media algorithmically generate pose new challenges for giving the public sphere and shared public culture a robust virtual life.
- State power and government regulation. A focus on advertising points to the role of the state in possibly regulating algorithmic activities. However, Virginia Eubanksuncovers ways in which state power has also been misused to exacerbate long-running problems of managing the poor rather than addressing poverty itself. Sometimes this has to do with cynical political decisions or extreme political views, but the managerial-algorithmic complex operating in both corporate-commercial Silicon Valley spaces and governmental decisions may well be as crucial to confront as the problems of consumerist economics underlying the Internet infrastructure.
- How does greater awareness of the role of algorithms in contemporary society relate to the need for increased numeracy? How might we better understand the logics and statistics and approaches of math, statistics, and numbers as part of our civic obligation when it comes to digital technologies, the Internet, and the presence of algorithms in larger systems of oppression? And how do we do so not in a Luddite fantasy of blaming the machines, but rather with a goal of liberation—or at least reform to systems that continue to sustain regimes of racial inequity and injustice?
These are just a few issues that arose in our conversation, which also touched on matters of how we handle the benefits and drawbacks of automation through algorithmic computation, whether the makers of algorithms are ethically responsible for their creations, at one point those who use the algorithms become ethically responsible for their actions, and how we might notice or imagine alternatives to the current technological systems that, despite the more wildly utopian rhetoric about digital culture, have not only reinforced long-running forces of racism, but even escalated them further. How can we devise practical solutions and reforms as well as continue to imagine more wild, utopian alternatives and imaginaries?
In addition to noticing the presence of algorithms in our shared lives as citizens, our conversation also turned to the classroom and curriculum at Middlebury. How do we teach in new ways to advance digital fluencies when it comes to the relationship between algorithms and racism? A debate emerged between two models: does one concentrate on core courses that explore digital fluencies around topics such as the ethics of algorithms or should awareness and thinking about algorithmic thinking suffuse the curriculum across multiple disciplines?
Perhaps the answer is both should happen. Core courses in Computer Science, the social sciences, information environmentalism, philosophy, and history of technology can go deep with the many facets of algorithmic analysis. Our freshman seminars might all contain some kind of digital fluency component. There might be other moments to create cross-campus engagements with the problem and possibilities of the algorithm.
At the same time, heightened awareness of algorithmic thinking might also appear within many different disciplinary areas. The challenge would be to use the increased consciousness of what algorithms are up to in order to deepen student learning about particular fields of study. A good model for this approach might be found in Benjamin Schmidt‘s work on the effort to apply algorithmic thinking to specialized scholarship in literary studies and history (in his commentary on the Jockers/Swafford debates about the Syuzhet Package and sentiment analysis of nineteenth-century European novels). Here, a seemingly esoteric scholarly disagreement cracks open a view on issues not only of algorithms but also the history of the European novel. To be sure, we’ve moved away from racism in its contemporary or historical context in this instance, but we might be able to delve deeper into all sorts of topics such as racism via considerations of the algorithm in various departments, disciplines, courses, units of courses, and fields of study.
In short, we need the history and context of algorithms to understand their workings more critically; at the same time, we might be able to use the growing prevalence of algorithms in society—and debates about their effectiveness and accuracy—as opportunities to gain deeper comprehension of the histories, contexts, methods, approaches, modes of inquiry, information, data, and knowledge that algorithms now increasingly mediate.
Please join the DLA and Davis Educational Foundation Curricular Grant Steering Committee in welcoming Scott Saul, professor of English and American Studies at University of California-Berkeley, to Middlebury on Wednesday, May 2nd, and Thursday, May 3rd. Scott will be discussing his digital research, teaching, and public scholarship. The following events are open to faculty, students, and staff.
Wednesday May 2
DLA Lunch Conversation: Scott Saul, The Berkeley Revolution—Students Develop a Digital Archive of One City’s Transformation in the Late-1960s & 1970s, 12-1:30 pm, CTLR Lounge, Davis Library. Lunch served, please sign up.
Talk: Scott Saul, Reckoning with Richard Pryor—The Seventies Comedy Explosion in the Wake of #BlackLivesMatter & #MeToo, 4:30-6 pm, Axinn 229. Light refreshments, open to the public.
Thursday, May 3
DLA Lunch Conversation: Scott Saul, Chapter & Verse—Podcasting the Digital Public Humanities, 12-1:30 pm, Library 105B, Davis Library. Lunch served, please sign up.
Scott Saul is a Professor of English at UC-Berkeley, where he teaches courses in American literature and history. The author of Becoming Richard Pryor and Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties, he is also the creator of Richard Pryor’s Peoria, an extensive digital companion to his biography of the comedian, and The Berkeley Revolution: A digital archive of one city’s transformation in the late-1960s & 1970s, a website and collective project that emerged from an honors undergraduate seminar in American Studies at UC-Berkeley, “The Bay Area in the Seventies,” taught by Scott in the spring of 2017. He also writes as a cultural critic in The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, Bookforum, and other publications and hosts Chapter & Verse, a books-and-arts podcast sponsored by UC-Berkeley’s Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities that probes the cultural imagination—what Joan Didion once called the stories we tell ourselves to live. It delves into novels, nonfiction, poems, music, film, and other touchstones of our culture, with an eye to the spells they cast and the questions they raise.
DLA’s Digital Fluencies Series investigates what it means to develop more critical facility and engagement with digital technologies. Meetings usually combine 1-3 readings (a link to materials will be provided when necessary) and a case study for hands-on exploration. Faculty, students, and staff at all levels of digital skill are welcome to attend.
Our inaugural meeting focused on databases. Since databases undergird almost every digital project, platform, interface, and tool, but not all databases are alike, we asked how we might better understand what databases are—and what they can be—as core components of digital liberal arts scholarship. We also wanted to investigate how we might become more critically aware of database design’s history, logic, ethical questions, and potential for our scholarship, from research to teaching to working with students in other capacities.
Our readings included:
N. Katherine Hayles, “Databases,” in How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 37-40
Lev Manovich, “Database as Symbolic Form,” Convergence 5, 80 (1999), 80-99
Christiane Paul, “The Database As System and Cultural Form: Anatomies of Cultural Narratives,” in Database Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information Overflow, ed. Viktorija Vesna Bulajic (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 95-109
[Additional post-meeting readings include M.H. Beals, “On transcending Excel, building a better world, and achieving inner peace on social media” and “Building a better data trap; or, why data structures matter.”]
Data services librarian Ryan Clement offered a wonderful basic introduction to the difference between a flat file and relational database (slides) and we looked at readings by Katherine Hayles, Lev Manovich, and Christiane Paul, among others.
A few tentative conclusions from our meeting.
First, we are using databases almost all the time when we turn to digital tools, from WordPress to filling out a form online. So it is incumbent on us to at least be aware of their presence—and the implications of their presence—even if we do not become software engineers, database designers, or coders. This can help us be more critically fluent in terms of questions of data ethics (what should be shared publicly and what should not?) since databases store data and can provide or control various kinds of access (or restrictions to access).
Second, sometimes we work with databases that arrive in more rigid form: licensed datasets and databases (a library catalog, BannerWeb) or applications that sit on top of databases (Adobe Premiere). If we and our students are more critically fluent with how the databases function within these out-of-the-box proprietary tools, we can sometimes find ways to use them or bend them toward our own ends or toward surprising new uses. Sometimes, you can tweak database tools even when they seem constraining at first.
Third, research projects in digital liberal arts often start from scratch. Most typically in an Excel or Google Sheets flat file. Matthew Lincoln has lots of great things to say about this in a recent blog post, Matthew Lincoln, “Best Practices for Using Google Sheets in Your Data Project,” Matthew Lincoln, PhD Art History and Digital Research Blog, 26 March 2018. We noticed that there is an opportunity from the beginning of these research projects to think strategically about database design. We might start out by asking two key questions: what are the qualities of the data? And what does one wish to do with the data? These questions might drive database design (or choice of out-of-the-box database software). Database design arose historically out of pragmatic solutions to data management and analysis issues. We too can join that history by exploring what the qualities of our particular data are and what we are curious about trying to do with our data (look for patterns of connection; create tagged sequences of narrative; generate surprising patterns through computational processing that people might not detect; undergird and support publication; remix and resort by certain parameters; manage fluid data of students and their interests; and so on).
Finally, we came up with three aspects of data worth thinking about: what are the particular units of data with which one is working (names, locations, dates)? What are the relations one is curious about exploring among data? And what are the sorts of operations one wishes to pursue with the data?
We thank all participants for attending the event and starting to think about what it might mean to develop our and our students’ critical digital fluency when it comes to databases.
— Michael J. Kramer, Associate Director of the DLA Initiative
Upcoming topics in the Digital Fluencies Series include: Algorithms, Bots, Data, Platforms, Archives, Gender in Code, Digital Racism, Open Access, Podcasting, Remix, Publishing and Peer Review, Animation, Glitching and Deformance Tactics, Memes, Web Design, the Template, Data Visualization, GIS and Spatial Data/Thinking, and User Experience. Feel free as well to suggest a topic. We welcome your attendance at this ongoing series!
Co-sponsored by DLA, CTLR, Davis Library, and DLINQ. Organized by Leanne Galletly, User Experience & Digital Scholarship Librarian, and Michael J. Kramer, Assistant Professor of the Practice, Digital History/Humanities and Associate Director of the Digital Liberal Arts Initiative. Middlebury go link: go/digitalfluencies.
What Is the Digital Fluencies Series?
The Digital Fluencies Series investigates what it means to develop more critical facility and engagement with digital technologies. Meetings usually combine 1-3 readings (a link to materials will be provided when necessary) and a case study for hands-on exploration. Faculty, students, and staff are all welcome to participate regardless of digital skills. Upcoming topics include: Bots, Data, Platforms, Archives, Gender in Code, Digital Racism, Open Access, Podcasting, Remix, Publishing and Peer Review, Animation, Glitching and Deformance Tactics, Memes, Web Design, the Template, Data Visualization, GIS and Spatial Data/Thinking, and User Experience. Feel free as well to suggest a topic as well. Co-sponsored by DLA, CTLR, Davis Library, and DLINQ. Organized by Leanne Galletly, User Experience & Digital Scholarship Librarian, and Michael J. Kramer, Assistant Professor of the Practice, Digital History/Humanities and Associate Director of the Digital Liberal Arts Initiative. Middlebury go link: go/digitalfluencies.
DLA Behind the Scenes: Digital Story-Telling about Trout and Ecology—Matthew Dickerson
Lunch will be provided. Please RSVP so that we can order enough food.
Digital Fluencies 01: Databases
Please join us for lunch on Wednesday, April 4th from 12 pm-1:30 pm in the CTLR Lounge for the first gathering in our Digital Fluencies series. Sign up to receive link to PDFs of readings and so we know how much lunch to order.
DLA Behind the Scenes Series: Museums Enter the Digital Age—Sarah Laursen
Seth Denbo, Director of Scholarly Communication & Digital Initiatives at the American Historical Association, visits the DLA and CTLR on Wednesday, March 7th, 2018. Seth, an alumnus of Middlebury College, will give a lecture on “Doing History in the Era of the Web” and, in a workshop, he will discuss “Digital Scholarship & Professional Evaluation.” He will also be meeting informally with DLA Fellows and others on campus interested in digital scholarship.
Seth Denbo is Director of Scholarly Communication and Digital Initiatives at the American Historical Association. Seth majored in history at Middlebury College, and after graduating in 1990 he spent several years working in academic publishing at Routledge in New York and then London. He earned his PhD from the University of Warwick in England, where he worked on the cultural history of eighteenth-century Britain. After teaching for several years, Seth moved into digital humanities work, as part of teams developing innovative digital projects, first in the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London and then at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland. At the AHA he oversees the publication department and attempts to keep up with the changing landscape of digital scholarship in history and the impact of the digital age on scholarly communication more broadly.
Next week, there will be another event related to writing pedagogy—a panel entitled “Engaging New Learning & Public Spheres with Technology,” which will place on Monday March 5th, at 4:30pm in Axinn 229. Please see below for more details.
Title: Engaging New Learning and Public Spheres with Technology
Description: Technologies in the classroom can be used to create complex, collaborative projects that challenge students cognitively and rhetorically. Faculty in this “Show & Tell” panel conversation will discuss how they develop invigorating learning spaces that include writing in digital spaces.
Panelists and topics:
- MaryEllen Bertolini (WRPR, Writing Center): Digital Storytelling
- Laurie Essig (GSFS): Feminist Blogging
- Ellery Foutch (AMST): Teaching with Tableau Vivants
- Jason Mittell (FMMC): Videographic Film Studies
- Hector J Vila (WRPR, CTLR): Online Writing for Publication (and will be moderator)
Refreshments will be served!
Shawna Shapiro, PhD
Associate Professor of Writing and Linguistics
Director of the Writing & Rhetoric Program
Monday, March 5: LIB 131 (10:30 – 5pm) – limited space in room
Tuesday, March 6: LIB 105 (10:30 – 5pm)
Wednesday, March 7: LIB 131 (10:45 – 12:25pm) – limited space in room
Reach out if you have any questions. Hope to see you there!
Leanne Galletly (she/her/hers)
User Experience & Digital Scholarship Librarian
Davis Family Library 207