Preparing for XR – Hands On Community Design for a Digital Age

For the past few months, I have served on the steering committee for a proposed Extended Reality (XR) space on the University of Rochester’s River Campus.  My tenure as an Andrew D. Mellon Fellow in Digital Humanities has provided me with many opportunities to engage with a broad range of digital tools and techniques aimed at research and teaching.  The steering committee, however, has been an opportunity to be involved in the nuts and bolts process behind the development of new digital spaces and opportunities for the university community.  As I quickly discovered, this process calls for a very different set of skills than either research or teaching.  The process of consulting the various stakeholders, carefully designing charrettes to elicit useful and valuable feedback, and developing a coherent proposal for a functional, accessible space that meets those needs was an enlightening departure from my normal role as a passive user of university spaces and amenities. The vast majority of the credit must go the the committee leader, Director of Research Initiatives, Lauren Di Monte, who brought her extensive experience and knowledge to the process and has taught me a great deal about the skills and careful design that goes into the process.

The committee’s primary responsibility was to design and execute charrettes, collaborative planning and brainstorming exercises that both identify significant concerns and needs and distill the feedback into structured, actionable ideas.  Creating effective charrettes is a delicate process.  As a participant in test charrettes over summer, I learned how important the specific parameters of the exercises were in generating useful results.  Asking participants to engage with a variety of considerations, from budget concerns to spatial design and conceptual emphases, charrettes help refine vague, general responses into clear, coherent feedback.  The process was also particularly encouraging as an example of facilitating and encouraging fruitful interdisciplinary work.  Bringing together a broad cross section of stakeholders, from undergraduate, graduate, faculty and library staff, from a wide variety of disciplines, the charrettes were remarkably successful in highlighting shared goals, complementary ideas and the value of diverse perspectives.  It was a little surprising, but also very gratifying, to discover exciting parallels between my concerns and aspirations as a digital humanists and those of participants from the hard sciences.  At the same time, I also discovered that our differences were also valuable to the process and more than once I found myself considering an idea pitched by someone from a different disciplinary background that had not and would never have occurred to me.

Overall, my experience on the committee has not only been exciting and enriching, but also encouraging.  The interdisciplinary tenor of the public charrettes reflects, I believe, the value and the potential of an XR space, and digital scholarship in general, to foster new interdisciplinary relationships and projects.  Interdisciplinary collaboration is often extolled as a hallmark of digital humanities, but in practice it remains elusive.  Participating in the design for the proposed XR space underscored for me the power and value of engaging with disciplinary perspectives from outside not only history but the humanities as a whole   In the process of planning itself, I participated in and observed a surprisingly amount of interdisciplinary collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas as diverse groups came together to attack challenges and negotiate parameters with admirable gusto and imaginative solutions.  The success of the sessions has reinvigorated my hopes for interdisciplinary collaborations, and left me with a quiet optimism towards the proposed XR space as an exciting venue for new forms of fertile collaboration.

James S. Rankine is a 2017-2019 Andrew Mellon Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Department of History.

The Lessons of Teaching Digital Humanities

Students learn about the powerful emerging technologies and applications of Augmented and Virtual Reality from guest lecturer Josh Shagam.

As part of the Andrew Mellon Fellowship, fellows are required to undertake teaching assistantships in fields related to the Digital Humanities.  The University of Rochester’s Digital Media Studies Program has a close association with the Mellon Program, and many previous fellows have served as Teaching Assistants for its courses.  This semester, I, along with my colleague Oishani Sengupta, have been assisting with DMS103, a broad introduction to various forms, functions and applications of major forms of digital media designed to give incoming majors a solid foundational understanding of the field.  The course consists of five sections covering photography, video, graphic design, 3D object design, and augmented and virtual reality.

As an historian, it was not without trepidation that I took on this role.  My own experience with digital media tools has been largely autodidactic experimentation and some of the areas covered by the course, particularly the virtual and augmented reality section covered digital media formats with which I had very little direct experience.  Thus, the assignment has certainly fulfilled the Mellon Program’s commitment to pushing fellows out of their comfort zone and into novel and challenging territory.  In order to effectively teach in DMS103, I was obligated to learn.  I found myself doing plenty of independent research on the finer points of Adobe Photoshop toolbars and Blender optimisation techniques, and often student’s specific problems provided valuable opportunities to master particularly tricky or obscure features of a piece of software.

At the same time, however, the teaching experience was also a profound learning experience that led me to reevaluate the potential role of digital media in my work as an historian.  I often found myself considering ways that some digital media technologies, some of them still emerging, could be applied in teaching history, in classrooms and in public settings.  More comfortable with musty manuscripts and the printed word than with visual media, historians could stand to benefit from integrating them more dynamically and creatively into their lessons than as ancillary elements in slide shows.  In particular, the potential of virtual and augmented reality to bring history to students and members of the public is an exciting prospect.  One can, for instance, imagine the transformation of public spaces into augmented teaching spaces through software which takes advantage of ubiquitous smart phone technology.

Of course, integrating digital media more meaningfully into history as a discipline also requires historians to obtain a degree of expertise in the software that powers them.  Over the course of the semester, tackling problems side-by-side with students and the other DMS103 teaching staff, I have learned that this is a daunting, but also very rewarding process, and by no means an insurmountable one for the resourceful scholar.  I now look towards digital media formats as a teaching opportunity rather than an intimidating barrier, and am excited to devise ways to integrate it into lessons on history, which is, perhaps the largest lesson of this teaching experience!

James S. Rankine is a 2017-2018 Andrew Mellon Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Department of History.

Playing with Digital Histories in the R-CADE

Robert Emmons and James J. Brown, of Rutgers University, Camden presented a fascinating history of the conception, development and ongoing work of their R-CADE Archive of Digital Ephemera at the Humanities Center.  R-CADE is an archival project that encourages researchers to engage directly with objects not through preservation, but exploration, repair, repurposing and transformation.  Conceived as part of a broad, interdisciplinary effort which Emmons and Brown call Digital Studies (a brand that has drawn in scholars and students from the humanities and sciences alike) R-CADE has hosted four successful symposia at Rutgers-Camden, and has grown from its humble beginnings into one of the most notable events in the field.

Professor Brown kicked off the talk by giving a short personal history of his pitch for what would eventually become the R-CADE, a Digital Studies project that would not only collect digital objects and software, but create an environment where “Scholars are free to take apart, dissect, and repurpose artifacts … as they attempt to understand their historical and cultural significance.”  The following year, the R-CADE hosted its first symposium organized around the Gameboy Camera.  The event attracted scholars from a variety of fields, including Media Studies, Childhood Studies and Fine Arts, who collaborated to explore and exhibit the historical and cultural significance of the Gameboy Camera in a variety of presentations, art installations and presentations.

Professor Emmon then discussed how the overwhelming success of R-CADE’s first symposium has fueled the evolution of the annual symposia from events focused on a specific digital artifact into broader events tackling multiple artifacts and drawing scholars from further afield (including the University of Rochester’s own Josh Romphf).  Next year, Professors Brown and Emmon look forward to hosting “Technique” the first themed symposium at Rutgers-Camden.  Following their talk, our guests fielded questions from a curious crowd about their unique project and its many novel features.


James Rankine is a PhD Candidate at the History Department of the University of Rochester and a 2017-2019 Mellon Fellow in the Digital Humanities.

Atlantic Piracy Database

The Atlantic Piracy Database is an ongoing project that seeks to collect, compile and collate documented pirate attacks, surrenders and sightings throughout the early modern Atlantic between 1660 and 1760. Although we have some sense of the scale, geographic distribution and intensity of piracy in the Atlantic region over time, the Atlantic Piracy Database seeks to create a more comprehensive record and quantitative analysis. Although still under construction, the project currently contains over eight hundred distinct incidents mostly drawn from an intensive analysis of the contents of British and colonial newspapers during the period. Additional content from archival and other sources is being added to enrich and expand the overarching portrait of piracy in the early modern Atlantic world. Ideally, the project will mature into a powerful research resource and the foundations of public history projects via GIS mapping and other interactive digital tools.

PI: James S. Rankine, Department of History, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow (2017-2019)

THATCamp 2018

THATCamp Rochester 2018, Memorial Art Gallery, March 23rd.

The Andrew D. Mellon Program is delighted to announce THATCamp Rochester 2018, a Digital Humanities “Unconference” created in partnership with The Digital Humanities and Social Sciences program at the  Rochester Institute of Technology and the Memorial Art Gallery.    THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) is an event that embraces an informal, spontaneous, inclusive and participatory style, a unique approach that encourages group discussions, practical joint workshops and on-the-spot collaborative efforts in the digital humanities.

THATCamp Rochester 2018 will be held at the Memorial Art Gallery, March 23rd, from 9.00am to 5.00pm.  In keeping with the venue, participants are encouraged to (but not limited to) explore the role of material objects, archival materials and new and old media as experienced by scholars and the broader public.

Michael Phelps will give a keynote address at the University of Rochester on Thursday, March 22nd, at 5pm.  Phelps will discuss his work as the director of the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL) and multi-spectral imaging project at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula.  Phelps will also be attending THATCamp as a participant and interlocutor.

To be a part of THATCamp, participants are encouraged to register here and to visit the THATCamp Rochester 2018 website for more information.

Location: Memorial Art Gallery, 500 University Ave., Rochester NY 14607.
Time: 9am – 5pm.