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.

October 2017 Newsletter





DH Lunch
Mellon Digital Humanities Fellows at the University of Rochester are pleased to invite you to attend our second DH lunch this semester, organized in collaboration with the Global DH Group. Please RSVP by October 17th. For more information, please see our October Newsletter below or visit our website at 





Thursday, October 19th, 1pm
Gamble Room, Rush Rhees Library
(Lunch will be provided.)
Lisa Nakamura is the Gwendolyn Calvert Baker Collegiate Professor in the Department of American Cultures at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is one of the leading scholars in the field of critical digital media studies/digital humanities. From coining the concept of “cybertype” as distinctive ways that the internet propagates, disseminates, and commodifies images of race and racism, to locating the internet as a privileged and extremely rich site for the creation and distribution of hegemonic and counterhegemonic visual images of racialized bodies, Nakamura has significantly contributed to the theory of racial formation in digital cultures. Her publications include Race After the Internet (2011, co-edited with Peter Chow-White) and Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet (2007).







Thursday, October 26th

An international group of scholars will provide the state of digital humanities research as it relates to studies of medieval music manuscripts, including machine-reading of early music notation and collaborative techniques for indexing manuscripts of medieval chant. An evening performance by the women of Chicago-based early music ensemble Schola Antiqua features a pre-modern convent program, including music associated with a 13th-century Italian convent, which will be discussed in the morning sessions. The concert also includes keyboard pieces and some of the earliest known polyphony associated with nuns.

Half-Day Symposium
9 AM – 12:30 PM
Hatch Recital Hall | Eastman East Wing
FREE and open to the public. Registration recommended. Register Here   




Newsletter Submission

The Mellon DH Fellows are creating a newsletter this year to serve as an outlet for DH-related events in the greater Rochester area. As we prepare for our October newsletter, we would love to include any DH-related announcements you would like to make. To make a submission, please contact us at by 12:00pm, Friday, November 3. The final version of the newsletter will be sent out the first week of October. Announcements must be 50 words or less and include relevant information: date and time, how to RSVP, and a link to the relevant webpage. We reserve the right to edit for space but encourage links or visuals for readers who are interested to learn more information. 
















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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.

September 2017 Newsletter


DH Lunch
Mellon Digital Humanities Fellows at the University of Rochester are pleased to invite you to attend our first DH lunch this semester. Please RSVP by September 18th. For more information, please see our September Newsletter below or visit our website at 

Friday, September 22, 2017 12pm
Humanities Center, Conference Room D
James J. Brown, Jr., Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Digital Studies Center, Rutgers University-CamdenRobert A. Emmons, Jr., Assistant Professor of Fine Arts and Associate Director of the Digital Studies Center, Rutgers University-CamdenIn 2014, Robert Emmons and Jim Brown launched the Rutgers-Camden Archive of Digital Ephemera (R-CADE), a collection of digital artifacts made available for research and creative activities. Scholars are free to take apart, dissect, and repurpose artifacts in the R-CADE as they attempt to understand their historical and cultural significance. While the R-CADE does not preserve in the sense of keeping objects in their “original” condition, the archive is in fact an exercise in the preservation of digital culture. The R-CADE has expanded and changed in the intervening three years, and this presentation will discuss the genesis of the project, its theoretical underpinnings, and how the annual R-CADE Symposium has grown. Emmons and Brown will share some of the work that has emerged from the R-CADE and will discuss some of the project’s future directions.

New Fellows
This fall, we also welcome four new fellows to the Mellon Digital Humanities Graduate Program. More information about the incoming fellows can be found below.

Helen Davies

Education: B.A. History and Classical Civilizations with minors in Latin, Medieval Studies, Anthropology, Loyola University Chicago, 2009; M.A. Medieval Studies, University of York, 2011; M.A. Digital Humanities, 2013.

Biography: Helen Davies is a second year PhD student in English. Her interests focus on the early medieval multi-cultural British Isles, medieval maps, and digital humanities. She is digitally recovering the Vercelli Mappa Mundi through the use of multispectral imaging. This project fits into a larger dissertation on place and space in medieval literature. Helen serves as the graduate student coordinator of The Lazarus Project ( Additionally, she has helped set up and coordinate R-CHIVE, an inter-university cultural heritage imaging cooperation between the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology. Helen hopes to use her time as Mellon fellow to explore the intersection between Digital Humanities, Medieval Manuscripts, and pedagogy.

James Rankine

Education: BA, History with Honours First Class, University of Queensland, 2005; MA, History, University of Rochester, 2014.

Biography: James Rankine is a fifth year PhD Candidate in the Department of History. His dissertation examines the cultural and social history of pirates, piracy and violence in the early modern Atlantic. In particular, James’ work seeks to reassess our understanding of pirates’ careers and culture by highlighting the ways in which their historical reality radically differs from popular memory. James has also spent several seasons as a site supervisor for the University of Rochester’s Smith’s Island Archeology Project under Professor Michael Jarvis.. He is currently working on PirateDB a digital database which collects and displays hundreds of contemporary newspaper reports of pirate activity across the Atlantic world. Currently, James serves as a teaching assistant in the Digital Media Studies Essential Digital Media Toolkit course along with the other first year Mellon Fellows.

Oishani Sengupta

Education: B.A. in English Literature, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, 2013; M.A. in English Literature, Jadavpur University, Kolkata 2015.

Biography: Oishani Sengupta is a third year PhD student in the Department of English. Her work focuses on illustrated novels in the Victorian period and their role in shaping national and cultural identity. Oishani works as a Research Assistant for the William Blake Archive where she participates in two specialized teams that are prototyping digital editions of The Four Zoas and Blake’s marginalia. As an Andrew W. Mellon Digital Humanities fellow, she hopes to explore methods of designing and implementing digital image archives and study the changing relationships of image and text in the nineteenth century. Currently, she serves as a teaching assistant in the Digital Media Toolkit course with the other first year Mellon Fellows.

Julia Tulke

Education: B.A. Social and Cultural Anthropology, Free University Berlin, 2011; M.A. European Ethnology, Humboldt University Berlin, 2014.

Biography: Julia Tulke is a third year PhD student in the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies. Her work focuses on street art and graffiti as mediums of expression and dissent in cities undergoing social and political crises. In this context she has conducted extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Athens since 2013. More information on this ongoing research project can be found at As an Andrew W. Mellon Digital Humanities fellow, Julia hopes to explore the intersections between visual anthropology and digital humanities scholarship. Currently, she is serving as a teaching assistant in the digital media studies course Essential Digital Media Toolkit.

Newsletter Submission
The Mellon DH Fellows are creating a newsletter this year to serve as an outlet for DH-related events in the greater Rochester area. As we prepare for our October newsletter, we would love to include any DH-related announcements you would like to make. To make a submission, please contact us at by 12:00pm, Tuesday, October 3. The final version of the newsletter will be sent out the first week of October. Announcements must be 50 words or less and include relevant information: date and time, how to RSVP, and a link to the relevant webpage. We reserve the right to edit for space but encourage links or visuals for readers who are interested to learn more information.

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Loving Dido

ENG 396 ‘Loving Dido’ is an Honors seminar structured around Virgil’s story of Dido in the Aeneid, and its long literary and cultural afterlife. Students are provided with readings from over two millennia of commentaries, poetry, novels – and viewings of 12 different operatic productions – and discuss the material every week in the context of the original text. There is also a digital component to the course. Professor Tom Hahn believes that a non-traditional course like ‘Loving Dido’, which considers vast arrays of unsorted data on a single subject, is ideally placed to make use of digital tools like content management systems, and the opportunities therein for establishing links and networks between individual items. The omeka-based website run by the class contains nearly 2000 images and video footage inspired by the Dido story. Every week, students post commentaries on selected images, and argue for relationships between the disparate items which moves beyond historical or archival principles. As well as being useful pedagogical tools, such websites promise remarkable possibilities for exploring how humanities material transforms its audience, and is itself transformed, through digital resources.

Recap: The DH Grad Student and the Job Market

After completing her PhD in the Department of English at the University of Rochester, Szabo took a position as an Instructional Multimedia Specialist at Grinnell College. Shortly thereafter, she was offered a position at Stanford University where she worked in Academic Technology in the Stanford University Libraries. While at Stanford University she helped to develop numerous digital projects for both teaching and research. Her diverse skill sets and experiences helped prepare for her current position as an Associate Research Professor in the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke University. Szabo wears many hats at Duke University where she is connected with the Information Sciences, Computational Media, Wired! Lab, the Franklin Humanities Center, and Bass Connections. The wide range of responsibilities and positions helped to inform her discussion with digitally minded graduate students about the academic job market.

Szabo stressed the importance of flexibility for graduate students as they approach the job market. As traditional tenure-track jobs continue to dwindle, she argued, the digital humanist should recognize the fluidity of their skills. Digital humanists are valued assets to libraries and other departments where a skillset is more desirable than the departmental affiliation associated with a Ph.D. As a result graduate students involved in the digital humanities should build a portfolio of work to demonstrate skills learned as well as their application. With a field as young and broad as the Digital Humanities, Szabo urged graduate students to be proficient with one, or two, digital tools. By building a (manageable) digital project or incorporating a tool into one’s traditional dissertation, graduate students can better prove their competencies in DH.

Digital humanists might never be considered a “traditional” faculty members. Szabo demonstrated that this reality is not necessarily a bad thing. She pointed out that she has had the opportunity to travel abroad for research, work on numerous digital projects, and collaborate across disciplines. Her publications and projects demonstrate a productive and rewarding career path. Szabo’s skills are valued and her perspectives are unique. The inherent flexibility of DH, she argued, is increasingly sought out in an age where boundaries between disciplines are beginning to break down. As departments begin to incorporate digital literacies into their curriculum, digital humanists will be a valuable source of knowledge for those disciplines now facing the realities of 21st century technologies. Ultimately, she argued, the changing landscape of academia requires graduates students to be flexible, optimistic, and creative—essential traits of the digital humanist.

Camden Burd is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Rochester. He is a 2016-2018 Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Digital Humanities.


Victoria Szabo — Omeka Workshop

To kick off Victoria Szabo’s visit, we actually left the Humanities side of campus and made our way to Carlson Library and its high-tech Vista Collaboratory, a visualization lab with a interactive, 24-screen tiled-display wall. With the help of support staff Jonathan Carroll-Nellenback and Carl Schmidtmann, Victoria had arranged a detailed, visually exciting guide through the basic structure, and some of the more obscure and difficult features, of the online archive platform Omeka.


Having pre-arranged specific Omeka accounts of for each of the 31 participants at the workshop, Victoria launched into the goal for today: to create an interactive display of notable graves in the nearby Mt Hope cemetery. We all signed up for a particular grave on a shared googlesheet, and got to work adding images as items and writing up funny (or not) captions and accompanying text. The first hour of the workshop was consumed with the business of creating these and adding tags, collecting them within new exhibits, producing relevant (or not) metadata, and otherwise exploring the basic functionality of the site. Meanwhile Victoria was everywhere around the room, helping those who were stuck, suggesting new or better choices, and prepping for the next stage.


Neatline is a plugin for Omeka which allows the user to represent geospatial information — and as we were working on the Mt Hope Cemetery, an apt choice for a display tool. Giving us a map of the cemetery, Victoria then guided us through the possibilities for collectively shaping the map with our newly-collected, newly-made material. There were far more features than we were capable of working with in the limited time for the workshop, but even just playing around with the colour and style of our additions let us feel like we were making substantial contributions to a group project. As Victoria presented it, Neatline was a great tool for adapting textual information to be accessibly viewed within a spatial environment, and as a medium which invariably complicated and challenged the simpler items we had originally made.

Over too soon, the workshop was definitely an enlivening way to start off Professor Szabo’s visit to Rochester.


Alison Harper is a PhD student in English at the University of Rochester. She is a 2015-2017 Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Digital Humanities.

Learning As We Go Along

DH projects can be fickle beasts. Of course, any sort of research can be unpredictable. Progress often comes in fits and starts and the path forward is rarely clear. Unforeseen obstacles are part of game. But the application of digital methods to humanistic questions adds a twist. Digital tools have a life all their own and sometimes things don’t go as planned.

I encountered this personally when working with Dr. Joel Burges on his Televisual Time project. The aim of the project is to employ digital, distant reading techniques to TV Guide Magazine in order to discover how time is structured in and through televisual experience. Like many digital projects, the first step was to build a data set.

Two possibilities for building the data set presented themselves. The first was to transcribe the content by hand, an inconvenient and time-consuming prospect. Thus, since hand transcription wasn’t a live option, a second course was chosen. This involved scanning paper copies of TV Guide and employing Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology to generate searchable text from the images.
Tracy Stuber, who preceeded me as research assistant for the TV Guide project, started the process. She scanned a selection of TV Guide issues and made some first attempts at running OCR software on the images.

But the task of generating a searchable text version of the scans proved surprisingly difficult. Tracy made the first attempt to run OCR software on the scans using the OCR built into Adobe Reader. But the results were mixed. Take for example, page 5 from the May 1-7 1953 edition.

Notice the layout of the page. The stylized title of the article, the multiple columns of text, the images laid out with captions. These visual features, while very familiar to the modern, human eye, proved to be only somewhat readable by a machine. Here is what Adobe’s OCR technology delivered when run on this page:

old favorites
take heart
ed mack’s triumphant return to
television with his Original Amateur
Hour, largely in answer to the demands
of loyal viewers, has raised
hopes of scores of other former favorites
now absent from video screens.
When Mack’s new show was scheduled
for the NBC network, it touched
off speculation that many other shows,
formerly very popular, .were on the
way back.
In Mack’s case, thousands of letters,

There is a lot that worked well here. We have some strange artifacts like the hard break after “T” and the extra period added between “popular” and “were” in the third-to-last line, but the text is largely in good order. But notice that the image captions were completely omitted. The program didn’t even register these at all. A puzzling outcome, possibly due to the lay out of the captions. But this was a harbinger of things to come. For although the OCR seemed to work fairly well on articles like this one, the core of TV Guide Magazine is the schedule. And here things got worse. Take for example, this page from the same issue.

Here’s a close-up of the top of the page.

Note the elaborate visual structure. The top of the page includes captioned images to feature certain programs. The schedule itself is laid out in such a way as to make things easy to understand, but hard for a machine to process. For instance, we have a column indicating the time, a column indicating the channel, and a column listing the program with a description. But the times aren’t repeated for each show. And not every channel airs a program at every time. This visual structure is completely lost on the OCR technology. Here is an excerpt of the Adobe OCR of this page.

4:30 P.M. (5) 5:30 P.M. (7) 6 P.M. (4) 6:15 P.M. (5) 7 P.M. (5)
4 "Goin' To Town"
MOVIE—Lum & Abner run the general
store at Pine Ridge & become
victims of a practical joke perpetrated
by a visiting oil promoter.
7 News With Ulmer Turner
5 Hawkins Falls—Serial Tale
Spec Bassett finds that the honeymoon
is over & so is his marriage.
7 Lucky 7 Ranch—Western Film
“Toll of the Desert”

Obviously, we’ve got some problems. The OCR read the times as a separate column but still separated them with hard returns. This completely divorces the times from the listings. It then included the names from the featured programs at the top, this time reading them all as one line while the times associated are, once again, separated from their targets. Things go a bit better when we consider the text of the programs. Here, at least, we get the full sentences, with proper capitalization, and the associated channel listing. But this information doesn’t do much help without connecting listings with their times.

At this point, I attempted a switch in technologies. Google produced an application called Tesseract which is now open source. I was hopeful that Tesseract might be able to improve upon things. Alas, it was not to be. Here’s Tesseract’s output on the same passage. Forgive the length, I wanted to portray the output as it was when it was generated.










4:30 P.M. (5)



("8 00 NM‘NUI

UthlUIAVOVUlhul .Q Who N


5:30 P.M. (7)

"Goin' To Town"

MOVIE—Lum & Abner run the gen-
eral store at Pine Ridge & become
victims of a practical joke perpe-
trated by a visiting oil promoter.

News With Ulmer Turner

Hawkins Falls—Serial Tale

Spec Bassett finds that the honey-
moon is over & so is his marriage.

lucky 7 Ranch—Western Film
“Toll of the Desert"

Here, we discover even more problems! And things only get worse when we run more recent issues through the OCR. Take this page from a 2001 edition of the magazine.

And here, in its entirety, is the text obtained from this page via one of the OCR runs:

48 I TV GUIDE Oakland Rebuild (8044/03)

That’s it. Just two paltry lines. And literally none of the information from the grid was even registered as characters, let alone correctly. Other pages with a similar structure produced semi-readable results, but Tesseract didn’t see what the human eye sees: the grid structure. So the text read straight across the line without consideration for the lines dividing the cells.

All of this led me to the inevitable conclusion. Our data set was not going to be created via the OCR technologies in their present state. And, given how much time hand entering the data would take, the prospect of obtaining a usable data set for a distant reading approach seemed a pipe dream. So Dr. Burges declared the experiment over and moved on to a different research method. And I walked away having learned about the limitations of OCR technologies, the complexity of visually displayed data in print formats, and the way that DH projects have a life of their own.

Blake Archive Forever

Manuscript page of Vala Four Zoas by William Blake.

As Mellon Fellows, Eitan, Serenity, Chris, and I have been semi-strategically embedded into a few faculty research projects that feature strong digital characteristics. We’re there to assist and learn as much as possible.

Since I had already attached myself to the William Blake Archive when I first arrived at UR last year, it was decided that I would continue with Blake and take on more challenging projects.

In one respect, working with the Blake Archive is a considerably different endeavor than working with the other affiliated projects because, well, it’s been around forever (in DH-years). As a landmark editorial project first conceptualized in the early ‘90s–the first digital edition to receive MLA’s “CSE Approved Edition” seal in 2005–the Blake Archive has been subsequently scrutinized as a case study in countless theoretical and pragmatic contexts. Continue reading “Blake Archive Forever”

Exploring Digital Heritage

Photogrammetry is a process in which several images of an object, building, or landscape are digitally stitched together to create a three-dimensional representation. By collecting a series of images from different depths and angles historians can recreate historic structures and landscapes as tools for historical interpretation, argumentation, as well as a device for learning. While the capabilities of photogrammetry are wide-ranging, historians most commonly use photogrammetry as a tool for the collection and preservation of cultural heritage. The ability to capture building designs, historic structures, and other objects provides historians with the tools to revisit and interpret historical spaces well after technological advances or natural processes change the shape of objects and landscapes.


Walking through the historic Mt. Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York I stumbled upon the grave of George W. Stebbins. After taking a series of pictures from different vantages, I compiled to files into Agisoft PhotoScan. One of many programs programed to reconstruct photographs into three-dimensional objects, Agisoft Photoscan identifies similar features in each photograph and compiles them object according to shared features. By creating a mesh of the compiled images, I then constructed an object that can be twisted, turned, and examined more dynamically than a traditional photograph.



The construction of the three-dimensional grave provides a digitally accessible object that otherwise may be inaccessible because of geography and funds. Collecting a series of objects serves as both a means of cultural resource management and a vehicle in which to compile historic evidence in new and compelling ways. For example, the Virtual St. George’s Project housed at the University of Rochester uses historic inventories, architectural drawings, and archaeological findings to reconstruct eighteenth-century St. George’s Bermuda. Students and project participants are building a rich database of historic information while also creating a game-like interface to demonstrate the significance of Bermuda in the eighteenth-century Atlantic World. Using photogrammetry and other three-dimensional rendering technologies historians can save, restore, and share historical information in dynamic and interactive ways.

Camden Burd is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Rochester. He is a 2016-2018 Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Digital Humanities.

This post was originally published on his personal website with interactive 3D viewer. See more here…

DH Makes Explicit

Screenshot of XML markup.

“I’m still looking for that nugget, that thing I can take away from DH and say ‘here’s the contribution; this is how it relates to someone like me.'”

After a digitally inclined guest lecture on campus last week, a fellow grad student pressed me with this basic question on what Digital Humanities brings to the scholarly table. I understood her mild bewilderment. For those who are not technologically inclined, DH in practice can seem like a heap of techno babble and gimmickry haphazardly tossed over, at best, quasi-scholalry inquiry. Likewise, for those are not humanistically inclined, DH in practice can seem like a misguided use of technological equipment and computational methods.

It’s difficult to even label these reactions as misconceptions. The [intellectual, monetary] hype surrounding DH unfortunately tends to connote lofty ideals, revolutionary ontologies, the latest tools, as well as unnerving intimations of “progress” and the future of the humanities. Furthermore, Matthew Kirschenbaum, on several occasions, has reminded readers about the formation of the term “digital humanities” and its specific relationship with “marketing and uptake” (1) and its current use as a “tactical” term to “get things done” in the academy, be it obtain funding or promote a career (2).

In short, there’s a need for both reconciliation and promotion of the term’s more meaningful usages, particular as a label that describes new practices in the humanities for curious and skeptical onlookers alike. If DH is to be inclusive, its practitioners should take care to articulate clearly their goals and methods to colleagues in all humanities disciplines, not only those who are digitally literate. If DH is to be an advocate for the humanities to the public–as Alan Liu thinks they can be (3)–clear articulation becomes more important still.

DH Makes Explicit

In a 2013 interview, Johanna Drucker recollected that the “mantra of 1990s Digital Humanities” required “making everything explicit we, as humanists, have long left implicit” (4). Her comments refer to the logic of programming–“coding” as a structure for inquiry–but this sentiment also offers an attractive and powerful model for an inclusive DH, and for its full partnership in the humanities in general.

Quickly, let’s apply that framework to a variety of examples:

Screenshot of XML markup.
While hierarchical markup languages like XML make texts machine-readable, their use first requires that textual scholars consistently analyze and describe their texts’ discrete physical characteristics.
  • Textual Studies: TEI, markup, editing. Like its analog counterpart, digital editing requires its practitioners to throw into relief bibliographic data embedded in physical texts. Markup languages like XML require the attribution of values to textual data. In a simplistic view, explaining a text to a computer requires us to explain it first to ourselves. (We’re having quite a time with William Blake’s Four Zoas manuscript over in the Blake Archive.)
  • Literary History: or, the Moretti movement. When I first read Moretti’s now-mandatory Graphs, Maps, Trees (5), I found the middle “Maps” section to be the least provocative. Perhaps that initial reading holds up, but only because the methods described are also the most familiar. When asking “Do maps add anything to our knowledge of literature?”, Moretti illustrates the “centric composition” of Mary Mitford’s Our Village. The map is not an answer to anything, but rather evidence of a narrative feature that requires explanation. In other words, the map makes explicit what our brains are already doing in constructing the narrative.
  • Collaboration: DH in practice, in theory. At a recent inter-departmental panel on “Evaluating Digital Projects as Scholarship,” I was stunned to see a senior faculty member cling so tightly to the image of the isolated scholar, the sole author. Yet the incident is also evidence of the disarming effectiveness of DH to explicate, even exaggerate, the collaborative nature of scholarly inquiry, of “work,” of language. While monograph production still remains the normative argumentative structure in the humanities, DH has the ability to critique these modes of production through a kind of processional remediation. In other words, while DH often remediates a variety of texts, it also remediates a variety of roles in the production of those texts and the production of knowledge. Publishers and editors give way to IT directors and programmers; grad seminars give way to graduate research assistantships. This collaborative stance also makes DH an exceptionally natural partner for critical theorists in a variety of backgrounds, whether poststructuralists, McGannian editors, or feminists. The “digital” is so inherently problematic for hegemonic, centralized [hermeneutic] authority that its position as a polemic is only limited by its increasing permeance as common practice. New endeavors like “open peer review,” crowdsourcing, and collaborative authorship represent only the tip of the iceberg.
  • The University: departments and disciplines. The idea of “interdisciplinary study” has long been used as shorthand for “diverse research interests,” but how diverse has it usually been? Maybe an English prof who crosses the quad to visit the history department. DH has proven to be an effective identifier of false boundaries within the university structure, particularly the “big one” between sciences and the humanities. Increasingly common vocabularies and technologies have made it possible for humanists to approach the sciences, and vice versa, with informed critical perspectives. It’s happening at the undergraduate level, too, with examples like Stanford’s new CS+English dual major or U of R’s newly revised Digital Media Studies major.

Where Have All the Computers Gone?

For the most part, computer technology is de-emphasized in this outward-facing characterization of DH, and yet it’s because of this de-emphasis that I believe this strategy to be the most advantageous for communicating with peers–and the public–outside of our communities of digital scholars. Coding and building are important for practitioners of DH, but the mere use of technology can’t be why DH is important for the humanities. Instead, when we use DH to “make explicit,” we appeal to a common method of all critical inquiry: to identify and articulate underlying ideological operations, whether they exist in cultural structures, like gender, or cultural artifacts, like literature.

DH’s unique contribution, then, comes with the specific manifestation of this “classic” line of inquiry through new technologies that help us ask, ideally, better questions. And, as we can see with even a cursory list of examples, it’s not simply the “products” of DH that make explicit, but the practice as well.


Eric Loy is a PhD student in the Dept. of English at the University of Rochester.


1. Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: GC CUNY, 2013. Web. <>

2. Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “Digital Humanities As/Is a Tactical Term.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: GC CUNY, 2013. Web. <>

3. Liu, Alan. “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: GC CUNY, 2013. Web. <>

4. Berdan, Jennifer. “The Emerging Field of Digital Humanities: An Interview with Johanna Drucker.” InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies 9.2 (2013). Web. <>

5. Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. New York: Verso, 2007. Print.

Digital Mapping and the “Sense of Place”

Map overlay

The fetid musk of South Side slaughterhouses, the eclectic sprawl of Dublin, the muck of the Everglades: these sensual ambiences enwrap readers of The Jungle, Ulysses, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. Between those pages, space and atmosphere seems to “thicken, take on flesh,” as Mikhail Bakhtin wrote. These novels are exemplars, of course, but in general we don’t hesitate to label great fiction “immersive”; prose, at its best, can produce a powerful corporeal experience as well as a cognitive one. Why are we are reluctant to believe that historiography could do the same?

Historical research, we presume, benefits from coolness, neutrality, and critical distance. But the appeal to a sense of place, not just describing but making palpable distant or bygone scenery in all its spatial and social complexity, is not the responsibility of novelists alone. Reenactors, cultural preservationists, and open-air museum curators have demonstrated for more than a century that interactive history has not only entertainment value but also real heuristic potential, and it’s refreshing to work among academic historians eager to enrich historical narrative on—and beyond—the printed page.

For digital humanists working on histories of space and place, representing practice appears to be the current frontier of the technologically possible. Practice is French Marxist geographer and cultural critic’s Henri Lefebvre’s term, one of three composing the iconic “spatial triad” he unveils in The Production of Space. By practice, he refers not to the perceivable patterns and physical structures that demarcate our lived environments—Chicago’s elegant gridiron, for example, or the boggling angles and inclines of a suburban parking garage—but rather to the everyday activities that inform and shape our experience of space. Out of the mute fabric of open terrain, we sew complexly textured quilts of public and private meaning sensible only to us; memory and affect attach themselves to familiar sites and await their resuscitation each time we draw near.

Tangible patterns and structures are, of course, rather easily reproducible in virtual space. Many digital humanities projects succeed in generating multilayer, customizable, information-dense, yet highly legible maps that show, for example, patterns of German-Jewish emigration or mafia territory during Prohibition. These interactive diagrams are inarguably useful, and can provide necessary context and a sense of scale to otherwise dry historical narratives. But experience and memory remain notoriously hard to incorporate into digital interfaces. The challenge today is to push digital mapping technologies (also known as Geographic Information Systems, or GIS) beyond the ontic limitations of the map, before the map “pushes us back,” as Lefebvre predicted “towards a purely descriptive understanding” of history.

As an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Digital Humanities, I have the good fortune to work with Dr. Michael Jarvis, a historian at the University of Rochester specializing in the Atlantic maritime world, in particular the cultural and geopolitical role played by Bermuda during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Virtual St. George’s, his ambitious, year-old digital history project, makes use of multiple mediums and platforms—architectural rendering, digital cartography, drone photography, 3-D scanning—in an effort to electronically, interactively, immersively reconstruct space-as-experienced and life-as-lived across multiple eras in St. George’s, the colonial capital of the mid-Atlantic island. Jarvis summarizes the project’s objective best:

The project’s various historicized 3D townscapes will help visitors visualize how St. George’s evolved through adaptations to environmental change, world events, fluctuating global markets, local demographic shifts and architectural influences. Engagement can vary from particular exploration of individual building interiors using probate inventories (like a virtual house museum in the style of Colonial Williamsburg, Sturbridge Village, Greenfield Village) to an open-ended urban exploration of the town’s docks, warehouses, and streets filled with animated St. Georgian avatars. We plan ultimately to incorporate game-play missions (such as delivering letters to a royal governor, haggling with a ship captain or merchant, aiding an enslaved sailor to escape) to engage users of different ages in order to give direction and purpose to their spatial explorations, teach social science skills, and represent historical realities.


I see Virtual St. George’s as more than an opportunity to experiment with historical storytelling methods, and to spark conversation about the potentials—and practical limits—of the virtual sensorium. It will also model for the interoperability of multiple DH platforms that are now primarily used in isolation, and demonstrate the value of the virtual to preservationist efforts. As the Virtual St. George’s graduate assistant, I’ll be blogging here in the future about the project’s progress, as well as about the intersections and interstices of digital history, video games, virtual reality technology (e.g., Oculus Rift), drone photography, critical theory, and phenomenology.

Eitan Freedenberg is an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Digital Humanities and a PhD student in the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester.

In “The Shape of the Civil War,” the Heritage of DH

“Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams the one to follow, but in dreaming, precipitates its awakening. It bears its end within itself and unfolds it cunningly.” – Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

The early twentieth century German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin was convinced that the popular architecture and cultural technologies of the nineteenth century—iron-and-glass arcades, panoramas, and exhibition halls—were seedlings of modern ways of thinking about and interacting with the world. The increasingly virtual, dreamlike, and commercial culture of the twentieth century was not at all novel, he thought, nor did it represent a sudden breakage with the traditions of the past. Rather, the “mass culture” of the 1920s and 30s was simply the convergence of a number of cultural trends that had developed decades, even a century earlier, in the form of Victorian escapism, alienation, and hyperconsumption—which were themselves a deferred outgrowth of Enlightenment thought, and so on. “They were destined for this end,” he writes, “from the beginning.”

It is all too easy, and self-congratulatory, to privilege the present—to think of it as new and unprecedented, as an always-peaking wave that the well-prepared can ride confidently. There is an undoubtedly euphoric feeling associated with participating in a moment of innovational upheaval, and of being the “ideal” customer or user of a new product—think of the social reward system built around purchasing new technology, or rapid consumption of today’s (but certainly not yesterday’s!) viral trend. But as Benjamin suggests, we live in a present assembled out of the materials of the past, rather than one that willed itself into existence ex nihilo.

This is the theme of a wealth of contemporary scholarship on technology. It is now a truism—even a traditionalist like Simon Schama promotes this idea—that the 1500 year-old Talmud, with its endlessly cross-referenced, hyper-embedded page layout, is a direct ancestor of and perhaps even model for the World Wide Web. In recent books Writing on the Wall and The Victorian Internet, journalist Tom Standage presents a convincing case that Martin Luther’s hammered theses and nineteenth century telecommunication not only resemble social media and the Internet, respectively; they also established the intellectual and social conditions necessary for their creation. These arguments are not reducible to pattern-finding, nor do they simply hinge on visual or structural coincidences, or on modern biases projected into the past. Rather, they show that the needs addressed by contemporary technology are deeply, even primordially embedded in human thought and desire, and that they find a proper expression in each successive phase of cultural development. In other words, the telegraph is not the cause of the Internet. Rather, the telegraph and the Internet arise from the same cause.

At a recent talk at the University of Rochester, Civil War historian (and University of Richmond president) Ed Ayers, a pioneer in digital humanities research and infrastructure-building, made a similar and compelling case about the genealogy of DH. Confronting the popular claim that DH is simply a new coat of (bureaucratic and distracting) paint on traditional humanistic methods, Ayers discussed at length the “History of the Civil War in the United States,” a most unusual visual timeline from late nineteenth century historian Arthur Hodgkin Scaife’s “Comparative and Synoptical System of History Applied to All Countries.”

Civil War Chart

Most simply described as a geographic chronology, Scaife’s chart both ingeniously and awkwardly attempts to illustrate the “shape” of the Civil War. He charts Union and Confederate troop movements over time and through space in parallel bands representing each state where hostilities took place, and to each side, bar graphs allow comparative readings of two dubiously interrelated statistics: the manpower of each army and the value of each side’s respective currency. It is unclear if Scaife actually thought these things were connected, or if he was simply trying to prove that correlation between any two reasonably derived statistics can be molded into a pattern by juxtaposition alone.

Scaife’s chart, Ayers argues, is a significant early expression of the quantificational impulse that drives digital humanities. It is easy to imagine this work—which is at once a graph, map, and tree, in Franco Moretti’s terms—making the rounds in the DH community, even earning grant funding for future and more complex or interactive implementations. DH scholars, Ayers suggested, would do well to embrace this material as evidence that the urge to represent complex sets of social, cultural, and historical information in a visual form precedes computers and does not at all replace scholarly historical research. Scaife read several dozen volumes of the best Civil War history available just thirty years after the war in order to create this one page. The effort undertaken is undeniable.

As a historian and a progenitor of data visualization, Scaife seems to have been done in by his belief in completism. It is impossible to convey the social complexity, the political causes, and the human cost of a tragedy like the Civil War in a single chart, or even in a single volume; few events in human history are as well-documented and as bottomlessly analyzable. His claim that his synoptic method could be “applied to all countries” is equally tough to swallow. According to the Slate magazine article in which Ayers first learned about Scaife, only a few other charts were ever published, including ones documenting the “‘Cuban Question,’ English history, and the life of William Gladstone.” In its failure to live up to its lofty ambitions, Ayers noted, the chart works equally as a warning and as an heirloom: even as we celebrate it for its untimely ingenuity, we must also recognize in it the folly of expecting new methods to “solve” the problems of humanities research.

Eitan Freedenberg is an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Digital Humanities and a PhD student in the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester.

Recap: “Cultural Approaches to Digital Heritage” Keynote Lecture

Dr. Victoria Szabo, Associate Research Professor of Visual and Media Studies from Duke University delivered the keynote lecture, entitled “Cultural Approaches to Digital Heritage,” to a group of engaged audience in the Welles-Brown room on March 2, 2017.

The word “cultural heritage” often invokes regressive politics and obsessive identification with one’s past, as historian David Lowenthal most famously contends “as hopes of progress fade, heritage consoles us with tradition.” Despite the antithetical relation between heritage and new technologies, Szabo’s keynote lecture offers a retort to the conservatism associated with the term. Specifically, by engaging the “Visualizing Cities” project in North Carolina and Italy, she explores how we tell stories about space over real time and how academics can inform “cultural heritage experience design.” Meanwhile, by experimenting with the lab model as the way in which to produce Digital Humanities scholarship, she also examines how traditional authorship could be questioned and restructured in this often collaborative and participatory process.

One example she mentioned is the use of Augmented Reality (AR) to juxtapose the history of Smith Warehouse with its current function as the Art & Art History Department at Duke University. Since Durham is undergoing processes of rapid gentrification, the site-specific experience provided by AR technology is especially meaningful. Because it gives the user a chance to see and indeed experience the space’s history as a tobacco warehouse which reminds the user just upon what our fortunes have been built. As she says,”in this case, the AR overlay experience becomes an opportunity to mediate or ‘haunt’ the location more visibly.” The most “haunting” example she mentions is perhaps the over-lay of a historic photograph from February 1969 when the African American Society occupied Duke’s administration building to advocate the need of black students which augmented a radical moment in the history of the Civil Rights movement with a recent protest against racism on campus. Needless, such juxtapositions is not only meaningful but also collapses space and time in space and time which reveals the cyclical nature and repetitiveness of history. Also mentioned in her lecture is the “Visualizing Venice” project which engages the city as a lab and offers the students and teachers an unusually productive pedagogical environment.

Watch the keynote.




Harry Gu is a PhD student in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester. He is a 2016-2018 Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Digital Humanities.

Lab-based Learning in the Humanities: A Reflection

DMS 103: Essential Digital Media Toolkit is a project-based course in which students are introduced to an array of softwares and technologies that are indispensable to digital humanities research. Curated by Stephanie Ashenfelder, a practicing artist and Studio Arts program coordinator at The University of Rochester, the course is designed to provide technical proficiency through experimentation and creativity. Thus far, students have completed projects using Photoshop, ArcGIS, and Final Cut Pro X.

Tara Najd Ahmadi (left) with students in DMS103 installing images in Rettner Hall

Tara Najd Ahmadi, an Iranian artist, filmmaker, and animator, led a two-week crash course in Photoshop that culminated with a large installation of student photography. The project required students to take three photographs of either interior or exterior spaces in Rochester, and to manipulate them in Photoshop. Additionally, students were asked to critically consider how thematic continuity could be expressed through digital manipulation and careful image selection. Collectively, the images were displayed in a seamless band on the first floor of Rettner Hall, the campus laboratory for media innovation, digital scholarship, and fabrication/design. The panoramic landscape stitched together by students provided viewers with an opportunity to explore the many facets of life in Rochester as experienced by students through the medium of digital photography.

carolina photo
Carolina Manent, Untitled, 2015




Prime Time: Diving into TV Guide


In its first semester, Televisual Time encountered some of problems that face many DH projects, specifically around securing a data set; after all, the time-sensitivity of TV Guide epitomizes the ephemerality of the weekly magazine. Case in point: we procured the first few decades on microfilm, but they were reproduced at such a small scale—up to 4 pages vertically per 35mm reel—that they were difficult for us to read, let alone a computer. The next stop, both oddly and predictably, was eBay, where we procured a selection of issues from each decade at random. Our next step was to scan these issues and submit them to OCR, a task that has proved to have its own complications on account of typeface, symbol usage, and the presence of advertising, to name only some issues. 

1998 grid

To the extent that preparing these files for digital analysis remains very much a work in progress, this semester as well as last, our work so far has taken a different page from Williams’ work, which is that of distribution. In his 1973 analysis, Williams worked with a selection of categories: News, Documentaries, Education, Arts and Music, Children’s Programs, Drama, Movies, General Entertainment, Sport, Religion, Publicity, and Commercials. He doesn’t say where his “conventional” categories come from, but for us, TV Guide’s evolving categorization of programming offered a fairly straight-forward mode of reading. In view of our interest in time, we calculated the general distribution of programming, according to contemporary TV Guide categories, in one issue from each decade, and constructed (admittedly rudimentary) charts to display our results.

genre 1953 genre 1966 genre 1977 genre 1985 genre 1998 genre 2001

I say “fairly straight-forward” because even this is not entirely so. Throughout its decades-long run, TV Guide’s categorization of shows is inconsistent and incomplete: not every show gets a category. Upon cursory examination, it seems possible that categories were more often applied to less popular shows—or perhaps local ones—and left off for well-known shows, putting a premium on “culturally relevant” information rather than comprehensive detail. In the 2000s, the magazine has stopped providing genres at all except for movies, the genres for which are distinctly fewer in number.

comedy time

That being said, there are some interesting trends to note that we hope to explore through further analysis. As one example, the chart in the 1980s shows a dramatic uptick in comedies, a development we hypothesize owes to the expansion of cable and the concomitant increase of re-runs. Comedies, as serial shows, are perhaps the most easily syndicated, since they can continue to attract new audiences every week. But whether this is the cause or isn’t—a question still worth exploring—we can also ask how this distribution allows us to think about television’s structuring of time in this period. Thus, another way of thinking about the distribution of comedies is to calculate them in minutes: how long, with the aid of recording technology, one could spend watching all of the comedies on air in a given week. For 1998, this number—13,560 minutes—far exceeds the total number of minutes in a week, being 10,080. It’s an odd comparison, but striking nonetheless.


As Televisual Time develops, we hope that distant reading will bring new insight to these kinds of qualitative questions and, in turn, to a different way of looking at television’s changing presence over time.

Tracy Stuber is a PhD student in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester. She is a 2015-2017 Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Digital Humanities.

Producing and Consuming Digital History

At the American Historical Association’s annual meeting in early January, digital humanities and digital history projects were some prominent buzzwords around the Marriott and Hilton Hotels in the form of panels, presentations and small conversations. It was a “nice to meet you” conversation that stuck with me the most, though. It went like this:


Serenity: Hi, I work on a digital humanities project at the University of Rochester.

Stranger: Oh? What project do you work on?
Serenity: I’m digitizing the papers of William Henry Seward’s family communication. We’re transcribing, annotating and editing thousands of letters from the 1830s to 1870s with the goal of displaying them on a website.

Stranger (skeptical): Are digitizing projects considered digital humanities?

Serenity (with slight indignation): Why, yes! It’s making accessible documents to a wider audience via a digital platform.

Stranger: When I use the website am I doing the digital humanities?

Serenity: ….ummm….


I eventually acceded in my teeniest, tiniest voice that “yes” the stranger was doing digital humanities when using the website. But in the back of my mind I wanted to protest that “NO!” there was a difference between consuming easily all of the legwork it took to actually get that content on the website: the wrangling of data, images, tagging in tei, three versions of editing, annotation, and transcription – all very hard work. Those of us on the project were hard at work producing the work of digital humanities. The end-user was merely consuming our digital humanities work.


To make sense of my responses to these questions of when one was “doing” digital humanities, I returned to Patrik Svensson’s article “Beyond the Big Tent” in Debates in the Digital Humanities (2012, digital edition). Basing his critique off of the 2011 Stanford digital humanities conference theme “Big Tent Digital Humanities,” Svensson concludes that asking who’s in and who’s out, or what DH project are or aren’t included in the Big Tent of the Digital Humanities, may not be the best way to visualize what we are doing and what’s at stake in DH. Svensson argues instead for a concept of a “trading zone” or “meeting place” to symbolize the types of work digital humanists do. I’ll discuss the usefulness of these terms later on, but first I want to unpack my “slightly indignant” response in the exchange above.


My colleague’s first question of “Are digitizing projects digital humanities?” stems from my sense that many hard-core DH-ers see the digitization of archive materials as simply “baby” projects that fail to adequately reflect the level of tech that DH can and perhaps should do. This is part and parcel of the Big Tent philosophy where one method of exclusion of who’s inside the flaps of the tent and who’s out, peeking through the cracks of the tent, is based on the tools one uses. As Svensson points out:

While tools themselves can be epistemologically predisposed, it could be argued that placing tools and tool-related methodology at the base of digital humanities work implies a particular view of the field and, within big-tent digital humanities, possibly an exclusive stance. One central question is whether the tent can naturally be taken to include critical work construing the digital as an object of inquiry rather than as a tool.


With this in mind, I’m inclined to lean towards Svensson’s portrayal of DH as either a “trading zone” or “meeting place,” but then these have implications for the question of consumer and producer, the origin of my second hesitation during my conversation at the AHA.


Trading zone implies that groups of people are present to do business and make exchanges. These exchanges are built on producer and consumer models where one person brings their items to trade for another items: ten pomegranates for one knitted hat. In this exchange there are given producers and consumers. And all parties likely had to “produce” something, be it labor for money or the actual product itself and in this case, all members of the trading zone are producers and consumers in one way or the other.


Meeting places, on the other hand, send a more democratic or egalitarian message. Meeting places are where people come to be heard and to be listened to. I’m not sure that meeting places eliminates the producer/consumer question, though, as I’ve surely attended meetings intending to contribute very little, only to listen and learn. In this situation, I’m entirely consuming the meeting’s content, perhaps for my own future production of work, but perhaps not. I’ve also led meetings where I do much of the talking while participants scribble down notes to take with them, consuming what I say to put into use elsewhere, or else, to fall into a recycling bin a few months later as they clean out their desks.


So while Svensson’s retooling of the Big Tent into meeting place or trading zone alleviates the question of who’s in and who’s out, the metaphors may be too limited for helping me make sense of the consumer/producer of digital humanities.


To better understand this idea of consumer and producer in an academic context, I look at one of the West’s most cherished forms of academic communication: the book. When scholars produce books, they spend a great deal of time researching and thinking about their topic, not to mention agonizing late nights writing and communicating their thoughts clearly. Just because I read a book on North American sparrows, obviously, does not make me a scholar on sparrows or any other kind of bird. However, reading many books, doing a good amount of field research, and attending classes and conferences on ornithology does. Someone who reads a book on the reign of Queen Elizabeth I would hardly be qualified as “doing” monarchical history solely by reading the book. In academia, one only validly “does” monarchical history by reading many texts on kings and queens, and producing research that contributes to the current conversations about the topic.

All this to say, that in my mind, the question of who “does” DH depends on the types of questions we employ to make sense of a digital resource. Digital Humanities projects are like other source material: how we use them depends on the questions we ask and the furthering of knowledge that results. Scholars doing digital history may have a variety of questions ranging from how the digital informs our reading of the manuscripts to where issues of gender, medical, family, political and social history find resonance by searching the database with keywords. Using a digital resource to answer these questions is more a question of “doing” intellectual work in general, rather than a question of “doing” the digital. And this, for me, is where John Unsworth’s concept of “Scholarly Primitives” is useful. Good scholars are both producing and consuming knowledge through “Discovering, Annotating, Comparing, Referring, Sampling, Illustrating and Representing”


I do think the question of production vs consumption in DH is one that requires further unpacking and really parallels, if not entwines, questions of labor and reward for work. Especially in the example above, I balked at including the consumer as “doing” DH when I thought of the hard, hard work organizing, transcribing, annotating, editing and tei-ing the Seward letters. It struck me rather unfairly that that the consumer’s labor of “doing” DH was not the same as my labor “doing” it. The question of labor is not limited to producer/consumer, though. For many DH projects I know of, an extensive amount of library support is required for any of these projects to get off the ground. Programmers, librarians, support staff, (not to mention shamelessly exploited undergrads and grads!) all do a good amount of work to help academic humanists produce fancy projects to begin with. Where is their recognition and pay-off for such labor? Is it fairly equitable with the principle investigators and academics who will go on and use the project to build their CVs, argue for tenure, raises, or other recognitions? Is an hourly, somewhat livable, wage recognition enough for the support staff that assists our technically heavy projects? Where do “digital” acknowledgment sections get us?


Perhaps the next blog post?


Serenity Sutherland is a PhD student in the Department of History at University of Rochester.