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Buried treasure, castles and roads

Ironically, the Day of DH was accompanied by disappointing news from the NEH for many of us who had applied for digital humanities grants (sincere and non-ironic congratulations, however, to those projects that were selected). Posting for the former and processing the latter set some wheels in motion in my mind. Those wheels began to spin more quickly as I read tweets and posts from the Digital Classics Association conference, but it’s only in the last couple of days that they’ve gained enough traction for me to attempt to express them in writing. I hope, therefore, that the archivist of this Day of DH will excuse the post-day addition to the blog.

My thoughts began to take shape when I realized that my three unsuccessful grant proposals all had a similar characteristic: they involved the development of digital resources to allow semi-digitally-literate people like me to share data and make connections. One proposed the creation of a desktop toolkit to allow humanities researchers to automatically create metadata for their own complex digital collections, without having to delve deeply into the world of schemata and ontologies and without being dependent on a particular repository. The other two involved a project to create a gazetteer of published assertions about archaeological and historical periods that could serve as a hub for the linking and reconciliation of ambiguous references to periods in texts and datasets. We wanted to get away from a standardized vocabulary that would either be too general or too specific for anyone to want to use. Instead, we proposed to collect a potentially infinite number of authoritative claims about the temporal and geographic coordinates of period terms, which could in turn be used both to disambiguate less specific mentions of periods in texts. This gazetteer would also serve as a reference point through which datasets could be connected in a linked-data environment, just as Pleiades does for Pelagios.

Both projects were meant to produce tools that would allow humanists, in the broadest sense, to take control over – and responsibility for – the sharing or preservation of the digital data we are now all producing. They were meant to lower the bar for entry into the “digital humanities”, and make the majority of us who lack either resources or programming skills less dependent on the few who have one or the other. Both drew widely divergent reviews from the grant review panels. Some of the more critical reviews offered some input of real substance, for which my collaborators and I are grateful. But at least one set of comments for each grant denied that the issues we wanted to address were real problems. Digital humanists have digital repositories for archiving, they said, or they manage their own material with tools like Zotero; archaeologists work out the complex questions of periods on their own, and don’t need somewhere to look them up.

Apart from the sort of defensiveness one always feels about one’s own projects, I realized that I found these comments frustrating in a complementary way. The first set, about archiving and repositories, assumes that the best practice is standardization and centralization, and that people can be forced or cajoled into depositing their data in a few standard formats with a few major digital repositories. This may be true of data produced in the course of government-funded research, which now must be deposited in such repositories, or of data produced in environments like the UK, where cultural-heritage laws make the deposit of archaeological data mandatory. But it is patently not true of data collected by a vast sea of small projects and individual researchers, much of which will never even be described properly, let alone submitted to a central repository. The second set of comments, on the other hand, assumed that the job of digital tools was to promote the collection of new data and the generation of new interpretations, and since archaeologists can deal perfectly well with periods on their own in this process, a digital gazetteer will not lead to any new research. Here the emphasis was on what will produce new data or let us extract new information from existing data right now.

Although these were not the only voices in our reviews, I do think they represent the dominant view of the digital humanities. I also think that they reflect, to some degree, the reasoning behind decisions to fund many current projects. Grantors seem to respond to projects that will either facilitate brand-new research – especially in cool technological or graphic ways – or pull very very large sets of data together in one place, where they can be standardized for storage and reuse. It is harder to make a case for tools that decentralize, reject extensive standardization, and propose to make the best of scholars’ current bad habits and idiosyncrasies, rather than trying to reform them.

In attempting to make sense of my own thoughts on this subject, I found it easier to construct a metaphor in which I could work out exactly why this bothers me (apart from my projects not being funded). The more I thought about it, the more I felt that most self-described “digital humanities projects” fall into three categories that can be expressed in terms of a medieval landscape of buried treasure, castles, and roads (you could use gold mines, gold-rush banks, and the railroad too, except people saw railroads as a good investment). The buried treasure is new data recovered through new research. The castles are repositories where that treasure can be deposited and curated. And the roads are the connectors and links that allow people to bring treasure to castles, or to go from castle to castle to visit different treasures, or to look for buried treasure in unexpected or distant places.

Right now I think the digital humanities are investing overwhelmingly in projects that promise buried treasure or the construction of an even better castle. Investments in treasure hunts can be risky, but they pay off with lots of shiny gold, and the discovery of a new treasure dazzles the public (and the media, and politicians, etc.). Investments in castles – especially the expansion of existing castles – are more like blue-chip stocks, safer if not as flashy. Not only are the structures larger, more impressive and more secure than a scatter of individual houses, but once their construction has been funded, they seem as if they should be inexpensive to maintain. And once they’re built, people will naturally want to put valuable things in them to protect them, and they’ll be willing to sacrifice some control over those things, since what other choice will they have?

Roads, by contrast, are boring, labor-intensive, and always demanding some kind of maintenance or additional investment (this is why the US currently scores a D for roads on its infrastructure report card). They are not sexy, unless they themselves are the object of research or represented in cool new ways. But without roads it’s harder to find buried treasure, and harder still to show it to others or compare it with treasures that have been found before. As my brother pointed out when I described this metaphor to him, there is one group that has historically recognized the utility of roads, from the Bronze Age to the present: the military. This comment had unintended resonance, since while our period gazetteer grants were being reviewed and rejected, a colleague forwarded to us a call for post-doctoral research put up by the US Intelligence Community which included a suggested program to develop… period gazetteers.

The IC call notes that information gathering is made easier by semantic-web features like machine-actionable gazetteers for place names, which allow natural language processing and disambiguation. It therefore solicits efforts to create flexible ontologies and authoritative or crowd-sourced vocabularies for divisions of time not based on clock or calendar, since “no existing gazetteer offers a solution for communicating other meaningful designations of time, such as periods and events.” This call is backed up on the Classical side with the appeal for a period gazetteer made by Tom Elliott at the Digital Classics Association conference and repeated in the closing address by Geoff Rockwell, who sees the need for gazetteers for the “primitives” of the discipline more generally.

The treasure-castles-roads metaphor also fits traditional scholarship, with new results from primary research as the treasure, libraries or archives as the castles, and print publications like books or articles as the roads. Digital tools and approaches make it easier and faster to find treasure, and make the display of that treasure in castles even more shimmery and alluring — but the treasure is still basically the same, as are the underlying architectural principles of the castles. In this respect, “digital humanities” just means “doing the same things humanities scholars have always done, except using computers to do it more quickly, more efficiently, and more attractively ” — in which case, everyone who uses a word-processing program or a spreadsheet or email is a digital humanist.

On the other hand, the digital versions differ in one important respect from their analogue counterparts: there is a much greater risk that we will awake to find that the shimmering treasures — only fairy gold after all — have disappeared, while the castles turn out to be nothing more than heaps of rocks in a field. Libraries and archives, the castles of traditional scholarship, hold their treasures as physical objects, and the roads between them are held open by the presence of publications in large numbers of copies. The latest platforms and interfaces used to discover and present new digital treasures, however, are almost certain to disappear. Both they and the contents of centralized repositories often represent the only copies of a particular dataset. If one digital castle falls, its contents may well fall with it. The old roads provided by publication are not sufficient for this new landscape: they cannot guarantee the survival of the primary data, and they cannot connect isolated castles with each other.

Roads in the digital landscape are significantly different from the roads in the analogue landscape. In traditional humanities scholarship, we have accepted a split between published interpretation and primary data, on the assumption that the latter can at least be consulted in physical archives in the future (especially in fields like archaeology, where the primary data cannot be replicated). We have also counted on persistent access to our treasures independent of the survival of any particular castle, since information tends to be reduplicated. When both data and publication exist primarily in digital form, however, and when individual repositories (or publishers, for that matter) can serve as the sole portal through which a particular dataset can be accessed, neither of those assumptions still apply. It is therefore all the more important in this environment to invest in new roads that provide links between castles and allow treasures — the data themselves, not only their interpretation — to be reduplicated and described more thoroughly to ensure their long-term survival. More and finer treasures and more and taller castles only exacerbate the problem.

All this leads me to a definition of the digital humanities that is somewhat different from the one I provided on the Day of DH. Digital humanities is not using computers to do better humanities research, or to answer the same questions with larger datasets, or to present our results in fancier, shinier interfaces. Digital humanities must be about the creation of digital tools and methods to facilitate unstructured exploration and discovery within the humanities — and not simply for a few lucky scholars, but for everyone, as Greg Crane has recently emphasized. Treasures and castles will always be important, but — at least in the eyes of an archaeologist — they will also always be ephemeral if they do not form part of a larger landscape of connectivity.

The projects that will have the greatest long-term impact in this landscape, I have come to feel, are neither the most polished nor the most centralized, but those that carry out the hard, slow, and distinctly unglamorous work of road-building. By the middle ages, the finest ancient buildings had become stables, rubbish heaps, at best the work of mythical giants, and proud new castles had been built by proud new kings. Now those castles in turn are inhabited only by wind and weeds — but in not a few parts of the Mediterranean world, you can still drive the path of a Roman road. “Digital humanities” will only represent a real transformation in the way we approach the humanities if digital humanists focus their collective efforts on new foundations for equally lasting paths of communication.

No longer the Day of DH

I had ambitious plans for this ephemero-blog, but now it’s half past midnight in Austin and the Day of DH is already over. I wanted to talk about using digital tools in humanities research, and particularly in using them to allow other scholars access to the products of that research (something I’ve worked on in the course of my archaeological field project). I wanted to talk about long-term preservation, and about how we plan to create content with value that will outlast its current delivery system (I’ve thought about this a lot in terms of the content in GeoDia — the interface will certainly change or disappear within a few years, so how can the data be salvaged to be reincarnated in some other visualization?). And I wanted to talk — hopefully without ranting — about what I, as a relative newcomer to this field, see as a set of problematic incentives (and disincentives) for digital humanities work, including an increasingly winner-take-all funding environment that seems to reflect the less savory aspects of the commercial software-development ecosystem (not so much notion of the survival of the fittest platform, but the self-promotion and cultish devotion to one’s own solution as the perfect solution, without room for critical examination of what we really want to accomplish and how our tools either meet or transform those goals). But there’s only so much one can fit into a single day.

Teaching Greek… Archaeology

It’s not quite midnight in Austin, so I’m going to say this still counts as Day of DH. Once again I’m focusing on the use of digital tools in teaching, this time in relation to visual and material culture. I started thinking about this after a class that covered “Classical Archaeology” in the broadest possible terms (the entire Mediterranean world from the birth of writing until the foundation of Constantinople). I wanted to emphasize synchronic connections between cultures and diachronic development within cultures, rather than teaching a series of discrete spatio-temporal boxes focused on a particular floruit (Egypt of the Pharaohs, the Golden Age of Greece, Augustan Rome). But this was endlessly confusing for the students, who had a very hard time keeping track of where they were supposed to be in time and space, and what things looked like there.

The result was GeoDia, an interactive spatial timeline of the ancient Mediterranean, which came out of a very lucky collaboration with my brother Nick Rabinowitz (then at the Berkeley i-School), Peter Keane and Stuart Ross (both then of the Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Service at UT Austin). The site was meant to combine spatial, temporal and visual information to provide students with context for the images and historical events they were learning about. I expected them to use it to study and to build visual literacy in the context of classes on archaeology.

In practice, however, things didn’t work out this way. I talk more about this here, but the gist is that it rarely occurred to them to use the site to study, since it didn’t match the presentation of the textbook and didn’t provide encyclopedia (Wikipedia)-style information about the sites included. On the other hand, they did really seem to learn from the creation of data to put into GeoDia. In my original plans for the site, a second phase of development would have provided an interface and management system for user-generated content, as well as a quiz-style match-image-with-site-and-time interface. We ran out of time and money, though, so my assignments for students required that I correct and enter all the data myself, which of course meant that most of that material is still waiting to be entered. Even so, the act of researching and gathering accurate and authoritative information about archaeological sites or historical events seems to have been a very effective pedagogical strategy. More than ever, I am convinced that digital tools for humanities education will work best when they allow the user to create and contribute knowledge in a structured and rigorous environment.

I’ve used GeoDia for assignments in three courses now (one Greek Archaeology and two Greek Civ), but UT likes one-off projects a lot more than projects requiring ongoing maintenance (that is, all projects that result in something more than a series of static HTML pages or a PDF), and I have not yet been able to find a way to ensure the longer-term survival of GeoDia, and I’m getting nervous about basing class assignments on it. If it breaks mid-semester, there is now no one left in LAITS who will be willing or able to fix it. So this semester I’ve pursued a different strategy, using a better-established platform that is consistently maintained and set up for user management: Pleiades. I’ve been working with the Pleiades folks this semester to have my students work in groups to gather information about locations (i.e. monuments or buildings) within Pleiades places, which they will then add to the site. This highlights another thing I consider to be a crucial element of digital humanities: the encouragement of contributions to knowledge by people other than scholars.

I continue to think that the creation of order from a mass of apparently arbitrary content is fundamental to learning. I’ve also been working on that this semester, but with a commercial classroom-response platform called Tophat Monocle. I have been working with this group to produce an interactive image drill that will require students to place images in time and space, using other images as cues. I’m hopeful that this will cover some of what I’d hoped to do with a later stage of GeoDia. But it won’t be open, and it’s built as part of a commercial system — so does that count as digital humanities? Do we draw a line between “pure” digital tools for scholarship and commercial products, and if so, where — especially given, say, the recent NSF grant to Azavea for historical mapping tools?

In case anyone’s interested, you can find the assignments for the three phases of my Pleiades-based group projects for my Greek archaeology class here. The second-phase submissions were getting pretty good, so we’ll see how this all turns out.

Teaching Greek

I often feel that discussions of Digital Humanities (capital D, capital H) focus on the research side of things, even though some of the most innovative and useful work has been done in order to support public access and teaching. I also feel that the field (discipline? area? community of practice?) focuses more on the tools than the users (more on this later). But I’d like to insist that perhaps the most fundamental element of the digital humanities (little d, little h) is the ability to foster the process of learning, discovery, and communication that takes place in educational environments. I’m currently teaching a second-semester first-year ancient Greek language class, and I’m struck both by the new possibilities offered by digital tools and by the ongoing importance of content created a century ago.

During the first month or so, we completed the textbook the students started with, Luschnig’s “An Introduction to Ancient Greek“. I wasn’t enthralled with this textbook, and although it does have an online companion, my students didn’t use it much (or at all, really). I did like the emphasis on English-to-Greek composition, though; this is something I think is critical to language learning, and I always include it, even at this level. I’m still looking for the perfect first-year Greek textbook, and although there do seem to be several emerging online possibilities, I’m guessing I’ll end up next time with another print version that has the features we’ve been using to learn Greek for half a millennium (morphological synopses, explanations of particular groups of grammatical or syntactical issues, irregular forms and principal parts, etc.). My students seem to like to have a physical copy they can thumb through in front of them, and frankly, so do I.

That’s not to say they’re not open to digital tools. At the beginning of the semester, the students were already well familiar with Perseus, and used its morphological tools avidly to check their forms and accentuation (they also used it for cutting-and-pasting Greek words into emails, since they weren’t yet comfortable typing polytonic Greek — and I think are still not, though now they know how, in theory). It was after we’d finished the textbook, however, that the digital resources and tools available for the study of ancient Greek really opened new doors. I introduced them to the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, to the Ancient Lives project and Papyri.info, and to the PHI database of searchable Greek inscriptions. We even transliterated and transcribed part of the Oath of Chersonesos, a 4th-century BC civic oath from Chersonesos in Crimea, using an interactively lighted image generated using Reflectance Transformation Imaging in the course of a workshop led by Cultural Heritage Imaging at the site in 2008. We used a wiki page in the Blackboard CMS system to work on this collaboratively, and the students managed, with relatively little input on my side, to produce a version of the first twenty lines that is relatively close to the established text (learning some Dorian dialect in the process).

Once we’d finished the textbook, we moved on to a blend of new and old language-learning tools (and some old tools in new formats). To keep up the Greek composition work, I’ve been assigning them sentences from North and Hillard’s Greek Prose Composition, the 1910 edition of which can  be downloaded as a PDF from Textkit. There’s not much more traditional than a book designed for English schoolboys a hundred years ago and focused on sentences about generals, soldiers, and marching (even if it is digitized). But it still works, as long as we review a lot in class. For Greek to English translation, we’ve been working on Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, which has seen renewed popularity lately. I offered them two options for text: one a digitized version of a 1902 edition available in Google Books, and the other the text available at “Cyrus’ Paradise”, an online commentary and community (or, um, “communtary”, as it’s described) established by the Center for Hellenic Studies (www.cyropaedia.org). I think nine of the students are working from the online version; the other prefers text (I’m looking at both, since both offer different commentary information). None of my students, as far as I can tell, are contributing to the community at Cyrus’ Paradise. They are, however, very fond of the online morphological tools and the links to Smyth passages (they have also been consulting a PDF version of Smyth from Textkit).

There are some other tools I’ve introduced them to — for instance, Chris Francese’s Dickinson College Commentaries core vocabulary as it appears in the Mnemosyne Project, an online flashcard platform — and I’m hoping to poll them on the effectiveness of these tools at the end of the semester. My overall sense right now is that certain digital tools have become indispensable for the students — morphology and lexical tools in particular — but that the crucial factor remains the face-to-face, discursive element. I’ve had my students partner up to review each other’s Greek compositions, and I think this has resulted in more improvement than any of the online tools I’ve introduced. This makes intuitive sense to me, since human beings are programmed to learn language discursively, but I would love to see more systematic and data-rich analyses of the ways in which digital tools improve acquisition of dead languages in particular, and the ways in which face-to-face interaction remains necessary. This will be especially important as institutions of higher education seek to reduce costs and deploy digital substitutes for courses with low enrollment and a high faculty time commitment.

My Day of DH

It took me a while to decide to participate in Day of DH 2013, mainly because I wasn’t sure what “digital humanities stuff” I was likely to be doing (if any — it’s just one part of the barely-controlled frenzy of teaching, researching, writing, advising, etc. I usually find myself in). Although I’m still not sure how I’m going to photograph myself doing any of it, especially since I think there are privacy issues with photographing students (so a lot of screen-shots?), I did realize that I could use the Day of DH as an excuse to catch up a bit on a lot of different digital projects that require my attention. So my activities will be real, since they’ll all be connected to real current projects and obligations, but my concentration on one after another of them on Monday will be a bit artificial. It’ll be one answer to the question of what someone does with digital humanities, although not really an answer to what this someone does in the course of one ordinary day.