Tinkering around at DHSI 2014

During the first week in June I attended the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) for the first time. The trip also marked my first visit to Canada, and the first time I traveled internationally in more than a decade. It was a bit of a whirlwind experience. I took the DHSI course, “Physical Computing and Desktop Fabrication for Humanists,” with William J. Turkel, Devon Elliott, and Jentery Sayers. In addition to meeting new DH enthusiasts and reuniting with old friends, the course provided an exciting introduction to both the culture of the maker movement and the potential applications of 3-D printing. Below is a brief photo essay reflection — or as close to one as my WordPress template permits — on my time at DHSI 2014.


“Project Management for Digital Humanities” workshop notes

Below are my notes from a Digital Humanities workshop I attended yesterday evening on project management. I was surprised by how specific and detailed the workshop was, and was encouraged to learn that the Digital Humanities are beginning to adapt the standards and language of business-oriented project management to suit the specific needs and aims of DH. Thank you to UNL Center for Digital Research in the Humanities’ (CDRH) Liz Lorang for putting this great workshop together.

Project Management for Digital Humanities


  • are unique/produce a unique result
  • have a defined scope
  • have a defined start and end
  • must be completed with set resources
  • useful to drive this^ definition home → can’t successfully manage the project if don’t have a clear, defined understanding of the above

Project management = “the application of strategies and methods to complete projects effectively and successfully”

  • a successful project…is completed on time and with the agreed upon resources; produces product deliverables and meets scope and quality requirements
  • NOT about exceeding expectations →if scope of project and expectations continue to expand, may not get the original project, idea completed
  • DHers working more in teams, need to be able to run projects effectively (esp. to get and justify funding)
    • when introducing more variables into a project, need a project manager to ensure project is progressing, goals are being met
    • projects are often looking for project managers → good way for graduate students to get good experience & translate this for your own projects
      • most often, the person behind the project idea = NOT the project manager
      • skills gap between DH folks who have great project ideas but don’t have time or resources to be able to do the management portion of this
  • there are many different types of project management
    • much of the language, materials on how-to manage projects = dealing with a specific business culture → not always related to DH concerns, standards, methods
    • e.g. “lean” project management = all about maximizing efficiency, use of resources, most “bang for the buck”
    • traditional, adaptive, discovery, extreme = the 4 primary types of project management
      • DH @ UNL sees quite a bit of traditional & adaptive
  • So what’s the right method?
    • goals, project activities → if BOTH = clearly defined, traditional = the way to go
      • if NOT clearly defined, adaptive may be more the way to go
    • not all projects will be managed the same way
    • across both methods (traditional, adaptive):
      • every project should have: defined goals, deliverables, scope, start & end dates, defined team & roles, defined stakeholders, defined resources
      • AND every project must include: initiating, planning, executing, monitoring/controlling, closing
      • BUT methods look different in practice
    • sometimes funding applications (e.g.) NEH funding application becomes the “founding document” BUT, often, things will change → and IF goals, definitions change, it is best for the sake of the project to write up all of the above^ very early on
  • traditional project management in practice = initiate → plan → execute → monitor → close
  • agile/iterative project management in practice = initiate → plan → execute → monitor → [repeat: plan → execute → monitor] → close
    • e.g. Whitman Archive standards need updated → need to explore first in order to determine what need to accomplish and how long it will take (won’t be a linear process: “code sprints” = work intensely on one problem for a week, then move on to the next problem)
    • e.g. DH practicum course being offered this semester: encourage students to set 3-hour goals as a way to begin exploring problems and risks, “real world” goals for solving problems
  • the CDRH uses a “charter form” for the initiate phase → Liz to share a copy with workshop attendees

Project charter:

  • Vision (Why? What question(s) are you answering?)
  • Mission (What?)
  • Success criteria (How will we know if the project is successful?)
  • Where and how the above^ is documented varies from one project to another, depending on who you work with, how big and/or formal the project team is
  • not the role of the project manager to create these things (although will be involved in this process), but need to be sure these things are articulated as early as possible
  • if mission/success criteria changes, need to determine the impact on the project → e.g. will the deadline(s) for the project, budget, goals also change?
  • more traditional models may also specify the following in their project charter:
    • sponsor & stakeholders
    • roles
    • assumptions & constraints working under
    • standards (e.g. thematic research collection, documenting what encoding standards you are using → this can be important to state in the early stages if, for example, you are farming out some of the work and/or if some members of the team don’t have a lot of technical knowledge)
    • budget (monetary as well as time budgets can be useful)
    • schedule (short-term project: month-by-month…)
    • milestones
  • really expansive project charters don’t tend to work well for academic projects
    • risk plan (known risks, possibilities for some unknowns – want to have contingency plans)
    • communication plan (sounds great in theory, but may not pan out in academic culture → various plans for breakdowns in communication) (BUT probably works well in class projects, when at a peer-level with members of the project)
    • work breakdown structure (often assume “chart-like” form, ascending/descending tasks, how tasks relate to one another, identify critical pathways, things that must be done in order for next step to be done)

Open discussion:

  • a lot of DH management is being done by women
  • Project Management Institute = basically has a monopoly on the certification in project management professional
    • DHSI & HILT have offered project management courses in the past BUT not yet wholly geared toward DH (still using a lot of approaches and language from business)
  • various types of software for delegating responsibilities?
    • Trac = used @ the CDRH for several projects & has worked well → can set milestones & see a roadmap
      • ALSO great way to keep track of who’s working on what (especially important for large projects), keep everyone updated on progress of project, document key decisions…
    • Asana = something one of the workshop attendees has used → it was “overkill”, things pile up, is very business-oriented
    • Basecamp = another option, not much experience using it in the room (it’s not open-access)
  • communications aspect may be one of the most difficult aspects of project management, especially when the project manager isn’t necessarily on equal footing with the members of the team

Information infrastructures and future directions in digital scholarship

Any attempt to understand the impact of digital technologies and the digital medium must take into consideration the underlying processes that support, regulate, and structure computers and the Internet. Human interaction with technology is more than a simple reciprocal exchange between technology and the human mind; it is an interaction between the user and a series of systematic actions undertaken by the technology per the guidelines set forth by an array of programmers, developers, corporations, and governments. These guidelines, which form the layers of the informational infrastructure of the Internet, are the result of a desire for access to certain kinds of content and the business models that evolved in an attempt to control access to content. Every technology possesses a history, and the most recent studies of digital technology and the Internet increasingly acknowledge that the history of computers and the Internet constitute a vital component in understanding not only the impact of these technologies, but the long-term implications of them as well. In Tim Wu’s The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, and John Palfrey and Urs Gasser’s Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives each author approaches their subject with a keen awareness of the ways a historical examination of computers and the Internet can inform understanding of the processes and structures that frame human interaction with technology and the digital medium. This awareness brings a complexity and thoroughness to their analyses that many previous studies of the impact of technology lack.

Of all the authors, Wu is the most historically-oriented. In the book’s introduction he writes that he disagrees with technoutopian visions of the future as well as the “insistence that we are living in unprecedented times.” Instead, he asserts, “the place we find ourselves now is a place we have been before, albeit in different guise” (Wu, 14). He states that one of the goals of his work is to provide an account of the development of technologies in times past so that the future can be made better. This is particularly important, he argues, given the increasing significance of information in society, the role of the Internet in purveying information, and increasing societal reliance upon the Internet for access to information. Wu focuses on the relationship between content, content providers (especially as they relate to issues of access), and informational infrastructures. He examines this relationship via historical trends in the emergence and development of a variety of technologies, including radio, telephone, film, television, and the Internet. His thesis consists of two parts: first, that certain patterns exist within the development technologies and that these patterns offer useful insight into the future of the Internet and, second, that whatever the future of the Internet and information may be it depends “far less on our abstract values than on the structure of the communications and culture industries” (Wu, 13).

Wu utilizes a concept he calls the Cycle as a framework for understanding the development and structuring of technology over time. It is highly derivative of Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction, which holds that innovation and economic growth reinforce one another and therefore the destruction of stagnant ideas is necessary for economic vitality. Wu only credits Schumpeter with “inspiring” the Cycle, arguing that Schumpeter’s theory does “not account for the power of law or the government to stave off industrial death” (Wu, 28). This is a key point for Wu and one of the more valuable aspects of his work. His history of twentieth century technologies reveals that the involvement of corporations and governments has been crucial to both the shaping and the success of radio, telephone, film, television, and the Internet. At the same time, however, corporations and governments have also restricted the development of technology, typically as a means of minimizing their economic risk and establishing control and dominance over the ways the public accesses and utilizes technologies. Wu provides many examples of this practice, but his explication of AOL Time Warner’s efforts to dominate the Internet offers a lesson digital humanists should bear in mind when creating for the Web.

As Wu explains, Time Warner attempted to build and purchase the means to control content and access to content on the Internet. Time Warner and other cable companies recognized the importance of the Internet as source of content and worked to buy up Internet companies so that they could also control the distribution of content. Time Warner united with AOL, which had already positioned itself as an Internet Service Provider and creator of content. But AOL expected its users not only to access the Internet via AOL but also to access only the content on the Internet AOL made available to them via its “walled garden,” a closed digital environment controlled and managed by AOL. AOL Time Warner’s attempt at vertical integration eventually failed because it utilized a business strategy that ignored the nature of the Web. The essential structure of the Web is open; therefore AOL Time Warner’s assumption that its users would be satisfied with access to only part of the Internet was both misguided and short-sighted. Companies such as Google have since created quite successful horizontal structures in keeping with the openness of the Web. The methods of the digital humanist must likewise be as horizontal and open as possible if digital scholarship is to garner recognition and be sustainable.

Zittrain’s work builds upon Wu’s emphasis on the significance of informational infrastructures and processes in influencing human interaction with the Internet. Zittrain focuses on a concept very similar to Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction: “generativity.” Generativity, Zittrain explains, refers to a system that enables users to create new content without relying upon assistance or input from the original creators of the system. Interaction with technology, in this sense, takes place on a two-way basis: users are free to both interact with content and create content without the intervention of the original creators of the technology. Zittrain asserts that generativity is the key to innovation and creativity on the Internet, and he worries that generativity may disappear in favor of minimized maintenance requirements for the personal computer and increased online security. Zittrain agrees that undesirable and criminal exploitation of the Internet’s flexibility and openness must be stemmed, particularly if generativity is to be preserved. He believes sentimentality about the Internet’s “intentional inaction…may be self-defeating:”users will continue to demand greater protections online and reduced maintenance requirements, therefore discussions about the future of the Internet and personal computers should focus on ways to meet these demands while simultaneously preserving and promoting as much openness and generativity as possible. Zittrain offers several suggestions for ways to solve this “generative dilemma” (Zittrain, 165; 36).

Zittrain rejects Internet appliances such as Kindles and gaming devices, as well as hosted environments such as Facebook and Google Maps, as too restrictive. One cannot program a Kindle, for instance, and the use of hosted environments such as Google Maps is bound by terms of service that the hosts can change at any given moment. Zittrain likewise rejects the idea that the Internet should contain a combination of closed and open appliances and services, as he believes this will lead to the restriction of generativity to a much smaller segment of the population (namely to professional developers). He argues: “We ought to see the possibilities and benefits of PC generativity made available to everyone, including the millions of people who give no thought to future uses when they obtain PCs, and end up delighted at the new uses to which they can put their machines” (Zittrain, 165). The more people with access to machines and services they can manipulate, experiment, and create with, the more innovation and diversity of innovation that will result. Zittrain cites two projects he is involved with, herdict and stopbadware.org, as examples of ways to combine a measure of regulation with popular online action to simultaneously promote greater online security and openness. Digital humanists must also consider security if their work is to be sustainable, and much can be achieved to this end through collaboration with individuals in the technical know, but Zittrain’s arguments regarding generativity hold the greatest value for the Digital Humanities. Digital scholarship that is created transparently and is interactive in nature is more likely to spur just the sort of innovation and experimentation that can support a healthy online environment while also encouraging greater engagement between scholars and the public. Palfrey and Gasser offer some observations on human interaction with technology that can similarly aid the efforts of digital humanists.

Palfrey and Gasser examine the habits of so-called “digital natives” in an attempt to determine how digital technologies and the Internet are changing human notions and standards of privacy, collaboration, and the consumption of information. They define digital natives only as persons born after 1980. Palfrey and Gasser’s failure to offer any qualifications in terms of the varying levels of access to and usage of digital technologies and the Internet constitutes a serious flaw in their conception of digital natives, yet their observations contain some value. Employing a tone that is often cautionary, Palfrey and Gasser not only assert that humans possess the ability to adapt to technology but also that adaptation is a positive rather than a negative response. They point to the jarring transformations that accompanied industrialization and urbanization as an example of a time when adaptation aided people’s abilities to cope with an emergent social order. This provides some useful historical context for their arguments. But the majority of their discussion is general in nature; each of the topics is examined in broad terms and far more observations are made than arguments.

Palfrey and Gasser raise the typical questions about younger generations’ more open definition of privacy, greater willingness to provide personal information without consideration of the long-term consequences, resistance to control of their online experiences, exposure to ever larger quantities of information, tendencies to view information and knowledge as equivalent, and inclination to skim and multi-task rather than concentrate on deep immersion on a single task or subject. Much of this contains nothing new or particularly groundbreaking. But the authors also acknowledge the emergence of large collaborative movements to create and share on a scale not seen in the offline environment. Digital technologies and the Internet promote creation, collaboration, and sharing in ways that engage the interests and talents of a wide variety of users. If digital scholarship is created in such a way that it takes advantage of the essential structure of the Web and the benefits of horizontal, open-source programs, coding, and platforms, it may be possible to build a form of scholarship that is not only interactive and sustainable but inspiring as well.

*This essay was written in the haze of finals week for a seminar with Professor Will Thomas, HIST 946: Interdisciplinary Readings in the Digital Humanities. The syllabus for this course can be found here.

Reflections on the challenges and opportunities of the digital medium

The digital medium presents unique opportunities and challenges for humanists. It offers new methods for research, analysis, and the communication of knowledge and scholarly argument. At the same time, interaction with and utilization of the digital medium and emergent digital technologies compels humanists to reflect critically upon the ways these new methodologies alter, contribute to, or challenge humanist efforts to study and understand the human experience. Hypertextuality calls linear narrative into question while simultaneously proffering literary forms that are more interactive, immersive, and complex. Computing technologies enable the collection of immense data sets, yet require acceptance of and commitment to experimentation and collaboration in order for patterns to be represented in manners both meaningful and accurate. Digital visualizations open new avenues for examining information, structure, and theory but can pose serious problems when equated with interpretation and analysis. The challenges presented by the digital medium should not discourage humanists from actively engaging with the processes of creating and refining new forms of scholarly discovery and expression. A new medium requires the use of new methods and the adaptation of old ones. While the core goals of the humanities are unlikely to change as a result of interaction with the digital environment, methods of research, analysis, and communication should change if humanists are to take full advantage of the opportunities the digital medium offers.

Franco Moretti’s insight into the ways literary historians can utilize visual versions of theoretical structures to expand their focus beyond the interpretation of individual texts has many applications to the digital humanities more broadly. In Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History Moretti does not specifically address the use of visualizations in the digital medium, but the ideas he sets forth are useful to any effort to examine a problem or question in a different light. In fact, most of his ideas are centered upon methodologies that produce new questions. He advocates “distant reading,” a manner of reading that encourages scholars to step back and take a broader view of their subject. Distant reading, Moretti argues, is deliberately reductive and abstract. It represents a “specific form of knowledge” that moves away from individual objects to reveal larger connections among collections of objects (Moretti, 1). Moretti advocates distant reading not as a replacement for the traditional, close reading of texts but rather as a supplement to literary historians’ current methodologies—one that can expand and enrich the discipline by shifting focus away from individual, extraordinary works of literature to “everyday,” ordinary works of literature and large masses of facts (Moretti, 3). He insists that although individual texts are the “real objects of literature…they are not the right objects of knowledge for literary history” because the close reading of individual texts tends to blind scholars to the historical processes and devices that shape literary form over time. Distant reading is therefore a useful way to move beyond the interpretation of individual texts and into analysis of the patterns and general structures that influence the evolution of literary form.

Moretti concentrates on graphs, maps, and trees as examples of visualizations that literary historians can use to examine theoretical structures. But he is careful to note that such visualizations are not models: they display data and can elicit new questions and problems but they are not interpretations of data. Interpretation and analysis must come from the scholar. This point should not be lost on digital humanists attempting to utilize visualizations in their work. The digital medium and digital technologies offer many unique opportunities to represent large amounts of information and examine patterns, and although visualizations can lead to insight they do not constitute insight in and of themselves. In Graphs, Maps, Trees Moretti consistently pairs the visualizations he uses with a written analysis explaining what the visualizations reveal and suggest. The use of visualizations in the digital medium ought to follow a similar pattern, particularly if digital scholarship is to gain recognition and validation. Whether print or digital, the use of visualizations is only justified when it adds something of value that cannot be expressed or represented with the written word. And in the digital medium, visualizations have great potential for offfering meaningful ways to engage reader-users in narrative and in the process of learning.

Moretti refers to graphs, maps, and trees as ways to “prepare a text for analysis,”(Moretti, 53) but visualizations can also open new pathways for individual reader-users to explore ideas, patterns, and arguments. This is particularly true in the digital medium, where visualizations can be made interactive and immersive. The futures of narrative and authorship in the digital are examined by Mereille Rosello in “The Screener’s Maps: Michel de Certeau’s ‘Wandersmänner’ and Paul Auster’s Hypertextual Detective,” Espen Aarseth in Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, and Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Each author discusses the opportunities they see and the changes they believe will take place as scholars and other authors create and communicate in the digital environment. Visualizations are just one of many tools they mention that can aid narrative and the exposition of argument. Like Moretti, Rosello, Aarseth, and Murray deal primarily with literary theory, but their perspectives are useful for all humanists interested in working in the digital medium. They assert that a willingness to experiment with digital technologies and embrace changes to the form narrative takes is central to the future of the humanities.

Rosello and Murray are particularly insistent upon the need for greater academic willingness to consider the value of narrative in the digital. They dismiss the notion that e-narrative is somehow intrinsically inferior to print narrative, and argue that the form of narrative ought to change if the best possible use is to be made of the digital medium. Different mediums offer different ways of communicating, representing, and interacting with information. If narrative and argument are simply transplanted into the digital medium, with no critical thought given to the impact and potential of the medium for both the creator and the reader-user, no real engagement with the medium has taken place. And if this is the case, why utilize the medium at all? Rosello, Murray, and Aarseth each point to hypertextuality as one of the primary aspects of the Web that offers new opportunities for creativity and experimentation with narrative.

Hypertextuality, also called nonlinearity, enables a different type of interaction with narrative. Contrary to popular assumptions, nonlinearity is nothing new. One can already read a printed book nonlinearly by simply flipping through the pages or skimming through the text. And most books are actually designed to encourage nonlinear reading. They contain tables of contents, chapters, subsections, and indexes—all aimed at helping the reader more easily locate the information they are most interested in. Nonlinearity via hypertext streamlines this process. Digital narrative and argument can be engineered in such a way as to allow individual reader-users to follow aspects of ideas, themes, and evidence that are of particular interest to them. It can also call upon reader-users to be actively involved in the process of reading and learning. In the digital medium visualizations represent just one tool authors can utilize to make narrative and argument more interactive and immersive.

Rosello, Aarseth, and Murray each discuss the potential simulations, games, and multi-user domains (MUDs) hold for drawing reader-users into a story or a set of arguments in ways not possible with the written word alone. Aarseth’s definition of nonlinear literature expresses quite well the primary point behind using different forms of media—and the digital medium in particular—to convey ideas. He writes, “A nonlinear text is an object of verbal communication that is not simply one fixed sequence of letters, words, and sentences but one in which the words or sequence of words may differ from reading to reading because of the shape, conventions, or mechanisms of the text” (Aarseth, 41). In this sense, the digital medium is just one of many different mediums available to authors for the communication of knowledge and scholarly argument. And, as Moretti makes clear, visualizations in the digital present further opportunities for authors and scholars to examine, recognize, and represent patterns—both for their own research and for the interests and engagement of reader-users. The process of creating narrative and argument in the digital environment may be unfamiliar, but the lack of strictures, established conventions, and the freedom to experiment with form and medium has the potential to lead to a great deal of creativity, discovery, and innovation.

The digital medium is quickly changing the scholarly landscape. Humanists need to participate in the process of change and assume an active role in the digital space if they are to influence the outcome of the transformations taking place in the digital age. Interaction with the digital environment for the purposes of scholarship should be undertaken with a willingness to collaborate, experiment, and fail. Change can be jarring, but it need not be disruptive. The goals of the humanities disciplines will undoubtedly remain the same over time, although methods of research, analysis, and communication should change in order for authors and scholars to be able to fully engage with and take advantage of the digital medium. As new forms of narrative are created and new ways of examining information and visualizing patterns emerge, humanists must reflect upon the implications of these developments for the humanist endeavor. Narrative and argument in the digital should be subject to the same level of critical inquiry and academic rigor as all scholarship and scholarly methods, but it is unacceptable to reject new methods and forms simply on the basis of their newness. The challenges posed and opportunities offered by the digital medium must be confronted.

*This essay was written as a reading reflection for a seminar with Professor Will Thomas, HIST 946: Interdisciplinary Readings in the Digital Humanities. The syllabus for this course can be found here.