Week 7: Exceptions to Open Access

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been highly interested in open access and debates surrounding its merits and shortcomings. Serendipitously, I was invited to sit in on Dr. Amy Margaris’s Anthropology Seminar, Culture, Contact and Colonialism, during which we would discuss the limitations of open access systems for publishing scholarly work regarding traditional/indigenous knowledge. Prior to attending the class, I read a number of articles centered on this debate including “Opening Archives: Respectful Repatriation” by Kimberly Christen and “Protecting Traditional Knowledge and Expanding Access to Scientific Data: Juxtaposing Intellectual Property Agendas via “Some Rights Reserved” Model” by Eric C. Kansa, et al. (Full citations can be found on my reading list).

The main argument against open access from traditional knowledge advocates goes like this: by arguing that “information wants to be free”, open access advocates fail to take into account whether the owners of traditional knowledge wish to share the information taken from them. Said more eloquently, “At one side, open-knowledge advocates seek greater freedom for finding, distributing, using, and reusing information. On the other hand, traditional-knowledge rights advocates seek to protect certain forms of knowledge from appropriation and exploitation and seek recognition for communal and culturally situated notions of heritage and intellectual property” (Kansa, et al.).

What I didn’t know prior to reading these materials was that traditional knowledge was and still is largely considered part of the public domain. I had visited museums filled with stolen objects (everything from art to architecture to furniture to actual human remains), so I had a frame of reference regarding the scale of the issue when it came to physical objects. I hadn’t yet considered the digital form these objects and the intangible aspects of traditional knowledge had taken. Digital objects are entirely different from their physical counterparts because digital objects can be stolen repeatedly, infinitely reappropriated, and can be easily taken out of context. Without strict licensing agreements or copyright protections, we have very little control over how digital objects are used, and even then, we still may not have as much control as we hoped. Naturally then, making all traditional knowledge part of the public domain has some serious consequences, namely that it perpetuates colonization.

Traditional Knowledge advocates argue in favor of some guidelines and restrictions when posting traditional knowledge online. Kansa et al. argue in favor of creating new Creative Commons licenses that include terms I’ll paraphrase such as “user must maintain the cultural integrity of the object” and “user must provide a native translation of the object.” Though Creative Commons licenses aren’t perfect, they are a solid model upon which traditional knowledge restrictions and licenses can be built. Christen makes a case for the Mukurtu project, which is an online hosting platform for traditional knowledge collections which allows for greater indigenous control over the visibility and access to materials, a more equitable visualization of traditional knowledge side by side with “expert” or “academic” knowledge, and the ability to create unique, culturally informed systems of organizing knowledge.

If we decided to take up all of these practices, would we be in direct opposition to the principles of open access? Personally, I don’t think so. Take my analogy* below:

Imagine you have a recipe that has been passed down for generations in your family and though it isn’t currently used to generate a profit, it has great emotional value within your family. You may not want someone to come to your house, read the recipe, and post it online where anyone could access it, and start making your great, great, great aunt’s dish for a profit, right? Not all information belongs in the public domain. Your private photographs are not part of the public domain. Your family’s recipe is not part of the public domain. Your diary isn’t public domain. None of these things are automatically assumed to be part of the public domain just because they consist of information, and even if someone asked you if they could read your diary or flip through your photo albums, that doesn’t give them the right to post all of it online. You should have control over what gets posted and how it’s presented.

What needs to change is the assumption that every single piece of data a researcher collects is part of the public domain. Just because a researcher may have collected it, doesn’t mean it belongs to them–regardless of whether they had consent to collect the information. This is certainly still in line with the principles of open access.

The goal of open access is to prevent exploitation and unjust gatekeeping of information. As stated by the Budapest Open Access Initiative:

“There are many degrees and kinds of wider and easier access to this literature [specifically, peer-reviewed journal articles]. By “open access” to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.”

This critique is, at its core, anti-capitalist. Open access advocates don’t argue that literally all information should be posted online (certainly, some information is private, as I made clear above), but rather that the work scholars produce should not be hoarded by private publishers for the purpose of making information a scarce commodity. There are limitations on open access (such as copyright, which should be used to maintain the integrity of the work and ensure proper citation), and traditional knowledge should be understood as a form of information that has limiting factors. At the same time, the goal of traditional knowledge advocates is to prevent exploitation and appropriation of culturally significant materials. It is, at its core, an anti-colonial argument. So essentially, both argue against imperialism, against dominating Western forces that prevent the human flourishing scholarly work is meant to produce.

As a scholarly community, it should be our goal to bring both sides of this debate together, so that the fewest number of people are exploited by research and publishing activities. This means reducing barriers, particularly financial barriers to access in some situations, and raising some barriers in others, particularly in cases where the information is culturally sensitive.

Moving forward, digital scholars, researchers, and archivists alike need to empower indigenous systems of understanding and sharing information. Indigenous populations should be able to:

  • Dictate the terms of use for the traditional knowledge and objects they share. They should have the right to: control what goes online, who sees it, who gets to use it, and how the person accessing it get to use it.
  • Benefit from the collection being online.
  • Control how the information is modeled and framed (i.e. the Smithsonian top down model for organizing information doesn’t apply to all knowledge. Other ontologies need to be made possible online).

At the same time digital scholars, researchers, and archivists should try to make research and scholarship more widely available whenever possible by publishing in open access journals, publishing in repositories, encouraging students and the public to use open access journals, and taking advantage of Creative Commons licensing systems.

The academic publishing status quo leaves much to be desired by both the traditional knowledge and the open access standards. We can all do better.


*To be clear, I am not at all trying to imply that private photos, recipes, diaries, etc. have the same cultural value or significance as traditional knowledge. My intention is to imply that some knowledge is personal and private, not public.

Week 6: Shared Ideals

By now, six weeks into my new position, I’ve read a lot of arguments both in favor and opposed to the digital humanities, and beneath the surface of almost every single one of these arguments, I’ve seen the same underlying theme: anti-capitalism or anti-corporatization. Most of the articles I have read have in one way or another made the case that the academy should not be run as a business. The most interesting thing about this is the way that it plays out in opposing arguments. Let’s take a look at some of the (oversimplified) arguments that have been made about digital scholarship. 

  • We should all publish on open access platforms because knowledge should be shared.
  • If we all publish only on open access platforms, there will be no peer review, and there will be a death of expertise, making it easier for the general public to be manipulated by propaganda.
  • Libraries shouldn’t be just houses for information, they should be centers for generating new knowledge.
  • Digital humanities will save the humanities from its crisis.
  • Digital humanities will not save the humanities from its crisis.
  • We need more cross-disciplinary research and research centers.
  • Digital work is rarely counted toward tenure and often not recognized as research.
  • The higher ups in higher education only like DH because it brings in funding and it’s something they can sell to incoming students.
  • Teaching students to use computers is exactly what the corporations want you to do!
  • Using blogs or other more creative forms of assessment instead of papers is better for student learning than asking students to write essays and dissertations.

The disagreements here are not about whether digital scholarship is the best way to make money for the academy and continue its expansion. They’re about whether digital scholarship is capable of dismantling capitalist practices and systems within the academy or whether digital scholarship will further corporatize the academy. It’s not about whether the scholars think it is good or bad that there is a paywall to access scholarship. It’s about whether the paywall is necessary in order to maintain the level of scholarship taking place in the academy right now. It’s not about whether the humanities should be saved (regardless of how realistic this outlook is). It’s about how best to do it. It’s not about whether there should be more tenured positions for faculty. It’s about whether junior faculty members are doing an unfair amount of labor in order to gain tenure. (Again, I’m well aware that these are oversimplifications, but go with me).

The point that I’m making is that for all of this contention around digital scholarship and digital humanities, what everyone actually seems to be concerned about, is the seemingly inevitable corporatization and cannibalization of the university as we know it. We don’t fear computers and their ability to make graphs out of word counts (at least most of us don’t). We fear that using a tool created by a warmongering, exploitative, power-hungry corporation will open the floodgates for even more exploitation and warmongering practices in our university.

I’m going to take a deeper dive into one of the major arguments that has been ongoing in the DH community. That is, should we involve digital scholarship in our curriculum?

Some professors are torn between on the one hand, giving their students a unique, but possibly untested learning experience using digital tools, and on the other hand, making sure that the work students do in class is valued by future employers. Professors care about their students’ futures. That’s why they teach. To ignore the necessity of creating an environment that produces capable workers is to do their students a disservice. They have to prepare their students for the working world, even if it doesn’t operate the same way they wish they could operate their classrooms.

Other professors argue that this innovative, digital work and assessment is valuable to employers, that as the world becomes increasingly digital, it is relevant to give students non-traditional assignments that involve aspects of digital scholarship. This argument is similarly centered around what will best prepare students for getting jobs, but it also argues that this isn’t the only function of digital scholarship, that it is fulfilling and fun and that it inspires a passion for learning in their students more so than lectures and papers.

Still other professors believe that the digital work and unique assessment practices are not productive at all, that they not only fail teach students the skills and learning outcomes necessary for the basic understanding of the field of study, but are also not skills that are marketable to employers.

As a recent undergraduate student, I would say that all of this is missing the point. I really enjoyed my college experience. I enjoyed writing papers and making videos and blog entries. I enjoyed classes where we had lectures and classes where we had discussions. I also enjoyed writing poetry using tweets from Twitter bots and making pottery and giving presentations and running social media platforms for our creative writing lecture series (the Beck Lecture Series). I liked having a mix of all of these kinds of work. It’s not about the type of work I did as a student, so much as it was about feeling I could engage in learning in new ways, which sometimes meant writing a fifteen page paper. What mattered was that these different types of learning were valued for their difference and their breadth. There is no reason why the liberal arts shouldn’t embrace digital scholarship. It embodies everything the liberal arts is about. It’s cross-disciplinary. Making a video is as much about camera angles as it is about storytelling. Understanding poetic meter is as important as understanding algorithms. Knowing how to teach yourself new skills is not just about where to find information but also about how to interpret it. To exclude print or digital information from these endeavors would be a huge mistake. The liberal arts needs the digital and the “traditional” forms of learning.

Whether the work is digital or not, is not the point. The point is that no matter what we do or how we structure our curriculums, ultimately, students have to be able to point to the work they did as undergraduates in order to get a job or get into grad school and that is the problem with education. What we all really want, not just for ourselves but for students as well, is the ability to learn for learning’s sake alone. We want to pursue our passions because that’s what the liberal arts is really about–inspiring a life-long love of learning (a phrase I heard 5,000 times at Denison). The problem is that the current system doesn’t allow everyone to pursue what they love.

I’m not arguing that I have a solution, nor am I arguing that I expect every single one of the articles and books I read to reference the Communist Manifesto when talking about ideal learning, teaching, and researching conditions. What I’m arguing is that I see a great amount of agreement beneath the contention in the DH community, and that it gives me hope because if all of these smart people are working on these problems, we might actually get somewhere.

Week 5: Fun with Voyant

Full Voyant Page









At first glance, the chart in the upper righthand corner of the page in Voyant doesn’t really seem to mean anything. After all, Voyant is just counting words, so the fact that the number of times the chosen words appear throughout a novel increases and decreases over time isn’t all that exceptional. Except this one graph basically shows you the reason why the the Bishop of Wakefield, Walsham How, burnt his copy of Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure. Some scholars hypothesize that because the criticism against Jude the Obscure was so strong, Hardy never wrote another novel. So, what does this graph show that’s so bad about Jude the Obscure?

Word Frequencies by 10-part Division (See below for chart displaying all 53 chapters)

Check out which words are being graphed: ‘wife’, ‘church’, and ‘love’. By section 5 on the graph (an even ten-point division created by Voyant), ‘wife’ and ‘love’ are almost perfectly in sync. The more Hardy uses ‘wife’, the more he uses ‘love’. Notice that ‘church’ does the exact opposite. This demonstrates the major theme of the novel which is that love and marriage aren’t always congruent with the church. (Note: I chose the word ‘wife’ and not ‘marriage’ because ‘wife’ appears slightly more frequently than the word ‘marriage’. Similarly, I chose ‘church’, not ‘religion’ or ‘Christianity’.)

So you might’ve noticed some inconsistencies, particularly at the beginning and the very last point where ‘wife’ and ‘church’ reconvene. In order to understand the significance of these points, you’re going to need some background on the plot. (I’d like to point out here that we already have a fairly solid grasp as to why Hardy’s book was burnt and we haven’t even gotten into the names of the main characters, the setting, or the plot, so that’s kind of cool).

Here’s my “Sparknote-y” version of the plot:

Jude is a pretty regular guy living out in the English countryside. He meets a local girl, Arabella, and they hook up. Though Jude wants to leave to go to Christminster to study, Arabella tells him she’s pregnant and so he decides to marry her.

Surprise! She lied.

They really don’t get along and Jude considers killing himself. Arabella decides to move to Australia and they go their separate ways. Jude goes to the city and runs into his cousin, Sue (who his aunt specifically told him to visit). Sue is intelligent and interesting and Jude is super into her. That’s right, she’s his cousin, he’s super attracted to her. This book was written a while ago (1895) but not far enough back where cousin incest is okay, so keep that in mind. Sue also feels an attraction of sorts though she doesn’t admit it because she knows it would be wrong. So she marries Richard, an old school teacher, who she really doesn’t love.

Yada, yada, yada. Sue and Jude eventually end up together after crossing paths a number of times. They don’t get married, but they live together like a married couple, have a couple of kids, and move around England to avoid suspicion regarding their circumstances.

And let me point out here that Hardy really makes you root for these two. Like, I didn’t think I was going to be dying for these two to get together, but he makes a compelling case. They’re happy. Who cares?

God cares, apparently, because while Jude and Sue are out and about at one point, one of Jude’s kids hangs the other two kids and himself. Sue, wracked with grief and guilt, takes this as a sign from God that they never should have gotten together/left their original spouses. She tells Jude she’s leaving him and going back to live with Richard and that Jude should get back with Arabella. Jude super doesn’t want to do this, but Sue wants it, so he does it. He is very unhappy with Arabella, and goes to visit Sue, who tells him she can’t be with him and though it makes her sad, she remarries Richard. Jude goes back to live with Arabella and dies of a lung disease (aka sadness). And you, the reader, cry in the airport after reading this thing in one night.

So okay, how does this inform the graph? In the beginning you can see how ‘church’ and ‘love are mildly in sync, though not highly correlated. Hardy uses the word ‘wife’ very frequently when Jude and Arabella get married but rarely uses the word ‘love’. It’s only once Jude and Sue admit their love for one another (though Sue flip flops on this constantly – note the ups and downs) by the middle of the book that ‘love’ and ‘wife’ sync up, weaving exactly opposite the word ‘church’ so that by the second half, the more Hardy uses the words ‘love’ and ‘wife’, the less he uses the word ‘church’ and vice versa. At the end of the book, ‘wife’ and ‘church’ reconvene because Sue and Jude give up the idea of love and submit to society’s conception of marriage.

Just a little playing around shows that ‘wish’ is also highly correlated with ‘love’ while ‘church’ and ‘arabella’ are mostly in sync. The things that make Jude and Sue unhappy–the rules of the church and Jude’s previous marriage–occur frequently at the same time in the novel and rarely with the things that do make Jude and Sue happy–their love and wishes. Basically, Hardy makes an argument that love and marriage shouldn’t be controlled by societal forces like the church because forcing people to live lives that are contradictory to their feelings will end in tragedy.

But I know what you’re going to say, this is just showing the number of times the words occurred in the chapter. It doesn’t show you the context they were used in. The interpretation of the graph could be wrong if you haven’t read the book. Even if you have read the book or the summary above, it doesn’t mean the number of times Hardy used ‘love’ and ‘wife’ in the sixth section of the book corresponds to the actual message of the text. It’s just correlation, not interpretation!

This doesn’t matter for two reasons.

  1. I’m not arguing that by looking at this graph, you have a complete understanding of Thomas Hardy’s opinions on love and marriage and the business of the church. I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t read Jude the Obscure. Making a graph in 5 seconds doesn’t stand in for reading the book. Besides, how would you know to choose these specific words in the first place if you hadn’t read the book? This graph is a jumping off point. It’s a way to help you formulate a thesis and really dig into the language of the text in a hands-on way. It’s a tool, not the end all be all of analysis.
  2. Correlation matters! If Hardy is discussing love and wives without discussing the church, if love and religion are at odds with one another, that wouldn’t look great in the eyes of Bishop Walsham How. The raw frequency of these words in each section of the book isn’t a perfect stand in for how the words are used, but it is enough to show a major theme in the novel, a theme that got Hardy into serious trouble.

What are the takeaways? In order to truly understand the relationship between these words and concepts, further text encoding would need to take place. For example, additional analysis could be done using the words ‘father’ and ‘right’ but the word ‘father’ could mean biological father or father of the church. ‘Right’ could mean opposite of left or it could mean just or proper. By taking the time to further encode the text, you could potentially reveal additional levels of insight into Hardy’s word choice. It may even be enough to hypothesize about Hardy’s subconscious while writing the novel. However, the exercise of just throwing a corpus into Voyant is still certainly worthwhile, especially if you need to come up with a topic for a paper or want to better understand an author’s vocabulary.

What matters most about this endeavor is that it’s just cool. It’s so interesting to think themes can be teased out of a corpus simply by counting words, and without a lot of effort at that. Just thinking about the use of individual words in this text and their meanings has given me a dozen different possibilities for further research into this text and others. So, I’ll end with a few questions:

How would all of Thomas Hardy’s works compare in terms of word choice? Would they follow the same theme? What about works of other authors who were highly criticised for their writing during the 19th century, like Oscar Wilde? What about authors who were praised? Can text encoding reveal the panoptic nature of the text? How would this graph change if Sue was the main character, not Jude? To what extent can we extrapolate whether some words were chosen for their double meaning (right direction vs right proper)? Can we make any guesses about Hardy’s intentions versus his subconscious while we was writing this novel?

Word Frequencies by Chapter

Week 3 and 4: Knowing What You Don’t Know

I’m in my fourth week now as a Digital Humanities Post-Bac and I’ve started to work with a number of popular tools and software programs that Digital Humanists really love to use to curate their work. In this post, I am going to talk about my experiences working with Omeka and Neatline, StoryMap JS, Scalar, and WordPress (links below).

In order to teach myself how to use these tools, I created four versions of the same archive using some of the pictures that I took while I was abroad as well as some of the poems that I wrote about my time abroad for my senior writing project.

I started out trying to to use the Omeka CSV auto-import plugin to upload all of my metadata and files but (as I found out later) a second plugin is required to make this plugin work, so I decided to input the metadata and files by hand. For 13 files for which I had already mapped and typed out the metadata, this took me about 30 minutes. After uploading all of the files, I organized them into an exhibit, which took roughly an hour because I decided to include some of my poems on the various pages, which made formatting the pages a little slower going. From here, I used the Neatline plugin to map my photos to an open-source street map (not unlike Google Maps). I did not change any of the default settings for the size and color of my points, so this took me about another hour. All in all, with very little customization, this site took me a little over 3 hours to create.

Next, I decided to create a Story Map using StoryMap JS. I did not install any applications in order to create my map, I simply signed up on their webpage, which was very easy to use. I really enjoyed the StoryMap JS interface because it included a few pieces that the Neatline plugin did not, including a search bar in which I could type the location of my points, making it the input of these items much faster. I also enjoyed the animation that showed my movement throughout the U.K. and Ireland. Though it can be frustrating to have to individually customize each slide (background, text, etc.), the interface is super easy to use. This only took me about an hour to make.

After creating the Story Map, I was encouraged to try out Scalar, though I was warned it was a bit more difficult to use. What I found was that I actually really enjoyed the book-style layout and though the tabs in the dashboard view of the website are misleading and often don’t contain the features that I assumed they should contain, a half hour of monkeying around with the site was all it took for me to find the features I was looking for. Creating a book on Scalar took me a good 2.5 to 3 hours, but when I had finished, it was customized exactly as I wanted.

Finally, I decided to create a WordPress site to host all of the same content because I know this is one of the most popular programs in classes throughout the five colleges. WordPress is fairly easy to use if you don’t let it get in its own way. The thing about WordPress is that it’s really easy to make a good looking website if you use one of the free themes readily available to you. The bad thing about WordPress is that a lot of the buttons and menu items are duplicative, so you could push two different buttons and get the same outcome from each of them and that can be frustrating. However, I did enjoy setting up both of my WordPress websites once I got to know the platform a little better. The final positive thing I’ll say about WordPress is that a ton of people use it, so if you get stuck or have a problem, the solution is super easy to find online. The website I created took me about 2 hours to make.

Now, I know that it seems unfair to compare these websites to one another since they were specifically designed to handle different types of collections. Of course I liked Scalar the best because the material from which I was pulling was in a book format. It seemed natural and easy to display the content on Scalar’s site. Had I been using hundreds of old photographs, it’s highly likely I would have preferred Omeka (provided I could get the CSV import plugin to work). So ranking one program over another isn’t really the point of this blog post. Instead, I want to talk about the student experience with technology.

I don’t really remember a time in my life when I didn’t have the internet. I vaguely remember asking my mom to hang up the phone so I could get on the internet. So, I feel pretty comfortable navigating the various menus and buttons that these programs use. I know intuitively which layouts I do and do not like. I have a reference from other websites for how I think the information should be displayed. If I cannot immediately find the menu or button that will display the option for whichever element I want to adjust, I know that I can most likely just click around until I find it. But I didn’t know just how much I didn’t know about how the internet and programs like these work.

Of course the three horizontal lines means menu. Of course there’s an option to change the background color somewhere. Of course you can drag items into a different order in the table of contents. But what the hell is an API? And how does coding get put into the internet? And where would you write it? And what exactly does a server do?

I think I thought I knew the answers to these questions because everything I had always done on a computer didn’t require me to know the answers. I had a vague idea of how my graphic designer friend would write code to change the font on a website, but I never wondered where she wrote it or how she put it on the internet. As soon as I was confronted with the prospect of uploading my own work to the internet (without using out-of-the-box solutions like Squarespace or Wix), I realized I had no idea how to install a plugin or create subdomains or link a database to an application. I could ham-fist my way through the process (and kind of did) but I didn’t know what I was doing with .htaccess files or CMS folders. I needed a lot of help here from my supervisor and Youtube videos and the chat support on Reclaim Hosting.

As a person with a degree in creative writing with zero background in computer science or basic computing skills, I think it’s important that when we’re teaching students how to use these programs, we first start with the framework (where does all of the information get stored, how do you get started writing code, what does it mean to host a website, etc.) before we explain how to import files and change background colors.

Liberal arts students are scrappy, and I don’t just say that because I was one. The point of a liberal arts education is to teach students to continue learning even after they’ve graduated. A liberal arts education gives students the framework and learning skills to interpret the world around themselves. So the idea is that if they aren’t in a class and don’t have a professor, they could teach themselves the new skills and ideas that they want to learn because they have this basic framework and learning skills as a jumping off point. So, the point I’m making here isn’t that we need to teach everyone how to code or how to set up an API, but instead that it would be useful (though I wouldn’t want it to be mandatory) to incorporate some of this computing framework into the digital humanities discussions that take place in the classroom. The easy (easier) part is figuring out how to work iMovie or Scalar or WordPress. The hard part is understanding why they work the way that they do and how they fit into the larger framework of computers and the internet as whole.

I think we’re doing digital humanities and students of digital humanities a disservice if we don’t teach them these basics of computer science because without these pieces it’s harder to learn on your own. It’s not impossible. As I said before, liberal arts students are scrappy. But it is definitely harder and slower going if you don’t know that all websites have back-end folders containing all of the code and config files to make the website work. Silly me, I didn’t really think I would ever touch or edit these files or in some cases, I didn’t know they even existed.

I’ll use an analogy to make myself clearer. It’s like teaching someone how to do a specific equation in calculus without teaching them why the equation works. Maybe you can figure out how quickly a cone will fill up with liquid, but unless you know why you can use a derivative to figure out that rate and what it has to do with limits, what’s the point? It’s a lot to reengineer if you only have the equation as a point of reference.

And finally, I’ll end with a preemptive defense of my case. I realize that I make it sound like because I (and many other students my age) heard this noise while growing up, that I am intuitively computer savvy and that I don’t need help running iMovie or Scalar or whatever. The truth is that many students struggle to make these applications work. They’re not easy to learn and I had the benefit of having parents who encouraged me to create things on a computer from a young age. I am not arguing that no one needs help running an application or uploading files online. No, I’m arguing that if we (liberal arts students) are given a better understanding of the internet and computer science as a whole, it will be easier for us to figure out how programs like Scalar work. Everything on the internet is constantly evolving. There’s no guarantee Omeka won’t become obsolete when some cool, new application gets released tomorrow. If we want the liberal arts colleges and the digital humanities to produce autonomous, creative thinkers, we need to give students the framework upon which they can build the next generation of digital tools and thought.

My next challenge? Learning how to code!


URLs for all 4 projects:

Omeka and Neatline: http://omeka.sandbox.digitalolivia.org/cms/exhibits

StoryMap JS: https://uploads.knightlab.com/storymapjs/c48745e5c0ca303823261f996d309ff2/olivias-study-abroad/index.html

Scalar: http://scalar.sandbox.digitalolivia.org/my-poetry-book/index

WordPress: wordpress.sandbox.digitalolivia.org/blog/


Week 1 and 2: Myths and Revelations about the “Dark Side” of DH

When I first encountered the “Dark Side of Digital Humanities” and “Digital Humanities Bust” arguments online, it was my 3rd day on the job as a Digital Humanities Post-Bac, and I was concerned. Was digital humanities just a “neoliberal conspiracy” to get colleges and universities to act more like businesses? As Richard Grusen put it in his section of the Dark Side of Digital Humanities section in Debates in the Digital Humanities (2016), “academics on the left (which is pretty much everyone doing theory and cultural studies) blame the crisis in the humanities on the corporatization of the academy and the neoliberal insistence that the value of higher education must be understood instrumentally in economic terms.” Though I read dozens of responses to this idea, I was unconvinced, and I didn’t want to take part in anything labelled “neoliberal.” Had I left a job in marketing consulting – a position I often questioned due to its unending neoliberal promises about “helping” people access Medicaid by taking part in the further privatization of healthcare – just so I could help colleges become increasingly neoliberal in their research and pedagogy?

My concerns were partially informed by an article I recently read in the Guardian, Tech’s push to teach coding isn’t about kids’ success – it’s about cutting wages. The author, Ben Tarnoff, argues that teaching coding isn’t about making high schoolers more competitive in the job market, it’s about making middle class jobs cheaper so Silicon Valley CEOs can take home a bigger paycheck. Tarnoff explains, “teaching millions of kids to code won’t make them all middle-class. Rather, it will proletarianize the profession by flooding the market and forcing wages down – and that’s precisely the point.” The link to my new job was clear. Tarnoff explains, “The far-fetched premise of neoliberal school reform is that education can mend our disintegrating social fabric. That if we teach students the right skills, we can solve poverty, inequality and stagnation. The school becomes an engine of economic transformation, catapulting young people from challenging circumstances into dignified, comfortable lives.” If this is true of coding, it must certainly be true of the humanities. Isn’t it the premise of DH pedagogy that if we teach students the right digital, technological skills in the humanities, they will be able to get middle-income jobs? Furthermore, are we attempting to milk “usefulness” (profit) from faculty and staff who apply for grants in digital humanities? From all of these online arguments, it sounded to me like perhaps the end goal of digital humanities is to make humanities “relevant again,” which implies that the humanities are not or were not relevant to the real (read: corporate) world because they did not involve data analysis and computer programming.

The thing is though, I know the logic behind that assumption is faulty at best. I know that the humanities are relevant, that they were always relevant and that the idea of relevance in this context is a ridiculous measurement anyway. Why should we measure the value of the humanities by how much profit it can generate

Two years ago, I was the research assistant for a digital humanities project where the goal was to prove that the value of the humanities and a liberal arts education extended far beyond the simple measuring stick of whether they help students land a middle income job. At the end of the project, that premise was essentially confirmed. The Literature and Professional Life Digital Life Stories Archive is an oral history project directed by Dr. Regina Martin at Denison University. For this project, I interviewed English alumni about their careers and found that for the most part, it doesn’t matter what you major in. The value of a liberal arts education is being able to teach yourself new skills, to continue learning after graduation and for the rest of your life. More importantly, the value of a degree isn’t purely its ability to get you a high paying job, though I, a recent grad, am definitely not disputing that this is an important piece of the puzzle.

I think this fear about the effect of DH on universities as a whole emerges because Digital Humanities is such a hard concept to understand due to its broad nature. It’s at once self-defining – humanities that are digital – and still something else altogether. As Jeffrey Schnapp puts it in his article, A Short Guide to the Digital_Humanities, “Digital Humanities is defined by the opportunities and challenges that arise from the conjunction of the term digital with the term humanities to form a new collective singular.” DH is not just a study of the digital from a humanities perspective, nor is it using digital tools to study traditional print/tangible humanities pieces; it’s both of these things and neither. So when you want to know whether the thing you’re about to spend a year dedicating eight hours a day to is a neoliberal conspiracy, it can be hard to parse out the truth if you’re struggling to define the thing you’re studying in the first place. After my first two weeks, here’s what I know:

  1. DH is a huge, multidisciplinary field/not-field that a lot of scholars define differently. (Though I like Schnapp’s definition above the best.)
  2. No matter what we – as scholars, professors, librarians, and humans – do, the world is becoming increasingly digital.
  3. You and I have the responsibility to ensure that at least in the humanities, this mass migration to the digital scholarship isn’t a bad thing, that it doesn’t result in the capitalization and proletarianization of the thing we love – that is – human culture.

You like me, might wonder how we accomplish number three on that list. At this point, I turn to Miriam Posner’s essay in Digital Humanities Debates about restructuring our understanding of data to better decentralize structures of power in DH, What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities. In this chapter, Posner argues the work of DH is to challenge power structures like patriarchy and racism. She states,

“I would like us to start understanding markers like gender and race not as givens but as constructions that are actively created from time to time and place to place. In other words, I want us to stop acting as though the data models for identity are containers to be filled in order to produce meaning and recognize instead that these structures themselves constitute data. That is where the work of DH should begin. What I am getting at here is a comment on our ambitions for digital humanities going forward. I want us to be more ambitious, to hold ourselves to much higher standards when we are claiming to develop data-based work that depicts people’s lives.”

As digital humanists, we need to find ways to resist the hierarchical molds developed by the corporations that have established much of the technology we use to conduct our research. Posner gives a few examples of ways to do this:

  1. Break out of the gender binary
  2. Resist the urge to visualize time as linear
  3. Create new understandings of race that are not checkboxes
  4. Be conscious of the perspective from which you display your data

In other words, we need to stop treating social constructs like they are the truth and in this way, we can positively impact the concept of data and the digital.

It would be easy for all of this DH work to slip into the neoliberal mold of producing bodies capable of reducing labor costs for CEOs who want a greater profit, but it doesn’t have to take this form, or not only this form. Even those skills which might ultimately reduce the average middle income are not inherently bad to learn or even market to employers. The dark side of the humanities is the lack of agency that comes from capitalism overtaking the university. I believe that by following Posner’s examples, I will be able to maintain some agency over my work. DH is what you make of it. In the words of Hogarth Hughes from Iron Giant, “You are who you choose to be. Now choose.”

Throughout my time as the DH Post-Bac for the Ohio5 Colleges, I will strive to meet Posner’s standards, to resist the simple answers that reinforce dominant power structures, and to create a new ways of thinking about DH that break the established neoliberal forms.


  1. Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong, et al. “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities, 2016, http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/89. Accessed 25 January 2018.
  2. Brennan, Timothy. “The Digital-Humanities Bust.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 15 Oct. 2017, https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Digital-Humanities-Bust/241424. Accessed 24 January 2018.
  3. Tarnoff, Ben. “Tech’s push to teach coding isn’t about kids’ success – it’s about cutting wages.” The Guardian, 21 September 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/sep/21/coding-education-teaching-silicon-valley-wages. Accessed 24 January 2018.
  4. Martin, Regina. “What can you do with an English Degree?: Oral History and the Crisis in the Humanities.” Oral History in the Liberal Arts, http://ohla.info/what-can-you-do-with-an-english-degree-oral-history-and-the-crisis-in-the-humanities/. Accessed 24 January 2018.
  5. Schnapp, Jeffrey. “A Short Guide to the Digital_Humanities.” Digital_Humanities, 2012, pp. 121-136. http://jeffreyschnapp.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/D_H_ShortGuide.pdf. Accessed 25 January 2018.
  6. Posner, Miriam. “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities, 2016, http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/54. Accessed 25 January 2018.
  7. Bird, Brad, director. Iron Giant. Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc, 1999.

Hello Digital Humanities Enthusiasts!

I am the Ohio Five Colleges Post-Baccalaureate Fellow in Digital Scholarship. This is a one-year position during which I will explore Digital Humanities (DH) pedagogy and practices. I will assist faculty with DH projects throughout the year and hope to conduct my own independent research as well. This blog is intended to chronicle my understanding and evolving relationship with DH, and also, as the name “Digital Olivia” implies, serve as a place for me to digitally archive my personal journey through this one-year position.

I hope you will check back for more updates and thoughts throughout the year!