Mapping to Interpret Texts

Today Dr. Elizabeth Dillon, co-creator of the Early Caribbean Digital Archive, is coming to campus to talk about the archive and discuss her new book, New World Drama: Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649-1849. In order to prepare for her visit, my class was asked to tool around the Early Caribbean Digital Archive and come up with questions to ask Dr. Dillon. Being that my class is currently working on our CommentPress collaboration and specifically, being that I am writing my subchapter of CommentPress on the “Unfinished Text” it is extremely appropriate and convenient that Dr. Dillon come speak with us now. I hope to ask her about the most challenging parts of creating the archive, as well as when she and her co-creators decided it was time to make the archive open for public view. How did they know it was “ready?” Was its readiness predicated by it’s usefulness to their audience? How often did they have to edit the project and how often do they go back and revise, add to, or take away from the project? These question stem not only from my interest in the archive, but also my interest in the unfinished text that the Digital Humanities create. I would like to see if we can link the unfinished text to the archive as well as a digital book or blog. Likewise, I want to ask about her experience collaborating the project. On the most basic (and naive) level, I want to know how the collaborating worked when creating the project. How did they decide who did what and when it was time to work together?

However, I’m not posting today just to voice my questions that I have for Dr. Dillon and the Early Caribbean Digital Archive. I’m posting today because something I came across in the archive reminded me of the topic of a couple of my posts a few weeks back. Google Maps.

A few weeks ago my class had a presentation on how to use Google Maps for scholarship. We were also asked to find an example of a Google Map that was used for scholarship and evaluate it. If my memory serves me correctly, the Google Map I found was helpful, but not that helpful. It was actually a use of Google Earth to track changes in Concord Massachusetts. You can check out my post about it here.

That being said, I found use of Google Maps in the Early Caribbean Digital Archive very, very successful. A student created a Google Map of Mary Prince in The History of Mary Prince. While I must admit that I’ve never read the narrative, the Google Map that racks her movements in the novel was extremely interesting. The student not only used the map to track Prince’s movement from place to place, country to country, but he also used the map to track the level of her agency in her movements. He color coordinated her movements to match the level of agency that existed in her movements. Each of her movements have an explanation attached to them and, citing from the text and interpreting it, he supported his claims for her level of agency in the move. Find his map here, along with another map of the ECDA Early Caribbean Slave Narrative Exhibit.

I not only like the student’s Google Map on Mary Prince because of it’s neatness, transparency, and helpfulness, but I also like the student’s Google Map because it is a great use of using Google Maps to interpret texts. It opens up so many options (in my mind at least) on what Google Maps can do not only for scholarship, but for a student learning in the university. The student’s Google Map takes Google Maps tools, masters them, AND uses them to assist him in his OWN interpretation of the text. It’s a great model for the rest of us students out there who are looking for innovative ways to show our interpretations of the texts we read.

Discussing “Challenging Gaps: Collaboration in the Digital Humanities”

In keeping with the collaboration theme in my last few posts, I decided to share with you an overview of my class discussion for Amy E. Earhart’s “Challenging Gaps: Redesigning Collaboration in the Digital Humanities.” There are three important points in her essay that I found most interesting and plan on sharing with the class. They are as follows: collaboration as a science laboratory, challenges which collaborative work presents to the humanist, and graduate student participation in collaboration.

1.  After expressing the important difference between interdisciplinarity and collaboration, Earhart states a way collaboration can be seen in the digital humanities: like a science laboratory. Collaboration in the digital humanities is analogous to a science lab because both work in similar ways. For example, according to Cathy Davidson, labs are “built around the process of discovery” (31). In other words, the purpose of a lab is to experiment, test, and discover the new. However, at the same time, labs are also a place which research is shared across generations and various fields and disciplines (31). Therefore, labs are places which past knowledge is used and embraced and new knowledge is sought after. Most importantly, in the lab, “no solitary thinker—no matter how brilliant or creative—could think through a complex problem as comprehensively as a group of thinkers from different fields…areas of expertise…intellectual generations” (31). Like a lab, multiple participants/authors/contributors are necessary in digital humanities project collaborations. The knowledge that the participants have is vast; they often come from different fields, experiences, training, and educations. Therefore, each participant has something unique to offer the project. Because the participants have something unique to offer, they are able to contribute more to the project than an individual, on his or her own, would.

However, Earhart uses the analogy of the lab loosely, claiming that the science lab contains hierarchies. (Hierarchies are not welcome in collaborations; if there are hierarchies then collaboration would not exist because collaborators are equal players.) First, there is a division between “technical and intellectual labor” (31). In other words, intellectual and technological labors are not equal players in a scientist’s lab. However, in a digital humanist’s lab they must be equal because both are equally important contributors to the project. She also claims that the science lab has a history of excluding women and minorities from their research, which also indicates an unequal players.

Notably, she uses the Walt Whitman Archive as an example for the digital humanist’s lab, claiming that the archive is treated “as a laboratory” that “generates collaborative scholarship” and “trains future scholars” (31). In other words, she views the archive like a lab because the website’s contributors collaborate to create new scholarship at the same time their archive influences future Walt Whitman (and digital humanist) scholars. I find her discussion on the laboratory to be an interesting one because it uses an essential element of the sciences and attaches it to the digital humanities. In essence, it bridges the gap between the two fields, suggesting that the digital humanities lab is a technological one.

2. Another aspect of Earhart’s essay that I found enlightening is her discussion of the challenges which collaboration presents to the humanities, specifically the way humanists approach scholarship. Humanists generally work alone. When they are finished working, they present their finished product, not the process of achieving that product. Therefore, collaborations or “project partnerships” “run into problems that boil down to differing opinions of the position of the product or process to the project outcome” (34). For example, when humanists and technologists work together, their goals can clash. Earhart states that the humanist often “focus[es] on [her] immediate goals” (34) or results.  The technologist focuses on the “application” (34). Earhart states that collaboration in the digital humanities is not necessarily about the finished product. Instead, the humanist should take a point or two from the technologist. The process of getting to the “final” project (if the project could ever be considered final) is “key to the discipline of digital humanities” (34). Failure is fine in the digital humanities. Failure can “produce more interesting results” or produce information that is interesting to publish (34). Thus the humanist, when working in collaborative digital projects, should value experimentation.

I find this discussion on the challenges for the humanist interesting because it implies that the humanist is somewhat of a perfectionist. The humanist conducts research to complete a specific end. The humanist values the end goal, the result. Collaboration in the digital humanities values the result, as well as the cause, the process. The humanist needs to be more like the technologist and accept failure. Failure is a possibility in the digital humanities; one can learn from failure. I like the idea that failure is useful.

3. Finally, I am interested in the way in which graduate students can use collaboration in their own education and research. Earhart claims that graduate students are “the future of digital humanities” (40) and because of that they should understand and participate in collaborative projects. Earhart returns to the idea of collaboration as a laboratory, claiming that it is helpful to think of the graduate student and digital humanities in that context. The digital humanities laboratory gives the student room to decide how she wants to involve herself in a project. It also gives the student the power to decide create her own “piece” of that project (40). In other words, the lab not only teaches a student how to participate in a project but allows her to decide how she wants to participate in that project. Importantly, the laboratory model creates a different relationship between faculty members and students. In a collaborative project, the parties are interdependent; they share scholarship and exchange ideas (40). In essence, they teach and learn from each other. This kind of laboratory and relationship can only occur if there is a collaborative environment in education.

I am interested in this idea because it relates collaboration and the digital humanities back to us—graduate students. It gives us a hint—but only that—of what collaboration could look like in higher education.

 My questions regarding this reading are:

  1. Last week we discussed the setbacks of the Walt Whitman Archive, specifically the colorless website, the difficulty maneuvering through and finding information, and its similarity to a printed book. Considering this, do you agree that the Walt Whitman Archive is an example of a digital humanist’s lab which generates “collaborative scholarship” and trains “future scholars” (31)? Can the Walt Whitman Archive be an example of a laboratory when it is difficult to maneuver and is more like a printed text then a digital one?
  2. At the conclusion of her essay, Earhart states that the end goal of the digital humanities should be to create “a discipline where digital is represented within the term humanities” (41). What does her goal imply? Can we imagine what that kind of new system can look like? Would there be any similarities to the system in place or would that be completely erased?

Collaborating in the Humanities to Create the Digital Humanities

For class this week I am in charge of leading a discussion on Amy E. Earhart’s essay “Challenging Gaps: Redesigning Collaboration in the Digital Humanities.” Because I found the piece to be enlightening in terms of digital humanities work, especially collaboration, I decided to share a brief summary of her work with you.

Earhart begins her discussion on collaboration in the digital humanities by explaining why collaboration is important for the digital humanities. She states that at many universities in the United States, specifically Texas A&M, are creating a “master plan[s]” (27) for “research, teaching, and service … that makes explicit that our scholarly production addresses the ‘grand challenges of society'” (27). In other words, universities like Texas A&M are beginning to set goals for themselves that will determine the ways in which their research, teaching and service connect to the “bigger picture,” or society. Collaboration, Earhart claims, is a part of these master plans. In fact, not only is it one part, it is the “key criterion” (27) which suggests that it is necessary for these universities. In order to understand collaboration and how universities may use it, Earhart expresses an important difference between “interdisciplinarity” and collaboration; interdisciplinarity is not the same as collaboration. To say that a project has multiple disciplines and multiple authors is not always the same. Importantly, Earhart notes that interdisciplinary studies are currently “alive” or exist within the humanities whereas collaboration is not as widespread. Also importantly, Earhart refers to collaboration as a “looming issue” (29). It is not an “open and shut” case because it can occur in so many ways, yet contain so many challenges.

There are specific parts of collaboration that Earhart addresses in her essay. Specifically, she addresses a main concern of humanists when it comes to collaboration: ownership. She refers to the question of ownership as an unresolved tension in collaboration. How does ownership in collaboration work? In the current academic system it is often the case that more than one author to a work doesn’t seem “scholarly.” She implies that if the current system was replaced with one that rewards joint work then it may ease (or erase?) the tension. Notably, Earhart claims that the traditional humanists who reject digital humanities,also reject collaboration because of the question of ownership. The question of ownership may also be eased if collaboration were seen as analogous to a laboratory model. The laboratory model is helpful in terms of collaboration because it emphasizes new discoveries at the same time that it emphasizes research that is shared throughout multiple generations. However, Earhart warns us to not rely too heavily on this model because sciences often don’t include women and minorities in their research. She cites the Walt Whitman Archive as an example of a collaborative/lab model in the digital humanities.

She then touches on the issue of funding in collaborative digital humanities projects. There are two ways that digital humanities projects can be funded. Institutional centers that give support such as funds, skills, and equipment (33) is one way. For those who do not have access to institutional centers, there are project partnerships. However, these project partnerships can pose problems for the humanist. For example, humanists and technologists approach research and scholarship in different ways. The humanist may focus on the goal of the project or the project’s outcome, while technologists may be interested in the technological application in which the project takes place. Earhart notes that the project partnerships will be successful if both parties focus on the process of the project. After all, the process is what makes a difference when it comes to the digital humanities. Humanists that are working within the digital humanities should focus on experimentation.

Importantly, Earhart wants to “restructure” the collaborative group to include those inside and outside academia. In other words, one does not always have to collaborate with those inside the academic system. There are two external partnerships that can take place. One incorporates the academic project with business and museum/library interests. Her example is the 19th Century Concord Digital Archive. Another is the open source community. The open source community can be helpful because it invites participation from the open source community (which in other words, refers to those knowledgeable within the community but are not considered academic professionals). Earhart suggests that help from open source communities can and should be taken. She compares this to Richard Miller’s idea of “boundary objects” (37). An example of an open sourced collaborative project is BBC’s Backstage movement.

What is most important to Earhart’s discussion is her belief that a professional working on a collaborative project should be knowledgeable about the fields of the other professionals with whom she is working. Earhart says that the professionals collaborating should be “equal players” (38). If the professionals are equal players then they will be able to understand how the disciplines affect the project and therefore understand the project better. Also, the professionals must not only be able to share knowledge, but share project space.

Finally, Earhart concludes her essay by thinking about collaborative projects and the graduate student. She states that collaborative projects may be helpful to college students. A lab collaborative project can allow the student to decide how she wants to participate in the digital humanities project at hand. As Earhart states, it can “give students power to develop their own piece of a project” (40). Therefore, students will not only help with the project, but they can contribute to the project as well. Importantly, if the graduate student is involved in a lab collaboration, then a new relationship occurs between the student and the faculty member. Their relationship becomes a interdependent one; they learn from each other.