Category: Editors’ Choice

Editors’ Choice: On Transitive and Intransitive Uses of the Verb “Theorize”

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I’m a relative newcomer to digital humanities; I’ve been doing this for about a year now. The content of the field has been interesting, but in some ways even more interesting is the way it has transformed my perception of the academy as a social structure. There are clearly going to be debates over the next few years between more and less digitized humanists, and debate is probably a good thing for everyone. But the debate can be much more illuminating if we acknowledge up front that it’s also a tension between two different forms of social organization.

Here’s what happens when that dimension of the issue goes unacknowledged: a tenured or tenure-track faculty member will give a talk or write a blog post about the digital humanities, saying essentially “you’ve got some great tools there, but before they can really matter, their social implications need to be theorized more self-consciously.” Said professor is then surprised when the librarians, or academic professionals, or grad students, who have in many cases designed and built those tools reply with a wry look.

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Editors’ Choice: “The Celestial Railroad” and the 1861 Railroad

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Cross-posted from my “Hawthorne’s Celestial Railroad: A Publication History” development blog at

At this January’s MLA Convention, I’ll be presenting on The Society for Textual Scholarship‘s sponsored panel, Text:Image; Visual Studies in the English Major (viewing the panel description may require an MLA membership). I’ll discuss “Mapping the Antebellum Culture of Reprinting,” thinking through my experiments with GIS in the past few years, particularly since attending the GIS course at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute this past summer.

So I was thrilled this past week to read William G. Thomas’ talk, “What We Think We Will Build and What We Build in Digital Humanities,” from this year’s Nebraska Digital Workshop, and to learn from the talk about Thomas’ project, Railroads and the Making of Modern America. The project itself is fascinating, and I immediately wondered if some of their data might help me investigate the circulation of “The Celestial Railroad.” I’ve suspected for awhile that Hawthorne’s tale—which satirizes uncritical modernizing through the central image of a railroad—ironically may have spread around the country through the railroad system.


Editors’ Choice: Building and Sharing (When You’re Supposed to be Teaching)

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These are my notes “Building and Sharing (When You’re Supposed to be Teaching,” a lightning talk I gave on Tuesday as part of CUNY’s Digital Humanities Initiative. Shannon Mattern (The New School) and I were on a panel called “DH in the Classroom.” Shannon’s enormously inspirational lightning talk was titled Beyond the Seminar Paper, and mine too focused on alternative assignments for students. Our two talks were followed by a long Q&A session, in which I probably learned more from the audience than they did from me. I’ll intersperse my notes with my slides, though you might also want to view the full Prezi (embedded at the end of this post).

“And I truly believe that this transformative power of the digital humanities belongs in the classroom. Classrooms were made for sharing. So, where does the “building” part of my pedagogy come up? How can I suddenly turn around and claim that building is important when I just said, in a blog post that has shown up on the syllabus of at least three different undergraduate introduction to the digital humanities courses?”

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Editors’ Choice: When DH Was in Vogue; or, THATCamp Theory

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“More hack, less yack,” they say. I understand the impulse, and to some degree admire the rough-and-tumble attitude of those in digital humanities whose first priority is Gettin’ Shit Done. Hell, I like Gettin’ Shit Done.

But as I’ve mentioned before, I cannot agree with the distinction between theory* and practice that this sets up, nor the zero-sum logic that it implies (i.e. in order to do more you must speak less).

I’ve long found the complete domination of THATCamp Bootcamps by technical skills from the CS side curious to the point of illogical. (It turns out that this post is an elaboration of my THATCamp SF post of about a year ago.)

We seem to have a tendency to think that the “humanities” part of DH is stable, that we sort of already have it squared away, while the tech skills are what we need to gain.

But the whole reason DH is theoretically consequential is that the use of technical methods and tools should be making us rethink the humanities.

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Editors’ Choice: E-ject Oriented Ontology

Creative Commons image by Patrick Hoesly via Flickr

Perhaps this has occurred to others, but I was thinking this morning of the word object and the many other words it shares -ject with: project, deject, eject, reject, inject, interject … perhaps you can think of others. Like “object,” most of these words serve as both noun and verb (sometimes as adj.). In most of the etymologies, -ject comes from the Latin jacĕre meaning to throw. In the case of object, the inherited meaning is to throw something before the mind or senses. I suppose the etymology, in this case, could be viewed as unfortunate for OOO, which clearly presents objects as mind-independent, and certainly the evolved and contemporary understanding of object is mind-independent, though even being “objective” still requires a mind. However I don’t exactly see it that way, particularly given my interested in an object-oriented or speculative rhetoric. While such a position begins with the premise that objects withdraw from one another, it is also a position that investigates how relations occur despite this premise. That is, while objects may withdraw from one another, what we know of each other and the world has to do with what is thrown before us, what we can encounter, which is mind-independent.

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Editors’ Choice: Academic History Writing and its Disconnects

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This is the rough text of a short talk I am scheduled to deliver at a symposium on ‘Future Directions in Book History’  at Cambrdige on the 24th of November 2011.

I am on the programme as talking briefly about the ‘Old Bailey Online and other resources’ (by which I assume is meant London Lives, Connected Histories, and Locating London’s Past, and the other websites I have helped to create of the last ten or twelve years).  But I am afraid I have no interest whatsoever in discussing the Old Bailey or the other websites.  The hard intellectual work that went in to their creation was done between 1999 and 2010, and for the mostpart they have found an audience and a user base and will have their own impact, without me having to discuss them any further.  We know how to do this stuff, and anyone can read the technical literature, and I very much encourage you to do so.
Instead, I want to talk about how the evolution of the forms of delivery and analysis of text inherent in the creation of the online, problematizes and historicises the notion of the book as an object, and as a technology; and in the process problematizes the discipline of history itself as we practise it in the digital present. 

Editors’ Choice: Culture + Heritage + Digital at Web Directions South 2011

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Luke Dearnley and I were last minute additions to the Web Directions South lineup last week. Coaxed by Maxine Sherrin to do a ‘fireside chat’ we sat comfortably by a digital fire and talked broadly around some of the exciting projects that are happening in the digital heritage space right now.

We tried to cover a lot of ground and tease out some of the issues in the sector as libraries and museums around the world finally begin to build significant momentum around digital content. Taking these discussions to the web developer community is important because all this is happening at a time when the government is calling for discussion of the National Cultural Policy where there is talk about ‘emerging technologies’ and the NBN in the ‘arts’. (See the Ideascale on the digital culture response to the NCP.)

Here’s a brief rundown of what we covered in our free-wheeling talk.

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Editors’ Choice: Digital Practitioner Series: An Interview with Mark Sample

In this next installment of our Digital Practitioner Series we’re talking to Mark Sample, Assistant Professor in the Department of English at George Mason University and a faculty affiliate at the Center for History and New Media.

Our interview was prompted by a piece he created (through the “publishing division” of his blog, called Hacking the Accident. Using the French Oulipo group’s N+7 technique (in which every noun in a text is replaced with the seventh one following it in the dictionary) Sample took advantage of Hacking the Academy’s BY-NC Creative Commons License to produce a document that offers, in his words, “disruptive juxtapositions, startling evocations, and unexpected revelations that ruthless application of the algorithm draws out from the original work.” The result is a profoundly odd (and oddly profound) text in which “every fact is a fad and print is a prison,” and “writing, the thing upon which our lives of letters is founded, writing, it is mere yacking.”

We wanted to do a little in-depth yacking with Sample to find out what motivated the experiment and what we might learn from it. Here’s what he had to say.

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Editors’ Choice: Getting Started in the Digital Humanities

Last week I presented at the Great Lakes College Association’s New Directions workshop on digital humanities (DH), where I tried to answer the question “Why the digital humanities?” But I discovered that an equally important question is “How do you do the digital humanities”?  Although participants seemed to be excited about the potential of digital humanities, some weren’t sure how to get started and where to go for support and training.

Building on the slides I presented at the workshop, I’d like to offer some ideas for how a newcomer might get acquainted with the community and dive into DH work. I should emphasize that many in the DH community are to some extent self-taught and/or gained their knowledge through work on projects rather than through formal training. In my view, what’s most important is being open-minded, experimental, and playful, as well as grounding your learning in a specific project and finding insightful people with whom can you discuss your work.

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