This is important if humanists are to learn to value digital contributions.
Monthly Archives: January 2012
As Scholarship Goes Digital, Academics Seek New Ways to Measure Their Impact – Technology – The Chronicle of Higher Education
You might wonder, for example, what place or location names appear in American literary texts published in 1851, and you devise a program that will tell you. You will then have data.
But what do you do with the data?
The example is not a hypothetical one. It is put forward by Matthew Wilkens in his essay “Canons, Close Reading, and the Evolution of Method” (“Debates in the Digital Humanities,” ed. Matthew Gold, 2012). And Wilkens does do something with the data. He notices that “there are more international locations than one might have expected” — digital humanists love to be surprised because surprise at what has been turned up is a vindication of the computer’s ability to go beyond human reading — and from this he concludes that “American fiction in the mid-nineteenth century appears to be pretty diversely outward looking in a way that hasn’t received much attention.”
More international locations named than we would have anticipated; therefore mid-19th century American fiction is outward-looking, a fact we would not have “discovered” were it not for the kind of attention a computer, as opposed to a human reader, is capable of paying . . .
But does the data point inescapably in that direction? Don’t we have to know in what novelistic situations foreign lands are alluded to and by whom? If the international place names are invoked by a narrator, it might be with the intention not of embracing a cosmopolitan, outward perspective, but of pushing it away: yes, I know that there is a great big world out there, but I am going to focus in on a landscape more insular and American. If a character keeps dropping the names of towns and cities in Europe, Africa and Asia, the novelist could be alerting us to his pretentiousness and admonishing the reader to stay close to home. If a more sympathetic character daydreams about Paris, Istanbul and Moscow, she might be understood as caressing the exotic names in rueful recognition of the experiences she will never have.
The list of possible contextual framings is infinite, but some contextual framing is necessary if we are to move from noticing the naming of international locations to the assigning of significance. Otherwise we are asserting, without justification, a correlation between a formal feature the computer program just happened to uncover and a significance that has simply been declared, not argued for. (Frequency is not an argument.) Don’t we have to actually read the books, before saying what the patterns discovered in them mean?
I agree with Fish that “data mining” as he describes it is inadequate to the task of interpretation as he defines it. However, data mining is not meant to (nor can it) provide information about something as abstract as “intent;” it is a way of looking for and at patterns in data sets that are too large for human comprehension, and that address a larger issue than the author’s “intentionality.” Screening out data from “noise” is precisely what such algorithms are designed to accomplish; and the patterns discovered have less to do with the “intentionality” of an author’s writing than the circulation of ideas, words, and concepts throughout a historical period or geo-spatial context.
I think the example he cites about “more international locations named than we would have anticipated” in American fiction is precisely the sort of data that is interesting. Fish argues that we can’t determine the “direction” of that international interest for any particular text without close reading, and he questions whether the directionality of the interest can be meaningfully ascertained from the aggregate data. But “outward-looking” means something different in a geo-political or geo-spatial analysis than in a close reading. This is an analysis that moves away from individual authority and intentionality, from the text as an artifact of a particular human intelligence, and looks at the cultural field of translatlantic influence in a particular historical, cultural, geographic moment. Mid-19th century American texts have a larger boundary or horizon than British texts, perhaps, and this is one way to measure it.
Data needs interpretation, yes; but close reading is not the only interpretive strategy out there.
The MLA (Modern Language Association) grapples with the question of assessing digital scholarship. There is a list of interesting links at the bottom of this article.
WARNING: THE IMAGES IN THIS ARCHIVE ARE VIOLENT AND DISTURBING.
This is an archive of postcards of lynchings (yes they made postcards) that I have used with my university students to educate them about lynching, to provide context to some of the literature we study, and to provoke discussion about the fetishistic nature of violence (who makes postcards of these events? who buys them, sends them, collects them, and why?). Obviously, images like these must be used with care; my students inevitably find them traumatizing (I don’t require them to look at the archive, I merely suggest it; most do end up looking at it, after the discussion if not before). Often, the discussion in class revolves around our supposedly “post-racial” society. Do images like these just replay the violence and re-victimize the victims, and perpetuate racial resentment? Or do they serve a useful purpose? This is an important question, since I often find that many of my students (even black students) have never heard of lynching or the Jim Crow era. Without that context, much of 20th century American literature is unintelligible to students.
The first step in broad, digital access to the archives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) commences in April when ProQuest and the venerable civil rights organization release the first in a series of modules for libraries and researchers. ProQuest® History Vault’s NAACP Papers 1 will provide the first electronic access to files from the group’s Board of Directors and Annual Conferences, as well as text of major speeches and national staff records.
This is an important project to preserve and make publicly accessible the archives of the NAACP – the digital humanities once again making important records available to the public in ways that expand the potential research of such archives.
In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. , here is a link to a digital archive of letters and documents associated with Dr. King. This is a fascinating trove!
Meaning everywhere and nowhere, produced not by anyone but by everyone in concert, meaning not waiting for us at the end of a linear chain of authored thought in the form of a sentence or an essay or a book, but immediately and multiply present in a cornucopia of ever-expanding significances.
There are two things I want to say about this vision: first, that it is theological, a description its adherents would most likely resist, and, second, that it is political, a description its adherents would most likely embrace.
As usual, Stanley Fish is insightful, provocative, and theoretical.