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Society For Digital Humanities

Conference Report on the 2008 Society of Digital Humanities conference at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. The Programme in PDF is here.

Opening Plenary

Christian Vandendorpe gave the 2008 SDH/SEMI Award Plenary. He talked about the codex and the digital book. He revisited the issue of whether e-books will ever work and suggested that they might if we had the two page spread of the codex. I'd never thought of the open two-page spread as something useful in and of itself. I always thought of it as the result of the technology - you have all these pages bound at one edge so you end up seeing two pages at a time. Vandendorpe pointed out how the scrolling infinite roll of the word processor doesn't give you all the clues that the two-page spread gives you for the location of things. How often have I remembered the location of a quote as being in the upper right-hand corner of the right-hand page about a third of the way through the book. The codex form has affordances and carries information beyond the text. Vandendorpe showed us a neat web site, Issuu (as in magazine issue) that lets you publish magazines and gives them a two page interface.

Building Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities in Canada

Michael Eberle-Sinatra, Ray Siemens and I talked about the infrastructure that is available or should be available to Canadian humanists.


Michael Eberle-Sinatra talked about the recently funded Synergies project.

"Synergies is a four-year project intent on creating a national distributed platform with a wide range of tools to support the creation, distribution, access and archiving of digital objects such as journal articles, pre-publication papers, data sets, presentations, and electronic monographs."

What is interesting about Synergies is how they are working a) with the library community, and b) with the digital humanities community. They will be able to deliver added value by connecting what libraries are doing to what online journals are doing.

TAPoR: Reflections on Cyberinfrasturcture

I presented lessons we had learned in TAPoR project. One thing we have learned is what good local cyberinfrastructure should look like, and (of course) an important part is the human support. Here is my simple list of what a research university should provide for humanities researchers:

  • Development and production servers that are flexible enough to support many different projects with different configurations of software.
  • Professional support staff who can advice on projects, help estimate costs for grants, and help manage short-term (grant funded) staff.
  • A lab that doubles as a demonstration and research meeting room. This should be a place that is easy for researchers and graduate students to use. It should enourage collaboration.
  • Software on the lab machines and servers to make it easy to do standard research tasks from internet conferencing to video editing.

One way to think of this is to think about the progress of a funded project:

  1. You start by needing advice as to how technology might or might not help with a research question. Professional staff who have experience with a variety of projects can offer advice in a way that colleagues or students can't. They can help write the parts of a grant proposal related to technology and help develop budgets.
  2. If you get the grant you then need a place to hold meetings about the technology component which usually involves looking at and testing a web site. A social lab is where meetings can take place and where students hired for the project can work.
  3. Professional staff can also oversee student programmers. Granting councils like us to use students, but you also need professionals to guide the students and to make sure things are completed and documented. Once the students are gone professional staff can help solve maintenance issues.
  4. Finally, when a project is done and the students about to go, one should virtualize a project so that changes in the server won't affect it. It should also be deposited somewhere, but that is another story.

I ended by talking about some of the gaps and challenges. Many researchers don't have what I consider now basic research infrastructure. We have some national platforms but need the middleware that makes things like Compute Canada useful to humanists. We also need walk-in-and-use conferencing.

Consolidated Knowledge and the Promise of Text Analysis in the Short Term and Beyond: TAPoR, Synergies, CRKN

Ray Siemens talked about how CRKN, Synergies, and TAPoR can interoperate. He talked about the importance of "slicing and dicing" across different collections. Some of the points he made were:

  • We can treat a corpus of published research results as a corpus (of evidence) for our research. We can use other people's stuff as matter for our inquiries.
  • We can scale micro-techniques to handle large scale collections.
  • He talked about REKn with a heterogeneous collection of over 100,000 items related to Renaissance English study. He is looking at new reading environment experiments - the PReE project that implements TAPoR tools and other tools in reading environments.

What have we learned? Digital tools save time and help with new insights.

New Directions

Constructures: A Framework for Computer-Assisted Human Creativity Tools

by Jeff Smith and David Mould was about new models for tools to support creative work from music to writing.

Art is not about atoms. Why then don't the tools reflect what artists talk about? Artists want tools, not automation. Much CS research in art is about automatic AI art. Artists are uninterested in this.

This paper got me wondering if we want our tools to reflect the higher order of tasks (like "develop a character") or the technical tasks (like "process a word by checking its spelling".) It seems obvious as Jeff argues that we should aim at higher level tools, but if we think of painting tools we have things like brushes and canvases, we don't have "landscapes". Or, we can ask if the digital should mimic the traditional - is that really what people want. Perhaps part of the creativity of the digital is that it brings different paradigms to art - that the constraints of digital matter are different from physical matter (marble, paint) and this makes it different. To be honest, I imagine there is a dialectic where early tools are based on engineering/computing (like TEX), second generation tools draw on the design discipline (PageMaker imitating the layout light table), and finally new paradigms emerging from the community (all sequencers are beginning to look similar.)

Jeff argued that 4 commonly cited requirements for "Early Stage Creativity":

  1. Play - ability to try new things easily
  2. Multiplicity - many ideas at once
  3. Flow - immersion in material
  4. Cultural Input - little is created in a vacuum, it builds on others.

Jeff proposed "Constructures" or construction-based dynamic results that provide a constantly evolving snapshot of how. He showed what looked like a simpler and more playful version of MAX/MSP for music. He also showed what looked like an interesting story editor where you have the text, but you can see the events a character is involved in.

Collaboration Space: Technique for Characterization Interdisciplinary Collabortion Projects and Anticipating Their Challenges

Jeff Smith (the same as presented the first paper) and Yin Liu talked about a system for working on a manuscript of Percival. Yin is an English prof and Jeff is a PhD candidate in CS and they gave the paper collaboratively.

They showed two axes of collaboration. An axis of equity which goes from one person leading (and the others are code monkeys) to equal contribution. The second axis was variety of disciplines which went from Intracollaboration (where people are from the same discipline) to Intercollaboration (where they come from very different disciplines.)

Some of the challenges are:

  • Currency and Credit - where will the work be published and who gets credit for what
  • Language - the subtle differences in terms
  • Isolation/Lack of Safety Net - the inability across different disciplines to critique (and respond) to each other
  • Problematizing - the Humanities likes to problematize solutions and CS likes to solve problems.
  • Research Methods - the Humanities is "qualitative" while CS is "quantitative"
  • Publication Culture - the research culture of the two communities are very different.

The real benefit is, however, seeing things through very different lenses and having to talk the issues through.

They made some very funny comparisons between our two cultures and how we present conference papers. Humanists write them out to awe the audience into acquiesence while the CS folk create a slide deck to shock their audience into silence.

A Big Bridge: High Performance Computing and the Humanities

Hugh Couchman and I presented on the work we have done bridging the digital humanities and SHARCNET, a HPC consortia. See the SHARCNET wiki about DH and HPC. We did three things in our paper:

  1. First, Hugh talked about High Performance Computing in general and HPC in Canada. He reflected on the challenges facing facilities optimized for science and engineering support when they reach out to the humanities.
  2. Geoffrey talked some example projects and then talked about the opportunities for HPC and the humanities.
  3. Finally, Geoffrey and Hugh talked about outcomes of the workshop - the concrete activities we have undertaken to improve support.

Beyond Text: Using the Mandala Browser to Explore Orlando

Susan Brown, Stan Ruecker and Stéfan Browser and colleagues presented on a use of Stéfan Sinclair and Stan Ruecker's Mandala Browser to study the Orlando. The Mandala Browser is a very impressive visual exploration tool that puts all items around a circle and then you define "magnet" queries that pull items into the centre. As you define more than one magnet you also see the intersections between the queries. It is a "rich prospect" browser in that it shows all the items and then starts pulling them into the centre.

Late Nights at the Scriptorium: Interim Results from the Interface Cell of the MONK Project

Stan Ruecker and Stéfan Sinclair (and colleagues) presented on the work they have been doing with the MONK project. They showed a beautiful prototype that is working. The live web interface ran mining on a NCSA server. They talked about the challenges in the MONK project itself, and then finally they talked about the design process.

Into Something Rich and Strange: The Digital Humanities in the Humanities

Stan Ruecker organized a panel about how digital humanists work within the arts and humanities.

Digital Humanities Work, Presented in-Discipline

Ray Siemens talked about his experience and how to work within the existing protocols. He shared useful strategies that work within the existing system:

  • Make digital work understandable via existing venues from conference presentations, grants, and publications.
  • Represent digital work as analogues of traditional outcomes. Is a web site the analogue of an article.
  • Document the impact - document the measurable impact
  • Give papers about the data set, methodology, and disciplinary impact in disciplinary context
  • Collect your papers in book form so you have books

Ray asked us to think of the situation positively

Evaluation of Digital Media Work in the Humanities

I looked at how evaluation of digital work might be evaluated.

In 2006 a Modern Language Association Task Force issued a recommendation that “Departments and institutions should recognize the legitimacy of scholarship produced in new media …” [1] The problem is that no one is sure how to evaluate digital work whether it be a peer reviewed article in an online journal or a work of hyperfiction. In particular one of the MLA guidelines states that "evaluative bodies should review faculty members' work in the medium in which was produced." [2] This means that humanists in a position of evaluation need guidance on how to evaluate digital work themselves, even if they are unfamiliar with the form, in addition to any expert reviews they might seek. I presented materials being developed to help with evaluation along with ideas about how colleagues can evaluate digital materials.

[1] MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship For Tenure and Promotion, Executive Summary, Recommendation 4. Page 5.

[2] MLA Guidelines for Evaluating Work with Digital Media in the Modern Languages.

Learning About Digital Humanities: The Student Experience

Harvey Quamen talked about teaching and the use of evaluations. He mentioned that the University of Alberta does not consider course evaluations as research - which is interesting if one wants to evaluate learning as research. Quamen argued that

Adding Digital to the Humanities doesn't get us to the Digital Humanities.

Quamen asked, Where did the idea come from that the humanities are opposed to technology? He pointed to Tony Davies Humanism as helping explain the antagonism.

Adding the Digital to the Humanities gives us Humanism 2.0



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