Workshops: What I learned, and how…

… it helped me this semester :

I learned what I didn’t want to know.

Which is valuable! Here’s a quick run-down, for anyone who’s interested :

First, I went to “Scraping Social Media,” on October 19th, which was taught by a very energetic and helpful woman named Michelle Johnson-McSweeney. The workshop moved quickly, but I was able to keep up, especially by sneaking questions to the excellent lab partner next to me (JoJo). After learning about the various interests, reasons, and concerns about gathering data from the likes of Twitter and Facebook, we moved on to actually “scraping” those sites – which worked for the most part, and felt quite satisfying. There were of course, some issues, and these became more present towards the end of the workshop. The main disappointment I remember was the I couldn’t “scrape” Twitter on a Mac… at that point I hadn’t been considering doing a project exclusively on CUNY computers. Nevertheless, the workshop was encouraging enough to lead me to think of projects for which I could use this tool. This lead me to my first (overwhelming) data set proposal: scrape the web for data regarding a controversy in Best American Poetry. Unfortunately, as soon as I went down that rabbit hole, I ended up composing a project that was totally unmanageable, about “Appropriation” in contemporary poetry. It was way too big. So I moved on to something else:

I had a book come out November 1st, and I thought, why not just use my own poems? This was a moment of anxiety for me – I felt that I could “thick map” my book, create a hypertext version of it, disclose more information and “be transparent,” perhaps take some responsibility for my own “appropriations.”

So, the next workshop I attended was “Text Encoding,” taught by the ever-wonderful Mary Catherine Kinniburgh. I was pretty excited to learn about “code,” excited about the prospect that I might one day learn to “code,” excited overall to lock down some acronyms at the start, such as HTML, TEI (the focus of this workshop), and XML. However, as the workshop progressed, I naturally started wondering whether I wasn’t up-to-speed enough to be here. Or rather, that my “hypertext” project idea wouldn’t actually benefit from TEI. If HTML stood for “hypertext mark-up language,” wasn’t that what I needed to learn first? The TEI projects we looked at were Shakespeare plays, and some Latin / Greek texts, and it was great to learn more about the “backbone” of how text is encoded, with plenty of examples and explanations.

But even more than realizing HTML was what I would probably need for my hyper-text project, I realized once again that hyper-texting my book of poems wasn’t really a “data set.” I went back to my idea of “deformance” (interpretation + performance). I wanted to try to learn something about the language in my poems, and to simultaneously make “art from art.” I regretted that I had forgot to register for the “Data Visualization” workshop a week prior before it filled up.

So, although my path through these workshops may have felt like a bunch of (gentle) dead-ends, I do think that they helped me arrive at a project, albeit late to the game. I’d imagine that if I had gone into the semester knowing more about the digital terms (why did I have to miss the “DH Lexicon” workshop! And why was it so late in the semester, too?) – I might have been able to learn tools that would actually help me conceive of a project / start conducting it quicker.

There’s a kind suggestion here: have more workshops early on that might help students get grounded without prior knowledge of DH and digital tools. That said, I did learn a lot from each workshop, even if it wasn’t what I “wanted” to learn. And there’s a lesson in that: I should have gone to more workshops, or at least done better research on my own before just “following my gut.”