Category Archives: Course Readings

Future History on the Web

After reading “I nevertheless am a historian” I came across another article about a Texas high school and a mother who complained about her son’s history book. The book titled “Geography” claimed, immigrants were brought over to the new world to be workers, When in reality, the immigrants they were talking about were Africans. The book, further stated that Europeans were brought over, as indenture servants. The latter is partly true, but omitting most of the facts, especially, how Africans were workers, instead of slaves is a lie perpetrated by the book publishers, McGraw Hill, and the school advisory board that approved it. I could not help but think what I read in the Robert S. Wolff piece “People with little or no formal training in the discipline have embraced the writing of history on the web, which raises the question, whose histories will prove authoritative in the digital age?” The publishers have formal training, etc. Wow!
What becomes of history in the digital age remains to be seen, already we are seeing revisionists change history in printed books, and on the web. The fact that a big time book publisher like McGraw Hill would even put their name on a history book that changes and leaves out pertinent details, such as slavery, is an insult to the average person’s intelligence, and a crime against education.

I agree with Corey Meyer in the “Black Confederate Solider” piece, it helps when those who are claiming with authority about an historical account that one should work with original source materials, and have a understanding of the background of how to work with them.  I guess McGraw Hill did not get that memo…..

Difficult Thinking, Cultural Criticism, and Niceness in DH

Suggested Reading and a Summer Institute

In “Difficult Thinking about the Digital Humanities” from last week’s reading, Mark Sample discusses critical thinking in comparison to facile thinking and how accounts of facile thinking “eliminate complexity by leaving out history, ignoring examples, and – in extreme examples – insisting that any other discourse about the digital humanities is invalid because it fails to take into consideration that particular account’s perspective.”  He references Alan Liu’s call for more cultural criticism in DH as an example of similar initiatives.  Liu’s call for more cultural criticism in DH seems more of a side note in our recent readings, including this week’s “Digital Humanities and the ‘Ugly Stepchildren’ of American Higher Education” by Luke Waltzer.  I would’ve liked to read more on the subject of DH criticism outside of the methodology conversation, as described below in articles by Alan Liu and Adeline Koh:

Rough stuff.

I also have below another Koh article that could be read in conjunction with Tom Scheinfeldt’s “Why Digital Humanities Is ‘Nice’” and Lisa Spiro’s “‘This Is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities.”  Koh focuses her argument on the neutrality of “niceness” and the exclusionary nature of more “hack” than “yack,” articulating my personal anxieties regarding the social and technical requirements of DH.

On additions to the syllabus for today’s DH Pedagogy topic, I suggest taking a look at the Humanities Intensive Learning & Teaching Institute, or HILT2015, an annual summer institute that provided workshops on digital pedagogy and criticism with courses such as “Getting Started with Data, Tools, and Platforms” and “De/Post/Colonial Digital Humanities.”

Disciplinarity debates – suggested readings

The media analysis project David proposed seems extremely timely. The top hits in a Google search on science and humanities brought up article after article about the crisis in the humanities, the perceived or false threat to the humanities by scientific and quantitative approaches, the scientism and the humanities (cf the very public 2013 argument between Leon Wieseltier and Steven Pinker in The New Republic – and ), etc. It all gets so old after while! And it’s not a new set of concerns.

But I came across a NEH grant proposal narrative / position paper prepared by SUNY Binghamton in 2008 for a project that sought to address the Science v. Humanities smackdown before it ever reached its current frenzy. They begin with “C.P. Snow’s (1959) description of the humanities and sciences as ‘The Two Cultures.’” And the project was aimed at breaking down this dichotomy where it matters most, at the level of the classroom (rather than continue the argument at the disciplinary level, which doesn’t actually do anything but feed the fire). Some of the project description is understandably very specific in terms of activities, but it also addresses larger theoretical questions, such as how humanities research and scientific research can complement or enhance each other in a given subject, and how a holistic investigation and interpretation of evolution, for example, could encompass different approaches to the material that are both equally valid and equally necessary: “Through evolutionary theory and its study of both ultimate explanations (such as biological fitness) and proximate explanations (such as the function and importance of the arts to human survival and development), we think that the 21st century will witness an integration of human-related subjects. Moreover, because of its emphasis on the crucial developmental functions of art, this integration can help restore the centrality of the perspectives and subjects currently associated with the humanities. ”

The project description also surveys the modern history of this disciplinary antipathy, which I think is very useful for background. Although it is not specifically a DH project, it addresses some fundamental assumptions and anxieties that contribute to current divisions and drive the debate in academia. And, as these ideas “trickle down” into the popular press, they generate both the less partisan articles like those David suggested, as well as those that politicize and perpetuate these divisions in (I think) unnecessary ways. The proposal is here:

Ways that Humanists Think About Data – An alternative text for in-class discussion

Up to this point, I’ve enjoyed our in-class discussions. Typically,  I leave with an unfocused, impending fatigue that transforms during my subway ride home into a grounded awareness of the gaps in my thinking about DH theory, what questions I have more generally about how DH fits into the larger context of humanistic inquiry in the academy, as well as a slightly more refined awareness of how I see myself finding my place in the field.

Last week I left, running through potential ideas for my data project, wishing I had articulated the desire for (in an effort to create a lexicon) a more specific discussion about terms related to actual DH projects. I found myself trying to anticipate the unique ways in which humanities scholars think about data. Data sets and maps generally, are obviously representations of a more complex, dynamic, ambiguous world. How have DH practitioners found inspiration in this reality, and what potential solutions and tools already exist? How can the gap between the “real” and the represented be used fruitfully? How can uninterpreted data result in new ways of seeing?

After reading Stephen’s Ramsay’s “Programming with Humanists: Reflections on Raising an Army of Hack-Scholars in the Digital Humanities” I found myself setting aside time to research what exactly went into “word frequency generators” and “poetry deformers”. He mentions a list of tools for analyzing text corpora: tf-dif analyzers, basic document classifiers, sentence complexity tools, etc, as well as natural language processing tools, as potential programs that could be built during a computer science introduction focusing on humanities computing. Hashing out a basic explanation about what these programs do, and potentially a bit about how they do it, would contribute an additional, fruitful dimension to our praxis seminar discussions. I have a sense that learning more about what tools exist would go a long way in helping me zero in on a meaningful dataset.

**As an aside, as I bet not everyone will have had a chance to read this particular article, I should mention that I also really appreciated Ramsay’s extensive list of supplemental reading materials, some of which I have read (The Question Concerning Technology Martin Heiddeger, and others that I would love to spend some time with like NOW, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction for example.)**

During my research I came across an excellent blog post by Miriam Posner titled Humanities Data: A Necessary Contradiction in which she engages some of the questions that are preoccupying me in lieu of having to choose my dataset. In her blog post she provides a transcript of a talk she gave at the Harvard Purdue data symposium this past summer. Her talk focused on the unique ways that humanists think about data vs say a scientist or a social scientist, and the implications of these differences for librarianship and data curation. I’ll list a couple prescient quotes and a link to her post. If you have some time, check it out!

“It requires some real soul-searching about what we think data actually is and its relationship to reality itself; where is it completely inadequate, and what about the world can be broken into pieces and turned into structured data? I think that’s why digital humanities is so challenging and fun, because you’re always holding in your head this tension between the power of computation and the inadequacy of data to truly represent reality.”


So it’s quantitative evidence that seems to show something, but it’s the scholar’s knowledge of the surrounding debates and historiography that give this data any meaning. It requires a lot of interpretive work.

Humanities Data: A Necessary Contradiction





DH in the news + Research tools

I think that the readings of these first weeks cover almost all the aspects of the DH debate. However, in our discussions we have also pointed out how the interest in DH can also be traced in newspapers’ articles both online and in print. Indeed, if you look for major newspapers contribution on DH, you’ll find many articles discussing fundamental issues of DH.

I really would like to read an article reconstructing how DH have been perceived, presented and discussed in the news media. Thus, the reading I would like to add to the syllabus is something that maybe doesn’t exist yet (or probably I haven’t searched enough). I think that this kind of contribution could add interesting insights to the DH debate (especially because of DH’s insistence on openness as one of its fundamental values).

Regarding DH pedagogy, a possible addition to the syllabus could have been some readings focused on useful digital tools on the organization of academic research (and I guess this is not just for humanities but for all researchers). For instance, in this workshop ( we discussed how to structure the process of finding, reading and storing digital sources and  which are the tools that we can use to organize our research practices.
For instance, we have learned the possibilities of combining different software (such as Pocket, Evernote, Zotero, Dropbox etc.) in order to develop a structured work flow.

This is a list of interesting article on how to use Evernote for academic purposes:




What isn’t code?

I’ve been thinking more about “What is Code?” by Paul Ford, and the relationship of code (whether a given iteration or the Platonic ideal) to human discourse and language (whether spoken, signed, written, grunted, pictured).

Last semester I had my first experience writing actual code, learning to use the language R for a course in data visualization.* It was incredibly difficult, not least because, as I insisted, “my brain just doesn’t work that way.”

But it’s language, right? Like human language, code has grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. Like human language, there are often many ways to say the same thing, but only some of them will be intelligible, clear, and get the result you want. (Human language, however, is much more forgiving when it comes to sentence structure.) Just as learning human language (sometimes) requires a lot of exposure and/or memorization, so (usually) does learning code.

Ford says “C gave you an abstraction over the entire computer, helping you manage memory and processes inside the machine. Smalltalk gave you an abstraction over all of reality, so you could start dividing the world into classes and methods and the like” (43).

Doesn’t symbolic representation and language do the same for us? I’m sure it’s hardly an original analogy. But language is the medium through which we encounter and understand the world. It’s an abstraction “over all of reality” that allows us to encounter reality. It categorizes experience and structures thought.So, I’m wondering how far the comparison stretches.

Human language is not unidirectional – a set of utterances aimed at achieving a result in the external world – it also impacts our thinking and comprehension and emotional states. Does code operate both ways as well?

Well, as Ford suggests, quoting from Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, “A computer language is not just a way of getting a computer to perform operations … it is a novel formal medium for expressing ideas about methodology. Thus, programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute” (104).

Unlike most human languages, which slowly evolve over millennia, new types of code are constantly in R&D. (At least, it’s probable that more people know R or C++ these days than Esperanto or Volapuk.) Watching computer languages develop, with their specialized vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and logic –which we can use to create, interpret, and “express ideas about methodology” — are we actually witnessing new ways of describing the world take shape in real time?

You know how frustrating it is when no word exists in [your native] language for an idea or feeling, or a word for something can’t be translated? Ford describes something similar: “But my first thought when I have to accomplish some personal or professional task is, What code can I use? What software will teach me what I need to know? When I want to learn something and no software exists, the vacuum bugs me …”(112).

Lastly, if language is the foundation of a culture, what about code? As Ford says of the various camps coders fall into, “These languages contain entire civilizations.” But it’s more than personality types and whom he entrusts with what tasks. The way he describes frameworks, for example, code has the potential to manifest types of cultural or institutional discourse:

“There are hundreds of frameworks out there; just about every language has one”. (84)

You have entered into a pool with many thousands of other programmers who share the framework, use it, and suggest improvements; who write tutorials; who write plug-ins that can be used to accomplish tasks related to passwords, blogging, managing spam, providing calendars, accelerating the site, creating discussion forums, and integrating with other services. You can think in terms of architecture. Magnificent! Wonderful! So what’s the downside? Well, frameworks lock you into a way of thinking. (86)

Isn’t most [all] of the critical theory of the past 50 years aimed at the unlocking discursive frameworks that have shaped human relations and the way we think about the world?

This is a very broad analogy, I realize. But that’s the way my brain works.

*Technically, this is not true. In the early 1980s my stepbrother (now a lifer at IBM) had a Commodore Vic-20 and taught me to write simple programs in BASIC that would do 
things like tell my stepsister she was stupid, or print my name across the screen in 
alternating white and black columns. When I expressed interest in learning more, he 
held up the thick BASIC manual and I ran off screaming into the land of literary 
language and The Phantom Tollbooth. What a mistake!