In March, Amnesty International hosted a Hackathon, led by Co-President Mohini Tangri ’19. While Hackathons usually provide participants with a broad problem and give these participants a fixed time period of 24-48 hours to code a solution, Amnesty International’s Hackathon supported a specific goal: “to create a website for community sponsorship that can be added to Amnesty International USA’s national website that had an email list form creator and an interactive map for refugee resettlement.”
The motivation to do a Hackathon came from the enthusiasm of a first-year. Tara Kakkaramadam ’22 wanted to bring an event to campus that could join STEM students together for a human rights purpose, which in many ways, encompasses Digital Humanities at W&L.
Tangri and Kakkaramadam then began working with Amnesty International regional directors to brainstorm events the W&L chapter could host. This is how they reached the idea of a website with an interactive map that tracks refugee resettlement.
“They needed a website, and we made it!”
-Mohini Tangri ’19
Because they hadn’t done a Hackathon before, the students had to figure out the best way to accomplish their goals, and they did their research. They talked to professors and Computer Science majors in order to learn how to organize a Hackathon. Unlike most Hackathons, students participating in Amnesty International’s Hackathon applied and received assignments for roles within the Hackathon to keep everything organized and help it run smoothly.
Despite not knowing exactly what it would be like, the Hackathon went very well. The students almost finished the website. Struggling with disorganized data, of which they did not know before the Hackathon started, the group needed more time to work through the data and create the map. According to Tangri, “We would absolutely do it again. In all honesty we were a little surprised by the enthusiasm of the participants–we loved it, of course, but when we were coming up with the idea we were unsure of how many students would be willing to dedicate a full Saturday to something unrelated to school.” Luckily, they found themselves pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm of W&L students and their dedication to applying the skills and concepts they learn in class to real-world scenarios and issues.
According to Tangri, Amnesty International “[needs] more excited STEM majors who are interested in the intersection of human rights and technology to do more things like this in the future!”
If you’re interested in getting involved, you can contact either Mohini Tangri or firstname.lastname@example.org or Tara Kakkaramadam at email@example.com to learn more about Amnesty International and its Hackathon.
This post was written using an interview with Mohini Tangri ’19.
“Dodging Silver Bullets: Understanding the Role of Technology in Social Change” with Chelsea Barabas
Chelsea Barabas gave the keynote address (live stream available here) of the Rewriting the Code: Women and Technology Forum on Friday, March 1. The Forum focused on exploring careers in technology, humanities, social change, communications, and the arts. It took place on Saturday, March 2 and included several panel discussions, such as Technology and Social Justice, Making History, The Best Career Advice I’ve Ever Gotten, and Technology and Storytelling.
In her keynote address, Barabas, a research scientist at MIT, spoke about the social implications of technology and how technology can be used to make the world a better place.
Striving to understand the role of technology in social change, Barabas discussed technology’s diversity problem. The prevailing theory for the “pale and male” look of the homogeneous technology workforce is that there are not enough diverse workers with the required skills to be hired. However, research shows that the “unemployment rate for Black and Native American engineering graduates double that of their peers” and “women make up 39% of the science and engineering graduates with only 15% employed in a STEM career, a rate that is half that of their male peers.” Because these diverse potential hires have the required skills but are still not getting the tech jobs, this homogeneous workforce is not due to a lack of skills issue.
In response, algorithmic recruitment platforms popped up and attempted to solve these hiring, recruitment, and retention issues by creating a comprehensive database of coders, building an algorithm on top of that database that provided hiring recommendations and functioned as a search engine for recruiters, and serving as a solution to the information processing problem of recruiting and hiring predominantly white males. These platforms seemingly allowed firms to more efficiently and more accurately find talent where they were not already looking.
However, these algorithms posed many questions, which Barabas raised: How are these algorithms developed? What ends up fueling these recommendations? How do we create a measuring stick to evaluate talent? Who ended up visible and invisible under this algorithmic gaze?
Most of the time, the factors that were the most relevant to this algorithm were the same as those the recruiters previously used when scoping out new talent. These factors include candidates’ universities attended and professional pedigrees. By reflecting the decisions recruiters made in the past, this technology is simply a reinforcement of the old practices but behind this “veneer of scientific objectivity and neutrality,” as Chelsea put it. Often, people view technology as objective tools that are free of people’s biases, but in reality, this is not the case. Maintaining this view in error increases the risk of obscuring the discriminatory practices of society’s past behind this mask of scientific objectivity.
“AI is like a child. It absorbs the default assumptions about how the world works, unless we teach it otherwise.”
Therefore, we must teach it otherwise. The perceived objectivity of technology creates the risk of legitimizing the biases of those who program it. Because technology inherits the blind spots of those who create it, we must expand the diversity of its creators. This means cultivating a heterogeneous workforce and embracing the necessity of diverse programmers.
“There are no silver bullet solutions to these social problems. If a technology solution seems too good to be true, it probably is. If people on your team are trying to build something and can’t see the holes in it, then your team probably isn’t diverse enough.”
Babaras concluded the Keynote Address with this dose of reality and call to action. Technology can provide solutions to social problems, but finding and selecting a diverse team of coders to create this technology is a social problem within itself that technology has proven unable to fix.
Barbaras’ Keynote Address kickstarted an enriching weekend of women discussing, learning from each other, and sharing their own experiences with the intersection of technology and the humanities.
-Jenny Bagger ’19, DH Undergraduate Fellow
Chelsea Barabas’ visit was sponsored by the Class of 1963 Fund.
Finding Fake Followers and Watching the Watchers: New Approaches to Investigative Journalism
Dance is a journalist and editor working at the cutting edge of news. Based in New York City, Dance is currently deputy investigations editor at The New York Times. Previously, he was a managing editor at The Marshall Project, a non-profit investigative journalism startup focusing on crime and punishment in the United States. He was also the interactive editor for The Guardian and worked on a team of journalists with whom he won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for coverage of widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency. His work has also won two Emmy awards for New Approaches to News and Documentary, an Alfred L. DuPont award, a World Press Photo award, and several others.
This event is co-sponsored by the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications and the Digital Humanities Cohort.
In her public talk on January 16, 2019, Dr. Anne Leader discussed her DH project Digital Sepoltuario, which will offer students, scholars and the general public an online resource for the study of commemorative culture and medieval and renaissance Florence. Supported by the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) team at the University of Virginia, Digital Sepoltuario will chart the locations, designs and epitaphs of tombs made for Florentine families in sacred spaces across the city from about 1200 to about 1500, and then uses archival data to analyze social networks, patterns of patronage and markers of status in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period.
While the project is not yet complete, it will include transcriptions, translations, photographs and analysis of fragile manuscripts, like registers that kept track of where different people were buried and records that indicate which tombs have been moved or destroyed. These documents demonstrate that tombs were frequently recycled from one family to another when lineages died out or when the family could no longer afford it. Because these records sometimes lost track of the owners of some tombs or the decorations faded away or disintegrated over time, there remains some uncertainty about some tombs’ owners that makes it impossible for historians to figure out now.
From these documents, scholars like Leader gain insight into why people chose certain tombs or churches as their final resting places. The tombstones are imbedded in the floors of churches in Florence, carpeting the churches with stone slabs that mark people’s final resting places and serving as reminders of everyone’s ultimate death. People would look down at the floor and contemplate what lay beneath the beautiful paintings and frescoes on the tombstones and within the churches, encouraging them to prepare for the final judgment and consider: am I ready for what’s to come?
By examining these records and incorporating them in a DH project, scholars can begin to answer questions about Florentines’ burial practices and ultimately about Florentines’ lives. Leader is interested in questions such as: How did Florentines decide on their final resting places, and how did they decide on the tombstones’ designs? So far, Leader noted that most people chose to be buried in their own parishes and close to their homes. However, she finds it interesting that increasing numbers of citizens requested burial elsewhere. This trend transformed the topography of Florence, causing tension within churches that relied on money from burying their dead and enriching some parishes while impoverishing others. Burial placement was one of the most important decisions Florentines would make, so considering why people wanted to be buried elsewhere and understanding the implications these decisions had on social status help scholars today decipher how early modern Europeans thought about burial and death. Digital Sepoltuario will make all of this possible.
This event was sponsored by Washington and Lee University’s Art History Department, the Digital Humanities Cohort and the Digital Humanities Mellon Grant.
DH Research Talk with Stephen P. McCormick Wednesday, February 6th, 2019
12:15 PM – 1:15 PM
Lunch is provided. Please register here!
Join Stephen P. McCormick to learn more about his Huon d’Auvergne project and his work with DH students!
McCormick will speak on his research and work with the digital and facsimile edition of Huon d’Auvergne, a pre-modern Franco-Italian epic. Linking institutions and disciplines, the Huon d’Auvergne Digital Archive is a collaborative scholarly project that presents for the first time to a modern reading audience the Franco-Italian Huon d’Auvergne romance epic.
This talk is sponsored by the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program and the Digital Humanities Cohort.
[Enjoy this first installment of the DH Project Spotlight Series, a series of posts on the DH @ W&L blog that investigate Digital Humanities projects from a student perspective.]
My exploration of the many interesting DH projects starts with the Huon d’Auvergne Digital Archive. Led by Steve McCormick, Associate Professor of French and Italian at Washington and Lee University, the project makes Huon d’Auvergne, a Franco-Italian epic that is obscure even within the field of medieval studies, accessible after hundreds of years. The epic, which exists today thanks to four remaining manuscripts, details the story of its hero as he fights a fire-breathing dragon and is sent to Hell by the King in one of the first scenes to cite and imitate Dante’s “Inferno.” The four manuscripts that remain indicate that Huon d’Auvergne was so popular that it was translated into different dialects, allowing a new tradition of the embellished story to form.
The Huon d’Auvergne Digital Archive project has three phases, incorporating all four versions of the epic. Phase One, which is complete, included editing the text and making the manuscripts available on the website. Phase Two, which is currently in progress, involves bringing high-resolution images to the digital archive. The Huon d’Auvergne team partners with the libraries in Italy that house these manuscripts, which give the team the rights to put these images on the website. DH Fellow Megan Doherty ’19, who works on this project, said that this process requires a lot of trial and error with the coding work. Doherty remarked figuring out how to code on her own with the help of McCormick and the DH Program. Phase Three will involve editing more manuscripts, bringing in some of the texts that elaborate on Huon d’Auvergne.
Currently, Doherty helps McCormick bring high-resolution scans of the four existing manuscripts to the project, working with the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), and creating a server on which to put these images, using Mirador, an image browser. As a result, Huon d’Auvergne will be available for anyone to read with the additional benefit of seeing the text illuminated through illustrations.
According to McCormick, within medieval studies, a book isn’t just a book and an epic isn’t just an epic. Therefore, it remains important to think about how the story is transmitted to a larger audience and on what material or platform the story is read because this changes how the story is understood. The versions of Huon d’Auvergne, which were intended to be read on animal skin, are not all exactly alike, so providing the images from each of the existing manuscripts on the Huon d’Auvergne website gives this project additional context that each print version alone does not. Doherty cites this accessibility as a reason why DH is so useful and significant to interpreting and presenting the epic to a larger group of people, aside from making for a fun project on which to work and with which to engage.
So many of the things we talk about in classrooms are much more conceptual, but to be able to actually see the manuscripts and work with them while doing the reading is helpful and enlightening.” -Megan Doherty ’19
McCormick finds the project exciting because he collaborates with two other co-principal investigators, Dr. Leslie Zarker Morgan from Loyola University and Dr. Shira Schwam-Baird from the University of North Florida and because the project was awarded funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which is difficult to get and a prestigious indicator of the project’s merit. Former DH Fellow Abdur Khan ’17 worked on the Huon d’Auvergne Digital Archive while he was a student at W&L. Now, Khan attends Loyola University Chicago and studies Digital Humanities, providing an example of how DH brings people from different levels together and inspires further engagement with the discipline, embodying the spirit of DH. DH work not only takes something as obscure as Italian epic and makes it accessible to a larger group of people, but it also exhibits the collaborative work of scholars, students and faculty, differentiating it from traditional scholarship.
“I get to work with great students like Megan, and I get to bring them what I find exciting about medieval epics and help them get something out of the work as well.” -Steve McCormick
Encouraged by her work with Huon d’Auvergne and the DH Program, Doherty is pursuing a French Honors Thesis working with medieval manuscripts, hoping to incorporate a DH component. Specifically, she looks at LGBTQ+ representation during the Middle Ages by examining patterns in the text, reading theory that has been published on how to study same-sex relationships before the language for it was inherited in the 19th century, and considering how people spoke about same-sex relationships without this accepted language to describe it. Doherty is also interested in the illumination aspect of the manuscripts, including the medieval art presented on their pages.
Doherty was awarded the Mellon grant to work as a Summer Student Researcher with McCormick on the project and the website, putting coordinates on the pictures and mapping them out to create an interactive experience with the text, including pop-ups filled with small bits of information. Additionally, Doherty has the unique opportunity to help McCormick publish an article about the project, which is an exciting accomplishment for an undergraduate student. The publication will document their process, detailing how they deploy technology skills in the context of the manuscripts and why the Huon d’Auvergne Digital Archive is an important project.
“A big takeaway from DH is for us to realize that we’re in a moment of enormous change in history in which we must move from print to digital, and it’s urgent. Every artifact we have needs to be encoded in programs and represented digitally.” -Megan Doherty ’19
By extension, Doherty recommends that students take DH classes here at W&L because the skills and topics covered in these classes could help students realize that there are so many different aspects to the projects and literature with which they traditionally work. In essence, DH is applicable to nearly everything, and it expands learning in the classroom beyond what we normally consider.
This post was written using interviews with Professor McCormick and Megan Doherty ’19.
As a part of the Rewriting the Code initiative, the Creative Technology Cohort, which encourages W&L women to explore opportunities at the intersection of technology and the humanities, convened for the first of its fall workshops on Saturday, October 6th. Taught by Katherine Donnally, artist and web designer and developer, the “How the Web Works” workshop covered the basics of web design, HTML and CSS and introduced the women to working with their own web domains for personal or professional websites.
Aiming to teach the web in the way she wished she had learned it, Katherine explained the unfamiliar tech language that was made up just twenty years ago, acknowledged the complexities of web design and development by emphasizing that we were capable of understanding it, and encouraged us from the start to seek clarification on anything we did not immediately understand. Katherine, who learned HTML just one and a half years ago and now works as a web developer with a client base, also noted that, because a webpage contains only three elements, it’s really learnable and worth it to learn each element considerably well.
She explained that a website is simply text and introduced the basic ingredients in a webpage: HTML (which function as the buckets for text), CSS (which acts like paint-by-numbers instructions that make the page visually appealing), and the Browser (which is the text reader that executes these instructions). HTML, which stands for Hypertext Markup Language, comes from a consistent set of rules to which web developers agree that results in the words and structure that form a webpage. CSS, which stands for Cascading Style Sheets, defines a language that dictates instructions for the style and design of the webpage. Playing with the style elements in CSS is like “undoing art,” Katherine noted because web designers can easily try out different colors, fonts and layouts until they find the perfect design. She continued, “Paper doesn’t forget, but webpages forget really easily,” permitting quick alterations and numerous possibilities. Identifying these ingredients, Katherine explained that all that web design is and all we were doing was writing things in a way that computers understand.
After a break for lunch of delicious chili and corn muffins, Professor Bufkin led the Cohort in exploring what having our own web domains entails and the options before us. She showed us how to use a CMS (Content Management System), which renders the desired content on the webpage, displaying it on a browser. Using a CMS, specifically WordPress, was extremely useful for our purposes because it was a simple way to get content on the web and the page up and running while working on HTML and CSS locally. WordPress allows web designers to use HTML in the text editor for posts or pages and customize additional CSS, allowing us to continue to experiment with HTML and CSS while we take advantage of the structure it provides for our websites without having to create our website from scratch. As we experimented with our websites, we considered important questions for web design, including what kind of pages do I need? How will users navigate my website? What kind of content will be on my webpage? Mostly photos or will I want writing? If I include a lot of writing, how should I use the white space on the page? What fonts should I use? The decisions and possibilities behind designing and customizing a webpage seemed endless.
A day of HTML, CSS and chili, the “How the Web Works” Women and Technology Workshop fostered a supportive environment and a collaborative group of women that I truly enjoyed. I appreciated the opportunity to expand my knowledge of web development and consider new questions and ideas as I embark on creating my own website.
During her talk on Thursday, September 20th, Dr. Roopika Risam, Assistant Professor of English, Faculty Fellow for Digital Library Initiatives, and Coordinator of the Digital Studies Graduate Certificate Program at Salem State University, posed the question: what are the rights and responsibilities of humanities scholars in the 21st century?
While Risam draws an important distinction between digital humanities and activism, she argues that digital humanities methods can be effective tools for calling attention to campus activism in the past and supporting student activists on today’s college campuses. The Torn Apart/Separados project, which she created with seven other scholars in one week in June 2018, served as a reaction to Donald Trump’s immigration policy and the family separation crisis and as a means to think about how to respond or intervene. Using data from documents that were previously obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the project displays a series of data visualizations that represent the landscape of ICE detention in the United States, showing that recent immigration policy impacts many places throughout the country, not just on the Mexico-United States border.
The reluctance amongst academics to tackle divisive issues or political work sparks the perplexing question: can one be both an activist and an academic? Risam claims that not tackling political issues in one’s work is a privilege, and Digital Humanities makes activism possible, offering hope for reappropriating knowledge production. For instance, the Torn Apart/Separados project is not an activist project, but it puts data into the hands of people who can make a difference. Instead of suggesting what consumers of this knowledge should do with it, the project recognizes the limitations of its own knowledge and simply aims to publish and display data. According to Risam, we should be excited about what is made possible by Digital Humanities methods yet remain wary about the utopian world they create.
Some of the most important work Digital Humanities does, according to Risam, is exert power over the means of producing knowledge. Specifically, Risam teaches her students at Salem State University how to conduct archival research, builds their soft and technical skills, and encourages them to think about the history of activism within their community: Salem State University and the city of Salem, Massachusetts. The students were overwhelmingly drawn to digital histories of activism, exploring records and archives of student organizations from the 60s, 70s and 80s to find out all they could about student activism on their campus. Ultimately, Risam and her students developed Digital Salem, a digital presentation of their research findings, that encourages students to engage with these issues in their lives and with contemporary political issues. The students feel validated when they are participating in activism, Risam stated.
So, what are the rights and responsibilities of humanities scholars in the 21st century? According to Risam, campus climate and student interests may require expanded responsibilities that academics previously did not consider their own, and Digital Humanities may be able to assist students in these activist endeavors.
“Everybody plays games, even people who don’t think of themselves as gamers” -Professor Ferguson
At the invitation of Professor Andrew Ferguson, Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux gave a talk on video game culture and pedagogy as a part of the DH Speaker Series during spring term. They had recently published Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames and spoke on video game culture and pedagogy. According to Professor Ferguson, Boluk and LeMieux “take things that are on their face incomprehensible and so embedded in cultural baggage and social knowledge and pick them apart so that their readers can know what’s going on.” For example, during their talk, they presented a few seconds of game play and gave the audience the context of what was going on and how that fits into larger cultural questions.
Also during spring term, Professor Ferguson taught ENGL 295: Video/Games, which surveyed the medium of the videogame, from the beginnings of the genre in board and card games, through early computing and cartridge-based consoles, through the highly sophisticated online formats of today. The students made games throughout the course, including videogame-related board and card games and digital story games on the Twine platform. Professor Ferguson emphasized that everyone can make and play games and was grateful to have been able to use a room in the library as a console room where anyone could go and play all kinds of games throughout the four-week semester.
Professor Ferguson had been interested in teaching video games for a while when a DH incentive grant and spring term’s shortened semester gave him the opportunity to teach exclusively video games and immerse the students in playing video games almost all the time throughout the course. During the course, the students considered the varying experiences that can result from video games. For instance, Professor Ferguson noted that when people play video games, they often default to one type of game and rarely stray from that type. To challenge this tendency, Professor Ferguson gave students different types of games to see what interested and surprised them as they tried things they never thought of as video games before.
“Andrew Ferguson’s video game class was a delightful study into the development of video games, not only as a form of entertainment but as an art.” -MC Greenleaf ’19
Additionally, the class took a field trip to three different arcades to demonstrate what actively maintaining and creating games could look like. The first stop on the trip was to an arcade in a dying mall, which sparked the question: are arcades dying out? Next, they traveled to an arcade with retro video games, such as Pac-Man, Pole Position and Pinball games, showing that if we take care of video games, even though it is difficult to do so, we can keep them alive. Finally, the class went to Dave and Buster’s, which featured shooting and driving games, showing one possibility for the future of arcades.
MC Greenleaf ’19, a student in the class, said, “We studied the history of games, from board games to arcade games to handheld consoles as we know them now. Through this investigation we gained knowledge on how the coding works, how to critically analyze games and game culture, and the decline of arcades. It has heavily inspired my senior thesis, to code a game of my own design, and I feel capable of doing so thoughtfully and effectively because of my experience in Professor Ferguson’s class.”
Considering the future of videogame studies, Professor Ferguson would like to hope that more people are studying games as a source of academic inquiry, akin to literature or media studies. “Studying videogames will become more and more interesting as people move towards playing games as a way of telling stories,” he said. In fact, videogame studies is growing slowly and unpredictably and could become increasingly popular like film or TV studies. According to Professor Ferguson, videogame studies is about five years away from becoming just as popular. Thanks to his spring term class, some students had the opportunity to get a head start.
This post was written using an interview with Professor Ferguson.
Apply to the Creative Technology Cohort, and attend Fall Workshops!
Join us this year as we explore opportunities at the intersection of technology and the humanities. Our Fall Workshops will introduce the Creative Technology Cohort to the basics of web development and programming in a relaxed and supportive environment. The Winter Forum will feature Chelsea Barabas as the Keynote Speaker and breakout sessions following her talk.
Workshop #1: How the Web Works
Saturday, October 6th at 10:30am-3:30pm
Participants will learn the basics of web design, HTML, and CSS. They will also get their own web domain so they can start working on a personal or professional website. This workshop will be run by Katherine Donnally. Lunch is included. Apply to the Cohort to attend.
Workshop #2: Coding 101
Saturday, October 20th at 10:30am-3:30pm
This workshop will serve as an introduction to computing and Python. No experience is necessary for either workshop. Coding 101 will be run by Zoe LeBlanc out of UVA Scholar’s Lab. Lunch is included. Apply to the Cohort to attend.
Keynote Speaker: Chelsea Barabas
Friday, March 1st at 5-6pm
Chelsea Barabas studies the role of data and algorithms in the US criminal justice system and writes and speaks on gender and diversity in technology. She works with communities around the world to examine how technology can serve the public good.
Check out the Women and Technology website to learn more! If you have questions, e-mail Sydney Bufkin at firstname.lastname@example.org and Kellie Harra at email@example.com.