Announcement Event on campus Pedagogy

Digital Pedagogy Discussion Series – Winter Edition

We’re back with another round of Digital Pedagogy lunches!

Are you curious about digital pedagogy methods but aren’t sure where to start? Do you enjoy hearing from colleagues about what’s worked in their classes? Do you need to eat lunch? 

To guide our conversation, we’ll use Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments by the Modern Language Association. This resource is organized by keywords – each one is a pedagogical concept with annotated artifacts of curricular material. A faculty volunteer has selected a keyword of their choice and will be facilitating the discussion. Lunch is on us! 

Here’s the plan: grab your lunch from the designated lunch location (let them know you’re with the DH Cohort) and head down to DH Workspace (Leyburn 218). We’ll eat, chat, and hopefully come away with new ideas for your classroom.  It would be great if you could let Mackenzie Brooks, DH Librarian, know that you’re coming.

Keyword: Praxis
Facilitator: Mackenzie Brooks, Library
Tuesday, February 4th, 2020
Lunch location: Marketplace

Keyword: Annotation
Facilitator: Caleb Dance, Classics
Monday, February 17th, 2020
Lunch location: Marketplace

Keyword: Archive
Facilitator: Ashley Lazevnick, Art History
Friday, March 6th, 2020
Lunch location: Marketplace

Announcement Event on campus Pedagogy

Digital Pedagogy Discussion Series

Are you curious about digital pedagogy methods but aren’t sure where to start? Do you enjoy hearing from colleagues about what’s worked in their classes? Do you need to eat lunch? 

The Digital Humanities Faculty Cohort is hosting a new discussion series on digital pedagogy! 

To guide our conversation, we’ll use Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments by the Modern Language Association. This resource is organized by keywords – each one is a pedagogical concept with annotated artifacts of curricular material. A faculty volunteer has selected a keyword of their choice and will be facilitating the discussion. Lunch is on us! 

Here’s the plan: grab your lunch from the designated lunch location (let them know you’re with the DH Cohort) and head down to DH Workspace (Leyburn 218). We’ll eat, chat, and hopefully come away with new ideas for your classroom.  It would be great if you could let Mackenzie Brooks, DH Librarian, know that you’re coming.

Keyword: Mapping
Facilitator: Melissa Vise, History
Tuesday, November 19th, 2019
Lunch location: Cafe 77

Keyword: Failure
Facilitator: Sydney Bufkin, Library
Wednesday, December 4th, 2019
Lunch location: Marketplace

Keyword: ?  Facilitator: you?  Let us know if you’d like to run a discussion in 2020!

DH Event off campus Pedagogy UVA Collaboration

DH Pedagogy Roadshow

Crossposted to the scholarslab blog and Brandon Walsh’s blog.

[The following post was co-authored with Mackenzie Brooks, Digital Humanities Librarian at Washington and Lee University. It follows up on a previous post on digital pedagogy and the Praxis Program. So if you’re just joining us, you might start there first. The first section below offers Brandon’s thoughts on a sequence of collaborative events with W&L, and the second section offers Mackenzie’s thoughts on the same.]

Brandon’s Perspective

In my last post, I mentioned that the Scholars’ Lab piloted a unit on digital pedagogy for the Praxis Program this past year. Over the course of a few weeks, the students each drafted the materials they would need to deliver a low-tech workshop on a digital humanities method or concept relevant to their own interests. The unit gave the students the opportunity to explore their chosen topic in dialogue with one another as they felt their way through how they would go about teaching the material to a broader audience, and it also gave the program a chance to speak directly to each student’s own reasons for being in graduate school and for exploring digital humanities. I ended that last post on something of a cliffhanger – I had intended the unit on pedagogy to end there, with each student in possession of all the makings for a DH workshop of their own design. But the students wanted to go a step further – they wanted to actually use these materials and deliver these workshops. I wanted to honor this good energy, and I’ll use this monthly installment in the Scholars’ Lab year of blogging to write a quick note about how we did so.

At the same time that the Praxis Program was running, I was in contact with the digital humanities group at Washington and Lee University about an ongoing collaboration that brings UVA graduate students working in DH to W&L to deliver one-off workshops for undergraduate DH courses. For each of these visits, the students work with the relevant faculty member to design a workshop in line with both their own research interests and the course material. It’s a challenging program to coordinate logistically – for each of these visits, W&L’s DH Librarian Mackenzie Brooks and I have to align the schedules for faculty members and students while also making good matches between interests and course syllabi. In spirit, this collaboration seemed like it could be a good fit for the new set of workshops designed by the Praxis programs. But we were not quite sure how to make it work logistically. We didn’t have obvious course fits for some of the topics, and it’s difficult to coordinate a couple workshops a semester, let alone six.

So we decided on a slightly different approach. Rather than trying to spread the workshops out among six class visits, we consolidated them. As luck would have it, this spring semester Mackenzie and Sydney Bufkin, Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow at W&L, were co-teaching a small capstone course for W&L students minoring in Digital Culture and Information. As a part of the course, Mackenzie and Sydney were eager for their students to get broad exposure to a range of DH topics. Rather than coordinate six individual trips from UVA to W&L, Mackenzie and Sydney suggested bringing their W&L students to UVA. With this in mind, on two separate occasions, Mackenzie and Sydney brought a group of students to the Scholars’ Lab to take part in a series of workshop sessions by our Praxis students. Because these workshops fell under the purview of the workshop exchange component of W&L’s Mellon grant, we were able to pay the students a small honorarium to compensate the extra time required to prepare the workshops over and above what we would usually expect of Praxis participants. In conversations with our Praxis students I started calling the event the Praxis DH Roadshow.

We had a lot of conversation internally about how to handle invitations for these workshops. After all, while the Praxis students were eager to deliver their work and get feedback, they were still learning about the field. We worried that throwing the doors open to the general public would be unfair to these students who were, after all, teaching in public so as to learn. We wanted to construct a space that helped to mitigate these risks, so we settled on a partially open format, aiming for about fifteen participants total in each workshop. Besides the five participants from W&L, we also counted on about five participants from the Scholar’s Lab. For the remaining audience members, we selectively invited members of the UVA community: subject librarians who would be interested in the work being done by students in their departments, experienced and generous collaborators who we could count on to offer constructive feedback, and library colleagues who might simply be interested in learning about the method under discussion. We couldn’t invite everyone, but we hoped that these targeted invitations might give our students the chance to show off the work they were doing in the library in a supportive environment.

To my mind, the events were a success in many ways. The slate of workshops the students put together was broad and diverse:

  • Catherine Addington (Spanish) – Transcription and Digital Editions
  • Cho Jiang (Urban and Environmental Planning) – Sentiment Mapping
  • Emily Mellen (Music, Critical and Comparative Studies) – How to Cite and Work with Sound Sources in Writing
  • Eleanore Neumann (Art and Architectural History) – Digital Curation
  • Mathilda Shepard (Spanish) – Minimal Computing
  • Chris Whitehead (History) – Network Analysis w/ String

The lineup of topics was a tad scattershot to be sure, but the goal was never to cover the broad range of things possible in digital humanities. We engaged the graduate students where they were and had their interests set the agenda. To my mind, the workshops themselves were not really for the audience. They were a chance to offer the Praxis students a chance to teach with a safety net – an opportunity they don’t often have. It also gave the students a chance to watch each other teach – something that is even more rare. But I’m very pleased that we were able to turn this exercise for graduate students at UVA into something that could be of use to the group at W&L.

I’m so pleased that Praxis could become a supportive space for pedagogical growth this year, and I’m very thankful for everyone who made it possible. I’m especially grateful to the many library colleagues who attended and shared their constructive feedback with the students (with apologies if I miss anyone): Hanni Nabahe, Lauren Work, Abby Flanigan, Brandon Butler, Maggie Nunley, Regina Carter, Erin Pappas, Keith Weimer, and Sue Donovan. The events would not have been possible without the work of Mackenzie Brooks, Sydney Bufkin, Amanda Visconti, and Laura Miller. They were each instrumental in making sure that the events took the shape they did and that they proved productive for the students. And, of course, I am very proud of and grateful to the students for sharing their work with us.

Mackenzie’s Perspective

As one of the instructors of the capstone course that Brandon mentioned, I wanted to share my perspective on the workshop roadshow and its role in our course. At the Washington and Lee University Library, we are in our first year of offering a minor in Digital Culture and Information (DCI). Sydney Bufkin and I decided to design and co-teach the capstone course this year, before we had any declared minors, as a way to test out the structure and feasibility of an upper-level digital project-based course.

We embarked on this trial with two students, both of whom had some experience with DH projects, but not much coursework in DCI. Because it was such a small course, we were able to customize the schedule to fit the needs of the students and their projects. Katherine Dau ’19 was interested in building a web map to complement her honors thesis in art history and MaKayla Lorick ’19 wanted to design a digital exhibit to house an oral history project she began the previous summer. We quickly filled our 12-week schedule with the theoretical and technological grounding necessary for our students to meet their project goals. But we still wanted our students to get a sense of the breadth of DH work.

Moreover, I knew from previous experience with UVa graduate students that they could be a great model for our undergrads as they learned new digital modes of research. As part of our ongoing collaboration with Scholars’ Lab, I regularly bring in a UVa graduate student or two in my 100-level Data in the Humanities course to introduce a new methodology (text analysis or GIS for example) and share its use in their own research. It has been a great way for my students to see someone only a little bit older than they are engaged in scholarship and the kind of experimentation that often goes on at Scholars’ Lab. I try to schedule the visits when my students are beginning to form their research questions so that they can bounce ideas off the grad students and hear someone other than me engage with their ideas.

Therefore, I was delighted to find out that this year’s Praxis students had prepared workshops they wanted to deliver. Our small class size made for an easy field trip up to Charlottesville for two marathon workshop days. The visits fell in the latter half of the course, but I think they would have worked just as well in the earlier half when we were still surveying methods. Not only did we all learn a lot from each of the workshop leaders, but our students were (gently) forced to articulate their own work for a friendly and knowledgeable audience. By the sixth workshop, they were comfortable explaining Jekyll or the reasoning behind their project name. This is what I like best about our collaboration with Scholars’ Lab – it creates an opportunity for all the people involved to learn and grow in a welcoming, low-stakes space. The Praxis students even insisted on formal feedback from us, so we took class time to fill out an evaluation form and discuss the workshops. For us, this was just a continuation of an ongoing conversation about sharing your work. Both Katherine and MaKayla had been presenting their projects to various audiences throughout the term, but the workshops helped them see new possibilities for their own emerging pedagogical practice. Most capstones will involve some kind of public presentation, but this experience reminded us that there is room for sharing and reflecting on your work in incremental ways, not just at the end of a project.

Thank you to everyone who made this event possible!

Announcement Event on campus Pedagogy People Research Projects

Winter Academy 2018 — rescheduled!

[FYI this event has been rescheduled for January 16, 2019 from 12:15pm-1:15pm. Join us for the same great lineup! Please register on Event Manager.]

With a fresh snow and impending finals, it is certainly time to look toward Winter Academy offerings. The entire line-up looks great this year, but we invite you to join us for the following DH event:

Monday, December 10th, 2018
Hillel 101
Lunch provided

Digital Humanities Summer Research Panel
Curious about how “digital humanities”–whatever that means–can fit into your research? What it’s like to work collaboratively with undergraduates working on humanistic questions? What impact the research can have on your pedagogy? Then, you should hear from Mellon Summer Digital Humanities Faculty Research awardees and a Special Collections project.

Presenters: George Bent, Professor of Art History; Sydney Bufkin, Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow; Megan Hess, Assistant Professor of Accounting

Don’t forget to register at!

Looking to fill out the rest of your week? We recommend the following:

  • Leveraging Technology to Cultivate an Inclusive Classroom – Kelly Hogan and Viji Sathy (UNC Chapel Hill), Monday at 9:15-10:45pm
  • Imaging in the IQ Center – Dave Pfaff, Monday at 2:15pm
  • How is Technology Affecting Your Mojo? Finding Mindfulness – Marsha Mays-Bernard (JMU), Wednesday at 2:30-4pm
Announcement DH Event on campus Incentive Grants Pedagogy Speaker Series

Day of DH at Fall Academy 2018

DH @ W&L is holding two Fall Academy sessions this year. Don’t forget to register and check out all the other amazing-looking sessions. Join us on Thursday, August 23rd, 2018 in Hillel 101 for the following:

10:45AM-11:45 AM Creating Open Course Websites
Course websites are a great way to increase access to your courses, share your teaching strategies and materials with colleagues, and organize information for your students. Creating a course website is also an opportunity to re-evaluate the structure of your class and imagine how a student will navigate the different parts of the course. Learn about the benefits of making course materials open and accessible to audiences beyond the university, hear how other people in DH are using course websites, and learn strategies for organizing your own course into an easy-to-navigate website.

Presenters: Sydney Bufkin, Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow; Mackenzie Brooks, University Library; Sarah Horowitz, History.

12:00 PM – 1:45 PM DH Incentive Grant Panel
Come learn about DH funding opportunities for research and the classroom. Hear from current grant holders how they incorporate DH tools and methods in their classrooms. Presenters include Paul Youngman, Chair of Digital Humanities; Ricardo Wilson, English; Shikha Silwal, Economics; Stephen Lind, Business Administration; Stephanie Sandberg, Theater.

Come learn about DH funding opportunities for research and the classroom. Hear from current grant holders how they incorporate DH tools and methods in their classrooms. Presenters include Paul Youngman, Chair of Digital Humanities; Ricardo Wilson, English; Shikha Silwal, Economics; Stephen Lind, Business Administration; Stephanie Sandberg, Theater.

Pedagogy UVA Collaboration

Teaching Black Arts Poetry and Computational Methods

[Enjoy this guest post by Ethan Reed, a 2017-2018 graduate fellow as well as a Ph.D candidate in English Literature at the University of Virginia. He came to W&L to give a workshop in Prof. Lesley Wheeler’s ENGL 295_02: African-American Poetry course through a Mellon-funded collaboration with the Scholars’ Lab at UVA. More information about this initiative can be found here. This post is cross-listed on the Scholars’ Lab blog.]

An introductory note: this post offers a rough sketch of the planning that went into, and the ideas that emerged from, a three hour seminar on African American poetry I visited last week taught by Professor Lesley Wheeler at Washington & Lee. As such, it’s pretty long. Feel free to skim or jump around to those sections you’re most interested in! They are (by heading): (1) a brief note on the occasion of me visiting the seminar, (2) how I went about contextualizing Black Arts poetry in an undergraduate seminar setting, (3) insights that emerged from our conversation on Amiri Baraka’s poetry, and (4) how I went about running a brief workshop on machine learning and computational approaches to cultural objects. Enjoy! Plus a huge thank you and shout out to Professor Lesley Wheeler, Mackenzie Brooks, and everyone else at Washington & Lee as well as the Scholars’ Lab that made my visit possible!

(1) The Visit

Last week I had the pleasure of participating in Prof. Lesley Wheeler’s seminar, English 295: African-American Poetry, at Washington & Lee University through a collaboration between the Scholars’ Lab at UVA and W&L. As a part of W&L’s intensive spring semester, this class session clocked in at a solid three hours: we discussed Black Arts poetry, Amiri Baraka in the 1960s, Amiri Baraka in the 2000s, and how to make sense of provocative, overtly political poetry.

As a PhD candidate in English Literature at UVA, and current Graduate Fellow at the Scholars’ Lab, I study Black Arts poetry. My current project involves using natural language processing techniques like sentiment analysis to analyze and interpret texts from a corpus of Black Arts poetry collections (Baraka included). In particular, I’m interested in digging into how feeling, affect, and sentiment happen in a poem—and how this happening might be coded in terms of race and gender. Part of this includes interrogating the limits of these distanced, potentially decontextualizing computational techniques to think through BAM poetry, and how these methods might best be used to pursue questions, problems, and lines of inquiry centered around black thought and experience.

After initial planning conversations with Prof. Wheeler, we decided it would be most valuable if we combined me presenting on my work with a hands-on workshop on the digital methods I’m using, as well as a more general discussion of how all this might change how we read poems (like those assigned for the class). For structure, we settled on me starting with a brief intro to the Black Arts Movement, followed by a conversation on the assigned readings, then a mini presentation / discussion on my own research that included a full-on participatory workshop on the principles of machine learning, sentiment analysis, and how a sentiment classifier works.

For my presentations and the workshop, I spoke with slides rather than reading from a written out paper. But I still thought it worth sharing how I went about introducing the BAM, conducting a machine learning workshop, and presenting on my own research. So in this post, I’ll give a rough paraphrase of these presentations in addition to insights that emerged from the conversations we had as a class around these issues. As I say in the introductory note—this is a lot! So feel free to jump around.

(2) Contextualizing Black Arts Poetry

After introducing myself to the class, I talked through a handful of slides that I felt offered an engaging introduction to how writers within the Black Arts Movement conceptualized themselves and articulated their artistic, social, and political goals. These are most of the quotations I shared, along with rough paraphrases of how I glossed them with the class:

From Larry Neal, “The Black Arts Movement,” The Drama Review, vol. 12, no. 4 (1968):

“The Black Arts Movement is radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. Black Art is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America. In order to perform this task, the Black Arts Movement proposes a radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic. It proposes a separate symbolism, mythology, critique, and iconology.”

To give an example of what this “radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic” might look like, I shared an image of Sonia Sanchez’s “a/coltrane/poem,” from her 1970 We A BaddDDD People—a poem that, even just glancing at a page, is clearly pursuing a new, radical kind of typography to match its radical aesthetic. (For more on this poem’s indentation, spacing, punctuation, capitalization, and non-traditional spellings, check out my post on transcribing these texts into text editors!). Moreover, this “separate symbolism, mythology, critique, and iconology” included dedicating poems to African American figures like John Coltrane. Sanchez’s “a/coltrane/poem,” then, is one of many Black Arts era poems to take the musician as its main subject matter. Another example of this would be those poems dedicated to Malcolm X—like the 1967 anthology For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and the Death of Malcolm X, edited by Dudley Randall and Margaret G. Burroughs.

From Gwendolyn Brooks’ intro to Don’t Cry, Scream by Haki R. Madhubuti [then Don L. Lee] (1969):

“[Lee] is well-acquainted with ‘elegant’ literature (what hasn’t he read?) but, while certainly respecting the advantages and influence of good workmanship, he is not interested in supplying the needs of the English Departments at Harvard and Oxford nor the editors of Partisan Review … He speaks to blacks hungry for what they themselves refer to as “real poetry.” … Don Lee has no patience with black writers who do not direct their blackness toward black audiences.”

From Haki R. Madhubuti’s Preface to Don’t Cry, Scream (1969):

“What u will be reading is blackpoetry. Blackpoetry is written for/to/about & around the lives/spiritactions/humanism & total existence of blackpeople. … Blackpoetry in its purest form is diametrically opposed to whi-te poetry. Whereas, blackpoets deal in the concrete rather than the abstract (concrete: art for people’s sake; black language or Afro-american language in contrast to standard English, c.). Blackpoetry moves to define & legitimize blackpeople’s reality (that which is real to us).”

I felt these quotations showed how Black Arts writers made the social and political mission behind their work as explicit as possible—that many not only sought to make art that spoke first and foremost to black communities (“Blackpoetry is written for/to/about & around the lives/spiritactions/humanism & total existence of blackpeople”), but felt that the need for this art was urgent, even a kind of imperative (“Lee has no patience with black writers who do not direct their blackness toward black audiences”). Seeing this quotation from Madhubuti’s preface, one of Prof. Wheeler’s students asked a question about why Madhubuti turns the phrases “black poetry” and “black people” into one word—“blackpoetry” and “blackpeople.” I think this is a great question, and my response was mostly that it could mean any number of things depending on context—but that what matters is that we, as readers, pay careful attention to this kind of aesthetic practice (one that includes typographic, linguistic, and conceptual experimentation) and ask questions inquiring into how they might tie into that work’s meaning and potential social practice.

From Amiri Baraka, “An Explanation of the Work.” Black Magic: Sabotage, Target Study, Black Art: Poetry 1961-1967 (1969):

“Sabotage meant I had come to see the superstructure of filth Americans call their way of life, and wanted to see it fall. To sabotage it, I thought maybe by talking bad and getting high, layin out on they whole chorus. But Target Study is trying to really study, like bomber crews do the soon to be destroyed cities. Less passive now, less uselessly ‘literary.’”

Baraka’s poetry was the main subject of Tuesday’s class, so I wanted to give an example of how Baraka himself introduced his work from the 60s in 1969. More specifically, I shared an example of the provocative rhetoric that Baraka has become famous for—what one scholar describes as “a lifetime of saying the unsayable.” Prof. Wheeler’s students had already read several of Baraka’s poems for this class—“Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,” selections from “Hymn to Lanie Poo,” “A Short Speech to My Friends,” “Three Modes of History and Culture,” “Black Art,” “Black Bourgeoisie,” “Clay,” and “Somebody Blew Up America.” So they had experience with the violence, militancy, and anger behind some of his more incendiary verse. But this quotation, I felt, helped to show how this intensity existed outside of his verse as well—that Baraka would use plain prose in a preface to point his poems like weapons at that “superstructure of filth Americans call their way of life” which “he wanted to see … fall.” The main idea being: it’s not just other people that read Baraka’s poems and interpreted them as militant. Baraka himself framed them as such in introductions to his work.

From Helen Vendler, “Are These the Poems to Remember?The New York Review of Books, November 24, 2011:

“Rita Dove, a recent poet laureate (1993-1995), has decided, in her new anthology of poetry of the past century, to shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors. … Dove is at pains to include angry outbursts as well as artistically ambitious meditations.”

“Dove must realize that the new ‘literary standards’ behind this example of Baraka’s verse [“Black Art”] don’t immediately declare themselves. Printing something in short lines doesn’t make the writer a poet; it only makes him a person with a book of short lines. … If one wants evidence of black anger against ‘whitie’ and ‘jewladies’ and ‘mulatto bitches,’ here it is. But a theme is not enough to make a poem.”

From Rita Dove, “Defending an Anthology,” The New York Review of Books, December 22, 2011:

“It is astounding to me how utterly Vendler misreads my critical assessment of the Black Arts Movement, construing my straightforward account of their defiant manifesto as endorsement of their tactics … [she] focuses on that handy whipping boy, Amiri Baraka, plucking passages from his historically seminal poem “Black Art” in which he denigrated Jews, thereby slyly, even creepily implying that I might have similar anti-Semitic tendencies. … I would not have believed Vendler capable of throwing such cheap dirt, and no defense is necessary against these dishonorable tactics except the desire to shield my reputation from the kind of slanderous slime that sticks although it bears no truth.”

These quotations come from an exchange in The New York Review of Books between Helen Vendler, A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard, and Rita Dove, United States Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner, and Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia. The anthology in question is The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove and published in 2011. The issue in question is whether or not poetry by poets like Baraka should appear in it. I give all these details to emphasize that this controversy, who was having it, and where they were having it was—and is—a big deal.

To summarize, Vendler argues that poets like Baraka—whose poetry she characterizes as “angry outbursts,” lacking “literary standards,” and not so much poetry as “a book of short lines”—should not appear in such an anthology at the expense of poets (to cite the examples she gives) like Wallace Stevens and James Merrill. Dove, on the other hand, argues that the “defiant manifesto” of the Black Arts poets matters for our understanding of 20th century American poetry, and deserves to be represented in an anthology claiming to cover that historical and geographical ground.

I included these quotations and this controversy in my introduction to show that, almost fifty years later, Baraka’s poetry still pisses people off. As Dove says in an interview in which she discusses the controversy, this response to certain aspects of Baraka’s poetry makes sense: “No question about it: Amiri Baraka’s ‘Black Art’ is highly problematic in a social sense, a rant with racist, Antisemitic and sexual elements. There’s nothing in this poem I would agree with on a social level … And yet it’s not only a seminal poem of the Black Arts Movement, important for understanding the shock engendered when such indiscriminate rage was thrust into the public, but it is also … a poem that pushes language to despairing extremes and ultimately cracks it open.” Her final comments here, I feel point to another set of problems that professionals, to this day, have with Baraka’s work—a question of whether or not the angry, often militant provocation Black Arts poets made to “literary standards” (what counts as poetry, what aesthetic practices are legitimate, how poems should point themselves toward social or political issues, and so on) should be taken seriously. For Prof. Wheeler’s students, I asked them to consider that if these poems are ruffling feathers in the 2010s, imagine the waves they made in the 1960s during the civil rights movement.

From Ishmael Reed, a 1995 interview quoted in Kalamu ya Salaam, “Black Arts Movement,” in The Oxford Companion to African American Literature (1997):

“I think what Black Arts did was inspire a whole lot of Black people to write. Moreover, there would be no multi-culturalism movement without Black Arts. Latinos, Asian Americans, and others all say they began writing as a result of the example of the 1960s. Blacks gave the example that you don’t have to assimilate. You could do your own thing, get into your own background, your own history, your own tradition and your own culture. I think the challenge is for cultural sovereignty and Black Arts struck a blow for that.”

This quotation from The Oxford Companion to African American Literature entry on Black Arts (also available here), I feel, offers a nice birds-eye view on the legacy of the movement. It’s also coming at a slight historical remove—a few decades—and from someone who published poetry during the period but that The Oxford Companion describes as “neither a movement apologist nor advocate” (70). Reed’s connection of Black Arts with multi-culturalism and the idea of “get[ting] into your own background, your own history, your own tradition and your own culture” is a useful one—I think it helps to offer some context on the ripple effects that these artists and their work had on the future of American artistic production. It’s easy to forget and difficult to imagine, I think, how much a political or artistic scene (and the culture associated with it) can change in just a few decades. In the context of a seminar with a broad historical range, hearing Reed reflect on the impact of BAM poetry in this way hopefully helps to bring this historical difference to light.

(3) Class Discussion of Baraka’s Poetry

After this introduction, we turned to the assigned poems by Baraka (“Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,” selections from “Hymn to Lanie Poo,” “A Short Speech to My Friends,” “Three Modes of History and Culture,” “Black Art,” “Black Bourgeoisie,” “Clay,” and “Somebody Blew Up America”).

Students began by sharing “resonant words” with the whole class—quotations from the readings that resonated with them—after which everyone broke into smaller groups to discuss their choices and why those words in particular stood out. After several minutes, these small groups opened up to the class and kicked off our discussion.

The topics, themes, problems, and passages discussed in the time that followed was genuinely exciting—I had never taught Black Arts poetry before. Though I could anticipate how students might respond to some of these literary texts, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. Long story short: I was blown away by the thoughts Prof. Wheeler’s students brought to these texts. In this space here, I want to focus in particular on some of the insights of our discussion of “Somebody Blew Up America,” which many students chose as the subject of their “resonant words” and seemed more generally to spark a great deal of interest for discussion.

To offer some backstory, “Somebody Blew Up America” is one of Baraka’s most infamous poems. Written in the months following 9/11, the poem is a cacophonous, insistent, even hyperbolic interrogation of the “Who” behind various systems of oppression throughout history and across the planet. In discussing the poem’s role “in the business of defining and disrupting what can be said,” one scholar notes the poem’s rhetorical force draws in part from “its torrid mixture of factual, ambiguous, humorous, grotesque, suggestive, and intentionally provocative content” (275). Another scholar describes its “arresting diatribes against the evils of imperialism and the attendant evils of racism” as part of what makes it “an angry poem, perfectly consistent with Baraka’s traditional ‘angry’ persona, fashioned as a response to historical acts of violence caused by imperialist and racist thinking” (464).

The poem became infamous primarily, however, after its performance at the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival in September 2002. In particular, critics of the poem cited several lines in which it suggests (by way of asking an unanswered question) that the Israeli government had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks. Many charged Baraka with anti-Semitism and called for his removal as poet laureate of New Jersey. Amidst this public outcry, Baraka published a defense of his poem in Counterpunch, titled “The ADL Smear Campaign Against Me” (2002). In the end, unable to remove him from his post as poet laureate, the New Jersey State Senate abolished the post altogether rather than continue to have Baraka fill the position. One scholar cites this controversy as a powerful example of how difficult it is “to read such [political] poetry in an unbiased, informed, appreciative way and how to stay attuned to its aesthetic quality without compromising its ideological potential. In other words, the challenge is how to read overtly political poetry as poetry” (463).

In short: having a conversation about Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America” means having a conversation about a whole host of thorny political, social, and artistic issues. The poem is, in a word, provocative—it provokes intense response from its readers. But in the case of Prof. Wheeler’s class, the poem provoked an incredible discussion, parts of which I wanted to highlight here.

The poem’s directness in naming names stood out for many students—from President George Bush to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, the poem names the names of those in positions of power as it questions their roles in various systems of oppression. In addition to naming names of the powerful or oppressive, the poem also speaks the names of those killed or harmed while resisting systems of oppression or fighting for social change: from Medgar Evers and Fred Hampton to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

Many students commented on this intensive allusiveness, how the poem pointedly reaches outside of itself and into the world of politics and history. For example, a few noted that the website I had linked for the poem (, where it is available to read for free) included annotations for many of the poem’s historical references—a textual apparatus several students found extremely helpful in parsing the poem’s external layers of meaning. Prof. Wheeler also noted that the many references in “Somebody Blew Up America” provide it with intellectual heft, as well as evidence of Baraka’s own erudition. Drawing from an earlier discussion on the more canonical literary tradition that Black Arts poets hoped to break from, we also discussed the poem’s resonances with another extremely allusive work (complete with textual annotations): T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. But where Eliot invokes Greek myths, Dante Alighieri, and the New Testament, Baraka names current presidents, secretaries of state, and assassinated civil rights leaders. In this sense, we discussed how “Somebody Blew Up America” mobilizes an entirely different audience of readers and for a different purpose, drawing as it does from an entirely different constellation of names, images, myths, and histories.

Students also pointed to the radical rhetorical forms these references took, appearing as they did in rapid fire lists that spanned immense historical and geographical ground in the space of a few clauses. The form of the “list” came particularly into focus after watching a performance of “Somebody Blew Up America” by Baraka in 2009. Almost instantly, students noted a shift in the tone of the poem from its life on the page versus in performance by Baraka with a saxophonist accompanist. The way references unfolded in lists felt qualitatively different: what seemed slower, weightier, and even more solemn on the page felt faster, lighter, or even breezier in performance. Listening to Baraka, there’s no time to satisfy the itch to “get” references by pausing to look them up—as one student noted, Baraka wasn’t waiting around for his listeners: you either got it this time or you didn’t. (Near the end of the performance, Baraka even signals to the saxophonist to speed up, building momentum as he nears the poem’s close).

But rather than feeling overwhelmed, the need to “keep up” with Baraka in performance seemed to change into something else. Drawing from my own listening experience, it felt almost like the particular pacing and affective artistry of Baraka’s performance elaborated on these allusion-rich lists which were themselves shorthand for broader historical perspectives—the idea that, even if you missed the references this time, Baraka’s performance could help, for now, to fill in some of the gaps and to keep you on the same page.

(4) Machine Learning Workshop & My Project

After a brief break following this discussion of Baraka’s poetry, I introduced the class to my project, “Measured Unrest in the Poetry of the Black Arts Movement.” I discussed how I assembled my corpus, how I’m manipulating it to be able to process it with computers, and how I interpret and analyze my results (which I share some of here and here). But before I did any of that, I introduced two concepts central to my research: machine learning and sentiment analysis. In this part of the post, I want to offer a sketch of what that introduction looked like.

Natural language processing, machine learning, sentiment analysis—while extremely important concepts in certain fields, I don’t expect folks in a poetry seminar to have much familiarity with them. So when brainstorming ways to teach these concepts, it felt important for this intro to be hands-on—that is, engaging the class in a participatory way rather than me lecturing—and, for lack of a better word, fun—that is, making concepts that might feel “over someone’s head” instead feel intuitive, exciting, and immediately accessible.

With all this in mind, I decided to make this intro a collective class workshop. My goal was to share the principles behind machine learning processes so that something like sentiment analysis—and what makes it possible—starts to make more sense. So in this workshop, we as a class acted as the “algorithm” in a supervised learning experiment. Our goal was to create a classifier that would guess whether or not a movie is a western based on its movie poster. This took the form of us looking at a whole bunch of movie posters we knew to be westerns and finding patterns in these posters—in this case, identifiable features they had in common. We then tried to generalize from these patterns and guess as a class whether or not a new movie poster was a western. Shout out here to Brandon Walsh, who has used the predictability of movie posters in similar workshops! I have burgled a number of his ideas, with a few key differences—namely that I wanted to push our classifier to the point where its limits became clear and its pre-decided biases or assumptions came to the fore.

We began with our “training data,” several movie posters we already knew to be from westerns. This included classics—Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers, High Noon—as well as some later films—A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, Unforgiven, and so on. Our ongoing informal discussion of what patterns we saw in these posters was a lot of fun—one of my goals!—and had the lighter tone I was hoping for. We decided our “algorithm” saw four features in western movie posters: (1) man with hat, (2) man with gun, (3) horses, (4) desert / prairie. Some other features like “damsel in distress” came up, which lead to productive discussions on the differences between what a computer would be good at identifying vs. a human—i.e., that certain features might require levels of interpretive nuance that an algorithm wouldn’t be capable of. More on this in a moment.

With our “classifier” trained, we turned it loose on our “test data”—another set of movie posters, this time with the titles/credits redacted—to see how well it performed. Ideally, the classifier in question would have no foreknowledge of these new inputs (the test data), and would simply perform its classification by rote according to how it was trained (in this case, looking for our four features—hat, gun, horse, dessert/prairie). We would then be able to tell roughly the accuracy of our classifier and tweak it as necessary.

In reality, however, our “classifier” was also a room full of undergraduates already extremely familiar with cinematic genre conventions by virtue of their years of lived experience in a world with movies. So we did our best to “suspend” our far more nuanced human understanding of these movie posters and tried to act instead on our far less nuanced computational decision-making. This is, after all, part of the basic trade-off that computational approaches offer—purchasing the power of automated decision-making and the ability to deal with large corpora at the cost of nuance and complexity.

So, more posters. We started with several our classifier found easy: The Magnificent Seven, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Once Upon a Time in the West, to name a few. Each has hats, guns, horses, and deserts/prairies galore. We then tried more contemporary examples (i.e. The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained) that, while straightforward in terms of how our classifier interpreted their movie posters, started to become more complicated in whether or not they “counted” as westerns.

But my goal with this workshop wasn’t just to give students experience with using a classifier. I also wanted to give them experience with how a computer thinks. This includes the limitations of computational approaches, as well as the ways that initial human biases and assumptions affect seemingly objective algorithmic “results.” So the ambiguous cases of these more modern films started nudging us in that direction. Fortunately for this example of movie posters for westerns, I teach a course on “the western” at the University of Virginia and have some experience with the history, adaptability, and flexible boundaries of this genre (it’s as if I’d been orchestrating it all along!).

So I threw a few curveballs: posters for films like Hud, Brokeback Mountain, There Will Be Blood, and The Revenant—movies that take place in the American west, have themes, imagery, and plots in keeping with more traditional westerns, but also revise or explode the genre in one way or another. This, I tried to emphasize, is where the rubber meets the road in computational analysis. And where all sorts of human, subjective gray areas show up in what may have felt like an objective, algorithm-driven process.

For example, we as human readers might recognize that Leonardo DiCaprio’s snow-crusted beard, long greasy hair, and weathered fur coat on the poster of The Revenant positions the film in a generic tradition defined by rugged individualist heroes and revenge-seeking antiheros struggling against the backdrop of an unforgiving frontier landscape. As thoughtful, human readers, we can also have a conversation about the history of white characters adopting a certain image of Native American culture as they find their place in this “unfamiliar” landscape—an act of appropriation often used to paint their relationship with American soil as non-colonial and “more authentic” as compared with greedy colonialist “bad guys” that they spend the film fighting against, often “on behalf” of Native American communities (more on this in a moment).

But an algorithmic classifier cannot have this conversation. It looks at the input and determines its output according to its training as fast as it possibly can. Pushing this example a little further, I put up the poster for Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. The narrative this film presents—of an alienated white American man being accepted into a Lakota community, then intuitively becoming more skilled at practices associated with this community than its actual members and “inheriting” their culture before they seemingly “vanish”—shows up a lot in stories about the American west (for more on how appropriative, insidious, and ultimately damaging these kinds of narratives are, see a chapter from Louis Owens’ Mixedblood Messages titled “Apocalypse at the Two-Socks Hop: Dancing with the Vanishing American”).

After showing the movie poster for Dances With Wolves—which our “algorithm” did not think was a western—I put up the poster for James Cameron’s 2009 Avatar, a film with an almost identical narrative structure, though instead of the American west it takes place on an alien planet named Pandora, and instead of a Lakota community, the people indigenous to Pandora are a blue alien species called the Na’vi. Judging by its poster, this film looks nothing like a western. Even watching it in theaters, it would be possible to miss ties the film has with a genre that mythologizes the conquest of the American frontier. Talking about the film critically, however, these connections become clear.

So as we tried to decide how our classifier related to these posters, a number of difficult questions arose—can a movie set in space be a western? What even is a western—what does it mean for a film to be part of, or responding to, an established genre? Is it something we can discern from a movie poster in the first place? The answers to these questions—central to the kind of results that a classifier developed through machine learning can provide—are also human decisions, all the way down, made while the classifier is being trained.

Now that the limits and interpretive dangers of computational approaches had taken concrete form, I transitioned to my own use of computational approaches in my research: how I use sentiment analysis (using a classifier to evaluate a given snippet of text for different kinds of sentiment, i.e. “positive” or “negative”)—in my analysis of Black Arts poetry like those that we had spent most of the three hour seminar discussing. Similar questions applied to this research as well: what does it mean for a poem to be “positive” or “negative”? How does a snippet of text “have sentiment” in the first place? How do computational approaches stack up with more traditional ways of reading poetic language for sentiment, feeling, emotion, or affect?

By the time we finished this workshop and I shared how it applied to my own research, we had run out of class-time. Which means, unfortunately, I had to cut an activity I had planned using Prism to “computationally read” Baraka’s poem “Black Art” for political and artistic practice as a class. There’s always more to do and discuss, but what we did discuss felt like an enormous success—by the end of this workshop students seemed to have a strong handle on the principle ideas behind machine learning, as well as how a classifier might be used to analyze different aspects of artistic objects. That, combined with the seriously insightful conversations we’d been having all afternoon, felt like a huge win! So thanks again to Professor Wheeler, Mackenzie Brooks, and everyone else at W&L as well as at the Scholars’ Lab who organized it all and made my whole visit possible.

Curriculum DCI DH Pedagogy

Minor in Digital Culture and Information

We now have a new minor in Digital Culture and Information. This minor is an outcome of W&L’s digital humanities initiatives over the last six years.

We’re not abandoning the term DH. W&L will still continue to have a strong set of programmatic DH initiatives. We chose the term Digital Culture and Information (DCI) to recognize that our curricular efforts in DH extend beyond the humanities and into the social sciences, pre-professional fields (such as accounting, business administration, journalism, and strategic communication), and STEM disciplines. (And, yes, over the years we had huge debates over naming the minor.)

From our proposal for creating the minor:

An interdisciplinary program in Digital Culture and Information (DCI) allows students to deeply explore how the digital age impacts knowledge and society. Students will discover how software transforms information into valuable resources as well as the dangerous potential of algorithmically biased tools. Through courses that integrate theory with hands- on practice, students will develop creative projects that demonstrate their emerging expertise in digital media. The program is designed to teach students concepts and methods that will enhance their academic success within any major. Students participating in the program will gain significant experience with technological platforms, complex information resources, and visual design. The course of study nurtures critical reflection on the underlying structure of information and not merely technical proficiency. A minor in Digital Culture and Information provides the foundation for a career in any field and for life as an informed citizen in a digital society.

For those who are interested, here’s the full 23-page proposal for creating a minor in Digital Culture and Information (pdf).

Course of Study Requirements

Update: View the W&L site for the updated course of study.

A minor in digital culture and information requires completion of 18 credits, as follows. In meeting the requirements of this interdisciplinary minor, a student may not use more than nine credits (including capstone) that are also used to meet the requirements of other majors or minors. [The nine credits limitation is a W&L policy.]

Required courses:
DCI 102: Data in the Humanities (offered every Fall) 3 credits
DCI 108: Communication through the Web (offered every Fall) 3 credits

At least six credits chosen from the following:

DCI 110: Web Programming for Non-Programmers (offered every Winter) 4 credits
DCI 175: Innovations in Publishing (offered alternating Spring Terms) 4 credits
DCI 190: DH Studio [offered as needed] 1 credit
DCI 393: Creating Digital Scholarship (offered every Winter) 3 credits
DCI 403: Directed Individual Study (as needed) 3 credits
History 211: 19th-Century Scandal, Crime, Spectacle. 3 credits
Journalism 341: Multimedia Storytelling Design (offered every Winter) 3 credits

At least three credits chosen from the following:

Business 306: Seminar in Management Information Systems
Business 310: Management Information Systems
Business 315: Database Management for Business
Business 317: Data Mining for Sales, Marketing and Customer Relationship Management
Business 321: Multimedia Design and Development
Classics 343: Classics in the Digital Age
Computer Science (any course)
DCI 180 First-Year Seminars (offered every Fall and alternating Winter)
English 453: Internship in Literary Editing with Shenandoah
German 347: Goethe–Sentimentality to Sturm and Drang
German 349: Digital Goethe
Sociology 265: Exploring Social Networks
Sociology 266: Neighborhoods, Culture and Poverty
and, when approved in advance, DCI-designated courses offered in other disciplines.

Capstone project:
Three credits chosen from DCI 393, 403 (not used above), or a capstone or honors thesis in the major field of study, of sustained intellectual engagement using digital tools or methods and approved one term in advance of beginning by the core faculty of the minor

At least three projects or assignments, in addition to the capstone, from courses in the minor which demonstrate attention to design, user experience, awareness of audience, and professional or academic context, and including both reflection on and analysis of each work in the portfolio.

Organizational issues

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the DCI minor is that it is based in the library though we still view it as an interdisciplinary minor with broad participation of faculty from other departments. Librarians at W&L have faculty status and the University Library is organized as an academic department within the College. The library faculty are teaching the required courses in DCI, coordinating the capstone and portfolio experiences, as well as teaching many of the DCI electives.

The official approval of this minor is a significant milestone for DH at W&L. It truly has been a collaborative effort over the years involving a lot of conversations, often with challenging viewpoints in those discussions. Collaboration is a process, and dissent is a critical element towards improving any initiative. Over time we talked it through, and we’re all better for that.


A huge thanks to Dean Suzanne Keen, who championed the digital humanities and provided the vision for DH in the undergraduate curriculum. We will miss her dearly and wish her the best in her new role at Hamilton.

Tremendous gratitude goes to Paul Youngman (Professor and Chair of German, Russian, and Arabic) for his brilliant leadership of the DH Committee.

Sara Sprenkle (Computer Science) for her enthusiastic support of a minor all along, for co-teaching with Paul the very first DH course at W&L in 2014, and all her efforts in DH here.

The library faculty have been remarkable in pulling together to create a curriculum. Jason Mickel (Director of Library Technology) came up with the term digital culture and information, and he eagerly embraces teaching at every possible opportunity. Mackenzie Brooks (DH librarian) shouldered the burden of co-teaching two DH courses with me, and she has demonstrated a remarkable aptitude in working with undergrads and developing her own courses. And thanks to all the librarians at W&L who are contributing to the new minor. The DCI minor is now a significant aspect of library instruction and belongs to all of us. The University Librarian John Tombarge deserves particular thanks for allowing us to even pursue this type of curricular initiative.

A special appreciation goes out to the two people who have served as Mellon DH Fellows at W&L. Brandon Walsh provided essential input into the structure of the minor. Sydney Bufkin thought deeply about the capstone experience and devoted significant effort this past year to co-drafting the proposal.

Thanks to our faculty colleagues who have contributed to DH at W&L and especially to those who provided feedback on the proposal, particularly Sarah Horowitz (History), Toni Locy (Journalism), Steve McCormick (French), and Jon Eastwood (Sociology).  We’re excited for future collaborations with faculty across campus as we make the DCI minor into a suitable complement for any academic major.

Of course, we do this for our students. It’s about them. We’re fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from these students. They make us better teachers.

DH Pedagogy UVA Collaboration

All About the Archive

[Enjoy this guest post by Lauren Reynolds, doctoral candidate in the Spanish, Italian & Portuguese Department at University Virginia. She came to W&L to give a workshop in Prof. Andrea LePage’s Contemporary Latinx and Chicanx Art course through a Mellon-funded collaboration with the Scholars’ Lab at UVA. More information about this initiative can be found here. This post is cross-listed on the Scholars’ Lab blog.]

I was invited to guest lecture for Professor Andrea LePage’s course, Contemporary Latinx and Chicanx Art. After discussing possible topics for the workshop, Professor LePage and I decided on the topic of “Archive as Protest.” It overlapped with my research on cultural memory in US Latinx texts and presented me with the opportunity to learn more about digital archives. As I developed the plan for the workshop, I organized the information into questions surrounding digital archives, preserving cultural memory, and cataloguing a variety of experiences.

These are very broad questions, so I outlined two goals for the class: First, I wanted the students to begin to think about information storage in the broadest sense. Then we would narrow the idea of seemingly endless information down to a conversation about cataloguing and metadata. Second, I aimed for our discussion of cultural creation and preservation to help the students understand one way in which preserving information through archives can have a positive social impact.

After introductions, we began the lecture with a brief discussion of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story La biblioteca de babel. This story gave me the opportunity to sneak a bit of Latin American literature into the course and provided an entry point for talking about information storage. So, we began with questions about Borges’ conception of an infinite library: Why do you think some people say that Borges “discovered” the internet decades before it was invented? What similarities do you see between the infinite library and the internet? What are some differences? How is a library organized? Is the internet organized? What possibilities/challenges do a universe of information pose?

Next, we zoomed in to a more focused discussion of archives, their purposes, and how the internet has changed the preservation and accessibility of information. We talked about documenting history from many perspectives and, in small groups, the students reflected on the following quote from Daniel Mutibwa:

“The overarching argument is that local, alternative, bottom-up approaches to telling (hi)stories and re-enacting the past not only effectively take on a socio-political dimension directed at challenging dominant, hegemonic, institutional narratives and versions of the past, but – in doing so – they also offer new and refreshingly different ways of understanding, representing, remembering, and rediscovering the past meaningfully in ways that local communities and regions can relate with.” (Mutibwa)

The students began to connect this quote to their own interests as we discussed the possibilities of digital archives. We specifically looked at the Hurricane Katrina collection to talk about the pros and cons of bottom-up archives:
We noted how such archives allow for individual stories to be shared and they can become part of a community’s healing processes after a tragedy.

This digital archive also prompted interest in logistical questions, such how stories are collected, saved, and mapped in the creation of an online archive. Specifically, the students were asked to think about:

  1. Development: How to choose what to include, authenticity
  2. Retrieval and Collection
  3. Reaching the Community: Supporting Research, Learning, and Teaching
  4. Reference Information and Providing Access

Our last activity gave them the opportunity to learn about different types of metadata and its role in cataloguing. We discussed social media presences as types of personal, living archives and how hashtags such as #TBT, #breakfast, and #gooddog can be seen as a means of organizing Instagram posts. In pairs, the students were then given three photos of different US Latinx artworks and asked to assign categories to each photo. They thought about specificity and accessibility: how to make the photos both accessible in broad searches, but easily found for specific inquiries. Each pair shared their selected words with a larger group. After comparing their different hashtags and debating which labels were most useful, each group came up with a definitive set of categories. We compared the different “data sets” created in class, noting the benefits and possible drawbacks of each set.

The class concluded with small group discussions of overarching questions:

  1. Difficulties posed by the fact that technology is always changing
  2. How to establish trust between archive curators and communities
  3. Library neutrality, the library’s role in community engagement, and the line between memorial and protest
  4. Advantages and disadvantages of allowing anonymous submissions
  5. Oral Histories: Who determines what questions are asked? How are these interviews and all texts edited and by who? Can “alternative” truths be abused to represent dangerous falsehoods?
  6. How do we preserve horrific histories? Do we reproduce offensive terms?

With the time remaining, the students talked about whichever question interested them most in their work and, more broadly, in their lives.

Mutibwa, Daniel H. “Memory, Storytelling and the Digital Archive: Revitalizing Community and Regional Identities In the Virtual Age.” International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, vol. 12, no. 1, 2016, pp. 7-26.

Pedagogy UVA Collaboration

My Experience Leading a Workshop on Text Analysis at Washington and Lee University

[Enjoy this guest post by Sarah McEleney, doctoral candidate in the Slavic Languages and Literature Department at University Virginia. She came to W&L to give a workshop in Prof. Mackenzie Brooks’s DH 102: Data in the Humanities course through a Mellon-funded collaboration with the Scholars’ Lab at UVA. More information about this initiative can be found here. This post is cross-listed on the Scholars’ Lab blog.]

As a graduate student participating in the University of Virginia and Washington & Lee University digital humanities collaboration, during the fall 2017 I led a guest workshop on text analysis in Mackenzie Brooks’ course DH 102: Data in the Humanities. This workshop was an exploration of approaches to text analysis in the digital humanities, which concurrently introduced students to basic programming concepts. For humanities students and scholars, the question of how to begin to conduct text analysis can be tricky because platforms do exist that allow one to perform basic text analyses without any programming knowledge. However, the ability to write one’s own scripts for text analysis purposes allows for the fine-tuning and tailoring of one’s work in highly-individualized ways that goes beyond the capabilities of popular tools like Voyant. Additionally, the existence of a multitude of Python libraries allows for numerous approaches for understanding the subtleties of a given text of a corpus of them. As the possibilities and directions for text analysis that Python enables are countless, the goal of this workshop was to introduce students to basic programming concepts in Python through the completion of simple text analysis tasks.

At the start of workshop, we discussed how humanities scholars have used text analysis techniques to create some groundbreaking research, such as Matthew Jockers’ research into the language of bestselling novels, as well as the different ways that text analysis can be approached, briefly looking the online text analysis tool, Voyant.

For this workshop students downloaded Python3 and used the simple text editor that is automatically installed with it, IDLE. This way we didn’t have to spend time downloading multiple programs. While IDLE is rather barebones, its functionality as a text editor is fine for learning the basics of Python, especially if one doesn’t want to install other software. From here, by using a script provided to the students, we explored the concepts of variables, lists, functions, loops, and conditional statements, and their syntax in Python. Using these concepts, we were able to track the frequency of chosen words throughout different sections of a story read by the script.

The workshop then delved into a discussion of libraries and how work can be enhanced and made to better suit one’s needs by using specific Python libraries. As the focus of the workshop was on text analysis, the Python library that we looked at was NLTK (Natural Language Toolkit), which has a vast variety of functions that aid in natural language processing work, such as word_tokenize() and sent_tokenize(), which break up a text into individual parts, as words or sentences, respectively. The NLTK function FreqDist() simplifies the task of getting a count of all the individual words in a text, which we had done with Python alone in the prior script before working with NLTK. The inclusion of NLTK in the workshop was meant to briefly show students how important and useful libraries can be when working with Python.

While only so much can be covered over the course of a single workshop, the premise of the workshop was to show students that you can do some very interesting things with text analysis with basic Python knowledge, and to dive into Python programming headfirst while learning about general concepts fundamental to programming. As digital humanities methods for humanities research are becoming more and more common, working with Python’s capability for natural language processing is a useful tool for humanists, and in an introductory class, the goal of my workshop was to spark students’ interest and curiosity and provide a stepping stone for learning more, and at the end of the workshop, further resources for students to turn to in learning more about Python and text analysis were discussed.

DH Pedagogy Trip Report

Digital Pedagogy at LACOL

It’s my first blog post for DH @ W&L! Hi, everyone! I’m Sydney Bufkin, the new Mellon Digital Humanties Fellow. I have been—and will continue to be—a Visiting Assistant Professor in the English Department, so if I look familiar when you drop by my office, that’s likely why, especially if you’ve taken WRIT 100 in the past two years.

Photo of one of the Vassar academic buildings
The Vassar campus isn’t terrible in June

I moved over to the library last week and immediately hit the road for the Liberal Arts Consortium for Online Learning (LACOL) workshop at Vassar College. LACOL is a consortium of nine liberal arts colleges formed to share resources about online learning, blended learning and digital pedagogy, and to collaborate on projects across the consortium campuses. The consortium has held three workshops since beginning in 2014, as well as a number of hack-a-thons and mini-workshops on topics such as adaptive learning, language instruction, social annotation and others.

Washington and Lee joined LACOL this year, so this was the first workshop not only for me, but for the other W&L folks, as well. I was particularly excited about the workshop because I’m all about digital pedagogy, especially using technology to make the liberal arts classroom even more active and engaged than it traditionally is. I’m also interested in the future of higher education (for both professional and philosophical reasons), and I’ve watched with some trepidation as for-profit tech startups like Udacity and EdX have shifted the trajectory of higher ed in recent years. I like that the folks at LACOL are thinking about smaller educational units like the SPOC (small, private online course) rather than the MOOC (massive, open online course), while still exploring ways to make higher education more equitable and more accessible.

One of the highlights of the workshop was a keynote by Bryan Alexander, an “internationally known futurist, researcher, writer, speaker, consultant, and teacher, working in the field of how technology transforms education.” Bryan opened his talk with an image from Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” just in case there was any confusion about his assessment of the direction higher ed is heading. His talk raced through a long list of hard truths, from the growing inequality in the United States to decreased enrollments and increased financial pressures on nonprofit, four-year colleges. He noted that small liberal arts colleges represent just 5% of college students in the US, but have an outsized profile and visibility relative to that market share. He called on those colleges to meet the changing landscape of higher education by adapting in ways that improve access to education not just for students from privileged backgrounds, but for everyone.

Bryan’s fire and brimstone was set in opposition to the beautiful Vassar campus, especially the breath-taking library. I only had a little bit of time there, but I spent several minutes taking in the arches and stained glass.

I attended working group sessions for LACOL’s Active and Engaged Reading group and came away with lots of ideas about what reading looks like in our screen-saturated moment. Once question the group considered was why we don’t generally teach the reading process in the way we teach the writing process. We often think of reading as something you either can do or you can’t, sort of like riding a bicycle, but it’s much more akin to writing—you have to identify different disciplines, genres and situations and know how best to read for each case. And like writing well, reading effectively is neither magic nor something you soak up through intuition; it’s a set of steps and processes you learn to apply and adapt.

The working group surveyed some tools and technologies that can help us be better readers, from low-tech approaches like group read-ins in the library and professors modeling their own reading practices to annotating tools like Lacuna and I was excited share the Critical Reader’s Toolkit, a project I worked on when I was at the University of Texas that helps demystify the reading process for literature students.

We had opportunities to hear from other people, both formally and informally, who are working on digital pedagogy at colleges around the country. Bryn Mawr just introduced a new digital competencies framework that emphasizes a number of key skills, including “Digital Survival Skills.” Lots of people were interested in questions of digital citizenship and digital competencies, and we had a lively brainstorming session about how we might collaborate across institutions to address digital fluency.

I always come back from conferences and workshops with my brain buzzing, and this was no exception. I’m excited to see what LACOL does next.