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!

UVA Collaboration

Reconciling Shakespeare[’s texts]: Collation in a Digital World

[Enjoy this guest post by Sam Lemley and Neal Curtis, graduate students in English at University of Virginia. They came to W&L to give a workshop in Prof. Holly Pickett’s sprint-term “Othello, Ourselves: Race, Religion, and Reconciliation in Shakespeare” 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.]

In some circles, collation is a word to conjure with. While we might all know what it means ‘to collate,’ the practice itself is too often confined to the rarefied world of bibliographical and textual analysis. In consequence, the word has come to connote a dark art. The OED fails to clear things up, telling us only what collation is rather than how it’s done: collation (that subtle science) is the “textual comparison of different copies of a document […] with a view to ascertain the correct text, or the perfect condition of a particular copy.”

During our recent visit to Professor Holly Pickett’s course, “Othello, Ourselves: Race, Religion, and Reconciliation in Shakespeare,” we sought to dispel this obscurantist view of collation. Working with Pickett and her students, we demo’d a suite of digital collating tools and instruments that anyone with a computer, two (or more!) texts to compare, and a little patience can put to use—often with startling results.

A course on Shakespeare is a fitting (and relatively safe) place to experiment with collation. In the 1940s, UVa graduate student Charlton Hinman developed an optical collating machine to assist in his comparison of extant copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623). In fact, modern techniques of textual collation could be said to originate with Hinman’s work on the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays.[1] The eponymous collator that followed Hinman’s early prototyping resembles an electrical ziggurat that (when switched-on) emits clacking sounds and flashes of light. It is, for want of an analogy, kind of like a heavy-metal R2-D2, albeit without the Lucasian droid’s endearing chirps, wobbles, and bloops (see figure, below).

Despite its intimidating aspect, however, in its inventor’s hands the Hinman Collator revealed something incredible: no two copies of the famed First Folio were exactly alike. When examined through the collator’s all-seeing binocular lenses, each copy presented its own assortment of variants—in punctuation, spelling, and even entire lines of speech. These variants offered students and scholars of Shakespeare fresh fodder in the never-ending project of making sense of the inimitable Bard. While the intervening decades have not been kind to Hinman’s invention (approximately fifty-nine Hinman Collators were manufactured; only a few are still operational), optical collation remains an important tool in the textual scholar’s toolkit. {Incidentally, one of the original Hinman Collators is still in use at the University of Virginia.[2] To see it in action (ably demonstrated by fellow UVa English graduate students James Ascher and Ethan Reed), see:}

For obvious reasons (its heft and bulk), we could not bring the Hinman Collator with us to Washington & Lee; happily, then, digital humanists have developed a number of text analysis and collation apps that bring robust collational methods to the familiar scale of the personal computer and smartphone. While recent experiments in digital optical collation, including the recently launched ‘PocketHinman’ app, hold promise, in Pickett’s course we decided to focus on the collation of transcribed text—that is, rather than visually comparing two copies of a printed page, we would be comparing raw letters and words, transcribed into easily manipulable .txt files. To do so as a group and to compare our results, we introduced Pickett’s students to an online collation engine called Juxta Commons.

We first asked Pickett’s students to visit and create user accounts. That done, we distributed two versions of Act 5, Scene 2 of Othello (a scene Pickett’s students had just read) in .txt format. One version was from the 1622 Quarto printing of the play, the other was from the 1623 First Folio. Though separated by only a single year, these two versions contain one of the most intriguing and complex variants in Shakespeare’s works. The folio reads,

Of one, whose hand

(Like the base Iudean) threw a Pearle away

Richer then all his Tribe.


Here Othello (metaphorizing after murdering Desdemona) likens himself to a ‘Judean’. In place of Judean, however, the earlier Quarto reads, Indian. This variant is interesting for a number of reasons, not least because the question of correctness is open to debate. Semantically at least, both ‘Judean’ and ‘Indian’ fit, though each colors Othello’s speech differently: is Othello Jew-like, or like a Native of the ‘New World’? Hence the beauty of these seemingly innocent textual variants; they force us to hold in mind multiple readings simultaneously, deepening our appreciation of the play and Shakespeare’s art. We’ll leave the interpretive heavy-lifting to Pickett’s brilliant students—our demonstration merely aimed to show both the speed with which variants can be detected using Juxta and the value of visualizing these variants with Juxta’s suite of tools. These tools—including theside-by-side viewer, which highlights points of variance between two textual ‘witnesses’, and histogram tool, which visualizes the relative density of variation in each witness—contextualize variants to assist in their interpretation. While discussing why a single word might have changed between the Quarto and Folio, we stressed that Juxta could be used to find similar scholarly cruxes elsewhere. Once found, these cruxes might complicate or add textual depth to students’ readings of a particular moment in any one of Shakespeare’s plays. We also encouraged Pickett’s students to view the words on the pages of their modern editions as the product of recent editorial choice rather than authorial fiat. This kind of textual skepticism—the refusal to take Shakespeare’s heavily-mediated words at face value—can be intimidating. Naturally, students want editorial certainty; they crave the ‘correct’ version to simplify an already complicated text. But textual variability and openness also hold vast promise: the detection of variants and errors reveals something about Shakespeare’s meaning, audience, and culture that modern versions often take pains to cover up. Juxta makes the discovery of these hidden clues easy, even (we think!) fun.

In short, the lesson we hope to have imparted during our time with Pickett’s students is simple: while expertise in Shakespeare’s world and words comes slowly, the familiarity of this technology (particularly to students who navigate web apps with ease) opens new and newly-accessible ways of reading. Reading Shakespeare for the first time can be an exhausting slog through archaic syntax and Elizabethan humor. Juxta and similar tools put the proverbial ball back in the students’ court. We hope, then, that these tools will become increasingly common in literature seminars—their availability spurring students to treat historical texts like datasets ripe for creative recombining and analysis.

We close by thanking Professor Holly Pickett (and her students!) for having us, Brandon Walsh of UVa’s Scholars’ Lab and Sydney Bufkin for facilitating, and the Mellon Foundation, whose grant program for digital humanities made our visit possible. For more information on Juxta—and a more detailed tutorial—see

Sam Lemley

Neal Curtis

[1] See Steven Escar Smith, “‘The Eternal Verities Verified’: Charlton Hinman and the Roots of Mechanical Collation,” Studies in Bibliography 53 (2000): 129–61. Hinman estimated that his work on the first folio would have taken decades of constant work without the aid of the Hinman Collator.

[2] For a census of surviving Hinman Collators, see Steven Escar Smith, “‘Armadillos of Invention’: A Census of Mechanical Collators,” Studies in Bibliography 55 (2002): 133–70.

DH UVA Collaboration

DCI Students Visit UVA’s Scholars’ Lab

On two different days during winter term, students in DCI 393, the capstone course for the Digital Culture and Information minor, visited the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia. The students, Katherine Dau ‘19 and MaKayla Lorick ‘19, were joined by Professors Brooks and Bufkin, who teach DCI 393, and Kellie Harra, DH Post-Baccalaureate Fellow. The visitors participated in three different workshops both days, taught by graduate students who were instructed to develop a session that incorporated DH tools into their respective research discipline. These graduate students study a wide range of fields, from History and Art History to Urban and Environmental Planning, and integrated the DH tools into their own work. This made for interesting discussions with helpful background information coming from the graduate students as they related the workshop activities to their own research. Since we don’t have the space to describe in detail all of the workshops we participated in, I’ve included a summary of two of the workshops that I found to be especially interesting.

The first was a workshop by Chris Whitehead on social networks and network analysis. Chris was a 2018-2019 Praxis Fellow at the Scholars’ Lab, with a research focus on the history of Native peoples. In particular, he looked into the kinship ties that bound or separated Native and European peoples in New France, New England, and New York during the 17th and 18th century. The audience quickly became involved in this workshop. Chris explained some of the concepts involved in a network, and then asked us to create our own network that connected the various members of the audience. After throwing out a few different ideas, Chris stopped us so we could discuss some of the things we had realized in our conversations: first, there are different variables that could be used to make a network, but we needed to identify the ones that would be most relevant in creating useful information; and second, that we should develop a method to identify not only connections, but the strength of those relationships. In the end, we decided that the three different types of string Chris had provided us with could be used to represent the frequency of contact between two people, thereby showing the strength of their connection. By the time we had finished tossing rolls of string across the table, down the table, and to our neighbors, we were able to see the relationship of all the audience members to one another. It was interesting to see how the group from W&L connected with the group from UVA and who the key people were, according to the network, in making connections between the two groups.

The second workshop I found to be intriguing covered digital editing and transcription and was taught by Catherine Addington. Catherine has been at the Scholars’ Lab for two years, first as the Makerspace Technologist from 2017-2018, and then as a Praxis Fellow during the 2018-2019 year. She studies colonial Spanish America, with a focus on transcription and the earlier editing of indigenous and Catholic religious texts by Spanish writers. Like with Chris’s workshop, Catherine quickly engaged the audience by beginning the workshop with a question: “How would you transcribe the first lines of the Declaration of Independence?” This was followed by a task: take out a piece of paper, phone, laptop, or anything else you can write on and transcribe those lines. As we finished, it became clear that a seemingly simple task quickly led to more questions: Do you include the (slightly odd) capitalization shown in the original document? What about the punctuation? Spacing? Line breaks? As the workshop continued and we began looking at other documents, questions like “Is that smudge in the corner important?” began to emerge. These types of questions became more and more difficult to answer, but they can still be important to the transcription process. We learned about the different theories behind digital editing (are you trying to transcribe the document as a whole – when the spacing and that weird smudge might be important – or just the text from a document – when perhaps only the capitalization is necessary) and the importance of identifying the audience most likely to be using the transcription. From there, developing a standard based on the audience’s anticipated needs is key. Creating a set standard and plan at the beginning, before any of the work is actually completed, helps to keep things consistent and prevent case-by-case decision making while transcribing the document.

The workshops, all vastly different from each other, provided for an interesting and unique learning experience for the audience and visitors. Thank you to the Scholars’ Lab students and faculty who allowed DCI 393 to participate in and learn from the workshops. We enjoyed our visits to UVA and look forward to future collaborations with the Scholars’ Lab!

– Kellie Harra ’18, Digital Humanities Post-Baccalaureate Fellow

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.

UVA Collaboration

Writing in Public (on Purpose) at Washington & Lee University

[Enjoy this guest post by Catherine Addington, graduate student in Spanish at University of Virginia. She came to W&L to give a workshop in Prof. Sydney Bufkin’s WRIT 100: Writing in Public 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 am a graduate student in Spanish, a freelance writer, a newsletter creator, a former full-time media professional, a prolific blogger, a website manager, and an incessant tweeter. As such, I felt particularly excited to be invited to give a guest lecture in Prof. Sydney Bufkin’s course, Writing in Public, as part of the Scholars’ Lab collaboration with Washington & Lee University. In order to give students direct experience with public writing themselves, Prof. Bufkin had encouraged them to purchase their own domain name, set up their own website, and try out a Twitter account. I visited during the last week of classes to describe how I had used these tools in my own career, and help students envision how they could use them after the course draws to a close.

Prof. Bufkin and I had three main goals for the lecture:

  1. Model both personal and professional relationships with an individual digital presence for students.
  2. Inform students about public writing careers and the publishing process, particularly as a freelancer.
  3. Lead students in brainstorming plans for their own domain name and Twitter account.

The text of my talk follows. The presentation slides are also available here.

Writing in Public (on Purpose)

aka how to grow up on the Internet and reverse-engineer that into something professional

Thanks to all of you and to Professor Bufkin for having me. I’m currently a graduate student in Spanish at the University of Virginia, but I’m also a longtime public writer, onetime professional journalist, and a part-time website manager. I’ve called this talk “Writing in Public (on Purpose)”, but the subtitle is what I really want to focus on: how to grow up on the Internet and reverse-engineer that into something professional. Because that may be the one thing in which I am a bona fide expert. So today I’m going to talk to you about my own relationship with public writing, and hopefully help you to work out what you’d like yours to be.

But I’d like to start with a short exercise: please Google yourself. Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask for results. But raise your hand if you found something positive, something you’re proud of. Now raise your hand if you found something negative, or something you feel is kind of silly. Now raise your hand if you found nothing in particular.

You can see for yourselves: most likely, you’re going to have an Internet presence of some kind. It’s just a question of how much control you have over it. Today I want to share with you what getting control over that looked like for me, and what it might look like for you.

First, I plan to discuss my own experience with balancing personal and professional public writing. Then, I’ll describe what public writing is like as a career. Finally, I’ll turn it over to you all to workshop how you can use public writing for your own goals, and specifically what you plan to do with your domain name once this class ends.

I’ll start with my own experience.

My first website was a fandom-heavy Tumblr, and an angsty teenage diary. I didn’t think of this as public writing at the time. My friends and I all used Tumblr as a social network, not a blogging platform. It was all Champions League highlights and emo song lyrics. But because someone felt the need to run my account through the Wayback Machine, this early iteration of my Tumblr blog, and the various URLs it took on later, are preserved for posterity.

That’s actually still my website, but now it’s a portfolio and blog, too. If you go far back enough in the archives, you’ll still find plenty of fandom and angst. In fact, you’ll still find plenty of both. What’s changed is my intention and self-awareness about it being a public-facing platform.

Similarly, my Twitter also started out as fan enthusiasm. Here you can see me waxing poetic about FC Barcelona’s former goalkeeper.

Now, Twitter has become my professional network too. Here you can see two examples of my writing being shared and commented on by other writers. (But of course, I still tweet plenty about soccer.)

My point is: you know how sometimes a friend will comment on an old profile picture on Facebook so that it’s at the top of everyone’s news feed and suddenly all your college friends know what you looked like when you were 14 and a mess? Well, having had a blog and a public Twitter since I was in high school is like that, but in public, and your employer is invited. I have more embarrassing tweets and angsty tumblr posts out there than I could ever take back. That may not be the case for you, but if it is, I have some advice. If you, too, are growing up on the Internet:

  1. Be able to laugh at yourself (and forgive yourself, when you need to). Everyone has had a phase they wish everyone else would forget. Nobody cares about your embarrassing memories as much as you do. The Internet has not fundamentally changed this, we just have to laugh at ourselves a little louder.
  2. Personality is an asset. People actually do not want the sum total of your human existence to be a soulless LinkedIn page. I mean, you might need a LinkedIn if that’s common practice in your field, but just remember that people like people, not brands. I once interviewed a potential intern because she worked on a blueberry farm. Of course, she actually got hired because she was qualified and seemed like someone we’d enjoy working with, plus there are real professional skills from working on a blueberry farm—talk about initiative and teamwork! But being able to actually stand out from a pile of papers is a good thing. More importantly, there’s more to life than work, and you are going to want to spend it as a person, not an idea.
  3. Kill it with excellence. This is my main strategy, to be honest. You can’t always take things back, but you can often drown them out. The Internet is great for making a lot of noise. People are welcome to dig up my nonsense tweets but they’ll have to pass by a fair amount of intelligent conversation to get there too.

Now let’s put that into practice and talk about how to professionalize your digital presence. I used two main tools for this, and they’re the same ones you use in this class: a personal website and a Twitter account.

As I see it, the personal website has three main functions: place, process, and product.

  • Place: the personal website as business card. Many professionals have a website that includes a short bio, links to their social media, and ways to get in contact. Some include a print or digital version of their resume as well.
  • Process: the personal website as blog. Sharing “process” writing looks different for everyone. It can be a reflection on your study abroad travels, a step-by-step description of your latest experiment and results, a discussion of the readings you did for class, or even just stray observations from your day that you find interesting. Personally, I develop ideas best in conversation, and find that blogging is a good way to get feedback. I also use my newsletter, Cartas de América, for this purpose—that’s where I talk to friends and readers about my academic research.
  • Product: the personal website as portfolio. Sharing “finished products” will also look different for everyone. I have two of these: a “writing & media” tab for published writing and podcast episodes, which I link at the bottom of my resume; and a “teaching portfolio” with example lesson plans and a statement of teaching philosophy. For you, it might be a multimedia gallery with art or design samples, a list of relevant coursework and job experience, a web store, or photos of events you’ve planned or projects you’ve collaborated on.

As for Twitter, making it not just my personal thoughtstream but also my professional network was a complicated process I’m not going to get into here, but I will say this. Twitter is a great place to get mentorship, directly or indirectly. Follow people who have your dream job, and watch how they use it. Classroom instruction will often prepare you with the existing knowledge in a field, but online conversation can inform you about what those same experts are working on next. Twitter is a good way to plug into conversations you might not have access to in your daily life as a student. Moreover, it gives you the opportunity to talk with professionals who are where you want to be—and lets you get your name in front of potential future employers, too.

I’m not saying that it’s essential for you to have a personal website and a Twitter to be successful in life (though they help a lot if you want to work in media). I’m just saying it worked for me. You might need different tools depending on your own goals. But I do think that over time, digital literacy is becoming less “impressive” and more “expected.” Even if all this isn’t a “requirement” for your field, it may be an opportunity.

Now that we have an idea of how to balance a personal and professional online presence, I’d like to share with you what I’ve done with mine and talk briefly about public writing as a career. I want to emphasize that I only worked one year as a full time journalist—and actually I spent most of that time producing a magazine, not writing for one. Most of my writing has been published as a side gig while a student, both undergraduate and graduate. This is called “freelancing”, and it paid my rent for several months this past year. (And if you’ve got friends in Charlottesville you know that’s saying something!) I want to highlight that up front to remind you that you’re already in the so-called “real world,” and what you think of as hobbies (like extracurriculars, clubs, fundraising, volunteering, events) are giving you real professional experience that you can and should frame as such.

Freelance writing is a fairly straightforward process: pitch, edit, and publish.

A “pitch” is just media lingo for a proposal: briefly explain what you want to write, why you’re the one to write it, and why this particular editor or publisher is a good fit. Each magazine or outlet has their own process for taking pitches, and usually they’ll post that on their website. But I usually contact individual editors—often people I’ve met through Twitter. In fact, most of my pitches have started as conversations or DMs on Twitter.

The next step, once a piece is accepted, is to discuss expectations with the editor. I always ask for a deadline, a word count, and an idea of my compensation amount and procedures right up front. Some places pay upon publication, others upon acceptance of your piece. I want to pause here to encourage you to resist our collective social allergy to talking about money. This is especially crucial for freelancers, because plenty of places won’t pay you if you don’t explicitly ask to be paid. Young writers are particularly easy to scare with the concept of “writing for exposure.” But writing is work like any other, and you should be paid for it. I only give stuff away on my own terms (i.e. a blog)! This applies not just to writing, but to any professional field—do not be afraid to get and give straightforward money advice.

After writing and submitting, a piece will go through rounds of editing and fact-checking. This usually happens on the magazine’s end, though sometimes a writer will be contacted with fact-checking questions. That’s why it’s important to carefully reference sources in a draft, as though writing academically, even if it’s a totally different medium.

Once the piece is published, celebrate, because that’s awesome. And if you haven’t already, go get paid: invoice the publisher for the agreed-upon amount and keep a record for tax purposes. There are great online templates for invoicing freelance work of any kind, writing or otherwise. Meanwhile, I always make sure to save a PDF copy of my published work, since URLs aren’t stable. I also update my social media, website, and resume with any new pieces that I’ve published (which we call acquiring “clips”).

The last step is crucial: engaging readers productively. That adverb is doing a lot of work. It means I don’t read the comments unless I’m prepared to see cruelty, but I do try to engage in interesting conversations that arise on Twitter in response to the piece. After all, what’s the point of public writing if you don’t actually want to talk to or hear from the public?

I want to share two examples of this process from my own work, that I think exemplify varying degrees of success. Here’s the first one: one time at a work event in DC, I met an editor for The Spectator, which is a conservative British magazine with a significant following. I really like a lot of their arts and culture content, but I don’t personally share the magazine’s politics, so I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to pitch the editor. But I also thought it would be a good opportunity to share my own perspective—and of course to get my name in an old, fancy magazine. So I pitched the editor on something I knew would get his attention: the then- (and still-) collapsing political and economic situation in Venezuela. Everyone likes a story about their political enemy doing poorly, and Latin America happens to be my academic specialty. The article was accepted, and the result was…interesting.

As you can see here, the headline that the editors put on my article was exactly as I expected: look how terrible socialism is. But in my article, I argue that authoritarianism, not socialism, is to blame. My instinct was to take a self-aggrandizing lesson from this: well, when you’re a public writer, you have to be prepared for the public to see whatever they want to see. I think the real lesson is one in humility: you need to own your work. If you want to pick a fight—which I clearly wanted to here—you need to actually do that, instead of trying to sneak in your viewpoint. It’s a matter of respect for your audience.

A more successful example of writing to a specific audience is this article I wrote for my former employer, The American Conservative.

On the left, you have my undergraduate thesis, which you will not be surprised to hear was about soccer (specifically in Argentina). On the right, you have an article I wrote during the summer of 2014, when the World Cup was on. In the article, I used my thesis research to argue that Americans denouncing soccer as European and therefore socialist are playing into a long tradition of denouncing and then adopting foreign customs. Because that’s exactly what happened in Argentina—they denounced soccer as an English import but over time it became the popular obsession it is today. This article was more successful because I wrote with my audience in mind: they would likely be aware of the ongoing World Cup, and may have seen other conservative publications’ negative reactions to it. I took that established knowledge as the point of departure, and added more context. Instead of trying to sneakily insult my audience’s opinion (like I did in The Spectator), I directly engaged and responded to events that my audience would be familiar with.

Most of my public writing career consists of work like this, taking scholarly research and turning it into public writing—and taking work about Latin America and making it accessible for an English-speaking audience.

Now that I’ve shared my own experience with public writing, it’s time to turn it over to you. But I doubt that all of you are in the very specific market of writing for niche magazines about soccer, saints, and Latin American politics, so my roadmap will be of limited use. So I want to start with the basic premise of project management: identify your goals first, and then pick the tools best suited to execute it.

So before we talk about that domain name that you bought, let’s brainstorm. What are your goals for your digital presence? Let’s take five minutes to take notes individually on the following questions:

  • What do you want people to know about you?
  • When someone mentions you in conversation, what do you hope it’s in reference to? What do you hope people associate with you?
  • Whom do you imagine as your target audience—the people reading your website? Family, friends, coworkers, industry experts, potential employers?

Now, let’s look at some examples of what other young professionals have done with their personal websites. These are all people I know in real life, and few of them are professional web designers, so I want you to keep in mind that all of this was done with free or cheap tools to which you also have access.

As you look through a site or two, think about these questions:

  • Based on this person’s website, what do you know about them? What are you likely to associate with them?
  • Whom do you think is this person’s intended audience? How does their website reach that audience?
  • What do you like and dislike about the website? How could it be improved?

(Students noted that Jorge Ariel Escobar used a visual-heavy website to showcase his photography, which matched his apparent goal of marketing his skills. They also reflected on Matthew and Maggie Loftus’s use of their more text-heavy website to keep a blog about their medical practice in a way that was accessible to non-medical professionals, perhaps for a more personal audience since they describe living and working far from home. Finally, we discussed Eric L. Silver’s website as an example of taking a colorful personal tone, even while aiming at a professional audience. After all, I pointed out, if you’re a podcast producer and writer, you want people to spend hours listening to your voice or reading your words. It doesn’t make any sense to excise your personality if that’s exactly what you’re selling!)

Now that you have an idea of your own goals and a few examples to work with, let’s make an action plan for your domain name. Think about these questions:

  • What elements of the example sites you looked at, if any, would help you achieve the goals you laid out in your brainstorm session?
  • Think about the personal website as process (blog), product (portfolio), and place (business card). Which of those three elements would be useful to you, if any?

I’ll leave you with a few recommendations for further reading and research pertinent to the topic. If you have any questions, feel free to ask now or get in touch.

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.

Announcement Event on campus Speaker Series UVA Collaboration

Day of DH @ Fall Academy 2017

While it’s still a little scary to admit that school will be starting in a month, we’re excited about this year’s Day of DH! Join us for a morning of pedagogy and digital scholarship discussion from some of your favorite faculty members. We’re thrilled to have Amanda Visconti (Managing Director of Scholars’ Lab) joining us for the lunch time talk. And don’t forget, there’s the third annual Library/ITS mixer in the afternoon.

Sign up for these sessions and check out all the great offerings in Fall Academy event manager.

9:00-10:00am Breakfast and Mellon and You: Graduate Student Teaching Fellows
Interested in the latest updates on the Digital Humanities grant from Mellon, including pedagogical and research opportunities? Paul Youngman (Professor of German and Chair of the Digital Humanities Committee) explains! Curious about the Graduate Student Teaching Fellows and how you could leverage a UVA graduate student in your class? Hear from Caleb Dance (Assistant Professor of Classics), Suzanne Keen (Dean of the College, Professor of English), and Taylor Walle (Assistant Professor of English) on their experiences with teaching fellows, what worked, what didn’t, and what students and faculty learned.
10:15-11:45am Incentive Grant Winners: WRIT 100
Last year’s Mellon DH incentive grant winners focused on multi-modal composition in their WRIT 100 courses. This group faced unique challenges and opportunities in working with first-year students in a variety of topics. Hear about their experiences, with time to discuss ideas further. Speakers: Sydney Bufkin (Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow, Visiting Assistant Professor of English, Topic: Romantic Comedy), Genelle Gertz (Professor of English, Topic: Faith & Doubt), Sascha Golubuff (Professor of Anthropology, Topic: Terror & Violence), Wan-Chuan Kao (Assistant Professor of English, Topic: The Good Wife), and Kary Smout (Associate Professor of English, Topic: Whole New World).
12:00-1:30pm Digital Humanities Guest Speaker Amanda Visconti: Community Design Takes Time
Amanda Visconti avatar
As we experiment with virtual ways of connecting digital humanities practitioners, what kind of human effort must we invest? I’ll share two recent projects I’ve worked on to explore the (sometimes hidden) work of designing DH communities and supporting the very real humans who make up these groups. Infinite Ulysses is a participatory digital edition of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. A variety of scholarly methods—design, coding, usertesting, blogging, and social science analysis—combined to try out a virtual space for conversations among readers from within and without the academy. The Digital Humanities Slack is an online forum for chatting about all aspects of DH. Over 1,500 people interested in DH from around the world are members, and anyone can join, regardless of experience or affiliation. I’ll use these projects to discuss what has and hasn’t worked for me in audience-nurturing DH projects, and how those experiences are shaping my part in the trajectory of the Scholars’ Lab.
4-5:30pm ITS and Library Mixer for Faculty and Staff
Attend the ITS & library reception for a fun and informative kick-off to the academic year. Meet the librarians and ITS staff and learn about our many resources and services. A wide variety of refreshments will be served. Eat, drink, and be merry with us! Hors d’oeuvres and tea will begin at 4:00. Beer and wine will be served from 4:30-5:30. This event will take place on the main level of Leyburn Library.
DH Pedagogy UVA Collaboration

Why To Teach Students to Not-Read Novels

[Enjoy this guest post by James Ascher, doctoral candidate in the English Department at University Virginia. He came to W&L to give a workshop in Prof. Taylor Walle’s ENGL 335 course through a Mellon-funded collaboration with the Scholars’ Lab at UVA. More information about this initiative can be found here. His post is cross-listed on the Scholars’ Lab blog.]

This post has a simple argument: if you teach novels, you should teach students to not-read novels. Now, before you get concerned, I’m not arguing against teaching literature or avoiding novels altogether; the hyphen in “not-read” means a method, not a rejection of reading. Indeed, my whole argument is based on the idea that students need help returning careful attention to texts, but faced with a deluge of texts, we teachers ought to show them how some professional literary critics not-read, or as others call it “distant read.”

What is a novel anyhow? A reasonable question to ask your students as a semester goes along, since it seems to be a long form of prose that comes to dominate what we now consider literature. If one is to believe Amazon Rankings, then the most read forms of electronic books and the most purchased books remain novels (at least when I wrote this, but I’d be surprised if it changes). This wasn’t always the case and part of the history of the novel is its commercial success. Franco Moretti makes the case clear in his Graphs, Maps, and Trees where he argues that the rise of the novel can be studied using charts, as he does in his previous work Atlas of the European Novel (Moretti’s response, which is more useful.) Building on the idea of charting large-scale phenomena over time, he notices that novels rise (fig. 1).

Fig. 1 rises of novels from Graphs, Maps, and Trees

Fig. 1 rises of novels from Graphs, Maps, and Trees

Something about the form, the markets, the people, or something else means that this particular literary form comes to dominate, so whatever time period you consider, it’s worth considering what was going on.

Its well established that the English novel rose first—the form seems to have been invented there—so even in a non-English classroom, it’s worth considering how those novels were imported into a broader literary discourse. Luckily, the text of most eighteenth-century English novels are freely available online. We have a fortuitous confluence of the intellectually important materials that have become technologically available (a careful reader will note that this is one possible explanation of the novel’s rise as well). But, how can you study the features of a whole genre? An easy way is to read them by putting them on your syllabus, which I encourage, but after reading them you can look back at the whole syllabus and chart the topics that come up.

Fig. 2 Novel topics

Fig. 2 Novel topics

To test this idea, I presented for Taylor Walle in her English 335 “Radical Jane: the Politics of Class, Gender, and Race in Austen’s ‘Polite’ Fiction.” Her course asked students to think about how English novels formed identities and related to the growing issues of British society. It seemed like a great chance to try some topic-modeling across her entire syllabus, the chart was produced with ten topics across the whole class (fig. 2). You can see the lesson here if you want to reproduce the work.

After demonstrating how the method works, we turned to this chart and looked for topics that crossed the texts. The works read for the class and on the chart—from left to right—are Emma, Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, A Sentimental Journey, A Sicilian Romance, and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. You can see, and the class immediately saw, that the topics broke at the boundaries of books. You can see that many of the topics to detect specific books, but a few cross boundaries. Now, the topic used in topic modeling isn’t quite the normal sense of the word “topic.” It means a list of words with probabilities that, when they occur, signal the topic that is that list of words. The topics by their top words are,

time made heart letter moment feelings mind spirits happiness
present long felt thought affection left hope return day love
situation ...

elizabeth darcy bennet jane bingley wickham collins mrs sister
lydia catherine lady lizzy longbourn gardiner father family
netherfield kitty charlotte ...

miss mrs good great dear young make time room house give day
thought friend heard man home replied pleasure hear ...

julia marquis door ferdinand madame hippolitus castle heart duke
heard marchioness length appeared light night discovered time part
count scene ...

man life love woman character mind world society sense opinion
great beauty good present taste nature understanding husband
degree subject ...

emma harriet weston mrs knightley elton thing jane woodhouse miss
fairfax frank churchill body hartfield bates highbury father sort
harriet's ...

fleur paris monsieur poor hand count thou man set told madame good
french thy heart lady tis put made nature ...

elinor marianne mrs dashwood edward jennings sister willoughby
colonel lucy john mother thing brandon ferrars barton middleton
marianne's lady town ...

catherine tilney isabella thorpe morland allen general henry bath
eleanor catherine's brother james father street hour northanger
abbey john captain ...

women men reason virtue sex respect mind duties affection make
heart children power render human virtues true allowed till duty

As far as the course goes, the first topic seems to cover what all these texts have in common, but notice everything isn’t perfectly lined up by novel. The topic beginning “julia marquis door” clearly comes from Sicilian Romance, but also hits on some later chapters of Northanger Abbey. Why would that be? Well, if you know the texts, you realize that some of the same Gothic themes occur in both texts and they use the same words.—“Dear students, can anyone bring us to where in the text this happens?” And, we enter the realm of the normal literature classroom.

By presenting a broad view of the texts, built by a computer algorithm, but out of the words of the text, we invite students to re-read works. Not-reading becomes re-reading and presenting words across the entire corpus puts students into partnership with technology to ask what it is about the form of novelistic prose that makes it popular and speak to social issues. Furthermore, we also encourage students to be critical of the results of computerized analysis. Several students noted that these topics were obvious, having read the works, and that they could have come up with them by hand, which is—of course—true. It’s easy to scale these up beyond what you could do by hand, but seeing how they reflect what is accurately in the text shows that they provide some purchase on truth and also suggests what might be going on with other computerized analyses. One way we imagined it was that the computer applied an obvious rule at a fine level of detail. If we follow the same method, but only for Emma by paragraph, we get a much messier chart (fig. 3), but seeing that chart, students can begin to engage with both literary texts and computers that help them to not read—to ask what it means and what can be done with it.

Emma by chapter

Fig. 3 Emma by paragraph

DH Pedagogy UVA Collaboration

The Long and Messy History of Privacy

[Enjoy this guest post by Shane Lin, a PhD Student in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia. He came to W&L to give a workshop through a Mellon-funded collaboration with the Scholars’ Lab at UVA. More information about this initiative can be found here. His post is cross-listed on the Scholars’ Lab blog.]

I was invited by Brandon Walsh, the Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow at Washington and Lee and a former Scholars’ Lab Praxis fellow of my cohort, to come to W&L as part of an ongoing collaboration between W&L and the Scholars’ Lab. The program pairs UVA graduate students with W&L undergraduate students studying a relevant subject and gives the former the opportunity to expose the latter to new modes of digital scholarship.

I was fortunate to be matched with Brandon’s own English composition class: “Writing in the Age of Digital Surveillance”. My dissertation research is on the history of cryptography and the construction of digital privacy rights from the mid-1970s through the 1990s and involves a text analysis project examining influential privacy-related Usenet newsgroups and mailing list messages, so this seemed like a perfect match.

My first instinct was to give a quick rehash of my work, an introduction to modern cryptography, and a few hands-on exercises in code-making and code-breaking. I could also reuse a demonstration I used from the last time I taught undergraduate students: how to anonymously buy cocaine on the darkweb with cryptocurrency.

Yet none of these approaches seemed quite appropriate. Brandon had done a good job. The syllabus showed that the students had engaged very closely with the ramifications of modern technology on surveillance, drawing on thinkers like Siva Vaidhyanathan and Clay Shirky. My research, though focused narrowly on cryptography, interfaced with so many of the big ideas that the students had already broached. I didn’t want to bore them with historical detail (“scholarly rigor”!) or to just rehash the broader themes they were already well familiar with. Nor did I think that it was entirely appropriate to give a workshop on cryptography tools or on digital research techniques in a writing class. It didn’t seem very useful to throw prime factorization or Python web scraping libraries at these unsuspecting students for a single class.

I was supposed to speak about DH and digital technology, but Brandon assured me that I had wide latitude to choose the topic. So I decided to hardly mention computers at all and talk instead about privacy in the context of the fundamental idea of history: things change. Privacy is not a fixed principle. The abstract notion of privacy rights is a very modern construction and even the practical, everyday conception of physical privacy has radically shifted through history, owing much to the affordances of technologies we may not think of as having much to do at all with privacy.

I started by examining evidence of privacy in ancient Greece and how quantitative research on ruins has shown that prioritization of privacy was built into the architecture of Mediterranean homes. We discussed the rise of public bathing and its shifting practices and cultural significance under the Roman empire. And we spoke of the etymology of the word “eavesdrop” and its political connotations during the rein of Henry VIII. This was followed by a tour through the communications infrastructure of the early American republic and the role of the revolutionary and partisan presses and the post office in democratizing privacy by broadening access to both subversive ideas and the means to convey them. Finally, we discussed the dynamic legal conception of privacy, from the Fourth Amendment’s originally weak protections against searches to the landmark 1967 Katz v. United States decision that codified an expectation of privacy based solely in the realm of ideas.

Digital technology was the end-point of this crooked journey. Though they have dramatically altered our understandings of privacy and the topography of power that supports such conceptions, the rights that these technologies challenged or championed were forged through centuries of history. Focusing on just the most recent debate wrongly implies that digital technologies are uniquely potent mechanisms and that the shifting landscape of privacy in our tremulous times represents a singular historical moment. I thought it was important to put our modern, contested notion of privacy in broader context, a context that includes the changes wrought by aqueducts, fire pits, chimneys, printing presses, bureaucratic organization, and other earlier technologies of decidedly analog mode.