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Neo-Vic DH writing project: week 1

Week 1 of NaNoWriMo is now complete, and as I mentioned in my planning post, I’m using the month as an opportunity to pursue a digital humanities, neo-Victorian project that I’ve had on my mind rather a while: an intertextual, part-epistolary rewriting of Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun in the style of Oscar Wilde.

NaNo has been going pretty well this week. I’m on target, in terms of word count, so I thought that I would take a little time last weekend to think about the digital presentation of the piece. My aim from the beginning was to use Scalar to present the project as a whole, setting up multiple paths through the content that would otherwise be common fare in a new critical edition.

It took me two attempts to put up the content that I had already produced (some letters, some chapters, and some editorial commentary). The first attempt I made on my own, existing Scalar account. However, as I began to think through how I might use hypothes.is to present editorial inventions like explanatory footnotes, it occurred to me that the project itself might be better presented by the ‘editor’ (my meta-narratorial invention). A quick gmail account later, and I was starting all over again on a new Scalar account.

In terms of the experience using Scalar itself, I will say that it is pretty non-intuitive, and as yet the product is not the most attractive. The individual pages themselves (in the “basic” Scalar 2 layout) resemble the pages that I’m used to working on via COVE’s annotation.studio site. There is something off about the way that text is arranged on the white of the “page” that isn’t quite as I would like, although it does at least make space for the bulk of the annotation bar in the margin, when that’s activated. I’m fully willing to accept that this is in part a personal failing, and that a little more work will lead to me improving it.

The other challenge, which I quickly overcame when I started from scratch, was the need to have a fairly strong visualisation of the content ahead of time. Setting up pages and paths was something that I played around with quite a bit before I identified that I wanted at least three distinct paths: the novel itself (let’s face it, many readers skip the critical apparatus of a scholarly edition anyway!); the correspondence itself; and an arrangement in chronological order of when sections were written (i.e. letters and chapters intermixed). Initially, I wanted to have an “editorial” path too, using the comment type in Scalar to present the editor’s “footnotes”. However, it seemed difficult to position those with the same sort of accuracy as I wanted, interlinking words, sentences and paragraphs with the commentary, and that’s when I decided to employ hypothes.is instead.

The result, I suspect, is going to resemble quite closely the vision for annotated editions on COVE, but with multiple routes through the material. In a way, I’m slightly disappointed by that outcome, as it might imply a lack of imagination on my part! However, I do take heart from the fact that, despite quite a different set of intentions, I’ve come to use a lot of similar apparatus, as it suggests that COVE is making the best, most intuitive use of the range of tools at digital humanists’ disposal.

Because I’m not quite persuaded by the pages’ appearance yet—I need to think more about what media, if any, I want to embed, and their layouts may therefore change—I don’t want to make the project public just yet, although I will try to do that in a week or so. In the meantime, here’s a Scalar visualisation of the content and paths that I’ve uploaded so far!


Are programming languages languages? A question about digital humanities CVs

It’s that time of year, and I’ve been refreshing my academic CV to see how it’s taking shape. Although I’m a part-time PhDder and work full-time in another industry, I try to be as active as I can in academic endeavours, so there’s plenty of updates and tweaks to be made.

Taking a look at some colleagues’ CVs for tips and hints on structure, etc., it began to strike me that those of us who are interested in digital humanities face a challenge: where do our programming skills belong?

Sometimes, it’s easy. There is a role or project that involved particular development work. But increasingly people put HTML, or CSS, or Java alongside French or Japanese, with a “fluent” beside them (I’ve yet to see anyone using an ILR or CEFR scale marking, though). The first time I saw this I smiled a little smile to myself. Well, we’ve got to try to get these things on the CV somehow. But after a while, I started to wonder: when we say this, do we mean it? As a literary scholar, I have strong feelings about the fact that words mean things. And as a spouse of a professional developer, I feel sceptical.

What does it mean when we say we are “fluent” in a programming language? Is coding ever so smooth, graceful and effortless as speaking or writing in a ‘natural’ language? Do we ever code easily and accurately in the same way as we might speak our mother tongue?

The rate of bugs or errors in your average professional code—the type produced by developers at Apple or Google—is about 1 every 10 lines. If one were to have a typo or lexical error in every 10 sentences of written work, one’s supervisor would raise a red flag!

Now, perhaps we may quibble about whether a line of code is equivalent to a sentence (or, indeed, the comparison to a mother tongue), but I think the point stands. The rate of error is much higher in professional “fluent” code than in academic written prose.

Similarly, professional coders do not for the most part store the whole or majority of the language intuitively in their brain in the same way as one’s mother tongue. The reliance on coding reference materials, such as Stack Overflow, is higher than the reliance on linguistic ones, such as dictionaries. Tales of developers finding a perfect and helpful answer on such repositories, only to discover that they themselves submitted it years before, are legion. What would be the equivalent in terms of a ‘natural language’? Stumbling across the idea of using consonance to convey a certain effect, having forgotten that it existed?

All in all, reading “fluent in HTML” on an academic CV strikes me as a category mistake. And it makes me wonder about their French, too…

Why are millenials workaholics?

Millenials are workaholics, research suggests. They are more likely to give up paid leave, and to see themselves as “work martyrs”, than previous generations, and the research seems to stand up to removing the variable of age from the equation. But why?

The HBR blog reporting on this latest piece of research ties the trend to an increase in narcissism, in a belief that one is an important person, as well as increased economic vulnerability: higher levels of personal debt, unforgiving housing markets, etc. So, it’s a combination both of a sense of self-importance and a fear of irrelevance? I guess millenials have got a lot of issues to work through…

I don’t really think of myself as a millenial, but technically I am (1981 feels like a really early start-date, demographers!). So I thought I would write something about loving work, and how we learn to love it.


Teaching without a class


Yesterday, Amazon announced its steps into the online education market with Amazon Inspire. The growing expansion of online education, from the early days of VLEs to MOOCs in all disciplines and languages, has me thinking a lot about teaching and how it is increasingly escaping the physical classroom.

As a PhD student, ordinarily I would be expected to undertake some teaching, in particular if I aim to enter academia after I earn my PhD. As a part-time, long-distance student with a full-time job, however, the reality is that regular teaching isn’t possible, even if my institution’s admin team were working proactively to try to make it happen for students in my situation (spoiler alert: they’re not).

Being a sometime MOOC fan, and now working with Dino Felluga and his team on BRANCH (Britain, Representation, and Nineteenth-Century History), I’ve been thinking about how digital media might make it possible to teach outside the traditional classroom.

Ordinarily, we think of online academic provision from a learner’s perspective: how well are their needs met, how robust is the learning and examining process, how does such an education compare with traditional university experiences? However, what if we diverge for a moment from models of academic provision that remain centred on traditional institutions?

MOOCs mostly follow traditional course structures with weekly homework, readings complemented by video lectures, often delivered with PowerPoint, and forums to replace office hours, where teaching assistants answer queries. Coursera restricts itself to organisational “partners”—for-profits, universities, not-for-profits, etc.—and edX does the same. That means that, for teachers, MOOCs do not remove barriers but reinforce the priority of academic institutions over the individual educators that make them up.  Academics, particularly PhD students and ECRs often talk about blogging, online-only journals, etc., as a way to get our scholarship out there, but what about the opportunities for getting our pedagogy out there too? The articles on BRANCH, for instance, are certainly educative, but they are scholarship, not pedagogy. 

Lots of lecture courses from traditional universities make their way onto YouTube or Udemy as platforms, but it seems that the possibility for cross-fertilisation of ideas—between students, students and lecturer, etc—is limited. Such platforms are “stuck on transmit”. TED Talks, although maligned, feels less staid, but the form is much the same from an online perspective (the live experience may be different). Discussion forums underneath videos are not much different to comments under news article, and we all know what’s said about those.

Teaching online is an increasingly prevalent mode of educating that merits PhD students’ and ECRs’ attention. What is expected of us now as teachers, especially in cases where traditional teaching opportunities might be closed to us because of the changing HE landscape? I don’t have an answer to this, but I do have some more questions:

What are some of the ways that you have seen effective teaching being done outside traditional environments, in particular online? What sort of distinction is there now between online scholarship and online pedagogy? Is the act of making scholarship freely available and accessible—to those who can engage with it—an act of pedagogy? Are attempts at online pedagogy—particularly those that are fairly low-engagement for the teacher, as MOOCs often are—inevitably less effective than classroom-based teaching? Will moves towards more online or open-access teaching detached from ‘real’ (classroom) teaching only exacerbate an attitude in academia of treating PhDs and ECRs as contingent labourers by replacing more of our traditional work? Would promoting one’s ability to teach through, for example, one-off Prezis/YouTube videos or Udemy courses actually be counterproductive for a job candidate?


A success for Let Toys be Toys

As an avid social media user, when I see something astonishing and objectionable, my first thought is Twitter, for better or for worse. Thanks to the team that operate the Let Toys be Toys campaign account, however, and a very responsive PR team running the California Academy of Sciences‘ account, I’ve had a minor success, and I’ve put together a quick Storify to commemorate the occasion.

Library of Babel: a Borgesian black comedy made real

Borges’ short story ‘The Library of Babel’ was one of my favourite pieces from my sophomore lit-crit tutorial, so I’m weirdly excited by the fact that someone has now devised a website that can make it a “reality”. Programmer and author, Jonathan Basile was stirred by the resonance between Borges’ description and the capabilities of modern technology and surprised to find the code not already written, so he set out to produce a digital version of the library, which re-mediates Borges’ library. Once an imagined place whose literary content could only be inferred by an imaginative reader, it is transformed into an online on-demand production of literary content abstracted from the physical sense of a library. 

On the home page, as soon as one hovers over a link, the ‘counter’ of letters begins to whirr, rendering the word one had chosen quickly gibberish, but also exactly the same (because the ‘About’ page will be the end result of a link, even when the link text itself has been transformed into ‘Abqkj’). The changing digital text oddly offers a more fixed link between the symbolic and the real than the printed text of a short story’s page might.

The LibraryofBabel.info ‘About’ page notes that the site does not, in fact, “contain” the full Library of Babel, but only a small proportion of it (all permutations of 3,200 characters, rather than 1,312,000 characters). The question becomes, however: If the necessary algorithms are already there (as in, they could be written), is the website, in fact, as complete as Borges’ textual library? The website might be said to “contain” the full Library, but render only part of it accessible, without compromising the Library’s integrity. Indeed, the website adopts this claim elsewhere, such as on the ‘Reference Hex’ page: “Borges has set the rule for the universe en abyme contained on our site” (emphasis mine). 

Not content with a digital re-mediation, the website offers helpful suggestions for how readers might engage with the website, including the use of a screen reader. The screen reader itself being programmed with grammatical rules would not offer the same content, however, but a re-mediated version distinct from the version that might result from my reading the text (to myself or to others, aloud or mentally). Engaging us in interpretative activities, LibraryofBabel.info playfully suggests, following Borges, that the website and its forums should be a place for conducting and archiving research: “We encourage those who find strange concatenations among the variations of letters to write about their discoveries in the forum, so future generations may benefit from their research.” These include searches such as “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare”, which the searcher records with “Doesn’t have a ‘Hamlet'” “but it does have a ‘hrlbikst’. Good enough for me!”, or searches for ASCII art, led by Basile himself. 

The forum also contains spontaneous outpourings such as, “I think it’s incredibly important that [the site] never be taken down”, or “So incredibly happy that you brought this into being”.* It is fascinating the sort of emotional response that the promise of comprehensiveness can generate, even when what is on offer is comprehensive gibberish. Borges’ blackly comedic take offers a thought-experiment, but LibraryofBabel.info claims to offer a fully fledged product, monumentalising the Library. Whereas Borges offers an exemplar of how human interpretation might constitute reality, Basile’s website enacts human interpretation in a guided form. “Anglishise” is an option on any page, highlighting English words and drawing (suggestive but meaningless) allusions from the overlapping of words. 

* Luke Chrisinger, 14 May 2015; Christian Arthur, 17 May 2015: http://libraryofbabel.info/forum/?topic=lob.

Ben Goldacre and Big Pharma

In my review post on Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma, I mentioned that Goldacre was suffering from some quite negative responses from the industry (as one would expect). There is now a fascinating article on the New Stateman website about their response. In essence, the wonderful Helen Lewis (@helenlewis) reviewed the book a few weeks ago, prompting a letter in response from the CEO of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (Stephen Whitehead). The response claims that Goldacre is “stuck in a bygone era where pharmaceutical companies wine and dine doctors in exchange for signing on the dotted line” and that best practice is being followed by the bulk of the industry. Goldacre’s reply is reproduced in the article. As you might expect, he doesn’t take it lying down!