Summer Blockbusters: Sci-fi and Alternate History

It seems the past has replaced the future as Hollywood’s preferred setting for summer’s science fiction blockbusters. Jon Favreau’s screen adaptation of the graphic novel, Cowboys and Aliens imagines an extraterrestrial invasion of the Old West. X-Men: First Class offers a prequel to the popular franchise, tracing Magneto and Charles Xavier’s education and upbringing and (of course) crucial involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

[Image credit: Wikipedia]

For Your Listening Pleasure: History Conversations

A few years back I had the bright idea to launch a second podcast (Digital Campus being the first). It languished. In fact, I only ever managed to record three episodes. The last one was recorded in February 2008.

It’s time to retire the website, but I don’t want to lose what I believe is some valuable content, especially the conversation I had with friends shortly after Roy’s death. So, here it is. The entire run of History Conversations, “an occasional dialogue with historians and history lovers about their interests, their ideas, and their lives in history,” in a single post.


Hello, World

In this pre-inaugural episode of History Conversations, Tom tests out his software and explains a little of the rationale behind the show. Join us in a couple weeks for our first conversation.

Running time: 4:41
Download the .mp3
[audio:http://foundhistory.org/audio/hc_0.mp3]


Episode 1 – Peter Liebhold

Tom kicks off the podcast with a conversation with Peter Liebhold, Chair and Curator of the Division of Work and Industry at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Tom asks Peter about his daily work at the Museum, his straight and not-so-straight road into history, and the role of public history … and pledges not to go another four months between episodes.

Running time: 29:29
Download the .mp3
[audio:http://foundhistory.org/audio/hc_1.mp3]


Episode 2 – Roy Rosenzweig, In Memoriam

In Episode 2 we remember Roy Rosenzweig, friend, colleague and pioneer in all manner of public history. Guests Mike O’Malley (co-founder of the Center for History and New Media and Associate Professor of History at George Mason University), Steve Brier (Vice President for Information Technology and External Programs at the CUNY Graduate Center and co-founder the American Social History Project), and Josh Brown (Executive Director of the American Social History Project and Professor of History in the Ph.D. program at the CUNY Graduate Center) join Tom for a conversation about Roy’s life, work, and long commitment to democratizing history.

Running time: 32:22
Download the .mp3
[audio:http://foundhistory.org/audio/hc_2.mp3]


Episode 3 – A Look Back at Braddock

This month the volunteer historians of the Look Back at Braddock project join Tom for a conversation about the challenges and opportunities posed by local history. Located near the center of Fairfax County, Virginia, Braddock District has changed rapidly in the 20th century, and members of the community have taken it upon themselves to document the changes. Working largely without funding, John Browne, Mary Lipsey, Gil Donahue, and their colleagues have produced a rich oral history collection, a successful book, and a new website. What does it take for a group of committed amateurs to launch and sustain a multi-year history project and what keeps them going? Find out here in Episode 3 of History Conversations.

Running time: 31:42
Download the .mp3
[audio:http://foundhistory.org/audio/hc_3.mp3]

A Pound of History

Starbucks

Does a pound of history amount to a hill of beans? Starbucks seems to think so. It’s pushing the history angle pretty hard in its 40th anniversary marketing campaign.

Hey you! Come to THATCamp NCPH

Here is a partial list of places an easy workday’s drive from Pensacola, FL:

  • Athens, GA
  • Atlanta, GA
  • Auburn, AL
  • Baton Rouge, LA
  • Beaumont, TX
  • Biloxi, MS
  • Birmingham, AL
  • Chattanooga, TN
  • Gainsville, FL
  • Hattiesburg, MS
  • Huntsville, AL
  • Jackson, MS
  • Jacksonville, FL
  • Knoxville, TN
  • Lake Charles, LA
  • Macon, GA
  • Memphis, TN
  • Mobile, AL
  • Montgomery, AL
  • Nashville, TN
  • New Orleans, LA
  • Orlando, FL
  • Oxford, MS
  • Savannah, GA
  • Shreveport, LA
  • Tallahassee, FL
  • Tampa, FL

If you live in or near one of these places, or if you plan to be at the National Council on Public History Annual Meeting next month, or if you just happen to be in Pensacola on the 5th  of April, then you should come to THATCamp NCPH. It is open to everyone—not just people attending NCPH and not just public historians. Anyone with an interest in the humanities, technology, or both can attend for lots of creative unconference goodness. Registration closes tomorrow (March 15th), so hurry up and nab your seat.

Stuff Digital Humanists Like: Defining Digital Humanities by its Values

[A very rough transcript of my talk at the CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative on December 1, 2010. The DHI’s theme for this semester’s program was “What is Digital Humanities?” This is my attempt to answer—or dodge—that question. Many thanks to Matt Gold and all my friends at CUNY for a great event and a thought-provoking discussion.]

Our colleague Bethany Nowviskie might scold me if I didn’t preface this conversation by saying there are different strains of digital humanities. Bethany might define those strains as “old” and “new.” I’d probably divide things along more disciplinary lines, looking to a tradition of digital humanities that comes out of literature and one that comes out of public history. If I had to place myself along these axes I’d probably land where the “new” and “history” strains meet. There are, of course, lots of other ways to slice the pie.

But instead of exploring the genealogies of digital humanities any further, I’d like to switch gears and instead talk about digital humanities as community, or more precisely, as a set of overlapping personal communities, each one centered around individual, self-identified digital humanists. Thought of this way, digital humanities starts to look a lot like a social network. Indeed, in some ways digital humanities increasingly is a social network built, for better or worse, on Twitter’s platform. What follows is a description of digital humanities as seen from my vantage point as a node in that social network.

In as much as digital humanities is an Internet-based social network, it should come as no surprise that digital humanities looks a lot like the Internet itself. Digital humanities takes more than tools from the Internet. It works like the Internet. It takes its values from the Internet.

Jonathan Zittrain does a good job of describing these values in his excellent book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. Among the values Zittrain says are hard coded into the very architecture of the Internet are something he calls the “procrastination principle” and something he calls the “trust your neighbor approach.”

The procrastination principle (or “end-to-end argument”) is a design principle that states that most features of a network should be left to users to invent and implement, that the network should should be as simple as possible and that complexity should be developed at its end points not at its core, that the network should be dumb and the terminals should be smart. This is precisely how the Internet works. The Internet itself doesn’t care whether the data being transmitted is a sophisticated Flash interactive or a plain text document. The complexity of Flash is handled at the end points and the Internet just transmits the data.

There is an analogous value in digital humanities. Innovation in digital humanities frequently comes from the edges of the scholarly community rather than from its center—small institutions and even individual actors with few resources are able to make important innovations. Institutions like George Mason, the University of Mary Washington, and CUNY and their staff members play totally out-sized roles in digital humanities when compared to their roles in higher ed more generally, and the community of digital humanities makes room for and values these contributions from the nodes.

Zittrain points out that the procrastination principle necessarily implies a second principle he dubs the “trust your neighbor approach.” In order to permit innovation from the nodes, the network has to trust that those innovations are benign. Moreover, the network requires one server to pass along another’s packets: when I send an email to a colleague in Australia, I have to trust that my data packets will be passed along by other machines on the network in the several hops they will have to take to get to their destination. The Internet assumes assumes people will be good citizens.

Digital humanities makes some similar assumptions in its commitments to open access, open source, and collaboration. As Bethany has said elsewhere, “how many other academic disciplines or interdisciplines work so hard to manifest as ‘a community of practice that is solidary, open, welcoming and freely accessible’ — a ‘collective experience,’ a ‘common good?'” We allow allow all comers, we assume that their contributions will be positive, and we expect that they will share their work for the benefit of the community at large.

Thus in some important respects, the values of digital humanities proceed directly from the design decisions made by the original architects of the Internet. Surely we don’t always live up to these ideals, but we value them just the same.

Or at least this is the direction my theorizing of the question “What is Digital Humanities?” increasingly takes me. But in the end, I’m not sure that theorizing this question is particularly useful. Fortunately, thinking of digital humanities as a social network provides another vector along which to define it: the stuff around which it coalesces.

Most of you will already have groked the not-so-hidden reference to the Stuff White People Like blog in my title today. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this blog, it was started in 2008 by a blogger named Christian Lander and later turned into a bestselling book by the same title. Along the way, it was imitated by hundreds of other “stuff * like” blogs.

As you can see from this list, the “stuff * like” concept is by now pretty cliched. But the fact that it has been so successful as an Internet meme points to its utility: it is often easier, more comprehensible, and more productive to define diverse and diffuse communities—especially Internet communities—in terms of the things to which they gravitate rather than the abstract conceptual boundaries that separate them from other communities.

Indeed, this insight is not unique to “stuff * like” bloggers. In its current sorry state we forget how successful MySpace once was, but it became for a time the dominant social network largely on the strength of this insight, by identifying music as one of most important things around which social groups congregate. In many respects, MySpace was community or set of overlapping communities built around bands and shared music tastes. IMDB does something similar with movies. Digg does it with web links. Yelp does it with restaurants. Even Apple is directly trying to capitalize on MySpace’s original insight with its dubiously successful new music centered social network, Ping.

It follows, therefore, that if digital humanities is a social network, then one of the things that will help us understand it better is looking at the things around which the network coalesces, the stuff digital humanists like. In this I’d also make one possibly more controversial claim: not only do we like these things better than their alternatives, we like them better than their alternatives because they work better than their alternatives in the real world.

Here are five to start us off:

  • Like: Twitter / Don’t like: Facebook. The first thing we have to mention, which we have mentioned a few times already, is Twitter. The reasons we like Twitter are complex and I won’t pretend to understand them all, but I’ll throw out a few suggestions. First, its “follow” rather than “friend” model is more open, allows for the collaboration and non-hierarchy that the Internet and digital humanities values. Second, and related to this, Twitter is the place where content-creators—journalists, writers, artists, web developers, etc.—tend to hang out. We overlap with those communities, or at least seek to overlap with them, in productive ways. They are the distant nodes from which we hope new innovations will come. Third, Twitter, in the way we use it, is mostly about sharing ideas whereas Facebook is about sharing relationships. Scholars are good at ideas, maybe less so at relationships.
  • Like: Agile development / Dislike: long planning cycles. The second thing I’ll mention is agile development, the philosophy of “releasing early and often,” which we do not only with software/code but also with our ideas and writing when we Tweet, blog, and chat. We do this as good neighbors but also in the hope that releasing our code and ideas will improve with contributions from end points of our networks.
  • Like: DIY / Dislike: Outsourcing. Most of the most successful digital humanities projects are those done by scholar/technologists not those imagined by scholars and implemented by technologists. Likewise, the most successful digital humanists are scholars who know the technology, often those who are self-taught, not ones who seek a client-vendor relationship with technologists. We take this insight to heart in our hiring at CHNM, looking for people with formal training in the humanities and self-taught tech skills.
  • Like: PHP / Dislike: C++. Fourth, and following from the last point, we like PHP not C++. This is another way of saying we like the transparent, easy-to-learn, and simple (if sometimes ham-handed) technologies of the Web more than the more powerful, more sophisticated, more elegant, but less approachable compiled code of the desktop. A focus on getting the most out of simple, transparent, vernacular technologies allows us to keep the door to the field open to new entrants.
  • Like: Extramural funding / Dislike: Intramural funding. In one respect, this may seem obvious: everybody likes grants. In another respect it’s probably going a little too far to say we don’t like intramural funding: it is essential to building and maintaining capacity for our centers and staff. But it seems to me the most successful digital humanities projects are those that result from competitive grant making processes, especially the federal grant making process. Why is this? I can point to at least three reasons: 1) Attracting grant money keeps us innovating, which, like it or not, is a premium in our business. Grants are given for new work, not for more of the same. 2) Writing grants and serving on panels keep us in conversation with the field. We have to keep current and keep in touch with one another to justify our projects to grantmakers and to recommend others’ projects for funding. Increasingly, funding guidelines themselves require collaboration. 3) Unlike much traditional scholarship, which often requires one big deliverable (a book) after years of close-kept study, research, and writing, grant work requires defining and meeting a set of closely timed, concrete deliverables, a mode of work which encourages the kind of agile development so valued by the Internet and digital humanities community.

These things represent a set of shared interests, map onto a set of shared values, and in doing so they identify and define a community. We could identify lots of other things that digital humanists like and dislike. In fact your list may be very different than mine—please let me know in comments. As I said at the outset, this is just the view from my node in the network.

I haven’t “defined” digital humanities beyond defining my community and its values today and I don’t think I need to go any further than that at this point. Elsewhere I have suggested that perhaps digital humanities doesn’t have to answer questions, at least not yet. Likewise I’m not sure we have to define digital humanities yet beyond describing a community and a set of shared values. Our job for now is to continue to work together, and the rest will take care of itself.

Briefly Noted for November 15, 2010

Open Access Week 2010 talk available — The full audio of Mason’s October 20, 2010 Open Access Week panel discussion is now available via our library’s institutional repository. Cliff Lynch of CNI kicks it off at about 4:55. My talk starts at about 31:30 with a shout out to Paul Fyfe’s Open Access Week talk from the day before.

JSTOR Mobile — In case you missed it, JSTOR has released a mobile site. It will be hard to view full page images on the small screen, but the handy “email reference” and “save reference” buttons should make it useful for work in archives and on the go (via ResourceShelf).

Facebook to integrate MS Office Web Apps — The big buzz today is about Facebook’s new messaging service, but what could matter more to teaching, learning, research, and campus life in general is the announcement that documents, spreadsheets, and presentations created in Microsoft Office Web Apps can now be shared and viewed directly within Facebook. Many campuses are considering or have already chosen to sign on to Google Apps. Combined with fact that most campuses IT outfits already know, trust, and use Microsoft products and most students and faculty are already using Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, Facebook integration should make Microsoft’s Live services just that much more attractive and give Google a real run for its money.

Briefly Noted for November 9, 2010

@kfitz and @amandafrench at Bryn Mawr — Friend of CHNM, Kathleen Fitzpatrick and our very own Amanda French will be at Bryn Mawr this Thursday, November 11, 2010 to anchor the National Undergrad Symposium on Digital Humanities. The symposium aims to explore the ways in which “digital publishing can create new openings for undergraduates to enter significant academic conversations.”

Masters Degree in Digital Humanities at UCL — University College, London is offering a new MA/MSc in Digital Humanities. As there are very few degree programs in digital humanities, this is an experiment to watch. According the organizers, the program “will allow students who have a background in the humanities to acquire necessary skills in digital technologies, and will also make it possible for those with a technical background to become informed about scholarly methods in the humanities.” Students will also take advantage of UCL’s location through work placements with libraries, archives, cultural heritage institutions, and digital culture organizations based in central London.

Tenleytown Heritage Trail — I was very happy to return home this week to find nearly twenty new illustrated narrative historical markers in my neighborhood. The Tenleytown Heritage Trail provides a self-guided tour of the “top of the town,” Washington DC’s highest neighborhood. Beginning at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Albemarle Street near the Tenleytown-AU Metro stop, the trail chronicles Tenleytown’s history from its origins as a colonial anchored by John Tennally’s taven, through its key strategic value in the Civil War, to its rich and diverse 20th century history. I hope to get some time to walk the trail before the cold really sets in.

Briefly Noted for November 4, 2010

Jason Scott at MITH — I am extremely bummed I won’t be in town for this. Next week our friends at the Maryland Institute for Technology and the Humanities (MITH) are hosting a two day visit by Jason Scott, computer historian and documentary filmmaker. On Monday November 8th, Scott will introduce a screening of his latest film, and on Tuesday November 9th, Scott will deliver a talk as part of MITH’s Digital Dialogues series. Please see the full announcement for more details. The events are open to the public (that means you).

Geoffrey Rockwell on Method and Theory — In this post about a recent spate of “cluster hires” in digital humanities at places like the University of Iowa and Georgia State University, Geoff Rockwell notes: “The digital humanities, in part because of the need for practicioners with extensive skills, tend to look undertheorized, and it is. It is undertheorized the way any craft field that developed to share knowledge that can’t be adequately captured in discourse is. It is undertheorized the way carpentry or computer science are. To new researchers who have struggled to master the baroque discourses associated with the postmodern theoretical turn there appears to be something naive and secretive about the digital humanities when is mindlessly ignores the rich emerging field of new media theory. It shouldn’t be so. We should be able to be clear about the importance of project management and thing knowledge – the tacit knowledge of fabrication and its cultures – even if the very nature of that poesis (knowledge of making) itself cannot easily (and shouldn’t have to) be put into words. We should be able to welcome theoretical perspectives without fear of being swallowed in postmodernisms that are exclusive as our craft knowledge. We should be able to explain that there is real knowledge in the making and that that knowledge can be acquired by anyone genuinely interested. Such explanations might go some way to helping people develop a portfolio of projects that prepare them for the jobs they feel excluded from. Put another way, there is nothing wrong is valuing thing knowledge as long as we also recognize the value of theoretical critique.”

@alexismadrigal unpacks the Google Books search algorithm — Writing for the Atlantic Monthly, Alexis Madrigal provides insights into how Google indexes book data and uses (or misuses) library metadata.

The long haul: Why do academics take so long to hire?

I got in a little bit of a friendly dust up yesterday on Twitter when I asked, “As I watch colleagues embark on the 2011 #jobmarket I have to wonder, why on earth does it take humanities departments 6+ months to hire?”

Needless to say, I received a lot of answers. I won’t list all of them but I think the following distillation does them justice:

  1. Because the pool of applicants is large;
  2. Because the hiring process follows the academic calendar;
  3. Because faculty members are busy people and search committee activities must be scheduled around other commitments;
  4. Because we take time to read candidates’ scholarship as well as their resumes;
  5. Because tenure track decisions have long term consequences;
  6. Because hiring depends on building consensus across a department.

All of these reasons make sense to me. I’m just not sure they answer my question. They seem more like answers to the question of “how” it takes so long to hire rather than “why” it takes so long to hire.

(At this point, I should disclose that I have never formally participated in a tenure-track search process either as a candidate or a search committee member, so some of what follows may be totally naive and off base. If so, I apologize. But I have watched the process for years from a short distance as a friend of both candidates and committee members. I’m also a research faculty member and manager who does a fair bit of hiring himself, so if nothing else, I may have a valuable near outsider’s perspective to contribute. I hope so.)

Why, for example, does the hiring process have to follow the academic calendar? Couldn’t we shorten it to six weeks in December and January or schedule it around spring break or do it in the summer (paid, of course)? The answer comes back that we can’t shorten the process because the pool of applicants is so large. But there is a circularity to this line of thinking. If departments didn’t all hire on the same schedule, if there were multiple (necessarily shorter) hiring seasons, then some people would already know in September that they had a job and wouldn’t enter the November round at all. Still others could skip both the summer and winter seasons and wait until spring. Interview scheduling and campus visits would be made much easier as well. It seems obvious that if there wasn’t just *one* hiring season, there wouldn’t be so many candidates in any given season. This in turn would put paid—to some extent at least—to reasons and three and four. If the season was shorter and there weren’t so many candidates, it wouldn’t take up so much committee member time and energy either in meetings or in reading.

There are other questions one might ask; each of these reasons has problems when you dig a little deeper. For example, there are lots of busy people in lots of important jobs who juggle serving on hiring committees with normal work commitments. All small and medium sized businesses do their own hiring, and even at big companies with professional human resources departments, executives are heavily involved in making important hiring decisions. How do they manage the process so it doesn’t overwhelm their other work? Likewise, lots of hiring decisions in lots of fields have major, long term consequences—civil engineering comes to mind—but I’m guessing those fields usually manage to hire people in less than six months. At the very least they don’t stack the deck against a quick hire in advance, setting things up so that it can never take less than five or six months. What are they doing to insure they’re making safe, yet speedier hiring decisions?

Mainly, if we are going to accept any of these practices—including reading everyone’s scholarship and building consensus across departments—as valid answers to the “why” question rather than the “how” question, we first need to know whether they actually lead to better hiring decisions. I’m not sure we know with any certainty that they do. How many applicants’ scholarship do we really have to read to narrow it down to two or three? Is trying to get the bulk of the department membership on board an exercise in futility that causes more bad blood than it avoids?

Finding answers to these questions may lead us right back to where we started, but they’re worth asking on the chance that they could help us do a better job of placing the right people in the right jobs at lower cost and with fewer headaches. When every year I hear the same complaints from all sides about the academic hiring process, “the way we’ve always done it” just doesn’t satisfy as an answer.

Briefly Noted for November 3, 2010

@sramsay goes on recordSteve Ramsay argues against anonymity online, asking faculty “to consider whether it’s appropriate for someone who is paid to be a teacher and an intellectual to behave like an Anonymous Coward on Slashdot” and reminding us that we “are not political dissident[s] fearing reprisals from a hostile government.” Something good to keep in mind whenever we start to take ourselves too seriously.

What’s a bigger deal than a $300 smartphone? A free smartphone — T-Mobile is offering the LG Optimus T, a more or less full featured Android device for free with a two year contract. This could really change things, not only for Android, but for those of us building mobile websites and apps for teaching, research, and cultural heritage. For just the price of a monthly contract ($79 for 500 talk minutes and unlimited SMS and Internet), we’ll soon see smartphones in most of our students’, colleagues’, and visitors’ pockets.

Tomboy Notes — It’s the little things that make good software. One of the best little things about Linux/Gnome/Ubuntu is Tomboy, a simple little note-taking package that just plain works. I’m only running Linux about half-time these days—alas, I’ve been forced back to dual-booting Windows for MS Office, easy projector support, etc.—but I’m still running Tomboy full time and syncing across platforms with help of the gtk-sharp and Ubuntu One. There’s a Mac version too. If you’re searching for a good note taking tool, I highly recommend dipping your toe into the Linux bathtub and giving Tomboy a try.

Failing Quickly at Google — James Fallows’s much discussed Atlantic Monthly article on Google and the future of journalism contains this little gem from Josh Cohen of Google News: “We believe that teams must be nimble and able to fail quickly.” Something for managers of teams working in digital humanities and cultural heritage to remember.