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A Sentimental Education in the Humanities, Part I

Abstract

The first part of a two part post on the importance of play and ephemerality in digital humanities. Considering the rapid rate of interface rot and technological change, I argue that the most important work we can do as scholars—charged with the interpretation and stewardship of our collective pasts—is to learn the skills necessary to harness the means of production of our own knowledge. This 'sentimental education' is even more important, I argue, for those who wish to embark on long-lasting projects.

[Last year I accepted 4 invitations to lecture in 4 different cities (New Haven, College Station, Nashville and Pittsburgh) on 4 different subjects… without noticing they were all on the same weekend. Considering I’m unlikely to have an actual lecture series anytime soon, I decided to make the best of the occasion and rolled my own by connecting the talks around an overarching narrative. What you see below is more or less what I said, emphasis on less; or even better, what you see below was inspired by the recent adventure.]

Prologue

At Yale, I asked, “Can Aimé Césaire survive the 21st Century?” To be honest, I don’t know the answer to that question; I just would prefer him to, and for very good reasons. Amongst the bounties that Césaire has left us I include poems which can transform us into starfish—beyond the awkward Cartesian Man high on his rational soul, divorced from his organs; poems which open up a more capacious brand of universalism; poems which reconcile dreams and history and rescue the drowned archive of its losers; dramas that subtly train us to face the incommensurable in politics; political speeches that balance prudence with resistance; and, the crucial idea that de-colonization must be holistic and perpetual.

He surely may survive through more familiar mechanisms. For the last few centuries, these include: critical editions, author papers, mass paperbacks, the curriculum, trans-mediation and performance. My question then refers to the new mechanisms that have come to live side-by-side with older ones, in the process inflecting them, and by extension, the way collective memory carries on now and in the foreseeable future. Our new online critical editions, for example, allow for a different kind of deformation and apparatus than their analog counterparts. Author papers can now be imaged and shared more broadly with resolutions that double as magnifying glasses; mass paperbacks are now kindled and webbed in various ways; the possibilities for re- and trans-mediation have multiplied, or at the very least, have become more democratized; and of course, performance now may involve social media, games or code. In these new formations, can Césaire be iterated enough times, in enough contexts, to cross the threshold into the 22nd Century, still standing as a major beacon of anti-colonial possibility? I don’t know. We have a few obstructions to overcome.

Though their name is legion, I predictably focused on five obstructions: The © wars—preventing us from producing open digital editions; migrant archives—dispersing the control over Césaire’s material traces to many incongruent actors; jealously guarded, my-precious archival discoveries—which must be kept secret lest someone sneaks in that article before you do; the hold of Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat over the production of our knowledge; and finally, graceless death—hanging over us, signaling utter disappearance of interface and effort, or worst, fueling the libido of the undead.

To these obstructions I opposed the tactical prototype, five of them actually—not in a one-to-one relationship to the obstructions, but as tentacled approaches: Genetic deformance—to allow us to create hypothetical génétique editions on-the-fly based on bibliographical cues, i.e. make-your-own genesis for works under copyright; the block catcher, to rediscover the repetition of blocks of text within a series of disconnected corpora; the legogram—to map a social field of repetition for any given work; the researchathon—to distribute bibliographic research and publication across co-located teams willing to stick it out on pizza and coffee; and finally, a multimodal sand-clock—a digital essay whose sole purpose in life is to die gracefully. Many more prototypes are possible to march forward, and of course, many more obstructions to hold us back. After all, five anythings are bound to be somewhat random.

The point of the talk, for me at least, was to highlight the need for the forward transformation of the ideas, documents and authors we are called upon to steward. “The point is to change it,” said Marx, and McGann changed it when he published The Point is to Change It, like Pierre Menard changed the Quixote by re-writing it verbatim from scratch. The ‘it’ here are the texts. Articles and monographs won’t do by themselves. The point is to remake the texts. And if we are to construct a new republic of letters—there, where our new attentions dwell—a republic that can include Césaire and survive 5, 50, 500 obstructions—while going about it justly and penny-wise, one of the best things to do for now, I concluded, is to play. While the obstructions fade, crumble, evaporate and die without grace, we to play—not like Hamm in Beckett’s Endgame, whose idea of play required Clov to do the work, but like the kids back home reclaiming dusty streets to play la plaquita, a replacement for cricket, played with expired license plates, milk carton mitts and a broomstick, or like

Robin Hood and Little John walkin’ through the forest, laughin’ back and forth at what the other’ne has to say…

Act 1: Tinkering with social contracts.

In the question & answer session at Yale, I had a chance to hint at my next topic: teaching others how to play. I have been arguing for some time with Dan O’Donnell—who co-chairs Global Outlook::Digital Humanities with me—that the techne of building scholarly networks should be examined and shared. Thinking scholarly networks, when you have a hand in helping to build them, has one foot squarely in the territory of social engineering, or said otherwise, the architecture of societies. If we were to go there, why stop at engineering networks of far away scholars? Why not also tweak the student-teacher social contract—find the sweet spot at which we all become permanent students and teachers, à la Spivak? And what of our rigid divisions of labor? Why not shuffle efforts, embed ourselves in the roles of others to learn the whole? Why not borrow construction materials from neglected social structures? Barn raising, street corner dominos?

We know that a substantial part of current digital humanities research and training is happening outside of the curriculum—both in terms of registered courses and professional reward mechanisms—like children’s play, during recess. Alas, we should be under no illusions: the push to playgrounds comes with a discrediting of some forms of academic labor; and some get to play, while others, discredited down other pipelines, don’t.  While we linger there, though, in that extra-curriculum, pseudo-curricular societies are taking shape, and we may yet have a hand in shaping them before they, İnşallah, become our curriculum.

How lovely that the children get to play! Look how they incorporate learning into their games… Wait, what’s that? The children have taken over the school!… Sorry, I digress.

In my current practice, given certain freedoms attached to my official role as ‘coordinator,’ I try to design or join projects, events, formats that allow for some form of semi-calculated reconfiguration of the academic social contract, opening up alternative spaces for sharing can-do and know-how. This comes from the conviction that at this juncture, when it comes to digital humanities, emphasizing learning over projects is, paradoxically, one of our best bets against the rapid rate of interface rot, and not so paradoxically, against the insistence of stultifying labor structures in the academy. Said more banally, it’s the people, stupid. The more humanists that can understand current mechanisms of knowledge production, dissemination and preservation, the better we will all be. Bonus points if we can get a sizable chunk who can understand and harness the mechanisms of our collective memories.

Earlier in the year, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with David Seaman, who is now Associate Librarian for Information Management at Dartmouth University. I met David almost a decade ago, while he was still directing the e-text center at the University of Virginia, the same center that would later morph into the Scholars’ Lab. I remember sharing a version of the paradox with him on this occasion, “the most we can do for sustainability right now is to teach people.” He thought about it for a while, and then admitted he was struck by the fact that of all the accomplishments of the e-text center, its most enduring contribution to the digital humanities was the people that began their journeys there. I was one of them.

I had been a “computer kid” of sorts all my life. I was certainly the first kid to own one in my neighborhood in Santo Domingo in 1982—a Commodore 64, with all its attendant gaming magazines and the inevitable painstaking transcription of assembly arcade games. My second job as a teenager was working for the database center of the Dirección Nacional de Control de Drogas, our drug laws enforcement agency. Many computers and odd jobs later, now a graduate student in the English department at the University of Virginia, I end up at the e-text center with the dream of an online library of Caribbean literature—no clue about the history of humanities computing, or design, or digital arts, or how to actually do anything with computers at this point beyond clicking interfaces and typing prose inside boxes.

I was introduced to TEI at the center. The first and only title we would work on was one of our most important sources on Caribbean piracy in the 17th century and the progenitor of the popular genre. The Bucaniers of America: or, A true account of the most remarkable assaults committed of late years upon the coasts of the West-Indies, by the bucaniers of Jamaica and Tortuga, both English and French can still be found on the UVa etext viewer. Although a brief effort was made to get me to tag the text, the tagging was done by other student workers. You see, this was being done not for me, but for Professor of French A. James Arnold, who was the Principal Investigator.

In 2008 I caught a lucky break and stumbled upon a manuscript of a play by Aimé Césaire that was unknown to scholars and publics, and which effectively changed the way we understand his early period. Without warning, I began encoding it in TEI with the hopes of one day having a digital edition. I had very little sense of direction, and all I could hope to do was convert the XML into static HTML pages using some rudimentary XSLT skills. At this time I was also becoming a heavy user of Juxta to help me with my work as co-editor of the emphatically print critical/genetic edition of Césaire’s semi-complete works. Césaire’s textual condition was a challenge for Juxta, and that was a good thing. A few years of encoding and breaking Juxta, I started hovering around the Scholars’ Lab (Bethany Nowviskie, Wayne Graham, et crew), NINES (Andrew Stauffer and Dana Wheeles) and Jerry McGann, until I nagged them all enough to give me fellowships and fellowship. At the Scholars’ Lab I got in with a project to create digital ‘forgeries’ of manuscripts using naught but HTML and CSS—such was my TEI fatigue. At NINES, I wanted to get Juxta to catch repetition before difference in order to deal with Césaire’s incessant transpositions. With Jerry, Bethany and Andy, I just let my imagination run loose.

Why am I giving you these biographical details? Because as you soon will see, it was a semi-calculated reconfiguration of the academic social contract, on the margins of the curriculum, that made all the difference for me. There, at the tail end of my graduate career is when my truest sentimental education in the humanities began.

In 2011 I joined the first run of the Praxis Program. The brain-child of Bethany Nowviskie and the Scholars’ Lab team, and I quote from the site,

The Praxis Program funds a team of six University of Virginia graduate students from a variety of disciplines to apprentice with the Scholars’ Lab each academic year. Under the guidance of Scholars’ Lab faculty and staff, they design and create a full-fledged digital humanities project or software tool.

Our cohort—the first cohort—met on Mondays with the Scholars’ Lab team for two hours, and we had eight hours each week to work on our project. Our project, or tool, was to be called Prism—a name that would take on tragicomic connotations soon enough. (As you can see on the back of my laptop, our logo is much nicer than theirs). Our Prism was to be a tool to “crowdsource interpretation.” Given a poem, a crowd of readers, and a few colored markers with predetermined meanings—say a green marker for metaphors and a red marker for metonym—how could we visualize how different readers interpret the text? Our Prism was to be an app to allow us to do just that.

During the first semester we were introduced to a range of topics and skills required to build our Prism: project management, design, data models, programming, etc. During the second semester we started building, and build it we did. The cohort that came the year after us enormously improved on our work, and the tool you see today is the result of our relay race.

Prism is great, love that thing, but the Praxis Program was and is so much more than just training on how to build “a full-fledged digital humanities project or software tool”: We were funded to learn and collaborate across disciplines, working side-by-side with a team of professionals on a project we would all own, and receive equal credit for. And here’s the key: Everyone in our team was exposed to everyone else’s roles before the division of labor happened, letting us find our way “to the vocation wherewith ye have been called,” without losing sight of each other. This model of apprenticeship—neither cathedral, nor factory—allowed for our taking ownership, in the truest sense, of our Prism. If we academics find ourselves today alienated from the means of production, distribution and preservation of our knowledge, one important reason is our premature adoption of the division of labor that turns us into ‘content providers,’ or as some jerks out there call us, ‘content monkeys.’

Prompted by our shared ownership, a sentimental lesson of sorts set in against the need to critique compulsively. We learned instead to adapt our critical impulses in medias res to the limitations, aptitudes and deadlines of our fellows. The socratic impulse which had served us well until the tail end of our graduate careers, was giving way to a love supreme—our own transition from hard bop to modal.

After the pilot year of the Praxis Program was over, I was hired at Columbia University Libraries to help them build some tents for digital humanities. One of my first tasks was to help design a model for professional development for my team—the Humanities and History Division (a.k.a the subject and reference librarians)—centered around digital humanities. After flirting with the idea of doing a survey, or worst, having the developers at our neighboring Center for Digital Research and Scholarship do all the platform work, the team bravely embraced the Praxis model and agreed to work on all aspects of a project together. Thus we set out to build a Digital History of Morningside Heights (our neighborhood in New York), using the Omeka platform. Two years later, some stubborn library divisions are beginning to thaw: we work closer with the IT line, we have embedded ourselves in projects and classrooms, we collapsed reference for digital, analog and the in-betweens, and much more. But you don’t need to take my word for it. Our team has left a trail of breadcrumbs on our process blog, Breaking the Code: The Developing Librarian Project.

Besides the #devlib project, I have been able to deploy mini-versions of the model in other environments to good effect, but not all iterations of the praxis playbook have worked. In fact, and I think tellingly, the one time that I tried to deploy it in the graduate classroom it failed dramatically. In the Fall of 2013 I was invited to teach the Graduate Seminar, which moonlights as the introduction to methodology in the English and Comparative Literature Department at Columbia. Traditionally, the class has been taught as a theory survey course, very differently than its counterpart at the University of Virginia, which focuses on the archive. I was asked to teach a combination of the traditional course and “the digital dispensation.” I went about it very enthusiastically in the best of DH spirits: we would write the syllabus together, flow into teams, polish our DIY skills, and all the while, read some of the brightest critics of the 20th century “for the method.” Knowing the calls by Bethany Nowviskie and others to leverage precisely this class to get graduate students up to speed on the basics of digital scholarship, I felt a particularly strong sense of mission going in.

Nope.

My students felt rudderless; I was “asking too much of them;” I was “mean,” or worst, “chaotic.” The same democratic spirit that had transformed me at the end of my graduate career was frustrating my graduate students at the beginning of theirs. Praxis is not to blame, of course. As we can learn from the diverse models in the Praxis Network, this cat can be skinned in many ways. The key is to make sure the model fits the environment, and I did not adapt the model appropriately to the graduate classroom at Columbia, partly as a result of my failure to recognize student expectations, partly as a result of the enormous pressures that first years are under. The lesson was learned: you can never be too careful when you’re playing with social contracts.

To be continued… or as the buzzers say these days, You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!

Last Updated 4 years ago


Citation

Alex Gil, « A Sentimental Education in the Humanities, Part I », Blogs, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on March 23, 2015. Full URL for this article

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