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Final Project, Final Thoughts

               This semester has been a series of “firsts” for me. I’ve had my first experiences with remote classes, digital text analysis, and voice acting; it’s my first semester in a graduate program and my first semester at CUNY, and of course, this semester has included my first attempt at writing a grant request.

First and foremost, this class’ final project forced me out of my comfort zone; very far out of my comfort zone, in fact. I don’t know how many were in a similar situation to me when the project was assigned, but going into the project, I had for most intents and purposes, no experience in the realm of grants. In all honesty, the closest I’d come to reading or writing grants was reading a collection of science fiction stories written in the format of grant requests for developing large-scale tech projects entirely infeasible in reality.

               When I first came up with the idea for my grant, I was desperately grasping for concepts from this semester and my background that I was familiar with. In the case of the former, I selected text corpuses, in part due to how much I enjoyed working with Voyant and Google NGram earlier this semester, and because I’ve familiarized myself with corpuses moderately more as a result of doing a final project in another class relating to them (I produced a syllabus for an undergraduate class that focuses on text corpus creation). In the case of the latter, I chose rhizomatics, as Delezue and Guattari were major inspirations during my undergraduate career, and I felt comfortable thinking about and using their work.

               After receiving feedback, I was a little worried about my ability to successful produce a grant request. However, I decided that I’d already gone this far, and chose to stick with my idea of a collaborative corpus creation website influenced and inspired by Deleuzian philosophy. Admittedly, now that I’m done with my final project, I’m not sure how I feel about my product. On one hand, even though this is a first attempt, I fear that it wasn’t up to par. On the other hand, I’m incredibly proud of myself for even writing and completing my first grant request, and if nothing else, if it wasn’t for this project and Professor Gold, I would have never come across Stephen Ramsay’s work (as soon as I’m done with the rest of my finals, I need to give the ‘Patacomputing section of Reading Machines another read. I’m so happy I got to meaningfully interact with work that references Alfred Jarry, even if briefly).

               This semester was more or less objectively a significant outlier in my educational career. I think that’s the case for the vast majority of people in the world, but at least I got to spend it taking a course as stimulating and thought-provoking as this one. I’m very thankful to have had an opportunity to learn from Professor Gold, and to have had all of you as classmates. Happy holidays, and I hope someday, we all can meet in person.

On How Not to Teach the Digital Humanities (see disclaimer)

(Disclaimer: I was looking back through my posts for this semester to make sure I had posted everything required, and I noticed that I never posted this. Thankfully, I still have the document saved to my computer, so I’m posting it here now. Utmost apologies.)

               Ryan Cordell’s How Not to Teach the Digital Humanities was one that caught my eye as soon as I saw the title. Upon actually reading it, I was pleased with its contemplative and analytical tone, but surprised at the sorts of criticism it contained, specifically regarding Cordell’s idea that pieces grappling with the question of “What is DH?” were commonplace enough to arguably form their own genre. This definitely got me thinking about my own personal application of the digital humanities: do I spend, or have I spent too much time questioning what it is? Should I be focusing less on defining or considering what the digital humanities is, and more on working within it?

               In reference to his teaching experiences in the digital humanities Cordell notes that he “[has] found ‘Texts, Maps, Networks: Digital Literary Studies’ a more productive and stimulating class than its immediate predecessor, ‘Doing Digital Humanities.’” At first, I took this to mean that he finds digital humanities courses with more specific focuses to be preferable to ones that have a more general, less defined theme. However, after reading through the article a second time, I took notice of Cordell’s discussion of interdisciplinarity.

               At a glance, the title “‘Texts, Maps, Networks: Digital Literary Studies’” suggests interdisciplinarity. The first half of the title defines three semi-related topics, and the second half serves to contextualize those topics within a potentially-separate topic. Cordell writes that “that interdisciplinarity is grounded in [his] training in textual studies, the history of the book, and critical editing.” As I continued further into the article during my second reading, I also realized that his points in the “But Don’t Panic” section of the article each lend themselves subtly to interdisciplinarity. At first, I thought this slightly contradicted his claims about the digital humanities “only [being] a revolutionary interdisciplinary movement if its various practitioners bring to it the methods of distinct disciplines and take insights from it back to those disciplines.” However, perhaps it’s meant to demonstrate that because the digital humanities lend themselves to interdisciplinarity in the first place to a degree, it’s not necessary and in fact maybe even excessive to actively pile more interdisciplinarity into it.

               Something that absolutely stuck with me from the piece is his mention of a student using Tumblr as a platform to analyze fandoms. Especially recently, Twitter seems to be dominating the web as the go-to social media site for scholarly projects. While Twitter absolutely has value for such projects, constraining oneself to a single social media platform is almost certainly limiting. While this is a relatively minor part of the piece, it was extremely refreshing – maybe this was only the case for me, though.

               I bring this up because it led me to explore the keyword “blogging” on Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities. I’ve explored a collection of words on the site for my other classes, but blogging never struck me as one that I’d want to examine. Out of the artifacts there, I was most drawn to Karen Cooper’s graduate-level class syllabus, “Social Media and Digital Collaborative Applications: Microblogging.”

               Upon closer examination, the syllabus was significantly removed from most syllabi I’ve looked at critically, although this is in part due to me having few opportunities to look at graduate-level syllabi. That aside though, Cooper’s choice to make “weekly microblogging, analysis, and implications” worth a very significant part of the grade was a very interesting one, at least to me, although it made sense considering the course at large. The fact that the course also “has no required [textbooks]” caught me off guard as well, but again, it’s not the most uncommon choice, especially since the syllabus implies online readings. The syllabus depicts the course as strongly distinct and incredibly focused. While my own distaste for platforms such as Snapchat would steer me away from running a course just like this one, I can’t help but want to try setting a syllabus for a course in the same vein as this one – focusing on the usage of one-to-three platforms and building curriculum and assignments around them.

drawing of a tree made of multicolored handprints and red cursive text saying "It takes a village"

It takes a village (to make a DH project)

When making the last edits to my final project, I realized how many people contributed to it. I contacted people from all corners of the Graduate Center, and they all have helped me with generosity and care. This post is a huge thank-you note to the wonderful community that supported me during this challenging semester.

To all my classmates: thank you for being you. I was excited to come to class to hear your opinions and learn from you. The discussions we had are invaluable, and I benefited from everyone’s feedback during my project presentation.

To Prof. Gold: thank you for creating a safe, supportive space that allowed everyone to contribute to the class in their own way. I really appreciated the way you conducted the lessons and constantly asked us to express our opinions about the class and its contents.

Micki Kaufman has been a shining light through this pandemic. Micki was always ready to give me guidance and practical advice about my academic life and my future projects. I’ve said it many times before, but if you have any questions or doubts, ask Micki!

I consulted with Stefano Morello and the DARC for technical details about archiving and had a wonderful conversation on how to develop trust when creating a community archive. It was to great to bounce ideas off of them: it gave me renewed energy to develop my project next semester.

I had a great session with Daniel Hengel of the Writing Center, who helped me make my Abstract section clearer and more understandable. Without him, there would still be crazy long sentences that make sense only in my bilingual mind.

Stephen Klein at the Mina Rees Library gave me precious advice about preserving digital projects…and talked me out of using Flask in my digital archive. It’s always good to have a reality check when writing a project!

Most of you don’t know this, but my parents in Italy got Covid in November, and my dad ended up in the hospital. They have since recovered and they’re fine, but I wanted to share this with you to express my gratitude for the beautiful atmosphere that everyone created in class. Coming to class and working on this project was a great way to feel present and connected to a wider community when things were really chaotic. I thought you all should know how much you contributed to make my life better during a challenging time.

Happy Holidays. Stay warm and safe, and I hope to see many of you in class next semester!

QGIS Workshop

Earlier this semester, just after we finished our mapping projects, I attended a workshop on QGIS run by Professor Olivia Ildefonso. Before the workshop, I was in the mindset of having just used QGIS to complete my first project. While it was a small project and perhaps rather “selfish” compared to some of the other mapping projects I took a look at for inspiration, I was very proud of myself, and looking forward to learning to do more with QGIS.

I came equipped with a collection of questions about the aspects of QGIS I found difficult to deal with while working on my projects, specifically dealing with adding types of layers and keeping layers organized within the program. Ildefonso not only answered my questions and cleared up confusion I had about how vector layers functioned, but also informed us about two very key aspects of the program that I had no idea about – the robustness of layer attributes (that is, what one can do with a layer by adjusting its attributes) and using QGIS to isolate specific regions in map data. If I had known about the latter, I would have had significantly less trouble during the project. I also learned that when trying to make a legend, QGIS takes variables and variable names directly from the map exactly as they’re recorded, meaning that to change variable names, one has to change them on the actual map. This answered my dilemma about designing legends with the software.

Perhaps the most interesting piece of information I learned during the workshop was that projects of non-Earth planets exist and are apparently available. I haven’t gotten around to experimenting with them yet, but at some point after the workshop I came across a map projection for the surface of the planet Mars. To be sure, I have something of a pipe dream about someday reaching a point where I’m proficient with QGIS or similar software to the degree that I can create the map of a fictional world and then plot data on it. I know how silly this may seem, but in all seriousness, mapping data on a fantasy map could be an interesting creative exercise, and it could also be good for creating visual aids.

I asked Ildefonso about her stance on combining software while working with data mapping, and she gave an answer I didn’t entirely expect. She asserted that combining software, if doable, is entirely reasonable: however, one of her professors colloquially described using image editing software to touch up or create graphics a product made with data software as a form of “cheating.” In the end though, she argued that “whatever gets the job done is what [one] should do.”

Towards the end of the discussion, Ildefonso discussed plugins she recommended. She praised Michael Minn’s MMQGIS collection of Python plugins for the amount of valuable content and versatility it adds to QGIS. MMQGIS allows for much more intricate manipulation of vector map layers. I tested it for a little for myself and I have to say I’m impressed with its capabilities. If I ever do another project with QGIS, I’ll probably make use of the collection.

Workshop on Intro to R-Studio

Earlier this semester I wanted to attend the intro to R and R-studio workshop but had to unfortunately miss it cause of a conflicting schedule, luckily the entire session was recorded and uploaded to Vimeo to let anyone access the workshop. The intro to R-studio was led by Connor French, a GCDI fellow, and made sure everyone knew what the program is used for. I took a math lab class as an undergrad and I have dabbled in R-studio before. But since its been three years since I have taken the class, my R skills have gradually diminished, so I was looking forward to refreshing my programing skills. I have only ever used R as a powerful calculator and a statistical analysis tool, but Connor mentioned that R can be used as a powerful data visualizer as well. On top of that it can handle mapping using Leaflet ,too, another feature I never knew R had in its belt.

Connor took time in the beginning of the seminar letting the attendees know how to get in touch with the GCDI fellows and what tools are at their disposal if they were to run into any issues, something that I need to keep reminding myself. Connor explained R, the base program, as an engine and R-studio as the dashboard in a car, an analogy that is well suited for the two programs since R-studio is where most of the work is done. I am sure at this point the people attending the workshop were feeling a bit overwhelmed with the information they have been given but Connor let them know that learning a new program language is always daunting  but not to fret since the only way to refine your skills is with practice and completing personal projects.  

At this point he dove into what made R and R-Studio the powerful computational program it is by describing all the neat and concise features it had, starting off with the “packages” which allows users to install and keep a tidy set of functions. Connor best described them as an app you would use on a phone to let the user do any set of analysis with ease. He then gave an example of what you can visualize and showed off just how much R-Studio can get done.

We then started to get our feet wet with a data set on penguins and Connor broke down what each line of code did to our data. Little by little we were manipulating our work to get down to a subset of penguins to see their flipper length, body mass, and sex. It was at this point that Connor showed us the visualization aspect of R-Studio and made a colorful chart with flipper length on the x-axis, body mass on the y-axis and it being color-coordinated by their sex.

Towards the end of the workshop Connor gives the audience a handful of resources that they can follow and communities they can join to refine their R-Studio skills. The video in its entirety can be found here. The github page with the code and examples he uses are here. And if you would like to join RUG, R User’s Group, you can click here.

A Digital Pedagogy of Play?

My thinking on the readings from the week on Digital Pedagogy is generally scattered, but seems to boil down to what the limits of the academy are, and how the academy as a site of knowledge production has proven itself to be inextricable from other normative institutions. Without getting into the history of the academy and the university in this post, a question I have is: How are the ways in which we think and imagine within the academic classroom subtended by the academy’s relationship to normative power structures (namely, the state, capital, corporations, etc.)? As such, how does this pose a problem to the field of Digital Humanities and its subfields, such as postcolonial DH?

One of the ways these questions came to mind is from reading Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert’s “Review of Puerto Rico Syllabus: Essential Tools for Critical Thinking about the Puerto Rican Debt Crisis”: While Paravisini-Gebert’s analysis of the syllabus’ content is important, I’m interested in the ways she went about critiquing the medium of the syllabus—specifically, its design. For example, she notes the following:

“The landing page, where the viewer now scrolls down to access the “About,” “Goals,” and “Project Leaders” sections, in addition to a lengthy video titled Exploring the Puerto Rico Syllabus Project, could benefit from being “nested” horizontally below a footer image in order to keep navigation functionality simple. As it stands now, there is too much crucial information about the project “beneath the fold.” A comparison of the site to the other public syllabi sites highlighted on the “About” page shows the number of missed opportunities at the design level…

Given the wealth of visual materials associated with the themes of debt, development, migration, and natural disasters in Puerto Rico (which include the works of artists responding to the 2017 hurricanes), their incorporation into the site would both contribute to its appeal to readers and provide a rich archive that could be easily incorporated into the syllabus itself—not as mere points of visual interest but as a fundamental contribution to the usefulness of the site.” (Paravisini-Gebert)

As someone who works as a product designer at a tech company, I find these critiques of the site’s design at the level of “functionality,” “simplicity,” and “usefulness” eerily similar to terms used within “design thinking” and “human-centered design” practices within the tech industry, without an interrogation of the fact that the desire for functionality, simplicity, and usefulness are leveraged not necessarily for the sake of accessibility, but for the purpose of making consumption and the accruing of profit easier and thus more productive. I’m interested in how the ways in which we desire technology to be designed and interact is subtended by the tech capitalism, and what that means for “the spirit of making” within the Digital Humanities. Because indeed, the calls for “creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, communication and collaboration” (Risam, 92) are also very similar to those of the 1960s cyber-counterculture that led to the formation of the tech industry as we know it. It would be wise of us, then, to be critical in interrogating not just how normative power structures subtend out imagination of what technology can look and feel like, but also how calls to imagine and create (and, I would argue, “care”) are grounded in an optimism that can be easily co-opted by the very structures we are seeking to critique.

This is where I think play can play an important role in digital pedagogy. Going back to interaction design: To counter the capitalist desire for productivity and ease of use, what would it look like to create an interface that is intentionally hard to use? Or perhaps, an interface that’s intentionally slow (see: Katherine Behar)? Or even, one that is nearly unusable? As such, how can we use play to reveal and resist the contradictions that lie at the heart of normative and violent structure? I think these are questions that could be useful, especially in a postcolonial digital pedagogy: For if we’re looking to critique how normative (white) structures have contributed to “constructing a world that privileges the stories, voices, and values of the Global North and how digital cultures in the twenty-first century reproduce these practices” then its just as important to consider how are capacities to create and imagine are limited by this very construction. Intentional play, I think, is a mode from which we can take a step back, and start to question what and how we’re making, as well as think about what we’re up against. This sort of focus, to me, seems necessary in a digital pedagogy.

Workshop Entry on Inclusive Design

Earlier this semester, I attended ‘Inclusive Design and Accessible Exhibits, a presentation by Sina Bahram‘, which was a virtual webinar-workshop by data specialist, technologist, and entrepreneur, Sina Bahram. Bahram’s work appears in multimedia-accessibility discourses across North America, and was recognized on the federal level during the Obama administration for his contributions to accessibility and the STEM field. 

His webinar-workshop was an important highlight of my virtual semester as it focused on Bahram’s interpretation of Inclusive Design (ID), a methodology described (in this context) as a response to the limits of accessibility in technological design and multimedia services. To segue into his presentation on the preference of ID, Bahram provided commentary about the other commonly consulted Medical Model, which approaches accessibility from the standpoint of an individual’s disability and not the environmental factors that limit access for differently-abled individuals. 

Of the many items that were of value in his multi-step presentation on ID (giving control, appreciating context, and tolerance for error), the poetics of his Coyote Project – a partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago) and Prime Access Consulting – was extremely significant. The Coyote Project is concerned with increasing accessibility in the museum context through robust description software, which include audio aids. 

Bahram demoed the software for our audience – at the 42:45 mark of the presentation (viewable here) – using a stunning Kerry James Marshall painting. The Coyote Project collected cultural data across intersections of race, gender, and museum curation to produce a holistic and dimensional audio-description for differently-abled individuals. 

It was an opportunity to hear interdisciplinarity at work and placed into practice outside of a theoretical frame in a technological context. I immediately thought of bell hooks’ Oppositional Gaze and the extent to which the Coyote Project can be used as a case study for it as it concerns the reproduction and subversion of power through spectatorship informed by accessibility discourse. I could identify multiple gazes in the demo, which was sensorial in my experience and I’m curious about the ontological data that may emerge from similar approaches to ID in tech.

Bahram’s presentation was made possible by the Advocacy & Continuing Education sub-group of the DLF Digital Accessibility Working Group at CUNY. Bahram’s transcript is available upon request to this group. His presentation slides can be found here, via Dropbox.

A Brief Reflection on Grants and Grant Writing

As the semester’s progressed and I learned more and more about the conclusion of this class, I’ve grown progressively more and more intrigued, yet also more and more intimidated by the prospect of writing grants. This is in part due to people in my life telling me that I should at least giving going into grant writing a chance. In part because I’ve been recommended grant-writing as a career choice, it’s furthered both my curiosity and anxiety: on one hand, this final project could be a means to significantly further one’s career, but it’s also all the more daunting in all its formalism. I think I’m not alone when I say that this is my first time consciously doing anything even related to grant writing, outside of, for instance, more general, casual project proposals.

Tips on Applying for a Preservation & Access Award on by the Division of Preservation and Access Staff on National Endowment for the Humanities website was both informative and soothing. Its “Get a Little Help From Your Friends” section really emphasizes the fact that even if one seeks funding for a solo project, one should not be afraid to reach out and work with the connections one has. Additionally, as I’ve begun to set up my own final project, the article as a whole has served as a quick and easy general reference. That is, the article succinctly lays out key information in a way that lets it be used as a sort of a (rather general) checklist for what one should aim to include in one’s grant, as well as a guideline for making sure one is generally on track.

While Tips on Applying for a Preservation & Access Award, at least for me, functions best when I have it in a browser window in the background while I work on my proposal, Sheila Brennan’s Planning Your Next DHAG series is much more heavy-duty because of its multi-part nature, but in turn, it’s much more detailed and informative. I have to admit that I’ve read through the whole of it a few times out of anxious compulsion. I like to believe this has helped me in some manner.

The part of Brennan’s article I keep open in the tab next to the one I have Tips on Applying for a Preservation & Access Award in is her list of “six evaluation criteria,” found in Idea, Audience, Innovation, Context. When I’m reading back through what I already have written, I’ve found it very helpful to try to connect each paragraph I’ve written back to one of Brennan’s criteria. When I find a paragraph that I can’t connect back, I generally attempt to figure out if that’s for a reason or not, and whether the paragraph can stand on its own, or if it’s poorly-conceived, too filler-ridden or off-topic.

iMovie Workshop: How to be bold by learning the basics!

I attended the Publics Lab’s iMovie workshop, led by Mike Mena. I’ve never used iMovie or even owned a Mac, and I was nervous about how much I’d be able to follow or even apply after. However, Mike’s pedagogical approach and extensive experience giving this type of workshop for a wide range of audiences made phenomenal workshop. And not because I left feeling like an iMovie magician, but because I felt I had concrete skills I could see myself using, in addition to feeling less intimidated. Specifically, Mike did three critical things that made a simple workshop simply perfect: (1) he created an inviting environment; (2) he talked about strategy and prep work that would maximize our experience with the software; and (3) he set appropriate expectations and stuck to those guidelines throughout the seminar.

First, Mike started the seminar by dispelling myths people have about themselves being “bad with technology” and discussed how small, everyday interactions with technology intimidate and frustrate people, dissuading them from trying new things. He used the example of entering a password on a tiny phone and acknowledge that can be difficult because of design limitations—not the user’s abilities. This made me think about the readings from this semester that cautioned DH practitioners from making assumptions about user’s experiences and history of accessibility. It also made me think of the self-fulfilling prophecy I was discussing with my students in Intro to Sociology, and how stereotypes damage or even rob marginalized folks from accessing and innovating DH and tech. It inspired me to develop intentional moments to acknowledge and deconstruct these barriers in my future teaching opportunities and DH projects.

Second, he began the workshop by talking about the organizational steps one take’s before opening iMovie that make editing and experimenting less frustrating. Looking back on my experiences with QGIS, almost all of my frustrations can be traced back to ignorance or lack of intentionality about all the different files I would need. He also talked about the different spaces that held the files you’ve (maybe intentionally) organized would show up and where old files the software holds onto would reside. One of the things that became clear to me, as a non-Mac-user, that there were sometimes multiple shortcuts for certain functions, even when the direct method was easily accessible or straightforward. Having an expert advise new users how to navigate these decisions based on extensive experience, I believe, prevented me from going in circles and figuring out what worked through trial and error.

Finally, Mike set appropriate expectations for what the one-hour workshop would cover, kept his demonstrations focused on the basics, and didn’t distract the audience with interesting or complicated features. I think a lot of experts struggle to stay focused on the mundane aspects of their field, or to avoid going off on interesting tangents that go over their audience’s heads—I know I’m guilty of this when I teach. I was also worried because I had to leave the workshop 30 mins early, when the Q&A portion would take place; however, the workshop was straightforward and well moderated in the chat, so minor clarification questions were answered along the way but other Publics Lab staff, which created space for the more advance users to ask questions during the Q&A.

This workshop made real the invitations from DH scholars we’ve read throughout the semester who are looking to democratize DH as a field and as a praxis. I feel confident I could return to my notes over the next several months to successfully import media, identify and correct volume issues, and trim the video files for tight narratives and smooth transitions.

Screenshot of the opening page of the digital map "Living Nation, Living Words - A map of first people poetry". In the background, an ancient-looking map of the first Nations. In the foreground, the Title, contained in a darker-colored box

Too good not to share!!! Joy Harjo’s Map of First People Poetry

I just saw the news on the Unladylike newsletter: Joy Harjo was appointed to the 3rd term as a U.S. Poet Laureate! She is an amazing poet from the Muscogee Nation, and the first Native American to hold the role of Poet Laureate.

A photo of US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. She is sitting against a wall and wrapping her right arm around her legs. She has long, brown hair and is wearing red lipstick. She is wearing a red shirt, blue jeans, a bracelet, and her right hand is entirely decorated with Native American tattoos.
A photo of Joy Harjo from the Poetry Foundation

I discovered her poetry this year thanks to the Bklyn Bookmatch Service of the Brooklyn Public Library – try it, librarians are awesome! – and it was a great source of comfort and wonder during these rough times.

But the reason I’m writing is because Joy Harjo just launched a beautiful DH project: Living Nations, Living Words – A Map of First Peoples Poetry, an interactive map of Native Nations poets and poems. There is also a collection of audio recordings of contemporary Native American poets reading and discussing poems. This projects connects to so many of our readings, that I couldn’t wait to share it with you all. Enjoy!

I wish you all a happy, safe Thanksgiving with your family – or your chosen family. Also, here’s a link to Joy Harjo’s poem An American Sunrise. November is National American Indian Heritage Month, so let’s celebrate it with poetry (and DH). 🙂