As you might recall from my previous post, I have been working on a prototype tool to visualize spacewalk patterns that occur in short term Mars habitat simulations.
My work so far
I used R packages shiny, visnetwork, and plotly to create an interactive web application for data exploration. Here is how it looks now:
The main drop down menu selects a crew to display. A network graph shows who worked with whom on extravehicular activities (EVAs). Each node is a crew member, and the size of a tie represents how many times these people worked together on an EVA. A bar chart in the bottom right corner shows the total number of EVAs that a crew member participated in.
A user can also select a single EVA to see which crew members worked together.
This simple app functions well, but I want to tweak its appearance: put role abbreviations to the bottom left corner, make sure that the interface is displayed properly both on computers’ and phones’ screens, have a unified theme for different elements of the app. Also, I want to connect the network plot with the bar chart: when a user clicks on a node, a bar that corresponds to that node also gets selected.
I want to add more socio-demographic data, such as level of education, previous participation in such simulations, and experience in space industry. I want to enable user to visualize interaction networks by other demographics, not just by gender and role in a crew.
I also plan to add regression models that test whether women are less likely to be central figures than men, controlling for their role in a crew and other demographics.
Things I have learned
It has been a short journey in the Studio, but a fulfilling one. Summer funding allowed me to take a breath, work on my project, and think about my professional and academic future.
I have learned that I like building things and enjoy solving problems. I have used R Shiny for the very first time, and its familiar syntax was painless introduction to the world of interactive visuals.
I come from an interdisciplinary background (journalism-nationalism studies-sociology). As a journalist, I tell stories; and as a researcher, I want to do the same. A well done web application or a well done web page is a more efficient way to communicate one’s scholarship than an academic article. Yes, in academia it is still seen as a supplement rather than a substitute to a peer reviewed publication. And it’s a pity – it takes a lot of time, skills, and effort to create even the simplest visuals. On the other hand, it still is time well spent: by creating a visual story, one gets to know their data very intimately. And the world does not end with academia – it is helpful to leave the ivory tower and engage with the audiences outside of it. Who knows, maybe it will land me a job in this world of scarce tenure track positions.
When I meet someone, our introduction typically goes something like this:
What do you do?
I teach college literature and I’m a graduate student. Oh, what do you study?
Victorian Literature Oh, like Jane Austen, and stuff?
There is always more we can say about ourselves, our interests, and our work. If I decide that I want to go into greater depth, I might specify to this person that—while I love Austen’s novels—the literature I study typically comes later in the century than Austen’s. In fact, I am currently writing a dissertation that examines late-nineteenth century British literature that deal with issues of social reform and resistance. And if I’m feeling really chatty, I might add that my dissertation uses literary cartography and geocriticism to look at places where particular communities lived, where they were forced to move, and how literary accounts correspond with these maps.
… but I digress.
The point is, in many circles of academia, we’re asked to clearly define our disciplines or areas of expertise: late-nineteenth-century British literature, twentieth-century American history of baseball, biochemical engineering, etc. We often have titles, categories, or topics that delineate our “areas” into nice and neat sound bites. I’ve quickly found that is less true of our work in the digital humanities (DH). What are the digital humanities? Or, better yet, how am I defining DH? When Clifford A. Lynch, Executive Director of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI), was asked how he would define “digital scholarship?” his response was seemingly evasive, but honest:
“Digital scholarship is an incredibly awkward term that people have come up with to describe a complex group of developments. The phrase is really, at some basic level, nonsensical. After all, scholarship is scholarship” (10).
Even though I know this—that scholarship is scholarship—I’ve still struggled with my relationship with the digital humanities as I work within “the field,” but still feel outside of it. I turn back to the continuous question that many before me have posed: What does it mean to work in the digital humanities?¹
As I look around this morning, sitting at one computer of many in the Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio (DSPS), I assume that behind many of the screens my summer fellowship colleagues are busy coding or revising code that they’ve been working on this summer. This seems like the obvious addition to make something digital… get to coding. (Keep in mind I say this with about the same amount of “coding knowledge” as my pet terrier.) I’ve sat in on conversations about “coding concerns,” like: when to write new code, and when to use what’s available; when to take a coding break and focus on thematic and theoretical concerns; and which types of coding are sustainable and transferable across platforms. And yet, the truth is, I don’t code! Sure, I was exhilarated when I figured out how to create a hanging indent in html (as demonstrated in my earlier post); I wanted my bibliographic entries appear in correct MLA format in Omeka.² However, I don’t code and I don’t program; I read, I research, and I analyze.
My work became “digital” when I applied for assistance to create a map of where characters lived and traveled in William Morris’s utopian romance, News from Nowhere. Then when several of my colleagues assisted with this endeavor,³ my project expanded to analyze the literary cartography and geography of several authors and their work in my dissertation. Most of my time on the “digital” side of things has been simple data entry. I’m working with Neatline (as a plug-in for Omeka), and after I finished importing my first batch of records from an excel spreadsheet (in csv format), I’ve simply been revising records in Omeka and adding new ones (fig. 1).
For a while, I felt self-conscious about this perceived gap between my assumptions about DH and my own skills and my project. I wondered if my records and maps would reveal anything useful and hoped that this wasn’t all a waste of time. I shared my concerns with White, my point person in DSPS, embarrassed to admit my uncertainty and expose my potential for failure. However, she reassured me that almost everyone feels this way at some point, regardless of their expertise: “Working in the digital humanities is about figuring out how to ask the right questions and who to ask.” Basically, it means asking questions all the time to everyone who will listen and being ready to learn.
How is this different from “non-digital” scholarship? It isn’t, really. As a DH project, my work this summer has demanded my attention to process (how and why I enter certain records) and my desperate reliance on others.4 Now these demands have been digital-specific—in that I am working with online platforms and plug-ins, and working with a digital librarian (shout out, Nikki!)—but they are not specific to digital work generally. All scholarship requires diligent consideration of process and—although many of us in the humanities try to deny it—scholarship is a collaborative endeavor. As Lynch says, “scholarship is scholarship,” and the tools we use don’t change that. To say that I work in the digital humanities, doesn’t mean that I am a computer guru or can code with the best of ‘em. All it means (for me), is that I have found useful digital tools (created by someone else and used by many others) to address a research question.
As I study the work of Mathilde Blind and Mary Macpherson, I am thrilled to see that my data reveals a distinction in the Neatline map between the places these authors lived (London and Glasgow) and the northern Highlands they portrayed in their poetry and political discourse (see figures 2 & 3). I am continuing my research in additional Neatline exhibits to address similar discrepancies between how a place is portrayed and how it is experienced. Neatline allows me to demonstrate these points of interest, but it is only one part of my scholarship puzzle. Similarly, the digital humanities can be useful and impactful, but—as I have found—DH is not a helpful or neat category to describe scholarship; it’s messy and ambiguous. Instead, I adopt Lynch’s statement as an adage for our generation of scholars, remembering that while digital tools and techniques can help us answer our questions: “scholarship is scholarship.”
¹ For additional discourse on what it means to work in the digital humanities see: Edward Ayers, “Does Digital Scholarship Have a Future?” Educause Review, July/August 2013, pp. 24-34.
² K.E. Wetzel, “When to Work Alone, and When to Ask for Help.” University of Iowa Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio Blog, 13 July 2017.
³ Laura Hayes and Caitlin Simmons are currently working on a larger and more in-depth mapping project on William Morris’s News from Nowhere, for the William Morris Archive (WMA). They are working with Professor Florence Boos, the general editor for WMA; Robert Shepard, GIS specialist with the Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio; and additional graduate students at the University of Iowa, including Kyle Barton.
4 I am gratefully reliant on my project “point-person,” Nikki White, Digital Humanities Research & Instruction Librarian at the University of Iowa DSPS. She assists with the coding and programing side of things, but more importantly she has been a mentor through the “how and why?” issues of my project (e.g. which platform to use, how to structure my archive, the limitations of any given visualization, etc.), so that I can be intentional with how I enter and store my data—and how I use it in my writing and teaching.
Lynch, Clifford A. “The ‘Digital’ Scholarship Disconnect.” Educause Review, May/June 2014, pp. 10-15.
For my first blog post, I did some reflection on Machine Translation instead of talking about my project, so here is a brief description of what I worked on this summer.
I created my own website, from scratch but using skills I learned from Codecademy and their helpful tutorials, to act as a platform for “digital” translation. I’m not really sure what to call this type of interactive, dynamic text, but because I’ve felt pretty crazy working on my “experiments,” I’ve named the site The Mad Translator.
Unlike many of the other fellows here this summer, this project is not in any way related to my thesis/dissertation/assistantship. I had some goals of what I wanted to accomplish in 8 weeks, and with a few adjustments, I would say I met those goals. There’s still a lot more I can do, one thing I hope to continue to work on in the next semester is better integrating relevant translation theory into each page.
After the first two weeks, I took a break from learning to code and instead turned back to theory. I read a number of articles on digital literature and translation, and I scoured through countless online journals to observe how they integrate digital features (or not) into their publications. There’s a lot to say about translation in the digital age; on one hand we have machine translation which feels threatening to translators, on the other hand we have an increased capability to interact with text, given that someone is willing to put the time and effort into coding such interactive capabilities.
In addition to trying to break down the mindset of “equivalency” between an original text and its translation, I included some translations that are innovative in their presentation. I owe infinite thanks to Laura Moser and her wonderfully creative translations from Ancient Greek fragments. I first encountered them on paper and imagined that they could have a strong digital presence.
While there may be some shortcuts and more efficient methods to coding each unique page on the website, I did my best working with my level of coding. I coded every single word that is clickable, draggable, highlight-able, changeable, etc. Although I prefer working with prose text in my own translation practice, poetry felt a lot more manageable because I was able to select poems with set lengths.
All the screenshots above are from the current state of the website, which is hosted locally on my hard drive. In the final weeks of the summer, I’m excited to work with Studio Staff to make it go live and accessible to anyone online, at which point the formatting may change from what you see here. The website is pretty basic, but given that I created every page from scratch, I’m very happy with this product as the fellowship draws to a close. I started with very little coding experience and now I feel confident that I can keep adding pages in the future and building up this site. Although I won’t be able to work on this as diligently once the semester starts, I hope to continue adding more pages. Who knows, maybe one day there will be more translation sites like this, or more translators will be interested in encoding their work with digital features, or maybe this website will take off!
Big thanks to the Studio and its staff for making this project possible!