Advocating 4humanities @Union College, Schenectady, NY, February 10, 2014

What can we humanists do to be our discipline’s best advocates? How can we break down the intellectual and class walls that we in the academy have built around ourselves in a time of public critical discourse on the relevance, use, and even worth of our discipline? And how can we employ the tools and community of DH to help us in that outreach and argument? A group of us from Bucknell drove up through the snow and mountains, along interstates all in the 80s, to Union College to attend a fascinating, thoughtful and thought provoking workshop led by Alan Liu, Chair of English at UCSB on the recently released congressional report “The Heart of the Matter.”

Liu had provided us with the text of the report prior to our meeting, complete with his annotations and analyses. Part of our homework was not only to read and analyze the report, but also to see how Liu had employed the tools of “distant reading” or digital discourse analysis to reveal its topics, assumptions and argument clusters. Plugging the text into Voyant, using Taporware to remove the stop words (the, an, that etc) it is possible to quickly construct multiple visualizations of word and concept frequency, word and concept linkage and proximity, and also rhetorical framing.  Mobilizing vocabularies of nation and security, public funding and social relevance, civic consciousness and individual enrichment, personal and public memory, the report strikes an odd balance between support for the project of the discipline, and an argument for its deployment in a discourse of national security.

We walked into the gorgeous Nott Memorial building armed with what we thought was a pretty thorough understanding of how this “blue ribbon” group had formulated their approach to getting to the Heart of the Matter.  But a few minutes in the presence of the careful, intelligent, and suggestive Liu brought to the fore the way in which he, when faced with the realities of cuts in the UC system, responded to the challenges facing the humanities worldwide. Mobilizing the forces of advocacy, DH, and public humanities, Liu started the website 4humanities and publicized its mission of advocacy in the digital age. Along with the organizer of today’s conference, Professor Christine Henseler, Chair of Foreign Languages at Union, and her page Humanities Plain and Simple, Liu outlined the many and varied forms in which we can all push the humanities to the forefront of the public’s eye.

So, how do the rest of us  in the discipline do this? Liu showed us a variety of ways in which we can show off how the humanities makes things. Humanities Infographics to print out and display: create a Humanities Backpack with short videos about the humanities; drive the Humanities bus around the country–yes, a road trip to make videos of why the humanities matter. All these ideas are supported through this network of global and local chapters of 4humanities, stretching from UCSB to UCL which help to develop strategic principles for humanities advocacy.

A central part of the 4humanities project is public outreach. Much in the same way as we in the Stories of the Susquehanna have always made public outreach and public involvement part of our project, so Liu argued for the need to make the connections between what we do in our classrooms and disseminating our work, even through the means of machine readers, through social networks to the public. The authors of the Heart of the Matter had certainly recognized the importance of such public outreach with the suggestion, for example, of the creation of a Culture Corps consisting of volunteers from the community who could bring their expertise on local issues to the classroom. Given the way in which we now have a very different notion of expertise, where the purveyors of knowledge not only reside in the universities or print media, but rather in sites such as Wikipedia where knowledge is crowdsourced, this changing vision of the concept of expertise needs to be recognized and incorporated into the humanities. Moments of discovery, whether a child finding a grandmother’s camisole in an attic trunk, or a Vietnam vet’s recovery of a long hidden memory unearthed while rereading letters home, these are part of the human experience that need to be shared. And, as Liu pointed out, many times the public is surprised to learn that this constitutes the humanities.

Today was a call to action and a gentle reminder that most of us in the discipline are not trained in the fine art of public outreach.  To us, working in the Stories of the Susquehanna, it was an affirmation of an integral part of our work in making the humanities the heart of the matter along the banks of the river.

Stories of the Susquehanna website up!

A great deal of the historical and digital work that I have been doing over the last 5 years has been in collaboration with some great colleagues (Alf Siewers at the top of the list!) and students (Emily Bitely and Steffany Meredyk, especially). To get a good overview of this work, please visit the Stories of the Susquehanna website which is now up and running! Hooray!

Using Spiderscribe for Humanities 150

This evening, in the HUMN 150 class, Art Nature Knowledge, we will use our first mind map, created using Spiderscribe. I hope it works.  I will try to add notes as the “scribe” during the class, so that tomorrow we will be able to use this mind map for discussions of the texts.

Here’s the map for the course Introduction!

I will report back on how this goes!  Wish me, John Hunter, and Nick Kupensky luck!!

Christmas at the Confluence

Today, a Moravian Christmas conjures up images of Herrnhuter stars, carols and candlelit midnight services. But what was Christmas like back in the days of the missions in Pennsylvania, 270 years ago? How did the missionaries celebrate this season of birth and light in the bleak midwinter on the Susquehanna River?

The first Christmas at the Shamokin mission for which we have records was celebrated in 1747 by Martin and Anna Mack and Anton and Catharine Schmidt. In the mission diary, Martin writes of the peace at the confluence on December 25, 1747 where their thoughts are directed towards the congregation in Bethlehem, Pa. At noon on Christmas Day, the four missionaries hold a little love feast for which they had baked bread rolls in the ashes of their fire. In the evening Anna Mack visits Shikellamy’s daughter-in-law, a Mohican woman who was one of the first people around the confluence who truly accepted and loved the Moravians (other than Shikellamy himself). She asks Anna if today were Sunday because the Moravians are so quiet; to this Anna replies, no, it is Christmas Day. The Mohican woman is quite surprised because “the white people usually have a lot of fun on that day. You are definitely a very different kind of people from the white people we know.” Anna agrees with her that the Moravians are very different, with their interiorized mediations on their community and their Savior, in contrast to the carousing of the white traders who live nearby down the river. However, the giving of gifts belongs very much to the Moravian tradition, and that evening Martin and Anna along with Anton and Catharine make a present of turnips to Shikellamy and his family who gratefully receive them.

The peace of the Confluence at Christmastime is however not repeated. A year later, the Macks and Schmidts have left, the Sachem, Shikellamy, has died a few weeks earlier, and Brothers Zeisberger and Rauch are now in charge. Zeisberger writes in the diary of the many visitors to the smithy on the day after Christmas, people from the Delaware and Iroquois nations, as well as Shikellamy’s son, Logan and his family. All are seeking refuge from the drunken people who have invaded their own homes. Also desirous of some peace, they are looking for a place to cook their food. And the Moravian mission house provides just that place!

Christmas at the Confluence 2013
Christmas at the Confluence 2013

The last Christmas the Moravians spend at Shamokin in 1754 is a time of joyful reunion as Heinrich Frey and Gottfried Rösler are on their return to the mission from their trip to Bethlehem via the Wyoming Valley. Christmas Eve is spent under the stars about 20 miles upriver from Shamokin not far from Lapachpeton’s village at the mouth of the Catawissa Creek. Unable to sleep because of the rain, Frey and Rösler meditate on the meaning of the day under the tent they have made out of their blanket. On Christmas Day, they arrive amid much rejoicing at Shamokin.

As the missions grew along the Susquehanna River, so too did the celebrations of Christmas. Just ten years later, in 1765, at the mission church in what was to become Friedenshütten, the  diary records 120 people attending the midnight service.  The story of Christ’s birth is read from the Harmony of the Gospels that has been translated into Delaware and the congregation listens intently.  The service ends with the congregation kneeling and praying at the Nativity scene that stands in the church.  The next year there are 170 at the midnight Christmas Lovefeast. The following year a new musical instrument that has been built at Friedenshütten accompanies the voices at the Christmas Eve service.  The next year, candles are distributed to the children at the service for the first time, and thus things begin to look a lot like today’s service at Central Moravian in Bethlehem (with the major caveat that the children are all Native Americans.)  By 1770, these same children are all excited at having Christmas vacation off school and being the center of the Christmas service.

In just over 15 years, the celebration of Christmas at the Moravian missions on the Susquehanna had changed from a quiet contemplative night of prayer and sharing of plain food with Native people to a complex midnight service with vocal and instrumental music, candles, and nativity scene, where the readings from a Delaware Gospel  might have been the only sign that this was a congregation not of European origin.

On using GIS to uncover the ‘Stories of the Susquehanna’

Back in 2011, Janine Glathar interviewed me and Emily Bitely ’11 on the ways in which we had used GIS to begin mapping the Stories of the Susquehanna. These originally appeared on the Bucknell GIS blog.

Emily’s work was central to gaining the National Historic Trail designation from the National Park Service.

  • To learn more about the John Smith Trail, click here.
  • To view more  Captain John Smith’s voyage, click here.
  • To view a map of interpretive ‘smart’ buoys located in the river, click here.

Curating the Cold Spots…

In his opening talk of the Herrenhausen conference on the Digital Humanities (#dighum1213), Jeffrey Schnapp  proposed that the future of the world as a hot spot might be one that is punctuated by increasingly sought after cold spots, places where we are not connected by the digital transfer of data, where we as humans can trust our own senses to make decisions about what it is we see, hear, smell, feel, and express verbally.  Rejecting the curation of nature as one that might involve pinning QR codes to trees, Schnapp instead called for another way to make data matter in the human weaving together of narrative to make places meaningful.  Digital ecologies, as he termed them, might consist not of us experiencing nature mediated by the digital (sorry, no Google Glass on the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail!)  but rather by the human observer using the digital device to collect and record data that later is uploaded in what he termed a crowdsourcing of the environment.  Citizen science produces knowledge, much as for Luis von Ahn, human computation digitizes millions of books through the use of that annoying Captcha. Continue reading “Curating the Cold Spots…”

data and art: intention and chance #dighum1213

Finally home from a week in Europe that has been a crash course in DH. Actually it’s been a crash course in the issues around DH, the opportunity to see some really cool projects, to think about how the digital in humanities has the power to shift the paradigm, and also to hear how some within the field really don’t want that shift and would prefer that the digital remains a tool rather an epistemology.

On the second day of the Herrenhausen conference, “(Digital) Humanities Revisited–Challenges and Opportunities in the Digital Age,” Julia Flanders’ presented her thoughtful inquiry into the connection between art and data and pointed out the false dichotomy between conceptualizing the digital as delimited by the pixel, and analog art as constituting an infinite spectrum of creativity. The dichotomy fails, she argued, if we think of art as it has been aesthetically theorized, namely, as play within constraints. These constraints can be generic, formal, and linguistic. In the same way, what we think of as the infinite play of signifiers in the process of semiosis, in the making of meaning, is also delimited by sign, signifier, and receptor. Flanders identified the real problem with the pixel as not lying then within its boundedness but rather in the lack of connection between pixel and pixel, its positionality and lack of artistic intentionality. In a deftly strategic turn to the textual from the visual, Flanders sees encoded text as being able to retain far more of (the verbal icon’s) signification. Referring to Johanna Drucker’s work on digital aesthetics, Flanders led us to a notion of xml encoded TEI that is richer and more multidimensional than the Madonna rendered in a bitmap image. Continue reading “data and art: intention and chance #dighum1213”

Marked or Unmarked? Defining the (Digital) Humanities at #dighum1213

Xaver has passed, the Digital Humanists gone, Herrenhausen Palace has served us its last sumptuous and definitely not virtual repast of venison and salmon, and still the questions remain unanswered.

Why the digital in DH?  Why mark this category in a way that is left unmarked in the social or natural sciences? Could the digital denote a departure from what Gregory Crane calls the “monastic” humanities where value is set through publishing specialized articles in paid journals that are read by the same 50 people? Does the digital denote the need for humanists to be morally engaged, to recognize the imperative of making digitized content useable by the public and thus presenting us with a new editing task that recognizes the profound, wide appeal of detailed knowledge?  Crane would say yes, please.  Let us move away from the a model of the humanities that hides us away and rediscover the roots of citizen science as espoused by the founder of the University of Berlin, Wilhelm von Humboldt. Continue reading “Marked or Unmarked? Defining the (Digital) Humanities at #dighum1213”

Hannover and the Hurricane of Digital Humanities #dighum1213

In the last two days, Hurricane Xaver descended on north west Europe with a vengeance, complete with snow, gales, and floods, accompanying the intellectual storm that unleashed itself on us in the reconstructed Herrenhausen Palace.  The venue is in many ways a fitting spatialization of the quandaries of the Digital Humanities. A semblance of Baroque exterior, carefully reconstructed from the ruins left by a British fire bombing in 1942, covers a hyper-modern, minimalist interior, where the surface whiteness of an Apple simulacrum hides the doors and openings of necessary bathrooms and waste bins.  Continue reading “Hannover and the Hurricane of Digital Humanities #dighum1213”

Visiting Bentham

Dodging picket lines and security alerts (aka a typical London day) Param Bedi (Bucknell’s VP for L and IT) and I made it through a labyrinth of alleys and courtyards yesterday afternoon to University College, London’s Centre for Digital Humanities to meet with Professor Melissa Terras, its director and co-founder.   I was really interested to meet her to talk about how to go about creating a vibrant network of DH both at Bucknell and beyond, and also to see how my own work on Moravians fits well into this marriage of the old and new.

Continue reading “Visiting Bentham”