Shane Snyder

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  • in reply to: Evaluation Criteria #202
    Shane Snyder
    Participant

    In my other two posts, I looked over four tools and digital projects–DOAJ, Bamboo Dirt, Republic of Letters, and London Lives 1690 to 1800–all of which had their problems. Something about these projects reeked of conservatism, of turgid academia, and the public aspect of the site decomposed along with the lack of interest in reaching an audience that might otherwise find interest in parsing the data.

    The Republic of Letters and London Lives, in particular, exposed the wounds of DH. It becomes difficult, from my perspective, to justify the idle collecting of data that reaches the eyes of the few, that has no interest in extending itself beyond this age-old habit of canonizing thinkers. As problematic a thinker as he was, Howard Zinn attempted to take history out of the hands of the ruling classes (the so-called “intellectual elites”) and place it into the hands of the people. Again, there are problems with this model that I do not have the historical background to debate. The fact, also, that the medium is different (a book) changes the conditions. But the question remains: why do public, open-access digital work if bringing the information to the public peddles the ideology that the “public” historically had no say in cultural productions?

    For example, the Republic of Letters can trace the complex networks of correspondence Voltair, Benjamin Franklin, and John Locke found themselves a part of without themselves being able to recognize how, visually, that network over such vast geographic space looked. But the research question is reducible down to prominent thinkers that the public has been told in history classes are responsible for the visage culture took on at the time.

    I recall a debate on Youtube between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. Foucault and Chomsky agree with on a big point. History, Foucault argues, should not be traceable back to the prominent figures that those in power have told us should become signifiers of that history. This seems especially logical from the standpoint of an internet culture that conducts the bulk of research from a tattered armchair at home. The internet is a subversive technology, after all (which might account for all of the net neutrality debates cropping up in the wake of the FCC’s recent defeat at the hands of Verizon and its greedy data hoarding). The public thus has a say in what creates and maintains cultural trends.

    The Digital Humanities is in a position to popularize academia by doing the same work as Neil Degrasse Tyson, who like Carl Sagan before him has taken the mantle of the avuncular scientist and philosopher who waxes poetic about the wonder of the cosmos. Digital projects can be academic, yes, but they should be dynamic, too. They should become multi-media experiments in answering big, overarching research questions. They should be like games for the public to interact with. They should be teaching tools for the professor struggling for a topic in the classroom. They may, one day, render the university sterile, but I have a hunch that that won’t be the case.

    in reply to: Project Evaluations #201
    Shane Snyder
    Participant

    The following reflects the incredible migraine I have somehow managed to give myself while sifting through all of the digital humanities tools on offer. In my quest to find the perfect tool to discuss, I realized that I was using a digital humanities tool to find a digital humanities tool. Analogies to introductory biology come to mind: Domain, Kingdom, Order, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. The digital humanist can find a tool like the Department of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) that she found on a digital humanities tool browser like Bamboo Dirt that she Googled with her internet browser. Eventually there will come a species of tool that the digital humanist can use to produce countless other tools like it.

    So I will begin with the tool Bamboo Dirt, a site that collects together smaller tools for the budding digital humanist. Some of these tools are open-access databases like DOAJ. Others link back to larger-scale (and familiar) browsers like Google Scholar and Firefox. In any case, the site breaks down each tool by category. Some categories include “blog,” “collect data,” “visualize data,” and “stay current with research.” Click on one of the categories and a list appears in the next window that includes links that fall under that umbrella.

    This raises a couple of pertinent questions that get at the heart of the digital humanities debate: What is a digital humanities tool? What criteria qualifies something as a digital humanities tool? If Google Books, Google Scholar, and even something as broad and wide-ranging and disorganized as a browser like Firefox classifies as a tool, then DH is in need of a sort of long-overdue tool taxonomy (something like binomial nomenclature, to bring the biology analogy full circle), a collection of the digitized databases, a tool for tools that browse for other tools. The universe of tools expands and becomes other universes. Maybe a more harrowing, still relevant question is this: is there a point to organizing the information at all?

    There is. It seems to me that part of the job of the digital humanist is to sift through sites like Bamboo Dirt and to critique it for its lax classification system, its lazy criteria. For if Google and Firefox are themselves tools for the user wanting in their way to produce a digital project (tool) that, by all rights, will get submerged under the countless other projects like it, then maybe everything digital is a tool.

    Having said that, Bamboo Dirt has an intuitive, easily searchable database of other tools. On each tool page, a detailed description of the tool sits atop the link to the tool’s page. The DOAJ, a website that collects (as its name suggests) open access journals from all over the web, attests to the importance of a search engine like Bamboo Dirt. Websites like DOAJ require this type of exposure. It creates an argument that humanists (and even scientists) have long neglected–open-access is the future, particularly in a culture so intimate with information that to disconnect from it would yield profoundly painful withdrawals. With digital work becoming so salient in academic discourse, it behooves us all to determine what makes something a digital humanities tool.

    in reply to: Project Evaluations #197
    Shane Snyder
    Participant

    Like Dan, I browsed theMapping the Republic of Letters project, which gathers together correspondence that predates familiar communications technologies. The site notes on its home page that:

    Before email, faculty meetings, international colloquia, and professional associations, the world of scholarship relied on its own networks: networks of correspondence that stretched across countries and continents; the social networks created by scientific academies; and the physical networks brought about by travel.

    For the most part, the project accomplishes this task and the results are stylish, sophisticated, and easy to navigate, but the method is basic. Its mission statement is to uncover what these networks of correspondence looked like at a time when media traveled at the speed of a horse.

    The problem, as I see it (and maybe this is not really a problem at all), is that this raises more questions. Why is it important to visualize this correspondence? Maybe I can be forgiven for needing relevant perspective, but the project eschews all contemporary connections. Using GIS (among other things), the site runners visualize the rich networks between prominent intellectuals, and these networks appear to mirror contemporary, less geographically sequestered internet correspondence.

    Even if that connection seems unimportant, consider the methodology: this project is predicated on the idea that the so-called “intellectual elites” of the time were the primary determinants of cultural production. This reeks of canonization, a concept that in the modern university is anathema to me, especially where public discourse is so ubiquitous and rich and interesting.

    On a more ambivalent note, the site’s style sheet is a simple but beautiful red banner, a plain “M” printed in a candle wax logo, with an all-grey background. The projects themselves have formatting issues. A wealth of beautiful visualizations pepper each correspondent’s page. Some of these visualizations are actually slideshows. The browser cannot pause these slideshows of differently-sized photographs that take up different surface areas, so the images will shift involuntarily from one to the next, pulling the page along with it.

    The less aesthetically concerned (and maybe more practical) London Lives, a project that digitizes criminal reports from 1690 to 1800, does not bring a research question to the table. The Republic of Letters, by compare, is more interested in granting perspective to a process underlying past correspondence, but this one does not make connections, so much as it is a simple, navigable, user-friendly research tool for the digital humanist.

    The line delineating a tool and a digital project thus blurs and complicates a field that already raises its fair share of questions. The lonely, bored, chronically overworked spectator at home in her swivel chair can curiously browse one or the other of these sites, find the requisite resources that enable the production of other projects like them, and put them out there for public consumption. The answer to the question of what qualifies something as a tool versus a digital humanities project seems more and more distant by the minute.

    in reply to: Theorizing the Digital Humanities #131
    Shane Snyder
    Participant

    I have posted this elsewhere, but it relates so completely to the ubiquitous fear of data sweeping up the traditional canon (whatever that is) and replacing it with the cold and distant stare of a scientist in a lab. It’s a little silly. Silly because Marche’s thesis is predicated on a false dilemma; namely, that by experimenting with macroanalysis (distant reading), close, context-heavy reading fades into obscurity, only to be indulged by old conservatives holed up in their university offices. I tend to reject these luddite fears that get projected onto the masses, as if technology and data weren’t inextricably linked with the quotidian.

    As for the contention that traditional scholarship might get upset by humanities work shifting into other domains, the term “scholarship” takes on a lot of forms. Who determines what counts as scholarly? Does a digital exhibit qualify if it’s just a set of tagged and juxtaposed items meant to signify some relation to a bigger picture? If a scholar uses GIS to map data visually using a mostly-accurate geographic coordinate system, and the results of that project grant perspective for future scholars, then the project seems to have offered a service.

    Maybe a better question is this: Who has access to the scholarship? Those who determine what counts as scholarship have a firm hand in standardizing knowledge work (which is fine, to a degree. Some things require oversight). It seems to me that the allure of digital humanities is its placing a premium on making accessible to the public sets of data heretofore only reserved for certain lofty institutions (read: intellectual elites). Now that people can access programs like Omeka and a free, open-source version of GIS (which you can find here), scholarship itself has shifted away from the large conference, peer-reviewed paper paradigm and has moved toward a more open-source model. What the university has been resisting for decades now reaches a sort of climax. The more access the public has to information afforded–it seems in part–by digital humanists, the more the university can cut through the bullshit question, “what use is the university?” The university, in short, is in the petri dish. With everybody having access to everything, the university can now determine what makes it relevant (if it’s relevant at all).

    • This reply was modified 10 years, 3 months ago by Shane Snyder.
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