“Who, What, Why?” Getting Acquainted with the Digital Humanities (Part One #LANS2016 Invited Talk)

The following material corresponds with a talk I’m giving at the Leadership Alliance National Symposium in Stamford, CT on July 30, 2016. Students present at the talk can follow along and explore various DH projects via this blog post. Feel free to tweet as we go using the LANS hashtag #LANS2016 and @secornish. You can also leave comments on this post about the session.

Part I: Introductions and Posing the Questions

Questions that drive my research are:

1) Who decides who or what gets to be remembered and who or what gets forgotten? In other words, who decides what goes into physical archives to be preserved? What about digital archives? Who will manage the archives and keep them sustainable?

2) What social, historical, political, and cultural contexts inform the work and lives of the writers I research? How does learning about the past inform my understandings of our present?

3) What’s the “So what?”? What am I adding to the study of literature, culture, and the humanities by doing the research I do?

4) How can I best present my findings so that other scholars can use them in their research? How can I best teach my findings so that my students may learn from them?

5) What might my research reveal if I find new ways to express it?

Digital tools and platforms provide new ways to express our research. Thus, the Digital Objects we make with these tools help to preserve and promote new ideas, discoveries, and humanistic inquiry. 

“The Machine is Us/ing Us” by Michael Wesch (YouTube, May 8, 2007)

Part II: Debates and Definition of a Practice

What does it mean to practice DH? How can the Digital Humanities help us better work with our materials and reveal our research? Let’s take a look at what the practitioners have to say about it.

What is the “so what?” What am I doing with the things I make to further humanistic inquiry? Am I being thoughtful about representation of important issues like equality, justice, and ethics? Am I reifying the status quo in research and scholarship, or am I actively making meaningful contributions that might have the power to change that conversation?

Let’s look at some digital projects. This assortment represents sites that I use, but there are many projects out there that will certainly correspond with your own research interests.


Digital Harlem

Hypercities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities

The Internet Archive

Modernist Journals Project

Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present

Browse through two or three of these sites.

  1. Who is the site’s audience?
  2. How might one use the site?
  3. How intuitive is the interface?
  4. What questions does it bring up for you?

Part III: Collaboration

What, in your experience, is important for good, productive, and innovative collaboration?

Let’s take a look at how my students worked collaboratively to produce a blog and two Scalar books during the Spring semester of 2016.

Digital Humanities Playground

A course site for ENG 395 at the University of Northern Colorado (Spring 2016)




Celebrating Collaborative Spirit at Digital Diversity 2015

A summation of what I did at Digital Diversity 2015.

Last week, I spent three days, May 7-9, in Edmonton, Alberta at Digital Diversity 2015: Writing|Feminism|Culture, a conference that celebrated the 20th anniversary of The Orlando Project textbase (Cambridge UP) and the future of the Digital Humanities from theory to practice. The conference was hosted by MacEwan University and the University of Alberta’s Dept. of English and Film. Invited to be a part of the organizing committee by Susan Brown and Kathryn Holland (the true organizers and deliverers of this amazing event), I had a sense of what was to come, who would be there, and what areas of scholarly interest would be highlighted. But, I had no way to know how powerful and empowering the event would turn out to be.

Dear Reader, you can turn to Twitter (@digdiv2015 | #digdiv2015)  for a substantial feed of material from presenters who discussed the long process of recovering and digitizing women’s literary history, interventions into  building new kinds of archives with accessibility in mind, interoperability vs. the silo-effect of DH projects, the ways in which trolling impacts women on the internet, the trauma to scholarship caused by lack of institutional support, questions of gender and race and what and who gets represented by DH projects, ways to get undergraduates engaged in literary interpretation with digital tools and pedagogy, how TEI schemas can provide ways to layer in the human experience into markup (like Orlando’s Cultural Formation tag), the use of gaming and game-theory to better understand community formation, debates around tenure and promotion and what counts as research, crises in the humanities (apparently, and according to research by Martha Nell Smith, the humanities have been in crisis since 1904) . . . and I could go on. However, always at the core of every contribution was the celebration of the collaborative nature of DH work.

My own experience of being at a conference during these three days was markedly different from what I’ve come to expect from scholarly events. While I am interested in thinking about why that is from an affective perspective because the affect was heightened for me by the emphasis on feminism and literary cultures, here, I’m interested in recapping what I did. In fact, that there is a short list of things I accomplished is possibly what makes this conference experience so different. And that these things happened depends entirely on the collaborative spirit of the field.

First, at the Orlando 2.0 workshop led by Susan Brown, Isobel Grundy, Mihaela Ilovan, and Kathryn Holland, I learned about how Orlando uses TEI markup to organize the massive amounts of biographical and writing-life data of women writers from the British Isles from the beginnings to the present. While I’ve been using Orlando for my own work and encouraging my students to use it by giving them scavenger hunts, seeing how the creators of the textbase use the resource (and want us to be able to use it) and shape it with questions of politics, cultures, identities, and networks built into the schema truly inspired and empowered my own thinking about how to recover and present the life and work of the women writers in my own research. The workshop taught us how to use CWRC Writer, the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory‘s tool for creating and maintaining entries for Orlando, and I began my entry on Elizabeth Hawes. (For anyone out there working on Hawes, my hope is that the entry be up by early fall, once Orlando 2.0 is up and running and pending editorial decisions, of course.) I left this workshop with enough skill-set in hand to finish a product and with a strong sense of the collaborative support of the Orlando team, which will allow me to become a contributor to this immensely important resource.

My second experience of doing something rather than just listening to something came in the form of learning how to contribute to the Open Modernisms Repository through an Anthology Jam hosted by Matt Huculak and Alex Christie of the University of Victoria. Last year, a discussion cropped up on the Modernist Studies Association listserv about the need for an anthology of open access texts to teach modernism. The current anthologies of note are 1) too expensive, 2) too white, and 3) too male in scope and many of us want to teach modernism from perspectives that opens up the canon in expansive and more inclusive ways (I refrain from getting into the debates surrounding New Modernism(s) here). Matt and the team at the Modernist Versions Project (MVP) have started the work to collect the texts that we want to teach. The Jam provides participants the chance to learn the workflow of contributing to the anthology, which includes finding first editions of texts via the Internet Archive or the Modernist Journals Project, and turning them into pdfs and page images for the repository. I was thrilled to find and learn how to contribute WWI poem “Disabled” by Wilfred Owen, which first appeared in Wheels (1919) edited by Edith Sitwell. In true DH spirit, the Anthology will continue to be jammed with texts as long as we keep finding them, thus making it a living and breathing resource that has the ability to reflect how and what we teach and provoke questions of why we choose what we choose. If you’re interested in hosting a jam, dear reader, contact Matt.

So, I left the conference with two really exciting skill-sets. What else did I gain? Through conversations throughout the three days, I discovered and connected with a community of brilliant thinkers who are committed to teaching and research in the humanities and who, through their various and diverse commitments, are doing vital work that will ensure generational transfer of humanistic inquiry. If the humanities are indeed in crisis (and have been since 1904), then that worry wasn’t the focus of this conference. Digital Diversity 2015 celebrated the possibility of longevity and sustainability exhibited by Orlando’s 20th birthday and offered us the space in which to voice concerns and fears about unfinished, unsupported projects. We generated productive discussion, infused by the wisdom of those who have been in the field for decades–for me, these voices were crucial–about how to keep working and teaching in DH and how to keep communicating about what it is that we do, who we are, and how what we do and who we are has the power to change the contours and parameters of our respective fields. May Digital Diversity 2016 or 2017 yield as much and more!