Author Archives: Patrick Scott Belk

Dickinson Expands Digital Humanities Projects, Resources

[Reprinted from an article by Kristina Rodriguez ’19 (Staff Writer) in The Dickinsonian: The Dickinson College Student Newspaper, from October 15, 2015]

As the field of Digital Humanities grows in academia, Dickinson continues to integrate it into the curriculum, and is currently sponsoring training opportunities and a new Pulp Magazine digital archiving project.

The term Digital Humanities is inclusive of “a wide range of activities, from online preservation and digital mapping to data mining and the use of geographic information systems, data visualization and digital publishing,” according to the Digital Humanities Advisory Committee (DHAC) page on Dickinson’s website.

“Digital humanities considers the text, object and world in digital terms, explained Patrick Belk, the current post-doctoral fellow in Digital Humanities. “It acknowledges the ways in which scholarship, teaching and social activities are themselves increasingly digital and often taking place online.”

Belk is working on a few different projects in the Digital Humanities at Dickinson, including Digital Boot Camp and the Pulp Magazines Project.

The Digital Boot Camp at Dickinson College is a 10-day training program to teach students to be able to participate in the digital age more efficiently through digital tools and skills such as WordPress, editing videos and using Geographic Information Systems to make maps.

The program this academic year can take up to 10 students who would receive a $350 stipend, training materials and campus housing from Jan. 18 to 22. Interested students must apply by 5 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 20 to participate in the boot camp.

Rachel Kruchten ’16 attended Dickinson’s first Digital Boot Camp two years ago.

“I was recommended for the Boot Camp because I was working as the Digital Services Assistant in the library and had very little experience with digital technology, ironically enough,” explained Kruchten. “The overall experience of the Boot Camp was positive and gave me tools that I ended up using over the next two summers working on the Carlisle Indian School project. I have continued to engage with digital humanities beyond the boot camp, and I highly recommend it for other students as I think it has given me a better understanding of the integration of science, technology and the humanities, and I know the skills I have learned will be useful for me in the future.”

From last spring to the current semester, students have been working on Belk’s Pulp Magazine Project. Victoria DeLaney ’17, Harris Rissell ’16, Jenna Howdyshell ’17, Katie Lasswell ’17 and Edgar Estrada ’18 have contributed to the project thus far. The goal of this project is to complete TEI/XML P5 “mark-up for…the 320 magazines available on the Pulp Magazines Project website,” Belk’s personal project in Digital Humanities.


Belk is also collaborating with Vy Huynh ’18 this semester “to develop new and experimental search features, designed for exploring popular periodicals through their character-based, plot-driven fiction.”

Another project that Belk works with is the Humanities Lab, which is used to help students develop skills such as close reading, deep interpretation of text and critical analysis when conducting Humanities research. Students involved in this project “are building infrastructures for digital research and enabling increasingly sophisticated modeling of digital texts by adding layers of mark-up to facilitate more complex interactions between texts and computers,” Belk said.

The DHAC webpage also includes information about Digital Humanities projects with which students can get involved, such as: Russian Rooms, where there are photos of Russian citizens that individuals are able to read biographies on as well as listen to interviews and get a taste of the Russian culture; Eighteenth Century Poets Connect, a project to see relationships among individuals in the literary field in Britain during the 1730s; and Women’s Experiences at Dickinson College, a site meant for the women of Dickinson College to digitally voice their collective stories.

Frank Vitale ’16 interned over the summer in Oxford at Zooniverse, a research group that builds crowdsourcing platforms for science and humanities projects. The projects at Zooniverse “allow for people without specialized training to contribute to real research,” Vitale said.

“More students should get involved with digital humanism, and consider it as a serious and worthwhile academic pursuit,” Vitale said. “The political scientist, linguist, historian, philosopher, classicist, sociologist, archeologist, et cetera of old are being replaced by those who can use digital tools to innovate and expand their fields in new and previously unimaginable directions. The digital humanities truly are the new frontier for our generation of humanists, and those without the skills to keep up will be left behind.”

“In many ways, Digital Humanities is no different than ordinary humanities. We still read texts, tease out their meanings, interpret our results, analyze patterns and draw connections between them,” said Belk. “The main difference is that now we can do those things digitally.”

Willoughby Digital Scholarship Lab

Over the summer months, a space in the Waidner-Spahr Library was reconfigured to serve as a new computer room. Known as the Willoughby Digital Scholarship Lab, this room was created in response to a request from Prof. Francese, on behalf of the Digital Humanities Initiative, that there be some dedicated space where faculty members and their student interns may work on digital projects of various types. The Library has received similar requests for workspace for such faculty/student collaborative work in the past, so there seemed a clear enough need, and the Library responded.


The computers in the Willoughby Lab have been outfitted with both Mac and PC desktop computers as well as a variety of software applications, but additional software may be added as necessary in support of the specific research needs of faculty and students. There is also a new book scanner – a Zeutschel Zeta – that makes relatively quick work of any scanning project.

The Lab includes lockers so that materials may be stored securely. There are also shelves and cubbies to store other materials that may not need to be locked up – basic reference books and things of that sort. There is a table for meetings and small group discussion, and a large whiteboard.


Our temporary Library Digital Projects Manager, Don Sailer, has oversight for the room and spends much of his time working in the Willoughby Lab. He is able to provide basic assistance to any faculty members or their interns who may be pursuing their work there.

For more information about how you and your student interns may make use of this space, please contact Don Sailer, Library Digital Projects Manager, or Jim Gerencser, College Archivist.

–Jim Gerencser, College Archivist

Mellon DH Fund supports the creation and development of Urbanatural Roosting

By Ash Nichols (Walter E. Beach ’56 Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies & Professor of English)

My DHAC-funded Student-Faculty Summer Research Project (2015) was a complete success. My student researcher, Kerin Maguire, turned out to be a hard worker, an excellent researcher, and a writer with a prose style well in advance of her years. Over the summer, we produced a new website, Urbanatural Roosting: Planetary Living for the New Millennium, and wrote content for three (3) pages. Individual page links are included below the image:



These pages required extensive research—both library and online—as well as a wide range of reading from books, essays, and online materials. In addition, we added dozens of illustrations, often requiring permissions acquisitions, technical layout details, and digital design. We worked closely with the Dickinson Multimedia and I.T. staff to improve the look and technical details of the site as well.

Activities of Student Researcher

My student researcher, Kerin Maguire, was completely involved as a collaborator in every aspect of the work on our project. She researched, read, and wrote to at least the same extent that I did. In a number of instances, she was completely responsible for the addition of new material, from conception of the idea to all of the research, writing, and site design. In one instance, she even took her own photographs to illustrate the “Pine Barrens” section of our Natural Urbanatural Roosting page. Our page is her work as much as it is mine; this felt as completely collaborative as any student-faculty research project in which I have been involved. Even her academic plans for the coming semester—and two years—have been affected by our work.

Potential Long-Term Benefits of Project for Student

Kerin’s own words will form the basis for this part of our report. Please see the attached news story that appeared on the Dickinson Web-Page at the completion of our project:

Urbanatural Living, Digital-Style

The article clearly sets out a number of ways in which Kerin benefitted from our work together:

“It involved a lot of reading … Professor Nichols just kept handing me these stacks of books,” Maguire says with a laugh, “but now that I know a little more about this topic, I am interested and invested. It reels you in.”

Indeed, Kerin informed me as the project drew toward completion that our work had even had an impact on her future academic plans. She now wants to add environmental studies courses to her academic program as an English major:

As the weeks progressed, Maguire began to find connections to the work during non-research hours; an article in her hometown newspaper, for example, was the catalyst for her final post of the summer. She also uncovered environmental issues in familiar settings—in the pinelands of her home state, and along the fragile shoreline of Cape Cod, a favorite family-vacation spot, where the population has increased 400 percent in the past 40 years, creating significant pollution. “I go there all the time, and I never knew there was a problem,” says Maguire, who plans to keep contributing to the portal, at Nichols’ request. “Once you learn about statistics like that, how can you not want to share them with the world?

This is a perfect example of the way our project worked. I would assign a specific section of our web-portal to Kerin, or she would come up with her own suggestion, as in our “Cape Cod” entry or our “Artificial Reefs” section. One final quote from her will make clear the future benefits of our work together:

I have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge on the subject and am interested in finding ways to implement the concept of urbanatural roosting into my own life and that of my family. . . In addition to learning about fascinating subject matters, working closely with Professor Nichols improved my writing and research skills. . . I also improved my technological skills using WordPress, as well as editing and revising my work.

There is clearly nothing for me to add to Kerin’s own words in this regard.

Future Plans

Like my earlier website, Romantic Natural History: 1750-1859 (praised by the New York Times, the BBC in London, M.I.T., and others), the Urbanatural Roosting site will continue to grow over the coming years. I have assured Kerin that she is welcome to continue work on this resource at any time she would like. She is welcome to make additions to our existing pages or propose new cities for our Urban Urbanatural Roosting page or natural sites. I did the same in the past with students who worked with me on Romantic Natural History, and two of the three took me up on this offer and added to the site after their summer research assignment had ended. In addition, two of my research students have said that they got their first job after graduation at least partly as a result of being able to show their future employers the work they had done on our web-portals and web-pages.

Digital-Age Scholarship



by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

If you haven’t visited Dickinson Scholar lately, you haven’t visited Dickinson Scholar. Since its launch in 2014, the college’s ever-expanding digital collection of scholarly and creative work has grown from 64 items to 395 articles, theses and other scholarly works and counting, and the site has seen 28,000 page views and more than 10,000 downloads during the past 15 months.

“What this tells us is that once researchers, through whatever search tool or strategy they have used, arrive at a Dickinson Scholar page that includes a full-text article or thesis, they are likely to download that item for their personal use more than 1/3 of the time,” says College Archivist Jim Gerencser ’93, who spearheaded the project. “In other words, there tends to be much less browsing and window shopping than is typical with online sources.”


Dickinson Scholar showcases faculty papers, honors theses, other student scholarship and creative works. Half of the site’s 395 articles are available for full-text downloads, and many of the remaining articles are simply embargoed until permissions are received from the publishers.

The most frequently downloaded papers span the full range of the Dickinson liberal-arts curriculum, from medieval studies to nanoscience, language to math, environmental studies to poly sci. Currently, the collection includes research in architecture (3 works), arts/humanities (335), business (2), education (7), engineering (1), law (5), life science (25), medicine/health science (12), physical science/mathematics (37) and social/behavioral science (93). New website features include a map on the homepage showing the location from which users have downloaded articles within the past week and a scrollable visualization of some of the works represented in the collection.

At the time of this writing, early adopters Karl Qualls, professor of history, and Stephen Erfle, associate professor of international business & management, have the most uploaded articles (13 and 12, respectively), and Qualls’ paper on Western influence on the Russian revolutions is the most-downloaded faculty paper overall. Emily Bowie ’14’s research on natural deworming methods for sheep remains one of the most-downloaded (full-text) papers on the site (based on number of downloads per day, since each paper was added to the collection), second only to Associate Director of Library Resources Theresa Arndt’s description of how the Waidner-Spahr Library staff altered its service model to suit the community’s evolving needs. Former women’s & gender studies major Sara Raab ’13’s study of gender-power dynamics in BDSM rounds out the top three.

Recent additions include Professor of Mathematics Lorelei Koss’ 2014 article, “Examples of Parametrized Families of Elliptic Functions with Empty Fatou Sets;” Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Heather Bedi’s 2013 article, “Special Economic Zones: National Land Challenges, Localized Protest;” and a study of patient satisfaction at the Sadler Health Center (Carlisle, Pa.), conducted by former health-studies students Jonathan Nieves, Marleni Milla, Alison Riehm and Molly Foltzer, each of the class of 2011.


The Dickinson Scholar team is currently exploring ways to share works within a journal format, and has already digitized The Collegian, a student-authored publication from 1849, the earliest literary magazine known to have been produced solely by Dickinson undergraduates, and 16 issues of John and Mary’s Journal (1975-2003), a publication of the Friends of the Library that included articles by Dickinson College faculty and other scholars, says Gerencser. Once all technical issues have been worked through, the team will look into sharing these digitized publications and adding other student-authored publications—such as The Hornbook and Belles Lettres Revue—to the queue.

Library staff, meanwhile, are hard at work securing permissions to share published articles, senior theses and other exceptional student, faculty and staff work from the 2014-15 academic year.

That includes creative work—including art exhibition catalogs and digital representations of artwork, and results from community-based empirical research projects. To date, library staff have uploaded 29 fine-art and art-history exhibition catalogs, dating back to 2004 and 1998, respectively. Collectively, the catalogs have already been downloaded 320 times. The first video to be added to the collection is “Cumberlocal,” a short piece by Multimedia Specialist Brenda Landis that secured first place in the Carlisle Film Festival last February.


Dickinson Scholar
“Sharing Scholarship”
Archives & Special Collections
Research at Dickinson

[Published on the Dickinson College website June 10, 2015.]

Cliff Wulfman on Skunks, Shmoos, and the Future of DH

[The following slides and presentation notes are from Cliff Wulfman’s talk, “Thinking Big,” which took place Thursday, April 2, 2015 in Stafford Auditorium on the campus of Dickinson College. The Digital Humanities Advisory Committee thanks Dr. Wulfman for his permission to share them–PSB].


I want to thank Chris and Patrick for inviting me to speak with you this afternoon.  I’m a close reader by training and inclination, so I can’t start a talk like this without “problematizing” our terms:

“Successful Digital Humanities Project Development”

Indeed, I’m going to use those terms as the framework for exploring these five steps, though not in syntactic order.

1. DIGITAL: Let’s begin with the term digital, and its verbal derivation, digitize.


The term digital is, of course, treacherously polysemous.  It has become a metonym for the discrete values modern computers use to represent information, and so to digitize is to represent information by means of discrete values.  Digital data is simply information stored as ordered sequences of discrete states.  These ordered sequences are often called files or streams, and they come in many varieties, but at the most basic level they are all the same: audio files, image files, text files are all just sequences of bits.

So the digital in digital humanities refers to the binary representation of information as bits.  It does not, in other words, connote numerical or mathematical so much as it does symbolic, or semiotic.


It is about representability.

So digital humanities is not equivalent to statistical humanities, although the showiest face of digital humanities is the visualization of maps, graphs, and trees derived from the application of social-science methods to texts and to phenomena of interest to historians of various types, literary and otherwise. The rhetorical impact of these visualizations is undeniable, but at bottom they are simply a way of displaying quantitative information, and computation is not equivalent to quantification. Computation also entails the application of procedural logic and heuristics: using an encoded knowledge base and a reasoning algorithm, for example, to diagnose an illness from a set of symptoms.

Nor is digital humanities equivalent to making web pages.


For scholars in the humanities, in most cases, web sites are akin to publications: they constitute the presentation of research, not the research itself.  So in almost all cases, creating a web site does not constitute a digital humanities project.

At the same time, the World Wide Web has evolved, from a collection of lightly encoded text files linked together by the HTTP data-transfer protocol, into a network of data and services. So creating a trove of carefully prepared data in machine-readable format — a digital edition encoded in the schema of the Text Encoding Initiative, for example, or a biographical dictionary encoded using the standards of linked open data — does constitute a digital humanities project.

So the first step to successful digital humanities project development is understanding what it means for something to be digital.Slide06

2. PROJECT: Next: Defining a project.


As a researcher, you may already have disciplinary knowledge and traditional practice guiding and constraining your conception and realization of a project. What makes a scholarly or academic project a digital humanities project?

Defining a project isn’t always straightforward in the humanities.


These endeavors are not always product-oriented; even when they are, the product is frequently intangible: an idea; an argument; an analysis; a method; a critique; etc. I’m leaving aside articles and monographs as direct products of research: they are secondary instruments of dissemination

Sometimes there is tangible product, though: editions; transcriptions; databases; instruments for research and analysis.

When thinking in terms of a project, then, it is important to learn to think strategically:

Slide09Think about the outcomes you want to want to achieve, and why they are important: what will the consequences of this work be?

Think about the resources your work will require. Particular materials, in particular forms? Tools for accomplishing specific tasks?  Whose time and attention will you be drawing upon, and for how long?

How difficult is your project? What are the risk factors: what sorts of things might go wrong, what sorts of events might interfere with the successful completion of your project? What are your contingency plans? Can your project produce partial successes, or is it all or nothing? (Not a good idea.)

Try to organize your project into phases, each of which has its own success criteria, and each of which builds on the preceding phases.

If it sounds like I’m telling you to learn to think like an engineer, I am.



Earlier, I talked about what it means for something to be digital. Chiseling a definition of the term digital is easy; sharpening the meaning of the term humanities is much, much more difficult – so difficult and contentious, in fact, that I’m not going to address it directly at all, other than to suggest it has more to do with subject-matter than method.  Instead, just as I have tried to complicate the popular conflation of digital humanities with social science, I want to take this opportunity to distinguish digital humanities from digital librarianship.  Once again, these endeavors often overlap significantly, but they are different.

From one perspective, a library is a hoard of physical artifacts whose principal function is to be looked at. Seen from that perspective, digitization is an image-making activity: rendering surfaces on which drawings and inscriptions appear into sequences of bits that a computer can use to produce a reflection of that surface. From another perspective, a library is a gathering of texts whose principal function is to be read. From this perspective digitization is a linguistic activity: rendering words or other symbols into sequences of bits that a computer can use to create linguistic symbols that can be analyzed and compared.

It is the scholar’s privilege to regard the library from the latter perspective; it is the librarian’s burden to view it from the former, and in large measure the job of libraries is conservative digital photo-duplication: not creating a digital library so much as digitizing an existing one.

Thus the work of the digital scholar depends on that of the digital librarian, and in some aspects overlaps considerably with it, but it is not the same work. Likewise the work of the information scientist; the software engineer; the computer scientist (all different sorts of work, often done by different people).

This is part of the reason the digital humanities are so often hyped as being collaborative: quite often, work in DH requires knowledge and expertise from a variety of fields.  By bringing in many different perspectives you necessarily get many different priorities, points of view, cutting across different traditional academic disciplines, but focusing on humanities questions.

So, step three in developing a successful digital humanities project is to conceptualize your work in the context of an interdisciplinary framework of humanistic endeavor.


4. SUCCESSFUL: Defining success isn’t always straightforward in the humanities, and in research in general.


I’m going to hazard the following measure of a good DH Project:

“a good DH project uses domain knowledge and intellectual labor to create digital objects that can be curated and shared with others through standard formats and services.”

That last criterion (accessibility) strongly implicates the world wide web, but it needn’t always. And it certainly doesn’t necessitate a whizzy web site.


But defining success is a useful discipline nonetheless. For one thing, it can help you focus your work by articulating specific outcomes you want to achieve.

What specific goals do you expect to meet with this work?  A full and compelling argument?  An insightful biography?  A meticulous accounting of an event, or an object, or an archive?  If there are products of your work, what are they?  On what basis can you or others evaluate their quality, their success or failure?

Of course, this kind of outcome-orientation isn’t appropriate at all stages of research, but the point at which you can articulate goals and deliverables is the point at which research becomes a project.


Defining successful outcomes also helps to organize time and effort.  Most of us know the value of setting intermediate goals and deadlines; organizing these around success criteria can help make them realistic.

Let me give you some examples (this is a highly opinionated list) of “Bad (or Meh) DH Projects”:





Now another, equally opinionated, list of “Good (or Exemplary) DH Projects”:


The Text Creation Partnership to improve the OCR of 18th century typography is a good DH project.  Good DH projects are those whose products or outcomes can be used in multiple ways by others.


The Valley of the Shadow is one of the first digital humanities projects.


Begun in 1993 by Ed Ayers and Will Thomas, at Uva, it is an electronic archive of two communities in the American Civil War–Augusta County, Virginia, and Franklin County, Pennyslvania. The Valley Web site includes encoded, searchable newspapers, population census data, agricultural census data, manufacturing census data, slave-owner census data, and tax records. The Valley Web site also contains letters and diaries, images, maps, church records, and military rosters.

What makes it particularly important, to my mind, is that it was designed not as a showcase but as a working research tool.

Ayers and Thomas published a web-based hypertext article that explicitly uses hypertext and full-text encoded archival material to make an argument.

The Shelley-Godwin Archive is another exemplary archival project.


It features transcriptions of manuscripts that are deeply encoded to allow users to study the composition history of the materials.

Mapping the Republic of Letters is another.


Based at Stanford, this project gathers meta data about the networks of correspondence among the luminaries of the Age of Enlightenment and uses it to produce wonderful visualizations of them.

5. DEVELOPMENT: So how do you go about doing this? How do you develop a DH project?


Talk with people.

We’ve already talked about the almost inherently collaborative nature of the digital humanities.  There simply is not (not yet, anyway) a strong, documented track record of digital humanities methods and approaches; they are in any case highly interdisciplinary and under rapid evolution.

The proliferation of DH centers at universities testifies to the anxiety on the part of researchers to acquire new competencies as part of their academic work.  So seek out others in your field who have already had some experience, and ask them how they did it; seek out colleagues in other fields to talk with you about methodologies and approaches.

Climb the steep hill.


This is really important. Ask yourself if you are willing to take the time to learn something new, different, and possibly outside your comfort zone.

Be prepared to acquire a more than superficial understanding of computational practices and methods.  Not that you have to become a master programmer; but you should understand the fundamentals of programming and computer science: data structures and algorithms; inputs and outputs.

Just as you would not undertake a professional study of Homer without learning Greek, learn the the language of computer engineering: how could I represent the objects of my study in machine-readable forms? Can I develop models of things and events? How might I manipulate those representations? Could I describe procedures, techniques, tricks for analyzing them, generating them, enhancing them, expressing them in different forms?

Deploy project-oriented thinking.


In developing your project, employ the project-oriented strategic thinking we discussed earlier:  Try to lay out your project as a series of incremental steps and accomplishments.

Be flexible.

Unless your project is very straightforward and extremely well defined, it is likely to change in response to external events (funding, personnel) and internal evolution (discoveries made in the course of the project).

But, don’t just go chasing rabbits down the rabbit-hole. It’s very tempting to let the scope of your project expand over time as you learn about new things, see someone’s nifty tool, and so on.

Scope creep founders projects.

At the same time, though, don’t hobble your imagination or your ambition based on what you can see from here, today.

Don’t be afraid to think big.


Let me share with you a little thought experiment.  A few months ago I was asked to speak on a conference panel entitled “Modernism and Big Data.”

The so-called “digital humanities” are at this early stage of engagement as much a series of considered poses, or deliberative positions, as anything else.  So to hold a panel on “Modernism and Big Data” was to propose a consideration of “Humanism as Big Science,” to position ourselves, to imagine ourselves, as big scientists asking big questions, knowing all the while that we were “playing pretend”.

In what follows, I am going to pretend that the collective textual remnants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries have all been processed into a machine-readable textual corpus. We don’t have it now, but it is not so far-fetched to imagine that we will be able to capture a significant portion of the written record, at least that portion already under institutional control in libraries and archives. It wasn’t all that long ago that the Google Books project seemed absolutely preposterous.

And besides, we’re just playing.


Big Science asks big questions, such as “what is the nature of matter?”  The enormity of the question and the value of obtaining an answer (both practical value and intellectual value) drive research, collaboration, funding — they provide the energy that turns the wheels of research.

Perhaps, in this big-science fantasy we’re indulging ourselves in for the moment, we can imagine what such a Big Question might be, and speculate on what sort of engine posing it might awaken.  In our context I can imagine no bigger question than Raymond Williams’ question, ”When was Modernism?”

This seems a reasonable — and somewhat preposterous — Big Question to start with.  But we could just as easily ask something just as grandiose, like “WHAT was Modernism?”  — answering which is a precondition to answering the “When?” question, or “WHERE was Modernism?”


These questions share the playful, tantalizing precision of Virginia Woolf’s famous aphorism from “Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown.”

Less often quoted is her qualification. Nevertheless, let’s succumb to temptation and take Woolf’s assertion at face value.  How would we go about proving or disproving her hypothesis? Could the immensity of Big Data help us, and if so, how?

So, in Woolf’s spirit, and since one must be arbitrary, let us call our Big Science endeavor…


We’re talking Big Science here – REALLY BIG – like the Manhattan Project, or the search for the Higgs boson. So let’s keep playing dress-up and imagine an alternative reality where the Institutions of Power actually thought these questions were as important as finding out whether a subatomic particle actually exists or not, or how to blow up the planet. That is, we would have access to REALLY BIG RESOURCES, with really big expectations.

What would it mean for us, institutionally and professionally, to address ourselves collectively to answering such a question?  What would happen to the current models of promotion and tenure, department composition, teaching, publication? Who would have to be involved?

We would inevitably want some Theorists.


We want to describe a state change: for some definition of human character, we want to be able to say that before some point (the “December 1910 Moment”), human character was in state H and after that point it was in state H′.

We might then call Modernism a function which, when applied to Human Character H, transforms it to H prime.

As with so much theory, the discussion quickly becomes highly arcane.  So I’m going to leave the theorists to do their thing for the moment and turn to the Empiricists.


They’re the ones who get to play with the big toys, the big machines, the big data. Sometimes they get to play pirate, or skunks – more about that in a minute.  The linear accelerator model: building a ginormous machine that you can use to produce humungous amounts of data, which you can then search for traces in. The ginormous machine is history, which has left a humungous data trail of artifacts and documents in its wake.

How might the Empiricists use that Big Data to locate the December 1910 Moment?

Well, statistical topic modeling seems pretty tantalizing. If Woolf’s hypothesis is correct, we should expect to find topic models after the December 1910 moment that do not exist before that moment. The simple existence of the moment doesn’t explain what caused the change: that is, it doesn’t explain what the Modernism function is.  That’s the problem with History: it isn’t testable. You can’t change the factors in some equation and re-run events to see how the factors affect them.


The Empiricists include scholars like Greg Crane, who ask what do you do with a million books, and Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive, who asks us to imagine capturing the entire human record in digital form, and Stephen Ramsay, who articulates the Screwmeneutical Imperative to subvert the academic orthodoxies and ideologies of method and form an anarchic version of The December 1910 Project, a “community of practice” that valorizes Roland Barthe’s playful writerly text.

Now, right about now you’re maybe getting a little tired of playing dress-up. But before we pooh-pooh these visionary questions, let’s recall the remarkable thing Google did with its Google Books project. Sure: it isn’t perfect, and it leaves lots of things out, and it’s texts are really, really dirty.

But this is how *big* works.  It isn’t small acts of perfection: perfectly crafted editions, for example.  Big works through iterative refinement, each iteration changing the state of things in such a way as to open opportunities for further refinement.  Unattended OCR, the holy grail: a machine that can read printed text as well as a trained human being.  We don’t have it yet, so today the results of unattended OCR are dirty.

But OCR algorithms continue to improve (need citations). In fact, the principal value of generation X digitization projects like the Google Books project is the /page capture/.  If those pages were photographed well, the OCR can always be re-run, and over time the cost of processing and re-processing will decline.

So, on the one hand, we must develop research methods that tolerate noise, while at the same time anticipating improvements in the accuracy of text recognition.


The larger message I’m trying to convey is this one.  The most valuable part of the December 1910 Project is the social and institutional infrastructure that supports, promotes, protects, and preserves human effort..  Put your emphasis on the stuff that machines need but can’t do. The most expensive, most valuable part of digital humanities work is the work done by trained human beings.  That’s the work that can’t be re-processed cheaply, no matter how little you pay graduate students.  Don’t treat it lightly! Don’t stick it in a Word document and forget about it.  Spend some time thinking about the best ways to capture that intellectual work so that it can be re-used in today’s scholarly world: that may not be a verbal argument published in a scholarly monograph, but a data set – a formal marshalling of evidence – represented in a way that can be taken up by reasoning machines as well as reasoning people.

Don’t become slaves to the machine: hack the machine, or partner with people who can. Make the machine work for you by giving it information it can use.

Give it highly crafted, machine-actionable metadata: not just the usual library metadata – names, titles, dates of publication and so on.


We will need granular structured analyses of complex pages, like those in newspapers and magazines.  Not slabs of undifferentiated text, but pages that have been decomposed into their structural regions, mult-page articles that have been joined together into discrete wholes. Much of this work can now be automated, but it still needs human assistance.

Give the machine descriptions of nuanced relations and assertions that it can read.


Statements in first-order predicate logic are a start.  Here is a portion of a graph describing the publication of Bayard Boysen’s “Lake” in the first issue of Broom, a description that captures the complex relationships among abstract entities (“the magazine Broom”, “a poem called ‘Lake’”) and concrete realities – a copy of the first issue of Broom, housed in Firestone Library, and a set of electronic files that embody various representations of it. These sorts of assertions – encoded in some sort of standard schema, like RDF – are the raw material of the knowledge base the so-called “semantic web” promises to become. There are lots of problems with the semantic web, just as there are problems with Google Books, but it is for now by far the best place to start putting our scholarly effort.


I want to conclude with a nod to three pioneers of computer science, Vannevar Bush, Douglas Englebart, and J. R. Licklider. At the dawn of the computer age, these men, all three engineers and administrators, each had a vision of the computer that was profoundly humanistic.  Bush’s Memex, often cited as the precursor to the world wide web, was a machine that enabled people to link and track the vastness of human knowledge more efficiently.

Doug Englebart, inventor of the mouse and a variety of other ground-breaking technologies, saw in computers the possibility of augmenting the human intellect.

R. Licklider, director of the Defense department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, from which the Internet sprang, envisioned a “human computer symbiosis” in which humans and machines partner to extend the reach of human thinking and decision-making.

For each of them, the computer was not an enormous calculating machine, but an empowering system that people could engage to increase the store of human knowledge. If you can develop projects that participate in, extend, and augment this vision, they will indeed be successful digital humanities projects.

Which brings us to skunks.


I read with great pleasure and sympathy Bethany Nowviskie’s blog post entitled ‘a skunk in the library’.  Nowviskie traces the term to Lockheed Martin in the 1940s, where it was used to describe a “rogue team” of engineers who functioned outside the usual corporate culture in order to accomplish special things, and she applies it to to the Scholar’s Lab at UVa, which she directs.

Nowviskie mentions parenthetically that the engineers took the term “skunkworks” from Al Capp’s L’il Abner, but she doesn’t pursue the allusion, staying with the meaning that has evolved from the Lockheed Martin appropriation: a group of elite creatives who get special license to do wonderful, innovative things.  Following this etymology, those creative people are the skunks.  And who wouldn’t want to be a skunk?  These skunks are like the kids in the Gifted and Talented program: they may be misfits, some of them, but they’re precious and special, and they smell bad only to Department Chairs, who don’t savor liberty and innovation.

The thing is, that’s not how things were in the hillbilly hamlet of Dogpatch, and I want to conclude with that.  (I also want to claim the right to use the term “hillbilly”, as I was born and bred in West Virginia and am proud to be called one.)

In the world of Li’l Abner, the “Skonk Works” was a toxic chemical factory on the outskirts of Dogpatch, where the lone operator, “Big Barnsmell,” crafted a mysterious concoction called ‘skonk oil’ by brewing dead skunks and old shoes in a still.  Dozens of Dogpatch residents died every year of the toxic fumes.

According to Ben Rich, the second director of the Lockheed Martin skunk works, the group got its name because the original facility was located next to a toxic-smelling plastics factory and one of the engineers likened their own secretive operation to factory in the Al Capp cartoon.


So there are several things to think about here.  First, the skunks aren’t in charge.  They aren’t the workers in the “Skonk Works”; they are the raw material.  Second, the work of the skunk works isn’t benign “creative innovation”; it is industrial pollution.  Nowviskie acknowledges the unease occasioned by use of the term “skunkworks”: “there’s a level of honesty and self-awareness involved in not calling them snuggly bunnies.”

There’s a larger story here about papering over the toxic effects of the digital revolution, literally, as in the waste byproducts of microchip manufacture, and figuratively in the effects of automation on an underclass of workers (the denizens of Dogpatch) and the fact that the Lockheed Martin operation designed war planes.  These bunnies are not snuggly at all, and they aren’t even amusingly off-beat: they are fodder for a noxious process of commodification.

I’m afraid that to expect academia to work like Lockheed Martin, or like Silicon Valley start-ups, or even like a forward-looking library, is naïve. From what I’ve seen, the skunks are the graduate students, the adjuncts, and the alt-acs who do the work but don’t get the credit; who build the intellectual playgrounds Steve Ramsay describes but aren’t allowed inside.  To call them skunks is to give them a roguish tang; in fact, they risk becoming that other legendary Al Capp creature …


The Shmoo, which exists to be a commodity: delicious to eat, and eager to be eaten.

The Digital Humanities, Big Data: these highfalutin terms promise much, and we can fantasize about the opportunities they open up, the roles they may let us play, the discoveries they may enable. But let’s not allow our dress-up fantasies to become wish-fulfillment. Higher Education is in crisis; intellectualism is in decline; graduate education is in a death spiral. Let’s not pretend that DH is going to solve all these problems: even more, let’s not let DH become part of the problem.

Thank you.

Mellon Digital Humanities Seminar: Clifford Wulfman (4-7:30 PM, Thursday, April 2, 2015) @ Dickinson College, Carlisle PA


“Thinking Big: Five Steps to Successful Digital Project Development”


Clifford Wulfman is the Coordinator of Library Digital Initiatives at Princeton University and co-founder of Princeton’s new Center for Digital Humanities. He has been involved with the Perseus Digital Library, the Modernist Journals Project, and is currently the Director of the Blue Mountain Project, an NEH-funded initiative digitizing European art periodicals. In April, Dr. Wulfman will be on the campus of Dickinson College to talk about his work and training, digital libraries, and the future of digital humanities.

Mellon DH Fund supports the creation and development of Eighteenth-Century Poets Connect

by Jacob Sider Jost (assistant professor, English)

In the fall of 2014 I applied for a semester-long grant to pay a student assistant, Mary Naydan, to complete a spreadsheet listing the works of 133 English poets active during the years 1730-1740.  This was a continuation of a project begun by Mary and me using a Dickinson summer student-faculty collaborative research grant in the summer of 2012.  Over the course of the fall, Mary logged 64 hours of research, gleaning bibliographical and biographical information about poets from a range of online sources (particularly the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the English Short Title Catalogue, and Eighteenth-Century Collections Online).  Although not able to complete the full roster of poets in the time funded by the grant, she did complete approximately half of them—an impressive one poet an hour.

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I am confident that as with our work in the summer after her sophomore year, this experience will stand Mary in good stead as she looks ahead to graduate study in English or an allied field.  While Mary was in the digital archive researching eighteenth-century poets, our digital humanities postdoc Patrick Belk took the lead on organizing the data in a way that would be not only useful but publicly accessible, building a Drupal database to hold the data stored in our spreadsheets.

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This database is accessible at

            Thanks to Patrick and Mary, my goal of documenting, visualizing, and analyzing networks of print and patronage for eighteenth-century poetry has moved significantly closer to realization—with the unexpected benefit that thanks to Dr. Belk’s implementation of Drupal the project, while still in progress, is available to me and other researchers online.

Booksellers Network Viz3_2


With that said, further research work and technical tinkering remain to be done.  My current timetable is as follows: this semester, Dr. Belk will smooth out the remaining problems with our data, not all of which imported successfully from our Excel spreadsheets into the online database.  Over the summer, I will finish entering the biographical and bibliographical data from the 60 or so poets who remain undocumented.  By the end of summer 2015, Eighteenth-Century Poets Connect will be complete as a publicly accessible online database documenting the poetic culture of Britain in the 1730s.  In the fall of 2015, Dr. Belk and I will work together to find the visualizations and other tools of analysis that make this data most useful, and it will be the work of the following year, 2015-16, for me to write an article for peer-reviewed publication discussing my findings.

Jacob Sider Jost

Digital Humanities at MLA 2015 (Vancouver)

The digital humanities is well represented at this weekend’s 130th annual Modern Language Association Convention (Vancouver, BC; January 8-11). A simple keyword search of the 2015 Program displays 43 sessions that match the criteria “All text: digital humanities”; 6 sessions match “All text: DH,” and 32 sessions are listed under the program’s Subject heading:

General Literature–Electronic Technology (Teaching, Research, and Theory).

Because it reminded me of Chris’s thoughtful (and provoking) post on Desmond Schmidt’s article two days ago, I wanted to first bring attention, and share the link, to a session held yesterday: 204. Text Tools in the (Digital) Humanities (Friday, 9). Here’s a case being made by David Hoover for “plain text” alternatives to XML, which also focuses on inter-operability, and shares some of the concerns in Schmidt’s article that Chris discussed Thursday. Abstracts of all 3 papers for session 204 are posted at 204 Abstracts. The top-most abstract is Hoover’s paper, titled “The Promise of the Plain: Plain Text and Plain Tools in the Digital Humanities.”

I won’t even try to briefly touch on all 43 sessions, but another that caught my attention, and I wanted to share because it looked interesting, was this morning’s roundtable: 448. Disrupting the Digital Humanities (Saturday, 10). Last night while browsing the program, I paused at this one in particular, because I saw that participants included Sean Michael Morris (presiding) and Jessie Stommel (final speaker), who are co-directors of Hybrid Pedagogy, an online blog/ peer-reviewed journal that I follow. According to the program’s session description:

All too often, defining a discipline becomes more an exercise of exclusion than inclusion. This roundtable rethinks how we map disciplinary terrain by directly confronting the gatekeeping impulse of many academic disciplines. Participants investigate the edges and open the digital humanities more fully to its fringes and outliers.

For papers featured at this morning’s roundtable discussion, go here: DisruptingDH.

Sessions, abstracts, and (some) papers from DH-related events at this year’s MLA can be found through links in the Full Program. Relative to other methodologies and content areas, the digital humanities remains the annual mega-conference’s MVP (Most Visible Player)-as Pannapacker called it, “The Thing”-five years running. The 204 and 408 sessions give a good idea of the kinds of wide-ranging approaches being taken, moreover. DH at this year’s MLA–from textual analysis and close reading to LOL cats and critical queer theory–is thriving, and scholars in languages and literature are doing some pretty meaningful work across diverse areas of research.

Mellon DH Fund supports ongoing Digitization Efforts of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School Project

Directed by Jim Gerencser, Dickinson College Archivist, Susan Rose, Professor of Sociology, and Malinda Triller Doran, Special Collections Librarian, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School Project is developing a comprehensive digital resource to catalog and preserve records of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School (1879-1918). It brings together widely dispersed archival materials to aid research and study, and serves as a virtual home for an active CIIS community of memory and inquiry. Launched in 2013, this exciting, new project at Dickinson College is already making a positive impact upon the communities of scholars and family historians who do research on the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and its many thousands of students.


With support from the Mellon Digital Humanities Fund last January, the project was able to hire two new undergraduate researchers, Katie Walters and Tessa Cicak, who spent two weeks at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. scanning materials from the student files series of CIIS records. Along with Caitlin Moriarty (Friends of the Library), they scanned 1560 student files during that time, comprising roughly 16,200 pages of text. Gerencser also spent several days at the National Archives, surveying the contents of other document series and scanning 5 boxes of student id cards. Back in Carlisle, undergraduate interns Michele Metcalf, Stephanie Read, and Frank Vitale continued to add processed, finalized student files to the online database, while correcting and updating student files that had been uploaded in summer 2013. Through the technology consultancy services of Don Sailer, also funded by the Mellon grant, new search features, an updated home page, and enhanced content entry standards were also added to the project’s website, along with a blog to provide regular updates on the project’s progress.


As of that time, Gerencser and his team had scanned 3556 student files, of which 667 files were online, edited, and fully updated; 628 were online, with editing/ updating of descriptive content needed; and 288 were processed and ready to be put online. Of the 15 boxes of student card files in D.C., 5 had been fully scanned and processed, comprising roughly 1950 cards. Large sections of CIIS registers and record books were also transcribed, edited, and ready to be put online.


The Carlisle Indian Industrial School Project was featured that month in an article for Indian Country Today, “Carlisle Indian Industrial School Files Go Digital,” and most recently was the subject of an ABC27 news story, “Digital records unearth Indian school history.”

For more information on the Carlisle Indian Industrial School Project, you can contact Jim Gerencser by email here.

Mellon DH Fund supports Innovation in Foreign Language Learning @ The Mixxer


The Mixxer, a Web application developed at Dickinson College by language technologist Todd Bryant, is a free educational resource allowing language learners around the world to schedule Skype sessions to fit their schedules, and helping Dickinson’s language departments harness technology to provide students regular conversations with native speakers. Having grown over the years to include 100,000+ international participants, The Mixxer enables Dickinson’s faculty to provide students the kind of experience that was once impossible in the classroom.

Last year, The Mixxer offered a MOOC to English speakers learning Spanish and paired the participants with a partner course of Spanish speakers learning English. Using open educational resources from COERLL, Colby College, Voice for America and the BBC among others, the language learners were introduced to new vocabulary and grammar points through texts and audio and then given activities to complete with their language partner from the other course. If you have ever taught or taken a language course, you can think of the language exchange as a replacement for the partner activities done most every day in class.

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Explanation of The Mixxer (1:57 minutes)

With support from the Mellon Digital Humanities Fund, The Mixxer was able to build on its successes this summer, hiring three Dickinson education and language students to create free, online courses in German, French, and Chinese. The lessons are structured in much the same way as a traditional language class, with learners first being introduced to new content, given examples, asked to practice, and then finishing with some form of written assessment.

The German and French lessons, created by Ezra Sassaman and Caitlin DeFazio, respectively, assume some knowledge of the language – roughly one semester. The lessons in Chinese, created by Betsy Vuchinich, have been designed for beginning learners of the language, and use content primarily from the Confucius Institute and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. All three courses are complete, free to use, and currently available on The Mixxer site.

Additionally, Bryant and his team were able to hire a computer science major, Santiago Princ, to help with technical additions to The Mixxer. By using jQuery, Princ helped Bryant write a module that allows native speakers to quickly view, edit, and resubmit corrections to their partner’s written work. The language learner can then reply to the native speaker with further questions.

The module that Princ helped create extends the open-source Drupal platform, and has been published on along with an acknowledgement to Princ. It is viewable here.

Benefits to Students

Sassaman, DeFazio, and Vuchinich received training from Dickinson College associate professors Sarah Bair (Education) and Sarah McGaughey (German) on the basics of language pedagogy and the structure of language lessons. They then learned how to apply these principles to an online learning environment. They were also required to participate in the language exchanges themselves to gain an understanding of the lessons work in practice from a language learner’s perspective. The lessons are published under their name to which they will be able to refer if they decide to pursue a career or further education in language pedagogy.

By working with Bryant to create the module, Princ gained a solid and fundamental understanding of jQuery, a very common web developing language. More importantly, he now has experience working with open-source software along with the process of using community resources to diagnose and solve errors.

Bryant and Vuchinich also had the opportunity to showcase these resources at the CALICO / IALLT conference in Athens, Ohio (May 6 – 10), where they received praise from educators. Of particular interest was the news that they would use these lessons as part of three MOOCs to be offered on The Mixxer site (starting July 1, 2014). As before, learners from each course are able to connect with partners via Skype to complete the language exchange activities provided within each lesson.

For more information on The Mixxer, or foreign language learning with technology in general, you can contact Bryant by email here.