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DH Week Reflections, after Possibly Too Many Workshops

Because I’m on sabbatical, I decided to do my best to take full advantage of DH week, so I ran around the city attending as many workshops as I could! Please note that this is exhausting — but worthwhile. Here’s what I attended:

General and/or Theoretical:

  • Kickoff Event (Meredith Broussard keynote and panel consisting of Jenna Freedman, Juber Ayala, Alex Gil and Wendy Hayden)
  • Fair Use in the Digital Humanities (Jill Cirasella)
  • Information and Democracy Edit-a-thon

Pedagogy:

Text Analysis and Network Analysis:

Communication:

  • Intro to Omeka (Kimon Keramidas)
  • Advanced Omeka (Kimon Keramidas)

Now that I look at this list… that’s a whole lot, and I probably shouldn’t try to write out all my thoughts on every workshop here. So, I’ll start with my general thoughts on DH Week 2019.

I love the multi-institutional character of DH Week. As someone who didn’t grow up in a city, this is what’s really amazing about New York — the fact that there are so many potential colleagues here, doing interesting work all across the city in multiple institutions. There are often events and collaborative opportunities within CUNY, especially as a librarian, but visiting campuses outside CUNY and talking with people there is much more rare, so I’m excited that this is possible and would love to see more events of this kind.

However, there are definite drawbacks. The obvious one is geography — attending back to back workshops in different parts of the city is quite difficult, especially with the afternoon workshops, which often ended at the same time another one was starting. I found this choice a little odd, but I suppose people probably aren’t supposed to attend as many events as I wanted to.

But the other problem, and one I think we all need to make sure we’re thinking about not just for DH Week, is accommodating attendees from outside the institution. To create a good experience for people not affiliated with an institution, the planners of an event need to do a lot! When I walk in as someone from another institution, this is what I hope for:

  1. Access privileges
  2. Wifi access
  3. Good signage, in case someone isn’t already familiar with the campus
  4. Consistent advertising about when and where the event is
  5. No assumptions about what the attendees have access to or already know

And it turns out this is really hard! I ran into problems with at least one of the above at almost every non-CUNY workshop,* and I’m not saying this to criticize the organizers of the events, because I’m thinking about events I’ve hosted at Queens College and I’m not sure I did a great job either. Universities are built to accommodate the people affiliated with them — which is not to say they SHOULD be, but it’s something I’ve started to realize a little more thoroughly here.

But I also think that the guest wifi in particular says a lot about whether the institution is more interested in accommodating visitors or keeping out intruders. I was at a lot of NYU workshops, and the workshops were really great and the presenters were lovely, but the guest wifi login was a well-kept secret that the presenters didn’t know. This is really extreme, but all the institutions had problems somewhere along this list.

That was kind of a critical way to open my reflection! But I love DH Week and how it’s grown. I really love the breadth of topics, and that they are pitched at different experience levels, despite the challenges this poses. “Advanced Topics in Word Embeddings” was a great example of this; the workshop was advertised as requiring a certain level of expertise, but the presenter, Jonathan Reeve, was also really careful about checking everyone’s level of comfort and expertise throughout the workshop — I actually got a lot out of that, despite being new to the topic AND having a couple of technical issues. It was also really great being able to attend a workshop along with a combination of faculty and graduate students from across multiple disciplines as well as multiple institutions, and I’m always happy to see more opportunities to bring these disparate groups together.

~

Without going into detail on each of workshop, let me give some of the highlights for me:

Meredith Broussard talking about how we should be careful with the metaphors we use to talk about technology. I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I think it’s really important. The level of anthropomorphism (or in some cases, almost animism) with which we often talk about technology obscures the labor that went into it and the choices that are inherent in its design, but it also encourages learned helplessness (or, it discourages engagement and curiousity). I loved her critique of the black box idea (it’s a way of not explaning things that should probably be explained), and especially her insistence that math is not better than people.

Alex Gil making a point I hadn’t previously understood about the importance of community archives: they allow the community to make sense of itself without being passed through the lens of whiteness that is the inevitable result of the work of a mostly-white profession. Jenna Freedman was of course quite correct to point out that it’s possible to build another kind of librarianship, as they’ve very intentionally done at Barnard, but Alex was correct that the state of the profession right now is too white and with too many incidents of racism, large and small. (Of course, this was also timely, coming very soon after a major librarian conference at which several racist incidents occurred.)

Getting to see how Jill teaches about fair use. I know a lot about fair use already (which isn’t to say I didn’t learn a couple things), but Jill is so good at teaching and I’m hoping to incorporate some of this into what I do next time I’m teaching a workshop about copyright-related issues!

The really thoughtful way that the workshop on Building a Support System in the DH Classroom pulled together various roles — librarians, educational technology, faculty, students — to model for us how an assignment might be built, and the questions that we need to ask when we do. We talked in that workshop about how it can be really difficult to collaborate across roles in this way, since institutions are largely not built for that (a problem both in this case and throughout DH), but it also gave us a starting point for thinking about assignments from these different perspectives.

Learning about the slightly mind-blowing nature of word embddings — for those who don’t know (as I didn’t before this workshop!) this means that you can map out where the words in a text belong in 300-dimensional space (!!) based on their context and use this spatial metaphor to identify parts of speech and other similarities betwen different types of words. I’m going to have to go through this whole thing again because it’s all new to me, but it’s … just really cool.

Getting to see how using SQL to pull data for a network analysis project actually works in practice.

Related to that, I’m now rethinking a little project I did with board games and networks just to demonstrate my understanding of some concepts to myself, and wondering if there are any circumstances under which it may have actual merit. This requires more thinking.

Learning about Python modules for network analysis! I’m super excited about this, AND I’m also very excited to learn that some of the digital fellows are starting to get into this, because I’m quite likely to ask them for help.

Seeing some of the work that can be done with social media, and getting a quick introduction to some of the tools that are out there for it. The workshop I went to focused on NVIVO, which I don’t believe we have here at CUNY, but now I know some of the limitations and some of the questions to ask. Apparently many of these tools have explicit licenses with social media companies, and the social media companies control what they end up downloading in ways that aren’t very transparent at all, so that’s good to know. She also made the point that a lot of this can be done with Python — the trick, of course, is figure out how to time it so that one doesn’t get banned. (I also learned how to take stuff out of such a tool, which is very valuable.)

Omeka! There’s a lot more that can be done with this, but I was happy to learn about a web publishing tool that foregrounds metadata in this way. It’s a little specialized, but the way it structures information and lets you put things in a specific context are both very exciting.

The Edit-a-Thon! Edit-a-thons are really, really fun, and I’d encourage everyone who’s even a little interested to go to one. It’s especially good if you’re intimidated by the thought of editing Wikipedia, because they usually include some component of walking newcomers through it, and there are volunteers there to help. Incidentally, there’s one at the GC on February 28, so please consider coming! Details here: Revolutionizing Wikipedia: A Queer and Feminist Edit-a-thon

Okay, I wrote a lot. In any case, DH Week was pretty great, but it always is.

*Since these problems don’t show up as clearly when it’s your home institution!

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One Comment

  1. Posted February 16, 2019 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Fantastic writeup, Nancy, and it’s so awesome you attended so many workshops. I thoroughly enjoyed this read. 🙂

    I love how many different institutions collaborate and put on workshops too. I think it’s one of the coolest things about NYCDH week!

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