As I dive into the world of Digital Humanities, I am exposed to an increasing variety of programs, apps, coding languages, and platforms to digitize my research and see my work in new ways. I’ve always been interested in productivity, and paper and pen or pencil have long been some of the most valuable tools in my academic life. For the last few years I have become interested in thinking about digital tools not just as the end result of research, but also how they shape my workflow and daily routines. I’ve found Zotero to be quite helpful in organizing the thousands of newspaper articles on my hard drive, I use Evernote for organizing just about everything related to my teaching and research, and Scrivener is without a doubt my favorite program for writing articles and dissertation chapters.
Yet, the more I use digital tools, the more I continue to appreciate to my analog systems of paper and pencil. While most of my research puts me in front of my laptop screen, I find being tied to screen all day far from ideal. My laptop and other gadgets often seem as efficient as they are distracting. When I teach I run my sections as a laptop-free zone and I explain to my students the flaws of assuming we are all “good at multi-tasking.” I also find it funny to be in an academic meeting of some sort and see many in attendance using their laptops to check Facebook or email, rarely even making eye contact with the presenter.
Key to designing and maintaining a productivity system is to think about what goals you want to accomplish and what are the ‘tools of the trade’ you will enjoy using on a daily basis. I’ve found one of the most challenging things about being a PhD student is keeping on top of all of the little things, while also keeping an eye on the big picture and making steady progress towards my overarching goals. This is especially true because I have to balance both my research and my work as GTA, in which I am usually assigned to a class of about 100 students. Before I was ABD, I had all of my coursework to balance as well. I have adjusted my analog system as I have worked my way through my program, and here are two major components of my current system:
1. Daily Tasks Journal: While I keep all off my important dates and deadlines on iCal, I also have a notebook in which I have to-do lists for each day of the week. I’ve found this very helpful in managing small tasks so they don’t eat up my day and developing an manageable plan for the week.
2. Dissertation/writing/research Journal: My advisor (and lots of grad student blogs) suggested I start a dissertation journal when I became ABD, and this was very good advice. I don’t use this journal to collect any actual research, but rather to document how the process is going, including my work on my digital project for this fellowship. I have a pretty loose format for this journal. I document what I am working on, what seems to be going well, and what challenges I am encountering. I use this journal also to explore ideas or connections I’m seeing in my sources, as well as for topics or questions I’m just starting to think about. I find it helpful to be able to look back and see the patterns of days in which I was more productive versus less productive, and days when I felt stressed while writing compared to the days when my writing came pretty easy. When I became ABD, one of my biggest challenges was getting used to a completely different kind of schedule, in which I have tons to do but it is all on my own time. Documenting my day-to-day process has been very helpful in trying to figure out what works (besides lots of great coffee) and what hasn’t been as successful.
Both journals could easily work in a digital format. I prefer using paper not just so I get a screen break, but also because I feel that break allows me to think more deeply about my work while I am visually away from it. I like being away from email, social media, and other distractions so I can thoughtfully assess my work, even if I am just writing for ten minutes. Field Notes are my favorite notebooks for paper-based productivity. Not only are they beautifully designed and made in the USA, but I’ve found the size is small enough so I can easily carry both with me but large enough so I don’t feel cramped. Clearly I’m not the only person using analog tools to think about digital research — I’m looking for an excuse to buy these awesome stencils. I am more of pencil person versus pen, and I am a huge fan of Blackwing pencils. Many scholars and students may find it easy to give up on paper, and ultimately we should all develop systems that work best for us. But I’ve found that as I become more well versed in digital tools, I find that they greatly compliment, not replace, the joys and tangible benefits of writing by hand in a notebook.
Because of my interest in Renaissance drama and visual art, I am interested in connections, relationships, and patterns between Renaissance verbal and visual media. I’m also interested in how Renaissance playwrights and visual artists might be connected culturally, artistically, and professionally. For this reason, I’ve pursued digital visualization tools to use for my CHI Fellowship project. Having just presented on Palladio (with additional references to Tableau and Voyant), I’ve become more reflective of what visualization tools are, and what they are not.
The first question I’ve asked myself is why I should visualize my data at all. The short answer is that visualizing data allows me to view my data in a different way and it also allows me to present it to others in a tangible, approachable manner. For example, I am interested in the way in which Shakespeare uses emerging English artistic theory in his plays. So one of the first things I look for is when, how, and to what effect Shakespeare incorporates artistic terminology in his writing. While I could complete some close readings on these key passages, relate them to relevant primary works, and then situate my argument in the field accordingly, what would happen if I added the extra step of visualization to literally view these key references in a new way? Using a different lens? Might I uncover interesting and significant connections that I could not see before?
Visualizing this data, I theorize, will allow me to see connections, patterns, and potential trends (I’ve already uncovered a few surprises during my preliminary research). For example, does Shakespeare make greater use of artistic terminology in comedies or drama? Does he use artistic terminology more in his later plays? Are there particular acts, scenes, or characters that use artistic terminology more often? These are the types of questions visualization might be able to address.
Of course digital visualization does not solve research questions for me. A graph cannot analyze itself, or the enchanting Shakespearean lines that hooked me in senior English class. But it does show me new things…it does provide me with new Ways of Seeing. From there, it is up to me; what narrative will I tell to accompany my visual? What exactly is my data story? Why does it matter that Timon of Athens includes variations of the word ‘paint’ more than a dozen times? What purpose does it serve and what is at stake by identifying the purpose of these allusions?
Over the next month I’ll continue to explore visualization tools in an effort to determine which platform is right for me and my project. Exciting things are to come in the next semester: solidifying my project, attending DH workshops at the SAA, and launching what I hope will be a useful tool for myself and others.
What follows is a sort of micro-history: a narrative of how I came to be simultaneously involved in teaching, digital humanities, and community organizing. I am taking a personal narrative approach to this post because that’s just how I roll, but also because I find personal stories to be an especially useful way of highlighting the connectedness between seemingly disparate aspects of the academic profession. There is no shortage of definitions of the digital humanities from which I could draw, but in this post I am thinking of DH primarily as a discursive construct similar to how it has been described by Matthew Kirschenbaum. In other words, I do not identify myself as being within the purview of DH because of the kind of work I produce (digital/non-digital), but because my work is concerned with the ways in which digital technologies function discursively within systems of power, and how this relates both to social justice organizing and to the college writing classroom.
The first time my interests in political organizing seemed to literally overlap with my inquires into DH was when Occupy Wall Street (OWS) emerged in 2011. I was attracted to the ways in which OWS was using digital technologies, and how the velocity with which it was able to gain international attention seemed to be directly connected to its ability to garner support through social media platforms. I eventually became extremely critical of the relationship between OWS and its digital technologies, feeling that the rapidity with which OWS entered public consciousness actually exposed its lack of internal infrastructure, and that it should be remembered as an eccentric political moment instead of a long-term political or social movement. Soon thereafter, I received my most substantial community organizing experience through Southerners on New Ground (SONG), an LGBTQ organization focused on addressing issues of racial and economic justice across the South. It was at this time that I also began teaching college writing courses and was able to draw from facilitation experience with SONG to engage my students in conversations about the relationship between writing, race, sexuality, and gender.
I’ve had to shift the focus of my CHI project, from creating an open access database of the onsite collected data. The project is still something I would like to tackle, but it is simply not scalable enough to complete fully next semester. Therefore, my plan is to create a interactive visualization of specific portions of data (age, sex, ancestry, grave goods) by utilizing the geographic spatial data that was collected during the excavation process. This has led me to ponder how others have visualized the data from individual cemeteries.
But first, a little more background on the project. The Santa Clara Valley Medical Center Historic Cemetery (hereafter referred to as VMC) was rediscovered in the spring of 2012 during construction of a hospital expansion. Sometime in the late 1930’s, the cemetery was removed from county maps, and in the 1950’s a parking lot was placed on top. Because there was no way to alter the construction plans to not impact the cemetery, the individuals in the new buildings foot print needed to be removed. I worked as part of a team to excavate a total of 1,004 individuals.
Source – Reminiscences of Santa Clara Valley and San Jose by Amaury Mars 1901
The cemetery was directly connected to the county hospital, which opened in 1871. The cemetery includes individuals that were interred directly from the hospital, individuals buried at the counties expense, as well as community members that could not afford burial at one of the other cemeteries. Historical records show that the cemetery was in use from approximately 1876-1925. Records also indicate that there were, at the time of its closing, nearly 1,500 individuals buried there.
Cemeteries are places where people tend to focus on specific individuals interred there, rather than the demography of the cemetery as a whole. Cemeteries, in general, are memorials not only to the people buried there, but also reflect the time they were buried. But how do you recreate the visual aspects of a cemetery that lacked grave markers, was removed from the visual landscape by being covered over, and in fact no longer exists in its entirety because of the rescue salvation excavation? Reconstructing the individual markers of the cemetery by coding individual graves age, sex, etc. can reestablish the original feel of the cemetery.
A geographic information system (GIS) is a computer program that creates spatial maps based on spatial data that allows users to visualize and analyze data in order to reveal patterns. At the VMC cemetery, multiple points were taken per burial that will allow the geographical distribution of each internment to be visualized on a map. Because the individuals in this cemetery are currently nameless, visualizing the biological and cultural trends across the cemetery should allow myself, and other researchers, to better understand placement within the cemetery. My hope is that at the end of this project, the combination of osteological, archaeological, and GIS data will give the VMC cemetery a cleared picture of the individuals buried there.