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December 15, 2014

Paper-based Productivity and Digital Research

December 15, 2014 | By | No Comments

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.


December 13, 2014

Double Vision

December 13, 2014 | By | No Comments

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.



December 10, 2014

A Micro-History On Teaching, Organizing, and DH

December 10, 2014 | By | No Comments

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.

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Lisa Bright


December 5, 2014

Visualizing Cemeteries

December 5, 2014 | By | No Comments

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.

Santa Clara County Hospital

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.

becca hayes


November 20, 2014

Professional Development for Possibilities Outside the Professoriate Track

November 20, 2014 | By | One Comment

As a doctoral student in rhetoric and writing who came to graduate school with an interest in the connections between the arts, social justice, and community-engaged scholarship and with experience working in various nonprofit settings focused on literacy and arts, I have always kept one eye on non-academic positions and the possibility of seeking out professional development, assistantships, and research opportunities that would situate me well to follow my gaze back to the nonprofit world whence I came. As I get closer and closer to looking the job market in the eye next year, I find myself thinking increasingly about the best ways to market my academic research, teaching, and administrative experiences and skills for the traditional tenure-track professoriate, even as I continue to develop additional skills and experiences. Now is great time to be interested in these types of positions because universities are increasingly attentive to how they can prepare graduate students for these types of jobs, and Michigan State University has many related initiatives, including the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative and the CHI Fellowship.

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November 17, 2014

Movement Across Disciplines: Inspiration from the Migration with Borders Conference at MSU

November 17, 2014 | By | No Comments

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend and chair a panel at the Migration Without Borders Conference here at Michigan State. I do not consider migration as a central theme of my work, nor I am particularly well versed in the historiography of migration beyond the books I read for my comp exams last year. I listened to papers on wide array of geographic areas, time periods, and disciplines. Often I find opportunities such as these types of conferences, in which I am exposed to scholarship quite different from my own, as a refreshing break from my work. I assumed this much needed interlude would be my major takeaway from this conference. Yet while listening to the panels, I found that many of the big ideas, questions, and themes resinated with my project and my growing interest in digital humanities. I was particularly intrigued to hear the panelists discuss the connections between movement and identity, which are two major themes of my work on women’s bicycling. It was interesting to see how migration scholars conceptualize physical movement, often across vast geographical spaces, as a fuel which shapes their subjects’ understanding of themselves and how they fit into the broader terrains of citizenship, family structures, and popular culture. Not surprisingly, the migration scholars at this conference were particularly attuned to the nusauces of these physical, cultural, and ideological movements in ways new to me as someone formally outside of this field of study.
Listening to these papers got me thinking about how to represent movement in digital projects. In my dissertation, I understand movement as an perpetual, embodied experience, and I have found a wealth of sources which indicate how women’s bicycling practices transformed their political and social identities as women, Americans, ‘moderns,’ and activists. Yet as I have been researching and planning my digital project on women in the bicycling industry, this project seems a bit more static. I am planning to create a map, or a digital atlas of sorts, in which the user can explore the variety of ways women were involved in the nineteenth-century bicycle industry throughout the United States. Yet, I have recently been considering ways to add movement into my project. Perhaps I could track women’s inventions to see the popularity and location of their use, or include information about the commutes of factory workers who rode their bicycles to work.
As a graduate student, it can be such a challenge to carve out time for academic activities not directly related to our own work. Yet my experience at the Migration Without Conference was a good reminder of the fresh perspectives gained via exposure to scholarship seemingly beyond the boundaries of our own work.


November 15, 2014

Mute Poem, Speaking Picture…And Web-Based Visualization Tools

November 15, 2014 | By | No Comments

For November’s post, I’m going to write a bit about my own specific research interest. As a fourth-year PhD student in the Department of English, I study Renaissance literature and visual culture. Specifically, I look at the connection between Renaissance drama and portraiture. This research interest has developed since I spent a year working on an MA in ‘Shakespeare in History’ at University College London. While living in London the city became my classroom—the theaters, museums, and original texts I encountered first-hand inspired me, and I wrote my MA thesis on Shakespeare’s literary use of portraiture.

Building upon that initial interest, my current project explores how Renaissance playwrights dramatize paintings and painters in order to examine their own artistic significance and value within Renaissance artistic society. Dramatists I argue, participated in the paragone (discourse and debates supporting or refuting the supposed superiority of one artistic medium over all others) and yet transformed these debates by subverting the traditional binary purported between verbal and visual. Drama, after all, is both a textual and visual medium. And so my dissertation is built upon the fundamental recognition that Renaissance playwrights often dramatize:

1. Artistic language—using key artistic terms and theories to illuminate their own rhetoric
2. The painter as a surreptitious character, who is akin to the dramatist through the representation of his struggle for social and artistic mobility
3. Artistic stage properties—which are used to examine the potential dangers of fictional representation
4. The intellectual and physical labor of creating visual art, which is closely linked to the textual; and in turn, creates a reciprocal, inter-media effect

In all, I suggest that Renaissance dramatists understood their undeniable connection to painters and when painters and paintings are staged, they function as mirrors used to reflect drama’s own socially-imposed concerns about its artistic significance given its visual nature.

This project builds upon metadramatic scholarship but also makes use of the more recent interest in Renaissance visual culture. My project consists of four chapters, each exploring a different play and author: Arden of Faversham, Campaspe, Timon of Athens, and Jonson’s masques. I will be presenting my work on Campaspe at the Shakespeare Association of America conference this April.

So how does all this relate to the CHI fellowship and my digital project? I’m still working on that…I am intrigued by the prospect of connecting Renaissance playwrights to paragone authors and concepts visually. It is my view that scholars have overlooked or undervalued the connection between Renaissance textual (printed drama, poetry, prose, artistic theory that connects verbal to visual, etc.) to Renaissance visual (performed drama, ekphrastic poetry [Admittedly this element has probably been covered the most out of the bunch], Renaissance paintings used as stage properties, etc.).

Because I’d like to make a case for the strong relationship between Renaissance verbal and visual (and extend my analysis to also examine the professional relationship between dramatists and painters) I imagine that presenting this information visually will allow me to organize these networks effectively as I progress through the dissertation. It is also my hope that by making this project public, scholars with similar interests will be able to see the link between Renaissance textual and visual in new ways.

Next month I plan to discuss web-based visualization tools and I will hopefully be one step closer to finding a platform that suits my research and tech needs.



November 12, 2014

What Cultural Rhetorics Can Teach Us About Positioned Authorship

November 12, 2014 | By | No Comments

This past Halloween weekend, the Cultural Rhetorics Theory Lab hosted the first ever Cultural Rhetorics Conference here at Michigan State. There are many dynamics of the conference worth talking about, but in this post I will limit my focus to one theme that seemed especially prevalent in my experience at the event, and which I think is also important for those of us engaged in cultural heritage informatics to keep in mind: that of positioned authorship.

Many presenters reflected the theme of the conference—“Entering the Conversation”—by relating our own personal, cultural and academic experiences to our scholarly work. This often took the form of story-telling around how we came to be involved in the field of Cultural Rhetorics. At least one panel was dedicated primarily to this form of story-telling—“Origin Stories—Tracing Our Academic Roots,” which was comprised of four of my graduate colleagues in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures: Victor Del Hierro, Phil Bratta, Matt Gomes, and Ronisha Brown.

One of the things I enjoyed about this panel (and others like it) is that it reflected the personal stakes many of us have in the scholarship we engage. Not only is our work impossible to separate from our own personal narratives, but our work is literally shaped by the prior and concurrent experiences we continually bring to it. Obvious though this may sound, the myth of objectivity still often overshadows our extremely important subjectivities in order to conform our work to Western notions of scholarship, intelligence, and professionalism. This can have very real consequences that work to de-legitimize not only our own personal narratives and scholarship, but also the narratives of the communities from which we come, as well as the academic communities we are forging through Cultural Rhetorics.

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Lisa Bright


November 8, 2014

Bioarchaeology, Digital Humanities, and Public Engagement

November 8, 2014 | By | No Comments

Social science has faced increasing scrutiny from specific segments of the public recently, specifically with regards to the review of NSF funding allocations. So how can be, as social scientists, help the general public better understand the value of what we do? How can we engage the public in productive discourse? This is where digital humanities can have a great impact.

With my research, I’m often asked, “Why dig up the dead?” It’s a question I’ve been asked more than a few times, and although the answer varies depending on the situation, it always includes “ to better understand our past”. Bioarchaeology is a relatively new (40 or so years) branch in anthropology that seeks to use physical anthropological methods to add biological contextual analysis to past societies. Bioarchaeology can aid its public face by embracing techniques in digital humanities.

Most of the current popular news articles regarding bioarchaeology focus on natural oddities and curiosities that are, generally, misinterpreted or misrepresented in the news. A few that come to mind are the vampire burial in Bulgaria, witch burial in Italy, and skeleton lovers hold hands for 700 years.

deaths planing archaeology costume

Archaeologists – ruining group costumes since 502BCE Image from -

These popular news articles are not representative of the research emphases and strong data driven explanations in social science. So how do we bridge the gap between viral news story, and accurate representation of bioarchaeology? To answer this question, its necessary to examine why specific stories grip the public’s attention. Typically it’s something sensational (see above), but other times it’s because the public can relate to the story. Specifically, the items that make the most connection are the ones where individuals have names; Richard III, Lucy, Ardi, or Otz the iceman. How can we create such a connection with larger bioarchaeological populations, or populations that don’t have names, such as the Potter’s Cemetery I’m working with?

The way to overcome this gap is to present the information in ways that are easily understood, interactive, and highly accessible. Digital humanities can do this by employing the host of technological assets available to its practitioners. Public engagement can reach beyond the bounds of the museum, and enter the daily lives of the public’s rss feeds and site scrolling by creating digital projects like the ones the CHI Fellows are working on.




October 27, 2014

More Stories, Better Representation?

October 27, 2014 | By | No Comments

I decided to use the blog space this time to talk about the idea of representing people in academic or non-academic contexts. A contested term in itself, “tribal communities” are among the most under-represented and misrepresented groups of people in India. Till I was sixteen years myself, I had never heard of tribal communities in India; an American friend  who knows my work is with tribal communities reported to me how he met a person from India who argued with him about the non-existence of such communities in contemporary India; my cousin, who is fourteen, and curious about who I work with failed to really comprehend, “who are these people?” I am working with; and I failed miserably in explaining in a way that seemed fair who I work with. If underrepresentation is one matter at hand, misrepresentation is another major issue to deal with. Websites, wikipedia, museums, movies – and any form of popular media available seem to depict tribal communities in the most static, essentialized, and detached ways.

All these reasons, and more, have made me want to make more people aware of who the tribal communities are, and educate better that there is no single way of understanding this broad group of people. However, this is no easy task! The challenge stems from several factors:

Who are the tribals? Is forest-dependence the only way to understand these communities? Does dependence on forests make communities “backward?” Does not living in forests make the people not tribal? Why do tribal communities have such “weird” customs and ways of life? Why don’t tribal communities want to “develop?”

These are a few among several strands of challenging questions that would need to be examined and explained – and all at the constant risk of misrepresenting the tribal communities myself.

This brings me to the final (forseeable) challenge I see for myself: How do I, as a scholar, and as a person actively engaged and working with tribal communities make sure to not misrepresent tribal communities myself? How does one go about ensuring this? This will be the biggest challenge in the project I envision for CHI. However, while there is no simple way of going about this, my means will be through incorporating as many stories, and as many perspectives about tribal communities as possible. Tribal communities, like every other group of people can be understood in a variety of ways. Focussing on one particular aspect is not only reductionist, but will perpetuate the essentialized and static ways in which communities tend to be understood. It is therefore my goal to present as diverse, and as “real” a picture of tribal communities as I can. I intend to do this mainly through stories collected from field work, and news paper articles. As I think this through some more, I will surely find more avenues to better represent the triabl communities of India.

In the meanwhile, here is something to watch: