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CHI Grad Fellow Post



April 17, 2019

Making my Dissertation Digital

April 17, 2019 | By | No Comments

Have you ever tried to explain your dissertation to your family? Your students? Strangers or acquaintances you barely know? This is a trying task. My dissertation focuses on mobility and migration between four different West African countries (Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea), looking at the multitude of reasons people moved and the larger meaning of all of this movement. One of the biggest challenges I face in explaining all of this is the diversity of perspectives from the people with whom I spoke. Oftentimes reasons vary, perspectives vary, and the individual voices can get lost in 350 pages of historical arguments and narrative.

My research is based on unnecessarily large amounts of archival research, plus 220 interviews I conducted in rural parts of Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau. The documents often tell similar stories, of governments seeking (and generally failing) to control borders and movement, although their attitude towards these movements depends on the period and perceived need for economic migrants and/or security concerns. But what about the voices of the individual migrants themselves? These are rarely seen in documents, and thus must be brought out through interviews.

Each person’s story differs. Many from Guinea-Bissau and Guinea served as seasonal migrant farmers. Many of these farmers had good experiences, using their time in Senegal and Gambia to earn money they could use to buy goods unavailable at home, pay colonial taxes, and save up money to build their own homes and start a family. Some of these farmers went year after year, spending over a decade traveling to another colony/country for months at a time planting and harvesting peanuts. In many cases, these farmers became integrated into their host communities and set down roots. Others went once and decided to never go again. I also interviewed many people who fled violence and economic depression in search of a better life. Others simply crossed borders looking for better farm and pastureland.

When I decided to apply for the CHI Fellowship, I wanted a place where these voices could speak for themselves. My dissertation does not feature long excerpts from interviews because it’s already 350 pages long without them. While the voices of my interlocutors are throughout my dissertation, I am not able to capture the full extent of what they said. I want their voices to be available to the public, as a tool for public memory, for scholarship, and for teaching.

This has not always been the easiest process, but as I come to the last few weeks, I am grateful for the opportunity. It has reminded me whose stories center my research. Too often it is easy to forget that history is not just a series of newsworthy events and processes, but the combination of many people whose collective actions form a rich and cacophonous story.



March 29, 2019

The Challenge of Language

March 29, 2019 | By | No Comments

When I decided to use my CHI Fellowship to chronicle and disseminate the stories of individual migrants, my greatest question was the problem of language. My wider research focuses on the experience of migrants and the wider significance of migrants in southern Senegambia, but through a combination of oral history interviews, archival sources, and published sources. The oral history interviews in large part structure my project, but ultimately the analysis and larger conclusions are my own.

Focusing on the stories of individual migrants is an incredible opportunity but features questions of translation. How to best represent interviews done in a mish-mash of languages. Most of my interviews (and all of the ones highlighted in my CHI project) center around the West African language Pulaar (also known as Fulfulde in the eastern part of West Africa). However, many of my interviews feature words and phrases in French, Portuguese, and English as well.

What is the best way to represent the words of my interviewers? A direct transcription of their words would allow those in southern Senegambia to read and analyze these interviews, but Pulaar is (for most of its speakers) not a written language. Traditionally, Pulaar was written in ajami (Arabic script), but very few today learn to write Pulaar using Arabic characters. Today, Pulaar is primarily written using the Latin/Roman alphabet. However, there is no standardized spelling in Pulaar, and words appear radically different in Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea, due to the legacy of European colonialism. The word for thank you is spelled jarama (Gambia), diorama (Senegal/Guinea), and djaarama (Guinea-Bissau). Even names are spelled different. One common Pulaar last name is spelled Diallo (Senegal/Guinea), Jallow (Gambia), or Djaló (Guinea-Bissau). Additionally, there are many dialects of Pulaar in West Africa, and I did interviews with speakers of at least three different dialects.

If one is to translate these interviews, there is of course the issue of access. The official language of Senegal and Guinea is French, in Gambia it is English, and in Guinea-Bissau, Portuguese. I am very comfortable translating Pulaar to English (which I do often in my dissertation, somewhat comfortable with French (which I did often as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal), and not particularly comfortable translating Pulaar to Portuguese (which I have little experience with). In the rural areas of West Africa where I conducted my research, the penetration of official languages is often limited, with obviously greater access by those who have studied in government-run schools. Most of those I interviewed did not attend such schools, although some of them still speak English, French, or Portuguese well. For the first phase of this project, I am translating the segments of these interviews into English, since I am an academic based in the U.S. and plan on using these stories in my own teaching. However, I would like to eventually make them available in other languages, particularly Pulaar, French, and Portuguese. This will take more time, and will not take place during the period of the CHI Fellowship, but I believe it is an important step in democratizing digital knowledge, which typically neglects the importance of African languages in favor of European languages.



March 25, 2019

Project update

March 25, 2019 | By | No Comments

As a second-year PhD student, I have been trying to balance myself between three roles: a student, a teaching assistant, and a researcher. Frankly speaking, it has not been easy for me. Attending courses and teaching everyday have taken the majority of my time. Therefore, I truly value the time I have in the LEADR lab every Friday. In the past few weeks, I have made progress in areas such as finding the framework through Bootstrap that works the best for my project, creating a JS timeline that depicts German national football team’s trajectory in the past eight World Cups, collecting stories of various players, etc. Overall, I would describe my working process as “slightly slow, but steady.”

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March 20, 2019

Hitting the Proverbial Wall

March 20, 2019 | By | No Comments

            I think there is a point in time that every novice reaches in technical projects when they wonder..will I actually successfully complete this project? This is my current mental state in my CHI project. I am swimming in a sea of technical questions in relation to the map demonstration of macromorphoscopic trait data. My lack of experience using Mapbox has become very apparent and my ideas of how I would visualize my data and present this concept to my audience are ever-changing.

            Initially, my intention was to generate a single heat map that could filter through a series of macromorphoscopic traits and their various trait expressions to depict scores densities across space. Several realizations occurred that have changed how I will have to present these data. First, I realized that due to the nature of my data, I will not be able to create a heat map in a way that is meaningful. The geographic location information per individual is generalized to the country in which the individual resided rather than specific coordinate information. This means that a choropleth map will be more appropriate for presenting trait score distributions. In order to create the choropleth map, I need to be able to cross-reference country codes between the map and the macromorphoscopic trait data. The map will need to have countries previously coded and defined so that country names will be recognizable in the datasheet in order to be properly linked.

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March 1, 2019

Project Update and Technological Hurdles

March 1, 2019 | By | No Comments

For this month’s blog post, I am going to provide a quick update on my project. I have updated the artifact pages and created markers for the highland sites on my map. Also the front-end framework for loading my 3D models onto an HTML page is fully functional which is by far one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. The next steps are adding descriptions and text to the designated areas throughout my web page. Deciding what to write is going to be difficult because I need to find a balance between making my text approachable for a general audience while being applicable for academics. If I add to much lithics jargon, I will possibly lose anyone who is not a specialist. If I do the complete opposite, my site will not be useful for anyone in academia.

The next part of this blog will discuss technological hurdles in an age of open information. Recently I have had to teach myself the basics of Blender to create animations for my website. While there are tutorials online and on YouTube I found most of them hard to follow. This was due mostly my lack of experience using Blender and the tutorials themselves were hard to follow. I experienced the same problem when I was attempting to get Three.js to function properly for my artifact pages. Three.js is a front-end framework that displays 3D models on websites and allows users to manipulate the rendered objects. For some reason, one which I finally figured out after an unspeakable amount of time, the models refused to appear in the center of the screen and had an extremely wide orbit around an arbitrary center (I used orbit controls for the manipulation on my artifact pages). My initial thought was that maybe my point of origin (PO) was incorrect for my models so I googled the problem and found conflicting information. I moved on and began a long search to why Three.js refused to cooperate. 300+ commits to GitHub later, I realize that my PO was the problem so I download blender and set the origin correctly. The long journey finally ended and I had a functioning framework.

What I learned from this experience is that I should trust myself more and that the easiest explanation is usually the best. Occam’s Razor strikes again.



February 19, 2019

The Challenges of the Digital in Digital History

February 19, 2019 | By | No Comments

By any normal standard, I am a relatively tech-savvy person. When it comes to programming, my experience is…minimal. My HTML skills are relatively new and underdeveloped, although growing which each attempt to do something new. My project for CHI focuses on oral histories mapping the history of migration across borders in West Africa, a topic I have spent too many years thinking about. My comfort level was this topic is matched with my lack of comfort of making this project digital.

I bring this up because I am also currently teaching 19 MSU seniors to do digital work. With a great deal of help with LEADR, my students are using StoryMaps to tell digital stories about border regions across the world. Ranging from the Colombia-Venezuela border to Kashmir and back home to the border between Detroit and Windsor, they are using the border analysis skills of our class to do public storytelling digitally.

My class is not a digital humanities class, but we regularly use digital projects/scholarship in discussions of borders around the world. There are few topics as central to public discussions as borders and migration, the topic of my class. I am easing my students into digital tools to demonstrate their importance as storytelling tools, but also to demonstrate to my students the importance of public scholarship.

There is a tension in digital scholarship between free, open-source software and proprietary programs like StoryMaps. Rather than dig into these debates, I want to talk about the reasons I am using StoryMaps. Oftentimes open-source software requires a level of technical expertise difficult to develop in a semester, especially when the course does not focus specifically on the digital.

I hope that this project will serve as a first step into the digital scholarly world for my students, and maybe some of them will even continue to use them going forward. My own extension into the digital has changed my academic focus, and I hope for at least a few of my students, this will be the case as well.



February 11, 2019

Peruvian Origins Informatics Project

February 11, 2019 | By | No Comments

Introducing my project for the 2018/2019 CHI fellowship: Peruvian Origins Informatics Project. With this project I want to build an interactive, multi-component website that will be accessible to non-academics and will be valuable to future researchers. I want to make this website as accessible as possible by having multiple language options. The site will initially be launched in English but I plan on creating a Spanish version throughout the upcoming year. My project is centered around the South-Central Andes in Peru and is complementary to my own thesis research here at Michigan State University.

The project itself will be hosted on GitHub and will have three main layers. The first layer will be a landing page where users will be able to see pictures I have taken from my field seasons in Peru, access other layers of the site directly through a navigation bar, access related published articles on the archaeological sites included in this project, and be able to interact with the newly created social media pages. Layer 2 is an interactive map with markers designating the various sites included in this project. Users will be able to see the variety of sites represented and click on individual markers which provide site names and links to artifact pages. Layer 3 or the artifact pages will have a 3D model of a projectile point from the site displayed in an interactive viewer. The models will be manipulable with pop-up boxes containing information about the site and artifact viewable on the page itself.

Archaeological sites from the highlands of Peru and desert coast will be featured within my project. I plan on including archaeological sites that date to the initial colonization of Peru (~12.4 kya) to the late holocene (3.1 kya). My project will show the change in material culture through Peruvian prehistory. My future blog posts will outline and detail my progress on the website.



January 14, 2019

Reflections on a past field season

January 14, 2019 | By | No Comments

This past December I had a short field season in Arequipa Peru where I finished collecting data for my master’s thesis. Even though this season was short (only 2 weeks), I feel like I learned as much as I did during my summer field season (2 months). One of the major things I learned about was that creating 3D models using Agisoft is incredibly time consuming and requires an extreme amount of patience. One of the major problems that I was having is that the models would not render and would not build a correct sparse could which is the first step in creating a model. Previously I thought that the main cause to all my problems was a lack of light but during this season I figured out that the direction of the light is as important, if not more important. I went back through photos I have previously taken that were used to create models successfully and I began to notice a trend. The trend was that the background was not only black but was always out of focus. I compared the successful photos with the ones I had taken recently and found that in the photos that had not successfully built a sparse cloud the background was semi-visible. So after learning this information, I change some settings on my camera and make sure that the background is completely obscured by shadow. Success! I finally get my first sparse cloud to successfully render after countless hours and many failures.

Although I am not an expert on the inner-workings of Agisoft, I have spent some time using the program and have a hypothesis to why having the background completely obscured is important. The simple answer is that the methodology I employ is predicated on having a fixed camera and the object being modeled being placed on a turn table which allows for different angles to be captured. Hypothetically the only objects that should be moving throughout the sets of pictures will be the projectile point and the surface of the turn table on which the point rests. If the background doesn’t have any recognizable features and is just a black blob, the program will only focus on the moving parts within each picture. If the background is illuminated at all, the program will attempt to add the black background into the model and create a spare cloud that looks nothing like the original object.

Overall, I am excited to finally start my thesis writing and work and I look forward to posting updates on this blog.



December 14, 2018

What is your purpose?

December 14, 2018 | By | One Comment

That title sounds really deep. What I am proposing to ask yourself is: In my professional career, why am I doing what I do and does my position serve a purpose to the public?

My initial project goal was to develop a map of craniofacial morphology that would be embedded in our project website ( The primary audience was biological anthropologists who are interested in macromorphoscopic trait research. When presenting my project pitch, Dr. Watrall suggested that I reconsider my audience as it would only reach a small group of people. He suggested that I use the map as more of an educational tool.

As I readjusted my aims for the project to reach a wider audience, I began to realize how little we engage with the general public in biological anthropology. I think this a disservice to both our discipline and the public. In regards to my specific research area, biological anthropologists spend a lot of time grappling with large theoretical concepts centered on human variation and race theory; yet, we spend little time disseminating results of this research outside our own academic journals. The interdisciplinary foundation of anthropological studies makes us well-equipped and knowledgeable on these theoretical concerns. We borrow from other sciences, such as ecologists,biologists, geneticists, social scientists, and environmentalists, to understand patterns of human variation and the many interacting variables that influence the human physical form.

My project now aims to educate young adults (middle and high school students and college undergraduates) on human variation and race theory in attempts to contribute to the current conversation surrounding race concerns in the United States. The website will teach students that biological race does not exist; however, systematic phenotypic human variation, due to environmental forces and population histories shaping genetic population structures, fueled social race into existence. As a result, social race has also influenced our patterns of population phenotypic differences due to selective mating and sociopolitical forces. The website homepage will provide the theoretical background for these issues as they are perceived by biological anthropologists, while the remaining pages will focus on the causative forces behind variation (i.e. local environment and genetics). The final page will present the map of macromorphoscopic trait variation to view the spatial distribution of craniofacial variation. Students and teachers will be provided with links to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association where they can view climate across time and space and to the Human Genome Project where they can download and explore genetic data. I will also provide quizzes for students focusing on the website content and will prompt students with explanations for each answer.

In the future, I hope to increase public engagement with my research and carry this mentality throughout my career. If you are researching for your own interests or a small subset of people in your discipline, what is the impact of your research? I encourage all academics to consider who you are reaching with your research and who else could be benefiting from the knowledge you have gained.



December 7, 2018


December 7, 2018 | By | No Comments

One of my most salient goals as an academic and a writer, as a person, is perhaps directly related to one of my greatest fears: forgetting home, and thus, losing home. While many of our technologies and actions today reflect globalization and the sharing of ideas, cultural practices, and artifacts, it is often driven by dominant groups in power. For example, in the case of gentrification, neighborhoods and communities often change when those with financial resources and social power enter previously “undesirable” areas. The community often receives a lot more attention and access to quality resources, but the costs include systemic removal—driven by capitalism. When people of a community (are re)move(d), often the cultural practices and spaces of a community also (are re)move(d).

Thus, my project is about rememory of self and s/place. We’re socialized through various institutions as well as our communities; however, when Western schooling works as a tool for assimilation and community is being attacked, sustaining cultural practices and embodied knowledges can be quite difficult. My interests somehow guided me organically to my proposed project. I was confused with out to balance the theoretical with the practice–with the importance of digital humanities being in conversation with questions of access. What would it mean to create something that was accessible, and more than that, reflected my pedagogical orientations in a way that continued to challenge me.

As in most situations when I am perplexed and overwhelmed, I called my mother. When I told her about my project, centered on mapping sites of educational memory in New Orleans, her first response was, “but no one has anything left.” She was alluding to Hurricane Katrina and the loss of our peoples (through passing and removal) and artifacts. In our own home, we loss not only loved ones, but many of our physical artifacts. For my mother who archived joy, sadness, about community, this was particularly difficult. Now, many New Orleanians approach their own loss with reluctant acceptance. The problem, she meant, was, “That’s going to be difficult. Who would you ask? What could they bring?”

While this may seem unimportant for some, for many, material cultural artifacts appear divorced from the people. This is often an ideology that justifies stolen cultural memory and the lack of willingness to return. Take Tarita Alarcón Rapu, the governor of Easter Island, and the indigenous Rapanui people who are asking the British Museum to return Hoa Hakananai’a (“lost or stolen friend”), ancient sculpture featuring the Rapa Nui’s famed stone faces. The British Museum has displayed it in London for the past 150 years. The U.K.’s Royal Navy stole it from the indigenous Rapanui people in 1868. What the delegation who traveled to London want to get across, is that Hoa Hakananai’a is not simply a rock, a statue. As Anakena Manutomatoma told The Guardian, “We want the museum to understand that the moai are our family, not just rocks. For us [the statue] is a brother; but for them it is a souvenir or an attraction,” (as cited by Herreria, 2018).

While I knew many of the personal cultural artifacts would be unavailable, I considered visiting archives and knew that I would have to make more of an effort to reach out to New Orleanians. Two days later, my mother called to say, “I got a few people you can talk to. They’re excited. You’re going to get a lot of stories.” While the artifacts I am in search for are not as sacred as Hoa Hakananai’a, these memories occurred in sacred s/places. For me, this was the most important aspect of the work. It’s bringing attention to what people consider is not sacred, to what some believe is forgotten.

I take this work up while drawing upon various scholars, but an important one is Leigh Patel (2015) who argues that settler colonialism works to replace and erase Native peoples. Erasing the histories of People of Color is a part of this project. Restricting access to one’s histories and ancestors is a part of the settler colonialist project as well. I see digital tools as part of the praxis of decolonization. This leads to another aspect that I continue to cycle back to: what does it mean to share the stories of others and how does the world of the digital humanities play a role in this?


Patel, L. (2015). Decolonizing educational research: From ownership to answerability. Routledge.