“Big” and Hybrid Scholarly Projects: A Conversation with John Walsh

Wednesday, October 16, 12:30-1:30 pm
 Williams Building 415

The Digital Scholars Reading and Discussion Group is pleased to announce John Walsh, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Information Sciences and of English at Indiana University, as its guest speaker on October 16, via videoconference. Professor Walsh teaches courses on digital humanities, digital libraries, electronic publishing, web development, and comic books and graphic novels, and will be speaking about the possibilities and challenges of crossing over from traditional to hybrid scholarship, funding models for “big” projects, and building a tenure case on the basis of hybrid or digital work.

Walsh is creator and Editor of The Algernon Charles Swinburne Project, Technical Editor of the Chymistry of Isaac Newton, Technical Editor of Digital Humanities Quarterly, and lead developer of Comic Book Markup Language and TEI Boilerplate. In addition, he is a member of the Steering Committee and Victorian Editorial Board of the cross-disciplinary repository on 19th-century scholarship NINES and an Editorial Board member for Textual Cultures, which is the journal of the Society for Textual Scholarship. Together with H. Wayne Storey, Walsh is preparing an electronic edition of Petrarch’s Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, which will be housed at PetrArchive.org, and will include various texts, ancient and modern, related to the study of material philology and visual poetics.

In advance of our meeting, attendees are encouraged to explore any of the following readings or resources:



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4 thoughts on ““Big” and Hybrid Scholarly Projects: A Conversation with John Walsh

  1. I enjoyed our hour with the guest speaker this week, because I am beginning to learn more about the types and range of projects that can be achieved digitally. I hadn’t even thought about how a person might add more color images to a digital publication than a print one for no cost at all. But one of my favorite things that John Walsh introduced was the Literary Empires website that mapped Swinburne and Browning’s poetry on something akin to a Google map. After visiting the website I began thinking about my own work in Early Modern and 18th century literature and how I might apply these new ideas and new ways of presenting information to an internet audience. One thing that seals the deal for the Literary Empires website (and the Swinburne site) is the page design. Without those visually appealing qualities (color, neatness, repetition, all meticulously put together), the information would not seem as engaging. The one drawback to Literary Empires is that it is so large that it is not really conducive to easy reading.
    I was having a discussion with a friend the other day after she had attended a lecture about defending the humanities, and she told me that the speaker had reported that 99.5% of U.S. government funding goes to STEM fields. And .45% of it to Humanities research. This was not really a big surprise to me, but we got into a discussion about how we can defend the humanities. I obviously don’t have a solution to what I feel is perhaps an overestimation or evaluation of STEM, but I’m wondering if digital humanities is a way to get more information about what it is that we do (since that’s what my mother is always asking) out and circulating in the public. This might not be a solution after all, since most people tend to be more curious about what they assume to be the “true efficacy” of Science, Math, and Engineering fields. After all, cellular biology and robotic surgery can be arguably more useful than reading Petrarch. At the end of the day, I can’t save anybody’s kidneys with sonnet analysis.
    As I was leaving the meeting on Wednesday, I got into the elevator with a group of people who were talking about the meeting, and one person said, “That seems like a lot of work.” Another person responded, “yeah, but what we want to do is find collaborations so that we can work together to get these kinds of projects done.” As I type this I am chuckling to myself, because when we asked Walsh about his collaboration, he did tell us that, if all failed, he could probably do it all himself. He has the expertise in digitization, coding, and literature. At this moment in my life, if I were to start working on the project, I would only have one of those skills, which leaves me unstable without committed collaborators. And if I understood him correctly, he also said that he was the main person working on the projects. What I am continuing to observe in these discussions is more hope for the future of collaboration or ways of getting tenure with collaborative digital publications, but it seems that (at least in practice) that we are not there just yet.

  2. As we consider the developing field of digital humanities, several questions recur: first, what is it? Who and what is in, and who and what is out? Second, is it a legitimate direction for humanities scholarship? Third, what would this kind of work look like? And fourth, how can this sort of production, which might just as easily be in the form of computer code as in critical commentary, be assessed?

    As an apprentice rhetoric and composition scholar who is interested in multimodality, technology, and assessment, I am not unfamiliar with digital domains. And some of the conversations seem pretty perennial—for instance, the question of whether the addition of certain technologies, like computers, to a field of study fundamentally alters the field. In other words, is digital humanities scholarship just humanities scholarship done by people who happen to like computers? And if so, is Julia Flanders justified: “in particular, I wonder whether the digital humanities may cease to operate as a locus of meta-knowledge if…digital modes of scholarship are naturalized within the traditional disciplines”?

    It is true: if digital humanities is simply technologically-inclined, early-adopting humanists playing with new technologies, there may likely come a time when the “cutting edge” element is lost, and the field no longer offers anything distinctive. Some, like Johanna Drucker, express doubt about whether humanities and the digital (as currently articulated) can comfortably coexist, arguing against research methods and technologies that do not articulate humanistic values.

    But I suspect more is going on than that. Stephen Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell suggest that technologies can be productively seen as theories, containing ideologies and ways of seeing. Therefore, they see technological building as a valid form of scholarship, making it possible for academic institutions could give credit for things like software, even hardware.

    But assessment is a real issue. We know how to assess scholarship: we expect tenure-line faculty to publish in well-respected, peer-reviewed journals, and/or to publish monographs with reputable presses. What if “publication” consists of beginning an open source software project? What if the “ideas” are contained within a code that most academics are not equipped to read?

    As with the open scholarship question, my suspicion is that many of these proposed changes are driven by younger scholars, ones who are simultaneously interested in a more progressive system of scholarly production, and held back by the current system. Though they may be interested in publishing this way, they take on more risk, as younger faculty, than those who are already tenured. So the question remains: innovation, but at what cost?

  3. I really enjoyed getting to hear what our guest speaker had to say about his work in the Digital Humanities. One of the things I was most excited about was hearing him talk about his work with TEI, and especially his work Comic Book Markup Language. I think that John Walsh’s work exemplifies one of my favorite things about DH: the ability and opportunity to try and create new things, that wouldn’t really have had a place in the humanities of the past.

    I’m far from an expert when it comes to XML and TEI, but I have used it to create my own mock Scholarly eText for Dr. Gants’ Scholarly Editing Class. The text that I tagged was a chapter from the book Under Cover by John Roy Carlson, a mostly unknown book from the 1940s (if you want to take a look at my page you can find it here, but please don’t judge me on its amateurishness). While the project was pretty hard, I learned a lot in the process, both about how to use the technologies I was interacting with, but also about how beneficial they can be. One of the things that I love about the idea of XML and TEI, is that it takes texts that might be totally inaccessible to certain people (because of a person’s physical location, the text’s value, or whatever) and makes it accessible. Not only that, but TEI makes it so that every person who interacts with the text can look at and use that text in an entirely new way if they want to. The way my eText is set up is that it provides links to more information about the people, places, resources, etc that are mentioned in the chapter. But, if someone was more interested in tracking the changes that were made in between editions of the book (there were a lot of them), then they could use mine towards that project. I think TEI is a really great example of the openness of DH; one person, or a group of people, put in a lot of work to tag a text (and I know from experience that it’s extremely tedious), but then offer that marked up text for anyone else to use, for whatever reason they want. Walsh made this process even easier, because he’s taken the worst part of tagging a text in XML—the fact that you have to convert it to HTML to make it readable by a browser—and made it incredibly easy to turn it into HTML. Unfortunately for us, Dr. Gants didn’t tell us about the TEI boilerplate until after we had already tediously written XSL routines to turn our XML into HTML….

    There are a couple of reasons that I really liked Walsh’s CBML: the first, is that I just really love comics and graphic novels, and love the idea of bringing them into the academy, and the second is that it combines my interest in XML with my interest in comics. As I was thinking of a text to tag for my project in Dr. Gants’ class, I thought about tagging a few comics/graphic novels to see what the tagging and subsequent rearranging of data could show from the text (like how did a comic from a series differ before, during, and after the CCA, or something like that), but I shied away from the idea, because I didn’t that that anyone in the field of electronic scholarly editing had done anything with comics. Turns out I was wrong….

    I thought Walsh’s discussion of how to put all of his work, a lot of which was collaborative and not really ‘traditional’ into an appeal for tenure was interesting too. It’s something that I don’t have to worry about for a while, but something that I’m imagining myself going through, especially since my interests and Walsh’s are somewhat similar. Hopefully by the time I apply for tenure, those who grant it will be more familiar with non-traditional and collaborative work.

  4. John Walsh’s talk gave an insightful look at the academic work one can produce when applying what we learn in the humanities to other disciplines. His impressive Swinburne project not only showcases his research as a literary scholar, but also encourages collaboration from other researchers. Though collaboration can produce really great research, it seems to complicate the more individualistic goal of achieving tenure. I liked that Walsh showed the dossier that got him such a position, and explained how such projects helped earn him tenure. It was also interesting when he noted how he could show the committee how many hits his website received, and how he could isolate this data to even a week or a day. As Walsh said in his presentation, this data shows you how the public receives your work, and how such numbers can stress the importance (or at least popularity) of your research.

    This talk also serves as a concrete example of what Flanders discusses in her article on alternate careers in the humanities. Though Walsh works in the university, his job is outside the humanities department. Flanders remarks how academics normally see their profession as a part of their identity, which is why having an alternate career outside a tenure-track position, seems like a defeat. She notes how universities should allow their graduate students “the opportunity to work on real-world projects with professional collaborators,” which will give” unparalleled exposure to real intellectual problems, job demands, and professional skills.” Though I tend to disagree with these kinds of solutions to the problems facing the academic career—it doesn’t really address other issues (like growing administrative staff instead of faculty—it is interesting to see how digital humanities might encourage interdisciplinary collaboration.

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