Toward a More Creative DH

(Reposted from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media’s DH Fellows blog. See the original entry here.)

Inspired by a MediaCommons survey thread I wrote about at the end of my first year as a DH Fellow, I decided to spend my second year tracking how digital humanists are embracing creativity in their work. The MediaCommons thread asked: “What is the role of the digital humanities in transforming and responding to the arts?” and featured a number of responses how about putting the arts and DH into conversation creates the potential for more engaging, ethical, and exciting work in the field. Because I study music history, I am always looking for new ways to engage with sound, and sensory history more broadly, in the context of digital work. In the field, I noticed not only a reinvestment in podcasting as a medium, but also projects that take sound as its central point of study, including heightened attention to archiving and making sound artifacts available through the work of projects like the Radio Preservation Task Force and The Great 78 Project.

This attention to creativity also came through in the ways that DH scholars have assessed and defended the field. For example, Sarah Bond and Michael Kramer both raised important questions this year about what happens when we reconsider the roots of DH, and how this can lead to more open idea about what, and who, should be considered as part of the field. A number of posts also explored more creative digital pedagogy, and how it can create space for our students to approach history and technology on their own terms in more personally and academically productive ways. Finally, other scholars expressed a more creative approach toward archival work by continuing to broaden and critique what is considered an archive and being forthright about how scholarly and artistic philosophies can influence one another.

I expect that these threads will grow as DH scholars continue to push the boundaries of DH work and make room for ethical and radical scholarship. This work requires a more creative approach, as it seeks to reshape DH around truly decolonizing, anti-racist, and feminist practices. Another important aspect of this thread is the ability for scholars to discuss failure as much as success as a way to learn from one another as the contours of the field continue to expand. As Sean Michael Morris says in the context of what he calls “ethical online learning,” these kinds of projects can serve as important sites of resistance for our students to become “imaginers of an education less technicist, and a world less oppressive.” By continuing to let DH transform and respond to the arts, there appears the promise of a less technicist, less oppressive future for all of us.

Cities and Memory

Cities and Memory is a global project that seeks to document and reimagine the worlds of sound that shape our experiences. A map incorporates sound artifacts from over 75 countries, geolocating each artifact to a point on the map alongside a remixed version created by a sound artist. The website is available for open submission year-round, but also puts out calls for more specific collections of sounds including Sacred Spaces, exploring the sensory experience of different sites of worship, and Protest & Politics, exploring the soundscapes of protest across the world. This project provides an interesting new archive for scholars of sound and sensory history to think through the soundscapes of historical moments that can be useful for digital projects as well as simply thinking through the ways that sound structures the world around us.

Sensory Maps 

Kate McLean’s project, Sensory Maps, creates maps of urban space focusing on what have historically been designated as the three “lowest” senses: touch, taste, and, most specifically, smell. In McLean’s words, Sensory Maps seeks to revive smell perception as “an invisible and currently under-presented dataset with strong connections to emotions and memory.” McLean’s “smellmaps” use data visualization and digital mapping to reimagine the ways that we experience urban spaces by tracking spheres, densities, and categories of smells that permeate various cities. She also gathers data and increases engagement through “smellwalks” and inviting people to send in “smellfies” that help to create a more varied and personalized understanding of the powerful links between smell and place. This is not only an innovative and experimental digital approach, but speaks to a growing emphasis on sensory history that takes seriously the social and cultural construction of the senses and the relationships between them.

Playing Ancient Music Without An Instrument” by Tristan Roddis

This piece discusses a Hack Day put on by the CogApp team in association with the National Library of Scotland in order to develop a new approach toward Optical Music Recognition (OMR). This Hack Day was meant to demonstrate how the study of sound can be central to digital humanities work by identifying ways that we can train computers to “read” sheet music as we have with more traditional textual sources. This approach includes many of the limitations that Optical Character Recognition does, requiring clearly printed sources and often needing human editing, but does provide new ways to think about reading and searching music. The team has also made their workflow available, and invites collaboration with historians and musicologists in order to determine the most useful approaches to a continued OMR practice.

Mapping Racism and Assessing the Success of the Digital Humanities” by Sarah Bond

This piece by Sarah Bond responded to the disparaging The Digital-Humanities Bustarticle published by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Here, she argues for the importance of the field by pointing to the ways that digital mapping projects have helped to redefine the ways we think about the history of racism and segregation. An interesting point in this article is the way Bond connects GIS mapping projects to W.E.B. DuBois’ 19th century visualizations that were meant to highlight the same patterns of discrimination. In this way, Bond’s piece not only makes a case for the continued importance of DH work but also connects it to a longer history of analog visualizations by African American scholars, forcing us to rethink the roots of the field as longer and more diverse than the DH narrative often allows.

10/19/17: Global Jukeboxes & Celestial Monochords—Alan Lomax, Harry Smith, & the Digital Study of Folk Music @ Amériques/Europe: Les Humanités Numériques En Partage?, La Rochelle University” by Michael Kramer 

Michael Kramer’s transcription of a talk he gave at La Rochelle University echoes a similar point in Sarah Bond’s work. Here, he asks what happens if we extend our history of the field to include the work of folklorist Alan Lomax and artist Harry Smith. Kramer argues that Lomax’s conception of the Global Jukebox and cantometrics was inherently computational, and that Smith’s philosophy toward song collecting for hisAnthology of the American Folk Song referenced many computational theories. Kramer argues that “turning to Lomax and Smith’s engagements with the digital and computation sheds light on the profound tensions that arise when embedded cultural practices—often in the oral tradition— are treated as digital data.” Thought about in the context of Bond’s work, lines of questioning that extend, complicate, and diversify the origin story of DH can open up more a critical and creative history of the field.

Student Showcase: The 1968 Berkeley Folk Music Festival, jacob frazer goes audio-visual.” by Michael Kramer

Michael Kramer’s work in the classroom also speaks to thinking through digital work more creatively, and using the digital as a platform for students to share their work with a wider audience. This video by his student, Jacob Frazer, is just one of several student showcases from Kramer’s Digitizing Folk Music History seminar. This video creates an nonlinear and nonnarrative exploration of the 1968 Berkeley Folk Music Festival, and presents digital storytelling as an essential medium of DH pedagogy that can allow for deeper explorations of source material and more affective arguments.

2 Campuses, 2 Countries, 1 Seminar by Emily Dolan and Jonathan Sterne

This piece written by Emily Dolan in the Department of Music at Harvard and Jonathan Sterne in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill discusses a joint class they co-taught across their two campuses. The course, Bodies and Machines at McGill and Sound Studies at Harvard, explored the cultural meaning of the instrument in various contexts. This piece discusses the value and continued limitations of doing this kind of experimental, distance learning education. Dolan and Sterne maintain that sound and video chat technology remain some of the biggest inhibitors to creating successful telecourses, however they also note that they came to see these glitches as moments when students could laugh, unwind, and process information, reframing our discussion of technical problems as potential opportunity rather than essential lack.

Ethical Online Learning: Critical Pedagogy and Social Justice by Sean Michael Morris and Lora Taub-Pervizpour

This piece by Sean Michael Morris and Lora Taub-Pervizpour was initially given as a joint keynote for a Digital Pedagogy Lab event at the University of Delaware. The talk takes seriously the need for educators to stop adapting to or tolerating technology, but rather engaging with it critically on its own terms and developing a new set of “best habits.” This allows us to create more open, creative learning environments that can provide students’ with the space to express themselves and amplify those ideas in more creative and meaningful ways.

What happened to Sit-In? : Digital Archival Erasure and Struggles for Open Access by Lauren Tilton

This piece by Lauren Tilton responds to the MediaCommons survey question, “How do issues of erasure (redaction, deletion, censor, displacement, etc.) in digital spaces impact memory? What can these erasures reveal?” Tilton’s response highlights the problematic reliance we have on corporate archives, particularly for those who study media history of the twentieth century. In thinking through how the emergence of sensory history in digital humanities practice is developing, the questions that Tilton raises must remain central. As she argues, these corporate media archives “remain in significant control of the public memories of the liberation struggles as they did during the era,” and academics must resist becoming complicit in this cycle of control and erasure.

Bias, Perception, and Archival Praxis with Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez by Thomas Padilla and Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez

In this interview, Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez discusses her philosophies and approach as the Processing Archivist for Latin American Collections at Princeton University Library. She maintains the importance of decolonial and feminist practices in archiving, and cites a number of other scholars who have published on this topic. She interestingly describes her own genesis as an archivist as rooted in the found object collages of Dadaist artist. In particular, she notes Kurt Schwitters’ “unconventional way of record keeping and memory construction” as a reminder of what we lose through digital processes like cleaning data and prioritizing searchability. Her application of artistic philosophies to the work of the archive reminds us of the importance of keeping creative possibilities central to our continued work in DH, particularly so as not to replicate colonial systems of memory and erasure.