Welcome to the Pre-Conference Conversations for the New England American Studies Conference. We're writing about the things we'll talk about the conference--join the conversation!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Networks of Nineteenth Century Newspapers

Meredith McGill's American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting brought the widespread practice of textual reuse in the antebellum print market to scholarly attention. In her study, however, McGill was forced to focus on three largely canonical authors: Poe, Dickens, and Hawthorne, largely because the physical archive makes discovering unknown histories of reprinting incredibly difficult. If one doesn't already know a particular story or poem was popular and widely reprinted, it's awful hard to start finding those reprints.

Digital archives and text mining perhaps offer a new way into the record that may allow us to discover many more (and many previously unknown) histories of reprinting. Histories of reprinting can also be thought of histories of popularity—and thus are useful windows into the priorities of the period. I've worked with a colleague in computer science to begin automatically uncovering new histories of reprinting in the Library of Congress' Chronicling America collection. The results of this text mining look something like this:

Each row lists two publications, each's publication date, a link to where each can be found within the archive, and the text they seem to share. After crawling only a fraction of the archive, we've already uncovered hundreds of potential reprinted texts—most of which I've never encountered as a scholar of the period. What can be done to make sense of so much new data?

Network theory perhaps offers a solution. Here's a network graph of all Edgar Allan Poe's fiction in periodicals—again I find myself working with data we as scholars already have on hand. In this graph, the nodes (the circles) represent individual publications. The edges (the lines between the circles) represent shared texts between publications. The edges are thicker based on how many reprints a given pair of publications share. A given node is larger or smaller based on how many other nodes connect to it. 

Such a graph offers a large-scale model of how Poe's fiction moved around the county. Close-knit communities of textual sharing cluster together on the graph, and the central publications that shaped Poe's national reputation clearly emerge from the graph. 

While it might not shock Poe scholars to see the <i>Broadway Journal</i> or <i>Southern Literary Messenger</i> at the center of this graph, a broader graph that visualizes connections among thousands of reprinted texts might point to larger, national trends. Who most influenced the nineteenth-century print network? Which publications shared texts most frequently, or to the greatest effect? These are broad versions of the questions I hope network models will help me begin asking of nineteenth-century periodicals in the coming months. 

--Ryan Cordell, Northeastern University, r.cordell@neu.edu, @ryancordell

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Mapping the American West

    Our project, “Mapping the American West: Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches to Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales,” is conceptually indebted to Matthew Wilkins’ “Maps of American Fiction,” which has so far data mined around 300 American novels from the Wright American Fiction Project at Indiana and mapped those locations in an attempt to examine cultural investment in regionalism and internationalism. The scope of our own project is, I think, both more and less ambitious than Wilkins’. Using the same open-source data mining software - Geodict - and ArcGIS, we have so far data mined and mapped locations from two books of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. Unlike Wilkins’ project, ours is much more limited in scope. However, to our knowledge, our project is also the first which attempts to synthesize big data processing techniques with close reading. This is the sense in which I believe it is ambitious, as we are working without the guidance of precedents. Some of the difficulties that we have encountered are also emblematic of the problems that graduate students and faculty working without the benefit of digital humanities centers or initiatives at their institutions face when trying to enter into what has been called the “spatial turn” in American Studies.

            Daniel and I had never before attempted to use the tools that we employed in this project. We were offered assistance by a close friend who has a degree in urban planning and a deep familiarity with ArcGIS. Together, we were able to experiment with ArcGIS. Unsure of what we would discover along the way, we hoped to be able to offer a critique of both traditional scholarly readings as well as the methodologies for data visualization that are becoming increasingly popular in this field. We wanted to turn our lack of knowledge of these tools and our limited data sample into an advantage, hoping that we might be able to offer some insight that more seasoned DH-ers lack. Though our results are still preliminary, what we have found so far is that from an outsider’s perspective, there seems to be an advantage in using data analysis on small samples where close reading is also possible. In Wilkin’s project, for example, references to locations outside the U.S. are construed as evidence of global awareness; close reading of similar passages reveals them to largely concern immigrant origins as they pertain to Euro-American population composition. The initial purpose of our project (and an ongoing aspect) involves generating new spatial tools that allow a comparison between U.S. expansion in literary texts and the types of infrastructural expansion that allowed its real counterpart.   Our most valuable conclusion thus far, however, is that spatial tools are only as good as the theory behind them—without knowing the right questions to ask, the answers are not forthcoming.

We're looking forward to discussing our project with you in October!

Heather Duncan
SUNY Buffalo

Views from space in the Spatial Turn

In true PechaKucha style, you have only 20 seconds to read this post.  Just kidding, I'm not actually timing you.

My presentation is on the spatial relationships of Baltimore's early c19 merchants.  Here's an image (from space!) that shows the point of origin for ships that entered Baltimore's ports from March - May 1792.

Points of Origin for Baltimore Entrances, 1792
The markers are weighted: larger markers mean more ships arrived from that port.  Baltimore's marker has a black dot in it.

This representation, and others, will help me discuss the trade networks Baltimore's merchants relied on to conduct business.    What sorts of questions do you think I can ask and (hopefully) answer with data that looks like this?  How is this more or less helpful than a simple list of ports?  What does it mean to the historian, or humanist more generally, that he or she can generate a representation like this in only a few hours?

I look forward to responding to your comments and feedback here and at the upcoming conference.  Can't wait to be back in Providence!

Abby Schreiber

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Digitizing Desire: A History of the Codification of Pleasure

In the summer of 1938, Theodore Adorno set out for America to head the music department of the Princeton Radio Project. Upon his arrival, Adorno was proudly shown the centerpiece of the radio project’s empirical analyses: the Stanton-Lazarsfeld Analyzer. Designed by social scientist Paul Lazarsfeld and CBS executive Frank Stanton, the Analyzer included a green “like” and a red “dislike” button. As music was piped into the different rooms of the project, volunteers of different age, race and class were instructed to press the red or green button every few seconds depending on whether they liked what they were hearing at that moment or not. Codifying the analog rhythm of music into binary pulses of like and dislike, the Analyzer was digitizing desire.

Be it the measurement of happiness according to Twitter tweets, Facebook likes (but not dislikes) or the ubiquitous internet star rating of everything from blockbuster films to vacuum cleaners, our wants and pleasures are constantly being translated into a stream of digitized ones and zeroes. Tracing the origins of today’s digitization of desire,  the paper I will be presenting in October uses the Princeton Radio Project to explore how groundbreaking intellectual and cultural developments such as behavioral psychology, neoclassical economics and consumer capitalism played a crucial role in creating the rating-obsessed world we live in today.  

I’d be happy to receive any comments (or a star rating 1 thru 5) and look forward to meeting you all soon!

Graduate student in Harvard University's American Studies program

All I Need to Know About Birtherism I Learned from the “Feejee Mermaid”: Audience Reception and Interrogating Truth Claims in Communications Revolutions

NB: My week to post to the blog was the same week that I 1) had my comprehensive exams and 2) got married, and in the confusion, I forgot to post. For this reason, I am postdating and putting this up now in hopes of getting feedback before the conference.

United States History has in many ways been singularly defined by a long series of communications revolutions. From the First Amendment and the Postal Road System to the telegraph to the birth of the Railway Mail Service to the rise of the mass media to the Internet, the United States has been a nation that has been constantly being reshaped by revolutionary shifts in communications. The way that people communicate has been shifting rapidly and radically for most of our nation's history. This paper looks at the way that these communications revolutions have encouraged audiences to constantly retrain themselves to discern between counterfeit and authentic, to critically interrogate new information and attempt to detect deception-- and how this sort of interrogation has become a recurring form of entertainment and ludic pleasure.

PT Barnum is perhaps best known for his apocryphal dictum that “there’s a sucker born every minute,” but investigating Barnum’s audience suggests that they were far savvier and less trusting than is popularly assumed. James Cook, in his The Arts of Deception, demonstrates quite well that Barnum based much of his career on a winking playfulness with his audience, one based on constantly dancing on the line between the authentic and deception. This playfulness with truth claims, far from going unnoticed by his audience, was one of the primary things that appealed to Barnum’s audience. Witnessing exhibitions of the “Feejee Mermaid,” George Washington’s 161-year-old nursemaid Joice Heth, or the nondescript “What Is It?”, audiences went to witness uncertain “objects,” to interrogate the truth claims of exhibitors and the surrounding media, and to attempt to determine for themselves if they were being deceived or not. The playful negotiation of truth and fiction was a large part of the audience’s enjoyment, in a time of intense technological and media shifts, from the age of Jackson to the twentieth century.

Likewise, while many popular and academic accounts of Internet users assume that they are a deeply uncritical audience, I argue that much the same process of playful interrogation of authentic versus counterfeit still goes on on-line, and that it is indeed a very popular type of discourse on the web. Looking at examples including the 4chan “Perfection Girl” meme, “Slender Man,” and Youtube trick-photography videos, I argue that Internet users are playing with one another, making a game of critical analysis. Of course, in an age of deep epistemological uncertainty, “truth” is a far more problematic category today than it was in the nineteenth century. For this reason, I extend my analysis to the Korean <Tablo Online> movement, as well as the 9-11 Truther and Birther movements in the United States. While these online movements deal with far more serious issues-- and while the conclusions they come to are deeply problematic-- the mode of discourse within them and the methods by which they interrogate evidence is fundamentally very similar to the game-like mechanics with which Internet users play at questions of veracity. I argue that this is fundamental to the popularity and longevity of these conspiracy-theory based movements, and can provide insight into the way authenticity and deception are understood in the twenty-first century.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

African Passages, Lowcountry Adaptations: Transforming Charleston’s Public History Landscape through a Digital Exhibition Project

Looking back now at the title of our presentation, I’m realizing that our claim that a digital exhibition can change Charleston’s public history landscape seems pretty bold. In many ways though, I think we are at least onto something-- I do believe the relationship between inclusive public history work and digital humanities research and resources could be greatly expanded, and even transformative, for Charleston and the Lowcountry region. To provide some context, for over a century, since tourism first became a lucrative industry in the Charleston area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, historic sites, tour guides, and museums have overwhelmingly focused on antebellum and colonial white elite experiences and material culture. Their interpretation choices served to marginalize or romanticize historic social struggles over race, labor, and citizenship that formed during and after slavery in this region, and continued into twentieth century civil rights activism. Today, “Historic Charleston” is a multi-billion dollar tourism destination that receives over four million visitors annually. But with some notable exceptions, most historic tourism producers still do not frame African American history during and after slavery as central to understanding Lowcountry history. Instead, guides give these subjects passing acknowledgement, or historic sites present them as separate, optional additions to their standard white elite tour narratives.

Acknowledging and effectively interpreting Charleston’s full history to the public is long overdue, but cultural institutions, historic sites, and tour guides face major challenges for accomplishing this task. For example, the physical presence of historic mansions of elite whites often dominate current Lowcountry historic landscapes and guide narratives, while complex social histories of African American labor and struggle within these spaces or on surrounding former rice fields can be more difficult for visitors to conceptualize. In addition, efforts to build new physical exhibitions and museum structures to address these underrepresented histories often become constrained by limited budgets in the current economy. In this context, mobile applications and online exhibitions can engage multimedia archival materials and scholarly research to help users effectively visualize and connect with more diverse social histories, within a fuller range of the Lowcountry’s historic structures and landscapes. They can also accomplish this at minimal costs and impacts on the current physical environments and communities living within these spaces. Through African Passages, Lowcountry Adaptations, the Lowcountry Digital Library will specifically introduce a cohesive online narrative platform for presenting digital projects connected to the history of colonial and antebellum slavery in this region (such as online tours of specific spaces where enslaved people lived and work in the Lowcountry, or images of artifacts they used). Our goal is for this online exhibition to promote greater understanding and appreciation for this region’s complex, multicultural histories to a range of user audiences, including visitors, locals, scholars and educators, as well as tour guides. 

Mary Battle, PhD Candidate
Emory University
Assistant Digital Curator
Lowcountry Digital Library
College of Charleston

Monday, August 6, 2012

Excavating Before 1970

One of the challenges or research in the digital age is locating and accessing texts written prior to 1970 that are not commonly used. Archives are increasingly adding to online digital documents in an effort to preserve the most valuable primary source materials. In the process, manuscripts are privileged over less     snazzy (and more lengthy) old books. For my own research on theatre and dance histories these old books contain a plethora of information about play productions and period perspectives. Generally speaking, books between 1890 and 1970 get lost in the catalogue since many collections began to digitize new acquisitions around 1970. Accessing these materials is still a challenge of the digital age, and when I am able to find a volume (such as Robert Albion's History of the New York Port), it can be easier to purchase online than to acquire through library or archival sources.

My own project "Tracing Ira Aldridge, " lies at the other end of the spectrum. Through a digital tool  called MixD I am attempting to construct through mapping and photo references the performance journeys of 19th century actors. Even as I invest in data collection and sorting for realizing the visual display of graphics and information, I wonder what the accessibility of this material will be for those who want to access this tool outside of the digital world.

Posted by
Anita Gonzalez, Professor
State University of New York at New Paltz

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The misread professor

One story: when I was teaching a 4-4 composition load, I had a conversation with a father's friend, who asked me how many courses I taught. 4, I said. How many hours a week does each class meet? 3, I said. "So you work 12 hours a week!" he said. At that point, teaching courses that required multiple drafts, I was working closer to 12 hours a day (almost every day of the week). Recently, David C. Levy wrote in the Washington Post, how underworked and overpaid professors were. As others noted, not only did this article underestimate how much work teaching is, it ignored all the service work we do, for one, and eschewed all ranks of professor below full, including adjuncts.

Our panel is less formal and purely academic than most of the ones here (perhaps all of them). It involves the weird lives as professors we lead, semi-public, sometimes unconventional, and often (or even almost always) misinterpreted.

There are far bigger issues facing the professoriate--finding a good job, decreasing tenure rates, racial and gender discrimination, and changing workload expectations. But our perceived place in American culture have an impact on almost all of those issues and so by extension, being misread is important.

Part of the reason for this consistent misreading is the partially public lives we have as professors--we spend 6 to 12 hours a week performing teaching and another 3 to 6 in office hours. But the rest of the work we do is often private or straddles the line between public and private, and often done, in fact, in odd hours and wherever we want. That means male professors can sometimes help with child care, and many of us can do our errands at odd hours, though not without questions.

No one likes a pity party about how hard a professor's life is, and we do have more autonomy and better working conditions than many professions. But without a better understanding of what professors do, those outside the profession will continue to misread us.

--Jonathan Silverman