When I prepped my syllabus for the “Introduction to Digital Humanities” class that I taught last year, I included Ted Nelson’s article “Complex information processing: a file structure for the complex, the changing and the indeterminate” because I wanted my students to gain some historical knowledge about how modern-day computer interfaces developed from the ideas of visionary thinkers like Nelson. At the time, I was unaware that Nelson would be a Visiting Fellow on our campus or that I would have the luxury of becoming personally acquainted with him.
Ted Nelson, who coined the term Hypertext.
My students struggled a bit with the Nelson article. Not only was it long, but his ideas didn’t seem to spark much interest. As we discussed his piece together, I pointed out just how revolutionary his thoughts were in 1965, but that seemed to have little impact on their thinking. Moreover, his ideas about hypertext, or links between words and documents seemed so obvious to their minds that it was difficult to underscore their significance. So I took a different tactic and we created a list of all of the characteristics of Nelson’s imagined platform: it would be connected and iterative and creative and collaborative. It would “grow indefinitely, gradually including more and more of the world’s knowledge.”
“Do you know of any platform like that?” I asked.
The response: Wikipedia.
When I shared their reply with Ted a few weeks later, he seemed frustrated. And I could see why. Wikipedia, although a valuable resource and an excellent knowledge repository, is not a creative space. Indeed, it tends towards being rather scripted and formulaic, as well as hierarchical in ways that don’t gel with Nelson’s vision.
My students’ response to my question about Project Xanadu points to the unrealized nature of Nelson’s early vision–we remain locked into ways of digitally writing that replicate paper and although many of us read e-books or use text-based apps of various kinds, they are simply re-presentations of analog modes of creation. But it also points out a far larger problem: that the development of our computer interfaces and software feels like a “given” to most students. They have difficulty imagining that computers could have developed a different way or with an alternate mode of interaction. Which concerns me about how they may imagine their own future–as a series of inevitabilities rather than as dynamic and evolving threads of occurrences on a canvas that they can manipulate and shape to their liking.
Returning to my “Mary Monday” poetry series, from oh-so-long ago….
How I wish that I’d read this poem before I spent three hours at the DMV last week, getting my stolen Driver’s License replaced:
(from the Writer’s Almanac):
At the Department of Motor Vehicles
to renew my driver’s license, I had to wait
two hours on one of those wooden benches
like pews in the church of Latter Day
Meaninglessness, where there is no
stained glass (no windows at all, in fact),
no incense other than stale cigarette smoke
emanating from the clothes of those around me,
and no sermon, just an automated female voice
calling numbers over a loudspeaker.
And one by one the members of our sorry
congregation shuffled meekly up to the pitted
altar to have our vision tested or to seek
redemption for whatever wrong turn we’d taken,
or pay indulgences, or else be turned away
as unworthy of piloting our own journey.
But when I paused to look around, using my numbered
ticket as a bookmark, it was as if the dim
fluorescent light had been transformed
to incandescence. The face of the Latino guy
in a ripped black sweatshirt glowed with health,
and I could tell that the sulking white girl
accompanied by her mother was brimming
with secret excitement to be getting her first license,
already speeding down the highway, alone,
with all the windows open, singing.
I became an avid user of email pretty early on, in 1993. Back then most people had interesting ASCII signatures under their names. I did not have ASCII art skillz, so I decided on something simple (let’s call it ‘minimalist’) for my signature. Nearly every email message I signed as:
And I still do that, with the exception of my professional correspondence, which generally ends in a:
I don’t remember why I chose a tilde as my defining signature character, but I suppose it was because it seemed to give my signature a bit more of a flourish than a dash.
I’ve been going through the dozens of “draft” posts that have never seen the light of day. This is one of those (from November 2012), which I didn’t post because at the time I was hesitant to admit some of my tech-frustrations…
For the first few weeks of the semester I had a running joke with one of my colleagues, where I would come back from class and she would ask me what I’d broken that day. Because, for whatever reason, nearly every digital tool that I was trying with my students ended up having a major snafu when I presented it to them in class.
There was the class wordpress blog that ended up stalling when I asked all of the students to post comments simultaneously, and the SIMILE timeline tool that broke whenever the students tried to add events that extended over a period of time, the day that I introduced Prezi that also coincided with the very hour that they rolled out an unannounced upgrade to the menu structure of the software, and numerous fails with using Blackboard tools (the wikis and discussion boards simply weren’t robust enough to be accessed by 25 users at once). Finally, yesterday, I learned that when I asked my students to all create wikipedia accounts, we learned that they screen by IP address for new registrations and had put a 24-hour hold on any new accounts being added from our classroom.
Fortunately I’m fairly patient with technology. Since I’m fussing with it nearly all-day long, I’ve learned that there are almost-always workarounds. Even when they mean using pen and paper (and typewriters).
I was in SF for an academic conference this weekend. It was terrific in so many ways, but perhaps mostly so because even though I went up and down many hills, my (bionic) knee never once balked or stuttered at the change in incline. That’s a welcome first.
I’m sitting at the food court at UCLA and I feel like a student again. Which I am, because I’m on campus for a two-day intensive training in Project Management from UVic professor Lynne Siemens. Usually taught in a week in the summer at the DHSI, we’ve moved quickly though the 450 page(!) manual prepared by our instructor.
Perhaps the most important take-away message from this event is realizing how integral Project Management has become for the kinds of team-based projects that are common in the Digital Humanities. From this class I’ve gained skills that I intend to add to my DH-class syllabus and that I will share with my faculty colleagues. But most importantly, I’ve learned concrete steps for project planning that I’ll apply in nearly every aspect of my own work–as an administrator, a researcher, and (most importantly) as a grant-writer.
While many of the steps that we learned are intuitive–defining the nature of our research questions and the expected outcomes, listing each step of the process, creating workflows for accomplishing phrases of a project, etc.–some elements were less intuitive, such as finding a critical path through a project, defining the scope clearly and balancing that against the time and money allocated for the project, adding moments within the plan to evaluate whether it’s still achievable, and creating a shared documentation system for recording all aspects of a project.
After having spent the last two days steeped in PM, I must confess that it’s not the most exciting topic imaginable. In fact, it can tend towards being self-evident (well, of course one needs to plan incremental deadlines in order to pull all of the pieces together for a large project to reach completion on time). But…the more I followed all of the processes and considered how they could be applied to just about anything: writing a journal article, planning a conference, coordinating volunteer writers for a group blog, etc., the more I realized that applying the elements of PM are critical for seeing projects through to completion. Because it seems as though (at least for me) projects are always so very easy to start, but so very difficult to finish.
I don’t remember the first time that I made bread dough, but I must have been fairly young–by the age of eight I’d already won a ribbon at the Fair for my sweet rolls (and yes, they are still amazing). I’m sure the knowledge I had at such a young age came from watching my Mom bake–as I remember it, her loaves were usually whole wheat, sweetened with honey (or at least that is the flavor of bread that always reminds me of those young years). Her dinner rolls remain, in my mind, the stuff of legend.
Although I have remained a maker of bread nearly all of my life, for the past ten years or so, I’ve primarily defaulted to doing so in a bread machine. That way I can set a timer and not have to worry about any of the details of the process. Out pops a tasty loaf in about two hours, or when I walk in the door from work if I’ve set the time earlier that morning. Breadmaker bread is good, and is certainly better than most store-bought bread, but….it also has a uniform texture to it that’s not airy and the crust is not crispy and, most importantly, it robs one of all the pleasure of kneading and smelling and shaping the dough…
So I’ve begun making and baking my own bread again, by hand.* It’s such a time-consuming and mercurial process: the very same recipe rarely yields the same result. And there is so much intuition involved that I have to just “feel” the bread to know what it needs (more flour? a bit of oil? extra time for raising?). Being a part of that process and experimenting with different recipes and doughs is pure pleasure. I’m developing a kind of bread knowledge that allows me to compose recipes in my head and to refine my process with every loaf (though I did also pore over these two books for much of my bread-knowledge, too: The Bread Bible and Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day.)
I’m not sure why I am so keen on making my own bread right now. I suspect that it’s filling a space of domesticity that’s a bit empty because I no longer have many duties in caring for my children. Or perhaps it’s a craving for comfort and the memories of times past. Or perhaps it’s a need to touch and smell something altogether different than the slick manufactured surfaces of keyboards and touchscreens and elevator buttons and chrome.
But whatever the reason, I am again making bread. And it is good.
*I still do the initial bread mixing in either my Sunbeam or my KitchenAid. In that I’m following the pattern of most bread “experts.” I am also using this awesome Baguette Pan that was given to me by a friend.