Storyworlds in the Classroom

I may very well be a relic, or at least a square peg in an increasingly rounded hole. What do age and shape have to do with anything? Let me first tell you a story…

This past Wednesday, in the course on American folklore I am teaching this semester, we were discussing the way that contemporary legends manage to bridge the gap between what is narrated and the moment of narration so effectively. That is, we can imagine two individuals in conversation, A and B, who having proceeded through some sequence of genres — for example, the exchange of pleasantries followed by a few bits of news, then an anecdote or two, perhaps a joke or a bit of gossip, until one of them, let’s say A, suddenly, says, “Hey, that reminds me, did you hear that….” What follows is a legend. Perhaps it is, as we were discussing on Wednesday, a version of “the boyfriend’s death” or perhaps it is a more current-event-focused legend focused on some food contamination or something of that nature. No matter.

Narrated versus Narration

Narrated versus Narration

A tells B the story using a sequence of words, the narration, that conjures up a narrated world. What is narrated, whether it ever actually happened or not, is a representation of reality, not reality itself. Even if A has just come from running into an old friend at a coffee shop, B has no access to the event except through its representation. How the gap between what happened, or is said to have happened, is crossed from the saying of what happened is what is at stake here.

In the case of many contemporary legends, we can see the bridging/crossing taking place across multiple dimensions: first, legends of this nature tend to draw people into closer proximity, creating a kind of intimacy of narration that is different from other narratives. Let’s call that pragmatic intimacy or pragmatic bridging. Second, it is quite common that the events narrated are said to have happened either to someone the narrator knows, or to someone known by a mutual friend, or, as is the case with other legend genres, the events narrated are said to have happened nearby or just recently. In this semantic bridging, or intimacy, any of a number of permutations are possible: close by relationship, close by location, close by time.

The combined effect of pragmatic and semantic bridging is, of course, the erasure of the gap between the real world, the world in which the story is told, and the tale, or the world told or narrated. Such moments occur regularly in oral discourse, which is an amazing thing when you think about it, and their frequent occurrence plays some role, I believe, in the grip that legends can have on us: we are so used to the invocation of storyworlds as reality in everyday speech that we hardly notice a different kind of shift.

It was this careful distinction between reality and the representation of reality that momentarily confused my students. No one said anything, but every teacher or public speaker reading this knows the slight change in facial expressions that cue you to stop for a moment, to digress from the topic at hand into something that needs fleshing out.

And so I found myself given a mini-lecture on the nature of realism, how standards for realistic representation change over time, such that when we look at old movies, read older novels, or even watch television programming from two generations ago, we wonder how the consumers of those fictions could have ever found them believable. To us, they look at least dated if not downright “hokey.” Silly people of a previous time. What fools they were! Why would you think that a static camera with constant medium shots was at all realistic? Then again, I wonder what folks from previous eras would make of the constant motion of today’s cameras.

I’m happy to say that the mini-lecture on realism got them thinking, and allowed us to have the fuller conversation about legends that I wanted us to have. But, in looking back on the moment, I realized that that teachable moment was, to some degree, a function of the size of the class. English 432: American folklore is, by my university’s standards, under-enrolled with 12 or so students in it. (I had to make an argument to the administration that it would be really wrong for one of the two folklorists in the department not to be teaching a folklore course.) But with that many students, not only do I feel comfortable leaving aside the day’s agenda, I am driven to do so by looking at their faces. And with that number of students, I have already gotten to know their faces. With double that number, the course’s preferred enrollment, I know students less well. I read them less well. I teach them less well. (I can still teach them: it just won’t be as well fitted.)

I got tremendous kudos for the way I teach freshman honors English, but it was a class that I had to leave behind because our department head at the time, like our current dean, preferred quantity to quality.

And that is what makes me a relic. I am sorry for my students, who while they attend a regional public university, still hope for a quality education. I want them to know that many of their faculty still hope to give them such an education. But, increasingly, the odds are, ironically, stacked.

Plan and Profile of a Louisiana Landscape

I’m working on the illustrations for The Makers of Things. Some get done quickly; some take far longer than I imagined. The illustration that pairs a map view with an elevation cross section proved to be one of the latter (as always, click to embiggen):

Plan and Elevation of Eunice to Mamou

Plan and Elevation of Eunice to Mamou

I’m fairly happy with these stripped-down maps, focusing, I hope, readers’ attention.

Visualizing Time

Many thanks to the folks at O’Reilly for organizing and sponsoring the webcast “It’s About Time: Using Temporal Visualization Techniques to Give Data More Meaning and Context” with Hunter Whitney. Here’s O’Reilly’s description:

We typically don’t give a moment’s thought to the timing and sequence of most of life’s activities and events, but time and order play a significant role in much of what we do. Further, the overlap between one series of events and another can reveal complex patterns and prompt important insights, once detected. However, most database and visual analytics tools are not equipped to reveal the meaning and context that nuanced time representations can provide. Temporal visualizations can shed new light on many areas from healthcare to cybersecurity to sports, to name a few.

This webcast will include key ideas, techniques, and practical applications to represent and explore event sequences and their temporal patterns. To illustrate these ideas, a visualization tool called EventFlow will be demonstrated by researchers at the University of Maryland’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab, where the tool is being developed.

Here are links both from the presentation and from the group chat:

  • The book Visualization of Time-Oriented Data “starts with an introduction to visualization and a number of historical examples of visual representations. At its core, the book presents and discusses a systematic view of the visualization of time-oriented data.”
  • EventFlow is software designed by UMD’s HCIL to help hospitals visualize patient-based workflows: what got done when and in what sequence. (It looks very complicated and very specific, but I wonder if it couldn’t be bent to other purposes.)
  • The Wind Map is the coolest thing I have seen in a long time.
  • Merely a Node has some examples by Whitney.
  • A nice example of being able to compare months.
  • Don’t forget Google Charts.

Only the Shadow Knows

I hate the title of the special issue of Differences on the digital humanities, “In the Shadows of the Digital Humanities”, but I am intrigued by some of the articles, especially the ones by Adeline Koh:

This essay explores the “social contract” of the digital humanities community. I argue that the social contract of the digital humanities is composed of two rules: 1) the notion of niceness or civility; and 2) the possession of technical knowledge, defined as knowledge of coding or computer programming. These rules are repeatedly raised within the public sphere of the digital humanities and are simultaneously contested and criticized. I claim that these rules and the social contract come from humanities computing, a field commonly described as the digital humanities’ sole predecessor. Humanities computing has historically differentiated itself from media and cultural studies, defining itself as a field that uses computational methods to address humanities research questions rather than exploring the impact of computation on culture and the humanities. I call for a movement that would go beyond this social contract by creating multiple genealogies for the digital humanities; by arguing that current conceptualizations of the digital humanities have not only developed from humanities computing but also include additional fields such as new media studies, postcolonial science and technology studies, and digital research on race, gender, class, and disability and their impact on cultures around the world.

I am curious about her claim that humanities computing is often positioned “as the digital humanities’ sole predecessor.” I was under the impression that digital humanities was an umbrella term invented — and this history here intrigues me — to accommodate both the old humanities computing and the newer digital/media studies. But while I have apparently been flirting with the digital humanities for quite some time, I am a latecomer to its intellectual history.

I’m also interested in code studies and in the idea of a critical technical practice, which Michael Dieter explores:

This article reflects theoretically on the conditions of possibility for critical work to be conducted in the context of the digital humanities and aims to provide a broad conceptual vocabulary suitable for supporting and expanding this rapidly changing subdiscipline. It does so by elaborating on the framework of critical technical practice (CTP) first proposed by Philip Agre, suggesting how this notion might be connected productively with philosophical lineages of antipositivist epistemology, but as such traditions are reimagined and retooled for today’s informational contexts. Here, CTP is considered through the work of sociotechnical problematization, especially by the various techniques that differentiate existing infrastructural solutions on the basis of the purported material problems and difficulties they claim to address. The origin of Agre’s notion of CTP is linked back to its inspiration in the specific methodologies and concepts in the work of Michel Foucault. It is also suggested that other important connections to the thought of Henri Bergson, Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem, and Gilles Deleuze can be made. While presenting a rich set of resources for the consideration of sociotechnical problems, the argument is made that these resources might be productively placed in dialogue with existing digital methods and techniques through a reflection on media aesthetics. The article concludes by illustrating the relevance of this general framework with reference to a number of projects by media practitioners relevant to digital humanities, including the work of Rosa Menkman, YoHa, Julian Oliver, Dmytri Kleiner, and Esther Polak.

My chief problem? I can’t seem to access the current issue of Differences — if I can, my university’s infrastructure makes it very difficult to understand how.

Cultural Hubs

One of the things that I think we face in era of big data and especially in the moment when data visualizations/projections are so popular is that the data you start with is not objective. Case in point is the Smithsonian.com animation that asks us to “Watch How the Cultural Hubs of Civilization Have Shifted Over Centuries”. Go ahead and click on the link and watch the visualization. It’s quite compelling.

Did you notice how densely populated Europe and North America are? How sparsely populated China is? Let along Africa and South America? We’re talking civilizations here. The great kingdoms of China. The empires of the Incas and the Aztecs must cutely be counted among the civilizations of our planet worth noting? Well, not quite:

By tracking where 120,000 notable historical figures were born and died, researchers have charted the ever-shifting appeal of the next up-and-coming Big City. The video above shows the migration of notable figures—artists, explorers, philosophers, missionaries and others—from 600 B.C. to 2012 A.D., says Nature.

The animation reflects some of what was known already. Rome gave way to Paris as a cultural centre, which was eventually overtaken by Los Angeles and New York. But it also puts figures and dates on these shifts — and allows for precise comparisons. For example, the data suggest that Paris overtook Rome as a cultural hub in 1789.

Ah. It’s those 120,000 notable figures upon which the graph is based that is the problem: it’s not very inclusive, is it?

Winning at Monopoly with Math

I am a complete fool for articles like Business Insider‘s “How To Use Math To Crush Your Friends At Monopoly Like You’ve Never Done Before”. I like that the math involved can range from the simple — how the distribution of dice rolls affects where most people will land, given a particular starting point — to the complex. If the slide decks length puts you off — there’s sixty plus slides in there!, you can always scroll to the end and read the half dozen concluding slides that tell you what you should do. But, really, the fun is in the careful working through of the numbers.