Flattening a List in Python

There has to be a more elegant, and pythonic, way to do this, but none of my experiments with nested list comprehensions or with itertool’s chain function worked.

What I started with is a function that creates a list of sentences, each of which is a list of words from a text (string):

def sentience (the_string):
    sentences = [
            [word.lower() for word in nltk.word_tokenize(sentence)]
            for sentence in nltk.sent_tokenize(the_string)
        ]
    return sentences

But in the current moment, I didn’t need all of a text, but only two sentences to examine with the NLTK’s part-of-speech tagger. nltk.pos_tag(text), however, only accepts a flat list of words. So I needed to flatten my lists of lists into one list, and I only needed, in this case, the first two sentences:

test = []
for i in range(len(text2[0:2])): #the main list
    for j in range (len(text2[i])): #the sublists
        test.append(text2[i][j]) 

I’d still like to make this a single line of code, a nested list comprehension, but, for now, this works.

Strengths in the Humanities

Jason Jackson is one of those people I wish I could be around more: he is principled, thoughtful, and acts for the long-term. So when he casually tags something on social media, I’ll almost always have a look. Most recently, he linked to an article by Helene Meyers in Inside Higher Education on How small liberal arts colleges can best weather the pandemic, noting that humanities scholars might take a few tips from Meyers.

The entire article is worth a read, but for the purposes of re-thinking my own courses for the fall, and just generally re-thinking how I teach, I want to focus on the following things that Meyer highlights as strengths of liberal arts colleges:

  • low faculty/student ratios and small classes “allow meaningful mentoring relationships with faculty members as well as peer education. What if a British-style tutorial were part of every first-year student’s experience? Among smaller groups, meetings powered by Zoom can foster intellectual community, while online discussion forums can require students to respond to one another’s writing.”
  • intensive research seminars “where faculty-guided independent work is supplemented with a cohort of peers who can help vet one another’s projects and learn to ask (and answer) critical questions about both the research process and its products should be provided for upper-class students.”
  • study pandemic-related topics “to [help students] process the experiences of this moment” keeping mind that some students “might need to lose themselves in a passion that seems distant from the horrors of the present.”
  • integrate career coaching throughout the curriculum because “the next few graduating classes will be entering a brutal job market, and we owe our students careful instruction in the development and transferability of marketable skills.”

I see all these things as possible and even within my reach — so long as I am willing to stretch — with career coaching being the weakest point for me. Here, I will have to do more research and, I think, I will also have to consider ways to highlight portable skills/methods/ideas. (I know, I know: it’s the commodification of knowledge and education, but nothing says that making things complex or emphasizing, and perhaps teaching, that all syntheses are dynamic and ever-changing can’t be built into any particular course program or disciplinary curriculum.)

*This post is part of a series in which I design a new course, ENGL 334: Digital Folklore and Culture, in the open. I do so for myself, for my colleagues, and for my students. They are all collected under the tag open course design.

rsync without a Password

In order to set up rsync to work without a password, you first need to make sure that you can do so with a password:

rsync /local/path username@/remote/path

If successful, then generate a public/private key pair, but be sure not to give a password:

$ ssh-keygen
Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase):
Enter same passphrase again:

Then copy the public key to the remote host — note that ssh-copy-id will copy the file to the correct location for you:

ssh-copy-id -i ~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub username@/remote

Make sure that you can ssh without a password:

ssh jlaudun@/remote

Now try rsync adding the argument -e ssh to specify the remote shell to use:

rsync -avz -e ssh /local/path username@/remote/path

Who is this course for?

This post is one of several in which I am designing a new course, ENGL 334: Digital Folklore and Culture, that I will also be teaching in a new context, remotely, and doing so completely in the open. Other posts are tagged open course design.

The Udemy How to Set Your Course Goals course begins with a consideration of who is the target student, with the understanding that courses that attempt to reach too broad of an audience end up reaching no one. Beginners feel overwhelmed and experienced individuals feel under-served. Target an audience.

After brainstorming on paper for a bit, I came up with, I think a basic list:

This course assumes that participants:

  • while fully enrobed in cultural, and folkloric, dynamics do not necessarily understand those dynamics,
  • but are interested in, and committed to, that understanding;
  • have a working familiarity with the research process — the development of an hypothesis, the collection of data, the testing of ideas against the hypothesis, and the eventual development of a syn/thesis — and need for clear communication of results;
  • willing to apply ideas and methods learned in this course (and elsewhere in the university) to materials that seem ephemeral, trivial, trolling, ass-holish (racist, sexist, classist, etc.).§

§ This course also assumes participants can handle language and/or cultural artifacts that are of intentionally or intentionally provocative/offensive in nature. Indeed, this course assumes participants want to understand why people say/do such things.

Why did I switch to Udemy? May was both busy and not, but the month slipped by and I lost access to the edX 101 course on designing courses for edX. (The edX model is that you can audit, take for free, a course for a limited time, but if you want access to it for more than a month or if you want it to count towards a curriculum, then you have to pay for it. The “if you want credit” model worked for me, but “if you want access for more than a month” appears not work for me.) The upshot is that I have switched to the Udemy course, which also means I have switched to a platform that is open to hosting courses by individuals: both edX and Coursera offer courses through affiliated institutions and organizations. I don’t know that what I do will end up on Udemy, but I can certainly take advantage of their “market aware” approach to sharpen my thinking about the course.

Sam Castleman, PhD (2020)

Sam Castleman arrived at UL-Lafayette from Western Kentucky University, which meant her foundation in folklore studies was already both deep and wide. There was not much more that we could add, and yet Sam never hesitated to re-read materials or to read intractably theoretical articles. That is who Sam is: she has an incredible drive, and the discipline to go with it, to do anything she wants. My job as her faculty member was to get out of her way — okay, I will confess to occasionally nudging her in this direction or another, but, it never took more than a nudge.

In an effort to maximize her time in graduate school — I don’t think the word minimize appears anywhere in her brain — Sam took on a number of duties, many of which, when she discussed them with me, I shook my head in response. Every time she proved my head shake wrong, somehow able to throw herself into organizational affairs and continue to excel at her studies.

When it came time to write her dissertation, Sam wrote it in 6 months. One day we were discussing possible topics and sequences, the next she was emailing me her first chapter. And the next she was presenting a part of another chapter to great interest at the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society. The chapters continued to pile into my inbox, and as soon as I had marked one and returned it, she had revised it and piled it back into my inbox. All the while Sam kept up all the other facets of her life, both personal and professional.

To be sure, there was the occasional anxious moment, a moment of doubt, and for those, to be honest, I was glad. I finally had something to do besides always be behind on returning the latest draft of a chapter to her! Nothing, however, defeats Sam for long, and I am incredibly excited to see what comes next for her. I’m not sure who learned more through all this, her or me — to be honest, it was probably me. I am humbled by that, and grateful to Sam for her continuing just to be her indomitable self.

Gina Warren (PhD, 2020)

The first time I met Gina was at The Steep House. She had accompanied one of our folklore students, Jessica Doble, and the three of us were there to talk about possible computational approaches to texts. As we were talking, Gina pulled up something on her computer, and then swiveled it to show me a screen filled with an Excel spreadsheet she had constructed that captured various moments in novels she was analyzing. She had used a spreadsheet because it was the only tool she had, and she knew she needed something more than notecards. That approach to doing things is emblematic of Gina herself: there is a kind of “isn’t it obvious that that is what needed to be done” to her, that permeates her being and makes her the scholar and writer she is.

It is with that isn’t-it-obvious approach that she raised chickens, crickets, pigs, worms, and I-don’t-want-to-know-what-else. If you are going to write a book about the backyard chicken revolution, then you should participate in it. You should be able to feel it in your bones. And if you are lucky enough to have read an advance copy of her book, then you have felt it in your bones through her words: the tenderness of wiping chick bottoms that you will, one day, kill for meat. Gina is not simply going to observe: she is going to experience. And in the doing, there will come that kind of knowing that makes her prose ring true. And, in a moment where writers worry about craft and public figures only care about telling people what they want to hear, we need someone like Gina for whom content matters, and experience matters, and science matters, and people matter, and animals matter. There is nothing that does not matter in Gina’s prose and in her world.

The only thing I could hope to do as her dissertation director was to continue to create a space within which she could continue to be the writer and scholar she herself was already committed to becoming. That was my only job, and she made it incredibly easy, and I think I speak for her entire committee when I say it was an honor to have been a part of the process in which she continues to become who she intends to be.

Designing a Course on Digital Folklore & Culture

This is the first post in a series entitled open course design in which all the design work of a new course, ENGL 334: Digital Folklore and Culture, is made public.

In Fall 2020, UL-Lafayette is going to offer for the first time a course on Digital Folklore and Culture. I will be teaching it alongside the American Folklore course, which I have for the past few years taught as “America in Legend Online and Off,” but which I have lately adapted to “collect some data and understand it.” There is, I think, a possible sequence to be had with the two courses: with the first one focusing on participants encountering a variety of vernacular forms and, perhaps, examining them as individual artifacts, and the second course then taking on more features of a course in culture analytics, with participants encouraged to curate a small collection, perhaps even imaginable as a corpora, and then making some forays into analysis “at scale.”

It would be nice to have them as a sequence, since that would mean that the introductions — to folklore and to folklore studies — could be safely housed in the lower-level course, allowing the upper-level course to move more quickly. Given our curriculum and the way our students encounter it, that isn’t going to happen any time soon, and so if I want to try this out, I will need to discover a path that allows people to enter in at the 400-level course and not feel like they are lost.

Some part of this could be satisfied by having a module introducing folklore studies, with a focus on digital folklore forms, available. I have begun the EdX 101 course as a way to help me think through how I might structure and script such a module: they are very fond of the lecture exercise model that delivers content in short bursts that are immediately reinforced. I’m also taking Microsoft’s DAT256x: Essential Math for Machine Learning on edX, and I like that the lectures only start with a talking head but then move to a series of slides. (And I note that the slides don’t have to be great to work.)

I don’t know if I need to think through the Digital Folklore and Culture course before thinking about the introductory module, but edX has the following questions as the first project activity:

  • What are the ultimate aims of this course?
  • What do we want learners to know after taking this course? What should they be able to do?
  • How does this influence (a) what is taught, (b) how it’s taught, and c) how students are assessed and graded?

What are the ultimate aims of this course? Ultimately, I want participants to have a folkloristic lens as one way to look at the world. All of us will have a variety of responses to various things others say and do, and we can examine both their actions and speech for veracity — myth busting in some places or calling bullshit in others — but I would also participants in any course I teach also to be able to ask “Why does this person think they are saying this or doing this? What is their understanding of this situation?” I don’t need, nor want, participants to excuse inexcusable behavior or beliefs, but the only way I think we have of changing behaviors and beliefs is to understand what underlies them.

What should learners be able to do after taking this course? Participants should be able to identify a vernacular artifact and to begin to sketch out its possible traditional, or perhaps simply cultural, dimensions.

How does this influence the course’s design? This is the hardest question. And it needs to be answered in parts:

One of the things I have consistently done in recent courses is to turn away from textbooks and books and towards articles drawn from scholarly databases, with the hope of establishing in the minds of participants what scholarship at least looks like if not the beginning of an ability to understand how it works and how they might interact with it. What I haven’t done is discover ways to assess how well they are mastering the scholarly/scientific paradigm, bar certain parameters of the final paper. There needs to be more, smaller, assignments: a single annotated bibliographic entry, for example.

But this does not address the central topic of Digital Folklore and Culture as outlined in the previous two answers: identify vernacular artifacts and explore their traditional dimensions. This should also be a series of discrete exercises that can be assessed early, often, and incrementally.

Fictional Text Analytics

There’s a great moment in John Scalzi’s Redshirts where statistical analysis is mentioned, and it comes down to comparing texts:


“So what you’re saying is all this is impossible,” Dahl said.

Jenkins shook his head. “Nothing’s impossible,” he said. “But some things are pretty damned unlikely. This is one of them.”

“How unlikely?” Dahl asked.

“In all my research there’s only one spaceship I’ve found that has even remotely the same sort of statistical patterns for away missions,” Jenkins said. He rummaged through the graphic elements again, and then threw one onto the screen. They all stared at it.

Duvall frowned. “I don’t recognize this ship,” she said. “And I thought I knew every type of ship we had. Is this a Dub U ship?”

“Not exactly,” Jenkins said. “It’s from the United Federation of Planets.”
Duvall blinked and focused her attention back at Jenkins. “Who are they?” she asked.

“They don’t exist,” Jenkins said, and pointed back at the ship. “And neither does this. This is the starship Enterprise. It’s fictional. It was on a science fictional drama series. And so are we.”


On Publishing Conflicts

The thirty-fourth day of #stayathome was spent mostly focused on copyright issues surrounding a successfully defended dissertation. The good news is that the dissertation was not only an academic success but was already under contract with a university press. The bad news was that the university press used a terrible boilerplate contract and the dissertation had received incorrect information from university personnel. (This happened prior to me coming on board as chair of the dissertation.)

This has resulted in something of an impasse: the press claims complete copyright for the manuscript and the university requires that the manuscript be submitted to ProQuest. Now the rules of ProQuest are that copyright remain with the author, but ProQuest still offers the option of buying a copy of the submitted manuscript, so they are in fact able to make copies. A ten-year embargo is possible, but it’s not clear if the university press is likely to budge. The university uses ProQuest because as a public university it feels that knowledge created here should be publicly available. The mandate comes down to a sentence in one document and a sentence in another.

The big picture is easy: the university’s mandate is to make public the knowledge it produces. In being published as a book, the dissertation accomplishes that and more: it will be more widely available, and at a cheaper price, than it would in ProQuest. The publisher’s mandate is to maximize the profitability of publishing this book. This can be accomplished by the ProQuest embargo — surely, the principal profit in the book will be in its first ten years!

The takeaways are many:

  1. For dissertators: read all the fine print at your institution. Do not depend on anyone’s advice unless they are, one, in a position to give it, and, two, they give it to you in writing.
  2. For all dissertations, and really all academic authors: read the contract. (More on this below.)
  3. For university presses: revise your contracts to be human.

In addition to the inflexible guidelines maintained by the university, there is the inflexibility of the contract. The particular press here is not alone. I’ve seen similar language in other contracts, and, indeed, when the press that published The Amazing Crawfish Boat first sent me a contract, it looked like this. Here’s the thing: I revised the contract, sent it back, and they were fine with the revisions. Here are the revisions I would suggest:

  • Copyright: Depending upon the severity of the contract, most presses want the copyright to your book. Some will recognize that there’s a span of time, but many will not or they will use the fuzziest of notions: that they maintain copyright “so long as the book remains in print.” Here’s the thing: in the digital era, books remain in print forever. The cost of maintaining an ebook approaches zero, and with print-on-demand, a publisher need not keep inventory of a book. I recommend you strike this out and change this to a flat “ten years or when the book goes out of print, whichever comes first.”
  • Derivative Works: Publishers like to act like they are going to do all kinds of things, but they aren’t. They are going to publish the book. Unless they have committed to publishing an audiobook version, then you should maintain that right. Also, if you plan to publish follow-on work or companion works, which should actually help to drive sales of the original, be sure to maintain that right. (The changes in wording here will depend on the contract.)
  • Subsidiary Rights: I think it’s fair to allow a publisher to keep whatever percentage, usually it’s half (50%), of the proceeds of subsequent print versions of the book, but I would cross out the clause involving other adaptations (video, audio, whatever). Also, the clause that says something like “we get half of net proceeds from anything not specifically set out in this paragraph”? Cross that out, too.

As you can probably tell, much of this language is drawn from industry presses and university presses have simply adopted it whole cloth because, in being oppressive, it works entirely in their favor. In my experience, having a conversation is pretty easy: common sense works here. Too many academic authors, especially first-time authors, are so excited about their book getting published or so worried that should they ask a question or request a change in the contract that the publisher is going to suddenly change their mind about publishing the book. No sensible press would: they have invested time and energy in lining up the manuscript for their press. They are not going to suddenly throw up their hands and yell: “That’s it! We’re out!” They are simply going to say “No.”

What you rights you are comfortable giving to them and for how long and with how much of the possible revenue … well, that’s ultimately a decision you alone can make. All I am suggesting is that you think about it, at least some, before signing your name.

On Teaching Online (So Far)

Today marks the 33rd day of quarantine, or, rather, a state-wide policy of staying at home. Others elsewhere living under other circumstances will count a different number of days. I count 33 days since Friday, March 13, when the university where I work announced that classes were cancelled for the following Monday and Tuesday and that when Wednesday dawned, all classes would be online.

I was somewhat luckier than most. I had begun to have conversations with my students that week about what it would mean if we had to go online, and so we had made plans together, which helped, I think, the eventual deployment. I remember quite clearly working through some of the finer points of how we would conduct ourselves in my eleven o’clock class when, as class was finishing one of my students looked at his phone and announced, “Oh, it’s official. We’re going online.” (Of course, my university announced it first on Twitter, and then about an hour later sent an email to faculty.)

So, it’s been a month — well, three and a half weeks really — and I have learned a lot about teaching online, appreciating that how you gauge comprehension is a fundamental shift between the two environments. In face-to-face lectures and discussions, you have an entire range of facial expressions, gestures, and postures that reveal to you the scope and depth of someone’s understanding of the material being examined. A slight eyebrow furrow can lead you to re-state a proposition with a different set of words that raises not only that person’s eyebrows but a host of others. A different person’s posture reveals they are having a bad day or, perhaps, they haven’t prepared for class, prompting you to think about ways to re-engage them, give them reason to seize the next opportunity to examine the material for themselves, looping them back into the next discussion. All of this changes online, and the number of solutions that some learning management systems offer to assess student learning now begins to make sense — though, I confess, I continue to think that any number of them are rather unimaginative and, honestly, somewhat trivializing of any content which must pass through them.

A couple of other things tumble out of my experience of online teaching so far, the first of which is time management, which I glimpse not only through the lens of my screen but also through watching my own high-school aged child adapt to the change in circumstances. While my daughter spends hours in front of the computer, I am not entirely sure that it is an effective use of her time. That is, I think she confuses time spent staring at the screen with time spent working. I don’t think I am being unfair here, because I can be equally guilty of allowing myself the “quick break” to watch a YouTube video, sometimes educational like something from 3 Blue and 1 Brown or StatQuest but also just as likely, if I am being honest, to be the highlights from a Premier League game or a woodworking video (that I justify as avocational advancement). What my daughter lacks and what my students lack, and perhaps even I lack, is the regimentation of the varied workday. My daughter is quite clear about it: she was quite used to her day being broken up into chunks, each of which allowed her to focus quite clearly on the task in front of her, confident that there would be a change of class, a change of topic, and, perhaps, a change of pace. This kind of clear set of steps accompanied by variation is one way to be productive. As an adult I use it quite often. Indeed, I am entirely reliant now on being good at scheduling my day in a way that gives me the opportunity to focus intensely on a particular task, but often that focus is driven by the fact that it is bounded and I know that I can push because coming up at two o’clock, for example, I am going to break for coffee and a stroll into the garden (or what we would like to be a garden at some point in its stunted existence).

Finally, there is the matter of writing. No matter what I teach, I think the one thing that I can contribute to my student’s own personal and intellectual development is the ability to write well: to develop ideas, to base those ideas on clearly-defined inputs, and then to communicate those ideas, analytical or argumentative, well. If anything should be conducive to writing it’s the online environment. After all, at its base, the internet is simply bits being sent from one computer to another, mostly in the forms of words (or things like words like HTML tags). Or, put another way, much of our electronic communication, especially among my students, is based on some form of texting — the particular application/platform within which they text is less important than the fact that they exchange words so readily.

So you would think that shifting to all-online teaching would be a boon to the teaching of writing, but so many people are so anxious about writing that you actually spend considerable amount of time as an instructor giving them confidence, and that often comes in the form of one-on-one sessions before and after class, in the hallway, or in your office. I now spend a considerable amount of time inside Teams doing much the same, but it is far more difficult and takes far more time. (And, to be honest, this kind of effort is not rewarded institutionally: we have so devalued the teaching of writing that it’s really a wonder it gets taught at all.)

Synesthesia

I don’t remember where I encountered it now, Reddit or some other social media platform, but there was a post that took you to a webpage that claimed to generate your name as a barcode of colors as those letters would appear to individuals with synesthesia. But I want to know: are such color associations universal? Or are they more individualized?

Laudun as a Synesthetic Color Bar

Laudun as a Synesthetic Color Bar

At some point I may explore the matter more, in the mean time, here is my last name in blocks of color, which I may use in further revisions of this website: I rather like the brown and green combination. (Given that I only use color to offset links, I don’t quite know how I would implement that: regular text in brown and links in green? There’s not enough contrast between the brown and navy blue and black to be used, and red … no.)

Website Updates

It was time to fold the experimental portfolio site into this main site and to re-direct the URL, jl.net, here. Not so much “one ring to rule them all” as “too many things in too many places.” (And, to be clear, this has been going on behind the scenes as well in my private reading, note-taking, and writing applications. I will, perhaps, write about that at some point.)

Most of the materials have come across and either created new pages, focused on outlining my teaching philosophy or my attempts to work towards diversity, revised extant pages, or replaced extant pages entirely. The last is the fate of the research page as it once was, and I am pasting below its discontents:


I like to make things. I make a lot of things with words, and those things get called essays or books, but I’ve also used words to make things like grants, CDs, television programs, databases, and code. (Words words words.) Here are a few things I’ve made (a complete list of such things can be found on my vita):

The Makers of Things

The Amazing Crawfish Boat is my book on how a bunch of Cajun and German farmers and fabricators invented a traditional amphibious boat. It’s the first book-length ethnographic study of material folk culture in Louisiana — really, the first ethnography in Louisiana studies since Post’s Sketches.

An Olinger Boat

An Olinger Boat

The idea for the book came in the wake of the 2005 hurricanes, when a national debate erupted about the nature of land (in Louisiana) and what it meant to re-build an American city (New Orleans). A lot of land got dismissed as “wetlands”, which, it seemed in the view of most pundits, was really not land at all. I thought it would be interesting to investigate how people in Louisiana actually imagined the landscape on which they live and work, and what I found was an amazing series of adaptations and innovations, the most iconic of which is the crawfish boat. There’s more information on the book and the project behind it.

The Shape of Small Stories

My more recent work has focused on Why Stories Matter, where I explore the shape of stories both as a form as well as an experience. From local legends about treasure to contemporary legends about Slender Man, I’m interested in how stories shape our experience of the world and how we shape the world through stories. I ground my explorations not only in my home field of folklore studies but also in contemporary work in cognitive and computational models of narrative. A lot of the work you see on the Logbook that has to do with textual analysis/text mining using Python is part of this work.

The Way Louisiana Treasure Legends Work

The Way Louisiana Treasure Legends Work

Text Analytics

As I have explored the shape of stories and as I have begun to develop an understanding of ways to describe and/or analyze narrative computationally, I have begun to develop a small collection of scripts in Python that, for now, is simply known as Useful Python Scripts for Texts that is available on GitHub. Given interest in it, and my own commitment to developing a computational folkloristic that will pair well with other folklorists, like Tim Tangherlini, working in this area, I have begun to draft a larger text that describes what work can be done.

Louisiana Studies & Digital Humanities

I have done a lot of work in Louisiana studies, both in terms of producing original research but also in trying to find more ways to engage the diverse audiences interested in folk culture:

  • In 2003 or so, I joined the faculty and staff at the Center for Louisiana Studies. The state of the Archives of Cajun and Creole Folklore and the dream of leaping forward a technology or two provided me with the reason to write a grant to the Grammy Foundation. With those funds we made the best possible digital copy of taped recordings, and, then we used those digital copies to open up the Archives to a variety of interested individuals with a variety of purposes. We ended up with some pretty amazing results, as you can hear for yourself in the first two CDs released under the Louisiana Folk Masters brand: Varise Conner and Women’s Home Music.
The first Louisiana Folk Masters CD

The first Louisiana Folk Masters CD

  • The idea for Louisiana Folk Masters was born out of a desire to make the folk culture — real folk culture and not the stuff too often served up in the popular media — more accessible. I dreamed up a series of products that would have as their basis the materials either already in the Archives of Cajun and Creole Folklore or that materials that were being generated with the Archives in mind. The CDs were just the first step. Television was next. As luck would have it, Louisiana Public Broadcasting was interested in expanding its approach to the genre of “human interest” stories. I worked with LPB on two profiles: one on Creole filé maker John Colson and another on Cajun Mardi Gras mask maker Lou Trahan. (Clickable links to the videos coming soon.)

I’ve also written grants for a number of other projects — mostly because I like to see what happens when you come up with something new and fun: what can others do with it?

  • Humanities Research and the Tourism Commission. While I was still involved heavily with the Center for Cultural and Eco-Tourism, the good folks from Acadia Parish came to the Center and asked for help brain-storming possible ways to improve their tourism infrastructure. We eventually proposed Rich the First Time, a media archive and database that would consist of high-quality inputs gathered by folklorists (mostly our students) that would be available for a variety of outputs.

  • In 2007 or so, the director of the Humanities Resources Center, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and I began a conversation about what it would take to support faculty and students in their research and publishing in the new era of cyberinfrastructures. We decided we needed a room full of equipment that could do anything someone was willing to dream up and try out. The Louisiana Digital Humanities Lab was born in that moment.

If you arrived here looking for the forms I created for field surveys, media logging, and archiving. (Specific links are to the Scribd pages.) You may also be interested in my collection of interview tips.

Percentage Change in State Populations for Last Decade

Percentage Change in State Populations by County

Percentage changes in state populations from 2010 to 2019 by county

What fascinates me about this map is the apparent emptying out of entire states like Kansas and Illinois. We know larger economic trends are in play — like the shift from rural to urban, but were there also distinct policies enacted at the end of the naughts the hastened population movements. In Kansas, some of this could be laid at the door of Sam Brownback, but what happened in Illinois?

And what about the emptying out of the multi-state Mississippi Delta? A combination of economics and long-embedded racism? (Is it African Americans leaving or is it everyone?)

In the Balance

Henry Glassie once observed that there were two great traditions of scholarship in folklore studies, one oriented toward data and the other toward theory. In the one oriented toward data, the analyst pieces together what theory she needs in order to explain the data at hand. Done well, such studies, Glassie noted, often offered data in excess of theoretical explanation, leaving the door open to future analyses by other analysts with different theories. In the tradition of scholarship oriented toward theory, the analyst begins with a theoretical construct and seeks out data to affirm it, revise it, refuse it.

Neither tradition is better than the other, and, in all honesty these aren’t separate traditions as two poles within the domain of folklore studies, though this axis of attention surely exists in other domains as well. At least in the American tradition(s), there are “no ideas but in things.” On the whole, we tend to look somewhat askance at what we term “ungrounded” theoretical work, which we too often dismiss as “philosophizing.” (Philosophy has, of course, its own sets of objects, often the process of thinking itself, but done poorly it does open itself up to having no objects at all.)

Strangely enough, we are more likely to accept work that is at the other end of the axis: folklore studies has a long history of valuing the collection of objects of various kinds. The rationale for such valuation is often twofold: one is the notion of salvage that lies at heart of folklore studies — that the preservation of material that would otherwise be lost to history is an important act, and valuable contribution, in and of itself; the other is that such data is fertile ground for the theoretical development and model-building that will surely follow. Both facets are in fact included in the Journal of American Folklore’s charter published in the very first issue: “it is obviously more important to gather materials which may form the basis of later study than to pursue comparison with insufficient materials; especially as the collection must be accomplished at once, if at all, while the comparison may safely be postponed” (7).

Most work in folklore studies occupies the space between these two poles, with the responsibility falling upon the analyst to decide what matters more to her: the particularity of the data or the universality of the theory. Henry Glassie described himself as an analyst more interested in the former, and it is not uncommon to see folklorists, and other analysts, in fact deriving their theories from the data itself: it is simply a further abstraction from the patterns usually embedded in the data itself. How portable the derived theory is is up to readers to determine, but it is quite common for an idea first articulated in one study to get taken up in another study, and then, through the slow accumulation of citations to develop into its own theoretical nexus.

In fact, quite a few of the bodies of work that we consider to be theoretical in nature really arose because their authors felt that the data before them was either not adequately explained or not addressed at all by the theories available to them. (This might be what the beginning of a paradigm shift looks like in the humanities: a lack of explanation or a lack of coverage. Imagine, for example, being a literary critic in the 1970s interested in Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères and having only New Criticism available to you think about/through the novel. As a mechanic friend of mine might say: you don’t have the tools for the job. In some cases, some analysts simply wait for the tools to be developed, but other analysts decide to start building things for themselves. Sometimes they continue on their own, and sometimes they are joined by others.

Or sometimes they are part of a collection of like-minded analysts who find that what they are interested in isn’t even conceivable in the current theory (or theories). This is what happened with Richard Bauman, who found himself slowly assembling the pieces of a interpretive and ideational framework that became known as “performance theory” in folklore studies, but it wasn’t long, thanks to the interdisciplinary nature of folklore studies, before it slipped its reigns and became part of conversations in disciplines focused on more traditional kinds of performances, like theater studies, or in more formal kinds of performances, like communication studies. In his observation about the two traditions, Glassie observed that Bauman was an example of someone who enjoyed collecting data but largely saw it as a way to develop, extend, or refine the theory which was his central concern in much of what he did.

And so now you find yourself as apprentice authors in a field like folklore studies, seeking to find a place to start, and more established scholars like your faculty keep giving you what seems like evasive answers which too often seem like elaborate, and occasionally articulate, versions of “it depends.”

Because it does.

It depends on what your own interest and investments are, but you also need to recognize that the axis of attention does demand that any analysis possesses both data and some theoretical orientation. Time is short in a semester, that’s a given, but the press of time sometimes results in people engaging in needless wheel-spinning because they do not have the traction that results from having a clear sense of what their data is or what their theory might be.

You can, however, use this axis of attention as a way to gauge the nature of your project, and perhaps what it requires. If you have only one or two examples of a given phenomena, and that is all you are likely to have, that means your work needs to have a very developed theoretical framework that makes those one or two data points compelling examples of some larger phenomenon. If you have twenty or thirty examples, then it is likely you will require less theoretical orientation and will spend more time in your analysis, compiling and collating materials into interesting categories and trends. (This is still small data by data science measures but fairly large data by humanities standards.)

This also means knowing your own strengths, orientations, investments, interests, and (imagined and/or hoped for) intellectual trajectory — hile we sometimes imagine it as not like those other things, the academy is a kind of marketplace of ideas and approaches, and the work you publish will mark as you as a particular kind of scholar. This is dynamic, of course, and there are plenty of scholars who have changed their research agenda, for a variety of reasons, and enjoyed a switch from one orientation to another. (And I’ve seen it go both ways, so it’s not always towards abstraction.)