For the last reflection before our final research assignment, my Digital Humanities in REL course was asked to re-evaluate what we’ve learned throughout the semester. We focused especially on what it means to ‘do data’ and what that might result in for scholars and students and research participants and everything and everyone in between. Because the concept was a bit broad, we tried to narrow our focus with a working definition of Digital Humanities and together came up with this definition:
Digital humanities combine technology with theory. Working in digital humanities requires the recognition of human error and contribution to what seems “given” when using technological interfaces present everywhere. We must critically examine the digital world, just as we analyze literature, by leaving room for humanistic contribution and not completely trusting what appears at face value. We complicate the “givens” of computational methods because knowledge production is a political act.
Dr. Wieringa’s DH in REL Class, Fall 2020.
While far from perfect, you can get the gist of what we think it means to do data in the digital humanities and in religious studies more specifically. For me and my classmates, it was important to point out that knowledge does not exist on its own, but in a context that is situated and dependent on the knowledge producer.
From my understanding, an interface is a medium of meaning-making. The UCLA Center for Digital Humanities defines any interface as, “an in-between space, a space of communication and exchange, a place where two worlds, entities, systems meet”. They go on to explain how terminology like ‘windows’ and ‘desktop’ imply real-world, tangible places to be looked through or worked on, parallel to their uses in technology. But as this article points out, an interface might not be as straightforward as looking through a window:
“As with all conventions, these [interfaces] hide assumptions within their format and structure and make it hard to defamiliarize the ways our thinking is constrained by the interfaces we use”
The final project for my Digital Humanities course asks students to create a data review exploring a research question of interest. Part of the source data must come from the Longitudinal Religious Congregations and Membership File, but other data sources can be drawn on for support as well. The problem for me, as it often is, is narrowing my research interests. At first, the plan was to evaluate what scholars and digital humanists even mean by ‘data’ and what counts as ‘data’, but this seemed to close to my comfort zone — more humanities than digital — and I wanted to challenge myself a bit. In the long-run, I have decided that I will tie in some commentary on data, but more to provide some ethos for myself than to be the main example of my data review.
This semester I am taking a Digital Humanities course designed and taught by Dr. Jeri Wieringa. Part of this class includes writing blog posts about various topics discussed in class. I have already crafted a few posts (one on accessibility in DH and another assessing and critiquing a DH project) and there will be several more to follow.
Last class, we read and discussed Hadley Wickham‘s “Tidy Data” as a way to re-evaluate the options for organizing and presenting data. For homework, we were tasked with tidying a table from the PEW Research Center on the frequency of prayer. Below is the original table:
According to Wickham’s argument, a table should be made of columns and rows. The columns should consist of a single variable while the rows should be filled with a single observation of what is described. The rest of the table is filled with values that represent the recorded data. Based on Hadley Wickham’s criteria, this Pew research presentation is a bit untidy. What is being described is the percentage of various religious traditions that pray. The frequency of prayer is divided into categories (‘At least daily’, ‘weekly’, ‘monthly’, ‘seldom/never’ ‘don’t know’). These categories represent various observations and as such, should exist in rows, not columns. The column headers should represent the variables being measured.
The Viral Text’s Project is a digital humanities project that aims to help scholars understand the themes and decisions that helped newspaper content ‘go viral’ before going viral was the hip thing to do. The project created an algorithm that ‘reads’ newspapers and traces its reprinting in other areas. By following the reprints they visualize how certain newspaper trends went ‘viral’.
Most newspapers at the time did not have intellectual property rights, so editors and publishers of papers in smaller cities would literally cut and paste the newspaper sections from larger newspapers into their local papers. This created a sort of modge-podge of ‘viral’ material that publishers thought their readers might be interested in.
Below is a presentation I gave for a Digital Humanities course which asked students to constructively critique and assess a digital humanities website. The Viral Texts Project was the focus of my presentation.
It is easy to forget the things we take for granted. That’s sort of why we take them for granted in the first place. When tasks don’t require much planning or strain, our brains don’t seem to work as hard, and so those little things slip through the cracks as our synapses prune and make more room for other ‘more relevant’ information. But what seems to be easiest to forget is that we still get a say in what counts as relevant. Ask any tutor the best way to study material and they’ll tell you to involve multiple senses, to try different techniques; basically to make your brain do new kinds of work. Reading the textbook isn’t enough. You have to quiz yourself, make flashcards, study while you exercise, pace yourself . . . there is a lot of thought that goes into making those tidbits of information memorable, of making them more relevant.
One area where this effort to make overlooked information relevant is accessibility. Too frequently we design buildings, create technological devices, or program software, to enhance the quality of life for able-bodied individuals. There is such focus on traditional, idealized progress that other individuals get left behind. In the clamber to make life easy, we sometimes make tasks more difficult for those with cognitive, motor, visual, or auditory disabilities.