On the dangers of thinking you are indispensible: English professors’ edition

Apparently in 1917 people had a different view of the centrality of English professors…

When we consider our educational position, we teachers of English composition are in a fair way to become conceited. In view of certain featuresof our daily experiencethe dangerof becoming conceited may not seem imminent. But the outstanding feature of our position among pedagogues surely spells danger in that very direction. The practically universal assumption that our work is educationally indispensable is truly ominous (William Hawley Davis. 1917. “The Teaching of English Composition: Its Present Status.” The English Journal 6 (5) (May 1): 285–294. doi:10.2307/801590).

If you ever need an argument on why it is harmful to focus on mechanics in student writing…

From George Hillocks 2005, “At Last: The Focus on Form Vs. Content in Teaching Writing,” Research in the Teaching of English 40 (2) (November 1): 238–248. doi:10.2307/40171704.


Based on a review of “500 quasi-experimental studies of writing instruction between 1963 and 1983” concentrating on those with strong research design.


The New Humanities. The Place and Practice of the Humanities in an Age of Ubiquitous Networked Computing.

This is the Letter of Intent submitted by Cathy Davidson, Neil Fraistat, Alex Gil, Allan Liu, Geoffrey Rockwell, and me to the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Global Call for Ideas Competition.

Interested in the project? “Contact me”:mailto:daniel.odonnell@uleth.ca.

This proposal is about the future of the humanities. But it is not a story of despair, neglect, or decline.

Although humanities scholars and students are increasingly and vitally engaged with issues of broader societal import, discourseabout the humanities often seems stuck in an oppositional register—defining, and indeed at times perversely celebrating, their status as outsiders to or even foes of developments in the worlds of science, technology, and commerce (see Bivens-Tatum 2010).

This is despite the fact that there has never been a more exciting time to be involved in the humanities. The digital revolution that is transforming our world is vitally concerned with questions about the discovery, communication, and reception of culture, knowledge, and self-representation—questions that lie at the heart of humanistic research. The industries that have been most transformed by these new technologies include those with which humanities students traditionally have been most closely engaged. New forms of communication and social organisation are allowing the public greater access to—and opportunities to participate in—humanistic and cultural research. As a proponent of this LOI, Duke Professor and HĀSTAC founder Cathy N. Davidson, has argued, “if the humanities cannot make a case for themselves in the Information Age, something is very very wrong” (Davidson 2013).

It is time to address this disconnect. Our proposal to the CIFAR Global Call for Ideas is to establish a research network that will explore the place and practice of the humanities in this age of (near) ubiquitous, networked computing: investigate how humanities research can help us understand the impact of the ongoing technological revolution and how the technological revolution, conversely, can transform the way humanities research is carried out and understood.

These are questions that have broad implications. The place of the humanities in contemporary society is a current topic in policy, education, business, and technological circles. The impact of the digital on traditional humanities research methods and questions is being taken up by our major humanities funding agencies and scholarly societies. The conclusions this project will reach have the potential to affect the way governments set priorities, businesses and public institutions allocate resources, and individuals and families make decisions about their educational and employment futures. What is needed now is a high-profile, agenda-setting research network that will explore these issues and lead a transformative discussion of the role and place of the humanities in contemporary, networked society.

The humanistic web

The relationship between the humanities and contemporary networked society extends back to the creation of the Web itself. Although it was first developed at CERN, the World Wide Web was not designed to solve a physics problem. As the title of Tim Berners-Lee’s original memo suggests (“Information Management—A Proposal”), the technology that eventually became the World Wide Web was instead proposed as a method for addressing the age-old problem of document preservation, organisation, and discovery. The web’s unexpected value as a conduit for social and cultural information, moreover, became apparent almost immediately: the earliest web photo came not from a CERN experiment but publicity material for Les Horribles Cernettes, a comic singing group made up of lab employees and spouses (Riesman 2013).

The connection between the humanities and the web is also reflected in its engineering. Two of the most important technologies underlying the modern Social Web—XML and Unicode—were developed in part under the leadership of humanities researchers and drawing on the work of humanities research projects such as the Text Encoding Initiative, a twenty-year old humanities and library-science consortium led subsequently by the lead proponent of this LOI, Daniel Paul O’Donnell.

How the web was built, however, is far less important for our proposal than how it is used. From the moment the general public was first allowed access, communication, self-representation, information discovery, and cultural dissemination have been key to the web’s strong growth and global penetration. All but one of the ten most visited sites on web focus on these core activities: search engines and portals (Google [2], Baidu [5], Yahoo [4], Windows Live [7]), social networking (Facebook [1], Twitter [10], TencentQQ [9], YouTube [3]), and reference (Wikipedia [6]). Even the first pure vendor on the list, Amazon.com (8), began its existence as an online seller of books (Wikipedia contributors 2013). Similar activities, with the addition of games, also comprise the ten most popular smart phone applications.

The web’s overwhelming interest in the creation and dissemination of information and cultural material, coupled with an ethos that encourages users to research issues for themselves, has led to greater-than-ever popular engagement with the work of professional humanities researchers. Libraries and archives that post information about their collections online invariably see an increase in demand for their physical holdings. Humanities scholars with a strong online presence receive more requests for advice and enquires about their research than any but the most famous researchers of the pre-web era. New approaches to crowd sourcing and the rise of popular initiatives such as the Wikipedia have created a culture of popular participation and engagement in humanities research that has few historical parallels. And whether it is Steve Jobs arguing that an interest in the humanities provides Apple with a competitive advantage over its arch-rival, or Google developing high-profile tools and research programmes of immediate relevance to students of the humanities, business leaders too have begun to see the ability to understand technology and its place in the world from a humanistic perspective as a core economic and technical skill rather than a simply virtuous adjunct to more practical concerns.


The time is right for this kind of work. The last fifteen-to-twenty years have seen the rise of a critical mass of researchers with the requisite digital skills and humanistic training, a process in which Canadians and Canadian institutions have played an outsized role. These scholars are leading the introduction of new research techniques to the humanities and adapting more traditional methods to the digital age.

Just as importantly, they are also now leaders in the broader domain. Most organisations focussing on the integrative value of humanities research are led by digitally-active researchers, including the authors of this LOI: e.g. HĀSTAC (Davidson), 4Humanities (Liu and Rockwell), CenterNet and ADHO (Fraistat), GO::DH (Gil and O’Donnell), and the Praxis Network (Davidson). Many traditional humanities organisations and agencies, likewise, are led by scholars with a significant digital profile, including, in North America, SSHRC, the Modern Language Association, and numerous disciplinary societies. Funding agencies too have begun to cooperate internationally in the development of competitions on the integration of technology and humanities research. Recent government initiatives, such as the Canadian consultations on the New Digital Economy and, in the U.S., the appointment of Digital Humanists such as Davidson and John Unsworth to President Obama’s National Council on the Humanities, demonstrate the impact the “digital turn” is having at the policy level.

The pieces, in other words, are in place. What is missing is the catalyst that will allow this sense of moment to develop the kind of high-profile, transformative agenda a CIFAR-supported research network would support.


Canada has a history of excellence in pioneering the use of digital technology in humanistic study.

Early and innovative funding programmes such as the SSHRC Information, Text, Sound, and Technology (ITST) networking grants and the Canada Research Chairs programme helped Canadian researchers develop a strong national infrastructure of expertise in the area. Building on the work of Canadian pioneers, including Ian Lancashire, Willard McCarty, Christian Vandendorpe, and the Dictionary of Old English project, these initiatives have established Canadian researchers of the current generation as world leaders in both the new discipline of the Digital Humanities and the integration of technology into more traditional forms of humanistic research. Important contemporary Canadian projects include Synergies, Erudit, the Public Knowledge Partnership, INKE (Implementing New Knowledge Environments), ArticIQ, Global Outlook::Digital Humanities, and the world-leading Digital Humanities Summer Institute. Canadian researchers of the current generation with extensive international leadership in the discipline include Ray Siemens, Rowland Lorimer, Susan Brown, Peter Robinson, Christine McWebb, Kevin Kee, Chad Gaffield, Michael Sinatra, Stéfan Sinclair, and the Canadian members of the team behind this application, Rockwell and O’Donnell.

These people and projects are part of a wide and increasingly diverse global network of researchers, centres, and projects. These include the non-Canadian proponents of this LOI, Davidson, Fraistat, Gil, and Liu, and others ranging from Alliance of Digital Humanities Organisations and the Consortium of Humanities Centers to individuals with well-established international reputations such as, in the U.S., Kathleen Fitzpatrick (MLA), Laura Mandell (TAMU), Ian Bogost (Georgia Tech), and John Unsworth (Brandeis); in the U.K., Andrew Prescott (KCL) and Melissa Terras (UCL); Ernesto Priani and Isabel Galani (Mexico); Jieh Hsiang (Taiwan); Domenico Fiormonte (Italy); and Amlan Dasgupta and members of the Sarai project (India)—to name only a few of the many researchers and organisations around the globe who are engaged with topics of relevance to this call.


The core group behind this application are all leaders or emerging leaders in the Digital Humanities (corresponding authors marked with an asterisk). Cathy N. Davidson* is John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University, co-founder of HĀSTAC and the Praxis Network, and co-director of the MacArthur Foundation/Gates Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition. She was appointed by President Obama to the National Council on the Humanities in 2011 and is the first educator to join the six-person Board of Directors of Mozilla. Neil Fraistat is Professor of English and Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) at the University of Maryland. He currently chairs the international Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO), is Co-Founder and Co-Chair of centerNet, and is Vice President of the Keats-Shelley Association of America. His is also Co-Founder and General Editor of the Romantic Circles Website. Alex Gil* is a recent PhD (Virginia) and textual scholar at Columbia University, where he is Digital Scholarship Coordinator at the University Library. He is a founding officer of Global Outlook::Digital Humanities and organiser of the first and second Caribbean THaT (The Humanities and Technology) camps. Alan Liu is Professor of English at UC, Santa Barbara, founder of the pioneering early humanities portal, Voice of the Shuttle, co-founder and -leader (with Rockwell) of the international 4Humanities advocacy initiative and director of the NEH-funded Teaching with Technology project. Daniel Paul O’Donnell* is Professor of English at the University of Lethbridge, editor of Digital Studies/Le Champ Numérique, former chair of the Text Encoding Initiative, and co-founder of Digital Medievalist and Global Outlook::Digital Humanities. He is Principal Investigator of both the Lethbridge Journal Incubator and the Visionary Cross 3D visualisation project. Geoffrey Martin Rockwell* is Professor of Philosophy and Humanities Computing at the University of Alberta and a former Director of the Humanities Media and Computing Centre at McMaster University. He is currently the Director of the Canadian Institute for Research in Computing and the Arts and a network investigator in the GRAND Network of Centres of Excellence that is studying gaming, animation and new media.

Works cited

Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. 2010. “The ‘Crisis’ in the Humanities”. Blog. Academic Librarian. November 5. http://bit.ly/19mSkN3.

Davidson, Cathy N. 2013. “It’s Not a Crisis in the Humanities, It’s a Crisis in the Society | HASTAC.” Accessed May 12. http://bit.ly/175HGuQ”.

Wikipedia contributors. 2013.“List of Most Popular Websites.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. http://bit.ly/14m3Mq3.

Riesman, Abraham. 2013. “Crossdressing, Compression and Colliders: The First Photo on the Web.” Motherboard. Accessed May 26. http://bit.ly/13jqWeb


Journal Incubator Poster (Digital Humanities 2013)

There was a lot of interest in the Lethbridge Journal Incubator project poster yesterday at the Digital Humanities 2013 conference poster session at the University of Nebraska.

A thumbnail image of the poster comes below (there is also a letter-sized version). You can get the original PDF here


Global Outlook :: Digital Humanities and International Partnerships

My post last week on Digital Humanities in a global context (In a Rich Man’s World) was derived from a proposal to the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organisations for a new Special Interest Group devoted to global development issues as they are associated with the Digital Humanities: Global Outlook :: Digital Humanities (GO::DH). I’ve had enough requests from people for the actual proposal, that I thought I’d link to it here (PDF). I’m also pleased (and very grateful) to say that the initiative has also just received funding from the University of Lethbridge through its International Initiatives programme to help get it set up and running. We hope to be arranging our first events very soon.

This is going to be an important area of activity, both within and without the proposed SIG. THaT Camp Caribe is being held this week at the University of Puerto Rico. INKE will be holding its 2012 meeting in Havana, partially out of an interest in these same ideas (Research Foundations for Understanding Books and Reading in the Digital Age: E/Merging Reading, Writing, and Research Practices).

Read the rest of this entry »

In a rich man’s world: Global DH?

The following map is from Melissa Terras’s infographic, Quantifying the Digital Humanities.

Physical Digital Humanities Centres

The map shows the distribution of physical centres in the Digital Humanities (as this is defined by members of ADHO communities) across the globe. As Domenico Fiormonte has argued, it can also serve as a proxy for other types of activity in the field, including, broadly speaking, the residency of members of ADHO affiliated Digital Humanities societies (see Fiormonte, fig. 1).But as Fiormonte also points out, the “blank” areas on Terras’s map can serve as an inverse proxy for other data. Linguistic diversity, for example, or Gross National Income as mapped by UNEP. Read the rest of this entry »

Shit humanists say: A response to “English Profs want to control the internet”

This is a response to “English Profs want to control the Internet”, by somebody who apparently doesn’t want their name front-and-centre. It is slightly modified from the comment I submitted, but since this is actual and it is in a moderation queue, I decided to post it here as well. I wouldn’t mind returning to the topic, to be honest.

I find the genre of this piece (“humanists say the darndest things”) about as tiring as the debate about tweeting conferences. It is pretty easy to make fun of ongoing conversations in any discipline you don’t normally follow, especially if, as others have pointed out, you don’t actually read the things you are linking to, let alone the broad context in which they are being written. Yesterday the Chronicle was reporting on scientists who peer review their own articles by creating fake email addresses and even entire identities. Yet I can resist the temptation to suggest that this must mean that all natural and medical sciences are one large circle jerk.

Read the rest of this entry »

Blogs, Wikis, and LMSs. Some notes on my practice

Ryan Cordell and I had been exchanging tweets on the use of blogs, wikis, and the like in class. Since 140 characters is good for many things, but not this, I promised him I’d write up a quick description of the practice I’ve developed over the last few years.

The context for this is the Moodle Learning Management System (LMS), which I’ve been using in its 1.x and 2.x versions. There’s no reason why you couldn’t do this with loose wiki, blogging, and microblogging systems. But I’m still reluctant to require students to release their school work publicly.

Read the rest of this entry »

Should I keep this blog? Should I retweet yours? Scholarly responsibility and new publication models

I’ve been engaged with on-line scholarly publication for almost two decades. For a while in the middle of the first decade of this century in fact, my most popular and most often cited publication was a 1998 webpage describing my plans for an electronic edition of the Old English poem Caedmon’s Hymn  Read the rest of this entry »

Linked data, open data: Towards a semantic web of Anglo-Saxon England

International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS), July 29th-August 2, 2013, Dublin

The Visionary Cross would like to propose a roundtable or three paper panel on linked and open data in Anglo-Saxon studies for ISAS 2013. The goal of this panel would be to assess the current state of practice in the development of linked and open datasets and to explore future directions. This topic should be of interest to textual editors, cultural heritage curators, art historians, researchers working on dictionaries and other reference works.

If you would like to explore this topic contact, please contact Daniel O’Donnell (daniel.odonnell@uleth.ca) as soon as possible to discuss approaches. Session and paper proposals are due at the ISAS programme committee by September 13.

Call for Papers: Cultural, Textual, and Material Heritage in the Digital Age: Projects and Practices

The twentieth International Medieval Congress, Leeds, 1-4 July 2013

The rise of the Digital Humanities as an international, cross-disciplinary approach to humanistic scholarship presents exciting new challenges and opportunities.

Perhaps one of the most exciting of these is the convergence of interest among textual editors, art historians, archaeologists, museum and library curatorial staff, government agencies, and commercial entities in what can be broadly described as issues in the representation and research of Cultural, Textual, and Material Heritage.

This call is for papers addressing current and future practices and opportunities in this area. What are the interesting projects? What are the interesting technologies, methodologies, and business models? How will this convergence play out in the short and medium term?

Read the rest of this entry »

Call for Participants: New Digital Paradigms in Anglo-Saxon Studies

International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS), July 29th-August 2, 2013, Dublin

Anglo-Saxon studies, and medieval studies more generally, has always been a pioneering discipline in the use of digital technology. From early projects like the Dictionary of Old English and Electronic Beowulf through more recent contributions such as the Anglo-Saxon Cluster and DigiPal, Anglo-Saxonists have always been ready to adopt promising new technologies and approaches when these have been able to help us in our research and teaching. Read the rest of this entry »

Going LoC(o) with Zotero: Scratching the inner librarian

Photo of my home office in 2005 (used for my Pseudo Society talk at Kalamazoo, “Using Computers to Improve Efficiency in Research and Teaching”)

I have always been a very messy person, especially in my work area. Here for example, is a not unrepresentative photo of my home office in 2005 (since one normally doesn’t take pictures of messy rooms, this is the only one I have: I took it to use as a slide in my 2005 Pseudo Society talk at the Kalamazoo Congress on Medieval Studies, “Using computers to improve efficiency in research and teaching”).

Perhaps oddly, however, this same messiness has never extended to my bibliography. Ever since I began university as an undergraduate in 1985, I have kept very careful bibliographic records. Read the rest of this entry »

All should have prizes: Thinking about citation practice for the Visionary Cross Project

With the first meshes almost ready, and work beginning on writing up some of the results from our work on site in Ruthwell, authorship and credit questions at the Visionary Cross project are beginning to become more pressing.

Good practice, of course, would be to establish a system long in advance and stick to it throughout. The Visionary Cross project, however, has always operated as a relatively loose federation of scholars rather than a single project (more of a society, than a project in many ways) and, due in part to the long time it took to get major initial funding, crediting issues have until recently seemed quite far in the future. Read the rest of this entry »

Sightlines: A visualisation of the Holocaust along two blocks in Hamburg

One of the striking things about the streetscape in Hamburg is the Stolpersteine. These are small brass memorials to Holocaust victims placed in the sidewalk outside the door of the house in which the victims lived. Here’s an example of one:

Stolperstein for Gertrud Johanna Alsberg (1895-1942) outside Schäferkampsallee 27, Hamburg, Germany

In Hamburg for the Digital Humanities conference, and staying at the NH Norge Hamburg, I was struck by the number of these stones that I pass. And perhaps more interestingly, how many were within view of each other. From Schäferkampsallee 28 (where Felix, Melanie, and Otto Spiro lived before they were deported in 1941) indeed, you can see every building that suffered a loss represented by the stones.

I once lived in a street where the immigration police raided an apartment next door to ours. Although I had not seen the raid (or known that the apartment was de facto dormitory for illegal immigrants), the raid impressed itself on my consciousness and that of our other neighbours. How much worse must it have been in the 1930s and 1940s in the Schäferkampsallee to see this number of people disappear in the course of approximately a decade.

Since I’m experimenting with use of KML–the markup language used to interface with Google Maps–I thought I would experiment  by visualising this idea of the sightline: what it was like to see your neighbours disappear over time.

View Sightlines: Holocaust and the Schäferkampsallee in a larger map

This is a preliminary attempt, using the Google UI and based solely on the information on the Stolpsteine. In future iterations, I hope to work directly with the underlying markup language, in order to add features like yearly snapshots, more detail about the victims, connections to political and historical events, and the state of the street (which appears to have been heavily bombed judging by the architecture) on a year-by-year basis.


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