Earlier this year, I began searching for conferences and workshops I could attend to help me get up to speed in the fields of digital pedagogy and digital humanities (DH). I’ve already written about the THATcamp Digital Pedagogy event I attended in June, and after considering a range of events in educational technology I might attend, I settled on Digital Humanities 2014, an international conference hosted by ADHO in Lausanne, Switzerland. I chose this one, because I alreayd knew that my friend and DH mentor Brian Croxall would be attending (I’d run into at least one friendly face at the conference), but also because—Switzerland! And also because the conference looked to be a serious and sustained series of discussion about tools, trends, and topics in digital humanities. I was eager to dive in and begin to learn what DH is all about.
I opted to attend the pre-conference workshops, as these promised to introduce me to some hands-on experiences with digital humanities tools, but by the time I figured out how to sign up for workshops through the dh2014 website, I was unable to get into the workshops that looked most interesting to me, so I signed up for what I could get into. Luckily, I chose workshops that I (mostly) found very useful.
After a twelve-hour delayed flight to Geneva from Montreal, I made it to Lausanne by midnight before the first day of workshops began. That day, I was scheduled to participate in one called Linked Data and Literature: Encoding the Facts in Fiction run by Faith Lawrence of King’s College, London. This was an interesting workshop on using an annotation tool to tag and map the narratological features of fiction. She had prepared an interesting exercise to help us learn about a collaborative annotating tool designed to help multiple users tag various aspects of narrative (characters, relationships, events, spaces) and then represent such efforts through a network visualization feature.
She provided all of us with individual variants of the Red Riding Hood fairy tale, which we individually marked up using the ontological assignations or tags that she had devised for this project. Unfortunately, the tool we were using—BRAT—did not allow for individual users to create or modify tags and relationships, so our ability to conceptualize the stories according to this tool were pretty limited. I did, however, have fun indulging my OCD tendencies that may have proved useful to me had a chosen to become a librarian, and I think I did a bang up job of tagging my version of the story.
I can see how this tool would be fun, and even useful, but it also seems to be in its early development stages. In fact, I had a hard time believing that, in 2014, there aren’t better digital tools for doing this kind of work. During a coffee break conversation with a very bright Italian digital humanist, we wondered how possible it is to collaborate with such a tool when the users clearly need to agree upon some rather idiosyncratic folksonomies and ontologies that they would use to make meaning of any given story.
Faith clearly had a handle on her narrative theory; she clearly had a strong grasp on Vladimir Propp’s work on fairy tales, for example. However, her current interests are in fan fiction and TVTropes, which suggests that folks who love to collaboratively geek out on folksonomizing their favorite stories, TV shows, and films would be the most likely audience for such a tool. Still, I’m happy to have learned about BRAT, even though I doubt this is a tool I imagine myself using in my own work.
The second day of DH2014, featured a couple of half-day workshops, where I explored two tools I can imagine actually using in the classroom and in my work. The morning workshop was devoted to learning a web-based tool called Annotation Studio developed by MIT’s hyperstudio. This promises to be the tool I have been looking to use for collaborative reading and annotating in my fall 2014 ENGL 31: Readings in British Literature tablet course. (I still need to check out it’s functionality on a tablet.) In the workshop, I learned how to create class groups and smaller working groups, to upload .pdf files, and to create highlights and annotations. One particularly nice feature is the ability to embed hyperlinks, images, and video into the annotations. Students can see one another’s annotations, although for now, they are unable to comment on one another’s annotations, which hopefully Annotation Studio will allow in future releases of the project.
That afternoon, I attended a workshop on Voyant Tools, a suite of tools that reads and analyzes digital texts, including comparative analyses of large corpora of texts. The real focus of this workshop was to teach users how to run Voyant Tools on a local server (from one’s computer, rather than from the web-based tool), which I was able to do. (Three cheers for computer-savvy me!) I was also excited that I learned to successfully fiddle with the server settings and designate the default texts (or corpora of texts) that users can read and analyze upon starting up their own local server-based version of Voyant. I’d learned the basics of using this tool from Brian Croxall back when he visited Fresno State in August 2013. Nevertheless, it was good to get a refresher course from Voyant’s creators, Geoffrey Rockwell and Stéfan Sinclair.
That evening, there was a lovely conference reception at the Rolex Learning Center at the Université de Lausanne. All week, there were cloudy skies and intermittent rain in Lausanne, but the moody weather created some lovely views of the Swiss alps in the distance across Lac Léman.