Brandon Walsh

Washington and Lee Trip

Cross-posted on the Scholars’ Lab blog.

Last week Sarah and I drove to Washington and Lee University as part of a new collaboration enabled by a grant from the Associated Colleges of the South. As part of the endeavor, Scholars’ Lab fellows are guest teaching pieces of an Introduction to Digital Humanities course. Our task, in particular, was to co-teach for a day on the topics of project management and software development. While we each took part and taught in both conversations, Sarah took the lead on the former topic and I took the latter.

I can’t rave enough about the experience enough, so I’ve organized my thoughts into three sections below.

Undergraduates + Digital Humanities = Dynamite

I am endlessly delighted by the reactions of undergraduates when they get introduced to the digital humanities. In virtually every case, I have encountered students hungry to learn the material. The W&L students were no exceptions. We found students ready to learn, eager to participate, and wiling to ask hard questions about the affordances and limitations of the field. You can find reflections by the students on their course blog. What’s more, the Washington and Lee students stand poised to make real contributions to digital scholarship. They have worked up some really interesting projects on the history of coeducation at W&L and on the changing vision and reality for Robert E. Lee’s Chapel on the university grounds.

Co-Teaching

Sarah and I work well together, and we have presented together in the past. But we had not taught together before the Washington and Lee trip. Full disclosure: I adore everything about co-teaching. It immediately disrupts the one-way transmission of information from the instructors to the students and forces the conversation to be more collaborative; co-teaching allows you to occupy simultaneously and more obviously the dual roles of student and teacher. It takes the pressure off any one person to keep the ship sailing smoothly, which empowers and enlivens the conversation. Co-teaching seems especially well-suited to the digital humanities, which value collaboration and play. Seminar discussions and workshops are different from working on teams to build projects, but co-instructors can make the experience a bit more lab-like, a bit more collaborative.

Teaching DH!

It is one thing to learn and practice digital humanities. It is another thing entirely to turn around and help others do the same. I have only really been hacking away for two years now, so I felt a bit unqualified to talk down software development as an invited speaker. I tend to assume that the Scholars’ Lab has a better sense of my own abilities than I do in most cases, though, and the invitation to W&L was no exception. The practice of putting together presentations on project management and software development was incredibly empowering. It helped me to have more confidence in myself as a digital humanist. No longer does the prospect of teaching an introduction to digital humanities course appear to be a vague and nebulous question mark. I now know that I could do it, because I have already done so in part. I also have a better sense of my own developing pedagogy of digital humanities. Opportunities to teach digital humanities like this, to perform with no net, are rare.

You teach to learn, and this is as true in the digital humanities as it is anywhere else. I learned a great deal from the bright undergraduates at W&L.

MLA 2015 Abstracts

It’s abstract time for next year’s big conference season. My two abstracts for MLA 2015 in Vancouver are below. This year I skewed digital humanities in a huge way: one paper would discuss digital collation and pedagogy, while the other would talk about listening practices and sound manipulation.

Collation and Writing Pedagogy with Juxta Commons and Google Docs

This talk argues for digital collation tools as means of modeling revision in writing instruction. While collation tools are more typically used to examine already extant textual variants, they can also be used to model rhetorical possibilities in writing that is still in process. I suggest that tools like Juxta Commons and Google Docs, the former explicitly designed for collation and the latter more typically used for collaborative writing, can model a subjunctive mode of composition when used in congress with student writing. By allowing multiple possible versions of the same text to exist alongside and in relation to one another, they allow students to conceive of multiple realities at once, unhooking the quality of an idea from the manner of its presentation and allowing a student to think critically about both. The process allows students to abstract writing principles from revision rather than the other way around. It also allows students to distill editorial concepts by creating real-life editorial scenarios with their own writing as the subject.

The Devil in the Recording: Deformative Listening and Poetry

Modernists at the turn of the twentieth century were enamored of sound recording technology for the new possibilities that it offered for preserving their work, but they also obsessed over the materiality of the new media: skipping needles, record grooves, and the hiss of the recording. This talk examines the possibilities for listening to sound recordings of modernist works in ways newly enabled by digital technologies so as to reflect back on modernist engagement with sound and media. Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann invoke Emily Dickinson’s suggestion of reading backwards line-by-line as a model for deformative reading. Retrograde constructions have been part of music theory treatises for centuries, and my work works in dialogue with these modes of thought to take the backwards turn a step further by listening to poetry recordings in reverse. Listening to recordings backwards alienates us from the semantic meanings of a text, but the process offers us a new sense of the recordings as sound objects, allows us to reconceive sonic and interpretive enmeshings, and enables us to hear anew the relationship between verse and music in song settings. Ultimately, I suggest that deformative listening practices offer heightened forms of close listening. Digital tools used will likely include Audacity and Sound Arguments, and I will discuss recordings of works by T.S. Eliot and Langston Hughes.

Teaching With Twitter - Part 2

This post is the second in a series reflecting on my experiments using Twitter in the classroom. Be sure to read the first post that began the discussion.

In my previous post, I described the process by which I went about integrating Twitter into my discussion section, but I offered few reasons for why instructors might want to do so. There are good pedagogical justifications for including social media, and it benefits interested instructors to give the move considered thought before integrating Twitter into course syllabi. I was prepared for students to push back against the idea of moving class conversation to Twitter, so I gave an opening pitch for the class activity containing several rationales for the experiment to my students. I encouraged students to think about Twitter as an exercise that would broaden their audience, allow them to practice digital professionalization, and challenge them to think small in their writing.

Audience
In a typical course, students take in a lot of information from a variety of sources, but the primary audience for their ideas is limited to their instructor and fellow students. This trajectory—all input and no output—can leave the activities of the classroom feeling disconnected from the broader scholarly discussion. With Twitter, a student’s audience expands beyond the people in the room to include potential readers around the world. Student comments can be circulated wildly, and I bring in examples of class Twitter activities managed by colleagues at other universities as a way of illustrating this fact. Retweeting student comments that prove particularly insightful can be a good way of underscoring your commitment to this circulation and the quality of their thinking.

The broad scholarly Twitter community is especially useful when discussing writing practices. Academics often tweet about writing, and a retweet towards your class of a professional writer discussing her own revision process can pay great dividends. Such self-reflective comments help students to see that writers of all stages struggle with the same problems, that writing is always a process - even for professionals. Outside tweets can also give your paper comments added traction by reinforcing them with the spontaneous thoughts of outside sources far removed from your own course.

Professionalization
Students are often familiar with anecdotal evidence that employers regularly examine the social media accounts of potential employees, and framing Twitter in terms of this anxiety can further connect the course to the professional world. Students can fear the importance of their digital actions, or they can start managing their digital footprints now in ways that will benefit them in the future. The benefits of creating a professional digital presence have also been well documented: new networks and opportunities can be easily cultivated on Twitter that might be unavailable in real life, and some careers in professional writing and media outreach virtually require strong digital presences. I first came to Twitter in the interests of developing a professional persona, so I used my own experiences as a model for the benefits that can come from doing so. Framed in these terms, the class activity becomes training in a form of professionalization that will become a major part of the rest of students’ lives. By demonstrating intelligent and measured contributions in public for the purposes of the course, students can begin to take control over their digital personae.

Writing
Twitter forces students to think small. The character limit on responses helps to moderate the size of student comments, keeping them to a relatively standardized length and preventing the sense that a longer response indicates a deeper engagement with the course materials. The format can also offer ongoing practice for students in developing concise, specific thoughts on objects of study. I encourage students to think about twitter comments as a challenge to write micro-essays. Entire, coherent arguments can be constructed in 140 characters, and they will often be clearer for the obscene demand for concision. 140 characters is a short length even for a thesis statement, and the exercise demands no space be wasted—every word must have its place. The genre of the micro-essay can allow conversations about writing into the course on a regular basis as students consistently produce a variety of these mini-thesis statements over the course of a statement. @twitterfiction can provide a good example of the power that can be achieved by such a small amount of writing.

Stating your pedagogical motives for students up front encourages students to engage with Twitter in terms that align with your objectives for including the activity in the course in the first place. For more advice on creating professional digital presences in the context of a scholarly community, see Ryan Cordell’s wonderful ProfHacker post on Creating and Maintaining a Professional Presence Online.

Audio at THATCampVA

I took part in THATCampVA this past weekend, where I led a session on using Audacity to mix and remix audio files for Digital Humanities projects. This was my session proposal, copied from the event’s main page:

“A session on working and playing with audio files using Audacity, which has a fairly low barrier to entry for editing sound objects. Depending on interest and ability, we can take either a practical or a playful approach. I’m happy to walk people through some of its basic functions useful to DHers working with sound- how to slice out clips properly, deal with proprietary formats, repair audio clips, overlay tracks, etc. Or we can play around with some of audacity’s fun effects – phase shifting, echoes, pitch alterations, reversing sound waves – useful to more creative endeavors and creating sound art. I’m especially interested in how tinkering with sound artifacts might offer us new ways to interpret them. When does a sound object become something else-something new? We can work with any sound files that people may bring in, though I’ll bring in some samples to play with. The prize goes to the person who can process an otherwise human voice into the scariest thing we’ve ever heard.”

Here is the link to my (admittedly fairly schematic) talking notes for the event. The group wound up wanting the introduction to Audacity before we played with the files, so I showed the group how to slice out and mix together a few seconds of a Bach partita to crossfade into the last sentences of Ulysses. Participants then tried their hand at remixing audio recordings based on their own interests, and a notable experiment took apart Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast. The group for the session was really great and gave helpful feedback on some ideas I had been kicking around for how to remix poetry readings for literary analysis. Very fun for my first THATcamp ever, and, in the future, I think I have a better idea of the kind of planning that goes into a good session!

Teaching With Twitter - Part One

This post begins a series reflecting on my experiments using Twitter in the classroom. Be sure to read the second post that continues the discussion.

I was only recently introduced to Twitter as a part of the Praxis Program, which encourages its fellows to engage with the social media platform as part of their education in how to engage with the digital humanities. I have become fascinated with Twitter’s ability to generate discussion, facilitate connections, and expand my own sense of the conversation in the field. I wanted to bring all of these elements into my classroom and share them with my students, so this past semester I integrated class Twitter responses into the participation element of my syllabus. Students tweeted several times over the course of the semester rather than post email responses to a private course site. In this post, I offer suggestions for the logistics of setting up such a course requirement and recount my own, while later posts theorize the pedagogical implications of the move and offer suggestions for tweaking student participation.

The Twitter requirement was not particularly onerous: I required students to tweet at a course hashtag (#ENRN_F or #ENRN_R) seven times over the course of the semester. Students would only be required to respond roughly every other week, so collectively these tweets would barely equal the length of a more typical paragraph response. I asked students to follow the tweets as they came in throughout the week, and I occasionally used the content of student tweets as quiz questions to encourage active engagement. Response tweets could take any form – a link to an image, a film clip from an adaption, a short quote, a thought on a particular character, a theme, etc. – anything that could advance the conversation.

About half of the students in my courses had used Twitter before, so interested instructors should be prepared to explain the format and offer support for those who are unfamiliar with it. I encouraged students to use TweetDeck as a free and easy option for following the course hashtag, and we previewed the experience at the first course meeting by putting the app on the class overhead projector. A student tweeted to the hashtag in class at my request, allowing students to see just how instantaneous the class’s twitter engagement could be. I encouraged students to come by office hours during the first week if they wanted help setting up an account, but very few needed the assistance. The activity generated more anxiety up front than actual difficulty in practice.

I taught two course sections of the same course when I implemented Twitter, so I considered using a shared hashtag for both classes. A single hashtag would allow cross-discussion conversation in ways that would not otherwise be possible. The increased activity that would come from two classes tweeting to the same place could provide a lively sense of community, even if some of those participants remain relative strangers in the context of the course. Separate hashtags make the actual logistics of teaching a bit more manageable: it is easier to lesson plan for the students that will actually be in the room and able to account for thoughts they have expressed online. I eventually opted for separate hashtags, but I encouraged students to follow and tweet at their sister section.

Some students who already possessed Twitter accounts protected their tweets, but such gestures towards privacy would complicate the course setup: protected tweets would not show up on the course hashtag unless the student allowed every member of the class to follow them. Similarly, while I encouraged students to be excited about the opportunity to engage with a wider community through Twitter, some felt uncomfortable with their ideas exposed to the world. I gave these students the option of creating a new, dummy Twitter account specifically for the purposes of the course. Their name did not have to be associated with the account at all, so long as the rest of the class knew to whom the account belonged. I circulated a list of students’ twitter handles early on so that we could match names to e-identities. Twitter required students to meditate on the public nature of their own intellectual lives and the reach of their own voices, and dummy accounts respected the privacy of concerned students.

In all, teaching with Twitter requires a relatively small amount of effort to implement, as the barrier to entry for students is quite low. But a little planning about your setup ahead of time goes a long way. For more helpful tips on the logistics of using Twitter in the classroom, check out Mark Sample’s ProfHacker post on ”Practical Advice for Teaching with Twitter.”

Stay tuned for part two in my series on Teaching with Twitter, where I further discuss pedagogical benefits and justifications for class Twitter accounts.

The Tri-Wizard Paper Outline Challenge

This teaching exercise grew directly out of a comment made by Kirk Wilkins in a recent #FYCchat on how he uses Harry Potter to facilitate group work. I instantly fell in love with the idea, but the semester was a bit too far along to integrate a whole Harry Potter house system into the course. Instead, I developed a one-off group activity in the same spirit: The Tri-Wizard Paper Outline Challenge. Group work with a twist - I sorted the students into the houses from Harry Potter, as they competed for our own Tri-Wizard Cup, a literary mug filled with candy. “Let the magic of literature sweep you away to far-off lands!”

Enough Harry Potter. On to the activity, which works perfectly fine without the magical theme.

When teaching a discussion section of a large literature survey that only meets once a week, talking about writing presents a constant challenge. Students are evaluated on their ability to execute writing assignments, but there is little class time in which to develop these skills and adequately address the literature. I have been working hard this semester to tie literary analysis consistently back to writing practices, and the Tri-Wizard Paper Outline Challenge attempts to do so by asking students to move from analysis to paper structuring in a very short timeframe. The exercise asks students to work in groups towards a possible paper outline in the course of a single class.

Time Breakdown:
5-10 minutes to explain the activity and read the passages aloud.
30 minutes to work in groups
10 minutes to share, declare a winner, and discuss.

Split the class into four equal groups, each of which has the same small set of passages and the same paper prompt. In the time allowed, each group must develop a paper outline: a thesis statement and three supporting points that will draw upon close readings of the passages. At the end of 30 minutes, students nominate one student from their group to read their thesis and describe the structure of their group’s proposed paper outline. The instructor then gives very quick feedback on each group’s work and selects a “winner” - the outline most likely to lead a successfully executive argument.

The exercise works best if things are kept as constrained as possible: common passages and a common paper prompt. The activity encourages aggressive time management, and too many options will likely detract from the students’ ability to complete the exercise. I am currently teaching a course on Shakespeare’s Histories and Comedies, so my passages all drew from a very small portion of Act I Scene I of Merchant of Venice. For a prompt I asked that students develop a paper broadly related to friendship, sexuality, marriage, or desire in some way. I chose passages that offer up opportunities for analysis and clear readings: the selections I chose had a strong homoerotic subtext, and several of the student groups picked up on this.

The whole activity is quite frantic in 50 minutes, but it can still work well, so long as you help the students keep a close watch on the time. Ideally, it would be a 75-minute activity, allowing more time for reflection at the end and discussion. I chose to err on the side of not giving enough for follow up discussion of the event: I generally give a short email follow up to each class meeting, so I used this e-space to share more thoughts on why we did the activity and what to take away from it. I would recommend doing the same, even if this is not your usual practice.

The exercise works especially well when conducted after students have already received feedback on written work and in dialogue with those paper comments. Written feedback from the instructor is essential to a student’s growth, but the ultimate aim is for students to internalize the critical attention so that they can revise their writing on their own. To facilitate this while framing the activity, speak in terms they recognize from your feedback on their papers when discussing how you will judge the final products. I required the theses to be written out because we had stressed the importance of a well-articulated thesis statement with specific language in earlier discussions. I encouraged students to consider alternative paper structures, to consider whether their work was an observation or an argument, and to ask whether their argument was fundamentally interesting or based on plot summary. Many of the group discussions took on aspects of these questions as they shaped their papers.

Teaching detachment from one’s own writing can be very difficult. Some things just need to be cut, but we often feel personally invested in the words we put on the page. The Tri-Wizard Paper Outline Challenge also allows students to shape a paper outline in which they have little investment. The activity has no grade repercussions beyond participation, allowing students to shape ideas in a collaborative space that models the benefits for developing such detachment. Students have nothing to lose but candy, but what they stand to gain from hearing their peers and themselves speak in the language of good, critical writing - magical.

Writing Out Loud: Google Docs for Live Writing, Revision, and Discussion

I have been using Google Docs as a part of my teaching for almost two years now. The idea first came about in an advanced course on Academic and Professional Writing. We talked a lot about editing in the class, and many of the conversations about style took this shape:

Student A: “Something about this word feels strange, but I don’t know what it is.”
Student B: “What if we moved the phrase to the beginning of the sentence?”
Student C: “We could get rid of that word and use this phrase instead.”

Hard to wrap your head around, right? Just imagine if those conversations were spoken. Talking about writing can only get you so far: writing is graphic, after all. As I write and edit, I try out different options on the page. I model possibilities, but I do so in writing. Discussing the editing process without visual representations of suggested changes can make things too abstract to be meaningful for students. I developed an exercise that I call “Writing Out Loud” that more closely mirrors my actual editing process. Using a Google Doc as a collaborative writing space, students are able to model alternate revisions visually and in real time for discussion.

The setup requires a projector-equipped classroom and that students bring their laptops to class. Circulate the link to the Google Doc ahead of time, taking care that anyone with the link can edit the document.

The template of the Google Doc consists of a blank space at the top for displaying the sentence under question and a series of workspaces for each student consisting of their name and a few blank lines. Separate workspaces prevent overlapping revisions, and they also minimize the disorienting effects of having multiple people writing on the same document.

We usually turn to the exercise when a student feels a particular sentence is not working but cannot articulate why. When this happens, put the Writing Out Loud template on the projector with the original version of the sentence at the top. Using their own laptops, students sign onto the Doc and type out alternative versions of the sentence, and the multiple possible revisions show up on the overhead for everyone to see and discuss. After each student rewrites the sentence to be something that they feel works better, ask for volunteers to explain how the changes affect meaning. The whole process only takes a few minutes, and it allows you to abstract writing principles from the actual process of revision rather that the other way around. How does the structure of a sentence matter? How can word choice change everything? What pieces of a sentence are repetitive?

Obviously Writing Out Loud works better on micro-edits, revisions at the level of the sentence. The standard process of the exercise—write, collate, and discuss—would take far too long with anything longer than a few lines. The exercise can be particularly useful for those sentences that carry a lot of importance for entire arguments: thesis statements, topic sentences, the first sentences of the document, etc.

I find that students often think of editing as an intense, sweeping process that involves wholesale transformation from the ground up. Modeling multiple, slightly different versions of the same sentence can allow for a more concrete discussion of the sweeping rhetorical changes that even the smallest edits can make.

You can find a copy of the template here.

Rails Girls Digital Humanities

This past weekend I coached at Rails Girls Digital Humanities at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. The event was amazing, the women were inspiring, and the tacos were delicious. It was just wonderful to take a first attempt at teaching Ruby on Rails in a community that was so supportive and welcoming! I learned a lot about teaching from the day. Here are a few thoughts on the experience and on how I would be a better coach in the future.

Deep Technical Problems
At my table we ran into a couple problems where Rails refused to play nicely with the version of Windows a student was running. After working on the problem for a while, it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to solve the issue in the time allotted. I eventually lent the student my laptop so that she could keep learning and building during the course of the afternoon. Of course, this is only a temporary fix, as the Rails issues would come up again when the student got home and tried to continue working. Is the tradeoff worth it? Or did I just delay the frustration until she was home? In the future it might help to have a designated Rails installation expert hanging around that wasn’t coaching to help troubleshoot tech problems like these that show up later, after the installation party is over.

Syntax
Syntax errors often posed the biggest teaching challenge for me. What do you do when you see that the problem is in the syntax before the student does? Suggesting to a student that the issue is with the syntax gave me the feeling that I was withholding information from her, which I can only imagine felt irritating. But I don’t think jumping in to point out mistakes is any good for long-term skill building either. Fellow coach Annie Swafford suggested that I use moments like these to teach the process by which I would find a syntax error, and I could definitely do a better job of this in the future. In the context of following a tutorial like the Rails Girls guides, this would mean a few steps. First, I double-check each line meticulously with one finger on my code and another on the tutorial. Second, I read the offending code backwards bit by bit to get my mind away from thinking about the lines semantically, which often tricks you into overlooking things. As a last resort, I copy and paste the tutorial code over top of my own. If nothing changes, I know there is no syntax error and that I need to look elsewhere. Finally, I search online for answers.

Frustration
It’s important to learn that we all break things. Constantly. I tried to stress again and again that I spend far more time breaking and fixing than I do actually building things that function properly. In the future I might even bring copies of some of my own commit messages (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) to illustrate the point and get some laughs. This feeling of helplessness, obviously, can be incredibly frustrating. Rails Girls DH made me wonder: how much frustration is pedagogically useful? How can we teach frustration in such a way that it doesn’t cause students to shut down? One of the hardest parts of coaching was learning to balance my instinct to help with the need to allow people to struggle. The women did an amazing job working through and learning from issues that popped up, but I wonder if I was doing the best job possible to facilitate their learning. As a coach, do you jump in the moment someone’s face expresses annoyance? Or, do you wait for them to reach out to you? I think at times I was too willing to read facial expressions and jump in to help, possibly out of a feeling that I wasn’t doing enough. Students should learn to feel confident and independent in their tech abilities, and they will only develop these traits by dealing with and pushing through their own frustrations. They should feel that they can ask for help, but they should also learn when they can handle something on their own. In general, I think the women I worked with were better at knowing when to ask for help than I was at knowing when to offer it.

So, if I were coaching again, I would do the following differently:
1. Bring an extra laptop.
2. Learn more about the Rails installation process and known issues with different operating systems ahead of time so that I am better equipped to troubleshoot such things.
3. Talk more about processes: of troubleshooting, of asking for and finding help, and even of conceptualizing new projects.
4. Strike a more satisfying balance between jumping in and letting students explore independently.

I’m already looking forward to the next Rails Girls DH event!

Bash-it Plugins

Sometimes things go wrong. When this happens, I often find a temporary solution that works fine in the moment, but implementing the fix repeatedly can get annoying over time. Here is something that I had been ignoring for a while and only recently took the time to fix.

I use bash-it, which has lots of neat tricks and functions. Since installing it, however, I had been getting a message every time I open up a terminal window:

sorry, the z plugin is incompatible with the fasd plugin. you may use either, but not both.

The message doesn’t stop you from going about your business, so I never really read it very closely: bash-it tells you everything you need to know. When installing, bash-it prompts you to make a variety of decisions about how many plugins you will use on a regular basis. I told bash-it to enable everything by default, but this decision caused a conflict between two plugins.

To see which plugins you have enabled, open a terminal window and type:

$ bash-it show plugins

In the output, you should see some flavor of the following diagnosing the problem:

z [x] maintains a jump-list of the directories you actually use z is DEPRECATED, use fasd instead

Plugin z causes an error when activated with a newer plugin with the same functionality. Bash-it gives you the fix:

$ bash-it disable plugin z

After that, your terminal should run free of the message.

TextMate and Git

This one is for my own files as much as anything else. For some time now, I’ve been getting a persistent error in Git when I try to go through the steps of committing a file online. This particular error came about when trying to pull before pushing up to GitHub:

/usr/bin/mate -w: /usr/bin/mate: No such file or directory error: There was a problem with the editor '/usr/bin/mate -w'. Not committing merge; use 'git commit' to complete the merge.

From what I understand, this comes about because Git can’t find the symbolic link to TextMate, even though it has existed in the past. For whatever reason, this issue seems to come up from time to time on my machine. I’ve tried a number of different solutions online, but none seemed to take. This solution finally did it for me. First, of course, make sure that you have TextMate installed and updated (my first mistake). The solution:

ln -s /Applications/TextMate.app/Contents/SharedSupport/Support/bin/mate /usr/local/bin/mate

This very post was made free of the error.