RELI/ENGL 39, Fall 2015, University of the Pacific

Author: Ashley C.

Palladio Map from Class 10/29

map 2

So my screenshot is super low-quality, but I played with the size point thingy on my map for the Cushman Collection photos, and made it so the points displayed the city and state of the photos when you hovered over them. And I tried to make the background and the points as colorful as possible, because I do like my pretty colors.

The Many Wonders of Spacial History

To sum up what I gleaned from our latest readings, spatial history in and of itself is a pretty nifty concept. What spatial history essentially boils down to is presenting history through a means of visualization, of tangible spaces that can be traced through passing time. Instead of simply learning about historical events through a written resource, spatial history allows for an in-depth exploration of significant spaces.

A lot of this historical exploring comes through digital maps. The article by Jenna Hammerich talks about a few different spatial history projects, one by Colin Gordon that uses a layered digital map to track the development of St. Louis throughout the 20th century, and another called “The Dutch in the World”, in which Julie Hochstrasser is working on creating a visual catalog of 17th century Dutch trade sites. Hammerich talks about both these projects through terms of GIS, or geographical information systems. In using these systems to construct spatial visualizations, both Gordon and Hochstrasser are providing a means of delving deeper into the histories they are researching. Without digital maps and other visuals, the scale of St. Louis’ growth or the trade influence of the 17th century Dutch would just be a few statistics or remarks on paper. Having something visual to explore history through, particularly if it’s an interactive visual, gives historians a greater understanding of and connection to whatever they’re studying.

Both readings touched on one of the biggest differences between conventional history study and spatial history: collaboration. The chapter by Zephyr Frank talks a lot about this from the introduction on. He constructs spatial history research in the context of a lab, full of scholars from different backgrounds who have to work together to create something visual and instructional. Looking at history through a spatial context brings all kinds of people into the same realm of study, both in the case of select groups of historians, and communities interested in the things a historical visualization might display. Frank states that spatial history is essentially based on movement, meaning that space and time can be looked at through a lens of history’s progression through geographical space. This is also where the collaborative aspect of spatial history comes in, as many people are needed in order to construct something with digital technologies that requires varied areas of expertise.

Another aspect of spatial history that I found interesting was the lack of hierarchical thinking that goes into it. Generally speaking, traditional historical studies tend to follow a timeline of events, going from oldest to most recent. Spatial history allows researchers to break away from that rigid mold, and instead provides a web of connections that can be made between historical events, spaces, etc. Frank cited Scott Saul’s website called Richard Pryor’s Peoria as an example of “horizontal thinking”, aka looking at all kinds of historical aspects in tandem with one another. I took a peek at Saul’s website myself, and the whole thing is stuffed with visuals, including digital maps of places that were significant to Richard Pryor. This sheds light on Pryor’s life from several different directions, rather than the one that would come from, say, a biography of him. In using spatial history like this, Saul gives us a richer idea of Pryor’s life, and all the various influences that made up the whole. History is divided into many different slices, and spatial history allows us to look at all of the slices in relation to one another, rather than just on their own, or looking at them as one solid whole.

A map of North Washington Street, taken from Scott Saul’s website, Richard Pryor’s Peoria.

Perpetua and Felicitas: Incredible, and Maybe a Little Foolish

I must admit, I have mixed feelings about these ladies. On the one hand, I think they’re incredibly badass. They give off that self-sacrificial action heroine vibe that you can’t help but be excited about. I mean, how often do two women come around who would willingly throw themselves into a den of vicious beasts, knowing they were going to die, simply because they believed that strongly in their ideals? Not that I’m saying everyone should start following their example, mind you, but it’s an incredible feat of bravery and loyalty. What makes it even more astounding is something discussed in the PBS reading we had, about how Paganism was essentially tied up with the Roman state. By refusing to follow Paganism, Perpetua and Felicitas were basically denouncing their ties to Rome, and shunning all of its civil practices. That takes serious guts.

I wouldn’t call myself a religious person, but generally when I think of Christian martyrs, a lot of men come to mind. That makes Perpetua and Felicitas seem even more important to me, because we have so few stories that recount how women sacrificed for the sake of their religion. Perpetua literally asked for a gladiator to slit her throat, and Felicitas waltzed into that arena right after giving birth. Both of them had to pass off their children to other people to raise because they knew they wouldn’t survive. And what have you all been doing with your Sundays?

Just to add some intensity to the tale, I typed their names into a Google image search, and found this piece of artwork (taken from here), portraying Perpetua’s final moments:

Not the easiest sight to swallow, is it?

Now for the reasons I have muddled feelings about this story. I have already said I’m not religious, and perhaps by default that makes me a skeptic. I’ve always found the idea of martyrdom a bit over the top. Not to say that it isn’t important, because obviously it is, and it’s held very close to the heart of religion. I can respect that. And I can respect being so devoted to something that you would literally die for it. But for me, religion isn’t one of those things I would die for. So as much as I admire Perpetua and Felicitas for being so courageous, I also can’t say I understand why they chose that route. In the reading on the PBS website, it said that being Christian technically wasn’t against the law in the Roman Empire. You were supposed to follow the Pagan rituals, true, but Christianity could still be practiced as well. And it sounded like people faked going along with those crazy Pagan sacrifices all the time. If it were me, I would have taken a safer option and kept myself alive, rather than throwing myself down in an arena full of angry animals. But of course, I’m not Perpetua or Felicitas (and quite frankly I’m glad for that). They clearly inspired uncountable Christians, and that’s not something that should be ignored.

I think the takeaway from this is that we all have the capability to fight for something we believe in. These two mothers died for their beliefs. Now please, friends, don’t go that far, because living is important. But we don’t have to sacrifice ourselves to stand up for something. Cling to your ideals. You never know what kind of impact you can make with them.

Should Culture be Digitized?

It’s a tough call to make, really. On the one hand, we could look at it in the light that Melissa Terras shines for us – as an avenue for creativity, even if the avenue is rather full of potholes and road blocks. On the other hand, there’s the more serious pros and cons that Robert Leopold presents – an issue of exploiting parts of certain cultures when they should be kept secret, versus helping to share knowledge of those cultures with the public. No matter which way you slice it, digitizing aspects of culture is a pretty complicated pie to bake. It has benefits for some, consequences for others, and ultimately just leaves everyone rather frustrated.

For Terras, it seems that frustration comes from how inaccessible cultural works are on the Internet. Her blog post focuses on the “creative reuse of digitised cultural heritage content,” which is basically a fancy way of saying “using cultural artwork and turning it into something new.” Mostly, she rants about how difficult it is to find any cultural content to use in creative projects, no matter what the project might be. While there are some institutions that actually have online archives of artwork and whatnot, like The British Library, it’s still incredibly lacking in content. Terras pins a lot of the blame for this on “the shackles of copyright”, since most works are protected under copyright laws, and thus can’t be put online for public use unless they’re from before the 1920’s or so. And I have to agree with her on that one. Though copyright is obviously important, it’s incredibly difficult to do anything creative with cultural content when the only sources available are a century old, at least. Hence, we have constant battles with sites like Youtube that take down posts and videos with content still under copyright. Huge buzzkill to the artists of the online world.

Apart from the copyright obstacle, Terras also complains about cultural archives’ confusing interfaces, poor image quality, and lack of acknowledgement for how much effort goes into reusing cultural content. She uses examples like couch cushions and corsets that have old artwork on them, and all the resources and time an artist has to pour into those things in order to make them. Obviously those artists deserve some credit for their work, regardless of whether it was made using art that wasn’t originally theirs. Out of curiosity, I went on Etsy (an online store Terras mentioned and I’ve purchased from before) and perused a bit of the works on there. Below are some of the things I found.

the creation of adam - sistine chapel - 12" x 24" velveteen pillow case - michelangelo,1512

“the creation of adam – sistine chapel – 12″ x 24″ velveteen pillow case – michelangelo,1512” (Posted on the treder shop)

Leonardo da  Vinci - Magnetic Coasters Including Wooden Stand Set, Romantic Coaster Set, Art Coaster, Renaissance, FREE   SHIPPING

“Leonardo da Vinci – Magnetic Coasters Including Wooden Stand Set, Romantic Coaster Set, Art Coaster, Renaissance” (Posted on the elcomdesign shop)

Starry Night art earrings van Gogh small glass earrings

“Starry Night art earrings van Gogh small glass earrings” (Posted on the BohemianCraftsody shop)


Now, these were just a few things among thousands and thousands of works on Etsy, but they all exemplify the possibilities that can come from having access to cultural artwork and content online. And that’s the point that Terras tries to make. By being able to use cultural images, artists can reuse them and create something at once new and the same, giving new life to old works. And to be honest, I think that’s pretty incredible. Particularly when a work is already outside copyright laws, I think reusing these kinds of things should be encouraged. Let the artists flourish with these cultural mediums.

Of course, there is a downside to making cultural content readily available, as there is with everything. Robert Leopold’s article discusses a conflict that arose over the Smithsonian and the National Anthropological Archives (NAA) trying to add Cherokee manuscripts to their public archives, ones that detailed medicine man practices that were supposed to be kept a secret among Cherokee medicine men. A large portion of the Cherokee people involved in the conflict were against sharing these manuscripts, as it went against their traditions for other people to know these secrets, even among their own tribe. These “sacred formulas” weren’t meant to become cultural content for everyone to see, despite insistence by the Museum of the Cherokee Indian that they were an important part of history and should be available to read. Though some Cherokee people actually supported sharing the manuscripts, since it allowed their language to be studied and spread beyond the few groups that still understand it, most were adamantly against it. Archiving this kind of private cultural content has the potential to violate the same culture being promoted. Some things are meant to be kept within the walls of the culture itself, and not tossed around where anyone can see them.

That, I think, is reason enough to compromise when it comes to making cultural content accessible in a digital realm. With things like artwork, particularly done by artists long gone, sharing with other communities is pretty acceptable. Doing so would allow for new creations to be made, and for the artwork or other content to be appreciated in fresh ways. When it comes to more internalized aspects of cultures, however, like the Cherokee manuscripts, they should come with a word of caution. It may benefit some people to have that content available online, but it could also hurt the people and culture where the content originated from. And so, we seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to digitizing culture. There’s no fine line where benefits can be separated from consequences; they’re interspersed. Perhaps we’ll figure out what should and should not be shared with digitized culture someday, but for now, it’s still a bit of a head-scratcher.

So is Sharing Really Caring?

According to our readings this week, no. At least that was the impression I got from the “Crowdforcing” article. Sharing sounds more like an abomination than anything, when it’s shown in the light David Golumbia provides. (And no, sir, I do not believe you’ve “suggest[ed] the shape of a problem” so much as attacked the idea of digital sharing with a blunt force object, but that’s beside the point.) Though I found Golumbia’s wordiness and excessive efforts to sound intelligent rather exhausting, he made some valid points that should be taken into consideration when it comes to online “sharing.”

The whole idea of “crowdforcing” is frankly unnerving, especially when it comes to personal information. The Facebook example he used stood out in particular to me, because I’ve heard of people taking pictures from Facebook and posting them to their own profiles. Not only is the tagging system for photos basically in every user’s hands, but since we only have real control over our own profiles, it’d be hard to stop someone from sharing photos or other information we wouldn’t want shared otherwise. I remember a news story once that kind of goes in tandem with this issue; some creepy dude got caught taking pictures of someone else’s young daughter off the mother’s Facebook, and he pretended the little girl was his, reposting the pictures and adding comments as if he was her father. That might be a bit beyond Golumbia’s idea of “crowdforcing”, but it still exemplifies what sharing things online makes possible for strangers to do to personal data.

The fact that “crowdforcing” can cause gain for some and harm for others ties into the reading about copyright issues as well. Having a kind of “crowdforcing” mentality creates a false assumption that if, say, an artist were to post a drawing on their personal blog, someone else could pluck up that drawing and repost it without the artist’s permission. I’ve seen that kind of thing happen all the time, and what makes it sad is that the reposters tend to get popularity for simply posting the work that isn’t theirs, while the original artist doesn’t get the credit they deserve. Though online artists don’t always have “official” copyright on their work, it’s still violating them to steal their art and use it as if its creator didn’t matter. I know the “fair use” policy crops up in a lot of places online, particularly Youtube, and while I think it’s fair enough to use art or other media if the intent isn’t to make a profit, getting permission from the creator is still important. I can only imagine how big of a punch in the gut it would be to see your own artwork on someone else’s website, getting five times as much attention as the original should have.

So in the long and the short of it, I suppose sharing is caring so long as whoever’s stuff you’re sharing knows about it. And agrees to it. In as explicit phrasing as possible. It’s the same concept as “borrowing” something when you’re actually just stealing it because you thought it was pretty and never wanted to give it back in the first place. Sharing ideas and media online can help spread enthusiasm, get discussions going, and just improve communities in general. But don’t slap the creator of that video or show or album in the face by erasing them from existence. Give credit where credit is due.

Computers are Life, Computers are Love

Ah, computers. Where do I even begin with computers. We have a complicated relationship, computers and I. Sometimes we’re in love, and everything is unicorns and meadows full of daisies. Sometimes they allow me to enjoy my Internet browsing or my Sims games in peace, with a little assurance of, “Go ahead, do your thing, friend, I got your back.” And then there’s the times where we absolutely hate each other. These are the days when my laptop just gives me two big middle fingers, crashes all my programs, refuses to turn on, and does everything else in its power to infuriate me. I’m not sure it knows just how close it’s brushed with death on these days.

My history with computers goes pretty much as far back as I remember. My parents are fond of telling me stories about how they would find me in my room at three years old, sat at my clunky old desktop and learning my ABC’s. That being said, I’m no computer expert. I know how to use most basic programs – I’ve even been declared a Photoshop wizard on occasion – but if my computer throws a serious problem in my face, I would have no idea how to fix it. I have the basics of a tech savvy person, but I don’t really know what makes computers tick, or how to play around with their codes. In that case, I suppose I’m similar to Patty Ordóñez from the podcast we listened to this week – if I was sat down in a computer class like she was, I’m sure I’d get plenty of stares that just screamed, “Wow, how basic are you?”

That being said, I feel like I fall right into the category of young adults that Williams’ mentioned in his article, that percentage of us that are on our phones even in our sleep. The familiar set up of the Internet on a mobile device, or of a computer with a screen, keyboard, and mouse, is basically ingrained in me. I’ve never really thought how my access to a computer could be set up differently, which is exactly one of the points that Williams makes in the essay. He talks a lot about how people who are quote-on-quote “normal” don’t always think about what using technology might be like for disabled people, and that’s a serious issue that should be resolved. Because as he says, people who are blind or deaf interact a lot differently with the Internet and whatnot than most of us do. His whole idea of universal design is something that really should be implemented everywhere, because without it, there are a lot of people who can’t access the same things that “normal” people can, both in regards to the digital humanities and in general. It’s not fair to exclude disabled people from the digital humanities field just because they can’t use a regular computer like a sighted or hearing person can.

As far as the podcast about women and computer coding goes, the words “geek culture” just kept flashing in my mind over and over as I was reading/listening to it. It reminded me of all the dudebro gamer nerds that have an elitist attitude toward video games, computers, and technology in general, like it’s something exclusive for them and above women’s understanding. And based on what the podcast was saying, it would seem part of that is due to how computers were marketed toward boys once they started becoming available at home. Personally, I think that’s just sad. Like the data showed from the podcast, women were extremely tech-savvy until about 1984, when all of a sudden computers became a man’s profession. It’s unfair to exclude women from that technological world, just as it’s unfair to exclude disabled people. The digital humanities is all about sharing knowledge with everyone, and that should extend to all aspects of computers possible. The whole point of the Internet, DH, and computers is to bring people together, so I think it’s about time we start figuring out how to include everyone.

So What’s Up with the Digital Humanities, Anyway?

In the wake of the two readings we’ve been given for Tuesday, the biggest conclusion about the Digital Humanities (DH) I can draw is that no one can seem to agree on what it is. I imagine all these different people and organizations involved with the DH as chickens running around squawking and pecking at each other. And no doubt it would only be worse if they were all stuffed into one chicken coop together. These people must be a lot of fun at parties, right?

But I digress with my poultry analogy. If I were to give some kind of definition of the DH myself, it would be along the lines of, “people involved in Humanities work that either use digital media to examine texts, art, etc, or contribute to the Humanities through digital media.” It seems the happy medium of the DH would be to bring together the “hack vs. yack” sides, as Mark Sample puts it in “The Digital Humanities is Not about Building, it’s about Sharing”. Because truthfully, the DH involves both theory and practice, just as regular Humanities studies do. We’ve been doing both in class – examining texts with tools like Voyant, and then discussing our theories about them in our blog posts, for instance. Those who pick apart historical documents using computers and technology are just as much Digital Humanists as those who write their own essays and journals online. Frankly it baffles me why many scholars haven’t seemed to realize that yet. Why can’t we all just get along, guys?

In light of this, I think the question of why the DH, as opposed to what they are, is much easier to answer. Lisa Spiro essentially spells this out for us (in a rather repetitive way, I might add, but we’ll ignore that). Her lengthy discussion about a potential value statement for the DH is precisely why this shiny branch of the Humanities exists. She puts particular emphasis on “openness” and “collaboration” throughout her essay, which I think gets right at the heart of the matter. The DH provides a medium for sharing insight, findings, creative work, and a whole truckload of other information about the Humanities that hadn’t been available before the kind of technology we have today. Humanists can share with each other across global divisions in a matter of seconds when they work digitally, and that allows for nearly everyone to have their work seen and discussed, rather than isolating people to a small ring of local chitchat. It connects everyone who dabbles in the Humanities, and provides a means for us all to work together.

Spiro also mentions how diverse the DH are, at least in terms of things like occupation, education, gender, etc. (She does mention the DH are not as racially diverse as they could be, but that’s an issue for another time that needs to be worked on.) The diversity that the DH does have as of now is another essential expansion on what is normally referred to as just the Humanities. Bringing all these different kinds of people together through the digital world allows for input on Humanities subjects from varied viewpoints, rather than just from specific scholars who publish their work in written journals. Spiro brings up social media like Twitter in her essay, and how that brings about the chance for basically anyone to join a discussion about the Humanities. Though that may not always be a good thing, depending on who you ask, I do think it’s important to allow for that kind of broad contribution to the Humanities, something else that wouldn’t exist without the digital realm.

So in the long and the short of it, the Digital Humanities is an evolution of sorts for the Humanities. It’s moving Humanities work to a technological sphere, one that provides that “openness” and “collaboration” Spiro was so fond of rehashing. And to me, that’s a fantastic step forward for the Humanities as a whole. Because let’s be real, without it, Humanists would most likely be holed up in their own little thinking caves writing down their discoveries on pieces of paper. While the being holed up part might still be true, at least if there’s a computer involved, one wouldn’t be so entirely alone.

Voyant in Researching Philosophy and Legal Files

Group members: a_colombo, k_elliott3, a_rocha3, Kyle C, p_drake

Our given website to examine was a philosophical collection of sorts. The site’s author, Kieran Healy, had complied a smorgasbord of citations into one giant, graphical web, all references to philosophy journals and articles written by people who most likely knew what they were talking about better than we understood it. From what we gathered, the research question most likely being focused on was simply an effort to discover what kinds of things the philosophical community was chitchatting about, and who was doing the chitchatting. Hence, the website was geared toward an audience whose heads were much higher up in the philosophical clouds than ours. Upon dropping the website URL into Voyant, it became obvious that Healy was primarily focused on one thing in his writing: the graph he’d made, as demonstrated by the word cloud below.

philosophy word cloud thing

Apart from admiring all the colorful dots and crisscrossed lines of Healy’s graph, there wasn’t much for us to glean from the website, so we started branching our discussion off into other areas of study that Voyant might be useful for. We focused particularly on researching legal cases, and how Voyant would make it exceptionally easy to sort through legal files, precedents, and other related documents to find correlations between cases. If we wanted to compare different cases of domestic abuse, for example, we would simply have to plop a handful of files into Voyant to find the ones that would help us the most. So if anyone ever needs to write a research paper about legal proceedings, perhaps Voyant is a good place for you to start.

Experimenting with Voyant – A Study in Word Counts and Pretty Colors

Upon dropping the “test corpus” file into the Voyant system, I found myself embarking on a journey into the inner workings of vocabulary quite unlike one I have ever taken before. For one, Voyant makes words much more colorful than the text in a book might, so that was understandably exciting. My fondness for aesthetics aside, Voyant proved to be quite the useful tool for unraveling word usage and trends in documents, especially ones I myself am unfamiliar with.word cloud

The first thing I was drawn to was the word cloud – or more specifically, the word “said” in that jumble of colorful letters. (This was
after filtering the cloud, of course, because let’s be honest, nobody wants to count how many times the word “and” is used in a document. That would be as tedious as counting how many times the average teenager says “like” in one conversation.) Looking at “said”, obviously we can tell there’s a lot of talking in these documents. 312 instances of it, to be exact. But that doesn’t tell us much otherwise, unless we compare “said” with some of the other words that crop up frequently.

This brings me to the other batch of lovely colors Voyant has to offer – the graphs of word trends. Upon clicking on “said” in the word cloud, Voyant generated a chart for me that detailed how often “said” appeared in each of the “test corpus” documents. It cropped up the most in the document titled “scillitan”, and the second most in “justin-et-al.” This doesn’t tell me much as someone unfamiliar with the context of these texts, so in order to enlighten myself, I compared “said” with another word, “god.”

god vs said chartWhen I politely asked Voyant to show me the frequencies of both words, it generated the graph at the left. Though the trends in “said” and “god” don’t entirely match up, “god” seems to peak in both “scillitan” and “justin-et-al,” matching the peaks of the word “said.” Clearly this, along with the word cloud, points toward the documents being of religious origin. I think it’s also safe to infer that the texts where “said” and “god” appear together most often involve some kind of religious speeches. Upon examining some other common words in the corpus list, such as “death,” “tortures,” and most obviously “martyrdom,” I can conclude that the people most likely giving those speeches were martyrs, perhaps at the ends of their lives, perhaps trying to inspire the people of the faith they were dying for.

Overall, my venture into Voyant’s database gave me a bit of context for the “test corpus” documents where I had none previously, and it granted me a peek at how certain words and vocabulary come into play within the texts, giving them their due emphasis. However, beyond that, it didn’t really teach me how those words were used in their specific contexts, which could be problematic if I were researching these documents. I would still have to read the documents themselves to understand how those words came into play, who said them and for what purpose, and all that fun jazz. So essentially, Voyant is useful for getting a basic overview of a document, and deciding whether that document would be beneficial to read, but apart from that, it doesn’t give much to go off of as far as content. Regardless, I can’t say it’s not fun to play with.