Digital Humanities

Posted in General, School with tags , , on November 23, 2009 by Bola C. King-Rushing

So I’m involved in this year’s HASTAC community, and I’ve done a little blogging over there. This is a repost of one of those–it got a great response, and I thought the conversation was worth bringing over here. Apologies to those who’ve already seen and / or responded to it.

“What Are We Doing, Anyway?” (11/13/09)

I’d like to revisit Amanda Visconti’s blog post about the must-have technical skills for a digital humanist.

Our department’s Literature.Culture.Media Center was fortunate enough to be visited by Dr. Patrik Svensson today. Of course, I had class and then a meeting during his talk, but I was able to make the reception afterward and hear him talk about digital humanities–and, in particular, the state of the field.

Or lack thereof. It turns out that “digital humanities” is, like most things humanities, a slippery thing to define. Do you remember when it was “humanities computing”? Do you remember even further back, when it was just a humanist who knew a little about Unix, HTML, or C+?

But to get to the point: what are we doing when we claim to be “digital humanists”? We are clearly not all doing the same thing, or (I suspect) even on the same page at least part of the time. So what would you say to someone from the “outside” if they asked you what you mean by digital humanities?

Part of my reason for asking is that, even though I’m in an English department, my dissertation has slid significantly into the social sciences by way of online virtual worlds. I keep my humanist focus, at least in my own mind, by steadfastly sticking to qualitative methodologies. But my digital credibility–well, I’m not so sure where I stand. I use a lot of technology, and I understand a lot about its technical underpinnings, but coding left me behind right about when amateur programmers switched from PASCAL to C. Yes indeed, that was a very long time ago.

Thus, I consider myself part of the DH universe mostly because my object of study (virtual worlds) is digital, and I approach the analysis of it from a humanities or humanist perspective.

But that’s just one approach. As implied by Amanda’s blog post, the DH universe also includes those people who do humanities with digital tools, often creating said tools themselves with their programming prowess. Is that enough? How digital do you have to be, or how humanities, to be considered DH? Is it even right to try to fit such disparate activities under a single categorical umbrella?

One pragmatic / cynical way to look at it is in terms of fads and funding. The money (what little there is) is in digital humanities, so we have an interest in being considered digital humanists. But when the money turns its attention elsewhere in a few years, what will we have left?

What are we doing? What are you doing, and why do you call it digital humanities?

Song of the Moment: "Do You Love Me," The Contours

A bit about the reading

Posted in School with tags , on August 7, 2009 by Bola C. King-Rushing

Just a quick follow-up on the reading I’ve been doing. I have now read ANIMA. That novel was atrocious. It had a good premise, although it overworked itself up to a tremendously disappointing ending, but it was pretty poorly written, and its editing, proofing, and typesetting were even worse (anyone who knows me knows that these things are about as important to me as the prose itself). As a package, it was so bad it almost left me speechless. Almost.

But I also read Circuit of Heaven, a novel about which I feel much, much better. In fact, it turned out to be a great suggestion, and one that will very likely be incorporated into the dissertation work. Thanks, Billy! The same goes–with thanks to Liberty, this time–for Otherland, which is now almost officially a primary text for my project. Both of these works cover the themes I’m looking for without being painful to read, and were in fact extremely enjoyable. After I’m done with the dissertation, I’m going to seek out the sequel(s) to Otherland. (Of course, there’s an awful lot of reading I’m going to seek out at that point…)

Among other candidates are several films, specifically The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, and Existenz, which all interestingly came out at about the same time.

And the work progresses…

Song of the Moment: "One Brown Mouse," Jethro Tull

Ideas? Suggestions?

Posted in General, School with tags on March 19, 2009 by Bola C. King-Rushing

Once again, it’s been quite a while. I fully intend to post more often…we’ll see how that goes.

Part of the problem is that I’m closing in on the ABD phase of the PhD program. Yup, one more course remaining, and then all I have to do is write a minor book while three faculty members monitor every step of the process.

Good times.

The funniest thing is, the more research I’m doing for this dissertation on virtual worlds, the less time I have to spend in virtual worlds. Did I say “funny?” Sometimes it seems cosmically perverse. That’s OK, though. I’m still learning a lot, and I’m still enjoying most of the learning that I’m doing.

One thing I’m look at right now is fiction centered on/in virtual worlds. My hope is to find some good fiction to which I can apply the research I am doing for a literary application of the work. This is where I need some help. I’m not sure what’s out there as far as relevant fiction goes. My current list:

  • Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
  • Tea from an Empty Cup, Pat Cadigan
  • Otherland, Tad Williams
  • Circuit of Heaven, Dennis Danvers
  • ANIMA, Dalian Hansen

I haven’t yet read Otherland and ANIMA (subtitled A Novel about Second Life). If you’re familiar with even a couple of these titles, you can probably see where my thinking is.  (If not, what I’m looking for are stories which take place in or prominently feature digital virtual worlds – not, however, just representations of the internet like Gibson’s “matrix” in the Sprawl series, but worlds designed and presented as such.) I know there are not many readers of this blog, but I’m asking in every venue available to me, including this one, whether anyone has suggestions for other works I might look at.

Thomas More’s Utopia has been suggested, as has Edwin Abbott’s Flatland. I haven’t read them, but I’d also love to get feedback on whether either one fits.

Let me know. I can use all the help I can get. Hey, who can’t?

Song of the Moment: "Rockstar," Nickelback

No on Proposition 8

Posted in General with tags , , on October 3, 2008 by Bola C. King-Rushing

OK, it’s been a while. I could give you all the excuses reasons for that, but in the end what’s important is that I’m writing again. At least right now.

In any case, I live in the land of the political initiative, referendum, or proposition, and it seems we’re called to the polls at least a couple of times every year to cast votes on the welfare and direction of the Golden State. Which, if you ask me, is pretty cool, though it takes a little getting used to.

This November, along with the national ballot, we have several state and local measures to consider. The two of these that I think are of greatest import are Propositions 4 and 8. I might talk about 4 some other time, but for right now my concern is Prop 8.

Put simply, Prop 8 if passed would ban same-sex marriages in California. You may or may not know that this is an issue that’s gone back and forth in this state; most recently, a California Supreme Court ruling held that it was unlawful to limit “marriage” to strictly man-woman couples. This means that same-sex marriages are valid and recognized in California at the moment, but Proposition 8 aims to add wording to the state constitution to the effect that only a man-woman marriage would be valid and recognized here.

That’s just wrong. There are a whole host of reasons that I hold that opinion, and I may go into them another time. What interests me right now, though, is that this issue – both locally and nationally – points a giant, sore finger at the massively gaping hole in the supposed wall between church and state. Half the problem here is the blanket use of the term “marriage.” If you stop to think about it, you realize that agents of religious authority (clergy) are given permission to perform a ceremony that affects the status of a couple in the eyes of governmental / civil authority. If we’re supposed to support the separation of church and state, isn’t that whole setup in direct conflict of the principle?

There should, from the very founding of this nation, have been a distinction made between the union of two people in a religious context and a similar (though not identical, and sometimes completely different) union in a civil context. The fact that some religions or denominations recognize same-sex marriage while their local governments do not points to that as a basic truth. Or how about this  one?: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (yes, the Mormons) once allowed and recognized polygamy (some fundamentalist groups not affiliated with the mainstream church still do), but the federal government of the USA has never recognized polygamous marriages. This demonstrates quite clearly that marriage does not mean the same thing to religion as it does to government.

But those who support Prop 8 – that is, those who wish to ban same-sex marriage – conflate the two contexts. They claim that if the state recognizes same-sex marriages, then their religious beliefs will be in danger. But wait: if we really have separation of church and state, then no state decision can impinge upon their beliefs. So what’s to be afraid of? The Catholic Church supports Prop 8, but the state is not going to force Catholic priests to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. So the Catholic Church (and all who support Prop 8) is not really defending their right to do things their way; they’re specifically hoping to restrict the rights of others to do things a different way.

I think civil union (marriage in the civil context) should be separated from matrimony (marriage in the religious context) altogether as a matter of principle. It would make sense for those who are religious to have the two be combined or overlapped in some way, but we now live in a time where there are lots of people who for many differing reasons have or want nothing to do matrimony, while still desiring the rights and responsibilities of civil union. Not to mention many who are married in name but don’t really live that way.

It’s to the benefit of the state to allow same-sex marriages. Just as with heterosexual marriages, it promotes social stability and contributes to economic stability. Beyond that, though, it’s straight-up illegal for the state to discriminate against people on the basis of religion or sexual preference / orientation (among other things, of course). By banning or prohibiting same-sex marriage, for whatever reasons, the state is by definition treating one group of people (homosexual couples desiring to be married) differently from another (heterosexual couples desiring to be married) on the basis of sexual orientation and possibly religion. These two sets of people are otherwise indistinguishable: in each case you have two people who are probably in love and want to publicly and socially declare an intent to commit permanently to each other and obtain all the rights and responsibilities that accompany such a declaration; the only difference is that one pair has different plumbing, while the other pair has the same plumbing. The state should not be in the business of discriminating between people on the separate or combined bases of sexual orientation and religion.

Wait, isn’t that basically what the California Supreme Court said?

Come on, people. How hard is it, really? Do you want to live in a land where discrimination is ok? I probably shouldn’t ask that question – too many people, if they answered truthfully, would say “Yes.” But if you don’t, then oppose Proposition 8 this November. If you live in California, vote against it. If you don’t live in California, urge any Californians you may know or come into contact with to vote against it. It’s that simple.

Song of the Moment: "Hawaii Five-O," The Ventures

Digital foot-binding

Posted in Second Life with tags , , , , on August 12, 2008 by Bola C. King-Rushing

It’s a strange confluence of circumstances. On the one hand is the way content creation – and, in particular, content permission – works in SL. Designers often don’t want customers to have modify permission on their work, because then the customers can, well, modify their work. It also makes them more vulnerable to forgery and cheap knock-offs. On the other hand is the tradition (habit? trend?) of making shoes that are designed to fit the “size 0” avatar foot.

The result is, as everyone who’s into these things knows, the size zero shoe. You purchase a pair of shoes, and they look fabulous, and they’re designed for size 0 feet, so you adjust your Foot Size slider to 0 so they’ll look right. And, in theory, there’s nothing wrong with that – to a point.

In fact, though, it’s systemic. It’s institutionalized. It’s become accepted practice. And there is something seriously wrong with that.

How is this different from virtual foot-binding? Avatars are being asked to change their bodies in order to fit social norms or fashions. No, they’re not even being asked. In some cases, they’re being politely reminded, but often the bodily deformation is simply taken for granted. And, as we know, it’s not just shoes. There exists a whole host of clothing items that are designed only for avatars that are designed within a relatively narrow (both literally and figuratively) size spectrum. And, I recently learned, the same goes for poses and animations.

Now, this isn’t the case for all designers. When it comes to shoes in particular (but also for other size-sensitive items), there are a handful of creators who for their own reasons give us mod perms. Some of those who don’t will still sell their shoes in two sizes (such as 0 and 10, or 0 and 30), which is at least a little accommodating. And there are starting to be designers who cater specifically to “plus-sized” or otherwise non-standard (as if!) avatars.

But in a world that prides itself on diversity, where even a basic avatar can have any of dozens of attributes sized from 0 to 100 (you should hit the Random button sometime and see what happens), this strikes me as simply insensitive. It’s no different from FL’s neurotic and neurosis-producing insistence that beauty and taste are a single vision that must be administered in a top-down manner. We know better than that, don’t we? How is it that this kind of thinking found its way into our virtual world?

And worse, how is it that we as residents put up with it?

Song of the moment: "Put Your Top Down," Tré Little

On The Dark Knight

Posted in General, Uncategorized with tags , on August 11, 2008 by Bola C. King-Rushing

Well, I couldn’t miss it, so (even though it took me a while) I finally got around to seeing The Dark Knight.

Let me first say that I really didn’t like Batman Begins. As I’ve already mentioned to some people, I think Christian Bale was only OK as Batman/Bruce Wayne, the story wasn’t all that fun, and the only image that I really appreciated was the picture of Gotham glittering in daylight. Plus the Batmobile was an atrocious-looking monstrosity of a vehicle that didn’t even have the brutish beauty of terrifying power.

So (spoiler alert!) I’m glad they finally blew it up. That little motorcycle-type thing wasn’t much better, though.

In any case, The Dark Knight is a far superior movie. Yes, I enjoyed it. While the story was really good, I don’t think that Heath Ledger’s performance was really worth all the hoopla that the critics have been making. The opening sequence was great, and the Joker’s legendary madness was well-written, more or less. And Christian Bale has grown into the Batman role a little more.

Overall, the movie was a helluva ride, which is generally what I’m looking for in a movie that comes from comic books. Of course, you get a better ride from something like Ultraviolet, and I’m looking forward to the Watchmen movie next year, but that’s not important right now…

While I enjoyed the movie, there is a major philosophical beef I still have with its existence. This issue dates back to Batman Begins, and is essentially going to be a fundamental problem with every installment of the new Batman movie franchise. The problem is a lack of respect for canonicity.

Now, I’m not one who insists that a comic-based movie adhere rigidly to the established stories of the comic. Marvel’s movies have convinced me that movies are a different medium and their stories must therefore be constructed differently. That’s totally fair.

What bothers me – has bothered me since Batman Begins – is that the established canon of the four previous Batman movies was simply erased. Some of us appreciate a consistent story universe, and this has now been completely destroyed. I feel it as a personal affront, that the creators of the two latest Batman movies simply have no respect for their forerunners – and no respect for those of us who have some degree of fondness for those earlier films.

A new Batman movie could have gone with new villains and executed a graceful transition from the more campy movies into this darker vibe. That would’ve been artful. Instead, we just get conceptual amputation. Reboot. A total do-over, as if all that came before was a waste of time that deserves to be forgotten. It’s rude.

And Christian Bale’s Batmobile was just ugly.

Song of the Moment: "Low Place Like Home," Sneaker Pimps

TLVW, Day 7

Posted in Second Life, TLVW with tags , , on August 4, 2008 by Bola C. King-Rushing

Well, it was the last day of class. We assembled at the MCGC sandbox for, officially, the final time and presented our term projects.

I’ve waited almost 24 hours to write about it because I’m very sad to see the end of this thing of ours. But more on that later.

We had many different kinds of projects presented, both group and solo. My project was in two parts: the first part was an assignment I’ve created for a college-level English course that I’ll be teaching next year; the second part was my argument that SL isn’t, at the moment, a particularly attractive tool for English education — specifically when it comes to teaching literature. In fact, I feel the same way when it comes to teaching writing; although some like Sara Robbins use it integrally, what she’s doing is in fact just generating content. This is very important in a writing class, but it’s not something that is special about SL; a creative teacher can use any of a number of things, either technological or not, to help students come up with things to write about. In fact, taking best advantage of what SL has to offer may actually be more trouble for an English teacher than it’s worth right now. Though I hope that becomes less true in the future.

Pamet’s project was actually the planned timeline for a much larger project, something like a year and a half to create a full-scale presence on the Teen Grid. The timeline is pretty big, and she managed to import the whole thing from Inspiration into SL and lay it out so we could see it. It was a pretty impressive visual aid.

I also really enjoyed the two group projects: Bigpick and Tiernan’s Fantasy Island project, which had us following clues around the island to learn about the plight of the local boxfish; and the geocaching project, which Eru tells me will become something bigger thanks to support and assistance from other organizations.

Shailey’s work was the continuation of an article she’d been writing, and she informed us yesterday that it’s been accepted for publication! That’s pretty exciting — the practical or applied nature of these and the other projects we created really showed how far we’ve all come during these 14 weeks. I’m proud of all of us, and I look forward to seeing where we go from here.

Then class was officially over, and we had a party. I know there were lots of pictures taken, so hopefully we’ll have more on other blogs or on Flickr to showcase our party outfits and the general fun and festivity. As you can see from this one shot, though, it was quite the party atmosphere. Someone said it reminded them of their prom — which, with the great ’80s music, was probably true for many of us.

Of course, after a while, other duties called, and people started taking their leave. It really did remind me of graduation day — lots of goodbyes all around, along with “Stay in touch” and “See you soon.” A handful of us lingered as long as we possibly could; we were down to five for quite a while until Tiernan left. Then four: myself, Eru, Esme, and Shailey. Eventually, though, we too had to call it a day.

This was the best course I’ve taken since I started graduate school. I got what I expected from it, but I also learned much more than I imagined I might. I met new people, made friends, and saw parts of SL I might never have heard of. I was exposed to an ordered view of education in SL, as opposed to the aimless wanderings I’d been making on my own and through the SLED. And through it all, I did not lose my enthusiasm for SL; not only that, but I also (earlier comments notwithstanding) feel more enthusiastic about education in SL.

Even though I’ll now have every other Saturday morning free again, I’m going to miss this. I’m glad to have been a part of it, and I hope all of us — and the course itself — enjoy a great and productive future.

Song of the Moment: "California Sun," The Ramones