Category Archives: OTHER POSTS


Text from MLA 2017 Talk on DH Forum “Minimal Digital Humanities: Choice or Necessity?” 

This paper engages with Jentery Sayers’ and Alex GIl’s discussion of Minimal Computing on 


In April, I will teach what I believe will be the first stand-alone Intro to Digital Humanities course at a community college (CC) in the Pacific Northwest—maybe the first such course at a CC in the country. I call my course “This Digital Life: Reading, Writing and Culture in a Digital Age,” because my students don’t know what “digital humanities” is.[i]

In this course, I will introduce my CC students to a way of thinking about and comprehending the forces around them—the forces that Alan Liu calls the “great postindustrial, neoliberal, corporate and global flows of information and capital” (Liu 491). Community college students’ lives are immersed in precarity wrought by these flows; only the grittiest of them will overcome the bleak economic for economic mobility in America. Articulating how those forces affect them is one of the most important learning outcomes of DH at the CC.

But what are the minimal computing coordinates for CC students? And where does open source fit in an open access environment? I hadn’t really thought of this before reading Alex Gil’s and Jentery Sayers’ definitions of “minimal computing;” I am unsure how to use Raspberry Pi and I can barely work with Markdown templates. I do use whatever tools are available and we’ll read whatever open educational resources we can find. Perhaps, following Gil and Ernesto Oroza, my community college DH course will follow a kind of “architecture of necessity.”

While the surface features of my course are not strictly “minimal,” they share structural affinities to the GO::DH values of maximum access and longevity: My students might read Gil’s and Sayer’s pieces but they will likely write about them using Google or Word on their laptops and email me using Outlook—transgressing minimal computing principles at every keystroke. I think that these definitions of minimal computing themselves point to a set of assumptions for humanistic computing that are worth considering in CC students’ digital lives. 

I’ve practiced not “minimal” computing but what Roopika Risam calls “micro DH.” Since 2012, I have embedded whatever I could invent or learn in all my courses, adopting and adapting from a generous DH Pedagogy Community and translating research so that my students can appreciate the cool factor of big data without slamming up against skill barriers to data mining; and then I send students to Wordle or Voyant so they can work the magic themselves. My students dive into archives and annotate texts using Google docs. Sometimes we “break” Google or Twitter because our computer lab is equipped with lame machines and the systems crash. The Computer Help Desk folks are so used to hearing from me about glitches during class that they respond immediately when I call; if I ever have a classroom emergency, it’s them I’ll call first, not campus security.

Reconsiderations and a Maturing Field

While minimal computing intends to create conditions for maximum inclusiveness, I fear that in practice it may exclude underprepared students in open-access institutions.

The minimalist turn registers the effects of uneven development in the academy. Community colleges are just beginning to recognize the term “digital humanities,” and faculty are just beginning to figure out how digital assignments fit into their courses. In many, although not all, cases, “minimal computing” assignments take maximal preparation–for CC faculty still untrained in the field and for unevenly prepared students.

Jentery anticipates the critique that minimal computing may produce different impacts to different agents in an unevenly developing field.  He asks, “what sort of expertise and decision-making [does minimization assume]” and how do “we define ‘we’ in relation to necessity and simplicity?” (“Minimal Definitions”). Necessary for what? Simple for whom? Under what constraints?

For community colleges, the purpose of humanities education is to empower students with as much mastery of as many tools as possible for full participation in civic and cultural life.  How we define “minimal computing” at the CC needs to support that purpose.  

For I’m not just talking about access to any particular set of digital tools—whether “minimal” or “maximal”–in this regard. Rather, it’s students’ transformed understanding that I am after—the crossing of a threshold from accepting a received cultural landscape to a deep reading of it. Open-access institutions may make use of “maximal” tools as a relay for critically engaging with the digital life they lead. In so doing, they may achieve ends that “minimal computing” principles intend.

Participation, writes Carpentier, is “strongly related to the power logics of decision making” (8).  Carpentier’s foregrounding of power relations and social capital helps us to situate values of minimal computing in an open-access CC context. Looking at Jentery’s comprehensive list of the features of minimal computing, we see that he is going for a maximalist model of participation in stewardship of the cultural record and in knowledge production and dissemination. The list helps elaborate the question that Alex Gil asks—that of “what do we need?” –and imagines a DH architecture of necessity that ensures scholars’ maximal role in decisions and maximal control of future use.

While community colleges share disciplinary affinities with their counterparts at 4-year colleges and universities, these affinities mask power differentials between CCs and their four-year counterparts. Carpentier’s focus on power provides language for recognizing the differences  between four-year institutions and CCs and for responding to those differences.[ii]  This power differential is visible in multiple spheres, but here are a couple of examples to illustrate how it impacts faculty and students at CCs: [slide 1]

  • First, graduate school doesn’t train most humanities graduates for the demands of CC teaching
  • Second, graduate faculty rarely maintain close professional ties with students who land jobs at CCs. I call this the “You’re dead to me” model of mentorship.
  • Effects of this dynamic on professional development have been to create an hermetic CC professional world cut off in important ways from developments in the larger field
  • This dynamic limited what should have been a much earlier diffusion of digital humanities methods into CC curricula.[iii]

Additionally, the role that contingency and precarity play in CC faculty lives cannot be overstated. Part-time/adjunct faculty represent nearly 70% of the instructional workforce of community colleges and 47% of humanities educators overall (“A National Survey” and “Traditional versus Nontraditional Humanities Faculty”). Many part-time or adjunct humanities faculty teach given syllabi or are limited in the texts they can select. Maximal equity in participatory decision-making in curriculum is harder for contingent faculty to achieve.

And what about CC students?

What might minimal computing look like for them and how might they practice it? Student diversity is the open access institution’s best asset and biggest challenge. [1]  Jentery raises the issue of time in relation to reduced consumption (“Minimal Definitions”); working class time orientation is characterized by “precarity”—a sense that struggles in and endurance of the present are more salient than investments in a future imaginary. You could say that CC  priorities are driven by a working class time orientation toward the “short now” and not the “long now” thinking required of the minimal critical movement (“Minimal Definitions”).

How else might “minimal” computing impact students’ full participation?  “Creative failure” and “generative messing around” may directly challenge an already profound sense of what Walton and Cohen call “belonging uncertainty.”  Experiences of failure that middle-class students may simply slough off disparately impact minority students’ sense of belonging and social “fit” in college. CC students are already “doing the risky thing” (Fitzpatrick)—they’re going to college. Trial—and especially error–around spartan and user-unfriendly interfaces can challenge even the most confident of lifelong learners.  Recently, I fell short of completing a Github pull request after many tries, and I had the humbling experience of standing on the wrong side of a threshold. Perhaps for CC students, commercial interfaces are the “architecture of necessity” (Gil)– the best way to ensure that they cross important thresholds when taking on digital projects.

When I was reading about minimal computing, the words “syntactic sugar” and “syntactic salt” popped up. This language of low-processing and elemental design pepper minimal computing definitions and put me in mind of the language of food politics–Whole Foods, organic produce, farmers’ markets and distributed pantry movements. Why is it, I wondered, that the advantages of bypassing the supermarket to ensure maximal autonomy are only realized by middle-class families with huge domestic square-footage and mini-vans? Do the conflicting urgencies of class and environment operate in minimal computing?

If they do, what kind of computing can help CC students comprehend and intervene in the high-speed, overprocessed environment of their “digital life”? Thinking of supermarkets led me to consider how McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell and KFC leverage food deserts for profit. I looked up the Food Desert locator data visualization map posted by the USDA [Figure 1 “Food Desert Map”], and then quickly also found the Fast Food restaurant map [Figure 2 “Fast Food Locator”]. Then I went back to the GO::DH map that locates DH centers globally [Figure 3 “In a Rich Man’s World: Global DH”] and created my own DH at the CC data viz map using Google Maps to see what it might reveal. This was networked computing toward a local end [Figure 4 “The Only CC Digital Humanities Faculty in the PacNW Flies to the MLA”].

So I’m saying that “maximum” computing can serve “minimal computing” ends of inclusiveness and participation, but I do know I need to avoid creating conditions for CCs to become digital equivalents of food deserts. A sole diet of Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat et al. could play into a lifetime of dependence on overprocessed commercial platforms. Meanwhile CC students’ four-year counterparts at Honors Colleges and First Year Interest Groups tinker with their Tiny Linuxes, “healthy choices” and “whole foods” of Raspberry Pi. But for now, that’s where my staircase ends.






[1] CC Student facts: There are 992 public community colleges in the US, and community college students make up 46% of all undergraduates in the US and 41% of all first-time freshmen. Sixty-one percent of Native American college undergraduates are enrolled in community colleges; 52% of Black students and 43% of Asian/Pacific Islander undergraduates are enrolled in community colleges; 50% of Hispanic college students begin at community college. In the US, 59% of community college students are enrolled part-time, and 59% are women (American Association of Community Colleges, “Enrollments”). The SES data on CC students are well known (Adelman): 44% percent of low-income students attend community colleges as their first college out of high school as compared to 15% of high-income students (Community College Research Center). Sixty-nine percent of community college students work, with 33% working more than 35 hours per week; 22% are full-time students employed full-time; 40% are full time students employed part-time; and 41% of part-time students are employed full-time. And first-generation students make up 36% of community college student populations (American Association of Community Colleges, “Fast Fact Sheet”).


[i] I should have heeded Ryan Cordell’s advice about course naming


[ii] I want to acknowledge here the existence of many under-resourced four-year colleges and universities as well, and that we are talking about a complex system of power and privilege operating in higher education.  But CCs have an open-access mission and a lower-division or foundational focus, and this puts them at a singular disadvantage in terms of social capital—for students, for faculty within the profession.

[iii] There are some hopeful signs on the horizon in this regard: The University of Washington and CUNY Graduate Center have explicitly engaged with community colleges as a site for expanding public humanities, but the impacts of these initiatives remain to be seen.


Digital Redux

This past weekend, I attended THATCamp Hybrid Pedagogy, a really wonderful gathering of like-minded teachers and tinkerers that gave me a better understanding of how doing DH at the CC can get done.

First of all, the tortured humanists stayed home or kept their torment as a sidebar.  The prevailing attitude could be summed up as, “Ok, so what can we make or do? How can we do it? What would be cool? What would work?” Intellectual work embodied in the Google doc, the tweet, the map, the mini-MOOC, the astronomy tool (you must visit the astronomy tool). Brainy, humanistic fun with a fully engaged group of young and not-so-young (ahem) scholars.

Not that Polly Anna was present–in fact, I really could feel the frustration and worry from those up and coming scholars whose core work is collaborative and hasn’t yet fit into the byzantine tenure metrics that were never that straightforward anyway but are a few years from acknowledging the intellectual labor of DH through tenure and promotion. But still. The work.

I still intend to revise the Google doc we developed during our session on how we might bring DH to community colleges and SLACs (as I was to learn that day small liberal arts colleges). In that session, Jesse, Meg, Keri, Tony, Mary and I brainstormed how we might collaborate to build a curricular path to DH at the lower-division levels and scaffold into four-year degrees, working in both directions.

But what I really came away with from that weekend was how so much of what folks are doing in hybrid pedagogies with DH tools is really not far from what some of my CC colleagues are already doing in brick-and-mortar, including my own offline teaching.  So I took out my (f2f) Shakespeare class “box assignment” menu that I hand to all my literature students at the beginning of class, and I quickly thought through how I might digitally redo them.  I posted my ideas  in a Google doc here. Of course, now the hard part comes–teaching these and developing the real step-by-steps, but that will come.

HT to Peter Rorabaugh for suggesting I post this and that other Campers do the same. Take your classroom practice and flip it, DH-style. And see what turns up. And share it. What can we make or do? How can we do it? What would be cool? What would work?


Close and Distant Reading of Student Work

DIGIWRIMO 2012: Close and Distant Reading of Student Work
Yesterday a colleague talked about the importance of teachers seeing the “Big Picture” of student success–of understanding not just what they were doing in the classroom, but also how what they were doing in the classroom connected to something larger–the student’s life before they got there and the student’s story after they left.

This makes me think of Franco Moretti and “distant reading”–how his methodology promotes a way of reading not just the local text but the local text within a vast context of all that was being thought and said–not just (Arnold’s) “best that has been thought and said.”

So this theme emerges then and a tension within it: when we read, we must choose what to read. And when we teach, develop expertise, study, write, we must choose where our focus will be. How can one do close reading and distant reading too–of texts and of students? When we know one small datum about a student–that they failed math twice last year or that this is their first term in college–what does that really tell us? When we read that “battle” is a word that is far more likely to be written in texts by American men than American women until the peak battles of the Civil War, what are we really reading? What are we finding out? I like that Ted Underwood reminds us that when we discover some such pattern it is only the beginning of  a question and not actually an answer.

Still, the tension between close and distant work with students–between reading up close what they have written, commenting on it up close, meeting with them in our offices–and reading about how few of the students who succeed in one’s own class will actually complete their degree–it reveals a problematic lack of correspondence between our efforts as teachers and the effects of those efforts–a lack which is rather demoralizing.

Perhaps that’s why institutions have traditionally separated out this work of close and distant reading. That institutional research reports gives the report cards to ed boards and faculty give the report cards to students. [499 words]


Winding Down DigiWriMo 2012

This month I have written up quite a few digital text, some of which I’ve posted on this blog, some of which is emails and other documents, some of which is on my LMS.

I created a Survey Monkey survey here that has lots of words and got lots of responses. ; )

Been Stewing on the Goals of Digital Literacies–a Zero-Sum Game with Older Forms?

For the past eighteen months or so a dear friend and fellow Buffalo grad school alum and I have been having an extended sporadic conversation about the value of blogs, tweets, facebook, digital tools in general for teaching community college students literature and composition. Yesterday in our most recent conversation, she and I came to a new place in this conversation. [this continues the topic of my first blog post on this blog which engages with Mark Sample’s idea that “serial concentration is deep concentration.”]

How to Help 21st Century Students See the Value of their Own Contributions in a Global Sea of Information
We started by talking about plagiarism, and I shared with her the recent conversation I had with a student about an assignment I’d given. I’d asked my Women Writers students to go to’s poetry map and produce a mini-research blog entry on the state of poetry in one of the states on the map, with particular attention to women poets. One student said to me, “But why do you want me to write about this—someone already has and it’s already on the site.” I smiled and said that yes, someone has given her some information about the poetry scene in the state of Iowa, and listed six male poets and perhaps one female poet in that state. Her job was to read the site and follow the links and come to some conclusions about our course thesis which extends Virginia Woolf’s in A Room of One’s Own.  A lightbulb went on at that point as this student realized that she had something to contribute that went beyond the reports on the site: that she could in fact be a critic of the site in the way that Woolf is a critic of English literary history.

Back to my conversation with my friend: I told her how this student’s response to was new, something that we didn’t share when we were in college and grad school. To my student, if information was already “out there” and freely available, then why would she take the time to summarize that information? Something that had been a cornerstone of our education—to do literature reviews and demonstrate everything that we’d read and retained—had been outsourced to the cloud and the web, in this student’s view. This student only saw value in the assignment when she understood how she was being asked to actively manipulate it. The value that we hold for summary was elusive to her.  During the DH lab, I explained to her that the info was up there, but it was up to her not only to summarize what was there but to summarize in the service of understanding and evaluation. For example, there was one state in where only one female poet was featured. What did she think about this? Did she really think there was only one female poet in that state? How did what Virginia Woolf tells us in Room of One’s Own pertain to this fact? These are the questions that she was being asked. After this explanation, the student came up with a very strong blog post.

My Buffalo alum friend and I continued our conversation about plagiarism, and I told her that in some ways I have found that digital engagement, while on the one hand encouraging cutting and pasting wholesale can also encourage a kind of manipulation and sense of entitlement to the text that fosters creative and critical thinking.

We talked quite a bit about the role of the traditional literary essay in my lit class, and I said that none of my assignments fit that form, and yet I felt that my students were achieving the outcomes set out in the course, and also some other outcomes that aren’t explicit in the course syllabus—namely, collaborative problem-solving and document production; some basic digital literacy skills such as signing up for accounts and maintaining their passwords, posting and revision online.

We continued the conversation later, and started talking about the value of the sustained analysis involved in writing a literary analysis paper, the importance of the form, etc. And then we thought about the form of the lengthy, sustained analysis paper, and we allowed ourselves to imagine for a moment that maybe the sustained concentration involved in writing a literary analysis paper is perhaps a fiction after all. That perhaps a literary analysis paper, like the kinds of projects that we are talking about in our DH labs, is actually serial concentration too—and what is actually sustained is the paper itself, strung together in an artifact that is labeled as a single, continuous whole. But when you really think about it, any lengthy essay is put together through serial concentration: finding quotes, taking notes, stops and starts and fits of production and writer’s block. Perhaps the only sustained concentration involved in many of the traditional essays that we’ve been requiring for decades is the ½ hour of focus that the teacher spends in grading it.

Of course, many students may in fact spend several hours focused on writing a final paper, and I know that I did while writing my dissertation. But some of the projects that we’re working on in the DH lab take a different kind of deep concentration.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Yesterday’s class we engaged with Fun Home by Alison Bechdel for the last time of the term. I began by showing students Scott McCloud’s dense and quick (too dense? Too quick?) TED talk on Understanding Comics. There is much to be mined from his talk, and next time I use it I think I’ll use it with at least parts of the book as well. Since this is a women writer’s class, though, I only wanted to give students a quick intro to the many stylistic/generic features of Bechdel’s work and the work of comic artists in general. What I really liked about McCloud’s piece is that it very efficiently set the stage for establishing the comic/graphic novel form as an art form with deep historical roots, as worthy of serious inquiry and analysis as Bronte or Dickinson or Woolf’s written forms.

For the next time I teach it, I’d really like to figure a way to use the graphic organizers that McCloud introduces as a way to graphically engage with Bechdel. Even in the short time we had, students were able to identify segments or features of Bechdel’s work that drew on Classicist, Formalist, Animist and Iconoclast values.

Figuring out how to feature this in a DH context is my next challenge. I think it may involve using some form of free cartooning software, and perhaps thinking about McCloud’s discussion of how comic artists create forms that represent something essential about a character or moment in time. I also like how he talks about time and space in comics—this could be something that a timeline could be used for. Or maybe his discussion of abstraction and representation. I’m not sure yet, but I’m sure that for the next time we can perhaps work out a way that students can create a comic strip—maybe a few panels—out of what we’ve read earlier in the term using some of McCloud’s discussion and Bechdel as a “monstration.” Hmmm….NCTE has this resource or Mashable’s list. I’ll have to check back next time around. I do think that students can get some of the feel for the “classicist/formalist/animist/iconoclast” forms by creating a few panels of their own—they might even be able to discover which style they lean toward….


DigiWriMo 2012: Stanley and Stephen and Stommel and Me

One thing that I’ve discovered with DigiWritMo is that I do a lot of virtual writing—that is to say, reading and thinking—in my research into DH at the CC. My daily discipline in this past year has been to go to my DH list and see what scholars are tweeting about, to find something substantial and read it and then to tweet about it. So in a given day I might read 5000 words and tweet 140 characters. That discipline has suited me just fine in this past year, as the 140 word count is a surprisingly good mnemonic tool. Coming up with some kind of a tweet about something I’ve read, even if it’s an MT of someone’s original tweet, provides a focus for reading, and I think I have developed a broad understanding of some of the major DH work being done currently and some of the debates in the field. I ’ve observed important continuities with the theoretical frameworks that I studied intensely in grad school (cultural studies, feminism, etc.), and also seen genuinely new turns.

Reading Jesse Stommel’s post today on “The Horrors and Pleasures of Counting Words” prompted me to return to Stephen Ramsay’s “Stanley and Me” from yesterday (which I had merely retweeted, which isn’t very disciplined of me—but I had nothing useful to say. So I just went back now to tweet this quote that I loved “Is there a humanistic way to generate and understand data that licenses the kind of leaps we want to make?”)

What I thought when I read Stommel’s post on DigiWriMo and NaNoWriMo is that both of these word counting events fit snugly and well into the discursive formation of DH that Stanley Fish and Stephen Ramsay are debating at the theoretical level.  I enjoy watching this emergent field reach this critical stage: Seeing words as data and mining texts for patterns prompt new interpretive questions and even new practices. Reading Stommel’s breezy post about the purpose of word counting led me back to Ramsay and then back again to my own word counting. Digitally prompted textual interpretation seems to gall Stanley Fish and delight Ramsay.  What characterizes Ramsay’s response but not Fish’s is a generosity of spirit and self-reflective public intellectualism that is not just refreshing (to say that would be, as Ramsay would put it, “pompous”) but a genuine and necessary rhetorical balm. As DigiWriMo and Stommel illustrate, DH is a field that relies on collaboration and welcomes failure for its untapped discovery, and that was simply not true of literary or humanistic study in the past—even if human collaboration and failure through the ages have always been central topoi in humanities research.

Back to word counting: so those of us trying to reach 50,000 words by November 30th are participating in the same discursive practice that Fish and Ramsay are. I find this exhilarating—to be producing word piles that we can then churn through the tools of our trade. Like Stommel, I see that we’re all also participating in the same practice that we’ve asked our students to dutifully participate in for decades, pre-DH—that is, counting words as a measure of completion/adequacy/depth/achievement. How many student essays have we returned to students unmarked for rewriting because they were under the word count by some arbitrary percentage? I know in my 20 years of teaching it’s been many—and I’ve always counted myself as kind for not simply giving F’s.

Like the Christmas bird count , DigiWriMo isn’t really about the count itself, but what that count can tell us. The ritual of paying attention for one month—or one day—to words-in-numbers allows for us to ask interesting questions. I really like the word-processing that Stommel takes his October word production through—counting emails, tweets, retweets and looking at the emotional valences therein.  Concluding that one probably writes 50,000 words a month anyway—but not intentionally, just as part of one’s automaticity in the workplace of intellectual and pedagogical life—this conclusion and the month of intentional counting that follows, can ironically be a pause that refreshes.

Stommel quotes Elizabeth Kate Switaj who has a “problem with NaNoWriMo.”  She suggests it puts too much pressure on artists to produce numbers, turning art into production. For those of us who are language workers but not necessarily writers, writing is always production.

What I have enjoyed about DigiWriMo at the almost mid-way point, is my raised consciousness about the purposes of writing and the choice of reading over writing and the role that writing plays in reading. While I really want to get to 50,000 (and believe me I’ll be cutting and pasting emails into WordCounter too at the end of the month), I have made conscious decisions over the last two weeks to read rather than write. I have to ration my discretionary reading and writing time, because so much of my reading and writing is for “production” as Switaj puts it; it’s part of my “knowledge work.” So the “play” for me as a community college teacher, is finding what others—those, perhaps, whose teaching and service schedules gives them more time, or whose production work is explicitly DH work—have to say.

Some of this reading is easy and fun, as with Jesse Stommel’s “horror and pleasure” of word counts. Some of it stretches me and I have to constantly make decisions about how much I need to understand about the history of computational stylometry, for example, to fully comprehend what Ramsay is getting at. I work hard to not be a dilettante, but at the same time I am not in grad school and my community college work puts light emphasis on faculty developing new knowledge (we count things such as FTE, asses in seats, etc.). And so I try to both be scholarly and strategic.

Speaking of which, I must now take my son to the park before he explodes with five-year-old energy, and so for now, 990 words will have to do.