Yvonne Seale

Making Women Matter, One Medieval Manuscript at a Time

Category: HASTAC

Escaping the Shallows

Crossposted from my HASTAC blog; you can find my original post here at the HASTAC site.

I attended a very thought-provoking installment of the University of Iowa’s PDH4L lecture series yesterday, entitled “Escaping the Shallows: Deep Reading’s Revival in the Digital Age”, given by Professor David Dowling of the School of Journalism.

Professor Dowling was exploring some of the recent reaction to digital culture and practices, likening the recent push back against the pervasiveness of technology in our lives (as written about by Harkaway, Carr, Turkle et al) to the Romantic reaction against the Industrial Revolution. Dowling accepted a number of their points: the mediums we use to communicate shape us more than we’d like to think, and there’s pretty irrefutable scientific evidence that, say, the kind of multi-tasking promoted by digital culture does damage some of our cognitive skills. Readers of hyperlinked texts, for instance, have lower recall than readers of plain scrolling text, while the kinds of “scan and skim” reading that people tend to use when reading online work against deep text processing and the formation of long-term memory. (When you read a hyperlinked text, in other words, your brain is always thinking about not just what you’re reading, but what you’re reading and whether you should click on that tempting link.)

This is pretty frightening stuff—the click click click online reading culture has the potential even to damage our ability to feel compassion for others—made all the moreso when we realise that much of the internet is designed to be what Prof. Dowling termed an “ecosystem of interruption technologies”, amplifying these negative effects. Basically, it’s in the interests of Internet Goliaths like Google and Facebook to make us click on as many different things as possible as quickly as possible. Online, our attention is a commodity, so our attention needs to be parcelled out into as many different saleable units as possible.

While acknowledging these issues, Dowling feels that these “Romantic” critics mischaracterise the nature of pre-digital reading, and that they’re too apocalyptic about digital reading’s implications. They advocate a return to “linear” deep reading, but Dowling argues that was never the case. Nineteenth century texts, for example, were often demanding, densely allusive works which required outside knowledge in order for the reader to appreciate them. The reader needed to return to texts in order to understand them more fully and on a richer level—a practice which Dowling terms “radial” or recursive reading. In other words, the relative disappearance of long-form linear texts is not the problem.

Indeed, Dowling points to a recent resurgence in long-form texts online to argue that online reading doesn’t have to mean the abandonment of long-form reading: for instance, LongReads.com (a social network for those interested in long-form pieces) or “Snow Fall”, a recent New York Times piece (which is I think a pretty stunning example of how video, images, infographics, maps, etc, can be integrated with text). Dowling also argues that the development of “affinity spaces” (where people come together around a shared interest, engaging in peer-to-peer learning or discussion, motivated by the desire to gain new knowledge and insight or sharper skills), like collective reading projects online such as #1book140, work as collaborative attempts to sustain focus and make connections.

This is an intriguing idea: the concept of new forms of reading emerging which allow for collaborative engagement with texts. There is undeniably
potential for people to subvert or work around platform limitations—I’m sure that a lot of work has been done on this in, for instance, fan studies. And yet if your conversation is taking place on Twitter or Tumblr, how thorough can that subversion be? The architecture of the site works against that deep engagement. Here is where I start having issues (and sadly we ran out of time at the Q&A so I didn’t get to ask Prof. Dowling about this in any depth): how do we learn to engage in deep long-form reading that nurtures a serious engagement with a text in a digital context? How do we mitigate those damaging effects on our attention span, our long-term memory and so on, all of which is so thoroughly documented? I felt that there was a gap there between the idea of (digital) reading as individual exercise and praxis, and collaborative reading response.

The latter, I agree, seems to hold a lot of promise in the digital age, but I’m still not so sanguine about the former. I know that the plural of anecdote isn’t data, but I’ve definitely noticed a change in my concentration patterns and work habits over the last couple of years. What do you guys think—is there an ability for us to “retrain” our brains to work, concentrate and focus more effectively within this digital ecology? Or is there a connection, a possibility, here which I’m just not seeing?


These are some of the texts referenced by Professor Dowling in his presentation.

  • Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains. 2010
  • Harkaway, Nick. The Blind Giant: being Human in a Digital World. 2012
  • Howe, Jeff. Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business. 2009.
  • Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. 2006
  • Lanier, Jaron. You are Not a Gadget: a Manifesto. 2010
  • Lee, M. J., & Tedder, M. C. “The effects of three different computer texts on readers’ recall (based on working memory, risk-taking
    tendencies, and hypertext familiarity and knowledge).” Computers in Human Behavior, 19 (2003: 6), 767-783.
  • Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. 2008.
  • Turkle, Sherry. Alone together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other. 2011
  • Welch, Matt. “When Losers Write History” in Will the Last Reporter Please Turn out the Lights: The Collapse of Journalism and What Can Be Done To Fix It. 2011.

Putting Iowa on the WorldMap

Crossposted from my HASTAC blog; you can find my original post here at the HASTAC site.

Yesterday’s University of Iowa Digital Studio for Public Humanities lunchtime talk, “Iowa on World Map”, was given by Professor Colin Gordon of the Department of History. Professor Gordon provided an overview of WorldMap, an open source web mapping platform that is being developed by the Center for Geographic Analysis at Harvard to allow scholars to visualise and share geospatial information.

Professor Gordon’s talk focused mainly on the interactive mapping project hosted on WorldMap which he created as an accompaniment to, and extension of, his book Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City. Mapping Decline examines the causes and consequences of St. Louis’s urban crisis, arguing that both private and institutionalised racism and classism, as well as subsequent attempts at urban renewal, resulted in “white flight” from the city’s centre. Gordon briefly discussed other mapping platforms which he had considered at the start of his project, such as Map Story, ESRI/Story Maps and Hyper Cities, some of which he liked but all of which he found limited in that they are designed for use with a single, discrete data set and are not necessarily scalable. He far and away prefers the WorldMap platform, and listed the following as its pros:

  • Open access and open source
  • Ability to host multiple maps on one digital ‘globe’
  • Plug-ins for Google Earth to allow 3D views
  • Accepts geo-rectified historical maps, and has access to scanned and geo-rectified maps from the David Rumsey Collection
  • Can import data from other geo-servers
  • Sustainable and scalable, and does a pretty good job at accepting different kinds of data layers
  • Allows for links with geo-referenced YouTube and Picasa feeds
  • Layers can be public or private, and if the former scraped and reused for other maps.

Certainly both the St Louis mapping example which Professor Gordon showed, and his most recent project (Digital Johnson County, bringing together digitised historical maps and other data to do with the county in which the University of Iowa is located) are impressive examples of the kinds of projects which can be carried out using this platform. There’s a real sense of immediacy which comes from being able to connect the visual with the interpretive so readily—with being able to compare, say, a map of St Louis in 1900 with one of the city in 1950 and to do so on multiple scales, from the metro level down to individual streets or neighbourhoods. History does seem to be taking a spatial turn at the moment (it’s something I’m trying to do with my own work, and I’m excited at the prospect of being able to incorporate the maps that I’ve gathered of medieval France into this platform and seeing if it helps me discover new connections about my data).

However, there are still some downsides to the WorldMap platform:

  • Data layers must be created somewhere else and then uploaded to the site; no real editing capability in the platform
  • No true inbuilt feature that provides temporality as yet; current revision should add feature to allow for time slider
  • 1900+ projects already on the site, but no real way to search for completed/active projects, etc.
  • No double-checking for layer/data accuracy, so scrape layers at your own risk!
  • Adding narrative/interpretive panes only possible in very limited, clunky fashion

That last element is the one which gives me particular pause. Professor Gordon at one point said that he thought the future of historical research was digital projects like this—that “the book is dead.” Now, you can tease me for being a Luddite if you want to, but I don’t think that statement’s true. Maybe it’s just that being a medievalist means I spend a lot of my time working with very ancient texts which have survived centuries more or (admittedly sometimes often) less intact, but if you take the long view, the codex form is pretty durable, and it does offer a lot of advantages which I just don’t think digital texts have yet surpassed. Many of these mapping platforms haven’t yet figured out a good way to marry visual and textual explanation—and sometimes complex ideas do require more than just an infographic in order to convey them. I have a Kindle, and it’s great for travel, but when I’m reading and taking notes I still default to physical book, paper and pen. For me, I think digital projects like this are fascinating, but I think they are complementary to the monograph/extended textual essay (and vice versa); just as radio didn’t replace live music, or TV the radio, or so on.

What do you guys think? Are you likewise taking the spatial turn with your research? What do you think are the pros and cons?

The Classroom Rewired

Crossposted from my HASTAC blog; you can find my original post here at the HASTAC site.

On February 23, the University of Iowa was host to Rewiring the Classroom, a symposium which focused on critical applications of digital technologies in undergraduate classrooms. My fellow University of Iowa HASTAC scholars (Audrey Altman and Craig Carey) and I were so excited about the enthusiastic response we received (and a little scared, it’s true: nothing like having to close registration early because we had no room to put more people!) from both people who wished to attend and from departments and centres across campus. We owe particular thanks to the Obermann Center and to the Digital Studio for Public Humanities, who provided some invaluable logistical support and advice.

Our presenters (who all braved the bitter Iowan February weather—troopers all) offered practical, hands-on workshops about new technologies,
paired with critical discussions about the pedagogical values of these technologies. As you can see from the programme, they covered an astonishingly wide array of topics in just one day: WordPress, Wikipedia, badge systems, Omeka, recorded sound, public engagement, OS Grid, geographical information systems, and bringing research and archives into the classroom.

The one real downside of being a conference organiser is, of course, that you don’t have the time to experience all the wonderful discussions that people are having because you’re too busy making sure that there’s still enough coffee and everything is running on time. I can’t sit down to write and reflect about the sessions because I experienced them only in bits and pieces, refracted through the conversation of our participants in the
hallways and at lunchtime.


Luckily, our conference attendees have stepped in to bridge the gap, and to both provide commentary about Rewiring the Classroom as it happened, and to discuss it afterwards! Several people live tweeted throughout the day, and you can follow along with them at #uirewire. One of our speakers, Prof. Bridget Draxler of Monmouth College (and a former University of Iowa HASTAC fellow), has written a fantastic post about Rewiring the Classroom. Check it out for her discussion of the sessions in which she participated: on Omeka and Google Sites, on engaging a diverse public through the digital classroom, and on public writing and social media. Sadly, one of our microphones decided that Saturday was a good day to give up the ghost, but we did manage to get recordings of two of our roundtable discussions, which you can check out embedded below.

And of course, if you were an attendee and have links to other reactions/reflections about the day, please drop me a comment or an email! We’d love to hear from you.


(Talking About) Rewiring the Classroom

(Originally published in The Daily Iowan, February 13 2013)

One day when I was five years old, my teacher led my class across the playground to look at our school's latest acquisition: a computer. It was the first time I'd seen a computer, and it was strictly a look-don't-touch scenario. In the late 1980s, computers in the classroom were a vanishing rarity and I can't recall them ever being used as part of a lesson. Jump forward a couple of decades, and computers are no longer an educational curiosity; the phone sitting beside me on my desk undoubtedly has many times the computing power of that long defunct machine.

Yet for all the ubiquity of computers in our day-to-day life or in the classroom, it often doesn't seem as if we've gotten much better at incorporating technology into our teaching. A block of text on a PowerPoint slide is no better than a block of text on the printed page, left static and lacking in the context which provides meaning; proficiency in Twitter doesn't mean that a student has learned how to formulate a search to find that one key article online.

Discussions about the digital humanities and teaching are everywhere you turn, sprawling across blogs and newspaper columns—if you've got a couple of hours to kill and the intestinal fortitude, try searching online for 'MOOCs' or 'the gamification of education'. Yet as passionate as these discussions are, they often leave one with the impression that well-intentioned educators are either talking past one another, or not asking the right questions. Attitudes towards technology in the classroom are often shaped by preconceptions about its social, ethical or political connotations, or apprehensions about the future of higher education. Often, people forget to start with the most basic question: how can specific tools best be put to practical use in education?

The University of Iowa has made a great commitment in recent years to supporting the digital humanities, with the foundation of the Digital Studio for the Public Humanities and the hiring of several new faculty members who are tasked with exploring how digital practices can help to create new, innovative scholarship in the humanities.

On February 23rd, the University will take that commitment a step further by hosting 'Rewiring the Classroom', a symposium on practical, hands-on ways to use digital technologies in the undergraduate classroom. Through a mixture of workshops and discussions, participants will consider the myriad ways in which technology can invite more voices into the college classroom: how to create a new scenario that's all about look-touch-learn.

This conference is intended for anyone interested in creative and critical applications of technology to undergraduate education – professors, graduate instructors, librarians, information technologists, and other curious folks. Register for free by February 18th at rewiringtheclassroom.wordpress.com.

Rewiring the Classroom

Next month, the University of Iowa will host “Rewiring the Classroom”, a forum on digital pedagogy for the college classroom. I’m really excited to have been able to help put this forum together (with the able assistance of my fellow HASTAC scholars, Audrey and Craig, of course)—there’s a lot of talk and theory out there about the digital humanities in the classroom, but sometimes it’s tough to know how to actually incorporate technology into your teaching on a practical level.

We’ve tried to make “Rewiring the Classroom” a blend of a conference and a workshop, with our presenters combining hands-on experience with new technologies and critical discusion of their pedagogical values. The forum is free and open to professors, graduate instructors, librarians, information technologists, and other curious folks: just register at our website by February 18!

The Past in Colour

Photo colourisation by Sanna Dullaway / Original image from the Library of Congress

Crossposted from my HASTAC blog; you can find my original post here at the HASTAC site.

I’ve just read this fascinating short article on TIME’s website, A Vibrant Past: Colorizing the Archives of History. The magazine commissioned an artist to digitally colorise surviving photographs from Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. The results are, I think, quite startling and immediate. The artist, Sanna Dullaway, said:

“History has always been black and white to me, from the World War I soldiers to the 1800s, when ladies wore grand but colorless dresses … By colorizing, I watch the photos come alive, and suddenly the people feel more real and history becomes more tangible.”

There is certainly a very different quality and feel to the original black-and-white portrait of Lincoln below, versus the cleaned-up and polychrome version. This relatively simple use of digital technology greatly alters, in a very literal way, how we see a historical artefact.

They of course make me think of the photographs from the very early twentieth century which used a primitive colour photography technology, and prevent us with sometimes startlingly immediate images of a world which we largely think of in sepia tones: the photography commissioned by Albert Kahn, for instance, or the marvellous Prokudin-Gorskii collection, which document the Russian Empire just on the verge of revolution. Yet those photographs were “born” in colour, so to speak, whereas the Lincoln photos have been altered to appear in colour. We haven’t lost the originals, but for me there’s a tension between the two—does adding colour remove some of the exercise, some of the joy, of using our historical imagination? Does it potentially destabilise some of the artefact’s historical integrity—which one do people start thinking of as “real”? The carefully composed black-and-white image which captured a three-dimensional, polychrome world, or the new version which tries to “restore” colour? Are these reservations less important than the opportunity to reach new audiences and get them thinking about the past?

DIY History?

Crossposted from my HASTAC blog; you can find my original post here at the HASTAC site.

The University of Iowa Libraries have recently launched a new project called DIY History—a project which asks the interested general public to participate in the process of transcribing some of their Special Collections holdings. OCR is a great technology but one which really works best with print, and so older, handwritten documents still need a human eye to help make them search engine accessible—not always a very difficult task, but a pretty time-consuming one.

I think the DIY History project is a great one on a number of levels. It opens up the practice of history, allowing people who aren’t formally historians to “do” history, to see what it is that historians and archivists do; it allows us to engage with the general public; it allows us to overcome some of the limitations of technology and funding resources. I can also see it being very useful in the classroom—what better way to have students in a history class learn how to read primary sources in an analytical manner, seeing themes and contradictions and problems with the historical record as they go?

Have any of you worked on projects like this in the past, whether as organisers or contributers, or have you used them in the classroom? I’d be interested to know what you guys think about:

  • Usefulness in the classroom—what skills do students gain from working on DH projects like this?
  • Quality control issues and “good faith” revisions. (Some of these projects can be very accurate; how can we ensure that this is true of all of them?)
  • How to publicise the existence of projects like these, both to the general public and to other academics (there are projects like the Harry Ransom Center Fragments Project, which are aimed at harnessing the knowledge of a very wide range of specialists on medieval manuscripts and writings, for instance)
  • The role of the historian/archivist—who is the final arbiter and why/how?
  • Other issues that I’m forgetting here?

The Importance of the Humanities – October 13

6a013486c64e2e970c017d3ce6d2f0970cOn October 13, I was back in the Senate Chamber of the Old Capitol, this time to hear a talk given by Jim Leach (pictured right), a former Representative for Iowa in the U.S. Congress, and the current chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities. Leach spoke about the importance of an education in the humanities for helping us to understand and analyse the effects which words can have.

Inspired by his speech, and by some thoughts which I’ve been mulling over myself for the past couple of weeks, I’ve posted to my HASTAC blog on the topic of the digital humanities, asking what sorts of ethical or civic implications that DH might have—particularly considering the field is a current hot topic. You can read my post here on the HASTAC site, or find it below beneath the jump. All thoughts and comments are welcome!

Read More

GHS Website Relaunch; First HASTAC Post

The Graduate History Society is is an official University of Iowa student organization which represents all graduate students in the history department. I’m one of its officers for the 2012-13 academic year, and have helped to update our web presence a little bit.

We have a fresh new website, at GHS. We’re also now Tweeting regularly @GHSUIowa and updating with news about lectures, colloquia and other events at our new Facebook page. All our welcome to follow us on both sites—we hope they will become great new ways of connecting Iowa with the wider (scholarly) community.

I’ve also made my first blog post at the HASTAC site. This one is just an introductory post, but hopefully soon I and the other HASTAC scholars from the University of Iowa, Audrey Altman and Craig Carey, will be updating with more information about the projects which we hope to work on throughout our scholarship year.

HASTAC and the Digital Humanities

I’m really pleased to be one of this year’s HASTAC (Humanities, Art, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) Scholars at the University of Iowa, working in conjunction with UI’s Digital Studio for Public Humanities and the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies. HASTAC is a digital initiative, an online community of scholars working together at “the intersection of technology and the arts, humanities and sciences.”

I’ll be the first to admit that most of what I know about computers and technology has been picked up by osmosis—things I’ve read online or that I’ve heard from friends who studied the sciences at university—and so I’m not a proficient coder or deeply knowledgeable in the ways of Linux. What I am, however, is really interested in how people—scholars, students, the general public—can use technology to improve and share their understandings of history (while still sometimes being a devil’s advocate for plain old pencil and paper!). I’m really intrigued, for example, by the possibilities of digital modelling—the Premonstratensian sisters whom I study may not have left any documentation behind them, but we have the chance to get some sense of what the world that they saw looked like through, say, a combination of a careful reading of charters and a program like Google Sketchup

You can check out the bios of the other University of Iowa HASTAC scholars at the Obermann Center website, and see my profile page on the HASTAC site. I will be blogging there throughout the year about my experiences working with the DSPH and learning my way around the field of digital humanities.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén