reality bytes

[Today, I gave an opening plenary talk at the 53rd Annual RBMS preconference in San Diego. RBMS is a conference for people professionally interested in rare books and manuscripts. Here’s the text. But first—I want to make clear that the views it expresses are mine alone. They may not reflect those of my co-workers at the University of Virginia, and my employers had no prior knowledge that I’d be giving such a talk. I didn’t have much warning, myself. I re-wrote it late into the night on Monday, before joining (for a couple of hours, anyway) the crowd in the dark outside our beautiful Rotunda—a night documented here.]

At the University of Virginia Library, we begin our regular directors’ meetings with a round of “hot topics”—a chance to make pressing announcements or insert late-breaking news into the agenda for the day. Now, readers of such obscure periodicals as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Chronicle of Higher Education may have noticed that UVa is having… kind of a rough week. So when my colleagues and I gathered most recently, I had a fairly good guess at what our meeting’s “hot topic” might be. Instead, the first hand to be raised was that of our Director of Facilities Management, who made an earnest and concerned report: at least—two rats!—had been sighted!—in the grass outside, not terribly far from our wonderful Special Collections Library.

The question, my friends, was obvious. Were these rats coming—or going?

When I sat down to draft this morning’s presentation, I found it very difficult to disentangle what I had intended to say to you, from what I felt newly compelled to say. I had my title. As a more physical-collections-focused companion piece to Matt Kirschenbaum’s “Bit by Bit,” how could this talk not be called, “Reality Bytes?” But I meant, at first, for it to have a narrower scope: to be purely about the shape and trajectory of the most bookish side of what has come to be called the digital humanities. I’d discuss how rapidly-advancing analytical and presentational technology might impact our thinking about bibliographical research, paleography, and special collections librarianship. Just as Matt would cover the born-digital archive, I had planned to talk about new opportunities to be found in the changing relationship of scholars and students and humanities software developers to their historical, paper-based archives and research collections.

I was going to razzle-dazzle you with demos and slides. I threw them out.

Continue reading “reality bytes”

ruby slippers

(Cross-posted from the Praxis Program and Scholars’ Lab blog.)

It’s been an excellent Sunday morning for posts about DH and the profession(s). First, Desmond Schmidt crunches the numbers from a decade’s worth of job postings on Humanist, which is the primary and longest-standing international discussion list for the digital humanities. (If you think there’s a DH boom in the US, check out Desmond’s per-capita analysis.) Interestingly, this survey only took PhD-level positions into account. How have job requirements in this field evolved? Tomorrow’s Humanist should have a response from Dot Porter, citing an #Alt-Academy essay she wrote with Amanda Gailey on “Credential Creep in the Digital Humanities.”

And here’s Kathleen Fitzpatrick in the Chronicle, on what is really required of institutions and departments who encourage junior scholars to ‘Do the Risky Thing’ in Digital Humanities. Kathleen is amplifying and contextualizing a concern frequently voiced in the past two years, around the spate of “cluster hires” in DH — which sometimes seemed to happen without thought given to the suport structures, both departmental and institutional, that new faculty would need. (I remember Patrick MurrayJohn as the first to start squawking about this on Twitter. I couldn’t find his much-earlier tweets, but there’s this thread at DH Answers.) On the Chronicle piece, Kathleen and Ian Bogost make two important further points that may resonate with our Grad Fellows and Praxis group: regarding “mentoring up,” and pressing forward.

Finally, Natalia Cecire responds with the most acute blog post I’ve read on the whole so-called “rise” of digital humanities and its political and professional consequences: “It’s not “the job market”; it’s the profession (and it’s your problem too).”

And what am I doing on a quiet Sunday afternoon (besides linking together this distributed conversation)? Continue reading “ruby slippers”

“but who looks east at sunset?” gerard manley hopkins & scientific observation

[This is the abstract of a talk I gave last weekend at “By the Numbers: The Victorian Quantification of Everything,” the 2010 gathering of the Victorians Institute, held at the University of Virginia. It was a splendid conference, hosted by NINES, and featuring an inspiring keynote address in which Dan Cohen presented the early results of his work in data-mining the Google Books corpus to study Victorian intellectual history. For me, the conference was notable because it was the first time in twelve years that I gave a paper not on digital humanities or institutional issues in publishing and higher ed. Since the conference didn’t publish a collection of abstracts, I thought I’d post mine (sans notes!) here. The paper itself goes into much greater detail on Hopkins’ approach to observation and the scene of Victorian scientific amateurism, and is available upon request.]

In October 1884, a letter appearing in the scientific journal Nature enjoined readers to place their faith in the measurements of “exact instruments” rather than in “untrustworthy impressions of the eye” in attempting to draw conclusions about sunsets and other natural phenomena. Spectroscopy, the correspondent suggests, is to be preferred to the idiosyncratic response of a human observer: colors should be calculable. He dismisses the recently-published sunset-speculations of a fellow amateur contributor, the painter Robert Leslie, as being founded more on conjecture and faulty observation than on measured analysis, and sharpens his own critique of observational subjectivity by insisting that the issue is not merely “a question of terms,” but that unsystematic examination can become “a hazardous thing” capable of reversing scientific progress.

And then this disciplined scientist becomes Gerard Manley Hopkins: “If a very clear, unclouded sun is gazed at, it often appears not convex, but hollow; – swimming, like looking down into a boiling pot or swinging pail, or into a bowl of quicksilver shaken: and of a lustrous but indistinct hue.” Continue reading ““but who looks east at sunset?” gerard manley hopkins & scientific observation”