Late night ramblings and a brief Summer 2014 recap

Apologies if the following post seems to ramble; it was written during one of those hours in the night when such rambling seems appropriate. But the thoughts are honest, so I felt it deserved to be published.

Summer was glorious. Filled with new people, new experiences, and lots of new insights for my PhD.

A personal highlight was the keynote at DH2014 in Lausanne, written by Bethany Nowviskie and read by Melissa Terras. I don’t feel that I have adequate words to express the emotions that I experienced while listening to that talk, and it has already been reviewed beautifully elsewhere. Here is a video of the keynote:

I also attended a panel on data modeling which really brought up a lot of questions for me, one of which was about when models actually are ‘usable.’ I.e., Julia Flanders asked “how do I know when I can start using my model instead of just thinking about it?’ And my response to that was ‘is thinking not use?’ When exactly do we consider the real ‘building’ to begin? Is it with our hands, when we begin sketching out our ontologies? Or can the process of cognition and interpretation be considered a ‘workflow step’? Or is it outside yet parallel to the workflow, because it is happening all the time? And how often should models change? Should we consider Jessie Stommel’s suggestion in this regard, that digital humanities is about ‘breaking stuff?’ These thoughts have been flowing through my head ever since.

Following DH2014 I attended DHOXSS, where I received a very generous NeDiMaH bursary to participate in a Linked Data and Semantic Web workshop. Dominic Oldman from the British Museum came in and gave a talk which sparked some interesting thoughts for me regarding discourse and its effect on linked data structures. As Oldman traced the evolution of the museum as we know it today, from the Wunderkammer up until the present, I began to see the shift from merely grouping ‘like things’ together, to grouping things under themes, which answered and also asked more sophisticated questions. And now, we are getting to the point where our digital infrastructures are not keeping up with the questions we want to answer and provoke. One of the central questions that British Museum staff have to ask is about long-term knowledge infrastructures: What is relevant to people who work for and visit the BM over time? What is engrained and deeply embedded in the BM discourse? Oldman also noted that one of the largest difficulties for BM staff is how to harmonize data during the cultural heritage aggregation process. Things shouldn’t be digitized without proper research into their relationships and connections with other collections. Indeed, one of the biggest complaints about digitizing from ‘traditional’ libraries is that doing so ‘destroys’ all context. This is obviously a worst case scenario, but without proper regard for metadata, it’s liable to happen. Thus, larger central aggregations need to include and communicate with individual libraries in order to bring appropriate context to objects. And another problem facing linked data projects at the BM is the fact that hardly any curators have the skills necessary to do the work. They are, in Oldman’s words, ‘very hesitant to engage.’ But engage they must if the goal of cultural heritage aggregation is to be reached. Technophobia simply isn’t an option anymore.

The introduction to CIDOC CRM was helpful in that it gave me a better sense of the model I’ll be using when I begin working with the librarians and researchers at the Cambridge University Digital Library very soon. This work will form the basis for a survey I’ll be sending out to about 30 to 40 libraries engaged in Linked Data projects, so I’m thankful for the opportunity to start with such an excellent institution.

That being said, I feel that I have a long way to go in figuring out just what it is that I want to do with this PhD, and this career. After a seven day workshop at the University of Graz on TEI/XML last week, and a meeting with the advisory board of my DiXiT fellowship, I feel as though there’s been a sort of ‘come to jesus’ moment, as we would say in the States. We’re not expected to finish a dissertation in three years, given that a few of us are brand new to the system, or are working on PhD projects at other universities, or simply don’t think that timeline is feasible, but we are still expected to publish, and to do it soon. So what to focus on? Cultural Heritage Aggregation? That would certainly be suitable, and welcomed by my advisor and my fellowship committee. Re-use of digitized materials, a topic central to my advisor’s work? Or should I focus on another topic that has recently sparked interest between myself and Daniel Powell, another DiXiT colleague: digital pedagogy? There are already some really great people working on this issue, but I feel that my insights from DiXiT, and indeed my reactions to the  way our internal workshops have been structured could benefit other educators. Should I be politic in my publications? Or should I do what moves me?

Perhaps these questions are more personal than what this blog is intended for. But what is the job of the academic than to think, and question, and self-reflect? Perhaps these are merely insecurities brought more sharply into focus by the hour of the night at which I write them. Perhaps.


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