Jim McGrath, PhD

Digital Humanities, Public Humanities, History, Archives, New Media and Popular Culture

Author: Jim McGrath (page 1 of 2)

DH2017 Poster Roundup: Mapping Violence and Day of Public Humanities

2017 marks my third trip to the biggest DH conference in the game, and for this go-round I wanted to bring the work of some of my awesome collaborators (and some of the collaborators themselves!) at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage to the event.

The work documented in these posters is highly collaborative and it involves undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members in American Studies and Public Humanities. It’s been interesting to think through the relationships between these two fields and DH during my time at Brown; the ASA’s Digital Humanities Caucus has been super helpful in the former, and I wonder if there’s more people interesting in talking about the latter. I was excited to see “public DH” in Amanda Visconti’s paper title, for instance. And while “public humanities” isn’t explicitly named in the titles of any other posters and discussions, there’s clearly a lot of interest in questions of “access” based on the number of presentations here utilizing that keyword. “Access” is this year’s conference theme, but public humanities folks might find the range of uses interesting nonetheless. Additionally, “public humanities” is showing up in several tweets about presentations (like here and here, in tweets referring to a talk by my pal and partner in digital public humanities, Lauren Tilton!), suggesting that attendees invested in the term are recognizing its presence in methodologies and project emphases.

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Days of Future Past: Augmented Reality and Temporality in Digital Public Humanities

Uncanny X-Men #141 (1981 [1980])

In July 2017, I presented a version of this talk on a panel on “Temporality” at the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference (#keydh on Twitter) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The project  I discuss here, a digital tour of the Nightingale-Brown House, will debut in September 2017. I’ll update this post with a direct link when we go live!

I wanted to start by outlining three of the major questions I hope to raise in this discussion of a digital house tour I’ve been working on at Brown University’s Public Humanities program. This presentation will focus on the details of our particular project, but I hope this overview is useful to people who are specifically interested in the metaphor of the tour in DH as well as anyone who might have thoughts on temporality as it relates to DH work and the interfaces we rely on (or develop) in various initiatives.

Excerpts from Uncanny X-Men #141-142 (1981 [1980])

This talk takes its title from “Days of Future Past,” a 1980 storyline from Marvel Comics’ Uncanny X-Men serial in which a member of the superhero team travels back in time to stop the bleak future she calls home from existing in the first place. “Welcome to the 21st century,” reads a caption box on the opening splash page of #141. Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and their collaborators present readers with a dystopian vision of 2013 and a ragtag team of surviving heroes so desperate that they’re “toying with the basic fabric of reality” in an attempt to travel back in time to literally rewrite history.

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New Project: Day of Public Humanities (#DayofPH)


I’m excited to announce my involvement in Day of Public Humanities (#DayofPH), a public humanities initiative about public humanities. So meta! When I started working at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, I inevitably got questions from friends in and beyond academic contexts about what this “public humanities” thing is and what kind of work I do. Many of us here get these questions, so myself, Robyn Schroeder (Postdoctoral Fellow and Director of Graduate Studies in Public Humanities), and Inge Zwart (graduate student in Public Humanities) decided to spend the past year researching the term, its uses, its limits, its past, present, and future. While doing this work, we became particularly interested in how and why public humanities practitioners came to embrace the term “public humanities” and what forms of labor they do on a daily basis. Like the Day of Digital Humanities (#DayofDH) initiative, #DayofPH asks practitioners to make their labor visible, reflect on the field and where it’s going, and show people what cool things they’re up to. We hope you can join us on May 9th, 2017!

You can learn more about #DayofPH on our web site. Specifically, you can find suggestions for how to participate on May 9th, blog posts highlighting some of the day-to-day work we do here at the JNBC, and recommendations for further action before and after May 9th. We also talk about the project on the JNBC blog. We’re excited to see what other people are working on, what “public humanities” means to them, and how we might all learn to become better Public Humans.

I’m happy to answer any questions you might have about this project on Twitter (@JimMc_Grath) or via email (james_mcgrath[at]brown). And if you’re attending NCPH next week, I’ll be there too, so please get in touch if you’d like more info!

 

New Project: New York City and The Marvel Universe

Last year at HILT, I pitched a project (as part of the “Community Keynote” series of lightning talks) examining images of New York City in the Marvel Universe, and I got a lot of good feedback from the people in attendance. I’ve been juggling a million things between then and now, but today I finally found time to create (and start to populate) New York City and The Marvel Universe, a Tumblr “work-in-progress” research blog tied to this research. I hope you’ll check it out and let me know what you think!

The blog will mostly be excepts from particular comics and research materials and some thinking out loud about various topics. I’ve decided to start with Daredevil (The Man Without Fear!) because he’s explicitly connected to a particular part of NYC (Hell’s Kitchen) and many creative teams have set their stories in interesting (and weird) versions of New York City over the years. I’m also particularly drawn to Daredevil because of the Netflix TV show and its ever-expanding Hell’s Kitchen, so I imagine my work will also look at those images of the city eventually. I’m looking at the early days of the character: the above image is from 1964’s Daredevil #2, a particularly nutty issue that I talk a bit about over at the blog. But I’m also reading across time periods to bring images and creative teams into conversation with one another (here’s an example of that).

Beyond Daredevil, I’ll be looking at the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Punisher, Ghost Rider, The Avengers, and some other NYC-centric books (like Power Man and Iron Fist, Hawkeye, and Damage Control, among others).

I’ve been a comics nerd for a long time, and as someone who was born and raised in Brooklyn I’ve always been fascinated by the uses of the city in these stories. For various reasons I haven’t done much work with comics in academic contexts, but I’m excited to finally have a project that dovetails with my professional life a bit. While I wouldn’t say this work will be explicitly driven by digital humanities methodologies and approaches, I’m currently building some (rough) datasets and I’m thinking about how I might visualize and otherwise make use of this material on this site and in other forms of traditional and not-so-traditional scholarship. I’m also working with various editions (print and digital) of comics and thinking a bit about the material conditions of these sites of publication, circulation, and reception. This work is also very much informed by my various experiences with online comics fandom, a long history of engagement that began on Prodigy bulletin boards, continued into the blogging boom of the early aughts (I’ve buried my old Blogger site, sorry guys), and lives on via my “unprofessional” Twitter account and in @CK1Blogs, long may he blog.

Stay tuned, True Believers!

New Post at the JNBC Blog (the Colored Conventions Project and the Frederick Douglass Transcribe-a-Thon)

Last week, the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage joined a number of other universities in a Frederick Douglass birthday party transcribe-a-thon to support the (awesome) Colored Conventions Project. I wrote about how our day went over at the JNBC blog:

Transcription may seem like a mundane or even dated way to contribute to a digital project in the twenty-first century: can’t scholars and archivists use optical character recognition (OCR) software to extract text from scanned documents? As someone who has worked on a number of digitization projects, I can tell you that the technology we imagine to be freely available doesn’t always match the realities of doing digital humanities scholarship, and the available resources can vary from project to project. While we are right to be suspicious of third-party platforms, apps, and social networks that ask for our personal data in exchange for use of their services, we are often not required to think as much about the labor that goes into the creation and support of our shiny digital interfaces. Do you know how Google Docs handle collaborative writing across a range of devices and issues related to version control when they arise as you’re drafting something? Have you ever wondered what makes Clippy so useful (or annoying)? Exposure to the nuts and bolts of a digital project like CCP can often help us gain new perspectives on the materiality of the web, the technical dimensions of systems and actions we take for granted, and the challenges of doing public-facing digital work that circulates alongside well-funded and well-oiled machines made by Google and other heavyweights on the web at-large

It was fun and easy to collaborate with the CCP: I was particularly impressed by how much work they put into ensuring that their remote collaborators had everything they needed to make their events run smoothly. They’re a fantastic model for how to do public-facing digital humanities work within and across institutions, and I hope to work more with them in the future! It was also great to get some of our students, faculty, and community affiliates working on and thinking about the labor involved in digitization projects.

On Backchannels, Conference Hashtags, and Boring Academics

Source: xkcd

An idealized image of a backchannel imagines it as “augmenting” a primary channel in ways that do not mock, reject or impolitely critique what is happening on the main stage. This, of course, is not how backchannels tend to work in practice, and in fact, one of the perceived benefits of backchannel mechanisms is their ability to reveal and amplify concerns that might otherwise be muted or silent among the community using these channels. For example, one of the earliest reports on the impact of a digital backchannel I’ve found (via Wikipedia’s article on backchannels) describes a particular backchannel mechanism (liveblogging! remember liveblogging?) as “high-tech heckling.”  Specifically, at a March 2002 PC Forum meeting, two journalists liveblogging an interview with Qwest Telecommunications CEO Joe Nacchio contextualized their coverage of Nacchio’s complaints about a lack of capital with information (received via email from readers of the liveblogs) about Nacchio’s recent stock sales, painting the CEO in an unflattering light with an immediacy that transformed the interview’s networked audience at PC Forum into a visibly “hostile” one after it read the blog. The language used to describe the implementation of backchannels in this article is at times condescending (the references to “heckling” and the presence of a “peanut gallery”) but it is also optimistic regarding their impact (“It should also raise the quality of the questions, allowing the shy to express themselves clearly, the slow to upload a coherent comment with one click and the self-promoters and hand-wavers to expose themselves”).

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Digital Storytelling: Student Visualizations and Re-visualizations

I’m teaching a graduate-level class in Digital Storytelling at Brown this spring. You can view our course site here. Last week served as an introduction to three key terms and concepts that we’ll be working with all semester: data, networks, and visualizations.

Last summer I had the pleasure of attending HILT (for the second time!), where I completed a course on Database Design for Visualization and Analysis taught by Nicole Coleman. Nicole began the course with a great exercise that doubled as both an icebreaker and an introduction to some of the major ideas we’d be working with all week. Instead of throwing us headfirst into spreadsheets and digital tools, she split the class up into smaller groups and asked us to tell a story about our group in a hand-drawn visualization. This assignment inevitably involves the gathering of data and the questioning of what that data tells us, as well as what it might be used to tell others. It then quickly leads into a discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of visualizations, especially when you’re wrestling with a desire to retain more complex and varied dimensions of networks and relationships.

Our groups focused on commonalities as well as deviations. For example, I recall that one group was interested in mapping educational backgrounds geographically, in part because there were questions about whether digital scholarship was perhaps too localized and dominated by particular schools, programs, and regions of the world, and the group wanted to make visible the routes people took as students and emerging professionals.  Some of these conversations could be difficult: they mapped “in crowds” and highlighted outliers and outsiders, they revealed certain investments in particular degrees, colleges, and career paths. They were also incomplete at times: a route might have ended or taken a turn in one direction due to personal reasons or professional obligations beyond a degree, for instance.

In any case, the exercise stuck with me, so I modified it slightly and brought it into our Digital Storytelling course. You’ll see what our class came up with below. A quick word before we dive in: I’m intentionally leaving the names of students out of this discussion, in part because it was course work in progress created without awareness of its potential digital afterlife, and in part because the students working on the visualizations varied thanks to the way Brown students “shop” for courses early in the semester (I have thoughts about “shopping,” but that’s another story). Future reflections on course work will explicitly credit particular students (and may, at times, be collaboratively written by them).

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“Our City”: Images of Home in Our Marathon, The Boston Bombing Digital Archive

Source: Our Marathon

Source: Our Marathon

Note: The following post is adapted from remarks I gave at the 2016 American Studies Association Conference on a panel titled “Home Screens: Digitizing Belonging and Place in American Studies.” Thanks to my fellow presenters and attendees for their participation, to Alicia Peaker and the rest of the Our Marathon project team, and to Carrie Johnston for organizing the panel.

In his remarks at an interfaith prayer service in Boston on April 18th, 2013, three days after the Boston Marathon bombings, President Barack Obama noted more than once to his audience that “Boston may be your hometown, but we claim it, too.” In the hours, days, and weeks following the events of April 15th, 2013, many people used social media to document how “at home” they feel or once felt in Boston.

I’m interested in ideas of home and digital spaces in the context of Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive. Our Marathon, a community project hosted by Northeastern University, is a crowdsourced digital archive of close to ten thousand stories, photos, and social media about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and their aftermath. I started working on it as a graduate student research assistant in May of 2013, became Project Co-Director (with Alicia Peaker, now at Bryn Mawr) in the fall of that year, and I continue to work on it as we preserve our digital assets and make them more accessible in the short and long-term via Northeastern’s Digital Repository Service.

Slide by Jim McGrath

Slide by Jim McGrath

I’m particularly interested in discussing Our Marathon and what it might tell us about home and digital regionalismhome and digital archives, and home and digital public humanities.

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Fringe, Speculative Fiction, Ideas of Order, and Indeterminacy

fringe

Editor’s Note: I’m migrating some content from older web presences onto my current site. I’m currently (December 2016) re-watching Fringe as I spend some time home for the holidays, so I wanted to re-visit this post I originally wrote back in April 2011.

Possible SPOILERS up to Season 3 of Fringe.

Fringe is one of my (many) guilty pleasures these days.  I say “guilty pleasure” because while I enjoy many elements of the show, its apparent investment in a strictly-ordered universe — most immediately present in the show’s warring alternate realities and the creepy, Powder-times-Data-divided-by-The Adjustment Bureau dudes who seem to be monitoring and / or running the show — remind me of an element of science fiction and fantasy narratives that I wish we could get beyond: The Chosen One(s) tasked with restoring order to a world that is both “broken” and capable of “fixing.”

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