“This is Fine”: Reading, Making, and Archiving Memes after November 2016 (NCPH Twitter Mini-Con, October 2018)

Title slide for NCPH Twitter Mini-Con talk, featuring the infamous "This is fine" dog from K.C. Green's Gunshow comic
this is fine

On October 18th, 2018, I presented a talk as part of “(Re)Active Public History,” a Twitter Mini-Con put on by the National Council on Public History. Here’s the abstract I submitted for the conference (which you can also find here):

A cartoon dog sits with a cup of coffee in a room that is engulfed in flames. “This is fine,” he says to no one in particular. These images, which originally appeared in K.C. Green’s webcomic Gunshow in 2013, have become a kind of shorthand for the mood in America after the 2016 election, an example of the ways that memes are increasingly relied upon by social media users to document their experiences in uncertain times. Social media encourages and profits from our impulses to document our present moods with image macros, reaction GIFs, screenshots, and other multimodal forms of expression. Memes have been remediated as protest signs at various marches, and it is increasingly common to see memes in political campaigns and in the Tweets of sitting senators. In July 2017, President Trump infamously circulated a meme in which he attacks a professional wrestler whose head has been digitally replaced by the CNN logo, an act of online speech that was interpreted by many as an endorsement of violent reprisals against journalists.

Memes, in other words, are an undeniable part of contemporary American culture. This presentation will consider the roles memes have played in defining and subverting American political discourse in The Age of Trump. More generally, it considers where, how, and why public historians might read, historicize, preserve, and make memes about the American experience.

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Hyperlocal Histories and Digital Collections (DLF Forum 2018 talk)

This is a slightly extended version of a talk I presented at the Digital Library Federation 2018 Forum, held in Las Vegas in October 2018. Thanks to students in my Fall 2017 “Digital Public Humanities” course; the Providence Public Library Special Collections department; Diane O’Donoghue; Julieanne Fontana, Angela Feng, and Jasmine Chu; Monica Muñoz Martinez; Susan Smulyan; and the Rhode Tour project team for their contributions to my thinking and work on this topic. And thanks to Bethany Nowviskie for making DLF Forum a supportive space to consider these and other issues

So, “hyperlocal histories.”

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Digital Public Humanities: Pedagogy and Praxis, Notes and Errata

Note: This post informs my contributions to a roundtable on “Digital Humanities Pedagogy and Praxis” at the 2018 Digital Humanities Conference (#DH2018) in Mexico City, Thanks to the conference organizers and to my roundtable conveners and collaborators (Brandon Walsh, Lisa Rhody, Matt Gold, Amanda Heinrichs, James Malazita, Miriam Peña Pimentel, Paola Ricaurte Quijano, Adriana Álvarez Sánchez, and Ethan Watrall). You can find more thoughts from these roundtable participants via this Twitter thread (thanks Brandon!). 

Introduction

When the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University (JNBC) announced that it was in need of a Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Public Humanities in the spring of 2015, it was also announcing that there was apparently something called “Digital Public Humanities” and that there were people who were specialists who could share their professional perspectives on the theory and practice of Digital Public Humanities in the classroom. The digital humanities work I’d been most interested in as a graduate student at Northeastern was committed to a notion of “Public, First,” (to borrow a phrase from Sheila Brennan), but I hadn’t thought of naming these investments in the particular way that “Digital Public Humanities” does. I joined the JNBC in the fall of 2015, and I quickly realized that part of my job was to help the Center figure out the implications of this act of naming at the levels of pedagogy and praxis. Unlike digital humanities labs, centers, or certificate programs, the JNBC’s focus is public humanities, and DH (or digital initiatives tied to other names or methodologies) is a component of this larger set of aims and interests.

The JNBC institutionally resides in Brown’s American Studies department, and it offers a two-year Master’s Degree program in Public Humanities as well as a graduate-level certificate in Public Humanities. Our program notes our emphasis on “collaborative, applied, and experiential learning” as one of its major selling points, and we offer opportunities for these forms of learning in coursework as well as through student internships and independent studies. In addition to our course offerings, the JNBC creates and supports public humanities projects with faculty and community partners, and we offer a range of programming including exhibitions, lunch talks, conferences, and workshops. Our MA students are interested in a range of professional contexts and research interests: the museum sector, historic preservation, sites of informal education, cultural heritage organizations, archives, libraries, cultural policy (among many others). I’m providing this context to explain what’s been informing my work, and I hope that these thoughts are useful to anyone who is considering how to teach about, develop, and support public-facing digital humanities initiatives.

My pedagogical investments are documented via the web sites for the three graduate-level courses I’ve taught at Brown: “Digital Public Humanities” (Spring 2016), “Digital Storytelling” (Spring 2017), and “Digital Public Humanities” (Fall 2017). But these syllabi, reading lists, and blog posts are only part of the story. Because that story is particularly long (three years long!), I’ve decided to provide some “Scenes from Teaching Digital Public Humanities” below. I’ll wrap up with some thoughts on what it’s like to be a postdoc in this particular position and what the JNBC and institutions like it might consider in terms of scaled-up and long-term investments in the teaching of digital public humanities.

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“I am in here”: Reflections on Reading Infinite Jest on Kindles, Trains, and Airplanes

I presented this paper at the Second Annual David Foster Wallace Conference back in 2015. The paper was NOT well received by some members of the audience, mainly because I was suggesting that reading a digital edition of Infinite Jest wasn’t the end of the world. During the Q&A, one person said something like “If David Foster Wallace were here today, he’d say you were wrong.” It was amazing. There were some nice people there as well, but I’ll always remember that comment and the glares some people in the audience gave me. All in all this conference was not my particular cup of tea, but a good friend asked me to tag along with him on a panel and I’d never been to a conference dedicated to a single author before, so it was worth the experience. After our panel was done, we spent most of the remainder of the conference down the block, playing darts at an Irish bar. Thanks again for the good times, Ben. I’ve always liked this piece so I’m posting it here.

 

Cover to Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

I finished reading Infinite Jest for the first time on Thursday, December 29 2011, somewhere between 30,000 and 45,000 feet above sea level. I did not expect to finish the book on Spirit Airlines Flight 126 from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to Boston, Massachusetts, wedged in the sky, returning to my Allston apartment after a long Christmas vacation with my retired parents and my occasionally employed brothers. Though I had spent many reading sessions flipping back and forth between the hyperlinked “Notes and Errata” and the book’s main text on my second-generation Amazon Kindle, I had misjudged how much space the novel’s “appendix” took up, and felt there was more to read. The ending, its image of Gately “flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand,” seemed abrupt, a quiet moment following one of the more grotesque sequences in the novel. I was not prepared to conclude on this particularly off-putting note, trapped in the sky in an uncomfortable seat aboard one of the worst airlines in the history of airlines, unable to talk, or text, or tweet about how it felt to finish a book that had held my attention over most of the last seven months.

This paper uses my particular experiences reading Infinite Jest to examine the public and social dimensions of reading and the ways digital media – specifically, ebooks – color those dimensions. My decision to read an ebook version of Infinite Jest was in part determined by my sense of where and how I planned to read it: primarily in transit, mainly in and around a Boston both familiar and removed from the city described in the novel. I was conscious of a variety of factors while reading Infinite Jest: the logistics of reading such a large book in close quarters on overcrowded rush hour Green Line trains, the clichéd image of young, white men reading Serious Literature in public spaces, the desire to remain anonymous while inhabiting two Allstons at once.

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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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“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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