Dance Like Somebody’s Watching: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Forms of Digital Expression

Screenshot from a Lisztomania / Brat Pack mashup video uploaded to YouTube

As a Boston University undergraduate, “Sandy” Ocasio-Cortez joined other students in making a “Lisztomania Brat Pack mashup” video, a short film that was locally used as a promotional video for the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground (and, according to its director, broadcast on TVs across campus) but also uploaded to YouTube in September 2010, joining many other professional and homemade variations of a mashup between Phoenix and The Breakfast Club that was posted by “AvoidantConsumer” in 2009. This video resurfaced on Twitter less than one day into Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s tenure, dug up from the past in an odd and ultimately ineffective attempt at shaming the popular progressive politician (though there are certainly vocal users of social media who believe that the film is a record of her limitations and flaws).

As far as digital records of college behavior go, it’s extremely innocuous. But it is an interesting object of analysis for folks interested in media history and archaeology, as Parker Higgins effectively documented on Twitter on the same day the video resurfaced. And the reception to the video in 2019 offers an interesting glimpse at where and how the long histories of social media, viral content, remix culture, and the professionalization of the web are going to be studied, remembered, and archived. I wanted to think out loud about some of these implications here.

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2018 Year-In-Review

"Library" by Coco Berkman (a black-and-white print of a man reading in his library with his dog)
“Library” by Coco Berkman (Brianna bought me this print in 2018: get your own here!)

For the last few weeks I’ve been reading The Terror (2007), a work of historical fiction about a doomed nineteenth-century Arctic expedition. This deeply flawed but engaging novel spans almost a thousand pages and features a range of characters reflecting on the circumstances that brought them to their current state, literally frozen in place on a sea of ice, with little hope of escape or rescue, with little company but their memories and inner demons.

I don’t regret my time with The Terror, but it’s a tricky book to manage for someone who tends the view the end of one year and the beginning of the next through the lenses of his reading and viewing choices. Most of mine these last few weeks have been a bit on the bleak side: The Terror, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (another work preoccupied with mortality and cruelty, a funhouse mirror reflection of popular images and narratives of the American West), The Office (particularly the third season, where its characters start to realize that there are no search parties out there looking to bring them to a better world), My Sister, The Serial Killer (a hypnotic and funny novella about the ways dramatic scenes of violence reveal more mundane horrors we surround ourselves with daily).

The other day I was talking with a friend about the threat of “death by a thousand cuts,” a cruel fate arrived at not immediately but slowly, almost invisibly, over time, until we find ourselves weakened to a point of exhaustion by the constant presence of minor threats. 2018 has felt at times like a year spent enduring and recovering from these sorts of injuries. But some of these wounds in my case have been self-inflicted, or created by imagining a more severe blow has been dealt when in reality I’ve encountered a minor inconvenience, a worry not worth having, a voice better left unheard.

In taking stock of the mood of 2018 and my plans for a better 2019, I thought about all the work I was proud of finishing over these twelve months, and I realized that I’ve actually had one of my more productive years as a person doing work at the intersection of digital humanities and public humanities. In 2019 I hope to remind myself more regularly that I have many things in my personal and professional worlds to be thankful for, that many of the traps in the dark are ones I’ve set for myself, and that I’m not resigned to a life stuck on the ice. There’s a lot to learn from my 2018, and some things to do differently, but I’m proud of what I’ve collected below as some of my accomplishments.

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“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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New Publication: “Precarious Labor in the Digital Humanities” (American Quarterly 70.3)

I’m excited to share the news that “Precarious Labor in the Digital Humanities” is now available via the new issue of American Quarterly! It was a great experience co-writing this essay with an amazing team of authors: Christina Boyles, Anne Cong-Huyen, Carrie Johnston, and Amanda Phillips. Readers with institutional or subscriber access to the journal can read the essay here; I’ll update this post with a link when a more publicly-accessible version of the piece and the issue is available (I’m told that will be soon!). 

Our piece is part of a special issue of American Quarterly on American Studies and the Digital Humanities. The Contributors list is full of names I admire in DH and AMST, and I greatly appreciate the work of the issue’s co-editors and their encouragement throughout the process of writing and revising.

Our perspectives on precarious labor come from conversations and writing done as part of the American Studies Association’s DH Caucus. If you’re new to DH or AMST and you’re attending the annual ASA conference in November, I highly recommend checking out the DH Caucus meeting and sponsored session. It’s been a particularly precarious year for me, so I greatly appreciate having folks like the Caucus members in my professional life when I’ve needed guidance, advice, and support.

I’m still not sure if I’ll be at ASA this year, but I’m happy to talk with folks about American Studies and DH via Twitter or email (james_mcgrath@brown.edu).

Mapping Marvel Comics with StoryMap

Screenshot from 2018’s Spider-Man game for PS4 (aka my new obsession)

Like many other folks in digital humanities who are in positions where they consult with students, faculty members, and community partners on tools and resources, I’ve frequently steered interested parties to the suite of digital storytelling tools offered by the Knight Lab (a group that operates out of Northwestern University). While the Lab’s work is designed with a community of journalists in mind, its tools can also be useful in other contexts: classrooms or workshops interested in multimodal storytelling and digital exhibits; prototyping efforts for scholars interested in maps, data, or digital curation; or, given the relative ease with which a tool can be accessed and used to create and publish content, less formal or academic forays into the creation of digital content.

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Media Literacy in The Age of Fake News and Big Data: Course Debrief and Reflections

Students in my Media Literacy course looked at archival materials in the John Hay Library at Brown University.

Earlier this month I taught a two-week course titled “Leadership and Media Literacy in The Age of Fake News and Big Data” for the Brown Leadership Institute. My first teaching job (way back in 2003!) was with a summer reading enrichment program for K-12 students, so it was fun to pick up teaching high school students again fifteen years (!) later. I wanted to reflect on some of the things I learned from this experience, since I know that some folks on Twitter seemed interested in the class. I’m not sharing the syllabus here because it has lots of “Leadership Institute” stuff in it that ties it pretty explicitly to the programs particular aims and pedagogical contexts. That being said, here are three major areas of inquiry for the course that I provided to parents, relatives, students, and my Leadership Institute colleagues at our session’s closing remarks:

The history of media and the long history of Fake News: We started with an overview of “pre-digital” media and data contexts by inventorying and describing popular forms of media and the material conditions informing their use and reception. A major component of this work involved collaborating with and talking to local archivists: specifically, Heather Cole at the John Hay Library and María Victoria Fernández at the John Carter Brown Library. Heather was gracious enough to show students a wide assemblage of archival materials relevant to the course’s investments in propaganda, activism, and small and large sites of circulation. Together we looked at copies of The Black Panther newspaper and Marvel’s Black Panther comic book, LGBTQAI zines, anti-slavery almanacs, and early attempts to falsely attribute work to William Shakespeare (documents that came with what they claimed were literal locks of hair from The Bard’s head!). María introduced us to the various challenges that the JCB faces in digitizing and disseminating its materials online, attempts to connect primary texts held by elite institutions to highly-trafficked, networked, and more accessible resources like Wikipedia, and ongoing efforts to consider the roles digital tools and their users might play in efforts to decolonize archival spaces.

We also discussed various attempts to misrepresent, falsify, deceive, or otherwise manipulate audiences in these pre-digital spaces (like the Shakespeare example), but to be honest we didn’t do as much of this as I’d originally planned (we discussed them in digital contexts). I’m halfway through Kevin Young’s Bunk and I think that book and other resources might give me some ideas if I revisit this topic.

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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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New Project: A New Digital Home for Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive

On Friday April 15th 2018, Northeastern University launched the new version of Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive. Why a new site? Given that materials were being added to Northeastern’s Digital Repository Service for long-term preservation and that the five year anniversary seemed like an ideal deadline for that migration work, I recommended that the library’s Digital Scholarship Group create a new project landing site that was more engaging and had a curatorial hand reminiscent of our original project site. My role involved doing final passes on metadata (that was fun), inventory work during the migration, consulting on site design and layout, and creating and updating narrative and curatorial text. The bulk of the migration and redesign work was done by a fantastic team of librarians and graduate students: many thanks to Amanda Rust, Sarah Sweeney, Caroline Kilbanoff, Lauren Bergnes Sell, Megan Barney, and David Heilbrun. In addition to the many individuals documented and thanked on our About page (a section whose length and detail reflect our investments in what Sharon Leon notes is important contextual info for audiences as well as fellow practitioners invested in similar efforts), I’d also like to thank Julia Flanders and Dan Cohen for their continued support and attention to this project, as well as Northeastern’s College for Social Sciences and Humanities and NULab for their investment in its legacy.

On April 23rd (the day of the 2018 Boston Marathon!), I was a guest on PRI’s The World, a daily national broadcast that airs locally in Boston on WGBH. You can listen to the segment on Our Marathon below (or here).

Here are some other places where I’ve discussed my work on this project (the Additional Resources section of the site has further reading from some of our collaborators and contributors).

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Memories, Medals, and Bookshelves

Photograph of an English medal received by my grandfather in 1941 and an English medal I received in 1999.

Note: I wrote this back in the fall of 2012 for Rosie’s Basement, a storytelling project started on Tumblr by a friend. I’ve always liked this piece, so in the interest of longer-term preservation and increasing its visibility, I’m posting it here.

I will always remember my grandfather as one of the first adults who ever lied to me. “Watch this,” he’d say, popping an olive into his mouth, pretending that it had traveled down his arm, flexing his bicep to reveal the source of his muscles. He was like a real-life Popeye, tattoos and all, a former Navy man who lied about his age to fight in the Second World War. I don’t know how often he pulled the olive trick, more than once, less than a hundred times, but close. Part of me likes to think that I was in on the joke, even at that age, that I requested its repeat performances despite knowing its secret, that Poppy knew that I knew, but loved that I loved him for the free one-man show. He let me in on the long con of life, but he also showed me how to have fun with it.

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