Coding, being an English major, and the Digital Humanities

I recently graduated from college as an English major, and after having spent four years convinced that I wanted to study literature for the rest of my life–with the occasional foray into the Italian language–I found myself applying to Dev Bootcamp. Dev Bootcamp is an eighteen-week long coding bootcamp that aims to introduce newbies to web development.

During the summer of 2014, I had the fortune to work with Scott Enderle on a digital humanities project called “A Distant Reading of Empire.” At the time, Scott was already quite proficient in Python. On the other hand, I had never seen a line of code in my life and never fathomed coding was something that people “like me” did.

When I asked Scott if I could work with him over the summer in December of 2013 I assumed we would work on something a bit more traditional. He shocked me by suggesting I apply to Re:Humanities, an undergraduate digital humanities conference jointly held by Haverford, Swarthmore, and Bryn Mawr. At the time, I was abroad studying Italian language and literature in Bologna, Italy, but I immediately got to work. I scoured the internet trying to uncover exactly what the digital humanities were and thinking non-stop about what kind of project I could propose. In about four days, and with a tremendous amount of help from Scott, I sent out my application.

To my disbelief and excitement, I discovered I had been accepted to present my research at Re:Humanities in the spring. I was thrilled, and entirely taken off guard. Between December and February I had taken the time to learn a bit about the command line, but that was it. For anyone interested, http://programminghistorian.org/ is a great resource for humanities scholars looking to start coding. Thank goodness for that website — without it I would have been completely lost.

After putting my project off for a month and a half, I finally got started on it — and found I had no idea what I was doing. Eventually I managed to pull off a project of limited scope, titling it “A Postcolonial ‘Distant Reading’ of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Anglophone Literature.” It was a hit at the conference, and I was astonished by the interest other scholars exhibited in my work. I felt inspired by the feeling that I was doing something new and innovative, rather than merely regurgitating the thoughts and ideas of many scholars before me. This was something exciting and that I owned. As a millenial, I couldn’t help but feel that technology was in part mine to wield, and that I was helping to drag the reluctant humanities into the 21st century. I was irrevocably hooked.

In July, Scott and I started work on “A Distant Reading of Empire.” He handled all of the coding, but I started to ask more questions and to do some research on my own. I started looking into Code Academy and thought a bit more seriously about coding. Scott was tremendously generous and spent quite a bit of time answering my naive questions. I’m so grateful.

After this project ended, I went on with my normal humanities life, writing a fairly traditional Capstone on language in Joyce’s Ulysses. It wasn’t until the spring of my senior year that I became interested in coding again. I started taking a MOOC called “Programming for Everybody.” It introduced basic Python, and I found myself obsessed. I realized I could spend hours poring over a problem as simple as assigning letter grades to their accompanying numerical values.

In March, after being rejected from Comparative Literature PhD programs across the country, I started to look for other options. I am so glad I did. One day, I read about coding bootcamps online and began applying. After a fairly excruciating Skype interview, I was accepted to Dev Bootcamp, a nineteen-week code school in New York City. I made my decision on the spot.

I graduated from Dev Bootcamp three days ago. The experience was undeniably taxing. Nothing prepared me for the eighty hour weeks, or the feelings of both failure and success. It was nothing like my experience in college had been — it was much more challenging. I am so thankful.

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What’s Wrong with Well-Rounded?

As I enter the adult world, I cannot help but reflect on my college experience and what it has taught me. At best, I learned how to deal with frustrating and slow-moving academics, and at worst, I realized that academia is not for me. Why this realization is important to share, rather than to merely brood over at 2 A.M. while I consider the human condition and how it impacts me (classic millennial), is because my frustration with the academy extends to the real world. Or, as my professors liked to say “the real world,” with ironic quotation marks around it. I have come to realize that those professors were right –– the academy is absolutely the real world, and many of the frustrating qualities of the academy continue to exist in the real world. The focus of this particular blog post is specialization.

In other words, what’s wrong with being well-rounded? My parents raised me to understand a little bit of everything. I acknowledge my privilege in this domain––not everyone has the opportunity to take piano lessons or play on a sports team. In my particular case, my parents were able to provide myself and my brothers with this opportunity, and I do not take it for granted. They raised me to be well-rounded and to seek this quality in others.

I attended Skidmore College because of its slogan: Creative Thought Matters. While the students and professors often crack jokes about the slogan –– the most memorable is “Can’t Tell Mom” –– it works for me. I believe that it is not the specialized skill that matters, but the creative application of that skill. In my opinion, creativity is often nothing more than a mysterious and unusual aggregation of different skill-sets and types of knowledge. Creativity often stems from a group of people or of a person who has a broad range of interests.

In my experience, specialists often cannot fathom using tools outside of their discipline. Nathaniel Rich, writing about the possibilities the jellyfish may offer human medicine in Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?, paraphrases Shin Kubota. Kubota studies Turritopsis, a type of jellyfish touted as immortal. Rich writes: “Kubota can be encouraged by the fact that many of the greatest advancements in human medicine came from observations made about animals that, at the time, seemed to have little or no resemblance to man”(279). He cites the study of cowpox that helped “establish that the disease inoculated…against smallpox” and the discovery of penicillin. (279). Kubota’s work exemplifies the way that “thinking outside of the box” can provide unexpected solutions to major medical problems. Furthermore, I came to this idea while reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing. That I am even reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing is a testament to the value of well-rounded study and living.

To provide another example, I will turn to the digital humanities. DH work is the ultimate example of well-rounded, and for this reason is feared in English departments. When speaking to my more traditional English professors about DH, I at best received the equivalent of a pat on the head, like an exhausted mother gives her unruly child. At worst, I was treated like the cat who dropped a mouse on the doorstep as a gift. I wondered why this was the case. While I have come up with a number of reasons, I think the most pressing one is specialization. Traditionalists are afraid of people who break the rules and who think outside of the box. They do not like the idea that English majors may need to learn to code (gasp!), or worse that close reading is not the holy grail of humanistic study (bigger gasp!). This fear causes them to try to stifle the creative impulse of young literary critics who bring multiple skills to the table, whether that is an interest in code and its application to literature, or, less drastically, an attempt to combine two theoretical lenses not often connected. Squelching the brainchildren of well-rounded students prevents the possibility for finding the literary equivalent to penicillin.

I also perceive an irony in the fact that as the internet expands, the world becomes more specialized. How is it possible that we are seeking more specialization even though our widespread access to information is increasing? Perhaps we feel overwhelmed by this tidal wave of information, or it is a reactionary move toward “the good old days,” when you only knew what you needed to know to do your job. While I am not sure what the reasons behind this move are, I would advise against it. I think the response should be to throw oneself into the sea of information, and not in the Hamlet way –– “Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them”(III.I.60-1) –– but with hope.

On Creativity

This is the first blog post I have written since graduating from college. It recently hit me that I’ve stopped writing. A couple of month ago, an hiatus from writing every single day seemed unthinkable. Between a number of papers, this blog, and brief homework assignments, I was constantly creating.

At first, I was astonished by my lack of interest in writing, but I soon realized that graduation and the “real world” did not stifle my creative impulse. Rather, it has merely pushed it in two directions: coding and songwriting.

Songwriting
I have been writing music for nine(!) years now, and playing the piano for fourteen. Having just booked a show, I am officially a professional musician, and certainly no longer an amateur. But while college opened my mind to many new ideas and possibilities, it stifled my writing ability. I often have major songwriting bursts once every six months or so. In high school, I regularly wrote music, but in college I only had one memorable burst of songwriting, and that happened over winter break in 2013, after I returned home from abroad. I wrote about six songs in that month, enough for an EP. I have written four songs in the two months since graduation. What is it about the academy that crushed my creativity? Is it sterility, or the constant workload? I do not know, but I am glad to be free of it.

Code
I have also been working hard on learning to code. I began the summer with HTML and CSS, and have moved on to some JavaScript and Ruby on Rails. In my opinion, this is an entirely different but equally valid mode of composition as both critical writing and songwriting. While I am still certainly a beginner, I love the possibilities inherent in coding. More to come on that front.

If you’re interested, you can check out the personal website I built at www.maecapozzi.com.

Why Study the Digital Humanities?

There are a number of reasons to keep an eye on digital humanities research, but I think the most pressing one is that it is quickly modifying humanities programs. I am personally thrilled about this shift. Even the most traditional and conservative professors are beginning to incorporate the study of technology into their curricula, although many may not even realize it.

One day, my Modernity and Enchantment class was discussing Alejo Carpentier’s Kingdom of this World. Carpentier invented the term lo real maravilloso, or the marvelous real to describe a style of writing closely related to what is now called magical realism. His novel describes the Haitian revolution from the perspective of the slaves, and takes their ontology and epistemology into account.

My professor, a self-proclaimed luddite, had us read about the Haitian Revolution off of Wikipedia and then compare it with Carpentier’s account. Of course, the Wikipedia article lacked the magical component present in Kingdom of this World. What my professor did not realize is that Wikipedia is edited and monitored by bots, meaning that computer scripts catch any “errors” in the articles. This prevents volunteers from submitting any blatantly wrong information. In other words, while humans write the articles, a bot cleans them up. This made me wonder what would happen if I were to add information from Carpentier’s novel which isn’t “correct” according to the Western historical tradition, but which maybe held true for the slaves. Would the bots notice?

For example, in Kingdom of this World, when one leader is burned at the stake, his death is viewed differently by the white men than it is viewed by the slaves. The white men think that he has died, and that the slaves do not care. The slaves, on the other hand, believe Macandal has transformed into something else and that he will return. They go home to the plantations cheering. What would happen if I edited a paragraph in the Haitian Revolution page with information about the transformation of Macandal? Would it be deleted? How long would it take for either the bots or the humans to notice? How do computer scripts reflect Western values and epistemology, even though they are not human?

I find these questions fascinating, and I only think they will become more pressing as we move forward. Will we ever have a magical realist programmer? What is the difference between a programmer in the metropole and in the periphery? Perhaps these traditionally humanistic questions can be asked of computer science. The possibilities are endless for this interdisciplinary study and I think students should be well-versed in that field.

My Talk at Re:Hum ’15

Presentation Slides

Digital Distant Reading

This presentation is the result of over a year of research. I actually brought a very early version of this research to Re:Humanities last year and presented during the poster session. That project was called “A Postcolonial ‘Distant Reading’ of Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Anglophone Texts.” I worked on a more in-depth version of that project last summer alongside Professor Scott Enderle called “A Distant Reading of Empire,” in which we topic modelled a corpus of 2,500 Eighteenth-Century British texts.

I have spent the past few months blogging about the Digital Humanities both on my joint blog with Professor Enderle called “Reading from a Distance” and on my own blog that I run as a NY6 ThinkTank Fellow. I noticed that while a lot of conversations about the digital humanities revolve around undergraduate work, there is an obvious lack of undergraduate voices in the discourse.

It has been a challenge to condense a year’s worth of research and investment into ten minutes, and this presentation has taken many forms since I first proposed it.

This presentation addresses my own ontological formulation and its implications for the relationship between the computer and the human. I will give a brief background of vital materialism, object-oriented ontology, and cyborg theory as well as an overview of topic modeling and my own digital humanities work.

[SLIDE]

Jane Bennett in Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010), uses Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the assemblage to describe the complex relationships between “things.” The assemblage is central to my philosophical formulation. Bennett also argues that “agency…is distributed across a mosaic” (Bennett 38). In other words, there is no “sole actant” in an assemblage. Rather, agency is shared equally between things. I will read Bennett’s call to arms because it has provided the space for me to present my own argument about the relationship between the computer and the human:

[NEW SLIDE]

We need…to devise new procedures, technologies, and regimes of perception that enable us to consult nonhumans more closely, or to listen and respond more carefully to their outbreaks, objections, testimonies, and propositions. (Bennett 108)

I seek to do just that when I discuss the way humans can interact with computers, particularly in a digital humanities context.

[NEW SLIDE]

In Alien Phenomenology or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (2012) Ian Bogost seconds Bennett’s notion. He resists hierarchy in his ontology, suggesting that “there is no ur-thing” (Bogost 12). Instead “a posthuman ontology is one in which humans are no longer monarchs of being, but are instead among beings, entangled in beings, and implicated in other beings” (Bogost 17). He calls this type of system flat ontology. He also presents a call-to-arms similar to that of Jane Bennett:

[NEW SLIDE]

As philosophers, our job is to amplify the black noise of objects to make the resonant frequencies of the stuffs inside them hum in credibly satisfying ways…Our job is to go where everyone has gone before, but where few have bothered to linger. (Bogost 34)

[NEW SLIDE]

The cyborg is a wonderful example of an object we can make hum in a credible way. In “A Cyborg Manifesto,”  Donna Haraway builds an “ironic political myth” based on the cyborg, which she describes as “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (Haraway 1). I perceive of the cyborg as an assemblage consisting of the human and the computer, in which both the human and the computer provide different skills, and are equally important as actants. The idea that humans do not necessarily control computers, and that computers also affect the way that humans think is a controversial opinion, although not, perhaps, in this room.

This idea stems from N. Katherine Hayles’ concept of distributed cognition, which, according to her, may replace autonomous will in the posthuman. This, to me, means that our thinking will occur within the assemblage between human and computer, rather than merely as a product of the human mind. I will use this presentation as an example. I began by making this Prezi, which took many different forms before I finally settled on this one. I then worked on a separate paper for another class, which I planned using pen and paper, but mostly created using Google Docs. I then decided to use that argument in this presentation, so I opened another document window, and began writing, using both my prezi and the other paper. I feel confident in saying that, had a written this presentation on pen and paper, it would have been very different. I needed the help of the computer to formulate my thoughts, just as the computer needs me to use it.

I think that distributed cognition instills a lot of anxiety in more conservative English departments. There is a fear that something will be lost by the introduction of technology to English departments. What those critics may not realize is that today’s undergraduates are already undeniably shaped by the technology they use, as I suggested above. In my opinion, distributed cognition is actually a major advantage for digital humanists, because they can perceive ideas in unexpected ways.

[NEW SLIDE]

Now that I have presented an ontological basis for how to situate the digital humanities, I will provide a more concrete example. I have spent the last year working with a computer program called MALLET, which is a tool often used by digital humanists to create topic models of a corpus of text files. I think that the very notion of the corpus represents the way that computers change the way that humans think, and how the assemblage of computers and humans presents new possibilities for both entities.

[NEW SLIDE]

A corpus is a randomly selected, large group of texts that the computer then “reads.” To fully understand the corpus it is important to conceptualize Franco Moretti’s “distant reading.” Distant reading is the practice of reading a large quantity of texts without much focus on detail, and then applying broad knowledge to particular texts. It is the opposite of close reading. I conceive of the corpus as an assemblage of random texts that have no proximity or thematic connection but that, when placed in a corpus, interact in new and surprising ways.

[NEW SLIDE]

A topic is a similar idea – all of these words come together from random texts in a random corpus to create new meaning. The computer is able to pull together all of this different information into a new aggregation, to which the human mind can then assign meaning. That work between the human mind and the computer is valuable and fascinating, and in no way takes away from the inherent value of both of these entities separately. I’ll let you take a look at this topic, from a topic model of 2,500 eighteenth-century, randomly selected texts. Try to pull together what you think relates the words in this topic. [WAIT] We have called this particular topic “public revenue,” which I am sure many of you thought as well, seeing as those are the first two words in the topic. Not all topics are this obvious, and some are meaningless, but by doing this kind of work we can begin to understand the “trending topics,” so to speak, of a period.

I have given these examples to argue that computers have changed, and will continue to change the way that we think. This does not mean that computers are destroying us, but rather that the assemblage that makes up our world is changing and shifting. For that reason, I think that the humanities should embrace technology rather than fear it. Computers allow us to put ideas together in randomly generated ways that produce results we never expected and I cannot help but see that as beneficial, and in its own particular way, quite beautiful.

Re:Humanities ’15 Post

Save. Share. Self-Destruct.

I am finally finding the time to write about the digital humanities conference I attended on April 9th and 10th. While I won’t address the whole two day conference in this post, I would love to share a couple of highlights.

The conference started on Thursday evening with a conversation about live-tweeting practices. (The whole conference was live-tweeted with the hashtag #rehum15. This discussion was swiftly followed by a keynote presentation by Whitney Trettien, a PhD candidate at Duke. Her talk was called “Destroying the Book to Come.” Afterwards, students presented at a poster session.

The second day of the conference was much more exciting for me, since it was full of student talks. Certain talks were more exciting to me than others, probably because they related more closely to my own talk. Andrew Rikard from Davidson’s talk, called “Scraping Mold Off Immortality,” critiqued Digital Humanities focus on the canon, arguing that we should strive not to repeat the categorizing impulses we have succumbed to in the past. Instead, we should strive for more diversity in our research because we have so much access to texts.

Rikard’s talk was nicely synthesized by Allen William’s, entitled “The Spook Who Sat By the Time Machine: Cultural Studies in the Digital Humanities.” He suggested that we often praise digital humanities for its universalizing abilities when the scholarship it produces often is not universal at all. He argued that DH work, with all of its advantages, may not be considering race in as critical of a way as it could.

Finally, the conference concluded with Wendy Hsu’s keynote speech. Her slides for this presentation can be found on her website.

I had a wonderful time at this conference, and was happy to attend for the second year in a row!

Re:Humanities ’15 Weekend

I am so thrilled to be presenting at Re:Humanities for my second time this year! I arrived at Swarthmore College about two hours ago, and registration is at 3:00. I will be blogging about the conference for the next two days. Fifteen students are presenting, including myself, and I am excited to talk about their work. I am particularly interested in “Star-Gazing with Brodsky: Exploring the Poet’s Outer Space through the Construction of Stellar and Astronomic Lexicons,” “Pope Burn: A Game for Dissenters,” “Constructions of Queer Masculinity: How Grindr Shapes Performance of Identity,” and “The Spook Who Sat by the Time Machine: Cultural Studies in the Digital Humanities.”