It’s about time (or almost too late)

As seems to be invariably the case, it’s almost 11pm here in Austin; Day of DH 2014 is about to be over on the East Coast, and only has a couple of hours left on the West. I’ve noticed a consistent pattern in my “Day of X” posts: they all seem to get done right before the Day ends or on the following no-longer-Day-of-X. This reflects the chronic shortage of time that characterizes most of my days — like most American adults, I often find myself wishing there were only a couple more hours in a day, so that I could finally catch up with the rising tide of obligations.

It’s fitting, therefore, that time should be the subject of my sole, 11th-hour Day of DH post. In fact, I spent my Day of DH in consideration of the role of time in the digital humanities on several levels: divisions of time as a missing piece in the Linked Data ecosystem; time as a central axis of inquiry in network analysis in ancient history; and time as a very, very limited resource in attempts to incorporate the digital humanities into undergraduate teaching.

On the first level, I spent part of the day in email communication with partners and collaborators involved in the PeriodO project, an attempt by Ryan Shaw at UNC, Eric Kansa of OpenContext, and I to create a Linked Data gazetteer of authoritative assertions about the space-time coordinates of archaeological, art-historical, and historical periods. I borrowed the title of this Day of DH blog from a forthcoming contribution to ISAW Papers on PeriodO and the importance of a gazetteer not of period concepts themselves (on which no one can agree), but of assertions made by authoritative sources about the spatial and temporal extents of those concepts. The central role of assertions, rather than agreed-upon concepts, in this model makes it possible to represent scholarly disagreement and changes in the understanding of periods across time and space. And the inclusion of actual coordinates will allow us to visualize and compare the way periods are talked about by different scholars and academic communities.

The project has just received a Digital Humanities Start-Up grant from the NEH Office of Digital Humanities, for which Ryan, Eric and I are very grateful (thank you, NEH!). This means we can finally get the project off the ground — and that’s meant a flurry of activity as we contact the various institutions and projects that have agreed to provide their period thesauri as seed data for the gazetteer. I see one of the central tasks of the digital humanities as increasing access to information by making it easier to find things that are related. Spatial gazetteers like Pleiades make it possible to put the places mentioned in a text or a dataset onto a map (as the Pelagios project has shown); now we need something that makes it possible to do the same with references to periods. Time is the next big thing for DH.

So my post is about time in that sense. But it’s also about time because I spent a big chunk of my day working on a poster for the Texas Digital Humanities Conference with students in my upper-division undergrad seminar on Herodotus and networks. The class was meant both to provide students with a traditional understanding of ancient historiography and to introduce them to basic network concepts and visualization tools. It’s a test-bed for the second phase of Elton Barker’s Hestia project, which has been exploring new ways of reading and visualizing Herodotus’ Histories.

As the students and I have put the poster together, we’ve realized two things about this effort (we’ll have more on this on the Hestia blog soon). First, time — both narrative time and chronological time — is an essential component in understanding the network visualizations we produced. Herodotus’ work runs backward and forward in time, and in narrative circles, so the temporal animations of the networks of relationships that we constructed for parts of the first half of the Histories were critical for the usefulness of those networks as an analytic tool.

An animation of a network reflecting personal interactions in Book 1 of Herodotus’ Histories, constructed with Gephi and Clement Levallois’ Eonydis plugin

And second, perhaps the biggest challenge for the integration of serious digital humanities tools in a course focused on content as well as methods is time — or rather the lack of time. Although time inside and outside the classroom for play and experimentation with the tools was built into the course, both the students and I found that there just wasn’t enough time to cover everything. It took longer to become comfortable even with a subset of the tools we were using than I thought it would, and it took longer for the students to build the networks from the text of Herodotus than they thought it would. I think the learning curve for tools — at least basic digital humanities tools — is likely to drop in the near future (the release of CESTA’s Palladio interface during this semester was a major boon, since it made it much easier to display and manipulate networks than more specialized tools like Cytoscape or Gephi). But one lesson for me has been that student engagement with the digital humanities can’t be a one-off: the investment in time and energy has to make sense in the context of a larger program of study.

It’s still the Day of DH for a little while longer in the mountains and in California, but the Texas day is now over. Mine ends as it began: with considerations of time (and how there should be more of it, both in general and in the digital humanities).

Just another Day of DH 2014 site

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