Digital Scholarship Graduate Assistants, Spring 2019
Digital Scholarship Graduate Assistantship is a paid internship that allows Bryn Mawr graduate students to develop digital competencies and build skill in tools relevant to their research. The Spring 2019 cohort explored topics ranging from web development and git to physical computing and computer vision.
Jenni Glaser (Classics)
I learned a great deal from my time as a Digital Scholarship Graduate Assistantship. I found that the easiest and most interesting way to learn new digital skills was just to experiment. The most useful project for me overall was designing my own website. By being taken step by step, first through the command line, then HTML, Git, CSS, and more, I was able to slowly build and design something useful, but also learn much more than just how to create the site itself. Learning the HTML and CSS necessary to create my site gave me a first insight in how computers think in general. I have always considered myself adept at technology, but not in any logical ways. If I could feel my way around a menu, I could get myself out of a jam. Through working on my site, I became familiar with the way computer languages tend to work. Combined with taking an introduction to programming and Python course on Lynda, I realized how much I needed to break up any larger projects into much smaller pieces.
That is the other half of what I learned in this assistantship. I came in with big dreams of how learning Python could help me with my own scholarship goals. Specifically, I have been interested in methods of OCR for Greek texts for years, especially early printed editions, since many Byzantine texts have no other versions available, and many of the texts I am interested in (such as ancient school texts) are not of high priority for advanced digitizing. I wanted to be able to do it myself, but I keep running into problems with reading of accentuation and haven’t even dared to approach the problem of sigils. I know there is great work being done in languages that use the Latin alphabet, but the resources for ancient Greek are still very much in progress.
Through my Python course, the language used for OCR, and our own experimenting with visual OCR as a team – since a fellow graduate assistant in the History of Art Program shared my interest in OCR technology for the sake of her work with iconography, we were able to share and learn together – I learned exactly how big a project I was up against. I realized how necessary it would be to create smaller projects that build up my understanding of how the technology works, just as we did with HTML and CSS. The Python course helped me to see how far down I had to drill in my project in order to accomplish anything, and to be honest, I was fascinated to learn how simply computers think, and how many operations go into the enormous tasks we put them to every day.
While I am only at the beginning of my journey to improve OCR resources for Ancient Greek texts, I feel that the training I received via the projects we accomplished showed me both where to start and exactly how far I have to go. I know that this work would be of great importance to research, pedagogy and preservation of these Byzantine texts, and my time working on it also encouraged me to reach out to colleagues that I know are working in this field and build new opportunities for future collaboration. I enjoyed working in a team, which is especially important for digital humanities, when a vast goal like OCR requires large numbers of people working together smoothly on many different elements at once. I also enjoyed the way the material we learned in the weekly meetings helped me think more deeply about the internet and digital scholarship and the way technology interacts with the world as well as our field. I am excited by how much Bryn Mawr is doing and the resources we have available. I am very grateful for the opportunity and look forward to learning more in the course of my time here.
Yusi Liu (Archaeology)
The Digital Scholarship Assistant program this semester is a great and valuable experience for me. I enjoyed it a lot and it encouraged me to explore digital humanities further. I acquired basic literacy over some essential computer programming languages and portals, including the Command Line, HTML, CSS, Markdown, and Github. In my previous experience where I tried to do something with computer and technology for my coursework and research, I often ended up with a direction to Github but had not a single clue what it is. Although the digital scholarship program has not made me a computer science pro, it has taught me introductory skills so I could reach the level where I could teach and explore in the future by myself. I hope I will be able to do group projects using Github. One of the things I enjoyed the most and I am most proud of is the professional website I coded from scratch. It is beneficial for people in academia to have an internet presence. Coding my website also made me rethink the way to describe my research interests to public audience. I also found the design part very fun; choosing color and fonts are all part of visual rhetoric, and I am on the creator side! Coding the website also introduced me to the digital resources Bryn Mawr offers, for example, A Domain of One’s Own. I hope to use more of these digital tools in the future.
During the last meeting we played with the Adafruit’s circuit playground. It is a little electronic device to help people learn basic electronic programming. I connected the circuit to my laptop; using the online coding channel, I created little programs, and I installed them onto the circuit. The circuit is tiny but has many features, it could detect sounds, motion, and light, and it could also play music. One of the commands I made is a Loudness Neckless which the light would shine when we talk at a certain level of loudness (see pictures and videos). I really enjoyed the hands-on aspect of this activity and how it encouraged group work.
Programming is quite out of my comfort zone and during the process I had some frustrations. In the beginning, I was really slow in understanding how the Command Line works. Learning a computer language is similar to learning a spoken language: one should not think too complicatedly in the beginning. Once I figured out the logic, it made more sense to me. As a non-native English speaker, the incidence of making spelling mistakes and typo was high, and sometimes it took me longer to write a command language or detect errors. Patience and attention to details are important! Admittedly, the part I was most frustrated was the OCR experiment we were trying to learn. We were trying to figure out together from a video from the web on training the computer to classify images through Tensorflow, and it was not very successful. I feel quite worried doing these commands on my computer and downloading packages. I did not really know what I was doing. Despite this, it reflects the nature of web free resources, and there are many experiments in the process.
I am very glad we spent time in some meetings discussing the ethics of computer language. It surprised me that programming language is problematic, with concepts such as “domain,” and “master/slave.” I wonder if there is a better way than “learn it, acknowledge it, and embrace it”? The video about the racist and sexist aspects of computer facial recognition is very valuable when we are at the beginning of digital scholarship, it is important to be aware of these issues before we move forward. I hope to learn more about these ethical issues relating to digital humanities and explore the ways we could improve; especially in the context of ancient visual culture which has many of these issues, and perhaps, gave rise to our modern problems. In the future, I would love to be more engaged with digital scholarship and digital humanities. Computer programming and academia often lack empathy, I hope to explore ways digital scholarship could create empathy and engage with the community.
Nava Streiter (History of Art)
During the spring 2019 semester, I served as a Digital Scholarship Graduate Assistant alongside Jenni Glaser and Yusi Liu and under the supervision of digital specialists Alicia Peaker and Alice McGrath. Although I had used computers constantly in my personal and professional life for many years, I had rarely strayed from public interfaces or produced digital content. Each week, the digital scholarship program clarified for me things that I thought I knew or that I half-knew, bringing into reach a set of digital skills that are increasingly powerful in contemporary life, both outside and inside academia. It was fascinating and exciting to learn how to translate my idea into terms the computer could understand, and I look forward to applying the tools of digital scholarship to the research that I produce in my dissertation and after.
At each weekly meeting of the digital scholarship cohort, Alice and Alicia introduced the graduate assistants to a basic topic in computer science. We learned how to interact with our laptops through the command terminal, to write basic code in HTML, to collaborate using the digital repository Github, and to do basic web design using CSS. Alice and Alicia also introduced us to scholarly literature that explores the practical, ethical, and theoretical dimensions of digital design and directed us toward online courses, like the ones hosted on Lynda.com, which provide further instruction into the skills we had begun to practice. As homework, through the semester, each graduate assistant was instructed to code and design a personal website.
In one of our earliest meetings, Alicia said that, while we probably would not have time to become deeply proficient in any of the skills we were studying, we might learn just enough to be dangerous. At the time, I did not understand what she meant, but as the semester went on, I began to appreciate digital technology’s incredible capacity to foster structured creativity. Computer code is written in a beautifully precise language that translates constantly between human will and mechanical intelligence. The effort of narrowing my wishes into precise digital commands and then communicating them correctly to a machine both frustrated and fascinated me. I found that the smallest linguistic error could ruin a project, and there were times when the whole team struggled to identify and solve problems. At the same time, it was weird and exhilarating to find that I, with almost no computer sciences background, could build visual space using words. I liked the process of finding the right words for each task, and the sense of possibility that I felt as I worked on each of the semester’s assignments.
I know that I have barely begun to scratch the surface of the digital humanities, but I look forward to building on the foundations I gained this semester. I am writing a dissertation on middle Byzantine illuminated manuscripts, and I look forward to exploring technologies that may help me, for instance, to store and compare the hundreds of images that I am currently analyzing, to decipher and contextualize examples of Byzantine handwriting, and present my research to a broad, digital audience.