Our final show just wrapped! This summer, I’ve been working with the amazingly talented Jon Gann to produce a Capital Fringe 2016 show on the famous “Rabbit Woman of Godalming,” who gave birth to a series of rabbits–in parts–over the course of a few months in 1726. It was a song cycle, each song in which was composed by a DC-area composer/songwriter, and then as a whole orchestrated by a brilliant friend of mine, Stephen Lilly, and the band he plays in–These Quiet Colours–lent their talents as the house band, The Bloody Bunnies. Craig Houk directed our four performers: Rachel Jones, Colin Brown, Christopher E. Robin, and Grant Collins. We rehearsed at Marymount University, where I’m sure we more than turned a few heads in the library!
Rachel was spectacular as Mary–here she is feeling very uncomfortable with her husband, Joshua Toft’s plans:
Here is Nathaniel St. Andre working it, as he sells his story:
a tale that is not only compelling in its own right, but, as we are reminded in the program notes, resonates forcefully today with its emphasis on “spin, celebrity, and agenda.”
You can read more about the performance at the website, and watch a mini- music video below), created by Pete Duvall and Tim Tate, featuring These Quiet Colours performing The Mauls’ song, “Media Madness.” The video was edited together for sound by the talented Steve Wanna.
This is the proposal for my 2012 ASECS talk; I’ll post the full (and very different) piece soon!
The process of creating sound public knowledge shares a great deal with the knowledge-making procedures in the arts and humanities. These procedures include interpretation, judgment, imagination, and expression…. In this respect, then, the humanities scholars are natural allies for the public…. In strengthening the public sphere, they can shore up their own place in a society that sees little need for them.”
— Noëlle McAfee, “Ways of
Knowing: The Humanities and the Public Sphere”
I wanted to open with this quote from Noelle McAfee’s “Ways of Knowing” because it gets at something central to what we do, I think, as scholars and teachers of literature–and, in many ways, what we do as scholars and teachers of 18th century literature. If we believe, as John Guillory has shown, that the cultural capital underwritten by English departments today is no longer that of a shared body of knowledge that distinguishes the educated and the elite, but instead that of a set of skills, with writing front and center, then McAfee’s point is even more well-taken. She writes that the “knowledge-making procedures in the…humanities” include “interpretation, judgment, imagination, and expression.” These are remarkably similar to what characterizes the creation of “sound public knowledge.” In both cases, it is not so much a question of what is studied as how it is studied, because the “it” is never completely distinct from the “how.”
Indeed, one of the things I routinely encounter as a teacher of everything from composition to Restoration and 18th-century theater and advanced research methodologies is the desire students have to see subject matter or content as distinct from the form and the structure through which it is represented. By turning students into knowledge-creators, especially public, self-conscious knowledge-creators, we can help overcome this shortsightedness–which is itself a product of an educational system that teaches to the test. Encouraging students to see their work as something that not only exists in and as part of the public sphere, but also itself offers a clear contribution to a scholarly conversation presents one way to transform students into self-conscious knowledge-creators. Technology may pose as many problems as it offers solutions, but with judicious choice and thorough familiarity, some tools can make this transformation less radical and more revelatory.
In “Making Connections: The Humanities, Culture and Community,” part of the findings of the ACLS’s National Task Force on Scholarship and the Public Humanities, James Quay and James Veninga explore the relationship between the humanities, institutions of higher education in the liberal arts tradition, and civic engagement. Considering the radical cultural changes shaping our world today, Quay and Veninga note that the greatest “test of…democracy” is located in “enriching public conversation and extending participation in this conversation to all Americans.” The most central challenge facing higher education today, they find, is overcoming the sense and practice of a divide between academic scholarship in the humanities and public engagement. And yet, this divide is not insurmountable; it is more accurate, and indeed more useful, “to consider scholarship and the public humanities not as two distinct spheres but as parts of a single process, the process of taking private insight, testing it, and turning it into public knowledge.”
This process is most visible when (excuse the generalization) the Ivory Tower meets Joe Public: in a crowded DC museum, in an open, collaboratively-produced web archive like The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, in a prison performance of The Tempest organized jointly by faculty, students and the incarcerated. In “The Humanities and the Public Soul,” Julie Ellison puts it this way: “The specific importance of public scholarship in the arts and humanities is to provide purposeful social learning, spaces where individuals and groups with ‘trustworthy knowledge’ convene to pursue joint inquiry and invention that produces a concrete result.”
Essentially, Omeka is an open-source and extensible software tool that allows you to create digital archives and collections of resources. For instance, a museum might want to create an accessible web-based repository of some of their collections in a way that makes research (or just more information) about them possible without being physically present in the museum. This archive might include, in addition to a high-quality image of the item, a descriptive essay and other detailed information about the object. A curator might even select a variety of paintings, decorative objects, sculptures, and so on to include in the web archive according to a thematic logic. Conversely, an oral history project might use Omeka to collect, maintain, and make accessible the various audio recordings, videos, and/or transcripts collected as the project continues. Omeka can make these resources into quality primary source materials for scholars, teachers, and students across the globe to work with. You might find this site, from Teaching History, informative–it includes a variety of sample uses for the tool.
Here is a very brief video introducing Omeka, put together by the folks at George Mason’s Roy Rosensweig Center for History and New Media who created the software.
Omeka can also be a very useful tool to stimulate student collaboration and to dramatize some of the basic methods, practices, and preconditions of scholarship. As a tool to help students learn the nature of research from a perspective invested in the architecture of knowledge, Omeka is most potentially interesting to me as a means for teaching research methodologies (especially how information is organized, what that means for conducting research, and how that might help us create our own knowledge more effectively) and scholarly collaboration. One of the challenges we often face as teachers of students at all levels is a certain taken-for-grantedness about knowledge–it just “is” or someone (not really a person, subject to history and ideology) creates it, and I look it up so I can use it in my essay. [more/revise]
Omeka vs. Omeka.net?
There are two versions of Omeka that one can use. The first is less flexible but it has the benefit of not requiring much knowledge on the user’s part. You can create a free account at Omeka.net and create archives from that centralized installation of the platform.
Each site is allocated a certain amount of space, and the process of creating an archive is fairly straightforward. You can invite multiple other users to collaborate with you on the creation of your site–however, those invited users will have to sign up for a free plan with Omeka.net, and the way to move through that is not intuitive. Your student, once clicking the accept invitation link sent via email, will be taken to a page that requires them to sign up–but there is no information indicating whether this will then connect them as users to your site.
New users will be taken to a page with the sites they’re contributors or creators of, but they’ll have to sign up first. (A free plan allows you to create one site, but I believe you can be a contributor to multiple sites.) Be sure to inform your students to fill out the signup fields responsibly–real names and appropriate usernames only! It may be helpful to encourage students to use their institutional usernames.
The second is much more flexible, but it requires the user to download and install Omeka on her own server (it requires supporting resources, like MySQL, PHP, and so on). With an individual instllation of Omeka, you can also activate any plugin you would like. There is a robust online community–I can particularly recommend using the hashtag #omeka on twitter–but you will be responsible for maintaining the installation, adding and updating plugins, making any tweaks to the code that will generate just the site you want the world to see. If something on your server doesn’t work or isn’t configured properly, then your install may not exhibit full functionality. For beginning users, Omeka.net is probably a better way to go.
Here is an excellent example of a public collaborative memory bank created with Omeka, the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, which preserves personal stories about hurricanes Rita and Katrina.
Here are two of my personal installations of Omeka–one, I used as a trial run in a research methodologies course, and one, I am currently working on as a digital face for my university’s small special collections room. In the future, I plan to revise the research methodologies course around this second project–though I will probably move to an Omeka.net account instead of hosting it on my own server (who has the time to troubleshoot–or getfriends to help you out?) Students in the class will ultimately be responsible for slowly populating the archive and making these somewhat rare materials accessible to other students and scholars beyond the walls of our campus, and in the process, also contributing their own voices to an ongoing conversation. For instance, students will be required to craft a researched descriptive essay that becomes part of the resource they create. This kind of process, however, also requires that students learn about simple cataloging processes, metadata, and controlled vocabularies; how to create quality digital facsimile page images; how to create an XML version of the textual resource they’ve chosen; how to link this resource to existing catalog entries and free-web resources (like ESTC and Google Books). Of course, all this requires time, infrastructure, and either money for hosting, monye/credits for student workers, or (more) time to learn how to troubleshoot server issues, PHP weirdness, and so on. Despite my desire to run my own domain, it may be time to admit that I need more help… Hence, the recommendation that, at least in the beginning, we turn to the handy and professional Omeka.net.
Metadata is structured information that describes, explains, locates, or otherwise makes it easier to retrieve, use, or manage an information resource. Metadata is often called data about data or information about information.
Omeka uses the Dublin Core Element Set to structure the metadata associated with each resource you create. Here is some documentation about the elements in that metadata set. Some elements have recommended controlled vocabularies associated with them, though some do not:
Omeka also includes the ability to further describe your items with Item Type metadata. These fields are not necessary, and they may sometimes even duplicate or (in the case of page images, for instance) confuse the information in the Dublin Core. But, depending on the nature of your resources, you may find the additional descriptive tools helpful.
Note that there is a plugin for self-hosted installs that allows you to draw on LOC subject headings to help you generate controlled metadata.
Let’s build a collection!
Give me your email address. I will add you as a researcher contributor or administrator to the test site I’ve set up–contributor status will be more in line with what your students will see and have access to, administrator status will familiarize you with the interface that lets you build your own site.
Check your email, and click the link to accept the invitation. Create a free Omeka.net account for yourself.
Check your email to activate and login.You will now have the ability to create records in my collection.
Browse over either to Flickr Commons, the VAM, or Vimeo and find a resource that you want to work with. Alternatively, you might choose a website to include in our collection. (If your resource has a specific license, be sure to abide by that copyright license completely.)
Keep this page open in one tab, so you can work with the information it provides. Download the image or video to your desktop, or copy the URL of your website.
Create a record in Omeka.net for your resource. Work through the Dublin Core element set to add metadata about your resource. You might want to take a look at the links above for sample vocabularies.
Be sure to save your work periodically! Omeka.net will time out and you can lose all your work.
When you have finished a draft of your resource, let me know. I will make it public, and we’ll take a look at what we’ve created together.
How might you imagine using Omeka in the classroom? For your own scholarship or research?
Tomorrow, I’ll be leading a Scholar’s Day mock classroom event with 9 newly-admitted students who received high academic awards. My presentation is titled “Beware Women! Jonathan Swift and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu on Women and Writing in the 18th Century.” I love to teach these classes, particularly because they offer us an opportunity to start off on an exciting, academic footing with our new students, but also because there’s always the possibility of stealing a few more English majors to fill our coffers! I’ll be teaching two of my favorite poems from the 18th century, Swift’s “Lady’s Dressing Room” and Montagu’s richly-titled response–“The Reasons that Induced Dr. S— to Write a Poem Call’d ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room.'” I’ve taught other classes using these texts, but typically I foreground formal issues of meter and rhyme to lead into a discussion of parody and satire. For the mock class tomorrow, I’m going to foreground questions of gender and authorship, framed by the role of poetry in the public sphere.
This March at ASECS, I’m presenting my work on the development of a collaborative digital assignment for graduate students (which could also work for advanced undergraduates) organized around the creation of items in an Omeka collection. The idea is to work together to define and populate a subcollection of materials housed in our small special collections room–the assignment could be a part of a course on research methods, or a topics course (like Ethics and the Public Sphere in the 18th Century). The goal is, broadly speaking, to enable students to see research and the production of knowledge as a collaborative, creative, public activity with ties outside the classroom. I want my students to see research as a process of making–making knowledge, making access, making texts, making tools, making decisions that affect how we interact with texts, making decisions that affect how we interact with others and other ideas. I’d like to connect the project to eighteenth-century concepts of publicity and democratization, with reference to sociability, conversationality, practices of publishing, and the history of copyright.
Below, I’ve included a working version of the assignment; I’m not planning, right now, to incorporate TEI markup, but I want to ensure that there is room for its inclusion in the future. If you’re doing projects like this, I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially about targeted supplementary readings, steps I may have missed, and key questions students are likely to have that I’ve not addressed here. (Sadly, the embedded google doc isn’t perfectly formatted…)