Delving the Digital Sack

During the Second World War, the French Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac fought long and vigorously to argue for the fundamental moral incompatibility of Roman Catholicism and National Socialism. His involvement with the French resistance came in the form of the so-called ‘Spiritual Resistance’ of Churchmen against Nazi ideology and the Vichy government. He was involved in the publication of Témoinage chrétien (Christian Witness) a samizdat-style anti-Nazi journal for the devout resistance.

After several of his colleagues were captured and executed by the Vichy regime,  necessity forced de Lubac into hiding with only the clothes on his back, and one other item that has always stuck with me. A sack. Full of bits of paper. On these pieces of paper were literally hundreds of transcriptions and notes from Latin manuscripts, an invaluable corpus that would eventually go towards the publication of his famous multi-volume work Exégèse médiévale (Medieval Exegesis) between 1959 and 1965. Given the incredible degree of inter-connectivity and facility of association demonstrated by this weighty piece of scholarship, I cannot help but think about the sack. When in hiding during the later years of the war and back in safety in the post-war years, did Henri de Lubac shape his new scholarship based on the order in which he extracted the tattered scraps from his long-suffering sack?

I have a sack of my own, but it is a sack in concept only. It also benefits from many traits not possessed by de Lubac’s repository of knowledge gifted to me by fairly common and yet borderline miraculous developments in information technology. Let me describe it for you. The sack is made up of the hundreds upon hundreds of citations, snippets, clippings, and articles that I have thrown rather haphazardly into Evernote since I began using it in 2009. The beauty of Evernote is the ease of acquisition: whenever I read an article or find a piece of information that interests me, I clip it using the Google Chrome web clipper. Down and down these digital artifacts go, spiraling into the chasm of my cloud-based hoard.

I confess that although Evernote offers many organisational features, I prefer to keep my classifications very loose: ‘primary sources’, ‘primary source citations’, ‘literature’ and so on. I was determined to be organised when I began, but like an office worker with a messy desk, I quickly lost my enthusiasm for filing.

This jumble has had unexpected effects. Anecdotes often circulate about the unexpected innovations that arise when someone with a messy desk links two unexpected pieces of paper. Others lament the fact that digital storage does now allow this. Not true, I tell you! Whenever I am starved for ideas, I search for random words pertaining to my topic. Gems of primary source material, articles, pictures, blog posts: all of these things emerge from the darkness of the sack, often completely forgotten. Like an office worker constantly rearranging their junk and making unexpected discoveries, the chaos of random digital hoarding meshes perfectly with the precision of computer search strings. Disorder and order in perfect balance.

My advice is this: if you are going to hoard your digital content messily, put it somewhere searchable, a sack where you can reach in and grab new morsels of long-forgotten lore. Apple users are blessed with the excellent Searchlight feature, which turns one’s whole hard drive into a giant sack. But to my mind, nothing is better for hoarding and retrieving than a sack full of data. As I near the completion of my thesis, I continue to marvel at how precise Evernote is when looking for a remembered piece of information, and how open to random discoveries when one does not entirely know what one is looking for.

My plan is to just let the sack grow and grow, to continue to feed it until it becomes a personal treasure trove.

Digital Manuscript Studies – Curriculum Development 4

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – ‘The Ass in the School’. Wikimedia Commons

Hello All,

I have returned safely from a wonderful trip to New York and Washington, D.C. For accounts of the symposium I was a part of in Washington, see this post and here is a copy of my paper. Today I would like to return to the topic of digital manuscript studies, and the challenges of curriculum development (see my previous posts here, here, and here). To avoid the shambles depicted in the Bruegel image above, I think that digital humanities teachers as a whole and digital medievalists in particular must pay close attention to the format of their lesson.

Here is the scenario: The classes for this symposium will be an hour and a half, the standard double tutorial format of our university. There are no lectures, and so this is the sole opportunity to interact with students. Using this time to best effect is crucial, for a balance must be struck between the interpersonal critique and debate that more traditionally prevails in a humanities classroom and computerised lab work. Rather than boring you by listing the criteria, I feel that the best approach is to list three possible lesson plans for an hour and a half class that I am considering, together with their possible advantages and pitfalls.

Model 1: The 50 / 50

As the title implies, this idea would involve a 45 minute lab followed by a 45 minute tutorial, or vice versa. This has the advantage, depending on arrangement, of coupling practical experience with a chance for theoretical discussion. The question is: which should go first? If the class begins with a lab and ends with a tutorial, then students will have a chance to get stuck in with some resources and tools, and then discuss the theory behind such tools. If the class begins with the tutorial, then students can apply what they have discussed. It occurs to me, given average attention spans and consideration of energy levels, that starting with the lab would work best. That way students can start with the independent self-supervised work, and have material to apply to the tutorial. The reverse order, to my mind, risks a disengagement in lab time due to mental fatigue.

Model 2: The Break-Out

Which brings me to model two, mixing the two formats together! This would resolve the conundra of model one to some extent. Rather than demarcating the class into two separate blocks, one could split the class in two. Group one could do lab work while group two had a short tutorial. Then the groups swap, and then the final half an hour is devoted to full group discussion. In the following week, the starting positions are reversed. In this manner, each group has the opportunity to experience lab followed by tutorial, and tutorial followed by lab. This format would enable opportunities for other sub-activities such as group member swaps, respondent talks from a group member, facilitation of group projects from day one, and so on.

Model 3: The Sandwich

This model is something of a strange beast, involving a pre-tutorial lab, a tutorial, and a post-tutorial lab. This would differentiate lab work into expository activities (finding and critiquing examples), discussion with evidence, and revised activities (testing found resources in light of tutorial discussion). This could be a very effective way to manage energy level and attention spans, and would encourage a flexible approach to critiquing the material. This format is a reasonably good synthesis of the previous two models.

In Conclusion…

Another question to consider is the matter of out of class work. I am inclined to make this the kind of unit where the readings and group work-based assignments are encouraged, and students are ‘pushed’ into working together. In class, the emphasis should be on group-based discussion and demonstration of concepts through hands-on interaction with digital artefacts. Too much individual lab work is counter to the digital humanities mission of encouraging good collaborators, and too much theorising will not help students to do their own digital work. The more tightly these strands can be woven together, the better.

More thoughts soon,


Digital Manuscript Studies – Curriculum Development 3

Will it Blend?

Hello All,

With new laptop and new equipment in hand, I am getting back into my curriculum development. Today i’d like to take a break from talking about the structure of my Digital Manuscript Studies seminar (see posts one and two) in order to discuss some of the pedagogical gimmicks and techniques that have been circulating around the teaching and learning blogs i’ve been following. But first a little context.

This all started a couple of weeks ago when reading an article in Digital Humanities Quarterly by Craig Bellamy, Australian Historian, Digital Humanities scholar and writer of a very good blog. I have included the details for this article below:

Craig Bellamy, ‘The Sound of Many Hands Clapping: Teaching the Digital Humanities Through Virtual Research Environment (VREs)’, Digital Humanities Quarterly 6 (2012)
In his article, Bellamy makes a point that seems like common sense, but is oft-ignored:
…teaching in the digital humanities field should emphasise that computing is not simply a set of techniques to achieve a predetermined set of results. Computing in the humanities is a set of humanities questions to achieve a set of challenging interpretations. Digital resources and tools are made available to students through a series of choices by their creators, educators, and administrators, and making student aware of these choices is vital for facilitating active and critical engagement with them. (p. 1)
I have, as you may be able to see in my previous post, been trying to follow Bellamy’s argument by fostering forms of assessment that give students maximum opportunity to not only do manuscript work, but to question the conceits and principles that have shaped an interface. By seeing all of the resources that we use (to get a bit Latourian for a second) not as a black box that spits out useful data but as a network of interacting principles with an input, internal components and an output that is not natural but arbitrary, students can learn to be critical about any digital object or system. This in turn enables the challenging interpretations that Bellamy advocates. The task of all digital humanities should be to crack open the impenetrable integumentum of our tools in order to assess whether they might be better arranged or modified. More hack, less yack. More interpretation, less theory. Bellamy then continues in a similarly intriguing vein:
…teaching technical skills to humanities students – so that they are faced with the similar technical choices of developers — is one way to emphasise that computing technologies, just like the academic monologue, is a series of (applied) choices, arguments and interpretations. But not all schools are equipped to provide computer programming classes and this level of in-depth technical knowledge may not always be achievable or desirable unless the student is considering a longer-term research career in the field. A “critical interpretation” of digital objects may also be fostered by providing technical architectures that open-up critical interpretations of digital objects (within assessable tasks) to broader audiences of students.  (p. 7)
This is especially important to consider in the context of Australian manuscript studies, for students are unlikely (especially in Western Australia) to have access to a great many manuscripts. The University of Western Australia is at the beginning of its digital humanities path, and although we have some great work going on (especially in Archaeology, Classics and Medieval and Early Modern Studies), we lack what Bellamy calls hard interdisciplinary links. Thus, the arrangement of a Virtual Research Environment must provide a critical and hands-on engagement with digital objects while teaching a kind of scrappy digital literacy over a more formal computer science training program. If we had a Department of Digital Humanities like that of King’s College London with decades of rock solid hard interdisciplinarity and an established MA coursework curriculum in place, it might be different. But my priorities are to teach familiarity with interface, tool and manuscript alike together with critical insight in a short amount of time. What, then, should I do?
I have been looking to a blended learning inspired VRE as my model. Blended learning is a blanket term used to describe any curriculum that merges ‘brick-and-mortar’ teaching with an online or lab-based component. This post gives a nice infographic of the many types of blended learning. Most tutors will have practiced what is called the ‘Face-to-Face driver’ model, meaning that most of the class is guided by the tutor with digital tools deployed in-class. Those who have used class blogs and learning management systems will have gone a little further along the path, but are still effectively face-to-face driving their classes with digital augmentation. Those who have ever done a distance learning course (open university, etc.) will be familiar with the Online Driver model. The two models that interest me at the moment the most are as follows:
  1. The Online Lab – the entire unit is online in a lab-like environment, but takes place on campus. This makes sense in light of Bellamy’s model, because it gives students maximum time to critically interrogate and experiment with their manuscript resources in class in a lab environment. This approach, however, makes more sense when combined with
  2. The Rotation, in which students move in-class between self-paced online learning and break-out small group work. This is ideal for a masters seminar because A) the contact hours for the unit are two hours in a single block each week, enabling easy blending in-class and B) the class is likely to be very small, so one could split students into, say, two groups of five on rotation.

I would also combine these models with a component of the ‘flipped classroom’ giving students time to experiment, research, play and work together out of class, giving maximum space in-class to guided laboratory work mixed with group sharing and demonstration mixed with small group work. This could then be blended once again with some peer-centred learning, and certain students could act as discussants for their tutorial groups, and guide the readings-based discussion.

So that is where I am right now. Suggestions are not only encouraged, but strongly desired. I really want my digital humanities material to be personal and collective, digital and humanist, self-guided and tutor-guided in balance.

Signing off from the Mad Curricular Science Laboratory-Atelier,


Data Protection for Academics

A Medieval Padlock, Kathmandu. Courtesy of user Seeteufel, Wikimedia Commons.

Hello All,

I hope this finds you well. I have experienced a few things this week that I think are imperative for all engaged in academic work to understand, be they undergraduates, postgraduates or professors. I think this applies to anyone in knowledge work of any kind, in fact.

What I have to tell you today all stems from the fact that my laptop was stolen on Tuesday. It’s not a very exciting story. Someone saw that nobody was watching (even though there was someone at the table at all times) and snagged it. I had taken some precautions and left some things incomplete, so I thought that I would let you know some things that I thing everyone should do right now if they haven’t already. Seriously, we live on our laptops and data is our life blood. Don’t take any risks:

For your Own Protection, install and use these programs:

  1. Dropbox. It syncs all of your files to the cloud and allows you to restore them to older versions. It has completely saved my life about four times in the face of hardware failure, file corruption and theft. Put all your research files in it and it will keep them synced whenever you change them. Don’t do what some people do and only put some of them in. Put all of them in. Many do this, but everyone should. There are some other alternative programs that are good, but use something like it.
  2. Boxcryptor. It secures files in Dropbox with AES-256 encryption. This stops thieves from just strip mining your hard drive for information. You can make a file inside Dropbox and put your stuff inside it. As long as both programs are running, your data will be encrypted and synced on the fly.
  3. Evernote and Zotero. These are cloud syncing note and citation managers. In addition to being cool and having lots of good features, they will save your files easily and allow you to access them anywhere. You can also sync the local version of non-cloud based programs like OneNote and EndNote to Dropbox.
  4. Prey. This program will track your laptop using wireless access, and can photograph the thief using the webcam. The best idea is to set up a guest account so that the thief can use your laptop but not access anything, and then report it stolen to Prey and watch the fun begin. You can email the information to the Police.

If you have lots of big files, then you could use a program like sugarsync to back up to an external HDD. You can also use Boxcryptor to encrypt it. In fact, it’s wise to do this every few weeks anyway. You could even get fancy and back up whole disk images to restore your computer if the operating system becomes corrupt. All of the programs that I have mentioned are free and work on Macs, Windows devices, iOS devices (iPhones, iPads) and Android devices. The collection of stuff I have mentioned will save you from data loss from computer failure and theft, but also keep your data secure from thieves (even if it’s a cyber criminal who steals your passwords etc).

Your data is your life, so take really good care of it. I know a lot of people out there still gamble with their professional lives by not assiduously protecting their intellectual property. If you do research with a confidential element then I would go as far as to say that you have a duty to do so. I was lucky that thanks to Dropbox, Evernote, Zotero, some encryption, and old favourites like bookmark syncing and gmail, I haven’t lost a thing and all of my most personal data is secured. This email assumes that you aren’t already a pro at this stuff, so if you are then I apologise.

Best Wishes,


Digital Manuscript Studies – Curriculum Development 2

Beowulf – Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r. – Image Courtesy of British Library Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Blog

Hello Readers,

Here we are in week two of my curriculum development journey, initiated last week in this post. I thought that I would format this post as a form of report in order to point to some readings I looked at last week, and to discuss the emerging structure of module one for my embryonic digital manuscripts seminar. First, a rough outline of the unit in four modules:

The World of Digital Manuscript Studies (working title)

By the end of the unit, students should be able to:

  1. Critically engage with the problems, possibilities, and methodologies of manuscript studies in an age of digital content.
  2. Analyse different resources for manuscript studies (resources, tools for researchers, tools for students), the manner in which they are presented and the manner in which they can be used and manipulated.
  3. Critique the strengths and weaknesses of diverse digital manuscripts and resources.
  4. Use resources and tools to conduct original research individually and in a group, and identify the need for new approaches based on this research.

Week 1: Introduction

Administrative details and some basic introductory digital humanities readings.

Module 1:    Approaching the Digital Manuscript

Weeks 2-4

In this module, the student will learn how to place the digitisation and use of pre-modern manuscripts in a wider scholarly context, understand the potential and possible limitations of the manuscript as digital object. The student will also become familiar with some of the tools available to the student of manuscript studies to aid in their training and research, and the uses to which digitised manuscripts are being put.

Module 2:   Evaluating the Digital Manuscript

Weeks 5-7

In this module, the student will learn to critically evaluate the projects and resources collating digital manuscripts for curatorial and research purposes. They will also begin to explore the reasoning behind the creation of diverse digital resources, the process by which they are funded, collated, managed as a project and presented in a sustainable fashion upon completion (the life cycle of a digital manuscript project).

Module 3:   Researching the Digital Manuscript

Weeks 8-10

In this module, students will begin to use what they have learned in weeks 2-7 to perform small scale but original scholarly research individually, discuss their findings with the class week by week in a computer laboratory environment, and continue to critique manuscript resources as a group in a blended learning format. Students will form groups and begin selecting a topic for their research project, due at the end of week 12.

Assessment: Group Research Project

Weeks 11-12

This module is time for the students to meet in their groups and collectively to share ideas about and troubleshoot their group projects with the tutor and each other. The goal of this project will be to explore a manuscript or collection of manuscripts while working as a team, and to produce a small but focused piece of research while reflexively studying their own practice.

Weeks 2 and 3

Week 2: Why Digital?

Useful Readings:

Anna Chen. “In One’s Own Hand: Seeing Manuscripts in a Digital Age,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 6, no. 2 (2012).

Melanie Gau, Miklas Heinz, Martin Lettner, and Robert Sablatnig. “Image Acquisition & Processing Routines for Damaged Manuscripts.” Digital Medievalist no. 6 (2010).

Bruce Holsinger, ‘What Has Been Lost In Timbuktu? A Report from the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project’, Burnable Books <> [accessed 6 March 2013].

Sarah Werner, ‘Where Material Book Culture Meets Digital Humanities’, Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 3 (2012).

Week 3: Using the Digital Manuscript

Useful Readings:

Florence Cloppet and others, ‘New Tools for Exploring, Analysing and Categorising Medieval Scripts’, Digital Medievalist no. 7 (2011).

Martin Foys and Shannon Bradshaw, ‘Developing Digital Mappaemundi: An Agile Mode for Annotating Medieval Maps’, Digital Medievalist no. 7, 2011

John Unsworth, ‘Medievalists as Early Adopters of Information Technology’, Digital Medievalist no. 7, (2011).

(these are really medieval heavy, so I want to go more Early Modern)

So that is what I have so far. Thanks for reading!

Best Wishes to you All,

Digital Manuscript Studies – Curriculum Development 1

The Conservation of the Codex Alexandrinus, courtesy of the British Library Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Blog

Hello All,

Today I have started developing a unit, to be run next year, on the topic of Digital Manuscript Studies. The unit is for our Masters in Medieval and Early Modern Studies at our University of Western Australia Centre of the same name. I’ve decided to start blogging about the process, some of the sources that I have discovered, any problems or insights I encounter, and those places that I have found good help and resources.

I would very much welcome any and all input from anyone reading this blog, so please chime in if you think you have some advice, or that I am making a mistake somewhere. This is my first large scale curriculum development project, and I want to learn in a way that helps others as much as myself.

The name of the game this week is introduction. What readings and activities best prepare students for the world of digital manuscript studies while simultaneously introducing some of the core concepts of digital humanities in general? Perhaps beginning with my four draft outcomes is the best option:

By the end of the unit, students should be able to:

  1. Critically engage with the problems, possibilities, and methodologies of manuscript studies in an age of digital content.

  2. Analyse different resources for manuscript studies (resources, tools for researchers, tools for students), the manner in which they are presented and the manner in which they can be used and manipulated.

  3. Critique the strengths and weaknesses of diverse digital manuscripts and resources.

  4. Use resources and tools to conduct original research individually and in a group, and identify the need for new approaches based on this research.

As you can see, these outcomes are wholly manuscript studies based (the goal is to teach students how to use sources confidentlyand critically in a digital environment) and the digital humanities content is inflected rather than self-evident. My question for this week is how to teach both general DH literacy and introduce students to the manuscript as digital entity without being too mired in the ‘yack’ at the expense of the ‘hack’ as scholars are fond of saying.

I will keep you posted as the syllabus emerges. Once again, please feel free to comment on this or any future blog post, or comment on an question i’ve asked.

DH Show and Tell: Manuscript Studies (Digital Mappa | History SPOT | T-PEN)

Greetings Readers,

Today I am kicking off the first of what I hope to make an occasional series of Digital Humanities show and tell posts exploring some of the amazing, ingenious and useful projects coming thick and fast into the sweaty and eager hands (or through the screens) of academics. The goal of this series is to promote projects I believe in, to offer a digest of thematically arranged work to pique your interest, and to promote wider use of deserving projects.

How is this a fluid imagining, you may ask? Well, dear reader, I have an appropriately academic circumlocution ready in response. The emerging resources of digital humanities are so rapidly evolving, so fluid, that although we can revel in the dynamism they provoke (or as Zygmunt Bauman might say, the constant novel renewal of trends), and learn to swim through this roiling mass of data more effectively. Fear not, the Digital Humanities are here to demystify, not to confuse! (you may detect a note of flippancy) So without further ado, I present three amazing resources in the area of manuscript studies, each quite different but unified by their potentially game changing possibilities.

1) The DM (Digital Mappa) project

The Digital Mappa project is an amazing toolkit in development for importing, annotating and linking medieval maps and diagrams. In his 2011 Digital Medievalist article, Martin Foys outlines a vision of an interface in which the geospatial bias of current maps, which “[subordinate] all content to current notions of geospatial representation and reality” can be overcome in favour of an understanding of the map and its content on its own terms. Take a look and i’m sure you’ll be excited by the possibilities. And maps are only the beginning…

2) History SPOT Digital Tools

This amazing project created by IHR digital places a comprehensive range of tutorials for students of digital methodology at the fingertips of all without pay wall or restriction. Through a combination of podcasts, videos, demonstrations, and tutorials, the Institute for Historical Research have made the training of newbies such as myself in the rigorous methodologies of Digital Manuscript Studies systematic and simple. The video below comes from SPOT, and demonstrates an available example of the wide range of demonstrations available.

3) T-PEN

T-PEN, a transcription tool for Digital Humanities, allows access to a wide range of manuscript collections (and the possibility of importing more) through a line-by line transcription interface. This system, complete with complex character recognition, abbreviation support and plenty of other helpers, enables speedy, born digital transcription of practically any manuscript. Although the video below is very interesting, skip to 3:57 to see the real magic take place!

That’s it. I hope you’ve enjoyed a little glimpse of the marvellous future of Manuscript Studies through its emerging digital tools! There has never been a better time to get engaged, get stuck in and use these tools for your research, so don’t be shy. All you have to lose are your chains!