Today, this blog is migrating to my new domain, kathryntomasek.org.

See you there!

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Clichés, Non Sequiturs, and Meditations from the Road

Today I drove back from the Communal Studies Association ‘s annual conference in upstate New York. One of the joys associated with this organization of scholars, librarians, curators of historic sites, and residents of contemporary communities lies in its commitment to meeting at the sites of intentional communities, past and present. So the fact that this year’s conference was held at the Oneida Community’s Mansion House, a mere five hours’ drive from my home, gave me triple incentive to attend: In addition to its appealing topic, “Women in Communities,” the conference was held nearby and at a site I had never before visited. I held my regular office hours on Friday, did some other business on campus, dropped off my dog, and drove out late in the afternoon. As the sun set while I was driving through the Berkshires, I realized that this trip also presented an opportunity leaf-looking. Having grown up in Texas, I take real pleasure in the changing seasons.

I missed hearing many papers at the conference because I seized the opportunity to tour the Mansion House on Saturday morning, first taking the regular tour and then glomming on to a too-big group to go “Behind the Scenes.” Perhaps the high point for me was seeing the image of Charles Fourier that is part of the group of framed images at the top of the main stair, facing the community’s cabinet of curiosities. The Fourier image was sent to the community by Victor Considerant, a French adherent of the group that promoted some of Fourier’s theories in Paris in the 1830s and 1840s and the leader of another that tried to set up a community in what is now Dallas, Texas, in the wake of the European revolutions of 1848. Since John Humphrey Noyes, the founder and patriarch of the Oneida Community, discussed U.S. communities that had been founded on ideas based on Fourier’s theories in his History of American Socialism (1870), I was delighted to see this evidence of interaction between Considerant and Oneida.

I also reconnected with folks in communal studies, as I haven’t been able to attend this conference for some years, and I had a chance to meet some members of the new generation who are continuing the work of the organization. Some of the members of this new generation share my interest in digital humanities, so I look forward to checking in with them now and again to do what I can to help foster digital projects in addition to all the other good work CSA members do preserving the sites, records, and stories of intentional communities.


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Teaching with TEI

This week, I’m in a seminar at Brown University, participating in conversations about how we use TEI in the classroom.  What a wonderful opportunity to think about so many topics: pedagogical goals and how we achieve them, what we know ourselves about the universe in which TEI operates, the importance of collaboration in Digital Humanities. Not to mention important things like what a stylesheet does and suggestions for how to distribute materials to students. The latter, of course, a distillation of years of teaching experience at the Women Writers Project.

As ever, I’m adding layers to my knowledge of and comfort with the vast set of stuff that comes with having taken my scholarship and teaching digital. I’m reminded that for my own learning, one TEI workshop has never been enough.

I’ll distill some of this into a post about plans for the first-year seminar I’m teaching this semester.  The post will appear on Digital Culture Week, which I could be doing a better job of promoting….

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Remembering Ernest Callenbach

I’ve just read Ernest Callenbach’s final essay, and I find myself inspired to post some thoughts here.

Callenbach, editor of Film Quarterly, was also the author of Ecotopia and a prequel Ecotopia Emerging.  Born in 1929, he died on April 16, 2012.  An announcement of his passing appeared on H-Utopia, as did the essay.  I encountered the essay, however, through Mark Bittman’s comments in today’s New York Times, and I’m grateful to Bittman for calling Callenbach to the attention of a larger audience.

I had been thinking of Callenbach lately, as my enthusiastic consumption of the Hunger Games trilogy and film reminded me of having read Ecotopia in a Humanities course on utopias that I took as an undergraduate in the early 1980s.  Suzanne Collins’s post-apocolyptic world in which an ostentatiously wealthy Capitol has bought its security through annual “games” in which teenagers fight to the death recalled to me Callenbach’s crunchy Northwestern utopia in which alternative energy, community-owned bicycles, and freedom of emotional expression came at the cost of a football-like “game” in which the losing team died.  When I taught Ecotopia in a First-Year Seminar several years ago, students found Callenbach’s world less appealing than I had as an undergraduate.  I have been wondering whether the popularity of the Collins novels might produce a different response now.

But today I am more interested in what Tom Engelhardt characterized as Callenbach’s “last words to an America in decline.”  In Ecotopia Callenbach had imagined a nation achieved through the secession of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington.   This new nation functioned as an ecologically conscious model for the rest of the world, and in his final essay Callenbach acknowledged that our world’s interdependence makes survival through independent “good living” unlikely to say the least.  Many of his recommendations bring to mind contemporary homesteading as undertaken by some people I know and by some cohousing communities I have been exploring online recently.

It would be easy to read Callenbach’s final essay negatively, but I’m more interested in thinking about how his novels and his essay might help us think about questions of life, publishing, and liberal education in a world that continues to change radically, even if some say we are nearing the limits of Moore’s Law.

I’ll think more about this over the next couple of weeks, I’m sure.  What do you think?


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“Old Stuff”

It’s such fun when students’ affinities echo comments from various spaces in a professor’s life.  In one of my current classes, a student revealed during a recent introductory visit to the college archives that they like “old stuff.”  And this morning, I heard a colleague from the Wheaton College Department of Art and Art History interviewed in an NPR story about a local repository of “old stuff,” the Providence Athanaeum.

As I listened to my colleague and his partner describe the vintage items they were sporting as they attended an event at the Athanaeum, I discovered one reason the student’s reference to “old stuff” prompted my smile.  The affinity is one I share with many people in my life.  More than one member of my family feels a deep fondness for things that remind us of and connect us to the past.

Certainly, my own practices as a historian are firmly grounded in a sometime-fault that Jill Lepore once denoted the vice of “historians who love too much.” And on campus, my colleague from Art History is hosting a faculty salon focused on the place of the personal in our professional research and writing.

As these events converge with an opportunity I had last week to share my own pride and pleasure in the practices of digital scholarship at Wheaton College with visiting members of our Board of Trustees, I feel again sincere appreciation for the privileges that come with doing work I love.

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Browsing the Stacks: Braille, Code, and Digital Potentials

As I rode the elevator up to my classroom yesterday morning, I found myself staring unseeing at the Braille numbers on the panel, and I recognized the positions of the dots as a code.  Which is not of course, much of a discovery since Braille does indeed use a system of bumps positioned in particular ways to translate visual language into one readable through touch.  But even though Braille constitutes an example of code that is present in our daily lives, I would guess that many sighted people fail to recognize it as such.

So imagine my pleasure at seeing yesterday’s post on the blog of the Digital Public Library of America.  In “Redefining Reading,” Ben Naddaff-Hafrey notes that the pleasures of stack browsing have generally been denied to readers who lack the advantage of sight.  He writes about the Internet Archive’s use of the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) to digitize a million books that apps can present as speech for print disabled readers.  He closes by noting that there is more to digital books than simply turning the physical into the digital.

I would add that whilst we often hear about how proponents of digital culture overestimate the potential of the world we are creating, I’m more impressed with how we underestimate it.  Recently I’ve spent a lot of time touting the learning potential for undergraduates in the processes of transcription and coding.  Since the elusive quality of “finished” products in digital scholarship are well known, we would do well to take into account the advantages we gain from including students in the process.  And I would echo Naddaff-Hafrey.  We who transform physical objects into digital ones cannot know the uses to which our “products” might be put.  That’s part of the joy of digital history.

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Inspiration and Call to Arms

Yesterday, I attended a “Tech n Talk” presented by LIS Humanities Liaison Pete Coco and Film and New Media Studies Associate Professor Josh Stenger.  Even though I usually spend Mondays working at home, I consider the time on campus well spent.

Pete demonstrated Creative Commons, whose licenses I use, and showed us the SPARC clause that authors can add to standard publication contracts.  I hadn’t yet seen a demo of a CC image search–or how hard Google makes it to search for freely available images.

Josh offered not only a brief history of copyright from the Constitution forward but also information about ways in which publishers and others interfere with the ways we use devices we have purchased, including but far from limited to protections against “piracy.”  I particularly appreciated his discussion of the way that new iterations of protections of intellectual property assume consumers are guilty without opportunity to prove innocence.

The presentations meshed well with two great pieces I had come across during my morning troll of the web:  Barbara Fister’s “Joining the Movement: A Call to Action” in Library Journal and a blogpost she referenced, Steve Lawson’s “Publishers Hate You. You Should Hate Them Back.”  Both of these pieces affirm my sense of the connections among scholarly communication, libraries, and digital scholarship.

And that change is gonna come.

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SOPA Protest

For information on today’s internet blackout to protest SOPA/PIPA legislation, follow this link.

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2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,600 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 43 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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I’ve been thinking lately about the career aptitude test that my classmates and I took in  high school.  I remember the setting well: the high school cafeteria.  I sat at the second or third table down, on the far left side, facing the stage—roughly the place where my friends and I sat at lunch every day.  (How much of this is genuine memory?)

I have always tested well, so I have a generally positive memory of the test itself.  I remember kind of enjoying the variety of questions, though perhaps having been a bit frustrated with ones that required an ability to imagine how two-dimensional images would look once they had been folded into three-dimensional objects.

And I remember the results of the test, a recommendation that I should do work focused on organizing things, like being a file clerk.  Me and Harvey Pekar, right?

What interests me about this memory of the results (I wish I had the actual results, but I think they’re probably long lost) is how it could be read to be connected to the way that my interest in the kind of document markup I can do with TEI tends towards greater granularity.  I tend not to make use of those best practices for libraries that I mentioned last week.

And this reminds me of how I responded to a question Gerda Lerner asked in the first research seminar I took in graduate school.  She asked whether every person who had ever lived belonged in a dictionary of biography, and I said yes.  Which was the wrong answer because she was asking us to think about how, as historians, we would assess significance and apply that assessment to the formation of a research plan.  I didn’t like the idea of making those kinds of choices.

But one of the things I do like about the idea of what we are doing with the Wheaton College Digital History Project is that we are making available (eventually) documents that have not previously been known.  And I understand this activity to some degree as yet another positive answer to Gerda’s question.  In effect, we are saying that the fact these documents have not been used in the past is less a product of their insignificance than of chance.  Which is one of the things historians know about the documents we use as evidence anyway.  Whatever sources we have available to us come to us as a result of decisions that do not actually reflect their significance in some grand scheme so much as their significance to individuals for reasons that often have nothing to do with our research questions.

Sometimes, when my friends reflect on the work that I have come to be doing over the past seven years, they say that I could do this work as a librarian or an archivist.  (I’m not entirely sure whether I agree with them.)  And I wonder how close that means I have come to following the advice that resulted from that career aptitude test I took in the high school cafeteria all those years ago.

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