Tag Archives: XML

XML: The Latin of Digital Scholarship?

I’ve been playing with this analogy for a while, and I was pleased to hear the silence of assent when I took it out for a trial run at a session on Big Data at THATCamp Kansas a few weeks ago. It elicited some resistance at another moment that weekend, and I’m interested in the contextual differences.

The second group with whom I discussed my notion represented a couple of constituencies that I’m less familiar with in digital humanities, those interested in the semantic web and those who work with the languages that power social media. These folks mentioned Django, which is based on Python and was developed in Lawrence, Kansas. I haven’t yet learned Python, though I know about it, and William J. Turkel and Alan MacEachern’s The Programming Historian is bookmarked on my browser. (Thank you once again, Canada, for your excellent support of digital scholarship.)

My young colleagues pointed to Web 2.0, Facebook, and Google as examples of common tools not based on XML. I learned a lot from them–I’d never heard of Django before that conversation. But I don’t think their point invalidates my own.

I mean, after all, to point here to certain historical effects, including the use of Latin as the language of scholarship and diplomacy in Medieval Europe. (Easy for me, you may say, since I’m not a medievalist.) Thus, I think the analogy may be apt since XML lies behind long-term developments in what was long ago called Humanities Computing—efforts to consider how computers might facilitate humanities research, in Medieval and Classical Studies in fact.

Since the language also underlies such proprietary applications as MicroSoft Word and Excel, the analogy also alludes to the place of Latin as the foundation upon which the romance languages were built. Apt again, perhaps, since computational linguistics also makes use of XML.

I ponder this analogy because I want to better articulate the significance for liberal education of the effects of digital innovations on scholarship. And as I do so, I seek to understand digital scholarship in the larger landscape of digital culture.

I think that learning to feel comfortable with one type of coding (XML) can help humanities students develop the confidence to explore additional languages–like Python–and become ever more nimble citizens of their digital world.

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User-Friendly XML

As I continue to think through how I do history digitally, I note both that historians have been using computers for a long time and that what I do differs from the statistics-heavy social science computing people were learning when I was in graduate school. Programs like SPSS didn’t seem relevant to my dissertation project, which focused on small communities that would not have yielded statistically significant analysis. I didn’t know about Arc-GIS, and it might be interesting to see what one could learn by imposing census data on Whitney Cross’s maps of the Burned Over District. Might, at some other point.

I’m struck by how easily I accepted the idea that transcribing and marking up journals, diaries, and now financial records could yield interesting results for understanding the nineteenth-century United States. But an analogy that came to me this morning clarifies the process for me.

I’ve noted here before that I came to comfort with code as a result of the coincidence that my post-secondary education began just at the moment that computing was becoming democratized. At Rice, my own experience with mainframes began with learning to use word processors to type papers. In my early post-collegiate jobs, my comfort with learning to use similar applications earned me a position as the WordPerfect expert among the secretarial staff of a department at the UVA Medical School. I bought my first PC in grad school and developed minimal comfort with DOS, but I didn’t become a power user until I bought my first Mac and learned the joy of the Apple interface.

My development as an academic user coincided with the spread of the Internet in the 1990s, though I remained a low-end user focused on email and word processing until my first exposure to TEI and XML in 2004. The utility of statistical data remained relatively opaque to me, and my fondness for Macs and parallel contempt for Windows as a DOS-impaired lesser version of the Apple interface prevented my exploring possibilities. Coupled with my interest in pedagogical uses of technology, the advent of the World-Wide Web led to my involvement in discussions about cross-platform applications, and I became more and more comfortable in conversations about technology. Thus, I had been primed for the next stage–learning about XML through exposure to TEI and therefore becoming a different kind of academic user.

The analogy between the comparative difficulties of DOS/SPSS and Mac/XML has considerable explanatory power for me as I think about how I have come to be convinced that XML/TEI tools for transcription and markup have a place in undergraduate classrooms. I think it goes a long way towards expressing some of the assumptions behind my notion that liberal education should include exposure to computational thinking.

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