Tagged digital humanities

Earth viewed from space, with Africa lit up in the sun.

Experiential Approaches to Teaching African Culture and the Politics of Representation: Building the “Documenting Africa” Project with StoryMapJS


In the fall of 2018, Dr. Mary Anne Lewis Cusato (Ohio Wesleyan University) and Dr. Nancy Demerdash-Fatemi (Albion College) conducted a teaching collaboration through their courses “Fourteen Kilometers: Mediterranean (Im)Migrations in Contemporary Francophone Cultural Expressions” and “Introduction to African Art.” Supported by funding from the Great Lakes Colleges Association and the Five Colleges of Ohio Mellon Digital Scholarship Award, the courses explored the artistic traditions and literary, journalistic, cinematographic, and visual representations of African peoples and cultures. Students in both courses were encouraged to confront and ask difficult questions about the biases and mythologies that permeate Western perceptions about Africa, African peoples, and cultures; and to become attentive to the problems of history, misrepresentations, and the importance of historiographic revision. In this article, Professors Lewis Cusato and Demerdash-Fatemi show how connecting these courses through an active, experiential, creative, collaborative culminating project, namely the digital platform called “Documenting Africa,” built with StoryMapJS technology, proved a particularly effective approach for students to satisfy the learning objectives for each class and grapple with those questions at the heart of the courses. In addition, the piece explains each course’s assignments and learning individual objectives individually, united through overarching philosophical underpinnings and objectives.

Introduction: Common Learning Objectives, Description of Project, Theoretical Underpinnings

This article describes a collaboration between two courses, one on African art and another on immigration from and through North Africa, that culminated in the collaborative digital project “Documenting Africa.” Because the course on African art was an introductory course, the text in this article specific to that course focuses on the pedagogical rationale that drove both the materials included on the syllabus and the nature of the digital work and preparatory assignments. On the other hand, because the course on immigration was an upper-level course with many complementary parts, the narrative specific to that course concentrates primarily on describing materials, assignments, and learning outcomes.

Before delineating the elements undergirding the mission of our collaboration, it is important to see where Africa sits vis-a-vis the majority of American undergraduates. Most American students who come to African Studies (with few exceptions, like heritage students), especially in an introductory course, typically have little to no informational knowledge—historical, political, sociological, cultural, regional, or topographical—of the African continent. The sparse background that they do bring usually comes in the form of monolithic assumptions and overly generalized, misrepresentative, received ideas about the continent and its peoples. They might imagine a “‘global diaspora, an international culture and a metaphor with fantastical associations for the West: gold, savages, ‘darkest,’ ‘deepest,’ liberation, devastation’” (Phillips 2007, 97–98). Imagery in students’ minds often derives from such sources as nature documentaries on the Serengeti to pop cultural touchstones like The Lion King to news reports about war and child soldiers. It is not uncommon that, in the first few class meetings before certain myths have been debunked, students will unmaliciously, but naively, refer to and treat Africa, the continent, as a holistic, homogeneous entity. This is not surprising, since current events happening throughout the continent today typically surface on major Western media outlets with reportage on disease or scourges (e.g. Ebola, AIDS, etc.), acts of violence or terrorism (e.g. Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabab in Somalia and Kenya, etc.), poaching and wildlife conservation efforts, and more recently, the effects of climate change on widespread famine and territorial struggle for resources. Collectively such journalism exacerbates an already maligned imaginary of places and peoples. This is what the brilliant, late Nigerian art critic Okwui Enwezor called Afro-pessimism and the exact kind of generalized, vague, negative, ahistorical representation of the “other” that formed the basis for Edward Said’s Orientalism (Okwui Enwezor 2006, 10–20). The socio-cultural and political conditions of Africans, for many American undergraduates, typically remain abstract, conceptually, just as the immense heterogeneity and regional nuances of this landscape remain elusive to them, at the outset. To make matters even more urgent and challenging, not only do most students possess a gap in their current, geopolitical understanding of African peoples and nations today, but they lack the critical thinking skills to question the history of why some of those gross misrepresentations persist to this day. As a result, Africans today, as well as their rich cultures and nations’ histories, remain largely under- and/or mis-represented, foreign, and woefully divorced from notions of progress and potential for many American undergraduate students.

With the aforementioned problems in mind and with a desire to address them in a particularly experiential mode of teaching and learning, Professors Mary Anne Lewis Cusato (French, Ohio Wesleyan University) and Nancy Demerdash-Fatemi (Art History, Albion College) decided to pursue an opportunity through the Great Lakes Colleges Association to connect two courses, Lewis Cusato’s Fourteen Kilometers: Mediterranean (Im)Migrations in Contemporary Francophone Cultural Expressions and Dr. Demerdash-Fatemi’s Introduction to African Art, primarily through a collaborative digital humanities project called “Documenting Africa.”

The employment of digital platforms as a means of encouraging students to actively engage with unfamiliar content and problematic misconceptions was informed by such thinkers as Mary Nooter Roberts and Ruth B. Phillips, to name just two. Indeed, Roberts’ articulation of exhibiting as “always in some measure the construction of a cultural imaginary and never a direct reflection of lived experience” (2008, 170) resonated with both Professors Lewis Cusato and Demerdash-Fatemi as a useful way of conceptualizing the integration of digital work into their respective courses. When working not only to fill a knowledge gap, but also to correct misconceptions, a constructive, visible, experiential mode struck them as particularly promising and appropriate. In order to see and understand African objects and representations, students were asked to work with, comment on, and display those very objects, texts, and representations. In the same way that Roberts describes “the museum exhibition as an arena for translation” and exhibitions as “objects of knowledge,” so, too, were students in the courses asked to translate their knowledge for audiences in a curatorial, reflective, but also creative mode in which learning, creation, and reflection were intertwined and integrated.

So it was through four weeks of curricular planning during the summer of 2018 that the pedagogical philosophies at work began to crystallize to ensure, first, a focus on comparing cultural representations of Africa from the African continent with Western representations of African cultures and, second, successful completion of the digital humanities project. Furthermore, Lewis Cusato was concurrently awarded a second grant, the Five Colleges of Ohio Mellon Digital Scholarship Award, to secure a student research assistant and assistance from the Five Colleges Post-Bac to help build and maintain the digital humanities project. Assistance from the Post-Bac, Olivia Geho, proved absolutely instrumental in moving the project forward in a thoughtful, productive, efficient, and reflective manner.

In tandem, these courses shared the following three learning objectives, albeit through different resources and in different languages:

  • Broadening knowledge about, and appreciation of, African material culture;
  • Examining inherited understandings about African cultures;
  • Comparing the stakes of self-representation with those of “representing the other.”

The conceptual and theoretical overlap between these two courses was rooted in some key learning outcomes. Firstly, both professors expected students to develop more nuanced notions about African literary and artistic traditions and cultural practices, and visual/material cultural patrimonies. Secondly, students were asked to confront sometimes difficult questions about the biases and mythologies that permeate our own popular culture in the West about Africa, African peoples, and cultures. The professors hoped their students would become attentive to the problems of history and representation, and understand that for alternative histories to emerge, we need historiographic revisions, which can come about only through different types of primary source engagements (through oral interviews or analyses of visual cultural objects, for example). Thirdly, these questions of the historiographies of African arts and cultures, in the end, point students to the high stakes and direct impact posed in how these diverse peoples are not only represented, but remembered.

At its core, this collaboration sought to ensure that students grasp the deep connections between the politics of representation and historical memory, especially given that “once an African object has entered the epistemological arena of a different time and place in, say, the United States, France, or Japan, it cannot be divorced from that world of thought and presented from an exclusively African point of view” (Roberts 2008, 174). In sum, the connections among history, representation, and memory were foundational for this project.

Technology is rapidly changing the way that the humanities are pedagogically envisioned and taught: three-dimensional reconstructions of archaeological sites enable students to imagine ancient spaces; various forms of digital scanning alter the manner by which conservators restore paintings; digitizing maps opens up new forays in critical cartography. The digital humanities is not solely invested in analyzing data, producing new quantitative analyses or statistical metrics, or amassing or preserving cultural artifacts. Digital art history is often perceived to be apolitical and uncritical (Drucker 2019, 325), preoccupied with data collection (Battles 2016, 329), and lacking the intellectual rigor of conventional methods of visual analysis.

Yet as the work of N. Katherine Hayles exhorts us to consider, the digital is changing the ways we think—our epistemologies—and tell stories. For her, narratives (whether literary or artistic) and databases are fundamentally intertwined, integrating ideas of temporality and spatiality (2012). For both the fields of literature and art history, digital modes of instructional technology can render course content more accessible, interactive, and therefore familiar. If, as Hayles asserts, “the ability to access and retrieve information on a global scale has a significant impact on how one thinks about one’s place in the world” then surely, our students’ digital research and interactive exhibitions might enable them to reevaluate their own relationship to peoples and places previously unbeknownst to them (2012, 2). In teaching comparative literature and art history, the close reading of literary texts and images is paramount to pedagogical methods, though Hayles suggests that this needs to change to adapt for a new age of media literacy and that the traditional close reading of texts needs to accommodate a new type of digital hyper-reading, the fragmented ways we all consume media via filtering, skimming, hyperlinking, and so forth (2012, 61).

To account for these trends and shifts in the digital mechanisms of media consumption, what if the tools of the digital humanities could also be repurposed in the classroom to confront and debunk representational injustices and complicate conceptual or epistemological problems of a subject or discipline? Can a digital tool challenge misrepresentations or assumptions on African cultures and peoples? This essentially was the key methodological and pedagogical question we sought to tackle.

Course Specifics and Benchmark Assignments for Introduction to African Art

Teaching African art history presents instructors with the immensely tall pedagogical order of rendering places, peoples, and cultures that are mostly alien to students familiar, through experiential learning, connection, and creation. In Demerdash-Fatemi’s Introduction to African Art course, students encounter a range of original artistic practices from cultural groups all over the geographical and political terrain of the continent. Lesson units are broken down by considering the visual culture and communal usage of objects within specific ethnic and cultural groups of a particular region (e.g. sculptural practices and cosmology of the Dogon peoples of Mali, the divination objects and storytelling memory boards of the Luba peoples of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the royal paraphernalia of the Bamum peoples of Cameroon, etc.). Students examine the artistic qualities, fine craftsmanship, and contextual roles of an array of objects—wooden sculptures, masks and headdresses, gold bracelets and staffs, buildings and materials, garments and regalia—to comprehend the socio-cultural significance of such objects within these peoples’ lives, and to grasp the epistemological connections such peoples make about the environment and the places they inhabit.

Like any introductory course, this too was a survey in its general format. The key challenges of any art history survey are to balance depth and breadth, and to instill in students both the detail-oriented skills of visual analysis, on the one hand, and the macro-level conceptual abilities of asking broad, theme-based questions, on the other. And so over the course of any standard curriculum in African art history, students not only gain an intricate understanding of how diverse peoples and their visual and material cultural practices throughout the continent, but they are encouraged to identify similarities and connections in how many of these cultural groups construct their art, societies, and conceptualize their worldviews in relation to pivotal political and historical events, as well as centuries of economic trade and cross-cultural exchange. Methodologically and theoretically, however, African art history is fraught as a subfield by virtue of its heritage. Its origins lay not within the field of art history, but in the discipline of anthropology and the problematic, unethical collection practices of colonial ethnographers and bureaucrats on military expeditions in Africa throughout the long nineteenth century. Thus, the very study of African art was founded under exploitative conditions, and as a consequence, has given rise to a number of methodological and epistemological debates about how African art should be approached, analyzed and understood (Hallen 1997). As the noted art historian Sidney Littlefield Kasfir remarks in her much-cited article, the eventual field that formed out of these geopolitical inequities—mostly work undertaken by anthropologists—followed the “one tribe, one style” paradigmatic model, in which the artistic production of one ethnic and cultural group is correlated to one quintessential style and set of formal qualities (Kasfir 1992). Such ethnic and cultural groups become siloed entities, treated homogeneously, accounting little for cross-cultural encounters and exchanges across and among groups. Paradoxically, this method of treating ethnic and regional case studies in a singular, tribal fashion still generally predominates in African art history pedagogy at the introductory level, due to the diversity and sheer multiplicity of African peoples and cultures and the need of instructors to render the material digestible to undergraduates. In our course, we used Monica Blackmun Visona’s textbook, A History of Art in Africa (Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008), which navigates through the rich artistic traditions of peoples and groups with chapters divided according to regional domains (e.g. Sahara and the Maghreb, West Africa and West Atlantic Forests, Central Africa including the Congo Basin, Eastern and Southern Africa, and the diaspora).

Time/temporality and authorship are yet more variables that add complexity to African art historical analysis. Contrasting with conventional or Western art historical methods, which privilege historical chronology and periodization, African art history preoccupies itself more with conceptual epistemologies and indigenous knowledge systems—often derived from contemporary cultural phenomena and observations (Ogbechie 2005)—to arrive at an historical art work’s interpretation. This approach to time is complicated by gaps in the historical record (Peffer 2005) and the fact that many African artists may acquire fame and repute, but their notoriety may not be socially linked specifically to the art works that they produced in their lifetime. Objects’ lives and meanings are not defined by their authorial makers, but instead by their social lives circulating among the patrons, the groups who wear or use said objects, or the religious officials and diviners who control and activate them (Vogel 1999).

Such methodological and epistemological issues bear greatly on pedagogy and student learning outcomes as well. The rationale for assigning a digital final project to students of African art history is multi-pronged and motivated by a desire to decolonize troubling pedagogies. Firstly, in order to problematize those aforementioned methodological questions of tribe, style, cross-cultural exchange, history, collecting, time/temporality, and authorship in African art objects, students must engage in cross-cultural and comparative thinking straight away. The rote memorization and connoisseurship-focused pedagogy enforced by an old guard of art historians does not serve to enliven either the African art objects, peoples or cultures in this generation of students. By encouraging students to think about the axes of time and space in African art, they resist notions of fixed, homogeneous peoples and instead become attuned to the dynamism of cultural exchanges and processes of transformation. Furthermore, to break free from and challenge those ubiquitous misrepresentations of African cultures in the Western media, students must acquire some interactive sense of intimacy or immediacy with African cultures and current events so as to break the barrier of foreignness. And crucially, reception is a vital facet of any African art history course, in probing students to empathically position themselves in the role of the makers, interlocutors, recipients, and beholders of such works of art.

Throughout the course, students had the tall order of absorbing the content and material of each unit, but the final digital project was conceived to help integrate their knowledge through comparative, analytical thinking. Students were divided into three groups of three and four by the professor (balanced based on their respective standing, research experience, critical thinking skills, reading abilities, and academic readiness) and instructed to curate their own digital online exhibition of African art objects, centered on a specific theme across time and space; just like real art curators in museums and galleries, students had to critically examine issues of representation, conceptual and narrative coherence, and sub-thematic division and arrangement in designing their own online exhibition. At the outset, Neatline and Omeka were briefly considered as potential software tools, but ruled out because of their relative complexity; ultimately, in consultation with Albion College’s instructional technologist, Sarah Noah, StoryMapJS was chosen due to its facility for a general audience.

To aid students in envisioning their digital shows, they were taken on two local field trips: firstly, to see the special exhibition, Beyond Borders: Global Africa, which ran from August 11 to November 25, 2018 at the University of Michigan Art Museum (UMMA) and was curated by Dr. Laura De Becker; and secondly, to tour the permanent African art exhibits at the Detroit Institute of Art, known by Africanists to be one of the richest collections of African art in the United States (Woods 1971). By selecting at least twenty images of African art objects now residing in US museum collections from a minimum of five disparate cultural groups, students had to create and curate their own show around a story arc (e.g. power and kingship; adornment and beauty; women’s authority; masking, performance and spirits; ancestors and memories; apotropaism and protections; slavery or imperial encounters; kinship and communalism; etc.).

Assignments were scaffolded so as to break down tasks and ensure genuine collaboration among group members. The first of these benchmark assignments asked students to construct their story arc or narrative theme. Next, because StoryMapJS enables one to render stories interactive and visual over geographical space and chronological time, students had to build on their narrative outline by selecting their base map, through which their audience will navigate through the digital exhibition; and most importantly, their objects and regional sites. For each object, students had to conduct research on the piece and write their own object label–just like an explanatory placard on the wall of a gallery—providing their viewers with the necessary content to understand the cultural significance of that piece and how it fits into the overarching narrative arc.

The students’ final, digital exhibitions successfully exemplified those desired learning outcomes of understanding the heterogeneity of African artistic traditions, cross-cultural exchange, and regional specificity. The three projects differentiated and compared the creative output and cultural practices shared by various ethnic groups across the continent: the exhibition “Initiation Ceremonies and Rites of Passage in African Arts and Cultures” dealt with masquerade practices, sculptural traditions, and sacred rituals in the transition from youth to adulthood; “Passion, Power, Perfection: Marriage and African Arts” examined the role of courtship, public displays of fidelity and the place of marriage in African artistic traditions; and finally, “African Funerary Practices and Traditions” highlighted the central position of objects in honoring ancestors and funerary rituals, proving that death and collective memory are intertwined in African artistic practices. Pedagogically, these exhibitions were a success in that they challenged students to think about conceptual and representational issues and through research encouraged familiarity with the objects. The digital exhibitions brought to life material that otherwise often remains static and foreign in an African art history course.

Students’ digital exhibitions were graded on the following criteria: narrative coherence, informational accuracy and depth of research, facility of the exhibit (e.g. cleanliness and user-friendly qualities), aesthetic appeal, and teamwork professionalism. A major drawback of StoryMapJS is that only one student could be the user/owner of that project account, and so edits to the digital exhibition could not be implemented simultaneously by other group members; this proved to be inconvenient for collaboration, with inevitably one student in each group shouldering more of the burden of entering data into the program.

Course Specifics and Benchmark Assignments for “Fourteen Kilometers: Mediterranean (Im)Migrations in Contemporary Francophone Cultural Expressions”

The benchmark assignments designed for the Fourteen Kilometers class were conceived with the objective of preparing students to answer such weighty questions as the following:

  • What does it mean, first, to record an oral history both responsibly and ethically and, second, how do stylistics, such as camerawork and sound recording, affect such a project?
  • Second, what are the stakes of creating an outward-facing project that is a carrier of meaning, especially for cultural documents that represent and / or come from Africa?
  • Are exhibition and translation, both defined here as extensions of the original object(s), “all one can ever know”? (Roberts 2008, 183) If so, what does this mean in terms of thinking about “original” vs. “translation” or “exhibition”?

To these ends, several benchmark assignments were designed to prepare students to learn and create with a sense of depth, purpose, and reflection. As a class, Fourteen Kilometers: Mediterranean (Im)Migrations in Contemporary Francophone Cultural Expressions was preparing to collect, edit, and publish an oral history from a French-speaking immigrant in the Columbus area, and these benchmark workshops and assignments were essential training tools for the students. First, the Fourteen Kilometers class held a workshop in the campus library with the Director of Media Services at Ohio Wesleyan University, Chuck Della Lana, who demonstrated framing techniques with video cameras and discussed the implications of various manners of video framing, camera angles, and relating sound to image. Students then paired off to interview one another briefly on a topic of their choosing, and returned to the media center to share the product with the class to analyze various techniques related to the recording choices of both sound and image. In a second round of interviews, partners switched roles and finessed those elements upon which they wished to improve before concluding discussions. This benchmark assignment was crucial in training students to understand the deep relationship; whether in videography, cinematography, or oral history; between message and stylistics. Camera angles, shots, manipulation of sound, and other tools associated with video recordings all shape, both literally and figuratively, the narrative at the center of the story. Students were encouraged to reflect on such different modes of recording as recording-as-art vs. recording-for-knowledge. What does it mean to take an oral history, to record and disseminate someone else’s story? How is the oral historian, literally and figuratively, framing the story to be received by anyone who views it later? By the end of the workshop, students understood these concepts in a deeper and more concrete way.

The second benchmark workshop and assignment deepened students’ engagement with questions that arose from the first. On Friday, October 26, 2018, Wendy Singer, Roy T. Wortman Distinguished Professor of History at Kenyon College, came to campus to lead a workshop for students and other Ohio Wesleyan University community members through a presentation and a series of exercises and discussions training students to consider the ethical issues that can arise when conducting, editing, and publishing oral histories. When an oral history is given, how do authorship, subjectivity, ownership of the story, and voice shift? To demonstrate this notion, Singer asked students, in pairs, to designate a storyteller and a listener. The storyteller told the story of their first day on campus, and the listener retold the story to the group. The original storyteller then noted differences between the original version and the retelling and offered reflections on subtle differences between the two tellings. This workshop, building on the first, guided students’ thinking about the overarching goals of oral history and the subtle ways in which retelling is also, whether willfully or not, a reshaping. If the objective is to record an oral history with as little intervention as possible, with as little reshaping as possible, then great care and attention must be paid.[1]

The third benchmark assignment took place on November 16, 2018, the Friday before Thanksgiving, when Lewis Cusato and the students in the “Fourteen Kilometers” class boarded a university van to drive nineteen miles to visit the Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) organization in Columbus, Ohio. Lewis Cusato had arranged for an oral history given by a local French-speaking refugee and a follow-up Question and Answer session to be recorded by a colleague. Upon arrival at CRIS, it became clear that the person sharing his story did not wish for any recording to be disseminated. This was surprising and disappointing for the students, who had devoted significant time, energy, and thought to developing appropriate questions to ask him in French; considering how to approach such questions in the most respectful and productive ways possible; and to learning about how to record, transcribe, translate, and present the oral history. He presented his story with both narrative and images, students did ask their questions, the session was recorded, and the CRIS Volunteer Coordinator spoke with the group about the state of immigrants and immigration in the United States under the current presidential administration. The visit lasted some two and a half hours and generated much discussion for the drive back to campus in Delaware, Ohio. Lewis Cusato asked students to articulate their reactions to the visit. They expressed enthusiasm at the poignancy of hearing a first-person, in-person account and were grateful for the opportunity to nuance common media reports, many of which consistently depict immigrants as a homogeneous, problematic group. Engaging with one man’s personal narrative about what it truly was to leave his country, what it meant to wait for eleven years in a refugee camp in Uganda, what it was to be examined and checked by the Department of Homeland Security and finally granted asylum, and what it entailed to move and find his way in a new country and a new language allowed students to see the phenomenon of immigration in a more realistic, complete, personal, and thorough way than they would have by simply relying on the news. The students expressed gratitude at hearing from the CRIS Volunteer Coordinator the staggering statistics about just how few refugees are in fact granted asylum to the United States and how such numbers pale in comparison with many smaller, less wealthy countries. Rich discussion ensued, and the class collectively decided to use the Thanksgiving break to reflect on potential paths forward, given that the original plan to record, transcribe, and disseminate the oral history would no longer be possible.

During that first class session following the visit to CRIS and Thanksgiving break, Lewis Cusato asked students to reflect on what they had done so far throughout the semester’s work in the class. As they spoke, she noted both content and skill development work on the board. Their discussion hinged on the progress of the course to that point. Yes, there had been an emphasis on the oral history component of the class, but students had also watched and analyzed a documentary, La Saga des immigrés (The Saga of Immigrants, 2007); engaged with street art throughout the Mediterranean that comments on immigration; read a novel, Les Clandestins, about clandestine immigration from Morocco; watched and interpreted a film, Harragas, about clandestine immigration from Algeria to southern Europe; watched and discussed a special report on the SOS Méditerranée organization that saves migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea; read and discussed news articles from African, French, and American media about immigration throughout the Mediterranean; and studied the photojournalistic manifesto I Am With Them, which was exhibited in 2015 in Paris at the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute). The course participants realized that the course, at its essence, tells the stories of the journeys taken up by the protagonists, the subjects filmed, the characters written, and the people portrayed. Hence, the StoryMap mode would likely work best. When all the materials studied throughout the term were listed on the board so that all could see them together as parts of a whole, the structure for the website began to emerge, founded on valuable insights gleaned through comparative analysis of the syllabus’s content. The point here, too, was to move beyond such common Western aspirations as “the experiences of ‘resonance’ and ‘wonder’ that are produced by the presentation of objects as artifact and art” (Phillips 2007, 98) and to move towards a multi-layered, multimodal, multifaceted narrative that emphasizes originality, individuality, reflection, sophistication, and art and knowledge alike. Informed by Turnbull’s work theorizing maps as knowledge, maps as languages and networks, and maps as narratives in and of themselves, this new digital project emerged with a sense of depth and complexity that had the potential to allow the narratives of journey to emerge in a vibrant, full digital display.

The site would begin with an introduction, in both English and French, by Lewis Cusato. At the bottom of the page would appear an image, title, and short explanation to introduce each of the five students’ StoryMaps, all of which would be connected through an overarching WordPress site. As their final project for the course, then, students would work either individually or in pairs to choose images, quotations, and to create explanations and analysis of their source or sources. The students’ first step was to curate the text and images they would like to include on the map as well as decide on the map’s pinpoints. Once this was accomplished, each student or team would present their proposed focus to the group to solicit feedback from their classmates. Bit by bit, as students worked alone, presented their proposed contributions to the site, gave one another feedback, and revised and reframed as necessary, the site began to take shape. From November 26 through December 14, 2018, then, students built the site in consort with Lewis Cusato and Olivia Geho. In retrospect, it is clear that devoted the first three months of coursework (August 22 to November 16, 2018) to content coverage and assessment as well as benchmark assignments, followed by spending three weeks (November 26 to December 14, 2018) building the site worked well as a timeline. Finally, since the Fourteen Kilometers course is an upper-level French course, significant time, energy, and focus were necessary to correct and finesse the students’ translations. Fortunately, a senior student in French particularly interested in translation approached Lewis Cusato about pursuing an independent study under her guidance with an emphasis on translation. Thus, in the spring of 2020, through this independent study, this student and Lewis Cusato painstakingly examined, corrected, and finessed all the text and translations associated with the project.

To balance and integrate such elements of a course as content and skill mastery with a culminating, collaborative digital project requires purposeful and consistent pedagogical movement among the various modes of input and output, whether textual, visual, digital, cinematographic, political, journalistic, popular, or some combination of these. The syllabus and course timeline must therefore be constructed with an eye towards balancing the content work with the benchmark assignments, consulting experts, digital work, and time for collectively checking in with one another as a class and revising both the plan and the culminating project as necessary along the way. The ability and willingness to rethink and pivot if necessary proved foundational for the course, as did maintaining open dialogue with the class about best strategies for progressing, even unexpected obstacles rendered the original plan unfeasible. Furthermore, the notion that “a person is always operating within the structures of his/her own culturally prescribed formats for understanding the world” (Roberts 2008, 172) reminded all involved that the project must take into account potential lack of familiarity on the part of visitors. With these elements in mind and with transparent, clear communication among all members of the class, such a course can become, and indeed was, a particularly collaborative, engaging, relevant, and constructive experience of learning, thinking, reflecting, and creating.

Concluding Reflections

The courses described above allowed Demerdash-Fatemi and Lewis Cusato to teach students about the stakes of cultural production related to Africa. Students were asked to take their time, look at, contextualize, study, and reflect on the objects, images, and texts upon which each respective course was founded. Furthermore, these courses asked students to consider the stakes of representing oneself, as compared to being represented by others. Students were asked to compare and contrast Western representations of Africa with African representations of Africa in order to begin to be able to see and articulate the politics of representation always at work. Finally, these courses facilitated students’ creating something that could be shared with others from their readings, their viewings, their discussions, their analysis, their research, and their interpretations. This is the great value of coupling a course with the creation of a digital humanities project: it asks students to curate and create something visual, textual, technological, outward-looking, and helpful for others who might wish to explore the topic. It asks them to engage with layers of meaning as they interpret and to be meaning-makers themselves. The students literally become the teacher, and they emerge from the course experience having moved from input, from learning, to creation, to teaching. It allows them to show anyone interested how—though the news media often portrays immigrants as a problematic, troublesome group—artists, journalists, filmmakers, writers, and activists tell the story of immigration in very different ways and paint very different pictures. Finally, this project encouraged the students to reflect upon and comment on, to connect to and share new learning about traditions, novel aesthetics, and communities throughout the African continent. You can find such stories and such pictures, as well as associated commentary and analysis, on this site, where learning begets reflection and creation, and where engagement with resources begets the genesis of a new resource. The cycle, the learning, continue.


[1] Open to the wider campus community, Professor Singer’s visit was made possible by support from The Five Colleges of Ohio Mellon Digital Scholarship Award and from Ohio Wesleyan University’s Department of Modern Foreign Languages.


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Turnbull, David. 1993. Maps Are Territories: Science Is an Atlas: A Portfolio of Exhibits. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. http://territories.indigenousknowledge.org/.

Vogel, Susan Mullin. 1999. “Known Artists but Anonymous Works: Fieldwork and Art History.” African Arts 32, no. 1 (Spring): 40–⁠55, 93–⁠94.

Woods, Willis. 1971. “African Art in the Collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts.” African Arts 4, no. 4 (Summer): 16–⁠23.


We, the authors, wish to acknowledge the following people and organizations, without whom this work would not have been possible: Simon Gray (Program Officer, Great Lakes Colleges Association and Global Liberal Arts Alliance), Wendy Singer (Roy T. Wortman Distinguished Professor of History at Kenyon College), Tyler Reeve (Volunteer Coordinator at Community Refugee and Immigration Services in Columbus, Ohio), Ben Daigle (Associate Director of Consortial Library Systems for the Five Colleges), Deanne Peterson (Director of Libraries at Ohio Wesleyan University), David Soliday (Instructional Technologist at Ohio Wesleyan University), Eugene Rutigliano (Digital Initiatives Librarian and Curator at Ohio Wesleyan University), Olivia Geho (Ohio 5 Digital Collections Post-Bac), Brandon Stevens (student assistant for Dr. Lewis Cusato), and Sarah Noah (Instructional Technologist at Albion College). This Digital Humanities resource is housed at Ohio Wesleyan University and managed by Dr. Lewis Cusato, in cooperation with Ben Daigle, Deanne Peterson, Eugene Rutigliano, and David Soliday.

About the Authors

Mary Anne Lewis Cusato came to Ohio Wesleyan University, where she serves as an Associate Professor and the Director of the French Program, from the Yale University Department of French. She was promoted and granted tenure in 2019 and awarded the Sherwood Dodge Shankland Teaching Award in 2020. Dr. Lewis Cusato teaches French language at all levels, as well as courses on the French-speaking world outside of France, with an emphasis on francophone Africa. She publishes regularly, and her work has appeared in Contemporary French & Francophone Studies: SITES, Expressions maghrébines, The Journal of North African Studies, The Chronicle: Vitae, and The Limits of Cosmopolitanism: Globalization and Its Discontents in Contemporary Literature. Dr. Lewis Cusato also co-founded and co-directs OWU’s Palmer Global Scholars Program.

Nancy Demerdash-Fatemi is an Assistant Professor of Art History in the Department of Art and Art History at Albion College (Michigan, USA), where she teaches a range of courses in global visual culture and art and architectural history. She holds graduate and doctoral degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University, respectively, and publishes widely on modern and contemporary art and architecture of the Middle East and North Africa. Her broader research interests include postcolonial and diaspora studies. Her articles have appeared in edited volumes as well as in journals such as The Journal of North African Studies, The Journal of Arabian Studies, Perspective: actualité en histoire de l’art, among others. Additionally, she serves as an Assistant Editor for The International Journal of Islamic Architecture.

A slide demonstrates TimelineJS used in a history classroom, with the header 'The Accidental Iconic Trend'.

Collaborative Digital Projects in the Undergraduate Humanities Classroom: Case Studies with TimelineJS


This article presents case studies for the use of TimelineJS in two types of courses: sophomore-level humanities survey courses at the University of North Texas (UNT), and senior capstone history seminars at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), both large land-grant research institutions. The case studies offer a framework for assignment scaffolding (including iteration and reflection), FERPA rights management, and describe models of faculty-librarian collaboration in assignment design and implementation. These assignments provide students an introduction to basic metadata and HTML markup skills and empower them to explore the historical contexts of primary sources by visualizing the chronology of historical periods.

As open-source digital tools for content creation and curation flourish, those engaged in higher education have a unique opportunity to apply these tools in support of undergraduate pedagogy. Harnessed appropriately, these tools can facilitate collaborations between teaching faculty and librarians focused on developing alternative durable research products that scale into various classroom settings, including remote teaching contexts. These projects offer the opportunity to incorporate primary source literacy into the curriculum and focus on active learning and critical inquiry while creating a digital project that teaches skills in data literacy, visual literacy, and citation, and incorporates the use of images as primary sources. Additionally, students develop skills in curation as well as writing interpretive or didactic text for external audiences.This article presents case studies for the use of TimelineJS in two types of courses: sophomore-level humanities surveys at the University of North Texas (UNT), and senior capstone history seminars at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), both large land-grant research institutions.

The design of these assignments is aligned with the ethos of critical digital pedagogy. Informed by the work of educational theorists including bell hooks and Paulo Freire, critical pedagogy is, in Jesse Stommel’s terms “an approach to teaching and learning predicated on fostering agency and empowering learners.” Critical digital pedagogy brings this concept into digital space. Stommel and others have constructively wondered whether and how effectively this translation can occur. Given the dynamics of digital platforms and social media, one could ask “what is digital agency?” (Stommel 2014). In the context of the assignments described here, digital agency allows students to pivot quickly from being content consumers to knowledge producers, with digital tools providing the means of production, rather than being direct objects of learning in and of themselves.

In most undergraduate humanities classes, the primary learning goals for courses are not technical. As such, the decision to integrate digital projects must necessarily be balanced with the humanistic learning outcomes for a given course. Requirements for historical coverage, and exposure to diversity of genres and literary forms, as well as representation in terms of race and gender—all outcomes anticipated in survey courses—must come before adopting technical skills. Since survey courses frequently fulfill core curriculum or general education requirements, the make-up of these classes typically includes non-literature majors from across the curriculum. Capstone courses require students in a particular major to demonstrate mastery of the domain knowledge necessary for the Baccalaureate degree. In both cases, tech skills are not expected of students, nor should they be.

Applying the concepts of minimal computing can help instructors strike the balance between humanistic learning outcomes and technical requirements for digital assignments in their courses. Minimal computing describes a set of principles that foregrounds “fundamental questions about choice and necessity: ‘What do we need?’ ‘What don’t we need?’ ‘What do we want?’ ‘What don’t we want?’” (Sayers 2016). In the case of the assignments described here, we need a platform that allows students to collaboratively develop a project that complements the learning goals of the classes. We do not need a lot of technical overhead that would be intimidating for most learners. We want both a process and an end result that facilitates student learning by empowering students to produce and share content. And, again, we do not want to chew up a ton of class time for either the instructor or the students to learn the tech.

TimelineJS fulfills the requirements of minimal computing for the purposes of this assignment. Developed by Knight Lab at Northwestern University, TimelineJS is an open-source digital tool that creates flexible online interactive timelines. It uses an API linked to Google Sheets to provide an easy-to-use platform for an alternative digital research project. Clearly on the back-end TimelineJS is not minimal at all; the program is based on thousands of lines of code that drive a sophisticated interface between Google Sheets (itself a massive program) and the web browser that displays the information. But this complexity is hidden from the users (in this case students and teachers). This is the concept of minimal computing that Jentery Sayers describes as Minimal Visibility, in which developers “reduce the perceived intervention of technologies to facilitate interaction as well as the production/extraction of data from those interactions/behaviors.” The invisibility of the “intervention of technologies” between the Google Sheet and the web browser facilitates a very low technical bar to entry for end users, making Timeline JS ideal for incorporating a collaborative research project into humanities classes. Because Google Sheets allows multiple users to simultaneously populate and edit metadata in the worksheet, TimelineJS provides an opportunity for teachers to develop alternative collaborative assignments for asynchronous or synchronous remote learning settings.

In Dr. Keralis’s World Lit class, the interactive timeline allowed students to visualize a chronology of events without necessarily implying a teleological relationship between these events. The timeline helped students see how historical events correspond without necessarily influencing each other. For example, while the Tây Sơn rebellion took place in the 1770s, there is no reason to assume that the peasant uprising in Vietnam had any impact on the Declaration of Independence in the British colonies in North America. Alternatively, in the UCLA History Capstone course, the assignment facilitated a discussion about how canonical historical events both occur and are related to one another chronologically, as well as providing a grounding for discussing how the documentation and dissemination of information (as manifested in individual printed and written texts) relate to those political, social, and religious events. In the example below, Christopher Hanson’s initial interest in the Protestant Reformation and its impact on early modern Europe (see Figure 2), informed his research on a late seventeenth century text from an anonymous minister criticizing the Anglican church and its role in education (see Figure 3). Additionally, Christopher’s entry is co-located next to an entry from a fellow classmate using an image from an eighteenth century manuscript cookbook discussing access to exotic ingredients and the women’s role in household duties during a time of increasingly arduous baking methods. Thus the timeline underscores for students the correspondence between events and documentary sources, helping students use documentary evidence to understand historical events. Both classes use the tool to help meet the learning outcomes for each course, but with contrasting rhetorical approaches as to how the timeline represents historical information.

Additionally, TimelineJS serves as a flexible and easily implementable digital platform for institutions without the capacity or desire to invest in similar open source tools that require long-term hosting and stewardship commitments. Content management systems common in digital humanities such as Scalar, Omeka, and WordPress all require hosting on campus servers or on commercial servers, all of which will incur additional maintenance and other expenses. As many institutions have invested in institutional Google Apps licensing, many library staff, teaching faculty, and students benefit from existing familiarity with these tools (Google Sheets, Google Sites, etc.), decreasing the barriers for implementation.

Librarians have a role when advocating for both the principles of critical digital pedagogy and minimal computing as they consult with faculty to develop and implement digital assignments. Faculty are experts in their areas of study but might lack expertise in pedagogical areas of particular interest to librarians, such as critical information literacy, primary source literacy, and critical digital pedagogy. In their consultations and conversations with faculty, librarians should advocate for pedagogical approaches and learning activities that support student learning in these areas, advance the instructor’s goals for their courses, and incorporate our professional commitment to information literacy and research skills development. Doing this requires an extensive toolbox of assignments and learning activities as well as the specific skills to pursue assignment design during instructional consultations. This allows the librarian an opportunity to tailor assignments and activities to meet the needs of the instructor, the course, and the students, and then ensure those learning experiences are scaffolded within a course. This essentially requires and enables librarians to situate themselves as partners in instruction and course design. In these case studies, we have particularly advocated for the incorporation of TimelineJS as a digital assignment that bolsters these goals and commitments while supporting the needs and expectations of the instructor and students.

These case studies illustrate successful implementations of TimelineJS into the undergraduate humanities classroom through collaboration between librarians and teaching faculty. In these classes, TimelineJS supports course goals and supplies an engaging alternative to traditional research paper assignments that builds student knowledge, scaffolds learning, provides opportunities to learn digital humanities skills, and engages in alternative modes of scholarly research output.

TimelineJS in a World Literature Survey

The UNT assignment was originally designed to help students in a semester-long (fifteen-week) World Literature II course to help students understand the historical contexts for their assigned reading. Wide ranging survey courses such as World Lit can be challenging for both students and instructors because of the long durée nature of the syllabus; the World Lit I course at UNT goes from antiquity to the eighteenth century, and World Lit II covers the period from the eighteenth century to contemporary literature. Instructors teaching these courses—frequently graduate students or contingent faculty—are typically specialists in a specific period of English or American literature, and not generalists or non-Western literature specialists. World Lit surveys require instructors to familiarize themselves with huge swathes of historical time, as well as representative literatures from periods and cultures outside of their usual specialization. When Dr. Keralis taught the course in Spring of 2017 as an adjunct instructor for the Department of English, he was also serving as a Research Associate Professor and head for digital humanities and collaborative programs in the university library. As such, he wanted to incorporate a digital assignment into the class that would facilitate conversation about the historical contexts of the assigned texts.

The textbook for the course was The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume E, supplemented with plays and novels, including Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, and Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti. The Norton anthology includes extensive materials to provide historical context for the works, but the stand alone materials largely did not include scholarly or contextual introductions. Once Dr. Keralis had identified the assigned texts for the syllabus, he compiled a list of historical topics that complemented those texts. For example, for the week in which the class read major figures from Romanticism including William Blake, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and John Keats, the timeline entry topics included Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto (1809 –11) and Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, to demonstrate the concept of the sublime across media. The process of developing the list of topics—three topics per student over the entire semester—was very labor intensive, taking about thirty hours to develop for the first iteration. Instructors adapting this assignment should recognize that it does require a significant amount of set up prior to the start of the semester.

Timeline entry with illustration of Wedgewood medallion of a kneeling slave.
Figure 1. Timeline entry for topic “Am I Not A Man And A Brother?” curated by World Literature student Sydney Kim. Used by Permission. CC BY-SA 4.0

The assignment was scaffolded to allow students the opportunity for revision and reflection, mirroring the concept of iteration from design thinking. There were four major components to the assignment: selection and citation of a media object related to their topics, composition of the interpretive text for the media object, an in-class presentation of their entries in which they connected the entries to the course readings, and revision and reflection. In the first class, each student chose three topics from the pre-prepared list. In subsequent classes, Dr. Keralis scaled back the number of required entries to two per student. As a writing assignment, the interactive timeline demands brevity. For each entry, students prepared a hundred-word descriptive entry for the timeline. This proved to be particularly challenging for students who were enthusiastic about their topics, and students who went over the word count were required to revise their work. Students were encouraged to include information that they had cut from their entries in their in-class presentation, rather than just reading the entries themselves. Because all twenty-eight students were working in the same Google Sheet, it allowed the instructor to troubleshoot errors in one sheet rather than many, sometimes on the fly in front of the class. The Google Sheets template provided by Knight Labs provides some error messages to assist with identifying and correcting errors. In addition, the exercise introduces students to skills in conscientious collaboration in a shared data set. Google Sheets’ version control functionality lowers the risk of having multiple hands in the same data set, since it is easy to restore an earlier version should data be inadvertently deleted.

One aspect of critical digital pedagogy in which Dr. Keralis has been particularly invested is the vindication of students’ labor and intellectual property rights. As he has written elsewhere, “student labor in the classroom is never not coerced” (Keralis 2018, 286), and students’ contribution to digital projects in classes often effaces their labor, hiding the actual cost of producing digital projects from funders and administrators. These concerns are also elaborated in the Student Collaborators’ Bill of Rights, developed at UCLA. To mitigate the coercive nature of classroom labor, Keralis designed three ways for students to complete the requirements of the assignment: online with full author attribution, online anonymously, or offline in a Google Slide. These options were discussed with students at the beginning of the semester, and all students signed off on the option they chose. For those who selected attribution, an HTML markup model was provided for them to include in their entry, an example of which can be seen in the student byline in Figure 1:

<p><small>Entry curated by [Student Name]</small></p>

Students opting for the Google Slide rather than doing the timeline were given a title and two column layout template which they would use to present their research to the class, but their work does not appear in the online timeline (Figure 2).

Google Slide mockup with illustration of Wedgewood medallion of a kneeling slave.
Figure 2. Mockup of Google Slide submission option for Sydney Kim’s timeline entry from Figure 1. CC BY-SA 4.0

Because the assignment required both primary and secondary source research that many first and second year students were unlikely to have experience doing, library instruction was provided by English subject librarian Carol Hargis at the beginning of the semester to introduce students to the data literacy and research skills necessary to successfully complete the writing for the assignment. The subject librarian was available to consult during the research process. Rather than discouraging or forbidding the use of Wikipedia as a source, the instructor and the subject librarian discussed how to use Wikipedia as a starting point for research, how to use the citation lists from Wikipedia entries as leads for sources, and how to correctly cite a Wikipedia entry. Further, many students used open access and public domain images from Wikimedia for their entries, which facilitated discussion of creator rights and licensing, and provided practice in citing non-textual media.

The students presented their timeline entries to the class prior to the discussion of the literary works. This allowed for a flipped classroom in which students shared the knowledge they had acquired through their research to provide contexts for the literature under consideration. Students participated in question-and-answer sessions with their peers. After discussion and feedback from their peers, students were allowed to revise their entries, and they submitted a final version of their interpretive text with complete citations for primary and secondary sources and media. This allowed students to demonstrate applied information seeking skills and citation practices for a variety of sources. As part of their written assignment, each student prepared an exam question based on their entries, several of which were selected for the mid-term and final exams for the course. The assignment ended with a reflective writing, in which students wrote about what they learned from their research and their engagement with the technology.

TimelineJS in a History Capstone Seminar

In incorporating TimelineJS into his courses at the University of North Texas, Dr. Keralis established clear templates and best practices for scaffolding this assignment model into curriculum to support learning outcomes. Courtney Jacobs borrowed heavily on this work to implement a similar assignment at UCLA in partnership with Dr. Muriel McClendon (associate Professor of History) who was interested in developing alternative research projects using special collections materials. In its first iteration, Jacobs collaborated with Dr. McClendon, Marisa Méndez-Brady (then English and History Librarian for UCLA Library) and Philip Palmer (then Head of Research Services for the Andrew W. Clark Memorial Library) to integrate TimelineJS and primary source literacy into a quarter-long (ten-week) history capstone seminar.[1] In years prior, Brady had worked with Dr. McClendon to build a robust partnership that embedded critical research skills and primary source literacy into the course curriculum for multiple classes, establishing a beneficial partnership open to new projects. The fall 2018 class provided the basic framework for scaffolding the TimelineJS assignment into the ten-week quarter while also allowing for hands-on research visits to UCLA’s Charles E. Young Research Library, Library Special Collections, and the Andrew W. Clark Memorial Library.

The following year, Jacobs collaborated with Matt Johnson (English and History Librarian) and Dr. McClendon to integrate TimelineJS and primary source literacy into McClendon’s fall capstone seminar exploring the topic of work and leisure in early modern England. As in previous iterations of this course, Professor McClendon was interested in building an upper-level history capstone class around library research skills, insisting that students develop primary source literacy and incorporate special collections materials into their research and assignments. As a strong library advocate and past collaborator, Professor McClendon was open to alternative project ideas that met the requirements of the capstone program, and had successfully incorporated TimelineJS into her previous year’s capstone seminar. Over the course of the quarter, the students would collaboratively define “early modern” as it applied to their class, establish an initial timeline of canonical events, then identify a topic, event, or individual for more in-depth research using primary sources to develop their final timeline entry. The final class deliverable was a collaborative digital exhibit focused on work and leisure in early modern England using TimelineJS.

Like many capstone seminars, Dr. McClendon’s class met once per week for a three-hour session. Of a total of ten class sessions, four were dedicated library sessions, scheduled during weeks four, five, seven, and ten of the quarter. Additionally, Jacobs visited the class during week two to introduce the TimelineJS assignment and begin the initial project scaffolding. Dr. McClendon assigned students related readings in preparation for this visit as well as a one-page essay in which they were asked to define their understanding of the term “early modern” and delineate and justify the chronological boundaries of the period. Additionally, she asked each student to develop and contribute a list of the ten most canonical (or impactful) events, topics, or individuals during the early modern period in England.

During this initial conversation, Jacobs introduced the class briefly to the TimelineJS platform, demonstrated the previous timeline created by the 2018 class, and outlined expectations for the assignment as well as their upcoming library visits. Next, students used their essay assignments to determine, as a group, the beginning and end dates of the early modern period in England (as it would apply to their project) before sharing their canonical lists. From this list, the students culled a working outline for their upcoming assignments. They each identified one canonical event/topic/individual to research using secondary and tertiary sources. This event/topic/individual would serve as the basis for their initial timeline JS entry, as well as a one-page essay identifying and outlining their research goals for their final assignment. Additionally, students populated a worksheet with descriptive metadata for their canonical entry and identified an illustrative and linkable reference image online. The essay and the complete entry form were due during the library visit in week four, allowing for two weeks of discussion and feedback with their instructor as well as any changes in topic.

Timeline entry with painting of Martin Luther nailing edicts to a church door.
Figure 3. Timeline entry for topic “Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation” curated by History Capstone student Christopher Hanson.

Johnson led the first class session held in the library during week four. Prior to class, students completed an asynchronous workshop from UCLA Library’s Writing Instruction + Research Education (WI+RE) team (WI+RE Team n.d.) on Developing Research Questions and Creating Keywords to help students better prepare for searching and finding sources (Romero et al 2019). Despite being a capstone course, some of the students had never previously performed academic research nor used library resources. In order to prepare students for the research involved to create the digital exhibit, Johnson introduced students to library resources, such as book catalogs, interlibrary loan service, research assistance and support services, and relevant online databases. In class, students found one article relevant to their topic. Jacobs then provided an orientation on primary source literacy and information on accessing and requesting UCLA Library Special Collections materials. During the second half of the class, Jacobs and Johnson led a hands-on workshop where students collaborated to ingest the data they had developed for the initial TimelineJS entry into the class spreadsheet. This flipped classroom model, in which students work collaboratively to ingest the metadata from their timeline entry forms into the shared spreadsheet during class, encourages a peer-led learning experience rather than isolated and individual data-entry. Students are able to assist one another in problem-solving various tech issues that arise in working with a new tool and witness their content creation and problem-solving manifest in real-time on the resulting timeline.

Students visited Library Special Collections (LSC) and the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library during weeks five and seven to gain hands-on experience with primary sources, materiality, and book history. Jacobs worked with Devin Fitzgerald (Curator of Rare Books and Print Culture for Library Special Collections) and Anna Chen (Head Librarian at the Clark) to lead a series of hands-on lectures focused on book production and material culture in early modern England. The students learned about paleography and the basics of descriptive bibliography, and were provided methods to assess early modern books, manuscripts, maps, broadsides, and other textual artifacts as material objects. In preparation for a subsequent visit during week seven, students read works on curatorial practices, new museum theory, and best practices for writing exhibit text. They also visited a class-curated physical exhibit mounted in the Charles E. Young Research Library to familiarize themselves with these concepts in praxis.

Following this visit, the students were asked to identify a primary source artifact from either LSC or the Clark to serve as the topic of their second TimelineJS entry and final assignment. Students visited the Library, LSC, and the Clark throughout the remainder of the quarter to research their primary source item. Their final assignment consisted of a second TimelineJS entry on their primary item, an image of their item for digital display, object label text for their item, and a bibliography of further reading on their item or topic. Each of these entries required considerable research evidenced by both the bibliography and the presentation at the end of the course. The information literacy and primary source literacy skills developed early in the course for the initial canonical event entries were expanded on and implemented by students for the second entry and further analysis of the primary source artifact.

The class culminated in week ten with a student-led project launch where they presented their work to their peers, the public, and invited guests in the Charles E. Young Library’s conference room. During the first portion of the class, students led another TimelineJS workshop, collaborating to ingest the data for the final assignment into the class spreadsheet. Students then volunteered to upload the final datasets into a publicly hosted Google site to serve as the project’s final public-facing home. Through collaboration, they also added introductory text to contextualize the exhibit for viewers and additional sections for their bibliographies and further reading. After the exhibit was finalized, students used the latter portion of the class to present briefly on their selected primary source item, their research process, and their findings throughout the class.

Timeline entry with image of title page of A Second Letter to a Bishop from a Minister of His Diocese.
Figure 4. Timeline entry for topic “What Was Wrong with the Church” curated by History Capstone student Christopher Hanson.

Scaffolding Considerations

In both these implementations, students were afforded a unique opportunity to conduct their own individual research while participating in a collaborative durable digital project with their peers. In doing so, they were simultaneously participating in, and assessing their own knowledge creation throughout the course. The success of implementing these types of digital projects on the public web hinges upon pro-actively scaffolding various considerations inherent to this work, such as issues of accessibility, FERPA protections, and respect of student intellectual property and labor.


TimelineJS uses semantic HTML in a JavaScript shell, so the timelines resulting from these projects comply at least nominally with W3C guidelines for web accessibility. However, since the projects rely on Google Sheets, some students may face accessibility challenges in completing the projects. While Google Apps provide much of the same accessibility support that comparable software such as the Microsoft Office suite offers, students whose only internet access is via mobile phones or other devices may have difficulty working with the online app and thus have difficulty fulfilling the requirements of the assignment. Instructors would be well advised to privately poll students about their internet access and provide students with information about campus computer labs. Non-resident students may also be able to use the internet at public libraries. Offering the option of fulfilling the intellectual requirements offline in a PowerPoint or Word template may also be useful.


A student’s enrollment in a class is protected information under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99). Thus, requiring students to publish class work on the internet—whether in blogs, social media, or platforms such as TimelineJS—necessarily involves exposure that is limited by the provisions of FERPA. Instructors may address this by asking students to sign a “Consent of Disclosure of Education Record“ form addressing the rationale for the online assignment, and offering the students the option to complete the assignment anonymously, or offline. An example form from the UNT assignment is cited below, and some Registrar’s offices have boilerplate for this release for instructors (Keralis, “Consent”). Ask your Registrar if a form is available that specifically addresses digital assignments.

Student intellectual property

In addition to addressing protected information under FERPA, instructors doing digital assignments online should directly address students’ intellectual property rights for their work. Generally, students’ in-class work is covered under universities’ Creator-Owned Intellectual Property policies, and copyright for work created for classes is retained by the student. Students in creative majors and in fields such as business or advertising may be very conscious of the appearance of their online presence, and may not want apprentice work in classes unrelated to their majors to be discoverable online. Conversely, students majoring in the field in which these assignments are offered may find it desirable to have a link-able digital project to include in their curriculum vitae or e-Portfolio. As such, students should be given the option to demonstrate authorship for their work with a by-line, complete the work anonymously online, or complete the work offline. An example of the HTML tag for a byline is included in the example “World Literature Timeline: Assignment and FERPA Release” cited in the bibliography. In any case, digital assignments provide instructors with a unique opportunity to have a conversation with students about their rights—to intellectual property, to privacy, and to protections for their educational record.

There are different ways of communicating issues surrounding privacy and intellectual property rights with students. In working with Dr. McClendon, Jacobs and Johnson deferred to the instructor’s preferred method of requiring an in-person meeting with each student prior to approving their enrollment into the capstone seminar. During this conversation, Dr. McClendon clarified the nature of the class assignment and her expectations with regards to student participation and the final digital exhibit, thus creating a process by which students were asked to opt into this work. Additionally, both Jacobs and Johnson are working within the library to develop a list of resources and best practices for faculty wishing to engage in similar public-facing digital projects that will include institution-specific guidance on these issues.


These case studies describe models of faculty-librarian collaboration in assignment design and implementation, providing templates for scaffolded assignments that introduce students to basic data literacy skills and empower them to explore the historical contexts of primary sources by visualizing the chronology of historical periods. By crafting student-centered assignments, instructors and librarians facilitate “digital agency” for students, honor their labor, and allow them to participate in a digital project under conditions of informed consent rather than coercion. In doing so, faculty and librarians create an environment “in which students and teachers co-author together the parameters for their individual and collective learning” (Stommel 2014), and develop a durable digital project that students and faculty can share as an example of collaborative teaching and learning.


[1] UCLA’s Capstone Initiative began in 2006 with an eye toward our centennial in 2019 (“UCLA’s Capstone Initiative” n.d.). These capstones connect well to the research mission of the university, turning students into scholars and researchers in their fields of study, and serving as a culminating education experience for students in a disciplinary course of study. The official capstone requirements of the initiative includes five criteria: (1) creative, inquiry-based learning, (2) an individual or group project with clearly delineated student work, (3) a product that can be archived for at least three years must be created, (4) the capstone must be at least four units (on a quarter system) in an upper-division course, and (5) there must be opportunities to share the finished product publicly (“Criteria & Options” n.d.). To this end, our TimelineJS project meets all of these requirements for a final product in a capstone course; it is arguably more effective for public display and archiving than regular (traditional) paper options.


Di Pressi, Haley, Stephanie Gorman, Miriam Posner, Raphael Sasayama, and Tori Schmitt, with contributions from Roderic Crooks, Megan Driscoll, Amy Earhart, Spencer Keralis, Tiffany Naiman, and Todd Presner. 2015. “A Student Collaborators’ Bill of Rights.” UCLA Digital Humanities. https://humtech.ucla.edu/news/a-student-collaborators-bill-of-rights/.

Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99) https://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html.

Keralis, Spencer D. C. 2017. “World Literature Timeline: Assignment and FERPA Release.” Humanities Commons. https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:31089/.

Keralis, Spencer D. C. 2018. “Disrupting Labor in Digital Humanities; or, The Classroom Is Not Your Crowd.” In Disrupting the Digital Humanities, edited by Jesse Stommel and Dorothy Kim, 237–94. Santa Barbara: Punctum Books.

Knight Lab. n.d. TimelineJS. http://timeline.knightlab.com/.

McCLendon, Muriel. n.d. “Work and Play in Early Modern England.” Accessed July 14, 2020. https://sites.google.com/view/mcclendonfa19exhibit/home.

Romero, Renee, Shannon Roux, Taylor Harper, Kian Ravaei, and Doug Worsham. 2019. “Developing Research Questions and Creating Keywords [Workshop].” Writing Instruction & Research Education (WI+RE). Accessed July 17, 2020. https://uclalibrary.github.io/research-tips/workshops/developing-research-questions-and-creating-keywords/.

Sayers, Jentery. 2016. “Minimal Definitions (tl;dr version).” Minimal Computing: a working group of GO::DH. October 2, 2016. https://go-dh.github.io/mincomp/thoughts/2016/10/03/tldr/.

Stommel, Jesse. 2014. “Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Definition.” Hybrid Pedagogy. November 17, 2014. https://hybridpedagogy.org/critical-digital-pedagogy-definition/.

University of California, Los Angeles, n.d. “Criteria & Options.” UCLA’s Capstone Initiative. Accessed July 17, 2020. http://capstones.ucla.edu/the-initiative/criteria-options/.

University of California, Los Angeles. n.d. UCLA’s Capstone Initiative. Accessed July 17, 2020. http://capstones.ucla.edu/.

WI+RE Team. n.d. “WI+RE (Writing Instruction + Research Education) [Home]”. Writing Instruction & Research Education (WI+RE). Accessed July 17, 2020. https://uclalibrary.github.io/research-tips/.

About the Authors

Spencer D. C. Keralis, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor and Digital Humanities Librarian with the University Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They are Founder and Executive Director of Digital Frontiers, a non-profit organization that brings together the makers and users of digital resources for humanities research, teaching, and scholarly communication.

Courtney Jacobs is the inaugural Head of Public Services, Outreach, and Community Engagement for UCLA Library Special Collections. She is a co-founder of the 3DHotbed project, a multi-institution digital humanities project that explores the use of 3D printing technology to facilitate hands-on book history pedagogy.

Matthew Weirick Johnson is a Humanities and Social Sciences Librarian at UCLA Library’s Young Research Library and liaison to the English, History, and Comparative Literature departments. Johnson holds an MSLS from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science. Prior to joining UCLA, Johnson worked in medical, academic, and public libraries and one non-profit in both on-site and remote roles.

A network diagram shows links between names of languages with varying sizes. English, Latin, Greek, and Arabic all have the largest bubbles.

Reading Texts in Digital Environments: Applications of Translation Alignment for Classical Language Learning


This paper illustrates the application of translation alignment technologies to empower a new approach to reading in digital environments. Digital platforms for manual translation alignment are designed to facilitate a particularly intensive and philological experience of the text, which is traditionally peculiar to the teaching and study of Classical languages. This paper presents the results of the experimental use of translation alignment in the context of Classical language teaching, and shows how the use of technology can empower a meaningful and systematic approach to information. We argue that translation alignment and similar technologies can open entirely new perspectives on reading practices, going beyond the opposed categories of “skimming” and traditional linear reading, and potentially overcoming the cognitive limitations connected with the fruition of digital content.

Reading and Digital Technologies: A New Challenge

It seems impossible to imagine a world where digital technologies are not a substantial part of our intellectual activities. The use of technology in teaching and learning is becoming increasingly prominent, even more now, as the massive public health crisis of COVID-19 created the need to access information without physical proximity. Yet, the way information is processed on digital platforms is substantially different from the cognitive standpoint, and not exempt from concerning consequences: recently, it has been emphasized that accessing content digitally stimulates superficial approaches and “skimming”, rather than reading, which may have a longstanding impact on the ways in which human brains understand, approach, and articulate complex information (Wolf 2018).

Therefore, we must ask ourselves if we are using digital technologies in the right way, and what can be done to address this problem. Instead of eliminating digital methods entirely (which in current times seems especially unrealistic), maybe the solution resides in using them to empower a different way of approaching information. In this paper, I will advocate that the practices embedded in the study of Classical texts can offer a new perspective on reading as a cognitive operation, and that, if appropriately empowered through the use of technology, they can create a new and meaningful approach to reading on digital platforms.

The study of Classical languages implies a very peculiar approach to processing information (Crane 2019). The most relevant aspect of studying Classical texts is that we cannot consult a native speaker to verify our knowledge: instead, “communication” is achieved through written sources and their interaction with other carriers of information, such as material culture and visual representations. On the other hand, we must never forget that we are engaging with an alien culture to which we do not have direct access. This necessity of navigating uncertainty requires a much more flexible approach to information, and a very different way of engaging with written sources, where the focus is on mediated cultural understanding through reading, rather than immediate communication.

Engaging with an ancient text is a deeply philological operation: a scholar of an ancient language never simply goes from one word to another with a secure understanding of their meaning. Their reading mode is much more immersive. It is an operation of reconstruction through reflection, pause, and exploration, which requires several skills: from the ability of active abstraction of the language and its mechanics, to the recognition of linguistic patterns that coincide with given models, to the reflection on what a word or expression “really means” in etymological, stylistic, and cultural terms, to the philological reconstruction of “why” that word is there, as a result of a long process of transmission, translation, and error.[1] Yet, the implications of this intensive reading mode, in the broader context of the cognitive transformations to reading and learning, are often overlooked.

The operations embedded in the reading of Classical languages respond to a different cognitive process, that is beyond the opposed categories of “skimming” and traditional linear reading. Because of this peculiarity, some of the technologies designed in the domain of Classical languages are created specifically to empower this approach, bringing it at the center of the reader’s experience.

Translation Alignment: Principles and Technologies

Digital technologies are widely used in Classics for scholarship and teaching, thanks to the widespread use of digital libraries like Perseus (Crane et al. 2018) and the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (2020), and to the consolidation of various methods for digital text analysis (Berti 2019) and pedagogy (Natoli and Hunt 2019). One of the most interesting recent developments in the field is the proliferation of platforms for manual and semi-automated translation alignment.

Translation alignment is a task derived from one of the most popular applications in Natural Language Processing. It is defined as the comparison of two or more texts in different languages, also called parallel texts or parallel corpora, by means of automated or semi-automated methods. The main purpose is to define which parts of a source text correspond to which parts of a second text. The result is often a list of pairs of items – words, sentences, or larger texts chunks like paragraphs or documents. In Natural Language Processing, aligned corpora are used as training data for the implementation of machine translation systems, but also for many other purposes, such as information extraction, automated creation of bilingual lexica, or even text re-use (Dagan, Church, and Gale 1999).

The alignment of texts in different languages, however, is an exceptionally complex task, because it is often difficult to find perfect overlap across languages, and machine-actionable systems are often inefficient in providing equivalences for more sophisticated rhetorical or literary devices. The creation of manually aligned datasets is especially useful for historical languages, where available indexes and digitized dictionaries often do not provide a sufficient corpus to develop reliable NLP pipelines, and are remarkably inefficient for automated translation. Therefore, creating aligned translations is also a way to engage with a larger scholarly community and to support important tasks in Computer Science.

In the past few years, three generations of digital tools for the creation and use of aligned corpora have been developed specifically with Classical languages in mind. First, Alpheios provides a system for creating aligned bilingual texts, which are then combined with other resources, such as dictionary entries and morphosyntactic information (Almas and Beaulieu 2016; “The Alpheios Project” 2020). Second, the Ugarit Translation Alignment Editor was inspired by Alpheios in providing a public online platform, where users could perform bilingual and trilingual alignments. Ugarit is currently the most used web-based tool for translation alignment in historical languages: since it went online in March 2017, it has registered an ever-increasing number of visits and new users. It currently hosts more than 370 users, 23,900 texts, 47,600 aligned pairs, and 39 languages, many of which ancient, including Ancient Greek, Latin, Classical Arabic, Classical Chinese, Persian, Coptic, Egyptian, Syriac, Parthian, Akkadian, and Sanskrit. Aligned pairs are collected in a large dynamic lexicon that can be used to extract translations of different words, but also as a training dataset for implementing automated translation (Yousef 2019).

The alignment interface offered by Ugarit is simple and intuitive. Users can upload their own texts and manually align them by matching words or groups of words. Alignments are automatically displayed on the home page (although users can deactivate the option for public visibility). Corresponding aligned tokens are highlighted when the pointer hovers on them. The percentage of aligned tokens is displayed in the color bar below the text: the green indicates the rate of matching tokens, the red the rate of non-matching tokens. Resulting pairs are automatically stored in the database, and can be exported as XML or tabular data. For languages with non-Latin alphabets, Ugarit offers automatic transliteration, visible when the pointer hovers on the desired word.[2]

Overview of a trilingual alignment on Ugarit (Armenian, Greek, and Latin). The mouse pointer triggers the highlighting of aligned pairs, and activates the transliteration for the Armenian text. A color bar below the text shows the percentage of aligned pairs in green, and of non-aligned tokens in red.
Figure 1. Overview of a trilingual alignment on Ugarit (Armenian, Greek, Latin), with active transliteration for Armenian.

The structure of Ugarit was also used to display a manually aligned version of the Persian Hafez, in a study that tested how German and Persian speakers used translation alignment to study portions of Hafez using English as a bridge language. The results indicated that, with the appropriate scaffolding, users with no knowledge of the source language could generate word alignments with the same output accuracy generated by experts in both languages. The study showed that alignment could serve as a pedagogical tool with a certain effect on long-term retention (Palladino, Foradi, and Yousef forthcoming; Foradi 2019).

The third generation of digital tools is represented by DUCAT – Daughter of Ugarit Citation Alignment Tool, developed by Christopher Blackwell and Neel Smith (Blackwell and Smith 2019), which can be used for local text alignment and can be integrated with the interactive analysis of morphology, syntax, and vocabulary. The project “Furman University Editions” shows the potential of these interactive views, which are currently part of the curriculum of undergraduate Classics teaching at Furman and elsewhere.

This proliferation of tools shows that there is potential in the pedagogical application of this method: translation alignment can provide a new and imaginative way of using translations for the study of Classical texts, overcoming the hindrances normally associated with reading an ancient work through a modern-day version.

Text Alignment in the Classroom

The use of authorial translations to approach Classical texts is normally discouraged in the classroom, being perceived as “cheating” or as unproductive for a true, active engagement with the language. Part of this phenomenon is explained by the fact that, as “passive” readers, we don’t have any agency in assessing the relationship between a translation and the original, and reading them side by side on paper is rarely a systematic or intentional operation (Crane 2019). However, translations are an integral part of ancient cultures.[3] They are a crucial component of textual transmission, as they represent witnesses of the survival and fortune of Classical texts. Translations are also important testimonies of the scholarly problem of transferring an alien culture and its values onto a different one, to ensure effective communication, or to pursue a cultural and political agenda through the reshaping and recrafting of an important text (Lefevere 1992).

Translations are a medium between cultures, not just between languages. Engaging in an analytical comparison between a translation and the original means to have a deeper experience of how a text was interpreted in a given time, what meanings were associated to certain words, and, at the same time, how certain expressions can display multifaceted semantics that are often not entirely captured by another language. This is also an exercise in cultural dialogue and reflection, not only upon the language(s), but upon the civilization that used it to reflect its values. In other words, it is a philological exploration that resembles much of the reading mode of a Classicist.

Digital platforms for translation alignment offer an immersive and visually powerful environment to perform this task, where the reader can analytically compare texts token by token, and at the same time observe the results through an interactive visualization. It is the reader who decides what is compared, how, and to what extent: the comparison of parallel texts becomes an analytical, systematic operation, which at the same time encourages reflection and debate regarding the (im)perfect matching of words and expressions. In this way, translation alignment provides a way to navigate between traditional linguistic mastery and the complete dependence upon a translation. Not only this stimulates an active fruition of modern translations of ancient texts, but the public visibility of the result on a digital platform also provides a way to be part of a broader conversation on the reception and significance of an ancient text over time.

However, it is also important to apply this tool in the right way. For example, translation alignment needs to be coupled with some grammatical input, to encourage reflection on structural linguistic differences. Mechanical approaches, all too easy with the uncontrolled use of a clickable “matching tool”, should be discouraged by emphasizing the importance of focused word-by-word alignment. In practice, translation alignment needs to be used with caution and in meaningful ways, as a function of the goal and level of a course.

The following sections illustrate examples of application of translation alignment in the context of beginner, intermediate, and upper level classes in Ancient Greek and Latin. Translation alignment was structurally used during the courses to emphasize semantic and syntactic complexities through analytical comparison with English or other languages. Later, students were assigned various alignment tasks and exercises, designed to empower an analytical approach to the text.

Beginner Ancient Greek, first and second semester

The students were given two assignments, performed iteratively in two consecutive semesters, with variations in quantity (more words and sentences were assigned in the second semester):[4]

  1. Individuate specific given words in a chosen passage, and align them with the corresponding words in one translation. The goal of this exercise was to set the groundwork to develop a rough understanding of the depth of word meanings, by assessing how the same word in the source text could appear in different ways across the same translation.
  2. Use alignment to evaluate two translations of a shorter text chunk (1–3 sentences, or 10 verse lines). Identify precisely the corresponding sections of text in the source and in the translations. Assess which translation is most effective by using two criteria: 1, combination of number and quality of matched tokens; 2, pick particularly problematic words and look them up in a dictionary, to assess their meanings; compare the dictionary explanation with the general context of the passage, and assess how translations relate to the dictionary entries and how closely they render the “original sense” of the word.

The results were two short essays where the students articulated their considerations. Grading was based on the ability to give insightful analysis of how word choices impacted the tone and meaning of the translations, and discuss the semantic depth of the words in the original language. Bonus points were provided if the student was able to identify tangential aspects, such as word order, changes in cases, and syntax. Minor weight was given to the overall accuracy of the alignment, in consideration of the level: the design of the exercises was deliberate in discouraging the creation of longer alignments, which often result in the student doing the work without thinking about their alignment choices. Essay questions focused instead on close-reading, analytical, in-depth investigation into the semantics of the source language.

The Ancient Greek text is located at the center, and the two translations at the sides. The translation on the left displays a 75% of aligned pairs, the translation on the right a 73%.
Figure 2. Two aligned English translations of Odyssey 9.105–9.115.

Intermediate level of Ancient Greek and Latin, third semester

Students used translation alignment in the context of project-based learning. They were responsible for the alignment of a chosen text chunk against translations that they had selected, ranging from early modern to contemporary translations. The assignment was divided in phases:

  1. Alignment of the source text against two chosen translations in English, and systematic evaluation of both translations. The students were asked to focus on chosen phenomena of syntax, morphology, grammar and semantics, that were particularly relevant in the text: e.g. word order, participial constructs, adjectival constructs, passive/active constructions, changes in case, transposition of allusion and semantic ambiguity. The students used their knowledge of syntax and grammar to critically assess the performance of different translators, focusing on the different ways in which complex linguistic phenomena can be rendered in another language. This assignment was combined with side analysis of morphology and syntax: for example, the students of Ancient Greek designed a morphological dataset containing 200 parsed words from the same passage.
  2. Creation of a new, independent translation, with a discussion of where it distanced itself from the original, which aspects of it were retained, and how the problems individuated in the authorial translations were approached by the student.

The result was a written report submitted at the midterm or end of the semester, indicating: the salient aspects of the texts and its most relevant linguistic features; an analytical comparison of how those linguistic features appeared in the competing aligned translations, and an evaluation of the translator’s strategy; the student’s translation, with a critical assessment of the chosen strategy to approach the same problems. These aspects constituted the backbone of the grading strategy, with additional attention to the alignment accuracy.

Section of two aligned translations of Hesiod, Works and Days vv. 42–105, with the original ancient Greek at the center, and the English translations on the sides.
Figure 3. Section of two aligned translations of Hesiod, Works and Days vv. 42–105. The student used a comparison between two translations from the same period (Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914, and David W. Tandy and Walter C. Neale 1996) but with very different styles, and used adjective-noun combinations and participle constructions to systematically evaluate them. The 1996 translation was judged more literal than the other, and more useful for a student.

Upper level Ancient Greek and Latin, fourth to seventh semester (graduate and undergraduate)

The exercises assigned for the upper level were a more articulated version of the project-based ones given to the intermediate level. The students were assigned a research-based project where alignment would be one component of an in-depth analysis of a chosen source. At an intermediate stage of the semester, the students would submit a research proposal indicating: an extensive passage they chose to investigate, and why they chose it; the topic they decided to investigate, and a short account of previous literature on it; methodologies applied to develop the project; desired outcomes. The final result would be a project report submitted at the end of the semester, indicating: if the desired outcomes had been reached, what kinds of challenges were not anticipated, and what new results were achieved; strategies implemented to apply the chosen methodology, e.g. which alignment strategy was applied to ensure that the research questions were answered; what the student learned about the source, its cultural context and/or language. The results were graded as proper projects: the students were evaluated according to their ability to clearly delineate motivation and methodology, use of existing resources, and critical discussion of the outcomes.

Many students creatively integrated alignment in their projects. For example:

  • Creation of an aligned translation for non-expert readers, alongside a commentary and morphosyntactic annotations. To facilitate reading, the student developed a consistent alignment strategy that only matched words corresponding in meaning and grammatical function. This project was published on GitHub.
  • Trilingual alignment of English-Latin-German to investigate the matching rate between two similarly inflected languages. The student noted that, even if their knowledge of German was inferior to English and Latin, matching Latin against German proved easier and more streamlined, while the English translation was approached with more criticism for its verbosity (Figure 4).[5]
  • Trilingual alignment to compare different texts. The student conceived a project aimed at gathering systematic evidence of the verbatim correspondences between the so-called Fables of Loqman and the Aesopic fables: according to existing scholarship, the former would be an Arabic translation of the latter. The student used a French translation of the Loqman fables to leverage on the challenges of the Arabic, and examined the overall matching rate across the texts (see this sample passage).
Sample passage of Tacitus, Germania 1.1, with two aligned translations in English and German, located on the left and at the center respectively. The German translation at the center displays identical matching rate as the Latin text on the right (93%), while the English translation on the left only has 89% matching rate.
Figure 4. Sample passage of Tacitus, Germania 1.1, with two aligned translations in English and German.


The students reported how alignment affected their understanding of the source and its linguistic features, and how approaching the original by comparing it against a modern translation gave them a deeper understanding and respect for the content. While the alignment process often resulted in some criticism of available translations, the students who had to discuss the challenges faced by translators (or who had to translate themselves) gained a stronger understanding of the issues involved in “transferring” not only words and constructs but also underlying cultural implications and multiple meanings. The students who used alignment in the context of research projects also benefited from the publication of their aligned translations, and some presented them as research papers at undergraduate conferences. Many students even reported to have used alignment independently afterwards in other courses, often to facilitate the study of new languages, both ancient and modern.

Some overarching tendencies in the evaluation of concurrent translations emerged, particularly at the Intermediate and Upper Level. This feedback was extremely interesting to observe, because most of it can only be explained as the result of a systematic comparison between target and source language, in a situation where the reader is an active operator and not a passive content consumer.

The students observed analytically the various ways in which translations cannot structurally convey peculiar aspects of the original: for example, dialectal variants, metrical arrangement, wordplays, or syntactic constructs. Most of them were still able to appreciate skillful modern translations, and even to diagnose why translators would distance themselves from the original. They definitely understood the challenge by engaging in translation tasks themselves. For many, however, the discovery that they could not fully rely on translations to understand what is happening in a text was astonishing. Students tend to be educated to the idea that authorial translations are necessarily “right” (and therefore “faithful”[6]) renderings of Classical texts, to the point where they often trust them over their own understanding of the language. With this exercise, they learned that “right” and “faithful” may not be the same thing, and that the literature of an ancient civilization preserves a depth and complexity of meaning that cannot be fully encompassed in a translation.

Interestingly, students often had a more positive judgement of translations that rendered difficult syntactic constructs more closely to the original without fundamentally altering the structure, or shifting the emphasis (e.g. by changing subject-object relations or by altering verb voices). Students at the Intermediate level, in particular, judged such translations more “literal”, as they found them more helpful in understanding important linguistic structures: Figure 3 shows an alignment of Hesiod’s Works and Days, where the student extrapolated adjective-noun combinations and participle constructs to draw a systematic comparison between two concurring translations. The translation that was judged “more literal”, and therefore more useful for a student, was the one that kept these structures closer to the way they appeared in the original. This phenomenon intensified with texts that had a strong amount of allusions and wordplay, which are often conveyed by means of very specific syntactic constructs: students who dealt with this kind of texts were merciless judges of translations that completely altered the original syntax and recrafted the phrasing to adapt it to a modern audience. The students indicated how such alterations regularly failed to convey the depths of sophisticated wordplay, where the syntax itself is not an accessory, but a structural part of the meaning.

The omission of words in the source language was considered particularly unforgiving: even though some words like adverbs and conjunctions are omitted in translations to avoid redundancies, some translations were found to leave out entire concepts or expressions for no apparent reason. The visualization of aligned texts on Ugarit certainly accentuated this aspect, as it tends to emphasize the relation between matched and non-matched tokens through the use of color, and it also provides matching rates to assess the discrepancy between texts. Almost all the students seem to have intensively taken advantage of this aspect, by emphasizing how translations missed entire expressions that appeared in the original and shaped its message: in other words, even if the omission only regarded one adjective or a particularly intensive adverb, they felt that translations did not convey the full meaning of the text they were reading.

The implications of such observations are interesting: the translations in question were “bad” translations not because they were not understandable or efficient in conveying the sense of a passage in English, but because they hindered the student’s understanding of the original. Readers, even classically-trained ones, normally enjoy translations that, while taking some liberties, are more efficient in conveying the content and artistic aspects of a text in a way that is more familiar to a modern audience. Students who read a text in translation often struggle with versions that try to be close to the original language (sometimes with rather clumsy results), and they also make limited use of printed aligned translations that used to be very popular in school commentaries of the past. However, when students became active operators of translation alignment, the focus shifted to the understanding of the original through the scaffolding provided by the translation. In other words, the focus was on how the translation served the reader of the source text: this suggests an extremely active engagement with the original, through the critical lenses of systematic linguistic comparison.

With the guidance provided by the exercises, the students used translation alignment to engage with linguistic and stylistic phenomena, and the assessment of the ineffectiveness of translations in conveying such complex nuances often made them more confident in approaching the original language. In their own translations, they became extremely self-aware of their position with respect to the text, and tried to justify every perceived variation from the structure and the style of the original. Some of them opted for very literal, yet clumsy, translations, which they reflected upon and elaborated more thoroughly in a commentary to the text; others, particularly at the Upper level, built upon aspects that they liked or disliked in the translations to create better versions of them, depending on their intended audience.

We can conclude that, if appropriately embedded in reflective exercises, translation alignment did not result in a mechanical operation of word matching, but nurtured an active philological approach to the text, and an exploration of it in all its different aspects, from linguistic constructs to word meanings, to the role of wordplays in a literary context. Despite growing skepticism in the ability of translations to convey the “full” meaning of a text, the students still believed in the necessity of using them in a thoughtful manner.

In fact, the students advocated for more and more varied use of digital tools, to compensate for the deficiencies of aligned corpora. At the Upper level in particular, many students complemented their translation alignments with additional data gathered through other digital resources: for example, while creating translation alignments directed at non-expert readers, they integrated the resource with a complete morphosyntactic analysis performed with treebanking (Celano 2019), with the intention of making up for the limitations of incomplete matching of word functions in specific linguistic constructs.

In this regard, it is important to emphasize that translation alignment is just one of the tools at our disposal. In a future where learning and reading are going to be prevalently performed through digital technologies, we need to create environments where readers can meaningfully engage in a philological exploration of texts at multiple levels: translation alignment, but also detection of textual variants, geospatial mapping, social network analysis, morphosyntactic reconstruction, up to the incorporation of sound and recording that can compensate for reading and visual disabilities (Crane 2019).


Overall, the experiment showed that a meaningful use of translation alignment can empower a reflective and active approach to Classical sources, by means of the continuous, systematic comparison of the cultural and semantic depths embedded in the language. Of course, translation alignment should not be the only option: digital technologies offer many opportunities of enhancing the reading experience as a philological exploration, through the interaction of many different data types, allowing a sophisticated approach to information from multiple perspectives. Even though these tools have been created to empower the reading processes specific of Classical scholars, their application promises new ways of approaching digital content in a much wider context, going beyond the categories of “close reading” and “skimming.”

Translation alignment is a tool that can empower a thoughtful and meaningful approach to reading on digital platforms. But more than that, it can also stimulate a deeper respect for cultural differences. In an increasingly globalized world, translations as means of communicating through cultural contexts and languages are increasingly important: automated translations, as well as interpreters and professional translators, represent a response to a generalized need of fast and broad access to information produced in different cultural contexts. However, being able to access translated content so easily can result in oversimplification, and in the overlooking of cultural complexities. Aligned translations offer an alternative. By discouraging the idea that every word has an exact equivalence, aligned translations add value to the original, rather than subtracting it, through a continuous dialogue between cultural and linguistic systems. Engaging with a translation meaningfully means so much more than merely establishing equivalences: by emphasizing the depth of semantic differences, it can promote better attitudes to cultural diversity and acceptance.


[1] In this sense, reading an ancient text is much closer to literary criticism than to the study of a foreign language. This is the reason why Classical languages are never fully embedded in current practices of foreign language teaching and assessment. This topic was recently treated, among others, by Nicoulin (2019).
[2] This feature is currently available for Greek, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, and Georgian.
[3] Translations were continuously used to ensure communication between different cultures and communities in the ancient world (Bettini 2012; Nergaard 1993). The practice of multi-lingual aligned texts as means of cultural communication was normal, if not frequent, in antiquity, with famous examples like the inscriptions of Behistun, the edicts of Ashoka the Great, and the Rosetta Stone.
[4] A variant of this assignment was also tested on a group of students with no knowledge of Greek, enrolled in courses of literature in translation (Palladino, Foradi, and Yousef forthcoming).
[5] Interestingly, trilingual alignment was used by some students to improve their mastery of a third language, often a modern one, by leveraging on their knowledge of their native tongue and the ancient language (Palladino, Foradi, and Yousef forthcoming).
[6] Incidentally, the “faithfulness” of a translation as a value judgement was introduced by the Christians: since God imprints his image on the text, every version of that text needs to be a faithful reproduction of it. Here resides the miraculous character of the translation of the Septuagint, which, according to tradition, came to be when seventy savants independently wrote an identical translation of the Bible (Nergaard 1993).


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———.“The Alpheios Project.” 2020. Accessed June 23, 2020. https://alpheios.net/.

———.“TLG – Thesaurus Linguae Graecae.” 2020. Accessed June 18, 2020. http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/.

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About the Author

Chiara Palladino is Assistant Professor of Classics at Furman University. She works on the application of digital technologies to the study of ancient texts. Her current main interests are in the use of semantic annotation and modelling for the analysis of ancient spatial narratives, and in the implementation of translation alignment platforms for reading and investigating historical languages.

A three-by-three grid of fragments of poems, with syllables appearing in different colors.

Back in a Flash: Critical Making Pedagogies to Counter Technological Obsolescence


This article centers around the issue of teaching digital humanities work in the face of technological obsolescence. Because this is a wide-ranging topic, this article draws a particular focus on teaching electronic literature in light of the loss of Flash, which Adobe will end support for at the end of 2020. The challenge of preserving access to electronic literature due to technological obsolescence is integral to the field, which has already taken up a number of initiatives to preserve electronic literatures as their technological substrate of hardware and software become obsolete, with the recent NEH-funded AfterFlash project responding directly to the need to preserve Flash-based texts. As useful as these and similar projects of e-literary preservation are, they focus on preservation through one traditional modality of humanities work: saving a record of works so that they may be engaged, played, read, or otherwise consumed by an audience, a focus that loses the works’ poetics that are effected through materiality, physicality, and (often) interaction. This article argues that obsolescence may be most effectively countered through pedagogies that combine the consumption of e-textual record, with the critical making of texts that share similar poetics, as the process of making allows students to engage with material, physical poetics. The loss of Flash is a dual loss of both a set of consumable e-texts and a tool for making e-texts; the article thus provides a case study of teaching with a complementary program for making e-poetic texts in the place of Flash called Stepworks.

Technological obsolescence—the phenomenon by which technologies are rendered outdated as soon as they are updated—is a persistent, familiar problem when teaching with, and through digital technologies. Whether planned, a model of designed obsolescence where hardware and software are updated to be incompatible with older systems (thus forcing the consumer to purchase updated models) or perceived, a form of obsolescence where a given technology becomes culturally, if not functionally, obsolete, teaching in a 21st century ubicomp environment necessitates strategies for working with our own and our students’ “obsolete,” outdated, or otherwise incompatible technologies. These strategies may take any number of forms: taking time to help students install, emulate, or otherwise troubleshoot old software; securing lab space with machines that can run certain programs; embracing collaborative models of work; designing flexible assignments to account for technological limitations…the list could go on.

But in Spring 2020, as campuses around the globe went fully remote, online, and often asynchronous in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us met the limits of these strategies. Tactics like situated collaboration, shared machinery, or lab space became impossible to employ in the face of this sudden temporal obsolescence, as our working, updated technologies became functionally “obsolete” within the time-boundedness of that moment. In my own case, the effects of this moment were most acutely felt in my Introduction to the Digital Humanities class, where the move to remote teaching coincided with our electronic literature unit, a unit where the combined effects of technological obsolescence and proprietary platforms already necessitate adopting strategies so that students may equitably engage the primary texts. For me, primary among these strategies are sharing machinery to experience texts together, guiding students through emulator or software installation as appropriate, and adopting collaborative critical making pedagogies to promote material engagement with texts. In Spring 2020, though, as my class moved to a remote, asynchronous model, each of these strategies was directly challenged.

I felt this challenge most keenly in trying to teach Brian Kim Stefans’s Dreamlife of Letters (2000) and Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouses’s Between Page and Screen (2012), two works that, though archived and freely available via the Electronic Literature Collection and therefore ideal for accessing from any device with an internet connection, were built in Flash, so require the Flash Player plug-in to run. Since Adobe’s announcement in 2017 that they would stop supporting Flash Player by the end of 2020, fewer and fewer students enter my class with machines prepared to run Flash-based works, either because they have not installed the plugin, or because they are on mobile devices which have never been compatible with Flash—a point that Anastasia Salter and John Murray (2014) argue, has largely contributed to Adobe’s decision. The COVID-19 move to remote, online instruction effectively meant that students with compatible hardware had to navigate the plug-in installation on their own (a process requiring a critical level of digital literacy), while those without compatible hardware were unable to access these works except as images or recordings. In the Spring 2020 teaching environment, then, the temporal obsolescence brought on by COVID-19 acted as a harbinger for the eventual inaccessibility of e-literary work that requires Flash to run.

The problem space that I occupy here is this: teaching electronic literature in the undergraduate classroom, as its digital material substrates move ever closer to obsolescence, an impossible race against time that speeds up each year as students enter my classroom with machines increasingly less compatible with older software and platforms. Specifically, I focus on the challenge of teaching e-literature in the undergraduate, digital humanities classroom, while facing the loss of Flash and its attendant digital poetics—a focus informed by my own disciplinary expertise, but through which I offer pedagogical responses and strategies that are useful beyond this scope.

Central to my argument, here, is that teaching e-literary practice and poetics in the face of technological obsolescence is most effective through an approach that interweaves practice-based critical making of e-literary texts, with the more traditional humanities practices of reading, playing, or otherwise consuming texts. Critical making pedagogy, however, is not without its critiques, particularly as it may promote inequitable classroom environments. For this reason, I start with a discussion of critical making as feminist, digital humanities pedagogy. From there, I turn more explicitly to the immediate problem at hand: the impending loss of Flash. I address this problem, first, by highlighting some of the work already being done to maintain access to e-literary works built in Flash, and second by pointing to some of the limits of these projects, as they prioritize maintaining Flash-based works for readerly consumption, even though the loss of Flash is also the loss of an amateur-friendly, low-stakes coding environment for “writing” digital texts. Acknowledging this dual loss brings me to a short case study of teaching with Stepworks, a contemporary, web-based platform that is ideal for creating interactive, digital texts, with poetics similar to those created in Flash. As such, it is a platform through which we can effectively use critical making pedagogies to combat the technological obsolescence of Flash. I close by briefly expanding from this case study, to reflect on some of the ways critical making pedagogies may help combat the loss of e-literary praxes beyond those indicative of and popularized by Flash.

Critical Making Pedagogy As DH Feminist Praxis

Critical making is a mode of humanities work that merges theory with practice by engaging the ways physical, hands-on practices like making, doing, tinkering, experimenting, or creating constitute forms of thinking, learning, analysis, or critique. Strongly associated with the digital humanities given the field’s own relationship to intellectual practices like coding and fabrication, critical making methodologically argues that intellectual activity can take forms other than writing, as coding, tinkering, building, or fabricating represent more than just “rote” or “automatic” technical work (Endres 2017). As critical making asserts, such physical practices constitute complex forms of intellectual activity. In other words, it takes to task what Bill Endres calls “an accident of available technologies” that has proffered writing its status as “the gold standard for measuring scholarly production” (2017).

Critical making scholarship can, thus, take a number of forms, as Jentery Sayers’s (ed.) Making Things and Drawing Boundaries showcases (2017). For example, as a challenge to and reflection on the invasiveness of contemporary personal devices, Allison Burtch and Eric Rosenthal offer Mic Jammer, a device that transmits ultrasonic signals that, when pointed towards a smartphone, “de-sense that phone’s microphone,” to “give people the confidence to know that their smartphones are non-invasively muted” (Burtch and Rosenthal 2017). Meanwhile, Nina Belojevic’s Glitch Console, a hacked or “circuit-bent” Nintendo Entertainment System, “links the consumer culture of video game platforms to issues of labor, exploitation, and the environment” through a play-experience riddled with glitches (Belojevic 2017). Moving away from fabrication, Anne Balsamo, Dale MacDonald, and Jon Winet’s AIDS Quilt Touch (AQT) Virtual Quilt Browser is a kind of preservation-through-remediation project that provides users with opportunities to virtually interact with the AIDS Memorial Quilt (Balsamo, MacDonald, and Winet 2017). Finally, Kim A. Brillante Knight’s Fashioning Circuits disrupts our cultural assumptions about digital media and technology, particularly as they are informed by gendered hierarchy; this project uses “wearable media as a lens to consider the social and cultural valences of bodies and identities in relation to fashion, technology, labor practices, and craft and maker cultures” (Knight 2017).

Each of these examples of critical making projects highlight the ways critical making disrupts the primacy of writing in intellectual activities. However they are also entangled in one of the most frequently lobbed and not insignificant critiques of critical making as a form of Digital Humanities (DH) praxis: that it reinforces the exclusionary position that DH is only for practitioners who code, make, or build. This connection is made explicit by Endres, as he frames his argument that building is a form of literacy through a mild defense of Steven Ramsay’s 2011 MLA conference presentation, which argued that building was fundamental to the Digital Humanities. Ramsay’s presentation was widely critiqued for being exclusionary (Endres 2017), as it promoted a form of gatekeeping in the digital humanities that, in turn, reinforces traditional academic hierarchies of gender, race, class, and tenure-status. As feminist DH in particular has shown, arguments that “to do DH, you must (also) code or build,” imagine a scholar who, in the first place, has had the emotional, intellectual, financial, and temporal means to acquire skillsets that are not part of traditional humanities education, and who, in the second place, has the institutional protection against precarity to produce work in modes outside “the gold standard” of writing (Endres 2017).

Critical making as DH praxis then, finds itself in a complicated bind: on the one hand, it effectively challenges academic hierarchies and scholarly traditions that equate writing with intellectual work; on the other hand, as it replaces writing with practices (akin to coding) like fabrication, building, or simply “making,”[1] it potentially reinforces the exclusionary logic that makes coding the price of entry into the digital humanities “big tent” (Svensson 2012).[2] Endres, however, raises an important point that this critique largely fails to account for: that “building has been [and continues to be] generally excluded from tenure and promotion guidelines in the humanities” (Endres 2017). That is, while we should perhaps not take DH completely off the hook for the field’s internalized exclusivity and the ways critical making praxis may be commandeered in service of this exclusivity, examining academic institutions more broadly, and of which DH is only a part, reveals that writing and its attendant systems of peer review and impact factors remains the exclusionary technology, gate-keeping from within.

To offer a single point of “anec-data:”[3] in my own scholarly upbringing in the digital humanities, I have regularly been advised by more senior scholars in the field (particularly other white women and women of color) to only take on coding, programming, building, or other making projects that I can also support with a traditional written, peer-reviewed article—advice that responds explicitly to writing’s position of primacy as a metric of academic research output, and implicitly to academia’s general valuation of research above activities like teaching, mentorship, or service. It is also worth noting that this advice was regularly offered with the clear-eyed reminder that, as valuable as critical making work is, ultimately the farther the scholar or practitioner appears from the cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, white, male default, the more likely it is that their critical making work will be challenged when it comes to issues of tenure, promotion, or job competitiveness. While a single point of anec-data hardly indicates a pattern, the wider system of academic value that I sketch here is well-known and well-documented. It would be a disservice, then, not to acknowledge the space that traditional, peer-reviewed, academic writing occupies within this system.

Following Endres, my own experience, and systemic patterns across academia, I would argue that even though critical making can promote exclusionary practices in the digital humanities, the work that this methodological intervention does to disrupt technological hierarchies and exclusionary systems—including and especially, writing—outweighs the work that it may do to reinforce other hierarchies and systems. Indeed, I would go one step further to add my voice to existing arguments, implicit in the projects cited above and explicit throughout Jacqueline Wernimont and Elizabeth Losh’s edited collection, Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and the Digital Humanities (2018), that critical making is feminist praxis, not least for the ways it contributes to feminism’s long-standing project of disrupting, challenging, and even breaking language and writing.[4]

The efficacy of critical making’s feminist intervention becomes even more evident, and I would argue, powerful, when it enters the classroom as undergraduate pedagogy. Following critical making scholarship, critical making pedagogy similarly disrupts the primacy of written text for intellectual work. Students are invited to demonstrate their learning through means other than a written paper, in a student learning assessment model that aligns with other progressive, student-centered practices like the un-essay.[5] Because research in digital and progressive pedagogy highlights the ways things like un-essays are beneficial to student learning, I will focus here on pointing to particular ways critical making pedagogy in the undergraduate digital humanities classroom operates as feminist praxis for disrupting heteropatriarchal assumptions about technology. For this, I will pull primarily from feminist principles of and about technology, as outlined by FemTechNet and Lauren Klein and Catherine D’Igniazio’s Data Feminism, and from my experiences teaching undergraduate digital humanities classes through and with critical making pedagogies.

In their White Paper on Transforming Higher Education with Distributed Open Collaborative Courses, FemTechNet unequivocally states “effective pedagogy reflects feminist principles” (FemTechNet White Paper Committee 2013), and the first and perhaps most consistent place that critical making pedagogies respond to this charge are in the ways that critical making makes labor visible, a value of intersectional feminism broadly, and data feminism specifically (D’Ignazio and Klein 2020). Issues of invisible labor have long been central to feminist projects, so it is no surprise that this would also be a central concern in response to Silicon Valley’s techno-libertarian ethos that blackboxes digital technologies as “labor free” for both end-users and tech workers. When students participate in critical making projects that relate to digital technologies—projects that may range from building a website or programming an interactive game, to fabricating through 3D printing or physical circuitry—they are forced to confront the labor behind (and rendered literally invisible in) software and hardware. This confrontation typically manifests as frustration, often felt in and expressed through their bodies, necessitating an engagement with affect, emotion, care, and often, collaboration in this work—all feminist technologies directly cited in both FemTechNet’s manifesto (FemTechNet 2012), and as core principles of data feminism (D’Ignazio and Klein 2020). Similarly, as students learn methods and practices for their critical making projects, they inevitably find themselves facing messiness, chaos, even fragments of broken things, and only occasionally is this “ordered” or “cleaned” by the time they submit their final deliverable. Besides recalling FemTechNet’s argument that “making a mess… [is a] feminist technolog[y]” (FemTechNet 2012), the physical and intellectual messiness of critical making pedagogy also requires a shift in values away from the “deliverable” output, and towards the process of making, building, or learning itself. At times, this shift in value toward process can manifest as a celebration of play, as the tinkering, experimentation, chaos, and messiness of critical making transform into a play-space. While I am hesitant to argue too forcefully for the playfulness of critical making in the classroom (not least for the ways play is inequitably distributed in academic and technological systems), Shira Chess has recently and compellingly argued for the need to recalibrate play as a feminist technology, so I name it here as an additional, potential effect of critical making pedagogy (Chess 2020). Whether it transforms to play or not, however, the shift in value away from a deliverable output is always a powerful disruption of the masculinist, capitalist narratives of “progress” and “value” that undergird technological, academic work.

These are, of course, also the narratives primarily responsible for the profitability of obsolescence, which brings us back to my primary thesis and central focus: the efficacy of adopting critical making pedagogies to counter the effects of technological obsolescence in electronic literature. Because technological obsolescence is a core concern of electronic literature, it will be worth spending some time and space to examine this relationship more deeply, and address some of the ways the field is already at work countering loss-through-obsolescence. Indeed, some of this work already anticipates possibilities for critical making to counter this loss.

Preservation and E-lit

As stated technological obsolescence is the phenomenon whereby technologies become outdated (obsolete) as they are updated. Historically, technological obsolescence has occurred in concert with developments in computing technologies that have radically altered what computers can do (eg: moves from primarily text to graphics processing power) or how they are used (eg: with the advent of programming languages, or the development of the graphical user interface). However, as digital technologies have developed into the lucrative consumer market of today, this phenomenon has become driven more heavily by capitalistic gains through consumer behaviors. Consider, for instance, iOS updates that no longer work on older iphone models, or new hardware models that do not fit old plugs, USB ports, or headphones. In each case, updates to the technology force consumers to purchase newer models, even if their old ones are otherwise functioning properly.

In the field of electronic literature, obsolescence requires attention from two perspectives: the readerly and the writerly. From the former, obsolescence threatens future access to e-literary texts, so the field must regularly engage with preservation strategies; from the latter, it requires that that the field regularly engage with new technologies for “writing” e-literary texts, as new platforms and programs both result from and in others’ obsolescence. E-lit, thus, occupies both sides of the obsolescence coin: on the one side, holding the outdated to ensure preservation and access, and on the other, embracing the updated, as new platforms, programs, and hardware prompt the field’s innovation. Much of the field’s focus is on combating obsolescence through attention to outdated (or, as in the case of Flash, soon-to-be-outdated) platforms, and maintaining these works for future audiences. However, this attention only weakly (if at all) accounts for the flipside of the writerly, where obsolescence also threatens loss of craft or practice in e-literary creation; this is where, I argue critical making as e-literary pedagogy is especially productive as a counter-force to loss. First though, it will be worth looking more closely at the ways obsolescence and e-literature are integrated with one another.

Maintaining access to obsolete e-literature is, and has been, a central concern of the field in large part because the field’s own history “is inextricably tied to the history of computing, networking, and their social adoption” (Flores 2019). A brief overview of e-literature’s “generations” effectively illustrates this relationship. The first generation of e-lit is primarily pre-web, text-heavy works developed between 1952 and 1995—dates that span the commercial availability of computing devices and the development of language-based coding, to the advent and adoption of the web (Flores 2019). Spanning over 40 years, this period also includes within it, the period 1980–1995 which is “dominated by stand-alone narrative hypertexts,” many of which “will no longer play on contemporary operating systems” (Hayles and House 2020, my italics). The second generation, beginning in 1995, spans the rise of personal, home computing and the web, and is characterized by web-based, interactive, and multimedia works, many of which are developed in Flash (Flores 2019). In 2005, the web of 1995 shifted into the platform-based, social “web 2.0” that we recognize and use today. Leonardo Flores uses this year to mark the advent of what he argues for as the third generation of e-lit, which “accounts for a massive scale of born digital work produced by and for contemporary audiences for whom digital media has become naturalized” (Flores 2019). In the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO)’s Teaching Electronic Literature initiative, N. Katherine Hayles and Ryan House characterize third generation e-lit, specifically, as “works written for cell phones” in contrast to “web works displayed on tablets and computer screens” (Hayles and House 2020).

Though Flores includes activities like storytelling through gifs and poetics of memes in his characterization of third generation e-lit, framing this moment through cell phones is helpful for thinking about the centrality of computing development and its attendant obsolescence to the field. In the first place, pointing to work developed for cell phones immediately brings to mind challenges of access due to Apple’s and Android’s competitive app markets. Here, there is on the one hand, the challenge of apps developed for only one of these hardware-based platforms, so inaccessible by the other; on the other hand, there are the continuous operating system updates that in turn, require continuous app updates which regularly results in apps seemingly, and sometimes literally, becoming obsolete overnight. In the second place, the 1995–2015 generation of “web works displayed on tablets and computer screens” is, as noted, a generation characterized by the rising ubiquity of Flash—a platform that was central to both user-generated webtexts, and e-literary practice of this time (Salter and Murray 2014). As noted, Flash-based works are currently facing their own impending obsolescence due to Adobe’s removal of support, a decision that Salter and Murray argue results directly from the rise of cell phones and/as smartphones which do not support Flash. Thus, cell phones and “works created for cell phones” once again demonstrates the intricate relationship between computing history, technological development, and e-literature.

As this brief history demonstrates, the challenge of ensuring access to e-lit in the face of technological obsolescence is absolutely integral to the field, as it ultimately ensures that new generations of e-lit scholars can access primary texts. Indeed, it is a central concern behind one of the field’s most visible projects: the Electronic Literature Collection (ELC). As of this writing, the ELC is made up of three curated volumes of electronic literature, freely available on the web and regularly maintained by the ELO. In addition to expected content like work descriptions and author’s/artist’s statements, each work indexed in the ELC is accompanied by notes for access; these may include links, files for download, required software and hardware, or emulators as appropriate. The ELC, thus, operates as both an invaluable resource for preserving access to e-lit in general, and for ensuring access to e-lit texts for teaching undergraduates. Most of the work in the ELC is presented either in its original experiential, playable form, or as recorded images or videos when experiencing the work directly is untenable for some reason (as in, for instance, locative texts which require their user to be in specific locations to access the text). However, some of the work is presented with materials that encourage a critical making approach—a move in direct conversation with my argument that critical making plays an important pedagogical role for experiencing and even preserving e-literary practice, even and especially if the text itself cannot be experienced or practiced directly. Borsuk and Bouse’s Between Page and Screen, an augmented reality work that requires both a physical, artist’s book of 2D barcodes specifically designed for the project, and a Flash-based web app that enables the computer’s camera to “read” these barcodes, offers a particularly strong example of this.

Between Page and Screen is indexed in the 3rd volume of the ELC. In addition to the standard information about the work and its authors, the entry’s “Begin” button contains an option to “DIY Physical Book,” which will take the user to a page on the work’s website that offers users access to 1) a web-based tool called “Epistles” for writing their own text and linking it to a particular bar code; and 2) a guide for printing and binding their own small chapbook of bar codes, which can then be held up and read through the project’s camera app. In this way, users who may be unable to access the physical book of barcodes that power Between Page and Screen are still offered an experiential, material engagement with the text through their own critical making practices. Engaging the text in this way allows users not only to physically experience the kinetics and aesthetics of the augmented reality text, but also to engage the materiality and interaction poetics at the heart of the piece—precisely those poetics that are lost when the only available access to a text is a recording to be consumed. At the same time, engaging the text through the critically made chapbook prompts a material confrontation between the analog and the digital as complementary, even intimate, information technologies. Of course, in this case it is (perhaps) ironically not the anticipated analog technology that is least accessible; rather it is the digital complement, the Flash-based program that allows the camera to read the analog bar codes, that is soon to be inaccessible.

Complementing the Electronic Literature Collections are the preservation efforts underway at media archeology labs around the country, most notably the Electronic Literature Lab (ELL) directed by Dene Grigar at Washington State University, Vancouver. Currently, the ELL is working on preserving Flash-based works of electronic literature, through the NEH-sponsored Afterflash project. Afterflash will preserve 447 works through a combination process where researchers:

1) preserve the works with Webrecorder, developed by Rhizome, that emulates the browser for which the works were published, 2) make the works accessible with newly generated URLs with six points of access, and 3) document the metadata of these works in various scholarly databases so that information about them is available to scholars (Slocum et. al. 2019).

Without a doubt, this is an exceptional project of preservation for ensuring some kind of access to Flash-based works of electronic literature, even after Adobe ends their support and maintenance of the software. In particular, the use of Webrecorder to capture the works means that the preservation will not just be a recorded “walk-through” of the text, but will capture the interactivity—an important poetic of this moment in e-literary practice.

As exceptional as this preservation project is, however, it is focused entirely (and not incorrectly) on preserving works so that they may be experienced by future readers, who do not have access to Flash. But what of preserving Flash as a program particularly suited for making interactive, multimedia webtexts? As Salter and Murray argue, a major part of the platform’s success and influence on turn-of-the-century web aesthetics, web arts, and electronic literature has to do with its low barrier-to-entry for creating interactive, multimedia works, even for users who were not coders, or who were new to programming (Salter and Murray 2014). Pedagogically speaking, the amateur focus of Flash also meant that it was particularly well-suited for teaching digital poetics through critical making. In the first place, it upheld the work of feminist digital humanities to disrupt and resist the primacy of original, complex, codework to the digital humanities and (more specifically) electronic literatures. In this way, it could operate as an ideal tool for feminist critical making pedagogies by, both promoting alternatives to writing for intellectual work, and by resisting the exclusivity behind prioritizing original, complex codework. In the second place, it allowed students to tinker with the particularities and subtleties of digital poetics—things like interaction, animation, kinetics, and visual / spatial design—without getting overwhelmed by the complexities and specifications of code. As the end of 2020 and Adobe’s support for Flash looms large, the question then becomes all the more urgent: if critical making offers an effective, feminist pedagogical model for teaching electronic literatures in the face of technological obsolescence, how can we maintain these practices in our undergraduate teaching in a post-Flash world?

Case Study: Stepworks

In response to this question, I propose: Stepworks. Created by Erik Loyer in 2017, Stepworks is a web-based platform for creating single-touch interactive texts that centers around the primary metaphor of staged, musical performance, an appropriate metaphor that resonates with traditions of e-literature and e-poetry that similarly conceptualize these texts in terms of performance. Stepworks performances are powered by the Stepwise XML, also developed by Loyer, but the platform does not require creators to work directly in the XML to make interactive texts. Instead, the program in its current iteration interfaces directly with Google Sheets—a point that, while positive for things like ease of use and supporting collaboration (features I discuss more fully in what follows), does introduce a problematic reliance on Google’s corporate decisions to maintain access to and workability of Stepworks and its texts. In the Stepworks spreadsheet, each column is a “character,” named across the first row, while the cells in each subsequent row contain what the character performs—the text, image, code, sound, or other content associated with that character. Though characters are often named entities that speak in text, they can also be things like instructions for use, metadata about the piece, musical instruments that will perform sound and pitch, or a “pulse,” a special character that defines a rhythm for the textual performance. Finally, each cell contains the content that will be performed with each single-click interaction, and this content will be performed in the order that it appears down the rows of the spreadsheet. Students can, therefore, easily and quickly experiment with different effects of single-click interactive texts, as they perform at the syllable, word, or even phrase level, just by putting that much content into the cell.

Figures 1, 2, and 3 illustrate some of these effects. Figure 1, a gif of a Stepworks text where each line of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” occupies each cell, showcases the effects of performing full lines of text with each interaction.

The gif includes text that appears in alternative lines on top and below one another, as each character speaks. This text reads: “Strange as it may seem, they give ball players nowadays very peculiar names / Funny names? / Nicknames, nicknames. / Now on the St. Louis team we have Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third-- / That’s what I want to find out / I want you to tell me the names of the fellows on the St. Louis team. / I’m telling you / Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third / You know the fellows’ names? / Yes.
Figure 1. An animated gif showing part of a Stepworks performance created by Erik Loyer that remediates the script of Abbott and Costello’s comedy sketch, “Who’s On First.” The gif was created by the author, through a screen recording of the Stepworks recording.

Figure 2, a gif from a Stepworks text based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, showcases the effects of breaking up each cell by syllable and allowing the player to perform the song at their own pace.

The text appears on a three-by-three grid, and in each space of the grid the text gets a different color, indicating a different character. The gif begins with text in the center position that reads “but just you wait, just you wait…” and in the bottom right that reads “A voice saying.” Then text appears in each position on the grid around the center saying “Alex, you gotta fend for yourself,” and the bottom right space reads “He started retreatin’ and readin’ every treatise on the shelf.” The top left then presents text reading “There would have been nothin’ left to do for someone less astute.”
Figure 2. An animated gif showing part of a Stepworks performance created by Erik Loyer that remediates lyrics from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s broadway musical Hamilton. The gif was created by the author, through a screen recording of the Stepworks recording.

Finally, Figure 3 is taken from Unlimited Greatness, a text that remediates Nike’s ad featuring the story of Serena Williams as single words. In this text, the effects of filling each cell with a single word are on display.

There is text that appears on word at a time in the center of the screen which reads “Compton / sister / outsider / pro / #304 / winner / top 10 / Paris / London / New York / Melbourne / #1 / injured / struggling.”
Figure 3. An animated gif showing part of a Stepworks performance called Unlimited Greatness created by Erik Loyer that remediates a Nike ad about Serena Williams’s tennis career originally created by the design team, Wiedan+Kennedy. The gif was created by the author, through a screen recording of the Stepworks recording.

Pedagogically speaking, this range of illustrative content allows students to quickly grasp the different effects of manipulating textual performance in an interactive piece. At the same time, the ease of working in the spreadsheet offers them an effective place from which to experiment in their own work. For example, reflecting on the process of creating a Stepworks performance based on a favorite song, one student describes placing words purposefully into the spreadsheet, breaking up the entries by word and eventually by syllable, rather than by line:

I made them [the words] pop up one by one instead of the words popping up all together using the [&] symbol. I also had words that had multiple syllables in the song, so I broke those up to how they fit in the song. So, if the song had a 2-syllable word, then I broke it up into 2 beats.

Although the spreadsheet is not named explicitly, the student describes a creative process of purposefully engaging with the different effects of syllables, words, and lines, opting for a word- and syllable-based division in the spreadsheet to affect how the song’s remediation is performed (see Figure 4, the middle column of the top row).

Besides offering the spreadsheet as an accessible space in which to build interactive texts, Stepworks comes equipped with pre-set “stages” on which to perform those texts. Currently there are seven stages available for a Stepworks performance, and each of them offers a different look and feel for the text. For instance, the Hamilton piece discussed above (Figure 2) is performed on Vocal Grid, a stage which assigns each character a specific color and position on a grid that will grow to accommodate the addition of more characters; Who’s On First, by contrast, is performed on Layer Cake, a stage that displays character dialogue in stacked rows. As the stages offer a default set design for font, color, textual behavior, and background, they (like the spreadsheets) reduce the barrier-to-entry for creating and experimenting with kinetic, e-poetic works. Once a text is built in the spreadsheet and the spreadsheet published to the web, it may be directly loaded into any stage and performed; a simple page reload in the browser will update the performance with any changes to the spreadsheet, thereby supporting an iterative design process. The user-facing stage and design-facing spreadsheet are integrated with one another so that students may tinker, fiddle, experiment, and learn, moving between the perspective of the audience member and that of the designer.

In my own classes, it is at this stage of the process that additional, less tangible benefits of critical making pedagogy have come to light, especially in my most common Stepworks assignment: challenging students to remediate a favorite song or poem into a Stepworks performance. When students reach the stage of loading and reloading their spreadsheets into different stages in Stepworks, they also often begin exploring different performance effects for their remediated texts, regularly going beyond any requirements of the assignment to learn more about working with and in Stepworks to achieve the effects they want. Of this creative experience, one student writes:

In order to accurately portray the message of the song, I had to take time and sing the song to myself multiple times to figure out the best way to group the words together to appear on screen. Once this was completed, I had an issue where words would appear out of order because I didn’t fully understand the +1 (or any number for that matter) after a word. I thought that this meant to just add extra time to the duration of the word or syllable. I later figured out that it acted as a timeline of when to appear rather than the duration of the word’s appearance. Once I figured this out, it then came down to figuring out the best timing of the words appearing on each screen to match the original song.

Here the student’s reflection indicates a few important things: first the reflection articulates the student’s own iterative design process, as they move between the designer’s and audience’s experiential positions to create the “best timing of the words” performed on screen. This same movement guides the student towards figuring out some more advanced Stepworks syntax: working with a “Pulse” character to effect a tempo or rhythm to the piece by delaying certain words’ appearances on screen (the reference to “+1”). As the assignment required an attention to rhythm, but did not specify the necessity of using the Pulse character to create a rhythm, this student’s choice to work with the Pulse character points to both a self-guided movement beyond the requirements of the assignment, and a developing poetic sensitivity to words and texts as rhythmic bodies that effect meaning through performance. In Stepworks, rhythm can be created by working down the spreadsheet’s rows (as in the Hamilton or Unlimited Greatness pieces in Figures 2 and 3), however this rhythm is reliant on the player’s interactive choices and personal sensitivity to the poetics. Using a pulse to effect rhythm overrides the player’s choice and assigns a rhythm to the contents within a single cell, performing them on a set delay following the user’s single-click.[6] Working with the pulse, then, the student is letting their creative and critical ownership of their poetic design lead them to a direct confrontation with the culturally-conditioned paradox of user-control and freedom in interactive environments. This point is explicitly evoked later in the reflection, as the student expands on the effects of the pulse, writing:

The timing of the words appearing on the screen … also enhance the impact and significance of certain words. My favorite example is how one word … “Hallelujah,” can be stretched out to take up 8 units of time, signifying the importance of just that one word
(see Figure 4, the leftmost text in the second row).

Indeed, across my courses students have demonstrated a willingness to go beyond the specifications of this assignment in order to fully realize their poetic vision. Besides the Pulse, students often explore syntax for “sampling” the spreadsheet’s contents to perform a kind of remix, customizing fonts or colors in the display, or adding multimedia like images, gifs, or sound. Thus, as Stepworks supports this kind of work, it simultaneously supports students’ hands-on learning of digital poetics, especially those popularized by works created with Flash.

Finally, I’d like to point to one final aspect of Stepworks that makes it an ideal platform for teaching e-literature through feminist critical making pedagogies. Because of its integration with google sheets, Stepworks supports collaboration, unfettered by distance or synchronicity. Speaking for my own classes and experiences teaching with Stepworks—particularly the Spring 2020 class—this is where the program really excels pedagogically, as it opens a space for teaching e-poetry through sharing ideas and poetic decisions, creating and experimenting “together,” and supporting students to learn from and with one another, even when the shared situatedness of the classroom is inaccessible. A powerful pedagogical practice in its own right, collaboration is also a core feminist technology, central to feminist praxis across disciplines, and a cornerstone of digital humanities work, broadly speaking. Indeed, it is one of the tenants of digital humanities that has contributed to the field’s disruption and challenge to expectations of humanities scholarship.

As an illustration of what can be done in the (virtual, asynchronous) classroom through a collaborative Stepworks piece, I will end this case study with a piece my students created to close out the Spring 2020 semester—a moment that, to echo the opening of this article, threw us into a space of technological inaccess, of temporal obsolescence. Unable to access many works of Flash-based e-lit that had been on the original syllabus, critical making through Stepworks was our primary—in some cases, only—mode through which to engage with e-poetics, particularly of interaction and kinetics. Working from a single google spreadsheet, each student took a character-column and added a poem or song or lyric that was, in some way, meaningful to them in this moment. The resulting performance (Figure 4), appears as a multi-voiced, found text; watching it or playing it, it is almost as if you are in a room, surrounded by others, sharing a moment of speaking, hearing, watching, performing poetry.

Figure 4. A recording of a collaborative Stepworks piece of Found Poetry built by students in Sarah Laiola’s Spring 2020 Introduction to the Digital Humanities class.The piece presents text on a 3 by 3 grid, and each grid performs the text of a different poem or song, chosen by the students.


Technological obsolescence will undoubtedly continue to present a challenge for teaching digital texts and electronic literatures. As our systems update into outdatedness, we face the loss of both readerly access to existing texts, and writerly access to creative potentialities. Flash, which as of this writing, is facing its final days, is just one example of this cycle and its effects on electronic and digital literatures. As I have shown here, however, even as platforms (like Flash) become obsolete for contemporary machines, critical making through newer platforms with low barriers to entry like Stepworks can offer productive counters to this loss, particularly from the writerly perspective of, in this case, kinetic poetics. Indeed, this approach can enhance teaching e-literature and digital textuality more broadly, for other inaccessible platforms. For instance, Twine, a free platform for creating text-based games that runs on contemporary browsers, is a productive space for teaching hypertextual storytelling in place of Storyspace, which though still functional on contemporary systems, is cost-prohibitive at nearly $150; similarly, Kate Compton’s Tracery offers an opportunity for first-time-coders to create simple text generators, in contrast to comparatively more advanced languages like javascript, which require such focus on the code, that the lesson on poetics of textual generation may be lost by overwhelmed students. Whatever the case may be, critical making through low-cost, contemporary platforms that are easy to use offer a robust space for teaching e-literary and digital media creation that maintains a feminist, inclusive, and equitable classroom ethos to counter technological obsolescence.


[1] Throughout this article, I am purposely using different capitalizations for referencing the digital humanities. Capital DH, as used here indicates the formalized field as such, while lowercase digital humanities refers to broad practices of digital humanities work that is not always recognizable as part of the field.

[2] Although I cite Svensson here, the term is taken from the 2011 MLA conference theme. Svensson, however, theorizes the big tent in this piece.

[3] Anecdotal data.

[4] For example, see Hélène Cixous’s écriture feminine, or feminist language-oriented poetry such as that by Susan Howe.

[5] The unessay is a form of student assessment that replaces the traditional essay with something else, often a creative work of any media or material. For examples see Cate Denial’s blog reflecting on the assignment, Hayley Brazier and Heidi Kaufman blog post “Defining the Unessay,” or Ryan Cordell’s assignment in his Technologies of Text class.

[6] As a reminder, Stepworks texts are single-click interactions, where the entire contents of a cell in the spreadsheet are performed on a click.


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Belojevic, Nina. 2017. “Glitch Console.” In Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities, edited by Jentery Sayers. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/read/untitled-aa1769f2-6c55-485a-81af-ea82cce86966/section/b1dbaeab-f4ad-4738-9064-8ea740289503#ch20.

Bouse, Brad. 2012. Between Page and Screen. New York: Siglio Press. https://www.betweenpageandscreen.com.

Burtch, Allison, and Eric Rosenthal. 2017. “Mic Jammer.” In Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities, edited by Jentery Sayers. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/read/untitled-aa1769f2-6c55-485a-81af-ea82cce86966/section/f8dcc03c-2bc3-499a-8c1b-1d17f4098400#ch11.

Chess, Shira. 2020. Play Like a Feminist. Playful Thinking. Cambridge: MIT Press.

D’Ignazio, Catherine, and Lauren F. Klein. 2020. Data Feminism. Ideas. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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Endres, Bill. 2017. “A Literacy of Building: Making in the Digital Humanities.” In Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities, edited by Jentery Sayers. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/read/untitled-aa1769f2-6c55-485a-81af-ea82cce86966/section/2acf33b9-ac0f-4411-8e8f-552bb711e87c#ch04.

FemTechNet. 2012. “Manifesto.” FemTechNet. https://femtechnet.org/publications/manifesto/.

FemtechNet White Paper Committee. 2013. “Transforming Higher Education with Distributed Open Collaborative Courses (DOOCS): Feminist Pedagogies and Networked Learning.” FemTechNet. https://femtechnet.org/about/white-paper/.

Flores, Leonardo. 2019. “Third Generation Electronic Literature.” Electronic Book Review, April. doi:https://doi.org/10.7273/axyj-3574.

Hayles, N. Katherine. 2006. “The Time of Digital Poetry: From Object to Event.” In New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories, edited by Adalaide Morris and Thomas Swiss, 181–210. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Hayles, N. Katherine, and Ryan House. 2020. “How to Teach Electronic Literature.” Teaching Electronic Literature.

Knight, Kim A. Brillante. 2017. “Fashioning Circuits, 2011–Present.” In Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities, edited by Jentery Sayers. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/read/untitled-aa1769f2-6c55-485a-81af-ea82cce86966/section/05613b02-ec93-4588-98e0-36cd4336e7a0#ch26.

Losh, Elizabeth, and Jacqueline Wernimont, eds. 2018. Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/projects/bodies-of-information.

Salter, Anastasia, and John Murray. 2014. Flash: Building the Interactive Web. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Sayers, Jentery, ed. 2017. Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/projects/making-things-and-drawing-boundaries.

Slocum, Holly, Nicholas Schiller, Dragan Espenscheid, and Greg Philbrook. 2019. “After Flash: Proposal for the 2019 National Endowment for the Humanities, Humanities Collections and Reference Resources, Implementation Grant.” Electronic Literature Lab. http://dtc-wsuv.org/wp/ell/afterflash/.

Stefans, Brian Kim. 2000. The Dreamlife of Letters. Electronic Literature Collection: Volume 1. https://collection.eliterature.org/1/works/stefans__the_dreamlife_of_letters.html.

Svensson, Patrik. 2012. “Beyond the Big Tent.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah. 2003. “From Instrumental Texts to Textual Instruments.” In Streaming Worlds. Melbourne, Australia. http://www.hyperfiction.org/texts/textualInstrumentsShort.pdf.

About the Author

Sarah Whitcomb Laiola is an assistant professor of Digital Culture and Design at Coastal Carolina University, where she also serves as coordinator for the Digital Culture and Design program. She holds a PhD in English from the University of California, Riverside, and specializes in teaching new media poetics, visual culture, and contemporary digital technoculture. Her most recent peer-reviewed publications appear in Electronic Book Review (Nov 2020), Syllabus (May 2020), Hyperrhiz (Sept 2019), Criticism (Jan 2019), and American Quarterly (Sept 2018). She will be joining the JITP Editorial Collective in 2021.

The opening header of the first episode of Ulysses in The Little Review (photograph by the author from the copy in the Special Collections and Archives of Grinnell College).

Numbering Ulysses: Digital Humanities, Reductivism, and Undergraduate Research


Ashplant: Reading, Smashing, and Playing Ulysses, is a digital resource created by Grinnell College students working with Erik Simpson and staff and faculty collaborators.[1] In the process of creating Ashplant, the students encountered problems of data entry, some of which reflect the general difficulties of placing humanistic materials in tabular form, and some of which revealed problems arising specifically from James Joyce’s experimental techniques in Ulysses. By presenting concrete problems of classification, the process of creating Ashplant led the students to confront questions about the tendency of Digital Humanities methods to treat humanistic materials with regrettably “mechanistic, reductive and literal” techniques, as Johanna Drucker puts it. It also placed the students’ work in a century-long history of readers’ efforts to tame the difficulty of Ulysses by imposing numbering systems and quasi-tabular tools—analog anticipations of the tools of digital humanities. By grappling with the challenges of creating the digital project, the students grappled with the complexity of the literary material but found it difficult to convey that complexity to the readers of the site. The article closes with some concrete suggestions for a self-conscious and reflexive digital pedagogy that maintains humanistic complexity and subtlety for student creators and readers alike.

In calculating the addenda of bills she frequently had recourse to digital aid.
—James Joyce, Ulysses (17.681–82), describing Molly Bloom[2]

The growth of the Digital Humanities has been fertilized by widespread training institutes, workshops, and certifications of technical skills. As we have developed those skills and methods, we DHers have also cultivated a corresponding skepticism about their value. Katie Rawson and Trevor Muñoz, for example, write that humanists’ suspicions of data cleaning “are suspicions that researchers are not recognizing or reckoning with the framing orders to which they are subscribing as they make and manipulate their data” (Rawson and Muñoz 2019, 280–81). Similarly and more broadly, Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein describe in Data Feminism the need for high-level critique when our data does not fit predetermined categories—to move beyond questioning the categories to question “the system of classification itself” (D’Ignazio and Klein 2020, 105). When we have “recourse to digital aid,” to reappropriate Joyce’s phrase from the epigraph above, we break fluid, continuous (analog) information into discrete units. In the process, we gain computational tractability. What do we lose? What do we lose, especially, when we use digital tools in humanistic teaching, where we value the cultivation of fluidity and complexity? These recent critiques build on foundational work such as Johanna Drucker’s earlier indictment of the methods of quantitative DH:

Positivistic, strictly quantitative, mechanistic, reductive and literal, these visualization and processing techniques preclude humanistic methods from their operations because of the very assumptions on which they are designed: that objects of knowledge can be understood as self-identical, self-evident, ahistorical, and autonomous. (Drucker 2012, 86)

The problems that Drucker identifies echo the distinction that constitutes the category of the digital itself: whereas analog information exists on a continuous spectrum, digital data becomes computationally tractable by creating discrete units that are ultimately binary. Tractability can require a loss of complexity. One of Drucker’s examples involves James Joyce’s Ulysses: she evokes the history of mapping the novel’s Dublin as a signature instance of the “grotesque distortion” that can occur when we use non-humanistic methods to transform the materials of imaginative works (Drucker 2012, 94). At their worst, such methods can operate like the budget of Bloom’s day in Ulysses, which is an accounting of a complex set of interactions that obscures at least as much as it reveals, mainly by sweeping messy expenditures into a catch-all category called “balance” (17.1476). Making the numbers add up can render complexity invisible.[3]

I agree with Drucker’s point, albeit with some discomfort, as I am also the faculty lead of a digital project that involves mapping Ulysses, albeit in a different way. In this essay, I take up the pre-digital and digital history of transforming information about Joyce’s novel into structured data. Then I consider the concrete application of those methods in Ashplant: Reading, Smashing, and Playing Ulysses, a website that shares the scholarship of my Grinnell College students. Working on the site has brought us into the history of numbering Ulysses, for better and for worse, and shown us how Ulysses specifically—more than most texts—resists and undermines the very processes that give digital projects their analytical power. In creating Ashplant, we have found that undergraduate research provides an especially generative environment for breaking down the “unproductive binary relation,” in Tara McPherson’s words, between theory and practice in the digital humanities (Macpherson 2018, 22).

Numbering Ulysses from The Little Review to the Database

Although created with twenty-first–century digital technologies, Ashplant takes part in a tradition that has built over the full century since the publication of Ulysses. Readers of Joyce’s text have long sought to discipline its complexity by creating reading aids structured like tabular data. That process begins with numbering: facing a novel that sometimes runs for many pages without a paragraph break, we readers have given ourselves a unique, identifying value for each line of the text. In database architecture, such a value is called—with unintentionally Joycean overtones—a primary key.[4] The primary key for Ulysses assigns the lines a value based on episode and line numbers. In its most conventional form, the line numbering is based on the Gabler edition of the novel. The episode-line key lets us point, for instance, to “Ineluctable modality of the visible”—the first line of the third episode—as 3.1.

Ulysses is unusual in having such a reliably fixed convention for a work of prose. Prose normally resists stable line numbering because its line breaks change in response to variations of typesetting that we do not normally read as meaningful; thus arises the variation among editions of Shakespeare’s plays in the line numbering of prose passages. The difficulty of reading Ulysses, however, creates a desire for reliably numbered reference points, for stable ground upon which communities of readers can gather. Such numbering imposes orderly hierarchy upon a text that implicitly and explicitly resists the concept and practices of orderly hierarchy. The early history of numbering the chapters and pages of Ulysses reveals our modern standardization—and by extension the structured data in Ashplant—as the product of a century-old conflict between printed versions of Ulysses and efforts of readers to retrofit the text into tractable data.

The serialization of Ulysses in The Little Review gave readers their first opportunity to grasp Joyce’s text with names and numbers. In the first issue containing part of Ulysses, the numbers begin: issue V.11, for March 1918. The Table of Contents reads, “Ulysses, 1.” The heading of the piece itself, on three lines, is “ULYSSES / JAMES JOYCE / Episode 1.”

The opening header of the first episode of Ulysses in The Little Review, volume 5, number 11, March 1918.
Figure 1. The opening header of the first episode of Ulysses in The Little Review (photograph by the author from the copy in the Special Collections and Archives of Grinnell College).

The 1922 Shakespeare and Company edition removes the episode numbers of the Little Review installments and, indeed, removes most signposting numbers altogether. The volume has no table of contents. In the front matter, the sole indication of a section or chapter number is a page containing only the roman numeral I, placed a bit above and to the left of the center of the page.

Figure 2. The Shakespeare and Company page with only the roman numeral “I” (Joyce, 1922).

This page is preceded by one blank page and followed by another, after which the main text of the novel begins, with no chapter title or episode number.

The beginning of the first episode in the Shakespeare and Company edition, showing no numbering or other header above the text.
Figure 3. The beginning of the first episode in the Shakespeare and Company edition (Joyce, 1922).

The page has no number, either. The following page is numbered 4, so the reader can infer that this is page three, and that the page with the roman numeral I has also been page one of the book. Episodes two and three are also unnumbered, so the reader can infer retrospectively that the roman numeral one indicated a section rather than a chapter or episode number. At this point, that is to say, the only stable numbering from The Little Review—the episode numbers—has disappeared entirely and been replaced by section numbers (just three for the whole book) that reveal their signification only gradually.

To fill the void of stable numbering, early readers of Ulysses relied on supplemental texts that have structured the naming and numbering conventions of the text ever since: the two schemata that Joyce hand-wrote for Carlo Linati and Stuart Gilbert in 1920 and 1921, respectively. The schemata have retained their power in part because of the tantalizing (apparent) simplicity of their form: they organize information about the novel in a structure closely resembling that of a spreadsheet or relational database table. Both schemata use the novel’s eighteen episodes as their records, or tuples—the rows that act essentially as entries in the database—and both populate each record with data corresponding to a series of columns largely but not entirely shared between the two schemata. The relational structure of the Linati schema, for example, has a record for the first episode that identifies it with the number “1,” the title “Telemachus,” and the hour of “8–9” (Ellmann 1972).

Today, any number of websites re-create the schemata by making the quasi-tabular structure fully tabular, as does the Wikipedia page for the Linati schema (“Linati Schema for Ulysses”).

A screenshot of the Linati schema in Wikipedia, showing the tabular structure of the data in the web page.
Figure 4. A screenshot of the Linati schema in Wikipedia. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linati_schema_for_Ulysses).


Joyce’s sketches mimic tabular data so neatly that many later versions of the schemata put them in tabular structure without comment. The episode names and numbers again prove their utility: though the two schemata contain different columns, a digital version can join them by creating a single, larger table organized by episode.[5]

Organizing information by episode number has become standard practice in analog and digital supplements to Ulysses. In the analog tradition, readers have long used supplemental materials, organized episode by episode, to assist in the reading of the novel. An offline reader might prepare to read episode three, for instance, by reading a brief summary of the episode on Wikipedia, then consulting the schemata entries for the episode in Richard Ellmann’s Ulysses on the Liffey, then reading the longer summary in Harry Blamires’s New Bloomsday Book. In each case, that reader would look for materials associated with episode number three or the associated name “Proteus.” As much as any other work of literature, Ulysses invites that kind of hand-crafted algorithm for the reading process, all organized by the supplements’ adoption of conventional episode numbers and, often, the Gabler edition’s line numbers as well.

Digital projects, including Ashplant, rely on these episode and line numbers even more fundamentally. One section of Ashplant—the most conventional section—is called “Ulysses by episode.” It organizes and links to resources created by other writers and scholars, from classic nodes of reading Ulysses such as the Linati and Gilbert schemata to contemporary digital projects such as Boston College’s “Walking Ulysses” maps and the textual reproductions of the Modernist Versions Project.[6] This part of Ashplant, like those digital supplements to Ulysses and a long list of others, relies on the standard numerical organization: it has eighteen sections, corresponding to the eighteen episodes of the novel.

The underlying structure of these pages illustrates the importance of the episode number as a primary key: at the level of HTML markup, all eighteen pages point to the same file (“episode.php”) and therefore contain the same code.[7] The only change that happens when the user moves from the page about episode one to that for episode two, for example, is that the value of a single variable, “episode_number,” changes from “01” to “02.” Based on that variable, the page changes the information it displays, mainly by altering database calls that say, essentially, “Look at this database table and give me the information in the row where episode_number equals” the value of that variable. The database call looks like this, with emphasis added:

/* Performing SQL query */
$query = “SELECT a.episode_number, a.episode_name, b.episode_number, b.ls_time, b.ls_color, b.ls_people, b.ls_scienceart, b.ls_meaning, b.ls_technic, b.ls_organ, b.ls_symbols, b.gs_scene, b.gs_hour, b.gs_organ, b.gs_color, b.gs_symbol, b.gs_art, b.gs_technic
FROM episode_names a, schemata b
WHERE (a.episode_number=’$episode_number’) and (a.episode_number=b.episode_number)”;
$result = mysql_query($query) or die(“Query failed : ” . mysql_error());

The user’s input provides the value of episode_number (from 01 to 18) when the page loads.[8] Then, the page with this code queries the database to gather the information—the episode’s name, the schemata entries, and much more—from two database tables joined by the column containing that two-digit number in each table. The process gains its effectiveness from the conventionality of the episode numbers. The price of that efficacy is the loss of a good deal of information—from quirks of typesetting and handwriting, to alternative approaches to numbering the episodes, to the Italianate episode names from the schemata—that have at least as much textual authority as do our later simplifications.

Hierarchy and Classification

If there could be that which is contained in that which is felt there would be a chair where there are chairs and there would be no more denial about a clatter. A clatter is not a smell. All this is good.
—Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons (Stein 2018, 53)

Line numbers, mainly those of the Gabler edition, impose further numerical discipline on Ulysses. The line numbers produce a hierarchy that allows humans and machines alike to arrive at a shared understanding of textual location:

Line (beginning at 1 and incrementing by 1 within each episode)

Episodes (1–18, or “Telemachus” to “Penelope”)

Ulysses (the whole)

This rationalization functions so powerfully, not only in digital projects but also in conventional academic citation, because it assigns to each location in the text—with some exceptions, such as images—a line, and every line belongs to an episode, and every episode belongs to Ulysses. The hierarchy of information allows shared understanding of reference points.

Though created before the age of contemporary digital humanities, the line/episode/book hierarchy produces a kind of standardization—simple, technical, and reductive—that is enormously useful for digital methods. For example, I embedded into Ashplant a script that combs parts of the site for references to Ulysses, based on a standard citation format of “(U [episode].[line(s)]),” then generates automatically a list of references to an episode, with a link to each source page.

A screenshot of an index of line references from Ashplant, showing a machine-generated list of references from Episode Five of Ulysses.
Figure 5. A screenshot of an index of line references from Ashplant.

These references point to entries in our collective lexicon of key terms in Ulysses. The students’ lexicon entries together constitute a playful, inventive exploration of the book’s language. The automated construction of the list itself, however, relies on an episode-line hierarchy that has none of that playfulness or invention.

For playful inventiveness in a hierarchy of location, we can turn instead to Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who reads the hierarchical self-location he has written on the flyleaf of his geography book:

Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
County Kildare
The World
The Universe (Joyce 2003, 12)

Stephen’s hierarchy is personal and resistant, not only containing the humorously self-centered details of his hyper-local situation but also excluding, for instance, any layer between “Ireland” and “Europe” that would acknowledge Ireland’s containment within the United Kingdom. It also confuses categories: although the list seems geographical—appropriately, given its location on a geography book—it contains some elements that would require additional information to become geographical (“Stephen Dedalus,” “Class of Elements”), and others whose mapping would be contentious (“Ireland,” “Europe”). It even contains an element, “Class of Elements,” that constitutes a self-reflexive joke about the impulse to classification that the list satirizes.

Such knowing irony does not infuse the hierarchies that drive much of our work in the digital humanities. That work requires schemes of classification that rely on one element’s containment within another. Consider what “Words API” claims to be “knowing” about words:

A screenshot from the 'About' section of Words API describing the hierarchical relations of certain terms, such as 'a hatchback is a type of car'.
Figure 6. A screenshot from the “About” section of Words API describing the hierarchical relations of certain terms (https://www.wordsapi.com).

An API, or Application Programming Interface, provides methods for different pieces of software to communicate with one another in a predictable way. Words API, “An API for the English Language,” performs this function by adding hierarchical metadata to every word. That metadata, in turn, allows other software to draw on that information by searching for all the words that refer to parts of the human body, for instance, or for singular nouns. In other kinds of DH applications, such as textual editions that are part of the XML-based Text Encoding Initiative, the hierarchical relationships are often hand-encoded: feminine rhyme is a type of rhyme, and rhyming words are sections of lines, which are elements of stanzas, and so forth.

The utility of these techniques is not surprising. Stanzas do generally consist of lines, transitive is a type of verb. The reliance on these encoded hierarchies echoes the methods of New Criticism, such as Wellek and Warren’s hierarchical sequence of image, metaphor, symbol, and myth—for them, the “central poetic structure” of a work (Wellek and Warren 1946, 190). For contemporary scholars more invested in decentering and poststructuralism, however, the echo of New Critical hierarchies in DH is unwelcome. Centrality implies exclusion; structure implies oversimplification; formal hierarchy implies social hierarchy. Or, as John Bradley writes, “XML containment often represents a certain kind of relationship between elements that, for want of a better term, can be thought of as ‘ownership’” (Bradley 2005, 145). Even for scholars working specifically to counteract the hierarchical containments of XML, the attempt can lead—as in Bradley’s work—to the linking of multiple hierarchical structures rather than the disruption of hierarchical organization itself.

Problems of “Subtle Things”

Addressing the challenges of encoding historical materials in XML, Bradley describes the limitations of hierarchical classification. “Humanities material,” he writes, “sometimes does not suit the relational model,” and he cites the Orlando Project’s opposition to placing its data in a relational database because it wanted to say more “subtle things” than the relational model could express (Bradley 2005, 141).[9] Bradley responds to that challenge with an ingenious method of integrating the capabilities of SQL databases into XML, solving the problem of expressing how a name in a historical document might refer to one of three people with discrete identifiers in the database. Even this problem, however, involves a relatively simple kind of uncertainty, representable on a line between “certain” and “unlikely.” The data being encoded is used for humanistic purposes, but the problem itself is not especially humanistic: it assumes an objective historical reality that can be mapped, with varying levels of confidence, onto stable personal identifiers.

The data of Ulysses presents additional difficulties, many of which are specifically literary, as the students working on Ashplant have repeatedly found. In one case, a group of them sought to document every appearance of every character in Ulysses. That data has clear utility for readers: when made searchable, it could assist a reader by identifying, for a given episode and line number, the active characters, perhaps adding a brief annotation to each name. Many earlier aids to reading the novel offer descriptions of the main characters, but the students set out to develop a resource that was more comprehensive and more responsive to a reader’s needs at a given place in the text. The students quickly discovered that identifying and describing a handful of major characters is easy; identifying all of them and their textual locations is not just a bigger problem but a fundamentally different one.

Take, for example, the novel’s dogs. We had established early on that non-human entities could be characters in our classification, given Joyce’s attribution of speech and intention to, say, hats and bars of soap. At least one dog seemed clearly to reach the level of “character”: Garryowen, the dog accompanying the Citizen in the “Cyclops” episode. According to one of the satirical interpolations of the episode, Garryowen has attained, “among other achievements, the recitation of verse” (12.718–19), a sample of which is included in the text. For the purposes of our data and accompanying visualization, we therefore needed basic information about the character, such as its name and when it appears in Ulysses.

The name creates the first problem. The description of the dog in “Cyclops” identifies it as “the famous old Irish red setter wolfdog formerly known by the sobriquet of Garryowen and recently rechristened by his large circle of friends and acquaintances Owen Garry” (12.715–17). In itself, the attribution of two names to one being is not a problem. For instance, Leopold Bloom can be “Bloom” or “Poldy,” but switching between them does not rename him. In Ulysses, such an entity could take the names “Garryowen” and “Owen Garry.” As long as the underlying identity is stable, this kind of multiplicity (two names at two different times) can fit easily into a relational database.

But Ulysses does not work so simply. Within the fiction, the renaming of the dog has questionable reality-status.[10] The “rechristening” has no durability within the narrative; it exists only in the context of one satirical interpolation, and subsequent references to the dog revert to “Garryowen.” Arguably, if our task is to describe the characters that are real within the world of the novel, the name “Owen Garry” has no status at all, as it attaches more to the voice of the temporary narrator than to what we could imagine as the real (fictional) dog.

However, we could just as plausibly say that, in the fiction, “Owen Garry” must not only exist but also be recorded as a separate character representing the temporary re-creation of Garryowen by this narrative voice. All of this messiness anticipates the further complications of the hallucinatory “Circe” episode, in which Bloom is followed by a dog that metamorphoses among species—spaniel, retriever, terrier, bulldog—until Bloom addresses it as “Garryowen,” and it transforms into a wolfdog. The dog might say, as Stephen does, “I am other I now” (9.205). Joyce’s method relies on the unresolvability of these ambiguities.

Emily Mester, the student who took the lead on the Ashplant character project, brought the transforming dog to our working group as a problem of data entry. We discussed how the problem stemmed from a breakdown of classification: rather than allowing the reader to rely on conventional relationships between sets and their elements (living things include humans and other animals, which include dogs, which include species, which include individual dogs), Joyce’s transforming dog implies a relation in which the individual dog contains multiple species. Our conversation led us to consider the dog as a device through which Joyce upends hierarchies of containment by attaching the name “Garryowen” to a dog, or an assortment of dogs, whose characteristics arise from the surrounding narration.

We realized together that the exercise of entering data into our spreadsheet led us to new questions about earlier scholarship on Ulysses. We found, for example, that Vivien Igoe assumed that Joyce’s Garryowen represented a historical dog of the same name, as in her statement that “Garryowen, who appears in three of the episodes in Ulysses (‘Cyclops’, ‘Nausicaa’, and ‘Circe’), was born in 1876” (Igoe 2009, 89). Although Igoe subsequently notes that Joyce distorts Garryowen for the purposes of fiction, this sentence still relies on several related presumptions for the purposes of historicist explanation: that the historical and fictional Garryowens are the same, that the Garryowen of Ulysses has the species identification of the historical dog (“famous red setter” [Igoe 2009, 89] rather than the “Irish red setter wolfdog” of “Cyclops”), and that within Ulysses, the fictional dog maintains a constant identity across episodes.[11] Reading phrasing such as Igoe’s in light of our questions about Garryowen led the Ashplant group to consider the confrontation between certain kinds of historicist methods with poststructural skepticism.

As the students continued to develop Ashplant, they discovered more and more examples of data entry problems that gave rise to probing discussions of Ulysses and, often, of how fictions work and how readers receive them. We sought, for instance, to map the global imagination of Ulysses, resisting the tendency Drucker had criticized of producing simplistic, naïve Dublin-centric visualizations of the “action” of the book. Instead, our map included only places outside of Dublin. For that subproject, guided by the student Christopher Gallo, we asked, How do we map an imaginary place? One that a character remembers by the wrong name? One that seems to refer to a historical event but puts it in the wrong place? For another part of the project, led by Magdalena Parkhurst, we created a visualization of the Blooms’ bookshelf that has been disrupted in “Ithaca,” and we needed to represent books with missing, incorrect, and imaginary information according to our research into historical sources.

Again and again, we found that the parts of Ashplant that appeared to involve the simplest kinds of data entry prompted us to have some of our deepest conversations about Ulysses, often leading us to further reading in contemporary criticism and theory. We found that, as Rachel Buurma and Anna Tione Levine and have argued,


Building an archive for the use of other researchers with different goals, assumptions, and expectations requires sustained attention to constant tiny yet consequential choices: “Should I choose to ignore this unusual marking in my transcription, or should I include it?” “Does this item require a new tag, or should it be categorized using an existing one?” “Is the name of the creator of this document data or metadata?” (Buurma and Levine 2016, 275–76)


Though our project is not archival, our experience has aligned with Buurma and Levine’s argument. Undergraduate research, which “has long emphasized process over product, methodology over skills, and multiple interpretations over single readings,” is well situated to foster the “sympathetic research imagination” necessary for creating useful digital projects. As our process became product, we felt more powerfully the constraints of using the “reductive and literal” tools that concern Drucker. No matter how nuanced and far-reaching our conversation about Garryowen had been, for instance, the needs of our spreadsheet compelled us to choose: is/are the transforming dog(s) of “Circe” appearances Garryowen or not?[12]

We found that the machinery of data entry and visualization produced what Donna Haraway calls the “god trick” of producing the illusion of objectivity, even when our conversations and methods aspired to privilege, in Haraway’s words, “contestation, deconstruction, passionate construction, webbed connections, and hope for transformation of systems of knowledge and ways of seeing” (Haraway 1988, 585).[13] Our timeline-based visualization of character appearances, for example, could not resist the binary choice of yes or no; even a tool that could represent probability would not be capable of representing non-probabilistic indeterminacy in the way that our conversation had. We needed to find other ways to make Ashplant into a site that produces a humanistic experience for its readers as well as its creators.

Ways Forward for Humanism in Undergraduate Digital Studies

This essay will not fully solve the problem it addresses: that digital methods gain some of their power by selecting from and simplifying complex information, sometimes in ways that run contrary to humanistic practices. Like Buurma and Levine, however, I find that the scale and established practices of undergraduate research create opportunities to do digital work that minimizes the problem and may, in fact, point to approaches that can inform humanistic digital work in general. With that goal in mind, I offer a few propositions based on our Ashplant team’s experience to date.

  1. Narrate the problems. Undergraduate research often operates at a scale that allows for hand-crafted digital humanities, in which the consequences of data manipulation can become the explicit subject of a project. The structure of Ashplant allows us to explain the problems of documenting character and location in Ulysses, and it also provides space for a wider range of student research: an analysis of Bloom’s scientific thinking and mis-thinking in “Ithaca,” a piece about Ulysses and the film Inside Llewyn Davis that uses hyperlinks to take a circular rather than linear form, and students’ artistic responses to the novel. The scale of undergraduate research allows it to become an arena for confrontation with and immersion in the problems created by the intersection of data science and the humanities.
  2. Connect conventional research to digital outcomes. Ashplant has at its heart an annotated bibliography, for which students read, cite, and summarize existing scholarship. Creating such a bibliography in digital form—specifically, with the bibliographical information in a database accessed through our web interface—enables searchability and linking. The bibliography thus becomes the scholarly backbone of the site, linked from and linking to every other section. Contributing to this part of the project grounds the students in the kind of reading and writing they have done for their other humanistic work, while also illustrating the affordances of the digital environment.
  3. Use the genre of the hypertext essay. Writing essays that combine traditional scholarly citation with other means of linking—bringing a project’s data to bear on a problem, connecting the project to other digital collections and resources—allows students to experience and demonstrate the impact of their digital projects on scholarly argumentation. Ashplant therefore includes a section of topical essays and theoretical explorations, addressing subjects from dismemberment to music. These essayistic materials link to and, importantly, are linked from the parts of the site that are based more explicitly on structured data. Our visualization of the global locations of Ulysses can lay the foundations for discussions of the Belgian King Leopold and the postcolonial Ulysses, for example, and a tool we developed for finding phonemic patterns in the text became the prompt for Emily Sue Tomac, a student specializing in linguistics as well as English, to undertake a project on Joyce’s use of vowel alternation in word sets such as tap/tip/top/tup. Hypertext essays can reanimate the complexities and contestations hidden by the god trick.
  4. Make creative expression a pathway to DH. My initial design Ashplant involved an unconventional division of labor. For the most part, students wrote the content of the site, while I took the roles of faculty mentor, general editor, and web developer. As the site evolved, so did those roles, and I perceived an important limitation of our model: students were rarely responsible for the visual elements of our user interface, and their interest in that part of the project was growing. The students saw the creative arts as a means of resisting the constraints of digital methods, and some of them created art projects that now counterbalance the lexical content of the site. When I designed a new course on digital methods for literary studies, therefore, I put artistic creativity first.[14] In that class, the students learned frameworks for discussing the affordances and effects of electronic literature, and we applied those frameworks to texts such as “AH,” by Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries; Illya Szilak and Cyril Tsiboulski’s Queerskins: A Novel; and Ana María Uribe’s Tipoemas y Anipoemas.[15] These works model a range of approaches to interactivity and digital interfaces. Therefore, all of our subsequent work in the semester—from the creation of the students’ own works of electronic literature, to the collection and presentation of geographical data, to writing Python scripts for textual analysis—takes place after this initial framing of digital work as a set of creative practices.

The complexity of humanistic inquiry does not involve solving well-defined problems with clear endpoints and signs of success. Our wholes have holes. As I have worked with my students on Ulysses, we have come to embrace a practice of digital humanities that puts creativity, resistance, and questioning at its heart, even (or especially) when we use the tabular and relational structures that appear at first to build walls within the imaginative works we study. Asking questions as simple as “What do we call this chapter of Ulysses?” and “When does this character appear?” has led my students to think and play and draw, representing contours of absurdity and art that help draw new maps of undergraduate study in the humanities.

In some ways, that new mapping takes part in the tradition I have described here: the translation and even reduction of textual complexity into reference materials that help students grasp Ulysses and begin the process of making meaning of and around it. In other ways, however, Ashplant has led us to a practice of digital humanities more aligned with Tara McPherson’s emphasis on “the relations between the digital, the arts, and more theoretically inflected humanities traditions” (McPherson 2018, 13). The scale of undergraduate pedagogy allows spreadsheets, essays, maps, and paintings to grow from the same intellectual soil, maintaining the value that structured data has long provided while preserving the complex energies of humanistic inquiry.


[1] “Ashplant” is the word Joyce uses to describe the walking stick of Stephen Dedalus. As the site explains, Stephen’s ashplant “is not a simple support but his ‘casque and sword’ (9.296) that he uses for everything from dancing and drumming to smashing a chandelier.” We likewise sought to take the conventional idea of a digital site supporting the reading of Ulysses and create varied and surprising possibilities for its use.

[2] I cite Ulysses (Joyce 1986) by episode and line number throughout, following the numbering convention that is about to become the subject of this essay.

[3] On the other hand, when Bloom later relates the events of his day to his wife in words, his account includes similar evasions and omissions. Joyce’s larger point seems less about the deceptions of quantification than about the many modes of deception humans can use when sufficiently motivated to hide something.

[4] More technically, in a database, a primary key is a column or combination of columns that have a unique value for every row. For example, in Ulysses, line number alone cannot be a primary key because every episode has, for instance, a line numbered 33. Therefore, the primary key requires the combination of episode and number: 1.33, 4.33, and 17.33 are all unique values. The other main characteristic of a primary key is that it cannot contain a null value in any row.

[5] As we have seen, the numbering convention of labeling the episodes from one to eighteen follows the lead of the Little Review episodes but not of the Shakespeare & Company edition, which uses only section numbers. The schemata employ yet another system, primarily restarting the episode numbering at the beginning of each section (so the fourth episode, which begins the second section, becomes a second episode “1”).

[6] These projects’ addresses are http://ulysses.bc.edu/ and http://web.uvic.ca/~mvp1922/, respectively.

[7] HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) is the standard markup language for web pages. HTML describes the structure of the data in a page, along with some information about formatting, so that it can be rendered by a browser. HTML does not contain executable scripts (or “code”). To create executable scripts and access information in databases, Ashplant embeds the scripting language PHP within its HTML code and connects to databases created with MySQL. Using this combination of PHP and MySQL is a common approach to creating dynamic web pages.

[8] This numbering involves another small translation: using two digits—01 and 02 rather than 1 and 2—allows the numbers to sort properly when interpreted computationally.

[9] The ability of XML-based schemes to contain non-hierarchical information remains a point of lively contention. The subject prompted a lengthy conversation on the HUMANIST listserv in early 2019 under the heading “the McGann-Renear debate.” That conversation is archived at https://dhhumanist.org/volume/32/.

[10] “Cyclops” implies yet another variant of the name: the Citizen familiarly calls the dog “Garry,” and the mock-formal narrator calls the poet-dog “Owen,” reversing the usual functions of first and last names and implying another identity called “Garry Owen.”

[11] Igoe’s phrasing also conflates the birth years of the historical and fictional Garryowens, although the historical dog would have had an implausible age of around twenty-eight years at the time Ulysses takes place.

[12] For whatever it’s worth, the unsatisfying decision we made was to classify the “Garryowen” (and “Owen Garry”) of “Cyclops” and “Nausicaa” as the character “Garryowen,” then create a separate character called “Circe Dog” to capture the transforming species of the dog(s) of that episode.

[13] Haraway’s skepticism echoes the sentiments of the “foundational crisis” of mathematics about a century ago, when Joyce was conceiving Ulysses and when, in 1911, Oskar Perron wrote, “This complete reliability of mathematics is an illusion, it does not exist, at least not unconditionally” (Engelhardt 2018, 14).

[14] That course, “Lighting the Page: Digital Methods for Literary Study,” was designed in partnership with my student collaborator Christina Brewer, who made especially valuable contributions to the unit on electronic literature.

[15] “AH” is online at http://www.yhchang.com/AH.html, Queerskins at http://online.queerskins.com/, and Uribe’s poetry at http://collection.eliterature.org/3/works/tipoemas-y-anipoemas/typoems.html.


Blamires, Harry. 1996. The New Bloomsday Book. London: Routledge.

Bradley, John. 2005. “Documents and Data: Modelling Materials for Humanities Research in XML and Relational Databases. Literary and Linguistic Computing 20, no. 1: 133–51.

Buurma, Rachel Sagner and Anna Tione Levine. 2016. “The Sympathetic Research Imagination: Digital Humanities and the Liberal Arts.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, 274–279 Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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Engelhardt, Nina. 2018. Modernism, Fiction, and Mathematics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 13, no. 3: 575–599.

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Joyce, James. 1922. Ulysses. Paris: Shakespeare and Company. http://web.uvic.ca/~mvp1922/ulysses1922/

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Joyce, James. 2003. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, edited by Seamus Deane. New York: Penguin.

Macpherson, Tara. 2018. Feminist in a Software Lab: Difference + Design. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Rawson, Katie and Trevor Muñoz. 2019. “Against Cleaning.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, 279–92. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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This essay names some of the contributors to Ashplant, but dozens of student, faculty, and staff collaborators have made important contributions to the project, and the full accounting of gratitude for their work is on the site’s “About” page at http://www.math.grinnell.edu/~simpsone/Ulysses/About/index.php. I also thank Amanda Golden, Elyse Graham, and Brandon Walsh for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this piece.

About the Author

Erik Simpson is Professor of English and Samuel R. and Marie-Louise Rosenthal Professor of Humanities at Grinnell College. He is the author of two books: Literary Minstrelsy, 1770–1830 and Mercenaries in British and American Literature, 1790–1830: Writing, Fighting, and Marrying for Money. His current research concerns digital pedagogy and, in collaboration with Carolyn Jacobson, the representation of spoken dialects in nineteenth-century literature.

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