Course Update #4: LF Tools

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Bradley asked me to say a little more about my comment from the other day about my ambivalence regarding the tools we're using in my class, so here we go.

I should say a few words first about what I tried to accomplish this semester. I've been thinking a lot in recent months about the relationship between narrative and database, and how it plays out across graduate education. Without numbing anyone's mind with too much detail, what I would say is that both "forms" are crucial. It's important to be able to build narratives about the field's development, for example, or to generate particular field-narratives (seminar papers, journal articles, etc.) as a result of one's work. At the same time, though, we hold ourselves responsible for what Paul Matsuda called his "mental intertextual map," (see last post) what I would describe as our disciplinary network. And that latter responsibility is more database than narrative. I think of the two as complementary--each "narrative" feeds into the database, helps us fill it out, and then we draw future narratives from the database/map that we've generated.

I've had great success in recent years urging students to take up database management tools and techniques as a means of managing the later stages of their graduate programs, which seem to me to require more database kinds of thinking than does coursework. Coursework, as I mentioned the other day, tends to be organized around what I called "directed reading," some sort of (narrative) arc that helps to structure a semester and give it some coherence. So the question that I asked myself last fall (and talked about a little at Watson 08) was: what would a course look like that attempted something more databasic, that didn't worry so much about narrative coherence?

And as I've said all along, the course has gone much better than I could have hoped for. I really think that the students have found it valuable, and I've been really happy with how enthusiastically they've taken it up. I've talked before about the set up for the course: over 10 weeks, we took the past 10 years of the field, 1 year per week. Each student chose a particular area of focus, and was responsible for (a) finding 4 essays in that area published during each of those 10 years; (b) posting notes to our class blog and tagging those entries in Delicious; and (c) sharing what s/he found during class. And, for the first time in my graduate teaching, I'm asking students to complete a "real" final exam. Next Saturday, the students will take a 3-hour exam, a simulation of one of our comprehensive exams.

In other words, I've asked them to focus for the past 10 weeks on building personal databases, and now (just as they'll do during exams), I'll ask them to construct a narrative of the development of their area over those 10 years, based on what they've found/noticed. We spent a fair amount of class time on Wednesday talking about how they might approach this task, what sorts of evidence they might find and use, etc.

So to my mind, there are two main things that we've been doing this semester. The first is aggregation, and I think that this is something we'll see more of in graduate education over the next several years. The most recent Teaching Carnival had a link to Mark Sample's annotated bibliography project, using Zotero and Citeline to create an aggregated class bibliography. And just as I was setting up my class, Michael Wesch was doing something similar in his Digital Ethnography class, using Zoho Creator to generate a 94-work bib on anonymity in a week. Both are cool projects, and they both speak to the usefulness of web2 tools for doing the kind of aggregation that I'm thinking about.

Me? I used Wordpress and Delicious. Part of my reliance on blogging tools is that I've spent the last 5 years thinking about how to use them in other ways. My work on CCC Online involved a number of significant tweaks. Thinking about it now, I might have tried Zoho, but ah well. I think that there are a number of ways to aggregate successfully nowadays.

The problem comes, however, from the other main point of my course, and I don't have as easy a term for it. If the point of aggregation is search and retrieval, then any of these tools are as good as any other, I think. And I don't mean to suggest that this isn't a worthy goal. But what are our options if we want to be able to take the next step with respect to an aggregated database? How do we take that accumulated body of information, and perform meaningful work with it?

In my mind, that's what I'm asking of my students next week. And it's what we ask of them on their comprehensive exams. And ultimately, it's what we do ourselves as scholars and writers--we construct our large maps of the field and eventually contribute to it ourselves, by clearing our research spaces, tracing out lines of thought that are "missing," etc.

I'm a big believer in the tag cloud as a heuristic, and so that's what I had in mind in asking my class to tag in delicious on top of WP. I have an article in the works that talks about this, but I believe that, especially for the humanities, tag clouds are a fairly easy way to generate some testable hypotheses about a body of textual data. The problem is that most of our tagcloud tools are partial. The tagclouding available to us in blogging platforms is rudimentary at best. TagCrowd and Wordle work best from actual text. If I'd been more careful, I might have been able to do a little more with Delicious, but honestly, their development has been pretty minimal, post-Yahoo.

Here's what I would wishlist for such a tool:
1. The stylized output of Wordle
2. The stoplist function of TagCrowd
3. Expanded faceted clowding (the related tags function in Delicious)
4. The ability to do some kind of timelining (like Chirag Mehta's PrezClouds)

Obviously, these are all possible. They're all available right now, only in incompatible tools. Wordle can take cloud delicious tags, but only at the level of an entire account, and without any kind of stoplist. Delicious seems like the best place for implementation, but I have no idea if it's even breathing. The point is to be able to take a decent-sized body of tags, though, and to visualize it in fairly simple ways, in order to discern patterns that might not be otherwise apparent. Sounds simple, but right now, the tools for doing so are mostly one-trick ponies.

My biggest wish would be for a tagclouding tool that was actually attached to something I could use for the data entry, so that I didn't have to ask folks to use two different sites to accomplish one thing. That's where my WP/Delish combo fell short this semester. I myself resented having to do both, and I was the one who made the choice. Heh.

My other wish would be some sort of middle-ground between the fully pre-determined interface of WP or MovableType, and what I assume is the ground-up blank slate of something like Zoho Creator. I don't want to have to do everything myself, in terms of setting something up, but I've spent the last 5 years using the MT interface against itself, because (at least until the recent integration of Custom Fields) I can't make any real changes to it. I'm a little weird that way, I suppose. I loved MT3--the MT command language was a perfect middle ground for me between programming and end use. I'm willing to spend time on a good middle-ground toolkit, but that's a rare category of software, from what I can tell.

Ah well. I feel like I'm rambling now. I don't think that what I'm after here is that difficult to accomplish, but I felt trapped this semester by the fact that I know enough to know where current apps don't meet my needs, but not enough to be able to do anything about it.

That's all.


Hm. I don't have any thoughts about this beyond "hm" and "I am going to think about this" (re: tool-making) and "I will think about it more when the semester is over (soon)".

I'd be happy to engage in a little conversation about it, J. I can't imagine that what I'm looking for here is all that difficult to do, but I just don't have the under-the-hood skills to know how to go about it.

Collin, there is a set of tools out there that will do what you want. It was written by the SEASR group at UIUC: They have a tool called Meandre that you can download, although you can also use the demo on their website (contact me for more info, as I can't find it on their site. I'm not totally sure the demo site is public, so I'll have to check). There's an example of its output here:

Meandre basically is a workflow that you can add components to (like pulling text from a PDF or using a URL or uploading a document, etc.) to create an output like a tag cloud or other kinds of visualizations. In the admin-demo version, there is a stoplist but you can also create your own and/or add to the one that is there. They've also recently added a Zotero plugin. I'm not sure what it does, but Doug Eyman was playing with it, so you might ask him.

This thing is built by and for (computer) scientists, so it was a little over my head at first, but Doug was able to jump right in. Maybe it'll work for what you need. Doug, Virginia Kuhn, and I (with some others) are trying to figure out how to use supercomputing opps, like Meandre and other tools, to mine metadata from digital media scholarship. It'll be a long process, but it's certainly proved interesting so far!

btw, I love your class idea. May borrow it for my Comp seminar in the fall.


Thanks, I'll take a look! I try to keep an eye on what they're doing at UIUC, UMD, et al., but invariably stuff comes out that I miss...


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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on April 25, 2009 2:12 PM.

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