All posts by John Panus

What’s the Story?

“There isn’t anyone you wouldn’t learn to love once you knew their story” –Andrew Stanton

As I’ve grown through my experience with higher education, I’ve become a person deeply invested in the ways that the written and spoken word is used to communicate with other people.  As an English major–or to be more specific, as a person who has learned and studied storytelling through words on a page, rather than through music, painting, architecture, dance, or otherwise–I’m trained to think of stories as a sequence of sounds, a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables, syntactical contraptions, connotations and denotations.  This course immediately interested me with its opportunity to “capture […] identities, cultures, histories, and environments” surrounding public higher education and the liberal arts.  I was drawn to the prospect of telling stories–and terrified when I found out that I would have to create a website in order to showcase these stories.  This course definitely took me out of my comfort zone.  Leaps and bounds out of my comfort zone.  As it happens, my cross country coach often tells the team that this space–leaps and bounds out of your comfort zone–“is where the magic happens.”  And I’d have to agree.

Because of this course, I was confronted with a stark reality:  on the world wide web, a sequence of sounds isn’t always the best way to tell a story.  Because of this course, I started to think about things like “mise-en-page” and visual rhetoric as ways of telling stories; I also began thinking about minuscule details like font size and how this can affect a viewers experience of the story.   How are readers used to viewing a page?  What happens when you present a story in a manner that works against the readers expectations, for instance, what happens if information moves from right to left, bottom to top?  It’s not that any of this necessarily enhances storytelling in any way, but rather that considering these changes allows one to contemplate a realm of possible experiences that you haven’t previously encountered.  As this semester comes to a close and I reflect on all the ways a screen can be manipulated to change the way a person experiences the information, the ways that information can be both transparently and rhetorically presented on a screen, I’m reminded of the “sympathetic research imagination.”  And now, I feel like I’ve come full circle as a storyteller in this course.  Like any story, my work was for me, and for someone else.  And after taking this course, I would argue that contemplating the way information can be organized on a page is an exercise in empathy just as much as reading a novel–the experience is simply articulated differently.

With this said, I think I’m most grateful for the opportunity to write playfully in this course.  I’m grateful for the chance to play with my form, to quote Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Trek, and Pixar animators; to (pathetically) attempt to write like Michael Chabon, utilize epigrams, make silly, half-baked allusions to philosophical ideas I clearly don’t understand; to share things that excite me as if they excite others as well and to express these ideas in ways that traditional college courses don’t allow; to write long sentences with a dozen semicolons; to tell stories.  My posts in this course (including this one) were always long because I loved writing them.

I’ll sign off from this course with a quote from David Zuckerman, mostly because I love his essay and want to share it with people, but also because its (almost) relevant.  In an essay that is at once a love letter to the show and an elegy for its demise, David Zuckerman, executive producer and showrunner of my favorite TV show, Wilfred has this to say about exploring the experience of a man who sees his neighbor’s dog as a man in a fuzzy suit:  “how terrifying and lonely it would be to live with that kind of secret. Such a man might be so afraid of what people would think if they learned the truth that he’d likely become even more isolated and unable to make meaningful connections with others. His only choice would be to pretend he’s normal, to hide his authentic self from the world.”  That part isn’t relevant, but its beautiful.  Here’s the relevant part:  “sadly that’s another thing good shows and good dogs have in common: Neither lives as long as you’d like them to.  Fortunately, both leave you with wonderful memories to cherish. I am grateful I had Wilfred in my life.”

This course has been a wild ride.  This semester has been the most physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting semester of my undergraduate career, and although I wish I could continue with the work of this course, I’m in need of a break.  I’ll return hungry for the digital humanities and its potential for storytelling. Until then, I beat on, boat against the current, excited to return to DH to tell stories for me, and for someone else.


Tracking Shots and Uncovering Hidden Work

In Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon wrote a 12-page sentence.  When asked about the sentence, Chabon responded that he wanted to give the readers a tracking shot so readers understood what was going on.  For my readers who want to know where I am, here’s my tracking shot:  

Trump was elected president (I stayed up till the bitter end); Emily and I conducted two interviews and got about an hour’s worth of usable conversation; my cat killed a snake, brought it in the house, and hid it under my housemate’s bed for safekeeping;  Emily and I made some major changes to the blog that should be functional and aesthetic improvements; most of these changes–especially changing our theme–made obsolete all of the work I did last week; I’m annoyed that a lot of my work seems to be for naught, but excited every time I learn a new way of making something accessible, every time I learn a new technology of visual rhetoric; we had really great conversations about the uniqueness and importance of liberal arts, as well as the future of higher education; it turns out my housemate is terrified of snakes, and the snake wasn’t completely dead; incredible dialogues began on campus regarding the importance of liberal arts institutions as enclaves of resistance and protection; I found some great sources that will contribute to our project; Emily’s timeline blew my mind; I didn’t have time to start either of the essays I have due tomorrow (Monday the 14th) until 1Pm today (Sunday the 13th); I’m excited that I get to blog for this course and have the opportunity to take risks like this post; starting at 4Pm on Friday, 50 of my teammates and I drove six hours to New Jersey, slept at the house of the TCNJ tracksters (who we had never met before), woke up and drove to Rowan college to support our top-7 men and women competing at the Atlantic Region cross country championship, painted our bodies and sprinted back and forth through a broccoli field to catch the runners as many times as possible (both teams won handily and qualified for the NCAA championship), we drove six hours home and returned at 4Pm on Saturday; I had serious writer’s block on my senior thesis; I was forced to re-evaluate my plan for the next several years in anticipation of cuts to higher-education spending; while writing a paper about Autism, I was fascinated by the ways other cultures approach the disorder; I continued to transcribe interviews and research SUNY general education requirements; I mapped the route to drive to Louisville, Kentucky to support my teammates at the NCAA championship this Friday–the men are ranked 2nd in the country and the women are ranked 3rd; a swastika with the word “trump” above it was found graffiti’d in a dorm on Geneseo’s campus.

I’m having trouble distinguishing between the difficulties of this project and the rhetoric surrounding the treatment of humans in this country:  most of a person’s labor is hidden from sight, and hidden labor is so often considered a lack of labor.  Which isn’t to say I think the difficulties of this project are equivalent to the plight of so many people in this country, but that this election has consumed all of my thoughts and emotional resources (and I recognize my incredibly privileged status).  So in the spirit of uncovering hidden labor, I’m going to use pictures (and a few words) to illustrate the potentially trivial changes I made to our project website in pursuit of some thing called excellence.  (I can only imagine what Derrida–in all his confounded genius that borders on idiocy–would have to say about this “thing”).  Hopefully, allowing these pictures to “speak” will achieve some symbolic act of removing my voice so that another “voice” can gain access to the conversation.

Screenshot (8)–this was the guiding website.

Screenshot (11) Screenshot (12)–here’s where we started.

Screenshot (20)–after testing some themes, this is what I got.  I think the picture of Geneseo works extraordinarily with this theme, but we’ll have to do some editing with the font, colors, and menu.

Screenshot (29)–here’s a template of how I thought the theme would work.

Screenshot (21)–that didn’t happen.  When you add pictures to the home page, the site works differently.  Obvious issues.

Screenshot (22)–the hover aspect is nice.  But this theme does it automatically–whereas I spent hours working with plugins to get this affect on the other theme.

Screenshot (23)   –and when you click on the site, it takes you to this page (which will later be filled with information).  I had to do some editing to get here, and didn’t take all the picture to prove it.

Screenshot (27)–this small change from the original hover effect is the change I’m most impressed with.  I had to do some SERIOUS coding:

Screenshot (25)–changing font size and color.  Putting in a line break so there’s a primary title (the quote) and a secondary title (the question).

Screenshot (28)–and I seriously appreciate the people who paved the way before me.


More interviews this week.  And I’m hoping to dump a ton of information on the blog.  Ideally, in a coherent manner.


“His Vocabulistics is Limited”

This week, I learned the power of vocabulary.  As I struggled (only semi-successfully) to find a plug-in that would allow me to build our course website the way I envisioned, I spent countless hours (and I don’t mean “countless” as the overused figure of speech—I mean literally uncountable hours) searching the web for plug-ins that would let me configure a piece of text to expand when clicked on.  And this task seems simple enough.  But so many unaccounted variables factor into finding the right plug-in:  vocabulary, edition of wordpress, edition of the plug-in, aesthetics, functionality, ease of applying plug-in, and so many more.  For my research reflection, then, I’ll explain the snags I ran into while searching for the proper plug-in, give a snapshot of what I’m trying to do with the page, and end with some updates on the progress of my work as well as what to expect this coming week.

For starters, I should attend to the title of my post, “His Vocabulistics is limited;” it’s a quote from Rocket, the cybernetic Raccoon of The Guardians of the Galaxy.  He’s referring to Groot’s vocabulary—and the fact that Groot can say “I am Groot,” and nothing else.  I found the quote applicable because finding the proper plug-in for a website is a ridiculous struggle of attaching a sound-image to a concept, a signifier to the signified.  On the internet, there’s no universal language for explaining the function of getting a piece of text to reveal more content when it is clicked on (and I tried searching exactly that), so searching for a plug-in is a trial-and-error process.  Is ‘expand’ the right word? ‘Collapse’? ‘Content Reveal’?  While reflecting on the process, expand seems the most accurate word, but many websites praised the possibilities of plug-ins like “WP-ShowHide” and “Collapse-O-Matic.”  And, to quote Christopher Nolan’s Inception, “once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate.”  In other words, as soon as I thought I found a great word to describe the function I was looking for, tunnel vision set in.  I would search plug-ins with that word—and of course I found them, but they never worked just as I hoped they would.  As soon as I exploited the so-called plug-in resources of the particular synonym I had been working with, I thought up a new synonym for the dream plug-in.  Cue Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence.

Even once I determined that ‘expand’ was the proper word for explaining the function I was looking for, I had a plethora of ‘expander’ plug-ins to choose from—and they all had their perks.  For instance, “Easy FAQ with Expanding Text” was definitely the most customizable and functional plug-in; when the plug-in is activated it creates a sidebar when you’re writing a post or editing a page, and gives you many options to customize how you want a piece of text to expand.  When I found it, I was excited (understatement).  So I spent a while putting code around different pieces of text in order to ensure that clicking on a specific piece of text would result in the appearance of a hidden paragraph.  Once I had the coding perfected, I previewed the page.  Turns out “Easy FAQ with Expanding Text” doesn’t work with the version of wordpress we’re using.

By the time all was said and done, I downloaded and tested 11  plug-ins, and revised the page 19 times.  Here’s what it looked like when I half-gave-up-half-found the right plug-in.


Screenshot (18)Screenshot (19)

My evaluation of the plug-in?  It’s functional.  It gets the job done.  But I wish I could spruce up the headings—and maybe I can, that’s something I’ll work on this week.  Additionally, I despise the little down arrow/up arrow that serves as a visual cue for expansion.  Some other apps had really great visual cues that I thought were both functional and aesthetically pleasing, but I really don’t think the current down arrow fulfills either function.  I’m going to try to change that this week.  If I can get rid of it, but people think it isn’t clear that the text will expand, I’ll try adding a little comment at the top to let people know there’s more information.

Ultimately, I was hoping I could find a plug-in that would allow me embed an expansion property into an image:  I wanted to turn quotes into images so that hovering over the quote/picture would give a brief look into what sort of text would appear if you did click on the quote.  I’ll keep looking.

So what else did I do this week?  I finished transcribing our first interview.  I’m going to get that up on my blog and the course website this week.  Additionally, I’m going to try to get the edited audio file on the website this week.  Emily and I have two definite interviews this week, so that will be the primary concern for this week.  I’m going to keep working with the plug-in and website, and hopefully get rid of the expansion templates I have now and start some actual discussion that will make our website interesting. Additionally, I spent a good amount of time curating my blog, so I’m hoping I can put that on the back-burner for now.

Thoughts on Interviews, Research, and Building our Website

My “research” this week was conducted, to be frank, all over the place.  I didn’t do any “formal” research–meaning I didn’t grind through academic articles detailing national trends in education or the how the liberal arts mission is changing in the neoliberal climate.  Instead, Emily and I recorded our first interview, so a lot of my time went into developing questions pre-interview, and transcribing the recording post-interview.  Transcribing may be the bane of my existence;  however, I downloaded some transcription software, “Express Scribe Pro,” which allows me to slow down the speed of the recording so that I don’t need to rewind and pause every five seconds.  Instead, at 44% speed I can type almost continuously, only pausing once or twice for each minute of the interview to make sure I heard a phrase correctly.  Beyond the interview, I’ve spent some time curating my blog.  I added some pictures to previous posts to get rid of the ugly default featured image.  Even that proved painful–the images get pretty distorted on the blogs home page, so they take a lot of tinkering.  And, as I’ll spend most of this post discussing, I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating how to organize and build our project website.  I’m a huge fan of the Swarthmore Black Liberation website, so I’ve taken a lot of cues from that project.


I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to organize our website so its both aesthetically pleasing and highly functional.  And during our class on Thursday, I really enjoyed what professor Woodcox said about finding quotes in our interviews that can be used as titles or subtitles for posts or sections of our website.  I like the idea because I think a good quote–or a good picture–can really grab a person’s attention and make them want to investigate more thoroughly–which is precisely the function of a title.  So I’ve been contemplating the possibility of using a quote as an organizing piece of information on the website; that is, using quotes to create layered narratives.  Instead of being organized by pictures with a text title, like the Black Liberation Archive, the page would have several different quotes on it representing different topics of discussion.  Running the mouse pointer over a quote would yield a short description of the topic, and clicking on the quote would bring the viewer to a page that delves into the actual narrative.

Here’s how this format is used on Swarthmore’s Black Liberation website:

Screenshot (3) Screenshot (4) Screenshot (5) Screenshot (6)

Instead of the squares saying, “photos from Black at Swarthmore,” “Swarthmore College Halycon,” etc., the squares would have a quote in them.  Like I said, moving the pointer over the square would reveal a small description of the topic that the quote is meant to interrogate.  And when the square is clicked on, it would take viewers to an integrated narrative; that is, rather than the squares taking readers to transcriptions of individual interviews, the actual page would be an integration of several interviews, as well as scholarly essays, newspaper articles, and pictures/data from Geneseo’s college archives.  In this way, we would have a multi-layered narrative that demonstrates how all of the smaller components of our research project come together.

For instance, something that I feel is very important to our investigation into the humanities sequence at Geneseo is the desire from both students and faculty to make the humanities sequence a global investigation, instead of just an examination of Western beliefs.  I’ve tended to sympathize with these desires, as does Ken Asher, the professor we interviewed this week–but he brought up a really interesting point regarding this issue:  academic responsibility.  When we were discussing the possibility of making the humanities a non-western course, he responded that while he sympathizes with this effort, the adherence to Western philoshopy isn’t out of a “conservative Western point of view,” but the necessity of being knowledgeable and “academically responsible” about teaching global philosophies in order to respect the subject matter.  Professor Asher added that Geneseo just doesn’t have the faculty to achieve this goal:  “we don’t have anybody in Chinsese philosophy here.  We did at one time, but we don’t anymore.”  If Chinese philosophy was added to the humanities sequence, Asher asked, “who would be knowledgeable enough to staff 26 sections of this?”  His ultimate point was that Geneseo doesn’t hire professors who teach these global philosophies–so while it would be great to have a global humanities, we just don’t have the staff to do so with academic integrity.  We had a lot of great discussion on this matter, and I think that once we have several more interviews, and some formal research into the matter, this could yield a really interesting page on our website–especially regarding how the course is staffed and what other courses the college teaches.  Possible organizing quotes from the interview could be “it really isn’t out of a conservative Western point of view,” “you have to be academically responsible,” or “who would be knowledgeable enough to staff 26 sections of this?”  And the short description could read:  “An interrogation of the tension between teaching Western Humanities and the desire to teach Global humanities.”  Or, it could be much more argument based; the description could read, “how Geneseo’s hiring practices unintentionally reinforce the Western Canon.”

Emily and I need to discuss how we see the website functioning, but I think our website currently lends itself really well to the sort of organization I’m discussing.  Here’s how our website looks now:

Screenshot (11)Screenshot (12)

If we make the changes I’m discussing, I think it would be cool if we had the boxes with quotes at the very beginning of the website (the home page); it would replace the “about” page that is currently up.  Accordingly, the viewer would immediately be immersed in our project.  We could keep the tabs along the top of the page to show the viewers that there’s more than one dimension to the project.  And while this opening page would probably be the most immersive and integrated, the tabs along the top would probably consist of more isolated aspects of our research, like an interview archive and bibliography–but also the isolated elements that will contribute more or less to the integrated homepage:  national trends, SUNY mandates, and our archival research.  Consequently, the narrative–the story–of our project is brought to the fore without compromising the transparency of digital humanities research .

So why am I spending so much time explaining what I want to do with the page instead of actually making the changes?  Making this sort of layered narrative is difficult.  I’ve downloaded a project building software called “Omeka”–the Swarthmore Black Liberation project used this on their website–as well as a wordpress plugin in order to actually integrate this organizational structure with the website.  But Omeka isn’t the easiest to use, and its going to take me some time to get used to it.  I’m hoping that by next weekend I’ll at least have a template of these ideas on the website.  I probably wont have the actual quotes yet, but if I can create a functional place holder, I would be really happy, and I think that would put us in a good position to integrate what research we’ve already done.

Geneseo Humanities and the Adjunct Crisis

While I initially intended on this post focusing more on national trends in Humanities education in higher ed, the sources I ordered from the library haven’t arrived yet.  Luckily, I anticipated this being a problem, so I made sure I had an alternative topic of discussion at the ready.  My intended post will be pushed back to next week; this way, I can talk to Mark about his sources for humanities in general education.  This week, I’ll continue my discussion of Geneseo’s humanities sequence within the context of the nation’s adjunct crisis.  For my project with Emily, I’d like to be able to interview an adjunct professor or two—if possible—regarding their opinions on the organizational structures of the humanities sequence at Geneseo, as well as their opinions on the place of the sequence in the general education requirements of a public liberal arts institution.  Using the adjunct crisis as a starting point, I’ll discuss an article that explores humanities and general education at the University of Idaho in order to comment on the state of the humanities sequence at Geneseo.  Ultimately, the thinking I’ve done in this post will inform the questions for my interview this week.

“Embedding the Humanities in Cross-Disciplinary General Education Courses” explores humanities education at the University of Idaho.  Recently, the university implemented a new strategy for teaching humanities as a general education requirement:  contrary to traditional methods of teaching humanities, the University of Idaho has created a plethora of “core discovery” courses which teach the humanities in a way that is oriented towards the exploration of contemporary issues.  Rather than exploring time periods or schools of thought, the courses are created topically based on the interests of the professor.  The essay listed three main concerns that administrators had with this revised methodology of teaching humanities:  the thematic focus, the importance placed on developing intellectual skills such as critical thinking instead of mastering content, and the fact that many of these humanities courses are taught by professors with no experience or training in the humanities.  (If I may interject, I think it’s ridiculous that administrators feared that students would “develop intellectual skills” instead of “master content,” and this seems to highlight both the distinctions between empirical/science based disciplines and disciplines of the humanities, as well as the very importance humanities in education).

The authors suggest that the revamped humanities education was a result of students complaining that  “’[the humanities] don’t have anything to do with [their] major and [they] just don’t have interest in those subjects” and that “Americans, including Congress, think of the humanities as increasingly marginal contributors to the sum of knowledge and the well-being of society” (279).  I find this fascinating for several reasons:  for one, this conceptualization of the humanities is entirely different from Geneseo’s statement of purpose regarding the humanities sequence.  At Geneseo, the belief is that the humanities sequence provides students with the skills to be a productive citizen.  And additionally, comparing the opinions between the two universities evokes the critical juncture between WEB Dubois and Booker T. Washington; University of Idaho’s stance on humanities connotes—though I doubt they conceive of it in these terms—assimilation into the culture of empiricists, while Geneseo advocates for an education that has potential to challenge preexisting structures of knowledge.

In my opinion, however, Geneseo’s humanities, in its current conception—while an important educational experience in its own right—fails to achieve its mission statement as well as it could.  And understanding the nation’s adjunct crisis as an means of production that ultimately creates intellectual growth could bridge the gap between the humanities sequence and its intended purpose.

In higher education, institutions often hire adjunct professors to teach introductory courses and high-demand courses, like a university’s freshmen writing requirement and other general education requirements.  According to the Atlantic, however, these adjunct professors now make up two-thirds of faculty.  While this statistic is not inherently problematic, adjunct professors often receive incredibly low pay, few (if any) benefits, and institutions frequently limit adjuncts’ teaching hours so that the institution is not required to provide health insurance for these “contingent” workers.  Ordinarily, adjuncts normally receive about $2,000 for each course they teach—or, in terms of the amount of student tuition that goes towards paying adjuncts, about $65 per student per semester.  Additionally, people who wish to make a living as an adjunct professor often need to teach at six different schools in order to put in enough teaching hours for a livable salary.

Research on the effectiveness of adjunct professors as educators (in contrast to tenured professors) is inconclusive; several studies suggest that students learn better from adjuncts, several studies suggest otherwise.  But some areas of research on adjunct professorship yield indisputable results:  learning is improved when adjuncts are treated better.  PhDs who are struggling to gain enough teaching hours to make a livable salary rarely have the time or resources to perform their own research.  While this obviously means fewer scholarly contributions that could expand or subvert our understanding of the world, it more subtly implies that students are losing opportunities to perform their own research, or assist in their professor’s research.  Additionally, because adjunct professors need to travel to other institutions so frequently, students lose access to the potential resources a professor would otherwise be able to give.

While Geneseo’s humanities sequence—with the goal of providing students with the skills necessary to be productive citizens, and the more broad liberal arts goal of preparing students for the workforce— is taught largely by adjunct professors, the humanities sequence does not teach about the organizational structures of utilizing adjuncts to teach the sequence.  In fact, this very line of thinking seems incongruous.  However, I believe that if the Geneseo humanities sequence was taught with the aim of analyzing the organizational structures and philosophies undergirding the school’s stance on liberal arts and general education, Geneseo would better prepare students for both the workplace and citizenship.  While not all of the schools of Western thought taught in the humanities would work well in an analysis of the course and the status of adjuncts—I’m not sure how Hamlet would fit into this, other than in a discussion of the canon—required readings such as the Communist Manifesto, certain passages of the Bible, and Greek philosophy would certainly work well.  In this vein, students would not only learn the content of these texts, but they would learn how to apply these schools of thought in a way that allows for creative re-imaginings of the course they’re currently taking.  Accordingly, students would utilize the classroom as both a microcosm for society and the workplace, thus more readily providing students with the ability to function as students, citizens, and workers.

Even though this post wasn’t what I originally planned on researching, I was glad to read the texts I read and take part in this re-imagining of the humanities sequence.  Doing so brought many interview questions to mind–questions that I feel get to the heart of liberal arts education (and accordingly, this project):  How do we reconcile the ethical ideals emphasized in the teachings of the course with the debatable unethical treatment of those who teach it?  How does the current rendition of the humanities sequence achieve the goal of making students better citizens?  Would a focus on the organization structures of the course improve any aspect of learning?

Geneseo’s Liberal Arts Claim to Fame: The Humanities Sequence

As I got into my research this week, I was really focused on the Geneseo Humanities sequence (HUMN).  Because my project with Emily revolves around Geneseo’s status as a liberal arts institution—and how Geneseo liberal arts reflexively interacts with the SUNY institution—I figured that the humanities sequence (Geneseo’s focal point for the liberal arts) was a good place to start.  And with a base knowledge of the discourse surrounding our humanities courses, I was seeking to answer this question:  with the highly politicized and seemingly controversial nature of the Geneseo Humanities sequence, why is it so hard to find a written argument making the case for the humanities sequence at Geneseo?  In my experience at Geneseo—and many of my colleagues concur—it seems to be imprinted in the collective conscious at Geneseo that the humanities sequence is Geneseo’s claim to fame as a progressive liberal arts institution.  While there are certainly students and staff who would disagree, the two humanities courses are the only two required courses for every single person that receives a degree from Geneseo, so one would think the importance of these courses would be made more readily available to students.

Although many schools have similar courses, the Geneseo humanities sequence is unique in its focus, breadth, and as a graduation requirement.  Humanities 220 and Humanities 221 are part of Geneseo’s general education and “liberal arts breadth” courses.  Accordingly, these courses, with other gen ed requirements, are expected to provide students with the knowledge to “participate ethically and intelligently as informed citizens of [their] communities.” More specifically, these courses “search for moral, social, and political alternatives and meaning as embodied in the institutions, culture, and literature of Western Civilization.”  The first course begins with Ancient Greek writings and progresses to the 1600s, while the second course begins in the 1600s and progresses to the “present.” Learning outcomes from this sequence include the ability to think critically about current sociopolitical events and to “consider moral, social, and political issues from an interdisciplinary perspective,” among others.

The humanities sequence is perhaps the most controversial course offering at Geneseo.  Students resent it because it makes receiving a degree more rigorous, and many students are equipped with the critical reading and writing skills to perform as well in Humanities as in the course of their major.  Many faculty are critical of the sequence because it reinforces Western ideas instead of exposing students to a multicultural education; yet, the humanities sequence remains a defining characteristic of the SUNY Geneseo liberal arts education.   As one student on a Geneseo Humanities forum put it, the humanities sequence is “the basis of the liberal arts education that we student come to Geneseo to get.”  Clearly, students feel that understanding the tradition of Western thought is important—if not necessary—to became a capable citizen in today’s society.

As a result of polarized opinions regarding HUMN, the humanities sequence has been in a constant state of critique.  In 2008, The Geneseo Provost issued a “Curriculum Task Force,” to (among other things) determine how to make the humanities sequence better.  The task force resolved—after contemplating similar courses elsewhere—to leave the humanities sequence as it was.  Yet, for all I read, I couldn’t find any executive reasoning explaining why HUMN should not be revised.  Many students—myself included—feel that as Westerners, we are  have been so entrenched in Western thought since our birth that we are already familiar with the ideas set forth in the course; the course simply provides a language with which to discuss Western ideologies—so why not explore non-western humanities in an attempt to broaden our horizons.  While this line of thinking is certainly problematic in that it assumes both that no students at Geneseo grew up in a non-western culture, and furthermore, that all students shared the same educational upbringing, this line of thinking does a good job of exploring the true liberal arts experience:  to think critically through many perspectives—especially those that are not your own.

While I didn’t find what I was looking for in this research expedition, I did discovery two incredibly important pieces of information regarding HUMN at Geneseo:  our recently appointed interim provost—the person responsible for investigating curricular revision—was my professor for my course on Charles Dickens, as well as the person who suggested I apply for NAPLA.  Additionally, the director of HUMN taught my course in literary theory.  I’m in the process of reaching out to both professors to gain a better understanding of exactly why Geneseo has been so set on seeing the humanities sequence as the focal point of our liberal arts education.  I’m hoping that a few conversations with these professors will allow me to return to this post with a detailed examination of the humanities sequence.

Digital Humanities—The New Frontier: “To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before”

I’m not a huge Star Trek nerd, but I really like J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Reboot.  I like it, in part, because there are so many aspects of each film that communicate emotion synergistically; in other words, no one aspect of the film overpowers another.  As a result, viewers can synthesize the many stimuli of the movies—the action, the cinematography, the music (my favorite part), the character relationships, the well-placed and all-important silences, the gestures, expressions, and humor—into one dramatic experience. 

Last week, we read about and discussed the digital humanities.  Throughout our conversations, I had a revised version of the Star Trek slogan running through my head:  Digital Humanities—The New Frontier.  Perhaps it would be more accurate (and less aesthetically pleasing) to call it, “The New and Ever-Evolving Frontier.” While any implication of Star Trek will struggle with traditional gender biases and the colonialist/industrialist “Star Trek Syndrome,” I find the Star Trek slogan apt for many reasons, and in this post, I seek first to discuss Star Trek as a structure for exploring digital humanities, and then to discuss how Star Trek affected my research process this week.  Here’s the full slogan:

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

So what is it about Star Trek that I find to be an apt metaphor for DH?  In part, it’s the exploration of the unknown.  DH isn’t always about discovering the unknown; it’s about making knowledge accessible to people on a transparent level so they can use it to their own empowerment.  Or, alternatively, DH is meant to re-articulate the information we already have access to  in ways that change our phenomenological experiences of a presupposed episteme.  In this latter understanding, DH has the potential to illuminate episteme that we didn’t know we could know; DH allows one to experience something anew and elucidate new depths of an episteme that we believed we understood completely.  At the least, this aspect of DH asks us to consider the possibility that we don’t have a complete understanding of the world—and at best, DH turns our attention to other humans, and how the phenomenological experience of another person (especially those not represented by traditional methods of learning and traditional presentations of knowledge) can inform our worldview.

“To Boldly Go Where No [One] Has Gone Before:”  in addition to the potential of DH to expand one’s worldview, DH constantly questions the structures and technologies we use to understand information.  What I find most fascinating about DH—and what makes me wish I had a more technological background—is its imaginative potential, it’s insistence that knowledge should be re-articulated in new and exciting ways, and most importantly, the value it places in the creation of new technologies.  Have an idea that would express your project in an original and startling way, but there’s no existing way of making it happen?  Digital Humanities advocates for the creation of technologies that allow us to probe the depths of both new knowledge, and the knowledge we’ve already taken for granted.

I could write about Star Trek and DH all week, so I’m going to move onto the question:  what does this have to do with my own research project?  This week, my research was to explore tools that I think will allow me to articulate my discoveries in the most expansive ways possible.  Finding tools was easy enough:  a google search of “digital humanities tools” yields several great websites that explain tools used in popular DH projects.  One website listed hundreds of tools in areas such as “storyboarding,” “annotation,” “editing,” “exhibitions,” “research tools,” “text analysis tools,” and tools that assist in “text preparation in digital work,” among others.

I’m still sorting through the list, but here are a few tools that I think are pretty cool:

Voyant Tools:  Voyant is a text analysis program that is incredibly easy to use.  At its most simple, one enters a website URL and Voyant analyzes word usage, frequencies, and links between words.  It presents information as word clouds, charts, lists, and several types of graphs.  But paraphrase is heresy—go check it out yourself.

Sentiment Analysis:  This tool creates “Recursive Deep Models of Semantic Compositionality.”  Put more simply, it analyzes how positively or negatively one feels about something.  I think this is an incredibly interesting concept, which is why I included it. BUT it seems like it has the potential to be very troublesome in projects like we’re doing—especially because it makes a potentially flawed analysis of another person’s feelings.  Regardless, this is another simple tool: enter the text you want analyzed and the program does the rest.

Odyssey:  I’m not going to say much about this one because I think people should check it out for themselves.  It’s an awesome medium for presenting interactive, multi-layered narratives using technologies beyond the written form.

History Flow Visualization:  This tool documents the evolution of a project by separating edits into layers.  Definitely a good tool for analyzing the process of creation.

Scraper:  See something you like on a website or DH project?  Scraper allows you to highlight the part of the page you like and scrape it from the page to be exported for your own use.

Overview:  Overview may be a little more than we need, but the idea is helpful.  The tool helps organize and visualize many different stories.  I think it’s meant for more data than we’ll be dealing with, but who knows!

OpenCalais:  I find this tool fascinating because of its focus on metadata—something I see as vital for transparency in a DH project.  OpenCalais allows for the annotation of content “with rich semantic metadata.”  In terms of our project, this gives us another venue, or point of access, as Dr. Woodcox likes to say, for how we communicate our information.  Instead of one jumbled and complicated body of text that desperately tries to convey the totality of context, this tool allows for several bodies of text surrounding a piece of information. And who doesn’t love “rich semantic metadata?”

Express Scribe:  This tool probably has the most practical implications for us.  Express Scribe “assist[s] the transcription process of audio recordings.”  There are probably other tools like this, so checking out our options would be helpful.

Like JJ Abrams, I’m seeking the culmination of these tools; the synthesis of a layered narrative interface, multiple venues of conveying context and data, visualizations of linguistic connections and personal anecdotes, and organizations that allow for the experience and re-experience—and re-experience—of my story.

Project Contract

NAPLA Project Contract: SUNY Geneseo


Project Thematic:  How public access to the liberal arts changed due to Geneseo’s entrance to the SUNY system, and how being a part of this system has affected liberal arts at Geneseo—as well as how liberal arts at Geneseo has affected the SUNY system.


Intended audience:  Alumni, students, faculty, high school students looking at Geneseo


Possible Interviewees: Gene Stelzig, Ron Herzman, Gerard Floriano, student campus tour guides


Site Structure/Design

  • Name: to be determined as we continue with research
  • Theme: Each choose three themes—we’ll decide on the best ones
    • Enigma, Square, Pinnacle
  • Pages
    • Timeline page—several timelines:  National, SUNY, Geneseo—combined:  we will use timeline JS
    • National history/trends in higher education, liberal arts
    • SUNY history
    • SUNY Geneseo history
    • Local history
    • Audio archive page for interviews (integrated into other pages as needed)
    • Page(s?) with descriptions of COPLAC and NAPLA
    • Bibliography
  • COPLAC and NAPLA logos in the header, links in the sidebar


Schedule of Milestones

  • October 7th: Submit IRB before fall break
  • October 11th: Have our website up, functional, and pretty
  • October 14th: have complete list and arrangements made for interviews—as well as questions
  • October 22nd: Print-based Research for national, SUNY, Geneseo, and local histories
  • October 27th: Complete preliminary print-based research pages on the website and create/complete timelines
  • November 3rd: have interviews completed
  • November 10th : have interviews transcribed
  • November 14th: Preview of site in class; draft complete: main theme and details of site finalized, all interviews up, and those posts completed, have audio archive updated, finalized timelines, any images scanned and uploaded
  • November 29th: Final, revised site due


Division of Work

  • John: National history/trends and SUNY pages
  • Emily: SUNY Geneseo and local history pages
  • Work for interviews will be divided equally; exact division depends on scheduling

“The art challenges the technology, the technology inspires the art:”

“Digital Humanities,” while not a new term to me, has until recently been a bit of an enigma.  I often heard professors speak of the digital humanities, but I never entirely understood the distinction between regular humanities and its digitized counterpart.  So when I enrolled in this course—a course in the digital humanities—I decided it was time to do some research.  My first lesson in the digital humanities:  DH is an ever-evolving field, with no set definition.  Most scholars agree that DH is a field of study in which technology is used to create new ways of articulating and understanding knowledge.  Beyond this, scholars often define DH based on how the technology is used; or to put it another way, DH is defined according to the intended purpose of using technology to re-articulate a piece of knowledge.

My thoughts on digital humanities are very similar to the opinions laid out in “The Sympathetic Research Imagination;” I see digital humanities as a technology of visibility—a method of making a body of information accessible to a greater audience.  On the other hand, I see the liberal arts as a dispositive of citizen-making; in my opinion, a liberal arts education is intended to provide people with the ability to both understand and think critically about the world around them, to embrace a diversity of worldviews, so that they may make informed decisions to improve society.  While I certainly consider liberal arts to overlap with DH—to the extent that I consider DH necessary for a legitimate liberal arts education—I see DH as different from the liberal arts in the way that it internalizes and articulates biases.

Liberal arts education—as I see it—at once encompasses bias and disavows it; in the mission of liberal arts—to create a citizen that can make an informed decision about what is occurring in society—one must be aware of the different methodologies of thinking that dominate our world.  For instance, at Geneseo, students are required to take a set of general education classes—with the purpose of creating “common goals and common values”—in writing, foreign language, arts, math, science, and social science, and then they must take a set of “liberal arts breadth” courses which include another round of arts, math, science, and social science, but also  two courses in the humanities and a course in “other world civilizations.”  Indeed, the Geneseo website lists under learning outcomes of general education developing “an understanding of the diversity and commonality of human cultures, both others and their own, along with knowledge of how these cultures developed.”  Implicit in these learning outcomes is the suggestion that liberal arts provides an objective understanding of the way societies come to be, as well as the suggestion that this knowledge will empower citizens in their ability to make informed decisions.

Digital Humanities, on the other hand, has much more modest goals.  Digital humanities seeks to provide access to the same knowledge that liberal arts make accessible, however, DH aims to make information transparent; that is, DH lays aside claims of an objective understanding of how the world exists, and instead makes visible information so that one may create their own worldview.  It seems then, that both liberal arts and digital humanities share the goal of empowerment, of formulating the subject as origin of knowledge and power.  To this end, liberal arts appears to be concerned with the creation of an informed minority, whereas DH concerns itself with the greater public’s access to vital information. Sheila Brennan notes that the goal of digital humanities is not simply to “digitize humanities,” but to provide information to the public transparently, coherently, and in a digestible fashion.  DH then, does not seek to understand the biases which liberal arts claims are vital to the making of an informed decision, but rather, DH allows the subject viewing the data to bring their own biases to the information.  This is not to say that DH is always unbiased—there is inherently a rhetoric and aesthetic to any portrayal of data that can intentionally or unintentionally sway the opinion of the viewer; however, DH, as constructed by Sheila Brennan, embodies a transparency and accessibility that liberal arts education does not.

So how does this relationship inform my research process?  Most simply, this conversation adds a level of complexity to my ruminations regarding the audience and theme of my project.  In more complex terms, contemplating liberal arts and digital humanities necessitates a consideration of the epistemological position of my project—that is, by accumulating information about public access to liberal arts in Geneseo, should I stake a claim in praise, critique, or some sort of evaluation of education in Geneseo?  Or would it be more appropriate to simply lay out the information, and let the audience make what they will out of the research?  I’m inclined to find a middle-ground (after all, this course is about telling a story); the transparency of the latter option seems like it would limit the possibilities of my overarching theme because of the exclusivity of the audience, while the prior does the opposite—it hyper-specifies the theme, thereby reducing the audience.  With this said, I think it’s entirely possible to make the research transparent and highly accessible while also working with a specific theme.  Indeed, I think transparency of research evokes another important aspect of the liberal arts education (and perhaps this is where liberal arts and DH dovetail):  labor.

Explicit in the documentation of digital humanities is the labor of the project; implicit in a liberal arts education is the promise that the subject will be prepared for labor.  Ultimately, the transparency and perceived simplicity of DH creates a transcript of the labor process of research; it demonstrates the capabilities and experiences of the researcher—and this is something I undoubtedly want to showcase with my project.  In attempting to articulate what I now see as the fundamental contemplation for my project, I’m reminded of a quote by Pixar co-creator John Lasseter regarding art and technology in Pixar movies:  “the art challenges the technology, the technology inspires the art.”  After considering the relationship between liberal arts and digital humanities, and the implication in my research, I think one of my biggest tasks will be to explore the digital tools and technologies that will best allow me to create a project that both transparently demonstrates the labor and research of the project, while simultaneously telling a captivating story to my intended audience.