New Methods, New Data: Manovich and Hayles on today’s research and writing

On Monday and Tuesday, I attended the keynote addresses at the Digital Cultures in the Age of Big Data institute at Bowling Green State University.  Lev Manovich skyped in on Monday morning for a talk on methods for studying contemporary interactive media, and N. Katherine Hayles spoke this morning, sharing with the audience her digital companion repository that pairs with her book How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis.  A few words here about my take-aways and the questions that arose as I listened to each talk.

Manovich made an extended argument that research in the digital humanities needs to turn away from digitizing and analyzing documents alone, but instead that researchers need to be looking toward cultural activities as data, meaning the processes and performances that occur when a user interacts with software.  Practically, he was advocating for more attention to users and what’s going on with them when they use a technology and less attention to the technologies themselves.  While I agree that these methods could be a useful line of inquiry for humanities scholars, I have been mulling over some of the claims and assumptions that Manovich made with respect to “old” and “new” media: old media as non-interactive or less interactive, new media as fundamentally different, and thus more interactive. It is true that users do interact with newer forms of media in shifted ways, but users also interacted with older forms of media–the scroll, the book, the pencil–but perhaps in ways not as visible as mouse clicks are today.  Perhaps research methods of old could also have been shifted to pay more attention to interaction, then, too.  I’m also left with questions about how to put Manovich’s ideas to practical use: how can we even begin to record and analyze user experiences on a big data level?  Maybe the starting place is to begin small, working up to the big data inquiry that Manovich argued we need.

Hayles spent her talk describing and showing her own digital humanities project, the digital companion to her book, How We Think.  Hayles created this companion site in part to make the data she used when composing her book available to more scholars.  Using the repository, other users can come to their own conclusions and the data can generate new and different questions.  I’d be interested to hear if Hayles has any information about if the site is being used, and if so, by whom.  Also interesting was that the repository gave access to full recordings of interviews that Hayles conducted with prominent scholars in digital humanities as part of her book research.  The recordings are tagged with key themes, so that a user can go directly to the portion of the data that is of interest.  While the audio quality of the interviews isn’t superb, and navigating through the material isn’t the easiest with the controls provided, the raw data is available to others and visible in a way that research data usually is not.

Overall, both talks got me thinking about methods, research, data, and how the digital offers different opportunities for developing, asking, and answering questions about texts and users of texts.  As Hayles mentioned, these concerns are becoming more and more relevant to the academy, and soon, they will be the concerns.

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Embarking on a semester of prospectus

Suddenly, it’s the start of a new semester.  I just returned home from the MLA (Modern Language Association) conference in Seattle, where I presented on the “Innovative Research and Pedagogy in Technical Communication” panel.  I had a great time: I met Anne Wysocki, Sarah Arroyo, Bill Hart-Davidson, Sid Smith, and a few others, and I attended interesting panels on topics including “access” and what it means for schools and classrooms, new and evolving forms of the graduate dissertation, alternate academic jobs, and how rhetorical theory and the digital humanities can and should intersect.  My talk went well and my audience appeared interested and engaged with my materials. 

However, now I’m back home in Ann Arbor, and the semester yawns wide in front of me.  For the first time in my graduate career, I’m “done” with coursework.  As in, no more classes.  As in, I no longer have to read assigned materials and compose busy workish reading responses.  As in, I can read what I really need to read and write only about my project.  The timeline for the dissertation in our program is two years.  From this point (I’m in the middle of my third year), I have to defend my diss prospectus this winter, research and write my dissertation over my 4th and 5th years in the program, and defend the finished diss at the end of my 5th year, 2014. 

The immediate task for this term, then, is to write and defend my dissertation prospectus.  The plan is to make a schedule, stick to it, and work for 5-6 hours a day on the prospectus until it’s ready to go.  I hope to be ready to defend in March (yikes – did I just write that?!).  I’m also teaching a section of English 229, Professional Writing, this term.  I’m so excited to be working on the prospectus at the same time that I’m teaching.  For me, the research/scholar process and the teaching/instructor process have always been intricately intertwined.  I read, I write, I think, I apply to my teaching, I listen to and observe my students, I reflect, and I read some more.  This is why, I suppose, the E&E program is perfect for me: I get to research education, pedagogy, and teaching and enact it at the same time. 

Last semester, I took a course for which the professor allowed me to compose a draft of my prospectus, and I received comments on that draft from her and from one of my dissertation co-chairs.  So I will begin my work this term with those comments, reading further and revising what I have there.  My feedback overall was that I need to work at refining and clarifying my research questions and making the kind of study I want to do very clear from the start of the prospectus itself. 

Additionally, I need to meet with my dissertation co-chair and with her help and advice, finish assembling my committee.  I also need to send the prospectus draft to my other co-chair, who will offer me his advice and comments. 

So off I go.  Tomorrow, I will assemble a preliminary reading list, go back through the comments I received on my first draft of the prospectus, and make a more detailed “to-do” list.  I’m excited, to be honest!