Conference Presentation on our Virtual Workhouse Project

Professor Austin Mason and DHA Elizabeth present their paper on material culture of the workhouse at the Midwest Conference on British Studies
DHA Elizabeth and Professor Austin Mason presenting at MWCBS

This past weekend I presented at  the Midwest Conference on British Studies (MWCBS) at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, along with two Carleton faculty members and three other Carleton students. Our presentation is part of a larger Virtual Workhouse project which utilizes digital tools such as serious gaming and 3D modeling to gain an understanding of the lived experience of workhouse inmates in 18th century England during the Houses of Industry period of poor relief. This past winter, I took a class co-taught by Professors Mason and Ottaway called Bringing the English Past to Virtual Life that brought these ideas into a classroom setting and allowed the students to research, model, and creatively construct new ways of exploring the lived experience of the poor.

Professor of History Susannah Ottaway, with two more Carleton students, presented a paper that explored spinning work in the workhouse, and whether it was driven by moral or economic objectives. Professor Austin Mason, Brittany N. Johnson ‘18 and I presented our paper, “Locating and Representing the Material Culture of the Poor” in the same panel. Our paper focused on the challenges of digitally reconstructing the material culture of inmates in the workhouse, based on the limited textual and material sources that survive. This past summer, Brittany and I spent two weeks in Norfolk, England, excavating workhouse objects from an old rubbish heap at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum. We found mostly objects of mid 20th century date, but the processes that determine object survival also apply to objects from the 18th and 19th centuries. We examined archival and archeological evidence of the Gressenhall House of Industry, in Norfolk, England, and explored the value of digital tools in that reconstruction, including SketchUp, Twine, and Unity 3D. Since evidence is limited, reconstruction is hard. Despite this, our paper argued that new questions emerge when using these digital tools that may not have been asked otherwise: What color is the cloth produced in the workhouse? What is the texture? What did the furniture look like? Where was it placed? These questions allow us further insight into the lived experience of the poor during the 18th century, which is difficult to get at through traditional historical methods. All these questions and more are born out of digital reconstruction, and while we don’t have all the answers, the exploration of these questions ultimately deepen our understanding of the past.

A flowchart illustrating how objects survive into collections at museums, and how other objects are lost.
A flowchart illustrating how objects survive into collections at museums, and how other objects are lost.

It was an incredible opportunity to present at a conference with my professors and fellow students. The challenge and reward of preparing and presenting a paper that incorporates my own research was invaluable, as well as the chance to hear about and engage with other historians and their research in the wider academic world.

Getting the ball rolling on Unity

While my colleagues have been migrating content from our old website to our new not-yet-live one, I’ve been working on learning my way around the Unity game engine, a major part of Project Workhouse. I started from scratch with only a vague knowledge of C#, the language that customized scripts are written in for Unity. In the past week I’ve worked through the “Roll a Ball” tutorial and gotten started on importing assets like textures and materials and using them to good effect in a 3D game environment. – Bard

Here are some snapshots from my version of the “Roll a Ball” tutorial:

Lydia says, “hello world”!

my_faceHi! I’m Lydia, a senior Linguistics major at Carleton College interested in documenting and revitalizing endangered languages and in leveraging the power of tech for social change. I was led to Digital Humanities through doing linguistic documentation of Nukuoro, a Polynesian language spoken in Micronesia. Last summer, I was part of a team that contributed to Swarthmore College’s Talking Dictionary project. This work required me to think a lot about publicly accessible digital scholarship and data organization. (While working on this project, I also found some time to learn some sweet Micronesian weaving techniques, which you can see me demonstrating in this picture.) Since then, I’ve learned that there is a thing called Digital Humanities that lets me apply this type of process to other fields I’m interested in! You could say that I’m pretty excited to get started.

This past week was training week, a brief period of calm before the storm of fall term started. I learned more than I can possibly remember all at once, but the piece I remember most clearly was about metadata; namely, I learned that good metadata is both important and extremely difficult to write. Using Dublin Core standards, I and the other Digital Humanities Associates filled in metadata entries for a number of items that ranged from photographs of people to sacred texts. During this process, I found myself asking a lot of questions: is this a photo of an artwork or is it an artwork artwork? (Gosh, I love contrastive reduplication.) Relatedly, if this is a photo, is the relevant time period necessarily the time at which the photo was taken? How detailed should I be with the description? With the geographic location?

This small exercise that took all of ten minutes made me realize two things. First, the fact that we have online databases and metadata standards and functioning, searchable libraries at all is nothing short of a miracle. Second, data — and data about data — is rarely ever objective. Description is inherently biased towards who the writer thinks the audience is and constrained by how the item may be used. Who knew data could be so wacky? Stay tuned for more of Lydia’s data adventures.

Ana’s Introduction

photo-on-9-13-16-at-2-20-pm-1Hello! I’m Ana Yanes Martinez, a sophomore at Carleton College and still waiting for my eureka moment to realize what I want to major. In other words: I don’t know. I was introduced to Digital Humanities in a class I took during the fall of my freshman year, and I became really fascinated with the intersection of the humanities and digital world. Apart from my interest in the digital humanities, I have a passion for art, cultures, food and a semi unhealthy obsession with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I am certain my Hogwarts letter was lost or stolen before it reached me.

I think a very important aspect of digital humanities I learned during training is the thought process given to figuring out what platforms and even software are better suited to specific projects. We looked into three different platforms: Omeka, Reason, and WordPress. I think each have distinctive features suited for specific type of projects. Omeka seems better suited for metadata and archiving, whereas WordPress seems to have more theme availability and design flexibility. Reason on the other hand, seems to be  administrator friendly, and so far the easiest to use. This could be the most comfortable to use for people who want a way to display information without having to learn much HTML and CSS or other programming languages. The downside is that Reason is limited in themes and may leave its users wishing for more. Considering the pros and cons of each platform is necessary at the start of each project as it can prevent the need to migrate between platforms halfway through the project and save time in the long run.

Qimeng’s introduction

I’m Qimeng, a junior math major at Carleton. As opposed to what you may assume about math majors – was how I wanted to start my second sentence, but I have to confess that I fit pretty much into all the common stereotypes. I like working with data, programming and writing (poking holes in others’) proofs. I also enjoy Hitchcock movies, Stephen King short stories and Sudoku.

It’s my second year working as a Digital Humanities Associate. Last year I worked mainly on two projects – JHNA (formatting articles to be published on Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art) and Image Management (exploring the world of metadata of graphical materials and testing various managing tools). I got the opportunity of working with students from different academic fields, ranging from Computer Science to Studio Art, which opens my mind to new ways of approaching problems.

My favorite part of our DH training is wandering on Lynda.com. Going through lists of tutorials for so many amazing software exhilarates me more than online shopping. Not only a wonderful source of knowledge, Lynda is also a reminder to me of the importance of consistently educating and bettering myself.

Elizabeth’s Introduction

DHA Elizabeth admires a large wall map
DHA Elizabeth

Hello! I’m Elizabeth, a sophomore at Carleton College intending to major in history. I was exposed to digital humanities in a class last winter, and I’ve since become fascinated by the possibilities offered by digital humanities! My other interests include traveling, maps, musicals, and Sudoku.

Prior to this week of training, I had not thought extensively on the necessity of matching a project’s needs to the suitability to a platform, especially content management systems (CMS). During the past week, we have explored three distinct CMS – Omeka, WordPress, and Reason (Carleton’s own website builder).

While all have the same basic goal, each best suit different projects. Reason, which is used for Carleton’s website, is quite easy to edit and requires absolutely no coding experience. However, it does not allow the degree of customization available in Omeka or WordPress. On the other hand, Omeka and WordPress are not as intuitive, and thus harder to learn, and coding experience is helpful for both Omeka and WordPress. Thus, each CMS is better suited to some projects than others; no one platform is always best for all projects. The correct CMS for the job depends on a project’s goal, scope, content, and workers.

Introducing… Bard

13900097_10205740773433412_3525587915357198074_nHi, I’m Bard, and I hate writing introductions. When I was supposed to introduce myself as a freshman at Carleton on the Facebook page, I got so worried my introduction would sound like every other one that I wrote a sonnet instead. Since then I’ve found outlets for my interests in medieval history and literature, romance languages, early music and folk music, roleplaying games, programming, and theatre. I’m a Computer Science major and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies concentrator. I got excited about digital scholarship as the natural intersection of my disciplines. As a DHA I hope to learn new software and best practices for collaboration in digital scholarship so that I can apply them to research projects in grad school and beyond.

During this week’s training, I was surprised to learn just how much our group of student workers helps build websites. I was used to thinking of 3D printing and modeling or GIS (geographic information systems) as standard digital humanities projects, but at its simplest and most widely useful, our job is about making scholarship digital and widely accessible, and the way to do that is by making (good) websites. Time to actually learn some CSS.