Presenting Interdisciplinary Research

This winter term, I double compsed (for any non-Carleton readers: “comps” is the equivalent of a senior thesis or capstone project – it stands for “comprehensive exercise”). For both of my comps, one in computer science and one in English, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to do digital humanities projects, but this posed a problem when I was required to give a presentation for each project at the end of the term.

For both presentations, my audience was a mix of humanities people, computer science people, and people who lie somewhere in between. How do I give a presentation that accommodates my entire audience? How do I explain the tech to the humanities folks, and contextualize the humanities for the tech folks?

Here are some rules for interdisciplinary presentations that I created for myself while planning my comps presentations:

Either explain jargon or put it in a black box. Combining tools from multiple disciplines is going to cause a vocabulary problem. You can’t say, “I ran text files of each novel through a Python script that used the NLTK’s POS-tagger to tag each word, then iterated over the tagged tuples to count occurrences of different parts of speech,” and expect anyone who’s never coded before to follow. Either take the time to explain what the NLTK’s POS-tagger is, or just say “I used a tool to get the part of speech of every word in the text.” The same goes for humanities lingo – make sure your entire audience clearly understands what close reading or deconstruction is before using those terms to contextualize your results.

Signpost. In an interdisciplinary presentation, it’s not unreasonable to expect that at least part of your audience is going to get lost at some point. Unless you’re going out of your way to explain every STEM concept and humanities context (which would make for a very long, very boring presentation), at some point someone is going to get lost. But that’s ok! Divide your presentation into clearly defined sections, and at the beginning and end of each section, talk about what you’re going to or have just explained, so that everyone can grasp the broader concepts. Even if someone gets lost within a section, with signposting they’ll hopefully be able to jump back in in the next section.

Include something for everyone. If you’re giving an interdisciplinary presentation, it should be truly interdisciplinary! Acknowledge the different subgroups of your audience and make them feel like they are a part of the conversation by including details from each discipline of your project, and not over-explaining as if they weren’t there. This rule almost contradicts my first rule, and the two can be hard to balance. The goal is to find a happy medium for each discipline between including enough interesting detail for the experts and enough explanation for those unfamiliar with the discipline.

Trying and Learning New Things

As this term draws to a close, I’m pausing to consider the work I’ve done this term. As I stop to consider it, this term has been an interesting mix of both new tasks and at the same time the continuation of previous tasks. A small example of this is social media. I’ve been in charge of the DHA Twitter account for a little while, but this was the first time I began to use a tweet scheduler – same task, but a new method. (Side note: I love the tweet scheduler! I can write up tweets once a week and not have to worry about forgetting to send them at the right time!)

My work on Team Workhouse this term is similar. I’ve been involved in Team Workhouse for almost two years now, but this term I took on new tasks in the Workhouse project. The first new task I took on was being a Teaching Assistant (TA) for the History course, Bringing the English Past to Virtual Life (explore the course blog!), and as part of that I both attended class and held office hours for student help. Attending class as a TA and providing in-class help were both totally new experiences for me, and I explored some thoughts about being a TA in a recent blog post that you can read here! This term I also continued working on the Virtual Workhouse Digital Archive Omeka site, which last term and over winter break I did extensive work with the metadata of the collections housed on the site.

A draft mock-up of a possible layout for the Virtual Workhouse Digital Archive Collections page

This term, however, I had a go at wireframing for the site. If you don’t know what wireframing is (which I didn’t before I did it), it is essentially sketching out the basic layout of a website in order to have a concrete idea what you want it to be before actually working on website itself. I tried it out using Balsamiq (a wireframing tool) and really enjoyed it! It was fun to not just react to technology but think more purposefully about what the goals of the site were and how to design the layout to best accomplish those goals.

Carleton’s Undergraduate Journal of Humanistic Studies

Something entirely new I’m about to start working on is learning LaTeX. I am now a board editor on Carleton’s Undergraduate Journal of Humanistic Studies and I’m going to be working on the website (which I know how to do) and typesetting the papers chosen for the journal – this uses LaTeX, which I don’t know how to do. I don’t have any experience with LaTeX, but I’m excited to start learning. If there’s anything that I’ve learned from my work as a DHA, it’s that there’s always something new to learn!

Digital Humanities (Mini) Job Fair!

One of the struggles, I think, that we as DHA’s have is the ability to convey what our work is really about and what exactly constitutes Digital Humanities. A lot of people on campus still don’t know what Digital Humanities is, let alone that we have a department here. Many people are often confused when I say I work as a Digital Humanities Associate, and I always have to give a 30-second elevator pitch about what my work entails.  With that in mind, I suggested the idea of having a Digital Humanities social/job fair as a way to expose students on campus to what we do as DHA’s. Every year there’s new students who are hired, so I think this could be a great way to motivate other students to apply to the jobs that may otherwise go unnoticed, or to at least learn what Digital Humanities is all about!

Myself and another of our DHA’s, Tyler, are now in the process of planning the event. However, instead of just focusing on DHA’s, we are also hoping to have students from other digital/tech related jobs at Carleton, such as our very own Digital Scholarship Interns, as well as Academic Technology assistants. We hope that this event will be a mini-job fair and that Carleton students can learn more about our jobs, and perhaps apply to these jobs next year.

End of Term Reflection – Communication!

I’ve known for a while that communication is really important when working in teams, but this term really drove home for me how crucial it is. I spent a good amount of time this term working on prepping and uploading archival images of workhouse documents from London in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as part of the Virtual Workhouse project (you can see the fruits of our labors here!). Tyler and I were both working on these spreadsheets so there were a lot of moving pieces, with having to keep each other in the loop about our progress, checking in with Austin and Sarah about problems we were running into, and talking with Susannah about unexpected issues we came across (like an index in the front of two of the volumes!).

Trello, which is a new piece of our workflow this year, was very helpful for me. Tyler and I could record what we had done each time working on the spreadsheet in a shared place to keep track of our progress. I could tell him that I had finished the titles in Volume 3 but ran into problems with the dates, and he could tell me that he had finished the identifiers in the same volume and fixed the dates. This way we could keep track of what we had finished so neither of us was doing work the other already had.

A screenshot of the Omeka CSV Import Plus Plug-in that we used extensively in our work

Another aspect of communication that I found really important was communication with myself (essentially, documentation). Since we were dealing with the spreadsheets of six volumes of a workhouse minute book, there was a lot of data and a lot of images. I could not count on my memory to keep track of things. Even if I noticed that image 84 in Volume 2 had to be discussed, there was very little chance I would remember that. So I had to make sure to write it down for both myself and others and clearly state exactly why it had to be discussed. The same was true of meetings. I met with Susannah to ask about unexpected pages, and then brought that discussion to a meeting with Tyler and Sarah. Without my notes from the meeting with Susannah, I would not have been able to remember what we had talked about and what her suggestions had been. Likewise, I wouldn’t have remembered our decisions from meeting with Tyler and Sarah to implement them on the spreadsheets. While I’ve known for a while about the value of making good notes to communicate with both others and myself, the high volume of data that we have been working with for the workhouse minutes has driven home to me the absolutely critical nature of such documentation.

Failing to Map Historical Maps

Building off of Martha’s previous post, I’m going to discuss some challenges of mapping projects with old maps. Old maps pose challenges to digital projects. In particular, the spatial arrangements of many old maps don’t match modern day maps of the same area. A path made up of geographic coordinates (such as on Google Maps) is not guaranteed to be compatible with old maps. In addition, there is a fine line in many of these maps between maps and city views, especially in many early modern European prints.

One example of these map/city-view that is useful to think with is the woodcut of Rome from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle

A full page spread image of Rome
A woodcut image of Rome from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle

This woodcut image clearly shows Rome – in addition to the label (which I will expand a bit on later), there are many recognizable sites – the papal palace, the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Pantheon, and the Colosseum. It is not a simple city view – the geographic relation between these sites shows the general layout of the city. However, trying to plot a path (or even just points) on a georeferenced version of this map is not feasible.

Georeferencing warps the map image, trying to get it to fit the points on the image to relevant points in the real world. Sometimes this warping can be very extreme, especially for certain kinds of transformations:

The map is warped beyond recognition in the attempt to georeference the map.
Mid-process attempt to georeference Rome
The map is warped beyond recognition in the attempt to georeference the map.
Mid-process attempt to georeference Rome

The control points (which link the image to geographic points) on this map do not line up well, since the spatial arrangement of the map/woodcut image do not line up with their geographic locations. This image shows the difference between the points on the 1493 map and the present day map, shown as blue lines.

Rome map georeferenced with visible control points that don't line up with the historical map
Rome map and control points

Another problem with a map like the Nuremberg Chronicle woodcut is that we don’t know what all the landmarks are. There are many church structures, but only a few are labelled. In addition, there are features that seem to be missing – for example, it is difficult to distinguish Tiber Island on the woodcut, which is a major landmark. Furthermore, the scale of the buildings pose problems. It is relatively easy to use the center of the Pantheon as a point on a present day map, but where on the woodcut image is the “center” of the Pantheon? In all, attempting to georeference and plot points on a map such as the Nuremberg Chronicle woodcut image of Rome is frustrating, inaccurate, and ultimately provides no additional insight. In fact, the extreme warping of the image makes it more difficult to understand the and the data represented in relation to it.

My attempt to chart a path on the Nuremberg Chronicle map

The closest point is the Colosseum – nothing else lines up very closely at all (the path is supposed to go from the Colosseum to the Pantheon, to one side of the Ponte Sant’Angelo, to the Castel Sant’Angelo, to the Vatican). The result is not illuminating and does not contribute any new knowledge, and in fact doesn’t serve either purpose well; it is difficult to interpret the Nuremberg Chronicle map, and it is almost impossible to know which landmarks are denoted by the path.

The path of points through Rome does not line up with the location of those points on the Nuremberg map
A path through Rome on top of the Rome Nuremberg Chronicle

Can we trust the labels?

In the Nuremberg Chronicle, no, we can’t! Rome is clearly correct – the sites confirm the label. Other cities are like this, including, for instance, Krakow, which gives specific labels of a part of the city and reflects the city layout. However, for more minor cities, the Nuremberg Chronicle often uses the same woodcut for different cities.


In fact, the same woodcut is used for nine images (see below). These images include: Napoli, Perugia, Mantua, Ferrara, Damascus, Bena (I’m not sure what city this refers to), a German province (not sure about this one either), Spain, and Macedonia. While Italian cities may have similar styles, I cannot accept that Napoli, Damascus, Spain and Macedonia literally looked like these woodcuts. Therefore, not only do these images provide difficulties in terms of spatial alignment, but we also cannot always accept them at face value, because they may be no more than a generic representation of a city than a visual representation reflecting an actual cityscape.


The color woodcut images come from the digitized University of Cambridge Nuremberg Chronicle (CC BY-NC 3.0): (the page numbers are: Bena 80r, Damascus 23v, Ferrara 159r, Macedonia 275r, Mantua 84r, Napoli 42r, Germany? 284v, Perugia 48v, Spain 289v).

The woodcut image of Rome is from the digitized copy in Morse Library, Beloit College. Last accessed 16 October 2017.

RBMS/BSC Latin Place Names File provided help with place names.

To Map or Not to Map?

During this year’s fall DH training, the DHA’s got some practice using ArcGIS, an online mapping tool that makes it relatively easy to create your own customized maps in one sitting. This post discusses some of the pros and cons, advantages and pitfalls of mapping data. (Note that by mapping I am referring strictly to the use of geospatial maps, not to the more general application of the term that includes graphing.)

Why use a map? Mapping is fun and exciting, and it’s a relatively easy way to build a data visualization that’s interactive and easily facilitates instantaneous spatial comprehension of the data. For these reasons, people are often quick to jump on the “let’s map it!” train whenever there is spatially relevant data. But it’s important to stop and ask this question first: what will a map add to this project that other data visualizations will not? Sometimes, sparsity or lack of variation in your data should disqualify the map idea.

Take this example from Stanford’s Professor Martin Evans, which maps specific locations in and around London that are referenced in works written by authors from London. There’s an abundant amount of data in this data set, and the locations are spread all over London – mapping helps us understand the data, so mapping was a good choice. If, however, you were mapping only locations in London referenced by Sylvia Plath, you might think twice about whether the <10 data points clustered in one small location is worth putting on an interactive map.

Once you’ve determined that a map is worth your time, you might next consider what kind of spatial information you want to convey. Is the data represented well by points on a map? Or is there a path or order to these points? How can you visually differentiate between different paths or groups of points (hint: colors)? Try to create a map that accurately visualizes the story you’re trying to tell with your data. In this example, students at the Georgia Institute of Technology recreated the paths taken throughout the day by characters in Mrs. Dalloway. The smooth, continuous paths tell a better story than a series of sequential points would, and the colors make each path stand out from the others. Above all else, mapping should make it easier for your audience to understand your data, so think hard about how you’re transferring your data to your map. And use colors!

Don’t forget that an important part of mapping is the base map itself, not just the points you put on it. Much of the time, simpler will be better – if the story you’re trying to tell has nothing to do with the terrain of the area, don’t clutter your visual with a terrain base map. Humanities scholars are often excited about using historical base maps, which are historical maps that can be georeferenced onto a modern, digital map of the same location by matching specific points between the two locations. One common problem with historical base maps is that many historical maps are not geographically accurate, so georeferencing them can stretch and distort them to an unusable extent. For example, this 1853 map of Maine from the David Rumsey Map Collection is quite geographically accurate, and would work well as a georeferenced historical base map, but this 1935 world map of post office and radio/telephone services from the same collection is highly geographically inaccurate and would have to be significantly distorted to be georeferenced onto a modern 2-dimensonal map of the world.

Finally, consider how you will communicate the data for each point or path on your graph. Points and paths don’t always speak for themselves, and there will often be metadata or a paragraph of information that necessarily accompanies each data point. How will your user access this information? Is there a key that goes with the map? Do you click on a point to reveal the associated text? Does each point link to more information?

There are many ways to address the above issues and questions, facilitating lots of creativity and flexibility within each project. Above all else, no matter how you approach a mapping project, your map should always give a clear and intuitive answer to the question: what story is this map trying to tell?

Welcome Back!

Last week I arrived early on campus to participate in the fall term DHA training. I didn’t get to take part last year because I was abroad in the fall, so it was a new experience for me. There’s one difference between this year and last year that immediately stands out – since I was able attend the training this year, I had an opportunity to work with and get to know the other DHAs and new DH interns before the term officially started. This was my favorite part of training, and I’m hoping it’ll get us off to a great start this year. I find it so much easier – and more fun! – to work with others when we’ve already eaten deep-fried food from Jesse James Days by the Cannon River together.

At the end of spring term last year I attended the digital humanities conference that I had spent all of spring term helping to organize. Although I was one of only a few students who attended and felt initially intimidated by the sea of “real adults,” I became increasingly aware throughout the course of the conference that I knew what I was doing. I understood a lot of the jargon, I was able to intelligently contribute to conversations, and, most importantly, I felt like I deserved my place in those conversations. In short, it was really cool. A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. This year, I’m excited to build on that confidence as I expand my DH toolbox. Not too long from now I’ll have to leave Carleton to join the leagues of “real adults,” and I think some confidence will come in handy.

3 Fantastic WordPress Plugins for Your Online Journal

Say, you’re in the middle of publishing your favorite paper to a WordPress website. You are stuck because creating all those footnotes links, formatting the pull quotes and inserting that complicated-looking table seems a daunting task. But don’t give up! Here are three plugins that will help you out!


Plugin: Easy Footnotes

It not only lets you add footnotes throughout your WordPress post, but also compiles a corresponding ordered list of the footnotes at the bottom of your article. 

Nice features:

  • Shortcode enabled. A footnote can be inserted as easily as typing [note]Footnote content.[/note] where you want it to be.
  • Automatic numbering. It would have been a huge pain having to number a few hundreds of footnotes manually, especially when you realize that you’ve skipped number 7 somehow after entering the first 90 footnotes. The good news is that this plugin automatically add the number of the footnote where the shortcode is entered. 

Pull Quotes

Plugin: Easy Pull Quotes

The plugin name is pretty self-explanatory. It helps you create pull quotes in WordPress posts. After installing and activating this plugin, you’ll see an “Easy Pull Quotes” tab in your editing toolbar. By clicking it you’ll be directed to a text box where you can enter your quote and choose its alignment. 

Nice features:

  • The pull quotes can be easily shared to Twitter by the end user by clicking the Twitter icon.
  • If you’re familiar with CSS, you can easily create your own pull quote style by manipulating the code. (Here‘s how you can add pull quotes to WordPress posts without using any plugins. It’d probably be more time-consuming, but it’ll be fun to learn some HTML and CSS!)


Plugin: TablePress

After installing this plugin, you’ll be able to generate beautiful tables and embed them in your posts. You can learn more about this plugin from this website, where you’ll find a cool demo too. 

Nice features:

  • Shortcode enabled.
  • Tables can be imported and exported from/to Excel, CSV files.
  • With the help of additional Java libraries, it’s possible to allow your readers to sort or filter your tables.

I hope these plugins help! Have fun online publishing!

Learning about NLTK

In the past couple of week I’ve been helping to update the curriculum for a fantastic project called DH Bridge. This curriculum includes a one-day programming bootcamp for people with no computer science experience (and particularly those who are also involved in the humanities) to learn some basic Python skills. I’ve had so much fun doing the tutorial along the way because it focuses on text analysis using the Natural Language Toolkit (NLTK), which I wasn’t previously familiar with, but includes some really cool tools for natural language processing. You can download NLTK for free and use the many Python libraries it has available to do text analysis day and night! Here are a few of the things I learned:

  • NLTK has a built in method for getting word frequencies, and it’ll spit out the n most common words in a text (you decide what n is) along with the number of times that each word appears, in order from most to least frequent. Nothing too complicated – but it’s a great (and very useful) starting place.
  • Want to see the context in which a certain word appears throughout a text? This method takes a single word as a parameter and prints out each instance of that word within its surrounding text. For example, here’s every instance of the word “trial” in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

This is a great way to get a sense of how a word is being used throughout a text without having to Control+F your way through the whole thing.

  • This one is my favorite because I think it’s so cool. You give it a word and it returns the twenty words that are “most similar” to that word in the text. I haven’t looked too far into how it works, but the method somehow determines which words are most often used in a similar context to the given word. For example, here are the results for the word “trial” in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Some words, like “court” and “newspaper” are pretty self explanatory, but we may question why a word like “family” is so closely associated with the word “trial” in this novel.

Even with these very simple searches, it’s already easy to see the kind of information you can get out of a text that the human eye wouldn’t necessarily be able to see. Yay digital text analysis!

How To Do Your Job When You Don’t Know How To Do Your Job

The cool thing about this job is that I get to constantly be doing new things and jumping into new projects. The flip side to this, however, is that each project is unique and requires very different skills – skills that I (very often? most of the time?) don’t yet have. So this term, I’ve been getting used to the fact that not having a skill to do a certain job doesn’t mean I don’t do the job, it means I get to learn how to do it. The question then often becomes, “Where do I even start to learn how to do X?” The following are some tips and tactics I’ve been working on using when I’m faced with a daunting task that I’ve never done before:

  • Just ask. This seems obvious, but it’s often much easier said than done. People don’t want to risk sounding dumb by asking questions, but 1) people probably won’t actually think you’re dumb, and 2) isn’t it better to ask and learn how to do something correctly than spend all your time doing it wrong?
  • Google it, but be smart about it. Again, this seems obvious, but Google is a gift and a curse. Be wary of bad advice (you wouldn’t cite a Buzzfeed article for an academic paper, so why should you take serious advice from it?), and think hard about the search terms you use (be precise, try a variety of related terms, etc…).
  • Pretend that you know what you’re doing. I love this tactic. Sometimes I know that I don’t know what I’m doing, but I don’t know what I don’t know, so I just start working until I get stuck in order to figure out where the problem is. It’s a really great way to pinpoint exactly what you don’t know.
  • Use sites that were created for these situations, like If you’re a Carleton student, you already have a subscription! Even if you can’t find a video to explain exactly what you’re supposed to be doing, it can help you to get a hang of the general terminology relating to the task at hand or the basic functionality of a tool you’re learning to use.
  • Look for existing examples. Chances are you’re not the first person to do anything, so it’s a great idea to find examples of best practices and conventions. This is true for pretty much anything, but particularly when you’re doing something totally new.

Of course, the best part about not knowing how to do something is that you get to learn how to do it and then a week later when one of your colleagues doesn’t know how to do the same thing you get to pretend that you’ve known it all along and teach them how to do it! Such is the cycle of life. Remember, everyone’s just trying to fake it ‘til they make it.