Historic Visualizations

One of the reasons many of us make things is to understand them, to understand not only how the parts and pieces fit together and how they accomplish what they accomplish once assembled but also the working principles behind the assembly. Public.Resources.org offers a terrific library of old films, mostly from the Department of Defense, that explain a wide variety of processes and principles. The list is impressive and includes things like: basic amplifiers, DC motors, AC motors, resistance, and capacitors just within the electrical category.

While the example technologies are dated, the visualizations are, to my eye, just as good as anything we could offer today. Perhaps they are better precisely because the limitations of the era’s media forced the presenters to focus on what matters most and not simply what could be included. (Because we can is a principle familiar to many of us, but I bet many of us would also admit that sometimes that way leads to distraction or, at least, digression.)

Their home page lists a bunch of resources but if you want, you can also go straight to their Youtube home page.

Curricular Outcomes

In one of those necessary moments of trying to be more programmatic — that is, trying to remind ourselves why we do what we do in order to prompt ourselves to double-check and/or refine what we do when we teach — the folklore faculty were asked to come up with outcomes for the undergraduate concentration in folklore studies. I think we did reasonably well at the abstract level:

  • An understanding that culture is a dynamic process that is the result of anything from a small group to transnational networks of individuals each of whom acts as a receiver and transmitter of information that both shapes how they see the world and is in turn shaped by the world as they experience it

  • Any understanding of culture must be founded on a commitment to openness that may itself be impossible to achieve but is a worthwhile goal in itself.

  • That understandings are to be communicated in appropriate forms to the context, and that all understandings (findings) are momentary for the investigator and for the larger scholarly and/or scientific communities and/or publics in which they find themselves. Science is an ongoing dialogue with itself about the nature of reality and the nature of humanity within that reality.

Now we need to follow through at the level of the concrete: assignments we build into our courses, how we are going to evaluate those assignments, and how we are going to assess our own efforts with regards to these matters.

Now Playing on Medium

If you are interested in your writing having an audience, if you are interested in dialogue and not monologue, if you want to have some effect in/on the world, then you have to go where the people are and you have to find some way into the marketplace of ideas. The blogging landscape has shifted considerably in the almost 20 years I have been doing some version of it. Right now, personal blogs sitting on boutique infrastructures just are not quite seeing the same kind of circulation they once did. (To be clear, I never broke about 200 reads in any single day, or if I did it was only momentary.)

Right now, Medium seems to have found a decent niche for content creators. You can find me at Medium.com/@johnlaudun.

Medium home page

I am not entirely satisfied with Medium. For one, its only editing interface is the website itself: you can work off-line, but once your draft is on Medium and you edit there, you can’t easily get the draft back onto your local machine, barring copying and pasting. That also means that there is no way to download an archive of your work. Just as importantly, you can’t upload a back catalog of your work: Medium assumes anything you publish will be published now.

I have quite a back catalog of posts from my old WordPress site, and I guess I will work on getting them uploaded here, which will suffice as some kind of archive — and I can’t imagine there is much of an audience for that old stuff anyway. Still, it would be nice if some of these processes were easier…

LANA Talk Text and Slides

My thanks again to the organizers of this year’s Louisiana Aging Network Association conference for the invitation to spend time with all of you. For those interested in materials from my talk, “Listening for the Past: Learning to Listen for How History Actually Gets Told” the links are below:

  • The talk itself is now available on Medium. The texts are block quotes, and the takeaways are embedded in the text as slide images.
  • The slides are available for download from my portfolio.

Many thanks again for letting me spend time with you and for the amazing questions and conversations that followed.

My (Re)Turn to Narrative

My first serious research project as a folklorist was an attempt to understand the constructed spaces of Urban Appalachians. I received a lot of nice attention for it, and Erika Brady, who was then editing Southern Folklore, shepherded it steadily through to publication. For my dissertation, however, I focused on a kind of sociolinguistic study of oral histories. My original plan had been to return to Louisiana to interview black and white men and women who had worked in the sugar cane industry. I was curious to see who remembered what and how. I couldn’t, at the time, afford the project, and I knew of no funding agency interested in such work.

I took the basic idea, however, and re-focused my efforts on a set of speech communities in Bloomington, Indiana. I had, thanks to a friend, come across a murder that had taken place in 1946 that had galvanized the town and thus had become a kind of legend among middle-aged speakers and, as I discovered, a reference point for older speakers. The project was interesting to me for a number of reasons:

  • it took place among members of the Bloomington community who had no direct connection to the university itself, which as anyone who has visited the area knows, dominates the town in the present;
  • the speech communities reflected by the individuals I found were not unified, but they were related in ways that I could objectively describe;
  • the two speech communities, one black and one white, had been themselves cohesive in the past by all accounts, though they were in the present fragmented with the passing of various members;

While the murder was my starting point, I never really got around to a fine-grained analysis of the different accounts. For one, my ability as a white male researcher to access the full range of accounts was stymied by social stigmas experienced long ago but still painful in the present. That is, the older black men who would speak with me did not want to talk about the incident, pointing, indirectly through the other stories they told, to the racism that frightened them during the period. Older black women felt more free, if only because in some sense the murder revealed sexual peccadilloes in the white community. Those peccadilloes constrained older white women in their discussion and were transformed into a rape scene by older white men.

Fascinating stuff, and I will write about it one day, but what grabbed my attention in the moment was the range of materials that I gathered that were not in the expected discursive mode.1 That is, all the literature about oral history and life stories focused on narrative, usually grand narratives of the kind one only encounters from avowed, and revered, tellers in a community.

And yet, and yet, as I listened to hours upon hours of tape on my Sony Walkman D3 (now fondly remembered), I found myself with a diverse collection of relatively small narratives and a whole lot of material which was decidedly not narrative in nature. Often it was what I came to call oral exposition, though I never really offered a thorough definition of that term. That is, I had a whole lot of discourse that, if it seemed narrative in nature, it was because the person was walking me through a neighborhood or landscape that had once existed and they used the walk as a way to tour a lost world. It is a highly effective technique, of course (and one I encourage interviewers to use as a kind of memory prompt) but the narratives that are produced are not really stories so much as geographies: “This was here. That was there.” in the form of “And then, if you kept on going down Third Street you’d get to old man McCullough’s store.”

The kind of analysis resulted in very discrete texts that were, I now understand, marked up:

We can, however, make some distinctions between durations, sorting out lines and clauses by how long a situation lasted, allowing us, as Jean Ellis Robertson notes to determine “what durations events were that people recall in chronological order or else not recall as a chronology” (1983:47). Such a scheme might also reveal whether people recall events of a fairly short duration or enduring situations. Robertson suggests the following time-scale index:

Table 3.1: Time-Scale (D=duration) D0 - Period of time lasting up to a minute D1 - Period of time greater than a minute and up to an hour D2 - Period of time greater than an hour and up to a day D3 - Period of time greater than a day and up to a week D4 - Period of time greater than a week and up to a month D5 - Period of time greater than a month and up to a year D6 - Period of time greater than a year and up to a decade D7 - Period of time greater than a decade

If we return to assign the following values to each of the lines: our “first example where Hugh Goble describes his work as an excavator, we can (D7) He was in the excavating business, (D2) so he called me to come up and showed me the job. (D6) And we dug house basements. (D6) And that was when they were remodeling a lot filling stations, (D6) making them super service and that sort of thing, (D0) so I said, yeah, I’ll take it. (D6) So I worked there about two years and a half. (D2) And then we came back to Bloomington. (D6) At that time, my brother-in-law— he’s passed away— but at that time he owned a furniture store, United furniture.

At the time, I had no idea that people were writing about things like TimeML. I knew that some portion of sociolinguistics was interested in this kind of discourse analysis, but everything with which I was familiar was much more oriented toward making generalizations about particular kinds of performances or about particular kinds of groups or about particular kinds of performances within particular kinds of groups. But I was, and am, interested in something more like structuralism: how these texts are part of a generative model that might possibly be located in the human mind.

It’s taken me a decade, D6 above, to discover geeks like me who delight in this kind of thing. (Again, my thanks to Tim Tangherlini.)

Of course, I have thoroughly enjoyed in geeking out with the guys who make the crawfish boats and all sorts of other machines and tools that do real work like food come out of the dirt, but I have also observed that the academic audience for such work is very small and the interstice is an awkward one.

The number of folklorists who are interested in material culture studies has always been something you could count on two hands – at peak moments of when you also counted graduate students, you might need to take your sock and shoes off. It has been great to discover the history of technology, and I was delighted by the reception I encountered when I attended the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology, but there the interest in things agricultural and also regional meant a lack of sexiness that I had already felt at the annual meetings of the American Folklore Society. I could carp about this all I want, but it’s not going to change anything. Folklore studies and anthropology have continued to drift apart, which means that academic folklorists in AFS are increasingly housed in the departments of literature and/or languages. They are going to be more interested in texts than in things.

More importantly, the number of folklore jobs will always be limited and occasional. The number of jobs for people doing textual studies is larger, and the number of jobs for those interested in doing so “digitally” is enjoying some prominence now. As the saying goes – and I’m a folklorist so I gotta go with the proverb: carpe diem.

So I love the boats, and I love the guys who make them. And I hope the door that it opens onto human creativity is as interesting to readers of the book as it has been to me to write, but it will be the last of that work for a while for me. As my editor generously offered when I last saw him at the annual meeting of AFS in New Orleans: material culture is hard to write about and do it well. It’s been incredibly difficult to balance spending time with my family, attending to the non-stop parade of inanities my university produces, and to maintain a steady stream of fieldwork experiences that I then transform into useful texts that I can then review and fold into a scholarly script.

I’m not saying text studies are easier, but I am ready to spend some time with data that is already at hand and let’s me focus on analytical models and possible connections with colleagues near and far.

  1. I prefer discursive mode to David Herman’s text types. Mode, I think, reflects the generative nature of discourse itself: clauses get strung together, and hang together qua texts, through different structuring principles: narrative, locative, descriptive, etc. I’ll have more to say about this in a book which is tentatively titled How Stories Work

MLA, CCCC, and ChatGPT

The MLA and CCCC have formed a commission, of some sort, to develop a policy, of some sort, with regards to ChatGPT. They are asking people to take a survey. I did, and I decided to save my answers so that I could think about them some more.

Has your institution, department, or other unit proposed or developed policies about ChatGPT or other AI text generation technologies? If yes, please describe it.

Like a lot of people, I wasn’t fully prepared for ChatGPT et al to emerge quite so quickly as a force. Luckily, for me, I had already planned a semester in which active learning in the classroom would take place. To that I simply added more in-class writing assignments, essentially dodging the issue of ChatGPT for the time being. In my discussion with my students, who were more clueless than some of the folk running around proclaiming the sky was falling, I simply noted that I expected them to turn in work that was theirs alone. But I should note that I had not yet fully experimented with the possibilities yet. Havign done so, I still remain fairly unconcerned: I was underwhelmed by ChatGPT’s responses to my prompts. What ChatGPT offered were the kind of competently to well-written non-answers produced students who have been well groomed but ill educated.

Have you developed any classroom policies about students’ use of ChatGPT or other AI text generation technologies? If yes, please describe it.

I am working on a digital storytelling class for Fall 2023, and I think I am going to build at least one ChatGPT experiment into the class. Students already know the technology is out there: how can they use it for good? And by that perhaps there is also room for “their own good,” given the inequities they face. Honestly, if they wanna highjack instutitional systems that already imagine them as cogs to be churned out for a labor market, who am I to blow against the wind?

What concerns, if any, do you have about use of ChatGPT and other AI text generation technologies in teaching?

My chief concern is that it will only devalue writing further, eroding the already weakened position of the humanities. Why write when you can have a bot of some kind do it for you? I think we’re going to see a host of weak scholarship and science get published in a lot of places – we’re all thinking lower-tier journals but we may also find ourselves surprised. Given that universities have farmed out tenure and promotion to journals and presses, why wouldn’t people do it?

I honestly don’t know that I won’t encounter such an article, or book, and be able to tell. But, again honestly, there is so much formulaic writing (and analysis) already out there getting shoved through various publication pipelines, that it might as well be bots. That is, I would argue that we have already boticized ourselves. (That’s a terrible verb, but you get my meaning.)

Getting the Story Right

NucleCast Episode on Narrative
NucleCast Episode on Narrative(Click to embiggen.)

I think we can all agree that any story that helps people in general and policy makers in particular more aware of the importance of nuclear deterrence is important. It was a great pleasure then to be interviewed by Adam Lowther, host of the NucleCast podcast, about how stories work, and how scientists, scholars, engineers, and others involved in nuclear deterrence can get better at tellings stories that matter to us all.

Listen to the podcast.

Learn more about the Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance Deterrence Center.

One Hour a Day

Books, books, books
(Click to embiggen.)

The need to read.

1000 Reads!…?

Your research items reached 1,000 reads
Your research items reached 1,000 reads (Click to embiggen.)

ResearchGate recently notified me that I had reached a milestone: my research items had reached 1,000 reads. Ignoring for a moment the awkwardness of “research items,” which we can, I think, chalk up to ResearchGate making it possible to publish a variety of materials, I want to think about what “reads” means here, because in the age of citometrics et alum these kinds of quantifications may eventually play more of a role than any of us might wish.

As a member of a department personnel committee, I recently enjoyed reviewing the work of three terrific junior faculty members, all of whom I will note here deserve to be tenured and promoted without delay. All three offered not only impressive vitas and compelling portfolios of materials for personnel committee members to peruse, but also had very polished slide decks, each of which featured various composite scores of semesterly SEIs (Student Evaluation of Instruction). All three are smart enough to know that SEIs are biased in a variety of well-documented ways and, when they consist of 7 fairly subjective questions, offer little of statistical significance. They are also smart enough to know that the same institutions that don’t invest in faculty also tend to think things like SEIs are acceptable forms of assessment and even development. (The kind of professional development I have in mind would not only include funding for travel to conferences but also funding a teaching resource center staffed by people with a real focus on educating college-aged students as well as funding of teaching pairs and training for faculty on how to be better assessors of their own, and their colleagues’, approaches to teaching.)

So add up some scores, calculate an average, and include that in graphic on a slide. Put another way, it doesn’t matter how meaningful, or meaningless, the number is, so long as it is a number.

And that probably reveals my attitude toward a milestone like 1000 reads, because … is it? Is it really 1000 reads? Or is it 1000 downloads? Or 1000 views of a page from which you could download the text, which is how Academia.edu seems to work. (More on that later.)

Google Scholar's Citations per Year
Google Scholar's Citations per Year (Click to embiggen.)

Google Scholar seems to hew to the more conventional approach to counting things by counting only citations. However it is not entirely clear how they are arriving at those counts: is it only from materials also deposited in/with Google Scholar? I ask because, to be honest, the portfolio of my materials with Google Scholar is not complete. Nor is it complete with ResearchGate nor Academia.edu. Perhaps worse: the make-up of the portfolio on each is different, with Google Scholar having older materials, Academia having more conventionally humanities materials, and ResearchGate getting more computational materials.

In all honesty, there was no principled division of materials because I have never been quite sure which one was worth investing the effort to upload everything, and, really, my goal was to put everything in a GitHub repository. (I’m still working on this.)

In a better world, researchers could post their open access, or otherwise being made accessible, materials in a repository of their choosing and then these sites/services would simply index things there. That has not happened and it’s my guess that that is not going to happen. Academia wants you eventually to invest in a premium membership, like LinkedIn, and Google simply wants to keep you in the GooglePlex. ResearchGate seems to be able to remain in the “if you get enough users the money question will answer itself” phase. Their “About Us” pages hints at perhaps eventually rolling out a job search service or … something.

In the mean time, we got numbers. And I guess you could put them in a slide deck. Or an annual performance evaluation. Or something!


Earlier today I was watching a documentary on a climactic event in the middle ages that, as they so often do, changed the course of history. The documentary’s argument relied heavily on one particular scholar, who was quite compelling, but early in the film’s diegesis it pans across the books in his study as a way of establishing his bona fides, as if to say: “Look here. He’s read all these books. He must be smart.” It’s a trope really, one that the past two years of video conferencing has made commonplace. I tend to kinda zone out during these moments, but the glazing of my eyes was halted when the camera panned to the complete set of Stith Thompson’s Motif Index of Folk Literature. (I think they are out of order.)

The Motif Index
The Motif Index (Click to embiggen.)

Well, you don’t see that every day, and I was delighted and paid that much more attention to what followed.

Later, I noted what I had seen to fellow folklorists on the social media platform where we gather, and which is now relentless in its delivery of ads. Of late, a number of those ads have featured decks of storytelling cards or “storyteller tactics.” I can’t comment on the content of these things, because they are extravagantly priced: Fabula’s Storytelling Cards retail for $150 and Pip Decks’ Storyteller’s Bundle starts at $190 for just the digital deck and goes to $250 for the physical deck to be included. (For more, see Fabula and Pip Decks.)

What I can say is that folklore studies missed the boat when it comes to commoditizing the indices.

Fabula Storytelling Cards
Fabula Storytelling Cards (Click to embiggen.)