Notes on Promotion

Good morning. Thank you for coming at a different time than our normal meeting times this semester in order to accommodate my teaching schedule. I appreciate it, and my students appreciate it. (For the record, in the undergraduate class we are continuing our discussion of text types in Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men, and in the graduate class we are discussing some case studies of Levi-Strauss’ analysis of myths.)

I am happy to observe that after being here 15 years, there is plenty to see in the binder and more to see in the Dropbox folder. (A lot more.) The most exciting thing, for me, isn’t here yet but arrives five days from now and goes on sale shortly after that, and that’s The Amazing Crawfish Boat. (I do want to note that the title is not mine. My title was taken from the president’s first inaugural address when he called upon “the makers of things” to bring America out of the shadow of the recession. The press re-titled the book The Amazing Crawfish Boat, and, since they seem to think they can sell a good number of the thing with that title — they are printing 800 copies of it in hardback — I decided to let them do what they wanted.)

I want to start with the boat book, as I’ve taken to calling it, because in some ways it allows me to tell a part of the arc of what I came here to do, what I have done (and not done), and what I am doing now and hope to do looking forwards. That is, the boat book is a direct manifestation of my original mission: I was hired into the second folklore slot as a complement to Marcia Gaudet’s focus on folklore and literature. My job was to focus on folklore theory and material culture, in my teaching especially, but also in my research. As some of you may recall I had finally settled on a book project that explored the complexities of Louisiana folk cultures through the lens of gumbo when the storms hit and displaced half the people on my list to interview. And, too, much of the public debate that followed was dispiriting for someone who had hoped to explore how Africanized most Louisiana folk cultures were and are.

As I thought about what to do in the face of such a disaster, I published some pieces of the work in various places—principally in an obscure European volume but also in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture—and decided to focus my efforts on one of the central images in the debates: the image of the Louisiana landscape as always already flooded. Growing up along the Bayou Teche, the Louisiana prairies were not a known entity, and the chance to drive among the rice fields and re-think how I as a folklorist might do useful work was a profound one. I discovered two things: first, it’s not a case of whether land is wet or dry but whether you are pumping water on or pumping water off, depending on your needs. Second, there was a machine that, while relatively new, also revealed that dynamic understanding of the landscape, an understanding that was at least a century old and made up of a number of folk cultural elements.

That became the basis for The Amazing Crawfish Boat, the first attempt at an ethnographic monograph since Lauren Post’s Cajun Sketches published a half century ago. I’m proud of the work that went into that book, which is not to say that I don’t think the book could have been better. It’s done. That’s what matters.

The central question of the boat book was how to inhabitants of this corner of the world imagine, and work, an ambiguous landscape. While my focus in the book is on one particular artifact, I searched for other artifacts as well, especially among the many folklore collections. Few treated the duality of the landscape, except for one genre, the legend, specifically the subgenre of the treasure tale. Having collected a few myself in my years of doing field research, I assembled a larger collection and began to try to find ways to think through them.

At the same time, I had become interested in computational and corpus approaches to texts and the modeling of texts. To some, jumping from guys welding together boats in hot, dark shops to rendering texts into multi-dimensional matrices might seem like leaping out of the middle ages and into some weird scifi future, but I can assure you that the goal for me always the same: an understanding of how humans put ideas together in order to put their world together each and every day.

The work so far has been well received by both legend scholars somewhat suspicious of “counting words” as well as digital humanists somewhat suspicious of folk legends. As can be seen on the vita, the change in topic has also meant a much wider audience, with invited talks at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Library of Congress and invitations to publish in venues as diverse as the Chinese Academy’s Folk Culture Forum, ISCLR’s Contemporary Legend, and The Programming Historian.

The work has been sufficiently well received by the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research that I was invited to work with Bill Ellis on a book The Hook legend, something that I now look forward to returning to (with my apologies to Bill for the delay).

As long as we are talking about books, I should also note that I am in dialogue with the Ohio State University Press for a book on The Shape of Small Stories. We are currently at a place where the press, with its focus on narrative studies, is interested in a proposal, and I am awaiting a moment of free time to write one for them.

What I like about this turn in my research is the possibilities it creates for students—so here, then, is the section on teaching. As most of you know, the digital humanities are currently enjoying a bright spot in the marketplace, and I think the department is in good shape with people like Jonathan Goodwin and Clai Rice (and now even Shelley Ingram) working in this area and encouraging students to think about working in this area. Jonathan’s work has especially made inroads into the DH community, and our collaboration is something I hope to revisit now that the boat book is done.

Obviously, I think our students should take advantage of this bright spot in the market as much as they can, and I think that Shelley and I may have the first person in folklore studies to consider a dissertation with some computational dimensions to it. I hope we can see more students at least experimenting and becoming familiar with the possibilities, such that they have a wider range of positions accessible to them.

But it’s not only our graduate students who can benefit here. With my own work now focused, once again, on folk narrative, I find that there are real opportunities for undergraduate students to have a hand in the research process. Over the past few semesters, I have slowly — ack, so slowly (and with lots of stumbles) — begun to build an infrastructure whereby students collect narratives out in the world, come back into the classroom, transcribe them, and begin to mark them up. This semester I may very be approaching the moment where they use TEI — the markup of the Text Encoding Initiative that is a flexible international standard. TEI, like any kind of markup, is a great humanistic tool because it allows you both to get students to read closely—how else will they be able to mark things—and to read distantly, when a bunch of texts are examined by an algorithm.

I am grateful to Clai both for introducing me to TEI in particular and to corpus linguistics in general, and he and I have discussed a possible way to combine this work with the work that he and Wilbur Bennett have been doing on dialect. In addition, Randy Gonzalez and I have been talking about what common infrastructure could serve not only his interests in community research but also those of Thomas Cauvin up in History.

None of us can know where this will lead, but it’s certainly very energizing to have coffee in the library and sketch out possibilities on the back of napkins. At the very least, every conversation has offered me some insight that was useful in the classroom, if not also in my research.

Getting together to compare notes on research and/or teaching is one of the pleasures of our work, and in my service work I hope to have made some small contributions to that as well. Perhaps my most visible effort in this regard was the four years I spent as chair of the graduate faculty. Few of you probably remember, or want to remember, that most of those years we slogged through a revision of the graduate student handbook, something Clai thought was long overdue, and we proceeded to write revision after revision until the committee agreed that we had finally gotten it right.

Following that, and even before my time here on the personnel committee began, Clai and I collaborated on the first of the many rubrics that the university handed down as a requirement with no specifications. It was probably then that I realized that the more we as faculty could have some sway over the increasing quantification of our work, the better chance we had at least of getting it somewhat right. (I also acknowledge that for many quantification and rightness are diametrically opposed—perhaps there is a topological solution to this, I don’t know.)

I found myself simultaneously vice president of our local AAUP chapter—and I hope all of you are members—and on the university faculty grievance committee. What I’ve seen on the committee has been, honestly chilling, and it’s also led me to be an active chapter officer in a perhaps slightly unconventional way: by trying to mediate conflicts between faculty and administrators before they get to the point of a grievance. I’ve handled a few cases, and, so far, things are working out.

Beyond the boundaries of campus, my service work is pretty diverse.

Professionally, I’ve served on a number of committees in the MLA, AFS, and ISCLR. I’ve reviewed manuscripts for the Journal of American Folklore and Digital Humanities Quarterly. I’ve written letters in support of promotion for colleagues at Indiana University and UCLA.

Locally, I regularly answer whatever questions journalists ask about whatever folk thing they think they are writing about. (It gets weird, sometimes.) I have given talks at schools, libraries, Lions Clubs, and, in compiling the portfolio, I realize I gave a talk at LEDA a year or so ago. I moderate panels or give critiques at film festivals and at folklife festivals. My most important contribution in this regard has been working with Evangeline Council of the Boy Scouts to develop a long-range plan for humanistic and scientific content for their Swamp Base and Swamp Trek programs. It’s a lot of meetings, and it’s a lot of bureaucratic prose.

There are plenty of things that don’t fit within the frameworks I’ve discussed here, but I thought it was important, after 16 years of being here, to try to understand where I’ve been and where I think I’m going.

Thank you.

More TEI Work

I am still working through the phylogenetic material both on Nouvelles Mythologie Comparée as well as the materials that Julien d’Huy sent me. Both d’Huy’s work as well as Tehrani’s work require better and more texts than I currently possess: my corpus of Louisiana legends weighs in at close to 30 in terms of oral texts and another two dozen or so literary texts. I need more.

And I need better texts. So far, I have been working mostly with just the texts — that is, no metadata of any kind — a process has revealed its limitations, more and more, over the past year. If I look at the kind of analyses that I find most compelling, Jahmid Tehrani’s study of Little Red Riding Hood, for example, and if I consider the road blocks I’ve encountered in my own work, I need to be able to mark up texts with a variety of analytical details that folklorists find useful: motifs (and/or plot points not currently motifs), locations, performers, etc.

TEI is the best way forward, but, if I haven’t said it before, it is not an intuitive markup. Where I would err on the side of brevity, <source>, TEI opts for something a bit more cumbersome, <sourceDesc>. I spent a good portion of the day working with both the tutorials and examples, as well as scanning the GitHub materials and some of the other forms of documentation.

I’ve begun to build a basic framework for the next set of materials that I am folding into the project: Gerard Hurley’s 1947 survey of American treasure legendry, “Buried Treasure Tales in America”. The last part of the essay enumerates 102 tales, many of which were published in the Journal of American Folklore or Western Folklore — I am working on a complete bibliography of all this material, if anyone is interested, and I’m happy to share it, so long as everyone remembers it’s a work in progress.

What I spent much of today doing was copying and pasting texts out of the JSTOR PDFs of the JAF articles and wrapping TEI around them. Pasting OCR is never as straightforward as it sounds, so there was a fair amount of clean up done. I also normalized eye dialect so that should I want to run these texts through some scripts as is, I won’t have to deal with differences between “Ah” and “I” or “jes'” and “just”.

In addition to the texts and the bibliographic information, I also need to capture the page(s) on which the text appeared, but I don’t want that page number to be in the text itself, since it’s not at all important for analysis. My best guess is to include it under <sourceDesc> in the TEIheader. I also want to include other information in the source document, notes about collection and especially about tellers that might be useful to future users of these TEI documents, but sorting out where such things go is all of a trick. I did, however, finally determine how to embed location metadata in the TEIheader.

I know I need to go back and double-check on the adaptations of TEI by linguists and oral historians as I continue to move forward with a TEI for folklore studies. I know I know.

NEH 2010 Notes

With The Amazing Crawfish Boat wrapping up, I have been enjoying a moment to file various bits of paper, either tucking them into one of a couple of current “working” folders, moving them into an archived folder somewhere, or moving them into that other archive otherwise known as “the round bin” — which, to be clear, leads to recycling and not the landfill. One of the things I came across was a packet of hand-written notes from the NEH seminar/institute that Tim Tangherlini organized at UCLA/NSF’s Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics back in August 2010. As I understand it from talking to Jason Rhody of the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities, the institute has achieved somewhat of a legendary status and so, as a nod to future historians of such things, I scanned those notes into a PDF and I am making them available to anyone interested (Warning: PDF).

One Piece of a Larger Set of Notes

One Piece of a Larger Set of Notes

Near and Far

Much has been said about the natures and relationships between close and distant reading, a dialogue that is sure to continue. In my inbox this morning came a note from Willard McCarthy which reminded readers of The Humanist that dialectic is one way to think about the relationship and that others have struggled to keep the two things, local and global, in focus simultaneously. McCarthy turned to Clifford Geertz’ description of ethnography as

a continuous dialectical tacking between the most local of local detail and the most global of global structure in such a way as to bring them into simultaneous view…. Hopping back and forth between the whole conceived through the parts that actualize it and the parts conceived through the whole that motivates them, we seek to turn them, by a sort of intellectual perpetual motion, into explications of one another.

–Clifford Geert, “‘From the Native’s Point of View’: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding”, Local Knowledge, 69.

PDF Index Generator

PDF Index Generator is a powerful indexing utility for generating the back of your book index and writing it to your book in (4) easy steps. PDF Index Generator parses your PDF, collects the index words and their location in the PDF, then writes the generated index to a PDF or a text file you specify. The main target for PDF Index Generator is to automate the process of generating the book index instead of doing the hard work manually.

I didn’t get to try this out, but I had it bookmarked. (UPM was very kind to do the indexing for me since the moment it needed to be done was also the moment that my father died.)

DH@Guelph Summer Workshops

The University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada, is hosting a collection of workshops May 9-12. A lot happens in those 3 to 4 days:

  1. Getting Going with Omeka with
    Lisa Cox, Adam Doan, Melissa McAfee, Catharine Wilson.
  2. You’ve Got Data!: Introduction to Data Wrangling for Digital Humanities Projects with Paige Morgan.
  3. Text Encoding Fundamentals and Their Application with Jason Boyd.
  4. Minimal Computing for Digital Humanists with Kim Martin and John Fink.
  5. 3D Modelling for the Digital Humanities and Social Sciences_ with
    John Bonnett.
  6. Spatial Humanities: Exploring Opportunities in the Humanities Jennifer Marvin and Quin Shirk-Luckett.
  7. Online Collaborative Scholarship: Principles and Practicies (A CWRCshop) with Susan Brown, Mihaela Ilovan, and Leslie Allin.

Full details are here.