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NULab Spring Conference 2019 on “Digital Storytelling”

By Laura Johnson

On March 29, 2019 the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks hosted its third annual Spring Conference on the theme of Digital Storytelling. This interdisciplinary conference highlighted work and research of Northeastern faculty and graduate students with a keynote address given by Jessica Marie Johnson, Assistant Professor of History at Johns Hopkins. Throughout the day presenters discussed different facets of digital storytelling from integrating digital tools in the classroom to data visualization for storytelling and mapping practices for engaged narratives.

“All the Stars Are Closer:” Galaxies of Black Digital Practice

Jessica Marie Johnson, Assistant Professor of History at Johns Hopkins, opened the NULab Spring Conference on Digital Storytelling with a fascinating and multidimensional keynote address, “‘All the Stars Are Closer’: Galaxies of Black Digital Practice.” In this presentation, Johnson explored the linguistic, artistic, and theoretical symbolism of space and constellation as a metaphor for black identity and digital practice. Using examples of poetry, maps, artwork, and data visualizations, Johnson challenged the audience to rethink the placement and marking of black bodies across time and space, asking what it means to humanistically reshape and remix our ideas of bodies in the archive, in digital media, and in academic work.

Johnson began her presentation with a reflection on space as metaphor in popular culture by the works of black artists, including the popular song “All the Stars” by artists Kendrick Lamar and SZA from the movie, Black Panther. Exploring the connections between stars, constellations, and people, Johnson put this work in conversation with Gabriel Ramirez’s spoken word poem, “On Realizing I Am Black,” and the “Poetics of Relation” by Edouard Glissant. In establishing these connections, Johnson noted that despite being two decades apart, these artists and thinkers are using stars and space as a metaphor for rethinking and remixing black identity outside of the geographically known world, moving beyond longitude and latitude. For Johnson, the popularity of Black Panther (the third highest-grossing film in the US and Canada) gives precedence for exploring space and black identity as a site of important scholarship.

Next, Johnson furthered this idea of stars and space as symbolic metaphor in an analysis of photographer Mikael Owunna’s series, “Infinite Essence.” Using ultraviolet paint, Owunna painted the bodies of black models with stars and constellations as a response to the pervasive use of images of “black people dead and dying” in media. The images in this series were taken in total darkness using a standard flash with an ultraviolet filter to capture the painted bodies so that, as Owunna notes, “for a fraction of a second, their bodies illuminate as the universe.” For Johnson, Owunna’s work highlights the need and potential for imagining new depictions and narratives of black bodies in academic work.

Throughout the rest of her presentation, Johnson discussed how her work tracing black bodies in American history, in part, responds to this need. Using the Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy Database (1718-1820) curated by Gwendolyn Mildo Hall, Johnson explores the limitations and advantages of historic data through mapping and visualizations, looking at the ways in which bodies were geographically arranged and marked in New Orleans in US census data. In this project, Johnson examines the ways in which bodies were marked in the collection of official census data, searching for the ways that entire populars were not counted and how. Through mapping visualizations and Black digital practices, she demonstrates how these bodies can be more inclusively represented and demarcated in historic data.

Johnson ended her presentation with a reflection on the implications of space as a metaphor for representing black bodies in digital scholarship, asking: How can black digital practice inform scholarly engagements with the archive and black studies? By bringing into conversation the ways that Black representation and the diaspora are discussed outside of the academy, Johnson notes how Digital Humanities can learn from these insights and work towards more symbiotic practices and humanistic work. This work is both a necessary and important intervention for moving forward to consider how to to best re-organize and create community within and beyond the field.

Session One: “Teaching in the Humanities with Digital Data”

By Cara Marta Messina

The first panel consisted of three presentations in which NULab faculty and staff shared their experiences merging theory and practice in their pedagogy. While each presenter briefly explained the technologies and digital proficiencies used in their classrooms, they focused on how these technologies offer different modes of storytelling and narrative-making. Each presenter provided rationales for particular pedagogical decisions, shared some students’ work, and reflected on successes and failures from the courses.

Cameron Blevins (Assistant Professor of History) presented on “How (and How Not) to Use Podcasts in a History Class” using his course “Civil War and Reconstruction” as a case study. The overall goal of the course was to examine how historical narratives are shaped beyond the classroom, through media like podcasts, statues and memorials, and YouTube videos. One of the major assignments was to create a historical podcast. Blevins emphasized how writing and editing processes in podcasts can shape, reinforce, or subvert historical narratives; he used the Uncivil podcast, created by Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika who spoke at a NULab event earlier this year, as an example.

In the second presentation titled “Creative Expressions in Digital Literature and Media Courses,” Élika Ortega (Assistant Professor of Cultures, Societies and Global Studies) shared how her courses “New Media Narratives in Latin America” and “Local and Global Dimensions” spotlight creative and critical expressions by using web applications, bots, and memes. One goal for these classes is to help students develop creative and critical skills rather than technological skills; for Ortega, the courses are about storytelling and the stories students wanted to share with particular publics. She described using three different platforms in the courses: Twine, Twitter, and the Transborder Immigrant Tool. For example, her students created Twitter bots as a way to combine poetry and artificial intelligence. Ortega wanted students to think about the kinds of messages they chose to put out in the world as well as think through the political, social, and legal ramifications of being able to produce these types of messages at a rapid rate.

In the final presentation titled “Alternative Archives,” Elizabeth Maddock Dillon–the NULab’s Co-Director and Chair and Professor of the English department–and Sarah Connell, the Assistant Director of the NULab, described their course “Literature and Digital Diversity,” a co-created digital humanities and literary studies course with a focus on diversity, inclusion, and social justice. The overall goals of this course are to think about digital tools and technologies in a manner similar to how scholars think about language: 1) how can digital tools shape our understanding history and literature, and 2) what are the meaning-making capacities of these tools? In order to address these goals, Dillon and Connell developed three major assignments: students created a collaborative digital edition, built their own corpora to explore with tools such as word2vec, and finally built individual digital archives using the CERES toolkit.

The three presentations each emphasized the importance of students creating or building; by creating something–such as podcasts, digital editions, and Twitter bots–students better understand the process and can be more critical of the choices made by others when producing similar materials. As Blevins argued, “Once you produce something, you start to understand how it’s made.” These words resonated throughout the presentation. Ortega described her students’ creations of Twine games encouraged them to be critical of how games are created, and to consider virtual engagement and community. For their assignment on building a collaborative digital edition, Dillon and Connell emphasized the choices that go into different editions of texts and how these choices shape readers’ understanding of those texts; as students look at edited texts, they can better critique the choices made by editors.

Overall, the three presentations demonstrated students’ diverse responses to creating innovative assignments. Some students struggled to learn new technologies, while others struggled with the more “traditional” assignment sections, such as developing a research question. As Dillon advocated, instead of making assumptions about students’ knowledges and experiences, instructors should encourage students to ask questions and talk about what they do not know and would like to learn.

Session Two: “Between Data and Narrative: Methods for Digital Storytelling”

By Hanyu Chwe

The second session brought together academics from political science, history, visualization, and journalism to talk about digital storytelling. The presenters explored how visualization can explain phenomena through storytelling; conversely, visualizing a story can also reveal the shape of a narrative.

This session started off with John Wihbey (Assistant Professor of Journalism and Media Innovation) and Dietmar Offehuber (Associate Professor in Art + Design and Public Policy) with a talk entitled “Data Stories and the World: Where Can Academia Help?” The duo introduced their newest project, the Co-Laboratory for Data Impact, a place for high-end visual storytelling for public policy. The two envision projects that will “communicate visually with data in the public sphere.” Offenhuber’s Dustmark project is a recent example. It is a public space installation involving “reverse graffiti”: a pattern or image created by removing dust or dirt from a surface. In this way, the visualization draws attention to increasing pollution in Stuttgart, Germany.

The duo highlighted Assistant Professor Pedro Cruz‘s “Simulated Dendrochronology of U.S. Immigration” as a project that informs public policy through visualization. The project depicts immigration to the United States as a cross-section of a tree trunk that grows throughout the decades. Different immigration patterns manifest as different colors and growths on the tree section. The Co-Lab will formally launch in Fall 2019, and their first project will explore new ways of exploring and thinking about diversity.

In the second talk, Nicholas Beauchamp, Assistant Professor of Political Science, presented on, “The Shapes of Chekov’s Stories.” Beauchamp showed how he mapped sequences of words into space and displayed them as topological arcs. Arcs created from different stories have different shapes; stories of “closure” have ring-like shapes that conclude near their beginning, while stories of “escape” are long and squirm towards opposite ends of the screen like a snake.

Anton Chekhov, one of Beauchamp’s favorite short-story writers, is particularly well known for his “zero ending” stories: stories which lack a traditional plot structure and have a confusing or abrupt ending. By plotting several of Chekhov’s stories in space, Beauchamp shows graphically how many of Chekhov’s “zero ending” stories are inherently circular.

Finally, second-year History PhD student Molly Nebiolo showed the audience “The Birth of Boston,” an interactive map of colonial Boston, in a talk titled “Envisioning an Obscured Past: Using ArcGIS to Reconstruct Seventeenth-Century Boston.” The map is built on the cartographer Samuel Chester Clough’s collection of maps, and also includes information from the Annie Haven Thwing database of Boston inhabitants. Users can click on an individual land parcel and discover who lived there, when they were born, how many children they had, what their occupation was, and when they died. By combining these two sources of data, the map paints a compelling portrait of individual people and their families.

As Nebiolo mentioned, good historical storytelling means highlighting primary voices. In this case, the “Birth of Boston” gives a voice to Boston’s early inhabitants while letting modern viewers experience a familiar city in a different time.

Session Three: “Twice Told Tales: Impact & Circulations”

By Colleen Nugent

The third session featured a variety of interdisciplinary talks that explored the boundaries of digital storytelling, with a focus on the circulation of stories and information bolstered by digital technologies. The theme of the panel “Twice Told Tales” was emphasized by each talk, whether by testing the effectiveness of repetition on persuasion, measuring social movement success through newspaper circulation, analyzing the ways new forms of digital narratives have reframed stories, or using technology to engage with political debates in a new meaningful way. The panel brought together the disciplines of economic, network science, sociology, anthropology, law, and computer science.

Donghee Jo (Economics and Network Science) presented “The Power of Repetition: An Online Experiment in China,” a talk on research probing the darker side of digital storytelling, in collaboration with Jie Bai of Harvard University and Nancy Qian of Northwestern University. Jo seeks to understand why China would allow multiple news sources to operate when they are potentially dangerous for the non-democratic regime. Jo explained that almost all news sources are state-owned and content is heavily controlled. Jo and his collaborators are focused on persuasion, and the effect of repetition by multiple sources. According to Jo, “as a user, you might think the information that you see is coming from lots of different sources.” The project is still in its early stages, so Jo presented the team’s experiment design. Jo explained that they needed to identify an issue that the government wants to influence people’s opinion on, but not anything overtly political. They decided on air quality in Shanghai, noting how the Chinese government will often describe a level of air quality as good, while the United States describes the same air quality as unhealthy. Jo aims to use a mobile web application that presents both upcoming local outdoor events and information about air pollution, to determine the persuasive power of repetition by multiple sources in the context of a non-democratic regime.

While Jo explored twice told tales through the lens of repetition and political influence, Laura Nelson (Sociology and Anthropology) sought to explore some concrete outcomes of social movements as measured through mentions in newspapers. Laura Nelson’s “From Protest to Print” studies the ways a social movement’s success can be measured. Nelson claims that the representation of ideas formed in these social movements within mainstream newspapers represents one form of success. Nelson defined success of a social movement as: appearing in print, having longevity, and being widely distributed. Her methods include using distinctive phrase analysis to capture the ideas of a social movement, identifying diffusion of those phrases in mainstream newspapers, and eventually using metadata to provide a broader understanding of the reach of these ideas. Nelson described a case study in early twentieth-century Los Angeles, in which where she looked at the L.A. Sentinel (an African-American newspaper) and the California Eagle as social movement papers, with comparisons to the L.A. Times as a baseline. To make research like hers feasible at larger scales, Nelson emphasized the need for more machine-readable newspaper collections as data.

The digital era has brought with it various new mediums for storytelling, or retelling in the sense of twice told tales, which Jessica Silbey (Law) examined in her talk “Legal Narrative Topoi in the Digital Age.” Silbey, in collaboration with Zahr Said from the University of Washington, explores new narrative forms that have emerged in the digital age. They study these forms’ interactions with legal issues and examine new narrative topoi of the twenty-first century: binge-able podcasts, twitter stories, and fake news. Sibley focused on binge-able podcasts and twitter stories; she discussed the podcast ‘SERIAL’ and its parallels to the serialized radio narratives of the past, as well as Sarah Jeong’s live-tweeting of the Google vs. Oracle lawsuit in 2016. Silbey explained that these new narrative topoi still have the same rhetorical practices of storytelling and evidence that have been used for centuries, but are novel because of their speedy dissemination and consumption, disintegrated and rapid spin-offs, ability to offer anonymity as well as connectability, and capacity to measure audience engagement and tailor personalized responses. These new narrative forms can be authentic and deeply subjective; both podcasts and twitter stories create a feeling of the story being ‘whispered into your ear.” Importantly, these new narrative forms of storytelling are more on-demand than scheduled, further increasing their accessibility.

In line with Silbey’s argument that many stories are now consumed on demand, Laura South, (Computer Science), unveiled a digital tool to allow people to interact more meaningfully with political debates, in ways other than watching them live or reading a transcript. South’s talk “Debates: A Framework for Visualizing Political Discourse” explained that there are two major options for engaging with debates: full debate videos and transcripts (which have no editorial presence and require a significant time commitment) and debate summaries (where only a small subset of information can be presented). The online tool she has been contributing to, DebateVis, attempts to combine the advantages of both options. DebateVis can provide: an overview of the debate, comparison of speaker behavior within the debate, and characteristics of what is said about a particular topic. The tool is still a work in progress, currently containing six manually-annotated political transcripts. South previewed the interface, which does include the options to watch the full video or read the transcript, but also includes more context in the form of a timeline and topic diagram. All four speakers shed light on the meaning of twice told tales and digital storytelling, emphasizing the widely interdisciplinary nature of the NULab.

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