Week 4: The Academy’s Trouble with (Digital) Images: Visualization as Scholarship (Katie Krumeich)

Week 4: Visualizations

It may be that in two hundred years, digital imagery will be as much a part of academia as peer-reviewed academic journals. This is the premise of this week’s readings, the exploration of the idea that scholarly arguments can be made with sustained, creative, appropriate use and debate around the methodology of digital imaging to generate knowledge.

One of the key thematic positions of the readings was the use and limitations of visualizations to humanities scholarship, and the difficulty of applying rigorous academic standards to visual digital mediums.

 Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity, Martyn Jessop

A historic map of Sicily. Jessop argues that humanity has always viewed visual aid as a powerful tool: take the function of maps in so many societies.

“Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity,” by Martyn Jessop, attempts to make the point that increased visual literacy is necessary to society and academia as a whole, and that digital imagery needs to be treated more seriously as a method of creating rigorous secondary sources. Jessop meditates not only on the current paucity of scholarship on this issue, but also on digital visualization’s predecessors: on the use of a museum exhibit, in theater and visual essays, in historical re-enactments, and on the rich possibilities of digital visualization for academics in general.

Jessop makes the point, I think persuasively, that new knowledge can be generated and arguments made with digital images used as texts. In scholarship, there has always been a tendency to focus in on images as an illustration only: a lone representation of some old drawing, painting or photograph, lost in a sea of words. Jessop uses this article to suggest that drawing more out of digital imagery is possible in the search for new knowledge. The use of digital visualization is in scholarly curation to create an argument and show relationships between primary sources previously impossible.

Jessop fit with the day’s themes neatly, bringing up not only the possibilities of digital visualization for academics, but the real dangers of digital visualization being abused or “allowed to seduce” (290) the viewer. These fears are echoed by Guldi, who asserts the need for careful consideration when using digital visualization to avoid pat responses and deceptively simplistic answers to complex subjects, what she calls ‘naivety.’

The point he makes about the low visual literacy not only in the common milieu but also in academia rings a lot of bells. After all, many academics eschew coding, computers, and still fall back on tried-and-true but archaic forms of knowledge-making that recall the limits of typewriters, as opposed to  engaging with the new media available. I see that as limiting and dangerous, just as much as Jessop.

The trouble scholars have with digital visualization often boils down to unfamiliarity, and the need for collaboration and thus higher overhead costs, which Blevins talks about later.

To see the possibilities those with low visual literacy are avoiding, Guldi and Blevins’ articles are particularly salient.

The History of Walking and the Digital Turn: Stride and Lounge in London, 1808–1851, Joanna Guldi

Woodward, George Moutard, 1818. The difference between loungers and striders is explicit in this graphic.

The consideration of this text, which meditates on the change in conceptions of walking in nineteenth century London, is far outweighed for our purposes by the usefulness for Guldi and others of the digital tools like Google’s n-gram coming into being to help historians research more effectively. This worked as kind of a case study for why digital visualization is so important to historians: new knowledge, and a previously unrecognized class conception between the virtues of lounging and striding (as well as an explosion of other words for walking with increased urbanization), was created with the invaluable aid of Google’s n-gram, a digital visualization tool. If Jessop’s article suggested a framework of the theory that digital visualization could help the humanities, Guldi’s showed this theory at work in aiding scholarship. Google’s n-gram is also a relatively simple digital visualization tool, which has already been of extreme help to scholars like Guldi. She also successfully pointed out how to avoid previously-discussed ‘naivety’ and do good scholarship with resources like the n-gram, thus pointing to the second theme, of the dangers of digital visualization, which is in part that they’re so simple to run it’s all too easy to draw false conclusions if one isn’t careful and thoughtful about search terms and date constraints, as well as the types of sources preferenced by academics. There is danger in taking an extremely complex topic and reducing it to graphs of key words. On the other hand, there’s danger in focusing in-depth on one text and missing the larger themes available when looking at thousands. This was argued most clearly by Blevins.

Space, Nation, and the Triumph of Region: A View of the World from Houston and Mining and Mapping the Production of Space: A View of the World from Houston, Cameron Blevins

Cameron Blevins used data mining to locate the imagined geography shown to its readers in two historical Houston newspapers, using a combination of mapping and data sources. Encapsulating both a pragmatic usage of digital visualization to further historical knowledge and a passionate cry for the furthering and use of digital visualization in the study of history, Blevins’ two papers bring our theme to a conclusion. Simply put, Blevins both articulates the use of digital visualization tools like data mining and mapping—uniquely possible with computers but truly impossible without them—and shows that there are actions possible through this method that would take a human scholar three to four years of unreasonably intense study to even try to match. That same amount of study could be done in minutes or seconds with the right computer program. This paper brings into focus our big ideas and major themes of today’s reading: digital visualization is useful for history, and makes inferences possible that could not have been without it, and two, the not-insurmountable difficulty of applying academically rigorous debate and standards to such a newly-emerging field of study.

In short, as Jessop argued, the future of our world is digital and visual, but academic debate and standards hold the key to avoiding what Guldi cautioned against as naivety. Blevins also included a consideration common with Jessop, which is the necessity of interdisciplinary and collaborative work to pull off digital visualization. Blevins’ work would have been impossible without the work of archivists in creating digital versions of these newspapers and the help of computer scientists and programmers.

Things to Think About

  • What are the immediate uses and potential pitfalls of digital visualization, to your thinking?
  • Do you think digital visualization could reach the same level of academic rigor as traditional journal articles? Do you think they should be better incorporated into history?
  • In academia we often think of our papers as entering into the scholarly conversation, the debate that precedes us and will outlive us. How can we foster academic debate, as Jessop suggested, that will improve the usefulness of digital visualization to historians and humanities researchers?
  • Guldi calls use of Google’s n-gram for scholarship a part of the ‘digital turn.’ What are some digital tools that have revolutionized the study of history for you? Do you welcome the digital turn, or fear it?

Intro Post — Katie Krumeich

Hello from one of few undergraduates taking this course! Still working on my Bachelors, with a history major and a literature minor. I spend a lot of my free time reading and writing, notably running a website for collaborative creative writing that’s won a number of awards within the hobby culture. I consider myself technologically savvy and have been the webmaster of a number of websites on a variety of subjects, some of them reaching tens of thousands of hits a month.

I’m a lover of literature, passionate about my writing, and an armchair historian. My favorite areas of history are hard to pin down—I often tell people when asked I have a favorite for every continent, so I may as well tell you those.

Africa—the Wagadou Empire/the Empire of Ghana, and post-colonial Africa, particularly 1960’s Senegal.

Antarctica—The Scott expeditions/the race for the Pole.

Asia—Pax Mongolica, the Qing Dynasty and the Bakumatsu.

Australia—Maori resistance to colonial rule.

Europe—Rebellions against Roman rule, particularly Boudica, Muslim Spain/the Reconquista, and the fall of the Roman Republic.

North America—Pre-Columbian Mexico, particularly the Nahua city-states and the Mexica Empire, colloquially called the Aztecs.

South America—The Inka/Inca.

Bonus, seafaring: Ching Shih and South China Sea piracy.

Currently reading a number of books, including Court and Cosmos: The Age of the Seljuks. On a bit of an Islamic Empire kick—also reading some fiction of that time period, including Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali.

I’m hoping to get the chance through this course to learn more about the resources available to me for increasing my own knowledge of history, and to wet my feet and see if a Masters in History would be something I’d enjoy.

As for me as a human being with a place and a space in the world, I was born on the same street I lived on my whole childhood, up until coming to college. We have a hospital on the end of our street that my mother, when pregnant with me, decided to walk to to give birth. She got as far as the front stoop, sat down, and told my father to call an ambulance.

I’m a very active volunteer who believes in giving back to the community as much as possible. I signed up to foster dogs for our local shelter, the Washington Humane Society. I promptly foster failed and ended up keeping my then-foster, now adopted dog Sasha. Sasha is a pitbull mix with brown and white cow markings and only three legs. She was attacked by another dog and nearly killed, and the humane society was forced to amputate her rear leg because of the damage.

She gets around just fine, though, hopping like a rabbit, and my boyfriend and I love her with all our hearts.

The final thing of note about my life is my relationship with my boyfriend, Mark, who I call Duo. Duo and I met when we were five years old. We hated each other. He pushed me over in the sandbox. That relationship extended until the age of seven, when Duo and I became friends. When we were eleven, we evolved from friends to best friends. When I was thirteen, I got the biggest crush on him. We spent the next two years crushing on each other and telling anyone who would listen that boys and girls could just be friends, okay? On July 4th, when we were fifteen years old, we held hands for the first time while watching the fireworks.

I told him he had until the end of the summer to ask me out.

He finally got the courage that winter, and we’ve been dating ever since.

And there’s a synopsis of interesting facts about me! I look forward to working with all of you throughout the upcoming semester.