Digital Humanities

at Michigan State University


Conference Report – MSU Well-Represented at HASTAC 2016

Conference travel is always a bit stressful for me. Between dealing with travel concerns, presenting, and networking, I’ve never found it easy to relax and enjoy the experience of just being at a new place. Happily, that was not the case at the 2016 HASTAC Conference, which I attended thanks to the HASTAC Scholars program. While HASTAC 2016 took place at Arizona State University, it was easy to feel at home, as the connections to Michigan State were present everywhere I looked.

The first day of HASTAC is dedicated to the HASTAC Scholars unconference. This half-day event allows junior scholars to meet and discuss major issues, trends, and concerns in an informal setting. Having had to opportunity to help with the unconference at MSU in 2015, I was asked to return in 2016 to help lead this year’s meeting. Joining me were Allegra Smith, who earned her MA from MSU in 2015, and Mirabeth Braude, who did the same this year. Together, we led an international group of graduate students as we discussed issues ranging from the ethics of community based projects to how to manage privacy concerns when working with students on digital projects. Over three breakout sessions, we learned about how our fellow Scholars applied for grants, used technology in their classrooms, and worked to advocate for change in their universities.

That evening was the opening mixer, and again MSU was well represented. While I was able to meet students and professors from Belfast, New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas, I also met people from MATRIX and H-Net, digital humanities groups at Michigan State. It was over these conversations where I learned that I didn’t need to travel to be exposed to new and innovated digital humanities work, as there is work being done on my own campus that I didn’t know about. I left that night with appointments to meet with both groups once we returned home.

The following day was the first full day of HASTAC 2016, and again MSU was well-represented. New WRAC professor Dr. Dawn Opel ran registration for the conference, and served as the first face that most people saw when they arrived on campus. She led a group of graduate and undergraduate students from Arizona State who helped keep the conference flowing smoothly. On the program for the day were a variety of talks and panels with MSU faculty and students, who covered a variety of subjects. Mirabeth led a lightning talk on student documentaries, Deborah Margolis, Aaron Collie, Robin Dean and Devin Higgins, from MSU Libraries, led a talk on archiving Holocaust photography, and I joined a panel on performing arts to talk about how we can bring lessons from arts projects into our teaching practices.

Friday again saw MSU take center stage, as Dr. Liza Potts, Director of the WIDE at MSU, gave the conference’s keynote talk. Her talk, which focused on MSU’s Experience Architecture major and the digital work taking place in the College of Arts and Letters. She spotlighted the work of graduate and undergraduate students at Michigan State, including Jack Hennes, Minh-Tam Nguyen, and Emily Dallaire, during her talk. The keynote was followed by another full day of talks, with more than a half dozen Michigan State students or faculty on the program.

That evening saw the end of my conference, though not the end of my HASTAC experience. After meeting Cody Mejeur, a PhD student in English at MSU, we discovered that we have overlapping research interests. Based on our conversation at this year’s HASTAC conference, we plan to collaborate across departments to develop a project for a future conference. Personally, I’m hoping that we have it ready in time for HASTAC 2017 in Orlando, so we can continue to keep our university well-represented at the conference.

Conference Report – Seeing Differently: ImagePlot, Playthroughs, and Narrative Variation

One of the things I appreciate most about HASTAC is how it challenges me to think and work in new ways. I don’t think that’s to be underestimated either–too often the structures of higher education force us into habits and assumptions that reenforce the status quo rather than challenge it, to the detriment of our work and our students. HASTAC pushes against these trends, however, and provides a unique opportunity to reconsider what we do in the light of new perspectives from across the many fields of the Digital Humanities.

My presentation for HASTAC 2016 was directly related to those new perspectives, and focused on finding different ways of viewing video games. The existing paradigm of video game research largely focuses on either the communities around games or the content within them, and with the latter scholars have focused almost exclusively on close analysis of particular characters, scenes, or game mechanics. The method I proposed at HASTAC builds on ongoing work with Lev Manovich’s ImagePlot (with/advised by David Bering-Porter and Scott Schopieray), and uses distance analysis of game playthroughs to highlight similarity and difference in players’ experiences with games. Ultimately I believe this gets us to a more concrete and specific sense of interactivity in games, particularly the effects of interactivity on game narrative. If we can measure variance in game narrative (however imperfectly), then we can account for difference in player experience in more than just the abstract. I am including a link to my slides from the conference at the end of this post, in case you’re interested in seeing more.

The importance of networking at HASTAC goes without saying, and as usual HASTAC 2016 brought together brilliant scholars and teachers from institutions like the CUNY Graduate School, UNC Chapel Hill, Yale, UC Berkely, UC Santa Cruz, and many others. When I introduced myself as a Ph.D. student in English at MSU, almost without fail I was met with some variation of: “Oh Michigan State! They’re doing wonderful Digital Humanities work.” I don’t mention this to brag about MSU–though I suppose I’m doing that on some level–but rather to acknowledge the awesome work people in our DH community have done and continue to do. This included great presentations at HASTAC by Mirabeth Braude and Howard Fooksman in WRAC, and you can find more on those presentations in the other HASTAC blogs here. The DH work at MSU is being noticed, and it certainly made me feel honored to call MSU home. I hope we continue to support our DH networks, both in-house at MSU and with other institutions through HASTAC and other organizations.



Hastac 2016 presentation from Cody Mejeur

Conference Report: The Land of HASTAC ’16


Photo credit: Cody Mejeur!

The steady dry heat of roughly 100 degrees fahrenheit in Tempe, Arizona may have slowed down our walking and upped our water intake, but it did not alter the participants’ enthusiasm for the 2016 HASTAC (humanities, arts, science, and technology alliance collaboratory) annual conference.

My HASTAC 2016 journey began with former MSU alum from the Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures Department and friend, Allegra Smith picking me up from the airport. Not long after, we met up with current MSU student Howard Fooksman to discuss, over margaritas and tacos, leading the HASTAC scholars unconference day the following afternoon. Divided into  three breakout sessions and one synthesis session at the end, the unconference kicked off with scholars from around the world collaborating and connecting over topics such as:

Some of the take-aways from these discussions were: allow students to do self-assessment on digital skills they offer to projects, teach process and not product, provide students with platforms they feel comfortable using in digital spaces (some suggested tools,, Furthermore, some of the keys to being in this field were to make one’s work public, create interdisciplinary projects that are recognizable in different fields for various grants and opportunities, as well as staying focused on the importance of one’s digital humanities work (i.e.

One of my favorite conference sessions was “Speculative Classroom Design: What’s Your University Worth Fighting For?” During this session lead by Cathy Davidson, Michael Dorsch, Lauren Melendez, Mike Rifino, Katina Rogers, Danica Savonick, Lisa Tagliaferri, and Kalle Westerling, participants were asked to draw their ideal classroom and post their picture on twitter. Outdoor spaces, open rooms, bookshelves, and diversified learners filled the screen as we observed what our fellow participants had created. This was followed with a conversation about how higher education needs to progress to be more inclusive, navigate-able, and supportive of all learners and leaders involved.

After that inspiring session, I trotted off to my own five-minute lightening talk, “Identity & Representation in Student Documentaries: Stories of Concern and Hope.” I highlighted the importance of letting students have time, creative freedom, agency, and collaboration as a way to create digital stories they care about.

The films for my talk are:

Opening Film:

Finding their Stories:

Being Personally Invested:

Having Creative Control:

Pride in their Accomplishments

The HASTAC annual conference continues to surprise and inspire many, myself included, as it pushes boundaries, asks deep questions, and plays with learning!

Photos from the conference, made possible by Bruce Matsunaga:

DH Reading Group: Topic Modeling

On January 28th, we had the first meeting of Michigan State University’s DH Reading Group. There was a good turn out to discuss topic modeling. Topic modeling involves algorithmic methods for organizing, sorting, and utilizing large corpuses of information. These topics can be modeled over time as well as in relation to other topics. They are not restricted to texts but can also be used for images, sounds, and other media structures.

We read and discussed the following articles:

Megan Brett’s article offers an easy-to-follow introduction to topic modeling. David Blei’s articles are well written, providing more in-depth discussion of topic modeling from a statistical perspective. Schmidt’s article offers some words of caution in the use of topic models in the humanities.

There were a number of points we lingered on in the reading group. We considered how topic modeling is based on a conjectured model of what documents consist of, namely a certain combination of numerous topics/themes. The algorithms used to discover those latent (“hidden”) variables vary. The most common algorithm in much DH work now is the latent Dirichlet allocation (LDA). There are multiple solutions to those algorithms. Thee software package MALLET, for example, uses Gibbs sampling, but that is not the only solution. Especially after reading Schmidt’s article, we considered the numerous of variables that influence the results of topic modeling.

We all more or less agreed that we do not have a strong enough understanding of Bayesian probability, the statistical basis of topic modeling. We hope to start a reading group on that important topic next Fall in conjunction with the Social Science Data Analytics Initiative here at MSU.

-A. Sean Pue (@seanpue), Associate Professor, Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, Asian, and African Languages, Michigan State University

LOCUS: Centering DH Research & Pedagogy

Over the past year, a group of Digital Humanists from the Libraries, College of Arts and Letters, and LEADR have banded together to ramp up Digital Humanities programming on campus. A core component of this effort has consisted of a Digital Humanities Workshop Series that has covered a wide range of topics like geographic information systems, Omeka,  Python, network analysis, data preparation for DH projects, and Humanities Data Curation. Workshop attendees have come from across campus: English, German, Geography, History, Matrix, Agriculture, Food and Resource Economics, Media and Information, Teacher Education, Writing Rhetoric and American Cultures, Neuroscience, the College of Arts and Letters, the MSU Museum, Anthropology, African American and African Studies, MSU Libraries, and Integrative Studies in the Arts and Humanities. While we continue to believe in the value of the workshop series for its role in providing initial exposure to a given topic, we wanted to create another type of opportunity that focuses explicitly on the connection between methods and tools commonly used in the Digital Humanities and the types of (inter)disciplinary research questions they can be applied to. Thus, LOCUS was born.


LOCUS is designed to be a low barrier opportunity for faculty, staff, and students to share research with an (inter)disciplinary community. A LOCUS CFP solicits 7-10 minute talks and places emphasis on use of a digital method or tool in the context of a specific research question and/or pedagogical application. LOCUS themes are intentionally quite broad (e.g. spatial analysis, text analysis) so as to draw the widest possible audience. For each LOCUS we also try to have at least two Departmental/Program partners to help with crafting the CFP and promoting the opportunity. Partners ideally come from different colleges (e.g. College of Arts and Letters and College of Social Science). We do all of the above to bring scholars into contact with each other, where daily departmental life might not afford the opportunity. On February 25 the first LOCUS launched –  “Spatial Analysis in Humanities and Social Science“.


LOCUS: Spatial Analysis In Humanities and Social Science

Presentations were delivered by faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students from German Studies, History, and Anthropology. Topics ranged from the creation of a mobile app to surface indigenous histories in Toronto to real-time geospatial mapping of Twitter activity in Kenya. Recordings for most of the presentations are now available. With respect to attendees we almost reached room capacity with folks filling seats from German Studies, History, WRAC, Geography, Anthropology, English, and the Libraries.

Moving forward we aim to have at least two LOCUS events per semester. The final LOCUS of the Spring 2015 semester, “Text Analysis in Humanities and Social Science“, will take place April 9, and is made possible via partnership with Writing Rhetoric and American Cultures, Political Science, and the Social Science Data Analytic Initiative. Please consider a submission, share widely, and think about attending (register early as space is limited)!

Isaac Weiner, Religion Out Loud, and MSU DH

Last Thursday, January 29, about twenty students and faculty gathered to listen to a talk on the place of religious sound in a pluralist society.

Drawing from his research on the 2004 public debate surrounding the adhan (call to prayer) in Hamtramck, the speaker, Isaac Weiner, a professor of comparative studies at The Ohio State University, discussed tensions and reactions to the inescapable public presence religious sound: what sounds are sanctioned, and which ones merely tolerated, while others are strictly proscribed. For Weiner, the logic of pluralism generated several responses to religious sound, ranging from domesticating religious traditions (in effect, to make them resemble and extol the principles of Protestant Christianity) to protecting those traditions as a space outside the secular.

That religious sound in public spaces operate in manifold ways (background noise, annoyance, devotional practice) Weiner, along with Amy Derogatis (MSU Religious Studies), David Stowe (MSU English/Religious Studies), Scott Schopieray (MSU College of Arts and Letters), and myself (MSU Libraries), are seeking to archive those sounds, and then feature them in a web-based digital project. “The Religious Soundmap of the Global Midwest” project is part of a Mellon funded initiative, Humanities Without Walls (HWW), which looks to foster collaborating among Big Ten schools, accent the global nature of the Midwest, and supplement scholarship that historically has focused on coastal sites, whether East or West. With grant money from Mellon, Weiner and his collaborators will be sourcing sound locally, with an eye to expanding beyond Michigan and Ohio. Both Weiner and Derogatis also envision this project as a pedagogical exercise, with students helping to capture, edit, and upload sounds.

Ultimately, the public-facing component of the project, the website, will enable users not only to listen to sounds, but knit them together, creating sonic religious journeys, virtual pilgrimages, or use sounds to craft their own definition of religion (a vexed and much debated term by scholars). And given the potential diversity of those plural definitions for religion, the project team deliberately offers equally generous definition for religious sound: auditory practices that exhibit spiritual value to scholars, practitioners, and publics. So for some that might mean tolling church bells, but others may claim the roar of a Big Ten football game as religious sound (especially if it’s MSU and UM, right?). No matter how users define religion or its associated sounds, the public humanities nature of the project, combined with a platform in development that will exploit the affordances of a digital environment, makes Weiner’s theoretical and historical contribution to scholarship on religious sound and pluralism accessible and dynamic for the widest possible audience.

-Bobby Smiley (@bobbylsmiley) Digital Scholarship and American History Librarian, MSU Libraries