DH Toe Dip: Character Networks in Gephi

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

A Beginner’s Guide to Gephi and Char­ac­ter Networks

Last fall, inspired by Franco Moretti’s must-read pam­phlet over at the Stan­ford Lit­er­ary Lab, I decided to turn my stu­dents loose on character-network assign­ments cre­ated in Gephi: a free, open-source visu­al­iza­tion tool. As with most tech­nol­ogy I was ini­tially hes­i­tant, fear­ing that cur­ric­u­lar objec­tives would be sac­ri­ficed on the altar of tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties, yet pos­i­tive results put these fears to rest and this assign­ment has def­i­nitely earned another go in my classroom.

How high is the learn­ing curve? If your needs are as basic as mine were, you’ll hit the ground run­ning in Gephi. Free to down­load and easy to install, Gephi includes an invalu­able Quick Start Guide that stu­dents can uti­lize inde­pen­dently (there are also these handy tuto­ri­als).

Dr. Jekyll

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Gephi

The impor­tant thing is that we started small. The first stu­dent group to take on this project cre­ated a char­ac­ter net­work for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a novel com­pact enough to pro­duce a fairly con­tained net­work, as seen in the mod­est results. In cre­at­ing this small net­work, stu­dents tracked only the type and num­ber of char­ac­ter inter­ac­tions, which were then rep­re­sented as nodes with weighted edges in the Gephi visualization.

What the class saw in the Jekyll and Hyde visu­al­iza­tion did not expand much beyond what we gleaned from read­ing the book, but prompted us to think about the ques­tions we ask of texts and how to frame those ques­tions in order to cre­ate more inter­pre­tive, infor­ma­tive, and use­able net­works. For exam­ple, the group that worked on Dr. Jekyll felt they might gain more mean­ing­ful results by recon­fig­ur­ing their data to reflect indoor ver­sus out­door inter­ac­tions in the novel, an adjust­ment that is easy to han­dle in Gephi’s user-friendly inter­face. Con­tinue read­ing


DH Toe Dip: The Serendip-o-matic

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak


Image: Serendipity NYC, courtesy of doioffend (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Image: Serendip­ity NYC, cour­tesy of doiof­fend (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Dra­matic Intro

As the new aca­d­e­mic year begins, I thought a quick look at Dig­i­tal Human­i­ties (DH) projects, tools, and resources was in order, espe­cially those that might prove use­ful for stu­dents, teach­ers, staff mem­bers, and researchers alike. (In other words, I hope to write a lot more of these.)

My moti­va­tion is twofold: first, I appre­ci­ate when peo­ple do the same for me; that’s how I know about resources like Voy­ant Tools, Com­mons in a Box, Gephi, and Juxta. These are good things that any­one can use, and I want to help spread the word while solic­it­ing teach­ing ideas and feed­back (a la the superla­tive ProfHacker).

Sec­ond, and of equal impor­tance, are calls for the DH Com­mu­nity to become more polit­i­cally vocal and to artic­u­late spe­cific, some­times col­lec­tive posi­tions on impor­tant cul­tural con­di­tions and events. I agree with this call. But I also believe mak­ing is a form of speech (as speech is a form of mak­ing), and that this artic­u­la­tion is already hap­pen­ing, regularly—we must posi­tion our­selves to hear it. When indi­vid­u­als or groups make and give some­thing to the pub­lic to use, for free, in the fur­ther­ance of their own expres­sion, whether it be for edu­ca­tion and/or activism, a pow­er­ful state­ment is made. Sup­port­ing the poten­tial for expres­sion is often as impor­tant as the expres­sion itself. 

With that very dra­matic pref­ace com­pleted, on to the first “DH Toe Dip”: the Serendip-o-matic

The Thing

Serendip-o-matic was pro­duced by the intense “One Week|One Tool” project, where a group of smart, ded­i­cated mad sci­en­tists hun­ker down for a week and cre­ate some­thing the pub­lic can use; I repeat, they imag­ine and build the tool in a week. (!) As the name of this tool indi­cates, serendip­ity is the goal—if you’re just a plain dip­ity like me, this is wel­come news. You can take any text—your own writ­ing, a schol­arly arti­cle, the full dataset of Dolly Par­ton lyrics—paste it into the Serendip-o-matic, and then kazam-a-bob,  the magic hap­pens. Here is that magic, described by the mak­ers: Con­tinue read­ing


A Few Words on Faculty “Textbooks”

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

"Text Fist": Andrew Mason

Text Fist”: Andrew Mason

Yes­ter­day, Slate ran an inter­est­ing piece on what is an impor­tant and con­tentious issue: fac­ulty assign­ing self-authored texts. When I was a mem­ber of my campus’s fac­ulty sen­ate, let’s just say that we had one or two mildly con­tentious dis­cus­sions about this. There are things to be con­cerned about: in the worst cases, a fac­ulty mem­ber can nakedly profit from their stu­dents and have no prob­lem doing so—I think we see this most with encour­age­ment from the text­book indus­try, when fac­ulty accept an “author credit” for revis­ing a chap­ter of a larger text in exchange for assign­ing the book. In the best cases, not only is the fac­ulty mem­ber a lead­ing expert in their field, but assign­ing their own text leads to sig­nif­i­cant stu­dent sav­ings, espe­cially when the book is in paper­back form.

Now, as much as I like any Gilderoy Lock­hart ref­er­ence, espe­cially since it allows me to revisit my deep dis­like of Ken­neth Branagh’s full body of work, I’d like to respect­fully dis­agree with Rebecca Schuman’s advice that stu­dents should imme­di­ately drop into Def­con One and “get out now.” This may turn out to be the best advice when con­fronted with a ver­i­fied Lock­hart man­i­fes­ta­tion, and I can surely think of a few exam­ples, but there are good learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties here for stu­dents that would be a shame to miss.

Full dis­clo­sure: I have never assigned a self-authored text, and I did drop a class in grad­u­ate school because the pro­fes­sor not only assigned his own work, but spent the major­ity of our first three-hour meet­ing read­ing from it. (!) (“Um, I’m just going to run down to the vend­ing machine… in the next state over.”)

So, what should a stu­dent do if they have con­cerns about this issue? Use it as an oppor­tu­nity to learn about pol­icy and gov­er­nance, both at the fac­ulty and stu­dent level. Con­tinue read­ing


On Teju Cole’s “Hafiz”

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

One Way: Michael Theis

One Way: Michael Theis

I like Teju Cole. His will­ing­ness to speak with power and simul­ta­ne­ously exper­i­ment with his craft largely define the term “artist.” Like many, I was very inter­ested when Cole pub­lished “Hafiz” on Twit­ter, specif­i­cally incor­po­rat­ing retweets as his nar­ra­tive, point-of-view vehi­cle. Twit­ter, much like other social media, is a space where genius is imme­di­ately con­ferred, or worse, con­dem­na­tion sweeps peo­ple away in the solar flare of a quar­ter hour; given that, how could a writer exer­cise con­trol in a medium where con­trol feels anti­thet­i­cal? And if the point is to rep­re­sent com­mu­nity as a trope in a space where com­mu­nity is real, what are the results? Is some­thing mean­ing­ful being said in that space that con­veys a larger mes­sage about how sto­ries (say, a tor­nado) unfold on Twitter?

Wired mag­a­zine has an inter­view with Cole where “Hafiz” is also repub­lished in full. After read­ing the inter­view along­side the story, I found myself puz­zled. I wasn’t exactly sure what put me off bal­ance; the best I can say is that either what Cole said in the inter­view didn’t quite describe “Hafiz” as pub­lished, or more likely, Wired didn’t quite know how to ask him to dis­cuss some­thing so dif­fer­ent from pub­lish­ing a piece in The New Yorker. If this is indeed the case, then the by-product is breath­less report­ing on the spec­ta­cle of sto­ry­telling instead of the story itself. Yes, for decades and decades post­mod­ern fic­tion has fab­u­lously merged the spec­ta­cle (form) and the con­tent, but that’s pre­cisely what inter­ests me about “Hafiz” and how it’s being dis­cussed by both author and audi­ence. I’ll do my best to untan­gle what strikes me about “Hafiz” as nar­ra­tive spec­ta­cle… Con­tinue read­ing


A One-Item List for Tenure-Track Faculty

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

Image: staxnet

Image: staxnet

On the very first day of 2014, I waved the white flag on peo­ple pit­ting adjunct fac­ulty against tenured/tenure-track fac­ulty, largely because 99% of the result­ing dis­cus­sion was com­pletely unhelp­ful to any­one and demon­strated one clear trend: a lack of knowl­edge about power in insti­tu­tions of higher edu­ca­tion. I can’t rehash that in full (I did sur­ren­der after all), so I’ll just link to it, with the “fun facts” table prob­a­bly being the most use­ful part.

Now we’ve had another flare up, which I’d be happy to ignore if I didn’t remem­ber how green I was when I started on the tenure track, and frankly, how sus­cep­ti­ble I was to bad advice because I sim­ply didn’t have enough knowl­edge and under­stand­ing of the com­pli­cated struc­tures I was work­ing in. There is a lot of bad advice out there, much of it com­ing from peo­ple who think they under­stand a person’s assigned pro­fes­sional duties bet­ter than the job hold­ers them­selves. Sure, there are times when this may be true, but these instances are few. More impor­tantly, bad advice can get peo­ple fired.

So, in the spirit of the list nar­ra­tive… Here is the one thing that all tenure-track fac­ulty should be doing right now! (Drumroll)

1. Do the job you were hired to do.

If you are a tenure-track fac­ulty mem­ber and this piece of advice sounds good to you, feel free to stop read­ing here. If you are inter­ested in a few qual­i­fi­ca­tions, expla­na­tions, and split­ting of hairs, there’s more “below the fold.” (I’ve always wanted to say that.) Con­tinue read­ing


In a Lonely Place (Uncreative Writing)

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

in-a-lonely-placeAs some­one who teaches cre­ative writ­ing, I recently did my pro­fes­sional duty and explored the “uncre­ative writ­ing” ideas of Ken­neth Gold­smith. This led me to his com­pan­ion anthol­ogy, Against Expres­sion, co-edited with Craig Dworkin. Since much of my writ­ing has been labeled uncre­ative before even hear­ing of this move­ment, imag­ine my relief. Mar­jorie Perlof has also writ­ten pos­i­tively about this move­ment, so I can safely assume that she’s also prais­ing me in the process (in a net­work theory/Kevin Bacon sort of way).

With all of that said, I will now, on the world stage, pre­mier my first “offi­cial” work of uncre­ative writ­ing. This mas­ter­work, which is free to any­one in a rush to anthol­o­gize it, is the full mar­gin­a­lia from my used copy of Dorothy B. Hughes’s clas­sic noir, In a Lonely Place.


In a Lonely Place, or, A Novel in Marginalia

[Twenty-seven silent pages]

damn, she really doesn’t like him lol Con­tinue read­ing


The (Next) Next Poet Laureate

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

The Next Next Poet Laureate

The Next Next Poet Laureate

It is com­mon knowl­edge that The Library of Con­gress hangs on my every word. If there’s a week that passes with­out some­one over at the LoC call­ing me up and ask­ing for direc­tion, then I cer­tainly don’t know about it. Still, it appears that James Billing­ton, the actual librar­ian of Con­gress, has gone ahead and named Charles Wright the next Poet Lau­re­ate of the United States—without check­ing with me.

Now, this post isn’t about Charles Wright’s work–it’s about the posi­tion of Poet Lau­re­ate and how that might con­nect to the fact that the major­ity of U.S. cit­i­zens could give a fat frog’s ass about poetry. Maybe, just maybe, the Poet Lau­re­ate could help alle­vi­ate that defi­ciency in some way (which is why Natasha Tretheway’s being named to the post was so encour­ag­ing). Here’s the deal: you need more than a dec­o­rated poet for the honor; you need a poet who can enthu­si­as­ti­cally attract peo­ple to poetry as both cre­ators and audience.

So what’s up with the process? This sen­tence from the New York Times gives us a behind-the-Congress look:

Explain­ing his choice, James Billing­ton, the librar­ian of Con­gress, said that as he read through the work of a dozen or so final­ists, he kept com­ing back to Mr. Wright’s haunt­ing poems, many of them gath­ered in a Dante-esque cycle of three trilo­gies known infor­mally as “The Appalachian Book of the Dead.” (Empha­sis mine)

I have to ask: why limit con­sid­er­a­tion to the page? If you’re look­ing for some­one to spread the word and pros­e­ly­tize, wouldn’t it make more sense to lis­ten to the work? Instead of read­ing the pub­lished poems in a quite room as a form of delib­er­a­tion, why not go to the poetry as it is per­formed? Could a ‘slam poet’ be named the U.S. Poet Lau­re­ate? Why not?

So, as a way of facil­i­tat­ing this process (and, one time only, I will do this free of charge), I will now name the next next Poet Lau­re­ate: Tay­lor Mali (or some­one just as dynamic).

First, the man works with young peo­ple for a liv­ing. Sec­ond, he is an amaz­ing per­former. In all the years I’ve been teach­ing cre­ative writ­ing, the day that stu­dents first hear Tay­lor Mali is always a water­shed. Jaws drop. The excite­ment he gen­er­ates is tan­gi­ble, and he’s one of the few poets whose work I hear dis­cussed in social cir­cles out­side of poetry. If you don’t know Tay­lor Mali’s voice, the audio­book Con­vic­tion is where I got started, and the follow-up Icarus Air­lines is also very strong. Even if you don’t rec­og­nize the name, you’ve likely encoun­tered viral repost­ings of Mali’s work, such as “What Teach­ers Make,” “The Impo­tence of Proof­read­ing,” “Voice of Amer­ica Voiceover,” and my per­sonal favorite, “Tony Stein­berg: Brave Sev­enth Grade Viking War­rior.”

Lis­ten to any of the above titles at the pro­vided links. I dare you to not be captivated.

So, picker(s) of Poet Lau­re­ates, let’s try to acknowl­edge that poetry exists beyond the page and finds life in the human voice. A lit­tle pop­ulism wouldn’t hurt. In other words, Library of Con­gress, don’t make me come down there.

With that ser­vice per­formed, behold:




Teaching in the Shiny Future

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

National Library of Ireland via the Serindip-o-matic

National Library of Ire­land via the Serindip-o-matic

Last week was won­der­ful: I attended the Dig­i­tal Human­i­ties Sum­mer Insti­tute (DHSI) in Vic­to­ria, British Colum­bia, where I met gag­gles and flocks of geniuses, played Cana­dian kick­ball with Scott Wein­gart, and tried to learn as much as I could about how I might apply net­work the­ory to my teach­ing. I’m inter­ested in dig­i­tal human­i­ties, regard­less of tent size or appel­la­tion, and I also work at an insti­tu­tion that is exclu­sively under­grad­u­ate where the human­i­ties are concerned—so dur­ing DHSI my ear was par­tic­u­larly attuned to how peo­ple talk about teaching.

This year’s con­fer­ence included “Birds of a Feather” talks, where two or more speak­ers pre­sented briefly on a topic and then the forum opened for ques­tions and dia­logue. The first ses­sion, on some per­mu­ta­tion of “The Future of Dig­i­tal Human­i­ties,” was remark­able to me for one rea­son: forty-five min­utes into the ses­sion, none of the speak­ers or audi­ence mem­bers had men­tioned teach­ing or stu­dents; I don’t believe the word “teach­ing” had lit­er­ally been spo­ken. I tweeted from the back row, as is my wont, and the hash­tag stream flowed down the room’s large screen. Inter­est­ingly, some mem­bers in the audi­ence picked up on the tweets ask­ing “What about teach­ing?” and asked the pan­elists about this. In short, the ques­tion was deflected, or pos­si­bly mis­un­der­stood, or maybe not of inter­est. It felt like one of those moments where some­one makes an obscure ref­er­ence in a con­ver­sa­tion and the rest of the par­tic­i­pants pause their way into awk­ward silence. And even when teach­ing was explic­itly mentioned—by pre­sen­ter Erin Tem­ple­ton in the Birds of a Feather ses­sion two days later—she had to exert con­sid­er­able effort to ask the audi­ence, “Where is teach­ing in the future of dig­i­tal human­i­ties?” This was largely derailed by the first ref­er­ence to the MLA report on the future of human­i­ties PhD s (who hap­pen to be, well, stu­dents). Con­tinue read­ing


Pedagogy and Digital Humanities (for a change?)

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

Digres­sive Intro!

InstrumentsThe writ­ing pro­duc­tion here at Sad Iron has always been slow, and that’s left me won­der­ing if I should shut this blog down. There are com­pet­ing ver­sions as to why:

Ver­sion 1: What I’ve dis­cov­ered over the last two years is that aca­d­e­mics with a pub­lic voice—blogs, Twit­ter, Facebook—are pro­fes­sion­als who can quickly develop a rep­u­ta­tion for being con­fronta­tional. With that gloss comes an ironic badge: I’m assum­ing that I am merely one among many who find that your sin­gle post on social media attracts more atten­tion in the space of an hour than does the semes­ters’ worth of work you’ve put forth in the estab­lished machin­ery of campus/institutional gov­er­nance. Hon­estly, I have no capac­ity for inter­pret­ing this real­ity in the way it deserves. Fur­ther­more, every­thing I’ve writ­ten on this blog about higher edu­ca­tion is being said more elo­quently and force­fully in other spaces by bril­liant and inspir­ing aca­d­e­mics. Peep the blogroll.

Ver­sion 2: The peo­ple I admire most in my pro­fes­sion are those who put their heads down and do the work while believ­ing in the work. As a cre­ative writer, I have long emu­lated this “head down” spirit, with social media being a very recent devel­op­ment in my much longer pro­fes­sional life. I find I’m much bet­ter at the work, specif­i­cally teach­ing, than I am at being a social/political/educational critic. How do I know? The effects of the for­mer far exceed those of the lat­ter, both empir­i­cally and emotionally.

So what’s the point? If I do keep this thing going I’ll try to shift toward writ­ing largely about ped­a­gogy and my expe­ri­ences work­ing with stu­dents. If I were to do that right now, that would allow me to shift into, of course, dig­i­tal human­i­ties, the chum for your school’s inner shark.

Dig­i­tal Human­i­ties is Tak­ing Over My Eng­lish Department!

You're taking over my department!

You’re tak­ing over my department!

About two years ago now, I met Ryan Cordell for the first time in a cof­fee house in DePere, Wis­con­sin (thank you so much, gen­er­ous soul). I had become inter­ested in what peo­ple were call­ing “dig­i­tal human­i­ties,” and Ryan was our local mad sci­en­tist. Since that meet­ing, I’ve worked with col­leagues to begin infus­ing our cur­ricu­lum with dig­i­tal human­i­ties work and ped­a­gogy, and this past spring semes­ter saw our cam­pus’ first offer­ing of Intro­duc­tion to Dig­i­tal and Pub­lic Human­i­ties. It’s no secret that there are haters out there when it comes to “dig­i­tal human­i­ties,” and the best advice I can give to folks who find them­selves involved in the result­ing argu­ments (as I have) is not to care—all that mat­ters is the qual­ity and mean­ing of the work, no mat­ter what appel­la­tion that work is assigned. At the DH Com­mons event held at the 2013 MLA in Boston, Jen­tery Say­ers said some­thing that stuck with me. I’m para­phras­ing, but the spirit of Jentery’s com­ment was, In the end, nobody is really going to care if your project is a “Dig­i­tal Human­i­ties” project; they’re only going to care about the project.  All I have to say to that is: Word. [Dis­claimer: this doesn’t mean that you should not pre­tend that there is an offi­cial DH Head­quar­ters beneath a moun­tain some­where that sends out mono­lithic march­ing orders to all of “us,” the surveillance-loving admir­ers of shiny things.]

So, as a sleeper-agent, here are some things I’ve/we’ve done over the past year in our Human­i­ties depart­ment that involve dig­i­tal approaches: Con­tinue read­ing


Yes, Let’s Talk ROI and the Myth of ‘Accountability’

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

Image: Hilary Perkins

Image: Hilary Perkins

As all nine read­ers of this blog can attest, I tend to focus on lan­guage and our increas­ing inabil­ity to use it in any ser­vice­able man­ner when dis­cussing higher edu­ca­tion. Nearly all buzz­words emerge from ulte­rior dog whis­tles, with “account­able” and “account­abil­ity” being major offend­ers in this regard. With the release of Payscale’s ROI col­lege rank­ings, “account­abil­ity” is in the air again, with Jor­dan Weiss­mann offer­ing up this mar­vel of mis­un­der­stand­ing in the sub­header to his March 31st piece at Slate (I won’t link): “Aca­d­e­mics might not like it, but schools should be held account­able.” Right. Because as we all know, aca­d­e­mics con­trol cost at their insti­tu­tions, arbi­trar­ily set­ting tuition, stu­dent fees, tech­nol­ogy fees, build­ing projects, admin­is­tra­tor pay, and res­i­dence fees while hus­tling from one class to the next. Yes, if any­one should be scolded for the cost of col­lege, it’s…academics. (Geeze, I guess I’ve missed all of those meetings!)

But I won’t waste time there, because Cedar Riener has already fully rep­re­sented on the topic. In short, Cedar does the heavy lift­ing required when one zooms in on selec­tive, blan­ket assertions—he brings the full social sci­en­tist good­ness to remind some that fac­tors like income, race, gen­der, and selec­tive admis­sion also con­tribute to a student’s future income, as do other minor influ­ences like, well, national eco­nomic pol­icy.  Read the whole thing because it’s much more infor­ma­tive and use­ful than what I will write here. But when dis­cussing col­lege ROI and hold­ing schools (aca­d­e­mics!) account­able, it is also use­ful to zoom out, and here’s a small pic­ture of what I see when doing so. Con­tinue read­ing