DH Toe Dip: Pecha Kucha

by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

Pecha KuchaOkay, so this really isn’t a DH thing, since presentations are presentations. Still, inspired by Eric Rettberg (whose overall work is fascinating and unique—there’s no one like the guy), I decided to assign my students to create Pecha-Kucha presentations that were close readings of Emily Dickinson poems. (Again, this assignment is from the upper-level poetry class I’m teaching.)

If you don’t know anything about Pecha Kucha presentations, check out this non-academic, discipline-free intro.

Since my students already have a host of other writing assignments, I hoped to widen the class’s potential media for expression, as well as  expanding their rhetorical and technological skill set. When giving the assignment, I let the class know that disaster and failure were indeed welcome options, since those would be great opportunities for us to collaborate in solving problems together. But as so often happens, the students exceeded expectations and challenged me in return; most of the presentations were fantastic.

A few observations:

  • Unlike written journal assignments with their established rhetorical formality, I loved listening to students simply talk about their reading experience and interpretations, often in a very relaxed, genuine, and sometimes funny, fashion.
  • The Pecha-Kucha format is guided by restraint, and I’d go so far as to say these are works of art as defined by the Oulipo crew—constraint is conducive to beauty.
  • Learn from my mistake: I foolishly had the students turn these in via a D2L dropbox, and the file sizes caused all kinds of problems. If my brain were functioning, I simply could have had them upload the presentations to YouTube or Vimeo and solved all that. Just be sure you have clear directions on how to get the audio to upload.

So, having acquired one student’s permission, behold this presentation that I feel turned out pretty well…


Continue reading



by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak

What the heck is 'phantasmagoria'?

What the heck is ‘phantasmagoria’?

I am currently teaching an upper-level poetry course (hooray!), and given how tricky poetry can be for undergraduate students, I figured this was the perfect time to use PRISM in class. (PRISM is a digital, collaborative reading tool created by the inspiring students at the University of Virginia Library Scholars’ Lab.) We happened to be reading Illuminations when the schedule allowed for this asignment, and Rimbaud’s abstract dreamscapes provided the challenging content I was looking for.

In short, the assignment was as follows:

  • Read Rimbaud’s poem “Metropolitan” (translation props to Wyatt Mason)
  • Go to the text uploaded to PRISM by following the provided link (in order to keep the visualization private, you need to share the link with participating parties)
  • Highlight the text based on the three facets provided (Blue = Comprehension, Red=Confusion, Green=Concrete Image)
  • After the due date, select “Visualize” to see the highlighted poem and the “winning” facets and their percentages. (You can see the number of people who selected a certain facet, as well as what percentage of the total highlights each facet contributes.)
  • Write a one-page reflection on the data and any conclusions drawn from it.

I could write a good bit here about how I think PRISM contributed to student learning.  Furthermore, the class as a whole has asked to use the program again, so I’m going to count that enthusiasm as its own success.  With that being said,  I’m going to let the students speak below in a series of anonymous comments pulled from their reflections. The one thing I will say, and this was completely serendipitous, was that a large number of students expressed how relieved they were that they weren’t the only ones who were confused by certain parts of the poem. PRISM provided comfort to those students in that they could ask intellectual questions about their confusion as it related to the text, rather than deal with it emotionally in a way that shut them down entirely because they felt embarrassed or inferior.

Here are some comments from my students. Judge for yourself whether or not this is a tool you would use in your classroom. I will definitely be using it again, and am already seeing some possible applications in my creative writing classes. Continue reading


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: