A Whirlwind Summer

This summer has been something of a whirlwind, which hasn’t left much time for blogging. It began with a mad dash to re-write the Lexomics software, changing the language from PHP to Python. Whilst I struggled to pick up a new language (I had only skimmed a few Python tutorials), the amazing students at Wheaton were transforming the tool into something truly awesome. I struggled to keep up and add a few visualisations. The finished tool, called Lexos, is a complete text analysis work flow from pre-processing to statistical analysis to visualisation. I was really excited to see the finished tool (as much as any tool is “finished”), and I look forward to using it in my research.

Barely two weeks later, I departed for DH 2013 in Lincoln, NE, the beginning of a three-week trip. This was a really exciting opportunity to see what’s going on in the Digital Humanities world “up close” (and I had never been to Nebraska). The non-DH highlight was definitely the reception in the natural history museum.


DH 2013 Reception

The opening reception at DH 2013 took place in the Natural History Museum at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. There were some strange guests.

The conference was a whirlwind (not because of the 100-degree heat), and I was particularly happy to spend time with Brian Croxall and Mia Ridge with whom I’d be working in a few weeks time on One Week | One Tool. I also got to do some advance planning with Mark LeBlanc for how we could develop Lexos further.

Before I knew, it I was off to Boston, where I met up with my wife. There we had a strange experience–I think they call it vacation. We had a fabulous two days visiting cousins in Marblehead and wandering the Freedom Trail in Boston (the weather even cooled off for us). All the Americana was quite overwhelming; I haven’t really done colonial US tourism since I was a child.


Marblehead just before sunset.

We next picked up a car and drove down to Wheaton for lunch and a little more Lexos planning, eventually ending up in Fairfield, CT to visit my brother and family. On a day trip to New Haven–another place I unhappily hadn’t been since the 80s–I heard the news that we had been awarded the NEH grant for the Archive of Early Middle English. I was standing in the British Art museum when the text message came through. I paused for approximately one minute and then decided that there was no way I could look at art. I think the shock of the news took over quickly, and I still haven’t quite recovered. I don’t think it will be truly be real until we start work.

Meanwhile, there was still the drive to Philadelphia to visit friends and more colonial Americana: Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

Independence Hall

Independence Hall

We go to Philly fairly regularly but don’t tend to do this kind of stuff, so it was really quite fun. We also got to do some poolside relaxation, much needed before the final portion of my trip.

Next stop was George Mason University, and One Week | One Tool, one of the most intense experiences I’ve had in a long time. Along with a team of eleven other digital humanists (supported by the able staff of George Mason’s Center for History and New Media), I spent six days (sometimes sixteen-hour days) producing a software tool from start to finish.

The CHNM Tower

Much of the planning and coding took place in the room at the top of the tower at CHNM.

The week-long process was a little artificial, but it was an incredible indictment of the models of scholarship (and teaching) we are bound by. Working with people who have adjacent, but very different skills and interests, was the most fun I have had in a long time. Not only did I make new friends and new contacts, I learned new skills and was drawn out of my comfort zone (as I expected to be). All that work with Python earlier in the summer certainly paid off, as it was the language we adopted for Serendip-o-matic. I did all right, but I also had to learn the Django framework on the fly since Lexos used the simpler Flask framework.

I was not initially sold on the idea of Serendip-o-matic, as my natural tendency was to want to make something that I could use for my research. But there wasn’t time to dwell on that, and, after a day of actual development I started to understand how magical the concept was. This was genuinely a search engine, but one that is quite conceptually different from those we are accustomed to.

waiting hippo

One of those weird things that gets scrawled on development white boards. An early hint of what Serendip-o-matic would become.

What makes Serendip-o-matic special is not just the change of perspective caused by serendipitous discoveries but the methodological shift required to use it. The fact that it also provides access to cultural objects which might otherwise go undiscovered is almost secondary (although it’s actually really, really important). Being part of project in the public humanities was new to me, extremely rewarding, and fabulous training for the Archive of Early Middle English project to come. The lessons learned in project management and outreach will be invaluable. Thanks of all the One Week | One Tool, and especially Tom Scheinfeldt, for creating this incredible experience.

Butterfly at One Week | One Tool

One of the insects that didn’t bite me this summer

By then end of the trip, passing through twelve states (and spending time in half of them), I was completely exhausted. And the summer’s still not over yet. I still have a grant application, a consultant job (which arose on the same day I heard about the NEH grant), and preparation for the upcoming semester’s classes. All I can say is thanks to my loving wife and cats for their tolerance. I hope I haven’t neglected them too much.

So Glad You're Back!