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The first day of my Obermann fellowship

Topics/tags: Autobiographical, academia, digital humanities, long, rambly

Today was my first day as a Digital Bridges Obermann Fellow at the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa [1]. I’m still not sure what I was thinking when I applied for this fellowship [2]. While I very much appreciate the time to work carefully on course design, I’m a bit intimidated by working as a fellow in a place like the center. Although the mission statement suggests broad focus, it looks like most of the folks here are humanists, artists, and social scientists [3,4]. And most are working on scholarly projects, rather than pedagogical [5]. So I’m going to be a bit of an anomaly. That’s okay; I pretty sure that I’ll both learn and accomplish a lot.

I had assumed I’d get a relatively small office; what I have is much larger than I anticipated.

An office with two windows,
a large L-shaped desk, two file cabinets, a desk lamp, and a set of
empty bookshelves.

The desk space seems way too big for my laptop. Maybe I’ll take my hosts up on the offer of external monitors. Having more virtual desktop space could be useful, particularly when I’m working on a reading, the corresponding lab, and the supporting code. The bookshelves are also way too empty. I’ll need to bring some books here. But I don’t need the file cabinets, or at least I don’t think I do. Maybe one set can serve as my desk drawers.

I’ve decided to begin my time at the center by making a list of my preliminary priorities for the course creation and design. I’m hoping that this course design will be an agile process, with regular reflection and re-design. That process needs to start somewhere. Let’s see …

I hope to meet with a variety of folks at UIowa to talk about possible approaches to the course and key skills they might want to see a digital humanist develop. I know that I won’t cover many of the particular languages they’d prefer; I don’t plan to teach PHP or Python or even the details of XML. But we can discuss broader issues of the kinds of computational thinking that are useful in the digital humanities. I expect that those conversations will be more fruitful once I have a framework to base them on. So I’ll probably wait a week or two before reaching out. Fortunately, I have some notes about possible contacts from the recent Digital Bridges symposium.

I’d like to think about accessibility as I design the course. UIowa also has the Iowa Center for Assistive Technology Education and Research [6]. I wonder if it would be fruitful to meet with someone from there? Again, having a basic framework would be helpful for that meeting.

Speaking of reaching out: I should also reach out to the CS department at UIowa. While I don’t anticipate many collaborations with them on this project, I should try to participate in some of their activities to strengthen connections. And I see that Obermann and the CS department are co-sponsoring a talk on Appropriately Valuing Interdisciplinary Research between Computer Science, Creativity, and the Arts this Friday. I’ll certainly be there. That may also be a good time to say hi to some folks.

One way I start to think about a course is by putting together the schedule of topics. My former colleague, Janet Davis, used to set up her course schedules through a Post-it note system. I’ve always been more comfortable writing and rearranging text. In any case, organizing the course content is a high priority. And, as I recently realized, there’s a lot I’m putting in the course, or at least trying to put in the course. The syllabus is also a good starting point for conversations. The last time I designed a themed course, I did my best to put both CS topics and theme topics in the big picture schedule of topics [7].

Since the materials for the course will effectively be a kind of book, I will probably write an introduction for that book. I realize that the introduction should generally be the last thing one writes. But I find it useful to start with a draft introduction to ground my thinking and then rewrite it at the end.

Come to think of it, once I’ve written those things, I should also write a list of questions for the people I plan to talk to. Which of these topics seem most/least relevant? Would you expect dictionaries (hashes) in the first course? If you could choose one algorithm for the students to learn, what would it be? How useful do you consider XPath and XSLT? Those kinds of things.

Before I start writing, I should reflect on the formatting system or systems I want to use for the book and the course. There are a host of possibilities. And it’s painful to switch formatting systems. So I need to reflect thoughtfully. You can expect a musing with more details in the near future.

I will eventually need to write some tools to help build the book. I can’t help it; I’m a programmer at heart and regularly find that I want to write tools to make my life easier. One particularly important tool will turn the 6P-style formatting that I teach our students into reference pages. While that could be an end-of-semester project, I know that my colleagues teaching CSC 151 this semester would like better reference pages, so the documentation tool should be a high priority.

I need to expand my perspective on the digital humanities in multiple ways. Hence, I should start making a list of things to read. After that, I should start reading them [9].

Then there are the small things. Find parking. Done. It looks like I need to get here relatively early in the morning if I want on-street parking. Figure out how to connect to wireless. Done. Update my password. Done. Enable my online directory entry. Done. Figure out the email system. That appears to require a message to the ITS help desk; does not seem to provide me with an email client. Start musing. Done. Realize that I don’t do well working in relative silence and dig out earbuds. Done. Get an ID card. I’ll wait until another day for that. But at least I have the instructions.

Much of my first day was spent thinking and writing and making this list. But we also had a lunch of the Fellows and the Director followed by an hour-or-so-long discussion. While their areas are very different than mine, they are working on some exciting projects; I look forward to hearing more about them in the bi-weekly meetings. And I’m happy to see that each two week period is designed to feel a bit like a sprint [10]: At the start of each meeting, we are to report on what we accomplished over the past two-week period and to plan two tasks for the next two-week period.

We also have presentations of work in progress. I get two days to present to the group at the bi-weekly meeting and to have them read a bit in advance. I’m trying to figure out what would be best to present to people who aren’t computer scientists. Since I’ve made the (disposable) introduction one of my initial priorities, that seems like a good starting point. I’m debating whether or not I should also provide the schedule of topics; I expect that the schedule will make less sense to most of these colleagues. I’ll have to think a bit more about what to do in that first presentation. For the second presentation, I think I’ll use my topic modeling/LDA [11] reading. That’s a complicated algorithm, and my focus is to make the algorithm comprehensible to non-specialists. It’s also a case in which I think of the result of the algorithm as a step in a broader process; the topics themselves are useful only in what scholars do with them afterward.

For the first meeting, we gave two quick overviews of our projects: one a few sentences long, one a few minutes long. Providing the overviews also reminded me of the pace I need to keep for this project. I’m planning on being at the Center for three or four days per week for fifteen weeks. But I’ll be away at a conference for one week and participating in a department review another week. So let’s say that I’ll be here for about fifty days. I’m planning to write about forty paired readings and labs. Each pair takes about a day if I’m efficient. So I have ten or so workdays to get ready for the intense writing and to do the other affiliated tasks. That doesn’t seem like much. But I’ll make it fit.

What else? Oh yeah, I had one brain freeze along the way. A colleague from Grinnell was chatting with me about the structure of the course before the lunch meeting. I was embarrassed to realize that I could not remember the three parts of the course. I recalled structure and analysis, since those correspond to data structures and algorithms, which are the core of CS. Looking back on my notes, I see that I forgot to include generation. I still need to figure out how to fit that more clearly into the course.

And there you have it. My first day as a fellow. I wrote a bit. I planned a bit. I met interesting people. And I avoided freaking out about the scale of the project and feeling like an anomaly. That makes it a pretty good day.

Plus they fed us good Thai food for lunch.

Postscript: Friday’s cool talk came up at lunch. Now I’ve been invited to lunch with the speaker. I’m excited!

[1] First day is a bit more complicated than it should be. My appointment officially started two days ago. But Grinnell’s semester doesn’t start for another week. Since today is the first day of the bi-weekly seminar at the Center, it seems appropriate to call it my first day.

[2] That’s not true. I was thinking It would be both fun and useful to design a version of CSC 151 that focuses on the digital humanities and It would be wonderful to have the time to sit down and work on such a project.

[3] If I recall correctly, my fellow Fellows are in English, Sociology, Music, Philosophy, American Studies, and Languages.

[4] Of course, they also sponsor the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), which certainly includes the kinds of things that I do.

[5] Actually, it sounds like every other project, while primarily scholarly, also includes a pedagogical component. And at least one other Fellow also plans to develop a new course.

[6] Unfortunately, it sounds like ICATER is on the chopping block, along with a variety of other valuable centers. Let’s hope people find the sense to continue funding them.

[7] E.g., In the data science version, I might note that on the CS we will cover list manipulation operations, such as filter and that on the Data Science side we will discuss data cleaning [8].

[8] Ideally, we would also discuss the ethics of data cleaning.

[9] I have a colleague who told me that they plan to read one article or book chapter each day of their sabbatical. That sounds like a reasonable plan. (I don’t know whether they plan to include weekends; I plan to include only weekdays.)

[10] An agile sprint, not a racing sprint.

[11] Latent Dirichlet Analysis.

Version 1.0 of 2018-08-22.