Day in the Life of the Digital Humanities 2011

Along with everything else in life that you’ve been missing, the Day in the Life of Digital Humanities (“Day of DH”) 2011 came and went a couple of weeks back. What are the “Digital Humanities,” you ask? You could settle for me telling you that it’s humanities accomplished digitally, or you could ask the Wikipedia about it; or best of all, you could simply hear the explanations offered by those who have self-identified over the last three years as working in “digital humanities.” Here are just a few:

Digital Humanities is the application of humanities methodologies and theories to modern technology research. -Andy Keenan, University of Alberta, Canada

Under the digital humanities rubric, I would include topics like open access to materials, intellectual property rights, tool development, digital libraries, data mining, born-digital preservation, multimedia publication, visualization, GIS, digital reconstruction, study of the impact of technology on numerous fields, technology for teaching and learning, sustainability models, and many others. -Brett Bobley, NEH, United States

I think digital humanities, like social media, is an idea that will increasingly become invisible as new methods and platforms move from being widely used to being ubiquitous. For now, digital humanities defines the overlap between humanities research and digital tools. But the humanities are the study of cultural life, and our cultural life will soon be inextricably bound up with digital media. -Ed Finn, Stanford University, USA

On the Day of Digital Humanities, hundreds of folks who see their work in this way agreed to write a blog post about what they were doing that day, March 18, 2011. (This was the day that I became aware of the term, “digital humanities,” because the Day nosed its way onto my Twitter feed, whereupon I followed the tag #dayofdh for the rest of that day and the next.)

You will be excited to know that I’ve saved the best news: Because the fine folks at Day of DH have made the RSS feeds for the blog posts available as an OPML file (or, to translate, “Because blah blah the internet is cool”), I have been able to place the blog posts on my public NetVibes page! And you have a whole year to peruse them before Day of DH 2012!

[Day in the Life of the Digital Humanities 2011 was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2011/04/05. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Open Access Intro to OT

This post concerns my ideas for a particular kind of open-access Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).

I recently floated a Tweet (and Facebook status update) that asked around about any open-access Introduction to the Old Testament. I have an idea for such a project, and wanted to see if anything was already out there (knowing pretty well that there is not).

Akma proved (as I knew he would) to be an eager conversation partner, and his responsive post has generated some discussion. I follow up there with some remarks about what I have in mind.

What I plan to try for is an Introduction to the OT that:

  • is freely available online;
  • is historical- and literary-critical in focus (as is a Coogan or a Collins, say; in other words, not a “theological introduction” narrowly reflecting the concerns of faith communities or other readerly social contexts);
  • is authored by a socially diverse body of contributors.

With the “open source” aspect, I mean to respond to a clear need. I would like my own students to have a freely-available, critical Introduction. (I’d actually like them to have several, as well as several open-access Hebrew and Greek grammars, and so on.)

With the authorship and content that I have in mind, I mean to address a situation in the field. During the time that historical criticism was held to be in decline, traditional historical-literary introductions continued to be ceded to the white male authors, while women and people of color wrote works intended to supplement such introductions. Now, though, the recognition of the biblical authors as among the “Others” to whom we try to listen earnestly has prompted some rehabilitation of the historical-critical approaches. It is well past time to have “traditional” historical-literary-critical Introductions to OT that reflect genuine diversity of authorship. (What holds together such an Intro would be a shared commitment to grounding one’s historical-literary claims in publicly-shared evidence and lines of reasoning; what makes it diverse would be the unpredictable range of possible perceptions and assessments regarding that evidence.)

Akma had the excellent idea that such an Intro could be “modular”: after the initial publication, if somebody wanted to offer a supplemental chapter, zie could do so as long as the controlling body agreed that the supplemental work fit the scope and formatting of the project.

I will be writing up an outline delimiting the methods, outline, and scope of the project, and will also be having discussions with possible contributors. I am at a very early stage on this, so you will have to stay tuned a while to hear more about what takes shape.

A General-Public Biblical Studies Site?

Why yes, and they would like to know what you, the public, would like from such a site.

This is from the Society of Biblical Literature, our big ol’ professional conference. The site will be called, “The World of the Bible: Exploring people, places, and passages.”

As they put it:

This website will provide information about the Bible from academic perspectives, and will not reflect any one religious viewpoint.

Fill out their survey, won’t you? Let’s raise the signal-to-noise ratio in our public discourse about the Bible.

Hat tip to Akma.

Podcast Ideas in Hebrew Bible

Not very long ago, Chris Heard canvassed his readers for suggestions about short podcasts on topics in Hebrew Bible: you can see the results for yourself. Mark Goodacre’s NT Pod continues to be well-received (and no surprise).

I have a lecture series in progress, geared toward my introductory students and designed to accompany a traditional course in Hebrew Bible. Each lecture is a podcast episode comprising a pair of 25–30-minute halves. The podcasts are slide-enhanced, and in *.m4a format, playable by iTunes, iPod, or QuickTime, and with some help from Blackboard can be viewed on a web browser as well. In their current revision, I consider them as still in “beta,” and I don’t plan to publish them to public directories until I’ve done some clean-up on them.

I would like, though, to plan a different kind of series, more after the pattern being laid down by Mark and Chris: 5–12-minute episodes, audio only, on manageable critical issues in biblical studies. I wouldn’t begin until Spring 2010, but I would like to begin thinking of ideas. Chris got good results on his query, so I am asking the same: what topics would you like to see addressed in such a format? Some ideas I already like are:

  • What are Old Testament Pseudepigrapha?
  • What is Apocalyptic?
  • Emergence of Israel in the Land, in four parts: chronology, rapid conquest model, gradual infiltration model, revolt model
  • DtrH and Redaction Criticism
  • Walls of Jericho
  • Finkelstein’s “Low Chronology”
  • “Satan” in the OT
  • YHWH, El, and Baal
  • YHWH and “his Asherah”
  • Who is Job’s “redeemer”?
  • What is the Exile?
  • ?

The audience would be about the same as that (apparently) envisioned by Mark: the intellectually curious layperson or the scholar outside of his own fields of expertise.

What would you like to see in a series of short podcasts in the academic study of the Hebrew Bible?

Teaching Biblical Studies Like Steve Jobs

This weekend I read Carmine Gallo’s piece called, “Deliver a Presentation like Steve Jobs” (h/t to Akma). On the basis of the presentations by Jobs that he has reviewed, Gallo offers ten examples of the kinds of practices that make Jobs’ presentations so compelling.

We bibliobloggers usually wait until Thanksgiving weekend to gripe talk about whatmakesunsuccessfulpresentations. But “presenting” is just a more palatable word for “lecturing,” and summer is a fine time to reflect on the teaching practices that we’ll be taking up in the fall.

Here, I copy the names of the practices Gallo lists (the bold-face phrases), but I describe them in terms of my experience with lecturing on topics in Hebrew Bible.

  1. Set the Theme: Often, but not always, at the start. Don’t make the mistake of keeping it under wraps until it’s unveiled at the end: whatever ties the presentation together, whatever big idea I mean my students to go away with, I want to bring it in clearly and early, and reinforce it often.
  2. Demonstrate Enthusiasm: Risk informality and the possibility of being ridiculed behind your back. It’s cool (and as infectious as hell) to be in love with an idea, or a text, or a discovery. For example, I love how features of El and Baal in Ugaritic religious texts help illuminate religio-political conflicts throughout the monarchical period in Israel and Judah. If you think what you’re saying is exciting, go ahead and bubble over a bit. No, a bit more: burn some calories. There, that’s it.
  3. Provide an Outline: I give a written outline with lectures, though I am inclined to make it briefer and more spare this year than I have in the past. In any case, students have told me how much they depend on my giving clear indicators during the lecture about where we are in our itinerary.
  4. Make Numbers Meaningful: To illustrate: does it matter whether Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in the 1950s or the 1850s? Or the 1650s? Does a social context of fire-hoses, Jim Crow, and “strange fruit” matter or no (over against Shadrach Minkins and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, or “perpetual servitude” and partvs seqvitvr ventram)? Insofar as you think it matters for Dr. King, then how might the differences between the 8th, 6th, and 5th centuries matter as social contexts for particular words of the book of Isaiah, and how can those differences be made meaningful?
  5. Try for an Unforgettable Moment: This may, but needn’t, correspond to the climax of the presentation. In your search for unforgettable moments, pay attention to student feedback. I remember learning that students were impersonating (behind my back, of course) my imitation of Israelite refugees fleeing southward in 722 B.C.E., frantically waving their copies of E, Hosea, the Elijah and Elisha narratives, and Exodus and Moses traditions. If they were impersonating it, then they were “getting it”: this may be a point in the presentation that I could sharpen into a planned unforgettable moment. Think big: could a colleague or student come in as a “special guest”? (Wellhausen? The Priestly writer?)
  6. Create Visual Slides: Text shouldn’t dominate: I use just enough text to show where I am in my outline, or to tick off Big Ideas. Often images alone are the way to go. Even with images, don’t feel tied to a literal or prosaic correspondence between the image and what you’re saying: abstract images or landscapes working in the background can create the desired atmosphere just fine. The idea is to create an imaginative space within which to arrange the spoken words.
  7. Give ’em a Show: Entertainment has a structure, a flow: setting the scene; problem or conflict; rising tension; climax and resolution; denouement. A presentation may comprise one long arc, or a series of related arcs, but remember your hearers are sitting in chairs: for heaven’s sake, try to take them at least on an intellectual and emotional journey or journeys. (For example, a journey from the conventional wisdom of Proverbs or creation psalms, to the way Qohelet uses such conventional proverbs as a foil for his dissenting wisdom, to the guns-a’blazing blaspheming wisdom of Job 9 and 19, to a denouement reflecting on the pastoral goods of affirming the “blasphemous” anger that good people have against God in times of tragedy.)
  8. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: For Gallo, the “small stuff” means technical glitches, and every teacher has her share of those. But there are other kinds of glitches: the student question that comes from far out in left field or that tries to hijack the thread; the total misunderstanding arising from a piece of wording that you had never realized was confusing; the quiz that runs late and that sets you fifteen minutes behind on the Most Important Lecture Evah. Students have been learning for centuries under the most preposterous of conditions, and ours will too.
  9. Sell the Benefit: What are they going to be able to do that they couldn’t before? Will Brueggemann’s approach to “orientation and disorientation” in the Psalms allow them to integrate the imprecatory psalms into their pastoral ministry so that they quit telling people in pain to stop being angry? Will a frank recognition that Gen 1 and 2 order the creation of humans and beasts differently allow them to see that all texts (including the primeval story) invite certain kinds questions about God and the world while rebuffing others? Will quizzes and outlines on Bible content allow them not to look like total yutzes when their parishioners say, “I heard something weird about that one biblical story, where is that again?”
  10. Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse: Surely we’ve all noticed that we are better the second time we lecture on a topic, and even better the third time. So, for a new presentation, why punish the first hearers with an unrehearsed draft?

A couple of bonus links: Dr. Crazy’s reflections on writing an article are written with an eye on conference papers; probably too focused on lit review for most teaching lectures, though. Also, here are Ten PowerPoint (or Keynote) Tips for Preparing a Successful Presentation.

What tips would you offer for creating presentations or lectures worthy of a Steve Jobs?

Jargon, Phlebotinum, Bad Explanations, and Bible Woo

Professional jargon gets a bad rap, but it is a useful and indispensable tool: jargon is precise speech that allows experts to speak efficiently with one another. Technical terms have the virtue of being able to mean more narrowly, in fewer words, than does the usual language.

Like any tool, jargon can be misused. Both Ben Goldacre (Bad Science) and Mark Liberman (Language Log) have called attention to a recent study (Weisburg et al, PDF)* showing that bad explanations about human behavior are made more convincing if you sprinkle them with jargon from the field of neuroscience. This can undoubtedly be generalized: bad explanations about anything can seem more convincing, especially to the non-specialist, if served up with a helping of techno-babble.

I want to touch on two categories of misuse: the accidental misuse of jargon in teaching and learning, and the intentional misuse of jargon in pseudo-scholarship. Toward that end, I propose to slightly extend the usual use of a favorite word: phlebotinum.

Phlebotinum” (sometimes “phlebotnum,” rarely “flebotinum”) was coined by David Greenwalt, screenwriter for Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. It refers to any magical/mystical force or item that exists to further create the show’s narrative world or advance its plot. (Compare to the better-known term, “McGuffin.”) As phlebotinum, an item is intrinsically meaningless: it can be the Orb of Zanzum, the Arm of Ragnok, gamma rays…its significance is purely utilitarian. As that last example shows, real-life things can be used as phlebotinum (here, gamma rays in Spider Man The Hulk) if narratively employed in a fictionalizing way. From a writer’s standpoint, phlebotinum is a placeholder: “Tragically, the heroine allowed the (phlebotinum) to touch the (phlebotinum), allowing the (phlebotinum) to escape (phlebotinum) and wreak havoc on the city.”

As has any teacher, I have seen student work reduce the jargon of my field to meaninglessness. “Form critically, the Deuteronomistic Historian is a source, whereas saga is a narrative where God is ideological.” (Example is made up, thank God, but not by much.) Any student can misunderstand a technical term, but this is different. The student is not so much showing a genuine misunderstanding of the terms, as rather desperately plugging in phlebotinum to “move along the plot” of her doomed explanatory narrative. From a teaching perspective, there is some diagnosis to be done here: has the student simply blown off the material until late in the game? Has she been going outside the course material and cramming with bad explanations from irresponsible sources? Or has she been attending diligently to explanations that are accurate enough but for which she has not adequately been prepared?

Finally, there is the intentionally misleading use of technical terms in pseudo-scholarship, or “woo.” Just as the writer of speculative fiction uses phlebotinum to create her narrative universe or advance her plot, just so does the woo-meister use otherwise-sound technical terms in a fictionalizing way in order to mischaracterize the actual universe or advance her lying narrative depiction of the real world. That is, she seeks to dupe the hearer by employing perfectly good jargon as phlebotinum.

This dimension of phlebotinum—the deceptive use of jargon to advance a fictional narrative explanation of real-life phenomena—goes to the heart of what makes woo, woo. I would propose as a working definition of “Bible woo” the following:

Bible woo: any discourse about the Bible that advances its claims using the appearance and trappings of reasoned argument, while systematically avoiding responsibility to the strictures of reasoned argument.

In a later installment, I will address the objection that any speech about the Bible must be woo: a necessary step, since the term “woo” originates in circles that are traditionally antagonistic to religion in general and therefore to the Bible by association.

* That PDF seems to change locations regularly. If you try the link and it’s broken, notify me in a comment to this post and I’ll track it down again.

iTunes U and YouTube-Edu

Truth is, I am still researching my planned blog entry. So, as a ready placeholder, I offer a couple of resources that many readers will already know, but some will not (and should!).

iTunes U: If you have iTunes (which is free for Mac and Windows), you can go to the iTunes Store and will find there a tab for “iTunes U.” (iTunes U is a component of Apple Mobile Learning.) In iTunes U are found podcasts that come from institutions of higher education: colleges, universities, divinity schools, and so on. You can browse by category, or look at top downloads, or even browse the most frequent providers. Near the bottom of the window, a link offers an introduction for those new to iTunes U.

YouTube/EDU: Use the regular address for YouTube, but add “/edu” to the end of the URL, like so: . As with iTunes U, this yields a portal to YouTube content uploaded by institutions of higher education. You can scroll horizontally through specific institutions, or browse tabs of most-viewed content. Also, there is a search window that is limited to YouTube/EDU. This means that you can do a search, for example, for “Bible,” and get hits from the EDU portal alone (not videos uploaded by every yahoo or charlatan in the world).

Through both of these resources, you may find high-quality lectures and presentations to supplement your teaching.

Have you browsed these resources for Bible fare? What sorts of things have you found there? Feel free to offer links or search terms in the comments here.

[Addendum for Twitterers: there is a hashtag for iTunes U: #iTunesU. There is not at present a hashtag for YouTube/Edu, but a search for YouTube EDU (with space) yields reasonable if imperfect results. I plan to start using a hashtag #iTunes #YouTube/EDU. The “slash” is not recognized in regular word searches, but appears to be recognized as part of a hashtag word.]

“Essential Questions” and the Book of Job

Please help me shape a list of “essential questions”[*] raised for you by the book of Job. Offer suggestions or questions in the comments.

What are “essential questions”? Briefly, they are big, open-ended questions that force one to evaluate one’s own evaluations. “What is worth fighting for?” is an essential question. “Should the U.S. continue fighting in Iraq?” is not. “What makes good art ‘good’?” is an essential question. “Is the Piss Christ (warning: explicit content) good art?” is not. These examples show that a question can be thought-provoking but not yet itself be in the form of an essential question.

Essential questions:

  • lend themselves less to argument than to reflection;
  • invite participants to reconsider their own norms and valuations;
  • prove themselves to be interdisciplinary;
  • generate an unpredictable set of other questions;
  • are “non-judgmental,” and often have “ethical or moral foundations”;
  • are “life-long” questions to which one may return again and again, in different life contexts.

This is how I would begin a list of essential questions raised by the book of Job:

  • What does a Creator God owe to God’s creatures?
  • What is “blasphemy”?

If you would, take a moment to continue this list in the Comments. I also invite further discussion on what makes an “essential question.”

Thank you!

[*] I was first exposed to the notion of “essential questions” by Brigid Schultz of Loyola University Chicago, in her keynote address to the Focus on Teaching workshop of January 7, 2009. Her title was, “Strategies for Sustaining Teaching Effectiveness.”

Fact-Checking “Irrelevance,” and Open-Access Ed

David Hymes wrote a thoughtful response to a Deseret News article in which Professor David Wiley was quoted as saying, “Institutions [of higher ed] will be irrelevant by 2020.” It turns out that Wiley claims to have been misquoted: his original utterance began along the lines of, “IF universities do not respond to certain crises and trends…” What is more, Deseret News went on to publish an editorial challenging Wiley’s claim: not the moderate claim he actually made, but the unqualified extreme claim that their own journalist redacted his words to produce.

In other words, it gives the appearance of a common media practice: produce a wild-eyed zealot if possible, and if none is available, edit somebody’s words to create the impression of wild-eyed zealotry. Sure, it fails to advance a conversation responsibly, but it does produce a lot of page-hits for the advertisers.

Let’s tease a couple of positive threads from this (in addition to David Hymes’ constructive reflections).

  • The Google video “What If?” (wrongly described in the original Deseret News article as a YouTube video) is thought-provoking and funny: an Enlightenment history of “OMG new tech will destroy learning.” Go ahead and have a look.
  • The Flat World Knowledge catalogue of open-access textbooks: do you notice anything about what sorts of topics are and are not currently available? Would you write an open-access textbook in Hebrew Bible, New Testament, ancient Near East studies, or whatever you teach or plan to teach?