Honthorst, the successful court painter in The Hague, had, while he still flourished as an artist, a lively brush; but, whether it was to please the girls, or because money lulled him to sleep, he fell into a stiff smoothness: about which Linschoten, who was used to attacking his work lustily, taunted him, saying that Honthorst could no longer do a worthwhile stroke. “All the same,” replied the latter, “I do better strokes than you every day of the week, and I’ll show you one you can’t repeat.” So saying, he pulled a handful of ducats from his purse, shoved them on the table, and stroked them towards him, by which he meant to show that with his painting, however it might look, he knew how to earn money, whereas Linschoten, with his broad brush, was still a poor man.

One of my favorite quotes from Samuel van Hoogstraten’s 1678 Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst, translation by Paul Taylor in Dutch Flower Painting 1600-1720 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995)

Open-Access Humanities Publishing

A recent graduate of our department is exploring digital dissemination of the core discovery in his dissertation. The thought process that led him to this discovery is uniquely well-suited to a digital visualization (a hobby-horse of mine) hosted on a personal website. He is torn, however, between the imperative to market his own work and the fear of “cheapening” his scholarship through digital publication, as well as the not-totally-unjustified fear of theft.

Newly-minted humanities Ph.Ds in the paranoiac job market may be right to fear resistance or disbelief of more retardataire senior scholars. But I’d argue a good number of those same scholars can be convinced of the available grant opportunities, not to mention the wide open research possibilities in digital art history, and the benefits of open-access distribution of scholarly work.

Ross Mounce recently posted a cogent argument for uploading preprints of scholarship before they are accepted for publishing, arguing that overcoming this cultural and psychological barrier results in your work being read and cited more. (hat tip: Digital Humanities Now) Ross notes:

I suspect, like in biology, this practice isn’t yet mainstream in the Arts & Humanities – perhaps just a matter of time before this cultural shift occurs… There is one important caveat to mention with respect to posting preprints – a small minority of conservative, traditional journals will not accept articles that have been posted online prior to submission.

Hercules Segers, Three Books, 1615-1630 - Rijksmuseum,, Amsterdam, Bruikleen van de Rijksacademie van Beeldende Kunsten (RP-P-H-OB-867)

Some very old school scholarship: Hercules Segers, Three Books, 1615-1630 – Rijksmuseum,, Amsterdam, Bruikleen van de Rijksacademie van Beeldende Kunsten (RP-P-H-OB-867)

According to according to the SHERPA/ROMEo survey, the Art Bulletin doesn’t formally support the archiving of pre- or post-print PDFs of articles. But a better entry point for digital scholarship may be nascent open-access, online-only, peer-reviewed journals like the Journal of the Historians of Netherlandish Art. I am curious if open-access humanities journals will, in these early days, trend towards specialized fields of study staked out by already-established scholarly societies, as these societies can bring their ready-made social network of peer-reviewers. The JHNA’s online platform is incredibly basic, but its articles have been a solid mix of both new and established scholars (in other words, they seem to have broken out of the vicious cycle of prestige-chasing). Their organizational commitment having already been made, I look forward to seeing the journal jump some more technical barriers next, such as adopting some good born-digital scholarship tools like Comment Press.

Scholars can also just circumvent this whole process and directly post their work online, critics be damned. If you are interested in getting your work in front of eyeballs, Abram Fox notes the online audience for one of his papers quickly exceeded the in-person audience at its national conference presentation.

In the same vein, I’ve just uploaded three of my projects on here: a more traditional scholarly paper on Emanuel de Witte, and two digital humanities projects on mapping an artist’s diary, and getting Google Earth to recognize pre-eighteenth-century dates.

Link

After my experience with the unstructured un-conference model last weekend, I was interested to read Adam Richardson’s thoughts on constraints and creativity in Harvard Business Review. I liked this analogy:

In Silicon Valley start-ups a common philosophy these days is “mobile first”: create the mobile app or mobile version of the web site before you do the “full” version. Partly this is driven by the fact that many of these start-ups’ customers will be accessing the new service primarily through a mobile device, and may never look at the web site on a desktop browser. But a side benefit is that a phone’s small screen forces discipline about what’s really critical to communicate to the customer, and which functionality customers will really need.

Play space vs. work place

You should be able to tell from my posts on day 1 and day 2 of THATCamp Prime 2013 that I really enjoyed my time there. I came away with new contacts, fresh ideas, and some clearer signposts as to which skill paths I should pursue. That said, I also came away with tempered expectations for my next THATCamp experience a more critical outlook on the ebullient rhetoric surrounding the un-conference model. Take a look at #THATCamp on Twitter to get a taste of the bubbly enthusiasm.

A play space does not replace a work place

THATCamp prides itself as being a play space, a zone whose deliberate lack of structure enables creativity. The un-conference model THATCamp adopts is a powerful one: the session schedule is decided during breakfast, people are encouraged to walk in and out of sessions as they please, the participants are responsible for shaping their own experience and that of all the other attendees. The un-conference model addresses the well-rehearsed issues endemic to “traditional” conferences like CAA, RSA, or MLA.

This isn’t a magical formula for productivity, however. At my well-attended session, we had a very lively discussion of visualizing geographic and temporal information. Yet it was wide-ranging and unstructured almost to a fault, from my perspective. We touched briefly on many relevant issues, but I came away without any concrete tools to use for my project. Many people chorused their interest in the problem, but we were often at cross-purposes in hashing out guidelines for such visualizations:

  • We agreed on the truism that a good visualization cannot show everything at once, and so must be designed with different facets or discovery layers.
  • We could not agree if granular data access could be married to large-scale data visualization. I firmly believe it should be, in the interest of both transparency and utility, but I and others who advocated this encountered strong pushback.
  • We also could not agree how to classify different levels of uncertainty, particularly when it comes to data drawn from secondary sources (this disagreement may have been born of disciplinary differences, which I address below.)

This debate is in part due to the intractability of the question I posed, so I probably shouldn’t be overly surprised at the outcome. And simply coming to understand that there are difficult choices to be made in these kinds of visualizations is itself a productive result, of a kind. However the experience also clarified for me how important it is to complement the freeform play space of THATCamp with a more strictly-focused group to hash out the difficult, specific labor demanded by an individual project.

Multi-disciplinarity won’t necessarily offer answers to intra-disciplinary questions

The strength of this particular THATCamp’s multi-disciplinarity was, for me, its weakness as well. As I suggested above, there were some big methodological differences between the participants in our panel. It’s good to challenge the basic assumptions of your research, but it does take up a lot of time. I found myself having to explain why dates and locations derived from works of art are as legitimate as those found from text resources, an argument that would never have to be articulated among art historians. Similarly, I had to explain the basic art historical questions of the history and transmission of visual forms as I was trying to explain why anyone would be interested in establishing a large-scale visualization of when artists were in what cities. This is not a waste of time; an academic must always be able to explain their work to any audience. But disciplinary borders have their value in certain settings, and if anything, I came away from THATCamp better appreciating how multi-disciplinary work can complement, but not replace, deep immersion in a focused field.

How would my next session go differently?

I’d emphasize again that I don’t think either of these are problems THATCamp ought to solve. But I am glad to draw lessons from this first experience, and I will be keeping these limitations in mind when preparing for future un-conferences. I’m eager to see if a discipline-specific version of THATCamp, like THATCamp CAA would resolve the disciplinary problems I met this weekend. (I’m sure it would come with its own drawbacks, as well.)

If I propose another session in the future, I will also be more thoughtful in enumerating a smaller or narrower challenge. Far from stifling creativity, I think a little more specificity on my part may have allowed participants to bring their varied and valuable perspectives to bear more quickly and productively, perhaps producing something as actionable as Jeffery McClurken’s outline for a SWAT Team for abandoned DH websites.

Which is all to say, then, that I am now equally energized both for the hard work to be done on my specific projects, as well as for the possibilities of future THATCamps.

THATCamp Prime 2013, day 2

Day 2 of THATCamp Prime 2013! After narrowly avoiding a single-tracking transit disaster, it was another packed day:

  • First up was a session on using scripting languages in humanistic research.
    • The most interesting part of this session for me was the minor methodological debate between making custom, but easy-to-use script GUIs accessible to the just-barely initiated digital humanists, versus pressing DH scholars to learn at least the basics of these core languages and tools much as they would learn a foreign language relevant to their area of study. Though I’d come in an advocate of the former, I found myself swayed to the latter by the end of this session.
    • A great point was made that, much as good scholars practice and publish for posterity, so must they code (and comment!) so that their work can be understood and expanded upon later. This was yet another example I’ve run into during this conference of the practical parallels between “traditional” humanities and the practice of coding.
    • A last great insight for me was the uncomfortable imperative of sharing our code-in-progress (a counter-example to the humanities-coding similarity argument.)
    • Also, I need to check out the data-cleaning tools available at OpenRefine.
  • Next up was a helpful introductory workshop on QGIS, the open-source alternative to products like ArcGIS. This was run by Fred Gibbs, who’s posted a helpful introduciton to the software. I can’t wait to do some georeferencing of my own now.
  • Lunch was accompanied by an invigorating discussion with Eric Remy and Kurt Luther about the interactions between histories of art, science, and music.
  • I tried my hand at R for a while, but finding it not so relevant to my own work I switched over a group of guerilla web archivists. I came in a bit late to the game, but these guys and gals really seem to mean business, so I’d get in touch if you’re interested.

I will be posting up a synthetic reaction to this, my first THATCamp, a bit later on.