Saturday, August 1, 2015

Digital Humanities Conference

My Digital Humanities conference at the University of Western Sydney went well and I met a lot of people and learned a lot. The chance to participate in the new scholars pre-conference was a great opportunity and gave me access to a lot of the up-and-coming minds I may well work with someday. I learned about all of the anonymous women involved in the early days of computing and punchcards before men took over the field and coding. Apparently, one woman went down to Italy to interview some of these women who worked with famous computer guy Father Roberto Busa and had to use a translator, and the male translator was cutting off the women when they started talking about negative things Busa did. A loss to history, for sure. 
The welcome night ceremony was held at the State Library of New South Wales, and it had a gorgeous reading room.

Things were off to a tumultuous start the first day at the opening ceremony and keynote presentation when there was a continuous string of men on-stage giving all of the introductions as well as the keynote speech. I had finally joined Twitter just before the conference, and it was exciting following along with the backchannel of people tweeting #whereareallthewomen and complaining about the representation of Digital Humanities as a white, male sphere (except for one Aboriginal man who gave the welcome to country speech).

The evening poster session had some quite interesting digital projects, including:
  • which creates a searchable database of videotaped California legislative sessions (lots of people think there are transcripts available of these sessions, but there aren’t, making it difficult to know who said what)
  • Using Google Ngram Viewer to track word usage in books over time
  • which is a study of Chinese characters and their historical evolution using a computer program.

The second day saw one of the conference organizers get on-stage and openly call out the men and ask them to exit the stage so that women could have a voice and participate equally. Then, the keynote speaker after her (Genevieve Bell, anthropologist and VP at Intel) gave an extraordinarily good speech on the history of technology and where we are at with robots today and what kinds of questions we need to be asking ourselves. It was so relevant to my study of science fiction and literature, it has now set my expectations for a keynote speech very high! If I could give a speech like that one day, I would be very lucky. She even used one of the same images on her slide that I had in my presentation for my next conference, and I came up afterward to tell her that and she wished me luck. I met a man who looked just like Spock in a lunch session on global data infrastructure in the humanities (sciences are already on their way to having standards and clear articulation of needs). I found interesting presentations in the afternoon on video games in India featuring female characters and using programs to generate more realistic stock video game characters that come from particular universes for game developers to be able to buy off the shelf (Game of Thrones used as the example). I took the river ferry home to get some beautiful nighttime views of Darling Harbor.

The third and final day made me worried about all of the data our devices are sending to the cloud and companies without our knowing or thinking about it. A presentation on ebook data where they were studying how long a reader spent on particular pages of a book and how many chapters they read raised issues of publishers using this data to make decisions about not financing new authors, or limiting creative output to more of the same that readers spend more time on, potentially stifling creativity and new ideas. I’ve heard that Amazon may now be using this kind of data to determine royalties to authors (based on per page, rather than per book). I know some people really like ebooks, but I still prefer the feel of real and ability to notate my books, as well as the anonymity they afford (and ability to lend out). Another presentation examined GoodReads reviews and found a lot of errors in plot summaries, with people mentioning characters or events that never happened in books as if they were true (example: Bilbo described as slaying the dragon in The Hobbit).

I agreed to give a brief statement on my experience attending the pre-conference and ended up having to speak on-stage in front of dozens of people at one of the annual meetings of an organization that helped sponsor it. It was my first time on that big a stage in front of a microphone so I wrote everything out the night before and just read my statement. It went okay and I didn’t mess up so that was good! Definitely need more practice on the public speaking front.

I made the mistake of reading my student evaluations for my tutoring during the middle of the day and there was one disgruntled student who did not appreciate being challenged to think critically about the world and wrote a long paragraph on how worthless some of the sessions were. It was hard to read, but I will have to face this (and worse) in the future if I end up teaching, and it really shows that there is work to do even in students who you’d think would be more open-minded. Plus, I know it’s not my fault that they didn’t do the reading and weren’t prepared. However, the rest of the few received were positive and nice to read.

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