More digital than thou

[16 December 2013]

An odd thing has started happening in reviews for the Digital Humanities conference: reviewers are objecting to papers if the reviewer thinks it has relevance beyond the field of DH, apparently on the grounds that the topic is then insufficiently digital. It doesn’t matter how relevant the topic is to work in DH, or how deeply embedded the topic is in a core DH topic like text encoding — if some reviewers don’t see a computer in the proposal, they want to exclude it from the conference.

[“You’re making this up,” said my evil twin Enrique. “That’s absurd; I don’t believe it.” Absurd, yes, but made up? no. The reviewing period for DH 2014 just ended. One paper proposal I reviewed addressed the conceptual analysis of … I’ll call the topic X, to preserve some fig leaf of anonymity here; X in turn is a core practice of many DH projects and an essential part of any account of the meaning of tag sets like that of the Text Encoding Initiative. I thought the paper constituted a useful contribution to an ongoing discussion within the framework of DH. Another reviewer found the paper interesting and thoughtful but found nothing specifically digital in the proposal [after all, X can arise in a pen and paper world, too, computers are not essential], graded it 0 for relevance to DH theory and practice, and voted to reject it. It should be submitted, this reviewer said, to a conference in [another field where X is a concern] and not in a DH conference. I showed this to Enrique. For once, he was speechless. Thank you, Reviewer 2!]

At some level, the question is what counts as work in the field of digital humanities. Is it only work in which computers figure in an essential role? Or is digital humanities concerned with the application of computers to the humanities and all the problems that arise in that effort? I think the latter. Some reviewers appear to think the former. If solving an essential problem turns out to involve considerations that are not peculiar to work with computing machines, however, what do we do? I believe that the problem remains relevant to DH because it’s rooted in DH and because those interested in doing good work in DH need the answer. The other reviewer seems to take the view that once the question becomes more general, and applicable to work that doesn’t use computers, the question is no longer peculiarly digital, and thus not sufficiently digital; they would like to exclude it from the DH conference on the grounds that it addresses a question of interest not only to DH but also to other fields.

[“Wait a second,” said Enrique. “You’re saying there’s a pattern here. Isn’t it just this one reviewer?” “No,” I said. “This line of thought also came up in at least one other review (possibly in a more benign form), and it has also been seen in past years’ reviews.” “Is that why you’re so touchy about this?” laughed Enrique. “Did they reject one of your papers on this account?” “Oh, hush.”]

The notion that there must be something about a topic that is peculiar to the digital humanities, as opposed to the broader humanities disciplines, makes sense perhaps if one believes that the digital humanities are intrinsically different from the pre-electronic humanities disciplines. On that view, any DH topic is necessarily distinct from any non-DH humanities topic, and once a topic is relevant to the broader humanistic fields (e.g. “what is the nature of X?”), it is ipso facto no longer a DH topic.

This is like arguing that papers about the concept of literary genre don’t belong at a conference about English literary history, because there is nothing peculiarly English about the notion of genre and any general discussion will (if it’s worth anything at all) also be relevant to non-English literatures. Or like trying to exclude work on the theory of computation from computer science conferences because it applies to all computation, not only to computation carried out by electronic stored-program binary digital computers.

[“I notice that leaders in the field of computer science occasionally feel obliged to remark that the name computer science is a misnomer,” said Enrique, “because computers are in no sense an essential element in the field.“ ”Perhaps they have the same problem, in their way,” I said. “My sympathy,” said Enrique.]

Another problem I see with the view my co-reviewer seems to hold is that some people believe that DH is not intrinsically different from the pre-electronic humanities disciplines. I didn’t get involved with computers in order to stop doing traditional philology; I got involved to do it better. Computers allow a much broader basis for our literary and linguistic argumentation, and they demand a higher degree of precision than philologists typically achieved in past decades or centuries, but I believe that digital philology is recognizably the same discipline as pre-digital philology. If the DH conference were to start refusing papers on the grounds that they are describing work that might be relevant to scholars working with pen and paper, then it would be presupposing an answer to the important question of how computers change and don’t change the world, instead of encouraging discussion of that question. (And it would be excluding people like me from the conference, or trying to.)

[“Trying in vain, I bet,” said Enrique. “Well, yeah. I’m here, and I’m not leaving.”]

These exclusionary impulses are ironic, in their way, because one of the motive forces behind the formation of scholarly organizations like the Association for Computers and the Humanities and the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (now the European Association for Digital Humanities) and behind their journals and conferences was that early practitioners in the field were often made to feel unwelcome in the conferences and journals of their home disciplines. The late Paul Fortier was eloquent on the subject of the difficulties he had trying to publish his computer-assisted work on Céline in conventional journals for Romance languages and literatures; he often spoke of Computers and the Humanities as having made it possible for him and others like him to have an academic career.

It will be a sad thing if the recent growth in degree programs devoted to digital humanities turns out to result in the field of DH setting up signs at all boundaries reading “Outsiders not wanted.”

Flattening structure without losing all rules

[25 November 2013, typos corrected 26 November]

The other day during the question-and-answer session after my talk at Markupforum 2013, Marko Hedler speculated that some authors (and perhaps some others) might prefer to think of text as having a rather flat structure, not a hierarchical nesting structure: a sequence of paragraphs, strewn about with the occasional heading, rather than a collection of hierarchically nesting sections, each with a heading of the appropriate level.

One possible argument for this would be how well the flat model agrees with the text model implicit in word processors. Whether word processors use a flat model because their developers have correctly intuited what authors left to their own devices think, or whether author who want a flat structure think as they do because their minds have been poisoned by exposure to word processors, we need not now decide.

In a hallway conversation, Prof. Hedler wondered if it might not be possible to invent some sort of validation technique to define such a flat sequence. To this, the immediate answer is yes (we can validate such a sequence) and no (no new invention is needed): as the various schemas for HTML demonstrate, it’s easy enough to define a text body as a sequence of paragraphs and headngs:

<!ELEMENT body (p | ul | ol | blockquote 
               | h1 | h2 | h3 ...)*>

What, we wondered then, if want to enforce the usual rules about heading levels? We need to check the sequence of headings and ensure that any heading is at most one level deeper than the preceding heading, so a level-one heading is always followed by another level-one heading or by a level-two heading, but not by a heading of level three or greater, while (for example) a fourth-level heading can be immediately followed by a fifth-level heading, but not a sixth-level heading. And so forth.

The discussion having begun with the conjecture that conventional vocabularies (like TEI or JATS) use nesting sections because nesting sections are the kinds of things we can specify using context-free grammars, we were inclined to believe that it might be hard to perform this level check with a conventional grammar-based schema language. In another talk at the conference, Gerrit Imsieke sketched a solution in Schematron (from memory, something like this rule for an h1: following-sibling::* [matches(local-name(), '^h\d')] [1] /self::*[self::h1 or self::h2] — that can’t be right as it stands, but you get the idea).

It turns out we were wrong. It’s not only not impossible to check heading levels in a flat structure using a grammar-based schema language, it’s quite straightforward. Here is a solution in DTD syntax:

<!ENTITY p-level 'p | ul | ol | blockquote' >
<!ENTITY pseq '(%p-level;)+' >
<!ENTITY h6seq 'h6, %pseq;' >
<!ENTITY h5seq 'h5, (%pseq;)?, (%h6seq;)*'>
<!ENTITY h4seq 'h4, (%pseq;)?, (%h5seq;)*'>
<!ENTITY h3seq 'h3, (%pseq;)?, (%h4seq;)*'>
<!ENTITY h2seq 'h2, (%pseq;)?, (%h3seq;)*'>
<!ENTITY h1seq 'h1, (%pseq;)?, (%h2seq;)*'>

<!ELEMENT body ((%pseq;)?, (%h1seq;)*) '>

Note: as defined, these fail (for simplicity’s sake) to guarantee that a section at any level must contain either paragraph-level elements or subsections (lower-level headings) or both; a purely mechanical reformulation can make that guarantee:

<!ENTITY h1seq 'h1, 
                ((%pseq;, (%h2seq;)*) 
                | (%h2seq;)+)' >

Another reason to use the microphone

[Hamburg, 29 September 2011]

Every now and then conference speakers want to avoid using a microphone; they dislike the introduction of technology into the speaker/audience relation, perhaps, and sometimes they are so confident of their ability to be heard in the room that any suggestion that they might use a mike is almost an affront to their lung power. (Are these last class of speaker always male? Well, usually, I think.)

I have been told on good authority that users of hearing aids benefit a good deal from amplification of the speaker’s voice; that’s a good reason to use the microphone.

But sitting here listening to a very interesting speaker who is completely ignoring the microphone, I am reminded of a different reason: for purposes of speaker amplification, non-native speakers are effectively hard of hearing. When the speaker strays into range of the podium’s microphone and happens to be facing the audience, I can understand every word he says; when he faces away from the audience or wanders over to the side of the room, I am missing at least every fifth word, which makes the talk into a kind of aural cloze test. That’s OK for me (I pass the test, more or less, though I missed that nice joke everyone else laughed at). But for my neighbor (for whom German is not a second but a fourth or fifth language), the experience is clearly a real trial.

If you are attending an international conference and want to be understood by people who are not native speakers of your language, then there is a simple piece of advice:

Use the microphone.

Enough said.