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My first quarter at Stanford (DLCL ATS round-up, fall 2018)

The “Academic Technology Specialist” (ATS) role at Stanford follows an unusual model for a DH alt-ac job. These positions are jointly funded by Stanford Libraries and a department, and while ATSes report administratively through the library, they typically have their office in the department, and spend most of their time working with scholars there. As an ATS, your assignment is straightforward but expansive: support your department in whatever way you can. The job description has a laundry list of expertise that one should have, but in practice, what you work on is shaped by your actual expertise and interests.

With an eye towards making the reality of the ATS position more comprehensible to both local colleagues and others who might join the organization in the future (since I didn’t have a clear picture of the job when I started, to say nothing of when I applied for the position), here’s what I’ve ended up doing my first quarter here.

Existing projects

Projects built on content management systems need care and feeding, and my predecessor, Mike Widner, built a lot of Drupal-based sites. Some of them were hacked during the interim between his departure and my arrival, and were infected with javascript that uses visitors’ computers to mine cryptocurrency. Others were hacked and tampered with, in ways that didn’t come to light until I tried to do something with them.

Global Medieval Sourcebook

By the time I started at Stanford in late September, Prof. Kathryn Starkey’s Global Medieval Sourcebook had been down for over a month due to a javascript miner infection. The library-hosted server for the live site had been taken offline in response. On my first day, I was told that getting the site back online was my top priority. It took until December 6th, but it was a great crash course in Stanford’s administrative-technical processes. I met Rob Smith, the person in Digital Library Systems and Services (DLSS) who typically deals with dev-ops requests from CIDR (my library organizational home), and I’m grateful for his patience and willingness to help. I made my first ever GitHub page, and managed to put it in place as a “site under construction” page while we finished polishing the Drupal site. Scott Bailey (one of my colleagues in CIDR who is a part-time developer) saved the day that time I got irked at an unending string of cryptic error messages from git, and took Google’s advice that wiping out untracked files might fix things… only to blow away every file that had ever been uploaded to the site via Drupal’s UI. Scott also helped me conceptually untangle SASS and Gulp, and come to the realization that since an undergrad assistant had been directly editing the CSS generated by Gulp, we’ve reached the point where it’s best to treat the theme as simple HTML/CSS and rip out the plumbing that was causing more issues (e.g. security flags for outdated node modules in our GitHub repo) than benefit. Modern development practices are all well and good, but when you have undergrads working on code for a project, and no one around with the expertise to teach them how to use those practices correctly, there’s a benefit to keeping things simple. We ultimately moved the site to Reclaim Hosting to give the project more autonomy with regard to who can update the code: on the DLSS server, the ATS became a bottleneck in being the only person who could pull code from GitHub, which bogged things down further given the necessity of synchronized action in updating code and making database changes in Drupal. Reclaim Hosting support staff, especially Meredith Fierro, were incredible and patient and extremely responsive as I sorted out getting the site migrated and relaunched. In doing so I also learned that purchase orders can take up to 30 days to be processed at Stanford! One significant thing I still have outstanding on this project is writing up comprehensive documentation, in the manner I advocated for in Drupal for Humanists. There are some things the site does (like — it would seem — regenerating the Versioning Machine page for every text whenever you save a text’s profile page) that only became evident once we switched to a shared hosting environment and didn’t have the compute power of a DLSS VM all to ourselves. Sorting through all that will be a project for next quarter.

Teaching Human Rights

David Palumbo-Liu’s “Teaching Human Rights” project was intended to be a Drupal-based platform for bringing together a community around issues related to human rights. It published a fair amount of original material on human rights, but community building and maintenance required significant amount of time and resources. He’s moving on to another project, and I’m currently working through exporting all the content on the site to archive it in the Stanford Digital Repository, before shutting the site down. The site is hosted on its own VM by an external hosting provider, and waking up to the daily email chatter from the server (cron logs, softaculous updates, etc.) means it’s never far from my mind.

Performing Trobar

Prof. Marisa Galvez has used an online environment for publishing her students' digital final projects for her "Performing Trobar" class. It's become a rich collection of audiovisual material as well as maps, timelines, and translations. The site was originally built by my pre-predecessor, Zach Chandler — the first DLCL ATS — and is hosted in Stanford's AFS storage environment, which predates numerous better options. I was able to get an account on the site, but no one involved with it had full admin access, and the admin credentials were lost to time. Over the holidays, I’ll be trying to hack the site: temporarily introducing a horrible bug that elevates the privileges of any logged-in user to admin, before quickly cleaning up after it. Next quarter, I hope to collaborate with the folks with VPTL (Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning) to develop something modern and usable that meets the current needs of the course. 

French Revolutionary Data Project

Prof. Dan Edelstein's project on the speeches made during the French Revolution joined my collection of projects late in the quarter. We're working on combining the texts from the speeches themselves (as published by ARTFL) with a database of information about the deputies who spoke. Combining these sources would make it much easier to, for instance, correlate specific parlementary votes with biographical traits (birthplace, age, etc.) My very first digital humanities project, nearly 15 years ago, was done in partnership with ARTFL, so it’s nice to work with them again.

Teaching

This quarter I had my first foray into the process of putting a class together — figuring out a title and sketch syllabus, getting it cross-listed, and getting it advertised. I’m very much looking forward to teaching “Digital Humanities Across Borders” (essentially, non-English textual DH) next quarter. No technical prerequisites are required, just a reading knowledge of at least one language other than English. I’d meant to offer it for 3-5 credits, but a mistake led to it getting put on the books for 1-5 credits. It seems that no one in institutional memory has offered a DH course for as little as 1 credit before, but this accidental experiment has been a remarkable success: I currently have 13 students enrolled, and 6 of them have signed up for 1 credit. I have a lot of course prep ahead of me over the holidays, and I’ve emailed the students asking what language(s) they’ll be working with, and what kind of text, if they know. Based on the departments that the students are coming from, I’m assuming we’ll be working at least with Chinese, Russian, Italian, and Spanish. I'll be posting materials on Github for anyone to reuse.

In getting the “Digital Humanities Across Borders" approved as a core course for Stanford’s DH Minor, I got to learn about the minor program, how it’s worked to date, and what kinds of students have been interested. To make the DH Minor website a more effective resource for attracting new students to the program, I worked with DH Minor Director Alice Staveley to refresh the website's structure and contents. I anticipate it will also support student enrollment for the core course offerings: there are three course offerings this year, in addition to mine, which provides a lot of options, since students are only required to take one core course and a series of electives.

New Projects

The interests of the scholars I’m working with have pushed me to dig into tools and methods that I’d never spent much time with. Talking with Prof. Yulia Ilchuk about network analyses of characters in novels gave me a reason to brush up on my understanding of networks, as well as models for counting character co-occurrences in literature. 

Masha Gorshkova is exploring the discourse between contemporary Russian authors and their audiences via their Facebook pages — which has led me down the rabbit hole of Facebook app approval to get access to their Graph API. I’ve had no luck finding anyone local who’s tried to get data from Facebook (to my surprise, since their headquarters are right down the road), so it’s broaching new territory in multiple respects.

Prof. Amir Echel's Poetic Media Lab is working on developing its next major endeavor, and I’m looking forward to continue working with them on identifying a set of compelling projects that can draw on the varied expertise and worldviews of undergraduates and grad students.

Lena Zlock has transformed a Russian bibliographic catalog of Voltaire’s personal library into a massive Google Docs spreadsheet, and we’ve been talking about ways to take the next step towards building a searchable database.

As part of teaching my class next quarter, I’ll be undertaking (and blogging about) a project much like the students’, making a computationally-facilitated comparison of the Russian translation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and Tanya Grotter and the Magic Double Bass, which has not been allowed to be officially translated or distributed internationally due to a copyright infringement lawsuit by Time Warner, over the author’s protests that it was a parody. Connected to this class project, I’m working on compiling a corpus of Russian-language Harry Potter and Tanya Grotter fanfic. I’m hoping to use it as a point of comparison for a Lit Lab project involving Harry Potter fanfic in English.

Finally, Yulia Ilchuk, J.D. Porter, and I have started gathering bibliographies of literature that has been translated into English, from languages including Russian, French, Italian, and German, with more languages to come. We’re interested in seeing whether we can cluster them by their source language, using methods that don’t draw on semantics (e.g. no looking for “Moscow” vs “Paris”.) I’m hoping that once we narrow down the details, we’ll be able to find scholars in comp lit and translation studies who might be interested in working with us.

Sharing experience

Prior to coming to Stanford, I always worked in organizations where I was the youngest person — a situation that persisted for 11 years, across multiple institutions. It’s been a refreshing change to spend most of my time in a department (rather than a central IT unit) where there are lots of graduate students and even undergraduates who are involved in the daily goings-on. It’s been a pleasure meeting with them, formally and informally, and getting to share the things I’ve learned about academia, interdisciplinarity, career paths, and getting things done. I was also invited to present to the DH Grad Fellows in CESTA about project management, and will put together a different take on a similar topic for the DH undergraduate research assistants next quarter.

Events

Splitting my work week between Stanford and Berkeley (where I live) has made it easy to participate in events at both places. I spent a day at the Bay Area Drupal Camp in Berkeley, attending the Backdrop summit in search of an alternative to Drupal 8 for scholarly research websites. I also attended a morning of “Digital Humanities, Egyptology & Heritage Preservation: A Comparative Perspective”, organized by Prof. Rita Lucarelli, who I used to work with at UC Berkeley.

At Stanford, the CMEMS symposium "Translating Cultures: Multilingualism and Identity in the Medieval and Early Modern World” was the first medieval event I’ve been to in a very long time, with a wonderful lineup of speakers. I met Prof. Ivan Lupić, and we discussed technical platform options for a project he’s starting. I also attended Stanford’s IT Unconference, which was a useful introduction to Stanford’s robust Drupal community. I was surprised and a little dismayed at the lack of teaching and research-related sessions, so I’ve concluded that next year it’s going to be important to show up early — even though that means leaving home at 5:30 AM.

The broader DH world

My Stanford-based re-engagement with the broader DH world began prior to my start date, with the DARIAH Beyond Europe workshop in mid-September. Since then, I’ve been following up on connections with the Medievalist's Sources working group (with an eye towards involving the Global Medieval Sourcebook in some way), the DH course registry (where I added the DH Minor core courses, which literally put the west coast on the map), and the organizers of the workshop itself. We’ve submitted a poster proposal about DARIAH Beyond Europe to next year’s DH conference in Utrecht, and the promo video from the workshop was just published earlier this week.

Princeton invited Stanford to join their grassroots Slavic DH partnership (also including the Herder Institute in Germany), and I’ve been working on helping organize next year’s event, which will bring Stanford scholars to Princeton for a workshop focusing on digitally curating, organizing, analyzing, and presenting images. It’s given me a reason to do some hands-on exploration of Omeka S, as well as various machine learning tools and services for image analysis. 

One of the initiatives I’m most excited about for next quarter comes from a group that’s still coalescing around lived experiences of gender and DH. DH-WOGEM (Women and Gender Minorities) is going to be organizing a series of “conversations” (synchronous, Zoom-based meetings) around specific topics relevant to gender and DH, and developing white papers and other practical resources out of those conversations, with further collaboration and input from colleagues across the world. I’ve got a simple webpage in the works (an excuse to finally try out Jekyll), and I’m grateful to Julia Flanders for hosting a mailing list out of Northeastern. We’re still working out the subscription mechanism, so if you’re interested, email me at qad [at] stanford [dot] edu. The first conversation, which I’m hoping to organize for late January or early February, will be about kids: when people have had them, what parental leave accommodations they’ve arranged, etc.

Finally, I’ve revived this website, taking down out-of-date pages, expanding acronyms on the “about” page, and regularly updating this blog. My goal for the new year is to make a concerted effort to get others to join me in this blogging space, to share with the local, national, and international community the DH work going on at Stanford. 

Looking ahead

Next quarter, I expect that teaching will take up much of my time and attention, in addition to keeping up with the projects and groups that I’ve gotten involved with this quarter. I’m happy to be working on at least one project with scholars from four out of the five departments in DLCL, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for opportunities to work with Iberian and Latin American Cultures. I’m hoping the Lit Lab project on translations will be an opportunity to connect with people who might not otherwise think of themselves as the sort to do “digital” research.

Tomorrow begins Stanford’s two-week year-end shutdown, but I’m already looking forward to the week of January 7th! Stanford’s DH blog will resume then. Happy holidays to all!