Low-Tech Approaches to
Digital Research

Jentery Sayers | University of Victoria | Dept. of English
jentery@uvic.ca | @jenterysayers
26 February 2019

NEH Office of Digital Humanities Institute on
"Textual Data and Digital Texts in the Undergraduate Classroom"
Project Directors: Lauren Coats and Emily McGinn
URL for slides: jentery.github.io/lowtech/

Use your left + right arrow keys to navigate this slidedeck.
Image care of the MLab in the Humanities.

Questions for Today

How to approach digital research in the classroom
without assuming technical competencies in computing?

How to teach core techniques often automated
or masked by tools and software?

How to identify which techniques matter most
for work in the humanities? (I won't answer this one.)

Image care of the MLab in the Humanities.

Common Issues in
Humanities Instruction

Content: Need to teach history, literature, language, culture ...

Expectations: Students may not anticipate computational or
technical work in the humanities classroom

Scope creep: Digital humanities may be an overwhelming
"big tent" with many options, tools, and projects

Integration: Courses and content may feel split into
"that digital class" and "the regular class"

Time and labor: Technical stuff involves learning curves,
which may not "count" as research, teaching, or service

Image care of the MLab in the Humanities.

A Response:
Prototyping as Inquiry

Content: Foreground objects as processes of study
(techniques, not tools; possibilities, not products)

Expectations: Emphasize low-tech approaches to
understanding how this becomes that

Scope creep: Ground inquiry in specific media, moments, or projects
(don't treat DH as a field, or ask who / what "belongs")

Integration: Drop the "digital" and stress how
all humanities research is mediated

Time and labor: Build on the personal, situated, and
as motivations for development

See Matthew Fuller on how this becomes that.
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Defining "Low-Tech"

Paper, scissors, tape, glue, cardboard, etc.

Or, little to no computation and programming involved

Rely as little as possible on proprietary software

An investment in competencies, not skills

Opportunities to learn but also test conventions and standards

Start with praxis (e.g., "Before You Make a Thing")

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So . . . Some Examples

A series of techniques, assignments, and assignment sequences

References are included at the bottom of each slide.

Encoding: Markdown

Ask students to use a text editor (not a word processor)
to log their work and experiments all term

Markdown is a software-agnostic syntax that can be
converted into HTML, PDF, DOCX, and more

Nudges students to consider how design docs and
scholarship are structured, formatted, and published

May spark interest in web design, comm, writing studies, TEI

Example: Markdown document from
"Unlearning the Internet" (108 first-year students)

See Alex Gil et al. on Ed., Sarah Simpkin on Markdown, Jef Raskin on humane interfaces,
and Pandoc and Dillinger for conversion

Data and Graphical
Expression: Overlay

Ask students to use tracing paper (not Google Maps or ArcGIS)
to make choropleth overlays of "missing datasets"

Choropleths are thematic maps, with shaded or patterned areas

Nudges students to identify data types and discuss
how data (as a system) is produced, processed, and expressed

May spark interest in cultural studies, STS, journalism, data viz

Example: "Teaching Data Visualization," which I adapted for
"Unlearning the Internet" (108 first-year students)

See Mimi Onuoha on missing datasets, Jer Thorp on data as system, Johanna Drucker on graphesis, and
Jonathan Schwabish (informed by Valentina D'Efilippo) on drawing choropleth maps
Image care of Jonathan Schwabish

Procedures and
Algorithms: Manuals

Ask students to compose manuals or rulebooks
for tabletop games or videogames

Manuals communicate themes and mechanics

Nudges students to learn how rules and procedures
are enacted through steps but also context and design

May spark interest in game studies, e-lit, tech comm, book arts

Example: "Make It a Manual" for "Paper Computers"
(12 fourth-year or grad students)
also see "What's in a Game?" (25 third-year students)

See Bethany Nowviskie on ludic algorithms, Allison Parrish's various courses, and
Matthew Kirschenbaum on paper computers
Image care of Stefan Higgins (UVic English).

Three Dimensions:
Paper Prototype

Ask students to use paper to prototype 2D patents in 3D

Patents use diagrams to make claims about how tech works

Nudges students to consider the importance of
perspective, embodiment, and the "exploded view"

May spark interest in history, media archaeology, rhetoric

Example: Module 1 in "Prototyping Pasts and Futures"
(60 second-year students)

See Cornelia Parker and Kate Crawford on the exploded view, and
Elaine Sullivan, Angel David Nieves, and Lisa M. Snyder on 3D models of the past
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Interaction and
Experience: Wireframes

Ask students to wireframe something they want to see in the world

Wireframes are guides that focus on skeletons of projects

Nudges students to study how choice and flow are structured,
but also the importance of the subjunctive (what if?)

May spark interest in design, cultural studies, media studies

Example: "Hyperlit" by Nina Belojevic et al. (UVic English)

See Anne Balsamo on designing culture, Anne Burdick on design in the humanities, Alondra Nelson on future texts,
Kari Kraus on speculative design, Julian Bleecker on design fictions, and Johanna Russ on the subjuctive
Image care of Nina Belojevic and Jon Johnson (UVic English).

Steward and Maintain:
Rapid Prototyping

Ask students to make multiple versions of a single source or "ism"

Rapid prototypes foreground adjacent possibilities of what's at hand

Nudges students to account for how materials morph
and also how they are stewarded or maintained

May spark interest in libraries, archives, info studies, textual studies

Example: Assignment sequence in "Prototyping Texts"
(12 fourth-year or graduate students)

See Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann on deformance, and Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin on remediation
Image care of Danny Martin (UVic English).

Politics and Ethics:

Ask students to cook up zines that inform or instruct
people about politics of tech + culture

Zines are written with a specific audience in mind, and
usually with an awareness of the mechanism

Nudges students to experiment with self-publication and
engage a gap in existing literature

May spark interest in cultural, literary, or publishing studies

Example: Zine assignment from
"Unlearning the Internet" (108 first-year students)

See Julia Evans, Anna Anthropy, and Booklyn on zines
Image care of Danielle Morgan.

Thank You

Thanks in particular to the NEH ODH, Lauren Coats, Emily McGinn, Louisiana State U., U. of Georgia, and Mississippi State U.

Jentery Sayers | University of Victoria | Dept. of English
jentery@uvic.ca | @jenterysayers