Dune Scholar – Page 2 – Science Fiction, Feminism, and Digital Humanities All in One Place

Dune Scholar

Science Fiction, Feminism, and Digital Humanities All in One Place

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National Digital Forum (NDF) Conference 2016 – Day 1

NDF Conference 2016

Annual Conference of National Digital Forum (NDF)
November 22-23, 2016
Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand (Wellington, NZ)
Conference program PDF
Twitter feed #NDFNZ
Recordings of sessions on NDF YouTube channel

Cool Things to Check Out:

Stand-out Presentation:

The stand-out talk was Takerei Norton’s discussion of his work on the Ngāi Tahu Cultural Mapping Project, which now has over 4,000 Māori place names on the South Island mapped onto Google Earth, complete with references from Māori communities. This will enable countless Digital Humanities research projects and was so interesting and inspiring to learn about.

The following are my notes from the sessions I attended on day 1 of the NDF Conference. Most sessions were recorded and are available on the NDF YouTube channel. [If any errors, let me know.]

Day 1 – Tuesday, November 22

On Day 1, there was first a breakfast put on by DigitalNZ. Their big announcement was that they just launched Stories which is an easy way to put together images and text using historical material or your own material.

Then the conference opened and it was announced that they had over 300 registrations, which was the most they’d ever had. This number later was specified as 320 registrations.

Opening Address – Richard Foy (Department of Internal Affairs)

Richard Foy gave a fabulous opening address. He was funny, understandable, and relatable, and he used great images. He connected it with the personal/human element by showing images of his daughter Lucy and his grandmother. He said that we need to be people-first (rather than cloud-first, etc.).

It was pleasing to hear him make several science fiction references right off the bat, a big one being The Core science fiction movie. He humorously explained his attachment to this not-ranked-very-highly movie and encouraged us to please rate it on IMDB – it deserves better than a 5.4!

Foy then gave a hilarious overview of digitization – how we make PDFs and put them in the ‘cloud’ and then burn the rest of the leftovers. This has precedent! Actually, the Gibbons fire in New Zealand led to the Archives Act 1957. This kind of digitization is not best practice, obviously.

Foy next discussed time and memory. Our memory allows us to inextricably link our past with our present and our future. When we lose some of that memory, our memories tend to fade away. That can lead to a much darker future. We’re not accountable for things that have gone by in the past.

We’re moving from physical information to digital information and need to figure out how we manage those. Unlike Pokemon Go, we don’t want to catch it all. Some of it we don’t need and don’t want to remember. He said that copyright in the digital era is ripe for disruption! And he also gave a shout out to Digital Humanities – these are the things these guys are begging us for! We also need to make information useful and available for machines to be able to deal with it for us.

What would happen if we created the reading room on the web in the 21st century? But what if there were nothing to read? We have to make sure we preserve things for the future.

Keynote: Memory Institutions as Knowledge Machines – Eric T. Meyer (Oxford Internet Institute at University of Oxford) @etmeyter

Meyer is at the Oxford Internet Institute and has been there for 15 years, since 2001. He started by asking What does social informatics mean? He described the term “Socio-Technical” and how his book editors kept trying to take out the hyphen but he insisted on it. What social informatics does is to examine the hyphen – how do people interact with technology. He has an article about it: “Examining the Hyphen” (2014). Science and Technology Studies tends to look at the first side” of the hyphen (people), then add the technology later. Computer Science tends to look at the second side of the hyphen (technology), then add the socio/people thing just at the end.

Wired magazine tends to be quite focused on technology determinism. The Internet causes this, makes people dumber, etc. But actually, technology allows people to make certain choices.

Working with his colleague Ralph, whom he doesn’t often agree with, means that every sentence is carefully thought-out because they have to work hard to convince the other person of their position. (Benefit of co-writing rather than sole authorship)

No one used to care about data. Then after Snowden, now ‘big data’ draws larger crowds.

Do you indicate that you used a digital resource when building your list of references? Basically students use them but then delete because of academic standards.

He discussed marine biology research on humpback whales. There are many scientists around the world looking at their own populations, but it’s good to find a way to share that data with other scientists so they can build a map and estimate the numbers of whales in the world, rather than just one area. Another problem is that we don’t know how long they live, but they could live over 100 years. So how do scientists make sure that the scientists after them can use that data?

He discussed a ‘big data’ project on dementia (http://bit.ly/bigdatadementia). Funders insisted that they use the word big data in the title, even though it really wasn’t that big of a data. (Big data is seen as sexy though.) How do we change the incentives in medical science to make it so they not only want to create data but want to make it accessible to others and share it? How many people have worked with a scientist who comes to the end of the project and hasn’t thought about what to do with the data and just wants to shove it into a repository to meet the requirements of founders? There is a need to get them thinking about data earlier in the process (this is what librarians in universities are working on).

An example of big data that could be used to help out in the health care realm but raises ethical questions: Tesco grocery store chain has a loyalty card that can pick up on shopping habits of someone coming down with dementia (like narrowing shopping choices or buying the same item day after day). But how ethically would they be able to share that data with health professionals? There are other issues with big data. RFID chips are used to track things. Meyer said that if he goes to a conference and they have a chip in the id badge and they can’t tell him what they’re doing with the data, he rips it out. He also gave the example that made the news about how Target knew a teenage girl was pregnant before her dad did (see article in Forbes), started sending her coupons, etc. for baby stuff. This shows how scary big data can be – they know more than our own families do. Also, the problem with loyalty shopping cards is that it is all proprietary data protected under no disclosure agreements that medical researchers, really anyone can’t get access to.

He finds Internet Archive Wayback Machine and other web archives frustrating because you can only look at URLs one at a time. The search function isn’t very good because they can’t crawl the data as fast as they need. You can’t look at broader information. Historians in the future will want to know what was going on today, on the web, because that is where things are mainly happening in our world.

‘Academics quite like to link to themselves.’ He showed a chart of how the subdomains link to each other (.co, .gov, .ac).

He discussed a Digital Humanities project where a Thomas Pynchon wiki was set up to annotate his book Against the Day and it only took a few months, whereas previously it had taken years. This is a new way of doing a humanities task, such as annotating a novel, and can be done by the crowd. It was done by a non-academic, a fan, who ran the server from his own computer. Weisenburger’s Rainbow (first annotation) was bought and stored by libraries, but there is no plan to preserve this person’s wiki project. It raises questions about how to proceed in future with this kind of humanities project.

Re: Humanities Browsing and Searching vs. Physical Sciences Browsing and Searching
Lots of people use Google search and Google Scholar but also rely on a lot of other resources. Over the last 20 years, libraries have gotten to be too good at being invisible. He said that when physical scientists have been asked about their library use, they don’t even realize where they are getting their online journal articles! On the one hand it’s good that libraries are less visible because it means the experience is smoother, but on the other hand, they are not being appreciated or noticed. It used to be very difficult to find information, but now it just takes a few clicks. So that has changed the nature of how things work. We’ve moved from information to analysis.

He mentioned Blockchain and Ascribe and the discussion around whether these can help artists get paid.

He finished by discussing a student project where they were asked to make films using nothing but an iPad. “Bottling Inspiration: Shoot Smart Swindon Final Project Report” (2014) It unleashed a lot of creativity among their students. Instead of separating out roles like camera person, editing person, it allowed everyone to collaborate and comment.

A round up on the latest inspirations and examples of tech in exhibitions around the world – Emily Loughnan (Clicksuite) @suitey

Loughnan presented a whirlwind tour of really innovative museum exhibits in the world. The interactive version of Hieronymous Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” painting inspired her to think about if they could make something that would allow others to do the same with their artworks and objects. Curio (curiopublisher.com) came out of Mahuki, the Innovation Hub at Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand.

Museums are moving from being story-tellers to co-creators. Virtual Reality (VR) can allow people to create something for themselves. Check out the Tilt brush from Google. Yet 5 million people are going through the museum, so there are issues of through-put in terms of being able to offer augmented experiences like VR. It also takes a lot of staff work and there are health issues with the helmet having just been on someone else’s head. There are also tripping, bumping, and other hazards. (Ex: Ghostbuster exhibit in NY) One solution: swivel stools so you don’t worry about stumbling into other people. Another one: turning a bus into a VR experience (“Field Trip to Mars” on Vimeo) shows how a school bus was transformed into a VR experience without the use of headsets.

In the Rain Room at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it feels like you have a super power (back off rain!). Rain is everywhere except on you. At the Digital Waterfall in the Connected Worlds exhibit at the New York Hall of Science, you can divert the water into 5 or 6 different worlds. Boys come in and immediately dam the water and all the worlds are starved for water. Loughnan tried cutting down a bunch of trees in the rainforest and was actually saddened to see that they didn’t grow back. [I can see the potential for environmental education.]

Digitising the divide: Who’s in, who’s out? – Robyn Hunt (AccEase, Arts Access Aotearoa)

Hunt is from Arts Access Aotearoa and offered a challenge to the hype about digital by discussing disability issues. She said there is a certain group that doesn’t have access to all the digital stuff. Nearly one-quarter of New Zealanders are disabled. Older people are 14% of New Zealanders and growing.

Some digital solutions to disability issues are: accessible web sites, accessible devices, and closed captioning on YouTube (although it can be quite bad). But smart phones are more expensive with the accessibility additions so might be out of reach for disabled people. She mentioned BlindSquare, which is an app for the vision-impaired.

Digitally sculpted artworks for blind people are being done in the U.S. so they can then experience the world’s greatest paintings and art in a new way.

Hunt issued a challenge for everyone to Incorporate universal design into all of their projects. It should not be special – it should just be part of the way things are done.

She also brought up that what a nation chooses to remember is important and she is glad that Te Papa has started to document disabled soldiers in WWI.

Re-imagining Rutherford’s Den – Caroline Fenton (Communications Manager at The Arts Centre, Christchurch)

Rutherford’s Den is in the Christchurch Arts Centre. One good thing to come out of the earthquake damage has been that they had a chance to redesign the space. There is a time lapse on their website (change from a heritage space to the space that it is today with interactive exhibits). Their blackboards are actually screens, so you are tricked into thinking you walked back in time but there is actually a lot of digital material and technology that you can’t experience until you walk into the space. The exhibit has appeal to both Arts and Science people.

Getting it Done – Matariki Williams and Nina Finigan (TUSK Emergent Culture) @TUSKCulture

Tusk was launched in 2015 as an online platform for people entering GLAM institutions to contribute constructively, in their own voice, to the sector. They want to contribute to strengthening the cultural sector from the ground up. They mentioned LitCrawl (website; @tweetlitcrawl) then moved on to the ‘Trumppocalypse’ and millennial voting map (it was misleading because it actually was from a Survey Monkey survey done in October, but hopefully data people figured that out). They said the hamster wheel of short-term contracts in the Arts sector wasn’t working. They needed to fail in the traditional way so they could think laterally and get beyond the idea of funding being the primary goal. They wanted their online platform to be loose, reactive, and relevant to their generation. But this involves not always being taken seriously by the usual crowd. They said divergence and departure are the natural state of the Internet, and they wanted to be able to take advantage of this. The spirit of generosity helps when collaborating. They believe that those who have platforms need to use them; our voices need to be heard. We shouldn’t be restricted to what we’re doing as a day job. We should be active, engaged citizens. They asked: How do we avoid being an echo chamber? How can we bust down the doors and bring what we have to those outside of our circles?

Papers Past – A Redesign Case Study – Michael Lascarides (National Library) @PapersPastNZ

Lascarides discussed a new user experience for Papers Past. It was a well-liked service, so they didn’t want to change what people liked and what was working. Their Google Analytics says that there are 1200 different screen sizes per month being used to access their site. Google has started penalizing sites that aren’t mobile-friendly. A few years ago making it device friendly and responsive was a nice-to-have, but now is a must-have. They got rid of the search button on the home page. This was a bit radical. Now there are just 4 buttons for people to click and choose what they want to look at. They also changed their URLs (http://). They previously had very 1997 URLs so they redesigned them so they are a lot better. Now they use format, publication, year, month, day, page which is easy to understand and easy to parse with Google.

Learning to COPE with Galleries at Auckland Museum – Gareth de Walters (Auckland Museum) @gdewalters

Walters discussed how to use 3-D scanning technologies to bring objects to students and researchers, etc. They made a virtual laser scans of the old exhibit (unique permanent record) when it came time to renovate their long-standing Centennial Street exhibit. Ideally, they would be able to recreate it from storage if they wanted to. They worked with architects to make these plans. They also did photo stitching in the gallery. One of the goals was to make a digital tour (an interactive online collection). Matterport is a new technology that offers a relatively cheap and quick means of scanning galleries. It supports VR out of the box.

Regarding the Origins Gallery, they found that the gallery space wasn’t conducive to noisy kids (kids love dinosaurs!). There was a move to student-centered learning with teacher as a guide rather than an authoritative voice telling them what to know.

Shaping Knowledge: How can 3D Technology by Used in Libraries to Make New Knowledge Available? – Jason Hansen (National Library)

3D seems like a natural fit for museums, but it might not seem like something that fits in a library. They don’t hold that many 3-D objects. Hansen said that he would make the case that there is a reason to do it even if just because it is an emerging part of the technology in the world we’re living in. At this point, the conversation is just about 3D printing as a novelty (like printing chocolate) rather than about the potential for information storage, discovery, and dissemination. Libraries are still stuck in a 2-D model of scanned documents on screens. But, for example, a photograph of the parchment of the Treaty isn’t the same as having more details about the object. This is where 3-D that has more fidelity to the original object could be useful.

3-D printing could completely change the supply chain. Just like you might download music instead of getting CDs now, 3-D printing could do this to other objects that we buy. It could cut down on transport costs. What this means for libraries is that they would have a reason to collect the designs or 3-D models that may have some kind of cultural impact and to retain them in a repository to be made available later.

Hansen discussed Lightfield technology (mixed reality) and Magic Leap. [Reminded me of more Minority Report style of moving around data instead of needing a tablet since it is an overlay on the real world.] There was a YouTube video of a child showing their dad their Mount Everest project. Developing digital literacies was mentioned. The Rekrei (Project Mosul) was able to recreate some of the destroyed museums in Iraq. Semantic nodes (Augmented Reality and 3-D tech) allow ways of interacting with the world in ways that weren’t possible before. It blurs the line between physical and digital. It broadens the role of these tech as we use our role as learning facilitators.

Grisly Explorations into 3-D Models and 360degree Tours – Meredith Rigger (Nelson Provincial Museum & Relive360)

 The Nelson Provincial Museum didn’t have the same support as Auckland Museum, so it had to do 3-D stuff with 13 full-time equivalent staff just learning on their own. Rigger started off by telling a short history of Murder at Maungatapu: “Let’s meet some bandits shall we?” Later she explained how back in the day, a dentist took plaster casts of the heads of those executed for the now-famous murder because phenology was a hot topic at the time. They have 3 of these death casts at the museum. They took photos of them and then fed the photographic data into VisualSFM, Meshlab, Meshmixer, and Cinema 4D (some freeware, some not). They then created a 360-degree view in PanoTour software. She advised that text that looks good on a wall may not look good on a screen, so things may have to be adjusted for different locations.

The 2020s called: They want workers to be digitally literate – Kara Kennedy (University of Canterbury) @DuneScholar

[This was my presentation about how digital literacy needs to be incorporated into higher education. I discussed why there is a need for change away from just assigning traditional academic essays to assess learning, and how Digital Humanities offers a good way of accomplishing this through assignments that hone different skills. Examples include: blogging, editing Wikipedia, creating digital editions, working with digital archives, using map visualization tools, making multimedia assignments like videos, using textual analysis programs, working with databases, and digitizing images.]

Internet Arcade – Greig Roulston (National Library of New Zealand)

Roulston described the creation of a homemade video game arcade station and how surprisingly, it is not that complicated to make. It is now in the National Library in Wellington.

Crowdsourcing & how GLAMs encourage me to participate – Siobhan Leachman (Volunteer/Citizen scientist) @siobhanleachman

Leachman had three suggestions for a crowdsourcing project. 1. Be generous with content. Allow me to reuse what I helped to created. If I transcribe something, I want to be able to download it. If I’m tagging, I want to be able to use the images in Wikipedia or a blog. If you’re lucky, your volunteer will reuse your data in ways you never thought of. It’s a competitive market out there for volunteers. 2. Be generous with trust. We will not read the instructions until we hit a problem. Plan for this. Have easy tasks for beginners. Have challenges (like a game) to allow me to level up. 3. Be generous with time. The most successful crowdsourcing projects engage with their volunteers. Spend time cultivating. Think about what you can do for the crowd, not just what they can do for you. It’s about collaboration, which requires communication. Links from talk are available here: www.tinyurl.com/NDFcrowdsource

A new type of audiotour – Tim Jones (Christchurch Art Gallery)

The Christchurch Art Gallery hadn’t really thought of the place of audio in galleries before. But as a result of the earthquakes and Civil Defence putting in good wi-fi, they were able to do some new things with an audio guide in their space.

What I learned about massive branded projects from editing Wikipedia – Mike Dickison (Whanganui Regional Museum) @adzebill

Dickison said that the Radio NZ Critter of the Week for endangered species initiative to improve and create pages on Wikipedia has become quite popular and successful. What are MBPs? Massive branded projects like Te Ara, New Zealand Birds Online, and the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network. They also always have a nice logo and are well-funded, well-designed, and well-thought out. They are usually an excellent resource. The downsides are that they are slow to start, slow to change, and slow to update. They become hungry for money or time and are often doomed to wither away or become zombies (where the site looks like it’s alive, but if you look too closely, it will eat your brain!). [In other words, they might not have been updated in years.] He proposed an alternative, that being to start small. An example is the NZ Organisms Register; however, that is also now a zombie site after losing funding. He called for people to embrace open editing and build on open resources like Wikispecies. Wikipedia projects can occur in a healthier way than traditional GLAM projects.

Social media struggles and sub branded communities – Holly Grover (Auckland War Memorial Museum)

Grover’s discussed how to empower employees and create social leaders. She said to consider sub-branding and fragmentation and to make sure to do social media audits to evaluate effectiveness.

See the forest, not the trees: free data visualisation tools – Paul Rowe (Vernon Systems) @armchair_caver

Rowe talked about how to take raw data and clean it up and do stuff with it. There are new tools evolving, like IBM’s Watson Analytics. Remember: Data is your friend!

Unauthorised audio tours: Theatricality in new technologies – Joel Baxendale and Ralph Upton (Binge Culture)

Binge Culture offered probably the most unconventional presentation which involved a clapping demo and then a video of their ‘Unauthorized audio tour of Te Papa’.

Keynote: Insights from Data – Dave Brown (Microsoft Research)

Brown began by giving an overview of Microsoft Research. It was founded in 1991. It is like a Computer Science faculty at a university but bigger and has published more than 10,000 peer-reviewed publications. He said that if research shows we remember and process data better in 3-D as opposed to 2-D, maybe the next wave of the Internet will make the current website experience seem medieval. Sometimes visualization of data can prompt new questions. [This is one of the benefits of Digital Humanities research. You find things you didn’t even know to look for or ask about.]

Brown showed a couple examples of technology. One was of seismic activity in 3-D where you could see the angle of the fault line under the earth. This was definitely more interesting and engaging than a spreadsheet for most people. It’s called “Holograph” on the Surface tablet (but works on other platforms too). Another one was of the annual rainfall in the U.S. mapped onto the map, where the blocks could be stacked into histograms. It’s not only pretty but actually shows a lot of context. It shows how the data they are looking at is related, and allows you to look at multiple times (using scroll function to move between time) rather than just snapshots.

He then did a demo of the HoloLens (Microsoft mixed reality offering) and asked us, “What will a world with holograms enable us to do?” [Couldn’t help myself with this tweet: Communicate with Sith lords?] The HoloLens was reminiscent of Pokemon Go where there are things on screen, but in his case he was looking at the U.S. maps shown earlier or the globe. It provides context and will be more memorable than other ways of looking at the data, he said.

He mentioned the Bing Translator that can be installed on your phone. It’s fast enough that you can have a conversation with someone who speaks a language you can’t understand. He spoke about empowerment for under-resourced communities by giving them Microsoft Translator Hub. [This raised some ethical questions for me, in terms of Western culture offering ‘solutions’ to people in other countries.]

Flatland: The Movie in Science Fiction Class

The 2007 animated short film Flatland: The Movie featuring the voices of Martin Sheen and Kristen Bell appears to be a popular teaching tool in math classes because it includes angles and other math concepts, but I have found it also works well in science fiction classes [see film website for more information]. Its short running time (around 30 minutes) allows it to fit into a normal class session with plenty of time for questions and discussion. It is based on  Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin A. Abbott and set in a society known as Flatland, a two-dimensional world. The graphics and pace are good, the themes are still relevant today, and there is a delightful irony in one of the characters who brings wisdom to others yet still cannot break free from his own limited worldview. It offers a nice break from the norm toward the end of the semester while still being a science fiction film that allows students to compare their world to the one in the film.Flatland movie poster

Activity for Flatland: The Movie (2007) featuring Martin Sheen and Kristen Bell

Based on Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin A. Abbott

Questions:*

Which character did you identify the most with?

What are the rules of Flatland society? How does your shape affect your status?

Who makes the rules in this society?

What does heresy mean? What kinds of things are considered heresy in your society?

Why can’t the King of Lineland see the square? Why does Spherius resist the idea of a 4th dimension?

Compare our society to Flatland’s society. What are the similarities and differences? Which would you prefer to live in?

Do you think science fiction as a genre helps people understand their world better than more “realistic” fiction? Why do you think science fiction movies have become so popular?

 

*Some questions are from a math teacher’s wiki; others are my own. The possibilities for more science fiction questions are many!

Shakespeare through Digital Humanities Textual Analysis

I wanted to briefly introduce students to Digital Humanities in an introductory-level Shakespeare course I was helping teach, partly because they might not hear about it otherwise and partly because I really enjoy DH. Textual analysis seemed like the quickest and simplest method to choose, and Voyant Tools is a free and easy program (CC BY 4.0 Voyant Tools by Stéfan Sinclair & Geoffrey Rockwell) available with just a browser and internet connection. I also showed them some searches of the plays using regular expressions. The following images are taken from my slides.

Analyzing Shakespearean Plays in Voyant Tools

Hoping to demonstrate just a few of the possibilities of Digital Humanities methods applied to literature, I put the online versions of the four plays we had studied throughout the semester into Voyant to see if there were any interesting insights that stood out which I could then discuss. I first showed the current play we were studying (The Winter’s Tale), then ‘zoomed out’ even farther to show all four plays (The Winter’s Tale, Richard III, As You Like It, and King Lear).

The Word Clouds (Figures 1 and 2) were unsurprising and most students have already seen these on the web.

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Figure 1: Word Cloud of Shakespeare Play

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Figure 2: Word Clouds of Shakespeare Plays

But the Trends charts (Figures 3 and 4) allowed me to point out how we can see the appearance and disappearance (or rise and fall) of certain characters in a visual way.

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Figure 3: Trends Chart of Shakespeare Play

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Figure 4: Trends Charts of Shakespeare Plays

And looking at the word ‘like’ in the Contexts chart (Figure 5), I showed them how this chart can help us see (in one place) and compare what kinds of similes Shakespeare used, for example. My favorite was ‘like the basilisk’ because that creature features prominently in one of the Harry Potter books.

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Figure 5: Contexts Chart of Shakespeare Play

I also checked out the Microsearch chart (Figure 6), which I believe is similar to one I saw demonstrated at a conference. I’d like to look more into what can be done with these kinds of visual displays.

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Figure 6: Microsearch Charts of Shakespeare Plays

Searching Shakespearean Plays in RegExr

For regular expressions, I borrowed a practice activity that was part of a DH workshop at the aforementioned conference. They used the RegExr sandbox website to have everyone look up all of the questions in the play Othello. Since in the class we had already examined a passage in The Winter’s Tale where King Leontes’ paranoia manifests itself through a series of questions he asks himself, I hoped the students could see the potential value in isolating questions to see what they might reveal about a play. I also showed them how to look up certain words along with surrounding words to see the context, such as all of the words ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ in a play about family.

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Figure 7: Regular Expressions Exercise 1 in Shakespeare Play

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Figure 8: Regular Expressions Exercise 2 in Shakespeare Play

This brief introduction gave them a glimpse at what one can do with a text once digitized, as Shakespeare’s are. It was enjoyable tinkering with the different tools in Voyant and seeing what connections and insights they revealed about the plays. It does seem to be a good first step into textual analysis.

Ethnography Activity for The Left Hand of Darkness

One of the main issues in Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is ethnography and its limitations. The main character Genly Ai is an ambassador for the Ekumen confederation who is conducting a mission on the planet Gethen and making reports about its population, cultures, customs, etc. He especially has trouble understanding the androgynous nature of the people. To try to start students thinking about the practice of ethnography and the potential drawbacks before we began our discussion of themes in the novel, I created a short list of generic questions they were to ask a classmate. They then shared their findings with the class, and we all learned how different people’s everyday lives were, even in the same city attending the same university. One student decided to alter their fellow student’s responses because they seemed too boring; although it was obvious they were making up information by the tone of their voice, it provided a good opportunity to discuss how accurate these kinds of records are and what motives the interviewer might have for changing information. A lot depends on what questions are being asked or what is being studied — someone might not know to even ask about a custom that their own culture lacks, for example.

Ethnography Activity for The Left Hand of Darkness

Ethnography is the study and systematic recording of human cultures (Merriam-Webster).

Take turns being the ethnographer and the person being interviewed.
You may wish to take notes so you can present a summary of your findings to the class.

Questions:

Could you describe a typical day for you in your home city?

Could you give an example of a typical meal (breakfast/lunch/dinner/snack) in your city/country? How is it prepared and who prepares it?

Could you describe an important holiday or festival?

When you meet someone for the first time, how do you greet them? Is there a difference in how you interact with women and men?

Shakespeare in a Mug Teaching Activity

For my first time helping to teach an introductory-level Shakespeare course, I found a good icebreaker activity from Stefanie Jochman on the Teaching Shakespeare Folger Education blog. It’s called Shakespeare in a Mug, which is her modification of Shakespeare in a Can from other teachers. The activity is fairly simple but really fun. You have students pick lines of a play or plays from mugs and then a location from another mug, and then have them improvise a scene after a brief preparation time.

Shakespeare mug

I modified hers a bit because I wanted students to be able to work in small groups rather than in pairs, since I thought that would be less intimidating. I also added a bit of participation for the audience by writing the possible locations on the whiteboard and having them guess the location after each group finished its scene. Since I wanted to use lines from the first play we were studying, Richard III, I went through the online version and picked out lines that I thought would be easier to mix and match for an improv scene and that didn’t have too much difficult language. I know the added pressure of reading out loud when it’s unfamiliar or hard to pronounce.

So here’s my version:

Shakespeare in a Mug
  1. Make sheets with lines from a play or plays and locations and cut them into individual strips (or modify my sheet of Richard III lines and modern-day locations).
  2. Put the lines in one, two, or more mugs (depending on class size) and the locations in a separate mug.
  3. Assign or have the students get themselves into small groups and choose one or two lines per person, then one location for the whole group.
  4. Give them time to prepare a scene set in their location using at least some of the lines. (I told them they could add non-Shakespearean lines if they needed to — some groups did and others didn’t.)
  5. Write up all of the potential locations on the boards if you want them to guess.
  6. Let them improvise their scene in front of the class and have the audience guess which location they are at.

Despite some eye-rolling and hesitance at the beginning, most of them seemed to get into the spirit as they started talking with their groups and having to negotiate how they were going to put together a scene. I was quite impressed with what they managed to come up with on such short notice, and we laughed a lot which was a pleasant experience for the first, sometimes awkward session where few people know each other and they aren’t sure what to expect. It also allowed me the chance to let them know that Shakespeare really has to be heard and performed for full impact, and that we would be doing more speaking of lines throughout the term.

One of the most memorable lines was an added one said in a ‘Shakespearean’ way. The group was pretending to be at a shoe store, and one person came up to the salesperson with a shoe in hand and asked, ‘Dost thou have these in a size 9?’ The class couldn’t help cracking up! I would definitely recommend this activity as a good ice-breaker or something to enliven a class or tutorial session.

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