Cartographic Excess

Address Is Approximate from The Theory on Vimeo.

Last week we drew to a close our second year of Urban Media Archaeology, a graduate studio in which my 15 students; my Technical Associate, the ever capable Rory Solomon; and I work together to map historic media networks. Last fall, in the inaugural section of the class, our students mapped everything from the history of walking tours, to newspaper company headquarters, to Daily News delivery infrastructure, to the social lives of East Village zines, to key sites in carrier pigeon history. This semester the projects were no less innovative; we mapped “media actors” in the debate over the Atlantic Yards development; data-driven systems of graffiti removal; the spatial history of the Young Filmmakers Foundation (intended to seed a larger map of youth media organizations in New York); the evolution of street signs in Manhattan since the  late 19th century; the old West Side Cowboys of Chelsea (this project, one of my favorites, involved “ontography“; see below); the changing landscape of independent bookstores in Manhattan and Brooklyn; the social networks of the Soho Fluxus community; 100 years’ history of theaters around Union Square; key individuals and places in the history of subway graffiti; the spatial history of the Bell Telephone system;  the forgotten histories of official memorials and murals in East Harlem; surveillance networks in Corona, Queens; locations in Woody Allen’s films; and historic jazz performance venues.

via Jonathan’s Last of the West Side Cowboys:
Duncan’s Media Actors of Atlantic Yards:

We learned this year, as we did last year, about media archaeology, about maps as media, about the spatial- and digital humanities, about archival research, and about design methods and prototyping strategies. And this year we added a new lesson on “spatial data modeling” to help students translate their conceptual models into “database language.”

We also learned quite a few things that could never be spelled out in the obligatory “learning goals” section of a syllabus. I’ll try to describe a few of those hard-to-articulate lessons here:

Learning Doesn’t Happen in 15-Week Chunks. Many students commented that they had a hard time knowing when to stop researching. They had a tough time gauging when they had enough archival images, enough data to discern a spatial pattern of some sort, enough contextual information for each of the records they plotted on the map. Many of my students spent weeks sorting through official data sets or in various archives, either frustrated that they hadn’t yet tracked down the “magic data set” or the “magic box” of archival treasure, or thrilled to have found much great material — and in many cases, eventually overwhelmed by the volume of material they gathered. Whatever their individual experiences, they almost invariably felt incomplete at the end of the semester. “If I had another week, I would’ve….”

We had to come to terms with the fact that learning — the most natural, meaningful kind — doesn’t stop at the end of the semester. The most exciting projects, with the most potential for future development, will inevitably remain undone — much to the benefit of those who come after us, who’ll take inspiration from our work and build upon the foundations we’ve laid. DH projects in particular require that we recalibrate our internal self-critics to take into account that fact that our work is often only one small part of a larger, longer-term endeavor. At the same time, this “recalibration” doesn’t diminish our sense of personal accountability; knowing that others — our contemporary and future collaborators — are counting on us, and knowing that our audience is larger than our professors and ourselves, we appreciate that there’s a lot more at stake than an end-of-semester grade.

Learning Can Be Deeper, and More Rewarding, When It Pushes Us Out of Our Comfort Zone. Some students commented that venturing into new research venues and employing new research skills; having to gather the pieces to construct a “multimodal,” spatial argument; and realizing that they needed to have something to show for all their work, resulted in an unprecedentedly deep level of engagement. “I’ve never been this invested in, or learned this much from, a research project before.” I suggested in our last class that most folks can BS their way through a 20-page seminar paper, but when you have to show stuff to back up your claims — when you have to plot records to support a spatial argument — your research will require getting your hands dirty.

Some students also learned not to fear the error message. We created our own mapping system, and asked students to construct their own data models, so they could see what’s behind the social media systems that they regularly use — systems that have been naturalized and seamlessly integrated into their everyday lives. Opening the black box, if you’ll pardon the cliche, requires that we test its limits, that we often push the system until it breaks. And when we do break something — when we encounter one of those ugly “TemplateSyntaxError” messages — rather than panic or give up, we can actually learn to hear what the system is telling us, and work with others in class — most likely those with a different set of technical skills than our own — to fix the problem. These small defeats and victories tell us a lot about how a system works. And ultimately we learn more from these error-pitted processes, uncomfortable though they might be, than from those that proceed perfectly smoothly.

Even the “Objective” Calls for Reflexivity. Many students came to realize that the primary materials they were gathering were determined primarily by choices they made — which streets to travel, which times of day to visit, which people to talk to, etc. Even data — either self-generated or pulled from an “open data” bank — aren’t immune to researcher bias or subjectivity. We came to be keenly aware of how data and other research materials come into being, and are discovered by ourselves and other researchers — and many students decided to build themselves, through self-reflexive methodology maps, into their own projects. As David Bodenhamer writes in “The Potential of the Spatial Humanities” (In The Spatial Humanities, Indiana University Press, 2010, “A humanities GIS-facilitated understanding of society and culture may ultimately make its contribution in this way, by embracing a new, reflexive epistemology that integrates the multiple voices, views, and memories…” (29).

Mapping Isn’t Always About Big Data — Or, Mapping ≠ GIS. Several students began their projects looking for the data “motherlode” that would reveal clear temporal and spatial patterns and allow them to make big, profound, earth-shattering claims. “I intend to correlate huge changes in socioeconomic data to movements in these massive infrastructures.” “I plan to develop a comprehensive map of all the people and places involved in this social movement.” When, by mid-semester, they hadn’t experienced the “data epiphanies” they were waiting for, many were either apologetic (for not looking hard enough or in the right places), frustrated, or defeated.

I wondered if perhaps, influenced by the prevalence of GIS and “data fetishization,” and by the way so many of us tend to use the terms “mapping” and “data visualization” interchangeably, my students assumed that their maps had to show large-scale patterns in quantitative data. Many of them had forgotten that the personal and the partial, the subjective and the speculative, are also mappable — and worthy of being mapped. The “GIS mindset” was stifling to some students. As Bodenhamer puts it, GIS can appear “reductionist in its epistemology. It forces data into categories; it defines space in limited and literal ways instead of the metaphorical frames that are equally reflective of human experience” (24).

Eventually coming to terms with the “non-systematicity” of their conclusions, accepting that they wouldn’t be creating a heat map showing conclusive evidence of quantifiable macro-scale changes, they recognized the breadth and flexibility of mapping as a method. We can map the qualitative, the necessarily incomplete and inconclusive, the fuzzy. And we can even infuse a little poetry into our data models (as many of my students did by developing creative many-to-many relationships) to capture the nuance and nebulousness of our subjects.

Our Maps Can Contain an Implicit Critique of Mapping Itself. Despite whatever opportunities we might have to detourn the map and its underlying database, we sometimes run up against the operative or epistemological limitations of these systems. Not all stories are spatial. Not everything can be plotted to a point, line, or area on a map. And not everything can be translated into a data model — at least not without losing something. Many of my students offered amazingly insightful reflections on the values and limitations of mapping as a method and a mode of presentation in their own projects:

I think proximity is a point to be made, but not the whole point, and it might push users to get caught up in spatial observations. (via)

I’ve noticed that all the presentations involved navigation tasks that would seem obscure without the author walking us through them. Why do the maps come so alive when we have a guide walking us through them? (via)

At its most basic, my conceptual point about Atlantic Yards is to look at as much as you can. When you see my map from far enough away, it looks like all of Brooklyn is covered in green circles, but zoom in further and there are gaps begging to be filled in. And I think for now at least, that’s how it’s supposed to look. (via)

They’ve come to accept that some gaps are supposed to be there, that their projects will be defined by holes and incompleteness. In recognizing what maps can and can’t do well, we’ve been able to look at them more critically as media, and at mapping as a method — as only one of myriad media and methods at our disposal.

Bodenhamer advocates for the integration of multiple media formats — “a letter, memoir, photograph, painting, oral account, video” — and types of research material — “oral testimony, anthology, memoir, biography, images, natural history and everything you might ever want to say about a place” — into what he calls “deep maps,” maps that are “visual, time-based, and structurally open” (26-8).

They are genuinely multimedia and multilayered. They do not seek authority or objectivity but involve negotiation between insiders and outsiders, experts and contributors, over what is represented and how. Framed as a conversation and not a statement, deep maps are inherently unstable, continually unfolding and changing in response to new data, new perspectives, and new insights” (26-7).

Whether we regard mapping as the “umbrella” strategy encompassing these other methods and modalities, or mapping as only one component of a “deep” spatially-oriented methodology, it’s important that we think critically about each component of our “toolbox” — that we resist the temptation to fetishize the data or the map, that we appreciate what each of our tools can and can’t do, that we devise a strategy by which these various tools can work in a complementary fashion to do justice to the rich spatial and temporal dimensions of our subjects of inquiry.


Thinking Think

A group of my Urban Media Archaeology students organized a fieldtrip to the IBM Think exhibit at Lincoln Center this past weekend. We entered via a vamp bordered, along the east, by a series of panels enumerating the various ways that technology — particularly IBM’s technology, of course — can “mak[e] the world work better.”

Christo and I appreciated this mention of the city’s “legacy systems” — a Kittlerian reference to “city as computer

Along the west side of the entry ramp was a 123-foot “data visualization wall” that animated quite a few of the applications represented on the aforementioned panels. None of my photos do justice to the wall, but there’s a really lovely slideshow on Scientific American‘s website. At the bottom of the ramp we got our free tickets for the 12-minute “immersive film” inside the exhibition space.

Once we got inside — Holy Kubrick! Monoliths galore! We found ourselves sharing the space with 40 seven-foot screens enclosed within mirrored walls, trapping them — and us — in a reflective zone of infinite regress.

via Scientific American

The screens were organized into six-panel “pods,” and we were advised to stand either in the center of one of the pods (there seemed to be three or four separate clusters of screens), affording a view of multiple screens simultaneously; or along the mirrored walls, where we could experience the immersive effect via reflection. Once the show began, we were, as IBM would have it, “enveloped in a rich narrative about the pattern of progress, told through awe-inspiring stories of the past and present.” The imagery was distributed across the screens; we frequently found ourselves spinning around to capture the full dimensionality of the visuals. A train that approached from the south screen could be seen, seconds later, receding into the distance on the north screen. A field of rice — the ‘before” shot — visible on the southeast screen stood opposite a steaming bowl of cooked rice — the “after” — on the northwest screen. (What do trains and rice have to do with IBM, you ask? It should be obvious! Technology touches every aspect of “humankind’s quest for progress!”) Christo pointed out that even the backs of the screens, which faced interstitial spaces where no one was standing, featured unique imagery. The film was as much a kaleidoscopic as an immersive experience.

Once the formal show was over, the 40 screens turned into interactive touchscreens, “transforming the space into a forest of discovery” (!) Each screen featured one of five steps — Seeing, Mapping, Understanding, Believing, Acting — from IBM’s gerund-based “approach to making the world work better.” This, we understood, is the recipe for world-changing — a “distinct, repeatable pattern” for progress. [all quotations via Think website]

Interacting with the screens via a gestural language — swipe, poke, pinch, etc. — familiar to us thanks to our smartphone training, we explored the history of measurement and visualization tools (Seeing); we traced the history of mapping and data visualization (Mapping); we studied models, prototypes, calculations, and other tools that allow us to better understand the complexity of the world’s systems (Understanding); we traveled to various sites of progressive action — attempts to thwart credit card fraud or enhance telecommunications infrastructures or improve health care — around the world (Acting): and we met, via a dozen or so interviews, individuals who believe in the possibility of technological process (Believing).

The entire experience had been overwhelmingly object-oriented and techno-centric — agency implicitly lies with the technology and the techno-social systems they construct — until we got to Believing. Here’s where we heard the human stories, where we saw human faces and heard human voices. Believing: this is what humans do best. We believe in technology’s potential to actualize progress.

Change is easy. It happens by itself. Progress, on the other hand, is deliberate. It won’t take root until someone believes it’s possible and convinces others that action will be worth the effort (via Think).

It’s our belief that transforms change into progress. Yet “sustainable progress requires massive coordination, cooperation, perpetual monitoring and automation. It takes teamwork and technology to manage complexity.” We need to form alliances, assemblages, with IBM’s techno-actants to effect ongoing progress. “Acting is never over,” IBM reminds us, “because our systems are alive.” Yeow. Unpack that sentence.

Repeatable patterns, algorithms, perpetual monitoring, infinite regress. I see where this is going.

After 20 minutes or so of touch-screen interaction, we were guided by attendants in “Think-branded” polo shirts out of the exhibition space — our “forest of discovery” — to make room for the next group. The exit hallway featured an display of 100 iconic moments from IBM’s 100-year history. Paul Rand was very much alive here — as were all kinds of fantastic dead media. This “exit experience” was meant to leave us with the impression that IBM’s historical “faith in science,…[and the] pursuit of knowledge” have fostered a shared “belief that together we can make the world better” — but instead, we Media Archaeologists reconceived this space as an exciting excavation of the strata of media history.

After all that thinking, I needed something a little less intellectually taxing — so I wrapped up the afternoon with a lot of dumb metal at the Richard Serra show at Gagosian.


Urban Media Archaeology, Second Time Around

This coming semester Rory and I will be leading a new group of graduate students through Urban Media Archaeology. We applied the many logistical and technical lessons we learned from the (inaugural) Fall 2010 class to make this second iteration into what we hope is an equally satisfying, yet slightly less fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, experience. Highlights of the Fall 2011 class include:

  • A walking tour of cellphone infrastructure with Michael Chen and Justin Snider;
  • Precedents!: this makes a huge difference! Last year, we started from scratch, and therefore had no experience to build on;
  • Visits from Fall 2010 students, who’ll share their projects and their work processes;
  • A visit from Matt Knutzen, Assistant Chief of the Map Division at the NYPL;
  • Optional weekend field trips;
  • A new lesson on spatialized data modeling;
  • Another pecha kucha mid-term presentation, with awesome guest critics;
  • More paper prototypes;
  • And a peer-review session at the end, in which we develop and apply a set of evaluative criteria for serious peer evaluation of “multimodal” scholarship.

Here’s a not-quite-finished version of the syllabus. And while you’re at it, you might as well check out our class website, which, as of right now, still needs a new logo.


Of Pigeons and Power Plants

On the very last night of the fall semester I pulled an all-nighter to finish reviewing my Urban Media Archaeology students’ final projects before my husband and I caught a 6am flight for our Christmas visit to Chicago. Thus, I didn’t get a chance before the break to say anything about the students’ fantastic projects. It was a whirlwind semester: we learned about “urban media” and media archaeology, about maps as media, about the digital humanities and multimodal scholarship, about archival research, about data management, about software development, and loads more stuff. We took a walking tour of Lower Manhattan’s internet infrastructure with Andrew Blum, talked with Jesse Shapins about his own urban media art projects and parallels between our class and his Media Archaeology of Place class at Harvard, did a Pecha Kucha, played with paper prototypes, and did some mad-crazy things with spreadsheets.

The students developed some fantastic projects; their topics included subway symbols; the human labor of newspaper circulation; locative media and food delivery; literary, film- and music-focused walking tours; PacMan and urban navigation; the lost movie theaters of Brooklyn; carrier pigeons; zines’ production and distribution networks; New York media companies’ evolving headquarters; the history of New York radio; speakeasies; cell phone signal strength; screen-based public art; the evolution of New York’s electricity networks; and the history of the city’s coffeehouses. I shared their works-in-progress as part of Parsons’ Streaming Culture series and at the Reimagining the Archive conference at UCLA in November. Rick Prelinger tweeted us some props.

Our semester wasn’t without its hiccups, though. Our collaboration with another class didn’t work out exactly as planned — so we ended up with a mapping tool that didn’t have all the bells and whistles we were (perhaps naively) hoping for. And we don’t yet have an interface design, so the final projects don’t look quite as pretty as we would’ve liked them to. It took me a little while to figure out how to help everyone, including myself, “reframe” these minor disappointments. In thinking through our process over the course of the semester — and marveling at the student’s dedication to their projects, and how thoughtfully they approached their work — I came to realize that all those un-checked-off items on our wish list weren’t signs of failure. Rather, they were an integral — and incredibly meaningful — part of the process. Our class, it became obvious (and should’ve been obvious all along), was way more about process than product. I think we learned some super-valuable lessons about accepting the inevitable frustrations of collaboration and technical snafus, about being comfortable with incompletion, about looking past the gee-whizzery of interactive tools (especially mapping tools — and particularly in regard to research-based projects in the digital humanities) and appreciating the quality of the research and arguments they’re meant to present.

For now, I’ll highlight a few projects that represent not only the great promise of “multimodal” scholarship, but also strong scholarship by any standard, in any format. Again, the interface isn’t yet intuitive (or attractive) — so my advice is to start with the project description, then work through the “Arguments,” which will link you to relevant archival records that have been posted to the map. The system’s still pretty slow, too, so please be patient!

Architecture of Media” examines the evolving headquarters of the New York Times, Tribune, World, and Herald, and the Wall Street Journal, in an attempt to appreciate how publishers use “their own buildings in New York City as a way of advertising their preeminence and establishing themselves as an integral part of the city’s cultural fabric.”

The objective of “Mapping the Social Life of Zines” is to “both physically and theoretically map the trajectories of self-publishing channels/networks in NYC. The premise is that mapping the social dimensions of zine exchange — the ways in which zines were produced, appropriated, and consumed throughout their histories by different individuals, at different times —  provides valuable insights into how sub-cultural communities were formed and social ties maintained. Moreover,   mapping the geographic circulation routes of exchange allows for a unique spatial analysis of how zines influenced political moments and alliances between movement organizations.”

Pigeography” examines pigeons as communication conduits and makes use of fantastic sound-based arguments. [The video isn’t a part of the project.]

Walking Tours: The City Underfoot and Over Time“aims to explore “how…three walking tours…offer (or don’t) a new way of exploring the city conceptually, historically and physically” — and “how walking tours offer radically new and enlightening ways of exploring and understanding the city, whether in its current state, its historical incarnations, or its never-ending transformations.” There’s an unfortunate bug here: the sheer volume of data points on this map overtaxed the system,” which means that despite the fact that each record is geotagged, there don’t appear to be any markers on the map. If you navigate via the “Arguments,” you’ll still encounter all the relevant geotagged records and appreciate the richness of this project.


The Big Dig: Urban Media Archaeology

“Pull down art, Friedrich-Ebert-Str., Wuppertal” by Henning on Flickr:

Although this is the first occasion I’ve had to begin mapping out my fall Urban Media Archaeology class, I’ve been mulling over the course content — the relationships between media systems and cities — for a decade or more. And for the past several months — ever since January, when I was asked to finalize the course description for a class that was then only a mirage on a distant horizon — I’ve been thinking about how to translate that content into various forms — the form of a syllabus, the form of an effective collaborative experience for my students, the form of a successful final class project. It’s been like playing Tetris: I’m piecing together pedagogical building blocks representing not only (1) the ostensible course subject matter, “urban media,” but also (2) methodology, including both the macro-level working models of “multimodal scholarship” [*] and the micro-level methodologies through which students will research their case studies; and (3) relevant theoretical frameworks, from media archaeology to science and technology studies to cultural geography.

Our final project will be an interactive map. Rather than adopting existing mapping technologies and having to accept or work around their functional limitations (e.g., most are cartographically based and fail to represent urban systems that exist “beyond the grid”; most can’t capture the x, y, and z dimensions of urban space, which is especially important in a place like New York, a city distinguished by its verticality!) and built-in ideologies, we’ll build our own mapping platform in collaboration with the “URTingNYC” class in Parsons’ MFA program in Design and Technology. We’re not making a map for the sake of making a map — not because “mapping” is a pedagogical buzzword, or because of the popularity of information visualization. We’re making a map because, as I hope we’ll come to see, our subject matter lends itself to exploration through mapping, and mapping might enable us to examine our subject in a new way [again, see * below].

Students’ work will be both individual and collaborative: each student will be responsible for completing an individual research/production project — but he or she must frame and execute his or her project in light of how it might eventually “speak to” the others (in the end, we’re looking for synergies, for convergences and divergences, between the projects, and for a “larger story” that the collective class project can tell), and how it will lend itself to presentation not in a traditional typewritten text, but in a multimodal, online format. We’ll have plenty of group check-ins — both within our class and between our class and the Parsons URT class — throughout the semester, but the formal work of amalgamating individual projects into “clustered” themes with overarching arguments will require a few weeks at the end of the semester. So, unlike most of the classes I — and, I think it’s safe to say, most faculty — teach, which conclude with students handing in their individual projects at the very end of the semester, and perhaps sharing these projects with their classmates during the last class meeting, we’ll ask everyone to complete the bulk of their individual research and to have prepared beta-versions of their online presentation of this work before Thanksgiving, so that we can dedicate the final few weeks of the semester almost exclusively to reflection, making connections, and revision [**]. The presentations on the last day of class, then, will feature a project that has gone through multiple rounds of revision and refinement, and that reflects a great deal of careful thought about how 17 graduate students’ individual contributions, and the work of two graduate classes, coalesce into something greater than the sum of their parts.

So, here’s how the semester might go. I’m still working on plans for a field trip or two; these excursions will likely take place outside of class, since ours is an evening class. The following schedule is still very much subject to change. I welcome feedback!

#1: September 1: Review syllabus and course goals and structure. I introduce my own case study, which will focus on the interrelationships between New York’s telegraph, telephone, and pneumatic tube networks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Students discuss their preliminary case study interests [***]. Examine Manhattan Timeformations (below) and the Stanford Spatial History Project. For next class, read Friedrich Kittler on the “city as a medium,” James Donald and Vyjayanthi Rao on the “city as an archive,” and Erkki Huhtamo and Siegfried Zielinski on media archaeology.

September 8:No Class: Rosh Hashanah

#2: September 15: Inserting the Urban into Media Archaeology. Introduce “media archaeology” and explore what it might mean if we interpreted “archaeology” more literally — if we actually looked for material evidence of the historical media systems that laid the foundation for our city’s contemporary media. For next class read Joel Tarr, Thomas Finholt & David Goodman on urban telegraph networks; Emily Bills on the history of Los Angeles’s telephone networks; Kazys Varnelis on the relationships between historical and new telecom networks; and a few historical documents from the New York Telegraph and Newspaper Transportation Company Records at the NYPL.

#3: September 22: From Tubes to T-1s: Layers of New York’s electronic media infrastructures. Consider how spatial representations might allow us to better understand the relationships among these infrastructures. Possible guest speaker. For next class, read Tara McPherson and Steve Anderson on multimodal scholarship and its genres, UCLA Digital Humanities & Media Studies’ “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0,” Todd Presner, Tom Elliott and Sean Gillies on digital humanities mapping.

#4: September 29: Multimodal Mapping: Examine the affordances, limitations, and politics of mapping (and data visualization) as a scholarly and pedagogical methodology and mode of presentation. Study a few representative “digital humanities” and “critical art” projects: Commentpress, Pleriplurban, projects on Vectors, “Wunderkammer, Cornell, and the Visual Canon of Arrangement,” Manhattan Timeformations, etc. Experiment with various mapping case studies, from psychogeographical maps to sensory cartographies to scholarly projects like Hypercities, Pleiades, and examples from the Stanford Spatial History Project. Report on utility. For next class, develop proposal for individual projects and mapping tool features needed to support projects. For next class, read Alison Sant on mapping “off the grid,” Jeremy Hight on “rhizomatic cartography,” and Jesse Shapins on mapping in critical art.

#5: October 6: Mapping and Researching in XYZ: Discuss mapping platform’s necessary functionality. Discuss methods for secondary and primary research for students’ projects [****]. Highlight relevant local research collections. For next class, read about media archaeology and urban history methods; archival and other primary research methods. Develop research plan.

#6 – #10: October 13 through November 10: Case Studies: I will design these case studies to support students’ projects. Each week three or four students will present their work-in-progress — both their topical research and their emerging plans for presenting that research on the map. I will have chosen one short text relevant to each project, and we’ll discuss the students’ work in light of these texts, and in relationship to one another. From week to week, we’ll consider potential synergies between students’ individual projects, and how we might use the map to visualize/sonify/textualize those inter-project connections and to present an over-arching argument. For Week 11, all students must have posted a beta version of their projects on the map.

#11: November 17: Networking Nodes: All students will deliver short presentations of their research. Each will receive feedback, and we’ll discuss what we might learn by layering or networking these projects on the map — and what modes of presentation can help us to convey these larger, multi-project arguments.

November 24: No Class: Thanksgiving

#12: December 1: Final Case Study: We’ll consider one final “urban media system” that hasn’t been addressed in students’ projects. Reading TBD. Group Work. Students will have received edits for their individual contributions; these must be addressed by the following class.

#13: December 8: Group Work. Plan for Presentation.

#14: December 15: Mock Final Presentation. Identify Necessary Final Revisions.

#15: December 20 (Make-Up for Previous Holidays): Final Presentation of Project to New School Provosts and Other Administrators


[*] As Tara McPherson writes, multimodal scholarship posits that

[a] hands-on engagement with digital forms reorients the scholarly imagination, not because the tools are cool or new (even if they are) or because the audience for our work might be expanded (even if it is), but because scholars come to realize that they understand their arguments and their objects of study differently, even better, when they approach them through multiple modalities and emergent and interconnected forms of literacy. The ability to deploy new experiential, emotional, and even tactile aspects of argument and expression can open up fresh avenues of inquiry and research (121).

We’ll be exploring how this new method might allow us to ask new questions, to learn differently, to share our work with new publics and invite them into our process.

[**] We’ll be thoroughly documenting our process — the dead-ends, the frustrations, the successes. This is in keeping with the digital humanities’ mission to promote transparency and to welcome other publics into the scholarly process. Our class will be pilot-testing the new mapping tool that we’re developing in concert with the Parsons “URTingNYC” class; we intend for this map to serve as a platform for future urban-related faculty and student work at The New School. Therefore, we need to think of our work as laying a foundation. In our project documentation we can make recommendations for those who come after us, encourage others to conduct new research on specific topics that will bridge existing student projects; encourage others to make use of promising collections we found in local archives, but just didn’t have the time to review; make recommendations for future tech developers to add new features to the platform so that it’s better able to accommodate the methods we want to employ; etc.

[***] Students are welcome to join me in researching the history of New York’s telegraph and telephone networks. Others might focus on the history of the city’s publishing centers, its neighborhood newspapers, its low-powered radio stations, its recording studios, its tv cable networks, its telco hotels, its mail delivery routes, its movie palaces, its significant spaces of public address and debate, etc.

[****] I’ll encourage everyone to begin by consulting published works on their topics and, in the process, to note particular libraries, archives, special collections, and other primary sources the authors have used in conducting their research. We’ll be emphasizing primary research; all students will be asked to work in local archives, make use of local experts, visit local sites, etc., and to use our map to feature and contextualize these primary documents. I’m making arrangements with the New York Public Library, the New York Historical Society, and other local collections to allow us special access and/or reproduction privileges; we’re especially encouraged to draw attention to underused collections. I’ll help individual students to identify other collections (public, private, and corporate) that might prove useful for their own work. We’ll need to keep in mind, though, that our purpose in posting this primary material is not simply to throw it all up online and say, “Hey, check out all this cool stuff I found in the archives!” Rather, we’re using these materials to help us build new, uniquely local arguments and New York’s historical media systems. An added benefit is that we draw attention to the offers of these local institutions’ collections.

Students will also be encouraged to interview local experts — not only scholars, but also people wh0 have hands-on experience with their research topics. I, for instance, might record an interview with a postal service worker who used to man the pneumatic tubes at the General Post Office on 8th Avenue. A student focusing on cable television infrastructure might tour a particular neighborhood with a cable company technician and record the experience.  A student focusing on immigrant newspapers might interview former publishers, or someone examining low-powered radio might talk with former DJ’s.