January 2012

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I’m really concerned about education in America. For one thing, the education senate committee in Indiana is recommending that public schools teach creationism. I don’t know whether the motion will pass, but I cannot believe that religious topics are being discussed in a school system that’s still struggling to eradicate bullying and improve literacy rates. I have nothing against people wanting to teach their own creation myths but not in the science classroom, please, and don’t waste time on debating this when basic needs go unmet.

In addition to the tension between religious and secular concerns, the problem, I think, is partly that the quality of American education varies drastically by region and economy, and partly that we focus on competitiveness and testing over promoting equality in the classroom.

This article on the Finnish school system addresses these concerns. Finnish schools have no standardized tests, and there are no private schools. Yet their schoolchildren have some of the top test scores in the world. The hypothesis is that in creating an equal education opportunity for everyone, and by allowing teachers to evaluate the needs of their students rather than conform to a national curriculum meant to produce high test scores, Finland’s children are made to feel comfortable and cooperative in their classroom endeavors, which leads to better learning.

All Finnish schools must be safe and healthy environments: “Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.” Can you imagine what that would be like in America? If kids who were somehow different (shy or nerdy or LGBT or whatever) didn’t live in constant fear? If the kids who weren’t different didn’t feel the social pressures to bully? If kids could focus on their schoolwork because they were adequately fed?

I don’t know if I see Americans coming round to this viewpoint anytime soon, especially since it seems like we’d rather invest our money in other things. But I think that our policy of devaluing education will make things much worse both in our country and in our interactions with others. Having an poorly educated population (or a population with drastic discrepancies in education) in a democratic nation is a terrible idea – and it also means that we’re not well-equipped to compete with the scholars and inventors of other nations. Or, you know, just have intelligent conversations with people from other cultures. Because let’s not forget that America is multicultural, and if we’re not giving our children the education to maneuver in our own society, we’re doing them a great disservice.

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If I downloaded and activated the WordPress plug-in correctly, my website should go black from 8am-8pm Eastern Standard Time.

Why? Briefly, I think censorship is a terrible idea. Not only that, but it doesn’t work. Any time something becomes illegal, it simply goes underground and becomes more dangerous for everyone involved. The prohibition of alcohol in America in the 1920s didn’t work–it just led to the rise of organized crime and dangerous homemade alcohols. In places where abortion is illegal, women find ways to do it anyway and often pay with their lives. The “war on drugs” in the US is affecting lives in many countries, where drug cartels are benefiting from the underground trade and enforcing their regimes with violence. Need I go on?

Of course, not everything that’s censored is something that is potentially dangerous (this is why I’m in favor of legalizing drugs, so they can be regulated, taxed, and made more safe, because people will do them anyway; Portugal has had great luck with this policy). Books get censored because some group dislikes their message. Same with music and pretty much all art at some point. What is “appropriate” or “suitable” is highly subjective, which is another reason I’m quite wary of censorship.

Most laws, too, are subjective or relative to some degree. Very few laws are absolute and universal. Perhaps laws against killing and harming others come close–but then killing is institutionalized through war and the execution of criminals, so there are always exceptions. So when I see a law that says that certain kinds of reproduction/transmission of knowledge or music or movies are illegal? All it says to me is that in this day and age, certain corporate interests are being made into law. There’s nothing inherently good or evil about the situation. It’s a law because enough people (or a few people with enough money) think it’s a good idea that it’s a law. Not because it’s essentially good or right or  true.

This is why I support the protest blackout.

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The details are yet to be finalized, but I am supposed to give a lecture on the digital humanities at a university in India next month. I am excited and frantically trying to figure out how to organize said lecture–where to start and where to go?

First, as far as I can tell, the digital humanities (DH from here out) haven’t made much of an impact in India. This could be an infrastructure issue, or a scholarly communication issue; I’m not sure yet. The International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad (IIIT-H) has a Ph.D. program in Exact Humanities, which seems to encompass DH. There’s a conference on Digital Libraries. The Centre for Internet & Society has brought in a DH lecturer at least once. The technology to make DH a scholarly reality certainly exists, as seen in this Chronicle report on a high-tech plan to cheat on entrance exams.

Second, how do I introduce DH to an audience (graduate students in a folklore/anthropology program) that probably hasn’t heard much about it yet? I’m open to suggestions, but so far I’m planning on starting with a bit of the field’s history, such as Father Busa’s founding role, and other historical tidbits from A Companion to Digital Humanities. I’d like to cover some of the main tools used in DH, as well as some of the main topics DHers tend to be concerned with. It’s hard to narrow down (especially as these topics overlap) but so far I know I’ll be covering:

  • Text analysis – starting with concordances, lists, simple statistics; I met Aditi Muralidharan at DH 2011 and was really impressed with Wordseer, so I’ll probably mention the “beautiful” in Shakespeare example (relevant to my own research on beauty in fairy tales)
  • Network analysis – I’m abjectly grateful for Scott Weingart’s Demystifying Networks! I am not a very math-y person except when it comes to pattern recognition, so I generally need these sorts of things broken down in plain language, which Scott does quite well; I might also mention the work of Franco Moretti and Elijah Meeks (I think Moretti’s Shakespeare examples from the Stanford Literary Lab’s pamphlets are clear enough to mention briefly in a lecture, and I like Meeks’s defense of visualizations as “self-contained arguments about the structure and makeup of particular objects” plus the TV Tropes examples are pure fun)
  • Visualizations – some of the network discussion will bleed into the visualization discussion; as another example, I just discovered Wordle and think it would be great for making visualizations of narrative folklore texts
  • Mapping & spatial technologies – I’ll mention some GIS stuff, and probably go into details about Tim Tangherlini‘s mapping work in folklore and literature, such as his map of Ibsen’s travels (I’m more interested in his Danish folktale stuff, but can’t get full access to the maps, which I could’ve sworn were online last year)
  • Archives – online archives are an exciting possibility for those of us whose work has ethnographic and historical dimensions, but they also come with consent and ethical issues (as well as bureaucratic ones depending on your country’s or institution’s policy on research involving human subjects); I’m still trying to decide which example to use in my talk, but I’ll be sure to mention accessibility and usability issues (such as user-interface, graphics display, and so on)
  • Museums – here I’ll discuss some of the work of Jason Baird Jackson from IU (my home institution), such as the online Ethnology project of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History
  • Digital publishing – one of the formats DHers are struggling to get recognized for tenure and promotion requirements; digital publishing is also being touted as a novel way to convey material, such as David Shorter‘s “web cuaderno” documenting Yoeme culture
  • Open access – obviously a big issue in DH and politics at large; who owns our ideas, our software, our journals? Who gets access (for what price) to not only our books and articles, but also our research methods, teaching materials, and other “gray matter”? I will mention some OA journals such as Digital Humanities Quarterly, though my audience for this talk may be more interested in the Indian Folklore Research Journal and Folklore and Folkloristics
  • Collaboration – another hot topic in DH due to the multidiscplinarity that prevails; it might be interesting to discuss different models for collaboration (such as the lab set-up vs. a handful of individuals who decide to work together without infrastructure)

I will cover the first three (text analysis, network analysis, & visualizations) more extensively in a later lecture on my dissertation research on gender and the body in West European fairy tales, as I made use of all these methods to supplement traditional folkloristic analysis. I’m aware of some gaps in the list too; for example, my knowledge of programming is weak, thus I don’t have a lot to say about it yet, other than “find someone to collaborate with who has the skills you lack.” I’m totally open to ideas, though, should someone  take pity on me.

Some of the resources I plan on drawing on, and referring my audience to, include:

Finally, I’m really concerned not only about accessibility issues (mentioned above), but also relevance. Many of my audience members study indigenous populations of India and the world, hence things like Google Ngrams (super-exciting to English lit types) might not thrill them. By using Western examples since they’re largely what I’m familiar with, am I participating in a kind of scholarly colonialism? How can I address my lecture to the needs of the “institutionally subaltern” as Matthew K. Gold puts it in his Whose Revolution? Towards a More Equitable Digital Humanities? How can I conscientiously talk about how great THATCamps and the NEH Summer Institutes are to people who may never get funding to make it to one? (heck, I’d like to make it to those too someday!)

These issues appear pretty daunting to manage in just one lecture, especially given that I only recently got into DH. But I love teaching, and my background in folkloristics means I’m pretty good at getting a grasp on narratives (including disciplinary narratives) as well as the worldview of a population.

I already ran my lecture ideas by my friend and colleague Scott Weingart, but I’d love feedback from other DHers.

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For the non-folklorists out there, we use the term “tale type” to refer to a folktale or fairy tale plot that has shown stability throughout time and space. “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood” are great examples of tale plots that are transmitted in different languages, countries, and time periods. But here you run into the problem of tale title; “Cinderella” doesn’t bear that name in every telling, so how are we scholars supposed to keep track of them all?

The tale type system, pioneered by Finn Antti Aarne in the early 1900s and revised by American Stith Thompson in the mid-20th century and updated by German Hans-Jorg Uther in 2004, assigns numbers to tale plots. So “Cinderella” is Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) 510A, “Little Red Riding Hood” is ATU 333, and so on.

However, there are problems with the system. As fairy-tale scholar Donald Haase writes on his Facebook:

I am happy to announce a new project for folk-narrative and fairy-tale scholars. For decades we have relied on the Aarne-Thompson tale-type index to understand the essence of a tale, but its skeletal description of each type’s essential plot prevents us from seeing other possibilities. The recent revision of the AaTh index was an important first step in rethinking and revising those descriptions. The Internet, however, now makes possible a new way of thinking. Devoted to breaking the magic spell of Aarne-Thompson, I propose a communal catalog of #TwitterTypes. What are #TwitterTypes? Posted on Twitter, #TwitterTypes are new summaries of traditional tales in 140 characters or less (including some version of the tale’s title). Why Twitter? Because the discipline of 140 characters composed on a computer or smartphone forces creative choices about a tale’s “essence,” and those choices reveal, to the Tweeter, the alternatives — the “Tweets-not-taken.”


The cool thing is that Haase basically wants to crowd-source this, a technique noted by digital humanities scholars and which I’m really curious about for fairy-tale studies:

Why a communal catalog? Imagine not a SINGLE effort to capture the SINGLE essence a tale but MANY efforts to express its MANY possibilities. Besides, I don’t want to do this all myself. So this is a CFT — a Call for #TwitterTypes. A call for contributions to the omnipresent, cloud-based #TwitterType Catalog, an endless project that exists everywhere and nowhere, a catalog that grows every time a fairy-tale scholar tweets. The first two #TwitterTypes–for “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Frog King or Iron Henry”–follow soon on Twitter, with simultaneous postings on my Facebook page. (Thanks, Gary, for having inspired this project.)


Examples of Haase’s include Blue Beard: (he-said-she-said) I do.–DON’T!–I won’t.–YOU DID!–I didn’t.–YOU’RE DONE FOR!–DON’T THINK SO!! (He didn’t; done in.)

I’m going to start posting some of my own, and I encourage fairy-tale enthusiasts to do the same, and please share this link! In an update, Haase announced that we’ll go with the hashtag #TwTy since it’s shorter, allowing for more creativity within Twitter’s character limits (though I think starting with the #TwitterTypes hashtag to let searchers know that you’re participating might be helpful). Looking for inspiration? Folklorist D. L. Ashliman runs a great site of electronic folklore & mythology texts, many of which include tale type numbers. His Grimms’ tale listing is here. Another great fairy-tale site online is Sur La Lune. If you can’t find the tale type numbers, that’s fine, I think using the title will work too.

So, have at, and pass it on!

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Here is the CFP for the International Conference of Young Folklorists, “Theoretical Frames and Empirical Research,” that will take place in Vilnius, April 15-17, 2012. I’ll still be a visiting Ph.D. student in Tartu, Estonia at that time, and it’s only, hm, an 8-hour bus ride or so, so I’m in!

I’m really excited about the topic, because it’s something I tackle in my dissertation. To that end, I came up with a paper proposal (with an unwieldy but descriptive title, sigh) that I’d like to share:

Where the Empirical Meets the Theoretical: Merging Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches to Fairy Tales

Culture is patterned—so numbers and relationships between them matter—but culture is also multilayered, complex, symbolic, and subjectively experienced. Because culture, and especially expressive culture, can both be measured and felt, our research needs to incorporate both. In this paper, I explore how quantitative and qualitative approaches to fairy tales best help illuminate their various meanings. Drawing examples from my doctoral work on gender and the body in classical European fairy tales, I demonstrate how shifting between theoretical and empirical lenses enhances the research process.

The international tale type ATU 516, “Faithful John,” provides an excellent case study for an analysis that utilizes the intersection of empirical and theoretical frames. “Faithful John” is a highly canonical fairy tale with a male protagonist, appearing in classical collections such as Basile and the Grimms as well as ethnographic collections from various Indo-European-speaking regions and beyond. By counting the body nouns and adjectives that appeared in four versions of the tale, I was able to empirically ground an interpretation that was also theoretically informed by feminist theory, masculinity studies, and folkloristics. Additionally, I moved between close and distant readings of the texts, drawing insights from a broad study of men’s bodies in 233 tales, and then applying those findings to the narrower sample of ATU 516 texts discussed in this case study. Ultimately, my goal is to show how folklorists can benefit from combining quantitative and qualitative interpretive methods, fusing the empirical and the theoretical in our research regardless of the topic.


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I sorta found the digital humanities by accident. Or rather, they found me.

But before I launch into that story, I want to remark on the significance of personal narratives in both daily life and disciplinary identities. I learned from my mentor Sandra Dolby, Professor Emerita of Folklore at Indiana University, that personal narratives are told to entertain and educate, but they also serve much deeper functions in social life. Telling a personal narrative is an invitation to intimacy: the teller offers up information about her worldview, politics, and social positioning.

The stories we tell that become part of our personal repertoires, rehearsed and formulaic, help define us to ourselves and to others. In the shifting world of digital humanities, where definitions and goals of the movement are still in flux, this is something important to keep in mind.

Back to my story. I was in the early stages of figuring out how exactly to implement the project I’d chosen for my dissertation: analyzing gender and the body in classical European fairy tales. I knew I wanted to bring in feminist theory, gender studies, and theories of the body, which folklorists have largely neglected to utilize. I was certain that bringing these interdisciplinary theories into dialogue with folkloristic theories would be very productive, and would help illuminate the meanings of fairy tales, which have been so persistent and pervasive in Western culture for the last few centuries. I also knew that I wanted an empirical dimension to my project–but how?

My first idea would’ve been terribly grueling. Once I’d selected my 233 texts to analyze, I decided to count the mentions of bodies and bodies parts by hand. Oldschool. Pencil and paper. “One nose. Two ears.” Etc. That would’ve taken foreeeever.

Luckily, my friend and colleague Scott Weingart had a better idea. Why not just make a database? That way, the computer can count the body instances, and also run simple statistics, and by the way there’s this cool thing called digital humanities that is all about this kind of research and will have more resources!

We collaborated on how to set up a database (actually, we ended up using a spreadsheet for simplicity’s sake), and then I hand-coded the bloody thing, which took a frustratingly long time, but saved a lot of time in terms of computation and analysis. On the plus side, spending that much time with my data helped me to really get a feel for it; I knew we’d be getting all kinds of cool numbers out of it when I finished coding, but it was quite helpful to subjectively experience the preponderance of certain kinds of body parts in my data (lots of people in French fairy tales fall to their knees begging for mercy, for instance).

But as soon as we started pulling out data… wow. It was really fascinating to see how many of the bodies described in fairy tales are young rather than old; how many more times beauty is mentioned with women rather than with men, and so on. The collaborative aspect of the project was also very cool, and it taught me a lot about how disciplinary experts can work together to contribute to knowledge that enhances both their fields.

In addition to the papers I delivered solo at folklore conferences, Scott and I gave papers at Digital Humanities 2011 and the 2011 meeting of the American Folklore Society. Both were well-received, to say the least–our Digital Humanities paper won the Paul Fortier Prize!

Without rehashing all of my dissertation work, I can summarize my encounter with the digital humanities as extremely productive (plus DH folks are some of my favorite people to follow on Twitter!). The overall thrust of my narrative seems to be: I wanted to do something, wasn’t quite sure how, and the digital humanities provided me with both a solution and inspiration to do more work along these lines (this is, incidentally, one of the barest narrative structures known to folklorists: lack and lack liquidated in the words of Vladimir Propp and Alan Dundes). I don’t know yet what my next project will be–perhaps an online ethnography? a crowd-sourced interpretation of fairy tales? an online archive of traditional dance cultures?–but I do know that I’m in the digital humanities for good.

I’ll close this post with a question: what do other digital humanities scholars’ personal narratives look like? How did the rest of you discover, invent, or stumble upon the field? Maybe this is just my ethnographic training speaking up, but I’d really love to collect and assemble our scholarly personal narratives. I think it’d provide a fascinating glimpse of the field’s contours, and if archived in public webspace, it could also help insiders find potential collaborators and outsiders to better understand what we do (and possibly join in).

Update: yes, I’ve seen Pannapacker’s Come To DH Moment piece. I’d love to see a more coherent narrative explaining someone’s “come to DH moment” though perhaps a different venue is needed to collect these narratives?

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Now that I’ve finished my dissertation, I feel that I can begin to blog in earnest.

Yes, it’s only a first draft, and yes, no doubt there’ll be revisions, but getting all those words down on the page was an important step in ushering in the beginning of the end. And even though I have academic papers to be writing for conferences and publications, having a first draft done frees up a lot of mental and creative energy for this kind of writing.

I’ve always loved writing. Yet I find myself strangely hesitant to commit words to paper in this blog. It’s taken a bit of pushing to get myself to make this first post-dissertation post. Reminding myself that writing is something I do whether I’m publishing it or not has helped. Reminding myself that this isn’t writing for a grade or for an editor has also helped – this blog is my venue to share my thoughts (scholarly for the most part) with the rest of the world. Reading this irreverently funny blog post 25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing has also helped give me the kick in the pants I need to start committing words to the screen NOW instead of the day after tomorrow.

So, since I mentioned finishing my dissertation at the outset of this post, I wanted to briefly discuss one of the issues to which I devote a full chapter of my diss: dualism. I explain what dualism is over at MySexProfessor.com, linking it to gender identity and sexual stereotypes, but there’s a lot more to be said about dualism.

In particular, I’m really fascinated by mind-body dualism, especially its gendered dimensions (in most  Western philosophical constructions, men=mind while women=body). I found evidence for this in my study of classical fairy tales, in which women were more likely to be linked with body description adjectives, particularly those evaluating beauty and those having to do with skin, while men are more likely to shed their bodies through physical transformations in the tales I evaluated. It seems clear to me that fairy tales contain elements of gendered mind-body dualism, and this is possibly one reason for the enduring popularity of fairy tales in the West: they reinforce existing cultural paradigms, and are thus perceived as important and pleasing.

There’s probably more I could’ve done with dualism in my dissertation, but I really had to wrap the thing up at some point. I would, however, like to see more research done on gendered dimensions of dualism in the future. For example, @kinseyinstitute linked to this article on placebos, which gives a number of instances in which the “mind over matter” attitude works wonders. Some of these cases studies were gender-specific, as when “Fertility rates have been found to improve in women getting a placebo, perhaps because they experience a decrease in stress.” I would be really curious to know how placebos hold up when filtered by gender, since they represent such an interesting aspect of the mind-body relationship; do placebos tend to work better for men or women under certain circumstances? Does it matter whether women perceived themselves as more embodied than men do, according to dualistic doctrine? Or is gender not even a factor in the effectiveness of placebos? Perhaps dualisms are prevalent in some elements of our lives, but not others?

Anyway, hopefully this is the first of many blog posts to come. We’ll see if I can maintain momentum!

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