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Illustration by John D Batten for “Indian Fairy Tales” edited by Joseph Jacobs, 1892. From Wikimedia.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to the “At the Crossroads of Data and Wonder Symposium” held at Brigham Young University this month, where folklorists gathered with digital humanities folks to discuss the application of quantitative and digital methods to fairy-tale and folklore research. I compiled all of the #VisualizingWonder tweets into a Storify here, but I also thought the event merited a blog post.

Professor Jill Terry Rudy convened the event to brainstorm new projects, create a collaborative working group, and showcase her Algorithmic Visualizations of Fairy Tales in Television project, which is a fairy-tale teleography. Users can search the database for TV shows that include fairy-tale material, access visualizations, and so on. It’s shaping up to be an intriguing tool for research, and we’re all eager to see what comes of it. The associated blog, Fairy Tales at BYU, has some excellent blog posts presenting on their preliminary research, such as this post on Fractured Fairy Tales and the American Dream.

The other major collaborator in this investigation is Professor Pauline Greenhill, the driving force behind the International Fairy-Tale Filmography. She and other Canadian colleagues teleconferenced in for the symposium, and presented on their research, some of it methods-driven and some questions-driven. The IFTF is still growing and is accepting contributions from folks who’d like to suggest that films with fairy-tale tie-ins be added to the database.

This leads me into some major themes of the symposium. We discussed the benefits of crowd-sourcing information about fairy tales in pop culture, and the merits of involving the public in other ways. As scholars, what is our obligation to the public? Does it increase when we’re studying pop culture topics? If we start helping people understand fairy tales in film and television, do we risk becoming curators of material and losing our critical function?

Defining what we’re even studying is also a difficult task. Where do TV shows end and commercials begin? What about music videos?  What about pornography? If we want to understand the audience reception of fairy tales in film and TV, how do we go about setting parameters for studying how people process and remember and reformulate their content?

We spent a good deal of time discussing methodology, which is an endlessly fascinating topic to me (when I teach, I focus a lot on process, too, as in my Body Art class last fall). My perspective is that we scholars should strive to be as transparent as possible about our process. This is for a few reasons: first, it behooves us to be honest about what we’re doing, how, and why; it’s something we in ethnographic disciplines ask of our collaborators, and so we shouldn’t be afraid to do it too; and it’s often helpful for those who come after us. Given that I was presenting on some of my quantitative dissertation research, reframed to focus on birth and hierarchy in fairy tales, it made sense for me to discuss my methods honestly, both to give my peers insight into my working process and assumptions, and to issue a few cautionary tales about what not to do in this vein of research.

We also talked about future publications and presentations, and even though I’m not amassing publications in the hopes of getting tenure (since I’m currently an adjunct professor, not a tenure-track professor), I’m pretty excited to see where all this goes. I would be thrilled to have my name associated with anything that comes of this. Hell, it was an honor being invited to the symposium in the first place!

I could go on and on, but I’d urge readers to check out the top 2 links, containing a list of the attendees/topics and my Storified tweets for more information. It was a fantastic experience, and I hope to be able to post updates about the status of these projects in the future.

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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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