digital humanities

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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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For over a month now, I have been thinking about the intersections between issues of interest to Digital Humanities (DH) scholars, feminists, and sex educators/researchers. I’m not the only one to consider these connections, but my positioning as a scholar who does DH and gender/feminist studies, while also writing for a Kinsey-affiliated sex blog, might help me see some novel patterns.

On the scholarly side, the DH community has written a lot about gender and our particular area of academia. Kicking off a large debate, Miriam Posner’s Some things to think about before you exhort everyone to code acknowledges the intersectionality of identities in academia, such that yeah, it is often harder for women to get into coding than men. Bethany Nowviskie’s response Don’t Circle the Wagons cautions us not to put up gender barriers where unnecessary, and she also makes the canny move of contextualizing this whole discussion in current US politics, which are, to say the least, not very woman-friendly. Among the many responses (so many of which were really wonderful, and I wish I could go into more detail about them; Miriam links some here), A spot of mansplaining by Hugh Cayless also helps contextualize coding as an exclusionary field, one which has ingrained social dynamics ensuring that women (also the elderly, and other groups not privileged with certain kinds of education or access) will have to fight for the opportunity to learn at all.

And, of course, there’s Tanya Clement’s I am a woman and I am a mother and I do DH that heart-rendingly exposes some of the sexism at the core of our field, as well as in academia and society in general. Her “fear that someone will find out all of the ways in which my identifications as a woman, a friend, a mother, and as a DH academic do not follow the way everyone else who has identified themselves as such might define those same identities” really resonates with me, as a shy/introverted but obstinate woman determined to make my own life and my own choices even if they’re not the norm.

While I don’t intend this to be a post about gender and coding in DH – as plenty of others have already covered that ground – I will say that I view coding like any other tool in my scholarly toolbox. I’ll learn it if it’s going to help me in some concrete way, but otherwise, I’ll leave it until later. I mean, to draw a parallel, given my scholarly interests in north-east India, I should totally get on learning some of those languages ASAP, but as I haven’t narrowed down which ethnic groups I want to work with, I can’t yet make an informed decision about which language to learn. Besides, English will get you pretty far in India. And if you have colleagues who will translate for you on field excursions, leading to a fruitful collaboration… well, you see where I’m going with this. This approach tends to work in DH too.

But back to cultural context (I am a folklorist; we really like talking about context). The DH Twittersphere discussions about open access really intrigued me. As much as the DH community seems to love to debate various minutiae, open access seems to be one of the significant themes connecting our discourse and our activism. I feel very strongly that we should make as much of our research as accessible to the public as possible. I recognize that there are some constraints on how much of that we can feasibly do right now, while still retaining enough value in the eyes of our institutions. Most of us agree, however, that closing down avenues of access is generally a bad idea; it tends to be motivated by power, money, and a desire to control.

In introducing the awesome initiative Open Folklore, my colleague Jason Jackson makes some incisive remarks, situating the project “in the context of the serials crisis, the corporate enclosure of society journal programs, the erosion of the university press system, the development of open source software for scholarly communication, and the rise of the open access movement as a progressive response to these changes.” The scholarly open access movement, in short, is a multifaceted response to a whole slew of social, economic, and political issues.

Further, Jackson (among others) has contextualized the open access issues within the larger cultural framework of the Occupy Movement, which has been drawing attention to the inequalities that riddle our society. While the Occupy Movement casts a broad shadow, one notable topic it includes is health care, specifically for women. Occupy Birth Control argues: “Just like the vast majority of Americans want an economic system that is just and want banks held accountable for predatory lending and other amoral (and sometimes illegal) practices and the government held accountable for enabling these practices, the vast majority of women—and the men who care about them—believe access to birth control is a right.”

The battle for women to have, essentially, open access to their bodies is growing increasingly bitter, with women wanting birth control called sluts or pregnant women told to just carry their non-viable fetuses to term like livestock do (references here). So we’ve got links between the movement for birth control and the Occupy movement, and links between the Occupy movement and the open access movement, which is of interest to DHers… I don’t think I’m mistaken in thinking “if A equals B, and if B equals C, then A equals C.”

Since I’m trained to see larger social patterns (again, yay folklore!), here’s my argument: that the same conservative, power-oriented cultural forces that want to close off our intellectual access are the same forces wanting to close off our sexual access. No, I’m not saying it’s one Mr-Burns-like figure in some global conspiracy to make everything suck for professors and sex-positive folks (I’ve read too much Foucault for that kind of view to be believable). Rather, I’m saying that there are large trends in our culture (mostly America, but the rest of the West to a degree) that are anti-intellectual and anti-feminist and anti-progressive, and a lot of these trends overlap, perhaps sharing funding by large corporations and churches and politicians. In a similar vein, I could ask: do you know who benefits from open-access everything? Everyone does… but who benefits from closed access stuff? Only some people… but they are going to fight to retain their power over access issues.

In short, I think a lot of the same people and ideologies that don’t want our research to be freely available also don’t want us to have knowledge about our bodies and sexualities. Obtaining accurate information about pregnancy and STIs, not to mention affordable birth control, is getting harder and harder in some places. An uninformed population that is constantly occupied (deliberate word choice there) with childcare (perhaps wanted, perhaps not) and student loan bills is an easily ruled population. And this is where I think scholars and sex activists really share common ground, even if we don’t always think of it that way.

I have a friend who is fond of saying: “All forms of oppression are connected.” Perhaps the connections are subtle, or perhaps you need to don your bell hooks goggles to see them better. Either way, I hope this post was at least a little thought-provoking.

Obviously, I’d love to see more DH scholars doing gender-aware work and advocating for access to better sex education (which our country really needs; our teen pregnancy and STI transmission rates blow in comparison to much of Europe). I’d also love to see more sex researchers and educators taking advantage of our cool digital tools and progress in the fight for open access publication. But I know that everyone has time constraints and obligations and we can all only do so much. So mostly, I’m writing this post to help spread awareness.

I also want to put my money where my mouth is, of course. Since I’m now Jeana Jorgensen, Ph.D., but I’m not yet certain which distinguished institution will hire me to do awesome stuff, I don’t know what kind of funding or research time I’ll be looking at for a study that applies DH strategies to understanding (and perhaps solving) a pressing sexuality issue of our day. I’d love to hear from the feminist/sex-ed blogosphere on this and maybe find someone with whom to collaborate.

In the meantime, feel free to go read What can I do for feminism? over at the always-fabulous Feminism 101. And for sex-positive folks that wandered over from the interwebs and want to get a sense of what this DH stuff I’m talking about it, feel free to read my DH lecture notes which contain links to a bunch of other resources that explain what we’re all about. transformdh (here on Twitter) is also a movement I’d like to get more involved with now that I’m more or less done with my dissertation. I think we could all have some really awesome conversations together.

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I’m still in conference-recovery mode (see my post on this year’s ICFA to see part of why I was so jazzed), so this is a very brief attempt to engage in the #DayofDH conversation.

As you may know–especially if you read my personal narrative about how I found DH–I recently wrote and defended a dissertation from a traditional humanistic discipline that incorporates DH methods. Some of the tensions inherent in this enterprise were discussed at my defense.

So because my dissertation was a part of my daily life for the past, um, over a year, I’d say my daily work has usually had a DH component to it. If nothing else, I reflected on what it means to apply quantitative methods to expressive culture (fairy tales in my case), and what it means to try to combine quantitative and qualitative approaches to the same topic. I also keep up with a lot of DHers on Twitter, which has been important for my sense of the scholarly community because I’ve spent a good chunk of the past year in Estonia, where there’s not a ton of DH stuff happening as far as I can tell (though since I was so immersed in my diss, it’s entirely possible that I missed something or someone).

Other than some DH engagement through my dissertation or the internet (Twitter, blogging, reading other people’s blogs), my days tend to be filled with various things that support me in these endeavors. I love to cook and dance and run, and fortunately I’m able to fit these things in on an almost-daily basis. I revise my CV and look for jobs and counsel my friends who are also my younger folklore colleagues. Since I don’t have a family to look after, I can go on outrageous excursions–watching avant-garde dance or rock climbing or traveling to new places–that keep my mind and body fresh.

Today, however, I’m thinking about how to revise my introduction to my dissertation. During my dissertation defense, some of the more traditional humanists on my committee brought up some interesting points: newer does not equal better, everyone engages with data differently, and empirical data can help us articulate what’s at stake in research. I’ll tackle these ideas one by one.

First, my committee brought up the idea that newer is not always better. Folkloristics is a discipline obsessed with tradition; we tend to use traditionality as the measure of whether we want to study something in the first place. If you can’t prove that something is traditional, even if it’s an emergent tradition or something that is traditional to a tiny group of people, then folklorists would question why we’d want to study it. Somehow related is the fact that a lot of folklorists tend to be luddites; this is very chicken-or-egg in my mind. Is someone drawn to the study of tradition since they want to live a more traditional/old-school lifestyle, or is someone who studies tradition going to be more and more into the idea of incorporating what they study into their lifestyle? I doubt it’s as simplistic as either A or B, but it’s a trend I’ve noticed.

However, I’m one of a growing number of folklorists who think technology is great. I’m eagerly awaiting the day when we can pipe the internet straight into our heads. A lot of us are on Twitter now, and we blog, and discuss DH issues like open access and such. We don’t necessarily think new is always better than old, since our discipline is pretty concerned with the old (or new takes on the old), but I do think we have room for new things in folkloristics. My dissertation, by applying new approaches (DH and feminist/body theories) to old topics (fairy tales) participates in a dialogue on evaluating the role of the new and the old in expressive culture and scholarship thereon.

Second, one of my advisors brought up the idea that everyone engages with data differently. She liked a lot of the nifty-looking charts that I had to visually demonstrate which body parts were described the most in fairy tales, since it helped her understand what my thought process was while handling the data before writing about it. One of my other advisors, though, did not see the charts as adding much value to the reader’s experience. This conversation, we bemusedly noted at the defense, proved that different people handle data in different (and valid) ways. It may sound obvious, but it’s one of the reasons I think there’s a lot of room to do DH in folkloristics, since expressive culture is a vast field and you need to have different perspectives to understand what’s going on with these very complex materials.

Finally, we talked about the use of empirical data to reinforce the importance of the main argument or, in other words, to help us get back to what’s at stake. Yeah, pretty pictures are pretty to look at, and visualizations can help you empirically back up your claims. But when you are dealing with material that bridges the subjective and the objective–as I believe all culture does–then you need to have language for spanning these interpretive realms. So, one thing I think DH can do for a study is help scholars use empirical data to read the material differently, and to connect back to why we’re doing all this in the first place. And believe me, in a field like fairy tale studies where huge amounts of scholarship have already been done on just about every aspect of the topic, having a fresh approach is invaluable. Being able to offer an empirical perspective can help us ask questions about what really interested us in the topic in the first place.

As a folklorist, I am deeply aware that we are enmeshed in cultural forms that repeat and reiterate and vary over time and space. As someone with a lot of postmodern perspectives on things, I tend to view multiplicity as a bonus. Put these aspects of my identity together, and how could I not be in favor of DH and a multiplicity of ways to approach an interesting topic?

That’s all I have for #DayofDH ruminations. Now I need to get back to my dissertation revisions!

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I just returned from a trip to India that was mostly a “working vacation” (I gave a conference paper, delivered several lectures, and did some preliminary fieldwork) but was still fun.

This Chronicle essay aptly captures some of my dilemmas as a scholar interested in India. The author notes: “As a member of the post-Orientalism-smackdown generation, I spent much of my time in India acutely self-conscious of the ways in which I, an enthusiastic academic wielding grand theories, might unwittingly perpetuate the abridgments, abstractions, and ‘positional superiority’ that so frustrated Said.”

Scholarly discourses have the potential to be colonizing, even when well-intended. I found this out when I presented my lecture introducing the digital humanities, and a member of the audience asked whether the “DH” might not more aptly stand for De Humanizing scholarship. He argued that Western technologies take on a colonizing function when used to study non-Western cultures… which I agree with, somewhat. But what to do? I noted that many of the DH tech and tools are available for free online, so all you really need is an internet connection to join the dialogue. Yet some of the universities I visited still lack a wired infrastructure. Electricity goes out during class, disrupting powerpoint presentations. One campus was usually left without electricity after dusk, making it impossible to work unless you had gas lamps and a fully charged laptop. What could I really say that would address the power inequalities and access disparities at work here?

We had a fruitful discussion after my DH presentation, and I’m confident that I at least gave local scholars something to think about. But they also gave me something to think about – which I think is the most important part of scholarly dialogue. It was an exchange, not a monologue. I offered more questions than answers, and they responded in kind. It’s a start, at least.

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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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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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