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Digital Corpora and the (lost) Art of Academic Blogging: Interview with Elizabeth Losh

Digital Corpora and the (lost) Art of Academic Blogging: Interview with Elizabeth Losh

Director of the Culture, Art & Technology Program at the University of California, San Diego, Elizabeth Losh is a busy woman with a diverse range of interests. Among other things, her publications include critical inquiries into the nature of institutions as digital media producers, digital activism and human rights, videogames for the military and emergency first-responders, and the role of gender and sexuality in technoculture. In addition to her textbook Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (written with Jonathan Alexander, Bedford 2013), numerous chapters in edited collections, and myriad journal articles in venues ranging from Literary and Linguistic Computing to Enculturation, Dr. Losh has written Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press 2009) and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, forthcoming).

Also an avid and seasoned blogger, Dr. Losh is a member of the HASTAC steering committee, and I caught up with her in December to talk about her career and her vision for the future of Digital Humanities and HASTAC.

In the range of fields you navigate in your research (because there seem to be many of them), if you had to choose, what would be your primary field at present?

Well, they look really diverse, but actually, the main thing that I study is institutions as digital content creators. So that in that era of the dawn of the world wide web, there was all of this interest in personal expression, particularly this idea that everyone could self publish. There was this sort of celebration of an ideology of individuality, and as a rhetorician, I’m always interested in the fact that people are always speaking for others, and often speaking for institutions and organizations rather than for themselves. So for me, I was interested in how do we think about the relationship between digital media and users who are actually institutional figureheads. “How do institutions make media?” was the sort of question I was interested in. The thing about institutions as media makers is there’s an inherent conflict between being a regulator and being a content creator. Because if you want to sort of police content creation (which is what institutions do), it becomes tricky when you’re also making these digital files that can reach unintended audiences and be used for all kinds of unanticipated purposes. So, what I would say is that digital rhetoric is the big umbrella that contains all the other smaller pieces that I’ve been working on.

Lately I’ve also done a lot of work on activists: how do activists manage these sort of questions of organizational communication? When what they’re really doing is responding to institutions. So instead of just having the activists as the sort of nexus of personal expression, now activists really have to think about themselves in relationship to the state in a way that they didn’t have to before.

As a digital scholar, a digital rhetorician, what would you say are the most integral tools or daily practices in your scholarship?

Well, for five years, I blogged every day. That was a big part of my scholarly practice – was just testing out ideas in the blogosphere. I was blogging at a time in the kind of golden age of academic blogging in a way, and I think that a lot of people have switched over to Twitter as their main communication channel (which has the advantage of being shorter form). The problem with writing a long blog post every day is that takes an hour or two every night, you know. It’s like a job! So I took this new position as Director of Culture Art and Technology at UC San Diego, and it just didn’t make sense to try and blog every day.

So given the current Twitter climate, what advice would you give to budding digital scholars, such as those of us on HASTAC?

I think one of the great things about HASTAC is that it’s still preserving the long-form blog. I was on this panel called “Is Blogging Dead” and my joke was that either blogging is in suspended animation (like, you know, Timothy Leary’s head) or blogging is dead in the sense that Latin is a dead language – but it’s also a good language to learn from. And so I learned a lot in that five years of blogging, and I think it’s really invaluable that HASTAC is maintaining that practice. As people are making the transition to thinking about print publication, they’re getting a lot of practice speaking to public audiences and negotiating their identities in relationship to scholarly collectives. This is a really valuable part of HASTAC: it’s preserving that blogging.

That said, in the kind of Twitterverse… what’s tricky about Twitter is that what carries, what travels, is often the sort of witty aphorism rather than something that is necessarily substantive. So with snappy and snarky comments on Twitter, you get these feedback cycles that you get rewarded for – and that’s actually incredibly dangerous for emerging scholars. The Twitter personality is not always an appealing personality as a potential future colleague.

What exciting opportunities do you see for the future of Digital Humanities?

The big Digital Humanities question that not enough work has been done on (and it’s on my to-do list), is really doing more with digital corpora of video. We have this incredibly complex set of social practices that are generating video content, which because it doesn’t have this machine-readable quality to it, it needs metadata for it to travel and find audiences. And it’s often remixed in various ways where the original identifying information about where something comes from is occluded.

So in the piece for First Monday that Sam Gregory and I wrote [“Remixing human rights: Rethinking civic expression, representation and personal security in online video”], we were looking at human rights remixes – there’s this song by Michael Jackson called “They Don’t Really Care About Us,” and all around the world there are these remixes that show police brutality or the activity of protestors, and then sort of cut them together in these videos. And the problem with this remix is that a lot of the kind of authenticating information about this video evidence becomes occluded, so that it is no longer clear who shot the video, for what purpose, etc. One of the things that Sam and I talk about in the article is that a lot of the video is actually shot by the perpetrators.

If you’re just looking at global news, looking at just television news, which seems like it would be a relatively stable archive to think about from a digital humanities perspective, and certainly an incredibly important one – news broadcast, that’s something that’s going to be very valuable to future historians – but the sources of material now that a typical news broadcast is composed of, there’s all kinds of source footage that isn’t always identified. Particularly as citizen journalism becomes more important and news broadcasts are incorporating footage from cell phones, and sometimes incorporating footage from government propaganda sites without identifying it, and there are a lot of different actors who are producing content – even corporations produce these things called “video news releases” (VNS’s)… so if you’re like Proctor & Gamble, and you have some scandal about  some product of yours, you can create a video news release. And the thing is, a lot of networks, particularly smaller stations, will broadcast this material because if it’s professionally shot, and it’s relevant to a news story, they might use the footage because it looks good. And you need some B-roll, something to show while the person’s talking (because looking at people is boring).

So that’s one of the major challenges facing Digital Humanities?

Yes, born digital video: there’s just not enough training, particularly vernacular video. How do we approach these informal archives?

What role do you hope that HASTAC will play in addressing that particular challenge?

I think one of the things that HASTAC can do is, because it’s an interdisciplinary group, it’s possible that all of the different kinds of sourcing activities that are needed for dealing with born digital footage… it really is an interdisciplinary project to deal with these kinds of footage, you really need people who do machine recognition technology, you need people who have knowledge about cinematic technique, you need people who know about post-production, and you need people who know about material culture and can identify things in backgrounds and what people are using and what people are doing. So, there are a lot of potential participants in this kind of work.

You’re very active on the Digital Media and Learning blog as well, so I am curious in terms of HASTAC vs. DML, as to what you see as the different assets of the two sites? Since they tackle similar things at times.

In fact, HASTAC is the main publicizing arm of the DML competitions. I think the DML blogging is interesting because you’re assuming that you’re not necessarily speaking to just the DML community. Because even though you’re speaking to the DML community, you know that these pieces will sometimes get picked up by a lot of people who are teaching in a lot of different contexts. So I try to write them aiming at a sort of imaginary audience of someone who’s teaching in a community college or in a high school – and maybe not necessarily in the context of the research university. Thinking about what do they need to know? And they’re almost all structured around interviews – so I’m usually just interviewing someone I think is interesting, trying to make their research a little more accessible to the public. So it’s a very different kind of blogging.

My own blog, virtualpolitik, was pretty much my voice – you know, I gave out awards for bad government websites. It was much more my academic persona in a kind of critical way, and often a pretty sharp way – because I study failure stories. One of the things you discover when you study institutions and digital media is that they screw up. So the DML blogging is very different. And if you want to see another example of me in my institutional blogging role, you can go to the blog for the Institute for the Money Technology, and Financial Inclusion. Once a year, I do the blogging for the conference. So I’ve given up my daily blogging practice, but I’m still blogging for other institutions and organizations.

Along the lines of this academic persona idea, how or do you feel that your MFA in creative writing has influenced your academic writing or pedagogy?

I often try not to bring that up with people because it confuses them, but here’s the funny thing: that’s probably a degree that I use more than I ever imagined I would use it. I just finished teaching this Interdisciplinary Computing in the Arts course, and I think some of the good things about having an MFA are that you learn a lot about the workshop model, and you learn a lot about iteration, and you learn a lot about constructive critique in the context of a community of practice. And I think those are all valuable things to bring to the context of digital thinking. So that MFA has turned out to be really useful in a lot of ways.

It’s kind of funny when people realize, “Oh wait, you actually have an MFA. You kind of know how to run these iterative, process-based workshops from years of your own development as an artist.” So even though I sometimes joke that the muse no longer speaks to me, I still think that my identity in relationship to creative writing and production has still proven to be important. Although, when you’re crossing a lot of disciplines, you don’t always want to wave too many flags about just how diverse your academic career has been.

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