Chicago Colloquium Notes

I went to the Chicago Colloquium on Digital Humanities & Computer Science this weekend (Sunday and today), and gave the keynote that opened this event. I spoke about Platform Studies, describing how the difference between Pong and Hunt the Wumpus could be better understood by considering that these games were made of different stuff — different material computing systems. Then, I brought in the five-level model of digital media studies that I introduced in Game Studies in my article “Combat in Context” back in 2006. I spoke about the existing and forthcoming titles in the Platform Studies book series by MIT Press: Racing the Beam (Montfort & Bogost, 2009); the book on the Wii, Codename: Revolution by Steven E. Jones and George K. Thiruvathukal; and The Future was Here by Jimmy Maher, covering the Amiga. I also spoke about 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); GOTO 10, a book engaging with platforms that I, and nine co-authors, are completing. Finally, I concluded by offering 16 questions about the digital humanities, in a lecture moment that was inspired by a particular 20th century American composer.

A few of my favorite aspects of the colloquium:

– Talking with Steven E. Jones and George K. Thiruvathukal, colloquium organizers and Platform Studies authors, among other platform-interested authors.

– Meeting Perry Collins, a new program officer for the NEH Office of Digital Humanities. This was Perry’s first trip outside the Washington, D.C. metro area, and she immediately (first talk of the colloquium) got to do something all of her colleagues at the ODH — Brett Bobley, Jason Rhody, Jennifer Serventi — have already done: listen to me complain about the prevailing, overly traditional, overly narrow model of the digital humanities that doesn’t embrace contemporary work and the expressive, creative power of computational media. There are some things to enjoy about being a gadfly, but I do wonder if I’ve now become a hazing ritual at the National Endowment for the Humanities.

– Getting to talk more with Kurt Fendt and two CMS students working for his group, HyperStudio, about their current projects. Although I can walk over to their space without going outside, of course I have to travel to Chicago to really learn about what they’re up to, and to hear discussion of it supported by an immense poster — it’s the nature of things.

– Suggesting to Quinn Dombrowski of DHCommons that that site have some facilities for allowing potential collaborators to meet at conferences, and to know about who was at conference together, and then discussing this with her over Twitter and email while she was sitting six feet away from me.

I had many other good conversations, saw several intriguing presentations, and even saw some nice automated text collage, but those are the most amusing highlights, at least.

4 Replies to “Chicago Colloquium Notes”

  1. Hi Nick,
    I always appreciate our conversations and, as always, encourage you to submit applications to our programs. I also encourage you and your readers to check out the full listing of all 197 funded Start-Up Grants (, which I think presents a fairly broad approach to digital humanities. The list includes grants to the Electronic Literature Organization, to your colleague Fox Harrell on interactive narrative and AI, and even to the host of the #dhcs2011 conference. Hardly “overly traditional, overly narrow” in my opinion, but I’d be eager to hear where you or others perceive gaps (and then I would encourage you to submit applications to fill those gaps — after all, we can only fund from the slate of submitted applications).

    You are right–there are limitations, mandated by law, on what NEH can fund. Creative works fall under the umbrella of our sister agency, the NEA. However, certainly NEH has supported interpretative approaches to contemporary media and issues. In addition to the projects above, I might point out that Matt Kirschenbaum received a fellowship for Mechanisms; he also received a Start-Up Grant for issues related to born-digital archives (one of our most downloaded white papers). Lev Manovich and Jeremy Douglass have received support from a few DH grant programs (HHPC and SUG), and within that work have investigated computer games and other contemporary works. There have been grants made for computer games to examine issues of race; to test VR within full dome environments (which ultimately included hacking the Kinect) related to local history of the Lower Eastside; and to help build MediaCommons. We’ve funded the work of Anne Balsamo and Mary Flanagan, and Tara McPherson’s Vectors group / USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy received some of the highest levels of ODH funding for their wonderful series of Institutes programs.

    Yes, there are plenty of more ‘traditional’ grants as well; after all, NEH serves the full range of humanities disciplines and institutional types (galleries, libraries, archives, & museums, in addition to universities and numerous non-profits). We have a fairly large mandate, and a fairly small budget. At the same time, I would like to challenge the perception that NEH is not willing to consider a diverse range of subjects. The grant programs are intentionally broad, inviting submissions on a wide range of topics. The peer review process relies on scholars and practitioners — many well-known to you — who advise us on significance, potential impact, and project design. And it is up to the applicant to make the case for the project and to follow the criteria outlined in the application guidelines. We’re always open to suggestions as to how me might improve that process, but one of the best ways to engage is to volunteer for panel service, to give us drafts for comment before submitting, and — most importantly — to apply!

  2. Jason, thanks for your detailed reply, and sorry that I’m just responding to it now. I appreciate getting to talk with you about this topic some at Media in Transition 7, too.

    The breadth of the digital humanities is indeed impressive – the use of technology in new ways has given us an opportunity to discuss important issues across disciplines. I don’t mean to deny the advances that DH and the NEH have made. I just think that it’s important that, rather than resting on the laurels the field has, we look to how its range can be appropriately and effectively increased, so that its relevance further increases.

    I wasn’t thinking of the prohibition on funding creative work, although it’s an interesting one to note given the importance of critical technical practice – integrating a humanistic perspective with creative work involving AI and computing. The work of different national endowments and foundations probably does need to be categorized and divided in some way, but it is too bad, from my perspective, that an important approach in my field falls right across one such boundary.

    My issue is more with the common interpretation – not particularly your interpretation, Jason – of the term “cultural heritage.” The term of course appears in plenty of contexts, including here, in Brett Bobley’s “Why the Digital Humanities?,” which I understand is essentially the founding document of the ODH:

    “In one way or another, most of these digital humanities activities involve collections of cultural heritage
    materials, which are one of the primary objects of study for researchers across all humanities disciplines.


    These activities have inspired the stereotype of the “lone scholar,” toiling away in a library studying
    these cultural heritage materials.


    In the past few years, we have seen massive amounts of cultural heritage materials digitized. Millions of
    books, newspapers, journals, photographs and other materials are now widely available via the web.”

    I have no problem with the idea of “cultural heritage” or even with that term being deployed. The thing is, it seems to me that computer programs are cultural heritage materials, too. Millions of them are now widely available via the Web as well. And there is a great deal of resistance to the idea that digital media of this sort is worthwhile and fit for study in the digital humanities field overall.

    It’s not a matter of an NEH office shutting the door on such research; it’s a widespread view that computers, computation, and programs are exclusively methods of study, and that they must be used to study traditional, pre-computer objects.

    Computer games are not just potential instruments that humanists can use to study race – a noble project – they are also existing cultural artifacts that encode racial categories, stereotypes, and concepts. I think we should study them, not just use them to study other traditional artifacts.

    As you know, my colleague Fox Harrell is working on studying existing games (and on constructing games) in the context of identity, to better deal with issues like these, and it is great that he is doing so with federal support. He and the others you’ve named are really helping to conduct new investigations and open up opportunities. That work goes beyond what a grouchy blog post like this one can do. And I appreciate that the NEH and the ODH are supporting that work.

    Nevertheless, I do feel that I need to play the gadfly and point to the DH field’s almost complete omission of digital media objects (including computer programs) as objects of study.

    Of the 197 ODH funded projects that you linked to, Jason, nine of them mention videogames. Seven of those nine are projects to develop games and use games to understand other aspects of culture. The grants to Lev Manovich and Fox Harrell are the only ones that even mention videogames (in both cases, among lists of other cultural artifacts) as objects of study.

    Now, this is not a personal complaint or a complaint about the ODH rejecting proposals. I haven’t submitted a proposal to study games, and I don’t know who else has or hasn’t. Obviously, your office can’t fund what isn’t proposed, so, as you point out, we should be applying to do such projects.

    I suspect that the ODH grants may actually be more progressive than the DH field is generally. If so, or if this is roughly typical of DH overall, and if only about 1% of projects even involve these tremendously significant contemporary cultural objects called videogames – not exclusively, but alongside other more traditional objects – I do indeed think that the field is overly traditional and overly narrow.

  3. Hi Nick. Thanks for this. You’ve definitely got me thinking about how we can encourage more people to apply for grants who are studying contemporary cultural objects (like games). Of the nearly 5000 grant applications the agency receives each year, only a very small number of them are doing that sort of work. So I’m keen to figure out new ways of reaching out to this community. Jason and I have been brainstorming on this and we’d love to shoot some ideas your way very soon. I have to run, as we’re in a panel meeting right now, but I’ll be back in touch in the next day or so.



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