Quantitative, Computational, Digital: Musing on Definitions and History

I recently ran across a trifecta of adjectives: “quantitative, computational, and digital” history. It intrigued me enough that I did an internet search which gave me precisely 4 hits, 3 of which were for the same job posting. Clearly this isn’t mainstream yet.

That said, the phrasing really resonated with me on a number of levels and continued to haunt me to the point where I finally decided it was worth writing about at a bit of length.

I am, at the end of the day, a quantitative historian – numbers are integral to both my sources and many of my methods. When I first encountered demographic history in grad school, I instinctively called it “history by numbers” and critiqued sample sizes while interrogating authors’ calculations. My dissertation and first book project analyze early modern British numeracy and quantitative thinking, while my current DH project involves quantification at a massive scale (Death by Numbers: building a database out of the London Bills of Mortality so that I can examine, among other things, early modern people’s addition skills).

As needed, I am also a computational historian – methodologically I use statistics and computer programming on a semi-regular basis. My work on the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon project involved statistical work in R, as well as less quantitative programming in PostGreSQL, Ruby/Rails, JavaScript, HTML, and a sprinkling of Python for good measure. The bibliometric work I’ve done on Identifying Early Modern Books was also fundamentally computational as is much of the work I’m doing on Death by Numbers (I’m not calculating with nearly a million numbers by hand!) And my newest project, the Bridges of Pittsburgh, will involve a variety of pre-existing softwares as well as probably some bespoke programming for the graph theory aspects. Some of these computational methods are clearly also quantitative, but not all of them.

Lastly, by my actual title and job description, I am a digital historian – for whatever contested definition we give for DH. Increasingly, I and my colleagues in the Pittsburgh area have been scoping DH and digital scholarship projects using the criteria of web-facing, which plays out interestingly against the other two terms I use above. By these definitions, the digital is often but not always computational. An Omeka exhibit or WordPress site is digital but not particularly computational (in either the quantitative or programmatic sense). And if we define digital as web-facing, then the computational is not always digital. An example of this disjunction could be found in any computational project that ends with a traditional article or monograph publication rather than a sustained digital project.

Cue Venn Diagram to visualize the way I’ve been thinking about these similarities and differences… c’mon, you knew this was coming, didn’t you? Venn

So where does this leave DH (and Humanities Computing, Quantitative History, and the like)? Not a clue, hence the reason I called this a “musings” post. This will certainly not be the last (virtual) ink spilled on this very-contested and interesting subject of definitions. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy my liminality and try on adjectives to suit my research objectives of the moment – be they qualitative, quantitative, computational, digital, or something else entirely.

Never Use White Text on a Black Background: Astygmatism and Conference Slides

TL;DR – never use white text on a black background in your slides.

This post has been a long time coming. Every conference I go to, there will be at least one (and more often ten or twenty) presentations that use white text on a black background. These slides range from hard-to-read to outright illegible and in particularly bad set-ups are so visually painful that I have to close my eyes or turn away from the projection screen. Even conferences that provide advice on designing accessible presentations nod at the “make slides high contrast” but are silent on the white text issue. So! Here it is.

The facts:

  • approximately half the population has some degree of astigmatism
  • white text on black backgrounds creates a visual fuzzing effect called “halation”
  • halation is known to reduce readability of text and is particularly bad for people with astygmatism

The visual aids:



So please, everyone, strike white text with black backgrounds from your color repetoire, the same way you’ve removed color combinations that are illegible to color-blind people. It’s not a question of preferences, it’s an accessibility issue.

Touring the Tepper Quad

Thanks to the Carnegie Mellon Women’s Association, I and a group of other CMU women were able to tour the new Tepper Quad construction site last week. While I’m still sad about the gutting of Morewood parking lot (so cheap! so convenient!), the new building is going to be fantastic.


The building will have eight floors but – in true CMU building-into-hillsides fashion – it will technically have five floors and three basements. In cool trivia, it’s being built with poured concrete instead of steel-and-rebar because that enabled them to fit more floors in while keeping the building under our self-imposed height restriction of 75′ (to keep the building from overshadowing Hamburg Hall, across the street). Anyone else notice those giant bubbles they had on the site a few months back? They use that as “filler” in the concrete to keep the slabs from getting too heavy.


While we call it new Tepper and its main recipients will, of course, be the Tepper folks, the building is intended to be useful for the entire campus community. There will be a dining hall and a gym, for starters! There will also be a 600-person lecture hall with an adjacent greenroom for housing visiting speakers before their big events. The hall can also be divided in half to create two halls for 300. It looks more impressive in person, honest!


Per our guides, the Tepper Quad will be done by May 2018! Not “around May” or “sometime over the summer” or “before the start of the 2018-19 academic year” but May 2018. Period. All the steps that might cause major delays are apparently over so barring the apocalypse or alien invasion, the work will be done in good time for folks to move offices over the summer months.


Overall, it was a great tour – two thumbs up. I highly recommend you take one if you’re given the opportunity before May comes around and all you’ll have left to tour is a bright, shiny new building.

Conference Strategies for the Shy and Introverted

So, a comment on Twitter last night made me realize how many strategies I’ve developed over the past few years to deal with being shy and introverted in a conference environment. To anyone who has met me and is laughing at the thought of me being either shy or introverted? I rest my case as to the effectiveness of some of my strategies! Caveats that these are still very much a work in progress, they function best at small-to-midsize conferences, and I don’t always practice what I preach 🙂

So, without further ado, some strategies that will hopefully be of help to other folks as well:

1) Remember that self-care is more important than “networking.” If you start to hit the end of your abilities to cope with people and bounce off a reception/event/invitation, don’t beat yourself up over it. It takes me much less time to recover from oversocialization if realize I’m at my limit and manage to step back before crashing.

2) Find a conference buddy who is willing to be your social “home base” for some of the breaks, meals, and group events. Ideally said conference buddy will be less shy/introverted than you are, and/or know a few people you don’t and can introduce you to them, but that’s not necessary. You just need someone you can hang out with so you don’t feel socially isolated.

2a) If you have a really good friend, you can also room with your conference buddy to save money and improve the ease of schedule coordination.

3) If possible, make plans to eat with folks in advance. I find that figuring out group meals is one of the most difficult parts of conference networking because it’s far harder to casually fall into a meal group than to have a quick chat during a coffee break.

4) If you’re alone during breaks/receptions, you can hover for a bit (a minute or so is usually my max) near groups of people that are having interesting conversations and/or include someone you sort of know. Sometimes the circle will organically open to include you.

4a) If you’re in one of those groups and see someone hovering alone, physically move a bit to open the circle and give them space to join you. Introverts helping out other introverts for the win!

5) If starting up an in-person conversation with strangers is too hard, try chatting to folks on Twitter during panels then going up to meet them afterwards. “Hi, we were just talking on Twitter earlier and I wanted to introduce myself in person” makes meeting new people a lot less stressful, especially if you can then continue a conversation you started online.

6) Acquaintance chaining works. You know one person who introduces you to a person who then introduces you to another person and suddenly you hit the point where you start to know a lot of people.

7) Reassure yourself that communities build over time. The first several conferences can be hard, but eventually you’ll hit a tipping point where you’ve met enough people in the community that things get easier. They never get EASY but if conferences were easy, then we wouldn’t be introverted, now would we?

Twitter at the Big Three: Global Network Stats

Every year in the break between Fall and Spring academic semesters, tens of thousands of scholars from across the world descend on an American city for several caffeine-fueled days of panels, receptions, job interviews, and social networking. Actually, this happens more than once, as members of the American Historical Association, the Modern Language Association, and the American Library Association all meet in January. And while most of their social networking happens face-to-face, some of it happens on Twitter where enterprising digital humanists armed with Martin Hawksey’s TAGS can collect conference tweets and analyze them for fun and profit.

Posts in this (intended) series include (and will be linked as they are published):

  1. Global Networks Stats
  2. Bipartite Network Analysis
  3. Directed Network Analysis
  4. Preliminary Conclusions (TL;DR)
  5. The Methods Post

So without further ado, here are some initial stats about the networks I constructed from the three official conference Twitter hashtags: #aha17, #mla17, and #alamw17.

The AHA network is the smallest at 2,826 nodes (people who either tweeted or whose twitter handle showed up in another person’s tweets) and 6,945 edges (connections generated by said tweets). These edges have been weighted so that if Person A mentions Person B 14 times in tweets, the edge from Person A to Person B has weight 14. If Person A mentions Person C only once, the edge from Person A to Person C has weight 1. The average degree is 2.5 (number of edges divided by number of nodes) but when weight is factored in (edges are multiplied by their weight before added and divided by number of nodes) the average weighted degree is 3.9.

There are 74 connected components (subnetworks with no connection to the rest of the network), with the largest connected component containing 90% of the nodes and 96% of the edges in the overall network. This component has diameter 10 (the shortest distance between two people furthest away from each other) and average path length 4.3 (average of the shortest distance between every pair of people in the network).

The MLA network is slightly bigger and slightly more connected:

  • nodes: 3,538
  • edges: 10,178
  • average degree: 2.9
  • average weighted degree: 5.2
  • connected components: 70
  • largest connected component contains
    • nodes: 94.2%
    • edges: 97.8%
  • diameter 12
  • average path length 4.4

The ALA network is the largest and most connected:

  • nodes: 7,851
  • edges: 20,505
  • average degree: 2.6
  • average weighted degree: 3.9
  • connected components: 99
  • largest connected component:
    • nodes: 96.1%
    • edges: 98.9%
  • diameter: 14
  • average path length: 5.4

So what happens when we put it all together?


Green edges = #aha17 hashtag. Red edges = #mla17 hashtag. Blue edges = #alamw17 hashtag.

Merging the three networks together creates some overlap of nodes (people on Twitter during more than one conference) and edges (people tweeting to the same people at more than one conference) but the three networks remain largely discrete. The force atlas 2 layout I employed in Gephi created more overlap of the AHA and MLA conferences than the ALA conference, but in general disciplinarity is the rule of the day.

While some of this is likely an artifact of most scholars’ inability to physically attend multiple conferences (the AHA and MLA, in particular, occurred at the same time in Colorado and Pennsylvania respectively), scholars have the ability to interact via Twitter with conferences they aren’t attending. The co-occurrance of the AHA and MLA could have – theoretically – increased connectivity between the two conferences if similar themes and conversations arose at both then connected via social media. Alas, I don’t have the 2015 metrics (the last time these conferences didn’t co-occur) to do a comparison, but if anyone has them and wants to share I’d love to see them!

In general, the merged “Big Three” network stats clearly derive from their constituent conferences’ stats:

  • nodes: 13,489
  • edges: 37,308
  • average degree: 2.8
  • average weighted degree: 4.5
  • connected components: 203
  • largest connected component:
    • nodes: 95%
    • edges: 98.3%
  • diameter: 16
  • average path length: 5.9

One of these numbers, however, immediately jumped out at me as not like the others: the number of connected components. If only the largest connected component of each conference network had been able to connected in the Big Three network, there should have been 74+(70-1)+(99-1)=241 connected components. Instead, 38 of the small components in the conference networks appear to have merged with another component (either the largest connected component or another small component).

This is encouraging to me as it implies that there is an interdisciplinary scholarly community that emerges on Twitter, not just in the dense “center” of the network but also in the disconnected “margins.” In is not (yet?) clear whether this interdisciplinary community is generated by digital humanists, librarians, geographical proximity, common interests, or – most likely – some combination of factors, including some I haven’t considered.

Regardless of the cause, something is going on. In the interests of exploring it, next time I’m going to restructure my data as a bipartite network to see if anything else interesting emerges.


Conferences and Invisible Disabilities

For two decades, if you suggested that I was disabled, I would have given you a strange look and a skeptical, “okaaaay?”

Sure, I have asthma and have to take meds twice a day (okay, six times a day during flare-ups) but that is as normal to me as brushing my teeth twice a day. And yes, I am intimately familiar with the emergency departments of six different hospitals, but that’s because I’ve moved a lot. And sure, there are a lot of things I haven’t been able to do because of my asthma, but I’m not the kind of person who wants to hang out in a bar or go clubbing on a regular basis or attend academic conferences-

Yeah, I hope I just made you do a double-take.

What do the History of Science Society; the North American Conference on British Studies; and the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing have in common? Besides being awesome professional societies (or I wouldn’t belong to them!), they have all held conferences that I attended where I suffered severe respiratory distress because of the asthma-unfriendly cities they chose for their conferences.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it. When my co-collaborators and I decided we wanted to present our work at SHARP and then I realized the conference was in Paris, I nearly burst into tears because dear God, I didn’t want to have to suffer through an asthma attack on purpose. It took me four weeks to recover from that conference in Paris last summer. I almost didn’t apply to present at the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations conference next summer because it’s going to be in Montreal, which isn’t quite as bad as Paris, by which I mean it’ll probably “only” take me a week or so before I can breathe normally again.

So this is a plea for conference organizers to add more items to a checklist that, I appreciate, is already pretty long! But if you want your conferences to be truly accessible, you need to take into account the invisible, as well as visible, disabilities.

  1. Do you know what the air quality is like in the city you’ve chosen for your conference? Hint: if it’s a city where cigarette, cigar, and/or marijuana smoking is socially acceptable, it’s not going to be good. Also, think about vehicle and manufacturing exhaust, and the likelihood of wildfires. No, you can’t work miracles – cities are cities – but you should be aware of the situation, know when you’re choosing a venue that will potentially hurt people attending your conference, and keep your attendees informed about potential air quality issues.
  2. Is the hotel you’ve chosen strictly non-smoking? Because, let’s face it, any hotel with smoking rooms is going to cross-contaminate the non-smoking rooms, even if it’s just via the laundry.
  3. Is your meeting venue attached to your hotel? Or will attendees have to go outside, running the “smoker’s gauntlet” that inevitably springs up right outside hotel doors? Because not everyone can hold their breath and run – and frankly, we shouldn’t have to.
  4. Does your hotel AND meeting venue have year-round climate control? Yes, that means air conditioning in the summer, even in northern climates. Because asthmatics can’t just “open a window” and the lack of climate control leads to issues with humidity and mold growth, air circulation, and other asthma-attack-inciting conditions.

That’s it. Four things to keep your conference attendees from having to choose between their careers and their health. Because we all like to breathe.

I Tweet Therefore I Am Paying Attention

While I’m not on Twitter daily, I am a very active conference tweeter. I’m one of those people sitting by the electrical outlet with my laptop, hastily typing as the speakers present. To give you a better sense of the dichotomy between my everyday and conference tweeting, I present a screenshot of my July Twitter analytics:


Can you guess when SHARP 2016 occurred?

I’ve had a few people ask me about conference tweeting. What am I doing? Why? And – most importantly – how can I listen and tweet at the same time?

Conference Tweeting 101

The idea is straightforward. As you listen to a speaker, you extract the main ideas, themes, questions, and illuminating examples. You then tweet these things, ideally each one in a single tweet but breaking it across multiple tweets is also an option if the idea is especially complex.

Because all good academics cite their sources, the format of these tweets tends to be something like “Name: idea expounded here #conferencehashtag” or “idea expounded here @speakersTwitterHandle #conferencehashtag”  Session hashtags sometimes emerge at more Twitter active conferences, to separate out the conversations happening around each panel.


Whenever possible, it’s best to include the speaker’s Twitter handle because this means they will be automatically notified of your tweet (and be able to see other Twitter users’ interest in their ideas). They will also be included in any conversations that happen because someone responds to your tweet. HOWEVER for that to happen, the speaker needs to tell the audience what their Twitter handle is.

Pro Tip: if you have a/v and want your talk to be tweeted, it’s best to include your Twiter handle at the bottom of every one of your conference slides.

The Benefits of Conference Tweeting

… are legion. Because I want to keep this short, I’ll stick to my top two.

You can’t be in more than one panel at a time, assuming you can even afford to attend the conference in the first place. Conference tweeting allows you to “peek” into other panels, spot synchronicity of themes across multiple panels, and virtually attend far more scholarly events than even the most generous professional development stipend could allow.

Social network visualization

Furthermore, conference tweeting is a fantastic way to network – to find people with like interests and spark conversations that begin online, continue in receptions, and last after that conference ends. I’ve had collaborations and future conference panels emerge organically from these conversations, in a way they never would have if I’d sat alone in the back of a conference room then quickly escaped that reception full of strangers

The Concentration Question

This is the question I get asked most often and I’ll give a longer version of my usual response. We train all our academic careers to take notes while listening to lectures and other auditory events. In fact, this is a skill I’ve practiced so long, I have to take notes in order to actively listen to a talk. If I’m not taking notes, I tune out. And for me, conference tweeting is a form of note-taking.

When the Internet connection’s bad, I still take notes in a text document, but I vastly prefer note-taking via Twitter. First, I almost never go back to look at my old notes but I do continuously reenage with old tweets either because someone’s liked/retweeted something or because I’m analyzing datasets of old conference tweets.

Image of conference tweets archive

Tweets Captured with TAGS v6.0 ns

Second, Twitter functions as essentially a communal note-taking platform, enabling me to see what other people are getting out of the same talk. Third, the public nature of this note-taking leads to immediate conversations with other conference tweeting, in which we dissect, analyze, and expand on the ideas we’re hearing together.

So the next time you’re sitting in a conference next to me or anyone else who has Twitter open in the browser, you’ll know: I tweet therefore I am paying attention.

Hello, World!

# begin program

def DeliverGreetingsUntoTheInternet():

print “Hello, world! “

print “¡Hola, mundo! “

print “Bonjour, le monde!”

print “Salve, munde!”

# end program

As is traditional, the first post on this blog had to be “Hello world!”

To anyone who stumbles upon this page at some point, consider yourself greeted. As your reward for clicking into a “Hello, World!” post that could have been filled with lorem ipsum, here is a word cloude generated from my ancient accountability blog that I maintained during part of my graduate school dissertation research sojourn.


2009 Word Cloud