Month: February 2017

Digital Spaces and Designing for Access, by Gabriel Morrison

AccessThere has been a lot of talk about how digital humanities scholarship has the potential to be democratizing, and the internet allows for connectivity that extends across cultural, geographical, and institutional boundaries. DH scholarship can directly reach the public outside of academia, and digital spaces allow for collaborative enterprises that have seldom been attempted by humanities scholars. But are all things digital inherently more accessible, or do we simply imagine them to be so? Are we designing for access or just assuming that access is no longer an issue?

Tara McPherson points out that exclusionary practices and ideologies (based on class, gender, race, sexuality, language, or ability) are often built into software in ways that are not always immediately visible to privileged users. This limits not only who has access to and ownership of DH work but also how diverse users can develop their work. One of these exclusionary ideologies is what disability theorist Tobin Siebers has termed the ideology of ability. This ideology assumes able-bodiedness as a “default” state. It either elides difference or else assumes that the disabled body must find a way to be “accommodated” rather than acknowledging any responsibility for designers to create spaces and environments that are inclusive to the diverse range of human ability.

Just as physical spaces are often inaccessible by design (e.g., stairs and stairsdoorways that do not permit wheelchair access or loud, brightly lit public spaces that can result in sensory overload for persons with autism), there are many ways in which digital space is constructed to include only the able-bodied, including text fields with small or difficult-to-read fonts, videos without captioning, podcasts without transcripts, images without descriptions that can be read by screen readers, web spaces that cannot be manipulated by users, and so-called “accessible” software that is built for the able-bodied and only retrofitted to “accommodate” diverse users when they complain.

Those engaging in digital humanities scholarship cannot hope to dismantle oppressive ideologies (something which is part of the core work of the humanities) while uncritically using technology that reifies these same oppressive structures. We must realize that part of digital humanities scholarship involves critical and intentional design. In order to truly encourage access, digital scholarship should include principals of universal design.

How can we do this? While it’s true that no design can be said to be truly universal, the Web Accessibility Initiative offers important guidelines for more inclusive digital publishing, and Yergeau et al. lay out a theoretical groundwork for accessibility in digital and multimedia work. The National Center on Universal Design for Learning, CAST, and Jay Dolmage address concerns specific to integrating digital media and technology for access in the classroom, and Composing Access advises on how to prepare for conferences. Here are a few tips for more accessible design:

  • Think critically about the implicit ideologies coded into the platforms you use, and consider the affordances of your technology before using it. As Johanna Drucker and Patrik BO Svensson point out, middleware incorporates various rhetorical limitations—do these constraints limit access?
  • Aim for commensurability across modes. While multimodality can be a great way for users to interact with your text in different ways and with different senses, if information is not presented redundantly through different modes, it increases the chance that users may not be able to access your text. For instance, if a video delivers information both visually and aurally but doesn’t include captioning and description, then it becomes inaccessible for both blind and deaf users. And of course, delivering information through more than one mode helps all Captions, for example, allow hearing users to access the text in a noisy place, on an airplane with someone sleeping in the next seat, or on a device without audio capability.
  • Digital projects are more accessible when they are easily manipulable by users. For example, text that cannot be copied/pasted, as is the case in an image or some publishing platforms, might not be easily read with assistive technologies such as screen readers or braille pads.

Though digital media can present accessibility issues, when used critically and conscientiously, multimodal affordances open up the possibility of creating content that is more accessible to all users, regardless of level of ability.

Gabe Morrison is a first-year doctoral student in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Connecticut. His research interests include multimodal writing and graduate student writing instruction. You can contact him at gabriel.morrison@uconn.edu.

Jennifer Snow, Digital Scholarship Librarian

Screen Shot 2017-02-24 at 11.29.44 AM1. What initially intrigued you about research/teaching in digital humanities or media studies?

I began my work at UConn as the History Librarian six years ago, and I have slowly grown my skills and interests from there.  I have a Master’s in History, although I was trained in the traditional research methodologies.  Digital humanities didn’t really feature in my education.  However, as I worked with scholars and colleagues on various projects, I saw key ways that the Library could be more involved in digital humanities.  As research and scholarship change, the Library must adapt as well to remain relevant.  My skills and knowledge in this area are mostly self-taught, and I enjoy teaching others and seeing students become excited over the research possibilities opened up by a digital approach. 

2. Has entering the DHMS realm changed your approach to research and teaching in general? If so, how?

Absolutely!  I find my research and teaching to be much more collaborative now.  I’ve learned as much from students and scholars as they have from me.  We each bring our own expertise to the table, whether it’s a technological skill or subject knowledge.  I also actively seek out from others what they would like to learn, so I can tailor workshops and research consultations to their specific needs.  Whenever I work on a new project, I immediately think about who else might be interested and have something to contribute.  It’s a very different experience from individual work on an article for publication.  The projects I work on are multidisciplinary, and I have grown as a researcher from these collaborative opportunities.

3. You have three (commitment-free) wishes to receive support for your research/teaching in DH or media studies: what are they?

First, I would love to have more staff in the library dedicated to DH.  Web developers, graphic designers, coders!  We are always trying to do more with less.  It would be nice to never worry about finding time to work on a project because there is plenty of people to work on it.  Second, the opportunity to offer student internships or assistantships would be great.  I think this will be forthcoming in the future, though, so I am very much looking forward to that.  It would be a wonderful opportunity for students to learn more about DHMS and to work on interesting projects.  And third, more time is always welcome!  There are so many fantastic projects out there that I want to be a part of, but unfortunately, there are only so many hours in a day, and I have other responsibilities.  

4. First struggles and successes: do you have any best-practice advice?

My advice is really to just dive in!  If there’s something you’re interested in learning about, whether it’s a new tool, platform, or something else, don’t hesitate to start working with it.  Try and find other people who have a similar interest, and you can help each other.  Look for workshops, seminars, and meet-and-greets related to digital scholarship.  DH is collaborative by nature, so networking is hugely important.  There will definitely be struggles.  You may not master a particular tool as quickly or easily as you had hoped.  You will have other things competing for your time.  My advice is to not get discouraged and keep plugging away.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it, whether from the library or from your own departments. 

 5. How would you like to challenge yourself in DH or media studies? Or what is a project you most seek to realize? 

As the Digital Scholarship Librarian, I am tasked with working beyond the humanities and branching out into the social sciences and sciences.  This is certainly a challenge for me as my background is squarely in the humanities.  However, I am working on developing skills in areas such as data visualization that can be of benefit to people in the sciences.  I would absolutely love to work with a researcher outside of the humanities who is new to digital scholarship.  We can educate each other and become more well-rounded researchers because of our collaboration.  I somewhat actively avoided the sciences in my academic career (to this day, I have never set foot inside the science buildings at my alma mater!) so this is definitely a new area for me.  The silos between the disciplines have begun to break down as research becomes more multidisciplinary, and I’m very excited to be part of that.

Jennifer Snow has a BA in History from Vassar College and an MA in History and Master in Library Science from Florida State University.  She currently serves as the Digital Scholarship/Humanities and Social Sciences Librarian for UConn.  Her academic background is in early modern French history, and she has worked on a number of digital scholarship projects on a variety of subjects.  She has published articles and a book chapter on topics related to digital scholarship and critical pedagogy.qa

Watch Your .edu, Know Your Repositories

fineprintIn a January 2017 Forbes article on scholarly publishing, historian Sarah Bond takes aim at platforms ready to host academic articles or chapters. For pay. Her case in point is academia.edu:

As privatized platforms like Academia.edu look to monetize scholarly writing even further, researchers, scientists and academics across the globe must now consider alternatives to proprietary companies that aim to profit from our writing and offer little transparency as to how our work will be used in the future. In other words: It is time to delete your Academia.edu account.

In order to broadcast our academic work beyond the conference panel or occasional tweet or personal webpage – and depending on the copyright and marketing arrangements we have with our print publishers – hosts like LinkedIn, academia.edu, ResearchGate and others have become common “marketplaces.” Here is another opportunity to connect with international scholarship, browse, and
offer our own to share and discuss. But as we saunter and sample, how many of us look at the fine print to know how these repositories actually work? Do we understand what happens with our work once it gets uploaded? How is it distributed? Who can access it? Does it get altered when it’s downloaded? Who owns the copyright?

“Monetizing scholarship” is the big, mysterious, compound noun Bond seeks to warn us about, and she has a point. Copyright issues, including where and how we share our finished work, are usually only part of our research conversations when keeping ideas close to our chest. We don’t always trumpet copyrightissuesthe thesis of our next book or article out into the world, partly because it has not been tested, partly because we might be wary of someone else snatching it up. Yet, how many of us are well trained, or at least reasonably conversant in, the minutiae of legalese it takes to comprehend a publisher’s contract? Do you know or remember what media rights you signed off on in your last contract? I can only speak for myself, but getting to my first contract had me so thrilled and excited that all I needed to comprehend was that there was a line for my signature. Exclamation mark.

green-publishingThat has changed. In a landscape of oscillating international copyright law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA, which has also become a verb), and increasing hybridization or digitization of scholarship, your old contract arrangements are no more. Your scholarship now has the potential to move or be translated into many different media, and for-profits such as academia.edu are just one way to monetize your work.

Publishers and librarians have long been aware of these trends as they impact purchasing, disseminating, curating, and archiving. Scholars? Not so much – unless you had the good fortune of receiving detailed advice from a mentor or peer group or learned the hard way over time. And the dismissive will argue that most of our books or articles are not on the fast track to be signed as a major motion picture deal or radio show anyhow. Still, we often sign away rights to repurpose our work, host our work elsewhere or don’t take advantage of how our ideas and scholarship can work in a world of media convergences.dice

To address some of these issues, Jennifer Snow, a Digital Librarian at UCONN, is organizing a mini-conference on copyright issues in (digital) publishing on April 14th, 8:30am-2pm. Understanding your rights in scholarly publishing is key to maneuvering the treacherous territory of multi-media and multimodal communication, including open access outlets and platforms. And often, we don’t even know of the repositories that are directly available to us from our home institutions: for those of you interested in learning more about UCONN’s own Digital Commons, please take advantage of Marisol Ramos’ workshop this coming Monday at 3pm!