Graduate student experience at CSDH/SCHN

Last year, CSDH/SCHN had the honour of funding several graduate students to attend our annual conference as part of the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences held at Ryerson University in Toronto. Their contributions of their own research papers and posters, as well as participation in the graduate student panel, made the conference stronger, more interesting, and much more diverse. We invited those graduate students who received funding to write a blog post about their experiences at the conference. We are sharing these posts below, so other students can see the benefits of participating in the conference and to invite those students who have had papers/posters accepted to the conference to apply for conference funding through CSDH/SCHN and through the student awards made available through Congress. Thanks to Laura, Maryse, Paul, Greg, Aurelio, and François – looking forward to seeing you all in Regina!

Laura Gerlitz, MLIS/MA in Humanities Computing, University of Alberta

This is my second year attending the CSDH conference, my first being Congress 2016 held at the University of Calgary. My attendance at the 2016 conference felt more like I was dipping my toes into the digital humanities community and asking myself what every person still working their way through post-secondary wonders when they attend a conference: as a student, where do I fit in here?

I’ve been lucky. Both the fields of library and information studies and digital humanities are inclusive and welcoming of students, bucking the traditional rigid hierarchy of academia in favour of encouraging new researchers such as myself and non-academic ones who want to get involved. CSDH 2017 was a very good example of this support; not only were presentations by and involving students numerous (including one panel solely dedicated to us) but I heard approximately half the attendees were students, and the AGM discussed opportunities to give us more involvement in the society. I personally had the opportunity to engage with students from other cities, including some undergraduates during the mentorship lunch session, and it was frankly energizing to have the chance to talk about my DH experiences and try to help them in building their own.

From the perspective of someone within the library field, inclusiveness should go without saying. Librarians advocate for it all the time: through open access to research and data, defending the privacy of our patrons, bridging the digital divide, increased representation of marginalized groups in our collections and reducing accessibility barriers for disabled people. As inclusion is (and should) be a part of a librarian’s daily life, it’s easy for someone such as myself to forget this isn’t the case for many other academic fields. I’ve seen hints of this same openness in the DH community before, but attending the conference this year reinforced my belief that the ideals of LIS and DH align closely with each other. I’m excited to see how the CSDH’s encouragement of students grows in the coming years, both at the yearly conferences and through other methods of support.

Maryse Kiese , MLIS/MA in Humanities Computing, University of Alberta

En tant que membre du groupe étudiant Digital Scholars of the University of Alberta (DSUA) et étudiante en Master of Arts (MA) in Humanities Computing et Master of Library and Information Studies (MLIS) à l’Université de l’Alberta, je me considère très chanceuse d’avoir eu l’opportunité de participer au panel des étudiants diplômés organisé par la Société canadienne des humanités numériques (SCHN), et ce dans le cadre du Congrès annuel des sciences humaines à Toronto en Juin 2017. Cette opportunité en est une qui permet d’acquérir un type d’expérience qui est hors du commun, car elle permet de tester les idées qui caractérisent les raisons qui a poussé la formation de DSUA. Pour ce qui a trait au sujet qui nous a réuni, les groupes d’étudiants universitaires diplômés qui participent à l’élaboration et à la mise en place des formations informelles en humanités numériques permettant à ces mêmes étudiants d’acquérir des connaissances non disponibles dans le curriculum formel tel que produit et appliqué par les établissements universitaires, mon interaction avec les autres étudiants a confirmé mon point de vue: les humanités numériques passe à travers une période de transformation. En effet, toute réalité (ou phénomène) est en constant mouvement; elle évolue dans son état actuel, ce qui est hérité du passé, et ce vers le potentielle. Il existe des périodes où ce mouvement est plus accéléré; actuellement, le changement en humanités numériques se produit de manière exponentielle. C’est pour cette raison que la participation des étudiants à l’élaboration et à la mise en place des formations (les cours et autres services permettant d’éduquer les étudiants à propos de leur science) en humanités numériques permet de mettre la lumière sur ce mouvement rapide vers la panoplie des possibilités qu’offre cette nouvelle sphère d’études. Notre Manifesto, le Hackathon, le document que nous somme actuellement en train de produire, démontre les différentes façons que les étudiants peuvent acquérir la connaissance en informatique, la composante importante de la science étudiée, les humanités numériques. Ceci permet aux étudiants d’exercer un contrôle accru sur leur parcours universitaire. La question devient donc: comment permettre une symbiose entre le parcours formel et informel qui caractérisent le curriculum de l’étudiant en humanités numériques sachant qu’il y a une diversité incroyable en terme des connaissances en informatique et de ce qui est considéré comme faisant partie de ce champ d’étude?

Paul Esau, MA HIST, University of Lethbridge

There’s been a big push in the historical discipline in the last 15 years or so to start using digital methods to manipulate and study data. While I’ve been tangentially aware of this push, I hadn’t truly been exposed to the possibilities of the digital humanities until Congress 2017.

Before Congress I was proud to be using tools like Evernote, WordPress, and a few citation managers. Afterward the conference, I began considering the possibility of adding a coding language like Python, or the text mining aptitude of Voyant to my repertoire. Two presentations in particular piqued my interest. The first, by historian Steve Marti, used text mining to create fascinating data visualizations and corroborate narratives within a corpus of Great War letters.  The other, by literary scholar Catherine Nygren, showed the potential of text mining to create better understandings of literary trends over time (and evaluate the importance of outliers to the canon).

Congress 2017 opened my eyes to a number of digital methods I hadn’t even considered, and since getting back to Lethbridge I’ve been brainstorming ways to apply to my own work. I’ve even begun running chapters of my thesis through Voyant, just to see what I can discover! Obviously, I’m deeply grateful to the CSDH council for helping me attend, and giving me a glimpse into the digital world.

Greg Whistance-Smith, MLIS/MA in Humanities Computing, University of Alberta

Attending the CSDH/SCHN conference for the first time this year was a delightful experience. I had the chance to exhibit a poster and demonstration for, a website of text analysis methods I have been working on with Geoffrey Rockwell, and I learned a great deal from the sessions and discussions outside of them. Being quite new to DH, attending CSDH/SCHN helped me get a sense of the discussions taking place in the field and the range of research methods being deployed. Highlights included a panel discussion on issues surrounding digital publishing, an approach to networking TEI, and the keynote by Tracy Fullerton exploring her videogame based on Thoreau’s classic book Walden. Her talk resonated the most, since my own work relates to videogames, so I’ll share some further thoughts below.

At the heart of Fullerton’s project is the assertion that letting players interact with a world and discover its contours and rules for themselves is a powerful mode of communication and education. As participatory texts, videogames invite players to explore different actions and their consequences, and the game’s discourse is the sum of players’ many different (and conflicting) experiences of it. By limiting the length of her game to a few hours, Fullerton is encouraging players to relive the year at Walden pond and explore its possibility-space. She has managed to create a remarkably beautiful environment: the ambiance of the pond at night and a pinkish sky in the dead of winter make this place clearly worth inhabiting.

Two design decisions felt particularly clever: the game’s job system, and how it deals with death. Players can take odd jobs, and if they dabbled in various ones their behaviour would parallel Thoreau’s own. However, they are also free to become experts in one of these tasks (such as surveying), living their own version of Walden. Players need to eat and sleep to avoid fatigue, and will eventually faint of exhaustion if they don’t take care of themselves. Instead of having the player die, Fullerton wisely has the people living nearby take care of the player and nurse them back to health. As she noted, many people lived near Thoreau and would likely have found and taken care of him if something had happened. These systems allow for some fidelity to the original text, while also encouraging it to be explored as a possibility-space.

The independent videogame scene has grown substantially during Walden’s long development process, and with this has come a genre of first-person ‘walking simulators’ such as Gone Home and Dear Esther. Having once developed a small walking sim myself, I was glad to see that Fullerton’s project is getting released into an environment that now contains many players accustomed—and enthusiastic—about the sort of experience her game offers.

Aurelio Meza, PhD Cultural Studies, Concordia University

My favourite panel this year at the CSDH Digital Humanities Conference was on early modern data and networks. There I got in contact with innovations and experiments that DH scholars are making in the field of prosopography (the historical study of groups of people whose individual biographies may be largely untraceable) through the use of digital tools for syntactic analysis, known in computer science and linguistics as parsing.

Personally, I came to see Harvey Quamen’s new research project, which focuses on genealogical records from the London Brewers’ guild using Pyparsing, a Python-based parser. Quamen has explained his approach to a “new prosopography” in his DHSI workshops, which have been very helpful for my dissertation project.

Brent Nelson, another well-known face in CSDH events, is also also using prosopography to analyze social networks in his research on cabinets of curiosities and the many people involved in contributing pieces for some collections.

There was seemingly a lot of interest from both Quamen and Nelson to work together, as there are databases with which they could compare and contrast their data, promising to enhance the social networks articulated by their research.

Matthew Milner also talked about networks and his research at NanoHistory.Org. His study of Anne Askew’s trials sheds new light on an old subject because it overcomes the influence of authoritative texts, like John Bale’s biography, which overshadows some facts and alters others.

Thus, Milner offers a mapping tool that does not engage in the network participants set of beliefs. As stated by one of the panelists, just because something can be expressed as a graph or a relation, it does not mean it cannot be treated as an argument. Prosopography, he said, produces factoids, not facts. A certain relation between two people or objects can be contrasted with other sources, and thus questioned, or even refused. But it is still relevant for the researcher to ask how and why that relation was given (such as a false statement or an accusation at a trial, as in Askew’s case).

Parsers like Pyparsing help classify syntactic structures (“grammars”) and retrieve all the values where such grammars are found. I found this very interesting because in my dissertation project we tag MP3 files with several fields, among them “Themes” and “Comments.” The first one works as a keyword container, describing or contextualizing the track as much as possible, whereas “Comments” is a more open explanation of the resource. I thought that using parsers could help me identify and implement grammars into these fields, which in turn might allow me to tag large amounts of audio files at once.

This panel offered a great opportunity for me to learn new ways to use metadata. It presented previews of some amazing research projects that are currently being conducted, and it gave the panelists a chance to share some of their previous findings.

François Dominic Laramée, PhD History, Université de Montréal

(re-blogged with permission from

This was my first Congress. It was not, however, my first professional convention, not by a long shot. I am, after all, on the aches-and-pains side of forty, and closing in on the oh-dear-god-no side of fifty. Indeed, throughout my previous careers in television and in video game development, I attended smallish events taking place in nondescript suburban hotels, international conferences hosting thousands upon thousands, and monster trade shows where NFL stadiums were the secondary exhibition floors. I have spoken in front of packed houses, I have lectured to empty ballrooms while the most famous game designer in the world spoke across the hall — two years in a row —, and I have hosted a roundtable where the very same super-famous guy showed up unannounced. Yeah, I’ve got stories.

So today, I wanted to talk to you about what makes CSDH/SCHN and Congress special, and how to make the most of the event should you be so lucky as to be able to attend next year.

First: Congress is huge (over 10,000 participants in Toronto in 2017) but the CSDH/SCHN conference itself is quite small. The number of sessions taking place at any given time, this year, varied between one and three. Therefore, if someone you really want to meet is at the event at all, you *will* get a chance to talk to them, probably more than once. This is good, especially for the terminally shy like me, because it means that you can pace yourself instead of jumping on every networking opportunity as soon as it presents itself. For example, on the first day, the stars of your field are probably busy catching up with friends they have known for years. Let them. Talk to fellow grad students, approach speakers after their talks, or just get comfortable with your surroundings. On the second day, the catching up will be over and the big names will have more time for you. Day 2, in other words, is prime networking time. Don’t wait until the last day of the event, though, because not everyone sticks around that long.

Second: make a plan. Flag down the sessions that you want to see, including the invaluable career-oriented events open to all Congress participants and the keynotes by public figures, and make sure that it is physically possible for you to be in the right building at the right time. In Toronto, the career corner was located at the back of the fourth floor of the old Maple Leaf Gardens, a good 15-20 minute walk from the business school where the lunchtime keynotes were taking place — which meant a bit of a scramble when the schedule got tight. (Wear comfy shoes.) 

Third: remember that Congress, unlike most business conventions, takes place on a University campus, filled with University buildings. You are familiar with those: they have all been designed by mad people. You *will* get lost. If you have the chance, arrive a day early and, at the very least, familiarize yourself with the campus’ layout. If you can locate the rooms where key events will be taking place, even better. I had a couple of quick conversations with busy professors as I was guiding them to rooms where they were about to chair sessions; time well spent, indeed. And finally: people at CSDH/SCHN are *nice*. Unusually so. Take advantage of it. Go to the grad mentorship events and social mixers, even if you’re tired. Keep in touch via Twitter afterwards. And start making plans to attend again next year. I know I will.