Digital Projects Narrative
My current research examines boylesque, a contemporary genre of neo-burlesque performance, which I argue is a culmination of a history of a gender-nonconforming style of burlesque that stretches back through the 20th century. Engaging a speculative historiographic investigation of drag performers in burlesque history, in one of my dissertation chapters, I am pursuing research inquiries into historical data, attempting to find queer foundational structures in popular entertainment through social network analysis.
“Mapping Female Impersonators in Billboard’s and Variety’s Archives” was funded through a Connect New York (CNY) research grant in Summer 2018. With this funding, I was able to begin creating a dataset that linked drag and “pansy” performers in New York City to burlesque theatres and nightclubs in the 1920s–30s. The research was primarily based on the archives of Billboard and Variety as they exist in their entire runs in ProQuest’s Entertainment Archive database. I also started mapping theatres and other venues where such performers regularly appeared.
As I was browsing through the database, I was continuously blocked because ProQuest’s system perceived me as a bot causing too much traffic. To be able to sift through the search results in a database format without interruption, I constructed a script that created a local database consisting of the metadata from the thousands of articles in the search result files. During the grant’s research time, I was able to learn some foundational Python programming skills and wrote a program that used BeautifulSoup to traverse ProQuest’s search results and generated an easily navigable Pandas DataFrame.
The tedious process made it clear that I should make available the entire dataset in a repository. Moving the data from my local storage to GitHub is still in progress because I have concerns with the privacy of the performers in the dataset. Regardless of whether they are still alive or not, there are prejudiced opinions about professions in art forms such as female impersonations, burlesque, and striptease. I want to make sure that the project provides some context to the data. The dataset, above all, will live in the digital component of my dissertation, which is still under construction.
My research also looks at the changing art form of boylesque in contemporary social media platforms, particularly the fraught tension between social media platforms and artists working in the overlap between burlesque, drag, and striptease. To facilitate the analysis, I have built some rudimentary understanding of libraries that help visualize and analyze related data points such as NetworkX, Matplotlib, and seaborn. The data points come from public post data aggregated around specific hashtags on Twitter and Instagram. However, since Instagram notoriously closed down their API, I had to write my own package for accessing the JSON information available in the web rendering of the Instagram app, available on GitHub. To access data from Twitter, I have long used Martin Hawksey’s TAGS as a tool to download tweets continuously. However, TAGS generates a static format without the complete information needed to create the datasets for my research. I am in the progress of moving from TAGS into my own package, which I am currently building as in two parts. The first uses the tweet IDs from the TAGS documents to download all of the tweets and the user information using TweetScraper. The second generates content based on a Twitter username using Tweepy and an internally constructed cache system.
For many years, I have also worked with implementing purposeful technology in the classroom. In the History of American Burlesque class in Summer 2018, my students and I pursued research alongside one another. Together, we built a visual timeline of the history of the genre focused on particularly central figures. I contributed some posts; students contributed others, and collaboratively, we created a visual representation of history using Knight Lab’s Timeline JS connected to a Google Sheet.
As an embedded Instructional Technology Fellow in four classes at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College in 2018–19, I was able to learn how to refine the technology used in my classrooms from a detailed pedagogical perspective. I am particularly enthusiastic about two projects that came out of a class on patterns of migration in New York City. The students were encouraged to pursue research that searched for their families’ or communities’ histories of migration. In two projects, “Humans of the Five Towns” (@humansofthe5t) and “Colombians of Long Island” (@colombiansli), students worked on Instagram to create multimedia auto-narratives that emphasized the cultural construction of borders, difference, and notions of immigration. It was inspiring to see students use the social media platform differently and understand the power of knowledge dissemination.
Some of the code found online under my name was written mostly for learning purposes, but some of it showcases what I value in coding practice. I believe the best way of mastering a skill such as Python programming is by working in-depth in the tool itself and making sure to write sharp and accessible documentation along the way. For example, as I was reading about defunct social media platforms and analytical tools in Spring 2019, I came across the now non-operational TwitterSheep website. When it was operational, it created a tag cloud from the raw text of anyone’s followers on Twitter. I was unable to find any similar available tools, so I wrote an open-source version of what the site used to do. I made sure to complement the code with clear and straightforward documentation on how to use the package.
Beyond my research and teaching agenda, I have also engaged in other—often more collaborative—digital projects. For the past five years, I have worked with Digital Humanities projects centering on building DH infrastructure through grant-making and building communities of practice. It started when I took on the role of Director of HASTAC Scholars between 2014–18. Scholars is a student-driven interdisciplinary community of innovative graduate and undergraduate students who rethink the way we teach and learn in the digital age. Over 600 graduate students were part of the program during my tenure.
One of the lasting effects of my role in the program is its current two-year structure, which I developed to facilitate peer-mentoring between two concurrent cohorts. However, I am most proud of creating the Scholars Slack team, which quickly became a central architectural node for meeting and exchanging information, building networks, and community across the country. Another point of pride in my work at Scholars was “The Pedagogy Project,” created in 2014. It remains a living archive of digital or collaborative assignments, in-class exercises, and other projects that educators can use to “shake up” their syllabi. I was a co-editor and responsible for setting up the part of the Drupal website that is still available open-access at hastac.org/pedagogy-project. During my tenure at Scholars, I also wrote many blog posts, some of which garnered interest. After organizing the first Scholars Unconference in 2015, I summarized the tools we had discussed in the “DH Toolbox” blog post, which was referenced by several libraries, universities, and archives around the country (USC, Dartmouth, SMU, Tulane, Princeton, British Film Institute).
In 2018, I stepped into a new role as coordinator of the Digital Humanities Research Institute (DHRI), a project supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The project expands communities of DH practice using curricular materials and an inclusive pedagogical approach. I organized a ten-day session with the selected sixteen participants from different educational institutions across the country—faculty, librarians, museum administrators, and staff. They were invited to participate in wide-ranging skill-based workshops taught by fellows from CUNY who introduced, for example, the command line, basic Python, GIS mapping, basic HTML/CSS, databases, and machine learning. In the year that followed, participants worked with me to organize local versions of the DHRI using our core curriculum, available open-access via GitHub. The NEH selected our application as a sample application narrative. In 2019, I co-wrote a successful application to the NEH, securing $250,000 in funding to revise and expand the DHRI in 2019–21. I had to familiarize myself with all the steps of a federal grant proposal, from budgeting to scoping the project, and setting expectations toward all different stakeholders (the NEH, CUNY’s Research Foundation, CUNY’s Graduate Center, as well as fellows, faculty, and administration in the Digital Initiatives at the Graduate Center).
I have coordinated most aspects of the project with Lisa M. Rhody as the Project Director. At the ACH Conference in Summer 2019, we co-organized a “DHRI Pedagogy Showcase” around the individual institutes. I built a companion static website in Jekyll that provided access to all the information presented at the conference. I also played an integral part in qualitatively evaluating the project. The evaluation focused on the importance of human- and community-centered approaches to DH skill-building, as well as how the participants’ professional development and future career goals were affected by this approach. The findings have been summarized and will appear in a White Paper on the NEH’s website late Fall 2019. Some of the results will also appear in a co-written chapter, “Against Prestige: Cultivating Communities of Practice and Scaling DH Pedagogy,” in the Debates in Digital Humanities Pedagogy series published by University of Minnesota Press.
In Fall 2019, I took on the position of Coordinator of the Social Media Fellowship Program at CUNY’s Graduate Center. With the rise of new approaches to Open Educational Resources and conversations around open access at CUNY, the Social Media Fellows is a select group of graduate students who work as internal experts and liaisons for scholarly communication to specific departments. The program has previously been focused more on developing internal strategies for communicating academic research and attracting incoming students to the departments where the fellows are situated. My intention over the next year is to gear the work increasingly towards a critical approach to social media platforms and building frameworks that can help us understand how and why we use social media in general and specific platforms in particular.