Episode 12: Public Digital Humanities

“Sometimes, it comes down to just a white weasel. It’s bizarre, but I love it.”

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About this Episode

Recorded 12 April 2022. Edited by James Harr.

Guests: Margaret K. Smith

Content: In this episode, Dr. Margaret Smith from the IRIS Center (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville) speaks about her projects focused on bridging gaps between DH studies and the St. Louis community. Her digital medieval work, Submission Strategies, maps, the spatial and social networks captured in the Irish submissions to Richard II, using these and contemporary materials to create a rich and nuanced depiction of the alliances, hostilities, and spheres of influence that shaped the interconnected social networks of England and Ireland.

Further Reading/Resources

  • The IRIS Center at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
  • Submission Strategies: The Submissions to Richard II, 1395
  • Smith, Margaret K. “Kinship and Kingship: Identity and Authority in the Book of Lismore,” Peritia 27 (2016): 121-140. Précis published in Eolas 9 (2016): 77-85.

Episode Transcript

Automated transcription by <https://otter.ai>, manually corrected by James Harr.

[Music Fade In]

James Harr  0:11 Hi, and welcome to Coding Codices. My name is James Harr, and I’m a Postdoctoral Teaching Scholar in the Data Science Academy at North Carolina State University, a lecturer for the Digital Humanities Summer Minor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a postgraduate committee member for Digital Medievalist.

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For this episode of Coding Codices, I have the pleasure of talking with Dr. Margaret Smith. Dr. Smith is a Research Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities in the IRIS Center at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and a historian of medieval and early modern Ireland. She completed her PhD in medieval history at St. Louis University in 2020. Prior to joining SIU Edwardsville, she worked in digitization at the Barack Obama Presidential Library from 2019 to 2021. In addition to publications on medieval and early modern Irish history, she has written and presented on digital humanities, infrastructure and pedagogy. She currently co-directs the NEH-funded, “Expanding Access to Digital Humanities in St. Louis,” the AHA/NEH-funded “Madison County at the Migratory Crossroads,” and the SSRC-funded “Realizing Inclusive Student Engagement in the Digital Humanities.” She also provides technical and pedagogical support for projects including the NEH-funded Recovery Hub for American Women Writers, and Community-Oriented Digital Engagement Scholars, as well as the Mellon-funded Black Literary Network at the University of Kansas. Her current research project — Submission Strategies — maps, the spatial and social networks captured in the Irish submissions to Richard II, using these and contemporary materials to create a rich and nuanced depiction of the alliances, hostilities, and spheres of influence that shaped the interconnected social networks of England and Ireland.

James Harr  2:17 Thank you so much, Margaret, for joining us on Coding Codices, and we’re very excited to talk to you about your projects, especially your medieval project on mapping Irish submissions to Richard II. Maybe, if you want to, explain what the project is to our listeners who would be very interested in the work you’re doing?

Margaret Smith 2:36 Sure, just to give a little background to start. In 1395, in the midst of kind of this protracted period of conflict, Richard II came to Ireland for the first time no English king had been there since 1210. He came to Ireland and received the submissions of dozens of Irish lords. Those submissions followed a very well established formula. So the submitting parties prostrated themselves and paid homage to the king before some unnamed witnesses. They sworn oath, usually in Irish and relayed through a trusted interpreter. And then they bound themselves to financial penalties should they break their oaths. The particulars of that ritual sometimes varied, but the overall consistency of the formula produces this invaluable resource for us as historians in the accounts of those submissions. They were transcribed and translated by Edmund Curtis in 1927, which conveniently for us means that that edition has just come out of copyright this year. And those notarial instruments that he transcribed, offer us a glimpse of these informal networks that exercise a lot of influence, often invisible in the written record on the ruling classes of England and Ireland in the 14th century. However, as is the case with many datasets, especially medieval ones, that submission data is fragmentary. And it’s also highly obscured by orthographic issues and naming ambiguity. So my project then, Submission Strategies, encodes, visualizes, and analyzes that data, supplementing the documentary voids in the submission dataset with annals entries, chancery records, property deeds, and other contemporary references to create this really rich and nuanced depiction of the alliances and hostilities and spheres of influence that shaped the interconnected social networks of England and Ireland.

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James Harr  4:36 What brought you to Ireland, what brought you to this specific time period in Ireland, in your personal research? 

Margaret Smith 4:43 That’s a great question. A really wonderful mentor in undergrad brought me to Ireland. I grew up abroad and came back to the states for college. And so I was really thinking about what it means to live in sort of a multicultural milieu and to deal with these sort of competing identities. And so I took a class my freshman year that was essentially a sort of medieval murder mystery where we took an actual murder that happened in medieval Ireland, and used archival research to kind of unpack it and see if we could figure out who did it. And that was actually set in this just a little bit before this period, in medieval Ireland. And so that really got me into this idea, both of history was like a puzzle as something to solve, which, of course, it turns out, this may be a little bit problematic, but exciting, but also the really complicated relationships that people have to ethnic identities, and religious identities, and political identities and all the ways folks, those can sort of overlap, and create these really nuanced self images and also understandings of others. And so that sort of drew me into medieval Ireland, and I’ve been here ever since.

James Harr  6:01 You brought up something really interesting about copyright. And I think, and maybe this is just me being, you know, dismissive about it. But I feel like many people assume that once you get to a topic like medieval studies, you just have all the data, you have all the information, there are no restrictions whatsoever. So to hear that the copyright just finally expired that allowed you to work with a lot of information. Could you talk a little bit more about that? 

Margaret Smith 6:31 Sure. Next, I tend to err on the side of caution. So with a lot of these documents, the documents themselves, of course, are, you know, 800, 1000 years old. So copyright on the text is a little fuzzy, I tend not to try to get into it. And just like I said, err on the side of caution. In this case, though, the transcriptions and translations are Curtis’ own work. And so I tried to be really respectful of that. And of course, it’s also part of this broader study that he did of Richard II in Ireland. And so while I could have sort of extracted data from that, at any point, what I would like to be able to do is to make parts of that book available within the project, because one of my big sort of priorities with this project is being really transparent about where my data is coming from. So that means both for respecting Curtis as a scholar and as an editor, and translator, but it also means ensuring that at any point, people who are using my visualizations can sort of drill down and see how I’m making my decisions about encoding, and how I’m sort of interpreting these different layers of sources and scholarship to create those visualizations.

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James Harr  7:53 So what’s the future for Submission Strategies, for this project? Where do you see this going? 

Margaret Smith 8:00 Well, I guess to answer that, I have to go back a little bit to the history of it, because it started last year as just a little conference paper where I thought, oh, I’ll just do a quick little network visualization of the interpreters and see whether that’s a sort of significant relationship. And of course, as these things do it sort of spiraled. So what I’ve been doing over the last several months is going back through and really making sure that my data is sound and pulling in a lot more sources to sort of expand my networks. And so I’m going about 50 years, in either direction. So this will be 1350, to 1450. Because that really helps to see some of these sort of historic relationships that are influencing what’s happening in 1395. And then give us some more context for where it goes after that. So currently, I’m in that sort of data gathering data cleaning phase, I’m planning to have a version of the site to launch in May, where everything will be publicly available. And that will be, you know, datasets and some initial visualizations. And then from there, I plan to sort of build out a lot of this interpretive content. Because I think it’s really easy for projects like this to become sort of an encyclopedia or sort of a prosopography. And I really want to make sure that there is that interpretive element, but this is also scholarship in addition to data. And of course, creating the data set is scholarship in and of itself. But I think there’s a lot of really interesting avenues to pursue here. I also am really excited to eventually open this up to collaborators or contributors. I discovered very early on that doing this kind of project that covers not just one country, but two countries over 100 years requires a lot of depth and breadth. And that’s very hard for one person to do well. So my goal is to sort of create a framework here that then other people can bring their expertise to as well. And I can go back to my little corner in Cork, and people who work on other parts of Ireland and England and Scotland can maybe bring their expertise as well.

James Harr  10:00 Yeah, one thing I’ve admired about your work is that you’re you always seem to have this the broader scope of DH studies in mind and that you want other people not only to collaborate with what what you’re working with, but have this be transferable to other aspects of DH studies and even medieval studies. So, which moves on to some of your other work, which for those of you who don’t know, Margaret is like, I feel like you’re involved with all the things in DH, which is amazing, like all the hot topics in DH. So your work on DH peer review, which we’ve discussed several times on, on this podcast, of how DH work and digital medieval work, can transfer into the idea of what scholarship is, and kind of moving away from traditional ideas of scholarship. So you’re, you’re very, very active in this. And I’d love for you to speak a little bit about some of your perspectives on DH scholarship, again, the transferability of the work you’re doing to other aspects of academic work, academic contributions. So anyway, I’ll stop here and let you speak to that a bit more. 

Margaret Smith 11:10 Yeah, definitely. I’ve been thinking about this, as you say, for a couple of years now. And partly, of course, it’s very self-interested. Because as a junior scholar, obviously, I need my work to have that sort of legibility as scholarship and as a digital humanist in a Center for Digital Humanities, rather than a traditional department. That means that a lot of my work is not going to look like the traditional monograph or the article. And so I sort of selfishly want to have these mechanisms in place for creating that legibility. And that credibility, I also do think it’s really important for the sustainability of these projects. And for them to be able to participate in this sort of ongoing discourses, by which I mean that when you put out research in an article, or a monograph, people know where to find it, and they know how to cite it. And so you get, you know, in the footnotes, you get these conversations that are happening among different texts, and among different scholars, whereas digital projects, because there’s no central repository for them, they’re not always indexed on Google Scholar and things like that, they’re much harder to find. And even if you find them, they’re not, it’s not always clear how they sort of participate or can be drawn into these discourses. And so they sort of get siloed in the scholarship itself. And so I think about peer review as a way to explicitly form those connections, which happens on one end with the creators of the projects, but needs to happen at a lot of different points, right, with peer reviewers, with maybe sort of book reviewers. And so thinking about the sort of infrastructure pieces of DH, I think is really important. There’s a lot of really good work on this already. So for instance, Reviews in DH is sort of thinking in these terms. Laura Morreale has done some really great work with her digital documentation process. And so there’s all kinds of people thinking about it from these different directions. And so I think, kind of the next step then is to create these maybe these sort of disciplinary spaces for peer review, because what reviews and DH does really well is to think about the technical contributions of projects, and how they’re contributing to the field of digital humanities. But again, that’s like, I’m even I’m not going to go there to think about what’s happening in medieval Irish digital humanities, I would kind of like to be able to find that in spaces that are talking about medieval Irish print publications as well. And to sort of get these disciplinary conversations to include more digital projects. I’ve done a little bit of that, really, for a project on American women writers, because I work in a digital humanities center, and therefore I’m in many different projects in many different fields. And so I did design a peer review process there that builds on that Reviews in DH model, and places these projects within their disciplinary contexts. And so I would love to see more of that in medieval fields and subfields as well.

[Music interlude]

James Harr  14:23 So how does this approach to peer review inform your teaching?

Margaret Smith  14:28 That’s a really interesting question. Um, you know, my teaching is a bit weird because I’m in the center. And so I don’t teach Gen Eds I teach a very few courses on digital humanities specifically. And so in those courses, you know, we were thinking about digital humanities ethics. So about this sort of, you know, how do we cite these projects and how do we evaluate their ethical positions? Right, how are they thinking about inclusive, excuse me, inclusivity and accessibility? What contributions are they making towards project sustainability? And so I think if I had to give a sort of short answer to that question, I think that these skills of evaluating projects are really important for students in terms of teaching digital literacy, and thinking about how projects make their arguments and recognizing that projects do make arguments, right that, you know, even just a nice little visualization has a lot of argumentation embedded in it. And so thinking about being able to sort of drill into a project to see its sort of basic assumptions and its sources and how it’s using them. That’s sort of off the cuff answer. 

James Harr 15:41 No, that’s great. I’m sorry, I kind of threw that at you. And you gave a fantastic answer. So I guess one thing that another thing that we like to address in these podcasts is the idea of getting involved with this type of work or not just with with your work, because obviously you, you know, eventually want to open this up to collaboration and I’d assume there’d be students who want to get involved with that. But students who are hitting the ground from the foundation, wanting to do digital medieval studies, do digital humanities work, how would you recommend them getting involved in a project? If that’s not at the center of their scholarship at the moment? 

Margaret Smith 16:26 That’s a good question. And I have a few different kinds of answers to that. One is that my advice is always to start with a question. You know, to find the kind of work, the kind of content that interests you, and to let the questions sort of emerge from that. And then to let those questions kind of draw you into tools. I think starting with the tools can be really exciting space to sort of think about possibilities. But then you wind up letting the tools sort of lead you instead of the content. And that can be a little bit dangerous, because then you wind up shoehorning things into different technologies and that can have problematic implications for the scholarship. So I think starting with the question is really important for that reason. I also think that research is exciting, right? You want to find something that you connect with. And you want to kind of find the people and find the contexts that you like, recognize something and I guess, so I think that’s one piece of it, to kind of dismiss the technology at first and find the space that you enjoy within Medieval Studies. 

My other answer, which actually, I’m going to sort of contradict myself with, is thinking about, you know, data visualization and how to get into that, because it can be quite a technical field. And I actually think in that sense, when you’re thinking about learning a technology, that dabbling is really important, and that you want to kind of be able to dip into things and just sort of see what happens when you tinker with them. And so I actually really like platforms, like observable, or Jupyter notebooks where you can just go in and start breaking things. And you can see how the data is structured and kind of create your own datasets and, and watch things unfold in real time, and get a real sense of kind of cause and effect and sort of explore the possibilities that something like data visualization offers as a methodology. 

And I have one more answer, which is that I’m thinking about my own journey into medieval studies. Mentorship was so important finding a faculty member who invested in me as a scholar, not just a student labor, but as you know, a collaborator, potentially, as someone who had valuable ideas and had valuable perspectives. And, you know, was willing to tell me that and encouraged me to sort of find those spaces that interested me, that was really imperative. So actually, I think the biggest thing that we can do for students to get into Medieval Studies is of course, not the students at all, but the faculty, to get them to sort of form those relationships and invest in students, which of course, many faculty already do wonderfully. Yeah, there’s always more. I love that last answer.

James Harr 19:10 You know, you always hear it’s like Yelp reviews, you always hear only the really good and the really bad. But sometimes when you get into academic Twitter, for example, you only hear about the really unsupportive, terrible experiences that especially graduate students have with faculty members. And one thing that you hit on that I think is just so important with DH studies is acknowledging the labor that goes into these projects. And that that data cleaning, visualization, coding all that is scholarship, it’s not just the final pretty package at the end, it’s all the work that goes into it under the hood, that students just think oh, this is a means to an end rather than part of that, that digital humanities experience. So mentioning the labor, and I love the idea of the freedom to break things, which is something that we are really afforded in digital humanities is that failure is part of it. Some things don’t work. Some things are just prototypes that will maybe never get off the ground. But at least there’s this exploration that you don’t usually see with a lot of other disciplines. And, and you touching on that and talking about that, I think it’s just so absolutely important for students to realize that it’s fun, it’s frustrating, but there’s so much more than just the final project that goes into digital humanities studies. 

Margaret Smith 20:31 Yeah, I love talking about failure, I actually think failure, we should talk about it a lot more. I would love to see like a Journal of Null Results or something for digital humanities, because there’s so many different levels that things can fail at. And all of them are really generative, actually, for thinking about what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong, both individually and as a field. And I think those are the real spaces where we can kind of move the field along and find those new directions. So I love failure. 

James Harr 21:03 Yeah, a journal failure, I think I think a lot of people would have articles ready to go for submission.

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James Harr  21:18 Okay, so, one question. I really love asking. So going back to your work, and it doesn’t have to be with the Irish documents and Submission Strategies. But what is one of the most surprising things you found in your research? And this can be a very general question too. 

Margaret Smith  21:36 In all of my research? My favorite story to tell about my sort of dissertation research, which is peripherally connected to Submission Strategies is thinking, again, about these sort of hybrid societies where you have a lot of people with different sets of mores, and different identities of all kinds kind of intersecting, and thinking about the ways that those different identities sort of collide and overlap in weird ways. So my dissertation looked at a particular Irish lordship, and looked at the ways in which both the individual lords and the sort of dynasty were negotiating this sort of politically fraught context and trying to sort of craft an identity and a sense of authority. Within a sometimes kind of hostile environment. But of course, they’re also interacting with neighbors and both Gaelic and Anglo-Irish. And so at one point, in the mid-15th century, approximately — we don’t have a date — we see this scenario where one of my Irish lords, it’s not entirely clear which one either by the way, because this is all just sort of antiquarian nonsense, but we’ll say it’s maybe a Donogh — there’s lots of Donogh MacCarthys — has this white weasel, and his neighbor, the Earl of Desmond, wants to borrow the weasel. And so allegedly, the Earl of Desmond is willing to essentially sort of use his castle as collateral for the safe return of this weasel. And, of course, the weasel dies, and in the Earl’s keeping, and therefore, that’s how Kilbrittain, the sort of central castle of this lordship comes into the possession of my MacCarthy Reaghs. And this is just like, it’s a very silly story on many levels. And of course, there’s no primary sources that attest to it. It all is sort of 17th century antiquarians. But I also think it’s a really interesting way to think about these sort of, not just culturally hybrid families who are all sort of interacting, you know, they’re crossing these boundaries between English politics, and Irish politics, and they’re all sort of, they all sort of have these hybrid identities, no matter what language you know, that they speak at home, or what, where their ancestors are from like, they’re all sort of in this hybrid mishmash, and negotiating their authority and their identity as best they can. And sometimes, it comes down to just, like, a white weasel. It’s bizarre, but I love it. I also have a later story. 16th century, early 17th where in fact, this is real, I do have a chance for a document that attests to it. A herd of cattle being used as collateral for an unpaid debt where he just goes and like takes the cattle. It’s a cattle raid, but then when he is brought into chancery for the stuffed and battery, he says it was just an unpaid debt I was collecting. 

James Harr 24:54 Do you see a lot of that cattle as…? 

Margaret Smith 24:58 Yeah. There’s definitely a conference paper in there somewhere.

James Harr  25:00 Yeah.

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James Harr  25:10 One of the struggles with digital humanities and humanities in general is that we’re always looking for opportunities for funding and opportunities for grants, and you do a lot of that work in your pedagogical research in projects that you’re working on. Can you talk a little bit about the grant projects that you currently have underway? 

Margaret Smith 25:30 Sure. One of the weird things, one of the delightful things about being at a digital humanities center is that I’m constantly sort of dipping into other people’s fields, and working across disciplinary boundaries, which is really exciting, and generates a lot of conversations about the field of digital humanities broadly conceived. And in our center at SIUE, and the IRIS center, a lot of those conversations are centering on equity and what we can do to make digital humanities in general, a more accessible space. You know, it’s kind of widely acknowledged at this point that digital humanities is often not geared in content or design towards addressing or attracting or educating women and gender minorities and people of color. And so we’ve got a lot of projects that approach that question from different angles. So for instance, right now, we’re collaborating with Lindenwood University, which is on the other side of St. Louis in St. Charles, on a project called “Expanding Access to the Digital Humanities in St. Louis”. We’ve got a digital humanities advancement grant to create a regional network focused on DH pedagogy at the secondary and undergraduate levels. And we’re particularly focused on St. Louis, because there’s all these sort of historical and contemporary pressures in St. Louis that have produced these really stark inequalities. And these very sharp lines of economic and racial segregation, and a very deep digital divide. And so we’re thinking about all of the opportunities that DH pedagogy offers as far as building digital literacies, and career prep, and getting students engaged in the humanities in sort of deeper and broader ways. But also, we’re thinking about the ways in which those benefits of DH pedagogy are inaccessible to a very large proportion of students across the St. Louis metro area. And so we’re using this network as a way to sort of, I guess, redistribute those DH resources, and create infrastructure to support the age pedagogy at these different levels. SIUE also has a new project starting in the fall, a new Gen Ed pathway for underserved students, called “Community-Oriented Digital Engagement Scholars”. And that will have students working in small research teams with a community partner on what we call a wicked problem. So something that’s very complicated, has a lot of intersecting pieces. And that complexity makes it very difficult or impossible to solve. And so they’ll be using digital tools and methods to understand, to visualize, to analyze these problems, through interdisciplinary lenses, and then to share their work with a broader public. And so for instance, this year, there’ll be focusing on climate change and resiliency and spatial justice. So those are a couple of the programs that we’re working on these sort of big infrastructure pieces, to try and create systems that don’t just sort of, say, “Here’s digital humanities come and do it,” but really try to draw in students who are not necessarily targeted by a sort of Digital Humanities writ large, and to create a space that is both welcoming and exciting and supportive for them. 

James Harr 28:48 That’s amazing. That’s amazing. I can’t, you know, I can’t talk enough about digital humanities and the work that it affords us, but the outreach, the opportunities for outreach is just fantastic. And yeah, the work you’re doing with the community is, more people need to do this, more institutions need to follow this model, because personal projects are great, but the if we if we thrive on interdisciplinarity, and we thrive on telling stories and looking at DEI as the as the core of a lot of these projects, getting getting younger individuals, especially in the community involved is so important. So the CODES initiative is fantastic. So, well done.

Margaret Smith 29:32 I’m totally excited about it. I’m so excited to get to work closely with students too. Because you know, being a center also means I don’t get a lot of teaching opportunities. So I’m really excited to have these spaces to create these really close relationships with students and get to engage in some of that mentorship in new and exciting ways. 

James Harr 29:50 Do you get to slip any medieval studies into your interaction with them? 

Margaret Smith 29:54 Oh, definitely.

James Harr 29:57 Excellent. Okay, good. All right. Well, thank you so much to Dr. Margaret Smith for joining us today and talking about her work in digital humanities and medieval studies. We really appreciate you joining us. 

Margaret Smith 30:07 Thanks so much, Jamie. This has been a really great conversation. 

James Harr 30:10 Thank you!

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James Harr 30:21 Thanks for listening to Coding Codices, a podcast by the Digital Medievalist Postgraduate Committee. I’m James Harr, and my guest on this episode was Dr. Margaret Smith from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. You can listen to more episodes of Coding Codices on our website, podcast.digitalmedievalist.org, or the podcast provider of your choice. Of course, you can also get in touch with us at dmpostgrads@gmail.com.

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