From Brick to Click, Overnight

Draft version updated, 5 March (1945, GMT +4) I will update this as I think more. The situation seemed to call for publishing it in draft form as I write it.

This semester all of the instruction in all of the institutions of higher education in my country of residence has undergone rapid conversion to online delivery. School and university closures were declared necessary by the MoE for combatting the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

I have been teaching with an LMS and online presence for many years, and with student work in digital humanities (DH) done in web hosting for six. It may seem counter-intuitive that teaching digital humanities online would be difficult, but in fact, an undergrad DH class in a liberal arts (LA) environment isn’t a MOOC (Cordell). In a classroom where there is already such intense transmedial engagement with technology, we depend a lot on brick-and-mortar infrastructures (projectors/large screens, standalone and web-based platforms, seating configurations, the ability to move around the room) as well as the small classroom environment supporting both discussion and technical problem solving. The immediate switch to a synchronous online course raised a lot of issues in my mind. I had to think quickly what could be done to make the shift, literally overnight. I have my last face2face course today, for at least one month. My course is Reading Like a Computer, CDAD UH-1024Q at NYU Abu Dhabi.

Luckily the students in the class have web hosting set up and they are somewhat comfortable in it for course materials and written work (we also use Drive and an NYU-wide LMS). The suggestions for creating a rapport with students and setting up expectations that we find in the literature about online teaching are not as crucial since as I am writing this we have arrived at midterm. What follows are some ideas that I have been gleaning from the literature about online delivery and some thoughts on how the delivery of a transmedial undergrad DH class can be adapted to online environments, both quickly and meaningfully.

Right now my ideas are in the form of questions:

How can the combination of Zoom (the video conferencing built into the LMS), web hosting and other media work together to “help mimic the collaborative environment” of the classroom (Bidaisee)? How will we manage the Zoom calls so that there is direct interaction between myself and students, as well as between them? We already have computational notebooks published, but how and when will I share my screen most effectively so that we can go through the exercises as I do in face to face? How will we handle the inevitable debugging of open source software like R?

What are some strategies for using the chat function to the best effect? For taking notes that could be annotated by the instructor and posted in Drive ? For writing down key words?

How in a moment of “social distancing” can students be encouraged to “partner up” to review the material? (Goldberg) to complete group exercises? What is the “architecture of engagement” (McKay) required to transition abruptly to synchronous video classes (cognitive/instructor/social presence)?

If I have a course site already, do I really need to pull the content into NYU Classes? I feel that I will need the space of the course WordPress site even more to post notes and key concepts.

Some reading I found (with more to come):

Cordell, R. 2016. 36. How Not to Teach Digital Humanities. In Gold, M. and Klein, L. (Eds.), Debates in Digital Humanities 2016. University of Minnesota Press.

Research Instructional Technology Services NYU Shanghai. 2002 “Digital Teaching Toolkit”

Spiro, L. 2012. 14. Opening up Digital Humanities Education. In Hirsch, B. D. (Ed.), Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles and Politics. Open Book Publishers. Retrieved from

On Translating Voyant Tools into Arabic

@DJWrisley and @NajlaJarkas1
Department of English
American University of Beirut

Voyant Tools is a “web-based reading and analysis environment for digital texts.”  The developers of Voyant, Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell, reached out to the international digital humanities community this summer to ask for volunteers to translate it into languages other than English.  My colleague in the Department of English Najla Jarkas and I set out to translate it into Arabic.  Our draft of the translation of the version 2.1 interface can be found here.

Both of us have worked in the domain of Arabic-English-Arabic translation, but neither of us has translated within the specific domain of computing.  The language of Voyant Tools posed a challenge for us, since it blends the lexical fields of interfaces, data analysis and visualization as well as computational textual analysis.  We imagine that it is a new blend of terminology in many languages; it certainly is in Arabic.

We went to the library to check out English-Arabic dictionaries in computational linguistics and computing.  To some extent these were helpful, but other issues concerning the specific meanings used in Voyant arose.  Reading some portions of the co-authors’ new book Hermeneutica: Computer-Assisted Text Analysis for the Humanities, we were in a better position to understand the blended language of code, tools and explanatory text that make up the Voyant endeavor.  The blogosphere about data analysis, as well as multilingual Wikipedia, were invaluable sources of inspiration.  Microsoft’s language portal was very useful, and yet on some more basic words, we disagreed totally with its doxa.  Take two of its translations of visualization (الرسوم المرئية, مرئيات), literally, “visuals” or “graphical drawings” that we replaced with the Tuftian equivalent of “visual display/presentation” (العرض المرئي).

The language of computing is not fixed across the Arabic-speaking world, but varies according to region and individual usage.  Some terms like interface (واجهة), tools (أدوات) and corpus (مكنز) might provoke very little debate, and yet others like Scatterplot (مخطط التشتت), type/token ratio (نسبة الرموز للانماط), StreamGraph (عرض انسيابي), limited access (وصول محدود) or even skin (غلاف) might be found in print with a considerable amount of variance.

We believe that we have even made some creative interventions in certain cases where either Voyant Tools has perhaps coined new expressions such as conceptual visualization (عرض مرئي مفهومي) or where very recent trends in the digital humanities have done so with notions such as non-consumptive (لا استهلاكي) usage.

How to distinguish between documents and files? between lines and rows? between terms and words?  We wondered sometimes if the base English of Voyant was even consistent. Other most basic issues arose such as the key concept of the query.  Sometimes synonymous with the action of making a term search (عملية البحث), query also meant the contents of that search itself (كلمة البحث).  In the end, our goal was to make the interface as understandable as possible to an Arabic speaker for whom this emergent idiom of digital textual analysis is probably very new.

Theories of translation from English into Arabic are sometimes divided along national and regional lines between adopting equivalence faithful to both the structure and deeper meanings of the Arabic language and more calque-like expressions taken from foreign languages.  Since the theory behind Voyant lies in the creation of functions that can be reused as widgets in different web-based environments, we decided when it came to these names of tools (called Titles in the code) to be as ecumenical as possible.  For example, for the tool Bubbles we transliterated (بوبلز), but also gave an expression more faithful to Arabic (فقاعات).  We followed this strategy throughout providing an equivalence that translates the function of the tool and a transliteration: Workset Builder (ورك سيت بيلدر/ إنشاء المكنز الجزئي), TermsRadio (ترمز راديو /عرض زمني), even the name Voyant Tools itself (فواينت تولز / ادوات فواينت).  The user will discover these binomials positioned prominently in the Arabic interface. The idea was to provide a diversity of Voyant users in Arabic both styles–translation and transliteration–for these iconic titles.

We are aware that our translation is a kind of translingual digital humanities essai and we hope others will jump in to comment and build on our work. We have no doubt made some errors in judgment.  Embedding right-to-left language in HTML was a big challenge and will need to be fixed by others more adept at that process than we are.  We welcome the input of the growing community of regional digital humanists, as well as anyone else who uses the Arabic interface so that we can make it better.  We were humbled by the exercise that will hopefully inspire others to begin to forge a language allowing a broader public to embrace such forms of web-based reading and analysis in the Arabic language.