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AcWriMo: a postmortem

Here comes winterAcWriMo completely failed to have the effect I'd hoped for, but I'm taking it as a sign of a positive change.

One of the key axioms underlying life at UChicago is that you should always be working. I know people there who have hobbies that do not in any way relate to their professional careers, but it's certainly not the sort of information you freely volunteer in conversations with casual acquaintances. Leaving academia for an alt-ac career felt extremely freeing, like I suddenly had a choice about how I could spend my evenings. But in retrospect, it didn't take long for me to completely fill my free time with obligations and projects that I took on with more enthusiasm than forethought. Instead of blindly chasing dissertation chapters or publications, I took on building new systems, helping people crunch data, dealing with technical and administrative tasks for almost anyone who seemed like they needed some help. The objects of my attention were different, but like my academic colleagues, I came home from work every day and spent just about every evening and weekend behind my computer, doing work that I felt needed to be done, but never pausing to ask myself why, or whether I was the right person to be doing the work, or whether now was the right time.

When I started "Drupal for Humanists", I had plans to leave UChicago for another job at another institution, but the timing of the departure and the direction I was headed both changed in the six months that followed. What I didn't realize was the profound impact that a place can have on your life. It's not an entirely comfortable thought for those of us whose careers require going wherever there's a job, rather than making the choice about where you want to live. The way we often talk about things, you'd think that a life is defined first and foremost by the work one does, and everything else amounts to inconsequential details, which you might only notice on those rare occasions when you're not behind a book or computer, working on your intellectual pursuits.

Imagine, then, my culture shock when-- in my first week at Berkeley-- I tell my boss I'll be sending him a revised draft of a grant proposal that evening, and he cheerfully replies that he'll take a look in the morning, because he's going to the forge after work to turn a steel rod into some handcrafted nails for his kitchen remodeling. Not only is there a forge nearby that anyone can use after taking a few classes (which is pretty amazing), but even more remarkable, people feel no shame in revealing that work isn't their first priority in all circumstances.

As that strange behavior has started to seem more normal, I've found myself taking a serious look at all the projects I've gotten myself involved in, and making deliberate choices about what to continue doing, and where I need to wrap up my work and move on. Sometimes this has led to awkward conversations, but it's liberating to feel like I've chosen how I spend time, rather than feeling drowned by obligations where I can't even clearly articulate for myself who I have the obligation to, exactly, or why-- and that includes AcWriMo.

I continue to be reminded that "Drupal for Humanists" is, indeed, something I honestly want to do. I've also discovered that the early mornings are the best times for me to reliably make progress on it. That said, there are other things that require attention in the morning, and I'm still working on finding the optimal balance. I'll keep writing, but the sustained monomania necessary for making a huge leap forward on the project just wasn't worth missing out on taking long walks through the neighborhood, smelling flowers, marveling at protesters, sewing things for myself and others, enjoying New Orleans, visiting family for Thanksgiving, making the apartment festive to match the city. I completely failed AcWriMo, but I had a wonderful November, and I don't feel the least bit bad about it.

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AcWriMo

At the beginning of August, I moved from Chicago to Berkeley. It's been a wonderful change that has come with many upsides, including beautiful scenery, colorful local events, and other wonderful places just a short drive away. The downsides have included intense local politics, and discovering that finally "having a life" outside of job work and digital humanities work is not at all conducive to making progress on the projects I've committed myself to.

I don't generally go for public, community-oriented, temporally bounded accountability pledges, but I know that deadlines are one of the most reliable ways for me to make progress on projects, and it's been far too easy to nudge the due date on the pesky Toodledo task of "write anything on Drupal for Humanists" forward a week, and then another, and then a month. So, this Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo), I'm going to commit to getting something useful down for all the major sections of the outline for Drupal for Humanists. It's not going to cover every module you could want when using Drupal for digital humanities, and it's not going to cover every cool feature of the modules it does address, and there'll be placeholders, but I want to finish the month with something that someone could reasonably use.

And I'm already starting two days behind.

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Alternate uses for a Slavic degree: dummy content generator

As I've announced elsewhere, Drupal for Humanists is launching today on its own domain. I wanted to make sure that there was at least one case study available before launch, complete with a downloadable database and file system, so I spent the end of last week essentially re-building my site DHCommons from scratch, but leaner, better, and with the benefit of hindsight.

To understand how a case study site works, you have to see it populated with content. There's no shortage of sites that can generate Lorem Ipsum filler content, or more whimsical variants thereof. Still, I find copying and pasting random text to be less than inspiring1, even for sites that have caused me problems, where dummy content like " Pisco sour bourbon lancer tequila sunrise sangría drambuie strathisla cardhu bronx bruichladdich chivas regal pink lady, prince shnell; manhattan." feels somehow apt. As a rule, I'd rather dream up content that makes some kind of sense, at least if you're willing to engage in some suspension of disbelief.

My academic background is in Slavic linguistics, with a focus on medieval Russia, which is among the most obscure sub-sub-fields of the humanities. There's not even a comprehensive work in English that translates the Old Novgorod birchbark letters I worked on. In building Drupal for Humanists Commons, I thought I'd take the opportunity to throw together some dummy content that reflects the characters, stories, and actual historical people that are still dear to me. I included many of these links within the site content, but here are the stories behind the content, conveniently in one place.

Onfim

"Onfim" is the name associated with the child who did a series of drawings on birch bark in 13th century Novgorod, along with practicing his writing. They're extremely cute, and don't represent the human (or equine) form any more accurately than your average young child today can manage to do. (Birchbark letters 200, 202, 206, and 210 are good examples.) In Drupal for Humanists Commons, Onfim is an artist seeking models for "the Men on Horseback Project [which] aims to celebrate the strength and beauty of horses and men through a series of stick-figure-like etched drawings in birch bark." His user icon is from birchbark letter 206.

Igor Svyatoslavich

Igor Svyatoslavich is the Igor in the sometimes-disputed 12th century "Igor Tale" (or, "The Tale of Igor's Campaign", or "The Lay of Igor’s Campaign", or "The Song of Igor's Campaign"), which tells of his defeat in a battle with the Polovtsians (AKA the Cuman people, a nomadic Turkic tribe). Nabokov once translated it into English. The "Polovtsian Reduction Campaign" is my artless transformation of this poem into a Drupal for Humanists Commons project. His user icon is from a painting by Ivan Bilibin.

Boyan

Boyan is the bard in the Igor Tale. He appears in some of the earliest lines of the poem, very evocatively. Here's Nabokov's translation:

Let us, however,
begin this song
in keeping with the happenings
of these times
and not with the contriving of
Boyan.
For he, vatic Boyan
if he wished to make a laud for
one,
ranged in thought
[like the nightingale] over the
tree;
like the gray wolf
across land;
like the smoky eagle
up to the clouds.

Boyan is available as a collaborator in Drupal for Humanists Commons, seeking new adventures. His user icon is from a performance of the Russian folk music group Zolotoy Plyos; you can watch one of their songs on YouTube.

Mikita

Mikita appears in birchbark letter 377, from the late 13th century, which contains a very blunt marriage proposal: "From Mikita to Anna. Marry me. I want you and you want me. And as witness to this Ignat..." In Drupal for Humanists Commons, Mikita is available as a collaborator, seeking marriage. His user icon is from a statue in Novgorod.

Nastassja

Nastassja appears in birchbark letter 49, from the early 15th century, where she writes to her brothers that her husband has died, and asks how they'll take care of her and her children. Her project, "Domestic bliss", assumes things didn't work out with her brothers providing support, and she's looking for a new husband. She's also interested in modeling (perhaps for Onfim?) to help make ends meet. Her user icon is from a Library of Congress photo on Flickr Commons, showing Types of the Russian common people now in a state of revolt from 1905.

Sviatopolk I Vladimirovich

Sviatopolk the Accursed is the villain in the 11th century saints' lives of Boris and Gleb-- which, like the Igor Tale, were required readings in courses on Old Russian at the University of Chicago. His project "Fewer Attendees at Family Reunions" deals with his plan to eliminate his half-brothers Boris and Gleb, whose parentage wasn't under scrutiny, and who might therefore be seen as better replacements for their father. His user icon is from the 11th century silver coin bearing his likeness.

Boris and Gleb

You said it, GlebBoris and Gleb, the victims of Sviatopolk's plotting, were the first saints canonized in Kievan Rus'. Their saints' lives include some really great death speeches; Gleb's in particular comes off as sort of whiny, and I have a mug at home with a line from it, "Woe is me, woe is me! This isn't murder, but the cutting of a sapling!" Their user icon is from a 14th century actual icon.

Vladimir Sviatoslavich the Great

Vladimir I of Kiev is a delightfully colorful character. In addition to consolidating the Kievan realm, he Christianized the land-- though there's two stories about how it happened. He was of Viking descent (his Norse name being Valdamarr Sveinaldsson), and his mother appears in Norse sagas as a prophetess-come-housekeeper who was brought from her cave to the palace to predict the future, clean up a bit, and sleep with the king. Vladimir had so many children by so many wives that his family life and children have their own Wikipedia page. According to Russian sources (such as the Primary Chronicle, poetically referred to in English as "Tale of Bygone Years"), the Christianization of Rus' came about after Vladimir sent envoys to explore the major faiths in the area. Apparently the Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga region were gloomy and smelled bad, and the ban on drinking and pork was a total deal-killer. He met with Jewish envoys, but wasn't sold. He wasn't impressed with the Catholic Germans' churches. But the Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia stunned him: "We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth, nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it." So he converted to Orthodox Christianity, and made sure his kingdom followed suit. His project "Religion for Rus'" is based on this story. The other version of the story speaks less of his soul, and more of his political cunning and/or his lust for women. While different sources vary on the details, Vladimir seems to have conversion to their religion (and possibly offered military aid), in exchange for the hand of Emperor Basil II's sister, Anna. (Vladimir even took the Christian name Basil when he converted.) The fact that he was already married to pagan Rogneda seems to have not been a problem... for him, at least. Vladimir's user icon is from an 1899 engraving. The video associated with "Religion for Rus'" takes video clips from the controversial 2006 animated movie "Prince Vladimir" (sponsored by the Russian Orthodox Church, and criticized for its historical inaccuracy) and overlays a nationalistic rock song by the group Lyube about Prince Vladimir, which lines like "for his native land and the holy faith, Prince Vladimir fought against his enemies" and "in our veins is the same blood as our ancestors".

Nestor

The authorship of the Primary Chronicle, saints' lives of Boris and Gleb, and a number of other documents is attributed to Nestor the Chronicler. Nestor is available for collaboration on writing, and his user icon is from a 1919 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov.

Yaroslav I

Yaroslav the Wise, one of the youngest children of Vladimir the Great, took over the kingdom after Sviatopolk the Accursed. Due to an arrow wound, he appears in the Norse sagas as "Jarisleif the Lame"; this detail spawned the project "Accessibility in Kievan Rus'". He defeated the Pechenegs (a semi-nomadic Turkic group) after building a number of forts, as seen in the project "Inhibiting Pecheneg Encroachment". His user icon is from his seal.

Rogneda

Poor Rogneda, dumped for the Christian Anna Porphyrogenita. Her project "Interfaith Marriages Today" relates to that tragic story. The slideshow piece refers to a real nationalist Russian opera by Alexander Serov. If this hilariously nasty 1872 review is to believed, it isn't particularly good:

Now we must do justice to Serov, for he really did know how to please the public, and if his opera suffers from a lack of melodic inspiration, a coarse decorativeness in its harmony and instrumentation, the absence of any organic unity between the individual numbers, and from recitatives which completely fail to meet the requirements of convincing and truthful declamation, who would deny that the famous composer admirably succeeded in packing his opera with all kinds of effects?! Wandering minstrel-clowns [skomorokhi] dressed up as geese and bears, real horses and dogs on the stage, the moving episode of Rual'd's death, the Grand Prince's dream which actually comes to life, the ear-deafening gongs of a Chinese tam-tam—all this is the result of a deliberate attempt on Serov's part to mask the poverty of his creative imagination with bombastic stage effects.

Rogneda's user icon is from a 1770 painting by Anton Losenko.

Anna Porphyrogenita

Anna Porphyrogenita, the sister of Byzantine Emperor Basil II, was apparently less than thrilled to be married off to a newly-converted Viking/Slavic barbarian, but she got into the spirit of Christianization and founded a few churches and convents in Kievan Rus'. Her user icon is from a painting of the baptism of the Kievans by Klavdy Lebedev.

1 One exception: I'm gleefully looking forward to building a Drupal case study site that's a good fit for content from The Postmodernism Generator.

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Drupal book progress (or lack thereof)

Writing a book is hard.It's been about six months since Elijah Meeks and I kicked off our plan to write a book on Drupal for an audience of humanists, librarians, and higher-ed IT folks who support humanities research and teaching. Since then, I've repeatedly found myself explaining key things about Drupal, and wishing that I'd finished the book so I could hand it to people as a resource. Unfortunately, feeling dedicated to the project in an abstract way has not meant that at any given moment what I want to do is sit down, focus and just write it. I'd hoped that spending nearly two months in Tempe, AZ this summer (where I don't have internet at home, and the heat is hellish) would leave me with nothing else to do in my spare time besides writing this book, but somehow three weeks have slipped by without much to show for it. Moreover, the new Civilization V expansion pack has not helped the situation any.

A few recent developments have opened the door to new avenues for making myself make steadier progress. Elijah and I have decided not to look for a commercial publisher for the book. Instead, we'll publish it online, for free. Since there's people in our intended audience who like having a physical book to refer to, we'll self-publish a printed version and list it on Amazon. What we'll be sacrificing in riches (what few there might be) and the extra credibility of a publisher's endorsement we'll make up for in not having to give up control over how and where our work can be published. We'll use a Creative Commons license in hopes of encouraging people to share, remix, and use our work in whatever way makes sense to further the cause of Drupal as a tool for digital humanities.

So that I have an incentive to stop slyly nudging forward the due date for all my book-related tasks in Toodledo, I hereby promise to post whatever I've managed to write each week, until this project is done. Any feedback would be much appreciated, and I hope that people find some of these pieces useful, even before all the sections have been written.

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