Faculty Work

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    HA&A Graduate Student Trip to the College Art Association Annual Conference

    With generous support from the Dean of Graduate Studies, ten HA&A graduate students (Maria Castro, Nicole Coffineau, Clarisse Fava-Piz, Annika Johnson, Isaac King, Colleen O’Reilly, Ben Ogrodnik, Nicole Scalissi, Krystle Stricklin, and Marina Tyquiengco) traveled to New York to conduct individual research and attend the annual conference of the College Arts Association. In a colloquium on March 25th, these students discussed their research, their newly acquired tools and knowledge, and the presence of the constellations at CAA.

    Attached is the slideshow from their discussion which includes some resources and potential jumping off points for further discussion in the department.

     

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    Colloquium on Methods course

    On March 18, Shirin and I introduced our thoughts for the Methods course we are planning to teach this fall and opened up a lively conversation about object-based inquiry vs historiorgraphically based inquiry. Thanks to Annika for these detailed notes of the conversation, which are attached.

    Please feel free to join the conversation here and add your own responses and suggestions.

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    Hey, Art Historians! Interested in learning more about copyright issues in your work??

    CAA has produced the pamphlet, "Code of Best Practices for Fair Use for the Visual Arts." It is clear, concise, and direct. Do read it!

    It's attached below, and it's also on the Internet here: http://www.collegeart.org/pdf/fair-use/best-practices-fair-use-visual-arts.pdf

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    One Record's Journey at the Ohio State Reformatory

    A particularly confusing component of our Decomposing Bodies research has concerned the inconsistent and seemingly illogical tangle of records that surround any particular inmate within the grim walls of the Ohio State Reformatory (I alluded to this in my January post). In an attempt to get a grip on the record-keeping system of this institution in the late 18th and early 19th century, I took a few hours today mining our own unofficial image archive and trying to connect the various recordkeeping nodes extant at the Ohio History Connection's archive. I made a little timeline (see image attached) following, in particular, prisoner #1087, a laborer arrested for burglary and larceny, for whom we have both a Bertillon card and a photo of his corresponding page in the Bertillon Examination Record ledger. It seems that, as he was received in 1901, it is likely that the OSR had a version of this prisoner's record in three different locations: the Bertillon Examination Record, the Ohio Reformatory Historical Conduct Record, and his Bertillon Card. Based on the information in the Examination Record, it is evident that inmate #1087 was a recidivist, so he was within the prison system until 1919 (although he was released from the OSR in 1904).

    So, to review, prisoner #1087 was evident in three different locations: two of which included Bertillon descriptions, and the third of which (the Conduct Record) included information about the inmate's ancestry, upbringing, and "condition on admittance," none of which adhered to the Bertillon system of anthropometric measurement. Had this inmate stayed at the OSR until 1910, he would likely have acquired at least a fourth record: in the "Register of Identification," which tracked the movement of inmates among institutions, but also later incorporated the categorization of prisoners by race. Finally, if this inmate had been admitted to the OSR after 1913, he would have had at least 5 extant records: in the Bertillon Examination Record ledger, the Ohio State Reformatory HIstorical Conduct Record ledger, the Bertillon card system, the Register of Identification, and the Bertillon Photo Book, a literal face book comprised just of mugshots without any additional metadata.

    Why was each inmate recorded in so many disparate ledgers and drawers? When were these different recordings made, in relation to one another? How did recordkeeping occur at the Ohio Penitentiary, in contrast? These are all things that we're still trying to figure out, but I thought I'd get this initial timeline out while it's still hot off the press.
     

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    Postcard of the Ohio Penitentiary from 1908.

     

    Debriefing on DB: February Edition

    On Monday, January 29th, Jen Donnelly, Alison Langmead and I braved a wintry mix of snow and slush, arriving at the Ohio History Connection (OHC) in Columbus by mid-morning. We came for another marathon digitization session, equipped with tripods and digital cameras, laptops, and sufficiently dexterous hands. Our task for the 36-hour visit was to photograph as many Bertillon identification cards as possible, while retaining a sufficiently high-quality image for transcription, and ensuring the safety of the already-brittle cards (some of which are almost 120-years-old).

    Alison tackled boxes of cards from the Ohio State Reformatory, beginning in 1907, while Jen and I convened around a less-familiar set of Ohio Penitentiary cards dating from 1896. The Ohio State Reformatory, to clarify between the two, operated from 1896-1990, and was located in Mansfield, Ohio (about 67 miles Northeast of Columbus). The OHC has Bertillon cards from the Reformatory dating back to 1901. As Alison spent the most time engaged with these cards on the most recent trip, I will leave subjective observations on that set up to her.

    The Ohio State Penitentiary was a prison operated in Columbus, Ohio between 1834 and 1984, and was infamous for its corruption and inhumanity (for example, newspaper clippings from a 1908 scrapbook allude to various kinds of torture: including instances of paddling, being “hung up,” and enduring the “water cure”- modern day waterboarding). The postcard photographed here illustrates the Penitentiary circa 1909 (the card was postmarked August 1909, and represents a relic from the odd genre of prison tourism- is that even a genre?).

    In the midst of all this, or at least until 1919, the Bertillon system was alive and well at the Pen. Marvin E. Fornshell’s The Historical and Illustrated Ohio Penitentiary (1903) provides insight into how the Bertillon system was implemented at the Penitentiary, although his account is extremely skewed (as demonstrated by his effusive subtitle: “How the Wonderful System Works in Picking Out Any One Particular Individual,” p. 49). The Pen adopted the Bertillon system in 1887, taking its first measurement in October of that year (so almost 15 years before the Reformatory adopted the system).

    On this January trip, Jen and I lingered mostly in 1896 and 1897, making several subjective observations (as well as more concrete discoveries) along the way. For example, we noted that these early Bertillon cards featured remarkably gaunt and emaciated-looking prisoners, and these inmates tended to be older than their Reformatory counterparts. This may be attributable to the fact that when the system was implemented, some of these prisoners had already been in prison for a while, whereas the Reformatory seemed to mostly track incoming prisoners (again, this is a theory that we may later refute).

    Our more concrete findings included locating and photographing the identification card of William Haas, the first prisoner to be executed by the electric chair at the Penitentiary. We discovered- much to our horror- that Haas, convicted of murder, was only seventeen at the time of his execution (shockingly and disturbingly, the policy on juvenile executions was only formally changed in March 2005. The United States Supreme Court ruled that “the death penalty for those who had committed their crimes at under 18 years of age was cruel and unusual punishment and hence barred by the Constitution” (DPIC)).

    We also located not just one, but TWO sets of twins in our selection of cards. Twins are particularly interesting in the context of the Bertillon system because of the famous Will West case, which was blamed for revealing the cracks in Bertillon’s system. If twins had identical measurements and similar photographs, this would obviously render the system fairly useless, although we are not arguing that identical twins necessarily had identical measurements. We found one set of identical twins and one set of fraternal twins (the latter is photographed here).

    It was, overall, a fruitful and thought-provoking trip, yielding digital documentation of over 3,500 that will now enter the transcription phase.

    Categories: 
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    Debriefing on DB: January Edition

    On the eve of winter break, Alison Langmead, Josh Ellenbogen and I once again emerged from our cozy domiciles at a cold and dark hour and found our way to I-70, onward to Columbus. Columbus: the 15th largest city in the United States, the namesake of Christopher Columbus, and home to over 40,000 Bertillon identification cards.

    The Ohio History Connection (OHC), our destination, is vital for Decomposing Bodies, the VMW research project investigating the implementation and interpretation of the Bertillon system in the United States. In the high-ceilinged reading room at the OHC, we have explored and photographed thousands of inmate cards. On this most recent trip, however, we devoted our time to the documentation that occurred outside the edges of the cards: Bertillon ledgers, Warden’s reports, scrapbooks, inventories, blue prints, postcards, newspaper clippings, etc.

    The Ohio Penitentiary’s robust Registries of Anthropometric Descriptions provided documentation of the first recorded fingerprint classification of Ohio Felons in June 1910 (see image), and helped us to concoct various hypotheses about when and how Bertillon measurements were taken—and when this data was transferred from the cards to the ledgers (simultaneously? retroactively? why weren’t the measurements of pardoned or transferred inmates included in the ledger, while escapees’ measurements were?). Although we didn’t answer these questions, the process of investigating them provoked thoughtful conversations…

    Indeed, the trip provided more evidence of redundant or inconsistent recordkeeping than anything else, but also helped contextualize the cards in a way they hadn’t been previously and certainly substantiated further research.

    Transcription of the cards continues on the home front, but the related records will certainly be incorporated into our ongoing work. A new configuration of the research team will reconvene in Columbus next week, and we will undoubtedly return with new theories and questions that will contribute to this rapidly unfurling research project. Stay tuned. 

    Categories: 
    • Decomposing Bodies
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    Radical Contextualization

    Tim Hitchcock gave a lovely talk at the British Library at the end of last year on "Big Data, Small Data, and Meaning," that contains the following reflection that I found galvanizing this morning as I was listening to him speak on youtube (also embedded here):

    There are any number of research council initiatives, European funding calls, and twitcy private sector start-ups out there, ragging at the edge of established practise. We are advised to seek ‘disruption’, and to pursue the shiny. But it is important to remember that the institutions we have inherited – libraries and museums in particular - were created in service of a deeper purpose. It is not simply that we value them because they are ancient and august. Instead, we value them as a means of preserving memory, and acknowledging worth. And as importantly, we value them as part of a complex ecology of knowledge discovery, dissemination, and reflexion. So while disruption and the shiny, are all good; it remains important that libraries, continue to serve the fundamental purposes for which they were created.

    And then also here, near the end:

    To do justice to the aspirations of a macroscope, and to use it to perform the humanities effectively – and politically – we need to be able to contextualise every single word, in a representation of every word ever. Every gesture contextualised in the collective record all gestures; and every brushstroke, in the collective knowledge of every painting.
    Where is the tool and dataset that lets you see how a single stroll along a boulevard, compares to all the other weary footsteps? And compares in turn to all the text created along that path, or connected to that foot through nerve and brain and consciousness. Where is the tool and project that contextualises our experience of each point on the map, every brush stroke, and museum object?

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    Current Conversation about Topic Modelling and "Plot Arcs"

    For your perusal, the following are links to a conversation happening currently about topic modelling and plotting the plot of a text. Members of the conversation include: Matt Jockers, Ted Underwood, David Bamman, Ben Schmidt, and Lynn Cherney.

    Ben Schmidt, "Fundamental plot arcs, seen through multidimensional analysis of thousands of TV and movie scripts," December 16, 2015: http://sappingattention.blogspot.com/2014/12/fundamental-plot-arcs-seen-through.html.

    David Mimno, "Where do themes occur in novels?" undated: http://mimno.infosci.cornell.edu/novels/plot.html.

    David Bamman's find, and ensuing conversation, January 3, 2015: https://twitter.com/dbamman/status/551440390361194497

    Matt Jockers, "Plot Arcs (Schmidt Style)," January 5, 2015: http://www.matthewjockers.net/2015/01/05/plot-arcs-schmidt-style/

    Ben Schmidt, "Mimno Clone," undated: http://benschmidt.org/mimnoClone/.

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    Public Humanities

    I've attached a short, interesting piece arguing that historians need to be more engaged with nonacademic publics.  The author makes the interesting point that in in the early to mid 20th century most PhDs in American history got jobs outside the academy, and they took it for granted that they needed to be able to talk about their research with a very wide audience.  Then with the big boom in university employment in the 1960s, PhDs became much more focused on academic jobs and academic audiences, and the profession as a whole acquired the luxury of being insular.  So in fact the current turn toward a more "public" humanities is a return of sorts, to an era in which humanities scholars understood their livelihood to depend on reaching beyond academia.

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    ULS now subscribes to ARTMargins journal!

    ULS has recently subscribed to the peer-reviewed journal ARTMargins, published by MIT Press. According to its website, "ARTMargins publishes scholarly articles and essays about contemporary art, politics, media, architecture, and critical theory. ARTMargins studies art practices and visual culture in the emerging global margins, from North Africa and the Middle East to the Americas, Eastern and Western Europe, Asia and Australasia. The journal seeks a forum for scholars, theoreticians, and critics from a variety of disciplines who are interested in postmodernism and post-colonialism, and their critiques; art and politics in transitional countries and regions; post-socialism and neo-liberalism; and the problem of global art and global art history and its methodologies."

    Here is the URL (log in through PittCat to access off campus): http://www.mitpressjournals.org.pitt.idm.oclc.org/loi/artm

    Thanks to Kate Joranson for making this subscription possible!

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