You + DH = ?

Happy Halloween, CSLS friends!

It has been a very busy semester for Digital Humanists! Vanderbilt University hosted a fabulous THATCamp last weekend, at which Alex Gil presented on the “Asymmetry of Global DH.” The CSLS DH working groups have been very active in their weekly meetings, and last but not least, the Graduate Student Modern Language Association announced its Spring conference on “Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives: Filling the Void.” Megan Myers (a fellow Graduate Student Affiliate at CSLS!) and I co-founded GSMLA last year and are happy to announce our inaugural conference set for April 11, 2015. We have invited graduate students from all over the country to present on how the digital world has enhanced their research and in what ways they use computers to facilitate language learning within the classroom. We are incredibly excited to invite Dr. Carl Blyth from UT-Austin as our keynote speaker!


The personal projects that I’ve been developing within the CSLS working groups (by the way working groups are the way to go – it’s so nice to troubleshoot within a group setting!) are a map of the primary authors from my PhD reading list, and a visualization of direct discourse in the novel Sitt Marie Rose by Etel Adnan. As the program for the data visualization project has been frustratingly buggy (c’mon, Gephi!), I’ll focus this entry on my map 🙂

Francophone Author Map

In the Geospatial Tools Working group, we are exploring Mapbox, a program that creates snazzy, interactive maps. So far, I have coded and plotted points of my authors’ birthplaces, and am happy to find that they are beautifully scattered all across the Francophone world! My next step will be to add images, descriptions, and links to each plotted point in order to give more information on the authors’ life work. For those of you that are interested, I have thus far included the following writers: Etel Adnan from Lebanon, Mariama Bâ and Aminata Sow Fall from Senegal, Simone de Beauvoir from France, Denise Boucher and Louky Bersiniak from Quebec, Andrée Chedid from Egypt, Hélène Cixous and Assia Djebar from Algeria, Maryse Condé and Simone Schwarz-Bart from Guadeloupe, Marguerite Duras from Vietnam, and Werewere Liking from Cameroon.

Lastly, I am contributing to a collective project that is coding Baudelaire poems to create an online version of the Fleurs du Mal for our fabulous Bandy Center here at Vanderbilt. More on that to come…

In the meantime, enjoy this transition into November and keep us updated on your digital discoveries!




“Trust the points”

Hello faithful followers! Hard to believe it’s midterm already, but time flies when you’re having fun as our DH projects get under way. This semester, I’m working on two primary projects. First of all, along with several other of our fearless bloggers, I’m working with a team from the Heard Library on encoding Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal in TEI. Vanderbilt possesses a special collection and a center for Baudelaire studies ( so it’s a natural choice for the campus’s first initiative in group coding. We’ve been learning not only the intricacies of encoding through TEI, but also figuring out this thing called “Github” (aka Purple Kitty), which I still don’t really understand enough to describe it in public, but it’s a good tool for hosting open source projects. I’m excited to be a part of the team as we live out the possibilities of collaborative research!

On a personal level, I’m working on a project with the GeoJSON working group to visually represent my experiences on Spain’s Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) pilgrimage. I became interested in what I’m calling “Folk shrines” – areas in which locals/neighbors that live along the trail or other pilgrims either spontaneously or through conscious design leave “shrines” that somehow offer support or reflection on the trail’s meaning. Examples are water stations set up by locals, literal shrines to pilgrims fallen along the trail, or stylized or improvised depictions of the saint. On the four Camino trails I’ve walked, I’ve collected dozens of photos of these “shrines”, and am now mapping them using GeoJSON to include their physical location with a photo and a short description. Here’s a sample of what I’ve plotted so far: Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 11.08.04 AMAside from a “sexy visual”, I’m hoping that seeing the spatial arrangement of the sites will lead me to new insights about the nature of these shrines. I’m following the advice of our digital muse Todd Hughes, and “trusting in the points” – that is, once plotted, a pattern will emerge that shapes my thinking.

This brings up an interesting debate in DH: Does doing a digital project serve the purpose of representing something that we already knew (or could have known) beforehand? OR Do the unique tools for DH research open up new modes of analysis we didn’t know were possible before? To put it another way: Do we (or should we) already know the results of the experiment before we undertake it, or should we, like Todd suggests “trust the points”? Already, I know that going through the process of selecting the “shrines” from my thousands of trip photos and then visiting remote areas on Google Maps to find coordinates has made me make conscious decisions and reflect about the definition of “folk shrines” in a way that I would never have done without undertaking this project. For now, I’m going to “trust the points” and see where they lead. Of course, I’ll report my findings, so stay tuned, and ¡buen camino!

So…just what IS this “DH” thing all about!?!!

Happy October, CSLS bloggers and followers! When I think of fall I inevitably think about PSL (Pumpkin Spice Lattes) at my favorite coffee shop, Starbucks. So, allow me to share a brief anecdote. The other day I was in Starbucks (with a fellow Graduate Student Affiliate) and overheard a conversation between two thirty-something men about Digital Humanities or DH. The comments of both seemed to echo the thought: “I don’t really get ‘it’…what is DH and what can it do for me?” When thinking about DH, I feel as thought this sentiment is pretty common. Now that the term circulates widely within the humanities and university-based scholarly circles, most people just nod their heads when they hear about new DH projects and initiatives. Yet, I think less than half of these individuals “familiar” with the term could successfully define the term or talk comfortably about a DH project. In relation to this cloud that seems to muddle the understanding of DH, one of the things I am currently working on is to make DH more approachable for academic communities like ours here at Vanderbilt. Last year, I wrote a research paper and conducted a study on the use of Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) at Vanderbilt. What stood out most to me was the fact the language instructors as Vanderbilt often knew very little about the implementation of technology in language classrooms and more often than not the classroom was flipped in the sense the students ended up teaching the instructors about how to use different technological tools in the language classroom setting. While CALL and DH – and this is important to remember – are not synonyms, I think there are similar conclusions to be made when thinking about DH. While we “digital immigrants,” to borrow Scott Prensky’s term, are actively engaged in acquiring TEI skills, digital gaming skills, and learning how to use other programs such as GeoJSON, Drupal, etc., these skills are often second nature for our students. For example, they may have learned how to code in high school and they likely don’t blink an eye when asked to digitally represent data or create a digital archive for a classroom project. I think it is increasingly important to reflect upon these differences, or this notable “divide”, between students and teachers in the university setting, keeping in mind how we can possibly “teach” students to use DH tools during one class period.

My more palpable DH projects at this time can be separated into two. For one, as the co-founder and co-president of the Vanderbilt Graduate Student Modern Language Association (GSMLA), we are planning our (first annual!!!) spring conference (April 4, 2015) and have just confirmed our keynote speaker: Dr. Carl Blyth from UT Austin. Dr. Blyth studies the intersection(s) between language, culture and interaction and is particularly interested in the use of digital tools and social media to facilitate “collaborative social action” (sites like Wikipedia, for example). On a more personal level, I am currently attending the digital mapping/Geospatial working session here at the Center for Second Language Studies where I am learning to use GeoJSON to add points and features on a map. The creation of annotated maps is of interest to me since my plan is to create a digital map to analyze a novel important to my dissertation. The particular novel is set on the Haitian-Dominican border and the trajectory of the main character from the Dominican sugar plantation to the Haitian border-town appears to be a inversion of the river itself (a geographic interpretation that works well with my thesis). My end-goal is to create a visually appealing annotated map where people can click on certain points and images to get further information (I plan to include text as well). I hope to integrate the map I will create (and have already started creating…) into a formal presentation of my dissertation project. I’ll keep you all posted on how my mapping project progresses! And, of course, you are all welcome to attend Dr. Blyth’s keynote presentation in early April. Until next month!

Musical Interlude

The complete title of the novel I’m working with is The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr together with a Fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper. Really long titles were a thing back in the day. As the full version of the title indicates, there are actually two plot lines developed in the text, one about Tomcat Murr and the other about Johannes Kreisler, who is a musician (Kapellmeister = ‘musical director’). Because this is his profession and because music plays a central role in the novel, it seems fitting that virtual-Kreisler should have an instrument. In the novel, he has a “guitar” made in 1532, which is interesting, since the history of the development of the guitar suggests that it may be a bit of an anachronism. There most certainly were hollow, stringed instruments around at that time, but the most popular one was called a vihuela. I have taken the artistic license to model my virtual instrument after the ‘baroque guitar,’ which was developed in the following century; this comes close to the age of the fictional guitar and preserves the detail that it significantly predates the period in which the novel takes place. In addition, the aesthetics of the baroque guitar – its long, sleek shape and sophisticated design – seemed to fit Kreisler’s serious commitment to his art as well as the Romantic atmosphere of the novel.

I modeled the guitar in Blender using the image that would later be mapped onto it as a guide.

Screen Shot 2014-10-10 at 10.56.46 PM

Then, I made a UV map and fitted it to the texture images, which I had assembled in GIMP. Here is the completed mesh after being imported into Unity:

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Humongous guitar sticking out of a building … it must be downtown Nashville

Interesting things happen when you first drag in a new mesh.

Please do not strum actual guitars with a wrench.

Please do not strum actual guitars with a wrench.

The image of the guitar body is from a photo of a reproduction made by Sebastian Nunez & Veronica Estevez in 2004. I found this lovely image on and they kindly allowed me to use it. The site has several mp3 samples that give an idea of what a baroque guitar sounds like.

One of my digital humanities projects this year

This month, we’ll be talking about our digital humanities projects for the year. I’m involved in all of the working groups at the Center for Second Language Studies ( and have several ideas, but I’ll speak here about my work with GeoJSON. GeoJSON ( is a coding format for expressing geographical data. We’re using it to store points (latitude and longitude) of locations and represent them through Mapbox ( You can set points, lines, and polygons, as well as include text boxes, links, and photographs. Here is a screen capture of a test map that I made recently:







Part of my research involves migration and travel, so I will use GeoJSON to display movement along the most frequent air routes in the United States. On the test map above, you can see points corresponding to some of the busiest airports (such as Miami, Chicago, and New York). In the next stage of the project, I will add lines in different colors to mark the routes, similar to the graphics that one finds at the back of the in-flight magazines. Next, I will attach photos of the cities and links to their websites. Finally, I hope to add animated icons so as to illustrate even better the movement between airports.

Eventually, I would like to have an international version of this map. My project for this semester, though, is simply to finish the USA map and feel comfortable using GeoJSON. I will post more photos here as the project advances!

Bio of Eric Wu-Chinese resource at CSLS

Hi there,

This is guoyong wu, you can call me Eric.I grew up in China and earned my BA in English language and literature at the Shanghai International Studies University in 2007 and an MA in international business at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economic in 2009. I then worked as a full time English teacher in the international education office at the Shanghai University of Engineering Science (SUES) from 2009 to 2013.

I came to Vanderbilt last year in 2014 and currently doing my master degree program in Teaching & Learning department with concentration on English language learners at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University.

This semester I will be working at the Center for Second Language Studies at Vanderbilt as one of the graduate students associates, in particular, as a Chinese language tutor and resource. My working hours are as follows:

Monday 9:00 am-11:30 am

Wednesday 9:00 am-11:30 am

Thursday 1:00pm -4:00pm

The CSLS is located at Furman Hall, Room 001 Phone: (32)2-2818

so feel free to drop by and let’s talk in Chinese.

Emergent Houses / Emergent Gameplay

The landscape in Sieghartsweiler is still undergoing some modifications, and will probably continue to do so, but the basics are mostly taken care of. Over the past couple of weeks, the houses have been my first priority. Due to the limited availability of suitable pre-made object meshes in the Asset Store, I realized that I would need to be able to make my own. Thus I needed to learn how to do 3D modeling in Blender. (There are other options, but Blender has the decisive advantage of being free.) After a series of YouTube tutorials, a good deal of experimentation, and transient bouts of frustration, I managed to build and import several meshes that will become the houses.

Here are my house meshes in Blender, before importing to Unity. I built them all in the same file so that the scale would match exactly, but then saved each piece in a separate file in order to simplify the importing and texturing processes.

Here are my house meshes in Blender, before importing to Unity. I built them all in the same file so that the scale would match exactly, but then saved each piece in a separate file in order to simplify the importing and texturing processes.

The house meshes are modular so that I can vary them in Unity by adding different textures and different numbers of storeys. So far, I have only placed a couple in the landscape as an initial test. One extremely helpful thing that I did find in the Asset Store was an “18th century doors and windows” pack. I stuck one of each onto one of my houses, again just as a test – these required a fair amount of scale adjustment in order to be human-sized.

Because of their modularity, it's easy to vary the color of the stucco. The guy in the yellow hard hat is for scale testing purposes, not a stray member of the Village People.

Because of the houses’ modularity, it’s easy to vary the color of the stucco. The guy in the yellow hard hat is for scale testing purposes, not a stray member of the Village People.

I’m a little concerned that my birch trees aren’t rendering in very much detail in the background – have my models got too many polygons already? Are my specular textures too complex? I guess we’ll find out as I continue to build.

As I inch closer to the point at which I will be making more decisions about gameplay mechanics and fewer about appearances, I have been pondering the issue of emergent gameplay, particularly as formulated by the ludologist Jesper Juul:

[…] most computer games are the combination of two different ways of presenting the player with a challenge, one which I will term emergence (simple rules combining, leading to variation) and one of progression (serially introduced challenges).(1)

As I develop quests for this game adaptation, I will have to consider how to balance these forms of interaction. The implementation of these gameplay dynamics will have a significant impact on what the players can potentially learn through the game. It would seem that progressive play gives the game designer much more control over the narrative arc of the game. As theorists have widely noted, emergent gameplay is often distinctly separate from the narrative elements of video games. Narrative is often presented through cut screens or other devices which offer little or no player interactivity and occur “in between” episodes of gameplay, such as at the beginning or end of levels or other markers of progress. On the other hand, one of the most appealing aspects of games is their very interactivity, such that too-severe limits on emergence could compromise the effectiveness of a game. I have been wondering about possibilities for integrating both emergent and progressive elements: Would it be better? In what situations? Is it even possible?

This is something I’ll have to keep thinking about, but for now, it’s time to start building some humanoid meshes!


German Romanticism, Waterfalls, and Birch Trees

In my CSLS project, I have decided to focus on the Romantic novel The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr by E.T.A. Hoffmann (commonly known as the author of The Sandman). I will be using Unity 3D to create a video game based on selected scenes that could function as one part of a course on German Classicism and Romanticism. I already have several ideas about how I would develop a syllabus around this, which I plan to discuss further in a future post.

Hoffmann’s novel takes place in a tiny (fictitious) town called Sieghartsweiler, which must be located somewhere in southern Bavaria. I assume this because the characters mention that they can see in the distance a (real) mountain called the “Geierstein,” which is located on the border with Austria in the Bavarian Alps.

The initial challenges mostly involve learning how to use the software. Shaping the landscape into hills gave me some limited familiarity with the toolbars and commands, but the real progress started when I had to build waterfalls. Lots of them. And why would I do that? Well, when you place water in Unity – in my case, so that I can have a stream running through Sieghartsweiler – it exists as a flat plane. So if you need to change elevation, which I most certainly do, since the stream flows downhill, you have to do something so that your two planes of “water” are connected. Otherwise, there will be edges of water planes poking out awkwardly in mid-air.

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Here, I’ve hidden a drop of about a meter and a half using a combination of rocks, grass, and a “water particle generator.” The latter isn’t readily visible in this image, but it shows up in gameplay mode.

The next major undertaking was to populate Sieghartsweiler with trees. The novel mentions birch trees by name, and photos from this region confirm that tall, straight, spindly trees are the norm here. Unfortunately, none of the free tree assets from the Unity store fits this description; on the other hand, this compelled me to learn how to use Unity’s built-in tree creator, as well as how to paint and import textures and materials for the bark and leaves. I made three different versions, so that there would be variety, and then used the nifty “mass place trees” tool to rapidly stick several thousand trees in my scene.

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 11.02.53 AM

Here’s the empty scene where I built my tree prefabs. The little red and yellow thing is a humanoid figure that I placed as a scale reference.

The only problem was that there were then trees growing in the water, so I had to go back and erase those. Although Hoffmann’s writings are full of bizarre and uncanny elements, there’s no mention of lake-trees.

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 1.41.08 PM

Lake. No trees.

The next step will be buildings, at which point the landscape will really start to look like it “belongs” to the novel. I’ll keep you posted!


¡Hola! My name is Tim Foster, third-year graduate student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese here at Vanderbilt. As a scholar, I’m interested in Early Modern literature and culture of Spain and its Transatlantic colonies. I’m also becoming more involved with various Digital Humanities ventures, including TEI and digital mapmaking. As an instructor at Vandy, I have taught elementary Spanish language, and will be teaching advanced elementary Portuguese in the Spring. A side interest personally, academically, and pedagogically has been the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, which I have done on my own, and as a course assistant on Vanderbilt’s Maymester trip last Spring through the class “The Way of Saint James: An Epic Trail to the Essence of Spain”. An exciting part about this course was the opportunity to introduce students to culture and improve language in an embedded real-world setting, where the rubber meets the proverbial (and literal) road. Seeing the confidence that a successful encounter with a native speaker can have on a language-learning student is one of the greatest joys for an instructor, and the greatest endorsement for the value of meaningful study abroad and other personal experiences with foreign language.

Bringing that same experience back to the classroom can be a challenge, but in the digital age as technological and interpersonal barriers fall, we have never been more poised to take advantage of real-world language learning opportunities. In a language classroom bounded by grammar, grades, and a finite semester, instructors can only do so much to introduce students to learning a language. I believe it’s my job as a language teacher to assist students in finding the resources they are most likely to continue to engage with beyond the confines of my classroom, whether it be foreign-language films, books, apps, podcasts, or video games, conversation partner chat sites, study abroad courses, or even just foreign-language Wikipedia pages (¿how many teachers get to encourage their students to use Wikipedia?). The more I can do in the classroom to get students interested in pursuing these media on their own time for their own life goals, the better I will have achieved my aim to teach them language not just for a semester, but help them find the tools they want/need to use to engage with language for a lifetime.

This is an exciting time to be a language student and teacher, and we at the CSLS are excited to share our year with you. ¡Bienvenid@s!

Welcome to our blog!

My name is Steven Wenz, and I am a doctoral candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. This is my fourth year at the Center for Second Language Studies (CSLS). My primary research interests are 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century narrative in Argentina and Brazil, but I also publish on issues of translation, influence, and reception. I have taught a variety of beginning and intermediate courses at Vanderbilt, and this year I am teaching Spanish 201W, an intermediate writing course.

My main expectation for the classes that I teach is that they be dynamic. No academic enjoys sitting through a conference presentation delivered in a monotone, so it would be unreasonable to expect our undergraduate students to take interest in a lecture-dominated language classroom. My classes are task-based, and I introduce activities designed to improve different skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening) and that require students to circulate and interact with their classmates. Taking a communicative approach to language learning, I encourage students to share information that is relevant to them within real-life contexts. Of course, especially in beginning courses, scaffolding is fundamental to my class design, with simpler and more direct activities providing the foundation for more complex and open-ended tasks. Although textbook materials form the basis for student work, I try to promote intercultural competency and global awareness by using authentic materials from the cultures that we study.

Most of the courses that I have taught feature presentations through the program Google Earth, in which students display a country or city on the screen and speak spontaneously about its weather, geography, and culture. Students enjoy this project because it gives them the impression of visiting countries that we have read about in the textbook. Of course, I also use familiar resources such as websites, YouTube videos, and Twitter to expose students as often as possible to the communities that we are studying. I especially enjoy encouraging students to make comparisons between these communities and their own. For example, I have asked students in my Spanish classes to think about the similarities and differences between Centennial Park in Nashville, TN and the Parque Centenario in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Finally, I feel that our primary function as language teachers is as cultural and linguistic ambassadors. For many of our students, their experiences with us and our colleagues in courses will be their only exposure to the cultures that we teach, and if we can motivate them to learn more, or at least counteract some stereotypes that they may have, we will have helped to produce more tolerant, globally aware citizens.