I’m preparing for a presentation we are giving about using WordPress in my Digitizing Folk Music History course, which is an upper-level research seminar in the History Department (and not a digital media or digital humanities course in any explicit curricular way). Preparing for the talk has led me to think about a number of topics. I’ll post my notes for the presentation and a few more comments asap, but for now a few words about tag clouds.
As my colleague Josh Honn at the Northwestern library’s Center for Scholarly Communication and Digital Curation likes to joke, we have created a folksonomy for folk music studies in this course.
The tag cloud we use is nothing technologically fancy. It’s just a simple WordPress plug-in. Nor has it revealed any startling intellectual revelations (yet). Instead, it has been a simple way—a tool, a heuristic—for glimpsing the collective mind of the seminar, for noticing what the common themes are emerging as students work on individual assignments that analyze archival objects, as they participate in seminar discussions, and as they compile metadata about materials in the Berkeley Folk Music Festival collection, which is housed in Northwestern’s Special Collections library and which we are in the process of digitizing through the exquisite work of Northwestern Library’s archivists and staff.
The tags that comprise the tag cloud come from keywords that students add to their weekly blog asssignments, which focus on test-driving particular tools for digital research: text annotation (Crocodoc); image annotation (Demon Image Annotator); video annotation (using a simple annotation table); audio annotation (ditto: more of using tables in a future post); geocoding (MapPress Pro); and timeline building (Timerime). The tags also get added to metadata reflection posts and any other blog entries students or I add to the course website. Sorry, we’re using copyrighted material so I cannot share the password protected site with you—I know, folk music shouldn’t be copyrighted!
Actually, in the spirit of this tension between individual intellectual property and collective cultural heritage, one thing I like about using a tag cloud is that it echoes certain qualities of the folk revival itself. It combines individual expression and understanding with a larger collective endeavor without ever definitively tipping toward one or the other. The collective folksonomy—our mini-hive mind—is rather like the folk music’s long tail of song. It is comprised of everyone’s contributions and hence, at some level, an anonymously-authored creation. Not only the machine of WordPress and its plug-in, but also the machine of collective interaction powers the tag cloud.
Yet, it is not only a collective endeavor. It presents a group mind, but the tag cloud only exists because of each student making meaning from the materials herself or himself. And the tag cloud, once constituted, really only takes on meaning when an individual eyes it and thinks about it and processes it.
This folksonomic endeavor is perhaps ultimately just a bunch of words collaged together piecemeal. But these are democratic words, a group list of the historical imagination that is also about individual meaning-making. Individuals get used here to power a machine that synthesizes their personal positions into a collective whole. But the thing also contains the intimation that it only comes to be because of separate observations. Like folk music itself, the tag cloud floats in an atmosphere of individual and collective engagement whose combination of self and group cannot be separated, or even quite controlled.
That said, what I am also struck by in the case of this particular course is how unsurprising the tag cloud is. From what I see it confirms certain themes that keep cropping up in the archival materials, in our course readings, listening mixes, and viewings, and in seminar discussions. Folk music and the folk revival are the main topics of study—there they are as the largest words (the plug-in sizes words by their quantity of use). Then, recurring themes come next: authenticity, commercialization, community, nostalgia, politics. Key figures show up after that: Alan Lomax, Leadbelly, Joan Baez, Barry Olivier (director of the festival, which ran from 1958-1970), Sam Hinton (the MC for the festival), and others. Intriguingly, though he never performed at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival and though we have not studied him in depth (we will be doing so next week), Bob Dylan’s name shows up more prominently. Other than that small surprise, however, the tag cloud is useful for me as a teacher because it confirms that the students and I are communicating well about key concepts. It’s that second level of terms—authenticity, commercialization, community, nostalgia, politics—that I find most pleasing and useful to see in the tag cloud because my hope is that my students will come away from the course not merely as folk music fans (though that’s fine and good), but more importantly as better historians of the folk revival and its social, political, economic, and cultural contexts.
In certain respects, my use of the tag cloud and of WordPress in general as a platform might be seen as a shortcoming. My students are not “cracking the code” of digital programming. We are unable to develop a more dynamic digital analysis of tag terms over time (I do not know of a WordPress plug-in that does this, so we would have to turn to other programming platforms to do things such as map the tag cloud chronologically or spatially). But I would argue that here, for teaching purposes and in a course designed to have students conduct original historical research rather than develop digital media skills, WordPress is a good fit. It’s a starting point, a launching pad, it has what my colleague Harlan Wallach in Northwestern’s Academic & Research Technologies division likes to call a “quick learning curve.” You can sing-along and play along pretty easily here, even if you are a beginner.
The time will come when I can work with students to develop both advanced programming skills and advanced historical research skills at the same time, in the same course, but for now, pressing onward with WordPress is, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, all I really wanna do.