Monday, October 30, 2023

Intergenerational Research in Practice

Saturday, October 21, as part of a conference hosted by the Social Science Research Council/Mellon Mays programs, Kenton and I delivered a talk about our work. We presented under the title "Intergenerational Research in Practice," the main theme for the conference and also an ideal topic for us to cover given some of the projects we've been developing over the last few years, including our Novel Generator Machine, the Literary Data Gallery, and this randomized statement projector focusing on Black Novel Dedications.

Before getting to those 2023 projects, though, we first looked back 10 years. 


In the summer of 2013, as a graduate student at the University of Kansas, Kenton decided he would listen to all of Jay-Z's catalog produced up to that point. A few tech ideas began to converge. For one, Kenton noticed that his Apple device facilitated the ease of identifying and organizing the nearly 200 songs Jay-Z produced or appeared on.

He also took note that Samsung was releasing a "free" Jay-Z album that summer, while collecting data on listeners. In turn, Kenton started collecting quantitative information on Jay-Z's music career. Kenton was using data to build the foundations for what would become massive datasets (See collaborators dataset vol. 1 and samples dataset vol. 1) and a digital book, #TheJayZMixtape.

Alright, also in summer and early fall of 2013, I started a new distinct data project of my own. I began collecting information about African American literary and cultural studies courses taught at SIUE. It began by charting courses over the previous few years, then I moved to the previous ten years, and eventually I documented the courses the department began offering decades before I arrived. 

Charting the expanding number of courses and the growing Black student enrollment made it possible for me to make a strong case for increasing the number of tenure-track professors with expertise in African American literary studies. Long story short: the organization of quantitative data about literary courses proved vital for the eventual expansion of our unit. 


As Kenton and I talked about the aforementioned and various other data projects, we couldn't help but recognize the intergenerational nature of things. That is, what we did related to projects by Black scholars and others from past generations. On of our best days, we liked to think we were building on what we picked up from various scholars who led the ways in our field.  

But we too represent some intergenerational pathways. We're separated by more than a decade. We reside in different generational cohorts, which means our views overlap and diverge when it comes to viewing the world and processing ideas.


In 2021, we became co-PIs, along with a couple others on the Black Literature Network -- a grant funded by the Mellon Foundation. The grant gave us a chance to materialize some of our ongoing projects on a larger scale. 

I came up with the Novel Generator Machine that allows people to search novels from a large dataset of novels by Black writers. We have this Literary Data Gallery that showcases a variety of data-informed visualization projects about Black creative works, creative artists, and literary critics. 

The connecting thread in our projects is literary data work, a term we coined to refer to our practice of gathering quantitative information about cultural products and transforming the data into visualizations and other compositions. 

The presentation at the SSRC/Mellon conference gave us one of our first opportunities to share publicly on the work that we've been doing.  


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