Digital humanities hub Athenaeum offers space for Tyechia Thompson to push boundaries
May 7, 2019
Tyechia Thompson, a Virginia Tech post-doctoral associate in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences is using technology to transform a traditional publishing project into a choose-your-own-adventure exploration into history and literature.
Thompson, along with collaborators from VT Publishing and the Athenaeum and other volunteers across campus, created an interactive literary analysis of works written by African American writers living in Paris. Her two projects, Baldwin’s Paris and Love and Suspense in Paris Noir: Navigating the Seamy World of Jake Lamar’s "Rendezvous Eighteenth," put a new digital spin on literary analysis.
Her project, Baldwin’s Paris, interactively takes visitors on a tour of Paris locations, such as monuments, residences, restaurants, and streets, referenced in African American author James Baldwin’s lifetime of work. Each of the 100 placemarks includes citations for where the reference can be found in Baldwin’s books, essays, or short stories published during his lifetime.
“This project is a spatial analysis of Baldwin’s work. By using a geospatial and text mining approach, visitors experience a unique way to critically analyze this literature,” said Thompson. “It’s approachable and interesting. You can let your curiosity lead you through these important works and the culture of Paris during this time.”
Love and Suspense in Paris Noir: Navigating the Seamy World of Jake Lamar’s "Rendezvous Eighteenth" enables visitors to experience and analyze "Rendezvous Eighteenth" by Jake Lamar with Thompson through video, audio, graphically engaging web pages, and interactive navigation. In the introduction, Thompson invites readers to linearly experience the analysis or switch up the order to follow where curiosity leads.
“Through the Jake Lamar project, I can express my analysis through video, hyperlinks, and maps,” said Thompson. “I don’t need to write it all out. It offers research and expertise to the world in an approachable way.”
Thompson doesn’t see herself as an author of these digital projects, but a producer. “In the digital humanities, all of the backend technology and programming becomes the front end,” Thompson said. “I needed help to make my ideas for the project reality. I am almost like a producer that clarifies thoughts so that other people get the whole vision of the project.”
She called on the help of Athenaeum student workers who brought their expertise to the project. Industrial engineering graduate student Supan Shah used text mining and Natural Language Processing (NLP) techniques to help Thompson determine whether the literary analysis supported her project’s hypothesis. The two discussed various kinds of analysis that could aid Thompson in better exploring the text and implemented a few that they thought would best help her in her work.
“As an industrial engineer, I am very comfortable working with numerical and structured problems,” Shah said. “However, working on this project has been an eye-opening experience with regard to the open-ended nature of questions that need to be answered and problem-solving approaches that need to be used to answer these questions.”
Soonyoung Kim, an assistant content designer for VT Publishing and dual major in professional and technical writing and psychology, helped Thompson improve the design of Love and Suspense in Paris Noir: Navigating the Seamy World of Jake Lamar’s "Rendezvous Eighteenth." While using her creativity and writing skill to transform the digital pages into engaging and interesting lessons, Kim learned about the black culture of Paris post-1960.
“Working on the project has been somewhat challenging. The perception of Paris that I once had has changed a lot since I worked on this project,” Kim said. “It was more like a slow process of immersion to a different culture.
“The flourishing view of Paris is not everything that we perceive. There is much more than what the city has tried to present,” Kim said. “The story of author Jake Lamar encourages readers to be empathetic and argumentative at the same time against the hidden aspects of that society, such as racism and the harsh life of immigrants.”
The Athenaeum was ideal to create a project like Thompson’s.
“The Athenaeum provides a space where it feels like you should play in the space,” said Thompson. “We use the space creatively through its technology-rich classrooms, meeting spaces, and audio lab. We have digital resources to explore our topics widely through research and creation.”
The proximity of the Athenaeum to the University Libraries’ Special Collections, and the 3D printing, data visualization, media design, and virtual environments studios offers support to push the boundaries of digital humanities at Virginia Tech.
“I think of the library as a whole to support the work of digital humanities. The space allows for the freedom to follow our curiosity and reach beyond what was traditionally possible,” Thompson said. “We can choose our own adventure.”