Thursday, July 30, 2015

Hannah Lee – Linking the Humanities with Data Sets and Algorithms

Hannah Lee recently moved back to St. Paul after working for the past two years as a Program Manager for the Blue Mountain Center in New York's Adirondack Mountains. A graduate of Oberlin College with a degree in English, she is spending working as a Communications Assistant with the Humanities Center's Communications Team.

Have you ever used a random Facebook post generator or noticed someone else using one? Social media users plug their post histories into apps like What Would I Say? or Random Status Generator, which spit out nonsense versions of their typical posts, using their syntax and frequently used words or phrases. It’s a goofy way to learn what you are most likely to share, or just look at your online persona in a funhouse mirror, but it’s not really what you’d call useful.

Imagine the reaction of Brown University professor Elias Muhanna when one of his students handed in a randomly-generated paper. In his recent article “Hacking the Humanities”, Muhanna describes a seminar he taught on encyclopedic writing. Assigned to write in the style of Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder, the student wrote an algorithm instead. Using an English version of Pliny’s “The Natural History,” this algorithm produced sentences like, “Also great creatures resembling sheep come out on to the land for an unascertained reason, and they bud best under those circumstances, as otherwise it would make only leaves.” Muhanna understood that this was a great way to make new observations about Pliny’s expository style. Since he was also interested in coding, he ended up hiring the student to help him with an analysis of Arabic poetry.

Algorithms like this one offer students of the humanities a tool for analyzing texts that is unprecedented in terms of efficiency and scale. A literary critic, for instance, can strengthen an argument by examining exactly where and how often a symbol appears in an author’s complete works by analyzing characters’ word choices based on gender, or mapping the evolution of a cliché.

It seems strange at first to apply number-crunching to novels, but it’s refreshing to remember that we can use numbers and formulas to make subjective observations, not just draw objective conclusions. In the words of Stephen Ramsay, author of Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism, “The scientist is right to say that the plural of anecdote is not data, but in literary criticism, an abundance of anecdote is precisely what allows discussion and debate to move forward.”

Plus, it turns out it works both ways; data (or anecdote) visualization is useful for artists as well as critics. The New York Times even had a Data Artist in Residence—Jer Thorp—who says he wants to humanize data. “Each data set has its own unique character,” he explains, whether it’s the UK’s National DNA Database or the names on the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan. The traditional disciplines of the humanities have always shown us our own reflection; now, data sets and algorithms can help make its outlines much more precise.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Blues Vision - African American Writing from Minnesota

Edited by Alexs Pate with co-editors Pamela R. Fletcher and J. Otis Powell

Enthusiasm is growing for Blues Vision! In celebration of the short summer season in Minnesota, we hope you enjoy these summer selections.

Blues Vision is a groundbreaking collection of incisive prose and powerful poetry by forty-three black writers from Minnesota who educate, inspire, and reveal the unabashed truth. This anthology was co-published with the Minnesota Historical Society Press, which was made possible in part by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2004.

Lilac Week by Roy McBride
It’s lilac week.
Everywhere you

Heard these punks
Running down the
Laughing their fool
heads off,
Old Lady Duncan
yelling at them about
stealing her lilacs.
It’s lilac week.

Hey, man!
Some good shit!
Meet me back
in the alley
Smell those lilacs.

and every shade

It’s lilac week.
Lilac week.
The world
surrenders to lilacs.

Migrations by Angela Shannon

The diesel truck grunts to pick up the house, to
ease the residence onto its broad back, to haul 1619

whole down the highway. The home­­­­­–––wobbles
without foundation, trembles by sudden movement,

by turbulence and blurring trees, is disturbed
by groundlessness. It wavers and hiccups,

reduced to numbers on a flapping door, growing pains
without Little Africa or Creek Center claiming its walls.

After this crossing from South to Minnesota, will
wooden floors hold when the truck settles them?

Will walls endure after being upswept or will
the house crack and crumble? What of the father

driving the Buick, the mother unwrapping
sandwiches, the three children in the backseat singing?

Preston’s Dream:  Version No. 1 by Philip Bryant

Preston came over one Saturday afternoon
with his usual six-pack of Miller
and armful of records. He was in a quiet
pensive mood – almost doleful.
My father caught on and started playing
some Billie Holiday.
“How’d you know I was thinkin’
about Billie?” Preston asked.
“I don’t know,” my dad said. “A hunch, I guess.”
They listened to
Billie’s version of The Way You Look Tonight.
Billie’s version of Pennies From Heaven.
Billie’s version of I’ll Never Be the Same.
Finally, Preston said,
“These are all Billie’s songs, you know.
She coulda written ‘em herself.
In fact, I think she just took ‘em
Hokey and corny as they are
‘cause nobody wanted ‘em anymore.
Like in slavery days, the slaves
gettin’ pigs’ ears, snouts, feet, and guts
---all the pieces
the massa felt beneath him to eat---
and makin’ ‘em into delicacies.
She mined songs,
Got the diamonds in ‘em that
Nobody cared for or knew how to get.
She got it.
Re-created these songs into her own.
She adopted them.
They were all her children,
and they called her Mama.
Because she was.”
My father drank a little beer and smiled.
Billie was singing Laughing at Life.
Preston continued.
“I had the strangest dream last night.
I was in this small Midwestern town, all white,
on the Fourth of July. It was sunny,
and a warm breeze blew the flags aloft.
I was watchin’ the parade go down Main Street,
bands playin’ Stars and Stripes Forever
and floats of all kinds advertisin’
the Jaycees and historical society
and people all dressed up in buckskin and Indian outfits.
I was gettin’ nervous
‘cause I was the only spot in the crowd,
when here comes the last float in line---
I hear Teddy Wilson playing the opening of
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.
And there
on a float made of white and yellow gardenias
---Billie, in her prime---
big and beautiful and leanin’ and singin’
into one of those old-fashioned microphones.
and Prez was there, too---pork-pie hat
and shades and cream-white suit
and Little Jazz Roy Eldridge and Joe Jones
and Walter Page and Ram Rameriz! All of ‘em!
I couldn’t believe my eyes!
I said to a woman holdin’
a big blond baby boy high
over her head and
bouncin’ in time to the music
What year is it? I thought
They’re all dead---but there they are!
She didn’t say anything,
just nodded and smiled
and kept time to the music.
Then I saw Billie turn as she passed us
and smile at the baby
and throw a white gardenia to the mother.
By this time I was cryin’ and wanted to catch up---
the float had almost disappeared down the street,|
the crowds were too thick,
I couldn’t get through.
Then an old toothless farmer in dirty coveralls
put his hand on y shoulder and said
They’re gone now,
But they’ll be back next Fourth.
You be sure to come back, son,
you’re more than welcome here.
I shook his hand, so dirty and gnarled
And hard from heavy farm work.
I said I would, I will---
And then I woke up. My heart was poundin’.
I wondered how I could get back, but it was only a dream.”
Billie was singing Why Was I Born?
“Jesus, Preston, that was some dream.”
“James, it was like it was real.
Prez, Billie, Joe, Teddy
---all of ‘em alive!---
playin’ in that hick town somewhere
in the middle of nowhere
on the Fourth of July.”

Blues Vision artwork by Ta-couma T.Aiken, “Speak”

Available for purchase at Minnesota Historical Society Online store and on

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Sia Her - Hearing the Stories Behind the Story

Sia Her is the executive director of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, a state agency that advises the Governor and the Legislature on issues of importance to the Asian Pacific community in Minnesota. She holds a master’s degree in public policy from the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Macalester College.

Last year, I had the opportunity to meet with a group of Hmong American students, when I was invited to speak about my experiences as a Hmong American woman in a leadership position. These were young women, ages 15-18, struggling at home with cultural and gender-specific expectations, having difficulties in the classroom, and wanting more than anything to be seen, understood, and valued by their parents and others. They strive for recognition as more than just their failings which define them as simply either a worthless Hmong daughter or, in the alternative, as someone who is the ‘model’ minority.

I shared with the group that for as long as I could remember, I spent all my time reading and dreaming about the day when I would be strong enough to determine my own fate. To the best of my ability, I avoided acquiring the traits and skills of the dutiful daughter my Hmong mother dreamt of. For her part, my mother dedicated much energy and time to trying to change me, pointing out that all of my friends could sew perfectly and were married by age 14. As a response, I made a list of what I would take with me in my backpack should I decide to run away: my favorite Nancy Drew books and Benjamin Franklin’s Almanac.

The participants laughed with cautious relief throughout my talk. After, they shared that their parents often tell them they are burdens and likely to dishonor the family, too, because they stay out with their friends, speak their mind, and wear "objectionable" clothing. Inside their ethnic community, they are not good enough Hmong daughters; inside the schools, they are not academically successful enough. As neither the “good Hmong daughter” nor the “model minority,” these young women feel they belong nowhere.

“Is there really no place?” they cautiously asked, “for daughters who are Hmong but do not always come home directly after school to cook and clean; daughters who are seen and heard (in English mostly)?” Is there no place for daughters who spend time wondering how it is possible to feel so lonely in the midst of so many? How does one survive this journey?

These young women reaffirmed what many of us believe:  our understanding of our Southeast Asian Minnesotan youth is not nuanced enough to enable us to meaningfully support them so that they thrive without meeting all of our expectations. We have yet to succeed in helping them to navigate the complex, rigid, and incompatible paradigms established by linguistically and culturally diverse communities.

It is tempting to view them as just a group of American youth of color about to fail, while who they really are is a mix of their immigrant/refugee parents and a whole lot more of America. In our time together, their choice of words, body language, and what they chose to share reveal that they desire their ethnic community’s approval, strive to succeed despite their circumstances, and also just want to have fun. The tears threatening to fall from several participants’ eyes indicate their determination to not buckle under the weight of the challenges they face and to make good use of the opportunities they have as Hmong Americans.

I concluded my talk on the note that it was only when I was much older that I understood—my  parents’ hurtful words and expectations/demands were their fears, hopes, and dreams for me bundled into one package and wrapped in a language the American in me had not learned to decode. In the end, I emphasized, “successful” people are not born successful. They fall before they rise, build and rebuild themselves, and seek to help others and themselves to become increasingly “culturally competent” in each other’s stories so that one’s calls for help are heard and understood by another.

A year after our meeting, I continue to hear that several of the young women still talk about how our time together empowered them to find comfort in belonging to no one paradigm, believing that this may very well be the answer to their question of “belonging” as American children of, as Ronald Takaki puts it, “strangers from a different shore.” Their questions and comments then and today emphasize how critical it is for us to create safe and secure spaces for the intentional sharing of how our interactions impact the trajectory of one another’s lives. To hear these young women tell stories from their point of view is akin to putting flesh on the skeleton that is often the preferred starting and ending point of the national Asian American narrative.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Patrick Henry - Introduction of Krista Tippett

Patrick Henry, who lives in Waite Park, Minnesota, was professor of religion at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania (1967-84) and executive director of the Collegeville [MN] Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research (1984-2004). Since 2007, he has been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. He joined the Minnesota Humanities Center Board in 2013 and is especially interested in fostering its work in Central Minnesota.

This post is adapted from Patrick’s introduction of Krista Tippett, who was honored at an event at the Humanities Center on April 30, 2015.

The New York Times says Krista Tippett’s style “represents a fusion of all her parts.” Those parts can be traced to and through her story: growing up in Oklahoma (born on the day John F. Kennedy was elected President); graduating from Brown University; Fulbright to the University of Bonn; newspaper reporter; chief aide to the U.S. ambassador to West Germany. In this last position she saw “high power, up close,” and became disillusioned.

Far more fundamental than her disillusionment was the conviction she came to — through the lens of study at Yale Divinity School — as the world transformed in the early 1990s. “There is, at any given moment, much reality we do not see, and more change possible than we can begin to imagine,” she writes. Krista believes this about history, cultures, nations, communities, people — you, me, herself, everybody — “much reality we do not see” and “more change possible than we can begin to imagine.” This is what the humanities have been about ever since Socrates got into conversation with his friends.

Krista, who has a scholar’s precision and a journalist’s flair, conjures with time. In her heart Krista thinks Lewis Carroll penned what could be the motto for her radio program, On Being and its earlier iterations. The White Queen says to Alice, “It’s a poor memory that only works backwards.” In a 1997 talk she said, “I have long suspected that the spiritual impoverishment of our due at least in part to the way we Americans devalue memory, seek quick fixes, mistake reinvention for progress, forget, move forward, move on.” In other words, we don’t even remember backwards!

Krista is a both/and person. She sides with Charles Dickens, not his publisher, in a New Yorker cartoon that has the publisher saying, “Come, come, Mr. Dickens, surely it was the best of times or the worst of times, but not BOTH!”

And like Dickens, she knows that truth is in story. She is a wizard at eliciting stories that reveal her interviewees not only to her listeners but also to themselves. One reason she’s so good at this is her alertness to what she calls “the insides and edges of words and ideas.” On Being provides its worldwide audience a safe space for wondering about, being frightened by, marveling at, their own deepest questions, and then often finding surprising answers: “If that famous and thoughtful person can be puzzled, then it’s okay for me to be too.”

At the beginning of this century Krista undertook what seemed a quixotic task: persuading public radio that there is an audience for serious conversation about perennial spiritual questions: What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? Minnesota Public Radio, to its everlasting credit, listened, and decided to give it a try. Now, twelve years later, On Being airs on more than 330 public radio stations nationwide, and the podcast is downloaded around the world. From the beginning, Krista has imagined “a social enterprise with a radio show at its heart.” And it really is a two-way, both/and street—as we read on the website for what has been, since 2013, Krista Tippett Public Productions: “We keep finding new ways to listen to our listeners and online communities, and they keep pointing new ways forward for this adventure.”

The citation for the National Humanities Medal presented to Krista by President Obama at the White House on July 28 last year sums it up: “Radio host and author, for thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence. On the air and in print, Ms. Tippett avoids easy answers, embracing complexity and inviting people of all faiths, no faith, and every background to join the conversation.”

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Lorena Bonilla and Felix Valanzasca - Journey from Immigrant to U.S. Citizen: Two Voices

“Remember, remember always, that all of us, you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”
- Franklin D. Roosevelt

The Journey of Lorena Bonilla
(As told to Mary Burns-Klinger)

As Franklin Roosevelt stated, “all of us” living in the United States are or have descended from immigrants. Lorena Bonilla, who is the chef for the Humanities Center events venue, recently sat down to share her personal journey to citizenship with this writer and our blog readers.

Lorena was born in Mexico and immigrated—at age 5—with her parents, and an older brother and sister, to California where they hoped to find work and, as a result, a better life. She spent her formative years growing up and attending school in California. Then in 2001, at the urging of her brother and sister who had moved to Minnesota a few years prior, Lorena traveled to Minneapolis-St. Paul to continue her life journey in the Midwest. Although she had no specific plan to pursue a career as a chef, circumstance brought her into the right place at the right time. In 2003 she came across a job posting for a cleaning position at the Minnesota Humanities Event Center. When she applied, however, that position had been filled but she was offered a position as a kitchen assistant. Lorena took the job and, even though she had no formal training, proceeded to learn by watching the then–current chef and by doing the work. She is now the head chef and a 12-year employee of the Humanities Center. For those who have not had the pleasure of eating a meal or attending events with food prepared by Lorena, you can be assured that she has found her career niche and it is delicious!

When asked about the specifics of becoming a citizen, Lorena noted that both she and her brother took their citizenship exams in 2007. According to Lorena, the decision to become an "official" citizen was easy for her on many fronts: she grew up in the U.S., almost all of her family now lived here, and—not the least of her reasons—renewal of a “green card” on a regular basis was costly and complicated. Lorena shared that although the citizenship exam was hard (applicants needed to memorize the answers to over 100 questions, but were only asked to answer 6), she did only have to take it once!

In answer to my query as to what being an “American” now means to her, Lorena immediately noted that being able to vote is probably the best benefit. She added that it “feels good to be an American,” but knows that not every immigrant chooses that path – including her mother and older sister, who are continuing to hold tightly to their Mexican heritage and citizenship, despite the urgings of Lorena and her brother.

Nearly all Americans have ancestors who braved the oceans – liberty-loving risk takers in search of an ideal – the largest voluntary migrations in recorded history… Immigration is not just a link to America’s past; it’s also a bridge to America’s future.” - George W. Bush

The Journey of Felix Valanzasca

Felix Valanzasca was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he graduated from the Catholic University of Argentina, Law School. He is licensed to practice law in Argentina, as well as in the U.S. Since receiving his second law degree in 2007 from William Mitchell College of Law, he has focused his law practice to help the growing Latino community in the Twin Cities. Felix is a current member of the Humanities Center board, and was also involved with the Latino Economic Development Center and the Volunteers Lawyers Network, where he provided free legal advice for small companies and lower income families. In 2008 he taught the first International Law course at the National American University. During the past few years he has also hosted radio shows on different Latino stations to inform the Latino community on different legal issues. Felix became an American citizen in May 2015.

The experience of becoming a United States citizen has been difficult, but surely rewarding. From the moment I got my green card and became a U.S. “Lawful Permanent Resident,” to the naturalization ceremony, the process would not have been possible without the support and patience of my family and friends, both in Argentina and the United States.

In spite of the obvious differences, this journey was roughly comparable to the decision of having our children. Just as in our pregnancy and the births of both of our sons, Luca and Jax, sometimes the path to citizenship was not an easy one.  There were obstacles and times when I wasn’t at all sure things would work out, but in the end, both the births of our children and the closure of the naturalization process felt like a big relief and a new start with lots of benefits as well as new responsibilities.

Going through this process also helped open my eyes to people who don’t do something because they have to but because they are good people and want to help. The clearest example of one of those "good people" for me is the person who trusted me and became my sponsor when I needed it most. Without this person I would not have been able to gain my citizenship.

As an added bonus, obtaining citizenship finally gave me the chance to reunite my family by bringing them here to Minnesota and also provided the opportunity to fully engage in my local community and U.S. society. Last but not least, it also provided me with the tools necessary to better care for my family in the place I have decided to call home.