Photo Credit: greenshock, Flickr
Who writes this sort of stuff? And why is there so much of it? And what does it really mean?
This image, courtesy of Flickr user greenchock, is from the women's restroom of a Chicago bar. Now, I'm not sure if this is true of every
University, but certainly at most
universities I've visited, this sort of graffiti can be found all over the place: particularly in restrooms and library carrels. Often crude and obscene, not infrequently racist, homophobic, and misogynistic, these strange messages (and the equally strange rejoinders one often finds on the very same surface) fascinate me.
I've been thinking about it recently because of the ways in which it offers a ready-to-hand archive of interesting (albeit controversial) material. Wouldn't it be interesting, as an introduction to certain basic "DH" skills, to try to make an archive of these anonymous messages and then analyze them? Could this be a useful exercise in going from raw, undigitized material, to basic text analysis, piping everything through an Omeka
archive (for example). You could go from nothing to having a basic archive of material up at a domain in about a day. Transcribe all that graffitti and you could begin to try to get a handle on the preoccupations of such material. You could contrast the material, for example, found in Men's Rooms with that found in Women's Rooms.
But how would you structure this raw data? Would you mark it up somehow? TEI seems to be overkill. But relying just on the Dublin Core elements used to describe an item in Omeka doesn't seem like enough (I may be wrong here—maybe on both counts—but for the sort of things I think would be immediately worth analyzing, DC seems an odd way to go). There is a "Graffiti Markup Language"
, but it is about capturing the visual qualities of graffiti art (check out this page
for some very interesting, GML stuff), rather than the semantics and editorial history of that genre of "latrinalia" which I am interested in here. Here is a little off-the-cuff, nonce XML mark-up of the material in the image at the top of this post:
Ok, so that is pretty ugly. That "subjects" thing is just a dirty way of fitting in some sort of subject tagging, which would be a really interesting way of analyzing all the data we cobble together. And I've cribbed a bunch from TEI (bringing along an unnecessarily odd vocabulary; "settlement"?). One of the most fascinating aspects of this sort of material (for me, the
most fascinating aspect) is the way in which impromptu conversations and debates spring up between the "writing on the stall." This is marked only by numbers in what I've inelegantly and unoriginally called an "inscription" element. I'd be interested in better ways to mark this up. But for now you get the idea.
I had initially imagined this project would be a hands-on way to introduce folks to various aspects of the 'digital humanities' with a project that could, working in a group, be completed (at least with some small amount of data) in about a day or so. But as I've thought about it, I've become more attached to the idea and to an expanded version of the project which would not be focused on introducing students to digital humanities skills (markup, building an online archive, basic text analysis) exclusively. Instead it would insert these DH skills within the first-year composition goals of persuasive writing. (Admittedly, this may be because I'll be teaching UVA's FYC next semester). A class of 20ish students would work first to build the archive, each student using a digital camera to capture five or so instances of such graffiti. A basic archive built, they then would set about generating claims and arguments about it. Such a class could, in a week (with the proper infrastructure already in place), gather examples from across campus pretty quickly and generate a whole slew of data, on which they would draw to more traditional essays.
The more time I spend thinking about this idea, the more enamored of it I become. Students could essentially brainstorm each section: where on campus to look? What vocabulary to use to describe the "subjects" in this material?
There are plenty of problems: the logistics of getting ensuring students can take decent enough digital pictures; permissions from students if this archive were to appear online openly with student work; the necessity of some censorship if, carved into some desk in some class room are actual names or phone numbers; the possibility that students might be offended or uncomfortable with such material; I never marked up that heart because I couldn't think of an easy way to do so... and so on.
But, this is the internet right? So, is this a good idea?