DH Toe Dip: The Serendip-o-matic


Image: Serendipity NYC, courtesy of doioffend (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Image: Serendipity NYC, courtesy of doioffend (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Dramatic Intro

As the new academic year begins, I thought a quick look at Digital Humanities (DH) projects, tools, and resources was in order, especially those that might prove useful for students, teachers, staff members, and researchers alike. (In other words, I hope to write a lot more of these.)

My motivation is twofold: first, I appreciate when people do the same for me; that’s how I know about resources like Voyant Tools, , Gephi, and Juxta. These are good things that anyone can use, and I want to help spread the word while soliciting teaching ideas and feedback (a la the superlative ProfHacker.

Second, and of equal importance, are calls for the DH Community to become more politically vocal and to articulate specific, sometimes collective positions on important cultural conditions and events. I agree with this call. But I also believe making is a form of speech (as speech is a form of making), and that this articulation is already happening, regularly—we must position ourselves to hear it. When individuals or groups make and give something to the public to use, for free, in the furtherance of their own expression, whether it be for education and/or activism, a powerful statement is made. Supporting the potential for expression is often as important as the expression itself. 

With that very dramatic preface completed, on to the first “DH Toe Dip”: the Serendip-o-matic

The Thing

Serendip-o-matic was produced by the intense “One Week|One Tool” project, where a group of smart, dedicated mad scientists hunker down for a week and create something the public can use; I repeat, they imagine and build the tool in a week. (!) As the name of this tool indicates, serendipity is the goal—if you’re just a plain dipity like me, this is welcome news. You can take any text—your own writing, a scholarly article, the full dataset of Dolly Parton lyrics—paste it into the Serendip-o-matic, and then kazam-a-bob,  the magic happens. Here is that magic, described by the makers:

Serendip-o-matic connects your sources to digital materials located in libraries, museums, and archives around the world. By first examining your research interests, and then identifying related content in locations such as the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA)Europeana, and Flickr Commons, our serendipity engine helps you discover photographs, documents, maps and other primary sources.

Whether you begin with text from an article, a Wikipedia page, or a full Zotero collection, Serendip-o-matic’s special algorithm extracts key terms and returns a surprising reflection of your interests. Because the tool is designed mostly for inspiration, search results aren’t meant to be exhaustive, but rather suggestive, pointing you to materials you might not have discovered. At the very least, the magical input-output process helps you step back and look at your work from a new perspective. Give it a whirl. Your sources may surprise you.

My initial response to the phrase “serendipity engine” was “Now that’s straight up word!” That response didn’t add much to my pedagogy, so I asked, How might I use this in class? How might my students benefit from a little digital serendipity?

How I’ve Used “The Thing”

Starting small, I applied the Serendip-o-matic to a part of my syllabus in full rigor mortis: student journals. I frequently use journals in literature classes, typically as responses to whatever text we’re reading. This doesn’t feel creative, especially when students ask for weekly prompts that result in 45 journals on the exact same topic. This is not the students’ fault; I was clearly failing and needed, well, a little serendipity. 

Last spring I taught a course on monsters. Instead of offering weekly journal prompts, I asked my students to paste their previous week’s journal into the Serendip-o-matic to see what results came back. Were there images that could be used in a journal/blog post? Were there connections to the previous journal that opened new territory for exploration? Was there a source and idea that could provide the spark for a final project?

Positive results were immediate. Instead of students writing ten completely disconnected journal responses, narrative threads began to run through their work that I could never prompt. For example, a student discussed monstrosity and its representation in mental illness: one journal focused on the history of a 19th century sanitarium, while another located and examined photographic images connected to “madness.” So what was the Serendip-o-matic’s effect? It allowed me to step out of my students’ way so they could access resources I likely would not have presented them. It infused their learning with chance, surprise, and most importantly, curiosity. Whereas my regular journal prompts felt like tasks, using this tool produced more genuine investigation. This all may seem small, but when you include completed journals in class discussion, the reach of the returned results begins to expand.

What Next?

I work exclusively with undergraduate students. If I were to incorporate the Serendip-o-matic more significantly, in an upper-level class or with graduate students, I would make the tool itself part of the content. This is common reflective practice in digital humanities of all types: What scholarly needs produced this tool? What problems does this tool attempt to solve? What questions does it hope to answer? How do you see disciplinarity or interdisciplinarity at work? What pedagogical theories inform this tool? How is the technology facilitating and/or limiting those goals? And on and on…

I imagine the Serendip-o-matic as an interesting tool for expanding discussion of current events; for example, the events in Ferguson, Missouri. If I were discussing Ferguson with students, I might ask them to read Tressie McMillan Cottom’s piece “What is Left to Say?” Students might enter that essay into the Serendip-o-matic as a way to expand the discussion in surprising ways. Having just done this, here’s one photo that appears in the results:

Photo classified as "Mountain People"
North Carolina Photo Archives: Photo classified as “Mountain People: Negroes (African Americans), circa 1904-1954”

FilmFestivalWhat else came back? The full text of White Attitudes Toward Black People, and this poster image of theBlack American Film Festivalheld in the Netherlands. Finally, there is an article called “America’s Crazy Congressman in Gaol for Standing on His Landlady.” I don’t know what I might make of this material, but I’m curious enough to explore for connections.


Well, there’s your toe dip. I should say that I have no idea if the makers of Serendip-o-matic would call it a “digital humanities project” or a “digital project” or simply a “project.” In that regard, I am more describing my intersection with this resource. Whatever it’s called, I’m thankful that it exists and that I can use it. So thank you Brian Croxall, Jack Dougherty, Meghan Frazer, Scott Kleinman, Rebecca Sutton Koeser, Ray Palin, Amy Papaelias, Mia Ridge, Eli Rose, Amanda Visconti, Scott Williams, Amrys Williams, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.  Much obliged.

If you’ve used the Serendip-o-matic or have ideas on how you might, please feel free to share them below.