KU News: Grant will give public better access to history of Black literature

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Grant will give public better access to history of Black literature

LAWRENCE — The Project on the History of Black Writing at the University of Kansas and partners will use new Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant funding to build a “Novel-Generator Machine,” a computer tool that will make personalized recommendations for Black literature as well as build data patterns and other ways to engage with Black authors’ works. The new tool will build on HBW’s history of locating and digitizing Black literature for broader public access and scholarship.

Research showing why people ditch electric vehicles suggests ‘revolution’ will be slow, rocky

LAWRENCE — A transportation expert at the University of Kansas has written a research review of a new study on why 20% of electric vehicle owners switch back to conventional gasoline vehicles. The findings, Bradley Lane writes, suggest electric vehicles will not take over American roadways in the near future, even if supporting factors are as favorable as those in the California-based study.

Full stories below.


Contact: Rick Hellman, KU News Service, 785-864-8852, [email protected], @RickHellman
Grant will give public better access to history of Black literature

LAWRENCE – When Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved” came out in 1987, Maryemma Graham’s community book group in Oxford, Mississippi, started reading it but found its prose difficult to understand and enjoy.

“I went back and said, ‘What book can I give them that makes more sense than Morrison?’ Her linguistic and narrative patterns can be hard for the average reader,” said Graham, a University Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Kansas and founder of its Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW). “I was writing people asking, ‘Is there a book similar to Morrison’s, but doesn’t really read like Morrison?’ We had lots of dialogues about it, and I did a survey. Now, a year later, we read Morrison because there was a lot of hoopla about her, and they wanted to be in the flow. But it took a while to read books that had some of the same themes to prepare them to read Morrison.

“That’s just one story, but what it said to me was I had to be the conduit for discussions of what to read. We’re now creating machine-learning capacity to deliver that information — to say, ‘Here are more books like that, that do some of those kinds of things, that you might want to read.’”

A “Novel-Generator Machine,” a computer tool that will do exactly that, is one of four web-based “portals” proposed by Graham and funded by a newly announced $800,000, three-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The three-year grant will result in the future blnet.ku.edu (for Black Literature Network), a multimedia web platform that will be the access point for all users.

Graham’s collaborators on the grant are Drew Davidson, assistant professor in KU’s Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science and a member of its Information & Telecommunication Technology Center (ITTC); KU alumnus Kenton Rambsy, now assistant professor of English at the University of Texas-Arlington; and Kenton Rambsy’s brother, Howard Rambsy II, a professor of literature at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. KU Libraries are also providing support for the project.

It’s the latest extension of Graham’s HBW project, which she brought with her from the University of Mississippi to Northeastern University and then to KU in 1999. The first stage was to identify and save physical copies of books by Black writers from destruction. The next was to digitize them. And now the organizers are creating tools that will allow both academic researchers and the general public to look at the entire corpus of Black fiction, which HBW has been collecting for nearly 40 years, by using keywords, themes, data visualizations and in other ways that Davidson termed “metadata.”

To Graham, it’s a way to keep Black writers from continually falling into obscurity and even further behind in the age of Big Data.

“We have been doing this kind of work in Black fiction for a long time,” Graham said, “and a lot of people don’t have what we have. We only know a very small percentage of the Black fiction that exists. Most works, including some of the most influential ones — often innovative and trendsetting — remain untaught and underread for reasons that we know too well.

“Since we’ve been at KU, our growth has depended upon amazing students whose introduction to interactive technologies pushed HBW forward. This is the first opportunity we have had to go back to some of those former students, now scholars in their own right, and say, ‘We can finally finish what we started.’”

Another grant from the Mellon Foundation to HBW last year seeks to help HBW incorporate its texts into the HathiTrust Digital Library, a major online database for literary academics, but one that Graham notes charges a substantial annual membership fee. The new grant will create a website open to all, even as it honors copyright holders. And the grant-funded work will help HBW and the English department train scholars to work in the new and growing field of digital humanities, Graham said.

“We’ve been working on this partnership that we have with Drew and ITTC for a while,” Graham said. “We keep saying, ‘Why do we have to go someplace else to store our stuff? Why can’t we build what we need here?’ In fact, if KU researchers actively promote interdisciplinarity, then let’s put that to the test.”

“This project is all about taking these digital assets and not just making them easier to find,” Davidson said, “but also surfacing interesting aspects of the work. Just dumping a list of titles on the screen isn’t really going to cut it, in terms of access. So what we need to find is where there are interesting details within the books about the authors, and the networks that connect Black writers over time. And this is another case where we’re using a lot of different levels of expertise to try and get at this question. There’s a part of this grant called the Data Rangers, one of Kenton Rambsy’s inventions.”

Davidson said teams of students will be searching through the texts and manually annotating important details.

“So it’s an educational opportunity for them,” Davidson said. “We see this project as being not just a service to the users who are looking for the data, but also a service to our institutions. Students will help populate the dataset. We’ll use students to help program the site itself, and we’re going to use students to test the thing, as well.”

“The Data Rangers fills a notable void by creating a community where scholars can hone their tech skills while also being able to focus on Black literature exclusively,” Kenton Rambsy said.

Graham said the prospect of the grant-funded work can help KU recruit students, especially at the graduate level, something she said that HBW has been pretty good at doing.

“We see this as innovative computer science as well as serving the digital humanities,” Davidson said. “We are going to develop new machine-learning algorithms, and we don’t know what patterns we’ll find yet. We think that we will be able to better surface the answer to the question of ‘What speaks to you in this literature?’”

Graham said HBW continues to value its partnerships as a venue for further public outreach. Working with Howard Rambsy II and SIUE’s IRIS Center, the grant will fund production of a series of podcasts titled “Remarkable Receptions,” audio narratives concentrating on popular and critical responses to prominent African American writers.

Davidson summed up the effort with a comparison to some of today’s digital heavyweights.

“We want to make personalized recommendations — something like a really focused Amazon.com for Black literature — but also provide new ways to engage with the work, something like The Pudding’s visual essays,” he said.

The official university Twitter account has changed to @UnivOfKansas.
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Contact: Mike Krings, KU News Service, 785-864-8860, [email protected], @MikeKrings
Research showing why people ditch electric vehicles suggests ‘revolution’ will be slow, rocky

LAWRENCE — For over a decade, policy and industry have tried to make electric vehicles more widely available and get people to buy them. Previous research on how to do this has largely focused on examined early adopters of plug-in electric vehicles and surveyed urban residents’ stated preferences for these vehicles.

Until recently, no one had asked what would make those who adopted electric vehicles decide to switch back to a conventional gasoline vehicle. A new study does just that, reflecting that the same factors that led people to adopt electric vehicles leads drivers to ditch them if their experiences with those factors are negative.

Bradley Lane, associate professor of public affairs & administration at the University of Kansas, wrote a research review in the journal Nature Energy of a study conducted by Scott Hardman and Gil Tal of the University of California Davis that examined the factors that lead people to ditch electric vehicles. The study found that in a survey of a few thousand California residents who were early adopters of either battery-powered electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids, about 20% switched back to gas vehicles.

For his part, Lane — an expert in transportation policy, travel behavior and planning issues in urban transportation — sifted through what the findings might mean for the future of electric vehicles themselves and what other researchers investigate about them. Lane’s own work has examined attitudes toward autonomous vehicles and interest in electric vehicles.

“About one-fifth of people who adopted electric vehicles ditched them. That seems like a lot to me,” Lane said, “especially given that these were the people most likely and most incentivized to adopt them. Of course, you could also argue that 80 of people kept their EV or got a new one. But interestingly, the same things that predicted if people adopted them, if they were dissatisfied with those things, they abandoned their EV.

“There’s a real user experience factor at play here.”

Two factors predicted whether people would abandon both battery and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Users were dissatisfied with the convenience of battery charging, and they relied on them for their primary mode of transportation. Previous research has shown that people who have adopted the vehicles thought they would be able to charge them conveniently and wanted the vehicle as their primary mode of transportation, often to save money on gas. Otherwise, there were differences in reasons for discontinuance among battery-powered vs. hybrid electric vehicles.

Owners who abandoned their battery-powered EVs reported they were most likely dissatisfied with home charging capability, especially with the ability to rapidly charge at home. Plug-in owners reported they were dissatisfied with the charging costs or that they were not saving as much on fuel costs as they thought they would. They also reported dissatisfaction with their perception of charging access or that there were not as many charging stations available as they thought there would be. Demographically, people who ditched either type were more likely to be smaller and younger, with fewer vehicles, lower incomes and fewer men living in them.

“My hunch is that people who ditched battery electric vehicles are not classic first adopters. What we sometimes think of as the typical American household with multiple vehicles and thought an EV would save them money, and it just didn’t do it enough for them,” Lane said. “That sends signals that these might continue to have a rocky time diffusing into the population without continued improvements in cost and charging access, particularly for multi-family housing structures.”

Another major indicator of the findings is that negative experiences were very influential, perhaps more so than positive experiences. Lane emphasized that the findings cannot be extrapolated for the entire United States, as all respondents were from California, which is the state with the most incentives for electric vehicle ownership, a wealthy population, bad urban air pollution and the highest gas prices in the nation. This makes their residents the most likely to adopt the vehicles in the U.S., so the fact that nearly 20% of respondents in the most favorable environment for EVs switched back to conventional gasoline vehicles indicates these vehicles will not take over American roadways in the near future, even if more locations become as favorable as California to buy one.

Further research could also explore why people keep the vehicles or get a new one, he added.

Electric vehicles are widely viewed in transportation research circles as one of three revolutions in transportation, along with autonomous vehicles and shared mobility. The findings lend weight to the school of thought that these revolutions will not happen overnight.

“Hardman and Tal’s study instead gives strong evidence that initial adoption does not necessarily mean a permanent switch and that the three revolutions of transportation may well look more like revolutions often do — rocky, drawn out and with lots of starts and stops before there is lasting change,” Lane wrote.


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Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, director of news and media relations, [email protected]

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