To complete a minor field at George Mason, students are required to take a readings course that encapsulates the breadth of their chosen minor. The reading list for this digital history readings course was created by a group of PhD students, all of whom are completing the minor. The readings are divided into 11 topic, with each topic corresponding to a week of the course. The list is included below:
Prior to coming to class, I write a blog post on that week’s readings. The posts either synthesize various readings, takes a position on a key issue within the readings, or highlights questions I have that are left unanswered. In essence, the blog posts serve as a sounding board for my reaction to that week’s readings/topic. I have included my blog posts below.
One of my favorite mantras/quotes from a historian comes from Milton V. Backman. In the preface of his American Religions and the Rise of Mormonism, he states that "to simplify history is to falsify history." I read this well before my venture into graduate school and the discipline of History. Yet, it has stayed with me throughout. It has percolated in my mind over the years as I engage with different historical themes, periods and discussions. This weeks readings dealt with two major debates/discussions: what has been called The Syuzhet Debate of 2015 and The History Manifesto Debates. Both of these debates deal with big data (either directly or tangentially), each caused a stir among historians, and reading through the blog pots and articles for each caused me to reflect on Backman's observation.
The Syuzhet Debate centers around an R package, developed by Matthew Jockers, that is "designed to extract sentiment and plot information from prose." He applies it to a corpus of novels in an attempt to define the archetypal plot lines in literature. The R package, made available through Github, was used by other historians who discovered some issues with the way syuzhet operated. Annie Swafford, a historian out of SUNY, wrote a blog post articulating the problems she found in using syuzhet and thus the debate began. A large part of Swafford's critiques focused around the over-simplified approach the package had in regards to sentiment in prose. She outlined the lack of attention given to modifiers ("I am not happy") and the extremely limited classification system for words (-1 for negative, 0 for neutral, 1 for positive). If I were to apply Backman's mantra to this debate, in part, the "to simplify history" here is not the content but the tools by which historical analysis is achieved. Syuzhet is simplifying the process of identify positive and negative sentiments either by not addressing the complexity of words and modifiers or by ignoring the magnitude of certain words in regards to emotions.
Just a few months before the Syuzhet Debate of 2015, David Armitage and Jo Guldi published The History Manifesto. Armitage and Guldi proclaim that the world, and the discipline of history, has been plagued in recent decades by short-termness. This focus on brevity of time does not allow for policymakers or historians to fully answer and understanding long term historical (or economic, geological, political etc.) trends. They call on historians to return to the longue duree in their historical research and to take a larger (or as they articulate, return to their larger) role in policymaking. One avenue by which historians can return to long form history, and in correlation with the world of abundance, is the use of big data. The text has caused quite a stir within the discipline, both positive and negative. The AHR Exchange critique by Deborah Cohen and Patrick Mandler and the follow up by Armitage and Guldi was inriguing while also quite biting in their dialogue with each other. However, the narrative provided by Armitage and Guldi is very clean with definitive lines leading to each point and position. Reading through, I felt like this was a well drafted movie plot rather than an historical narrative. Nick Funke, a PhD student from the University of Birmingham, articulated it best in a blog post when he wrote "I am not at all nostalgic for a mythical time in which the past seemed neat… Humans are complex, contradictory and confusing, that’s the grandest narrative I’m willing to subscribe to." The micro-histories that Armitage and Guldi dismiss are precisely the de-simplifying histories that allow for better understanding of the complex mess that is our/your/their past. To somehow remove that specificity and still maintain the level of detail and understanding is beyond me. I share in their excitement for big data and its use within history but I do not subscribe to the notion that historians are the gatekeepers to some utopian world (no matter how big my ego gets).
I love maps.
This statement may prompt chuckles and eye rolls but it is not meant to be facetious or make light of the topic. Maps and mapping have become an important part of my life. This is strange considering that a few short years ago, I could count the things I knew about maps on one hand. Yet, through a series of (fortunate) events, I received a Bachelor's of Science in Geography and Geographic Information Science (GIS). Now, I pause when I walk by a map in a hallway to "read it over" and I own numerous maps and atlases. So, over the course of a few years, I have come to love maps and mapping. This is especially important as I have transitioned into the field of history.
History is inherently spatial. Every person, place, event, document, object has a geography, whether it is a single location or many. It is impossible to be devoid of any location. Yet, somehow within the historical scholarship for a time, there was no space for place. As outlined in the introductory section of The Spatial Humanities, "only recently have scholars revived what had been a dormant interest in the influence of physical or geographical space on human behavior and cultural development." This spatial turn is motivated largely by the influx of GIS into humanities scholarship. And that is how I found myself pursuing history in graduate school. I literally followed "the GIS trail" into a different discipline. The integration of historical scholarship and spatial analysis is extremely exciting. For the purposes of this blog post, I want to discuss two different elements within mapping and history.
Ed Ayers and Scott Nesbit, in their article Seeing Emancipation, define scale in two ways. First "scale defines the varying spatial and temporal reach of specific practices" and secondly, "[scale] is also a matter of perception, the frame that observers lay down over evidence of social activity." Thus scale exists both in the historical element and presently in the imposed framework by the historian. Scale, as Ayers and Nesbit explain, is important in understanding the actions of the past. A third and largely cartographically focused meaning of scale is the corresponding distance on the ground to the distance on the map. Often it is described like this: 1:24,000. This scale ratio is simply articulating that one unit (inch, foot, mile etc.) on the map is equal to 24,000 of those units on the ground. Glancing over a map, most people don't really dwell on the scale. However, when employing maps in analysis, scale is paramount to the design and development of the map. It dictates the amount of geographic area that is shown on the map. A small scale map (think 1:250,000) shows a lot of geographic ground, especially when compared to a large scale map. When mapping an historical event or place, it is important to decide how much area should be seen or shown. This is even more important when the map is used for analysis and the boundaries of the map dictate the boundaries of information being considered.
As maps are representations of the world, scale also largely dictates the amount of generalization in the map. Ian Gregory and Alistair Geddes, in their text Toward Spatial Humanities, articulate that representing a city as a point is almost non-sensical. Yet, depending on the scale of a map, using a point as a opposed to a polygon to represent a city is necessary. Incidentally, as you move further from a large scale map to a small scale, more generalization is needed and more information is ignored or "lost." This leads me into my second point.
Error or Distortion
For all my advocacy and love of maps, maps got some problems. Geographers tend to call these problems error or distortions. These errors are introduced largely because a map is trying to represent a three-dimensional object on a two dimensional platform. As my cartography professor used to say, "All maps reveal and conceal." Understanding the various limitations of maps is even more important for historians as GIS and other mapping technologies are appropriated from another field. Historians have developed strong methodologies to interpret text based documents. Maps can be and are just as complex to read and interpret. The best example of the complexity maps and distortion maps can introduce are Map projections or the process of projecting the world onto a flat surface. The errors and distortions from map projections can provide false understandings of spatial relationships. The best example of this can be the comparison of Greenland to Africa from a Mercator World Map. The television show, the West Wing, comically articulates the distortion the can be introduced by map projections. (watch it here).
I am excited to be a part of the discipline of history as a geographer. Mapping provides a platform for illustrating relationships between phenomena that can't be fully realized through text only. While not a perfect medium, maps can greatly enhance the depth and breadth of historical analysis (to borrow from McGregor and Geddes). I am excited to see where the spatial turn goes and am even more excited to be a part of it.
This weeks topic (Visualization) and next weeks (Mapping) are areas that I have a much stronger background in. As Dr. Mullen has articulated that out of these five topics (Text Analysis, Networks, Visualization, Mapping, Humanities Computing), we need to be proficient in at least one to be considered a Digital Historian. Well, Visualization and even more so with Mapping are my areas of interest/expertise (I use this term extremely lightly). I found myself reflecting on my Cartographic Design class from my undergraduate in Geography. Each week, the professor had assigned a topic related to design (the human eye, color, texture, computer screen's rendering of color, etc.) and then we would contribute something to those topics on the GIS wiki.
The articles this week can really be divided into two "camps." The first camp were articles that discussed visualization directly and its place in the field of humanities. The second group were thematic articles that utilized different forms of visualization to support or elaborate their arguments. While the readings were interesting, I really liked Elijah Meeks series of posts "Gestalt Principles for Data Visualization" (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4). We covered Gestalt in my Cartographic Design class and it was very useful. Breaking down the visualization into its Gestalt components can really help a user to understand how the visualization comes together and what ultimately is the intent of the visualization. Meeks explanation is very easy to understand and provides a good framework to begin analyzing visualizations. I also read through the GIS wiki page on Gestalt just because it has a nice pithy breakdown of the various components.
I also want to focus on a statement David Staley makes in his book Computers, Visualization, and History. Right in the introduction he outlines the fundamentals of visualization. He says "a visualization is any graphic that organizes meaningful information in multidimensional spatial forms." He goes on to articulate that "Visualizations are a specific subset of all possible images, in that their purpose is to organize signs representing data and information in two-and three-dimensional form." Between these two statements by Staley, two words stand out to me: organize and purpose. There has been ample discussion, both in this course and others, of the need to address the question of audience. Yet, in connection with audience is what is the purpose of this visualization and what organization needs to take place in order to achieve that purpose. This is akin to Tufte's discussion of "chart junk," the unnecessary clutter and contrived images that made visualizations confusing. The purpose of the visualization needs to be both addressed and readdressed as the visualization is organized. This focus on purpose and organization is even more important when viewed in light of Staley sharp distinction in visualization: those used in research and those used to present. The visualizations used to probe a question or possibly answer it does not mean that same visualization should be used for the public. This dichotomy can be realized by constantly returning to the purpose of the visualization and how is it organized.
I am left pondering the overall place of visualization in various scholarly platforms - namely the print vs. the digital. Print limits the scholars use of visualization not only because of the lack of interactivity but in the financial burden visualizations pose in printed text. However, the digital does not carry such burdens. The continuous amount of data and the interactivity of the web allows for almost an endless stream of visualizations. How, then, does the ability to create and curate an almost endless stream of visualization influence my own work and my own relationship with visualizations as a scholar?
This weeks readings on network analysis represent the second week of readings on specific methodologies. Out of all five weeks (text analysis, network analysis, visualization, mapping, humanities computing) on methodologies, I have the least amount of experience with networks. Yet, in some ways, I find them the most fascinating. They are fascinating because the crux of networks are relationships. What are the relationships between certain "things?" Networks, in essence, are very similar to my field of study, mapping. While networks remove in large part the "geographic context," both maps and networks focus on the relationship various "things" have between one another. While maps are inherently a spatial platform, networks can represent a plethora of relationships.
In all honesty, the reading that helped the most (as others in the course have mentioned as well) was Scott Weingart's article in The Journal of Digital Humanities, "Demystifying Networks, Part 1 & 2." While he writes for an audience with no experience or knowledge of networks, I found Weingart's warnings to be particularly interesting. He warns of two pitfalls:
- When you learn a new technique, very quickly everything looks like it can be solved with this new technique. "When you learn to use a hammer, everything looks like a nail."
- Methodology appropriation is dangerous as every methodology comes with a list of caveats to the user. Furthermore, when lifting that methodology out of its field and placing it into your own, those caveats are easily overlooks, forgotten, or just ignored.
I have noticed something of myself as we have started to work through the methodologies. I am particularly attuned or focused on finding the boundaries. Last week on text analysis, I was attuned to any mention of warnings or shortcomings of the methodologies int he reading. In addition, when we arrive at the mapping week (I am stoked for that week's readings) I made sure to add Mark Monmonier's How to Lie with Maps because I am well aware of the limits of that platform/methodology.
At any rate, Weingart's second warning stuck with me throughout the rest of the readings. Methodologies appropriation is something that DH is particularly attune to while still overlooking it. This could lead into a discussion of the "black box" mentality of using tools to applying the wrong algorithm to the data set (Weingart's explanation of applying a centrality analysis is particularly illustrative).
More importantly, and what I am still interested in delving into is the varying nature of data sets. Weingart notes that network analysis is not equipped to handle multi-modal analysis well. His article focuses around examples of single or bi-modal analysis. I am left wondering what is the recourse for historians whose data and sources are almost always heterogeneous? The article was published in 2011, 4 years ago, and perhaps network analysis has progressed to a point that multi-modal analyses can be dealt with much easier and with a greater degree of results.
Overall, what is the impact heterogeneous data has on using network analysis as a viable platform of research?
My first encounter with text analysis was the summer between finishing my undergraduate degree and starting the PhD program at GMU. Wanting to be studious and proactive before entering the program I chose for its digital humanities specialty, I started reading about text mining and topic modeling. The first article I read, I can't recall what it was specifically, instantly went over my head as it discussed the statistics association with text analysis. I came away form the article with a sinking feeling that I was "getting in over my head." Thankfully, that feeling subsided and I have learned a lot about text analysis from my fellowship and my Clio Wired classes. In fact, my Clio Wired One final project was using Voyant and text mining to analyze a corpus of Revolutionary War Sermons (check it out here).
The readings for this week represent a shifting point in the course. Prior to Text Analysis, the topics were more abstract and theory based. Instead of talking about an actual program or task, they instead addressed the state of the field. As a result, their was less "arguments" made in the reading than prior weeks. Instead, I was able to read about the application of various text analysis methods (text mining or topic modeling). Distant reading really got its start, within the humanities, in literary studies. It was interesting to read the various ways of using distant reading as described in Matthew Jockers' book Macroanalysis: Digital methods & Literary History. He discussed the theory behind microanalysis, or distant reading, while also explaining its application to various levels of documents (metadata, theme, gender etc.). It was interesting to see how different questions can be explored (down to trying to identify the author of an anonymous text). Personally, his text helped me transition the chasm of document to data. Understanding the corpus as a grouping of various levels of data facilitates new ways of answering questions or at least prompts new questions. It was enjoyable, if at times a bit heavy on the literary stuff (understandably).
Yet, I was left unsatisified... Multiple articles delved into the scholar's research interests, their use of distant reading methods, and the results it produced to varying degrees. However, there seemed to be very little discussion of the pitfalls that inexperienced DHers encounter as they apply distant reading methods to their fields. Ben Schmidt's article "Words Alone: Dismantling Topic Models in the Humanities" helped to highlight some of these. While somewhat beyond me at points, Schmidt basically outlines two assumptions made in topic modeling that aren't always true:
1. Topic Modeling is coherent: "a topic is a set of words that all tend to appear together, and will therefore have a number of things in common."
2. Topic Modeling is stable: "if a topic appears at the same rate in two different types of documents, it means essentially the same ting in both."
Prior to his article, I would have made these assumptions blatantly and without question at times. This is in part because I am an inexperienced DHer who has done little with text analysis. To understand how these two assumptions could be false, I encourage you to read Schmidt's article. For my purposes, he highlights that there are assumptions/questions/methods/etc. that need to be articulated and explained to better understand the process of text analysis.
To close, I want to ask about one of those assumptions made in the reading. Before the user runs the topic modeling program (most likely MALLET), they need to identify the number of topics they want the program to assign. Most of the projects we read all used 40 topics as if it were some default. Yet, I came away from each project, including the ones not using 40, asking "Why?". Perhaps I missed the explanation but how does one go about choosing the number of topics? Is it arbitrary thus the reason to run the model numerous times with varying numbers of topics? On top of which, how much change in the topics occurs when you run the same corpus with 10, 30, or 100 topics? Ultimately, I came away not knowing the importance I need to be placing on topic numbers...
This weeks readings on Digital Scholarship encompassed a range of topics from defining digital scholarship to open access and copyright to dissertation embargoes. Will Thomas in "What is Digital Scholarship? A typology" provides a basic structure to categorize the various types of digital scholarship being produced. Bethany Nowviskie takes head on the issues involved in evaluating collaborative scholarship, especially in relation to Tenure & Promotion committees, in her awesome piece "Evaluating Collaborative Digital Scholarship (or, Where Credit is Due)." Parker Higgins explains his public domain problems in "Houston, We have a Public Domain Problem" (it is somewhat infuriating) in his article for Medium. Ed Ayers even discusses if their is a future of digital scholarship in his article for Educause Review, "Does Digital Scholarship have a Future?" All of these, and others, were fascinating articles, arguments, and posts on digital scholarship. Yet, I was caught up in possibly a tangential aspect of digital scholarship. Rightfully so, I am engaging with this topic often. It is the very platform from which you are reading right now: Blogging.
A phrase I have returned to often through my academic career thus far, is "...turns like a Battleship." I have used it in reference to the Latter-day Saint church when studying Mormon history and I have increasingly used it in reference to academia. The field of History, in particular, turns like a Battleship. Even with this paradigm in mind, it is still surprising that an activity as commonplace as blogging in today's society can be so divisive and inflammatory within the Historical field. Alex Sayf Cummings and Jonathan Jarrett, in their essay "Only Typing? Informal Writing,Blogging and the Academy," articulate the numerous issues academia takes with blogging. They range from the removal of such gatekeepers as editors or publishers, to the unpolished/informal style of writing and beyond. In contrast, Jarrett and Cummings outline the benefits of blogging as well including the push to constantly write and its use as a vicarious writing group etc. In all, the various "detriments" to scholars that blogging can create aren't seen as inherent to the platform but rather the residual effect of the long standing, entrenched, traditional structure of academia and the field of History.
Over the past year of my PhD program, I have developed a dynamic relationship with blogging. For different courses, I have been required to blog at least once, if not more, a week over both Fall and Spring semesters which has left a fairly nasty taste in my mouth. An unending stream of "forced blogs/blog topics" does not bode well to foster a lasting relationship with the platform. In fact, the opposite tends to occur, that of not wanting to blog outside of class assignments. In spite of this tense relationship, I have come to appreciate blogs and the level of transparency they provide to the academic process. Having the arena, as a scholar, to voice concerns, ideas, thoughts, and epiphanies fosters continuity in the scholar's work as well as lasting conversations. As was stated by Cummings and Jarrett, whatever the audience member may be, a blog helps to make the scholar or academic accessible and appear "as approachable and useful human beings." The blog removes the lasting perception of the scholar as the enigma, contributing every so often through journals and monographs. Instead, I can be anxiously engaged in the field in a transparent way.
The crux of the debate on blogging, and this weeks readings, is whether a blog can be seen as a form of scholarship. This is a difficult question, one that even the authors of the essay disagree on some level. To better frame this question, would be to ask "Is scholarship only scholarship when it is polished and peer-reviewed?" Those are the two paramount critiques of blogging: its unpolished style and its lack of any peer-review process. My answer, in my young scholar's enthusiasm, is Yes: blogs can be scholarship. This past semester, I had the opportunity to work as an Editor-in-Chief for the online publication Digital Humanities Now. As an aggregate for numerous blogs, I was exposed to hundreds of blog posts. This experience helped me to recognize that the transmission of ideas and concepts stand at the center of scholarship. Blogging does that in an expedited manner without the pretense of polished or refined writing. Lets communicate scholarship to each other through blogs and when that idea or concept etc. is ready, polish it and refine it in a peer-reviewed journal. Why can't both the polished peer-reviewed and the unfiltered blog fall within the area of scholarship?
Teaching Digital Humanities/History is a topic that i have thought a lot about. On a somewhat basic or novice level, all DHers have to "teach" others about DH by default. I have talked somewhat extensively to my wife about the work that I am doing. I have explained various projects and methods to my parents and siblings. While these examples may seem trivial, in combination with my career goal of being a professor at a research university, Digital Pedagogy has weighed heavily on my mind. And from this weeks readings, I want to touch on two themes or concepts I think should be highlighted
Undergraduate vs. Graduate: How different can it be?
Evidently, I began this weeks readings with an assumption (you know what they say about assumptions...). I read through the first couple articles having to pause when the authors discussed undergraduate courses. I was subconsciously looking for the graduate courses or graduate digital pedagogy. I had come to the readings assuming that the focus would be on graduate students and how to teach them DH. This was both startling and intriguing. Startling because I was not aware that I had this preconceive paradigm in approaching this subject and intriguing as I wondered both why I did and then how the digital pedagogy would or should change according to schooling level. My underlying assumption can be linked to the fact that almost the entirety of my learning and engagement with DH has come from my graduate school experience. As such, I assumed that the Digital Pedagogy readings would focus on graduate courses...I was wrong.
The teaching of DH to undergraduates constituted the bulk of the readings. Ryan Cordell's piece "How Not to Teach Digital Humanities" really spoke to the issues and possible remedies to this academic conundrum. In discussing the type of rhetoric undergraduates should be involved in within DH, Cordell quotes Adeline Koh in stating "to introduce DH discussions on the level that we’re [graduate students and academics] used to may alienate undergraduates, who are only starting to learn the conventions of disciplines that a lot of DH debates are critiquing at meta-levels. " Koh and Cordell highlight the need to show academic restraint with undergraduates. Cordell goes on to suggest the need to both reorient our approach (teaching Texts, Maps, and Networks as opposed to Doing Digital Humanities) and start small when teaching DH to undergraduates. These are great suggestions and I would encourage anyone who is teaching DH, even tangentially, to read Ryan's post. However, I was reminded of a discussion we [my minor field class] had on the topic of "what is Digital Humanities/History?" If undergraduate students are introduced to DH on a small, focused scale, does this foster an understanding of DH as strictly or mainly a methodology and not a field? If it does, is that a problem? Not having taught DH in an academic settings, I am ill equipped to answer these questions but the questions remain none the less.
At any rate, the teaching of Digital Humanities/History to undergraduates is paramount with the direction the field of History is taking, as discussed by T. Mills Kelly in his book Teaching History in the Digital Age. This brings me to my second theme or concept:
Technical Teaching in a Humanities World
Not to come across as tooting my own horn, my academic history is somewhat unique in the History PhD program. Not only do I have an undergraduate degree in Geography, instead of History, but my emphasis in GIS meant that a large portion of my bachelor's degree is in technical training. Having this background has been greatly beneficial as I transition to Digital History, both in the logistics of having experience working with spatial data, programming languages, and web design but also in the pedagogical sense of having gone through the process of being taught and learning technically based processes and projects.
I bring this up to make a connection to Jody Rosen and Maura Smale's article on Hybrid Pedagogy, "Open Digital Pedagogy = Critical Pedagogy." Rosen and Smale argue that open source software helps to "flatten" the academic hierarchy existing in the classroom. As I was reading this, I reflected on my GIS training and how it was about 95% in ESRI products, which is not open source (not even close). I have made the comment previously that I felt that my GIS education was more ESRI training than GIS in general. After graduating with my degree, I no longer had access to ESRI products thus making a large chunk of my degree obsolete as well as well as inhibiting me from working on GIS projects. I feel that Rosen and Smale's argument also articulates, while tangentially, that open source software not only allows students to work with DH software for free but they then can continue to use that software outside of the class, department, or even the university. Open source software in technical education frees the student from "the banking concept of education" and fosters continued use of digital methods. Isn't this the end goal of education - to foster continued engagement with the course concepts and themes?
The primary question coming out of this weeks readings on the crossroads of Public History and Digital History is that of audience. When developing or working on a public history project, digital or otherwise, the question that should be lingering on your mind throughout is "who is your audience?" Sheila Brennan's article "The Public is Dead, Long Live the Public" articulates this issue very well when asking what "public" are you trying to reach in your digital history project. After reading through my fellow classmates posts, I found their thoughts and insights on this very question intriguing and well articulated. Thus, I wish to discuss some other themes that arose from the readings.
The reading that caused me to pause the most was Michael Peter Edson's "Dark Matter" from Medium. It is a well written article discussing the dark matter of the internet and its overall relation to cultural heritage projects online. Ultimately, he states that the dark matter of the internet "is open, social, peer-to-peer and read/write." Two important concepts floated to the surface during this reading and continued to ring out in my mind.
First, Edson's devotes a large section of his article to discuss two individuals, John and Hank Green or the Vlogbrothers. Edson outlines their journey to reduce "world suck" and in the process, their educational ventures online. Essentially, the presence the Green brothers have on the internet far exceeds the presence of other public history institutions. In the article, Edson highlights that the Green brother's Youtube channel has "106 times more views and 759 times more subscribers than the Louvre’s YouTube channel." And this type of discrepancy is not an aberration. In many ways, major public history or cultural heritage institutions dwindle in their digital public presence. When reading I paused and tried to understand why this discrepancy exists. I even voiced this conundrum to my wife who found it intriguing as well. I arrived at a shoddy but still pertinent answer/question: "Where is their [the person/place/thing in question] grounding?" For Hank and John Green, they originate their field of work in the fast paced, ever changing, world of the digital. In this way, they are grounded to that medium which allows them to reach out and expand their influence and followings. For most public history institutions(museums, archives, libraries), they are grounded to the physical. These institutions have flourished in that medium for years and only recently have tried to approach the digital. As such, their background and framework is not built for the ever fluid and starkly different world of the digital. While this topic deserves further exploration, the second point articulated by Edson in the article deserves attention as well.
Edson outlines, what is called, the clothesline paradox. This phenomenon can be explained in an analogy that was discussed in class already but I will outline for those who are not a part of this course. A woman goes for a walk one evening. As she travels along she passes through a tunnel only to come out on the other side to find a man crouched down under the single street light. She comes up to the man and asks what he is doing. "I am looking for my car keys. I have lost them." She quickly crouches down and begins to help look for his keys. After a few minutes she asks "Where exactly did you lose them?" He responds "Back in that tunnel." Confused and a bit irritated, the woman responds "Why, then are you looking for them here." He pauses and looks up at her and says, "The light is better over here..." All this is meant to articulate that we often gravitate where the light is even when the more important things may be in the dark. Edson describes the clothesline paradox as "the phenomenon in which activity that can be measured easily (e.g., running a clothes dryer) is valued over equally important activity that eludes measurement (e.g., drying clothes outside.)" For public history/cultural heritage institutions this means they value visitor counts and journal publications over "the sharing of museum-related materials on social media sites or the creation of wikipedia pages." How important it is for the right "things" to be measured and quantified. If the medium is changing (physical -> digital) analytics needs to change as well.
Overall, I am left with many more questions than firm answers in regards to the crossroads of Public History and Digital History. Questions of audience, meaningful measurements, and online presence abound. Yet these questions intrigue me...more than I originally thought they would. Coming into the PhD program I thought I knew so firmly that I wanted to remain in academia as a professor. Now, as I have had more exposure to Pubic history as well as the potential for the digital in Public history, I find myself wavering in my staunch commitment to academia.
Truthful Moment: Reading about databases can often be a bit dry. At first glance, I found myself getting bogged down in parts of the technical jargon and somewhat esoteric writing. In comparison, other topics that we have yet to engage in the course seem much more appealing. However, in spite of my naysaying to begin this post, I found myself wrapped up in a few of the articles.
The free online course, "Designing Databases for Historical Research" (provided by the University of London), is a great resource for any person looking to learn about the structure and functions of databases. Even with a simple background in databases, I found the course refreshing and intriguing. I would like to dwell on their discussion of "shape" in their introductory section. The authors articulate a the struggle of translating/transcribing source information into database data. The end product, database data, in some ways is the epitome of structure and order (the latter part could be debated). This process is "tricky" as databases typically are tabular and rely on rows and columns for information organization. This framework, obviously, works well with some sources while others struggle to take on the right "shape." For example, a census record fits easily into a database. This is not easily realized with a diary or newspaper advertisements.
The crafting or shaping of a source to "fit" into a database structure caused me to pause. I immediately thought of how this process of shaping influences and even changes the source. As much as historians might wish their sources followed rigid framework, they simply don't. With most databases being tabular, the source has to be re-conceived within a "world" of rows for items and columns for attributes. What then must a historian do when moving the source information of a diary into a database, when that diary has large amounts of marginalia? Put more simply, what does marginalia look like in a database? Even more so, how does one articulate the possible location of the marginalia within the diary or on the page? While this is only one aspect of the difficult process of migrating source information to database data, it serves to highlight the overarching question of how is my experience or interaction with the source changed by the database structure? I am not in a position to begin to answer this question, but it is important none the less.
In connection with this notion of historian to source relationship, I found the two articles by Simon Burrows and Mark Curran on the French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe (FBTEE) database (found here and here) engaging. While I am not even close to being a French historian, Burrows and Curran delve into the various modes of visualization provided by the database interface. This is intriguing to me as it had not even occurred to me that a database provide a varied interface for visualization and data exploration. If changing the "shape" of the source in some form alters the experience or interaction the historian has with the record, the numerous options in visualizing the databases records expands this experience. In my brief experiences with online databases, they tend to remain fairly static and rigid in their finding aids and methods of sifting through the material. This static framework not only inhibits the process the scholar undertakes in exploring that database, it removes a level of transparency the is extremely helpful for researchers, that of understanding the bounds of that database. While the French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe (FBTEE) database was modeled along a geographic paradigm, they were able to use various mapping techniques to illustrate not only the breadth of their repository but the depth of the records. As a user, I can quickly determine what is or is not useful to me in my research. During my undergraduate degree in geography, my cartography professor would stress the importance of taking time to work on the aesthetics of the map (print or digital). Often times the attention is devoted towards the data itself and the actual design is an afterthought (much to the detriment of the overall intent and prupose of the map). This could be similarly applied to databases. Do not get so wrapped up in the development of the database as to not take time to improve the quality of the user interface and data visualization.
This weeks reading have reoriented my view of databases and how they can both alter the experience with the record while also being able to expand that experience in breadth and depth.
During my junior year of my undergraduate, I wrote a paper entitled "American Revolutionary Sermons: Commonalities and Trending Rhetoric." I found two collections of sermons, spanning from 1750 to 1783, that I did a close reading comparison on. Originally, I found the sermons on microfilm and microfiche at the library. During my first year in the PhD program, I revisited this paper in a digital project. I had discovered that these same two collections were available online through the ever glorious, Internet Archive. I was provided with OCRed .txt files that I was able to do a quick close reading to fix any blatant OCR errors (one collection suffered from some distortion from the feeder for the scanner). I was then able to text-mine these sermons, compare the results to my paper, and discover new avenues of inquiry (this project can be found here). This anecdote serves to show that DH projects rest on a base of digitized sources. Excluding the born digital sources that being around the mid-twentieth century (at the earliest), DH is at the beck and call of digitization efforts.
Digitization efforts seem to revolve around two camps. Those that are access oriented and those that champion preservation. Ricky Erway and Jennifer Schaffner in their publication "Shifting Gears: Gearing up to Get in the Flow" exclaim that access wins. The focus of all cultural heritage institutions should be to provide as much access to their collections as possible. Earwax and Schaffner argue that by nature, these institutions will preserve the original to the best of their abilities. The digitization process then should be about access.
At this point, I paused to wonder what they meant by access. The term is thrown around very easily without much time devoted to what kind of access is being discussed. Through my pondering, I came down to two different types of access: obtaining accessibility and knowing accessibility. The first, obtaining accessibility, is what most people think of when they are discussing accessibility. This is the idea that a researcher can obtain that document using the internet and a computer. Erway and Schaffner use access in this way. Yet, the second access, awareness accessibility or knowing that the document is available in a digital format and where that document can be found, is something that is often overlooked.
Being aware of what a digital archive contains is extremely important and valuable. Andrew Torget and Jon Christensen explore this conundrum in their article "Building New Windows into Digitized Newspapers." They develop tools to illustrate the contents of a digital newspaper repository across space and time. This visualization leads to an acknowledgement of "areas of emphasis" within that archive. There are time periods and subjects that receive more attention, they state, because those things receive more funding. This increase in transparency of the archive by highlighting its contents greatly increases its awareness accessibility. It is surprising that more attention is not given to this within cultural heritage institutions. The - sometimes - blindly accepted methods of searching digital archives are not set in stone nor are they premiere in their application. Erway and Schaffner argue that digitization needs to be adopted as part of the program instead of being labeled as projects. I would argue that a better understanding of accessibility should also be included in their program.
Erway and Schaffner state that with new technology comes update or improved copies of the sources. In my brief exposure to the field thus far, I would have to disagree with their sentiment. I have explored countless digital copies of sources that have been remediated multiple times. They originate as a hard copy, are scanned onto microfilm or fiche, then later that microfilm or fiche is digitized to create the digital copy. Roy Rosenzweig and Dan Cohen articulate in their "Becoming Digital" chapter of their book Digital History that the move from analog to digital entails a loss of information. This can include marginalia, texture, possibly color (if a B&W scan), sometimes context and location on the page etc. I would say this exists with any transition a source goes through from one medium to another. Thus the transfer of source from hard copy to microfilm and then from microfilm to digital means information is lost. The "new" technology comes to rely on the previous technology instead of the original document. Let us not, in our rush to access, limit the depth and extent of that access.
When I am explaining what I do/study as a historian, I always discuss digital history last. I do this because explaining digital history is not like articulating my study of American history or nineteenth-century Mormonism. No, those topics are more concrete, their framework generally understood, and they easily fit into the traditional historian paradigm. When discussing those topics, I usually get bombarded with questions about historical figures, events or themes. Yet, when I finally do bring up digital history, the response always is, “Digital history…what is that?” Some days, I want to respond, “That, my friend, is the $64,000 question.”
Defining digital history or the larger digital humanities is not an easy task. If it were, such sites as Jason Heppler’s What is Digital Humanities would not exist. Everyone seems to have their own variation of a working definition. For myself, I have settled (for the time being) on “Digital History is the use of information technology to research, present, and teach history.” Yet, even my own definition comes across as clunky and possibly so broad as to not be useful. Most important in the defining digital history is classifying it within the larger historical framework. In "Interchange: The Promise of Digital History," William G. Thomas defines Digital History as an “approach to examine and representing the past.” At another point in the article, digital history is classified as a field, a method, even a genre or method. Each classification comes with its own question, concerns and problems. Labeling digital history a field presents some with the notion of its insularity in the larger field of History. Of the multiple classifications methodology seems to be paramount. Tom Scheinfeldt, in his 2008 blog post "Sunset of Ideology, Sunrise of Methodology?," articulates the methodology of digital history against the 75 years of historical ideological focus during the twentieth-century. Positing that perhaps the field of history is reorienting itself back to “organizing activities, both in terms of organizing knowledge and organizing ourselves and our work.” This rebirth of methodology in digital history raises an important question: “What is the end goal of digital history?”
Amy Murrell Taylor, in addressing the question of teaching graduate students digital history, highlights that there is a shortcoming in the teaching process. “Mastering technology” she says, “becomes the ends rather than the means to a bigger end of producing innovative history.” I reflected on my last year in the PhD program at George Mason University and wondered if I too fell victim to mastering technologies rather than producing innovative history. Both the Clio Wired courses provide a great platform for introduction and experimental learning in digital history but, speaking for myself, often my focus centered on the tech. Cameron Blevins takes this a step further in "The Perpetual Sunrise of Methodology" (a play on Tom Scheinfeldt’s blog post) states that Digital history has “over-promised and under-delivered.” Specifically, it has over-promised under-delivered on making scholarly claims about history. Digital historians are fascinated with methodology. Rightfully so, digital history forces a discussion, even a transparency, of methodology that other historical fields either gloss over or don’t address at all. However, does this infatuation with methodology draw our attention from the bigger end of innovative history?
As a possible tangent, I want to dwell on topic of educating students/historians in digital history. At the RRCHNM twentieth anniversary conference, Spencer Roberts articulated, what I feel to be an important part in achieving this “bigger end” that Amy Murrell Taylor is addressing. He said “Failure is productive if you value learning, it isn’t if you value the end product.” At the time, I had only been a graduate student for a meager 2-3 months and my engagement in the field of Digital history was limited, yet I agreed whole heartedly with Spencer’s comment. It could be that the focus on mastering technology is the product of a fear of failure and the lack of a framework that rewards the process and not the end product. For those reading this post, what do you think?