historian, author, film producer

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What is Digital Scholarship? A Typology

At a recent talk at the University of Colorado Boulder I discussed various definitions of digital scholarship and how we might categorize digital scholarship. My forthcoming essay in the second edition of Blackwell’s Companion to Digital Humanities deals with these questions in depth. This chart offers one way to consider a typology for digital scholarship in the humanities. These characteristics are offered as a beginning point. They are not meant to exclude or restrict the definition of digital scholarship. Indeed, I hope these definitions might provoke some further discussion about how to undertake reviews of digital scholarship.

Here is a a proposed typology of digital scholarship as a PDF.

Some definitions are necessary as well.

Assessing the types of data, components, organization, scope, interpretive nature, and character of digital works allows us to separate one category from another. An ISW, for example, differs from a Thematic Research Collection not only because its scope is more tightly defined, but also because its interpretive nature lies in the query structures it provides the reader rather than in the encoded affordances that a Thematic Research Collection builds into its archival materials. The ISW operates around a series of procedural inquiries, whereas the Thematic Research Collection offers open-ended investigatory structures. These characteristics of the categories are not meant to be exhaustive, but illustrative, and as a basis for categorization and review.

Interactive Scholarly Works (ISWs):

These works are hybrids of archival materials and tool components, and are situated around a historiographically significant or critical concern. These works often assert a methodological argument as well, demonstrating that the combination of tools and materials serves as a method worthy of applying to the problem. Interactive Scholarly Works have a limited set of relatively homogenous data, and they might include a textual component on the scale of a brief academic journal article. They feature an API for users to access the data and programming directly. Relatively tightly defined in subject, ISWs provide users with a high degree of interactivity in a limited framework. (Meeks and Grossner 2012)

Digital Projects or Thematic Research Collections (TRCs):

Digital projects, sometimes referred to as Thematic Research Collections, are perhaps the most well defined genre in digital humanities scholarship. Carole L. Palmer’s 2004 review of these works emphasized several qualities, such as their heterogeneous datatypes, structured but open ended, designed to support research, multi-authored, primary sources. Combining tools and archival materials framed around a historiographically significant or critical problem, these projects are sprawling investigations into a major problem. Typically gathering thousands of objects and records from widely varying institutions and in widely varying formats, digital history projects contain “digital aggregations” of primary sources that support research on a particular theme or historical question. Scholars embed interpretive affordances in the collection and use these affordances to open up new modes of inquiry and/or discovery. They are open-ended projects and often support ongoing research by multiple scholars or teams. Often traditional peer reviewed scholarship is derived from the thematic research collection. The next phase of thematic research collections might feature interpretive scholarship embedded within and in relationship to the collection. (Palmer, 2004)

Digital Narratives:

These scholarly works are born-digital, and they primarily feature a work of scholarly interpretation or argument embedded within layers of evidence and citation. They do not and presumably cannot exist in analog fashion. They may be multimodal, multi-authored, and user-directed. They may change between and among readings, either through updates or algorithmic reconstitutions. Unlike the first generation of “eBooks” which transferred analog books into digital formats, these nonlinear, multimodal narratives offer explicit hypertext structures. These works primarily provide multiple points of entry for readers and situate evidence and interpretation in ways that allow readers to unpack the scholarly work. They are highly configured, deeply structured, and strongly interpretive pieces of scholarship. They could be stand alone self-generating web sites, cloud applications, or they could be presented in a media-rich scholarly publishing framework such as Scalar.

Simulations constitute a new form for scholarly research and publication as well. Interpretive decisions are embedded at every level in any simulated, textured environment, and feature a range of media products, including video, audio, and 3D models and game engines. Historical simulations and humanities-oriented games possess varying degrees of interpretive strength. Some are purely representational and feature minimal interpretive or argument-driven analysis. Others offer simulated decision-trees in a game-engine environment with heavily interpretive choices. (Coltrain 2013, McGann and Drucker, 2000) Hybrid media objects that combine text, graphics, live action, and animation sequences also constitute what Lev Manovich calls “a new species” in the digital medium and can be evaluated using Murray’s affordance grid as well as the matrix table provided here. (Manovich, 2013) While simulations will likely become in and of themselves a category of digital scholarship with particular characteristics that set them apart from the above types of scholarly work, at this writing they are most commonly used in a supplementary fashion.

The Future of Digital History, #rrchnm20

The Future of Digital History
George Mason University
November 15, 2014

First, I want to thank Roy for his generosity to young scholars like me a few years ago. Roy Rosenzweig’s mentorship of young scholars was so significant and his impact on many of our careers was extraordinary.

Following on the spirit of yesterday’s unconference session, I’d like to start with a Roy story. In 2002 Michael Grossberg, editor of the American Historical Review, asked me to present the digital article “The Differences Slavery Made” to the AHR Board of Editors. I was nervous. The review process had been disorienting for Ed and me. Our experiment in form appeared to be inexplicable to our colleagues or worse taken as a threat. We had pulled back the navigation design and architecture of the project to satisfy the AHR reviewers. The conversation with the AHR board was polite but tense. Roy was at the conference that year, and I remember his warm encouragement and enthusiasm–this was an opportunity, he said, to demonstrate to the board the value of digital scholarship and digital history, it can only be for the best.

Then after the piece was published, at the 2004 AHA pre-conference workshop on digital history, Roy called the article “hypertraditional” in his plenary session remarks. He was right on, and yet this was a sly, subversive comment. It was difficult to tell if it was meant as a compliment or a criticism! It was both. He was right to draw attention to the fact that the final result was not what we wanted, but it was what we could get through. Roy recognized that reality, but he was simultaneously prodding the AHA and us. We still need Roy’s prodding.

I think Roy’s comment still holds: much of what is digital history today can be described as “hypertraditional.” We are stuck in this gear so to speak, and I think we can agree it is time to move beyond hypertraditional, and to realize the full promise of history using digital media.

As we have discussed, Roy was excellent, brilliant, indeed exceptional, at working from the inside of the AHA, as Ed Ayers said a few moments ago, to “highjack the institution”–we need to do more of that. We need more chairs of history departments who understand, support, and cultivate digital history.

Yesterday the provost described his foray into Silicon Valley recently where he asked leading developers and CEOs, “what is the next big thing? what will change way we think and change our culture in a profound fashion?” Their answer, he found, was simple: the next big thing is the fundamental disappearing of the boundary between the physical and cyber world. These will be interwoven, integrated, seamless, blurred.

Perhaps because I just read (and taught) William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the melding of the physical and virtual worlds suggests that we need to think about the future of digital history as embedded more fully in cultural products and media. In the Neuromancer world the physical and the cyber have been so fully integrated (and embodied) that it is difficult to tell the difference between RL and VL for Case, and Molly, Armitage, and the rest.

Moreover, in the Neuromancer places–Chiba, The Sprawl, or the BAMA–there are no sites of historical meaning or cultural memory. Strikingly, there are no historical reference points in the cities and environments of these worlds, few markers of the past, and few clear indications that history and the present are connected. This is a world where its inherited history and culture have been forgotten or cut off, rendered into data, encrypted, swapped, stolen, and traded, but largely buried.

In imagining the future of digital history, as the cyber and physical worlds come together, we might think about how history can be more present in our lives, environments, and spaces, where all aspects of the past are accessible and integrated into the present.

In the future of digital history the line between past and present will disappear, just as there will be a gradual elimination of the physical and cyber.

Yesterday your provost gave the Google glass example–how can we envision history as worn, as encountered everyday, as seamlessly woven into the fabric and material of our physical and virtual worlds.

He also suggested that we will soon have a rewired generation of human beings. In fact, they may be the first generation in a long time able to use the digital environment to break through to the past. We typically lament presentism in history, but it may be that presentism is a function of the print culture, and that digital culture changes the terms on which students engage with history in a more clarifying way.

In the future of digital history the past will be more present in our everyday lives than before, at least potentially. We need to think carefully about the ways we build the historical into the present as the physical and the cyber worlds are integrated — what modes work best?

I am sure that you saw the Gallup / Inside Higher Ed poll released last month on the use of technology in academe. The poll surveyed 2,799 faculty and 288 tech administrators.

Some of the results were not that surprising. Faculty doubt that online teaching can produce results equal to in person courses! Okay, that’s not surprising.

But this poll featured a tag along question related to technology at the end: do you agree or disagree with the statement the digital humanities has been oversold. Only 12% strongly disagreed with this statement. Indeed, over 50 % either strongly agreed or agreed, while 25 % have no opinion

Now, some in this room probably strongly agree with this statement!

Digital humanists, as far as I can tell, largely ignored the report but I think it offers a healthy corrective. And we might want to consider why so many faculty across the disciplines might think that digital humanities has been “oversold.”

The poll reveals a fault line in the digital humanities. In part we have confused or misunderstood what the digital means in digital humanities. DH has been broadly understood as big data-oriented and primarily computational and algorithmic, hence digital. But this is an organizing premise that will perpetually result in the digital humanities as oversold. It’s an example of what Ed sometimes calls “anticipointment”–the sense that we have anticipations or expectations for the digital that can’t help but be unmet and therefore disappointing. By digital we should mean something much more than big data or computation, we should mean an engagement with the medium that challenges us to rethink, reconfigure, reconceptualize, and reimagine the forms of historical expression and historical knowledge, suitable to the digital tools, networks, and machinery at our disposal.

In digital history we will do those computational things, of course, and we have for a long time, but our purpose is more radical, a reconstitution of history for the digital era in which a fully complex social reality of today, the present, meets or resides with and in relation to a fully complex social reality of yesterday, the past.

Now the future of digital history also requires that we do some things that we have not done or only partially achieved. For the future of digital history what do we need more of?

1. Review more–There is little review of digital history, it is limiting the field. We are relying on peer review in the grant application process, and to a lesser extent in tenure and promotion, but the future of digital history will require critical engagement of interpretative procedures used or deployed in digital history.

2. Interpret more–Digital history projects are generally one off, silo-ed, and internally collaborative. We have built deep thematic archives and sophisticated examples of digital projects, but these often go un-cited and unincorporated into the scholarly record. They need to be cited, integrated, mixed into, and associated with other works of historical scholarship. We in digital history have not done this very well in some respects, because we have been concentrating on building our own digital projects. The future of digital history will need to feature works that associate and interrelate digital objects.

As a corollary, we need a renewed engagement with the form of history in cyber. I was struck by Dan Cohen’s comment yesterday that he first met Roy Rosenzweig at a Hypertext conference. We need to re-examine how historical narrative and interpretation might be best adapted in the digital medium.

3. Reciprocate more–Community-based, shared digital history project should characterize the future of digital history. Here, we should meet our audience where they are. It will require us to be less directive, less authoritative, and more dialogic in the history we produce. One area of especially fruitful reciprocal engagement would come from family history. Genealogy-based history could allow us to connect with the broader community in a more intentional and productive way. Of all of the communities interested in history, genealogy remains one that digital history has bypassed. We should close this gap.

If we review more, interpret more, and reciprocate more, digital history will work within our institutions effectively and we will reconstitute history for the digital age.

Gibson described cyberspace as “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, . . . a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system.” His dystopian vision of “the matrix” with its “jacking in,” drugs, and lost identities, suggested that cyber society had lost its humanity.

As the cyber and physical worlds converge, we in digital history might do more to bring the past more directly into the present, reconstituting history to be simultaneously accessible and integrated into the present, both in the physical and the virtual worlds we inhabit.

O Say Can You See Project on Early Washington, D.C. first release: petitions for freedom

After months of research and case file imaging and encoding, we are beginning to release the petitions for freedom that came before the Circuit Court of Washington, D.C. between 1808 and 1862. These releases are the first phase in our collaborative research project on early Washington, D.C. with the University of Maryland’s Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH). In the early period Francis Scott Key played a major role in orchestrating these petitions, but he also represented some of the slaveholder defendants. Our research goal is to uncover and encode the networks of relationships embedded in these cases. The next release will include the encoding of hundreds of individuals named (in depositions, summons, petitions, dockets, and other records) and the thousands of relationships among them (client of, mother of, father of, neighbor of . . .).

For the first release: go to O Say Can You See: Early Washington, D.C. Law and Family Project

Early Washington D.C. Law and Family Project

Special thanks to the team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln: Kaci Nash, project manager, Laura Weakly, Karin Dalzel, Mike Dick, Kylie McCormick, and Stephanie Camerone.

Congratulations to Dr. Jared Leighton

Last week, a 2013 graduate of our department, Dr. Jared Leighton was awarded the highest honor in the University of Nebraska–the Folsom Distinguished Dissertation Award. His advisor Professor Patrick D. Jones was on hand the make remarks and present the award to Jared. Jared’s dissertation is truly groundbreaking, and I am honored to have served on his dissertation committee.

His work explored the gay and lesbian activists, black and white, in the African American freedom struggle from the 1950s to the 1970s. For his dissertation, “Freedom Invisible: Gays and Lesbians in the African American Civil Rights Movement,”

Dr. Jared Leighton wins the Folsom Distinguished Dissertation Award, February 2014. University of Nebraska.

Dr. Jared Leighton wins the Folsom Distinguished Dissertation Award, February 2014. University of Nebraska.

Jared conducted dozens of oral histories and submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to declassify F.B.I. files on the subject. The result is a stunning piece of research and a sophisticated and subtle analysis of gay and lesbian activists. Leighton argues that the black freedom struggle provided an important training ground for gay and lesbian activists, and he turns our attention toward a range of complex and intersecting motivations for activism among gays and lesbians, as a result moving beyond the standard interpretation stressing the religious basis for activism. Congratulations Jared!