historian, author, film producer

Category: Internet and World Wide Web (page 2 of 2)

Digital Humanities Seminar Discussion–What is Scholarship?

The first class meeting of our digital humanities seminar at the University of Nebraska on Thursday, August 25th, included thirteen Ph.D. and Master’s students from English, History, and Geography. Although half of the students had taken several of our Digital History courses or worked on digital projects at CDRH, half were either new to Nebraska or new to Digital Humanities. I was struck by the diversity of backgrounds and research interests in the class–we had students working on Willa Cather, Stephen Crane, William F. Cody, early modern English texts, Civil War diaries, Native American documents, 20th century Russia, and the Burlington Railroad. This seminar, we decided, would be truly interdisciplinary in its approach, bringing together students working from different perspectives, backgrounds, and disciplinary approaches. And the common ground would be the digital medium, the methods of digital humanities, the quest to explore the changing terrain of scholarly communication and knowledge creation.

As we went around the room and introduced ourselves, it was clear too that some of us maintained a healthy skepticism about the technology. One student explained that she wanted to see what digital humanities had to offer beyond tools to conduct research. She wanted to understand how digital humanities might “develop research” for her work, not just make it faster or easier. She was “still trying to see the value” of the digital humanities, especially its theoretical contribution.

The reading this week focused on Christine Borgman’s Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure, and the Internet. But before we discussed Borgman’s book, the class took some time to discuss the iPad/iPhone class project challenge. Not surprisingly, there were numerous questions. The syllabus asked students to do the following:

“The Challenge: As a team the class will design, program, and prototype an iPad/iPhone app (IOS 5) to advance the field of digital humanities for 4Humanities–i.e. suggestions from 4Humanities scholars

–to digest “daily all news articles related to humanities and digital humanities from state and local sources in an easily accessible and manipulable way”
–to create “infrastructure (tools, apps, platforms, etc.) for allowing humanists to bring their work more naturally to the attention of the public.  As an example, . . . an idea for mashing up such tools as Open Journal Systems, Omeka, the Simile widgets, etc., to create effective exhibition platforms or feeds.”
–to create a tool for accessing, perhaps mobile-aware, “harvesting, packaging, and channeling a ‘showcase’ or ‘gallery’ of public-oriented humanities research and teaching.”
–to imagine and execute a program to showcase “what might be done to promote the value of the humanities in K-12. In particular, . . . having students go into schools and present or partner wit h students . . . figure out what a fun humanities fair might look like, modeled on science fairs.”

The Resources: University wide campus resources, including CDRH, New Media Center, Computing Innovation Group, Renaissance Computing Initiative, and global network of Digital Humanities scholars . . .

The Deadline: One month.”

The wheels started turning right away. One student had already assessed Apple’s developer site and asked about the cost of the iOS 5 SDK beta kit and membership. I agreed to pay the $99 fee . . . ask and ye shall receive. Others began assessing what benchmarks the class should have by the next week. And we started talking about what is needed in the field and what would be useful for Digital Humanities. Several students began to sketch out concepts aimed at particular audiences, such as K-6 students or college-level students. Then, the conversation shifted to what would kind of App would be useful–should we select content and build it into a demonstration of digital humanities for students? If so, what should we say about the subject and what subjects would we want to include? Perhaps unsurprisingly, a class of humanities students was talking immediately about creating “content.” And yet, they quickly concluded that we needed to do the opposite for this project. Not build content but harvest or collect. Create a tool to see digital humanities content differently or arrange it more usefully. This short session of planning, dreaming, and sketching was not only thrilling, it was chock full of the very questions we would discuss in Borgman’s book.

At each point my response was to ask the students what they thought the decision points needed to be for this project, what needed to happen when, and where they thought they needed to go for further information. Stay tuned next week for the students first “benchmarks.” I will post them on this blog with comments on why they did what they did.

The discussion of Borgman’s book centered on “what is scholarship”? And this was exceedingly useful in light of our preceding, freewheeling thoughts about an iPad App. Borgman usefully defines all sorts of terms for students: “open access” (p. 102), “e-Science” and “big science” (p. 29-30), and “peer review” (p. 60). She calls attention to scholarly practice, in particularly perceptive ways. Her discussion of “authors” and the decisions they make and do not make reveals the complexity of what she calls “the social aspects of the system.” Indeed, Borgman never loses sight of the ways that the scholarly communication infrastructure, or cyberinfrastructure, is both socially and technologically constructed. Our students found this particularly striking and illuminating–to consider the process of scholarly production and communication as fully interrelated with its infrastructures, in effect to see it whole. Although many humanities scholars might wince, Borgman notes that “gathering and generating data is often the simplest part of the research process.” (p. 128) The problem, she points out, is how to document their use for others, a considerably more difficult task for scholars.

I think students appreciated her perspective. They know that the tools for documenting their work are more robust than any previous generation has possessed. They also know that there are terrible gaps in the structures of these technologies and scholarly practice, ones that run to the very foundations of their research enterprises and career trajectories. Daily, they skip over these gaps, looking straight ahead, knowing that if they glance down into the chasm they might wobble and lose their confidence. We all do, in fact. They also know, therefore, that Borgman is right to draw our attention to the ways our technologies and our practices produce discontinuities and, we might say, broken links. They know too that we need to work on what she calls “the devil . . . in the details.” (p. 262) One student summarized, “Scholars need to pay attention to infrastructure NOW.”

Interestingly, these students saw scholarship far more broadly in definition than it has been traditionally understood in the humanities. They saw a wide range of scholarly activities in building the infrastructure and systems to document their work, to link it to others, and to interpret their materials. Knowing as one student put it that “publication is the coin of the realm,” they wondered after reading Borgman if the humanities would ever “value infrastructure.” This was what seemed to concern them most: how can we value different understandings of scholarship?

On Open History

For the last fifteen years we have been building digital history projects, web sites, and archives, and as we take stock we can see that the change has been momentous in the practice of history. Back in the 1990s we talked about the digital movement as “democratizing history” and that idea still resonates and excites. The early Valley of the Shadow project aimed to open up history by providing access to sources and including more people in our story of the past. The work at George Mason’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media continues to inspire as it brings citizens into the making of history on a range of projects.

We still need to find more ways to open history. The digital technologies allow us to do this now more than ever, of course, but it remains unclear just how far historians will move in this direction. At the University of Nebraska our (HIST 970) graduate students in the digital history seminar have been forging ahead this term exploring how they can use digital tools either to explore the past in new ways or to represent the past in new forms. Their digital narratives integrate sources and analysis, and weave historiography, evidence, and data together. Their work inspires me that we will see younger scholars use digital tools in ways we could not have predicted a few years ago.

The idea of open history, however alluring, is not easy to achieve in our current mix of proprietary and public domain sources. We need only to consider what has happened to scholarly practice in an environment now dominated by Google Books.

The Google project has certainly enabled the discovery of new data, information, and links in the past. As an example, let us look into a little-known, but nonetheless important, Supreme Court case in 1873, Catherine or Kate Brown v. the Washington and Alexandria Railroad. Other than Kate Masur’s excellent 2010 book, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C., there are almost no monographs that cover this case. I am interested in the case because Brown was one of the first women to challenge segregation in the American South. She rode a railroad across the Potomac River in 1868 from D.C. to Virginia, and once in Alexandria, Virginia, she was forcibly thrown out of the white ladies car. What’s remarkable was that Brown’s experience was not unusual–thousands and thousands of African Americans began riding the railroads in the days, months, and years after emancipation. We have little sense of this movement, but Brown’s case included affidavits from black passengers, and we might use other sources to learn about how black freedmen and women moved, when, and under what conditions.

Using Google Books to search the lawyers names, we could quickly discover all sorts of information from obscure county and local historical society publications held by the various libraries in Google’s project–a sequence of research that would otherwise have been largely impossible just a few years ago. This sort of immediate and detailed access is unprecedented. The same is true for Ancestry.com (which libraries do not generally subscribe to). Searching across all individual census entries for the U.S. from 1790 to 1930, we could find the jurors in the case, where they lived in city directories, their occupations, their family relationships. This work takes about 1 hour. Both of these ventures–Google and Ancestry–have problems in metadata encoding, scanning quality, and data interpolation. But taken as they are now, they and the other large data aggregation projects that digital libraries are undertaking have led to a “revolution” in how we do scholarship.

The recently issued Council on Library Information Research (CLIR) report on “The Idea of Order” cautioned that monographic literature represents only one type of text scholars analyze: “Humanities scholars will increasingly want to do much more with text than use it simply as an alternate format to print. They will want to mine and recombine it, which is not possible with the current products of mass-digitization projects. Indeed, future reading will be done in part by machines in such a vast repository of information.” Robert Darnton in calling recently for a National Digital Library project is responding to these concerns. Clearly, scholars need access to “big data” texts for research, but we are a long way from having reliable, open-source, rights-free, and richly encoded texts.

So, how can we open history? First, we need more than ever to continue to build digital projects with integrated tools, and create open access archives of historical texts, sounds, maps, videos, and images. The American Council of Learned Societies report, “Our Cultural Commonwealth,” correctly pointed out that humanities scholars will have to build the tools they need, no one else will. We can create works that allow others–readers, scholars, colleagues, students–to examine the sources and “run the data” again. Perhaps to add materials and engage with history through associations that they build into our interpretation and materials.

Second, we need to open our projects to experts in a wide variety of fields who can contribute data. In the field of railroad or Civil War history, these individuals and groups are obvious and expert. Genealogists helped us with entering thousands of individual census records for the Valley project. But there are other experts equally well-positioned to support and work with scholars. Just take a look at the “Confederate Railroads” site by Dave Bright is an example of this work by non-academic experts–it is fabulously comprehensive and detailed, but it is also an example of a supremely herculean effort in the archives that might be difficult to preserve and access as technologies change.

Open history should also come with different pedagogy for history. Here, we could turn to ways to democratize the learning process in our college classrooms. There is much to be done in this area, but we might give our students a chance to create their history and take an active role in its interpretation.

Dystopia Anew–Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion

In The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (Public Affairs, 2011), Evgeny Morozov looks at the Internet and our present technologies of Twitter, Google, iPads, iPhones, ad infinitum with a healthy dose of skepticism and irony. Has our technology enabled democracy, social equality, and progress? Most Americans might answer yes without hesitation. Not so fast. Morozov’s book reminds us that these technologies can be used to suppress as much as to liberate. And that human nature and will govern the power relations in society.

I’m very sympathetic to this view. Looking back in the nineteenth century, we see a similar kind of euphoria over the convergence of rail and telegraph in American society. And yet we also fought a Civil War in which over 600,000 Americans died. For generations we have carefully separated these two events–in large part because our faith in technological progress has been so embedded in our national culture ever since. We want to see both our first great technological transformation and the Civil War as similarly progressive. And of course they were in many important ways. Yet, if we look closely we see in the nineteenth century many of the same unintended consequences–most prominently, the ways technology could extend and enable slavery in the American South.

And the similarly powerful technological transformation underway now, as Morozov reminds us, should make us more alert, not less, to its varied consequences. For an excellent review, see The New York Times book review by Lee Seigel.