historian, author, film producer

Category: Digital Humanities (page 4 of 6)

Valley of the Shadow Project retrospective on the Civil War

Last week at the American Historical Association meeting, my friends and colleagues from the Valley of the Shadow Project met for a panel discussion on the state of the field of digital history and a retrospective of the Valley’s Civil War project after 20 years. The gathering was a wonderful experience and the discussion exciting and interesting. One participant, a librarian at the Library of Congress, said about the Valley Project that “there may not be anything like it again.” I agree. The panel included: Edward L. Ayers, Anne S. Rubin, Amy Murrell Taylor, Andrew Torget, Scott Nesbit, and me.

Here are some of the highlights of that discussion. Amy Murrell Taylor’s advice to historians, “Think Big! the Valley taught me to to think big.” Marvelous and so true. She talked about how the project emphasized “connections” among individuals that we could not see otherwise and that are difficult to see, those of families and relationships among families. As Amy explained, in the project the life of the individual in history became more visible; despite the complexity of history and the scale of the Civil War, the Valley project approach managed to create an environment in which the individual always emerged somehow for its readers. She talked about we can see these individuals in multiple dimensions and “rebuild” or “reconstitute” their lives and experiences. This is powerful history, full of complexity, agency, and contingency not easily pulled off in narrative form.

Ed Ayers talked about how the “logic of the architecture” of the Valley project was “tied to the animating idea behind the project.” This in many ways made the Valley project look and behave like an “App.” It was, and is, self-contained, yet it draws its readers in because its design so neatly fits its animating idea.

Andrew Torget explained that when he came on as project manager, the Valley project was an “enterprise” with teams of students and historians working on different aspects of the project. To him the central lesson of the Valley project experience was that it demonstrated the “power of collaboration.” Students working with faculty and technologists and librarians created an intense and powerful model of scholarship in action. Dozens and dozens worked on the project over the years, with care, purpose, and dedication both remarkable and inspiring.

Scott Nesbit described how the Valley taught him “the virtue of openness” and at the same time “the virtue of parasitism.” Here, he explained how the Valley shared and freely disseminated its work and how it also borrowed heavily on technologies and data in the open source environment. Anne Rubin noted that the Valley taught her the value of audience, of opening history to a wider audience and how important it is for historians to connect with, understand, and talk to the public broadly. Again and again, these lessons shape our work in digital history.

Valley of the Shadow team reunion

Valley of the Shadow project reunion, January 7, 2012, Chicago.

Doing Humanities in the Digital Age

Today our Digital Humanities graduate readings seminar met with Stefan Sinclair via Skype. This was the third guest visit in our class. We had an earlier session with Robert Nelson on topic modeling and another with Lisa Spiro on the the pedagogy of digital humanities. Sinclair raised an issue at the end of our meeting that we have been struggling with through the semester: whether and how digital humanists should make arguments.

Sinclair put the matter plainly for our students: we must not only build things but also make arguments. Then, he went a step further. The form of our arguments does not need to change. Scholarly journal articles, monographs, essays, and chapters, all are equally viable and should remain so. Even with born digital sources, Sinclair suggested, the scholar remains obligated to create, sustain, breathe life into his or her subject via argument and interpretation. This, he suggested, is what distinctly characterizes the humanities. Where the sciences and social sciences, on the other hand, proceed to “prove” a “finding,” the humanities by definition and by contrast ventures an argument.

This distinction is worth dwelling on. What does it mean to do humanities in the digital age?

Our class reading today was Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, and last week we read and discussed Tim Wu’s The Master Switch. Both indicate in quite different ways that the humanities’ modus operandi, privileging creative argument and interpretation, faces increasing pressures and obstacles.

Turkle makes the point that “the Internet is more than old wine in new bottles.” Our brains, she argues, are rewired every time we surf or search the Net, and she concludes, we need to reclaim our concentration, our attention, our capacity for argument, interpretation, intimacy, and authenticity. Some people find what she calls “refreshment on the Web” and are “replenished in its cool shade.” (275) The Web’s disparate information and links are a “jungle” and, according to Turkle, there is little about it that allows us to be “deliberate.” Moreover, our selves, she suggests, are becoming ever more calibrated to the pace of the Net, “on the basis of what technology proposes, by what it makes easy.” Turkle finds little comforting about this paradoxical state of affairs: “We insist that our world is increasingly complex, yet we have created a communications culture that has decreased the time available for us to sit and think uninterrupted.” (166) We are losing the capacity “to consider complicated problems.”

This state of affairs seems especially troubling for the humanities. But idea of the Web as alluringly untamed, as wild and attractive in its narrative, as not a place to be deliberate, might in fact be its greatest quality for doing humanities in the digital age. Tim Wu, in The Master Switch, characterizes the Internet as “deeply counterintuitive.” (266) He cites Joseph Schumpeter’s analogy of “knowledge and habit once acquired” as “firmly rooted in ourselves as a railway embankment in the earth.” The Internet, unlike previous communication mediums, “abdicates control to the individual: that is its special allure, its power to be endlessly surprising, as well as its founding principle.”

Humanities scholars take note! It may be that digital humanities projects–the best of them–suit this environment peculiarly well, as they make no attempt to make the digital space more “deliberate.” In attempting to graft interpretive text onto web sites, for example, we might mistake the nature of the Internet, miss its counterintuitive quality. No wonder some of our web sites take on the character of the jungle, freeing our readers to walk through the morass link by link as they see fit.

Finally, what of Stefan Sinclair’s point that scholars might want to pause before discarding traditional means of scholarly publication? Sinclair’s larger point was to encourage experimentation. But he takes seriously the place of interpretive argument for the humanities. We need now more than ever to walk the knife’s edge–on one side there is the abyss of scientific positivism and “verification” of results, as we miss the special quality of the humanities, on the other side there is the abyss of irrelevancy, as we miss the underlying structure of the Net. Sinclair has walked that edge and lived to tell the tale, so to speak, and he has sage advice from the experience.

Writing History in the Digital Age

Last week our graduate class in digital humanities participated in the University of Michigan Press’s open review of Writing History in the Digital Age. I asked the students to post a 1,000 word overview comment on one of the essays in the collection (or alternatively a shorter comment on two essays), and to reflect on their experience. The most common initial response among the students to their participation in this open review was trepidation, intimidation even. After reflection, however, students expressed admiration for some aspects of this process. I will be quoting anonymously from students’s reflections on this experience.

One student noted that their assignment came during Open Access Week, an event he had been anticipating for weeks and promoting “its values without actually practicing it or contributing to it in any tangible way.” Writing History in the Digital Age allowed him to stop “talking OA and start doing OA.”

Students too were concerned at first about voicing their views in the open review and that they would be immediately visible. This was “both exciting and nerve-racking” but it also led to a sense of “pride and purpose.” What they said and wrote mattered to the profession, to the field, to one another, to colleagues in a way that it had not before.

It gradually became obvious to these students that their contributions were as meaningful as others, that their “fumbling through digital history” was no less worthy than others. One student wrote that “in reading through the essays, I realized that many people are asking the same questions I am and that perhaps that always feeling you are one step behind is just as aspect of the Digital Humanities since technology and methods are constantly changing.” Authors and editors might find that certain paragraphs generate “hot spots” in an open review, becoming highly influential or places where the argument is extended in important new direction. One could look through the whole collection, and instead of considering which essay might not be worthy of inclusion and cut, one could see the different “hot spots” and make connections more readily across them. Open review could lead to a more purposeful method of “reading” as well as different forms of writing and review.

Not all students appreciated the way this instance of open review seemed to work, however, and some had broad concerns about what exactly constituted “open peer review.” One student reviewed an essay “riddled with misspellings” that was centered “on a provocative but unsubstantiated claim.” But how to say so? Students were legitimately concerned about whether they could or should be so openly critical. And what did it say about a digital publication trying to gain “acceptance in a print culture” when there were so many errors? Another student questioned who really was a “peer” and whether this open review was less substantive than traditional peer review. “It was difficult to escape the feeling,” she wrote, “that I was writing a post rather than a review.” She pointed out that the Writing in the Digital Age uses the word “comment” to categorize these open contributions. What is a comment? and is it the same thing as a review written in double-blind peer review?

Still, the merits of open review inspired some of us. Students appreciated “the transparent process” and saw that the format prompted “more discussion.” Indeed, rather than a “mysterious black box” approach, the open review brought in a wide range of participants. One student reflected that “I’ve inserted myself into the broader process of writing and creating this volume of essays.”

One more thought. My own view of this process is very positive after listening to my students. I think we need more open review not less, more substantive engagement with scholarship before publication than after, and more willingness to allow experimental ideas and approaches not less. There is an additional benefit to open review–our students learn how to do peer review in an open rather than a closed environment. In fact, this was one of the most striking problems the class faced–they did not know how to do a review: should they make grammatical corrections, should they be critical, . . . When we close off the review process in pre-publication, we keep mysterious a central scholarly function. Students then learn how to peer review based largely on their experience with their own publications. Many others have written about these issues, most notably Kathleen Fitzpatrick in Planned Obsolescence. After the 2003 American Historical Review digital article I wrote with Ed Ayers, I tried to summarize some of the issues we faced with blind peer review in “Writing a Digital Journal Article from Scratch: An Account.”

There are numerous reasons open review makes sense, even if we still need to work on definitions and best practices. Our current model of pre-publication “behind the curtain” review and post-publication open review or criticism seems designed to limit, even punish, innovation and creativity. Our students have much to learn about the culture of review–let’s teach them in an open environment.

History Harvest in North Omaha: A Report on Digital Harvesting

On Saturday, October 22, eight undergraduate students and fifteen graduate students digitized dozens of documents at Love’s Jazz and Art Center in North Omaha as part of our third major History Harvest in Nebraska. Some remarkable stories, documents, and objects came forward as people from the community brought out their history to share with scholars, teachers, and students. The scene was celebratory but earnest, enthusiastic but expectant. And a sense of revival, renewal, purpose, community, and honesty greeted visitors.

KVNO aired a radio feature on Monday during drive time–“History Harvest Finds Treasures in North Omaha.”

Two stories, in particular, struck me personally and professionally as moving and significant. The first is about U.S.C.T. graves, one unmarked, in the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Omaha. Local researcher Creolla Woodall has been working to restore the graves, provide appropriate markers, and bring this history back to public recognition. One soldier, James Adams, was free in 1860, living in Harford County, Maryland, near Baltimore when he enlisted in the 4th U.S.C.T. The 4th U.S.C.T. Co. E was photographed at Fort Lincoln in northwestern Washington, D.C., at some point probably in early 1863 before taking the field in Virginia later that year. Fort Lincoln was located on the Washington Branch of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Adams was wounded in the war, losing his arm at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, Virginia. Later, sometime in the 1880s it appears, Adams moved to Omaha, Nebraska.

Digitizing history at the History Harvest, October 22, 2011 (Photo by William G. Thomas)

His U.S.C.T. counterpart buried at Laurel Hill, Edward Jones, was born in Virginia, most likely into slavery. At some point in 1864, he made his way to Marietta, Georgia, and enlisted in the 13th U.S.C.T., guarded railroads, and after the war made his way to Omaha, Nebraska. The graves of U.S.C.T. soldiers too often go unrecognized and the service and histories of these men unexamined. They tell us much about the wider patterns in the war–two black men, one enslaved, one free, both enlist, both fight, one is wounded, both migrate after the war, eventually to Omaha, Nebraska. They build businesses. They serve their communities. They have deep individual histories we are only able to glimpse though the broader national significance of their stories.

Warren Taylor brought two special, and astonishingly moving, items from his family’s history to the History Harvest. His 1841 U.S. penny was carried by his enslaved great grandmother as was a silver drinking cup. Holding these items, looking at them up close, brings slavery more clearly into focus, into real lived experiences. Both were digitized to be shared with students and teachers across Nebraska and the nation. The stories behind these objects and documents will be made available on the History Harvest web site in coming weeks and months.

There is no question that digitizing history at the community level raises matters of concern, especially about whether history is being expropriated and true partnership can exist. The students worked with churches, businesses, community organizations, and schools. They participated in the Making Invisible Histories Visible project with Omaha Public Schools, and worked with the Great Plains Black History Museum. Indeed, the Harvest is meant to be inclusive and open, as well as to enable a richer, more complete history for our communities.

On Saturday, as people came to talk about their community, their history, and their families, the conversations were rich with significance. Every family has its own history, but we often forget how much our family history is part of the national story. At this History Harvest we had the chance to see this connection and to talk and think about a more inclusive and public history.

Digital History Harvest in North Omaha Today!

Today in North Omaha we will run our third History Harvest, this time focused on the African American history of that community. We will be digitizing documents and materials from families, businesses, schools, churches, and clubs. We start at 10 a.m.

This year, though, the History Harvest is being planned and run by undergraduate students as part of a special class we organized in the University of Nebraska Department of History. Patrick Jones is teaching the class and its main focus in reading and discussion has been civil rights history and African American 20th century history. This class and The History Harvest have been such a success that we will be running the class each year on a different community. The Omaha World Herald covered our students as they helped organize the materials of the Great Plains Black History Museum: a remarkable collection of documents, material objects, posters, records, and letters and diaries, all of which had been locked in a shipping container/dumpster for nearly a decade.

Yesterday, I saw a demonstration of what those documents included, and the diversity and significance of these artifacts of history takes your breath away. Students will be working this semester and next semester to create the web site featuring each document or object brought into the History Harvest. Because this project is student-run and student-led, the excitement, energy, passion, and commitment to doing history has run high in this class. Fifteen graduate students in History will be helping as well today, taking oral histories, supporting the undergraduates, and working to help digitize the materials.

This year’s University of Nebraska History Harvest project is a collaboration with Love’s Jazz and Art Center, the Great Plains Black History Museum, the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation and NET Television and Radio for an innovative effort to uncover, perserve and share North Omaha’s rich, but often hidden, African American history. Students have been working with the Empowerment Network and spreading the word through churches and community organizations as well as through new media, including Facebook. Community members are invited to bring their letters, photos, documents, heirlooms or other artifacts that help tell the story of African-Americans in North Omaha and across the country. The objects will be digitized and included in a unique web-based public archive of African-American history in North Omaha, available for free to teachers, students and everyday people. Some may even be featured in an upcoming NET Television segment.