Digital Options for History 319: The Rise of Modern America

In the fall, I am teaching two courses. One, a public history practicum course, will include significant play with digital tools. I have a clear vision of what I want the class to accomplish, which digital tools might be helpful, and how I can integrate both teaching and experimentation into the course.

I have found it much more difficult, in my nine years as a professor, to integrate digital methods and projects into my more traditional courses. I’ve spent some time these past two weeks thinking about just that. I think the key issues are class size (45 students), class composition (this is a mid-level course that fulfills general education requirements, so not all students are history majors), and learning objectives.

For my first foray into this realm, I am going make two changes to existing class assignments, currently listed on the syllabus as “in-class group work” and “final presentation.”

In the past, I have developed a series of in-class group assignments designed to teach students to read secondary sources more critically and to use scholarship to interpret primary sources. Despite the fact that students know exactly what I will ask them to do in class, they are rarely prepared. I am going to adapt this assignment as a way to help students read together and begin to address core questions BEFORE class.

In addition, I always assign a final presentation so that students have an opportunity to draw some conclusions about what the class was “about” in a big picture way. While I have always encouraged students to think creatively about this, I am going to devote some class time to introducing simple technologies they can use to design more interactive and interesting presentations.

I still feel a bit tentative about this, which is why I am reluctant to post an actual syllabus.

Both of these ideas are still information for me.


Source: Digital Options for History 319: The Rise of Modern America

Distant Reading

During the two weeks of Doing Digital History, I have found some concepts more or less easy to assimilate into my work as a public historian and public history educator. I felt competent and confident when establishing a domain, playing with WordPress, experimenting with Omeka, dabbling with some tools for annotating images, and animating brief stories. I am less comfortable with mapping, though I am beginning to recognize the ways in which some simple tools –like storymap– might be immediately useful to my students. Starting simple will also serve as a point of entry for me, allowing me to work my way toward more complex mapping projects. I feel most tentative about text mining and distant reading.  I’m still not sure I recognize its potential for my own research, and I suspect this is the digital realm I am least likely to put to use in the immediate future.

That said, I may play with Voyant and Overview in my fall public history practicum course. After playing with the technology a bit, I understand that text mining can help my students identify interpretive pathways for a public digital project about slavery and freedom on the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania. Mapping patterns of word use and syntax will encourage students to think more critically about the different uses of words in private contexts and in legal contexts, about the ways in which word use and meanings changed across state boundaries, and about the words chosen by free people to describe the experience of freedom in and near a border state. Encouraging my students to play will, I think, help me understand text mining and its value for research and analysis.

Source: Distant Reading

Data, Inquiry, and Squirrels

The dog and I were having a philosophical conversation about data on our walk this morning. (I do tend to bounce ideas off of her while we are staring at squirrels.)

During our first week of Doing Digital History, I have been a bit uncomfortable about the relationship between data and research. Talking it over with the beagle, I came to understand why that is. My research process is not terribly systematic. I begin with a general question. In my case, that is often framed as something I want to understand. For example:  I want to understand what it means to practice history as a form of public service. Next, I make decisions about where I might begin to approach that understanding. So:  Federal workers are “civil servants;” how have historians in the federal service conceptualize their work? Finally, I go to primary sources. I allow those sources to re-frame my questions, to open up new questions, and to shape my understanding in ways I did not predict.

I have no idea if this process is an adequate reproduction of “the historical method,” and I’m not sure that really  matters to me. I suspect it is a method that marks me as an interdisciplinary humanist. It probably also figures in my own sense of what it means to define myself as a public historian.

In any case, the beagle and I are discussing these questions of identity and process because I am framing a student-driven research project. I can see that it will be useful for them to assemble data in a tidy fashion so that we can create digital environments for study and interpretation. At the same time, planning for students to mine data  leads me to at least three anxieties:  1. Is possible, on the cusp of a new research project, to create a data spread sheet that will actually work; that will represent what I want students to find AND will actually predict accurately what they can find.  2. To what extent will framing a data spread sheet in advance limit what students actually DO find? Will the tyranny of the spread sheet encourage students to disregard or simply fail to recognize the value of sources that don’t fit our data parameters? 3. Is there a difference between approaching sources as producers of “data” and approaching sources as windows to understanding?

The beagle wasn’t sure…. SQUIRREL!

Source: Data, Inquiry, and Squirrels

Non-Textual Sources

As a public historian and an American Studies PhD (and BA for that matter), I have long worked with non-textual sources:  material artifacts, photographs, oral histories, folkways, etc.

Nonetheless, today’s conversation in Doing Digital History pushed me a bit outside my comfort zone by pressing me to think about what it means to approach all sources as “data.” Our lively and fascinating guest instructor, Mike O’Malley, asked us to consider landscapes of sound and to examine the ways in which they have been re-configured over time. Sound Studies, as O’Malley explained them, have raised some interesting questions:  when does sound become noise? how has the experience of listening to music changed over time? Yet, much of the work seems overly focused on technical evidence. Digital environments allow scholars to graph and map sound as form and to focus on its mechanical production. Yet, it seems that sometimes the function, creation, use, context, and reception –all elements of the human experience– are irretrevable. While it is clear that technical data charting changes in sound have interpretive value, the approach often detatched from questions of human value and meaning-making. During discussion, O’Malley offered a critique of historical reenactors as an analogy. He argued that their effort to understand the meaning of the past is misleading because it is attached to microscopic detail; reenactors focus is so much on the trees, that they miss out on a approaching a deeper understanding of the forest. Yet, some sound scholars’ focus on sound charts, combined with a reluctance to think about sound as only a small part of a much larger and more dynamic cultural environment seems potentially to have the same shortcoming. Can we really understand a sound landscape without considering all of its elements:  human as well as mechanical?

My focus was a bit skewed during class. I was so interested in learning about Sound Studies as a body of scholarship, that I found it difficult to keep my attention on how this might relate to digital history. Nonetheless, I was interested in the examples that O’Malley provided about how non-text based productions can be used in a digital environment for teaching, learning, and research. I can imagine value in producing short digital stories or podcasts for students or other learning communities.  I’m not yet sure how –or if– my current projects are appropriate for experimenting with sound or video, but I am certain that digitization will provide me with a venue for associating various kinds of data:  textual, visual, audio, and material. I’m also starting to wonder how reducing evidence to “data” will impact my interest in remaining focused on the inconsistent, stubborn, difficult-to-categorize human dimension of social and cultural life.

Source: Non-Textual Sources

Designing Collaborative Research Space

In the summer of 2013, my colleague Dan Kerr and I organized a working group for the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History called, “Toward a History of Civic Engagement and the Progressive Impulse in Public History.” You can read a bit about it here. Fourteen of us engaged in a pre-conference conversation and worked together to shape a series of topics and questions that can help us historicize and theorize what may be considered the “radical” wing of our field –a wing populated by scholars who are interested in clearly identifying the ways in which history has served social justice over time. We want to continue our collaborative inquiry with an eye toward producing a work of scholarship (whether digitally or traditionally published). I hastily threw up a blogger site to enable ongoing conversation, but it poorly designed and disconnected from a broader discussion. WordPress is clearly a better platform because it is designed for content management and seems better suited for sharing research and collaborating. I’m already thinking about creating a second domain for this work!

Source: Designing Collaborative Research Space