a simple visual literacy assignment

Nancy Beck Young and I had an interesting conversation about using the digital to teach primary source analysis in a gen-ed, survey course (mine is 1877-present) context.  Part of the challenge in courses like these is usually that students are non-majors, and likely don’t have very much primary source experience. My goals are to teach them critical analysis–especially, visual literacy–, and also how to put together evidence to form an argument. I was thinking about creating a visual source annotation assignment with a platform like ThingLink, and Nancy’s experience with digital stories (iMovie or Prezi, or even PowerPoint) has made me think that this might be a good way to teach students to do the work of assembling and using evidence.

I think these would be fairly simple assignments, and could be done without very much tech training.

Visual Literacy (5 per semester): choose, from this week’s course materials, one image, and annotate this using ThingLink. Your annotations must attend to background, context, and close analysis. You must have at least ten separate annotations, of these, no more than three can be links to other digital sources (be careful that this source is reputable-this might have to be another handout, or a “transferrable skill”). The others must include your own original analysis (at least a paragraph for each), which you can supplement with additional links, as necessary and appropriate. Be prepared to informally present your ThingLink project in class (about 5 minutes). It will also be posted on our course management site.

“Visual literacy” is one of the learning objectives for this gen-ed course, which I think this assignment would help to satisfy.

Source: a simple visual literacy assignment

text challenges

Of everything we’ve done these past two weeks, today’s topic, distant reading and textual analysis, was definitely the most challenging for me. I appreciated Fred Gibbs’ (and Megan, and Spencer’s) careful and thorough explanations of techniques, but struggled to find a way to apply them to my own research and teaching. Here’s a list of corpora I attempted to plug into Voyant, Bookworm, Overview: my book proposal. my book manuscript. a batch of student papers. some primary source PDF’s (from the “Major Problems” series) I had scanned for my U.S. history survey. someone’s dissertation i downloaded a year ago with an intent to read (I didn’t get around to it). a bank of public history syllabi I had saved on my hard-drive. I did see some interesting patterns looking at these (for example, I overuse the word “interrogate”), but nothing that struck me the way that, for example, our spatial analyses exercises struck me yesterday. I’m happy to have a better understanding of the contours of this mode of inquiry, but could not, for the life of me, find a way to use it to my satisfaction.

This isn’t meant to sound pessimistic. Because “digital humanities” can mean so many things, I think I feel like I have to master all of them, but clearly that’s not the case. Part of this institute is to learn how to pick and choose tools and approaches, and also to learn how to help students to do so. So, even though, I couldn’t find a way to make textual analysis work for me, I’m more confident now that I have a (semi!) working knowledge of its various tools, approaches, and applications.

Source: text challenges

non-textual sources!

As a cultural historian, I tend to work a lot with non-textual sources (photographs! television! reenactment!**) and I’ve thought a lot in the past how this might translate into the digital in a way that would invite engagement from my students. Yesterday, I was very interested in ThingLink, and am already planning on ways that I might annotate images for my students. I’m equally interested in Scalar precisely because of the ability to annotate not only images, but also moving images (at the same time though, our good discussion today made me a bit wary of Scalar’s citation issues…always good to keep evaluation). Something I’d like to see is a platform that allows annotation from multiple sources–something like the Soundcloud example from class, or perhaps YouTube. I’d certainly use this in class assignments (relatedly, I’m hoping to get introduce iPads into my gen ed survey class this semester and already have had all kinds of plans for primary source analysis group activities), but today got me thinking about how non-textual sources might figure into my larger project, the database of Illinois state and local history primary sources. Perhaps a kind of user collaboration? Is there a way to plug this into Omeka? Excited to find out…

**here’s a tangent: I’ve been thinking a lot about how one might represent or document embodied performance in the digital…


Source: non-textual sources!

Another Day, Another Project

For the last couple of days I’ve been thinking about digital history more or less, 24-7. And I’ve decided that even though my original project idea (a blog documenting history exhibition installation shots) is useful, I think I could pretty much do it right now (well, theoretically….will I have time to do it? maybe not!) and so, because I’m in an environment where I’ll have more support than at any other time, I think that maybe I should try to go back to my original, much more ambitious, proposal.

My history department at Eastern Illinois University is full of wonderful, committed public and local historians. And what they’ve been doing for a long time (since 1998!) is gathering primary sources, mostly pertaining to Illinois state and local history, and putting them online. So what we have right now is two websites, Localities and Past Tracker, both which contain lots and lots of great primary sources (no one knows how many!) as well as some student and faculty projects using these sources. In other words, collections, and exhibitions. There are also some lesson plans, another great resource. We already know that many local teachers and researchers use them, and many of the documents on the site are not reproduced anywhere else. So we have a sense of who our audience is, and what their needs are, and how we might help meet those needs while at the same time expanding Localities and Past Tracker–perhaps with data visualization? Or collaboration? There are lots of good possibilities here, but before we do anything else, we need to strengthen our foundation–the collections.

When I came to Eastern last year, I began working with other faculty and a few graduate students on making these sources more accessible and more dynamic. So far, we’ve reorganized the two websites and regrouped our links, but they remain websites, and not databases. All of these sources and exhibitions need to be catalogued, organized, and invested with metadata. And after we get this back end done, we can start working on front end and interface. This is going to be a giant project that will likely take many years, but I’d like to begin now, by at least creating a project plan on how we might begin to use Omeka so that incoming graduate students have a place to start. This is my new plan, and I’m pretty excited about it. My new goal is to come out of the Doing Digital History summer institute with a game plan for this very big project.

Source: Another Day, Another Project

A Modest Digital Proposal

As part of the application for CHNM’s NEH Summer Institute for Doing Digital History, I was asked about a digital project that I’d like to work on during the course of the Institute. While my initial proposal had to do with my department’s ongoing primary source repositories, I’ve since realized that the scope of this project is perhaps too big for a two-week summer institute–it would require a new website, lots of metadata, and some cold, hard thinking about exactly who our audience is, and what we want them to be able to do. So, for this larger (and hopefully, eventually community-collaborative and grant-funded project) I hope to get some ideas, but for now, I’d like to start with something different.

And so, I have a more modest proposal for a smaller project, but one for which I have an immediate use. As part of our M.A. program in Historical Administration, I teach a two-semester course in the theory and practice of history exhibition. In each seminar meeting, I try to present lots of case studies that both illustrate and challenge reading assignments on exhibit conception, scope, design, interpretation, etc. I want students to see how artifacts are placed, what labels look like, how cases and installations are located in a physical space. But I’ve had a lot of trouble finding adequate visual representation of exhibits to use as examples. I understand the reasons for this deficit: in some ways, its not really possible to represent the experience of a museum exhibition, and museums and other institutions have a vested interest in making visitors come look at artifacts in situ, so while most museum exhibitions certainly have a digital presence, this is often far removed from the physical exhibition itself. I can sometimes find installation shots of particular exhibits, but there are never enough, and tracking them down on the internet is a slow and often fruitless process.

museum exhibitions online

Over the past year, in a haphazard way, I’ve been using my iPhone camera to document each exhibition that I visit, thinking that I would eventually use these images in my teaching. At this point, I’ve photographed over twenty exhibitions, both large and small. I take general installation shots, close ups of labels, signage, cases, interactives, all of the components of an exhibit. I’ve started to think that it might be a good idea to take video of walk-throughs. I try to document each exhibition as fully as I can. I do historical houses, big national museums, presidential libraries, commercial exhibits, children’s museums. I don’t discriminate between the good and the bad, there’s something to learn from each one. They’re not perfect, but they’re often the only visual record of the physical spaces of these museums that is available. These pictures will help my class think about exhibition conception, design, and implementation, give them reference points for their own exhibition ideas.

a few of my installation shots

Right now, all of my photos are in a Dropbox account. I planned to eventually put them into individual PowerPoint presentations, and have an index that lived on my computer, so that I could drop slides into presentations at will.

But perhaps a better solution would be an online repository of exhibition images–my students could have access to these whenever they like, and perhaps (eventually, once I had a sizeable archive), other educators would find them useful, or would be interested in adding images themselves. In an ideal Web 2.0 world, these images might be organized by exhibition type (chronological, thematic, artifacts, narratives, etc. etc.), or location, or institution size, or using any other number of tags or categories. Or my students (and anyone else) could tag each image with their own comments.

This is a pretty simple idea, but I don’t think anything like this currently exists on the web, and would surely be useful, at least for me, and maybe for other practitioners and scholars of history exhibition. I realize that there’s a big difference between walking through an exhibition (we talk a lot in museum studies about immersion, “wonder,” the power of objects, etc. etc.), but realistically, there aren’t that many history museums that are accessible to us from central Illinois. This is a germ of an idea, but one that I can see having immediate payoff, and perhaps eventually leading to something even more dynamic and interesting.

A Modest Digital Proposal |.