On Writing, Making and Mining: Digital History Class Projects

This is the forth post in a multi-post series reflecting on the digital history course I taught last semester at American University. For more on this you can read initial post about the course, the course syllabus, my posts on the value of a group public blog on how technical to get in a digital history course and on how the students content will continue to be a part of future version of the course.

I am a big fan of the idea that building and making is a hermeneutic. Part of what makes the idea of the digital humanities particularly nifty is the idea that we can embrace building tools, creating software, designing websites and a range of maker activities as an explicit process of understanding. Because of this, and in light of my feelings about the necessity for students to develop technical competency, I knew I wanted students in my class to work on a digital project.

With that said I gave my students a choice.

Everyone had to write proposals for both a digital and print project. For print projects they  proposed papers that either used digital tools to make sense of a set of texts or proposed interrogating something that was itself “born digital.” For digital projects students were required to create some kind of digital resource, a blog, a wiki, a podcast, an interactive map, a curated web exhibit, a piece of software, etc.

When I mentioned the structure of this assignment to Tom Sheinfieldt he suggested that I would be receiving 20 papers. One paper from every student. We’ll get back to what I got once I explain my justification for including writing as an option.

Three reasons writing in Digital History is new

Here are three reasons to justify using the limited time in a digital history course to work on writing projects.

The case for writing about mediums

Historians are trained to work with particular kinds of materials and to ask questions which are (to some extent) based on the nature of those materials.  Historical understanding fundamentally requires us to understand how the nature of a given medium shapes and effects the traces of the past it has on it. This requires us to know to think about communication in a letter as a different voice from a speech, and further to recognize that the transcript of a speech is not necessarily  what was said, and does not include information about how it was said. It also requires us to approach different media on the terms on which they were used and the terms on which they function. For an example of some of this kind of work in photography I would strongly suggest Trachtenberg’s Reading American Photographs. Similarly, there is a extensive tradition in “reading” and interpreting everything from tree rings in environmental history, to Long Island parkway bridges in the history of technology, to forks and spoons in Bancroft award winning works of American History. This is all to highlight that there is a long tradition of understanding objects in context in history.  I really want my students to become, to borrow from Matt Kirshembalm borrowing from William Gibson “aware of the mechanisms” they are intrepreting. In this capacity I want my students to do extensive research using and interpreting born digital materials.

The case for writing about data

While history has a long history of working with deeply understanding the medium on which traces from the past are recorded, in my experience, much of that history tends to be focused on close reading. Taking a few examples and digging deeply into understanding them.  In the sciences the question is what do you do with a million galaxies, in the humanities it is what do you do with a million books? In both cases the answer is that we need ways conceptualize and refine ways to do distant reading or at least a hermeneutics of screwing around. In class we looked at a range of examples in this space, nGram, CHOA, tools like Voyer and even things as simple as Wordle.

The case for writing as part of building

Many my students wanted to go into public history. I want them to take the opportunity to deeply explore and reflect on how systems can be created to support their work. Here I am very much in the build things camp, but a big part of building is critically reflecting on what is built. For example, writing about the web presence of a war memorial on Flickr, Yelp, and Tripadviser can offer substantive insights into what and how we should make tools and platforms to support public history. I feel quite strongly that we need a body of design and development literature that deeply engages with analyzing, evaluating, digital humanities projects.

So did I get 20 papers?

I am thrilled to report that many of the students jumped at the opportunity to develop digital skills and build out web projects. In the end I received ten papers and ten digital projects. Several students who built digital projects made comments like “I decided to step outside my comfort zone,” and I was thrilled to see them do exactly that. I think the fact that we worked with so many relatively easy to use platforms for getting web projects up and out there (ie wordpress.com, omeka.net, google my maps, etc.) played a role in getting these projects up and out there. You can browse on the projects page of the site. Both the papers and the digital projects turned out great. From the proposals to the final projects I think you can really see development toward some of the core ideas. With that said there was one interesting trend that I am curious about getting other peoples thoughts on.

No one touched text mining/text analysis:

I thought that some of the students would take the opportunity to use tools like Vouyer or even something as simple as Wordle to work with some of the texts they are already working with in their research. Or, similarly, that some students would use some of the online corpra we looked at to explore some of their research interests in this kind of environment. To take these tools, or to take some of the corpora we were working with and use them to do some historical research. We talked about this a fair bit but no one took these up as a project idea. Instead, all of the papers students worked on explore born digital issues. Don’t get me wrong, students wrote very cool papers, for example, looking at the web presence of different war memorials and examining Fallout’s idea of the wasteland in the context of the history of apocalyptic writing. Further, the web projects turned out great too.

For whatever reason, no one wanted to try to work with the tools like Vouyer or Wordle, and no one took on the opportunity to write something up using Google nGram or Mark Davies Corpus of American English or Time Magazine corpus. In future iterations of this course I imagine I might require everyone to write a short post using at least one of these sorts of things with a set of texts. Thinking about primary source material is data sets is one of the most important things for historians to wrap their heads around.

Is text mining more radical than building for historians?

Students were excited to create digital projects. Students were excited to write about born digital source material. However, no one touched text mining or anything remotely related to distant reading.  Now it is possible that I just didn’t make this sound interesting enough. With that said, we did in fact have a great conversation about distant reading, we did cover some of the very easy to use tools and corpra early in the semester and everyone clearly got it. It makes me think that while in digital humanities conversations the idea of building as a hermeneutic is a hot topic that, at least in the case of digital history, distant reading may well be even more radical. In my own reflection, the kind of data mind set that one needs to develop and deploy in this sort of research feels more distant than the idea that we learn through building.