PastPlay as the Digital Humanities

9780472035953I was invited to review Kevin Kee’s new edited volume Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology for the current issue of The American Historian. The author agreement allows one to post the “manuscript” version of this kind of thing to one’s personal website, so it’s shared here to that end. As I note, I think the concept of play at the heart of the volume is of potential interest for defining a perspective on play as something that defines the ever-nebulous digital humanities. 

Play can and should be a core part of both historical research and the teaching of history. This is the central argument the historian Kevin Kee frames around the fifteen essays gathered together in Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology.

The thesis of this collection emerges by stringing together the titles of the four sections of the book. Historians should be 1) teaching and learning history, 2) playfully, 3) with technology, 4) by building. Teaching and Learning History includes four cases studies of historical educational games. Playfully focuses on how play, or what author Stephen Ramsay calls the “Hermeneutics of Screwing Around,” can function as part of the practice of research and writing. With Technology explores board games, 3D printing, and simulation computer games as instruments for teaching history and engaging in historical scholarship. Finally, By Building provides four essays that argue that making things, from historical hoaxes to digital models of Victorian homes, can be powerful tools for historical inquiry. The Playfully section of Pastplay includes three essays that argue that play itself is an instrument for learning about the past. William J. Turkel and Devon Elliot connect work with 3D printing and fabrication with the value that historians of science have found in re-creating historical experiments. Ramsay argues for the value of serendipitous “screwing around” as a response to the massive scale of source material offered by millions of digitized books. Bethany Nowviskie explores a medieval device that served as a “mechanical aid to hermeneutics and interpretive problem solving” as inspiration for how humanists might make use of digital technologies (p. 140).

Pastplay focuses more on teaching and learning than it does historical scholarship, and as a result, the book is somewhat thin on addressing how play can and should be a component of historical inquiry. From my perspective, the most valuable contribution of Pastplay isn’t really articulated in the text. The book offers a framework for defining the ever-nebulous digital humanities. Many of the contributors are leading thinkers in the digital humanities, and their ideas about the playful use of technology to experiment, dabble, and explore the past offer insight into digital humanities epistemology. Often simply described as the application of computing technologies to humanistic inquiry, the playful hermeneutics described here, and the implication that there is no substantive difference between student learners and historians as perpetual learners, allow us to pin down what is different and significant about how these digital humanists approach the understanding of the past.

Pastplay is a book about teaching history, but the most intriguing parts of it deal primarily with historiography and method. In this respect, I might have liked to see two separate books: one focused on the educational possibilities of play and the other on how playful approaches to building models and exploring texts can provide value to the practices of historical research. While I’m still not entirely sure where this book belongs on my bookshelf, or what kind of course for which it is best suited, I am glad to know it is in my collection.

Wherein I Answer 13 Questions About Digital Humanities Blogging

Matt Burton, PhD candidate in the University of Michigan’s iSchool, is writing his dissertation on the role that blogs play in scholarly communication, primarily focused on digital humanities blogs. He asked me if I would respond to a set of 13 questions he put together as part of his study. Shawn Graham recently shared his responses, which I enjoyed reading, so I figured I would share mine as well.

In responding to Matt’s questions, I realized that there is likely a lot of tacit knowledge that comes from the practice of blogging in this community which it would be useful to make explicit for anyone else that wants to join. So I’d love to see other people respond to Matts 13 questions. If you link back to my post and Shawn’s we can keep track of all of this in trackbacks.

Matt: When did you start your blog (career wise: as a grad student,  undergrad, etc)?

Trevor: I started keeping an academic blog around the time I started my M.A. program. I had kept a personal blog for a year or so with my wife, but launched two blogs that had an academic bent in 2007. The first was a blog for a digital history course I was taking and the second was a site I was going to run that was called That was about history as represented in children’s books. The children’s books thing didn’t keep my interest long enough, so I eventually rolled them all together.

Matt: Why did you decide to start blogging?

Trevor: The digital history focused blog was the direct result of a course requirement, we had to start a blog and keep notes on it. At the same time, I decided I would stand up that other blog, the one about history through children’s books, because I saw it as an opportunity to

  1. refine some of my tech skills
  2. show folks that I could create and manage a decent looking blog
  3. set myself up with a structure and regular set of deadlines to get myself in a habit of writing for an audience
  4. because I saw the kind of exposure and connections that other colleagues at CHNM (Dan Cohen, Tom Scheinfeldt, Dave Lester & Jeremy Boggs) were getting from keeping blogs. So that is a web of reasons I ended up getting into blogging.

Matt: How do you host your blog, i.e. Do you use a generic web-host like Dreamhost with WordPress, do you use a blogging service like

Trevor: Currently, I use dreamhost to run an instance of WordPress. When I started blogging for the course I was using a instance but had set up and was running my own instance of the wordpress software for the history through children’s literature site.

Matt: How did you learn to set up your blog?

Trevor: I read the five minute tutorial for setting up a wordpress instance. It took a lot more than five minutes. I had put up websites before, but had never used anything that involved a database backend. I remember futzing around with a bunch of configuration issues to get the site up and running. At that point, I modified a theme at that point too. I wanted to make my own theme partly to show I could and to figure out more about how the HTML, CSS and PHP all interacted. Most of that tinkering just involved using Firebug to poke around and see what tweaks to the site would look like and then making those edits in a text editor to files via FTP.

Matt:  What are the challenges with maintaining your blog (i.e. spam, approving comments, dealing with trolls, finding time to write, etc)?

Trevor: At this point, the main challenge has been figuring out what role the blog plays in my productivity and work. I struggled a lot in the beginning to figure out what voice to write in and about how much my writing on the blog should be polished final product and how much it should be part of a kind of open notebook where I worked out things in a more personal voice. At this point, I feel like I’ve hit that stride, but at this point I also have so many places and commitments for writing that it’s tricky to do all the writing that I want to be doing. As a result of my blogging about history in video games, I was invited as one of the initial bloggers for Play the Past. At the same time, I also ended up blogging for my job, for the Library of Congress Digital Preservation blog. The result of this is that the “” blog has locked in as a place where I share more of the things that don’t easily fall into either of those other two spaces or that are the most perspectival of my writings. To sum that up, I haven’t had much trouble with technical or social issues around blogging. For me the challenge remains getting things up and out there via the blog and focusing on how I can make the best use of it as a place to develop and forward my thinking and writing.

Matt: What topics do you normally write about? Do you try and keep it strictly academic, or do you mix in other topics?

Trevor: At this point, I mostly talk about interpreting history as represented in new media, discussion of methods of research and scholarship in digital history and the digital humanities, and issues around the design, development, and process for the use of digital technologies in collecting, preserving, and providing access to cultural heritage materials. I upon occasion will delve into other issues in changes in scholarly communication. Another way to say this is that the thematic unity of the blog is that it covers the things I have an academic/professional interest in. The origins for a lot of posts are discussions with archivists, librarians, curators, artists, humanities scholars and scientists at conferences, on twitter, in the comments on their blogs and or reactions to presentations, papers or books that I’ve read.

At this point, is a professional/personal blog. I offer running commentary on issues in the field, but for the most part, it is not a place where I present original research as much as a place where I offer and develop my perspective on issues in this area of professional practice and scholarship. In contrast, when I write for Play The Past I envision my audience as a more general reader interested in issues and stories about history in video games. So the Play the Past posts are a bit more of a mixture between academic research writing and journalistic writing.

Matt: If you allow comments on your blog, do you often get comments? What has been your experience managing comments/commenters on your blog?

Trevor: When I write something really long, like the full write up of a talk I gave, I will often get nothing in the comments. I might see a lot of people sharing it around on twitter, or offering a word or two there, but I don’t see much engagement on the post. In contrast, if I write something short as a reaction to something that a lot of people are engaging in I can get some real substantive back and forth going. For example, Implications for Digital Collections Given Historian’s Research Practices responded to the ITHAKA report,Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians. Similarly, the satirical bent of  Notes toward a Bizarro World AHA Dissertation Open Access Statement responding to the AHA’s dissertation embargo information kicked up a lot of exchange. Along with that, some of the very technical proposals I’ve written up, like the recent piece on Linked Open Crowdsourced Description: A Sketch have had a tendency to spark a good bit of back and forth.

On the whole, I totally love comments. With the exception of that Bizzaro World post, and a post I wrote up about misogyny in tech communities, I haven’t really steered into waters where there is much divisiveness or trolls. Oh, wait, except for that one time when I co-authored a blog post on that asked if the source code of a video game could be racist and it got picked up by Rock Paper Shotgun and we ended up with all kinds of irate, but relatively thoughtful but very antagonistic comments. So those aside, I generally feel like the comment section of my blog works like the web once did. I put things up, and the small virtual community of practice I participate in on twitter and other blogs has a bunch of folks who pop in and read what I write and post thoughtful reactions that can open up discussions that I find myself going back to all the time.

Matt: What kinds of interactions (scholarly or otherwise) emerge out of your blogging practice?

Trevor: A bunch of them. I will try and break these out.

  • Finding and Establishing a Scholarly Community: Early on, I wrote a lot about history in video games on my blog, for example this post on the tech tree in Civilization from 2009 as a result I ended up getting roped into Play the Past at the launch. Through that, I ended up meeting a bunch of other bloggers I did not already know. As the blog has continued and I became a co-editor I’ve been thrilled to connect with and find people who I didn’t know at all who have now come to get a ton of traffic for their writing on this topic. We have had a range of folks move from commenters there, to guest bloggers to regular bloggers and a lot of their writing get’s a ton of traffic and exposure.
  • Refinement of Ideas and Writing and Collaborative Projects: A lot of my work toward publications and research projects occurs through a process of blogging. I blogged through drafts of parts of my dissertation proposal and writing process. A workshop I gave on crowdsourcing became a four part series of blog posts on the topic which turned into an invited essay for Curator: The Museum Journal which I then was invited to republish in an edited volume on the topic.
  • Getting My Name Out There: Every month or two I run into someone at a conference or event who says something like “I hope this isn’t weird but I read your blog.” At this point it’s totally not weird. It is a huge compliment and I feel really lucky about how the whole thing has worked out for me. The blogs are part of how I do public scholarship and it’s a continual part of the professional network and community I participate in.

As an example of how these things all weave together. One of my early pieces for Play the Past (still one of my personal favorites) asked if the game Colonization was offensive enough. Rebecca Mir, then a graduate student, read my post for a course and ended up writing this amazingly cool course paper that opened up a whole bunch of other themes from it. We corresponded a bit about the original blog post over twitter and she ended up sending me a copy of the course paper. Rebecca had found a ton of great stuff digging through some of the Civ modder discussion forums, and had some neat ideas about how to take a close look at the ways native peoples are represented in the game. At about the same time, there was a call for proposals for book chapters for what would become Playing With the Past I was planning on putting in a proposal based on the Colonization things I had written, and encouraged her to as well. Rebecca smartly suggested that it was unlikely that the editors would want to run two Colonization focused essays and suggested that we consider co-authoring something which I thought was a great idea.

So we put in for that and it was accepted, but ended up deciding to use Play the Past as a place for us to take turns blocking out and taking the lead on drafting a series of posts to explore the themes and issues I had laid out and she had begun exploring in her course paper. The result was a series of very widely read posts that got a ton of comments and ended up giving us a lot of great critical feedback to incorporate when we stitched them all back together into our essay for the book. What I love about this whole process is that it pulls at the seams of the traditional research and writing process and in doing so opens up the possibilities for a range of levels of collaboration and exposure to your work.

As is the case when you really spend time working on a piece, there is a bunch of material from the blog posts that we ended up leaving on the cutting room floor at the end. But, all of that material is still up and out there in the blog posts. The possibility of that collaboration hinged on her reading the short post I had written on the topic and the extensive feedback we received in comments helped us to refine and polish up the essay. Along with it, Rebecca went on to become a regular blogger for Play the Past and I know her participation in the site has helped to get her invited to present at conferences and played a role in her professional resume.

Matt: Do you find these interactions informative, useful, enlightening, tedious, frustrating, obligatory, etc? How do they feel?

Trevor: On the whole my interactions around blogging are informative and enlightening. I think a few other words I would use are challenging, rewarding, exhilarating, generous and warm.

  • Challenging in that on several occasions folks have called me out on things, or I have seen others called out, and on the whole I think that process has worked to make the broader community of folks in the digital humanities and library and archives tweet/blogosphere engage with aspects of privilege that help move the fields forward as they continue to grow.
  • Rewarding in that I get feedback and recognition for my work and am in regular and ongoing communication with the folks in a range of different communities of practice that I respect and admire.
  • Exhilarating in that every so often a post I write will blow up on reddit or something. One time a piece I wrote on Fallout was getting hundreds of more views each time I refreshed the stats page. That has the dual experience of “Yay! Look at how many people are reading something I wrote” and “Oh no! I really hope I didn’t mess anything up in there, look at how many people are now scrutinizing something I wrote.”
  • Generous and warm in that I have found myself in a community of peers, mentors, mentees and colleagues who regularly give of their time, and opinions and share in humor and the ups and downs of our careers and professional lives.

Matt: How do you think digital humanities blogging is different from more traditional forms of academic writing and reading?

Trevor: One of the essays in the report from this summit I helped plan on collecting and preserving science blogs is relevant in this case. The author suggested that part of the problem with pinning down what blogging is and how it is different from other modes of scholarly communication is that it’s something defined by particular technologies (text syndicated via RSS) and a set of practices that is socially defined in how people use those technologies at particular times. With that said, I think i can venture to offer two different approaches for going about this. Blogging is at once both a much more expansive and diffuse mode of communication than something like a journal article and simultaneously something that is an emergent genre of writing with a set of conventions.

Diffuseness: So, if you scroll down a bit further and read through some of my favorite blogs you will find that I like a lot of things that are totally different. Some of them have short posts that show up on a daily basis, some of them have long posts and are posted to every three to six months. Some have custom drafted material created for the blog, some are mostly sharing notes from talks and presentations and working drafts of papers. Some are filled with images and subheads some are just huge walls of text. To this end, one of the characteristics of blogging in the digital humanities is that it is far more particular to the person and their approach than something like a journal article. That is, I think you get a lot more variety in what people do with their blogs and what is considered acceptable practice.

Coherent Genre-ness: While I realize it might seem contradictory to now go on to suggest how blogging represents a coherent genre of writing after just saying that it’s so diffuse that isn’t so. While there is a broad diversity in practice, there are also a lot of conventions that bundle up in the middle of that diffuseness. So here are some things that makes blog writing, on the whole, different from other genres of scholarly communication like journal articles, book chapters, and conference presentations. On the whole, blog writing is more informal. It often is more conversational. It often involves less fancy talk, that is more straightforward attempts to get points across. Blog writing is generally much shorter than other forms of academic writing. Blog writing often has shorter paragraphs, makes use of hyperlinks to point out to ongoing discussion elsewhere instead of recapping that discussion, and includes more subheads to be easier to skim. Blog writing can often assume/connect with a broader audience than other forms of academic writing. Blog writing is often less finely tuned and honed than other forms of scholarly communication.

Matt: How would you characterize the relationship between blogging and the digital humanities (however broadly conceived)?

Trevor: Oh gosh, it sounds like that involves the infinite regress of attempting to define the digital humanities 🙂 I will lean on a recent review I wrote about the book Pastplay which I think get’s at a fruitful connection between what DH had become and what blogging does (I’m going to post a pre-print of the review on the blog one I get it back with final edits.)

While I’m challenged at exactly where I should put Pastplay on my bookshelf (educational psychology? historiography & method?) I’m glad to know it is in my collection. From my perspective, the most valuable contribution of this book isn’t really articulated in the text. The book offers a framework for defining the ever-nebulous digital humanities. Many of the authors of chapters in the book are leading thinkers in the digital humanities, and the ideas about the playful use of technology to experiment, dabble, and explore our ideas about the past offers insight into an epistemology of the digital humanities. Often simply described as the application of computing technologies to humanistic inquiry, the playful hermeneutics described here, and the implication that there is no substantive difference between students learning about the past and historians themselves as perpetual learners lets us pin down what is different and significant about how these digital humanists are approaching understanding the past.

So I think that’s it. I think it’s about play. Not play in the games sense or childish sense but in the sense of individually collectively learning how to do things. That is, play in terms of how learning happens at the individual and community level as we fumble around and figure out how to do better work and develop better ways to understand our world, our cultures and their pasts. I think when digital humanities blogging is at it’s best you have people stepping away from “fancy writing” to play with ideas and play with methods, to be honest, to be generous but to not shy away from calling each other out on our respective shit. I think this is something that has been a huge asset to the development of the community but at the same time it’s a real challenge. It is there inside the ups and the downs of concepts like “niceness.”

Academia has always had a bit of a rough and tumble discourse, go find the forum section of just about any history journal over the last 80 years and you have a very real chance of finding a real knock down drag out fight over what counts as good work and or whose work is or isn’t original or groundbreaking. With that said, the personal valence of blogging and the immediacy of it and of comment threads has some of the effect of making it all the more critical for the community to continue to figure out and reflect on how we can maintain an open and friendly network that is also ready to have it’s privilege checked and it’s background assumptions checked. Blog writing is also an incredibly immediate form of academic writing. You write it, you hit publish, you tweet it, you start talking about it. If it’s a hot topic, there is a good chance you could be reading someone’s response and reaction in another post in a few hours.

Matt: What DH blogs/bloggers do you read and why do you read them? What do you like about them?

Trevor: There are really too many to name here, I follow hundreds of blogs in my reader, so I will just point to some highlights. Here is a rundown of some of my favorites off the top of my head.

  • I read everything Bethany Nowviskie  writes, more or less as soon as I know it is up. She is routinely insightful and reflective and the fact that she is situated in a library context ends up meaning that her perspectives are particularly relevant to me.
  • Ted Underwood is another favorite. He does a great job at doing number crunching computing sort of DH in a way that opens up and elucidates big questions.
  • Sheila Brennan always has great things to say about work at the intersection of digital history, public history and the digital humanities.
  • Tim Sherratt’s posts often seem to come with some fully formed new project he concocted that is both immediately interesting and useful and simultaneously something that forwards the theoretical potential of building things in the field.
  • Miriam Posner has both a great voice for blog writing and covers a lot of issues thoughtfully and deeply.
  • DH+Lib often surfaces posts and pieces I would not otherwise have come across
  • Mark Sample is one of the most creative people I follow. I love how he has a focus on issues in born digital media like video games and twitter bots and his writing is really smart.
  • Steven Ramsay isn’t really a high volume blogger but I appreciate his perspective and I think his work on algorithmic criticism and the hermeneutics of screwing around are some of the best pieces of work at bridging the computational and mathematical with the epistemology and values of the humanities.
  • Ernesto Priego has a valuable perspective and I enjoy the intersection of library science and digital humanities in his work.
  • Natalia Cecire is a great writer and scholar and a thoughtful critic.
  • Adam Crymble writes a lot about issues around the practice of digital history and it’s both good stuff and particularly relevant to my interests.
  • Melissa Terras has written a bunch of great stuff and her work is often directly related to issues I am working on related to things like use and reuse of digital content.
  • Shannon Mattern is always writing about these amazing courses she teaches, about visits to galleries in New York and sharing these in depth and thoughtful pieces and talks that have a media studies bent. It’s great stuff.
  • Kate Theimer likely does not consider herself to be in the digital humanities tent, but her work on the future of archives is always thoughtful and relevant to folks in DH.
  • Scott Weingart has a bunch of great posts about things like network analysis and I appreciate his background in the history of science which situates his perspective on tools and methods in an understanding of the sociocultural framework that those tools operate.
  • Ian Milligan is someone whose posts I’m almost always tweeting out. He is one of a handful of historians doing work with Web Archives and he shares parts of the process of that work that are enlightening.
  • Fred Gibbs is a great historian and a thoughtful commentator on digital history.
  • Ed Summers builds very cool things and always has smart reasons and things to say about the things he builds.
  • Sharon Leon does great work in digital history and public history and I’m always interested in her perspective.

Matt: What was your most popular blog post? Why do you think it was so popular? What is your *favorite* post?

Trevor: Unquestionably, the most read things I’ve ever written are posts about Colonization and Fallout 3 for Play the Past. Both of those became and continue to be so popular because they have connected with audiences outside the network of academics and cultural heritage professionals I usually write for. Another hit in that vein, is a 400 word post I wrote about an amazing Pac-Man t-shirt.

For my personal blog, I’ve included the stats for the top 15 of my blog posts below (this really only goes three or four years back but it’s illustrative). The top post there is a perennial hit. I think that one resonated so well because it’s really in the sweet spot for a blog post, I lay out a point that turns some conventional wisdom about crowdsourcing on it’s head and that works in a short post. The second is actually a really long one, the transcript of a talk I gave earlier this year at the University of Pittsburgh that I think made it around a good bit because it weaves together a lot of the different things that I focus on (digital preservation, born digital materials and the digital humanities). So I think that one got around because it touches on and tries to connect more or less all the sectors of my professional network. The Bizarro world post was a fast moving issue in the higher education blogs. From there you see a few more of my posts on crowdsourcing and a range of things I’ve writing about research methods that tend to get some traction.


As far as a favorite post of mine, I’m not sure. I think I’d probably go with either the Fallout 3 post or the Is Colonization Offensive enough post. At the beginning of Play the Past I would spend a lot of time honing and refining pieces like those and I think it shows. For better or worse, most of the blogging I do these days is much more immediate and responsive and rushed between a bunch of other things. So I think I’m putting out good stuff that is useful but I don’t think it’s nearly as refined.