Defining Data for Humanists: Text, Artifact, Information or Evidence?

Fred and I got some fantastic comments on our Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing paper through the Writing History in the Digital Age open peer review. We are currently working on revising the manuscript. At this point I have worked on a range of book chapters and articles and I can say that doing this chapter has been a real pleasure. I thought the open review process went great and working with a coauthor has also been great. Both are things that don’t happen that much in the humanities. I think the work is much stronger for Fred and I having pooled our forces to put this together. Now, one the comments we got sent me on another tangent. One that is too big of a thing to shoe horn into the revised paper.

On the Relationship Between Data and Evidence

We were asked to clarify what we saw as the difference between data and evidence. We will help to clarify this in the paper, but it has also sparked a much longer conversation in my mind that I wanted to share here and invite comments on. As I said, this is too big of a can of worms to fit into that paper, but I wanted to take a few moments to sketch this out and see what others think about it.

What Data Is to a Humanist?

I think we have a few different ways to think about what data actually is to a humanist. I feel like thinking about this and being reflexive about what we do with data is a really important thing to engage in and here is my first pass at some tools for thought about data for humanists. First, as constructed things data are a species of artifact. Second, as authored objects created for particular audiences, data can be interpreted as texts. Third, as computer processable information data can be computed in a whole host of ways to generate novel artifacts and texts which themselves open to interpretation and analysis. This gets us to evidence. Each of these approaches, data as text, artifact, and processable information, allow one to produce/uncover evidence that can support particular claims and arguments. I would suggest that data is not a kind of evidence but is a thing in which evidence can be found.

Data are Constructed Artifacts

Data is always manufactured. It is created. More specifically, data sets are always, at least indirectly, created by people. In this sense, the idea of “raw data” is a bit misleading. The production of a data set requires a set of assumptions about what is to be collected, how it is to be collected, how it is to be encoded. Each of those decisions is itself of potential interest for analysis.

In the sciences, there are some agreed upon stances on what assumptions are OK and given those assumptions a set of statistical tests exist for helping ensure the validity of interpretations. These kinds of statistical instruments are also great tools for humanists to use. However, they are not the only way to look at data. For example, most of the statistics one is likely to learn have to do with attempting to make generalizations from a sample of things to a bigger population. Now, if you don’t want to generalize, if you want to instead get into the gritty details of a particular individual set of data, you probably shouldn’t use statistical tests that are intended to see if trends in a sample are trends in some larger population.

Data are Interpretable Texts

As a species of human made artifact, we can think of datasets as having the characteristics of texts. Data is created for an audience. Humanists can, and should interpret data as an authored work and the intentions of the author are worth consideration and exploration. At the same time, the audience of data is also relevant, it is worth thinking about how a given set of data is actually used, understood and how data is interpreted by audiences that it makes its way to. That could well include audiences of other scientists, the general public, government officials, etc. In light of this, one can take a reader response theory approach to data.

Data are Processable Information

Data can be processed by computers. We can visualize it. We can manipulate it. We can pivot and change our perspective on it. Doing so can help us see things differently. You can process data in a stats package like R to run a range of statistical tests, you can do like Mark Sample and use N+7 on a text. In both cases, you can process information, numerical or textual information, to change your frame of understanding a particular set of data.

Data can Hold Evidentiary Value

As a species of human artifact, as a cultural object, as a kind of text, and as processable information data is open to a range of hermeneutic processes of interpretation. In much the same way that encoding a text is an interpretive act creating, manipulating, transferring, exploring and otherwise making use of a data set is also an interpretive act. In this case, data as an artifact or a text can be thought of as having the same potential evidentiary value of any kind of artifact. That is, analysis, interpretation, exploration and engagement with data can allow one to uncover information, facts, figures, perspectives, meanings, and traces which can be deployed as evidence to support all manner of claims and arguments. I would suggest that data is not a kind of evidence; it is a potential source of information which could hold evidentiary value.

Ancient Wisdom from the Forums: Failures of Collective Intelligence

A while back, I wrote about how the shame you are supposed to feel when someone uses Let Me Google That For You illustrates how finding answers to your questions on the knowledge base that is the internet has become a distinct literacy. That sort of thing is really an example of how making use of collective intelligence for work and life is becoming something we expect people to be able to do.

I thought this XKCD from a few days back gets at the same idea.

The collective intelligence point is also evident in what you see when you mouse over the comic on XKCD. “All long help threads should have a sticky globally-editable post at the top saying ‘DEAR PEOPLE FROM THE FUTURE: Here’s what we’ve figured out so far …'”

Like the answer is on the tip of our collective tongue

Discussion threads are not simply records of conversations, they are part of the global knowledge base. When we get so close, like finding the thread, finding the same question, but can’t find the answer, we experience something a bit like the feeling of having a word on the tip of your tongue. At some other moment of time someone else had this problem, and if someone had just answered it for them it would be answered for me too.

The Digital Humanities Are Already on Kickstarter

I have been talking with a lot of historians, librarians, archivists and curators about the possibility of using Kickstarter to fund digital humanities and digital library, archive, and museum projects. If you are unfamiliar, Kickstarter is a site and tool that anyone can use to fundraise for creative projects.

The Open Utopia project is a great example of a successful DH project on Kickstarter

In several of my conversations with humanists about Kickstarter I have heard back, “but isn’t Kickstarter a place for art projects, not for humanities projects”. The answer to that question is no. Kickstarter is a place for creative projects, specifically, discrete projects in which something is made. For folks on the DIY side of the digital humanities, an attitude frequently on display at events like THATCamp, this is not a problem. If you want to make things then Kickstarter is a great tool.

Best of all, we don’t need to even think about what digital humanities projects on Kickstarter would look like. They are already there. I took the liberty of putting together a short list of projects that i think fit squarely in the areas that I have seen people at previous THATCamps working in.

7 successful Digital Humanities-ish Kickstarter Projects

  1. The Teaching Teachers to Teach Vonnegut project from the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, raised 2,200$ to create and host a free workshop for Indiana high school teachers interested in incorporating the writings of Kurt Vonnegut in their curriculum. They even used as matching funds for a NEH grant.
  2. The Open Utopia: A New Kind of Old Book raised more than 4,000$ to create an open-source, open-access, multi-platform, web-based edition of Thomas More’s Utopia.
  3. </archive> raised more than 900$ to create  an open archive of urban experience built from the street. Using unique QR code tags collaborators can make their personal experiences of the city accessible in physical space.
  4. Open Goldberg Variations – Setting Bach Free raised more than 20,000$ to create a new score and studio recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations placed in the public domain.
  5. The Nature of Code Book Project raised over 31,000$ to write and self publish a book on “the unpredictable evolutionary and emergent properties of nature in software.”
  6. Kevin Ballestrini, a classics professor, has raised more than 2,000$ to create an educational card game.
  7. Smarthistory raised more than 11,000$ to create a slate of educational videos for it’s art history website.

The moral of the story here is that Kickstarter is not something that could be useful for funding digital humanities projects, Kickstarter is already something that is useful for funding digital humanities projects.

Importantly, Kickstarter is not a magic button that prints Internet money. If you do decide to use it to raise some funds you should go out and read from the copious amounts of advice on successful Kickstarter campaigns. (See for example this, or this, or this, or this)

If you have project ideas that you want to share and workshop consider posting them in the comments for feedback from other digital humanists.

When did we become users?

We live in an era of user experience of user centered design. We have a range of usernames for everything from Facebook to our banking websites. We tacitly sign End-user License Agreements as we click our way around the web. We know what to do because we read User Guides to figure out how to get our software to do what we want.

In short, we are all users.

The user has become such a central way of being that scholars are now reading the idea of the user into the past. In How Users Matter you can read about the users of everything from the Model-T, to Vaccines, to electric razors, to Minimoogs, to contraceptives.

The idea of the user as a way of being is so omnipresent that it is easy to forget that the idea of us as users has a history.

There must, in fact, be a historical moment at which we became users.

So when did we become users?

I don’t have an answer here. I’ve screwed around (hermeneutically) with a few online historical datasets and I would like to invite you (the user) to help interpret, consider and suggest next steps.

Asking a question to a graph

For starters I figured I would see how our various names have fared in the books of the 20th century. Below you can see a chart of the terms user, producer, consumer, and customer as they appear in the corpus the culturomics folks have given us to play with in Google n-gram. I am not a statistician. I will be the first to admit that I do not completely grok the details of their FAQ and supplemental documents. With that said, the naive interpretation of this graph shows the term user beating out producer and consumer in our lexicon in the lat 60s and beating out consumer in the early 80s. Does this tell us anything interesting? Despite all the limitations that come from this sort of data, are there any claims that this at least suggests to you? Are there other terms you think should be included in this? Please link any interesting related n-grams you generate in the comments.

user, producer, consumer, customer in google n-gram

Here is, more or less, the same trending line for user in the Time magazine corpus.

Chart of "user" in Time Mag

Colocating the User

Oh numbers, how you mislead! I can’t forget the drug users.

Thankfully, the really neat thing about Mark Davies corpora is that he lets you dig in and see what words are collocated within a specified number of words of the term you are searching for.

For example, when I search for user in the Time Magazine corpus I can find that “Drug” appears within 4 words of user 32 times. Beyond that, we can see which decades those locates happen in.  Below are the collocates for nouns within 4 words of the word user.  Beyond this we also find a bunch of other cool stuff. Again, as I am far from confident in making assertions about the implications of this kind of data, so I thought I would share it here, offer my naive read of it, and invite you (the user) to tell me what you think the data suggests. Here is the sheet of data I’ve lightly coded as either drug or technology uses of the term user. If you want to recreate this, just do a search for collocates of nouns either four before or four after the word user. You can see what that looks like in a search in the image at the bottom of this post. To talk about these results I have coded them into my own categories, those that have to do with drugs and those that have to do with technology. There are a few at the bottom that I haven’t categorized but which I would most likely call technology uses of the term. I have sorted them first by my categories and second by their frequency. As a last step I have flagged the cells in the sheet with two hits as a dark green and with more than that with a light green to draw attention to the patterns in the data.

What are users using?

The rise of user is also rise of drug user

Throughout the chart users are associated with the general idea of drugs and the specific terms for a range of individual drugs. This would be the user in the “Users are losers” construction. In any event, at least in the case of Time Magazine, the the growth around the term user happened for both drugs and tech at the same time.

The first technology related term that shows up is telephone

The first tech term to show up in this data is telephony. The first thought this suggests the user may have may have less to do with the rise of computing and more to do with the rise of networks. It may well be that we need the concept of the user to describe technology based networks.

Some open questions

  1. How to periodize the history of the user? I have provided a few pieces of evidence. It would seem that this evidence suggests….. If you have other examples of what this evidence might look like I would be thrilled to hear it. Are there other places one would look? Are their other explanations for this evidence?
  2. Was our relationship to technology different before we became users? Or, is the word the only thing that is new here? This is really the crux of the issue. Is this change in language simply an arbitrary neologism? Does the idea of us as users of technology shape our way of thinking about tools and technology? Has it changed how we think about technology? Lastly, what would the evidence look like that would help us answer this question and where would we find it?

Asside: if you want to recreate the search I did for collocates of nouns within four words of the term user it would look like this.

What my search looked like: Click image for bigger pic

The digital humanities as the DIY humanities

A few months back I participated in my forth year of the humanities and technology camp at the Center for History and New Media. This year the conference ended with a bake off. Many of the definitions of the digital humanities hinge on the idea that digital humanists like to make things. It looks like they also like to bake things.

We don’t just make for the humanities, we just make

I don’t think it is a coincidence that Amanda French’s twitter bio explains that she is a singer songwriter, that Karin Dalziel of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities blogs about digital humanities work alongside gardening, cooking and photography, or that Jason Kucsma, director of the Metropolitan New York Library Council, worked for years driving around the Midwest to promote a zine he helped create. One of the defining features of some of the best and the brightest in the digital humanities isn’t digital per-say, it has to do with a pervasive kind of scrappyness. It’s about having a do it yourself mindset.

The DIY technical education

Reflecting on my own experience, I think I can say that the most important digital skills and ability to carry things through did not come from my training in the history of science. It came from my attempts, from the age of 14-18 managing a band in Milwaukee Wisconsin.

  • I learned HTML to build a band website. (which is sadly lost to the ages, although the terrible one I had created before that persists at the popup riddled
  • I picked up Illustrator and Photoshop when we wanted to get our CD pressed and the only templates the press offered were for Adobe products.
  • Over those years I learned a ton about digital audio as we improved our microphones and upgraded from transferring from a real-to-real, to a 4 track cassette recorder, to a digital 8 track and ultimately to working with a all digital studio in the area.

More important than any of the specific tech competencies, I learned that when I needed to figure out what software and hardware I needed to accomplish a task, that I had the wherewithal to figure it out and make it work.

marzapan at summerfest
The band playing at Milwaukee's Summerfest

The Audacity of Doing it Yourself: Renting the American Legion Hall

More important than self taught hardware and software skills was simply taking stock of the fact that if someone was going to do make a given project happen it would be me. Further, that I was going to need to do this with the resources I had at hand. Generally, I think this translates to a lesson that in many situations it is valuable. There is a version of whatever it is that you want to do that you can do right now with only an investment of your time and energy.

There were, more or less, zero options for places to put on all ages shows in West Milwaukee. So I took cash out of pocket and rented an American Legion hall. I think it originally cost me $100. I made up some fliers on colored paper at kinkos, got four other bands to agree to play as openers and negotiated how we would cut any money. I bought a PA system and the bassist picked up lighting equipment circa 1970 at a rummage sale. We used our bassists van to get all of our equipment to the hall. We handed flyers to any and everyone who would take them in an effort to get people to show up and pay 5$ at the door. Our moms collected money at the door. It was exhausting. I was always sick to my stomach that no one would show up to the shows and I would be out the upfront money. But we got up and did it again, and again, and eventually made the money we needed to make to pay for studio time. That is until the band broke up and reformed without me.

The moral to the story is, that instead of waiting for something to happen, or someone to let us be musicians, we just decided we were and started making plans with the resources at hand. If you take a look at many of the most interesting things going on in the digital humanities a lot of them started with just that kind of scrappyness and tenacity.

The Tenacity of the Cockroach or: the Henry Rollins School for Digital Humanists

Required reading for a DIY Humanist

Part of the reason that there are so many DIY folk in the digital humanities is that making things came natural. I think another part of this is that many of us had acquired what Henry Rollins described as “The Tenacity of the Cockroach.” If you want to get your head in this space I strongly suggest reading the edited collection of Onion AV club articles which uses the quote as its title. Imho, the DIY part of this thing we call the digital humanities is the part that is keeping it interesting, lively, and innovative.

Required Reading for the DIY Humanist

Deep down, I think DIY and the web are inextricably linked.

Here the lesson from nerd-folk-rock-troubadour  Jonathan Coulton, about finding and making your own niche is invaluable. QFT

We now have an entirely new set of contexts and they come with a whole new set of tools that give us cheap and easy access to all of them – niche has gone mainstream. It is no longer necessary to organize your business or your art around geography, or storage space, or capital, or what’s cool in your town, or any other physical constraint. And this is not to say that anyone can become a moderately successful rockstar just by starting a blog – success is still going to be a rare and miraculous thing, as it has always been. There are just a lot more ways to get there than there used to be, and people are finding new ones every day.

In the same vein, Robert Krulwich’s  advice to aspiring journalists, that “some just don’t wait” is equally important for the aspiring humanist.

I’ve seen people, literally, go home, write a blog about dinosaurs (in one case), neuroscience, biology. Nobody asked them. They just did. On their own. By themselves.After they wrote, they tweeted and facebooked and flogged their blogs, and because they were good, and worked hard, within a year or two, magazines asked them to affiliate (on financial terms that were insulting), but they did that, and their blogs got an audience, and then they got magazine assignments, then agents, then book deals, and now, three, four years after they began, these folks, five or six of them, are beginning to break through. They are becoming not just science writers with jobs, they are becoming THE science writers, the ones people read, and look to… they’re going places. And they’re doing it on their own terms! In their own voice, they’re free to be themselves AND they’re paid for it!

Going from here

I would love to know if there are other DIY pasts in the closets of other Digital Humanities folk. Is this a general phenomena, or is this just about the company I keep. So if you have DIY pasts please share them in the comments. Further, are there other must read pieces you would suggest for the aspiring DIY humanist?

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,, 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.

Digital History: The Course That Never Ends

This is the third post in a multi-post series reflecting on the digital history course I taught this Semester at American University. For more on this you can read initial post about the course, the course syllabus, my first post in the series on the value of a group public blog and the second post on how technical to get in a digital history course.

92 blog posts,


20 projects.

This is the digital foot print of my digital history seminar.

I think we learned a lot this semester. My students reviewed and used a range of digital tools and engaged deeply with analyzing and interpreting a range of digital media. This was my first course. When I designed it I did what came naturally. I set up a public course blog. That blog served as our common place to publicly think aloud and work together. It served a valuable role in the face-to-face class. But I think it is going to serve an even more valuable role in the future.

Knowledge Base: Rethinking a course as knowledge production

I am not taking down the site. Like everything, there are varying degrees of quality to the content of the posts and the discussions, but there are some real jems in the posts. Tom Kenning’s reaction to YouTube time machine and the subsequent discussion is not only one of the only reviews of this project but it is also a great introduction to some of very interesting issues that emerge in the differences between academic and amateur (meant in the best possible way) approaches to history on the web. Similarly, Jordan Hillman’s post about the Euclid project started a great conversation about digital interfaces to cultural heritage. The content from this site will persist, and I imagine that in many cases some of this will end up as top hits for idiosyncratic Google searches and continue to provide fodder for conversation in the future.

Like a beaver dam the we built together will house the next generation

In Supersizing the Mind Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension philosopher Andy Clark talks about niche construction, a term he builds off of the evolutionary biology notion of environmental niche construction, as a way to think about how we make use of tools. Niche construction refers to “varying degrees, organisms chose their own habitats, mates, and resources and construct important components of their local environments such as nest, holes, burrows, paths, webs, dams, and chemical environments.” (2008, p.131) In each of these cases, animals behavior has altered their environment, and those alterations then become the basis for further adaptation. One of the primary examples of this is the spider’s web. “The existence of the web modifies the sources of natural selection within the spider’s selective niche, allowing subsequent selection for web-based forms of camouflage and communication.” (Clark, 2008, p.61) The spider’s web is interesting as an example of an individual organism and its tools, but beyond this the example of a beaver’s dam brings in far more complexity. Dams are created and inhabited by a collective group of individual beavers and further, are extended over time, outliving the lives of the individual beavers who occupy them. Further, beavers adapt to the niche which the beavers before them had created and the altered physical landscape which that dam has produced. What matters for Clark in this case is that “niche-construction activity leads to new feedback cycles.” (2008, p.62).

I intend to be exactly this kind of beaver dam. While different students register and take the class at different times their thinking and work, as manifest in the structure of the content they have produced, will play an active role in future students that occupy the space.

In other words this course will never end…

Ok, fine. According to American University the course is over. End of semester. Students got their grades. Moving on. But frankly, grades are the least interesting part. Not only am I keeping the content up, I intend to use this same wordpress instance for future iterations of the course. Whoever joins future digital history courses I teach is going to register for this blog and start posting. I will move the current syllabus to an archived syllabus page, and post the next set of student projects right above the existing set.

Some of the particularly interesting reviews of tools and are going to become course content on future iterations of the syllabus. Some of the particularly interesting student web projects are going to become examples. Some of the particularly interesting student papers will become course readings. Students from this first session of the course will be welcome to continue posting if they like and further are invited to continue to comment on the course. When I created my course I said that the blog would be the course readings that we write ourselves. Now, even more, some of that content will become part of the readings for future iterations of the course.

Why A Public Course Group Blog? Reflections on My Digital History Course

This spring I had the pleasure of teaching a digital history seminar at American University. This post is the first in a multi-post series reflecting on teaching the course. For some context, I have posted the course description bellow. For more on this you can read my initial post about the course and the course syllabus.

This course will explore the  current and potential impact of digital media on the theory and practice of history. We will focus on how digital tools and resources are enabling new methods for analysis in traditional print scholarship and the possibilities for new forms of scholarship. For the former, we will explore tools for text analysis and visualization as well as work on interpreting new media forms as primary sources. For the latter, we will explore a range of production of new media history resources. As part of this process we will read a range of works on designing, interpreting and understanding digital media. Beyond course readings we will also critically engage a range of digital tools and resources.

Group Blogging Digital History on the Public Web

One of my three course goals was for students to “Thoughtfully and purposefully engage in dialog about history on the public web with a range of stakeholders in digital history: historians, archivists, museum professionals, educators, and armatures, etc.” Beyond learning about digital history I wanted my students to do digital history. In that capacity I wanted them to engage with the public web and practice public writing. This, in part, meant developing a voice as a blogger and as a blog commenter. I decided to approach this goal through a group blog. I was excited about the prospect us all working and commenting in the same space. My experience participating in PlayThePast over the last six months has opened my eyes to how powerful participating in a group blog can be and I wanted students to get a taste for that.

Beyond meeting this goal I think this approach brought with it a few other benefits.

Blogging enabled an emergent curriculum

A digital history course is fundamentally different from many other kinds of courses. The field is nascent, there are fascinating developments in digital history on the open web that have little to do with the academy, and novel projects, papers, and online resources are appearing almost daily. I was excited to see the blog serve as a mechanism for enabling a more emergent curriculum as students began to wade in the constant stream of new work and ideas in digital history.

I was thrilled to see this emergent curriculum in the first post, which covered content which was nowhere to be found on the syllabus. One of my students stumbled across Youtube Time Machine and blogged about it. Importantly, the brief conversation we had about Youtube Time Machine on the blog, and subsequently in class broached many of the issues I wanted to get into in the course. It provided a point of reflection on armature vs. academic histories online, and more importantly provided a moment to think about how a seemingly technical detail (assigning a datetime to an object) can itself be a sophisticated hermeneutic problem. (Is this the date the thing is about? The date it was recorded? Should this be the date range of the time the creator worked on it? Should this be the date range of the movement the artist was a part of? What do we do with this remix of a video from 1920 that includes a song from 1980 and was clearly remixed in 2007?).

This site, and our discussion of it, ended up serving as a invaluable point of reference for our later discussions. In future versions of the course I think I am going to plan on building in this kind of “show and tell” component into a formal assignment and require all of the students to, at some point, interject their thoughts on some found content into the curriculum.

Posts as conversation starters and sustainers

Every week we had between 2-5 blog posts reacting to course content. Each of those posts would have 1-4 comments. Students who blogged about a piece of writing were supposed to use their post as a means to kick off discussion of the text. Students who blogged about a piece of software were supposed to demo the software and engage the class in a discussion of the implications of the software for the study and practice of history.  This worked quite well. In particular, it meant there were already lively discussions going on around the texts and tools and that anyone giving a presentation absolutely could not wing it.

Everyone had at least the prop of their post to refer to as they lead discussion or demoed a tool. When I woke up Wednesday mornings and reviewed all of the posts and comments they would generally fit together quite nicely, further if we hit a lul in the conversation I had a list of comments to pull from. Lastly, as I picked all of these tools and texts for a reason, I was able to hit home points that appeared in student posts and bring up  issues I thought were critical that had not emerged in the discussions. In short, the kind of externalized thought embodied in the posts and comments was invaluable for allowing me to start, sustain, and have a sense of what students were taking away from our work.

Class Blogging Brought Out Different Voices

Some of my students talked a lot in class, some of them talked a lot on the blog. By making part of our weekly discussions occur asynchronously online I was able to hear different voices and fold those into our in class discussions. Beyond this, it became clear that some students were developing different voices in their public writing on the blog. Specifically, students were assuming familiarity in class that they were not assuming on the blog. I was particularly happy about this as it represented students embracing the notion of writing and speaking to different audiences.

My course was of a bit of an awkward size and makeup and we met in a bit of an awkward space. I had 20 students, which is a too large for my tastes for a seminar style class. Further, ten of them were undergraduate students and ten were graduate students. The student distribution was a more or less statistically normal distribution (a few PhD students, a good number of MA students, a good amount of advanced undergraduates and a few freshmen). Lastly, our class met in a computer lab, one of those spaces set up for traditional instruction where everyone sits at their computer in rows facing toward a screen. Having students use the blog as another communication channel helped make these classroom discussions work. Further, providing the course blog as another communication channel meant that I heard from everyone, not just the most talkative.

In future versions of this course I think I will make this lesson a bit more clear. First, I will require more commenting. This time around I required everyone to write at least six substantive comments. In the future I think I will require everyone to write a substantive comment on at least one post a week. Beyond that, I intend to make clear in the participation section that talking in class and talking on the blog are both very valuable ways to participate in the course. If students tend to be shy in class I still would encourage them to talk more, but I would also make it clear that they can also put more energy into communicating on the blog.

Note to self: Put more of this on the web

I am feeling that in the future it might be better to explicitly plan the class to generate a certain level of content on an ongoing basis. I would like the class to be generating enough content to not only sustain our conversation with each other but also invite conversation with the broader digital history community. In this framework I would try to schedule this a bit more tightly, having different students stagger posting their project proposals so that everyone could agree to review each other’s work.

Designing a Digital History Course: Part 1

This spring I will be teaching a graduate seminar for American University’s history program titled History in the Digital Age. I have been thinking a lot about how I can get the practices of the course to model some of the emerging practices in digital history. As part of that process I have narrowed the course goals down to the list of 4 below.  In keeping with the spirit of collaboration and open communication I hope to make a core part of the course. I thought I would also blog the process of creating the syllabus to refine these ideas in public. I hope to generate some conversation here and use that to refine the course.

Course goals

After the course students will be able to:

  1. Independently discover, evaluate, and implement novel digital tools and resources to support traditional scholarship, public projects, teaching and scholarly communications.
  2. Develop proposals for digital history resources with detailed plans for  project management, design, outreach, and evaluation.
  3. Synthesize analysis of born digital and digitized materials, (datasets, algorithms, spreadsheets, maps, video games, web sites, social networks, text corpora, etc.) with existing approaches to analysis of traditional primary and secondary source material to develop novel historical narratives.
  4. Thoughtfully and purposefully engage in dialog about history on the public web with a range of stakeholders in digital history; historians, archivists, museum professionals, educators, and armatures, etc.

To get at the first goal I intend to have students demo tools to the class and make case for what a given tool, for example voyer, could do for research, teaching, outreach, etc. The second two goals are going to be covered by writing short proposals (one for a paper and one for a digital tool or resource) and then following through on one of those proposals. I am still working on the details of those assignments, which I will share later, but I am on my way to articulating the assignment that gets at the last goal, students participation in a public course blog.

Here is how I am framing this assignment:

The course blog: Engaging in online public discourse about digital history

We are not simply going to learn about digital history in this course, we are also going to do digital history. That means we need to engage with the public web. To this end part of our course communication is going to happen in a public course blog.

On the first day of class I will show you how to use the blog. You are expected to post a minimum of two times, once about one of the readings and once about one of the digital tools or resources. We will sign up for who writes about what on the first day of class. These are blog posts, and as such they should not written like term papers. Part of the goal of this assignment is to become familiar with the genera and format of discourse on thoughtful blogs.  You need to get in, say something interesting, and get out. Ideally telling us what the thing is, why it is, what is particularly interesting here, and ending with an invitation to discussion. You should think of your posts as mixing the features of a well composed academic book review and the well conceived blog post (Do read those links). Posts for a given week must be on the web the Sunday before class (yes, if you want you can post it at 11:59 on Sunday).

Do not assume your reader has detailed knowledge of the thing you are writing about. One of the goals of the blog is to invite interested third parties into a conversation with our course. If we are doing this right you can expect comments and dialog with historians, humanists, librarians, archivists, curators, and bloggers who are not participating in the course as students but who are participating in the public conversation we initiate through the blog.

First decision: Your identity and the blog

This is public so one of our first considerations is going to be personal identity. While this is a practical matter it is also, very directly, part of the subject matter of the course. I would encourage you to blog with your real name, it is a good idea for you to start building a web presence for yourself. It has even been suggested that in this field you can either “be online or be irrelevant.”  With that said, if there is any reason that you are uncomfortable with sharing your name publicly, you should feel free to use a pseudonym.  If there is a reason that you do not want to share your work on the web please send me an email or meet with me after class. I feel that this public dialog is an important course goal, but I will of course understand and accommodate anyone that needs a different arrangement. If at the end of the course you would like to continue blogging I will be happy to show you how we can pull all your posts out and into a new blog of your own. We will talk about this identity decision on the first class day.

Keep the conversation going

Posting is not the end of the assignment. After posting you need to foster the discussion you are initiating. When people comment you need to give substantive responses. Try to engage everyone who comments in some fashion and try to use the comments to sustain a conversation you began at the end of your post.

Commenting is also an assignment

Beyond posting you are expected to contribute substantive comments to a minimum of six of your peers posts. Your comments should extend and contribute to the conversation. Good comments are an a important format unto themselves. Read profhacker’s guidelines for comments for a sense of the kind of comment ecosystem we are trying to produce here and then read how to write a great blog comment for some suggestions on the format for comments. Comment early so that others have a chance to read them (your comments need to be up before midnight on Monday).

The course blog is the required reading we write ourselves

Beyond posting and commenting everyone needs to read everything on the blog before class each week. This is the part of the course readings that we write ourselves and in all honesty this is the most important springboard for our in-class discussions.

Review of linked readings:

David Parry. 2010. Be Online or Be Irrelevant – academhack – Thoughts on Emerging Media and Higher Education. academhack. January 11.

Grammar Girl. 2009. How to Write a Great Blog Comment. March 20.

Patel, Neil. 2009. How To Write A Blog Post. July 21.

Profhacker People. n.d. About ProfHacker – Commenting and Community Guidelines.

Scheinfeldt, Tom. 2009. Brand Name Scholar. Found History. February 26.

Schrag, Zachary. 2003. How to Write a Review. September.

New Omeka Zotero Plugin, or “penut butter in my chocolate”

You know those reese’s commercials where two people crash into each other on a street corner. One eating a chocolate bar and the other gulping down handfuls of peanut butter right out of the jar. They collide and mix the peanut butter and chocolate together, and then realize how fantastic the combination is. Well the open source scholarly software equivalent of that happened today. Thanks to Jim Safley for the launch of the new Zotero Import Plugin for Omeka. He did a great job of explaining it on the omeka blog, but I wanted to take a few moments to explain why getting some Omeka on your Zotero and some Zotero in your Omeka is such a neat thing.

Zotero Just Became a Publishing Platform
There are a lot of scholars with tons of interesting materials inside their Zotero libraries. For example, I have 120 tifs of postcards from my book on fairfax county inside my Zotero library. Zotero’s website has become a great platform for sharing and collaborating with folks to build out those collections, but it’s not really a platform for publishing them. Further, it is definitely not a platform for showcasing the often fascinating image, audio and video files associated with those items. By instaling this plugin on an Omeka site and pointing it at the collection you want to publish you can quickly migrate the content. You can then play with and customize an Omeka theme  and push out a great looking extensible online exhibit.

Omeka Just Got A Tool For Restricting And Structuring Data Entry
On the other side, folks interested in building an Omeka archive just got a very potent way to manage building their collections. One of Omeka’s strengths is its highly flexible data model. It’s ability to let you create item types and manage data schemas is fantastic. With that said, there are times when you actually don’t want all of that flexibility. It can be a bit overwhelming, particularly when you have a large group of people trying to do data entry and add files. Now, if Zotero’s default item types work for your archive you can simply have anyone who is going to add to the archive install Zotero and join your group. In this capacity, Zotero becomes a drag-and-drop UI for adding items and files to an Omeka exhibit. Once everything is in you can simply import all the info into your Omeka exhibit.