Debating the Digital Humanities Gets Real

My author copies of Debating the Digital Humanities came in today. It’s humbling to have some of my words included in such a hefty tome. I’ve been reading and enjoying it, great stuff. Beyond being a useful volume, it’s also neat to see it incorporate a selection of blog posts. The format of the book is itself an argument for how publish-then-filter can work for humanities scholarship.

It is fun and weird to see things I hadn’t intended for print in print. They have a different kind of materiality to them now. As my words ended up in two of the publish-then-filter parts of the book, I thought I might be slightly interesting to take a moment to reflect on how what I wrote ended up making its way in there.

Blogging about Course Blogging Goes to Print

I teach a digital history course at American University, this is my second time around at the course. After teaching my first incarnation of the course I wrote a series of reflective blog posts about the experience. The goal of those posts was to distill and refine my thinking about the role that public blogging can play as an instructional tool. It is particularly pertinent to the digital history course as participating in online public dialog is a core goal of the course. I was both excited and flattered when Matt asked if I would be game for including one of my posts on the course for the book. See below.

It is fun and neat to have a post end up in a book, but it is also a bit disorienting. On my blog it was part of a threaded run of posts about my teaching and writing. I like to think that everything I write here always remains a draft. Everything I write here is something I might return to and revise. Undoubtedly there will be typos in this post that someone will point out that I will fix. But now, reading the post on paper in this volume, it feels completely different. Instead of being my informal thinking out loud on my teaching it has become something much more enduring. Just look at those type faces! Such dignified serifs. It’s no longer some guys words on the internet. It’s a stake in the ground about the place of technology in teaching and learning in an emerging field. I love it.

Seeing the post in print helps further validate the point of the post and blogging in the course.  It is one thing to stand up in front of a class of students and say, “hey, this blogging thing is important. It changes how power and publishing works. So take it serious, write good stuff and write it in public so you can claim credit.” It’s something completely different to be able to say, “Oh, and when you do blog, sometimes you say something interesting enough that it warrant’s being included in a really cool book.” When I tell my students about this next Wednesday I will have gone from course, to reflection, to book, to this blog post and back to course in seven months. I for one think that is rather neat.

Day of Digital Humanities Definitions

I have one other small contribution in the book. At the end of the first section are a selection of definitions of the digital humanities that some of us provided for the Day of Digital Humanities. See mine below, again in print, in the book.

What’s funny about this is that it’s a flippant comment, a personal aside. Here is some context. When you sign up to do the Day of Digital Humanities you fill out a web form, more or less a registration form. On the form there was a text box to fill in with your definition. It didn’t say “think about this really carefully, because it might end up in a big thick book.” So what I filled in was just what came off the top of my head at the time. To this end, it is all the more jarring to read something I had to fill in on a registration form printed like this. Jarring in a good way. I’m relatively happy with my definition. I’ll stand behind these jottings. Some of the value in these definitions is that they are not diplomatic. They are the things we had on hand at the moment and there is something that is a bit more direct and honest about those kinds of comments.

Trying to do the Digital Humanities Face

In conclusion, here is my best attempt at doing the debates in the digital humanities face. I should probably have shaved before taking the picture, but there lies the perils of just being able to hit the publish button before anyone else intervenes to stop you.

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.

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,

195 comments,

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 Dighist.org 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 dighist.org 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.