Tag Archives: teaching

Student Digital Preservation Consultants Looking for Small Cultural Heritage Organizations

WhatIsDP_DigitalPreservation

For many, this is where we find ourselves in organizations just starting to work on digital preservation.

I’m revising  my digital preservation graduate seminar for the University of Maryland’s iSchool for this coming fall.

I am a firm believer in learning-by-doing. I also think talking about digital preservation in the abstract, outside the very real resource and time constraints of organizations largely misses the point. So, as I did when I taught the course two years ago,  I am planning to have each student work through a series of assignments where they serve as digital preservation consultants to small cultural heritage organizations.

My intention in this approach is to offer both a meaningful learning opportunity for the students, as well as a way for them to start building out a portfolio of work that will be relevant to potential future employers. Based on how this worked last time, I am also optimistic that this can be a way to provide some help to small cultural heritage organizations that could  benefit from learning together with students in thinking through and developing plans  to make the best use of resources to make their digital content more long-lived.

For context on the potential value of this work to an organization, consider this reflection from a preservation specialist at a state cultural heritage institution who worked with one of my students last time I taught this course.

Because of our participation in this course, we have concrete steps forward as we work to develop guidelines and implement good digital preservation practice. The open nature of your course and associated materials has allowed our staff to develop their own subject knowledge and continue research.

With that context, I’m happy to offer some more information about how you (or others you know) can reach out about having a grad student from the course work with you. While students are in the DC Metro area, the assignments can all be completed remotely, so your organization need not be located in the metro area.

For a sense of the range of organizations that this might be relevant for, last time students worked with organizations including; The DC Punk Archive, Milwaukee Public Library,  Litchfield Historical Society, Laurel Historical Society, Bostwick House, Maryland Public Television, 18th Street Singers’ Digital Collection, North Dakota State Library, and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources Archives and Library.

Requesting a Graduate Student Digital Preservation Consultant

I think the finish line for digital preservation is a little too close to the starting line here. But it get's at the idea :)

I think the finish line for digital preservation is a little too close to the starting line here. But it get’s at the idea 🙂

If you (and your organization) would be interested in having a University of Maryland graduate student in my digital preservation seminar focus their digital preservation consultant project on your organization please take a two minutes to fill in this 5 question form. I think this is a great opportunity for organizations for a few different reasons.

Here are some reasons to consider filling in the form for your organization. This project is a chance to:

  1. Solicit assistance thinking through digital preservation issues and planning for your organization.
  2. Provide a meaningful learning experience to someone just getting started in the field
  3. Learn more about digital preservation as the student shares what they are learning through the class

Through the course of the assignments, students will;

  1. Document and review current practices with an organization’s digital content
  2. Draft suggestions for potential next steps to improve management of digital content grounded in the resources an organization has access too
  3. Draft a digital preservation policy for consideration for the organization

On the first day of class (August 30th), I will present the organizations that have filled out the survey my students. In the first few weeks of class I will help to pair each student with an organization for the semester.

If you are matched up with a student, the idea would be that you would commit to doing an interview or two with them about your organization’s collection and current practices for digital material and that you would review and provide input on several of their assignments (listed below).

I should underscore that it is completely fine for organizations to be literally at square one in terms of digital preservation practices and planning. So many cultural heritage organizations are just getting started with their digital preservation planning, and while it can be a bit intimidating to take some first steps in this space. There are many simple and inexpensive things organizations can be doing to mitigate risks of loss . The assignment will be most valuable for both students and organizations in cases where there is little current work  being done in digital preservation. As part of this project, students will be blogging about their work, so you and your organization will need to be OK with them sharing information about the project. This can be a bit intimidating, but by having students work on their public writing skills and inviting a broader audience into discussion about how to do this work in organizations it will help to ensure that the quality of that work is stronger and more useful. Through this public writing process, the results of the work will be more useful to both the student and to your organization.

What follows are details about the design of this assignment.

Digital Preservation Consultant Project

Here you can see a student, working synthesizing what they have found and drafting a plan.

Here you can see a student, working synthesizing what they have found and drafting a plan.

An academic understanding of the issues in digital preservation is necessary but not sufficient for  professional digital preservation work. Digital preservation is fundamentally about making the best use of what are always limited resources to best support the mission of an organization. As such, to really learn how to do digital preservation you need to apply these concepts in the practical realities of an organizational context.

Aside from participating in discussion of the course readings through the course blog, the other course assignments will require you to act as a digital preservation consultant for a cultural heritage organization. For a variety of reasons I suggest this be a small institution. Below are the five assignments you must complete over the course of the semester as part of this project.

  1. Identify Small Cultural Heritage Organization and Establish Partnership (by week 4): For most of the course assignments, you will need to find a small cultural heritage organization that you can work with as a digital preservation consultant. I have identified a list of organizations that are up for participating, but you are free to find other organizations as well. The key requirements here are that 1) they have consented to working with you 2) they have some set of digital content but 3)  their collections are not so complex that you couldn’t possibly do the project. Example institutions include an independent organization (like a house museum, a community archive or library), a small department or subset of an institution (say the archives of a student newspaper or radio station, the special collections department at a public library, or the archives in a museum).
    1. Deliverable: The output of this phase is to identify this organization and confirm that you have a commitment from them to participate. We will check in on this in class as we go, but by the date of this assignment you need to have confirmed participation of an organization that meets these requirements and have posted what organization you are working on in a list on the course website. On the site, post the name of the organization, your name (or handle) and two or three sentences about the organization and its digital content.
  2. Institutional Digital Preservation Survey (Draft by week 6 and send to your org, publish with their comments incorporated by week 8): For your organization, interview one or two staff members to get a handle on their digital collections and practices. Draw from the NSDA levels of preservation as an overall framework for conducting your survey. You will want to focus on gathering information about their practices in five key areas.
    1. First, what is the scope of their digital holdings?
    2. Second, how is that digital content currently being managed?
    3. Third, what are the staff at the organization’s perceptions of the state of their digital content (are they concerned about it, do they see it as mission critical or a nice to have, what do they see as their own self efficacy and their organization’s capacity for sustaining their content)?
    4. Forth, what kinds of digital content would the organization like to be collecting but currently isn’t?
    5. Fifth, what, if any resources, do they have that they could bring to bear on this problem (if they have some significant potential resources that’s great, but realize that there may well be very meaningful smaller resources that could be brought to bear. For example, could one staff member spend 2-4 hrs a week on digital preservation, could they bring in community volunteers, how much could they spend on things like extra hard drives etc.)  Throughout all of this, it will be important to understand what the organization’s collecting mission is. You want to begin to probe all the questions above, but you need to be able to map their answers to the NDSA levels.
    6. Deliverable: You will write and publish a post to the course blog (1200-3000 words) in which you present the findings of your survey. The post should first provide context, what is this organization what are its digital holdings what does it want to be collecting them. From there, work through presenting an accurate and coherent report of the themes and issues that came through in your interviews. At this point you are primarily interested in accurately representing the state of their work. Do not get into making recommendations. Simply do your best to succinctly and coherently explain what you found about the five areas of questioning discussed above. Before publishing this, you must present it to your org for their feedback to make sure you have their input on how you are describing the state of their work.
  3. Institutional Digital Preservation Next Steps Preservation Plan (Week 10): Now that you have the results of your survey, it is time to take out the NDSA levels of digital preservation and the rest of our course readings and figure out what a practical set of next steps would be for your organization.
    1. Deliverable: Post your next steps plan to the course blog (1200-3000 words). After a brief introduction providing context about the organization and its collections, you should work through reviewing  the organization’s current work on digital content using each of the areas of the NDSA levels of digital preservation. Complete by identifying three different levels (low, medium and high resource requirement) of next steps they could take to improve their rating on the NDSA levels of digital preservation. Be creative here, for example could they upload collection items to the Internet Archive or Wikimedia Commons? Or could they buy an extra hard drive and make copies and swap it with a backup buddy at another organization in a different region of the country, etc. The point here is to think about how to get them the furthest up some of the levels with the resources at hand.  Before publishing this, you should present it to your organization for them to review and provide input.
  4. Draft a Digital Preservation Policy for Your Org (Week 12): Now that you have put in place a set of recommendations, it is important to also draft up a set of digital preservation policies and practices for the organization. If this is to have any impact you are going to need to be able to articulate what the organization’s policies could be going forward.
    1. Deliverable: Drawing on the example digital preservation policies we read in class, draft up a short policy document for your institution tuned to what you have learned from working with them. Draw from the examples for models for aspects of this document. Share it with them for some input and feedback. Then Post it to the blog (800-1500 words).
  5. Reflecting on Lessons Learned (Week 13): After doing this work,presenting it, and getting feedback from your organization, you need think through what worked and didn’t work for the project. Taking time for reflection and teasing out the lessons you’ve learned about both digital preservation and working with a cultural heritage organization.
    1. Deliverable: Return to each of the documents you created thus far and synthesize 3-5 points about what did or didn’t work or what your take away lessons are from this process. Think through what you will do differently the next time you help an organization improve its digital preservation practices. Bring in references to what you’ve learned from readings in the course and from what you have learned from your classmates work on their projects (800-1400 words).

All images from Digitalbevaring.dk, published under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Denmark license and created by Jørgen Stamp.

Digital History Methods Grad Seminar Launching

Screen shot of digital history methods course siteI’m excited to kick off 2018 teaching my digital history course for American University again.

I’ve been increasingly interested in the methodological aspects of digital history (the how not the what of history).  Given that this course is on the books as a tool of research course for AMU history grad students it seemed to make sense to go ahead and slightly reframe it to focus explicitly on methods.

Like my previous courses, this course will run largely through a student written publication on the dighist blog. I’m always excited to have folks outside the class join in on our learning community. So please consider following along on the course blog and commenting if/when things pique your interest.

For some context, I’ve provided a rundown of the topics students will be blogging about below. I’ve also provided a full copy of the syllabus. Most of the readings are open access and the books are relatively inexpensive, so feel free to directly join in and follow along as we go.

Weekly Course Topics

  1. Becoming digital public historians (Jan 17th): This is our first class; we will introduce ourselves to each other and spend a lot of time reviewing the syllabus. I will make sure everyone leaves with an understanding of how to register, post and work with the course blog. By the end of class everyone will have signed up for the weeks they are blogging/presenting on. We will then take a bit of time to quickly read short posts about blogging as an academic practice.
  2. Defining digital history (Jan 24th): This week is largely about developing a perspective on what people mean when they say “digital history” and more broadly “digital humanities.” It’s also about what the stakes in all this are. Across all of the readings consider both the arguments and the genre of writing they are being presented in. Format and genre are critical components of our work this semester and the differences between blogging, books and articles are as much on the table for discussion as the points in these pieces. PhillaPlace is an example of the kind of projects folks are creating in digital history and Wordle is here as a kind of toy for starting to think about visualizing texts and the possibility of visualization as a mode of history communication.
  3. The Web: Participatory? Collaborative? Exploitive? (Jan 31): In history we work to connect audiences and publics with the past. In this vein, the participatory and collaborative rhetoric that surrounds the web fits many of the values of public historians like a glove. This weeks readings explore issues around crowdsourcing and public participation in history on the web. This includes both the potential to connect with the missions and values of cultural heritage institutions and opens questions about what constitutes participation and what becomes exploitive.
  4. Digital analysis: Distant reading, text analysis, visualization (Feb 7th); One of the most active strands of digital history and the digital humanities more broadly focuses on computational analysis of texts and the interpretations of abstractions of those texts. For the most part, “texts” has meant words, but we starting to get into computational modes of engaging with images and audio too. This week is about all of that, in particular, under the heading of distant reading. Throughout this week’s readings think both about the subject (visualization) and about the formats of the readings (blog posts, books, open review publications, etc.)
  5. “Project” as scholarly genre: Designing digital projects:  (Feb 14th): It’s likely that many of you don’t have experience with planning and developing projects, in particular digital projects. So, this week is about planning projects and drafting the documents involved in making a digital project, in particular a web project, happen. Brown’s book is our main text, providing a roadmap for what decisions get made when. The NEH guidelines contextualize the format for a project proposal in a humanities context. The section from Digital_Humanities offers consideration of “project” as a unit of scholarship. Kirshenbaum’s piece get’s at the vexing issue of sustainability. Scheinfeldt’s explores differences between common digital collection platforms.
  6. Proposal pitch week (Feb 21st): Everyone in class is going to give the elevator pitch for the project that they intend to finish. No slides or anything. Just stand up, and in three minutes present the elevator pitch. Answer what you are going to do? Why it’s worth doing? You’ll explain how it is like things before, but also how it’s different. It’s important to be able to give the “MTV Cops” level explanation of your work. So work on that. After discussing the proposals, we will use remaining time in this session to check in on how the course is going. Think of it as a formative evaluation of the content and process of the course. It is great to get this kind of information in the middle so that it is still possible to tweak parts of the course going forward.
  7. Digital archives: What are & aren’t they? (Feb 28th ): Public historians and other humanists have been exuberant about the possibility of providing broad public access to primary source documents and the contents of archives. In this context, the use of the term “digital archive” has become a bit fraught. With that said, there is some valuable productive friction in that fraughtness. Something useful is emerging in the blending of sources, analysis, and intrepretations. This week we figure out what different folks mean by the term in different situations and explore some exemplars of different notions of digital archives and their potential as modes of scholarly output.
  8. Understanding Digital Content: Media, materiality & format (March 7); To really do digital history, we need a very solid understanding of what exactly digital stuff is. This week we try to figure out more about what digital things are. We likely all have a sense of what things like documents, spreadsheets and digital photos and videos are, but it is essential that we go beyond their appearance on the screen to understand a bit about what bits, bytes, files, and file formats are.
  9. Digital exhibition, hypermedia narrative & bots (March 21): What does it mean to collect and exhibit/present/interpret digital objects? This week we explore this issue across new media art, source code and digitized materials. Along with thinking through issues of presenting digital objects we also explore the potential of turning our interpretations and exhibitions over to the machines themselves.
  10. Digital audio: Oral history and sound studies (March 28): A huge area of work in history is oral history and at this point that is basically entirely a digital affair. This week we explore what it means to do oral history in the digital age. Aside from the great work tied up in that particular program, we need to think about how computational approaches to working with audio can change what it is that we do in this space (bring in some pop-up archive links). Similarly, it’s critical to remember that all formats and media have histories and politics, hence why we are using this as an opportunity to better understand that through the introduction to Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format.
  11. Mobile media, place & mapping (April 4th): Increasingly, the screens people are turning their attention to are in their hands and their pockets. In this vein, there is tremendous potential for mobile media and mobile media has a direct and clear connection to place and location. There are projects like the Museum from Mainstreet app and the Will to Adorn app that try to enable participatory collecting, projects like Histories of the National Mall that work to situate events in historic sites. This week we look at these, and related projects, and read Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media  to add a theoretical layer/framework for thinking about this work. We haven’t talked much about maps and place in general yet either, so we will also consider the “spatial turn” as one of the ongoing developments and areas of interest in digital history scholarship.
  12. Playing the Past: Videogames, interactivity & action (April 11): Videogames have rapidly become potent media for communicating ideas about the past. Historians, librarians and archivists have begun creating games and a range of interactive transmedia modes of communicating about the past. At the same time, many very successful commercial games, like Sid Mier’s Civilization, SimCity or Assassin’s Creed have invited a generation of players to enact or replay models of the past. In this session we will spend half of the class discussing Gee’s book, which will help us unpack a range of ways to think about games and learning and how to read games and the other half discussing how ideas are represented and enacted in games that are specifically about the past.
  13. Opening & Expanding Forms of Scholarly Communication (April 18): Digital technology has changed the possibilities for scholarly communication in the history profession. Historians have long produced scholarly works in a range of media. However, monographs and to a lesser extent journal articles and conference papers have largely persisted as the primary forms of scholarship that “count.” This week we will learn a bit about the development and history of scholarly presses and explore a range of novel approaches and technologies for scholarly communications.
  14. Class Conference Poster Presentations (April 25): Bring a poster reporting on the results of either your research project or your digital project. We are going to run the classroom as a conference and I will see if I can get folks from around the

Digital History Methods by Trevor Owens on Scribd

Student Digital Preservation Consultants Looking for Small Cultural Heritage Organizations

WhatIsDP_DigitalPreservation

For many, this is where we find ourselves in organizations just starting to work on digital preservation.

I’m working on drafting up the syllabus for my digital preservation graduate seminar for the University of Maryland’s iSchool for this coming fall. I am a firm believer in learning-by-doing. I also think talking about digital preservation in the abstract, outside the very real resource and time constraints of organizations largely misses the point. As a result, I am planning to have each student work through a series of assignments where they serve as digital preservation consultants to small cultural heritage organizations.

My hope is that this will be a meaningful learning opportunity for the students, as well as a way for them to start building out a portfolio of work that will be relevant to potential future employers. I am also optimistic that this can be a way to provide some help to small cultural heritage organizations that could  benefit from having the additional manpower  think through and develop plans for helping to make the best use of resources to make their digital content more long-lived.

I wanted to share a draft of the series of assignments I am putting together for two reasons:

  • First, to get feedback and input on how to improve the assignment.  I’ve posted it as a Google Doc too, so if you have suggestions for it please feel free to write comments or suggestions directly into the doc.
  • Second, pairing students with individuals who are interested in participating in this work is going to be key. I wanted to circulate this document as a means to identify people and organizations interested in working with a student as a digital preservation consultant for their organization.

Requesting a Graduate Student Digital Preservation Consultant

I think the finish line for digital preservation is a little too close to the starting line here. But it get's at the idea :)

I think the finish line for digital preservation is a little too close to the starting line here. But it get’s at the idea 🙂

If you (and your organization) would be interested in having a University of Maryland graduate student in my digital preservation seminar focus their digital preservation consultant project on your organization please take a two minutes to fill in this 5 question form. I think this is a great opportunity for organizations for a few different reasons.

Here are some reasons to consider filling in the form for your organization. This project is a chance to:

  1. Solicit assistance thinking through digital preservation issues and planning for your organization.
  2. Provide a meaningful learning experience to someone just getting started in the field
  3. Learn t more about digital preservation as the student shares what they are learning through the class

Through the course of the assignments, students will;

  1. Document and review current practices with an organization’s digital content
  2. Draft suggestions for potential next steps to improve management of digital content grounded in the resources an organization has access too
  3. Draft a digital preservation policy for consideration for the organization

On the first day of class (September 1st), I will present the organizations that have filled out the survey my students. In the first few weeks of class I will help to pair each student with an organization for the semester.

If you are matched up with a student, the idea would be that you would commit to doing an interview or two with them about your organization’s collection and current practices for digital material and that you would review and provide input on several of their assignments (listed below).

I should underscore that it is completely fine for organizations to be literally at square one in terms of digital preservation practices and planning. So many cultural heritage organizations are just getting started with their digital preservation planning, and while it can be a bit intimidating to take some first steps in this space. There are many simple and inexpensive things organizations can be doing to mitigate risks of loss . The assignment will be most valuable for both students and organizations in cases where there is little current work  being done in digital preservation. As part of this project, students will be blogging about their work, so you and your organization will need to be OK with them sharing information about the project. This can be a bit intimidating, but by having students work on their public writing skills and inviting a broader audience into discussion about how to do this work in organizations it will help to ensure that the quality of that work is stronger and more useful. Through this public writing process, the results of the work will be more useful to both the student and to your organization.

What follows are details about the design of this assignment. This is also available in the google doc if you would like to suggest edits or make comments.

Digital Preservation Consultant Project

Here you can see a student, working synthesizing what they have found and drafting a plan.

Here you can see a student, working synthesizing what they have found and drafting a plan.

An academic understanding of the issues in digital preservation is necessary but not sufficient for  professional digital preservation work. Digital preservation is fundamentally about making the best use of what are always limited resources to best support the mission of an organization. As such, to really learn how to do digital preservation you need to apply these concepts in the practical realities of an organizational context.

Aside from participating in discussion of the course readings through the course blog, the other course assignments will require you to act as a digital preservation consultant for a cultural heritage organization. For a variety of reasons I suggest this be a small institution. Below are the five assignments you must complete over the course of the semester as part of this project.

  1. Identify Small Cultural Heritage Organization and Establish Partnership (by week 3): For most of the course assignments, you will need to find a small cultural heritage organization that you can work with as a digital preservation consultant. I have identified a list of organizations that are up for participating, but you are free to find other organizations as well. The key requirements here are that 1) they have consented to working with you 2) they have some set of digital content but 3)  their collections are not so complex that you couldn’t possibly do the project. Example institutions include an independent organization (like a house museum, a community archive or library), a small department or subset of an institution (say the archives of a student newspaper or radio station, the special collections department at a public library, or the archives in a museum).
    1. Deliverable: The output of this phase is to identify this organization and confirm that you have a commitment from them to participate. We will check in on this in class as we go, but by the date of this assignment you need to have confirmed participation of an organization that meets these requirements and have posted what organization you are working on in a list on the course website. On the site, post the name of the organization, your name (or handle) and two or three sentences about the organization and its digital content.
  2. Institutional Digital Preservation Survey (Draft by week 6 and send to your org, publish with their comments incorporated by week 8): For your organization, interview one or two staff members to get a handle on their digital collections and practices. Draw from the NSDA levels of preservation as an overall framework for conducting your survey. You will want to focus on gathering information about their practices in five key areas.
    1. First, what is the scope of their digital holdings?
    2. Second, how is that digital content currently being managed?
    3. Third, what are the staff at the organization’s perceptions of the state of their digital content (are they concerned about it, do they see it as mission critical or a nice to have, what do they see as their own self efficacy and their organization’s capacity for sustaining their content)?
    4. Forth, what kinds of digital content would the organization like to be collecting but currently isn’t?
    5. Fifth, what, if any resources, do they have that they could bring to bear on this problem (if they have some significant potential resources that’s great, but realize that there may well be very meaningful smaller resources that could be brought to bear. For example, could one staff member spend 2-4 hrs a week on digital preservation, could they bring in community volunteers, how much could they spend on things like extra hard drives etc.)  Throughout all of this, it will be important to understand what the organization’s collecting mission is. You want to begin to probe all the questions above, but you need to be able to map their answers to the NDSA levels.
    6. Deliverable: You will write and publish a post to the course blog (1200-3000 words) in which you present the findings of your survey. The post should first provide context, what is this organization what are its digital holdings what does it want to be collecting them. From there, work through presenting an accurate and coherent report of the themes and issues that came through in your interviews. At this point you are primarily interested in accurately representing the state of their work. Do not get into making recommendations. Simply do your best to succinctly and coherently explain what you found about the five areas of questioning discussed above. Before publishing this, you must present it to your org for their feedback to make sure you have their input on how you are describing the state of their work.
  3. Institutional Digital Preservation Next Steps Preservation Plan (Week 10): Now that you have the results of your survey, it is time to take out the NDSA levels of digital preservation and the rest of our course readings and figure out what a practical set of next steps would be for your organization.
    1. Deliverable: Post your next steps plan to the course blog (1200-3000 words). After a brief introduction providing context about the organization and its collections, you should work through reviewing  the organization’s current work on digital content using each of the areas of the NDSA levels of digital preservation. Complete by identifying three different levels (low, medium and high resource requirement) of next steps they could take to improve their rating on the NDSA levels of digital preservation. Be creative here, for example could they upload collection items to the Internet Archive or Wikimedia Commons? Or could they buy an extra hard drive and make copies and swap it with a backup buddy at another organization in a different region of the country, etc. The point here is to think about how to get them the furthest up some of the levels with the resources at hand.  Before publishing this, you should present it to your organization for them to review and provide input.
  4. Draft a Digital Preservation Policy for Your Org (Week 12): Now that you have put in place a set of recommendations, it is important to also draft up a set of digital preservation policies and practices for the organization. If this is to have any impact you are going to need to be able to articulate what the organization’s policies could be going forward.
    1. Deliverable: Drawing on the example digital preservation policies we read in class, draft up a short policy document for your institution tuned to what you have learned from working with them. Draw from the examples for models for aspects of this document. Share it with them for some input and feedback. Then Post it to the blog (800-1500 words).
  5. Reflecting on Lessons Learned (Week 13): After doing this work,presenting it, and getting feedback from your organization, you need think through what worked and didn’t work for the project. Taking time for reflection and teasing out the lessons you’ve learned about both digital preservation and working with a cultural heritage organization.
    1. Deliverable: Return to each of the documents you created thus far and synthesize 3-5 points about what did or didn’t work or what your take away lessons are from this process. Think through what you will do differently the next time you help an organization improve its digital preservation practices. Bring in references to what you’ve learned from readings in the course and from what you have learned from your classmates work on their projects (800-1400 words).

All images from Digitalbevaring.dk, published under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Denmark license and created by Jørgen Stamp.

On Writing, Making and Mining: Digital History Class Projects

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

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

With that said I gave my students a choice.

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

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

Three reasons writing in Digital History is new

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

The case for writing about mediums

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

The case for writing about data

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

The case for writing as part of building

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

So did I get 20 papers?

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

No one touched text mining/text analysis:

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

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

Is text mining more radical than building for historians?

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

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.

Term Paper 2.0: Reinventing The College Essay Via Wikipidia

I just got out of a great session at Educause that I thought would add another wrinkle to earlier discussions of the value of Wikipedia. The two speakers Andreas Brockhaus and Martha Groom, had students in a environmental biology class write or significaltly edit Wikipedia articles in lue of a traditional essay assignment. (The full power point from their presentation is online.) The assignment is remarkibly similar to what CHNM’s Jeremy Boggs does with students in his History 100 seminar, what can I say, great minds think alike!

The power point does a decent job and is relativly self explanitory, if you have a few minutes it might be worth your attention. But here were her findings.

The Good:

“Students gained perspective on the value of credible sources, and complete citations
Peer review became a more purposeful effort; good critiques more highly valued
Students invested more in their work, felt greater ownership, and experienced greater returns for their efforts
Products were generally better written than typical term papers”

The Less than good:

“Too much choice led to some poor postings (which were deleted)
Timing — Publishing once at the end of course
May be better to publish in stages
Posting deadline with at least one week left to course
Students needed extra guidance to create high quality articles in encyclopedia style
More instructor time required to shepherd students through entire process”

The Verdict:

I think its an amazing idea. Take for example one of the products, an article on deforestation during the Roman period. It’s a very solid piece of work, and the best benefit of all, class work has an impact: Google Deforestation Roman and its the number one hit. Just think of the possibilities!