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!