Digital History — Spring 2010

May 6, 2010

“American Thought in the Long Nineteenth Century”: Prototype and Proposal of a Course Website

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 9:19 pm

Hi guys! The class has been a pleasure. Check out my final course website proposal below, and my prototype here. Also, if you’d like to gain access to the SharedDoc portion of the site, comment and I’ll send you an invitation. Thanks!

April 30, 2010

Questions for Professor Ulrich…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 4:03 am

Apologies for such a late post, at the end of the semester!

The readings for this week offered a wonderful blend of reflection on writing, thinking, researching, and teaching in the digital age. After designing a course website this semester (write-up to follow), I feel like I have a heightened appreciation for Professor Ulrich’s course websites, which manage to combine a wealth of information with easy navigability and an attractive design. As I’ve asked some previous presenters, I would love to hear some of your stories about teaching these courses: were they “born digital,” or did you incorporate a digital component into them later on? I would also be curious as to how flexible these websites are: with such a beautiful structure, do you and your students tend to treat the site like a museum, to be walked through and experienced? Or do you and your teaching assistants see the websites more as modular buildings, to be altered and shelved and expanded and contracted in response to the needs of the individual class?

Finally, I’d love to hear some of your thoughts about the footprint of A Midwife’s Tale, both in the field and in the public eye. Has your relationship to this unique project has changed over time, especially as it’s become symbolic of the vast potential audiences that exist for works that combine solid historical scholarship with approachable prose (and appealing central figures!)

April 10, 2010

The ghost in the machine?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 6:26 am

I can’t quite remember which of our recent readings it was that discussed the occasional presence of workers’ hands in the images of books scanned for the Google Books project…

…but in doing some background reading for my course website, I came across just that very thing (page 54, in case the link isn’t exact).

Not only is it a jarring reminder of the human labor that goes into this project, it’s just plain jarring and kind of creepy! (And makes it tough to read Lowell’s snark on Margaret Fuller, too.)

March 31, 2010

Digital teaching, digital learning…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 6:28 am

I have to say, I really enjoyed the readings for this week — and I feel so privileged to have been able to explore Professor Pace and Professor Capshew’s course websites! Anyone who doubts that the web can be a powerful arena of pedagogy needs to check these resources out. (In fact, this feedback is so very late because I seriously underestimated the amount of time that it was going to take me to work through all the sites.)

I assume that you both will give us some background as to how you arrived at the point where you decided that your courses needed a significant digital element, but just in case — that’s something I’d really like to know more about! Had you taught these courses in a more traditional form, or were they “born digital,” as it were? If there was a transition involved, what factors really made you decide to embrace this technology? Were your projects developed “in isolation” (or with a co-teacher), or did you have significant support either from IU or colleagues at other institutions?

I’m also interested as to how/if the feedback from students has changed over time. The articles suggest that students generally appreciate the attempt to reach them in a format that is more “native” to many of them — but I’m wondering whether this willing adoption was always the case,  if it’ll continue to be so, and what the costs are of assuming that all students are prepared to work in this digital paradigm.  For instance, my initial impression of T. Mills Kelly’s article from 2000 was that it was dated — 40% of his kids don’t own their own computers?! …and then I thought more carefully about the assumptions of class and culture that were evident in that reaction. Still, obviously campuses have made enormous strides towards providing labs and rental equipment that close some of those gaps. (These days the great hardship seems to be intermittent wifi.) But I’d love to know if either of you have had any type of significant student resistance to this format or if you’ve found a learning curve that have changed how you approach digital pedagogy or the requirements of your courses.

Another question that these articles address (rather brilliantly, in some cases) is the problem of actually measuring whether digital pedagogy is more or less effective than traditional forms of teaching. Have either of you have experimented with these comparative methodologies? What means do you both rely on to gauge the effectiveness of new digital strategies and formats? And, while I realize that the plural of anecdote is not “data,” do you have any information about how students who are taught with these methods perform in their later history classes?

Finally, with continued reference to the larger collegial context: Professor Pace, in Amateurs in the Operating Room, you comment that one factor that may discourage adoption of the scholarship of teaching and learning is its incompatibility with pre-existing structures of faculty evaluation.  This question of how (or if) non-traditional forms of scholarship/research/service  “count” in the tenure process seems to be coming up again and again for me this semester, whether in your article, the other projects in the digital humanities that we’ve examined, or some of the “public intellectual” political/advocacy/activist work that I’ve been discussing in my AMST class. I wonder if you or Professor Capshew could provide some historical perspective on how institutional recognition of these very valuable types of work has changed or has changed since you wrote the article, or even since you’ve been teaching. Professor Capshew, using the model of your 2020 unit in the IU class, I’d also love to hear your predictions for how this might change in the future, as well. 😉

March 23, 2010

Questions for David Bodenhamer…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 7:09 pm

Dear Professor Bodenhamer,

Thanks for sharing the two chapters of your upcoming book — it was really fascinating not only to read about historians’ projects that merge GIS and humanist aims, but also to think through some of the philosophical implications of the GIS data project. I discovered that while I like to think of myself as a cultural historian and someone semi-hip to postmodernism, thinking spatially apparently stimulates the positivist in me: mound or mountain, you’re still going to burn more energy going over it or around it (or through it).

Nonetheless, I certainly recognize the imperative of maintaining a plurality of vision when it comes to mapping space and place. To those ends, we’ve been discussing crowd-sourcing on and off through this course, as well as Google, with all its benefits and drawbacks. I’m wondering if you had any thoughts about the individual mapping technology that Google provides — the power to label, annotate, demarcate — and share —  multiple maps of your own, based on their data. While it’s lacking some of the fluidity that we would ideally want for smooth historical simulation, this seems like it could be a good teaching tool for students starting to think about cultural fluidity of space and place, as well as a personal tool for historians trying to map changes in the landscape over time.

March 9, 2010

Final Project Prospectus — AKA TL;DR

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 6:10 pm

A definition of TL;DR — possibly also what my students will say in response to the whole website idea…

The project that I intend to attempt for this class is a course website for a syllabus I made last semester. American Thought in the Long Nineteenth Century is obviously an intellectual history course, but since I take a rather broad view of “intellectual history,” the assigned readings come from philosophers, political thinkers, public intellectuals, journalists, cultural luminaries, social scientists, reformers, etc.  Students taking the course thus must be able not only to parse nineteenth-century prose (something which often throws them), they must also be able to parse it as a historian would – i.e, with an awareness of pretext, context, subtext and retext that comes from a wider awareness of the social and intellectual milieu in which these people were operating.

This can be very difficult to accomplish in one semester – particularly if students are coming in with minimal background.

So, the point of creating a course website is to give my students an opportunity to rehearse these skills and gain some larger context in a way that I simply don’t have the time to execute in the classroom – even if I was able to discern absolutely what the majority of the class’s “needs” in that department seemed to be. In addition, it allows for some differentiation – students who need basic context can get it, while more advanced students can explore parallel and related content offered by other websites.  On a more basic level, it will give the class a sort of “virtual center,” an organized zone of community and intellectual interchange that is accessible 24/7. Shy students, or students who are not morning (or even afternoon) people may be able to use the project’s interactive features to shine outside the bounds of the 90 minute sessions twice a week.

I have big dreams for the website (obviously), but I also realize that I have limited skills and time within which to accomplish this project for evaluation in this class. I have included below a list of objectives for the actual site that I THINK I’ll be able to accomplish before May 4.

A reasonably well-designed home page for the site. One of Professor Sword’s mandatory items, this home page will establish the “tone” of the site, and will force me to think about overall organization and navigation. These sorts of spatial and design considerations will also clarify the raison d’etre of the site – just like in a colloquium paper, I’ll need to “signpost” the parts of the site that most directly accomplish the goals of the project! While I know that I can figure out the actual plumbing of the web coding (thank you Dreamweaver), I *am* concerned about stuff like graphic design, etc. I’m nobody’s artist, especially not in the medium of pixels, and I’d like this to look decent.

Pages devoted to individual lesson days for at least one of the three “arcs” of the class. While I want to make sure that students can still rely on my printed syllabus, the online “syllabus” with pages of origin for each lesson will allow students both to focus on the themes of that individual day or week, and to connect those themes with previous material, and material outside my own site. Obviously something like this will be a work in progress throughout my teaching career, as links die, new content is generated, and as I re-organize the class according to what worked and what didn’t.  But these lesson pages should provide some of the basic context and advanced connection to which I referred earlier.

An interactive repository of most class readings for at least one of the three “arcs” of the class. Since one of my main goals for the class is helping students learn to read a text like historians do, I want them to be able to participate “publicly” in the digital annotation and interrogation of important texts.  I’ve been experimenting with different formats that might allow me to do this – Digress.It  is one option, as is something called SharedBook. I’m hoping that my classmates will join me in taking these for a test run, and will give me some feedback as to the benefits and drawbacks of both projects. (If you email me, I’ll invite you to the SharedBook text I have so far!) I’m probably going to have some trouble integrating these applications into my actual site, so they may be sort of an independent paratext to the website – mandatory linkage for the students on each lesson page.

I see these interactive texts as functional in four ways:

Elucidatory: On the most basic level, this should help kids who maybe just don’t GET what the passage is saying, or who don’t understand specific words in their archaic context. The ability to explain this stuff outside of class, complete with OED or even (gasp!) Wikipedia linkage will hopefully encourage students to ask questions that will enable them to get beyond wrestling with the text as “big words”, and to let them see what it’s actually doing rhetorically and argumentatively, and what those ideas mean for trajectories of American thought.

Didactic: Since I plan to sprinkle some of these with my own thoughts, this can help kids see how trained historians approach a text that they’re unfamiliar with, connecting it to their own research and what they already know. The process of making connections across different genres and periods should be helpful for the exams and for conceptualizing the larger arcs of change over time.  

Collaborative: Since students can respond to each other’s comments, the marginalia function should hopefully allow for some co-teaching that isn’t as intrusive (or as chaotic) as in-class group work can be. Ideally, I hope that students will answer each other’s questions, pose new ones, and debate points in the margins – just like in old colonial newspapers.

Evaluative: I’d need to think further about how I wanted to assess students’ participation in these discussions – personally, I hate the “comment at least twice on the class blog” type assignments, because you tend to get crap from students. This might shift from year to year, depending upon students’ level of skill and engagement.  However, you should be able to trace at least a bit from this online activity which students are really getting it, and which need a little more help.

A formal project proposal will also accompany these digital offerings. I envision the proposal as expanding upon the background, scope and rationale for the project that is offered here, as well as offering a comparative dimension provided by my analysis of other course websites.  I am, however, somewhat concerned about my ability to gain access to other course websites, particularly beyond the scope of IU. Most professors understandably try to keep their course sites within the circle of the class, both for issues of copyright and student privacy. I have already arranged to interview Professor David Pace, who has expended a great deal of time over the years in compiling his course websites. I’m hoping that he can both give me some perspective on the creation process and also maybe point me to some other quality examples! Still, the question of access to source material may limit my ability to do as exhaustive a comparison as I would like.

While I know we’ll be doing a poster presentation on April 16th, I’m hoping to incorporate feedback from my fellow students into the process in these early design stages. I mean this particularly on the interactive features, but I would also appreciate any “design for dummies” suggestions you might have – or even challenges to the merit/purpose of the project. Does the marginalia idea sound gimmicky, rather than helpful? Do you have other sites or applets you’d like to suggest , or websites about the nineteenth century that you think my site should link to? Finally, I’ll email my syllabus and rationale from last semester out so that people can have some context for this whole thing!

March 4, 2010

Questions for Professor Gould…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 8:47 pm

Dear Professor Gould,

It’s nice to see that the Oral History Association’s General Principles and Best Practices for Oral History recommend a “lead” that would address some of the questions about metadata ( location, date, “publisher”, etc) that we’ve been talking about with reference to more conventional texts. However, I’m curious about the challenges of recording what you might consider the non-textual metadata particular to oral history — things like posture, fidgeting, gaze, emotion, expression, eye contact — in short, body language rather than just spoken words. This is particularly interesting to me in terms of indexing and searchability of non-textual elements. I have a friend who’s in a class about the politics of emotion right now, and I would imagine that a search function that enabled him to search for tears or laughter in a repository of oral histories would be tremendously useful!

Of course, I can also see some  issues arising from the attempt to index this sort of data — the role of the interviewer in interpreting/codifying the source’s body language, particularly through the filter of age, physical debility, or cultural difference, could get very subjective or judgmental. Nonetheless, it seems like an important aspect to consider when thinking about making these texts available! Anyway, I would be very curious to hear your thoughts about the usefulness of this type of data: how you’ve interpreted it sensitively within the context of your own work, and/or how you envision the interaction of digital access and oral history.

February 23, 2010

A question (okay, many) for Professor Walsh…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 3:43 pm

Hello Professor Walsh,

Along with Franco Moretti’s piece in the New Left Review, reading the intro and conclusion to the Fall 2009 issue of Representations stretched some old comparative literature muscles that I haven’t used in quite a while! As a historian, I’m fascinated by the larger social context of these modes of criticism — specifically the symptomatic reading as a result of the 1960s Marxism-inflected imperative towards ideological demystification, etc. (Conclusion 143). I’d be interested to hear what you think about the influence of computers/ the Internet, and free-market/free-information ideologies as perhaps a similarly important influence on “how we read now.” Although the intro piece does touch upon literary critics’ possible use of computers as a means of analysis and taxonomy that gives more attention to rich surface information (17), there’s not much attention given to the impact of the more democratic creation and dissemination of  creative and critical texts that the Internet enables. Could an distinctly expanded (though still exclusive) arena of textual production and engagement have contributed to the decline of the heroic model of criticism? Or has the model of the heroic critic simply moved elsewhere? And do the activist/re-activist hallmarks of Web 2.0 — comment threads, forums, Twitter feeds, wikis — have an impact on this new version of symptomatic reading that envisions itself as reading “beside” the text? (Conclusion 145)

Finally, any thoughts about the impact of the explosion of amateur-created textual media on the work of either historians or literary critics? I concede without debate the fact that much of the Internet’s user-created content is of minimal merit — even as I muse that historians and scholars of cultural studies have done good work with fragments of low culture. Nonetheless, much of what’s produced may rightfully be below the radar of  literary scholars. Still, to appropriate Moretti’s term,  I see the possibility of  a “wave” of text threatening to overwhelm us in the era of digital abundance! To take a different tack though, despite Mayer-Schonberger’s assertions to the contrary, I do worry about the plasticity of digital records — the ability of persons to delete or alter the text and record of reaction in ways unnoticed by the casual observer. Issues of “edition,” authority, and citation become problematic in the digital age.

Apologies for a long set of rambling questions!  I will be attending the entire session on Thursday (barring any unforeseen schedule snafus), and I look forward to your response to any of this that might be relevant to your own work.

February 18, 2010

On the Victorian Women Writers Project, Past and Present

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 7:16 pm

Aside from the idea that GIFs are CompuServe’s proprietary image format (who knew?), one of the most interesting aspects of Perry Willett’s article on the VWPP was a chance to see how the commitment to preserving women’s writing shaped the scope of the project. Willett says that texts written by women are among the most vulnerable, both as a result of physical degradation and because the marginality of their authors means that they have less inherent market share and therefore less chance of being reprinted through conventional means. I wonder how ~15 years of change in academia might have affected these conditions — whether the marginality of these texts and their unusual authorship might now be considered a virtue, pushing them to the “head of the line” for new models of preservation and dissemination. The VWWP itself is to some degree a historical artifact then, signifying changes in academic awareness of the importance of history at the margins, and of the potentials of digital history for de/re-centering the canon of important texts.

Of course, the VWPP is more than a historical artifact — it’s also a useful database which is being revamped and expanded to take advantages of the technical advances since 1996. I look forward to hearing about the goals of the project tomorrow! I am particularly curious about how the VWPP 2.0 will factor in some of the concerns about metadata that were raised in the readings for last week. Also, I wonder whether there will be any attempt to provide an interactive element to the new project — whether crowd-sourcing information, forums for discussion of these texts and apposite context, or a “behind-the-scenes” sort of blog for visitors to see how the project continues to evolve.

These are, of course, elements to keep in mind as I consider my own project for this class — a course website for a class on American intellectual history in the nineteenth century. Since I’d like to integrate the website into students’ experience of the class, obviously I need to make sure that there are interactive elements that guide them through the material and allow them to record their reactions, questions, and interpretations.  It would be interesting to find a way to feature user-created content, as well. Do you think a “class blog” would be useful or merely a gimmick? Alternatively (or in addition), it would be great to have them do some reading of the class texts online, using the CommentPress software that Kathleen Fitzpatrick uses for Planned Obsolescence.  This would let me pose reading questions to them “in the margins,” and to have them respond with their own marginalia. I need to think more about the benefits and drawbacks of this technology, but I think it could have distinct uses for helping the undergrads learn how to read a text in the same way that historians do — a major bottleneck identified by the History Learning Project.

February 11, 2010

Comparative archives, digitization, and a project inspired by lunch at Panda Express

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 10:00 pm

For this assignment, I wanted to design a project that I knew would show “change over time” in a given period — so, using Kristin Hoganson’s Consumer’s Imperium as a guide, I figured that I would use the Nineteenth-Century United States Newspapers Database to see how the advertising of Chinese restaurants had changed during the time period covered by the newspapers. Ideally, the database would allow me to see how often Chinese restaurants were mentioned in these newspapers; where and when the first mentions occurred; the tone of the advertisements or journalism regarding Chinese restaurants; and any changes in the advertisements over time (size, reputation, etc).

My original idea in using the Nineteenth-Century United States Newspapers Database would be to test how good the database was at registering text in classified ads — material that might be considered “unimportant” by digitizers not thinking historically, or material filled with graphics and font changes that might puzzle OCR scanners, resulting in a high degree of inaccuracy. The results that I got from typing in several search strings (“Chinese restaurants,” “Chinese restaurant,” “Chinese cookery,” etc) showed me that either I was correct in diagnosing classified ads as a weak point of the newspaper database…or that most Chinese restaurants did not take out newspaper advertisements in this period…or that the database’s holdings only represent newspapers from towns where Chinese restaurants didn’t take out newspaper advertisements. To test whether my results were at fault, I checked the New York Times, and rather few hits on Chinese restaurants came up before 1900.

Despite the lack of classified ads, however, I was surprised at the frequency with which Chinese restaurants were mentioned within regular news articles. Although the database turned up no hits before 1850, 310 citations were found between 1850 and 1899. Some of the most fascinating of these pieces were essentially a hybrid between a restaurant review and a feature piece, as in “A Cuttle-Fish Dinner: A Reporter Dines with the Editor of The Chinese American” (Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, 5/20/1883; reprint from New York Morning Journal). Some, like “Row at a Chinese Restaurant” (San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, 6/10/1859), simply mentioned events at a Chinese restaurant, while others mentioned Chinese restaurants within the context of the article, like “The Cleanly Heathen” (Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, 7/17/1879):

“NEW YORK, July 16 — The Tribune, describing the visits of the tenement house inspectors to the worst places in baxter and other streets, says, “The Chinese have taken possession of South Mott street. It is  curious fact that while the most debased among the Irish women of the quarter live with brutal Italians, the younger, best looking, and neater of the live from choice with the Chinese on Mott street, who it is said treat them kindly, do most of the housework themselves and make provident masters. Even the basement rooms inhabited by them smell sweeter than the upper stories where the Italians congregate. At a Chinese restaurant across the street, four Chinamen were found at dinner. The neatness of the table and appearance of the viands would have done credit to a second-class American restaurant, at least. The ware was apparently of choice patterns of porcelain and the food quails and rice.”

The great benefit of an archive like this is the searchability of massive amount of text. From the small article above, which easily could have escaped indexing in more conventional periodical sources (and which could have been indexed under “tenement” or “Chinese” or “marriage, relationships, and family” instead of “restaurants,”), the reader learns about middle-class impressions of working-class approaches to race and sexuality;  she sees early signs of Asians being presented as the “model minority”; she sees that Chinese restaurants were presented in some sources as palatable venues; she catches hints of journalists’ tendency to portray Asians as insufficiently masculine; and (after seeing that many of the earlier articles come from the West), she learns that readers in the Midwest were interested in learning about conditions in the slums of New York.

The Nineteenth-Century United States Newspapers Database is fairly easy to navigate, with a user-friendly interface that allows the researcher to search by keyword and to restrict the search by specific date, date range, and to select individual papers or states in which to search. It keeps a list of past searches, which can be recalled at any time during the search session — very useful when tabbing between search strings and following up impulses from one article to the next. Sources can be printed, or a whole set of them can be emailed as a full-text PDF file to the researcher — a very useful tool for someone compiling their own digital archive on a topic. Plaintext citations can also be emailed.

However, there are limitations — one of the big ones being that the articles are images or PDFs, and not designed for interaction with the text. Quotes must then be retyped as opposed to copying and pasting them. Also, as the historian-bloggers from this week’s assignment suggest, there are quality issues with the automatic scanning and text-recognition, as in the article titled “Chinese CooAery” (the top half of the “k” was lighter than the bottom angle, resembling the pointed angle of an A). And as mentioned, while the range of texts offered is amazing for the scholar willing to search through throwaway references to the topic at hand, for the scholar who wishes a level of specificity somewhere between “mentioned in the title” and “mentioned fulltext,” the lack of filter may be frustrating. (Nonetheless, I have to imagine that it beats the heck out of simply paging through old papers hoping to find something!)

While my original classified ad idea is less plausible with this archive, the project it does suggest — tracing the appearance of Chinese restaurants throughout journalism more generally to gain a sense of regional variation in opinion and gradual attempts to “know” the Chinese — would be well supported by Google Books as well. Google Books yielded a selection of periodicals with articles on Chinese restaurants and cooking, many of which would be useful in the same ways that I envision sources from the first archive being useful. There were also a variety of books that includes chapters on the Chinese and their restaurants. However, it’s important to remember that a scholar who had really done his or her work would also combine research on these digital sources with work at a physical library, in order to take advantage of the resources available on microfilm and microfiche, and perhaps smaller ethnic newspapers that haven’t been well-digitized. For example, if copies of Chinese-American newspapers have been preserved, it would be interesting to see how and if Chinese restaurants (or restaurants in general!) advertised there, and how the copy from one imagined audience to the next might have changed.

In summary though, there’s no doubt that digitization has changed how we research. The types and amount of sources we expect to be able to master for a project, the types of sources we imagine (and forget) to consult, and the way that we organize our ideas and research have all changed because of digitization and widespread availability of sources. I feel privileged to have university access to these databases, but I must agree with Dan Cohen that some similar public job needs to be undertaken in order to create similarly rich public archives. (Anti-recession digitization boondoggle jobs, anyone?)

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