AHA Day 2: State of the Field

In the second workshop session sponsored by the AHA Research Division, Prof. William G. Thomas chaired a panel with Jon Christensen, Jo Guldi, and Andrew J. Torget. The purpose of the panel was to examine ways that digital scholarly work was being produced.

Jon Christensen sought to answer to questions: 1) what has the research produced?, and 2) so what? He presented on the research for his book Critical Habitat: A History of Thinking with Things in Nature. Much of the digital output from the book, which can be viewed at the Stanford Spatial History Project, sought to use spatial analysis to examine historical correlations. Data, he reminds the audience, is shot through with historical contingency. Thus, you need new methods to see through the data.

Jo Guldi suggested that digital materials press scholars to consider sources in larger scales of time and place, indeed, may even demand larger scale and longer periods. Methods of digital history help raise new questions. Guldi argues that we are secure in our traditional methods of doing micro history, but we don’t know how to release macro history in our work. The Annals school attempted this, but required large research teams. Mass digitization, however, gives us new tools. She demonstrated her uses of File Juicer and the timeline feature of Zotero to highlight ways of examining the longue durée of history.

Andre Torget illustrated his Texas Slavery Project and how spatial analysis helped him raise new questions about the extension of slavery into Texas. He spoke also about the challenges of translating digital work into traditional narratives. His dynamic maps of Texas speak as a sort of argument on their own, but moving that into print is a challenge and ultimately falls short. Some models of moving digital to print exist, he points out, including William Thomas’s The Iron Way and Richard White’s Railroaded, but the book remains the standard for tenure and promotion.

AHA Day 2: The Future of History Journals in the Digital Age

At session 136 on Saturday, Prof. Douglas Seefeldt led a roundtable discussion with Christopher Grasso, David Rich Lewis, John F. McClymer, Abby S. Rumsey, Sefan Tanaka, and Allen Tullos. The purpose of the panel was to explore ways to reduce the gap between scholarship in the profession’s journals and the scholarship of the web. University presses and scholarly journals remain the gold standard for tenure and promotion, and time has not solved the problem of valuing digital work below that of print.

Those participating faced a series of questions. They spoke on the steps they were taking to move their journals into the digital age. Some are making concerted efforts to incorporate new digital supplements to their journals while others, like the peer-reviewed Southern Spaces, is entirely digital.

The issue of peer review was a key focus in the discussion as well. The editors generally agreed that double blind peer review panels could maintain their function, but also begin bridging the gap of print and digital by incorporating experts on the content and experts on the digital to talk together and assess how well content and form interact. Stefan Tanaka challenged the idea, suggesting that double blind review is only one of several ways to do peer review. He also pointed out that a peer review process exists online, and these discussions needed to happen online where the scholarship is being produced. An example that Tanaka points to is blogs, where people are doing serious, public scholarship and should be recognized as communities of conversations.

Open access formed another nexus of the conversation. Open access digital publishing gives authors an idea of how many people are viewing their work. Abby Rumsey provocatively suggests that libraries have the money to fix the problem — they have the ability to reshift their budgets and support digital humanities without any problems. Exploring the digital space means being more demanding about libraries finding solutions, and they can find solutions by reallocating budgets. “University libraries still have a lot of money,” Rumsey suggested. “If faculty demanded they support digital and open access scholarship, they would.”

Journal editors suggested that they are open to the idea of digital scholarship and are waiting for more submissions of such work that force them to think about ways of incorporating digital work into their apparatus.

AHA Day 2: Presenting Historical Research Using Digital Media

At session 75 on Saturday, “Presenting Historical Research Using Digital Media,” the presenters introduced several new modes for presenting their scholarly work. The session included a companion website that contained resources for each of their talks.

Monty Dobson, a historian and archeologist, discussed his work in documentaries and showcased his upcoming PBS series, America from the Ground Up. Originally designed as a half-hour video for his classroom after he became frustrated with the lack of material on the history of the interior U.S., the project has grown into a four-part series. He hopes that his work will focus our attention more squarely on the interior United States, promising the audience that not once will he mention George Washington when discussing the arrival of Europeans and Americans to the region. In confronting a narrative that is East Coast centric, he hopes to reshape public history and examine the history of a region more closely aligned with New France rather than the experiences of the coast.

Phil Ethington discussed geo-historical visualizations. Digital media, he reminds us, is important because of its substance and what we’re communicating. The media is not the message; rather, the media enables new ways of seeing the past. He has developed HyperCities, built for urban research and collaboration, as a method to examine how people came to understand their place and space. Ethington also pointed the potential of nonprofits and community-based organizations to use HyperCities as a way to crowd source their local history.

Katrina Gulliver discussed her process of starting up her podcast, Cities in History. She came to podcasting as an experiment in learning how to do this technically, but also to think about presenting her work to a general audience. She outlined the various off-the-rack and easy to use tools she uses in her setup, including Jellycast and GarageBand to record and Tumblr for her site.

Jennifer Serventi ended the session discussing the variety of digital projects that the National Endowment for the Humanities funds and things to think about when writing proposals to the NEH. Serventi reminded the audience that humanities projects should use the best genre or medium for the project, whether it was a book, podcast, film, or otherwise. She also pointed to the NEH’s new database of digital projects as a way to begin learning about the sorts of projects that have been funded and may serve as a starting point for our own proposals.

AHA Day 1: Pioneers Discuss the Future of Digital Humanities

The panelists at session 67 “The Future is Here: Pioneers Discuss the Future of Digital Humanities,” the presidential session chaired by outgoing AHA President Anthony Grafton, included presentations by Erez Liebman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel from Harvard University and Blaise Aguera y Arcas from Microsoft. Both presentations emphasized the necessity of collaboration and opportunities that digital computing offers humanist inquiry while also warning about the pitfalls of relying on digital technology.

Aiden and Jean-Baptiste outlined culturomics in their talk that almost exactly followed their TED talk. Aiden and Jean-Baptiste provided examples of word-frequencies and usages over time. Using 5 million books digitized by Google, they insisted their methods gave insight into a sort of cultural genome. They also confronted five “myths” of those critical of their approach to analyzing historical documents, insisting they were not trying to replace historians with machines but rather build tools that historians may find useful in their work. In their most provocative section of the talk was a discussion of new work they’re undertaking in to “cultural inertia,” or asking the question of whether we could use cultural data and history to predict the future. History, they concluded, will remain the domain of close reading, primary sources, and interpretation, but will also include big data, massive collaboration, data interpretation, computation, and science.

Blaise Aguera y Arcas, known for his work on Photosynth, discussed his effort to understand typefaces in Gutenberg’s printing press. He examined how type was configured using clustering software and high resolution images of letters to analyze the components that made up the text. Moreover, he asserted that Gutenberg’s real contribution was the development of fonts rather than moveable type. At the core of his talk was an emphasis on collaboration. Only through collaboration in several areas of expertise could he come to understand different aspects of typesetting. The same holds true for any aspect of the past. Collaboration will be essential after the digital turn because we cannot make assumptions about digital data — the rise of proprietary digital environments, the inability to truly own data, the misguided notion that one can own a gadget, the filter bubble, and no guarantee that the lights will remain on. Invention does not happen in a vacuum. Rather, collaboration is essential for exploring or generating new ideas.

AHA Day 1: Digital Humanities: A Hands-On Workshop

On Friday, January 6th, Session 36, “Digital Humanities: A Hands-On Workshop” sponsored jointly by the AHA Research Division and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, introduced attendees to a variety of approaches in digital methods for research and teaching. Six stations were arranged around the room that allowed attendees to wander from topic to topic and engage in conversations, questions, and demonstrations. Topics included digital publishing with Dan Cohen, who discussed a variety of different methods that scholars use to communicate their work. He also talked about Digital Humanities Now and the platform that runs it, PressForward.

Jeff McClurken presented on teaching with social media and shared his experiences with using Twitter, Facebook, and blogs for the classroom. McClurken collected many of the resources he discussed on a page he created.

Fred Gibbs discussed text mining and offered examples from his experiences in using the method for research. Gibbs also has a companion website.

Rwany Sibaja talked about digital storytelling and using multimedia in narrative. He has collected several tools and resources for others to check out.

Jennifer Rosenfeld talked about the resources available at TeachingHistory.org and how the website can help students gain a better understanding of the types of evidence used by historians.

Patrick Murray-John discussed content management systems, including Zotero, and its usefulness in categorizing, tagging, and collecting data and information.


Digital Historical Scholarship and the Civil War

The Civil War lends itself greatly to the digital medium. In addition to the subject’s scholarly contingent, it also possesses a great public audience of increasingly computer literate members. This question of audience was something addressed in the AHA Panel wittingly titled “Hardtack and Software: Digital Approaches to the American Civil War,” a digital spin on John D. Billings’ popular 1887 reminiscence Hardtack and Coffee: Or The Unwritten Story of Army Life.”

Of the four projects presented during the session, two seemed to be readily open to the inclusion of the general public as well as the more general scholarly audience—Visualizing Emancipation and Sherman’s March and America: Mapping Memory. Yet the ability to play with data and explore the history provided by the digital medium promotes public use as well. Civil War Washington, while being a repository for scholarly information about the nation’s capitol, may also be of interest to “amateur” Civil War scholars. Mining the Dispatch is admittedly geared toward academics, however, Nelson’s findings will be of interest to any student of the Civil War, with or without professional scholastic credentials.

Each panelist provided an overview of their respective projects, which I shall not repeat here. Readers are encouraged to visit the sites and interact with them for themselves. Instead, each presenter introduced the scholarly findings or evidence displayed or exhibited in the projects. The tools and technology employed by each project received relatively little attention. During the comments section of the panel, Robert Nelson asserted that the challenge is to produce scholarship that is going to be of interest to scholars of the subject not the technology. We must focus on historical questions and historical moments, not on techniques.

This thought was one that stayed with me more than any other aspect of the session. If we want the discipline of history to be receptive of works created through and with the digital medium, it is essential that we emphasize the scholarship that is being produced, not the way in which it is being produced. In order for “doing digital history” to become synonymous with “doing history,” we need to convince the field of the validity of digital scholarship.

Back to the issue of audience, users outside of the academy—Civil War “buffs,” teachers, and students—are likely unconcerned with whether or not what they are interacting with is considered scholarship by academics, but rather what they can learn from utilizing such projects. To me, a Master’s student with career ambitions in the public history sector, this is the most exciting aspect of combining technology with doing history—its ability to make history more accessible and appealing to the public. Whether through providing access to documents and visualizations which allow a thorough analysis of Washington, D.C. or using an algorithm to reveal large societal and cultural patterns over thousands of newspaper articles, the digital medium is truly an effective way both to craft history and to communicate it.

The Future is Here: Digital History at the 126th Annual Meeting

The Future is Here,” a series at the 2012 AHA meeting, will feature numerous presentations and discussions on Digital History. Several graduate students who are attending these panels will post reactions to these panels as well as participation at the THATCamp hosted on January 5.