This post is a selective survey of the state of digital history. My overview is neither exhaustive nor definitive, instead focusing on my own experiences and reflections as an observer and student. So, here are a few recent themes that partially illuminate the contours of digital history:
Digital Sessions at the Annual American Historical Association meeting
I was lucky in that my first annual meeting for my professional association also featured a record amount of sessions devoted to digital history. In fact, Chicago’s program had its own section devoted to digital sessions: The Future is Here: Digital Methods in Research and Teaching in History. The proliferation of digital sessions can be credited to increasing practice and interest in digital work, but having a prominent DH practitioner like Dan Cohen on the program committee also played a big part. Another important benchmark was the first THATCamp at AHA, a fruitful event that included mostly first-timers to the unconference format.
Highlights from AHA 2012:
Publishing and Blogging
Digitalhumanitiesnow.org recently launched The Journal of Digital Humanities, a journal that will:
…publish scholarly work beyond the traditional research article… select content from open and public discussions in the field, [and] encourage continued discussion through peer-to-peer review.
One of the pieces that made it into the peer-review process for the March edition is an article by Chad Black on using clustering compression to identify patterns in legal records from colonial Spanish America. Another historian, Tim Hitchcock, had his post on academic history writing selected. These digital historians are have their work featured under a broader ‘Digital Humanities’ umbrella, crystallized in this new journal. This is a trend I have found typical for digital historians – working in the interdisciplinary space of DH.
One of the effects of working under the DH umbrella includes a challenge to historical argumentation in the monograph form. Two challenges (or complements?) are blogging and the blending of history and journalism. Two scholars at the London School of Economics recently argued that
Blogging is quite simply, one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now. The paradigm de-emphasizes the traditional journals route, and re-prioritizes faster, real-time academic communication in which blogs play a critical intermediate role.
Dan Cohen writes that historians should be taking more queues from digital journalists and outlines some areas where historians can collaborate and overlap. These are exciting developments that parallel Michael Kramer’s important call to place more value on sharing the process of scholarly production rather than fetishizing the end product as the only think worth circulating. This would be a healthy step for the profession that would distance our image of the ‘lone wolf’ historian, researching alone, in secret, until the monograph or article is complete. This image has never corresponded well to the reality of peer-review and collaboration with colleagues, archivists, and the public. The scale, expertise, and investments required in large (and smaller) digital history projects can also help develop historians into better team players.
AHA Digital Article Prize
The AHA has also announced that it will select a ‘Best Digital Article’ to be published in the April 2014 American Historical Review. The AHA should be applauded for putting some weight and prestige into digital publications and featuring them in its flagship publication. They also have provided a detailed rubric for judging digital articles, a welcome engagement with the nuance of practices in digital work. However I find the rubric a bit restrictive – I invite the reader to peruse them and judge for themselves what sorts of limits there are in the rubric’s conception of worthy scholarship.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki’s Writing History in the Digital Age, a born-digital edited volume that will be published by the University of Michigan Press. The volume provides its own ‘state of the field’ in not only providing a diverse set of readings, but also in the many comments left by readers during the peer-review stages of the project.
“What does a digital rhetorician do?”
“What is digital rhetoric?”
“What is rhetoric?”
To most people outside my field, it’s not immediately obvious what my field of study means or what I do. As a degree candidate in Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing, I hear these questions often from my friends, family, even some of my own colleagues! As rhetoricians, my colleagues and I are often concerned with these types of epistemological questions and end up deeply entrenched in these what does it all mean rabbit holes.
Certainly, we can be sure of some things: many of us are humanists and writers; we live in writing programs such as English or literary-type disciplines or communication programs; more often than not, we’re trained in those types of programs. Because we’re located in different places from university to university, there is some ambiguity over the location of rhetoric. Rhetoric is defined by one of those long-dead Greek guys who says it’s “all the available means of persuasion.” I’m not disagreeing with this definition, but I find it insufficient for defining rhetoric as a discipline. Were I to really fly my rhetoric flag, I would begin by asking “What is a discipline?” but I’ll save you the trip down that rabbit hole. Instead, I’ll share my experience of the academic discipline of rhetoric and how we make sense of the technological affordances of our information society.
In the case of my Master’s program at Michigan State University, we are separate from the Department of English and are instead housed in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures (WRAC). WRAC is a large department that includes undergraduates, graduate students, and professors engaged in cultural studies, composition studies, rhetoric studies, and professional writing studies. WRAC is also home to the university’s first-year writing program which helps thousands of MSU freshmen meet their Tier-I writing requirements every year.
As a Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing student, I have had the opportunity to do theoretical inquiry into technical communication, content management, creative non-fiction writing as well as practical skill-building in web development, filmmaking, and teaching. Combined study in rhetorical theory and technical literacies is a unique feature of my program that has afforded myself and my fellow digital rhetoricians opportunities to think heuristically about the application of technology to rhetorical situations such as web and software design, information architecture, multimodal composing, research, and teaching. Graduates from my MA program go on to jobs in web development, user experience design, communications, and technical writing as well as teaching and further graduate study in doctoral programs in information studies, rhetoric, and composition.
Through studying digital rhetoric at MSU, I have developed a philosophy of rhetorical practice that privileges situational, cultural, and audience-specific contexts and utilizes a heuristic, rather than deterministic, view toward the application of technology. In other words, this means that we digital rhetoricians use our training in rhetoric to employ the appropriate digital tools for a particular situation based on the needs and constraints of our audience or users, the time and place, and other conditional factors.
Because of this particular attitude toward technology and rhetoric, digital rhetoricians are well-suited to work in informatics and digital humanities. It bears saying, however, that not all people who identify as rhetoricians have the same attitude about the application of technology to rhetorical situations; and it’s most certainly important to say that not all humanists share this sentiment.
Having situated my local experience with digital rhetoric, I hope to follow-up by tracking the study of digital rhetoric on a broader scale, looking at national conferences and organizations.
Image credit Flickr user karen_roe
Social media is largely overlooked by physical anthropologists. This is due in part to the nature of the data that goes into research. Someone studying vitamin A deficiency in infants in relation to the mother in Kenya does not need to use social media to interview or retrieve the blood nutrient levels of her research participants. Likewise, as I mentioned in an earlier post, forensic anthropologists in particular are constrained by ethics and the sensitive nature of the cases they work on.
Leading academic institutions in this field have yet to embrace the public outreach power of tools like Twitter, but this is changing slowly. At the same time, many graduate students (and some more senior academics) use Twitter personally and professionally to network. A good faculty role model would be @JohnHawks: this paleoanthropologist blogs, he’s engaged with the online community via Twitter, and he’s one of the few faculty presences in physical anthropology online.
The greatest strength of forensic anthropology is the field’s willingness to harness the power of databases. One excellent example is the Forensic Data Bank, a collection of data from thousands of known forensic cases that is used to create modern equations of various sorts. Another is NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System – this database houses information on all missing persons and also all unidentified remains, permitting easier cross-referencing and matching up of victims.
As is the case with so many academic disciplines in the U.S., budgets are tight in anthropology, and digitization comes with both creation and upkeep costs. The decision of how much funding to allocate to digital tools varies between institutions. So, while some laboratories are working with advanced three-dimensional imagers and Elliptic Fourier Analysis to forge new paths, low-budgets work with more analog methods. This discrepancy is one reason I want to translate analog methods: to facilitate the transition into digital not by interpreting but by simply translating. I hope no French or Italian readers will remind me that traduttore, traditore, literally: translation is treason!
In summary, physical anthropology, like many disciplines, is in a state of transition where it is slowly integrating digital technologies into its infrastructure. It’s certainly not on the cutting edge; anthropologists have adopted tools slowly and only when they are well-established. Online publication of journals is ubiquitous, but unfortunately I’m not aware of any other arenas of digital scholarly publication or dialogue. As a field, we’re not taking many risks, but perhaps this is understandable in a financially unstable environment. At the minimum, I encourage physical anthropologists to join in digital dialogue and outreach facilitated by social media. The choice to join the conversation is an individual one that leads to valuable collaborations.
My project will be split up into two components: building a data repository using Kora and writing a corresponding white paper that will discuss my experiences in constructing a model for qualitative data. The first component, the data repository, will house qualitative data, such as one-on-one/focus groups interview transcripts and participant observation field notes. From my experience, it is this type of data that produces much anxiety for qualitatively driven anthropologists. The repository will also host multimedia content such as photos, audio and video. Another important aspect of the repository will be the inclusion of supplementary material, such as project bios, interview guides, consent forms and code books. Despite the wide range of content proposed for the digital repository, a primary concern that cuts across all platforms for anthropologists, who conduct research with human subjects, is confidentiality and human subject protection. This project seeks to address these issues through the construction of a model that will attempt to embody these concerns.
For the second component of my project, I will be working on a white paper that will compliment my experience constructing a data repository for qualitative data. Using my experience as an example, my intention is to use this space to discuss concerns around confidentiality and intellectual property and how they can be addressed or at least mitigated by a set of best practices that will be generated based on my model. One of the most important variables to be considered will be issues of privacy and confidentiality: How can we identifiers will be need to be removed without significantly changing the presented material? As a medical anthropologist, how do I deal with the collection of sensitive medical information and how much of this should be included?
One of my intentions for building this repository is to provide an example for anthropologists handling qualitative data. While issues of confidentiality and intellectual property are an extremely important issue, I do not believe these concerns are enough to end the conversation about open access data. I consider these conversations to rest on a continuum where solutions aren’t all or nothing and will vary based on the context. This is fine. With that being said, I consider developing best practices as one step towards providing one example to encourage open source data/sharing among scholars. Given the recent controversy surrounding the American Anthropological Association’s stance on open access , it is important to have these concrete examples.
Twitter has been an invaluable tool for me as a new grad student and growing scholar. Communicating and building connections over Twitter has helped form relationships with my colleagues and professors in my program and across the university. Using Twitter has also afforded me access to the growing domain of digital humanities through the tweets of scholarly publications, organizations, thought leaders, and my own colleagues – in fact, it was through a tweet that I learned of the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative at MSU.
Though I have been a Twitter user for years, I first experienced its utility in a scholarly context while attending my first major academic conference. I had never been to a major academic conference before and I thought that the conference backchannel might be a good way to get acclimated to the new practices and setting. I was right: using the Twitter hashtag for the conference, I scouted lunch spots, found electrical outlets in the conference center, and made plans easily with colleagues from home. More recently, while attending a comparatively smaller, DH-centric conference, I found Twitter useful for making connections with new people, asking questions and discussing conference talks as they were happening, and learning about the talks that I wasn’t able to attend due to concurrent scheduling. In both cases, the conference backchannels gave me access to information that I likely would not have had as a newcomer to not only the conferences, but academia in general.
Based on my own experience, it is evident that Twitter can be a powerful tool for folks attending academic conferences, both newcomers and seasoned vets. That said, it is my goal this semester to build a tool which enhances the utility of Twitter in the context of scholarly conferences.
I will build a web application called Corridor. It is a web application that will be used to collect and collate metadata for Twitter hashtags which are used during academic conferences. Though Twitter hashtags mediate and aggregate conference tweets among those “in-the-know”, they can be inaccessible to an outsider, even if the conversation is one that interests them, because conference hashtags often look like complete nonsense (e.g. #cccc11, #cw2012, #ir11, #HASTAC2011). The primary feature of the tool, then, will be to contextualize conference hashtags, displaying user-curated metadata about specific conferences; this will include the title of the conference, location, dates and more information. I hope that Corridor will help illuminate the exciting backchannel discourse of scholarly conferences for newcomers to online academia, but newcomers to academia in general.
Corridor will also be able to track relations or connections between other hashtags used at the conference as a means of resolving redundant hashtags. For instance, the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Atlanta last spring had several hashtags: #cccc2011, #cccc11, and #cccc are just a few of the primary tags. I used Tweetdeck to follow multiple conference hashtags, but it was impossible for me to view all tags in one stream. This resulted in silos of conference discourse; the effect of redundant, non-mainstream hashtags for conference attendees who are trying to engage via Twitter is like being marooned on an island.
Other primary features Corridor will includes are Twitter authentication for user accounts and social or crowd-sourced moderation as a means to keep the hashtag ecosystem in order. Future iterations include tweet sorting tools; metrics for measuring the velocity of individual tweets or Twitter users; conference tag clouds based on keywords from tweets; and more.
Outlook and Challenges
Bootstrap, a framework made by Twitter, seems like a viable option for constructing the design of Corridor. With a strong background in HTML and CSS and nearly a decade of learning by unmaking and breaking things, I’m confident about the prospect of working with Bootstrap. Digging into the Twitter API and programming Corridor will undoubtedly pose a significant challenge for me, but it’s one that I look forward to.
Programming literacy is an essential skill for humanist scholars. The web is a programmed tool that permeates our social lives, our work, and our communication practices. By precluding ourselves the means to understand how the web is built and how it functions on a technical level, we do ourselves a great disservice. However, I hope that after I’ve grown some programming chops of my own from my work on Corridor this semester that I will be prepared to produce cutting edge scholarly work that is valued in both academic and non-academic communities.
Photo by Aaron Hockley; used with permission CC BY-NC-ND 2.0