Monthly Archives: October 2012

Clio Wired: Week 10 Reflection

What I thought of the readings:

This week’s readings echo many topics addressed in past weeks, such as the need to acknowledge collaborative work, the benefits of open access, and the need for academia to “count” digital history or public history work (as opposed to only the scholarly monograph) towards tenure and promotion.

Addressing the need for new modes of peer review, authorship, and publication, Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence brings a sense of urgency to these concerns by tying them to existential threats to the humanities:  She links the “fundamentally conservative nature” of academia not just to the inability for younger or more technologically savvy scholars to get their work recognized, but to society-at-large’s dismissal of the university in general and the humanities in specific.  In other words, by resisting digital technologies and all the new modes that come with it (open access, open peer review, rethinking of intellectual property rights), academia is further isolating itself from public life, and therefore confirming the public’s misconception that scholarship (especially the humanities) is not worthy of public interest, respect, or funding.  For Fitzpatrick, academia must take responsibility for communicating its worth to the public, and embracing new technologies and forms of communication is a fundamental step.  Moreover, Fitzpatrick emphasizes that academia does not have a choice in whether to adapt to the new technological landscape or to remain in its conservative bubble:  Change is inevitable and academia must react.

In publishing his born-digital article for the American Historical Review, William Thomas experienced both the fundamentally conservative nature of academia addressed by Fitzpatrick and the benefits of embracing new modes of review and publication.  It is  interesting that the summary of the digital article which appeared in the print version of the journal was mistaken by some scholars as the “real” version of the work.  Among reviewers of the digital version, there seemed to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between simply publishing text on the web and creating a dynamic digital history project.  Aside from (rightly) criticizing the gimmicky use of Flash or other convoluted navigation features, reviewers  saw the digital project as having “no argument” due to its lack of linearity and the perceived abdication of authorial control.  For Thomas, these obstacles in having his work accepted by historians show that  we need new conventions for “reading” in the digital medium.

In “Re-Visioning Historical Writing” Dorn and Tanaka also address the need for new modes of historical reading and writing.  Dorn emphasizes that digital projects reveal history to be more than just a “polished argument about the past.”  Rather,  history is a messy proposition which involves many voices, contradictions, and narratives, perhaps best suited to a hypertext, dynamic, ever-evolving presentation rather than a static, linear narrative presented in a monograph or journal article.  Tanaka also cautions against fixating on the “correct” interpretation of the past rather than a heterogeneity of interpretations.  He proposes that the evolving role of the historian will involve corralling a multitude of data in a skilled and reliable way, rather than simply mastering knowledge in a specific area of expertise and presenting that knowledge in an authoritative way.  (For me, this sounds  a lot like the job description of librarians–professionals who constantly need to justify their worth to students, funders, and sometimes even scholars.)

Related to the above authors’ calls for openness and change in academia is the Working Group on Evaluating Public History Scholarship’s guidelines for fair and transparent evaluation of public history faculty.  Again, these guidelines show that change is already upon us, and academia must adapt in order to promote not only fairness to scholars but continuing relevance to the outside world.


The act of commenting on Open Review actually brought up many of the issues addressed by the essay itself.  I found myself wondering whether my comment could actually be useful to the writers, who are subject specialists and have much higher academic credentials that I do.  I also wondered who would be responsible for reading my comment and for what period of time it is actually useful to receive further commentary.  Reading the essay and making a brief comment on one paragraph did not feel to me like terribly helpful or legitimate peer review.  As was said in the essay, different levels of engagement would be required for open review to be feasible, such as a certain number of reviewers being committed to reading the entire work as well as making granular comments.  I do like the idea of opening up works to the scrutiny of any interested commenter, but wonder if it could be difficult for authors and editors to cut through the noise to be able to respond to truly useful recommendations.

I have to admit that I was a bit stumped when it came to developing my own guidelines for evaluating digital history scholarship, not least of all because I am really not familiar with the process of evaluating even traditional scholarship for tenure or promotion purposes.  Therefore, I did some Googling and found various example of guidelines, such as those provided by the American Association for History & Computing, based on guidelines by the MLA.  Both sets of guidelines seem fairly comprehensive, focusing not only on the responsibilities of the reviewers, but on the responsibilities of the candidates in advocating for themselves.  Although candidates are advised to document and explain collaborative relationships, one aspect I thought these guidelines left out was the responsibility of reviewers to fully understand the collaborative nature of digital projects and to seek methods for fairly evaluating this work.  Also, while these guidelines are more general, there are a few specific actions on the part of reviewers I thought could be added:

  • Consider the audience for a digital project; it may not be directed toward scholars, but toward the public, undergraduates, etc.
  • Attempt to explore the digital project through various paths, as the full story of the project may be best communicated through various trials and revisits
  • Evaluate design as an aspect of the project’s argument, thesis, or purpose
  • Take user feedback into account if the project has been opened to the public
  • Understand that the project may be ongoing and evolving, rather than in a final or a static state

What do you think of these recommendations?


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NEH Startup Grant Prezi

Here is the Prezi for my proposed site on Dutch genre painting and art historical methods.

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Clio Wired: Week 8 Reflection

This week’s readings point out the important distinction between data and interface in digital projects.  While data is contained within a randomly accessible database, the author/editor/curator of a project presents this data in what Lev Manovich calls a “hyper-narrative” form.  In other words, the website author, through various controls such as  information architecture, design, or other cues, leads the user through a series of possible “narratives.”  One iteration of the this hyper-narrative experience may be called a linear narrative (in a sense different from the sole narrative presented in a work such as a monograph).  Unlike in directly accessing the raw database, here, the user does have some element of control, but the author of the interface ultimately guides the experience.

What struck me about this article was Manovich’s cautioning that true interactivity is not constituted by the user’s ability to access a site’s pages in various orders.  I think it would be very useful to contemplate the true parameters of interactivity, especially in light of our grant projects.  It occurs to me that interactivity can exist on several layers:  From simplest to most complex, this might include the options to leave commentary, to add content (as in Philaplace where users can add their own Philadelphia-related stories), to choose data sets or other information to be displayed in various ways, or the (much more involved)  option to extract openly available data and create a totally new interface.  Great examples of the fruits of this type of “interactivity” are the “Irish in Australia: History Wall” and “Invisible Australians” projects, which use digitized data from institutional archives to create totally new projects.  What other types of interactivity have people thought about?

Dan Cohen advocates (here and here) strongly for this type of interactivity, or as he would probably call it, freeing content for reuse and reinterpretation.  Although Cohen is clearly an advocate of digital history projects which guide the user through the site and have a specific message or thesis, he also believes that the data should be “freed” so that scholars can manipulate it for uses unanticipated by the author, or can create an interpretation of their own.  As Cohen makes clear, this open source data model brings up questions of credit for scholarly work; however, as a community, academics should be able to integrate data creation into the products (like monographs, articles, and slowly-but-surely digital history sites) for which scholars receive credit and acknowledgement.

I am also intrigued by Cohen’s idea that the separation of interface and data leads to a longer life for that data.  In other words, even when the interface has gone by the wayside due to lack of upkeep, antiquated technology, or the advent of newer scholarly methodologies, the data can still persist.  If the original creator of the this data–presumably the author of the interface–is no longer acting as a steward for this valuable data, who will take the responsibility?  Cohen thinks that this might suggest new roles for libraries, which could become responsible repositories of data.  This is certainly an intriguing suggestion, as in the library world, the future libraries face in light of new technology is always a big debate.  However, being a database repository does not necessarily shore up libraries’ brick-and-mortar existence (unless they are to transform into huge server farms).  At any rate, it is certainly worth thinking about how valuable data presented by digital history projects will be maintained once those sites are defunct.  What might be other solutions to this data-maintenance problem?

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Clio Wired: Week 7 Reflection

What I thought of the readings:

This week’s topic of spatial history built upon last week’s discussion of data mining and visualizations, exemplified by Franco Moretti’s work Graphs, Maps, and Trees.  Delving deeper in to the “maps” aspect of visualization, the readings this week show how historical topics can be enhanced, explained, modeled, synthesized, etc. through the use of spatial visualizations.  It is important to note for our discussion–as emphasized by Richard White–that these digital visualizations are not simply static illustrations accompanying text, but can be dynamic visual aids which allow the user/reader to understand how events unfold over time and space, to ask new questions, and to scrutinize assumptions.

Todd Presner presents a rich spatial history resource, HyperCities, which allows many users to create mapping projects through its interface.  Presner makes the important point that HyperCities differs from simple, commercial mapping projects in that rather than focusing on information like traffic, weather, and commercial interests, these visualizations’ main focus is humanities scholarship related to “urban, cultural, and historical transformations of city spaces.”  Projects ranging from presenting the history of Los Angeles from prehistoric times until now to the mapping of protests in Iran’s 2009 elections show how HyperCities in particular, and spatial history in general, has the ability to present a breadth of scholarship in dynamic and innovative ways.

Presner’s emphasis on spatial history and visualization as legitimate forms of humanities scholarship is also addressed by Jo Guldi and Martyn Jessop.  Although she does not directly address visualizations, Guldi explores the “spacial turn” in a myriad of scholarly areas, explaining how in fields as diverse as psychology, anthropology, history,  and art history, scholars between 1880 and 1960 came to reflect on humans’ “nature as beings situated in space.”  Rather than continuing to concentrate on great personalities, for example, historians began to focus on history as a function of nation or city, and later, as a function of region or center/periphery.  Jessop shows how graphic aids to humanities scholarship are not actually new or out of blue, but rather have a long history, ranging from early modern Kunstkammern, to museums, to film, to theater.  For Jessop, digital technology has simply created a new medium for visualization.

Trying it out myself:

Jessop’s assertion that humanists have a lack of education in visual literacy certainly hit home for me as I was attempting to use the various tools this week.  Visualizing events in space has never been a particular strong suit of mine.  I remember reading Michael Shaara’s Civil War novel The Killer Angels in middle school and hating every minute of it; I couldn’t makes heads or tails of Shaara’s descriptions of troop movements, which at the time, seemed to make up the entirety of the book.  (If someone had made a nifty visualization of the book back then, maybe I could’ve gotten into it!)  Trying to use many of the tools this week brought back that same sense of frustration.  Neatline, for example, has a very steep learning curve.  I really couldn’t figure out how to do anything effective with the site; their demos only showed what masters were able to create, but did not show how novices could learn to use the tool.  I tried to perform the simple task of plotting my birthday in time and space, but couldn’t even figure out how to do that.


Trying and failing to use Neatline

I was a bit more successful with GoogleEarth, where I made a map of some of the museums I visited this summer in the Netherlands.  However, as Presnor points out, I am not sure that GoogleEarth on its own is really a digital humanities tool, though clearly some other digital humanities sites, like the historical maps repository at David Rumsey Maps Collection have made use of its data.

Museum visits on GoogleEarth

Museum visits on GoogleEarth

David Rumsey Maps Collection using GoogleEarth

David Rumsey Maps Collection using GoogleEarth

Clearly many of the spatial visualization sites on this week’s tools are very useful and can help scholars produce some unique and intellectually rigorous projects.  I think, though, that I would need a lot more training in order to produce something worthwhile.


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