Planning the Wrap-Up

It’s been a long while since one of the DH Fellows wrote a post here, but I assure our readers that we’re not being lazy. Rather, we are busy with the daily goings-on of the center. Unfortunately, some of those activities are just not as blog-worthy as some of our previous activities. But as the term winds to an end, we’ll have some reflections on our winter term (or is it spring?).

Additionally, Cohort 1 (Amanda M., Ben, and Spencer) will be preparing a final report for their time in the fellowship. All of us will continue at the university and probably in the center, but our classification as DH Fellows officially ends at the close of this term. Our final reflections on the fellowship will help to identify its actual value from the perspective of its participants. Our views are important because the fellowship was proposed and implemented with certain values in mind, but those almost always change when the rubber hits the road. And who better to identify the worth of a training program than those who have been trained?

There is some difficulty, however, in our immediate future. The fellowship was proposed and implemented for three cohorts. In the fall, three new students will take the three final positions. The last cohort of the fellowship is also limited to one year of funding, after which they will depend on the department rather than the provost. It’s an awkward situation because those of us who were here at the beginning won’t officially be present at the end, and those at the end receive only a half portion of the fellowship’s peak output. (See note below)

The difficulty, then, is writing up a report from the perspective of guinea pigs that captures the success of the fellowship before it’s officially over. We all believe it was extremely valuable to the university, to the center, and to us. But how do we make that apparent to others? And how do we convince the new provost that another series of cohorts is a valuable investment? We’ll be tackling those questions in the next few weeks, and posting some of our conclusions here.

Note: I’m not suggesting that the third cohort is being short-changed. One year of funding under this program is better than no years of funding, and that’s just how it was designed. Furthermore, all PhD students in History at Mason receive at least three years of funding from the department. The fellowship is added to those years, so even one year extra is great.

THATCamp Mallet Results

We have spent the last few weeks working to build a python script that would allow us to download and prep all of the THATCamp blog posts for topic modeling in MALLET (for those catching up, we detailed this process in a series of previous posts). As our last post detailed, we encountered a few more complications than expected due to foreign languages in the corpus of the text.  After some discussion, we worked through these issues and were able to add stoplists to the script for German, French, and Spanish.  Although this didn’t solve all of our issues and some terms do still show up (we didn’t realize there was Dutch too), it led to some interesting discussion about the methodology behind topic modeling.  Finally we were able to rerun the python script with the new stopwords and then feed this new data into MALLET.

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Unexpected Challenges Result in Important and Informative Discussions: a transparent discussion about stripping content and stopwords

As described in previous posts, the first year Digital Fellows at CHNM have been working on a project under the Research division that involves collecting, cleaning, and analyzing data from a corpus of THATCamp content. Having overcome the hurdles of writing some python script and using MySQL to grab content from tables in the backend of a WordPress install, we moved on to the relatively straightforward process of running our stripped text files through MALLET.

As we opened the MALLET output files, excited to see the topic models it produced, we were confronted with a problem we didn’t reasonably anticipate and this turned into a rather important discussion about data and meaning.

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Pre-processing Text for MALLET

In our previous post, we described the process of writing a python script that pulled from the THATCamp MySQL Database. In this post, we will continue with this project and work to clean up the data we’ve collected and prepare it for some analysis. This process is known as “pre-processing”. After running our script in the THATCamp database all of the posts were collected and saved as text files. At this stage, the files are filled with extraneous information relating to the structure of the posts. Most of these are tags and metadata that would disrupt any attempts to look across the dataset. Our task here was to clean them up so they could be fed into MALLET. In order to do this, we needed to strip the html tags, remove punctuation, and remove common stopwords. To do this, we used chunks of code from the Programming Historian’s lesson on text analysis with python and modified the code to work with the files we had already downloaded.

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Extracting Data from the THATCamp Database Using Python and MySQL

This week we’ve continued to work on building a python script that will extract all of the blog posts from the various THATCamp websites. As Jannelle described last week, our goal was to write a script that downloads the blog posts in plain text form and strips all of the html tags, stopwords, and punctuation so that we can feed it into MALLET for topic modeling and text analysis. After several long days and a lot of help from second year fellow Spencer Roberts, we’ve successfully gotten the code to work.

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Spring Semester in Research and a THATCamp Challenge

The spring semester is here and the first year DH fellows have begun our rotation into the Research division of CHNM.

To get the ball rolling, we spent a week working through the helpful tutorials at the Programming Historian. As someone new to DH, with admittedly limited technical skill and knowledge, these were immeasurably useful. Each tutorial breaks content into smaller, less intimidating units. These can be completed in succession or selected for a particular topic or skill. While there is useful content for anyone, we focused our attention on Python and Topic Modeling with the aim of solving our own programming dilemma.

Our central challenge was to extract content across the THATCamp WordPress site to enable us to do some text analysis.

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Public Projects: Reflection

Our first semester at the Center for History and New Media has flown by. We spent the second half of the semester in the Public Projects Division which was a diverse and rewarding experience.

During this rotation we were able to tour the entire division and spend some time working with many of the division’s projects.  We spent a large chunk of time working with Omeka, testing plugins, themes, and other items that are in development.  One thing I took away from working with the Omeka team and attending the Sprint Planning meetings is how collaborative this division, and the center as a whole, is.  Between programmers, designers, testers, and content development– Omeka really is a team project that seeks to make collecting easier for museums and archives.  Through working with the software we also got some hands on experience with the amount of work it takes to build an archive and what kinds of issues come up when doing so.  We discussed and experienced issues such as the naming of pages and areas on a site, creating a strict vocabulary to make searching consistent, and developing content first hand.

We also spend time developing content for projects such as The Histories of the National Mall and Papers of the War Department.  The National Mall project allowed us to think about how the public utilizes mobile history sites when at a museum or a national park such as the Mall.  We spent a wonderful afternoon down on the mall testing the mobile first site (and enjoyed some excellent tacos from the local food truck tacos!).

Papers of the War Department was a different experience and we spent time both transcribing documents and tagging meta data for documents. Using the Scripto plugin for Omeka, we first tagged revisit documents with key words, names, places, and topics.  This element of the project required some knowledge and required a deeper engagement with the documents than transcribing did.  Transcribing the documents was challenging (seventeenth century handwriting is interesting) but we could all see the immense benefit to having the documents both transcribed and tagged on the site.

I think we are starting to really begin to understand the inner workings of the center and the projects and goals of each division.  Public Projects does several different things from software development to content based projects and I think we all benefited greatly from our tour around the division. Coincidently, the first year fellows were also taking Clio Wired I this semester and often what we did at the center overlapped with what we did in class making the experience even more valuable for us.  I think we all came away from this semester having learned a great deal and I feel much more aware of many of the issues facing scholars in Digital History centers as well as in academia in general.

Reflections: Year Two, Semester One

As the first term of 2013-14 closes, it seems appropriate to reflect on the experiences of the Digital History Fellows. Last year, our first cohort of DH Fellows spent the first semester meeting with Dan Cohen, learning the history of the center, discussing current projects, and thinking about how digital history is practiced. We spent our second semester working in each of the divisions for five weeks, and then decided in which division we would like to work in the second year. Although there was no specific requirement that we take positions spread across the three divisions, we were drawn in different directions. From the first days of the fellowship, Ben Hurwitz was most comfortable in Education and quickly entrenched himself at their community table. He now works on various educational projects, including the Popular Romance Project. Amanda Morton worked closely with Fred Gibbs before he relocated to New Mexico, which helped her transition into Research, where she works on Digital Humanities Now and related PressForward projects. Spencer Roberts was drifting toward Public Projects before the summer started, and settled in once the center received a grant to work with the National Park Service to revamp their War of 1812 site.

This year we welcomed three new members into the fellowship, bringing our total number to six. The second cohort follows a different schedule in their first year, so Amanda Regan, Anne Ladyem McDivitt, and Jannelle Legg stepped directly into the mix at RRCHNM, splitting their semester into seven-week blocks in Education and Public Projects. During those weeks, they have written reflective posts about the projects to which they’ve contributed, all of which can be found here. Next term, they will spend a block in Research before moving into a final seminar with Stephen Robertson.

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Public Projects: Reflection

The past seven weeks have moved really quickly but I have benefitted a great deal from the time we spent in the Public Projects section of CHNM.

Due to my relatively limited technical skills, this section has proven to be the most challenging thus far. However, with some help, and some pretty detailed instructions, I have been expanding my skill set and feel a lot less intimidated by the tools we work with. There are three main projects on which we focused: testing updates in Omeka, transcribing and revisiting documents at the Papers of the War Department and contributing to and testing the National Mall site.

I have deeply enjoyed them all, especially the sunny morning we spent at the National Mall. Additionally, a great deal of our work overlapped with the theoretical reading and discussions of our coursework as digital history scholars. It is rare for theory and application to be balanced, but that was definitely my experience this semester. I was frequently surprised to find applications of class reading at work and often referred to the work done at CHNM during course discussions.

Public Projects was deeply inclusive for us as fellows. I got a real sense of each of the ongoing projects and I learned a great deal about the collaborative work required to produce the resources described above.

Overall, this semester the fellowship has given me a structured place to develop my knowledge and expertise with digital tools, like Omeka and Scripto, and given me a sandbox to play with Git Hub and the command-line (if you know what those things are, you are in a much better place than I was three months ago!)

I’m looking forward to learning more in the semester to come!

Reflections on Public Projects

This week, we finished our rotation block with Public Projects. I both struggled and thoroughly enjoyed working in Public Projects, as I learned so many new and helpful things while I also found my weaknesses in some of the more technical aspects of digital history. This block included many different types of projects, such as live testing a new website at the National Mall, writing entries for that project, testing Omeka, and even transcribing letters for Papers of the War Department.

I also got to venture into DC for the first time for work during this rotation, which I enjoyed immensely. I was very thankful that I got to test the new National Mall project with my other first year fellows, and you can read more about that experience here. I am excited to see it go live, and I hope that when it is live, many other first-time and returning visitors to the Mall can utilize it.

I also had some difficulties in the block that I overcame, which makes me feel incredibly accomplished. Although I felt comfortable with Omeka coming into this block, I have learned so much more about how it functions and the different uses than I had previously known. I also learned a lot about how transcribing and pulling out keywords from handwritten letters are entirely different experiences. This was difficult, especially figuring out what particular words were, but it was so useful, connecting, and interesting to read these letters from when the US was a brand new country.

I loved working within this block, and I liked that I was challenged by a lot of the projects we worked on. I have learned a lot of useful skills that I can apply to my future career or dissertation as a historian. Coming into George Mason University, I already had my MA in Public History, and I have a real passion for making history accessible to the public. I believe that a lot of the work that is being done in the Public Projects section of CHNM is applying this concept, and I take great inspiration from the people and projects that I have encountered while working here.