Digital Humanities as Resistance

We spent our first year as DH Fellows tracking and discussing the blog posts that filtered through DH Now, and were asked to track specific themes. I decided to follow posts where DH and activism intersected, especially as the recent campaign, election, and administration made political conversations hard, even irresponsible, to ignore. Before Donald Trump’s election in November 2016, the grey literature of DH had had a slightly more intellectual focus. There were certainly many people thinking about critical theory in DH, but those advocating for DH as activism in its own right was not as visible of a conversation. Of course, there are some exceptions here, most obviously in the form of media scholars, and particularly those who incorporate feminist critical theory into their work (for instance the #TransformDH community that formed in 2011). Aside from these groups, much of the DH discussion was focused on how to study or support activists working in the age of multimodal movements like Black Lives Matter. Not surprisingly, the discussion has become not only more critical but more urgent. It seems that DH scholars from all disciplines started to take stock of what we do well—promoting open access knowledge with a balance between theory and praxis (although not always an equal balance)—and found new ways to deploy those skills as acts of resistance.

What we see now is representation from a large group of digital humanists—archivists, educators, artists, historians, media scholars, librarians, literature scholars, sociologists, and others—working towards common political goals. Not only is DH facing a large-scale crisis over funding and resources (nothing new except for its scale), but, more importantly, over the emergence of a rising tide of fascism and anti-intellectualism. For example, conversations about open access have shifted focus from intellectual goals to political ones. Pedagogical posts are refocusing on ways to not only promote computer literacy, but also how to teach strategies of resistance in the era of misinformation. In this new climate, public engagement, critical studies, and activism are informing each other, and seem to be working to break down the disciplinary boundaries that have divided digital humanities into distinct fields of theory and practice. It is probable that the narrowing of these gaps is part of DH’s natural evolution as a field, but the current administration certainly seems to have sped up the process. This selection of posts that follows is a very small sample of the many groups and voices working to reshape DH into a field of resistance.

Beyond the hashtags: #Ferguson, #Blacklivesmatter, and the online struggle for offline justice (February 29, 2016)
This report from the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University represents an early, concerted effort by scholars to explore Black Lives Matter and other web-based activist movements. With attention to the various groups and platforms involved in the fight against police brutality, this report explores the nature of protest on the open web and how multimodal approaches to activism can work to level the playing field for oppressed groups.

Creating Culturally Sensitive Solutions to Digital Violence (September 29, 2016)
This post, from the Digital Media + Learning Central blog, announces the Center for Solutions to Online Violence. This effort, funded by DML, seeks to find new ways to address intersectional experiences of violence online. This post showcases the project’s PI, Jacqueline Wernimont who speaks to the importance of applying feminist theory as we approach archives of knowledge and spaces of digital learning in order to build trust and foreground safety. From Wernimont: “a person’s ability to navigate what is an increasingly complex digital life is really important…We have to attend to those costs and how they are differentially born by particular people first — not as an afterthought.”

Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump (February 2, 2017)
This post by Audrey Watters on Hack Education traces computing machines to their military roots— “Command. Control. Communicate. Intelligence.”—and interrogates the implications of these ideas on our educational systems. She connects the potential uses of student analytical data collection to prior fascist attempts (both in Nazi Germany and the US) to track, control, and eradicate groups of people. She calls for a reevaluation of the relationship between student and institution, and implicates higher education institutions within the growing surveillance state. Watters’ desire is clear: “Now is the time for an ed-tech antifa, and I cannot believe I have to say that out loud to you.”

Our Work, Our Selves: Using Our Tools for Resistance (February 16, 2017)
This post by Des on Hack Library School calls for archivists to realign their personal and professional goals with their political ones, and provides a brief historiography for inspiration. The title, a reference to the landmark feminist text Our Bodies, Ourselves (now a digital source for knowledge about and access to women’s health care), plus the choice to open with an Audre Lorde quote situates this post squarely within a long tradition of feminist theory in DH activism. The questions raised here are meant to inspire ideas for HLS’ first Twitter Chat, and represents how new groups are forming as a reaction to the Trump administration.

The Urgency of Public Engagement (February 26, 2017)
In this post, Katina Rogers joins a number of scholars in reacting to the anxieties of the Trump administration’s effect on DH, and on the Humanities largely. Drawing from her experience as Director of Administration and Programs of the Futures Initiative at CUNY, Rogers calls for a new framework of academia in which we no longer prioritize insular paths to tenure, but rather recognize and reward outward paths to work with and serve communities. She centers the relationship between “innovation, equity, and public engagement” as one that can transform academia from an ivory tower to a public resource. She calls not only for a cultural shift, but for a concerted effort to train graduate students to pursue public-facing work.

Foregrounding the Question (March 15, 2017)
This post by professor Elizabeth Lenaghan argues not only for computer literacy in undergraduate writing seminars, but to find ways for students to engage with questions of source verification. Her approach, in her words: “we examine the way that concepts such as truth, authenticity, and originality—though often presumed static and absolute—are constantly shifting and morphing in relation to time, context, and audience.” They focus on both identifying and creating “media hoaxes, plagiarism, and remix culture” in order to develop the skills to easily recognize these in their online practices. Although she has been teaching this way since 2013, she argues that it is even more critical in our current “post-truth” era.

Teaching Digital Rhetoric in the Age of Fake News: Media Literacy and Source Evaluation in the First-Year Writing Classroom (March 17, 2017)
This post by composition instructor Elizabeth Fleitz argues for a new conception of digital literacy in the composition classroom. She first makes a plea that we not take the idea of “digital natives” for granted by assuming they have the skills to both use and assess their online worlds. In order to provide her digital native students with the skills to assess web content, Fleitz employs the strategies of fact-checkers in the classroom. She argues that not only does this fulfill requirements for students to learn to question and challenge sources broadly, but will equip them to develop political ideas and identities in the age of fake news.

What is the role of the digital humanities in transforming and responding to the arts? (March 2017)
Art has largely been considered a realm of political action, while the humanities has largely been seen as one of knowledge production. This survey question posed by MediaCommons received several answers from vastly different disciplines—artists, art historians, ethnographers, ecocriticism, #TransformDH feminist scholars, and others—demonstrating the ways that similar concerns are connecting DH scholars across disciplines. One respondent, Jarah Moesch who identifies as a “queer artist-scholar” offers this answer: “Perhaps, then, these rigid lines between so-called disciplines are actually the ‘problem’…I am also wary of the idea that the Digital Humanities should somehow transform “The Arts,” that this type of scholarship should necessarily play a role in art, while not considering how art might also transform the Digital Humanities.”

How Libraries Can Trump the Trend to Make America Hate Again (April 24, 2017)
In this post, Jarrett Drake, an important voice for archivist-activists and advisor for the Documenting the Now community and toolkit, argues that not only do libraries have a responsibility to serve the needs of their communities, but that this agenda should—must—extend into activism. In his words: “libraries should be on the frontlines to fight fascism because the control of information and ideas is central to the spread of fascism, and thus libraries will be forced either to endorse that spread or encumber it.” He traces earlier moments when libraries and librarians were active voices against oppressive regimes and ends with three main calls to action: assert authority, center communities, and never normalize.

Wrapping up with Public Projects

We ended our first year as Digital History Fellows in the Public Projects Division. As someone with career goals in Public History, I was most excited to get to work in this division. However, doing this year-long rotation through the Center allowed me to witness the strengths of all three. I was able to work with projects I wasn’t familiar with, and become more familiar with ones I was, as well as gain a broad understanding of digital humanities work. It was also interesting to see how the various parts of the Center function with distinct tasks, work styles, and guiding philosophies, yet come together to create one cohesive Center.

Over these last six weeks we were able to experience the many and varied projects that the Public Projects division balances. First, we got familiar with Omeka, one of the legacy projects of the Center. With the help of other graduate students, we learned how to install Omeka sites on our own server space provided by the Center. This is certainly a useful skill to take with us, along with the command line practice we received in the Research Division and Clio II. We were also given access to an Omeka S dev site that allowed us to also play with the some of the new features this platform offers. In particular, I spent some time with the CSV import function by putting together a spreadsheet with metadata for various early jazz album covers. The CSV import creates distinct items for each row, and allows for batch uploading of collections. Practically, having the content in the form of a spreadsheet will help in the future when sites need to be re-built quickly for new rounds of testing.

Speaking of testing, we also spent a fair amount of time working with previous DH Fellows to test new plug-ins like batch editing and comment blocks, or bugs reported in the Omeka forum. We had done a bit of testing while in the Education Division, so I was mildly familiar with the process. However, the kind of testing we did in Public Projects necessitated a very organized strategy between several of us to replicate issues and determine exactly which actions were causing the site to break. Thanks to our testing guru, Jannelle Legg, I learned how to organize a testing process to track and pinpoint our actions separately and together, and to provide useful feedback for the dev team.

In between testing, we also were introduced to Public Project’s long-running Papers of the War Department project. This project has two main parts. One, it is a digital collection that attempts to reconstitute the records lost when the War Department caught fire in 1800 by bringing together thousands of documents from archives around the country into one digital collection. Two, the Scripto tool developed at the Center turns this collection into a crowd-sourced transcription project in order to make the items searchable for researchers. Laura and I were give usernames and were asked to dig around the site to explore the various materials available, and then to transcribe some items to understand the process. The Public Projects Division continues to maintain Papers of the War Department and is still receiving new transcriptions from users and keeps an updated blog. It is an example of how the Center is not only good at developing new projects, but maintaining older ones to keep them accessible and relevant.

Our final task in the division was my favorite, as it allowed me to fuse my interest in music, public, and digital history. For the last three weeks, Laura and I helped with preliminary research for the Hearing the Americas planning grant. This project will attempt to contextualize a collection of early recordings digitized in the Library of Congress’ National Jukebox, so the bulk of our research was exploring musicians and songs that appear in this collection. Laura and I spent a lot of time working collaboratively to piece together the biographies of several musicians and genealogies of songs that not only revealed connections between people in the early music industry, but within larger themes in American history. I am looking forward to continuing this work over the Summer and during my second year as a Digital History Fellow in the Public Projects Division. Not only do I get to explore topics and themes that are interesting and relevant to my own research, but I get to witness, almost from start to finish, the process of writing a grant proposal that leads to the kinds of projects Laura and I have worked on over the last year.

Research Division

Laura and I spent the first half of the Spring 2017 semester in the Research Division. We were given a range of tasks, some of which definitely took me out of my comfort zone. First, we were asked to work through the Python tutorials on The Programming Historian. After that, we worked through the HTML and CSS tutorials on Code Academy. At the same time, we are taking Clio II (or, Data and Visualization in Digital History), which is introducing us to R programming. So, I suddenly went from having no real familiarity with any coding languages, to having at least a cursory understanding of four. Although a bit overwhelming at first, I can now see the benefits of this kind of exposure, as it better enables me to assess other digital history projects and have realistic understandings of how this could fit into my own research. We were also asked to try out some of newly acquired HTML and CSS skills by designing a mock-up redesign for the Press Forward website. After spending an entire workday tinkering with row sizes, fonts, and colors, we produced a mock-up that really wasn’t so bad, and was actually pretty fun to build once I started to get the hang of it.

During our time in Research, we were also involved with creating proto-documentation for Tropy, the division’s newest project. Tropy will provide a way for researchers to annotate, organize, and search through the increasing number of digital images we collect from physical archives, digital archives, and/or born-digital sources. This task placed me much more squarely in my comfort zone, as we were asked to think about metadata, copyright, and user testing, and write up outlines for future project documentation. It was also useful to get a kind of inside look at Tropy through early testing to understand the process of developing projects that are meant to offer specific functions to a wide audience. I expect that Tropy, much like Zotero, will become a vital tool for many researchers. After all, most historians (whether they consider themselves digital or not) can relate to the problem of having too many images and too little metadata.

We spent the last couple of weeks in Research discussing the work of historians—what is it that historians actually do—and what is gained and lost as the field becomes more and more digital. It seems to me that as we engage with representations of the past—whether in the archive, through mediating technologies like microfilm, or by searching through digitized records—the process of locating, reading, and contextualizing sources always obscures as much as it illuminates. Our discussions raised several questions along these lines. Doesn’t the process of rooting through dusty boxes or searching in Google shape what we can say about the past in analogous ways, and shouldn’t we be more transparent about the paths we take through both? Also, what is unique about the space of the archive? What do we lose when we can’t stumble upon unexpected ephemera, when provenance is replaced by keyword searches, or when marginalia isn’t retained in scanning? Conversely, what do we gain in digital research spaces? These theoretical questions are certainly things I plan to keep in mind as I progress through my career as a digital historian.

An Eight-Week Education

Our first rotation through the Center sent us to the Education Division (ED). Although set back from the main workspaces of the Center, it soon became clear that the ED’s work is central to the reputation and productivity of the Center. At our first weekly meeting, we were introduced to the progress board, a large white board listing each project in the ED and details about the progress of each. Every Tuesday morning, members of the ED would update the group on the progress of each project, of which there were many, and record those changes on the board. This all seemed a bit overwhelming at first, but by the end of our rotation I was (mostly) able to keep track of the many projects the ED is constantly (and successfully) juggling.

We were given a chance to work on more of these projects than I would have imagined we could have time for in eight weeks. We first started working with Jennifer Rosenfeld, Associate Director of Educational Projects, on the Understanding Sacrifice project with the American Battle Monuments Commission. This project gives history teachers an opportunity to visit an American military cemetery, research and write a eulogy for a fallen soldier in that cemetery, and create a publicly-available lesson plan around what they’ve learned. To help with this project, we were asked to transcribe a few of the recorded eulogies spoken at the gravesite of their fallen soldier, as well as edit the written biographies of these soldiers and the lesson plans that each teacher developed. Many of these stories were quite moving, and the lesson plans provided interesting ways to engage students with military history in new ways, even outside of the history classroom. Jennifer also asked us to help test the online course for George Mason University’s Digital Public Humanities Graduate Certificate. Helping with Jennifer’s projects allowed me to see how the ED’s projects can directly enrich the relationship between instructors and students.

Kelly Schrum, Director of Educational Projects, assigned us to a number of projects that allowed us to work with other members of the ED. With Nate Sleeter we helped to organize a testing workshop for Through the Doors of Stratford, a website that will allow students in Arlington, Virginia to connect the history of the Civil Rights Movement and massive resistance to their local community through online modules. We also worked with Nate on Hidden in Plain Sight, a course that allows teachers to gain certification credits by learning to narrate history through primary sources, and were able to develop our own modules. I decided to bridge my interest in music history with the public-domain treasure trove that is the WPA materials at the Library of Congress to design a module that uses Federal Project Number One as a window into American life in the 1930s. This was one of the more engaging and challenging assignments we were given, providing an opportunity to contribute our own research to a successful DH project.

Kelly also had us work with Sara Collini to help develop Eagle Eye Citizen, a free, online interactive that allows students to solve challenges about Civics and History using primary sources from the Library of Congress. Our role in this project was quite varied, as we were asked to do everything from search through Library of Congress’ online sources, write and review parts of the challenges, search for sheet music and interviews that would be engaging for students, and make sure that this information was entered correctly into Drupal. We were also asked to work the Eagle Eye Citizen booth at the National Council for the Social Studies Conference, which was a fun and lively conference. It was great to see teachers genuinely excited about the launch of this project next Fall, and already thinking of ways to integrate it into their classrooms and curriculums. Sometimes, working on these kinds of projects comes with the worry that no one else will be as excited about your project as you are. The response at the conference (and the Center’s general track record) showed that this isn’t the case!

My last major contribution in the ED was to help Kelly develop a project to record historic sheet music for use by students and teachers. This allowed me to reference my love of music and cultural history, and consider various questions and concerns that characterize the beginnings of any scholarly project, DH or otherwise. This entailed envisioning what kinds of recordings we would make and what pieces of music we would select, how the recordings would be made available, who might be interested in using it, and, perhaps most importantly, who would be interested in funding it. Although still in its early stages, it is a project that I am very excited about, and hope to stay involved in even as I continue to cycle around the Center.

I really enjoyed my time working in the Education Division. Although my role was small in many of these projects—much of the groundwork had been done before we arrived in the ED—it felt good to work on projects that will help teachers and students engage with the past. It also made clear to me—in ways that our previous time in the seminar portion of fellowship could only do theoretically—the range of projects and partnerships the Center has developed, even just within one department. Personally, the ED showed me how good it feels to be part of a professional and courteous group of people who are all willing to meet on Tuesday mornings to return, once again, to the progress board, with the sole condition that the meeting starts with a plate of cookies or a piece of cake.

Next up: Research.

Playing With History

We began our first year as DH Fellows in a seminar where we were asked to choose a project from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media’s 20th anniversary site, and develop an Omeka exhibit that tells the history of that project. The Lost Museum, an early online game developed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, immediately caught my attention. The Lost Museum allows users to move through a virtual recreation of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, destroyed by an unsolved arson attack in 1865, while investigating potential suspects and learning about 19th century social, political, and cultural history (to learn more, visit the exhibit). A professor assigned this game in a class I took as undergraduate, and I remember discussing the project not just for its historical content, but as a historical artifact itself. It has been updated since then, but still maintains the characteristics of an early internet website: playful, creative, and idiosyncratic. Developing this exhibit has allowed me to explore the early days of digital humanities projects, and the direction the RRCHNM has gone in since then.

The emergence of new media gave rise to a small but ambitious group of scholars who imagined nontraditional ways of presenting their work to the public. And that’s what it really seemed to be about—gaining a wide, public audience. Of course, students and teachers were also important to this work, as can be seen through the Center’s first project, Who Built America? Other academics would continue to read and publish articles and books, and would benefit from the many database and source-driven digital humanities projects to come. But, for a rather brief moment, the popular appeal of gaming and dynamic storytelling seemed to be the next frontier for presenting historical scholarship. The crew that developed The Lost Museum—a mix of academics and programmers from the American Social History Project at CUNY and the very new Center for History and New Media at GMU—recognized and explored these potentials.

Since these early days, however, there has been a relative absence of gaming from the digital humanities landscape. Gaming is able to extend the immersive narrative forms of earlier new media, particularly documentary film. The exploratory structure of gaming can not only lead to deeper engagement with the historical content, but also the process of doing historical work. However, these projects take a long time (the seed of The Lost Museum started in 1994 and the project wasn’t completed until 2005) as they require a highly collaborative group of people with the skill, time, and money to see a project through. The formation of digital humanities centers during this period were an attempt to balance this always-shifting equation of skill, time, and money. And in many cases, and certainly the case at CHNM, projects often built the center while the center built the project. So why, then, haven’t we see more creative output from these centers?

Working on this exhibit helped me to understand how much funding opportunities forced many digital humanists and the Centers they worked for to be more pragmatic about what they could do and how long it would take them to do it. This is not to diminish the work of Centers. The projects and tools that the CHNM has created over the last two decades are engaging and useful, and have helped to define the state of digital humanities today. And there are many other Centers across the world doing similarly influential work. To funders, a game is simply riskier than a content management system, or a database-driven project. At least in the case of The Lost Museum, gaming projects tend to take on a life of their own and require a high level of flexibility. And, once completed, the question remains: will anyone want to play it? However, as someone interested in digital humanities and popular culture, it doesn’t seem right to confine my subjects to the pages of a monograph, or even the rows and columns of a content management system. In the case of The Lost Museum, the elements of the story effectively begged to be made into a game—a real historical mystery (investigative) set inside of a museum (immersive) that contained artifacts and oddities (interactive). If people could no longer visit P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, visiting the virtual space was the next best thing.

Lately, it appears that DH scholars are reflecting on where DH has come since these early days and where it might be going. Promisingly, The NEH has started to fund more gaming projects, which suggests a possible shift towards more creative projects in DH’s future. It also appears that a general nostalgia for the 1990s has set in. The playful, dynamic, DIY-style of early internet design does not seem as anachronistic today as it might have five years ago. Instead, it seems fun, and familiar, and maybe a little comforting. And although this 90s nostalgia could be a passing fad, it could also be something worth nurturing. With the CMS takeover of the Internet, more DH gaming projects could possibly offer an escape not only for users, but for creators as well.