Reflecting on the Spring Semester

Last fall as a DH Fellow, I worked in the education division. My activities focused on the National History Day 100 Leaders project, described in a blog post in December. This spring I moved into the public projects division, working with Megan Brett and Sheila Brennan on the Histories of the National Mall project.

I described some of the activities that I focused on in this division in a previous blog post . In many ways, working on this project has allowed me to do what I enjoy most; research historical subjects and share my findings with others. This project is also unique in that it is not tied to a time period or particular subject. Instead, we are collecting and presenting stories that are connected to a bounded geographic space. Framing research in terms of geography has encouraged me to gravitate toward the subjects that are most interesting to me, while also exposing me to new subjects, people, and events.

I’ve focused particular attention this semester on a research question that considers the monuments and other projects that are unbuilt. Of course, the history of the National Mall includes the structures and monuments that currently fill the space, but it is also marked by the things that were never there. This inquiry was started by other graduate students at the center, but I’ve enjoyed exploring the history of unbuilt monuments and other objects. These provide a rich site for investigation on several levels.

In order to be unbuilt, these items received public support and congressional approval. They have to be conceptualized, designed, and a site must be selected. Each of these decisions reflects the beliefs and attitudes of sculptor, artist, community organizer, and congressperson, as well as the broader community. The debates that memorials and monuments engendered can be very telling, especially in cases like the National Peace Garden which was designed and then redesigned based on feedback from the US Fine Arts Commission. These debates can shape the design of an object or define its placement. Further still, a lack of interest or financial support can mean that a proposal is never completed. Much of this interesting history is obscured because the memorials and monuments they propose are unbuilt and invisible. In many ways, this is the value of a project like Histories of the National Mall. It challenges us to think beyond the existing structures and to visualize what might have been. We can reimagine the space with alternate designs for existing structures, like the Lincoln Memorial, and think further about how the Mall changes with the addition of structures such as the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial or a Benjamin Banneker Memorial. Researching these items has been a fascinating and entertaining part of my semester.

In addition to these tasks, I have also aided in the promotion of the site. In the previous post, I described the social media presence that I have maintained over the semester. But recently I  was also able to take part in some public outreach activities. On a sunny day this spring, I joined Megan Brett  on a whirlwind tour of the greater DC area distributing pamphlets and promotional materials to public libraries, visitors centers and other related institutions. This process highlighted for me the difficulty of creating public history projects online. As much as we’d like to believe the Field of Dreams when Shoeless Joe Jackson tells us, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ The reality is that there can be a disconnect between the people you would like to visit your site and the people who know about it. This activity was a good reminder that even as we increasingly move to digital modes of communication, there is still a measure in which putting foot to pavement is a part of doing digital work.

In general, it has been a busy and fruitful semester in the Public Projects division. The transition from a first-year to a second-year fellow has meant that I have been given greater responsibility in these projects and have a larger stake in completing the tasks. At the end of next week I will be completing my second year as a Digital History Fellow. Looking across this period, I can note that I’ve grown quite a bit in terms of skill and knowledge and in many ways the center has meaningfully fostered this growth.

Romancing the Histories of the National Mall

This semester, my role in Public Projects has allowed me to work on the Histories of the National Mall project in several ways. Across this period I’ve been involved researching, editing, and posting content on the site, as well as scheduling and posting relevant items to the project’s social media outlets. I’ve also contributed content based on my area of interest (Deaf President Now). These processes have encouraged me to reflect on the nature of public history projects and the way in which our questions can drive us to explore new subjects of interest.

My question started out simply enough. In the midst of scheduling relevant and interesting items for the month of February, Valentines’ Day presented a challenge. The Histories of the National Mall site has over 500 items, including people, events, explorations, images, documents, videos, audio files and scavenger hunts. I generally enjoy finding just the right item to share via Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Paddles the Beaver for April Fool’s Day, Senator Pepper playing baseball with Congressional pages for the opening day of Major League Baseball, or the Original Cherry Trees for the first day of the Cherry Blossom festival were fun to put together. But for a holiday commonly associated with candy hearts and romance, there were no Mall items that made immediate sense.

Down the research rabbit hole I went, armed with a question; when and how was the Mall a place of romance? Researching this question took me in a number of different directions. I learned that today, the National Mall is frequently a destination wedding site. Like other public parks, people are drawn to the landscape and monuments when they contemplate the exchange of their wedding vows. This led me to question the emergence of the practice and to consider historical examples of weddings on and around the Mall. As a result of all this digging, three new items were added to the site; The Wedding, White House Weddings, and Mall Weddings.

One of my favorite aspects of the Mall site is the way that hidden, overlooked, and missing items are made visible. It is a good reminder of the way in which the city is a palimpsest – it is inscribed with ideas that are sometimes erased and reinscribed with new meaning. In a space that feels timeless and grounded by monuments and other structures, it is fascinating to surface new historical layers at the National Mall.

My questions about a history of romance on the Mall resulted in three very different examples of how the space was used for weddings; it has served as public place for the exchange of vows since 1976, as an elegant and, largely private, space for presidents and their families to hold ceremonies, and as a site of large-scale protest regarding the treatment of same-sex couples. In asking this question, many more arise. What can these examples tell us about changing notions about marriage? What do they suggest about the meaning of marriage ceremonies? By focusing on weddings, what other examples of romance have been ignored?

Perhaps the best part of working on this project has been the way that questions like these are encouraged. The wide variety of items and item types demonstrates the way in which Mall has been (and continues to be) interrogated from many angles. And as this experience showed, there are further stories, events, and people to be explored. We just have to ask questions.

Fellowship and Mentorship

During my first year at RRCHNM, Ben Hurwitz served as a guide and mentor to me. As we have described previously, the first year of our fellowship involved an intensive 6 weeks in each division at the center. Ben and the other second-year fellows, Spencer Roberts and Amanda Morton, provided technical support as we worked on projects in each division and advice as we progressed through the program.

Beginning this year as a second-year fellow, I looked forward to being useful to the first-year cohort as they made their way through the center. In a blog post last fall, I described the experience of mentoring the first-year fellows while I was working in the Education division. We worked together to gather multimedia content for videos for the 100 Leaders project, completed some user-testing on the 100 Leaders website, and developed a guidebook for National History Day. I worked to organize the time we spent on each of these activities so that there was a balance between working collaboratively and working on projects individually. I also tried to talk through the challenges that we faced in each of these contexts. For instance, copyright and image rights was a frequent subject of discussion. The process was useful for me in conceptualizing what it entails to organize collaborative projects with a group of people with different interests and skills.

Across this year, I’ve worked most closely with Jordan Bratt, my mentee. As joint producers of the Digital Campus podcast, we’ve worked to schedule the podcast and to research stories for discussion. We’ve used this opportunity to discuss current issues and to share articles of interest, fostering a broader discussion of DH issues and concerns. Outside of this task, Jordan and I converse regularly with regard to his program of study and larger educational goals. Having completed the required courses Clio I and Clio II), I have been able to discuss and advise him on assignments and advise him with regard to course schedules and requirements. We share research interests and our collaboration has led us to fruitful discussions about coursework and research. Jordan comes to GMU and RRCHNM with considerable knowledge and expertise in the field of geography and geographical computing techniques. He has been able to share some of this with me and I can see opportunities for further collaboration in the future.

The mentorship program is useful in several ways. It provides an initial introduction between cohorts and encourages collaboration between them. It provides a sounding board for both groups and encourages us to work together on projects of interest. Working together, across the cohorts, on the Support Space is also useful in enabling us to interact as peers and scholars. The Support Space, described in previous blog posts, provides guidance on digital projects to students from across the program. As they approach us for help, each member of the fellowship program is able to provide assistance. Problems are often resolved collaboratively and this process encourages us to learn from one another even as we aid others.

Reflecting on Live-Tweeting

Last fall I chose to livetweet the 20th Anniversary conference. I described my experiences at the conference in a blog post, but here I will reflect on the experience of live-tweeting these events. Generally speaking, live-tweeting allows you to make connections and extend the conversation. Sharing your thoughts on twitter, challenging or complicating the presentation, engaging with another conference attendees regarding your interpretation or theirs – each of these actions allows audience members to dive into the conversation in a meaningful and scholarly way.

At many conferences, audience members are expected to passively absorb the presentation. They are only able to engage during the Q&A sessions or among other conference-attendees before or after a presentation. A real-time conversation on twitter allows the audience to engage in an evolving discussion with other experts in the field in an open forum. It also provides a space for emerging scholars to participate in this discourse and the shared experience provides the group with a common language and subject matter. As each participant is also processing the information simultaneously, the conversation is frequently revealing of the ways in which people interpret information. Using a shared hashtag and posting these thoughts in a public forum also makes the content of a conference transparent to those not in the room. In this way, conversations are extended to broader social and intellectual circles.

My day of tweeting was punctuated by my responsibilities as a graduate student volunteer. For part of the conference day, we were divided into break-out sessions where I transcribed the ongoing conversation. Trying to balance these duties with tweeting was complicated, but I tried to make visible the discussion that was taking place. I aimed to tweet at least one meaningful comment from my session and I could see conference attendees at other sessions responding to, and showing interest in, the discussions happening in other rooms. This was also telling about the way in which livetweeting encourages us to put discrete panels and presentations into conversation, allowing scholars to participate at multiple levels.


Reflections on the Fall Semester

It has been a busy and beneficial fall semester as a second-year fellow at CHNM. The time rolled along quickly and throughout I’ve had a number of new opportunities and experiences that have built on the work that we did last year as first-year fellows.

As a second-year fellow in the center, our roles at the center changed considerably. The first year of the fellowship focused on circulating us through each division at the center – a six-week process that exposed us to the various projects and enabled us to work with faculty and staff throughout CHNM. The second year of the fellowship has been much more concentrated. My work in the Education division has afforded me more time on a project and allowed me to work more directly with members of that division. In turn I’ve been able to understand the facets of the project to which I have contributed and have enjoyed greater integration into the division.

Getting Started with Phase 1 of 100 Leaders:

In this case, the majority of the fall semester was spent working on the 100 Leaders in World History project. The site, which I have reviewed here, allows for interaction with historical figures on the subject of leadership and encourages teachers and students to extend these subjects further by rating these figures on particular leadership traits. CHNM was selected by National History Day to develop and design the site last Spring. At the start of the semester the site was still in the first phase of development. I worked to add the content from National History Day to each of the pages and familiarized myself with the back-end structure of Drupal. Throughout this period I had a number of interesting conversations with Jennifer Rosenfeld about the complexities and challenges of creating interactive and educational materials for the web. I learned a good deal about the importance of collaboration on a project of this scale. With over 100 distinct pages on the site, minor edits, like the addition of italicization, called for discussion, notation, and a division of labor to ensure that each page was updated appropriately.

Mentoring and moving into Phase 2:

As the semester rolled on, the first-year fellows circulated into the Education department for a four-week accelerated rotation. Stephanie, Jordan, and Alyssa each completed a blog post that described their experiences. During this period I took on a larger role in mentoring them and organized each of the activities we would undertake. We began with user testing across browsers and devices. At this stage, the 100 Leaders in World History project had entered the second phase of development and this user testing aided in the development and design of the current voting interface and served to test and validate that the underlying voting algorithm was capturing and recording appropriately. We consistently tried our best to break everything and shared our findings with Jennifer and James McCartney for improvement. (Anyone viewing the site on a smartphone will appreciate our feedback as the larger slider buttons were a direct result of these tests!)

Next, we worked to gather image content and citation information for videos on the site. At first, our discussions focused on digital images and copyright, but soon we turned our attention to issues of diversity and representation in terms of time period, geographic region, gender, race, ethnicity, and type of leadership. We tried to be thoughtful in our selections, considering the ability of a single image to convey particular types of information about a leader or juxtaposing images to create alternate or additional meaning about a figure or figures. The final activity undertaken with the help of the first year fellows was the creation of a guidebook that will aid National History Day in modifying and maintaining the 100 Leaders in World History site.

Each of these activities was useful in demonstrating the different complications that accompany large-scale, collaborative, educational websites. User testing encouraged us to deal with the user experience and to gain insight into the processes required to build a site of this size. Contributing images moved us back into our comfort zones as historians doing research on particular subjects- but the added complication of copyright was useful in expanding the Fellows’ thinking about what digital historical research entails. While we each campaigned for our favorite images or leaders, we also took seriously the importance of crafting a meaningful visual narrative that supported the dialogue of each video. Finally, the guidebook allowed an introduction to the back-end of a Drupal site and encouraged us to think through questions about making navigation easier and more efficient to those without experience programming.

Working on 100 Leaders after the launch:

After the first-year fellows completed their rotation in the Education division, my work continued to focus on the completion of the Guidebook as well as video transcription, user testing, data manipulation and a website review. On November 3rd, the voting interface on the 100 Leaders in World History site went live. To aid in marketing the site and to inform teachers about how it could be used in the classroom, I wrote a summary of the site’s features for This website review encouraged me to revisit my earlier discussions with Jennifer about online learning and to view the 100 Leaders in World History site with fresh eyes. Since then, interest in the site has exploded and we have recorded over 200,000 votes in just over a month. It has been a busy but useful semester for me in Education and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to contribute to a project like 100 Leaders.

CHNM Anniversary:

In November, CHNM celebrated its 20th anniversary with a conference held here at George Mason. As I described here, the second-year fellows spent a portion of last spring engaged in a discussion about the history of the center. From that seminar with Dr. Robertson, each of us researched a foundational project in the center’s history and created an archive in Omeka to organize and display our findings. Over the summer I worked to expand our efforts to include the broader range of projects using grant materials, oral histories, and internal communications to trace the development and growth of important projects. As a relative newcomer to the field, this process was particularly meaningful. This work culminated this fall in the release of the RRCHNM20 Collection which made these materials public and invited others to contribute. The RRCHNM20 Collection is an important step toward creating a unified narrative of CHNM’s role through recording and preserving the hidden processes and persons at each phase of CHNM’s history. In fact, a group of us used a portion of our time at the conference to mine the RRCHNM collection and create a visualization that represents some of the connections between projects and people across 20 years.  Furthermore, the conference events brought former and current employees together in a productive and meaningful dialogue about the past, present and future of work at DH centers like CHNM (I live-tweeted these experiences throughout the conference.)

Additional Fellowship Responsibilities and final thoughts:

The additional responsibilities of a second-year fellow include producing a podcast, serving as a mentor to first-year fellows and the operation of the Digital Support Space. It was interesting to be on the other side of the mentorship process this year. Last year, Ben Hurwitz, Spencer Roberts, and Amanda Morton served as mentors to the incoming fellows. They were each very helpful to us and I was excited to provide the same assistance for the new group. Across the semester I’ve made myself available to each of them for support, but my interaction during their rotation in the Education division was particularly significant. During that period I was able to provide direct support and work with each of them individually on a project. Not only do I feel that I got to know them better, but we had a number of useful conversations about the fellowship and the PhD program broadly. I also worked this semester with my mentee, Jordan, to research and produce episode 108 for the Digital Campus podcast. Finally, I also extended time and resources to individuals in Clio I, Clio 3, and Digital Storytelling classes through the Support Space.

Overall, has been a fast and busy semester but a successful one. I’ve learned a good deal about project management and collaboration through my experiences on the 100 Leaders in World History project and I’m pleased to have had the chance to work more closely in the Education division.


First-Year Review

Our spring semester as Fellows at the Center passed remarkably quickly (not solely a result of the frequent snow days but cancellations definitely contributed to the rapid approach of summer). We were kept very busy with projects for the Research division and an intensive DH Seminar this semester. Below I’ll briefly describe some of the activities we undertook throughout this period and reflect on my first year fellowship at CHNM.

The semester started with six weeks in the Research division – by far the most intimidating to someone that is new to DH. Quickly, however, we were put to work on several engaging projects and I found that I acclimated without feeling overwhelmed. We learned about PressForward by doing some user testing and improving the documentation for the plugin. We also were able to learn about the grant-writing process by doing some research for an upcoming project and we got a clearer idea of how plugins and tools are developed at the center. The majority of our time in this division was spent on the challenging task of using digital tools to uncover information about THATCamp. We blogged about the process of being set loose on the contents of THATCamp and the scraping and topic modeling we performed (those posts are available here). We shared these results in a center-wide presentation and received a lot of support and feedback for the project.

Across the semester the Fellows also focused time on providing support and assistance to other students. As many of us were also enrolled in Clio 2, we were visited many of our classmates and our table was often filled with students collaborating on skills and resources. With assignments that required significant use of digital tools, we handled questions regarding Photoshop and Dreamweaver, sought new resources and tools, and helped find errors in HTML or CSS. I saw a huge benefit in working through problems and took a lot of inspiration from the advice and suggestions of everyone at the table.

Finally, our semester came to a close as we spent the last six weeks in a seminar with Dr. Stephen Robertson. The seminar built on the experiences within each department at the Center and, with this base of knowledge, asked us to turn our gaze outward at the digital humanities as a field and DH centers as centers of production. This discussion was also a timely one, as this fall CHNM will celebrate its 20th anniversary and the Center has begun to reflect on this period. We used Diane Zorich’s work on DH centers with readings by Mark Sample, Stephen Ramsay, Bethany Nowviskie, Neil Fraistat, Elijah Meeks and Trevor Owens, to frame our discussions and answer questions about where, when and how DH work has been done.

Using centerNet as a starting place, we tried to unpack a larger history of digital humanities labs and centers. This process raised interesting questions for us about the differences between a resource center, library service desk, institutional organization and brick-and-mortar DH center. Projects, staff, infrastructure, institutional support and audience were among the issues we considered, but we were also curious about how these locations are linked through shared resources, staff and projects.

Next we dug into the history of CHNM. Oral histories have been collected from participants at the center- but we soon realized that the overview these interviews provided would be only part of the picture of CHNM. In order to further unpack this history, we would need to dive into the projects themselves. Each of us examined a pivotal project. For me this was ECHO, a web portal for the history of science and technology. Working through grant materials enabled me to make connections between this early project and current/recent projects like Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, Zotero, and Omeka. Using ECHO as a vantage point, I gained greater insight into the transitions the Center has seen – from an emphasis on CD-ROMs and single-subject websites to building tools that enable us to organize, analyze, present, and use content in new ways. Understanding and unpacking this trajectory was very useful for me and a meaningful part of my semester.

Looking across my year at CHNM, I’m very happy with the time we spent in each division. Walking into the center can be an intimidating process. One has the immediate sense that you are entering a place where things happen, where goals are made, met, and exceeded. It was very hard to imagine my place in the midst of such an accomplished group of people. With a limited digital background – this was a year of learning, asking questions and digging up online tutorials. The Center has been a remarkable resource toward that goal. Cycling through each division exposed us to a variety of projects and workflows and I’ve learned a great deal through this process. Though each division responds to their own set of concerns and audiences, there is a definite cohesion to the work that is done. It has been remarkably informative to have played a small part in that process.

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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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

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!

Education Dept. Reflection

My time in the education department at CHNM has passed quickly, but it has also been deeply enriching. I’ve learned a lot about the challenges of creating historical scholarship geared toward K-12 students and have come to appreciate the importance of integrating digital media in the classroom. As one can imagine, coming into the Center with limited technical skills can be intimidating, but in these seven weeks the combination of course content and fellowship activities has greatly reduced my concerns.

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