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 Teachinghistory.org. 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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Introductions

My first introduction to the Center for History and New Media happened without my even realizing it. As a graduate student at Gallaudet University, a professor urgently encouraged us to begin using Zotero and as I rounded the corner on two Masters theses, the value of this tool was not lost on me. Only after I had begun the process of applying to history programs did I realize that my favorite citation tool had its origins here at George Mason University and CHNM.

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