Collaborative Second Year Post

We’ve reached the end of our two-year stint as Digital History Fellows at RRCHNM. The time we’ve spent at the center has introduced us to various tools and techniques, provided the opportunity to work with scholars, given us insight into the process and progress of grant-funded DH projects, and enabled us to build a supportive cohort of students across the program that will continue to serve each of us as we move into the next stage of our programs. Below, each of us will expand on the experiences we’ve had at the center and reflect on the work we’ve done.

Anne

The structure of the DH fellowship helped me to gain knowledge and skills of digital history in a meaningful way—one that assisted me in learning more collaborative ways of doing history, achieving more skills to accomplish creating digital history, and understanding the reasoning behind doing DH. During my first year, we were able to travel between the divisions, which allowed for a relatively quick overview of the different ways that digital history is done. In the second year, I was placed into two divisions—one each in fall and spring—and I was able to delve further into particular projects within these divisions and work more closely with the members of each division.

The Center for History and New Media is structured in such a way that open collaboration and communication is possible. Although there are three divisions, there are open discussions for ideas, collaboration amongst the members, and many people that are very willing to help if needed. Through my work here, I’ve learned that many people in the Center use different tools to create their work, and this has helped me to become exposed to new methods. There are also several meetings in which ideas are discussed, and these meetings are productive for learning new ways to do Digital History.

I had a much easier time with my trio of Clio classes due to my time as a DH Fellow. When I came in, I had some experience with certain tools, but I did not feel confident in my ability to actually do digital history. Our classes have changed that, and my time at the Center was very complementary in that it seemed whenever we were doing work for the Clio classes, we were also working on something similar within our CHNM work. It also was a great establishment of skills for taking Clio 3, which involved much more programming. Because of my time at CHNM, I had previous experience with some programing languages, and it made the process of taking Clio 3 much easier so that I was able to produce a meaningful piece of scholarship in the end.

In the future, I plan on taking the ideas of collaboration, communication, and the skill set that I have gained from CHNM into my career as a historian. Since I plan on working in a public history setting, I feel that the ability to utilize these skills will further my ability as a historian.

I believe that one of the most meaningful activities of my time at CHNM was the building of relationships with my colleagues through our mentoring and support space. Although we were all working on different projects throughout the two years of our DH Fellowship, the availability of mentoring—first with the third years mentoring us and then us doing the same for the first years—allowed us to communicate, collaborate, and to learn from each other. I believe that this is one of the most important aspects of the DH Fellowship, as it fosters an environment that promotes this type of dialogue for our future careers and work, whether inside or outside the academy.

Mandy

The second year of the fellowship, for me, has been incredibly useful.  I’ve really enjoyed being positioned on PressForward in the Research division. My work in this division has allowed me to further develop my programming skills, stay current with the latest DH scholarship through DHNow and the Journal of Digital Humanities, and participate in the development cycle for an open access piece of software.  Our first year of the fellowship was focused on testing various tools and becoming familiar with different platforms and approaches to Digital History.  This year I’ve moved into more of a building role and have had the opportunity to draw on the programming skills I’ve developed to contribute to the PressForward plugin. The structure of both the first and second years of the fellowship compliment each other well and has provided me with a broad knowledge of the centers organization, various digital history tools and approaches, as well as a chance to implement and build on what I’ve learned.

When I began this fellowship, the structure of the center was very unclear to me. However, through our rotations and experience in each division, I’ve become familiar with the current structure of the center, its origin, history, and its position in the larger field. CHNM has a long history of collaborating with teachers and schools, museums and libraries, as well as individual scholars and researchers to produce tools and projects that are innovative and sustainable. Participation in the Open Source community has been important to projects like Omeka or Zotero and has created a group of users who are active in testing and developing for these projects.

The digital history coursework we’ve been required to complete has often complimented our work at the center and helped to shape my views on digital history. Our practicum at RRCHNM provided practical hands-on experience while our coursework often provided a theoretical and sometimes historical perspective on Digital History methods, tools, and projects. I think taking these courses as a fellow gave me a unique perspective and some unique experience in Digital History.

Looking forward to the next year, I am planning to finish up prepping for my comprehensive exams and prepare my dissertation prospectus in order to advance to candidacy. Over the summer, I’ll be working on developing my dissertation prospectus and working to develop a proposal and plan for a digital component. My experience as a Digital History Fellow has shaped the way I’ve conceptualized using digital methodologies and techniques in my dissertation and has helped me to develop some of the skills that will be necessary. Because of the work I’ve been involved with at the center and my digital coursework at GMU, I have a realistic idea of what will be required to build a digital component.

The projects I have found most valuable during this fellowship have been projects like our THATCamp Topic Modeling project where we generated a data set about a center project and mined it. This project, in many ways, was a productive failure and I benefited greatly from it. Looking back on the project now, a year later, I realize many of the assumptions we made were flawed and we could have extracted and cleaned the data in both a reproducible and an easier manner. Projects where the fellows are given creative license to draw on techniques and concepts discussed in our coursework in order to create something based on a center project (or on center history) is, I think, extremely valuable for Digital History Fellows. These types of projects are also ideal for fostering and promoting mentorship among the fellows.  Spencer Roberts was such an important resource for us during the THATCamp project and we couldn’t have completed the project without him.  He offered advice on how to approach the project, explained programming concepts, and worked with us for several days on troubleshooting our python script.  Through this project, as well as projects like creating the RRCHNM Omeka Archive for the 20th Anniversary, I gained valuable insight into what it takes to accurately and realistically conceptualize a digital project as well as experience thinking through critical choices like information architecture with the user in mind. We were often faced with unexpected challenges and messy data along the way. I’ve taken a lot away from these projects and I think they are a valuable and unique aspect of the fellowship that should be continued and implemented in a thoughtful way for future cohorts.

Jannelle

Recently the next cohort of PhD students visited GMU. As we sat with them and described the fellowship track and digital coursework, I began to reflect on my own experience along these lines. It is surprising how quickly we were incorporated into the activities of the center. The structure of the fellowship was remarkably useful in this regard- we were introduced to people and projects in a six week cycle that provided a low barrier to entry. As we moved across the center, we were able to identify the projects and skills that appealed to each of us. The second year took this process further. Moving into a single department meant that each of us was able to take a larger part in the work. Each of us was able to explore subjects of interest and work more extensively with others within that division. In my case this meant a fall semester in the Education division working on the 100 Leaders project and a spring semester in the Public Projects division working on the Mall project. Working more extensively in one division meant that each of us had to balance the responsibilities of the fellowship with our tasks in each division, but in most cases we were able to manage these well.

Working as a DH Fellow has definitely guided the direction of my coursework. I entered the program here at GMU with very little technical experience. Working at the center enabled me to build skill and confidence in these areas. It definitely gave me the confidence to enroll in Clio 3; Programming for Historians without these valuable experiences. I also found the Support Space to be a valuable aspect of my time at the Center. Bringing my challenges to the table and helping others with their work allowed me to create and build relationships with other students in the program. Oftentimes, we would spend time talking a problem out together and I found this type of collaboration particularly edifying. Last spring, Mandy Regan led a group of students in our Clio 2 class in a tutorial on 960 grid. This impromptu tutorial was a great example of the way that we were able to bridge our coursework with the fellowship. These activities have fostered collaborative relationships that continue to encourage us to share techniques and digital work with one another.

I’ve written on this subject in the past, but the preparation we did for the 20th anniversary was particularly meaningful for me. We started this work as a group and over the course of the summer I expanded the repository to include the many projects in the Center’s history. The process enabled me to read each one of the grants in the center’s history. Quickly I gained a better understanding of how the field has changed in 20 years. The project forced me to reconsider tools like Zotero as part of a larger vision. To think about projects like History Matters in terms of the other work the center has produced. To put them on a timeline and to view them not as discrete but connected by a thread or an idea. I learned more about iterative projects and the complexities of collaboration. Considering these things while I was working through my coursework enabled me to make connections with readings and class discussions. The experience encouraged me to see these projects from multiple perspectives.

When I reflect on my time as a fellow – this project encapsulates the value of the fellowship for me. It encouraged me to think about the legacy of digital history projects while also considering what is to come from the field. It is a project that will be difficult to duplicate, but one that would serve future Fellows in a meaningful way.

Next year, we all move on, either as a Graduate Research Assistant at the center or as a Teaching Assistant in the Department of History and Art History here at George Mason.  Although our stint as Digital History Fellows is over, we all agree that it was a beneficial experience and we look forward to seeing what future cohorts will do.

 

The End of the Fellowship: Where am I now?

It has certainly been an interesting and rewarding year as a first year fellow at the Center.  The life of a PhD student–much less a first year PhD student–is filled with trial, error, struggle, and hopefully at times, victory.  I came to the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media with little to no knowledge of the digital world outside of checking my e-mail and Facebook.  I’d never had a Twitter account, I had no clue what Python was, and html looked like a foreign language.  I can happily say that nine months later, I have a Twitter account, I’ve created my first digital history project with a proficiency level in html and css–but I still just cannot wrap my mind around Python.

After working at the Center for a year and spending time in all three divisions I can say that I have a much better grasp of the digital world, digital history, and what it means to be a member of this growing field.  I am proud to say that over the last year I’ve worked on multiple projects that have made me feel like I belong in this community and can continue to grow in my personal goals.  This semester in  the Education division, I had the opportunity to work with one of my favorite organizations–National History Day.  I did a lot of background work for their 100 Leaders project–collecting data, organizing tallies, and adding and organizing that data onto the website.  However, one of the most gratifying projects over the semester was working on information that will be implemented into the online DH certificate that will be offered by the university and the Center in the Fall of 2015.

I would like to thank the Center for giving me this incredible opportunity.  While it has been a trying semester I have learned many things that I can now use to further my career in academic history. While I will not be returning to the Center in the fall and will be returning to my love of working with undergraduates I am excited to show everyone at CHNM how much I was able to learn when I present a digital portion of my dissertation in the coming years.  I believe what I learned in both my Clio courses–especially Clio II–gave me a strong foundation that will make for promising research.

Thank you RRCHNM.

 

Live Tweeting–Is this always a good idea?

One of the requirements as a RRCHNM fellow is to live tweet once a semester the interesting things that happen around the Center.  Last semester this requirement was simple.  I was fortunate enough to live tweet the first year fellow trip to the National Mall during our time in Public Projects.  We ran up and down DC testing Histories of the National Mall and completed a scavenger hunt that drew attention to many of the historic sites in the area.  It was an interesting time, full of goofiness, excitement, and entertainment.  My live tweets came with images of the scavenger hunt and different types of media that made my live tweeting more of a pleasure for my followers.  It was easy to create tweets at least once every twenty minutes and from the amount of likes and retweets I received, I assume that my day of live tweeting went over well.

Similarly, the fellows and I added an extra day of tweeting at the 20th anniversary conference for RRCHNM.  While this event was a lot more professional than our scavenger hunt on the Mall, I was still able to tweet out all day long–even gaining followers across Open Source advocates and national museums.

It was a great experience!  However, by the time second semester came around I had a much more difficult time finding an outlet to live tweet.  While interesting things happened around the center this semester, the first year fellows were certainly more about business than testing or conference going.  Every week I waited for an interesting opportunity to tweet for the Center and my followers.  However, nothing extraordinarily interesting that I could draw out for an entire day ever came my way.  The good news is that we were working!  We just didn’t do anything my followers were interested in hearing about all day long. Plus, the portions that would have made for incredible days of live tweeting during my time in education had to be kept under wraps until the projects we were working on went live.

The last week of our fellowship I decided that it would be a good idea to live tweet our fellow sponsored DH Help desk that we and the second year fellows host every week. This help desk allows students to come to the Center and ask for help in their Clio Wired classes.  Since it was the end of the semester, a large percentage of PhD students had some sort of Clio Project due and we knew that our desk would be flooded with last minute questions on html, css, and mapping, I thought this would be the best chance to live tweet.

Well.  My live day of tweeting did not go the way I would have liked.  Unlike running up and down the National Mall and listening to a handful of panels chaired by the biggest names in our field–it was me, the fellows, and a bunch of confused PhD students.  In essence, no one but us gave a dang about what we were doing.  I think I even lost a Twitter follower or two by grasping at straws throughout the entire day with lame tweets.

While I feel like my live tweeting day crashed and burned like no other, I think this assignment taught me and the other fellows a lot about using social media to promote organizations and/or academic interests.  If you don’t have anything thoughtful to tweet, you probably just shouldn’t tweet.  There is a level of professionalism that must be upheld and we all follow that one person on Facebook or Twitter who fill our feeds up with nonsense and we resent them.  In order to remain respected, it’s best to leave live tweeting to some of the more important and enlightening events.

However, just in case you are interested in my by “Barney the Dinosaur-esque” tweets, here is the feed:

 

Reflections on the End of the Semester

For the last part of our first semester at RRCHNM, we were asked to create Omeka exhibits for the 20th anniversary website.  Since I’m studying the Revolutionary Era and have been interested in the Papers of the War Department since I arrived at the center earlier this fall, it was an easy decision to take on PWD for an Omeka exhibit.  However, the farther along I got into the project, the more complicated I realized it was going to be.

In all honesty, it took me a lot longer than normal to figure out what the heck I was doing.  It’s not that I misunderstood the directions, it’s that I couldn’t wrap my head around telling the story of PWD with Omeka without  replicating the site that already existed.  How do you tell the history of a virtual archive and a plugin like Scripto without much visual data outside of grants?  I wasn’t alone either.  Jordan, Alyssa, and I all stared at each other for a few days over our projects, trying to figure out how we can get our stories across without being text heavy and with more visuals.

Fortunately, Sharon Leon—director of Public Projects—came to my rescue.  Sharon not only told me  the fascinating story behind the creation of PWD, but she graciously gave me sets of graphs, an article she had written about Scripto and PWD, and a few leads on what would make great visuals for an Omeka exhibit.  Since we only had to have four pages for our exhibit, I decided to dedicate one page to Sharon’s article and graphs, one page on reviews of PWD by outside sources, a narrative on the creation of Scripto for PWD, and a page on Scripto from the administrator’s point of view.  While my themes don’t exactly tell a fluid narrative, with only four pages and a topic with very few visuals, the project turned out fine.

However, I will add that this exhibit was definitely not my best from the rush of the end of the semester and the amount of visuals I had to tell my story.  I am very excited that Dr. Robertson is letting us work on our exhibits into next semester and on our own time because I still believe that there is much to be done on the project and resources that I have yet to tap into.  I believe that adding a few oral histories on people who worked on both PWD and Scripto, as well as copies of grants would make this project much better.  The story of PWD is fascinating and deserves a clear and detailed exhibit, which is something that calls for much more time, research, and resources.  I have all the faith that this project will come together in the spring.

Tweeting on the National Mall

I am still getting the hang of Twitter and how to use it for academic purposes.  For years I refused to create an account because I wasn’t sure exactly what purpose it served and I didn’t want to be on another form of social media shared with distasteful celebrities.  However, now that I’ve been expected to keep up a Twitter account I’ve realized it’s much more than celebrities and tabloid news.  It has been a fun experience following other historians and getting to understand the tech humanities a little bit more.  However, while I’ve gotten used to reading other people’s tweets, I’m still getting the hang of tweeting my own thoughts out in the Twitterverse.

Live tweeting was a very interesting experience. I purposefully chose what would be an exciting day to do my live tweeting so I would have a  little bit better of a chance of not being a boring tweeter.  The day we tested the Histories of the National Mall in DC and I knew there would be lots of pictures and fun experiences that would make for a good day of reading for all of those who cared to follow me.

While I managed to get out quite a few tweets, testing a mobile website and switching back and forth between Twitter was a little bit more difficult than I had initially planned—which should have probably been the first issue that popped into my mind when I chose that day. However, Alyssa, Jordan, and I managed even though I was usually a few feet behind them playing on my phone so I could tweet more of our day out.

The only other issue we had was the length of the day.  We ended up being able to test the mobile website a little bit faster than anticipated, which meant that my day of live tweeting was cut just a little shorter than I would have liked.   I did manage to get out plenty of tweets full of interesting information about mobile testing on the Mall and it appeared the people following us from the center enjoyed watching us run around the National Mall attempting to find new clues on our scavenger hunt.  Those invigorating tweets can be found here:

 

Public Projects Division Reflection

Working in Public Projects has been a great learning experience. While working in the Division we were able to “sample” several different projects, which provided me with a firm understanding of the breadth of work this Division does.

I live tweeted our first day in Public Projects, which you can read about here. The focus of our first week was Omeka, the content management system used in online digital collections. We first looked at the showcases of Omeka to learn more about the front end. Our Clio class that evening was on Public History, so it was convenient to have the overlap between work and class. For the rest of the week we played around with the back end of Omeka. Megan took us through the steps of downloading Github, placing it in our directory on the dev server, and using command line in our Terminal to navigate. We also did user testing of Omeka, during which we installed the guestuser and poster plugins. We worked on generating posters on each other’s sites. We then installed all available Omeka themes and used them to test out the captions in both static and carousel views.

The second week we became more familiar with Histories of the National Mall. We compared Baltimore Heritage and Heritage Pin to Histories of the National Mall. Those sites have similar goals but use various methods to achieve those goals. Personally I liked History Pin – it’s a great example of crowdsourced history and it encompasses all parts of the globe rather than a single geographic region. Later that week we went on a field trip to the National Mall to do some live testing of the site. Since I don’t have a smartphone, I brought an iPad with me. Unfortunately for us, the wifi on the Mall wasn’t functional that day, so I was unable to do any testing (except for one minute when I was right outside the National Gallery of Art). Jordan and Stephanie graciously let me look at their phones so I was able to have some interaction with the site. At least our visit was a true visitor experience. After our field trip, we were each given a Mall Exploration to review and revise. I learned quite a bit about alternative plans for the Washington Monument. First I edited the content and trimmed down all five sections to under 50 words (apparently I’m unable to read directions that clearly state the sections can be 100 words or less). Then I fact checked the Exploration, using Dan Savage’s Monument Wars, a Washington Post article, the Library of Congress, and the National Park site. Editing and fact checking is a part of the writing process that I really enjoy, so I had fun with the Exploration.

Our final two weeks were spent on the 911 Digital Archive. We worked with several documents from the Boston Federal Aviation Administration Filings. I was given five of them, which I read through and then added metadata to the item record. Using Dublin Core, each document was given a title, description, date published, subjects, contributor, rights, and an item type. I never used Dublin Core standards in library school since I didn’t specialize in archives, but I am fully convinced as to the utility of the standards in museums and archives. Working with the Boston Federal Aviation Administration Fillings reminded me of my love of metadata and collection description.

Working in Public Projects has been incredibly rewarding. I greatly enjoy working in the public history field, and was pleased that we were able to work on so many different projects during our time in the Division. I found that working with the Histories of the National Mall Exploration and creating metadata for the 911 Digital Archive to be fun, which isn’t something I would have expected, but I attribute my love of editing content and creating metadata to my library background. Since this Division undertakes public history projects, when working on them I found it helpful to keep the audience in mind. What would a person creating a poster need or expect? Where might they run into difficulties? What type of wording in my Mall Exploration is the most concise, cohesive, and easy-to-read for a variety of reading levels and ages? When someone accesses the Boston Federal Aviation Administration Filings what sorts of data are they looking for? Is the wording of my description descriptive enough?

While I cannot believe our time is already over (I say that at the end of every Division but time really does go by too quickly), I am looking forward to CHNM’s 20th Anniversary Conference on Friday and Saturday!

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.

Educational Websites – Audience and approach

Over the past week we have been looking at the various generations of educational websites produced by CHNM. The first of these comprehensive sites, History Matters, hit the web in 1998, and obviously there have been major technical improvements in content management and design since then. Rather than talk about these developments, I want to discuss the way that the focus of the educational websites has evolved.

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