Reflections on the Fall Semester in Research

This year I am a second year fellow and am spending the year in the Research Division working on PressForward.  In addition to working on PressForward, I’ve continued to be involved in the Support Space, Digital Campus, and mentoring the new fellows. Over the course of this semester the PressForward team has been busy wrapping up the first PressForward grant and, in October, we began PressForward 2 which was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.  As one of the GRAs on this project I’ve worked on multiple things over the course of the semester including redesigning the PressForward website, continuing to manage DHNow, and was involved in putting together the most recent issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities. In the midst of all of this, we’ve been refining and further developing the next version of the PressForward plugin.  I’ve been testing the plugin and have even started contributing code to the most recent version.

This summer I was given the opportunity to work on PressForward and this enabled me to get a head start on my assignment for this year.  It was incredibly useful to be around for the launch of the plugin and to be able to use the summer to really familiarize myself with the plugin, Digital Humanities Now and other aspects of the division.  In our brief rotation through Research last Spring we didn’t get to spend a lot of time looking at the nitty gritty details of how DH Now or PressForward work.  Over the summer I was able to take some time to familiarize myself with the organization of the plugin and the daily administrative work for DHNow.  It turned out to be such a useful summer because I returned in the Fall ready for the fast paced wrap up of PressForward 1 and the beginning of our implementation phase.

Among the projects I undertook in Research this semester, redesigning the PressForward website took a large amount of my time.  PressForward 2 is an implementation grant and over the next 14 months we will be working with several partners to develop publications using the plugin.  In this new capacity, I was asked to help redesign the website and transition from a blog about a research project on scholarly communication to a website focused on our plugin and its features.  I spent quite a bit of time looking at both the Omeka and Zotero websites and thinking about what made a good digital humanities tool website.  How do you effectively communicated the major features of the tool and its application for both humanities projects and more general use?  The PressForward plugin is available on the WordPress directory and has a wide range of applications outside of just academic publishing.  The website needed to reflect both applications and focus on what makes PressForward different from a standard RSS reader.  Furthermore, it needed to have support forums as we begin to develop a community of users.  Both Omeka and Zotero have very broad and dedicated communities that contribute to these open source projects.  PressForward 2 will be, in part, about cultivating a similar community for our tool and that begins with support and education about the plugin and its uses.

Looking at other examples, I designed a site that very much mirrored the organization of both the Omeka and Zotero sites.  On the homepage the dominant area is filled with tabs that each focus on a key feature of PressForward: the overall point of the plugin, features for collecting, features for discussing, and features for sharing content.  In each tab a large download button takes the user to the PressForward GitHub repository. Below the features are links to each pilot partner’s web page and a link to our blog.  This was a very useful project because it led me to not only think about the way digital humanities tools communicate their goals but also I learned quite a bit of php while I hacked around in the theme. It worked out that I happened to be taking Lincoln Mullen’s Programming for Historians class at the same time and the skills I had learned in that class complimented this project, and working a bit with php, well.  As we move forward I’ll be doing some more theme development for PressForward 2 and will also be contributing, what I can, to UI/UX issues on new versions of the plugin.

In addition to all my work on the PressForward project, I have also been participating in running the Digital History Support Space which is always a rewarding experience.  Over the course of the semester we’ve helped numerous people from all of the Clio I courses and we expect to have more frequent visitors next semester during Clio II.

In November, the center had its twentieth anniversary conference and opened up the API for the archive that we began building last Spring (and Jannelle Legg spent all summer refining and adding content). On Friday, the first day of the conference, a few of us decided to use the API to make a network graph of all the people and projects at the center.  We coded like mad for the whole day, and—with a lot of help from Lincoln Mullen—we ended the day with three network visualizations. I think this was an interesting way to wrap up our work from last year on the archive and was a practical use of the skills Jannelle Legg and I had been learning in Lincoln Mullen’s Programming for Historians seminar.  The visualization reflects some of the decisions we made when creating the archive last summer and the some of the limitations of the archive.  All of the nodes and edges on the graph represent the information provided on the coversheets of grants.  As a result, staff that were hired after the grant was awarded are not reflected on the graph and grants that were iterative aren’t necessarily connected.  I think the project was a great example of the choices that have to made when creating a digital archive and was a fun way to wrap up the project we began last Spring. The visualization is available here. (The visualization was a collaborative effort by: Ken Albers, Peter Carr Jones, Lincoln Mullen, Patrick Murray-John, Allison O’Connor, and Faolan Cheslack-Postava).

We also have a new cohort of Fellows this year and at the beginning of the semester we paired off each second year with a first year to act as a mentor.  Our role is to mentor them throughout their first year.  Their first rotation this semester was through research and over the course of their first two weeks they worked on PressForward and Digital Humanities Now. I helped walk them through the goals of the project and showed them how the plugin worked.  They watched me do Editor in Chief and then served as Editors At Large before taking on Editor in Chief themselves. Walking them through the projects, I was struck by how much of a better understanding of the center and the various projects I have now than when I first began at the center.  Looking back on our first year, its impressive the range of material we were introduced to and the ways it complimented our coursework to provide us with a unique perspective on Digital History.   I’m really looking forward to continuing to work with the new fellows and having one of them in Research next semester.

Reflections on Public Projects

Last week Alyssa, Jordan, and I completed our final rotation in Public Projects.  When I first arrived at RRCHNM, Public Projects was one of the divisions that I was most eager to experience due to my background in public history.  I am in the process of finishing up my public history certificate at Southern Miss and I have always wanted work with or pursue an entire career in public history projects.  This love for public history is what made me excited to learn and understand the digital work that goes into some of the RRCHNM projects that used since I was an undergraduate.

Our first week in Public Projects was one of the most difficult, but definitely one of the most educational.  As my blogs have shown from our rotations in Research and in Education, my coding skills definitely need some work.  However, our mentor that week—Megan Brett—was exactly what I needed to understand code life a little better.  She helped us understand SSH and was able to help me and my PC keep up with everyone else and their Macs.  For once I was never left behind with Alyssa and Jordan two or three steps ahead of me because tutorials weren’t adequate enough for PCs.  Megan was able to help me understand my windows PowerShell and never became frustrated when I forget one of the dozens of commands when trying to manipulate Omeka.  Whether it was Megan’s patience or the fact that I’ve been here for an entire semester and things are finally starting to stick, my first week in Public Projects made me feel like I was finally getting the hang of things around the center and that I could actually “talk tech.”

In week two with Public Projects, the first year fellows were sent on a mission to conduct mobile testing on Histories of the National Mall. The experience was exciting not only because we got to spend an entire work day on the National Mall, but because we were able to find some of the issues with the site on our phones.  Since I’m the one of the three of us with the least flashy technology (PC and Android kid), it was fun to see Histories of the National Mall working well and at a good download speed, whereas Jordan’s was a little slow and poor Alyssa could never find a wifi network for her ipad.  It was my own personal win for the week!  However, we were able to find a few content problems, specifically with Ghost Sites, that we were able to bring back to Public Projects.

In the last two weeks of Public Projects, we were tasked with adding newly submitted documents to the 9/ll Digital Archive.  The center recently received donated materials from Brian Sullivan who worked for the FAA around 9/11 and we were asked to submit them to the Omeka site.  We reviewed the 17 documents that were submitted and then created descriptions and other portions of Dublin Core that were needed before the documents can go live on the site.  On one of our days going through the documents we were even able to watch a documentary (Please Remove Your Shoes) that was also submitted by Sullivan so we could add it to the collection.  Aside from absolutely never wanting to fly again after going through the FAA documents and watching the documentary, I really enjoyed going back to one of the reasons I wanted to become a historian—going through primary sources.

My four weeks in Public Projects was a great experience, not only because I’m finally starting to find my way around the center, but because I was genuinely interest and excited about the content we were able to learn and create.  Sharon and Shelia made all three of us feel like we’d been in Public Projects the entire semester and it was such a smooth transition to begin working with everyone in the division because of how welcomed we felt.  The things I learned in Public Projects, especially working with Omeka, are something that I will be using throughout the rest of my time at Mason and hopefully for a dissertation project.  I’m excited about the possibility of working more with Public Projects in the future and cannot wait to learn more.

A Bit of Reflection on Pressforward Projects

It’s interesting to be on the other side of the production of something like DHNow/JDH. Not only does sorting through material for each offer a unique opportunity to explore current events and conversations in the digital humanities, but this process also encourages deeper examination of blog posts and white papers to pull out threads of argument and evidence that can be used to connect disparate conversations across fields. Archaeologists and manuscript historians share common interests with those working in hard sciences and linguistics, although their work is rarely presented in the same forum. Part of what JDH adds to the DH community is this willingness to collect and edit work from across several disciplines and present them as part of a united DH culture.

I’ve learned, as a graduate student working on these projects, that being a part of this collecting and collating work requires a willingness to explore a wide-range of interests, and to read blog posts, white papers, and poster projects that have little to do with my own projects or areas of expertise. For example, most of the content for JDH comes from the pool of content chosen for Editors’ Choice features on DHNow, a selection process that requires Editors-in-Chief for a chosen week to read through content nominated by a group of editors-at-large whose experience in the DH community is variable. The job of the EC is to sort through these nominations, pulling out relevant job postings, conference and event announcements, calls for participation, and useful resources, then picking one or two items to feature as the Editors’ Choice for the Tuesday and Thursday of that week.

The selection of these Editors’ Choice items is left largely up to the EC for the week. There are guidelines, of course. These featured items need to be of substantial length, usually more than 500 words or 20 min. in video/presentation playback, and should make a relevant, substantive, and perhaps even provocative argument that adds to or initiates a conversation in the field. Since DHNow only links to these posts — there’s no editing involved — they should also be well-written and, if necessary, thoroughly cited. White papers and articles are generally only posted if they haven’t been published in other journals or periodicals.

While these guidelines are helpful, on good weeks Editors-at-Large nominate several pieces that meet the requirements, leaving final selection up to the EC for the week. Each of us have our own idiosyncrasies, of course, and our own areas of interest can influence our choices. We do also take into account how many times our options have been nominated, and we pay attention to that additional level of interest as well as checking for comments (in the PressForward plugin) that explain why our guest editors nominated individual items. What results is a crowd-sourced, yet still curated, publication that feeds into JDH.

Recent changes to the DHNow site — in both the sections dedicated to the Editors-at-Large and the main content pages — will hopefully encourage our guest editors to engage more in the content selection process. It will be interesting to see if new editors (and returning participants) start to leave more comments or more feedback to provide us with a better understanding of how they are selecting content to nominate. The other reason behind the redesign, beyond helping out current editors, was to pull in more outside editors. The more participants we have, the more feeds are nominated to be added to the plugin, and the more exposure both we and our editors have to the ongoing conversations and arguments circulating within the DH community. By encouraging the creation of a more engaged community, we are also pushing for more interdisciplinary participation in the field, bringing scientists, librarians, archaeologists, archivists, historians, and others into a community whose make-up should result in bigger and better projects and perhaps, a more solid sense of a DH identity.

The Challenges of Making a Challenge

For the past few weeks at the Center for History and New Media, my fellow first year Digital History Fellows and myself were assigned to work in the Education division, which produces projects that are designed to teach history to a wide scope of people through various educational resources. While in the Education division, we have been working with a new web project meant to engage and educate the audience by allowing them to examine liberty in the United States in a new and interesting way. This is achieved by incorporating age and ability-appropriate “challenges” and access to primary documents and images. This project seeks an audience of teachers, K-12 students, as well as the general public.

There are intriguing methods in creating a challenge for students. While creating our own challenge for the project, there were multiple questions that we had to ask ourselves. First, what was the goal of the project? What did we want the students to achieve from doing the challenge? What skills would they use? In terms of examining the sources, we attempted to view them in an analytic manner, but with a basic guided direction so that the students do not get overwhelmed. We wanted the students to come away with an understanding of the importance of understanding not only the document itself, but also their context. By giving the students a choice of what documents they could utilize for their own project, it allows them to view our examples and use the skills they gained to create an interesting project from their understanding.

 
Although this project has yet to publicly launch, I have been testing the website from multiple angles to ensure that it will work properly for the end users. This has certainly been a fun process for me, as I have had to work as both a teacher and a student! This meant that I had to get myself into a mindset of, “if I were in tenth grade, how would I have completed this assignment? What did I know? What did I not know?” It was also quite engaging to utilize the primary documents and photographs in conjunction with the provided tools to create interesting projects with the website. I would imagine that K-12 aged students would also find this to be quite exciting, but I also think that it would be a fun experience for teachers who are designing challenges for their students, as well. I know all of the DH Fellows that worked on this project took our assignments very seriously beyond just the testing phase, as we worked for hours to perfect our challenge assignments!

Originally posted on Center for History and New Media Blog

Skipping Through Revisit Documents

A significant portion of the documents archived on the Papers of the War Department site have been, or still are, located on a revisit list. This list is made up of documents that have not been completely sorted by the items, places, or people mentioned within. Because I was interested in getting a general idea of what is available in this collection, my experience with the PWD this semester mostly involved working through some of these documents. The unorganized and generally un-tagged nature of these documents, listed only by number, makes revisiting less of a specific look at a particular place, person, or keyword, and more of an exploration of the sheer variety of War Department documents in this collection.

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Educational Design and Function

As Spencer and Ben have discussed, we spent the first part of this semester reviewing the educational sites constructed at CHNM, from the most dated to the most current, in a way that clearly demonstrated the effort that the Center has put into creating useful sites for educators. What this exploration of the Center’s past has also revealed, however, is the purpose of many of the tools we’ve begun to explore in the second half of the semester. The development of the education department has been an evolutionary process, one that not only streamlined the user interfaces and content presentation on these sites, but also led to the creation of tools that make the construction and use of educational sites more accessible to institutions and even individuals who need to design interactive and intelligent experiences for their members and students without access to the resources and resourceful individuals of CHNM.

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Digital History Projects at RRCHNM

For the first half of this term, we studied the various projects that have been built at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (changed in 2011 from CHNM). As our focus shifts to the tools now being designed and offered by the center, it is a good time to reflect on the history of the RRCHNM projects. Typically, digital projects at the center fall into two categories: history/teaching sites and collection sites. In this post, I’m going to discuss the former.

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