Research

With our return from Spring Break, our rotation in the Research division has come to an end. Our main projects were working on documentation and testing for Tropy and contributing to the redesign of the PressForward website. In between, we were also able to spend time learning HTML, CSS, and Python and doing lessons on the Programming Historian.

From the beginning of our time in Research, we participated in meetings with other members of the division to brainstorm the contents and design of a new PressForward website. We had to take on the mindset of marketers without relying on jargon or soon-to-be-outdated buzzwords and without sounding either too academic or too corporate. It was a difficult balance to strike, but it forced us to really think about what it is that PressForward does and how it can be useful. By the time everyone settled on the language and layout of the main page, Jessica and I had developed a working knowledge of HTML and CSS through online lessons, so we set to work coding it using Foundation. Once we had the basic structure, we spent the rest of the day testing out fonts, color schemes, and other design elements. Some of our ideas might end up on the finished website, but more importantly, we got to play a role in many parts of the process, influence the design, and practice our web design skills.

The other main project that we helped out with was Tropy. As a tool for historians to organize the digital photographs they take in their research, Tropy is also meant to help historians better manage rights and metadata, so our first task was to research best practices and create first drafts of documentation. Learning about rights and metadata may not be the most exciting thing, but it’s always useful to brush up on them. What was exciting, though, was actually getting to test Tropy. Because Tropy is still in development and has not yet been released, Jessica and I got to be the first to see and use it beyond the project’s core contributors. Knowing how excited everyone at CHNM is for its eventual release, it felt important to be as detailed as possible and to try to break it in as many ways as I could think to. Getting to see how useful this tool will be for my own future research made testing all the more interesting.

Starting the Data and Visualization in Digital History course at the same time that we started in Research  meant spending a lot of time with programming languages over the last several weeks. Having taken two computer science courses as an undergraduate, I came into the program knowing that I enjoyed learning and using programming languages, so I was eager to learn more and to see how that work can be integrated into historical research. I had the most fun doing text analysis with Python and tried it out on some documents relevant to my own research. I haven’t yet determined if or how I’ll use all of these tools ultimately, but even without having exact plans for the future, it’s good to know what the possibilities are and to be able to approach historical questions with a “toolbox” of many skills. At the very least, it’s also important to me that I have a sophisticated enough understanding to be able to critically assess other digital work. Thinking about programming in these ways has been an important take-away from the last couple of months.

Throughout our time in Research, Sean Takats, Director of Research, asked us to think critically about how the Research division fits in at the Center and, more broadly, in the historian’s research process. We had to consider what it is that historians do and how the research process is mediated by digital technology. In other words, how does technology shape the research process and what do we think technology could or should do in the future? I’ve thought a lot about whether digital tools—both those built specifically for historians and not—have significantly changed the practice of history. The argument can be made, for example, that many historians use online search uncritically, without understanding how search algorithms or OCR work, and this causes them to miss potentially useful or important sources. Alternatively, it can be argued that this is far from a fundamental change; historians have always missed sources and information because of the selective nature of archives, absences in inventories, misplaced documents, etc. I’m inclined to believe, though, that the changes taking place are more than superficial. Whereas historians have been trained to use archives, to understand basic archival principles, and to look for and try to overcome silences in the records, training in digital tools is usually not explicit enough. Because almost everyone uses the internet and its tools in their daily life, there is the prevalent belief that this frequent use is enough to understand them. But the effect is a tendency to treat things like interfaces and search algorithms as natural and neutral, without realizing that these are actually highly controlled ways of interacting with historical sources.

So how do I imagine the possibilities for what technology could do? Ideally, there should be more transparency in how searching works, although this seems an unlikely future when most searching is run by Google. Technology should also force users to think critically about the technology itself, rather than lull us into trusting its accuracy, neutrality, and objectivity. Additionally, instead of boxing users into controlled ways of searching and viewing items, databases should be facilitating multiple ways of manipulating and interacting with items, making it easier to put things together or pull them apart and to view them outside the confines of the database. Of course, it’s much easier to imagine this future technology in theoretical terms than to actually design something that functions smoothly and doesn’t scare away users, but these are just my preliminary thoughts on digital technology and the research process. The rotation in Research was a great opportunity to learn some very technical skills but also to really reflect on the broader context of the projects we were working on and the skills we were learning. This week, we start our final rotation in Public Projects.

Research Division

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

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

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

Education

Jessica and I spent our first rotation at CHNM in the Education division. We had the opportunity to help out with a number of projects, including Understanding Sacrifice, Through the Doors of Stratford: Desegregating Arlington Public Schools (an online course for Arlington Public Schools), Eagle Eye Citizen, and Hidden in Plain Sight.

Understanding Sacrifice is a professional development program for teachers to research a service member buried in one of the American Battle Monuments Commission’s cemeteries and create a lesson plan using resources from ABMC. For Understanding Sacrifice, we started out transcribing YouTube videos of teachers giving eulogies for the fallen heroes they had researched. I had not created subtitles for YouTube videos before, but it was easy to catch on, making it a nice task for easing into the division. I ended up learning a smattering of army terminology as I did the research to make sure that what I thought I heard were real words. We moved on to proofreading the fallen hero profiles, which was also an informative experience. As a bonus, I had the chance to brush up on my basic HTML skills (for italics, superscript, etc.). Along with several others who work in Education, we also proofread lesson plans, paying special attention to ensuring consistent formatting, particularly between the online versions and the pdf versions. I enjoyed putting to use my eye for detail, but the process really showed me just how important it is to pay attention to the little things in digital work. All of those small details add up to a polished product, making it especially useful to get multiple eyes on something before it goes live.

One of the projects that we spent the most time on was Eagle Eye Citizen, a free website for middle and high schoolers to learn civics and historical thinking by solving and creating challenges about primary sources from the Library of Congress. Because it is still being built, we had the opportunity to help with the content. Our first task was gathering links to Library of Congress resources (like online exhibitions, digital collections, and primary source guides) that connect to the topics covered in Eagle Eye Citizen (for example, topics under the theme of elections include campaigns, voting, third parties, political beliefs, etc.). This was challenging partly because of the shortage of relevant resources for certain topics and partly because of the difficulty of navigating the Library of Congress’ website. The process of learning to navigate the site was a great way to learn about all of the content available from the Library of Congress, and I know I will apply this knowledge to my own research in the future. We also had the chance to come up with questions about different images that students will get to choose from when making their own challenges. Needing to put myself in the mindset of a middle or high school student showed me the importance of thinking about audience and the need to create content that is challenging without being inscrutable. Our work with Eagle Eye Citizen wrapped up in an exciting way. We spent a day operating an Eagle Eye Citizen booth at the National Council for the Social Studies Annual Conference, giving away stress balls shaped like the U.S. Capitol and signing people up for a mailing list. Everyone loved the stress balls, and the response from teachers about the website was just as enthusiastic. They especially loved that it’s free, that it can be used in civics curriculum, and that it combines primary sources with digital learning. Getting to interact with potential users of a project that I had worked on was a great experience; it really demonstrated to me the usefulness and significance of our work at the Center.

Our other big project was creating modules for Hidden in Plain Sight, an online course for teachers to earn recertification credit by learning to teach history through objects. Each module presents a seemingly ordinary object that actually helps tell an important historical narrative when put into context and connected to primary sources. Inspired by the work of historian Daniel Usner, I created a module on Chitimacha basketry. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Chitimacha Nation worked with the heiresses of the Tabasco Pepper Sauce company to sell their baskets to a growing network of collectors, activists, and anthropologists. Selling baskets not only helped the Chitimachas economically but also helped them form important alliances that enabled them to secure federal recognition. I connect this story to larger narratives of dispossession, assimilation and resistance, the limits of white activism, world’s fairs and the politics of display, termination policy, and survivance. In creating our modules, we had to consider what historical subjects weren’t covered by the other modules, but we also had to consider what kinds of sources weren’t represented well enough. I noticed the need for more government documents, and, as it turned out, my research uncovered a lot of interesting ones to use. The hardest part of the module was finding primary sources to use that were not only easily accessible but permissible to include on the Hidden in Plain Sight website. Never having had to worry about copyright and permissions in the context of historical research before, this was a really great learning opportunity. I also appreciated having the opportunity to choose my own topic and work on something that I am interested in and familiar with, something that is not always possible when working on projects at a center. Overall, the first rotation was productive and informative. Next up, we start our work in the Research division.

 

An Eight-Week Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up: Research.

Playing With History

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

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

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

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

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

Contextualizing the Object of History

The first-year DH Fellows started out the year in a seminar with RRCHNM director, Dr. Stephen Robertson, discussing the history of the Center and putting it in the context of other digital humanities centers. The final project for the seminar was to create an Omeka exhibit for the Center’s 20th anniversary site on a RRCHNM project of our choosing. I chose the Object of History, and the exhibit is available here.

I selected the Object of History partly because it was one of RRCHNM’s first projects with a public history orientation. Created in collaboration with Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), the Object of History is a website for teachers and students of U.S. history featuring six objects from NMAH’s collections, contextual information, relevant primary sources, and interviews with curators. It struck me as a website that I would have enjoyed when I was a student, as someone who loved history museums but rarely got to visit them on field trips.

But creating the exhibit wasn’t just a way to learn about a particular project; the larger goal was for us to develop a fuller understanding of the inner-workings of digital humanities centers. One of the most important take-aways for me was seeing how every project is entwined in broader issues and developments in the field of digital humanities. To tell the story of the Object of History, I needed to explore the collaborative nature of digital humanities, the transition to content management systems, and the connection to 3D printing.

I also came to understand that even a seemingly small project shapes a digital humanities center and the other projects around it. In the case of the Object of History, the Center received the grant for the project at the same time (October 2005) as the grant for SmartFox (later renamed Zotero). This meant too much work and not enough staff for the Center, so project staff needed to delay the timeline for the Object of History until more staff could be hired. I found that within a year, the number of staff at the Center went up from 24 to 39, including an increase from two to four programmers and the addition of a budget and grants administrator. A primarily grant-funded digital humanities center can only grow its staff in relation to the number of funded projects, otherwise financial troubles are imminent. For this reason, work on smaller projects, like the Object of History, was essential to the Center’s ability to expand. Not every project is as big as Zotero, but the smaller projects help build the staff that create the big projects—and conceive of new ones. After all, centers are made up of people, not just projects.

Third Stop: Public Projects

On February 08, 2016, we started our time in Public Projects working with Sharon Leon, Megan Brett, and Alyssa Fahringer. We began by taking a look at the work the public projects division had done so far in order to have an understanding of the kind of work the division did.

The next task was a familiar and welcome one for me, testing. I have had a lot of fun testing the various projects for all of the divisions this year. In public projects, I did some testing for Omeka.net, Omeka S, and Liberian Journey. I particularly enjoyed doing the testing for Liberian Journey because it was a new experience for me: testing the mobile capabilities of the site. I found myself looking for issues I had not previously needed to look for in a site such as how easy it is to move around, if content runs off the screen, how different does the page become depending on how the phone is held? However, I also felt limited on what I could test as I was only able to test its functionality on an iPhone.

Another task I had was to review pieces for Mall Histories and go on a hunt for a photo for a Mall History biography piece. I did broad searches in engines and through digital collections such as the Library of Congress and was not able to find anything. However, through a Google search for the individual I found a pdf of a finding aid from a law school, the individuals alma mater. The finding aid allowed me to see that they had multiple photos of him. However, they were not digitized so I wanted to see what I could find before emailing the institution. Luckily, the archives had digitized many of their yearbooks, so my next step was to find him in them. With only being able to estimate when he would have graduated from the law school, I looked at about ten yearbook before I found him. The picture would be small, but it was definitely better than nothing. I emailed the institution to ask if the yearbook photo could be used for Mall Histories and, unfortunately, they have yet to give an answer.

The remaining, and majority, of my time was spent preparing for and advertising the five year anniversary of Paper of the War Department. First, Andrea and I sat down to brainstorm on the audience we would like to reach and how we could go about it. After meeting with Megan and Alyssa, the four of us created a plan and divided up the audiences; I was assigned the Native American studies crowd. Before any groups could be contacted, though, we needed a press release. Over the course of a week, Andrea, Megan, Sharon and I wrote a general press release. I then edited the release to target the Native American studies crowd. Knowing my name, as a new scholar, would not have any pull in the community, I contacted Dr.Joseph Genetin-Pilawa to post the targeted press release to his Facebook page as well as on the Ethnohistory and NAISA Facebook pages. I personally posted the targeted press release on H-Net in the AmIndian, West, and FedHistory channels. Lastly, I created tweets using #Indigenous and #NativeAmerican to be scheduled on Twitter with the PWD account.

Overall, I am highly satisfied with the work I accomplished with working in Public Projects. I took a look specifically at the amount of accounts created on PWD from March 17-April 4 (after the initial anniversary outreach) and out of 23 new accounts, 7 were created with a motivation of Native American studies; this is more than any other motivation with specific research and genealogy tying for second at 5. After looking at all of the data, I would have to say that the 5 year anniversary outreach was a success.

Second Stop: Research

The second rotation at RRCHNM was research for Andrea and I. We worked with and were supervised by Stephanie Westcott. Although the first assignments had us working with Stephanie, the majority of our time in Research had us working along-side the graduate research assistants Mandy ReganAmanda Morton, and Josh Catalano.

My time in the research division started a little differently than my time in Education. The first thing we did was familiarize ourselves with documentation for PressForward. We read over all posts from its conception to PF3 in order to prepare us help Stephanie do some research for a white paper. The experience research for a white paper was interesting. When I have done research in the past it had never been on something related to the digitl realm where all sources will be online. However, for the whitepaper we were researching information about Creative Commons Licensing, what people say about it, and the best ways to use it. Additionally, Stephanie wanted us to keep our eyes out for anything that may work better. I discovered that Creative Commons has a Science Commons they created for online science publications. It is not as well publicized, but there was a lot written about it when it started up so it was interesting to be able to compare the two.

The rest of my time was spent mostly doing different sorts of testing for Mandy and working in DHNow. With DHNow I worked as editor-in-chief for two weeks before the start of the spring semester. Sitting by Josh every week, who I have seen be editor-in-chief many times, I had an idea of what to do. Also, my work nominating content each week prepared me for knowing what kind of content I was looking for. However, it was still the beginning of the year and not much was being posted on the digital humanities. I also experienced how helpful editors-at-large were because each week there was only one nomination waiting for me. With a lot of searching through the content and Twitter along with some reassurance from Stephanie that the posts would work, I was able to get two editors’ choice pieces up each week along with four news pieces (which I was surprised ended up being even harder to find).

Also for DHNow I drafted some blog posts to explain the upcoming user management system, answer some questions in a FAQs format, and explain the two methods for nominating content through (Pressforward and bookmarklet).

Lastly, I tested the Turnkey theme for Mandy and the new user management system. The testing of the new theme allowed me to start getting used to Github, a website I had watched tutorials on in September before starting in Education but had no experience in. Mandy showed me some basics on getting around and where to report any issues. By the end of the testing I was fairly comfortable with Github which I imagine will keep coming up the more work I do at the Center.

That’s all for now, next up on the rotation is Public Projects!

Education Rotation

It was a busy start of the year in the Education Department at CHNM.  I worked on data cleaning for the American Battle Monuments Commission (AMBC) War Dead Database, transcribed Sacrificing Freedom eulogy videos, prepared/uploaded Lesson Plans for ABMC’s new Education Site, and did a content inventory for the National History Day redesign.

Working the war dead database I came to understand that optimizing search and sorting for large data sets involves strategic efforts to ensure proper data importing and input, detailed taxonomies, multiple testing stages and checks for uniform outputs.  My job was primarily searching, sorting and testing cross-browser functionality, but in the process I was able to come gain some insights into how the data set was moved from the old to new system, that could be of benefit if I work on any other data migration projects.  I also was able to get to know a bit more about the different ranks and divisions in the U.S. military.

By transcribing eulogy videos, I was reminded of the importance of accessibility to digital work.  Furthermore, the people in the database entries came to life . The Understanding Sacrifice project works with teachers to develop lesson plans on WWI, by researching individual soldiers and eulogizing them at their overseas resting places.  I was moved by the teachers attachment to their subjects.

I also helped CHNM’s filmmaker Chris Preperato identify selections from project leaders and teachers interviews for the Understanding Sacrifice intro video.  This helped me understand the goals of the project facilitators and see that they were met by the reactions of the teachers.  Teachers were reinvigorated as working historians by doing primary source research on the First World War.  They made lasting connections with the families of fallen heroes.  Perhaps most importantly, they were able to channel the power of place, connect it the lives and stories of individuals on the battlefield, and bring that knowledge back to the classroom with renewed vigor.

In a time when middle and high school teachers are sometimes treated like little more than pre-packaged content distributors and assessors, projects like these seem to make them feel like experts again, with unique experiences to share with students.  Jennifer explained to me how impressed the teachers were that their final lesson plan products were professionally designed and distributed.  When marking up the lesson plans with some html, and uploading documents, I was able to see the great variety of ways that the history teachers approached their lessons, which could be helpful in my own teaching.  However, the painstaking detail to each minute process and attention to national standards, reminded me that a career in secondary education will likely not be in my future.

One of the major takeaways from this experience would be the importance of close collaborations.  Understanding Sacrifice is a collaboration between CHNM and National History Day (NHD).  During my work tenure, NHD had trouble putting together a birthday video for one of their major donors.  On short notice, Kelly was able to step in.  I helped by taping the directors message while Chris was on vacation.  (Note:  the WWII memorial is windy and loud, so if you tape there, be prepared)  Despite my bad audio collection, Chris was able to get together tons of other footage and testimonies and Kelly hired a professional musician to score the video and help with other audio layovers.  I hear that the major donor is really thrilled with his video and shows it to all of his friends.

In sum, I think that the flexibility of working relationships,  i.e. going outside the box with professional development like Understanding Sacrifice and being able to solve partner problems on the fly without huge administrative hurdles, shows how the Education Department at CHNM knows how to make things happen and is dedicated to serving the needs of partners and teachers in unique ways.  It is a model example of how to develop dynamic working relationships and lasting professional collaborations.

First Stop: Education

The first rotation of the divisions here at RRCHNM landed Andrea and I in Education working with Kelly Schrum, Jennifer Rosenfeld, and Chris Preperato. Over the course of eight weeks, I worked with each of these individuals on specific projects. While in education my time was spent assisting with the rebuilding of the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) database, Understanding Sacrifice website for ABMC, and organizing of the Folger Shakespeare Library metadata.

American Battle Monuments Commission
Most of my time in Education was dedicated to working with Chris and Jennifer in preparing the reworking of the ABMC website as this had the fastest approaching deadline. My work consisted of checking the new database for errors and comparing it to the old one, testing the new site, comparing the new site from the old one, transferring image files into the new site, and checking compatibility across browsers and systems.

As part of the project, RRCHNM took the database ABMC was working with and completely reworked it to fix any bugs and tidy all the data. This was the largest part of the project taken on by James McCartney and Chris. I was able to help with this process by first going through the database on Drupal and documenting what information was inconsistent with the live ABMC website (which currently held the old data). This was a good introduction into the kind of data we could expect to be working with the rest of our time in education. Additionally, this first task taught me a lot about what James and Chris were doing to rework the data. A lot of the differences I found between the old and new data were good things. In other words, the changes were intentional and reflected that the errors they were fixing were successful.

An enormous part of my time working with the ABMC site can be labeled as testing. With so many changes being made to improve ABMC’s website, there were new aspects to be checked each day. Once the data was complete to Chris and James’ standards, all the testing involved checking the new website. A lot of this work was checking that links were working, information was not provided on the back end while missing in public view, everything was displaying correctly, soldiers were listed in the correct database online (War Dead vs. Korean Honor Roll only), and ensuring there were no general styling mishaps. This work was very repetitive, but extremely necessary. I would sometimes go a long time without finding anything wrong, but once I did, I often found that it was universal (similar profiles shared the same issue). Sticking through and thoroughly checking allowed many issues to be found and addressed before ABMC was shown the site.

Something may be tedious, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important.
I went in with this attitude. I knew that I would not be asked to do something just to keep me busy. The more issues I found and reported, the more fulfilling the work was.

Understanding Sacrifice
The second largest portion of my time was spent working with Jennifer and Chris on the Understanding Sacrifice website. This website was created to showcase what teachers across the nation had learned about fallen heroes of WWI. The education project is sponsored by ABMC in partnership with National History Day and RRCHNM. I helped Chris transcribe and caption the videos he shot and edited of the teachers giving a eulogy for their chosen fallen hero. Helping Jennifer involved various aspects of the website. I assisted in inputting information for the fallen hero profiles, entering and editing information for the teacher-created lesson plans, and looking over lesson plans for any mistakes.

Working with Chris to create transcriptions was the most familiar tasks I had for this project. As an undergrad at Illinois College, I worked with Steven Hochstadt creating transcriptions of oral histories. However, my experience creating transcriptions for Education introduced me to a new method I will continue to use. After a suggestion from Jennifer, I downloaded the VLC player and learned how to slow down the playback of the audio. Decreasing the speed made doing transcriptions so much easier, I wish I would have thought of it before!

The rest of my time working on the Understanding Sacrifice project had me working with Jennifer to upload content for fallen hero profiles and teacher lesson plans (called activities on the site). I enjoyed doing this because I came in with some html experience, but had not used it in quite some time. Figuring out how to correctly use the code to accomplish the styling aspects asked of me was fun for me. I would have gladly done more of this, but there was only so many profiles and activities.

Shakespeare and Friends
Towards the end of my time in Education, I worked with Kelly to organize and generally make sense of the metadata provided by Folger. The Center has been tasked with revamping the Folger website and have specific requirements for how they would like the data to appear. They provided Kelly with a spreadsheet containing all of their metadata so far as well with instructions on how everything should be shown. In order for James to make sense of everything down the road, Kelly tasked me with organization and clarity.

This task was very difficult for me at first, quite possibly the most challenging one during my time in Education. I think the main reason for this is due to how overwhelming the spreadsheet was to look at. There was a lot going on all at once and terms I had never heard of before. This issue had already been addressed prior to my involvement, though, and there was a tab in the spreadsheet which explained all the terms; this helped me a lot. I created my own tab to work in within the spreadsheet and after three revisions, the information was organized in an easy to understand way with instructions Folger approved.

This project involved a lot of back and forth work while communicating questions and concerns with Folger. Kelly allowed me to sit in on a call with two representatives from Folger with helped my understanding of the project immensely. After that call, the spreadsheet that was once so daunting seemed like a breeze to read and organize. What I enjoyed the most out of this project was being able to be a part of more of the beginning stages and seeing how the “behind the scenes” communications work.

Base What?
My time in Education also taught me how to use Basecamp. Before August, I had not even heard of it. I quickly learned how to log my hours for the fellowship (thanks to Alyssa Fahringer), but I was not aware for a couple weeks into the semester that it was also a project management system as well. Having been on three different projects with Education, I now have a handle on how to use Basecamp to communicate with other members of the project in an efficient way.

Next stop on my tour through the RRCHNM divisions is Research!