Fall 2017 in the Research Division

For my second year of the fellowship, I am working in the Research Division, mainly on Digital Humanities Now and PressForward. Fall semester was a busy one for PressForward—we released PressForward 5.0, and we have been preparing an overhaul of the website. Helping out with all of that work has made this an exciting time to be in the division.

One of my main duties has been serving as Site Manager of Digital Humanities Now. I format the posts selected by the Editor-in-Chief, manage email, and run DHNow’s Twitter account. This year, we wanted to do a better job of reminding people to sign up to be editors-at-large, to use the bookmarklet, to submit feeds, etc., so I’ve been coming up with creative tweets, using more hashtags, and trying to come up with other ways to drive participation. Because I had never used Twitter until I started using it for DHNow, it’s been a great opportunity to learn more about using social media to build engagement. I was also tasked with writing the end-of-the-year blog post, which was another lesson in writing for the DHNow community.

Choosing content for DHNow continues to be one of my favorite things about the fellowship. Over the summer, I had the chance to be full-time site manager and Editor-in-Chief (see this post on my personal blog for more on that experience). This semester, I served a few rotations as Editor-in-Chief. During one of my weeks, I got to work with Amanda Regan and Joshua Catalano to do something a little out of the ordinary. The response on Twitter to a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “The Digital-Humanities Bust,” was overwhelming, but there hadn’t been any blog-length posts like those we usually post on DHNow. The shift toward Twitter and away from the blog format has sparked a number of discussions about how DHNow can meet the conversations where they’re happening, and this felt like the right time to try to capture that. We experimented with a few different methods, but you can see the final result here.

My other big project for the semester was to move the PressForward documentation to GitBook and bring it up to date. Although GitBook makes it easy to format everything with their editing tools, I ended up needing to use Markdown to do everything I wanted with the layout and formatting. I’ve used Markdown a few times before, but it was nice to have another refresher and to finally feel proficient. I spent a lot of time improving the documentation, too—clarifying language, adding useful instructions, making everything consistent. Even though I didn’t have to create the documentation from scratch, I wanted to make sure it was as helpful as possible, so it was a great chance to get a sense of what drafting original documentation would entail. It also allowed me to gain an even deeper understanding of PressForward and all of its functions. I think the completed documentation looks great, and it’s certainly an improvement over the old, outdated documentation.

The final important task of the semester was helping out with testing to make sure that all of the new functions in PressForward 5.0 were working and that none of the basic features were breaking. Testing really intimidated me at first. I needed to install PressForward using the command line, I needed to be methodical and document everything, and I needed to use GitHub to read, comment on, and create issues. All of these things made me feel like I was going to mess something up, but once I got the hang of things, I realized there was nothing to fear. I’m a very detail-oriented person, and I love the pseudo-detective work that goes into figuring out that a function works when you do things this way but not when you do things that way. A lot of problems came up during testing, including some that I found. It was exciting to play a role in spotting those issues, and it was even more exciting when the developer fixed them. There were a few times when we thought we might not get PressForward 5.0 out before the end of the semester, but with all the time and hard work that the team put into it, we managed to release it just in time. You can download the new version here.

There was a lot of other work that went into getting the PressForward website ready for a relaunch. Because that’s not out yet, I’d rather wait to share all of that when it’s actually visible to the world. With the new website, more testing for future releases, and other tasks that need to be completed before PressForward’s grant ends, the spring semester is bound to be as interesting and instructive as the fall.

Third Rotation: Research Division

The Research division works to create open-source tools and software to assist historians in researching and presenting their own findings, as well as engaging with the scholarship of others. During our four-week rotation in this division, we learned about and experimented with PressForward, primarily through working with DH Now, and RRCNHM’s newest tool, Tropy.

First, we took a closer look at Digital Humanities Now, a website that acts as a distribution platform for digital humanities based scholarly work in various formats from blog posts to white papers, as well as conference and job announcements from the field. Coming into the Research Division, we were somewhat familiar with DH Now as we had been using it all semester to stay current on what was happening in the DH field. However, I was less clear on the actual underpinning of how DH Now worked. I knew that multiple feeds were brought into the WordPress site and from there, DH Now staff and GRAs curated those feeds, choosing what to publish on the website.

In fact, as we learned, DH Now is powered by PressForward, a WordPress plugin created by the Research Division at RRCHNM that allows one to easily aggregate and share content from the web. DH Now is only one of multiple websites that use the plugin to aggregate and share scholarly web content.

We then were tasked with using our new knowledge of PressForward and DH Now to serve as the Editors-in-Chief for a week, reading through nominated content, choosing what would be the best material to publish, and even selecting the Editor’s Choice piece. Through this hands-on experience, we were able to get a sense of how DH Now worked from the editors’ perspective, instead of from more of a consumer’s view.

Finally, we worked with Laura Crossley, one of the Editors-in-Chief of DH Now, to install and use the PressForward plugin on our own scholarly websites. Laura uses PressForward, much like DH Now, to aggregate DH content on her own blog and share her own comments about what is happening in the field. After considering several options, I decided to use PressForward on my personal website in a less extensive, but still quite useful way. Up until this semester, my personal website has contained blog post updates about my coursework and progress through the Graduate Certificate in Digital Public Humanities. Now I have also begun publishing these posts on the RRCHNM Fellows Blog. It is likely that in the near future, I will also publish blog posts or other scholarly web content in places other than my personal website. Therefore, I am excited to be using PressForward on my own website to bring together a collection of my work in one location. This will allow me to do a better job of keeping track of my own work, while also offering a place for others to examine the various ways I have engaged in the scholarly conversation.

Secondly, we spent time experimenting with and learning about Tropy, the newest research tool built by RRCHNM. Tropy had been released just prior to the beginning of our rotation in the Research Division, so we were some of the first people outside of the Tropy team to really get to see what Tropy can do. Like many of the projects carried out in the Research Division that try to solve a current problem troubling historians, Tropy gives a solution for what to do with the thousands of pictures that scholars take during trips to the archives. We were challenged to experiment with Tropy by reading the documentation, downloading the software, importing some of our own research materials and finally, creating a metadata template for that material.

As a historian of Early America, dealing mostly with handwritten documents, I found that Tropy is extremely useful. It allows you to easily import images and group them into documents, which is helpful if you have a multi-page document and a separate image for each page. Next, there is special split screen view (document on top, space to type underneath), which allows you to transcribe the documents right in Tropy. Before Tropy, I had been keeping my transcriptions (as Word documents) and image files (in a photo editor) separately, but Tropy allows you to save them together, which is really helpful. Tropy also has a search feature, so that you can find every occurrence of a certain person or place’s name in the documents you have transcribed, instead of manually reading through text files to find what you are looking for.

A big part of Tropy, and the second part of our task, was to deal with the metadata associated with our documents. Tropy comes preloaded with a basic template and a few more specific ones (ex. for correspondence or photos). The templates differ in the metadata that they ask you to add for each item. For example, the generic one asks for information like title, date, item type, source, holding collection, etc. while the correspondence template asks for the title, author, recipient, date, location, archive it is from, etc. The metadata properties have to come from an established vocabulary (ex. Dublin Core) but users can import other vocabularies available through Linked Open Vocabularies (LOV). Users can also download templates that others have made or upload templates they had made.

For my experiment in creating a Tropy template, I used material from a previous research project about a rape case in Fairfax County, Virginia during the Civil War. While my research had been supplemented by government and prison records held at the Library of Virginia and newspaper records at the Fairfax County Library, the core of my research centered around the case file for the trial, which is held at the Fairfax Circuit Court Historic Records Center, in Fairfax, VA.

Originally, I thought that I might make a template that could be used for all material at the Historic Records Center, as that would be helpful to a larger group of people if uploaded and shared. My thinking was that I could add the Historical Records Center as the Default Value for the Source property, and that way, users would not have to type that in for every item. But as I tried to create a generic template that would encapsulate all the types of sources held at the Historic Records Center (wills, deed books, birth, death and marriage records, road petitions, as well as court documents), my template ended up being no different than the “Tropy Generic” template that comes with the software.

So I decided to take a different approach and focus on making a template just for the Term Papers at the Historic Records Center. This class of documents provides the legal  judgments for each case, and includes any court papers filed during the term of court. As I knew from my research, item properties like “creator” were less important than determining things like the plaintiff, defendant, and case type (murder, debt, trespass, assault, etc.). After a long search through the properties and vocabularies that came with Tropy, I found that I could use the Dublin Core property “Subject” to stand in for the case type, but that there were no good properties already in Tropy to describe the Plaintiff and Defendant. Therefore, I used Linked Open Vocabularies to find a vocabulary through the Library of Congress (MARC Code List for Relators) that included these two properties. Next, I downloaded the vocabulary and imported it into Tropy, where I could add the two properties to my template. Here is a sample of my template:

Swain FXC Term Papers 1Swain FXC Term Papers 2

Overall, I enjoyed my time in the Research Division. It was really interesting to see how the team in this division had identified two problems common to the historical profession–namely, how to get more publicity/recognition for scholarly grey material and how to organize images of documents from archival research–and how they worked to create usable solutions to these problems. I also appreciated the chance to see how these tools could be incorporated into my own scholarly work and blog.

Public Projects Update

I spent the Fall 2017 semester in the Public Projects Division. Since the end of the Spring 2017 semester, as well as over the summer, I have been primarily working with the Hearing the Americas team to complete an NEH planning grant. This digital project will explore the history of the early music industry by recontextualizing digitized recordings from the LOC Jukebox, UCSB Cylinder Archives, and the Internet Archive’s Great 78 Project. Working on this project has been an excellent opportunity to connect my interests in music history and digital public history. I first conducted content research, reading through secondary sources on the history of the early recording industry and locating primary sources that can complement the digitized recordings. Drawing from this research, I created some sample content that reflects the kinds of information and pathways that the site will provide. This sample content included Music Trivia questions, which will give users in depth explorations of important artists, songs, or themes, as well as sample Omeka item pages that include artists, songs, and genres. In addition to textual sources, I also helped to compile a sample set of visual primary sources including advertisements and catalogs that will be included as content as well as guide the aesthetic design.

I then worked with Megan Brett to create user personas as part of the website design process. First, we identified a number of potential audiences for the website, including Music Fans, Musicians, and Music Writers/Record Collectors. From here, we developed a questionnaire to gauge the kinds of knowledge and expectations people might bring to the website. We first completed in-person interviews with potential users based on a shortened and open-ended version of the questionnaire. Finding people to interview at concerts and other music-based events proved difficult, but the conversations we collected helped us to form the longer-format Google Forum and provided useful feedback to shape the personas. The online survey utilized Google Forum’s option to create various pathways, which we used to separate questions for musicians from other persona types, and asked a series of questions about the user’s knowledge of music history, possible interests, and online behavior. We planned an outreach strategy to disseminate the survey on various social media platforms, utilizing hashtags like #MusicMonday and #MusicHistory to reach the widest possible audience. We initially expected a sample size of about 25 responses, and were pleased to greatly exceed that number, reaching 75 responses by the end of the first day and finally closing the forum at nearly 100 responses. All of the information we gathered formed the basis for writing five user personas including composite biographical paragraphs and bullet points that outline potential user behavior.

We sent this sample content and user personas to our designer, Kim Nguyen, who prepared wireframes and mood boards that reflected the potential information architecture and aesthetics of the website. Using Kim’s wireframes as a guide, I sketched out the potential pages of the website with sharpies and paper in order to do a round of paper prototyping. I represented each page of the the website on an individual sheet of paper, allowing for as many foreseeable pathways as possible. I then did prototype testing with people representative of three user personas: Music Fan, Musician, and Music Writer. In this format, the tester “clicks” through the website by pointing to the various options drawn on the page, and I would then switch to the page they selected to simulate a potential pathway. While working through these pathways, the tester also provided feedback about the organization of the website, their expectations about what they would hope to find on each page, and questions about parts of the site that seemed confusing or counter-intuitive. This allowed us to not only test out the information architecture developed over the last year, but provided some very useful feedback from people who had more distance from the project and were able to view the prototypes with fresh eyes.

I completed this semester by writing up user experience narratives that drew from the user personas and the paper prototyping. These narratives described scenarios in which people might find and engage with the website, highlighting content like Music Trivia, annotated recordings with musicological comments, and explorations of important artists and genres. All of this work will be included in the final collaboratively-written design document that will be submitted to the NEH in the Spring 2018 semester. Working on this project has given me insight into the process of designing a large-scale digital history project, as well writing and completing grants. Helping to write the user personas and user experiences for the design document was by far the most challenging part of this semester, but it has given me valuable experience in a style of writing not often included in graduate education.

Understanding Tools: Working in the Research Division

In my research, I tend to focus on structures and institutions and their real-life implications for everyday people. In my everyday digital life, I have just come to a place where I am more comfortable with examining the structure of digital tools. This was my starting point for my rotation in the Research Division. At RRCHNM, the Research Division creates open-source tools to promote both individual historical research and the development of collaborative digital communities.

We began the rotation with an overview of PressForward, a software plug-in which allows users to aggregate and share digital content using WordPress. Once installing the plug-in, content can be collected via both a feed reader and bookmarklet. Users can discuss, nominate and share items (including an attribution link and metadata) within WordPress. When I learned that you can also keep track of notes and discussions, I wished I had known about PressForward when I was teaching; it would have been great to have this tool to allow students to review and discuss media related to our curriculum. However, PressForward is more than a cool plug-in; it is a tool by which scholarship outside of the typical journal article or dissertation can be widely distributed. Digital Humanities Now (DH Now) is an example of how PressForward is put into practice.

DH Now is an experimental, edited publication that highlights scholarship in the digital humanities that drives the field forward. Additional items of interest, such as jobs, CFPs, conferences, funding announcements, reports and other resources are also posted–again, the point here is encourage scholars to share via the open web, and to amplify work and resources that might not get the attention they deserve. Potential content for DH Now is aggregated in multiple ways, whether its via RSS from a list of subscribed feeds, Twitter threads, or other sources. The content is reviewed, nominated, and discussed  in WordPress using PressForward by volunteer Editors-at-Large. Rotating Editors-in-Chief (faculty and graduate students here at the Center) select content for publication. Acting as Editor-in-Chief gives graduate students the opportunity to examine both content and practice in the digital humanities; it also provides us with experience in crowd-sourcing a DH project.

As a DH Fellow, I’ve been a volunteer Editor-at-Large all semester; that practice combined with a new and deeper understanding of PressForward prepared us for our first task: serving as Co-Editors-in-Chief. Together, we reviewed all of the nominated content (which came by way of the feeds as well as from Bookmarklet), discussed the pros and cons of each piece, and decided on what we’d publish on DH Now. Our Editor’s Choice piece was the white paper “Digital History and Argument,” a product of the Arguing with Digital History Workshop  held here at Mason in September. We also published announcements for conferences and Zotero workshops, two job postings, and new grant guidelines for the DH Advancement Grant from the NEH.

I also spent some time working with Tropy, a newly released tool for organizing research photographs. Users can organize and annotate their photos, as well as export them to share and collaborate with others. I downloaded Tropy to my laptop and used a folder of images from my M.A. research (which may become part of my dissertation) to experiment with it. I was able to combine images (photographs of multiple-page documents) to create consolidated items that were easier to view. Tropy also allowed me to easily add metadata to my photos, such as archive and collection information. Once we had some experience with the software, we were tasked with creating metadata templates. I designed several templates using the following questions as guides:

With the photos I already have, how might have wanted to organize them differently when I was in the archive last year? For the photos I had, I created a template for that archive, with fields for Collection, Box, Folder, and Subject. Box and Subject were the most important fields for that template, as I was examining multiple events, each with extensive incoming and outgoing correspondence.

What other repositories could I access as I develop my dissertation topic? This question led me to some quick research on a nagging question I’ve had for a few weeks…and behold, I got an unexpected answer that will help me expand my focus for my dissertation! I located three additional repositories that could be helpful in the near future.

If I have access to, say, a collection finding aid, could I develop specific templates for these different repositories? One of the repositories I located had a finding aid (albeit not as detailed as that of the other archive I visited last fall), and I was able to use that to help me develop a template; for the other two repositories, I created a template that was a combination of the first two. In general, creating the templates were easy (and in the instance of furthering my dissertation topic, extremely helpful!)

I appreciated having the opportunity to work in the Research Division, to experiment with tools that I might have previously overlooked, and to examine ways in which these tools might be refined to serve the needs to even broader audiences.

Second Rotation: Public Projects Division

The Public Projects Division creates tools, projects and collections that encourage greater interaction with history among a popular audience. Some of the division’s projects are geared directly for public engagement while other tools help public history professionals more easily create collections, exhibits and projects of their own. During our four-week rotation in this division, we worked primarily on two projects, Omeka S and Mapping Early American Elections.

One of the most well-known and in-demand tools that RRCHNM has created, Omeka, comes out of the Public Projects Division. Omeka was released in 2008 as a web content publishing platform that would allow for the assembly, management, and exhibition of digital collections. Omeka S, the Public Project’s newest addition, builds on the popularity of Omeka Classic. Omeka S allows users to create and manage multiple Omeka sites on a single install. It also boasts new modules (plugins) for mapping and importing collections from other systems. Additionally, it allows users to share resources and collections among their multiple sites, and assign distinct privileges to different levels of users.

When we began our work with Omeka S, it was in its final phase of testing, but as of yesterday, Omeka S: 1.0 has officially been released. To start out, we worked with Megan Brett, the Omeka End User Outreach and Testing Coordinator. She taught us how to work with with GitHub and secure shell (SSH) via the command line to install themes and plugins on an Omeka install. Then we worked to simultaneously review the existing Omeka S documentation while testing the instructions on the dev site. We were asked to proofread, not only for spelling and grammar errors, but more importantly, for readability and usability. Did the directions make sense? Were there enough screenshots to help the user follow along with the text? Were the screenshots current? Did they display what a user would really see on his or her screen? Did the dev site respond in the ways that the documentation suggested that it should?

This process of reading and testing gave me firsthand experience with using Omeka S and provided me a more profound sense of the tool’s capabilities. It has enabled me to confidently describe Omeka S to others and explain how it differs from Omeka Classic. Finally, it has encouraged me to explore how I can use the new features of Omeka S in my own work.

During the second half of our rotation, we worked on the Mapping Early American Elections projects. As an Early Americanist, I was excited to work on a project in my favorite era. Although I normally focus on women, gender and social history in this period, looking at the early elections was really fascinating. At the time we (briefly) joined the project, the project team had already created a data set based on the information collected in A New Nation Votes (NNV). They were in the process of creating maps from that data set to represent each Congress in each state in order to help visualize the votes based on political parties.

In addition, they were adding brief interpretive text to each map to explain how each state’s election system worked and to call attention to any interesting aspects of the elections or trends from the previous election. To get a taste of this work, we were asked to write the interpretive text for all the states during the first three Congressional elections. Writing this text required us to look at each visualization (map), compare it to the chart devised from the data set, compare it to the data tables, footnotes and research notes provided by NNV, and then complete additional research for some of the more complicated elections. After we finished writing our interpretive text, Dr. Lincoln Mullen taught us how to use markdown and GitHub to add some of our text to the dev site for the project.

As a student of history, I really enjoyed the historical inquiry and analysis associated with this assignment, as well as the larger questions that the work forced us to discuss and try to answer. First of all, it reminded me how much I like the investigative and interpretive work of history–trying to sort through many different pieces of evidence in order to form one’s best (informed) guess or interpretation of what happened in the past. The more I found out about each election, the more digging I wanted to do.

Secondly, the work forced me to ask bigger questions like, what does it mean to be elected? In our original instructions, we were asked to mention in the text how many candidates from each political party were elected. While this at first sounded straightforward, we soon found out that it proved more difficult. For example, what about elections where one candidate received the most votes, but then the election was contested, votes were later ruled invalid, and the results were officially modified? What if a candidate received the most votes but died before he could take office or he declined to serve? Is there a difference between who was elected and who served in Congress? These and similar questions were discussed during the project meetings before settling on a more precise definition for the project.

Most of all, this project showed how me how digital history projects can make an argument and contribute to the historiographical conversation. Dr. Rosemarie Zagarri, the Lead Historian on the project, writes in the project’s blog in a post called “What Did Democracy Look Like? Voting in Early America” that “Early American elections subvert conventional notions that portray the development of early American democracy as an orderly or systematic affair.” Doing the research required to write the interpretive text really drove home this argument. Early American elections were, in fact, really messy. After the Constitution was ratified, elections didn’t just automatically happen in an organized and efficient manner that was consistent from state to state. As Zagarri asserts, it was an era of experimentation.

By looking at the voting practices and results for several different states during the same election, it was easy to see how the election systems varied state by state. For example in the First Congress, Delaware’s election law required voters in each of the state’s three counties to submit names of two persons they wished to elect. Of these two persons, one was required to be an inhabitant of the voter’s own county and the other needed to be from a different country. The person who received the most votes overall (at-large) would win the election. In the First Congressional election in New York, on the other hand, the state was divided into six districts and voters in each district elected one candidate to represent their own district.

The experimentation of the era, even within an individual state, was also evident by looking at change over time in a single state during the first three Congresses. A great example of this is Pennsylvania. For the First Congress, Pennsylvania held an at-large election where voters were allowed to vote for eight different candidates who could reside anywhere in the state. For the Second Congress, Pennsylvania created eight districts, and only allowed voters to elect one candidate who had to reside within their own district. For the Third Congress, Pennsylvania’s number of congressional seats increased from eight to thirteen (following the results of the 1790 Census) and consequently, the state discontinued its use of the district system, and instead switched back to an at-large system like they had used for the first congressional election. Examples like these provide strong evidence that supports the project’s historiographical argument.

Overall, I enjoyed the mix of technical and more traditional (research and analysis) aspects of working in the Public Projects Division. Even though I am leaving this division, it will be interesting to track both of these projects as they progress; I will be curious to see how users respond to Omeka S in its first few weeks post-launch, and to discover what findings come out of the Mapping Early American Elections project.

Public History and Digital Tools: Working in the Public Projects Division

As a public history student at University of Maryland Baltimore County, I was part of the discussions that led to the creation of the Preserve the Baltimore Uprising 2015 Archive Project. Over the last two years, I have been interested in the ways public history projects–particularly community archives of contemporary events–are created by way of digital tools. As such, I was eager to begin my rotation in the Public Projects division.

The division works to develop digital tools, collections, and exhibits that facilitate public participation in history. Popular tools for online exhibitions and community transcription such as Omeka and Scripto are developed and maintained in the division. Several digital community archive projects are also housed in the division, such as the September 11 Digital Archive, a Digital Memory Bank commemorating Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the Bracero History Archive.

My first task was familiarizing myself with GitHub, a version control repository used primarily for code. Next, I worked through Omeka S as its version 1.0 release drew near. To clarify, Omeka S is different from Omeka Classic: it has a different code base, and gives individuals and organizations the ability to create multiple sites from a single install with shared resources; these resources can be shared as linked open data. I reviewed  documentation (which also introduced me to Markdown via MkDocs), and tested the tool by completing a variety of tasks.

The remaining time in Public Projects was focused on working on Mapping Early American Elections, a project which produces interactive maps and visualizations of elections from 1787 to 1825. I reviewed the election maps, visualizations, and election data from New Nation Votes to draft explanatory paragraphs for state elections for the first three Congresses (1788-1792). My historical research is firmly situated in the late nineteenth century, yet I thoroughly enjoyed examining eighteenth century elections, tracking electoral trends. The last day of my rotation, I was able to utilize GitHub and Markdown to pull my paragraphs into the dev site.

While my introductory rotation is over, I am looking forward to returning to the division next semester and further developing my skills as a digital public historian.

First Rotation: Educational Projects Division

One of the first people I ever met at George Mason was Kelly Schrum, the Director of Educational Projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM). At the time, I was visiting George Mason as a potential school at which to pursue my Master’s degree in History. After meeting with Dr. Schrum, witnessing her enthusiasm for what she did, and hearing about the diversity of engaging projects being created not only in the Educational Projects Division, but across the entire Center, I thought, “I HAVE to be a part of this!” Three years later, I am excited to finally join the Center in my role as a Digital History Fellow.

Naturally, I was delighted to begin my journey at RRCHNM by spending my first four-week rotation in the Educational Projects Division. While I have had little formal training in classroom-based education (educational theory, lesson plan writing, etc.), I have always been passionate about history education and have held several jobs and internships executing museum-based history education. Also, my interest in using digital tools to help create resources for classroom teachers had been piqued while taking a class called “Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age” as part of George Mason University’s Digital Public Humanities Graduate Certificate (which, coincidentally, is partially administered by the Educational Division at RRCHNM.)  

While the Educational Division is somewhat separated from the rest of the Center by a hallway, it was clear right away that it is an integral part of what the Center does. There are multiple different projects that the division juggles at the same time, from creating education websites with partner organizations, to teaching and managing online courses in history and digital tools for classroom teachers and learners of all ages. The Educational Division keeps itself organized with a giant whiteboard, where progress is reviewed in a weekly staff meeting, and with To-Dos, messages and comments through project management software like Basecamp. Because of these organizational methods, it was easy for the DH Fellows to see the status of each project and know what needed to be done next. This allowed us to jump right in and start completing tasks that helped the division move forward on their projects. During what seemed like a short but productive four weeks, we focused on two main projects, Understanding Sacrifice and Eagle Eye Citizen.

Understanding Sacrifice is an ongoing program through the American Battlefield Monument Commission (ABMC) that allows teachers to research a fallen U.S. military hero buried in one of the ABMC cemeteries, write a short biography and eulogy for the fallen hero, travel to the cemetery where that hero is buried, give their eulogy at the hero’s grave, and then write a lesson plan for their students based on what they have learned through the process. This year, the teachers focused on fallen heroes from World War II in the Pacific. Therefore, the cemeteries they visited were in California, Hawaii and the Philippines. For this project, we worked directly with Jennifer Rosenfeld, the Associate Director of Educational Projects.

This project gave me experience doing a wide variety of tasks, as we worked to get this year’s lesson plans, source materials, educational resources, fallen hero profiles, and eulogy videos formatted correctly and uploaded online. Since this project uses a Drupal interface and required us to write basic HTML code, I was thankful for my previous internship at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, where I learned these skills.

Tasks for this project included transcribing audio interviews to be used in some of the teachers’ lesson plans, using YouTube to add closed captions to the eulogy videos and other content videos, inputting and uploading content to the ABMC Education website (images, hero profiles, lesson plans), double checking the sources for each lesson plan, and making sure sources were cited properly and linked to the correct websites. In addition, each online lesson plan also includes a printable PDF version of the lesson plan and applicable handouts. Once these PDFs were created by other GRAs in the division, we were tasked with proofreading them, not only for grammar, but also for content, formatting (spacing, bold, italics, font size, etc.), and consistency between what the teacher originally wrote, what had been added into the website, and what was in the printable PDF. Then we offered suggestions for improvement, which had to be sent back to the teacher for their response and approval before the necessary changes were made on the PDFs and on Drupal.

Out of all the tasks for the ABMC project, I most enjoyed adding the captions to the eulogy videos. First of all, it was a lot like video editing, with which I have previous experience  and which I enjoy. Secondly, it allowed me to learn a lot about the fallen heroes–their lives and the sacrifices that they made for our country. Because I know little about WWII in the Pacific, this was very insightful. Thirdly, through the videos of the teachers reading their eulogies at the fallen heroes’ gravesites, I could hear in their voices how much they felt for the the fallen heroes’ families and see how much hard work they had put into recognizing their hero’s sacrifice. This made me want to work even harder to do what I could, to make sure that the teachers’ work in honoring these heroes and teaching their students about them would be ready and available to others.

The second project we worked on is Eagle Eye Citizen. This website was developed by RRCHNM in partnership with the Library of Congress. It teaches civics to middle and high school students by allowing them to solve and create challenges in a game-like environment using primary sources provided by the Library of Congress. As the students solve and create challenges, they earn points, badges, and can even level-up. All the while, they are learning about topics such as voting, political parties, rights and civic responsibilities. The site also offers students a chance to reflect on each challenge at the end, telling how they solved the challenge or giving rationale for their selections when creating a challenge. For this project, we worked primarily with PhD candidate Sara Collini.

When we started our rotation, the site was mostly complete, leading up to soft-launch and then the official launch a few weeks later. Therefore, one of our primary jobs for this project was to “break” the site. We spent hours testing, making sure that all of the interactive elements worked, that students could not move on without completing each task, that the audio clips played, and that all of the links worked. One of the features of Eagle Eye is a “Look Closer” button, which gives students a larger view of each primary source. We checked if that was working. We also changed roles, logging in as a student and then as a teacher, checking to see if teachers could create and manage a class of student users, as well as review their students’ reflections and challenges they had created. We tested the site on different operating systems (Mac vs. PC) and browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, etc.) to see how it might respond. Through doing this work, I realized how hard it is to describe with words what, where, why and how something is not working correctly. In the end, I eventually reverted to taking screenshots of issues and then annotating them with text, arrows and circles to point out the irregularities. Finally, at the end of the testing, we even had a chance to create challenges of our own that would be used when the site launches.

Although I only got to spend four weeks in the Education Division, I feel like I did and learned a LOT! Not only did I learn new content (information about ABMC heroes, how a lesson plan is formatted) and skills (how to create bulleted lists in HTML), I also learned about the workflow of a digital history center and how to balance working on different projects at the same time. While I had read a lot about how centers like RRCHNM function (both during the Certificate program and at the beginning of the semester), it has been really beneficial for me to see how the Center’s work is carried out on the ground, on a day-to-day basis, and to be a part of it.

It is also exciting to feel like the small role I played was actually useful for these projects, and that I was doing something that really mattered. Even as we move on to the next division, I am excited to see both of these projects launch and to hear what feedback the division gets from the teachers who are incorporating both projects in their classrooms.

Behind the Screen: Working in the Education Division

Before becoming a Digital History Fellow here at Mason, I taught American History to students in grades 7-12 for fifteen years. In planning lessons over those fifteen years, there were some online sources I returned to repeatedly, such as Herbert Hoover’s “Success of Recovery” campaign speech in 1932. Students liked being able to both hear and read the President’s words: “…the gigantic forces of depression are today in retreat.” It wasn’t until I began my fellowship that I learned that the site I bookmarked—History Matters—was created here in the Education Division of RRCHNM, the product of a collaboration between the center and the American Social History Project. As I continue this transition from full-time teacher to full-time student, I appreciated beginning my work in this division.  

The first project, Understanding Sacrifice, has two components. The first is a professional development program for teachers across subjects, who conduct research and develop lesson plans using the resources of the American Battle Monuments Commission. The second is an online repository of these lesson plans, as well as supplemental teaching resources for teachers. During my rotation, my work focused on the online repository, inputting images and sources into the project website; proofreading and editing lesson plans and associated materials; and captioning both eulogy videos honoring fallen service members and short PD videos for teachers. Inputting the images and sources on Drupal gave me an opportunity to use HTML, which gave me a flashback to the days when I used Adobe PageMill. I was able to lean on my classroom experience to effectively proofread and provide feedback on the lesson plans and materials. Having shown many a YouTube video clip in classrooms filled with a wide range of learners, I know how important having accurate captions are; captioning the eulogy and PD videos allowed me to learn more about the individual service members’ lives and develop a new skill. 

The second project, Eagle Eye Citizen, is an interactive designed for middle and high school students which encourages them to explore civics and history by way of primary sources at the Library of Congress. I found myself moving toward almost exclusively using primary sources in my classes in the last few years, so I was eager to see and use this interactive as it moves toward going live. I worked on testing Eagle Eye Citizen for functionality–Does this link work? Does the link open correctly? Does the image open in a new tab?–using different operating systems and internet browsers. This was a time-intensive task, but I enjoyed exploring an interactive and investigating it for possible issues. It also reminded me of how much we take for granted that when we click on a link that it will take us to the correct place. In testing, I had the opportunity to create various challenges within the student portal, which allowed me to review Library of Congress resources and design questions. I appreciated this functionality of Eagle Eye Citizen, because it places students in a position to both apply what they already know and create new knowledge. 

Supporting the production of two online projects utilizing primary sources, designed to encourage civic and historical understanding in classrooms over the last few weeks has been insightful. I look forward to seeing both go live in the weeks to come. 

 

Fall 2016 – Research Division

This semester I worked with the Research Division on Digital Humanities Now.  I was tasked with inventory and assessment of the over 500 subscribed feeds.  These feeds were/are primarily personal or institutional blogs related to the digital humanities.  Since DH Now lives here at CHNM, there were a lot more history blogs than there might be if it lived somewhere else, but there were many entries in literature, anthropology, cultural studies and perhaps most active recently, libraries, museums and cultural heritage institutes.  I cleanup up the site by removing a couple hundred broken and abandoned blogs, and moved 50 or so to their new homes.  I also categorized the entries by discipline and organized the sites by frequency.  There was a meeting to see if folders would be helpful to the editors, but it seemed that it wouldn’t really be of much help.

If I were to make some cursory observations from the DH Now feeds, I would say that it seems like personal blogs are not as popular as they were five years ago.  Most of the ‘big’ names if you will can publish on larger audience platforms – online journals, news sites, etc.  This is a great opportunity for graduate students to work with original scholarship into the blog post medium, since it might a bit harder for them to get ‘DH’ thought pieces onto HuffPost.  I fear however, that microblogging takes up a lot of time.  I also saw a lot of blogs that lasted as long as grad school and then were abandoned or turned into personal sites with links to syllabi and monographs.  At any rate, if the quantitative trends in digital humanities are to serve as guideline for making assertions, it really isn’t right of me to make these kinds of generalizations without a real data set.

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.