We’ve reached the end of our two-year stint as Digital History Fellows at RRCHNM. The time we’ve spent at the center has introduced us to various tools and techniques, provided the opportunity to work with scholars, given us insight into the process and progress of grant-funded DH projects, and enabled us to build a supportive cohort of students across the program that will continue to serve each of us as we move into the next stage of our programs. Below, each of us will expand on the experiences we’ve had at the center and reflect on the work we’ve done.
The structure of the DH fellowship helped me to gain knowledge and skills of digital history in a meaningful way—one that assisted me in learning more collaborative ways of doing history, achieving more skills to accomplish creating digital history, and understanding the reasoning behind doing DH. During my first year, we were able to travel between the divisions, which allowed for a relatively quick overview of the different ways that digital history is done. In the second year, I was placed into two divisions—one each in fall and spring—and I was able to delve further into particular projects within these divisions and work more closely with the members of each division.
The Center for History and New Media is structured in such a way that open collaboration and communication is possible. Although there are three divisions, there are open discussions for ideas, collaboration amongst the members, and many people that are very willing to help if needed. Through my work here, I’ve learned that many people in the Center use different tools to create their work, and this has helped me to become exposed to new methods. There are also several meetings in which ideas are discussed, and these meetings are productive for learning new ways to do Digital History.
I had a much easier time with my trio of Clio classes due to my time as a DH Fellow. When I came in, I had some experience with certain tools, but I did not feel confident in my ability to actually do digital history. Our classes have changed that, and my time at the Center was very complementary in that it seemed whenever we were doing work for the Clio classes, we were also working on something similar within our CHNM work. It also was a great establishment of skills for taking Clio 3, which involved much more programming. Because of my time at CHNM, I had previous experience with some programing languages, and it made the process of taking Clio 3 much easier so that I was able to produce a meaningful piece of scholarship in the end.
In the future, I plan on taking the ideas of collaboration, communication, and the skill set that I have gained from CHNM into my career as a historian. Since I plan on working in a public history setting, I feel that the ability to utilize these skills will further my ability as a historian.
I believe that one of the most meaningful activities of my time at CHNM was the building of relationships with my colleagues through our mentoring and support space. Although we were all working on different projects throughout the two years of our DH Fellowship, the availability of mentoring—first with the third years mentoring us and then us doing the same for the first years—allowed us to communicate, collaborate, and to learn from each other. I believe that this is one of the most important aspects of the DH Fellowship, as it fosters an environment that promotes this type of dialogue for our future careers and work, whether inside or outside the academy.
The second year of the fellowship, for me, has been incredibly useful. I’ve really enjoyed being positioned on PressForward in the Research division. My work in this division has allowed me to further develop my programming skills, stay current with the latest DH scholarship through DHNow and the Journal of Digital Humanities, and participate in the development cycle for an open access piece of software. Our first year of the fellowship was focused on testing various tools and becoming familiar with different platforms and approaches to Digital History. This year I’ve moved into more of a building role and have had the opportunity to draw on the programming skills I’ve developed to contribute to the PressForward plugin. The structure of both the first and second years of the fellowship compliment each other well and has provided me with a broad knowledge of the centers organization, various digital history tools and approaches, as well as a chance to implement and build on what I’ve learned.
When I began this fellowship, the structure of the center was very unclear to me. However, through our rotations and experience in each division, I’ve become familiar with the current structure of the center, its origin, history, and its position in the larger field. CHNM has a long history of collaborating with teachers and schools, museums and libraries, as well as individual scholars and researchers to produce tools and projects that are innovative and sustainable. Participation in the Open Source community has been important to projects like Omeka or Zotero and has created a group of users who are active in testing and developing for these projects.
The digital history coursework we’ve been required to complete has often complimented our work at the center and helped to shape my views on digital history. Our practicum at RRCHNM provided practical hands-on experience while our coursework often provided a theoretical and sometimes historical perspective on Digital History methods, tools, and projects. I think taking these courses as a fellow gave me a unique perspective and some unique experience in Digital History.
Looking forward to the next year, I am planning to finish up prepping for my comprehensive exams and prepare my dissertation prospectus in order to advance to candidacy. Over the summer, I’ll be working on developing my dissertation prospectus and working to develop a proposal and plan for a digital component. My experience as a Digital History Fellow has shaped the way I’ve conceptualized using digital methodologies and techniques in my dissertation and has helped me to develop some of the skills that will be necessary. Because of the work I’ve been involved with at the center and my digital coursework at GMU, I have a realistic idea of what will be required to build a digital component.
The projects I have found most valuable during this fellowship have been projects like our THATCamp Topic Modeling project where we generated a data set about a center project and mined it. This project, in many ways, was a productive failure and I benefited greatly from it. Looking back on the project now, a year later, I realize many of the assumptions we made were flawed and we could have extracted and cleaned the data in both a reproducible and an easier manner. Projects where the fellows are given creative license to draw on techniques and concepts discussed in our coursework in order to create something based on a center project (or on center history) is, I think, extremely valuable for Digital History Fellows. These types of projects are also ideal for fostering and promoting mentorship among the fellows. Spencer Roberts was such an important resource for us during the THATCamp project and we couldn’t have completed the project without him. He offered advice on how to approach the project, explained programming concepts, and worked with us for several days on troubleshooting our python script. Through this project, as well as projects like creating the RRCHNM Omeka Archive for the 20th Anniversary, I gained valuable insight into what it takes to accurately and realistically conceptualize a digital project as well as experience thinking through critical choices like information architecture with the user in mind. We were often faced with unexpected challenges and messy data along the way. I’ve taken a lot away from these projects and I think they are a valuable and unique aspect of the fellowship that should be continued and implemented in a thoughtful way for future cohorts.
Recently the next cohort of PhD students visited GMU. As we sat with them and described the fellowship track and digital coursework, I began to reflect on my own experience along these lines. It is surprising how quickly we were incorporated into the activities of the center. The structure of the fellowship was remarkably useful in this regard- we were introduced to people and projects in a six week cycle that provided a low barrier to entry. As we moved across the center, we were able to identify the projects and skills that appealed to each of us. The second year took this process further. Moving into a single department meant that each of us was able to take a larger part in the work. Each of us was able to explore subjects of interest and work more extensively with others within that division. In my case this meant a fall semester in the Education division working on the 100 Leaders project and a spring semester in the Public Projects division working on the Mall project. Working more extensively in one division meant that each of us had to balance the responsibilities of the fellowship with our tasks in each division, but in most cases we were able to manage these well.
Working as a DH Fellow has definitely guided the direction of my coursework. I entered the program here at GMU with very little technical experience. Working at the center enabled me to build skill and confidence in these areas. It definitely gave me the confidence to enroll in Clio 3; Programming for Historians without these valuable experiences. I also found the Support Space to be a valuable aspect of my time at the Center. Bringing my challenges to the table and helping others with their work allowed me to create and build relationships with other students in the program. Oftentimes, we would spend time talking a problem out together and I found this type of collaboration particularly edifying. Last spring, Mandy Regan led a group of students in our Clio 2 class in a tutorial on 960 grid. This impromptu tutorial was a great example of the way that we were able to bridge our coursework with the fellowship. These activities have fostered collaborative relationships that continue to encourage us to share techniques and digital work with one another.
I’ve written on this subject in the past, but the preparation we did for the 20th anniversary was particularly meaningful for me. We started this work as a group and over the course of the summer I expanded the repository to include the many projects in the Center’s history. The process enabled me to read each one of the grants in the center’s history. Quickly I gained a better understanding of how the field has changed in 20 years. The project forced me to reconsider tools like Zotero as part of a larger vision. To think about projects like History Matters in terms of the other work the center has produced. To put them on a timeline and to view them not as discrete but connected by a thread or an idea. I learned more about iterative projects and the complexities of collaboration. Considering these things while I was working through my coursework enabled me to make connections with readings and class discussions. The experience encouraged me to see these projects from multiple perspectives.
When I reflect on my time as a fellow – this project encapsulates the value of the fellowship for me. It encouraged me to think about the legacy of digital history projects while also considering what is to come from the field. It is a project that will be difficult to duplicate, but one that would serve future Fellows in a meaningful way.
Next year, we all move on, either as a Graduate Research Assistant at the center or as a Teaching Assistant in the Department of History and Art History here at George Mason. Although our stint as Digital History Fellows is over, we all agree that it was a beneficial experience and we look forward to seeing what future cohorts will do.