The Digital: Inside and Outside the Academy

Over the course of the academic year, I used the process of selecting, nominating, and discussing pieces for DH Now to explore the ways in which digital tools and methods are used inside and outside the discipline of history. At the beginning, my exploration was explicit: I looked for articles that discussed the tools and methods at the heart of the creation and development of new disciplines or fields of study, such as digital sociology, critical university studies, and black code studies. What interested me most about these articles was their emphasis on the ways in which these disciplines and fields are unique, provide greater contexts for their larger fields, and are inherently interdisciplinary in their approach.

New fields aren’t forming every week, however. My interest in the ways digital tools and methods functioned inside and outside the discipline evolved throughout the year to examine projects that challenge prevailing notions of how these tools and methods are or should be used. From crowdsourcing projects to digital storytelling projects to digital maps, digital methods and tools are being used not just to present new arguments, but to address erasures and silences in both the historical record and everyday American life.

In Why is Digital Sociology?, Tressie McMillan Cottom defines the space the field of study occupies—a space unoccupied by traditional Sociology, a space different from that of Communication Studies or Information Studies, but a space that should be engaging with other interdisciplinary fields such as Women’s and Gender studies, Black Studies, and Latinx Studies. McMillan Cottom asserts that Digital Sociology exists because digital societies exist, and they must be examined and explained: “Our job is to understand the means by which, the conditions under which, the context of internet technologies. We study process.”

Introduction: Wild Seed in the Machine opens the special issue of The Black Scholar titled Black Code. Jessica Marie Johnson and Mark Anthony Neal articulate how Black Code Studies directly challenges those “conceptions of the digital that remove Black diasporic people from engagement with technology, modernity, or the future.” Black code studies centers both blackness and the digital both inside and outside academia.

Digital Humanities as Critical University Studies provides an overview of a panel presented at #MLA2018 by Roopika Risam, Beth Seltzer, and Matt Applegate. Each scholar focuses on a different topic: the ways that DH practitioners view campus communities; an analysis of alternative career skills in academic job postings; and tracing an alternate genealogy of DH practice that clarifies its focus on diversity & inclusion. Yet, the intersections are clear—the panel examines the way that DH work has reconfigured the use of academic labor is a response to campus austerity measures, and it attempts to align DH’s commitment to diversity and inclusion with the work of critical university studies.

Matt Vetter, Theresa McDevitt, Dan Weinstein, and Ken Sherwood ponder on the Wikipedia edit-a-thon as a digital intervention in Critical Praxis in Wikipedia: The Art + Feminism Edit-A-Thon. They discuss the gender gap present in Wikipedia’s editor corps (87% identify as male), and the subsequent systematic bias present in the free online encyclopedia. An edit-a-thon, held in conjunction with the Art + Feminism campaign, was an interdisciplinary direct response to the gender gap, supported by faculty and staff from across the university.

Lorena Gauthereau’s talk and Zotero workshop, Decolonizing the Digital Humanities discusses the archive as part of the colonial project: providing a framework for national knowledge & history, but also creating silences, specifically the erasure of indigenous histories and languages, as well as the presence people of Mexican descent from the Texas side of the Texas Revolution. As part of the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage project, Gauthereau’s talk and workshop focused on decolonization, and the questions DH practitioners must ask themselves to ensure that their projects are not reinforcing colonial thinking structures.

“Seeing White” is a series of podcast episodes out of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. It uses uses history, politics, art, and personal experience to create a critical and comprehensive narrative of white America. While Eileen Cormier’s article How “Seeing White” is using audio journalism to critically examine whiteness in America explores the ins and outs of creating the series and focuses more on the direct connections to journalism, what is most useful here in this discussion is the interdisciplinary nature of digital storytelling.

A Digital Map Leads to Reparations for Black & Indigenous Farmers traces the experiences of African and Native American farmers receiving “people to people reparations.” This food and agricultural justice project, which evolved out of controversy surrounding white acknowledgment of their privilege in the food system at the Young Farmers Conference, is rooted in both history and cultural anthropology.

The Components to Create Local Linkages: Working in the Public Projects Division

My work in the Public Projects Division was rooted in Creating Local Linkages, a project designed to introduce public historians to historical research methods and digital history skills. The project team will work to develop in-person workshops, online courses, and open educational resources that can be modified for locally effective use: a range of professional development opportunities to support public librarians’ work to develop and facilitate local digital history programs in their communities. As a member of the project team, my work focused on developing content for an online module, participating in site visits to local public libraries, and collaborating with the current project manager in preparation for my taking on this role in the fall.

In our first team meeting of the semester, I volunteered to develop the content for the Analyzing Primary Sources module. I believed this would be an easy enough task, given my past experience in the classroom teaching students how to use primary sources; yet my experience only took me so far. Over the course of the semester I needed to consider (and reconsider) both content and audience. For example, in the classroom, I might teach middle- or high-school students how to analyze a letter, journal entry, or political cartoon as primary sources. The holdings of a local public library, however, are much broader and I needed to include additional sources such as historical films, numerical data (such as tax assessments), and oral histories in the module—this forced me to slow down and research the nature of these unique sources and determine how best to articulate the steps of analysis. This determination was based as much on the steps of analysis as it was on the audience they would be articulated to—both public libraries and patrons who may use the modules and associated open educational resources.

Our team also needed to understand the needs of our audience, so we researched public libraries in Maryland and Virginia with local history holdings and conducted site visits with library staff. While we had a set of questions we were looking to answer, library staff did as well, making our site visits moments of shared inquiry where we could begin to determine new questions and issues, with the goal of also identifying mutually satisfying answers and solutions. I also spent time throughout the semester talking through project logistics with the current project manager; since I have been interested in project management in a public history context, I was excited to have the opportunity to shadow her for the semester, and examine what processes and tools are in place to manage our work. We’re also collaborating on the work plan for the design of the online course.

Creating content, researching for site visits, and learning project management have all been important and useful experiences for me this semester. However, as a trained public historian, I would remiss if I didn’t discuss, even briefly, the way in which collaboration influenced my work. As I developed the primary source modules, receiving questions and feedback from the team helped me to sharpen my writing and approach. Researching, planning, and participating in site visits assisted in finetuning our team’s operating assumptions and determining the path forward. Learning project management in a collaborative space allowed me to consider our everyday project work in a more strategic way as I move into a new role. While I am definitely looking forward to the summer, I am also looking forward to the new challenges and opportunities that await me in the fall semester.

Wrapping Up the Fellowship in Public Projects

This spring 2018 semester I continued to work in the Public Projects Division. Since I first arrived in this division in spring 2017, I have primarily worked on the Hearing the Americas NEH planning grant to help in the production of a prototype and a future implementation plan. The design document that concluded this planning grant was completed by the time we arrived back from winter break. This semester, I assisted with the next phase of the project: to submit an NEH production grant drawing from the progress we made during the planning grant period in order to build and launch the website. I helped to draft a preliminary version of this grant proposal that is currently in its last week of editing by the Hearing the Americas team before being submitted for consideration in this grant cycle. Working on this project has continued to be a dynamic way for me to draw from and expand my knowledge in music, digital, and public history. Being involved in the grant writing process, throughout the planning grant and production grant phases, has also provided invaluable experience learning how much work goes into drafting a substantial grant application.

In addition to Hearing the Americas, I also began working on the Papers of the War Department and Race and Ethnicity in Advertising projects, which both primarily involved migrating content from one platform to another. When I began working with the Race and the Ethnicity project, Ken Albers had already migrated the content into Omeka. My job was to reconstitute essays from the original website that explored the racial, gendered, and ethnic histories of advertising. Basically, this required converting textual essays into formats that made sense in Omeka’s exhibit builder. Some of these essays translated more easily than others, so it was a creative challenge to find the best ways to structure and illustrate each essay with content from the website.

My other major task this semester was to help prepare content in Papers of the War Department for migration into Omeka S. This digitized archive serves as an important resource by reconstituting documents thought to have been lost in a fire at the US War Department in 1800. These digitized resources are connected to Scripto, a crowdsourcing transcription tool also being updated in this website migration. I have primarily assisted fellow Graduate Research Assistant Alyssa Fahringer by going through the crowdsourced transcriptions she has identified that are incomplete and/or need approval. Unlike Hearing the Americas, this project is far outside of my comfort zone. Although I have done a substantial amount of transcribing from oral histories and other sound recordings, I have not often had to work from handwritten text. As these documents were written between 1784-1800, there is a steep learning curve to adjust to reading the handwriting styles and letter-writing conventions of the time. I will continue to work primarily on the Papers of the War Department project over the summer, so I’ll have some time to sharpen these skills. 

Toward a More Creative DH

Inspired by a MediaCommons survey thread I wrote about at the end of my first year as a DH Fellow, I decided to spend my second year tracking how digital humanists are embracing creativity in their work. The MediaCommons thread asked: “What is the role of the digital humanities in transforming and responding to the arts?” and featured a number of responses how about putting the arts and DH into conversation creates the potential for more engaging, ethical, and exciting work in the field. Because I study music history, I am always looking for new ways to engage with sound, and sensory history more broadly, in the context of digital work. In the field, I noticed not only a reinvestment in podcasting as a medium, but also projects that take sound as its central point of study, including heightened attention to archiving and making sound artifacts available through the work of projects like the Radio Preservation Task Force and The Great 78 Project.

This attention to creativity also came through in the ways that DH scholars have assessed and defended the field. For example, Sarah Bond and Michael Kramer both raised important questions this year about what happens when we reconsider the roots of DH, and how this can lead to more open idea about what, and who, should be considered as part of the field. A number of posts also explored more creative digital pedagogy, and how it can create space for our students to approach history and technology on their own terms in more personally and academically productive ways. Finally, other scholars expressed a more creative approach toward archival work by continuing to broaden and critique what is considered an archive and being forthright about how scholarly and artistic philosophies can influence one another.

I expect that these threads will grow as DH scholars continue to push the boundaries of DH work and make room for ethical and radical scholarship. This work requires a more creative approach, as it seeks to reshape DH around truly decolonizing, anti-racist, and feminist practices. Another important aspect of this thread is the ability for scholars to discuss failure as much as success as a way to learn from one another as the contours of the field continue to expand. As Sean Michael Morris says in the context of what he calls “ethical online learning,” these kinds of projects can serve as important sites of resistance for our students to become “imaginers of an education less technicist, and a world less oppressive.” By continuing to let DH transform and respond to the arts, there appears the promise of a less technicist, less oppressive future for all of us.

Cities and Memory

Cities and Memory is a global project that seeks to document and reimagine the worlds of sound that shape our experiences. A map incorporates sound artifacts from over 75 countries, geolocating each artifact to a point on the map alongside a remixed version created by a sound artist. The website is available for open submission year-round, but also puts out calls for more specific collections of sounds including Sacred Spaces, exploring the sensory experience of different sites of worship, and Protest & Politics, exploring the soundscapes of protest across the world. This project provides an interesting new archive for scholars of sound and sensory history to think through the soundscapes of historical moments that can be useful for digital projects as well as simply thinking through the ways that sound structures the world around us.

Sensory Maps 

Kate McLean’s project, Sensory Maps, creates maps of urban space focusing on what have historically been designated as the three “lowest” senses: touch, taste, and, most specifically, smell. In McLean’s words, Sensory Maps seeks to revive smell perception as “an invisible and currently under-presented dataset with strong connections to emotions and memory.” McLean’s “smellmaps” use data visualization and digital mapping to reimagine the ways that we experience urban spaces by tracking spheres, densities, and categories of smells that permeate various cities. She also gathers data and increases engagement through “smellwalks” and inviting people to send in “smellfies” that help to create a more varied and personalized understanding of the powerful links between smell and place. This is not only an innovative and experimental digital approach, but speaks to a growing emphasis on sensory history that takes seriously the social and cultural construction of the senses and the relationships between them.

Playing Ancient Music Without An Instrumentby Tristan Roddis

This piece discusses a Hack Day put on by the CogApp team in association with the National Library of Scotland in order to develop a new approach toward Optical Music Recognition (OMR). This Hack Day was meant to demonstrate how the study of sound can be central to digital humanities work by identifying ways that we can train computers to “read” sheet music as we have with more traditional textual sources. This approach includes many of the limitations that Optical Character Recognition does, requiring clearly printed sources and often needing human editing, but does provide new ways to think about reading and searching music. The team has also made their workflow available, and invites collaboration with historians and musicologists in order to determine the most useful approaches to a continued OMR practice.

Mapping Racism and Assessing the Success of the Digital Humanitiesby Sarah Bond

This piece by Sarah Bond responded to the disparaging
The Digital-Humanities Bust article published by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Here, she argues for the importance of the field by pointing to the ways that digital mapping projects have helped to redefine the ways we think about the history of racism and segregation. An interesting point in this article is the way Bond connects GIS mapping projects to W.E.B. DuBois’ 19th century visualizations that were meant to highlight the same patterns of discrimination. In this way, Bond’s piece not only makes a case for the continued importance of DH work but also connects it to a longer history of analog visualizations by African American scholars, forcing us to rethink the roots of the field as longer and more diverse than the DH narrative often allows.

10/19/17: Global Jukeboxes & Celestial Monochords—Alan Lomax, Harry Smith, & the Digital Study of Folk Music @ Amériques/Europe: Les Humanités Numériques En Partage?, La Rochelle Universityby Michael Kramer 

Michael Kramer’s transcription of a talk he gave at La Rochelle University echoes a similar point in Sarah Bond’s work. Here, he asks what happens if we extend our history of the field to include the work of folklorist Alan Lomax and artist Harry Smith. Kramer argues that Lomax’s conception of the Global Jukebox and cantometrics was inherently computational, and that Smith’s philosophy toward song collecting for his
Anthology of the American Folk Song referenced many computational theories. Kramer argues that “turning to Lomax and Smith’s engagements with the digital and computation sheds light on the profound tensions that arise when embedded cultural practices—often in the oral tradition— are treated as digital data.” Thought about in the context of Bond’s work, lines of questioning that extend, complicate, and diversify the origin story of DH can open up more a critical and creative history of the field.

Student Showcase: The 1968 Berkeley Folk Music Festival, jacob frazer goes audio-visual.” by Michael Kramer

Michael Kramer’s work in the classroom also speaks to thinking through digital work more creatively, and using the digital as a platform for students to share their work with a wider audience. This video by his student, Jacob Frazer, is just one of several student showcases from Kramer’s Digitizing Folk Music History seminar. This video creates an nonlinear and nonnarrative exploration of the 1968 Berkeley Folk Music Festival, and presents digital storytelling as an essential medium of DH pedagogy that can allow for deeper explorations of source material and more affective arguments.

2 Campuses, 2 Countries, 1 Seminar by Emily Dolan and Jonathan Sterne

This piece written by Emily Dolan in the Department of Music at Harvard and Jonathan Sterne in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill discusses a joint class they co-taught across their two campuses. The course, Bodies and Machines at McGill and Sound Studies at Harvard, explored the cultural meaning of the instrument in various contexts. This piece discusses the value and continued limitations of doing this kind of experimental, distance learning education. Dolan and Sterne maintain that sound and video chat technology remain some of the biggest inhibitors to creating successful telecourses, however they also note that they came to see these glitches as moments when students could laugh, unwind, and process information, reframing our discussion of technical problems as potential opportunity rather than essential lack.

Ethical Online Learning: Critical Pedagogy and Social Justice by Sean Michael Morris and Lora Taub-Pervizpour

This piece by Sean Michael Morris and Lora Taub-Pervizpour was initially given as a joint keynote for a Digital Pedagogy Lab event at the University of Delaware. The talk takes seriously the need for educators to stop adapting to or tolerating technology, but rather engaging with it critically on its own terms and developing a new set of “best habits.” This allows us to create more open, creative learning environments that can provide students’ with the space to express themselves and amplify those ideas in more creative and meaningful ways.

What happened to Sit-In? : Digital Archival Erasure and Struggles for Open Access by Lauren Tilton

This piece by Lauren Tilton responds to the MediaCommons survey question, “How do issues of erasure (redaction, deletion, censor, displacement, etc.) in digital spaces impact memory? What can these erasures reveal?” Tilton’s response highlights the problematic reliance we have on corporate archives, particularly for those who study media history of the twentieth century. In thinking through how the emergence of sensory history in digital humanities practice is developing, the questions that Tilton raises must remain central. As she argues, these corporate media archives “remain in significant control of the public memories of the liberation struggles as they did during the era,” and academics must resist becoming complicit in this cycle of control and erasure.  

Bias, Perception, and Archival Praxis with Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez by Thomas Padilla and Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez

In this interview, Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez discusses her philosophies and approach as the Processing Archivist for Latin American Collections at Princeton University Library. She maintains the importance of decolonial and feminist practices in archiving, and cites a number of other scholars who have published on this topic. She interestingly describes her own genesis as an archivist as rooted in the found object collages of Dadaist artist. In particular, she notes Kurt Schwitters’ “unconventional way of record keeping and memory construction” as a reminder of what we lose through digital processes like cleaning data and prioritizing searchability. Her application of artistic philosophies to the work of the archive reminds us of the importance of keeping creative possibilities central to our continued work in DH, particularly so as not to replicate colonial systems of memory and erasure.