Reflections on Spring Semester

This semester I’ve continued my work on the PressForward project in the Research division. Throughout the semester I’ve served as editor-in-chief, helped troubleshoot and test the latest version of the PressForward plugin for public release, and continued to develop my php and web development skills by working on the TurnKey PressForward WordPress theme. In addition to working on PressForward, I’ve helped out in the support space, organized a brown bag, and spent some time mentoring Stephanie Seal. My time in the Research division on PressForward has allowed me to develop my programming skills and further acquaint myself with the software development process. I’ve learned so much about programming in general over the last two years, but I’ve also gained valuable experience in things like UI/UX design principals and about the workflow for developing/maintaining an open source piece of software.

The PressForward All Content page in 3.5 features improved navigation, filtering, sorting, and searching.

The PressForward All Content page in 3.5 features improved navigation, filtering, sorting, and searching.

In March, PressForward released version 3.5 which included some significant User Interface(UI) and User Experience(UX) changes. This version was the result of several months of work by the PressForward team and included a redesigned toolbar in ‘Nominated’ and ‘Under Review’ and some reorganization of tools and options in the plugin. Throughout the first months of this semester, I attended development meetings, tested new features, and helped to rewrite our documentation based on the new features. Releasing a new version of the software is a big task as it involves updating all our documentation, screenshots, and descriptions of the plugin. 

Output of the Subscribed Feeds Shortcode in the PressForward TurnKey Theme

Output of the Subscribed Feeds Shortcode in the PressForward TurnKey Theme

Building the PressForward TurnKey Theme allowed me to apply a lot of the concepts I was picking up through bug-testing and in the weekly discussions with our developer Aram. For example, I helped to write a shortcode that displays a list of the subscribed feeds and aims to allows PressForward users to further expose the metadata collected by the plugin. We came up with this idea after realizing how many of DHNow’s feed were broken and how poor the metadata that is associated with the feeds often are. Attributing credit to posts we feature when the author is not clearly listed in the metadata is often difficult and problematic. The shortcode allows users to highlight the RSS metadata pulled in by the plugin by providing options for displaying both active and inactive feeds. We hope allowing administrators to make their feedlist (as well as the feed title and author) visible outside of the plugin will prompt scholars to revisit the metadata contained in their RSS feeds. Participating in development meetings this semester, I have not only continued to further my understanding of the backend of the plugin but also have learned more about php and WordPress core. 

My work on PressForward has been immensely helpful in building my programming skills and as I look back at the last two years of this fellowship, I’m struck by how much my skills have grown. In addition to technical skills, I’ve also gained experience in managing an active publication and an open source project. Thanks to projects like our cohort’s THATCamp topic modeling experiment in Python, the Clio Wired sequence, the support space, and my time in Research my skills have vastly improved. As I finish up this fellowship and look towards beginning my dissertation and developing a digital component, the skill set I’ve cultivated through this fellowship will be immensely useful. At the very least, the skills I’ve developed her have given me a foundation in computational thinking and I feel confident in learning whatever new programming skills will be required for my own research.

Aside from our duties in our respective divisions, the fellows have also had some common projects we’ve worked on.  Stephanie Seal and I produced several episodes of Digital Campus this semester and continued to maintain the blog.  Producing Digital Campus involves finding stories for everyone to discuss, managing and scheduling the recording, and preparing a blog post summarizing the episode for the Digital Campus blog.

Additionally, each year the fellows are asked to host and organize a brown bag at the center.  This year I invited Micki Kaufman down from the City University of New York to talk about her dissertation research, entitled “Everything on Paper Will Be Used Against Me”: Quantifying Kissinger, A Computational Analysis of the DNSA’s Kissinger Collection Memcons and Telcons.” I had previously met Kaufman at the 20th Anniversary conference and the brownbag was an excellent opportunity for the fellows to invite down another graduate student and participate in conversations about digital methodologies and approaches as they apply to a dissertation.

 

Final Reflection

Since posting my midterm reflection, I’ve been continuing to work on the Papers of the War Department and the 9/11 Digital Archive. Anne and I produced Episode #112 of Digital Campus in March, which featured three of the hosts discussing current trends in technology, including the demise of Internet Explorer, the Apple watch, and the new one-port MacBook. On behalf of the DH Fellows, Amanda Regan coordinated Micki Kaufman’s brown bag presentation on her dissertation, Quantifying Kissinger, which I briefly blogged about and live tweeted.

Papers of the War Department (PWD)
For the PWD I’ve been creating user accounts, monitoring the wiki page, and protecting and exporting transcribed documents. I’ve also written several “transcribe this” blogs describing various documents: one discusses the fever in Philadelphia; another mentions the state of affairs in the Ohio country; and my final post will be published next week that concerns the appeal for the creation of a school for Native American children. I’ve also written the community transcription updates for the months of March and April. In addition to blogging, I’ve populated the PWD Twitter with links to documents needing transcription that appeal to a wide audience. Some of these tweets cover such topics as George Washington’s presidential agenda; Washington’s 1792 speech to the Five Nations; a resignation of a brigadier general; a 1795 American expedition into Florida; and death in Early America.

The September 11 Digital Archive
After completing the review of the Sonic Memorial Project Collection, I wrote a blog post for the 9/11 blog that highlighted the various types of items housed within that large collection by going through the history of the physical space the World Trade Towers inhabited. I also reviewed the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center (MEMEAC) Interview Collection, which is a group of over seventy interviews of Arab-American and/or Muslim Americans that were conducted by the Graduate Center, City University of New York between 2002 and 2003. Currently I am drafting a blog post that describes that collection.

In addition to my work on those projects, I also performed user testing for the newest version of Omeka.net. In addition to my current work on 9/11, I also used Omeka in Public Projects last semester while working on describing the items in the Boston Federal Aviation Administration Filings Collection, so I was already familiar with the user interface, adding content, and describing items. By testing the latest version I learned much more about how the content management system works as well as the purposes for all Omeka plugins, and I was successful in finding a few minor errors. Also: the LC-Suggest plugin is so incredibly helpful and useful!

My work this semester in Public Projects has taught me to engage with wider audiences that are not necessarily scholastic in nature. I’ve been able to choose PWD documents to tweet or blog about, and I chose to review the MEMEAC collection for my final 9/11 blog post. My blogs and tweets are meant evoke public interest in the projects, and as such the subjects of each must be compelling and interesting to scholars and non-scholars alike. In addition to understanding and reaching out to various audiences, I’ve also gained a greater understanding of the two platforms both projects are built on: MediaWiki and Omeka. Before working on the PWD I had never worked with MediaWiki, so I had to acclimate myself to the interface. I also now have a great appreciation for Dublin Core metadata after reviewing various items and collections within 9/11. I have greatly enjoyed my time in the Public Projects division, and am amazed at how much I’ve learned over the past nine months. At the end of August last year, I came in with very limited technical knowledge and was baffled as to what exactly digital history encompasses. Working at the Center as a Fellow has allowed me to broaden my technical horizons, engage with programming languages including Python, have first-hand experiences with the frustrations of American copyright laws, make history accessible to various audiences, and learn the intricacies of Omeka.

PressForward Workshop

This year PressForward has been focused on outreach. The PressForward team has been working to develop the plugin’s user interface and to help several pilot partners get PressForward publications up and running. As the fellow positioned on this project I’ve been involved with the continued development of the plugin. Last weekend, Amanda Morton, a former DH Fellow, and I were given the opportunity to give a PressForward workshop at the Advancing Research Communication and Scholarship (ARCS) conference in Philadelphia. The ARCS conference is “a new conference focused on the evolving and increasingly complex scholarly communication network.” Interdisciplinary in nature, the conference featured a set of workshops on Sunday and a set of diverse panels on Monday. Many of the panels focused on linked and open data, alternative publishing models, alt metrics and other ways of measuring impact, and open access digital repositories. The conference was a great opportunity to interact with organizations and communities that might be interested in PressForward and get an idea of what features might be important to these groups.

Our workshop focused on PressForward and covered topics such as the origins of the project, features that make the plugin standout, and an overview of how we use the plugin to maintain DH Now’s editorial process. Lastly, we set up a sandbox and gave users logins so they could follow along as we walked through important features of the plugin. We had about thirty people from libraries and science organizations attend and it was interesting to hear different ideas about how the plugin might be useful. The workshop was a nice break from some of the more technical things I’ve been doing this semester and it was great to get to talk about the project as a whole and how it fits into the scholarly communication ecosystem.

Below is a copy of the powerpoint we put together for the workshop.

Live Tweeting a Day of Work

Last semester I was able to live tweet the 20th Anniversary Conference for RRCHNM. It was a lot of fun and really interesting to pass information around on the Twitter-verse about the various talks and sessions. My overall impression hasn’t changed about the usefulness of twitter for professionals an academics. In the time since creating my twitter account, I have had several people ask me for my opinion on twitter and I have been able to expound on its usefulness in academia. As I have developed my online presence, I have become sensitive to what type of presence I am “putting out there.” From the beginning, I have tried to separate my personal/family life from my professional life. One way I have tried to separate the two is by using Twitter for my professional life and keeping my Facebook account for family or personal use. While some cross over does exist (posting articles or conference material on Facebook or about the Red Sox on twitter), my impression of Twitter is very academic.

I chose to live tweet Monday, May 4th (May the 4th be with you…) because I knew I would be engaging in a multitude of projects. This week I am the Editor-in-Chief for Digital Humanities Now so I would be reading through the nominated material to prep for Tuesday’s posting. I also would be working on drafting a write up for my Editors at Large Map discussing the process of making the map as well as the various ways to use the E@L data in a spatial platform. Additionally, the DH Support Space takes place on Mondays to help students working digital projects. We were expecting higher traffic with the Support Space as Clio II’s preliminary drafts of their websites are due tonight. Compared to my live tweeting of the conference, Monday’s live tweeting was a very different experience.

Live tweeting a work day meant that my tweets were not all centered on a specific topic. Live tweeting the conference was more of a collaborative effort as each tweet was tagged with the conference’s designated hashtag. Thus all tweets were focused towards a single collaborative narrative or focus. Tweeting my work flow for Monday allowed me to tweet about DHNow in the morning and then about  Leaflet and mapping in the afternoon. At first it felt a bit scattered in my approach but I would attribute that to my still limited proficiency and experience with tweeting.

Mentoring as a DH Fellow

Mentoring with the Digital History Fellows was one of the most meaningful aspects of my time at the Center for History and New Media. Historians often isolate themselves and their research, but with digital history methods, collaboration becomes key to creating something meaningful. Through both my time as a first year and second year, I engaged with other fellows, as well as our colleagues in the program, to help each other learn tools, troubleshoot problems, and also engage in a social, collaborative environment that allowed us to foster a useful learning environment for digital history.

Mentoring had two aspects–the first was the DH Fellows working amongst themselves to solve problems, bounce off ideas, and to work together on projects assigned by the three divisions of CHNM. Second, the DH Fellows created a support space last year that allowed students in Clio 1 and 2 to come into the Center and work, so that if there were problems with their projects, we could collaboratively work to fix and explain in more depth the different tools that they were exposed to.

Lastly, it was helpful to have my mentee, Alyssa, with me to do the Digital Campus Podcast. Together, we came up with stories that we felt were meaningful, interesting, and even were able to produce the live podcast at the 20th Anniversary Conference. This process would be difficult without her, as it helps to have two people bounce ideas around for projects that are already so collaborative in nature.

Mentoring allowed me to create new relationships with fellow historians, learn the collaborative nature of digital history and the best ways to work together, and also how to share and identify problems that could potentially help all of us create better work overall.

Reflecting on the Spring Semester

Last fall as a DH Fellow, I worked in the education division. My activities focused on the National History Day 100 Leaders project, described in a blog post in December. This spring I moved into the public projects division, working with Megan Brett and Sheila Brennan on the Histories of the National Mall project.

I described some of the activities that I focused on in this division in a previous blog post . In many ways, working on this project has allowed me to do what I enjoy most; research historical subjects and share my findings with others. This project is also unique in that it is not tied to a time period or particular subject. Instead, we are collecting and presenting stories that are connected to a bounded geographic space. Framing research in terms of geography has encouraged me to gravitate toward the subjects that are most interesting to me, while also exposing me to new subjects, people, and events.

I’ve focused particular attention this semester on a research question that considers the monuments and other projects that are unbuilt. Of course, the history of the National Mall includes the structures and monuments that currently fill the space, but it is also marked by the things that were never there. This inquiry was started by other graduate students at the center, but I’ve enjoyed exploring the history of unbuilt monuments and other objects. These provide a rich site for investigation on several levels.

In order to be unbuilt, these items received public support and congressional approval. They have to be conceptualized, designed, and a site must be selected. Each of these decisions reflects the beliefs and attitudes of sculptor, artist, community organizer, and congressperson, as well as the broader community. The debates that memorials and monuments engendered can be very telling, especially in cases like the National Peace Garden which was designed and then redesigned based on feedback from the US Fine Arts Commission. These debates can shape the design of an object or define its placement. Further still, a lack of interest or financial support can mean that a proposal is never completed. Much of this interesting history is obscured because the memorials and monuments they propose are unbuilt and invisible. In many ways, this is the value of a project like Histories of the National Mall. It challenges us to think beyond the existing structures and to visualize what might have been. We can reimagine the space with alternate designs for existing structures, like the Lincoln Memorial, and think further about how the Mall changes with the addition of structures such as the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial or a Benjamin Banneker Memorial. Researching these items has been a fascinating and entertaining part of my semester.

In addition to these tasks, I have also aided in the promotion of the site. In the previous post, I described the social media presence that I have maintained over the semester. But recently I  was also able to take part in some public outreach activities. On a sunny day this spring, I joined Megan Brett  on a whirlwind tour of the greater DC area distributing pamphlets and promotional materials to public libraries, visitors centers and other related institutions. This process highlighted for me the difficulty of creating public history projects online. As much as we’d like to believe the Field of Dreams when Shoeless Joe Jackson tells us, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ The reality is that there can be a disconnect between the people you would like to visit your site and the people who know about it. This activity was a good reminder that even as we increasingly move to digital modes of communication, there is still a measure in which putting foot to pavement is a part of doing digital work.

In general, it has been a busy and fruitful semester in the Public Projects division. The transition from a first-year to a second-year fellow has meant that I have been given greater responsibility in these projects and have a larger stake in completing the tasks. At the end of next week I will be completing my second year as a Digital History Fellow. Looking across this period, I can note that I’ve grown quite a bit in terms of skill and knowledge and in many ways the center has meaningfully fostered this growth.

Romancing the Histories of the National Mall

This semester, my role in Public Projects has allowed me to work on the Histories of the National Mall project in several ways. Across this period I’ve been involved researching, editing, and posting content on the site, as well as scheduling and posting relevant items to the project’s social media outlets. I’ve also contributed content based on my area of interest (Deaf President Now). These processes have encouraged me to reflect on the nature of public history projects and the way in which our questions can drive us to explore new subjects of interest.

My question started out simply enough. In the midst of scheduling relevant and interesting items for the month of February, Valentines’ Day presented a challenge. The Histories of the National Mall site has over 500 items, including people, events, explorations, images, documents, videos, audio files and scavenger hunts. I generally enjoy finding just the right item to share via Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Paddles the Beaver for April Fool’s Day, Senator Pepper playing baseball with Congressional pages for the opening day of Major League Baseball, or the Original Cherry Trees for the first day of the Cherry Blossom festival were fun to put together. But for a holiday commonly associated with candy hearts and romance, there were no Mall items that made immediate sense.

Down the research rabbit hole I went, armed with a question; when and how was the Mall a place of romance? Researching this question took me in a number of different directions. I learned that today, the National Mall is frequently a destination wedding site. Like other public parks, people are drawn to the landscape and monuments when they contemplate the exchange of their wedding vows. This led me to question the emergence of the practice and to consider historical examples of weddings on and around the Mall. As a result of all this digging, three new items were added to the site; The Wedding, White House Weddings, and Mall Weddings.

One of my favorite aspects of the Mall site is the way that hidden, overlooked, and missing items are made visible. It is a good reminder of the way in which the city is a palimpsest – it is inscribed with ideas that are sometimes erased and reinscribed with new meaning. In a space that feels timeless and grounded by monuments and other structures, it is fascinating to surface new historical layers at the National Mall.

My questions about a history of romance on the Mall resulted in three very different examples of how the space was used for weddings; it has served as public place for the exchange of vows since 1976, as an elegant and, largely private, space for presidents and their families to hold ceremonies, and as a site of large-scale protest regarding the treatment of same-sex couples. In asking this question, many more arise. What can these examples tell us about changing notions about marriage? What do they suggest about the meaning of marriage ceremonies? By focusing on weddings, what other examples of romance have been ignored?

Perhaps the best part of working on this project has been the way that questions like these are encouraged. The wide variety of items and item types demonstrates the way in which Mall has been (and continues to be) interrogated from many angles. And as this experience showed, there are further stories, events, and people to be explored. We just have to ask questions.

Fellowship and Mentorship

During my first year at RRCHNM, Ben Hurwitz served as a guide and mentor to me. As we have described previously, the first year of our fellowship involved an intensive 6 weeks in each division at the center. Ben and the other second-year fellows, Spencer Roberts and Amanda Morton, provided technical support as we worked on projects in each division and advice as we progressed through the program.

Beginning this year as a second-year fellow, I looked forward to being useful to the first-year cohort as they made their way through the center. In a blog post last fall, I described the experience of mentoring the first-year fellows while I was working in the Education division. We worked together to gather multimedia content for videos for the 100 Leaders project, completed some user-testing on the 100 Leaders website, and developed a guidebook for National History Day. I worked to organize the time we spent on each of these activities so that there was a balance between working collaboratively and working on projects individually. I also tried to talk through the challenges that we faced in each of these contexts. For instance, copyright and image rights was a frequent subject of discussion. The process was useful for me in conceptualizing what it entails to organize collaborative projects with a group of people with different interests and skills.

Across this year, I’ve worked most closely with Jordan Bratt, my mentee. As joint producers of the Digital Campus podcast, we’ve worked to schedule the podcast and to research stories for discussion. We’ve used this opportunity to discuss current issues and to share articles of interest, fostering a broader discussion of DH issues and concerns. Outside of this task, Jordan and I converse regularly with regard to his program of study and larger educational goals. Having completed the required courses Clio I and Clio II), I have been able to discuss and advise him on assignments and advise him with regard to course schedules and requirements. We share research interests and our collaboration has led us to fruitful discussions about coursework and research. Jordan comes to GMU and RRCHNM with considerable knowledge and expertise in the field of geography and geographical computing techniques. He has been able to share some of this with me and I can see opportunities for further collaboration in the future.

The mentorship program is useful in several ways. It provides an initial introduction between cohorts and encourages collaboration between them. It provides a sounding board for both groups and encourages us to work together on projects of interest. Working together, across the cohorts, on the Support Space is also useful in enabling us to interact as peers and scholars. The Support Space, described in previous blog posts, provides guidance on digital projects to students from across the program. As they approach us for help, each member of the fellowship program is able to provide assistance. Problems are often resolved collaboratively and this process encourages us to learn from one another even as we aid others.

Reflecting on Live-Tweeting

Last fall I chose to livetweet the 20th Anniversary conference. I described my experiences at the conference in a blog post, but here I will reflect on the experience of live-tweeting these events. Generally speaking, live-tweeting allows you to make connections and extend the conversation. Sharing your thoughts on twitter, challenging or complicating the presentation, engaging with another conference attendees regarding your interpretation or theirs – each of these actions allows audience members to dive into the conversation in a meaningful and scholarly way.

At many conferences, audience members are expected to passively absorb the presentation. They are only able to engage during the Q&A sessions or among other conference-attendees before or after a presentation. A real-time conversation on twitter allows the audience to engage in an evolving discussion with other experts in the field in an open forum. It also provides a space for emerging scholars to participate in this discourse and the shared experience provides the group with a common language and subject matter. As each participant is also processing the information simultaneously, the conversation is frequently revealing of the ways in which people interpret information. Using a shared hashtag and posting these thoughts in a public forum also makes the content of a conference transparent to those not in the room. In this way, conversations are extended to broader social and intellectual circles.

My day of tweeting was punctuated by my responsibilities as a graduate student volunteer. For part of the conference day, we were divided into break-out sessions where I transcribed the ongoing conversation. Trying to balance these duties with tweeting was complicated, but I tried to make visible the discussion that was taking place. I aimed to tweet at least one meaningful comment from my session and I could see conference attendees at other sessions responding to, and showing interest in, the discussions happening in other rooms. This was also telling about the way in which livetweeting encourages us to put discrete panels and presentations into conversation, allowing scholars to participate at multiple levels.

 

Tweeting as Communication

Earlier this year, I decided to livetweet the RRCHNM 20th Anniversary Conference, which was significant to me in regards to discussing the topics of the conference itself, but also one of the benefits was that I was able to communicate with other historians about these topics. I received many replies, retweets, and even connected to other historians that would not have been aware of who I was without my tweets. It was a very useful experience, and I believe I gained more from this livetweet, in terms of professional connections and discussions, than previous livetweets I have done. This type of scholarly communication can link together historians that may not necessarily have connected without this type of technology, and it proved useful to me in engaging in the larger discussions surrounding the conference.