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.

Working with Ancestry

Most of this semester, I have been doing research with Ancestry for the Education Division for a project, and I have learned so much about researching family histories from this project. I’ve also learned more about crowd-sourcing materials, the structure of Ancestry, and the usefulness of the databases for finding people that otherwise may not be traceable.

When I trotted my way into the Fairfax county library system, I was not entirely sure what to expect in going through Ancestry. I had never gone through the databases before, and it took a while to actually learn how to effectively use the system. The difficulty of the process was gathering correct data on research subjects with partial birth or death dates and partial names.  For one, I needed to ensure I had the correct person’s information with sometimes very little to work with. Second, it was difficult, if not impossible, to find certain people.

Since many of these people died during the 19th and early 20th centuries, records were not always clear or present. This is partially why it is sometimes extremely helpful (although there are certainly pitfalls, as well) to have crowdsourced information. Often times, people that are extremely interested in their family histories will ensure that this information is available on Ancestry. This made it significantly easier to correctly identify people. However, as many of us know, family histories can greatly be exaggerated to connect family members to certain places, events, or people, even if it is done without intention or through oral tradition.

I feel like my work through this project allowed me to better understand researching specific people, especially those that may not be as well known. This may particularly be helpful for me in future career choices, and I have also certainly enjoyed the process, although it has been at times a struggle.

Educational Games vs Consumer Games

For the past few weeks, I’ve been playing through video games that explore civics and history in an attempt to gain insight into what type of educational video games exist out there and what I thought about them. Given my experience with consumer video games, I felt that it would be interesting to play through educational games for comparison. This was an enlightening, and oftentimes quite frustrating, experience for me.

I will say upfront that many of the educational games that I played were not fun. There was no inherent pleasure or excitement in playing them, and that is one of the most important aspects of a video game. One of the educational goals of video games is to make learning fun. Given the types of audiences these games are trying to reach, it seems important to create something that would be fun to play as well as educational. My thoughts throughout the entire process of playing these games is that there are commercially successful games that have really good ideas on how to make a fun game that aren’t particularly complicated in how they run or how to play. Double Fine’s works (Grim Fandango and Broken Age) are a good example of point and click adventure games, and they have engaging stories and gameplay. They are also very accessible in regards to actually playing through the games. The only educational game that I played that I thoroughly enjoyed (Jamestown Game) was only entertaining to me when I was completely going against the history of Jamestown. This game only lasted about 5 minutes total, as well, which is not going to be engaging for long for students, with written explanations of what the Jamestown settlers actually did when everything is completed.

I feel that there must be a way to incorporate the engaging stories of civics and history while including fun gameplay in a way that would make educational games fun and exciting for students. Mission US is the closest to an educational game that had the makings to be something fun while helping students learn. The classic style “point and click” games, where one is able to gain items to solve puzzles and choose dialogue options, have been very successful in commercial venues. This style is what Mission US follows; however, in its attempts to follow history and allow choices, the writing is very flat and uninteresting. If there was a way to keep this style for learning about civics and history while providing a narrative that is well-written and promotes learning while being fun (easier said than done, I know!), I feel that it would be a successful educational game.

The educational games, much to my surprise, also had a lot of accessibility issues. Many of them came with no subtitles, which limits the ability of students with hearing issues to engage with the games. However, this also made me question how students would be playing these games in general. Would they have headphones? Would they play in a classroom? Would they play in groups? These types of questions are important to consider when creating an educational game. I have not encountered many commercial video games that do not have subtitles or allow for toggling them on or off. This feature should be very important to reach a broad audience with educational games. There were also very few games for younger students. The primary focus was on middle and high school students. The few that were accessible to younger students had no educational value whatsoever.

Overall, I felt like this experience was incredibly helpful for me to try and think about what the goals of educational games actually are and how well they accomplish that task. I see that there are currently many limitations on how educational games can work (resources to create them, writing, accessibility, age groups, etc).The primary goal of educational games is to make learning entertaining, but I think that many of the games currently out there miss the mark. Using engaging writing with a coherent storyline–whether it is historical, on civics, or anything else–will help many educational games to reach their intended goal. When I think of educational game, I think of the games I played when I was a kid–Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego. These were very story-driven games, which I think is the important aspect that we should focus on.

 

My First Year Fellow Experience in the Education Divison

My first semester in the Education Division of RRCHNM has been an interesting and educational experience. Since January, I’ve been lucky enough to work on the 100 Leaders project for National History Day and played a major role in adding up leader votes in different ways and then uploading them to the 100Leaders.org website.  What made the project so interesting was that (after 100 days of voting) the results were far from what anyone at NHD or RRCHNM expected.  Interestingly, once voting opened in November, social media voters from other countries started pouring in and these votes single handedly knocked down most of the famous western leaders that many people thought would steal the top ten.  Instead of Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson as the most influential leaders, voting ended with Muhammad taking the number one spot, Mustafa Ataturk in second, followed by Jesus of Nazareth in third.  On the 100 Leaders website, National History Day published a fascinating background story on the findings and how so many votes were cast from outside of the United States.

After working for weeks on the 100 Leaders website, I was also given the opportunity to work on the new Digital Humanities online certificate that will be offered by George Mason University through RRCHNM in Fall 2015.  This exciting new project for the university and the center also comes with a lot of background work.  Everyone in the Education division has been very hands on—from recording interviews from creators of digital humanities projects to transcribing those projects, to outlining assignments.  I’ve had the opportunity to research a lot of the projects that new certificate students will be asked to complete.  As a content provider, I’ve been on the lookout for different types of digital archives, content data bases for mapping and text mining, and open source/copyright free sites so students have the best tools available when learning what exists in the digital world.

Outside of working in the Ed division, the first year fellows and I have had the interesting opportunity of holding Clio II tutoring sessions every Monday between noon and 5pm.  At our table in the center we offer help on the PhD required Clio II projects where all of us have been asked to create a digital history project and build our own websites from scratch.  While I was the first year digital history fellow who came in with the least amount of knowledge in DH, being able to tutor on coding has not only helped with learning HTML, CSS, Java Script, etc, it’s given me a confidence that was severely lacking last semester. I’ve learned through helping others build websites and have become a pro at looking up answers for website building questions and can now quickly solve issues.  Last semester I was nervous and lost.  The Clio II help desk  has helped me retain knowledge of coding and I’m excited that I no longer have to constantly lean of W3 schools for information.  I’m finally retaining how to move an object from point A to point B on my computer screen.

While there is only a month left in my fellowship at RRCHNM I am thankful for how much I’ve learned this semester and look forward to how much more I can cram in my brain in the following months.

 

Reflection on Micki Kaufman’s Presentation & Live Tweeting

Yesterday Micki Kaufman came to CHNM to deliver a presentation on her dissertation, “Everything on Paper Will Be Used Against Me”: Quantifying Kissinger. Her presentation was fascinating, and her use of digital methods was eye-opening. What I found particularly interesting was the subtext that ran through both the presentation and the question-and-answer session about how various specializations/professions view and analyze information; in particular, how historians, librarians, and digital historians/humanists do so. This was especially evident when she was discussing the computer-generated and human-generated list of topics found within the documents after running them through topic modeling software. Historians may or may not find that one use of Cambodia in a document of use to them, but librarians have to list Cambodia as a subject because the associated metadata is intended to show the breadth of the document. Another interesting point I took away from the presentation was that digital methods don’t have to solely be a methodology. The use of digital methods can also be epistemological in nature. The way Micki approached her research is fundamentally different from how historians have traditionally operated. Rather than going into the archive with a prepared set of questions, Micki took all of the documents from the archive and, using digital methodologies, discovered what the documents were telling her. A question I think should now be approached is how to reconcile the epistemology of digital history with that of traditional history. Do the two have to remain separate from one another? How can we, as digital historians, make it easier for traditionally-minded historians to adapt digital methodologies into their research?

I also live-tweeted Micki’s presentation, as did other staff members at the Center. My thoughts and opinions on tweeting as a form of scholarly communication have not changed since my November post on the same topic. Twitter continues to be an excellent platform for scholars, and is an easy way to remain up-to-date with the happenings in the DH world. I especially like using Twitter for presentations and conferences because my tweets can serve as my own notes and simultaneously I am making information available to the general public.

Midterm Reflection

This semester I am working in Public Projects. Last semester, when the first year DH fellows were rotating through the division, we worked on the Histories of the National Mall and the 9/11 Digital Archive. This semester, I am continuing to work on the 9/11 Digital Archive in addition to the Papers of the War Department (PWD).

Papers of the War Department

I am assisting Ron and Megan in managing the PWD. My work includes creating transcriber accounts, protecting and exporting documents, communicating with the transcribers when needed, and raising awareness of the project through blog posts and tweets. I always find it interesting to discover why people are signing up to become transcribers, whether it’s because they are history teachers or students, conducting genealogical research, or are simply interested in the time period. I’ve finally started to gain familiarity with the MediaWiki page, having never before used a wiki page. The variety of subjects contained within the PWD is fascinating. I wrote a blog post about a document in which a poor mother was inquiring whether her son, who had served in the Revolutionary War, was due any clothing or money at the time of his death. Today I tweeted about a letter written by George Washington in which he discusses his thoughts on the commander in chief uniform.

9/11 Digital Archive

For the Archive I have been working on reviewing content and making collections public. I first worked on the 13th Anniversary Collection and the 10th Anniversary Collection. Both of these collections include personal reflections on the respective anniversaries of 9/11 in the form of pictures, audio clips, and text. I went through each item within the collections to ensure there wasn’t inflammatory content, and then made both collections public. I also wrote a blog post about the Boston Federal Aviation Administration Filings, which Jordan, Stephanie, and I worked on describing when we rotated through Public Projects last semester. It’s a fascinating collection, filled with interviews, reports, transcripts, and more, and I hope the blog post draws attention to that particular section of the Archive.

Currently I am working on reviewing the content of the Sonic Memorial Project, which tells the history of the World Trade Centers (WTC) through interviews, voicemails, ambient sounds, and stories. Like the PWD, I am continually amazed by the diversity of items within this collection. There’s information about and recollections from a range of people, who provide (often first-hand) insight into Radio Row, which preceded the WTC; the Mohawk Ironworkers who helped build the Towers; building stewardesses who answered questions when the WTC was still under construction and a point of controversy; artists-in-residence at the WTC; stories of love and marriage at the Towers; the Fresh Kills Landfill; and memories of 9/11.

Some of the material is shocking and saddening, like the FDNY radio transmissions from 9/11, or this compilation of WNYC’s coverage of the day and weeks following. Other items reveal how people have dealt with the events of 9/11, including this recording of a poem, and this artist’s description of her Day of the Dead art installation at the Pelham Art Center. Despite the sadness, there is a multiplicity of people who called into the Project to describe happy memories, including this doctor’s story of her engagement, which happened at Windows on the World.