Reflections: Year Two, Semester One

As the first term of 2013-14 closes, it seems appropriate to reflect on the experiences of the Digital History Fellows. Last year, our first cohort of DH Fellows spent the first semester meeting with Dan Cohen, learning the history of the center, discussing current projects, and thinking about how digital history is practiced. We spent our second semester working in each of the divisions for five weeks, and then decided in which division we would like to work in the second year. Although there was no specific requirement that we take positions spread across the three divisions, we were drawn in different directions. From the first days of the fellowship, Ben Hurwitz was most comfortable in Education and quickly entrenched himself at their community table. He now works on various educational projects, including the Popular Romance Project. Amanda Morton worked closely with Fred Gibbs before he relocated to New Mexico, which helped her transition into Research, where she works on Digital Humanities Now and related PressForward projects. Spencer Roberts was drifting toward Public Projects before the summer started, and settled in once the center received a grant to work with the National Park Service to revamp their War of 1812 site.

This year we welcomed three new members into the fellowship, bringing our total number to six. The second cohort follows a different schedule in their first year, so Amanda Regan, Anne Ladyem McDivitt, and Jannelle Legg stepped directly into the mix at RRCHNM, splitting their semester into seven-week blocks in Education and Public Projects. During those weeks, they have written reflective posts about the projects to which they’ve contributed, all of which can be found here. Next term, they will spend a block in Research before moving into a final seminar with Stephen Robertson.

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Public Projects: Reflection

The past seven weeks have moved really quickly but I have benefitted a great deal from the time we spent in the Public Projects section of CHNM.

Due to my relatively limited technical skills, this section has proven to be the most challenging thus far. However, with some help, and some pretty detailed instructions, I have been expanding my skill set and feel a lot less intimidated by the tools we work with. There are three main projects on which we focused: testing updates in Omeka, transcribing and revisiting documents at the Papers of the War Department and contributing to and testing the National Mall site.

I have deeply enjoyed them all, especially the sunny morning we spent at the National Mall. Additionally, a great deal of our work overlapped with the theoretical reading and discussions of our coursework as digital history scholars. It is rare for theory and application to be balanced, but that was definitely my experience this semester. I was frequently surprised to find applications of class reading at work and often referred to the work done at CHNM during course discussions.

Public Projects was deeply inclusive for us as fellows. I got a real sense of each of the ongoing projects and I learned a great deal about the collaborative work required to produce the resources described above.

Overall, this semester the fellowship has given me a structured place to develop my knowledge and expertise with digital tools, like Omeka and Scripto, and given me a sandbox to play with Git Hub and the command-line (if you know what those things are, you are in a much better place than I was three months ago!)

I’m looking forward to learning more in the semester to come!

Reflections on Public Projects

This week, we finished our rotation block with Public Projects. I both struggled and thoroughly enjoyed working in Public Projects, as I learned so many new and helpful things while I also found my weaknesses in some of the more technical aspects of digital history. This block included many different types of projects, such as live testing a new website at the National Mall, writing entries for that project, testing Omeka, and even transcribing letters for Papers of the War Department.

I also got to venture into DC for the first time for work during this rotation, which I enjoyed immensely. I was very thankful that I got to test the new National Mall project with my other first year fellows, and you can read more about that experience here. I am excited to see it go live, and I hope that when it is live, many other first-time and returning visitors to the Mall can utilize it.

I also had some difficulties in the block that I overcame, which makes me feel incredibly accomplished. Although I felt comfortable with Omeka coming into this block, I have learned so much more about how it functions and the different uses than I had previously known. I also learned a lot about how transcribing and pulling out keywords from handwritten letters are entirely different experiences. This was difficult, especially figuring out what particular words were, but it was so useful, connecting, and interesting to read these letters from when the US was a brand new country.

I loved working within this block, and I liked that I was challenged by a lot of the projects we worked on. I have learned a lot of useful skills that I can apply to my future career or dissertation as a historian. Coming into George Mason University, I already had my MA in Public History, and I have a real passion for making history accessible to the public. I believe that a lot of the work that is being done in the Public Projects section of CHNM is applying this concept, and I take great inspiration from the people and projects that I have encountered while working here.

A Bit of Reflection on Pressforward Projects

It’s interesting to be on the other side of the production of something like DHNow/JDH. Not only does sorting through material for each offer a unique opportunity to explore current events and conversations in the digital humanities, but this process also encourages deeper examination of blog posts and white papers to pull out threads of argument and evidence that can be used to connect disparate conversations across fields. Archaeologists and manuscript historians share common interests with those working in hard sciences and linguistics, although their work is rarely presented in the same forum. Part of what JDH adds to the DH community is this willingness to collect and edit work from across several disciplines and present them as part of a united DH culture.

I’ve learned, as a graduate student working on these projects, that being a part of this collecting and collating work requires a willingness to explore a wide-range of interests, and to read blog posts, white papers, and poster projects that have little to do with my own projects or areas of expertise. For example, most of the content for JDH comes from the pool of content chosen for Editors’ Choice features on DHNow, a selection process that requires Editors-in-Chief for a chosen week to read through content nominated by a group of editors-at-large whose experience in the DH community is variable. The job of the EC is to sort through these nominations, pulling out relevant job postings, conference and event announcements, calls for participation, and useful resources, then picking one or two items to feature as the Editors’ Choice for the Tuesday and Thursday of that week.

The selection of these Editors’ Choice items is left largely up to the EC for the week. There are guidelines, of course. These featured items need to be of substantial length, usually more than 500 words or 20 min. in video/presentation playback, and should make a relevant, substantive, and perhaps even provocative argument that adds to or initiates a conversation in the field. Since DHNow only links to these posts — there’s no editing involved — they should also be well-written and, if necessary, thoroughly cited. White papers and articles are generally only posted if they haven’t been published in other journals or periodicals.

While these guidelines are helpful, on good weeks Editors-at-Large nominate several pieces that meet the requirements, leaving final selection up to the EC for the week. Each of us have our own idiosyncrasies, of course, and our own areas of interest can influence our choices. We do also take into account how many times our options have been nominated, and we pay attention to that additional level of interest as well as checking for comments (in the PressForward plugin) that explain why our guest editors nominated individual items. What results is a crowd-sourced, yet still curated, publication that feeds into JDH.

Recent changes to the DHNow site — in both the sections dedicated to the Editors-at-Large and the main content pages — will hopefully encourage our guest editors to engage more in the content selection process. It will be interesting to see if new editors (and returning participants) start to leave more comments or more feedback to provide us with a better understanding of how they are selecting content to nominate. The other reason behind the redesign, beyond helping out current editors, was to pull in more outside editors. The more participants we have, the more feeds are nominated to be added to the plugin, and the more exposure both we and our editors have to the ongoing conversations and arguments circulating within the DH community. By encouraging the creation of a more engaged community, we are also pushing for more interdisciplinary participation in the field, bringing scientists, librarians, archaeologists, archivists, historians, and others into a community whose make-up should result in bigger and better projects and perhaps, a more solid sense of a DH identity.

Education Reflection

My time in the Education block of the Center for History and New Media as a Digital History Fellow has been quite interesting for me. Previously, my experience with teaching was limited to either working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant for introductory-level history courses or teaching fourth graders as a Public History Educator at a museum in Sanford, Florida.  Due to my admittedly limited experience with K-12 education, this experience has been revealing on how technology can accommodate teaching history to students at those levels.

Although historians always analyze information and primary documents, it is a lot more difficult to determine the best way for students to utilize those resources for learning. For example, while writing reviews for Teaching History, I had to consider the typical things for historians, such as bias, type of information, and quality and quantity of the primary documents. What is new to me is that I also had to think of how these items could potentially enhance a lesson plan for a teacher for their class. In addition, I also had to consider the usability of these websites and tools. If a website is too difficult or confusing for a student to use, then it is problematic to consider it a valuable teaching resource, even if the information is good.

I have previously mentioned the challenges of thinking as an educator, and these challenges continue to be something that I must tackle as I continue in the educational portion of CHNM, as well as my future as a historian. I believe that these are some of the valuable lessons that I can take form working at a Digital History Fellow at CHNM, because I will be able to utilize the skills that I have obtained from working on these projects in future endeavors.

Reflections on the Education Division

On Monday the first year fellows leave the Education Division and move to Public Projects for the remainder of our first semester.  Over the last seven weeks, I have learned a lot about the projects in the education division, the project and tools within the division, and the division’s goals of providing teachers with skills and tool to teach historical thinking to students.  I’ve come away from this rotation with a better understanding of not only the role of the education division but also with a new appreciation for the challenge of using and creating tools that encourage students to think critically about history.

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Education Dept. Reflection

My time in the education department at CHNM has passed quickly, but it has also been deeply enriching. I’ve learned a lot about the challenges of creating historical scholarship geared toward K-12 students and have come to appreciate the importance of integrating digital media in the classroom. As one can imagine, coming into the Center with limited technical skills can be intimidating, but in these seven weeks the combination of course content and fellowship activities has greatly reduced my concerns.

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Wanted Now: Training for our Future

The Digital History Fellowship is situated at the convergence of three separate goals for graduate students at George Mason University. First, all graduate students in the Department of History and Art History are required to take courses in digital history, usually consisting of one class in theory or study and another in practice (collectively referred to as Clio I and II). These classes are designed to give graduate students an introduction to the concepts and practices of digital history and new media that are increasingly important for scholars in all disciplines. Although experiences in the classes are widely varied, the skills introduced in the courses are common throughout digital humanities and form the backbone of the work done here at the RRCHNM. Because DH Fellows work in the center while learning new skills, they benefit ongoing research and grow their own capabilities.

Second, each DH Fellow is pursuing a minor field in digital history, which can take the form of study for teaching, application, or research. Some of us have studied how to use digital tools and media in the classroom, while others have examined the methods used in digital public history. Because the fellowship is technically a practicum course, it qualifies as a component of our minor fields, which removes some of the difficulty in assembling the required classes. Some of our colleagues in the program who are also completing digital history minor fields often struggle to scrape together a handful of classes that are offered infrequently (due to scarcity of instructors). Although the program and the center are working to resolve the problem, the fellowship sidesteps the issue by allowing us to work as DH researchers in return for class credit.

Finally, the fellowship fulfills a new goal for the history program: to train graduate students in digital history methods and skills through practical training alongside senior researchers, and to engage those students in the production of new digital history projects. Generally, our experiences are directed toward increasing our abilities while also contributing to the field. Though other graduate students have worked as research assistants in the center, acquiring valuable skills and experience as they work on projects, the fellowship is somewhat unique in its clear, mutually beneficial goals. And that’s exactly the problem.

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The Challenges of Making a Challenge

For the past few weeks at the Center for History and New Media, my fellow first year Digital History Fellows and myself were assigned to work in the Education division, which produces projects that are designed to teach history to a wide scope of people through various educational resources. While in the Education division, we have been working with a new web project meant to engage and educate the audience by allowing them to examine liberty in the United States in a new and interesting way. This is achieved by incorporating age and ability-appropriate “challenges” and access to primary documents and images. This project seeks an audience of teachers, K-12 students, as well as the general public.

There are intriguing methods in creating a challenge for students. While creating our own challenge for the project, there were multiple questions that we had to ask ourselves. First, what was the goal of the project? What did we want the students to achieve from doing the challenge? What skills would they use? In terms of examining the sources, we attempted to view them in an analytic manner, but with a basic guided direction so that the students do not get overwhelmed. We wanted the students to come away with an understanding of the importance of understanding not only the document itself, but also their context. By giving the students a choice of what documents they could utilize for their own project, it allows them to view our examples and use the skills they gained to create an interesting project from their understanding.

 
Although this project has yet to publicly launch, I have been testing the website from multiple angles to ensure that it will work properly for the end users. This has certainly been a fun process for me, as I have had to work as both a teacher and a student! This meant that I had to get myself into a mindset of, “if I were in tenth grade, how would I have completed this assignment? What did I know? What did I not know?” It was also quite engaging to utilize the primary documents and photographs in conjunction with the provided tools to create interesting projects with the website. I would imagine that K-12 aged students would also find this to be quite exciting, but I also think that it would be a fun experience for teachers who are designing challenges for their students, as well. I know all of the DH Fellows that worked on this project took our assignments very seriously beyond just the testing phase, as we worked for hours to perfect our challenge assignments!

Originally posted on Center for History and New Media Blog

Collaboration: Breaking Down Center Walls

We all know that graduate students working in Digital Humanities Centers have the unique experience to work on a variety of projects and enhance technical and development skills. We have the chance to add lines to our CVs that can improve our chances of getting both academic and non-academic jobs, and get to see our names on the about pages of apps and websites. What I haven’t really seen in discussions about grad students in Centers is a conversation regarding the more immediate academic and social benefits–and challenges–that go along with participating in and working on-site at these Centers. We should also consider talking about how we can connect and collaborate with other grad students in similar situations.

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