Reflections on the Fall Semester

It has been a busy and beneficial fall semester as a second-year fellow at CHNM. The time rolled along quickly and throughout I’ve had a number of new opportunities and experiences that have built on the work that we did last year as first-year fellows.

As a second-year fellow in the center, our roles at the center changed considerably. The first year of the fellowship focused on circulating us through each division at the center – a six-week process that exposed us to the various projects and enabled us to work with faculty and staff throughout CHNM. The second year of the fellowship has been much more concentrated. My work in the Education division has afforded me more time on a project and allowed me to work more directly with members of that division. In turn I’ve been able to understand the facets of the project to which I have contributed and have enjoyed greater integration into the division.

Getting Started with Phase 1 of 100 Leaders:

In this case, the majority of the fall semester was spent working on the 100 Leaders in World History project. The site, which I have reviewed here, allows for interaction with historical figures on the subject of leadership and encourages teachers and students to extend these subjects further by rating these figures on particular leadership traits. CHNM was selected by National History Day to develop and design the site last Spring. At the start of the semester the site was still in the first phase of development. I worked to add the content from National History Day to each of the pages and familiarized myself with the back-end structure of Drupal. Throughout this period I had a number of interesting conversations with Jennifer Rosenfeld about the complexities and challenges of creating interactive and educational materials for the web. I learned a good deal about the importance of collaboration on a project of this scale. With over 100 distinct pages on the site, minor edits, like the addition of italicization, called for discussion, notation, and a division of labor to ensure that each page was updated appropriately.

Mentoring and moving into Phase 2:

As the semester rolled on, the first-year fellows circulated into the Education department for a four-week accelerated rotation. Stephanie, Jordan, and Alyssa each completed a blog post that described their experiences. During this period I took on a larger role in mentoring them and organized each of the activities we would undertake. We began with user testing across browsers and devices. At this stage, the 100 Leaders in World History project had entered the second phase of development and this user testing aided in the development and design of the current voting interface and served to test and validate that the underlying voting algorithm was capturing and recording appropriately. We consistently tried our best to break everything and shared our findings with Jennifer and James McCartney for improvement. (Anyone viewing the site on a smartphone will appreciate our feedback as the larger slider buttons were a direct result of these tests!)

Next, we worked to gather image content and citation information for videos on the site. At first, our discussions focused on digital images and copyright, but soon we turned our attention to issues of diversity and representation in terms of time period, geographic region, gender, race, ethnicity, and type of leadership. We tried to be thoughtful in our selections, considering the ability of a single image to convey particular types of information about a leader or juxtaposing images to create alternate or additional meaning about a figure or figures. The final activity undertaken with the help of the first year fellows was the creation of a guidebook that will aid National History Day in modifying and maintaining the 100 Leaders in World History site.

Each of these activities was useful in demonstrating the different complications that accompany large-scale, collaborative, educational websites. User testing encouraged us to deal with the user experience and to gain insight into the processes required to build a site of this size. Contributing images moved us back into our comfort zones as historians doing research on particular subjects- but the added complication of copyright was useful in expanding the Fellows’ thinking about what digital historical research entails. While we each campaigned for our favorite images or leaders, we also took seriously the importance of crafting a meaningful visual narrative that supported the dialogue of each video. Finally, the guidebook allowed an introduction to the back-end of a Drupal site and encouraged us to think through questions about making navigation easier and more efficient to those without experience programming.

Working on 100 Leaders after the launch:

After the first-year fellows completed their rotation in the Education division, my work continued to focus on the completion of the Guidebook as well as video transcription, user testing, data manipulation and a website review. On November 3rd, the voting interface on the 100 Leaders in World History site went live. To aid in marketing the site and to inform teachers about how it could be used in the classroom, I wrote a summary of the site’s features for This website review encouraged me to revisit my earlier discussions with Jennifer about online learning and to view the 100 Leaders in World History site with fresh eyes. Since then, interest in the site has exploded and we have recorded over 200,000 votes in just over a month. It has been a busy but useful semester for me in Education and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to contribute to a project like 100 Leaders.

CHNM Anniversary:

In November, CHNM celebrated its 20th anniversary with a conference held here at George Mason. As I described here, the second-year fellows spent a portion of last spring engaged in a discussion about the history of the center. From that seminar with Dr. Robertson, each of us researched a foundational project in the center’s history and created an archive in Omeka to organize and display our findings. Over the summer I worked to expand our efforts to include the broader range of projects using grant materials, oral histories, and internal communications to trace the development and growth of important projects. As a relative newcomer to the field, this process was particularly meaningful. This work culminated this fall in the release of the RRCHNM20 Collection which made these materials public and invited others to contribute. The RRCHNM20 Collection is an important step toward creating a unified narrative of CHNM’s role through recording and preserving the hidden processes and persons at each phase of CHNM’s history. In fact, a group of us used a portion of our time at the conference to mine the RRCHNM collection and create a visualization that represents some of the connections between projects and people across 20 years.  Furthermore, the conference events brought former and current employees together in a productive and meaningful dialogue about the past, present and future of work at DH centers like CHNM (I live-tweeted these experiences throughout the conference.)

Additional Fellowship Responsibilities and final thoughts:

The additional responsibilities of a second-year fellow include producing a podcast, serving as a mentor to first-year fellows and the operation of the Digital Support Space. It was interesting to be on the other side of the mentorship process this year. Last year, Ben Hurwitz, Spencer Roberts, and Amanda Morton served as mentors to the incoming fellows. They were each very helpful to us and I was excited to provide the same assistance for the new group. Across the semester I’ve made myself available to each of them for support, but my interaction during their rotation in the Education division was particularly significant. During that period I was able to provide direct support and work with each of them individually on a project. Not only do I feel that I got to know them better, but we had a number of useful conversations about the fellowship and the PhD program broadly. I also worked this semester with my mentee, Jordan, to research and produce episode 108 for the Digital Campus podcast. Finally, I also extended time and resources to individuals in Clio I, Clio 3, and Digital Storytelling classes through the Support Space.

Overall, has been a fast and busy semester but a successful one. I’ve learned a good deal about project management and collaboration through my experiences on the 100 Leaders in World History project and I’m pleased to have had the chance to work more closely in the Education division.


Reflections on the RRCHNM 20th Anniversary Conference

This past weekend, November 14th and 15th, was the RRCHNM 20th Anniversary Conference here at George Mason University. The attendee list included current and former staff, George Mason faculty, current grad students, and guests from other institutions and universities. Over the two days of this unconference, topics ranging from the history of CHNM to graduate student attribution were discussed.

I was excited to be able to meet the people whose work I have been reading in my Clio Wired class. The conference was a bit of a contextual event as I was able to interact with people like Tim Hitchcock, Dan Cohen, Trevor Owens etc. In this gathering, I was able to place myself in the community of DH scholars.  It was an interesting experience that really boost my desire to engage the field and participate in the discussions.

Of the three sessions I attended on the first day, the first session (Digital Literacy Tool Kit for Undergraduates) has lingered with me the longest. I wanted to attend this session because I am just starting out in my PhD program and in my involvement with Digital history. The discussion in this session, I felt, would help me as I learn and grow as a digital historian. The session was focused around an attendee who was trying to develop an undergraduate course focused around digital methods. It began by taking a step back and asking “What do you (the professor) want the students to leave with, ultimately?” Digital literacy and fluency, multilinear narratives, interaction with digital sources were all addressed. One of the more important comments was made by Spencer Roberts on failure. He said “Failure is productive if you value learning, it isn’t if you value the end product.” I have been reflecting on how my own relationship with failure in my work. Moving forward, I have a greater sense of myself and my own progress as a digital historian. I hope to always improve my digital literacy and fluency through my work.

I also took the opportunity of the conference to fulfill my “Live tweet a day” assignment for my Fellowship. I though it would be a great time to tweet out the discussions and talks, especially for those who weren’t able to make the first day. I wrote a blog post on that experience that can be found, here.

The second day, I worked the registration table in the morning and acted as scribe for the two breakout sessions. What was interesting was that both sessions I was assigned to ended up being on the same topic. In all, including the day before, there was a series of three sessions that carried on a long discussion of peer review of digital scholarship. There was a core group of individuals who attended all three of these sessions. It was fascinating to participate in this important discussion as I have not published anything, let alone any digital scholarship. By the third session, the afternoon of the second day, the discussion focused heavily on crafting a DHR – Digital History Review (coined by Fred Gibbs) – to provide the best platform to review the scholarship. I came away from the session invigorated and motived to continue the discussion on peer review. It is an important part of Digital History, not just for the overall review but also as a supplement for tenure and promotion committees. The notes from the latter two sessions are here and here.

Overall, the conference was a great success and a lot of fun to participate in. I enjoyed tweeting out the conference, especially because there is now a record of all the tweets using the #rrchnm20 hashtag. The sessions were incredibly helpful and insightful. I was surprised at how quickly I became invested in the discussions and the possible outputs from those sessions. I went home from the second day with a plethora of thoughts, ideas, questions and concerns. I guess, that would be the identifier of a great conference.

RRCHNM20 Reflection

The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media celebrated its 20th anniversary by holding an unconference on November 14 and 15.

On day one, I worked at the registration table in the morning. I was able to catch parts of the lightning histories and remembrances, and I attended the session on 22 short stories about CHNM history. After lunch I went to the discussion on gender and centers, and the part I found most interesting was the question of whether DH centers are starting to replicate the gendering of work that happens in academic libraries. In the second afternoon session, Anne and I produced Episode 109 of Digital Campus. It was great to have Dan, Tom, Mills, and Stephen in one room rather than recording via Skype, and as that is such a rare occasion, I had hoped the question and answer session would generate more inquiries from the audience.

Day two featured panels and breakout sessions. The first panel, featuring Ed Ayers, Brett Bobley, Bethany Nowviskie, and Stephen Robertson, spoke about the future of digital humanities centers. I appreciated Ayers’ statement that the AHA needs to embrace digital humanities scholarship as true scholarship, and I realized while listening to Bethany that I need to re-read Roy Rosenzweig’s piece on scarcity and abundance. Bethany listed many issues that we need to be more aware of, including excessive consumption, the carbon footprint, adjunctification, and disparities inherent in DH centers due to budgets or location. After the panel I went to the first breakout session of the day, where we discussed global and domestic access. The part of the discussion that I most enjoyed was that of language barriers and how we need to ensure the accessibility of our technologies to all parts of the globe. Neatline is one example of a DH technology that fosters and embraces diversity and global access.

After lunch we had our second panel, during which Tim Hitchcock, William Thomas, Kathryn Tomasek, and Spencer Roberts discussed the future of digital history. Tim brought up a great point when he stated that books should not stand by themselves, and digital history needs to reinvent history writing and telling. There is more than one way to effectively study history, and the monograph should no longer be the pinnacle of academic achievement for historians. Bill mentioned revising the peer review process, and that is a topic that has come up time and again in our Clio 1 course. Spencer’s presentation was critical and informative, and he talked about a wide range of topics, including the faults inherent in the digital history fellowship model utilized at the Center, the issues surrounding digital dissertations, and the problems graduate students face as a result of lack of funding. Then we moved into our breakout sessions, and I took notes during the discussion focusing on rethinking the physical archive.

I left the conference feeling inundated with information about the future of digital humanities and digital history and the problems we need to discuss and collaborate together on to remedy. I was constantly in awe of the level of intellectual discourse occurring, and I greatly enjoyed listening to both panels’ presentations. It was great to meet some of the authors of our Clio 1 readings and the digital humanities scholars I follow on Twitter, and the big names in DH in general. I ended up with more questions than I could possibly elucidate here, but I must admit that the conference completely sold me on the utility of Twitter. Not only was it useful for me for note-taking purposes to live tweet as much of the conference as a I could, but the hashtag created for the event allowed a diverse audience of people to tune into the days’ events. To view my Tweets from the conference, click here.

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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When Graduate Work Comes Together

The Digital History Fellows occupy a fairly unique role amongst the many graduate students currently studying in the humanities. We have been given research stipends to support the growth of our research capabilities, with particular emphasis on digital research methods. Because we are attached to the RRCHNM, our concentrated efforts are focused on specific projects, to which we contribute time and energy while developing digital methods and skills. We and the center benefit from the symbiotic relationship.

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