My rotation through the Research Division

I am not sure what I was expecting when the first year fellows were assigned to the Research division. I came with a preconceived notion of what Digital History research is and what historians do with it. It turned out that the scope of my understanding was actually quite limited. My time in the division has taught me a lot about the vast applications and possibilities of Digital History. We (the first year fellows) were given chances to get our hands dirty and it proved very rewarding. Sadly, this blog post marks the end of our rotation through the Research division.

Our first assignment was to PressForward. We started from the ground up by familiarizing ourselves with the project. We installed the plugin on the sandbox server and got to bang around on it. We explored the PressForward.org site as well as the digitalhumanitiesnow.org site. I must admit that my initial reaction was that PressForward was a glorified RSS reader with some added features of promoting articles. I use Feedly (a RSS reader) on my phone to follow various history blogs and I, at first, did not see a big difference between the two. It wasn’t until someone explained “gray literature” that the full purpose of PressForward came into view. Until that point, I had been ignorant to the issue of online scholarship. The PressForward site explains “gray literature” to be “conference papers, white papers, reports, scholarly blogs, and digital projects.” Online scholarship is being under-appreciated and forgotten in a discipline that has focused so heavily for so long on printed material.  My assignment as an Editor-at-Large and then as an Editor-in-Chief brought this issue into focus for me

Working as an Editor-at-Large and Editor-in-Chief really solidified the importance of PressForward. As an Editors-at-Large, we worked through the live feed of articles and websites coming into Digital Humanities Now. I learned that it can be labor intensive to sift through the various websites and articles to find important, relevant material. It is not always easy to find the scholarship and pertinent information. I also learned first hand about the limitations of the software. On a couple of occasions I fell victim to the browser’s back button instead of closing a window. I then found myself back at the beginning of the feed instead of where I was before I had clicked on the article. After shadowing Amanda and Mandy when they were Editors-in-Chief, the first year fellows were able to make decisions on what would be published to DH Now. It was a very fun experience that helped me begin to grasp the extent of online scholarship and publishing. In addition, reading through the articles helped us to be informed an the various projects in the field. I even found articles that did not qualify for DH Now but were of interest to me. I bookmarked more than a handful that I wanted to return to later.

The second assignment was Programming Historian. While our time in PressForward gave us an overview of one of the projects, Programming Historian introduced us to the “nuts and bolts” of the division. It was here that my experience differed from Alyssa’s and Stephanie’s experiences. I came into this program with a background in computer programming. While I am not a computer science “person” I did take classes, during my undergraduate, on C#, HTML, CSS, and Javascript. I struggled at first with the syntax of Python but my background in programming proved very helpful in picking up the language and quickly moving through the lessons. However, I found the lessons to be more focused  on the task of the program (manipulating strings, working with web pages etc.) than learning the language itself. I think it would be beneficial to those without programming experience to work through the Python lessons at Codecademy before starting the Programming Historian lessons. I found the lessons to be very interesting and fun to do. I am excited to use these programs, such as frequency counts and n-grams, in my own research.

The final part of Programming Historian were the lessons on APIs, more specifically the Zotero API. I had never used Zotero so these lessons introduced me to both Zotero and the Zotero API. Before I began the lessons I played around on Zotero, starting my own library and learning to love the program. From the beginning, I wanted to use my personal library in the lessons and not the sample one provided. By doing this, Spencer and I found a problem in the lessons when my program couldn’t access my library. Alyssa has since reported it and a problem she had to GitHub. After finishing the API lessons, I wanted to do things that the lessons did not delve into. With help from Spencer I was able to bang around on the API in an attempt to add/edit the author field of an item. While we did not find a solution we did make headway and it really piqued my interest in working on the Zotero API.

I am leaving a much improved Digital Historian. The Research division had to help the first year fellows through a learning curve that, in some ways, Education and Public Projects don’t. We now know the Center and feel comfortable in it.We got our feet wet and our hands dirty. The Research division was a great place to do that.

Research Division Reflection

It’s hard to believe that the first year fellows have already completed our first rotation within a division. I was nervous to begin the fellowship in the Research Division, since I’m not super-technical (I was rightly told that I can no longer claim to not be a “technology person”), but I have had quite a learning experience. I learned new skills – I can now effectively explain to someone what a plugin actually does and how it works – and went out of my comfort zone in learning Python.

In our first week, we began with PressForward. After playing around with the sandbox site, I installed the PressForward plugin onto my dev site to get a better handle of how it worked. Once I was more comfortable with the logistics of the plugin I moved on to working as an editor-at-large of Digital Humanities Now. It was incredibly interesting to see how the plugin can be used for academic purposes and how it aggregates and organizes content. I was astounded by the quantity of content that was part of the all content feed, especially since a disproportionate amount of the posts were not related to digital humanities.

In our second week, we shadowed Tuesday’s editors-in-chief, Amanda and Mandy, and watched them go through the process of examining the articles under review and deciding which pieces should be published. Prior to Thursday, I familiarized myself with the editors-at-large corner and read several editors’ choice articles. I especially enjoyed reading “Thoughts on feminism, digital humanities and women’s history,” since my area of research is women and gender. On Thursday we were editors-in-chief, which was such a fun experience.

It was beneficial to begin work with PressForward from the ground up. We started with the sandbox, moved on to seeing how the plugin worked for DH Now, and then used the plugin to publish an issue of DH Now. It is a fantastic tool for disseminating often overlooked material to a wide audience and for collecting and curating information. Overall, I had a positive experience with PressForward and DH Now.

After PressForward, we started learning Python through the Programming Historian lessons. I had minimal experience using HTML, CSS, and XML to create a website from scratch when I was in library school, but programming is not something I am comfortable with. At first Programming Historian was fairly easy and the first few lessons seemed straight-forward, but once I got past the “Manipulating Strings in Python” I started to feel lost. After completing those lessons I moved onto the Zotero API lessons. These were more difficult for me to comprehend, especially since, as Stephanie pointed out, they are not in layman’s terms. With help from Jordan and Spencer, I was able to get through the lessons using the sample Zotero library.

I cultivated my own Zotero library and then went back through the API lessons using it instead of the sample in order to see how much of the lessons I could understand on my own. I was successfully able to get through the first two lessons, which was very exciting. I ran into some problems with the third lesson when Text Wrangler was not reading the URLs from the first two items in my library. It was working when I used the sample library because the URLs are links to simple HTML pages, but the links in my library are linked to more complicated sites, such as the source’s record in EBSCO. Jordan had discovered another problem earlier with the user and group tags, and I went into GitHub and reported both of our problems. I am excited to see how I will use Python in the future with other digital humanities projects.

It was an illuminating contrast to work with both PressForward and Python and to see how the latter influences the former. I can understand why we began in the Research Division since the technical skills we learned are necessary in order to have a solid foundation and understanding of digital history.

Reflections on the Spring Semester and Year 1 as a Digital History Fellow

It seems like just yesterday we walked into the Center for History and New Media a bit unsure about what our first year as DH fellows would entail. Looking back it has been an extremely rewarding and valuable experience. Last fall we blogged about our rotations in both the Education and Public Projects divisions. In the Spring we moved to Research for seven weeks where we worked on a programming project for THATCamp and on the PressForward project before moving onto a seminar about the history of CHNM. I want to use this blog post to reflect on the spring semester and look back at the year as a whole.

Our first stop during the spring semester was the Research division. We began our seven weeks by taking on a topic modeling project which aimed to mine all the posts from the THATCamp individual websites and blog about the process. As we used the Programming Historian to learn python (or at least attempt to), we thought a lot about tools and the scholarly research process. We discussed Zotero as a tool and the values and community behind THATCamp as a training network and community for the Digital Humanities. Although we struggled with the programming aspect of this assignment and managed to miss important concepts behind Topic Modeling, the assignment gave us some insight into what kinds of challenges and opportunities topic modeling holds. From this project I learned first hand the importance of understanding the black box behind Digital Humanities tools. After finishing with our topic modeling project we moved onto the PressForward project. We spent a week working as Editors-at-Large and helped second year fellow Amanda Morton with her Editor-in-Chief duties. Thinking about scholarly gray literature and measuring reception of scholarly works on the internet we also spent time researching AltMetrics.

At the end of the three rotations we were left with a very clear understanding of each division, its current and past projects, the audiences it creates for and the overlap between each division. We then began a seminar with Stephen Robertson that explored the history of RRCHNM. In this seminar we tried to understand how RRCHNM developed over the years into its current state and how RRCHNM fits into the larger history of the digital humanities. Beginning with an overview of what a Digital Humanities Center is and how its defined, we collaboratively looked at all 150 centers in the United States and tried to get a sense of the different models that exist and just how many actually fit the definition of a digital humanities “center” as defined by Zurich. What we realized is that the Center for History and New Media stands out from other Digital Humanities centers due to its unique attachment to the History Department but also because of the origins of the center and because of Roy Rosenzweig’s vision.

After we defined just what a center was and looked at the different models, we started to look at the origins of RRCHNM and try to create a genealogy of the different projects and trace the development of the center. Each of the first year fellows took a different major project and traced its history through grant documents and reports. I read up on Zotero in its different iterations and learned a lot about how Zotero was originally conceived as well as how it has grown, expanded, and changed since 2004.

I think one of the things that has been immensely useful for the first year fellows is the ways much of our work at the center was paralleled by our coursework. In the PhD program at GMU we’re required to take a two course sequence in digital history. The first sequence focuses on the theory of Digital History and the second is largely a web design course that introduces us to the basics of HTML and CSS. Often times the topics in Clio I related directly to why we were doing at the center and the dual exposure allowed us to see the application of things we had discussed in Clio first hand.

At the suggestion of Spencer Roberts, the fellows decided to begin a Digital History Support Space in the Fall. The support space offers “advice, guidance, and assistance for students doing digital history projects.”  Every Monday from noon to 5pm (and sometimes even on weekends) we met with students taking the Clio courses, offered advice about and brainstormed potential projects, helped to debug code, and offered a space to work where help was available if needed. We were able to draw on experience from the center and offer advice about what kinds of tools are available and where resources might be found. We weren’t experts but working with the other students in our Clio classes was equally beneficial. It left me with a better understanding of the issues, topics, and tools discussed in our classes. As many of the PhD students move onto Clio III: Programming for Historians with Lincoln Mullen this fall, I’m looking forward to continuing the Support Space.

The fellowship has been structured in such a way that each element has built on itself to provide us with experience and an understanding of digital history, digital humanities, and the debates, methodologies, and histories of the discipline. This fall I’ll be working in the Research Division on the PressForward project and helping to manage both Digital Humanities Now and the Journal of Digital Humanities. Our first year as Fellows has gone by extremely fast but I’m looking forward to beginning a new year and moving into the role of mentor to the new group of DH Fellows.

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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Legacies and Sources

There have been some interesting discussions in the last week or so re: maintaining legacy sites and making sure 404 errors aren’t the most common decoration on your site about the history of cats during the French Revolution. The thing is, this problem has been around since…well, since Oregon Trail was the most well-known form of digital history scholarship, and there really isn’t a solution.

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Digital Humanities Now: Designing Information Flow

This week, our group met with the team behind Digital Humanities Now, an online compendium and journal that searches out and disseminates important scholarship throughout the digital humanities. Although the team has an official editorial staff of three (a number that likely fluctuates with funding), the time required to survey the many thousands of sources can quickly overwhelm even the most efficient team.

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