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 Teachinghistory.org. 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.

 

Digital Campus Podcast: Back to the Future of Digital Humanities

This past Friday, I co-produced a Digital Campus Podcast with help from my digital history mentor and second-year Digital History Fellow at the Center, Anne Ladyem McDivitt. Stephen Robertson hosted, and Dan Cohen, Amanda French, Mills Kelly, and Tom Scheinfeldt joined the discussion. Of particular interest to me was their debate about the use of Twitter as an academic outlet, how it has evolved, and the possibilities for the future. Will the academic community return to blogging or will Tumblr be the go-to platform?

Digital Campus Episode #106 – Back to the Future of Digital Humanities

Looking Forward in the Rearview

When I applied to the PhD program in history at George Mason University, I did not know about the Digital History Fellowship. I had researched PhD programs that might offer a chance to work in digital history, and identified GMU and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media as the best option for reaching my goals. When I received notification about my acceptance via a phone call from the program director, the fellowship was a pleasant surprise and exciting opportunity within an excellent program. Two years later, I can say with assurance that the Digital History Fellowship has altered the course of my career and created opportunities I could never have imagined.

To provide some context, here is a little background on the Digital History Fellowship, as I understand it:

The DH Fellowship was designed to support a PhD student in history at the beginning of her or his time at GMU. Students spend time in a practicum at the RRCHNM, receiving funds to support the full-time course load. The first cohort, 2012-13, was given two years of unattached funding, meaning that our time in the RRCHNM could be spent on a variety of projects. The second cohort also received two years of funding. The third cohort, who have just arrived at GMU, received only one year of funding. All of the PhD students in history receive funding from the history department, so the fellowship provides extra funding through GMU’s Office of the Provost. In total, the DH Fellows are offered 4-5 years of funding through the combined funds of the department and provost.

The students accepted into the fellowship are expected to be interested in the field of digital history. Most of the DH Fellows have some digital skills and knowledge before they apply for the program, but few have had extensive experience with digital tools and methodologies. The purpose of the fellowship is to help students gain knowledge, skills, and experience within digital history. Through a practicum at the RRCHNM, the fellows are able to learn at a rapid pace while also contributing to existing projects.

The title of this essay represents my view of the DH Fellowship: by examining our experiences over the past two years, we can identify trends and trajectories that help us understand the impact of the fellowship on our futures.

The students who receive the DH Fellowship gain experience in the following areas, which are in no particular order, and certainly not exhaustive:

If I took some time to consult with my colleagues, I’m sure the list would grow. More importantly, many of those experiences are well outside the realm of usual graduate studies, especially in history.

Understanding the value of a new fellowship in a new field can sometimes be difficult because of the lack of precedents. Amongst the participants at conferences, however, some comparisons might be made. I’ve attended multiple conferences in digital humanities, as well as the Digital Humanities Summer Institute on two occasions. At those events, I have noted a distinct lack of graduate student presence, even from universities with stronger digital programs. Conversations with other graduate students have made it apparent that the DH Fellowship is an exception in graduate training, even at universities with digital humanities scholars or centers. For many graduate students, those conferences and institutes offer the only way to access digital training, experience, or even exposure. The cost of access, however, remains sufficiently high in price and time that many graduate students cannot attend.

The numbers of educational programs, such as digital humanities courses and certificates, are growing, but remain limited in scope. Few departments or centers can provide a wide range of experiences in the short time that graduate students can afford. Many conventional masters and PhD programs provide little or no time for students to experiment with digital projects or methods. Even those programs with more flexibility must balance between disciplinary requirements and new digital components.

The DH Fellowship is one approach to the difficult task of educating PhD students in a discipline and valuable set of skills simultaneously. It allows history students to learn digital skills while working on history-based digital projects. Our abilities increase along two axes, as historians and as digital humanists. As a result, we start to become digital historians early in our careers, from the first days of our doctoral study. Our generation will be the first who can claim that depth of training.

We’d be mistaken, however, to describe the fellowship as the perfect solution. The first cohort arrived at the RRCHNM during a time of significant transition, as long-time director Dan Cohen took a new position at the Digital Public Library of America. The order and length of assignments within different divisions was altered for the second cohort, and again for the third. The types of assignments changed, new tasks were assigned, and have now been removed. The fellowship was intended to bring in three cohorts, and it will remain under construction from beginning to end.

The fellowship exists in a marginal space between three very different offices: the Office of the Provost, the Department of History and Art History, and the RRCHNM. Navigating the overlapping requirements and privileges of those three pivot points can be challenging. The DH Fellows receive slightly more funding than Graduate Research Assistants, but initially lacked desks and workspace in the center. After two years of intense training in digital history, there are no guarantees that we can continue in the center. That depends on the availability of grant money, rather than the provost’s funding. Two students from the first cohort remained in the center, but one moved into a teaching assistant position (by his own choice). An arrangement was found, but was negotiated on the ground when the problem arose.

That situation raised an interesting question: after investing two years in training graduate students, should they remain in the digital projects? For the students, our two year investment had no structured conclusion, leaving us precariously positioned going into third year. Was our time in the center meaningful enough that we’d be offered a position? We’d been told that the fellowship was important; but the importance of digital training seems to hinge on whether we (and the center) could sustain our training (and contributions to projects) when the fellowship ended.

The importance of digital history training is unquestionable. In a post that is optimistic for students and troubling for hiring committees, Sean Takats has highlighted the disparity between the number of jobs in digital history and the pool of candidates for such positions. According to Takats, “there simply aren’t enough candidates to fill the positions we already have, let alone the ones that may or may not be created in the future.

Within the center, graduate students watch job postings for digital history or digital humanities positions. Recently, a job search at the University of Alberta for a Digital Humanities Specialist included a long list of qualifications. Upon review, a group of current digital history researchers (graduate students) concluded that U of A would never find someone who could meet all of those requirements. If that person exists, she or he is probably still in grad school at a short list of universities. Maybe even at GMU. Maybe even a DH Fellow. There simply aren’t many places to look for someone with basic digital skills let alone a digital humanities specialist.

The benefits of the DH Fellowship might not be immediately apparent from its description alone. In part, it allows PhD students in history to learn new digital skills. It also allows those students to contribute to projects at one of the world’s foremost digital history centers. The interaction between the center, department, and students is a two-way street that benefits all of the participants.

When we leave the fellowship and eventually the university, we will take with us the lessons we’ve learned, the skills we’ve acquired, and the knowledge to shape the future of digital history and digital humanities throughout the world. We will find jobs in that field, whether in scholarly positions or alternative-academic roles. We will continue to build on our experiences, add new tools to our set, and enrich our practice of history with technologies that open new doors. We will trace our successes to our days at Mason, sitting in the RRCHNM, debating which programming languages best suit the needs of historians.

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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