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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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.

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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