My first few weeks as a Digital History Fellow at RRCHNM have been both an amazing experience and a complete challenge. Before I began my PhD program, I didn’t really understand digital history and I wasn’t quite sure what I would be doing during the first year of my fellowship. I had a hunch that I would learn some computer programing, do some blogging, and for some crazy reason thought that I would be digitizing historical documents. However, my first few weeks in Research taught me that my ideas about digital history and the RRCHNM were a little off.
First, I’ve never had much experience with websites, blogs, etc. For the 2012 Society for Military History conference, I managed a wordpress website for the program committee to rate and select papers and panels. However, all I was asked to do was upload posts, pages, and rating systems. Most of what I was doing was simple copy and paste. When I heard we would be working with PressForward and Digital Humanities now, I was excited because I would have a leg up on understanding basic components of a wordpress site—not so much. For the first few days my colleagues Jordan, Alyssa, and I kept looking at each other with complete confusion. There were so many acronyms and lingo that we’d never heard and jumping into the digital world made me worried that I wouldn’t be able to figure everything out.
However, the Research Division never let us slip and I am so grateful everyone on the team knew that I walked into the fellowship with very little experience. We were so lucky to have Mandy, Amanda, and Stephanie sit down with us to explain the components of PressForward (and for me what an RSS Feed even meant) and Digital Humanities Now. Without a doubt, working on Digital Humanities Now was my favorite part of the last four weeks. Having the opportunity to be an editor at large and select dozens of articles collected by PressForward made me feel like I was living in a digital world, but kept me in my comfort zone—i.e. intense sessions of reading. We got about two or three days to look through PressForward, mining for different articles that would be worthy of a front page spot on Digital Humanities Now, and then had the opportunity pick which articles were chosen for that week. Mandy showed us how to use wordpress and publish the top stories, as well as setting up Twitter to tweet out our selections at different times throughout the day.
Learning PressForward and what goes into updating Digital Humanities Now was challenging, but fun because after a couple of mistakes playing in sandbox, the material started to click and I could then recognize and regurgitate steps. However, the bottom kind of dropped out when we were told our next assignment was to work with the Programing Historian website and learn the ins and outs of Python and Zotero. I started having problems almost immediately because of my “awesome” PC. All of the digital history fellows, young and old, have Macs—I do not. I had to download different programs than Jordan and Alyssa, such as Text Wrangler, and any time I a problem would occur not many people in the room could figure out what was going on to help me. After about a day we had things up and going and I starting the Programing Historian tutorials. Like I said before, I’ve never worked with programing and I was excited to start these tutorials because “Programing Historian” sounds like a step-by-step guide for those in the humanities who have never used a computer for more than research, Facebook, and e-mail. This was not necessarily the case. While the first four lessons were simple enough, I felt like I started fighting the tutorials and the tutorials started fighting me. After eight years of higher education in the liberal arts, I’ve been trained to question everything. Why does a “/” go in front of this phrase? Why do I have to have a variable? Why do I have to set up a string? I wasn’t questioning programing to be a big liberal arts jerk, I honestly just wanted to know why. I’ve been trained for almost a decade to understand how and why patterns work and then after that it sticks in my head and it becomes a natural reflex. The problem I faced was not with the programing, but with letting go of having only one very specific way of learning a new tool. Jordan told me quite a few times that there doesn’t have to be a reason for the amount of spaces and slashes in programing—you just do it. Once I stopped fighting with myself, I finally started learning how to write code.
Once I was past my natural reflex of being stubborn, I started having a few more problems. Programing Historian for Microsoft really has a tendency to just “run away with itself.” I kept getting multiple errors and could never get further than the sixth tutorial because no one really around me understood why my computer was being crazy and Programming Historian doesn’t show what to do if you have common errors. I knew there were free coding tutorials online, but very few offered lessons in Python. Jordan suggested that I use Code Academy and within minutes I was on a tutorial page and learning code at double the speed of Programing Historian. I was doing well with Code Academy and even got to yell out to the fellow table every time I collected a new badge. However, within about two days, Jordan and Alyssa were on entirely different places in their Programing Historian tutorials than I was in Code Academy and I could no longer ask them questions about how to do “this” and “that” and they couldn’t really ask me anything either.
I appreciate Programing Historian because it taught two out of three people how to code in Python. It’s not that we didn’t like each other; it’s just that our relationship really wasn’t working out and Programing Historian and I decided to see other people.
Challenges are a huge part of a PhD program and I knew I would have them starting out in a field of history in which I had very little experience. I’m sad that my time in Research is over because I was just getting the hang of Python and I really want to explore more options and how to manipulate Zotero for my personal research needs. Everyone in Research was constantly at my side, making sure that I had all of the tools I needed to learn PressForward, Digital Humanities Now, Programing Historian, and Zotero. I can honestly say that I am glad the first part of my fellowship was spent in the Research division and I’m excited at the possibility of working with them once again.