Research Division Reflections

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I would learn some computer programing, do some blogging, and for some crazy reason thought that I would be digitizing historical documents.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.

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 My First Year as a DH Fellow

This has been a very eventful and exciting first year for me working within the Center for History and New Media. As I mentioned in my introduction post, I came in with a vague familiarity with CHNM from my previous institution. However, being immersed within it helped me to form a much greater understanding of what the Center does, what the possibilities of Digital History are, and where I fit into that picture for my career and studies.

First, the inclusion of the DH Fellows into the different divisions throughout the year was extremely helpful for me. Through this process, I learned how the Center works, as well as the different projects that were available. I came out way more knowledgeable about Omeka, PressForward, and how projects such as Sea of Liberty come to life.

Beyond the actual projects, one of the primary benefits of being a DH Fellow was the establishment of communication and networks that I feel will be incredibly helpful for me continuing forward. With the various projects, such as our project that scraped THATCamp data (those posts are here in five parts-one, two, three, four, five), we were able to communicate with people within CHNM for assistance. That process was immensely helpful, as well as the Digital Campus podcast sessions that let me engage in the process of thinking about the implications of current events for digital history, as well as participating in an experience working with major players in the field.

As well as working with people that are currently doing Digital History, I was also able to work with my peers that were in the Clio 1 and 2 classes. The DH Fellows, through the suggestion of Spencer Roberts, created the DH Support Space that met every week. This support space was a great addition to the DH Fellowship, as it allowed us to both use the tools we had learned in class and at CHNM, as well as to assist other students in issues they had. This let me grow my skills and learn in the process of trying to help other students with their assignments and projects.

Lastly, I believe one of the most useful aspects of my first year was the seminar. First, we researched what made a digital humanities center, and which ones are still around today. This then led into researching the history of the Center for History and New Media. Each of the first year DH Fellows was given a project to research, and I picked This project let me dive into grants, documents, and how our projects played into the history of the Center. It was very helpful in learning where the Center fits into the larger context of Digital History, which is significant (and helpful!) for my minor field of Digital History.

I feel that overall, this entire year has been incredibly useful and helpful for me, and I have learned so much from working here. I look forward to assisting others this year, mentoring, and continuing to learn the process of doing Digital History through my assignment as a DH Fellow in my second year.

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.

THATCamp Mallet Results

We have spent the last few weeks working to build a python script that would allow us to download and prep all of the THATCamp blog posts for topic modeling in MALLET (for those catching up, we detailed this process in a series of previous posts). As our last post detailed, we encountered a few more complications than expected due to foreign languages in the corpus of the text.  After some discussion, we worked through these issues and were able to add stoplists to the script for German, French, and Spanish.  Although this didn’t solve all of our issues and some terms do still show up (we didn’t realize there was Dutch too), it led to some interesting discussion about the methodology behind topic modeling.  Finally we were able to rerun the python script with the new stopwords and then feed this new data into MALLET.

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Unexpected Challenges Result in Important and Informative Discussions: a transparent discussion about stripping content and stopwords

As described in previous posts, the first year Digital Fellows at CHNM have been working on a project under the Research division that involves collecting, cleaning, and analyzing data from a corpus of THATCamp content. Having overcome the hurdles of writing some python script and using MySQL to grab content from tables in the backend of a WordPress install, we moved on to the relatively straightforward process of running our stripped text files through MALLET.

As we opened the MALLET output files, excited to see the topic models it produced, we were confronted with a problem we didn’t reasonably anticipate and this turned into a rather important discussion about data and meaning.

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Pre-processing Text for MALLET

In our previous post, we described the process of writing a python script that pulled from the THATCamp MySQL Database. In this post, we will continue with this project and work to clean up the data we’ve collected and prepare it for some analysis. This process is known as “pre-processing”. After running our script in the THATCamp database all of the posts were collected and saved as text files. At this stage, the files are filled with extraneous information relating to the structure of the posts. Most of these are tags and metadata that would disrupt any attempts to look across the dataset. Our task here was to clean them up so they could be fed into MALLET. In order to do this, we needed to strip the html tags, remove punctuation, and remove common stopwords. To do this, we used chunks of code from the Programming Historian’s lesson on text analysis with python and modified the code to work with the files we had already downloaded.

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Extracting Data from the THATCamp Database Using Python and MySQL

This week we’ve continued to work on building a python script that will extract all of the blog posts from the various THATCamp websites. As Jannelle described last week, our goal was to write a script that downloads the blog posts in plain text form and strips all of the html tags, stopwords, and punctuation so that we can feed it into MALLET for topic modeling and text analysis. After several long days and a lot of help from second year fellow Spencer Roberts, we’ve successfully gotten the code to work.

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Spring Semester in Research and a THATCamp Challenge

The spring semester is here and the first year DH fellows have begun our rotation into the Research division of CHNM.

To get the ball rolling, we spent a week working through the helpful tutorials at the Programming Historian. As someone new to DH, with admittedly limited technical skill and knowledge, these were immeasurably useful. Each tutorial breaks content into smaller, less intimidating units. These can be completed in succession or selected for a particular topic or skill. While there is useful content for anyone, we focused our attention on Python and Topic Modeling with the aim of solving our own programming dilemma.

Our central challenge was to extract content across the THATCamp WordPress site to enable us to do some text analysis.

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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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