Responding to the Technophobes and the Technophiles

For our weekly meetings with Dr. Robertson, the DH fellows each find an interesting new post about digital humanities to share with the group. Over the course of the year, we’re supposed to track some sort of theme or trend. Last year, I focused on posts and projects that work to Indigenize and/or decolonize digital humanities. This year, I’ve followed the ways that the field has responded to criticism from other (non-digital) humanists. At the same time, I’ve been interested in how digital humanists have worked to challenge the rhetoric of tech triumphalists. It strikes me as a problem that even though digital humanists spend so much of their time denouncing technophilia—uncritical enthusiasm for technology—they continue to be accused (en masse) of being technophiles themselves. I am fully onboard with critical DH work, but that work needs to be well-informed to be constructive. It’s unfortunate that the field is still being criticized by apparent techno-cynics who have not bothered to do a basic review of the literature.

With corporations trampling over privacy concerns, ed-tech companies touting ways to replace teachers with machines, and university administrators treating makerspaces as places to push STEM-oriented entrepreneurship over more humanistic endeavors, we need humanists who can engage with data and speak the language of tech more than ever. I have juxtaposed articles that show how exhausting it is to defend the basic premise of digital humanities over and over with articles that show digital humanities is as much about humanizing the digital as it is about doing the humanities digitally. Maybe next year we can stop wasting time addressing the same worn-out, flimsy criticisms and focus our attention where it matters, whether that’s finding ways to decolonize digital archives or pointing out the pernicious realities of the tech world’s utopian promises.

Why Are Non-Data Driven Representations of Data-Driven Research in the Humanities So Bad? by Andrew Piper. In this post, Piper explains that humanists are understandably concerned with “the hegemony of data and data science today,” especially because of the way that the press often treats data-driven arguments as “social certainty.” However, Piper expresses frustration with how people who don’t use data misrepresent data-driven arguments. Because non-data driven arguments are “not subject to the same rules of evidence,” Piper explains, “If you don’t like data, it turns out you can say whatever you want about people who do use data.” It is important that we continue to critique work in the digital humanities, but it’s also important that these critiques are well-informed and based on evidence, not bias.

Twitter’s Response to “The Digital Humanities Bust” by the editors of Digital Humanities Now. A piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “The Digital-Humanities Bust,” sparked a conversation on Twitter with its claim that the field is all hype and no substance. Because there weren’t yet any blog-length posts, the editors of DHNow (myself included) chose to highlight the tweets. I felt like the Twitter format really served its purpose here. Choosing to respond through tweets that mainly linked out to existing articles, blog posts, and digital projects sent the message that there’s really no need to try to defend digital humanities yet again from the usual tired criticisms; the case for digital humanities has already been made, and those who want to challenge it should at least read up on the basics first.

What is (the value of) Digital Humanities (again, again, again, again…sigh) by Katherine D. Harris. This is a longer post responding to “The Digital Humanities Bust,” with particular attention to the comments section. With exasperation, Harris asserts, “The issue here is not one of critique, but instead a demand that Digital Humanists stand up, be counted, and volunteer to be shot. In no way is the Chronicle article an attempt to do anything other than declare the death of Digital Humanities, or perhaps it’s the author’s wish fulfillment.”

The Disappearance of Books Threatens to Erode Fine Arts Libraries by Sarah Emily Bond. Bond discusses the decision by a dean at the University of Texas at Austin to relocate books and other materials from the Fine Arts Library to off-site storage to create room for a makerspace called The Foundry. According to Bond, The Foundry is the first step in the plan for a new School of Design and Creative Technologies. The dean discussed this plan at the 2018 SXSW Interactive Conference, “suggesting that ‘fine’ arts is an anachronism and should yield primacy to more entrepreneurial, STEM-oriented creative arts such as video game design.” By disconnecting the fine arts from its history, the removal of books represents not just an attack on print resources but the discipline itself. As she explains, “removing books, special collections, and other primary materials from a library space often removes essential sources of inspiration from students’ immediate view.” Bond emphasizes that makerspaces are not panaceas but argues that we need libraries where the digital and the analog coexist, a point she reiterates in a follow-up post on her blog.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics: Some Thoughts from ASU+GSV by Audrey Watters. In this post, Watters reports on some of the “inaccuracies and misinformation” she heard at ASU+GSV, an ed-tech summit. Highlights include that she “heard someone claim that kids learn everything from YouTube these days so they don’t need what’s taught in school” and “heard three different people repeat that old Arthur C. Clarke adage that ‘any teacher who can be replaced by a machine should be.’” Watters says she wanted to scream at the entrepreneurs and investors spreading these lies, but she also “wanted to scream at all those reporters and all those pundits who uncritically repeat these stories too and at all those educators who readily take it all in.”

One Best of All Possible Learning Conferences by Nathan Loewen. This write-up on the 2017 HASTAC conference couldn’t stand in starker contrast to Watters’ experience at ASU+GSV. The theme of the conference was “The Possible Worlds of Digital Humanities,” but, demonstrating that digital humanists are far from technophiles, Loewen finds that, “the events at HASTAC repeatedly demonstrated how applications of humanist skepticism to technology may promote excellence in digital teaching, learning and scholarship.” Loewen describes a focus on “collaboration and openness,” not on uncritical use of digital tools. “Instead, the very structures of digital tools should be interrogated for their implicit biases.”

Can We Do Better Than a 10 Year Gap in Knowledge (re: digital privacy, ethics, etc)? by Jacqueline Wernimont. Mainly in response to the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, Wernimont expresses her frustration with “the enormous time gap between scholarly understanding of the privacy issues in digital media technology here in the U.S. and public and political awareness.” She explains that she is “flummoxed” that smart people are just now understanding the profiling practices of Facebook (but still don’t seem to realize it’s more than just Facebook) despite the work of academics like herself to draw attention to data monetization, privacy issues, and “the incredible risks that some people face just in engaging online.” Wernimont has more questions than answers in this post. She asks, “Anyone have ideas about how we can make sure that we don’t have another 10 year gap in knowledge?”

Teaching Underrepresented Students How to Navigate Higher Ed Via Digital Humanities by Elizabeth Losh, featuring an email interview with Marisa Parham. With so much (understandable) vexation in this list, I end with a post that speaks to the possibility for digital humanities to redirect our society’s currently misguided STEM obsession and make a better, more just digital (and non-digital) world. Parham explains how K-12 educators can use digital humanities to serve the needs of underrepresented students, including to help them learn to be both digital creators and better digital consumers. Instead of calling for more STEM instruction, Parham makes the case for better STEM that is more fully connected to the humanistic and social scientific. As Parham’s interview makes clear, digital literacy is crucial (especially for underrepresented students), and computational/quantitative/digital humanities should be a part of how students develop digital literacy.

Spring 2018 in the Research Division

My second semester in the Research Division—the final semester of my fellowship—has come to a close. Most of my time was spent working on Digital Humanities Now and PressForward. Both have seen a few changes this spring, but the most exciting news is that we launched the redesign for the PressForward website!

The new website had been in the works for over a year. During our rotation into the Research Division in our first year of the fellowship, Jessica and I actually brushed up on our HTML to create some mockups for the site, so it’s been a great learning experience to see the process from start to finish. Many of the current design elements are things that Jessica and I came up with. It’s rewarding to look at the final product and see how our contributions helped make it happen. Last semester, I continued working on the website by creating/editing some partner profiles. This semester, the rest PressForward team and I spent part of a day gathered together at one table to manually move the website over (it was the best way to do it given our). Now that the website is up, you can also see the presentation slides I created last summer.

Throughout the semester, I also served as Site Manager of Digital Humanities Now, formatting the posts selected by the Editor-in-Chief, managing email, and running DHNow’s Twitter account. I also took a few turns of my own as Editor-in-Chief, choosing posts for publication, like this one and this one. Because DHNow follows so many RSS feeds, we run into a lot of issues with feeds that break for one reason or another. One of the things I worked on this semester was trying to determine why feeds that seemed to be active and functioning properly were still breaking in DHNow’s PressForward plugin. I won’t bore you with specifics, but I was able to provide our developer with information that allowed him to identify an issue.

Finally, I continued to do testing for PressForward. The main improvement we had to test was a new email notification feature that makes it possible send an email to a designated list of recipients every time a post has been nominated. You can learn more about the latest release here. When I first started testing last semester, it was unfamiliar and intimidating. Now I’m much more comfortable with the process and am always glad to hear that we have new things to test. I also got to do some testing for the user management plugin that Amanda Regan originally created for DHNow and wanted to make available to another publication team.

Overall, it’s been another fun and informative semester at the Center. I still can’t believe that my time as a Digital History Fellow is over. The whole experience has been such a complete immersion in the world of digital humanities. It was easy to groan at having to find a post to talk about at our weekly DH Fellow meetings, but I really think I’ll miss those meetings. They provided a reason to stay on top of the latest DH news and an opportunity to think and talk through critical issues. I hope that I’ll continue following the latest developments and ideas as closely as I did as a fellow. Although I’m saying goodbye to the fellowship, it’s not quite the end of my time at the Center. I’m looking forward to spending the summer doing more work on PressForward and serving as full-time site manager and Editor-in-Chief of DHNow.

Wrapping Up the Fellowship in Public Projects

This spring 2018 semester I continued to work in the Public Projects Division. Since I first arrived in this division in spring 2017, I have primarily worked on the Hearing the Americas NEH planning grant to help in the production of a prototype and a future implementation plan. The design document that concluded this planning grant was completed by the time we arrived back from winter break. This semester, I assisted with the next phase of the project: to submit an NEH production grant drawing from the progress we made during the planning grant period in order to build and launch the website. I helped to draft a preliminary version of this grant proposal that is currently in its last week of editing by the Hearing the Americas team before being submitted for consideration in this grant cycle. Working on this project has continued to be a dynamic way for me to draw from and expand my knowledge in music, digital, and public history. Being involved in the grant writing process, throughout the planning grant and production grant phases, has also provided invaluable experience learning how much work goes into drafting a substantial grant application.

In addition to Hearing the Americas, I also began working on the Papers of the War Department and Race and Ethnicity in Advertising projects, which both primarily involved migrating content from one platform to another. When I began working with the Race and the Ethnicity project, Ken Albers had already migrated the content into Omeka. My job was to reconstitute essays from the original website that explored the racial, gendered, and ethnic histories of advertising. Basically, this required converting textual essays into formats that made sense in Omeka’s exhibit builder. Some of these essays translated more easily than others, so it was a creative challenge to find the best ways to structure and illustrate each essay with content from the website.

My other major task this semester was to help prepare content in Papers of the War Department for migration into Omeka S. This digitized archive serves as an important resource by reconstituting documents thought to have been lost in a fire at the US War Department in 1800. These digitized resources are connected to Scripto, a crowdsourcing transcription tool also being updated in this website migration. I have primarily assisted fellow Graduate Research Assistant Alyssa Fahringer by going through the crowdsourced transcriptions she has identified that are incomplete and/or need approval. Unlike Hearing the Americas, this project is far outside of my comfort zone. Although I have done a substantial amount of transcribing from oral histories and other sound recordings, I have not often had to work from handwritten text. As these documents were written between 1784-1800, there is a steep learning curve to adjust to reading the handwriting styles and letter-writing conventions of the time. I will continue to work primarily on the Papers of the War Department project over the summer, so I’ll have some time to sharpen these skills. 

Toward a More Creative DH

Inspired by a MediaCommons survey thread I wrote about at the end of my first year as a DH Fellow, I decided to spend my second year tracking how digital humanists are embracing creativity in their work. The MediaCommons thread asked: “What is the role of the digital humanities in transforming and responding to the arts?” and featured a number of responses how about putting the arts and DH into conversation creates the potential for more engaging, ethical, and exciting work in the field. Because I study music history, I am always looking for new ways to engage with sound, and sensory history more broadly, in the context of digital work. In the field, I noticed not only a reinvestment in podcasting as a medium, but also projects that take sound as its central point of study, including heightened attention to archiving and making sound artifacts available through the work of projects like the Radio Preservation Task Force and The Great 78 Project.

This attention to creativity also came through in the ways that DH scholars have assessed and defended the field. For example, Sarah Bond and Michael Kramer both raised important questions this year about what happens when we reconsider the roots of DH, and how this can lead to more open idea about what, and who, should be considered as part of the field. A number of posts also explored more creative digital pedagogy, and how it can create space for our students to approach history and technology on their own terms in more personally and academically productive ways. Finally, other scholars expressed a more creative approach toward archival work by continuing to broaden and critique what is considered an archive and being forthright about how scholarly and artistic philosophies can influence one another.

I expect that these threads will grow as DH scholars continue to push the boundaries of DH work and make room for ethical and radical scholarship. This work requires a more creative approach, as it seeks to reshape DH around truly decolonizing, anti-racist, and feminist practices. Another important aspect of this thread is the ability for scholars to discuss failure as much as success as a way to learn from one another as the contours of the field continue to expand. As Sean Michael Morris says in the context of what he calls “ethical online learning,” these kinds of projects can serve as important sites of resistance for our students to become “imaginers of an education less technicist, and a world less oppressive.” By continuing to let DH transform and respond to the arts, there appears the promise of a less technicist, less oppressive future for all of us.

Cities and Memory

Cities and Memory is a global project that seeks to document and reimagine the worlds of sound that shape our experiences. A map incorporates sound artifacts from over 75 countries, geolocating each artifact to a point on the map alongside a remixed version created by a sound artist. The website is available for open submission year-round, but also puts out calls for more specific collections of sounds including Sacred Spaces, exploring the sensory experience of different sites of worship, and Protest & Politics, exploring the soundscapes of protest across the world. This project provides an interesting new archive for scholars of sound and sensory history to think through the soundscapes of historical moments that can be useful for digital projects as well as simply thinking through the ways that sound structures the world around us.

Sensory Maps 

Kate McLean’s project, Sensory Maps, creates maps of urban space focusing on what have historically been designated as the three “lowest” senses: touch, taste, and, most specifically, smell. In McLean’s words, Sensory Maps seeks to revive smell perception as “an invisible and currently under-presented dataset with strong connections to emotions and memory.” McLean’s “smellmaps” use data visualization and digital mapping to reimagine the ways that we experience urban spaces by tracking spheres, densities, and categories of smells that permeate various cities. She also gathers data and increases engagement through “smellwalks” and inviting people to send in “smellfies” that help to create a more varied and personalized understanding of the powerful links between smell and place. This is not only an innovative and experimental digital approach, but speaks to a growing emphasis on sensory history that takes seriously the social and cultural construction of the senses and the relationships between them.

Playing Ancient Music Without An Instrumentby Tristan Roddis

This piece discusses a Hack Day put on by the CogApp team in association with the National Library of Scotland in order to develop a new approach toward Optical Music Recognition (OMR). This Hack Day was meant to demonstrate how the study of sound can be central to digital humanities work by identifying ways that we can train computers to “read” sheet music as we have with more traditional textual sources. This approach includes many of the limitations that Optical Character Recognition does, requiring clearly printed sources and often needing human editing, but does provide new ways to think about reading and searching music. The team has also made their workflow available, and invites collaboration with historians and musicologists in order to determine the most useful approaches to a continued OMR practice.

Mapping Racism and Assessing the Success of the Digital Humanitiesby Sarah Bond

This piece by Sarah Bond responded to the disparaging
The Digital-Humanities Bust article published by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Here, she argues for the importance of the field by pointing to the ways that digital mapping projects have helped to redefine the ways we think about the history of racism and segregation. An interesting point in this article is the way Bond connects GIS mapping projects to W.E.B. DuBois’ 19th century visualizations that were meant to highlight the same patterns of discrimination. In this way, Bond’s piece not only makes a case for the continued importance of DH work but also connects it to a longer history of analog visualizations by African American scholars, forcing us to rethink the roots of the field as longer and more diverse than the DH narrative often allows.

10/19/17: Global Jukeboxes & Celestial Monochords—Alan Lomax, Harry Smith, & the Digital Study of Folk Music @ Amériques/Europe: Les Humanités Numériques En Partage?, La Rochelle Universityby Michael Kramer 

Michael Kramer’s transcription of a talk he gave at La Rochelle University echoes a similar point in Sarah Bond’s work. Here, he asks what happens if we extend our history of the field to include the work of folklorist Alan Lomax and artist Harry Smith. Kramer argues that Lomax’s conception of the Global Jukebox and cantometrics was inherently computational, and that Smith’s philosophy toward song collecting for his
Anthology of the American Folk Song referenced many computational theories. Kramer argues that “turning to Lomax and Smith’s engagements with the digital and computation sheds light on the profound tensions that arise when embedded cultural practices—often in the oral tradition— are treated as digital data.” Thought about in the context of Bond’s work, lines of questioning that extend, complicate, and diversify the origin story of DH can open up more a critical and creative history of the field.

Student Showcase: The 1968 Berkeley Folk Music Festival, jacob frazer goes audio-visual.” by Michael Kramer

Michael Kramer’s work in the classroom also speaks to thinking through digital work more creatively, and using the digital as a platform for students to share their work with a wider audience. This video by his student, Jacob Frazer, is just one of several student showcases from Kramer’s Digitizing Folk Music History seminar. This video creates an nonlinear and nonnarrative exploration of the 1968 Berkeley Folk Music Festival, and presents digital storytelling as an essential medium of DH pedagogy that can allow for deeper explorations of source material and more affective arguments.

2 Campuses, 2 Countries, 1 Seminar by Emily Dolan and Jonathan Sterne

This piece written by Emily Dolan in the Department of Music at Harvard and Jonathan Sterne in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill discusses a joint class they co-taught across their two campuses. The course, Bodies and Machines at McGill and Sound Studies at Harvard, explored the cultural meaning of the instrument in various contexts. This piece discusses the value and continued limitations of doing this kind of experimental, distance learning education. Dolan and Sterne maintain that sound and video chat technology remain some of the biggest inhibitors to creating successful telecourses, however they also note that they came to see these glitches as moments when students could laugh, unwind, and process information, reframing our discussion of technical problems as potential opportunity rather than essential lack.

Ethical Online Learning: Critical Pedagogy and Social Justice by Sean Michael Morris and Lora Taub-Pervizpour

This piece by Sean Michael Morris and Lora Taub-Pervizpour was initially given as a joint keynote for a Digital Pedagogy Lab event at the University of Delaware. The talk takes seriously the need for educators to stop adapting to or tolerating technology, but rather engaging with it critically on its own terms and developing a new set of “best habits.” This allows us to create more open, creative learning environments that can provide students’ with the space to express themselves and amplify those ideas in more creative and meaningful ways.

What happened to Sit-In? : Digital Archival Erasure and Struggles for Open Access by Lauren Tilton

This piece by Lauren Tilton responds to the MediaCommons survey question, “How do issues of erasure (redaction, deletion, censor, displacement, etc.) in digital spaces impact memory? What can these erasures reveal?” Tilton’s response highlights the problematic reliance we have on corporate archives, particularly for those who study media history of the twentieth century. In thinking through how the emergence of sensory history in digital humanities practice is developing, the questions that Tilton raises must remain central. As she argues, these corporate media archives “remain in significant control of the public memories of the liberation struggles as they did during the era,” and academics must resist becoming complicit in this cycle of control and erasure.  

Bias, Perception, and Archival Praxis with Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez by Thomas Padilla and Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez

In this interview, Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez discusses her philosophies and approach as the Processing Archivist for Latin American Collections at Princeton University Library. She maintains the importance of decolonial and feminist practices in archiving, and cites a number of other scholars who have published on this topic. She interestingly describes her own genesis as an archivist as rooted in the found object collages of Dadaist artist. In particular, she notes Kurt Schwitters’ “unconventional way of record keeping and memory construction” as a reminder of what we lose through digital processes like cleaning data and prioritizing searchability. Her application of artistic philosophies to the work of the archive reminds us of the importance of keeping creative possibilities central to our continued work in DH, particularly so as not to replicate colonial systems of memory and erasure.

Fall 2017 in the Research Division

For my second year of the fellowship, I am working in the Research Division, mainly on Digital Humanities Now and PressForward. Fall semester was a busy one for PressForward—we released PressForward 5.0, and we have been preparing an overhaul of the website. Helping out with all of that work has made this an exciting time to be in the division.

One of my main duties has been serving as Site Manager of Digital Humanities Now. I format the posts selected by the Editor-in-Chief, manage email, and run DHNow’s Twitter account. This year, we wanted to do a better job of reminding people to sign up to be editors-at-large, to use the bookmarklet, to submit feeds, etc., so I’ve been coming up with creative tweets, using more hashtags, and trying to come up with other ways to drive participation. Because I had never used Twitter until I started using it for DHNow, it’s been a great opportunity to learn more about using social media to build engagement. I was also tasked with writing the end-of-the-year blog post, which was another lesson in writing for the DHNow community.

Choosing content for DHNow continues to be one of my favorite things about the fellowship. Over the summer, I had the chance to be full-time site manager and Editor-in-Chief (see this post on my personal blog for more on that experience). This semester, I served a few rotations as Editor-in-Chief. During one of my weeks, I got to work with Amanda Regan and Joshua Catalano to do something a little out of the ordinary. The response on Twitter to a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “The Digital-Humanities Bust,” was overwhelming, but there hadn’t been any blog-length posts like those we usually post on DHNow. The shift toward Twitter and away from the blog format has sparked a number of discussions about how DHNow can meet the conversations where they’re happening, and this felt like the right time to try to capture that. We experimented with a few different methods, but you can see the final result here.

My other big project for the semester was to move the PressForward documentation to GitBook and bring it up to date. Although GitBook makes it easy to format everything with their editing tools, I ended up needing to use Markdown to do everything I wanted with the layout and formatting. I’ve used Markdown a few times before, but it was nice to have another refresher and to finally feel proficient. I spent a lot of time improving the documentation, too—clarifying language, adding useful instructions, making everything consistent. Even though I didn’t have to create the documentation from scratch, I wanted to make sure it was as helpful as possible, so it was a great chance to get a sense of what drafting original documentation would entail. It also allowed me to gain an even deeper understanding of PressForward and all of its functions. I think the completed documentation looks great, and it’s certainly an improvement over the old, outdated documentation.

The final important task of the semester was helping out with testing to make sure that all of the new functions in PressForward 5.0 were working and that none of the basic features were breaking. Testing really intimidated me at first. I needed to install PressForward using the command line, I needed to be methodical and document everything, and I needed to use GitHub to read, comment on, and create issues. All of these things made me feel like I was going to mess something up, but once I got the hang of things, I realized there was nothing to fear. I’m a very detail-oriented person, and I love the pseudo-detective work that goes into figuring out that a function works when you do things this way but not when you do things that way. A lot of problems came up during testing, including some that I found. It was exciting to play a role in spotting those issues, and it was even more exciting when the developer fixed them. There were a few times when we thought we might not get PressForward 5.0 out before the end of the semester, but with all the time and hard work that the team put into it, we managed to release it just in time. You can download the new version here.

There was a lot of other work that went into getting the PressForward website ready for a relaunch. Because that’s not out yet, I’d rather wait to share all of that when it’s actually visible to the world. With the new website, more testing for future releases, and other tasks that need to be completed before PressForward’s grant ends, the spring semester is bound to be as interesting and instructive as the fall.

Public Projects Update

I spent the Fall 2017 semester in the Public Projects Division. Since the end of the Spring 2017 semester, as well as over the summer, I have been primarily working with the Hearing the Americas team to complete an NEH planning grant. This digital project will explore the history of the early music industry by recontextualizing digitized recordings from the LOC Jukebox, UCSB Cylinder Archives, and the Internet Archive’s Great 78 Project. Working on this project has been an excellent opportunity to connect my interests in music history and digital public history. I first conducted content research, reading through secondary sources on the history of the early recording industry and locating primary sources that can complement the digitized recordings. Drawing from this research, I created some sample content that reflects the kinds of information and pathways that the site will provide. This sample content included Music Trivia questions, which will give users in depth explorations of important artists, songs, or themes, as well as sample Omeka item pages that include artists, songs, and genres. In addition to textual sources, I also helped to compile a sample set of visual primary sources including advertisements and catalogs that will be included as content as well as guide the aesthetic design.

I then worked with Megan Brett to create user personas as part of the website design process. First, we identified a number of potential audiences for the website, including Music Fans, Musicians, and Music Writers/Record Collectors. From here, we developed a questionnaire to gauge the kinds of knowledge and expectations people might bring to the website. We first completed in-person interviews with potential users based on a shortened and open-ended version of the questionnaire. Finding people to interview at concerts and other music-based events proved difficult, but the conversations we collected helped us to form the longer-format Google Forum and provided useful feedback to shape the personas. The online survey utilized Google Forum’s option to create various pathways, which we used to separate questions for musicians from other persona types, and asked a series of questions about the user’s knowledge of music history, possible interests, and online behavior. We planned an outreach strategy to disseminate the survey on various social media platforms, utilizing hashtags like #MusicMonday and #MusicHistory to reach the widest possible audience. We initially expected a sample size of about 25 responses, and were pleased to greatly exceed that number, reaching 75 responses by the end of the first day and finally closing the forum at nearly 100 responses. All of the information we gathered formed the basis for writing five user personas including composite biographical paragraphs and bullet points that outline potential user behavior.

We sent this sample content and user personas to our designer, Kim Nguyen, who prepared wireframes and mood boards that reflected the potential information architecture and aesthetics of the website. Using Kim’s wireframes as a guide, I sketched out the potential pages of the website with sharpies and paper in order to do a round of paper prototyping. I represented each page of the the website on an individual sheet of paper, allowing for as many foreseeable pathways as possible. I then did prototype testing with people representative of three user personas: Music Fan, Musician, and Music Writer. In this format, the tester “clicks” through the website by pointing to the various options drawn on the page, and I would then switch to the page they selected to simulate a potential pathway. While working through these pathways, the tester also provided feedback about the organization of the website, their expectations about what they would hope to find on each page, and questions about parts of the site that seemed confusing or counter-intuitive. This allowed us to not only test out the information architecture developed over the last year, but provided some very useful feedback from people who had more distance from the project and were able to view the prototypes with fresh eyes.

I completed this semester by writing up user experience narratives that drew from the user personas and the paper prototyping. These narratives described scenarios in which people might find and engage with the website, highlighting content like Music Trivia, annotated recordings with musicological comments, and explorations of important artists and genres. All of this work will be included in the final collaboratively-written design document that will be submitted to the NEH in the Spring 2018 semester. Working on this project has given me insight into the process of designing a large-scale digital history project, as well writing and completing grants. Helping to write the user personas and user experiences for the design document was by far the most challenging part of this semester, but it has given me valuable experience in a style of writing not often included in graduate education.

Fall 2016 – Research Division

This semester I worked with the Research Division on Digital Humanities Now.  I was tasked with inventory and assessment of the over 500 subscribed feeds.  These feeds were/are primarily personal or institutional blogs related to the digital humanities.  Since DH Now lives here at CHNM, there were a lot more history blogs than there might be if it lived somewhere else, but there were many entries in literature, anthropology, cultural studies and perhaps most active recently, libraries, museums and cultural heritage institutes.  I cleanup up the site by removing a couple hundred broken and abandoned blogs, and moved 50 or so to their new homes.  I also categorized the entries by discipline and organized the sites by frequency.  There was a meeting to see if folders would be helpful to the editors, but it seemed that it wouldn’t really be of much help.

If I were to make some cursory observations from the DH Now feeds, I would say that it seems like personal blogs are not as popular as they were five years ago.  Most of the ‘big’ names if you will can publish on larger audience platforms – online journals, news sites, etc.  This is a great opportunity for graduate students to work with original scholarship into the blog post medium, since it might a bit harder for them to get ‘DH’ thought pieces onto HuffPost.  I fear however, that microblogging takes up a lot of time.  I also saw a lot of blogs that lasted as long as grad school and then were abandoned or turned into personal sites with links to syllabi and monographs.  At any rate, if the quantitative trends in digital humanities are to serve as guideline for making assertions, it really isn’t right of me to make these kinds of generalizations without a real data set.

Collaborative Second Year Post

We’ve reached the end of our two-year stint as Digital History Fellows at RRCHNM. The time we’ve spent at the center has introduced us to various tools and techniques, provided the opportunity to work with scholars, given us insight into the process and progress of grant-funded DH projects, and enabled us to build a supportive cohort of students across the program that will continue to serve each of us as we move into the next stage of our programs. Below, each of us will expand on the experiences we’ve had at the center and reflect on the work we’ve done.


The structure of the DH fellowship helped me to gain knowledge and skills of digital history in a meaningful way—one that assisted me in learning more collaborative ways of doing history, achieving more skills to accomplish creating digital history, and understanding the reasoning behind doing DH. During my first year, we were able to travel between the divisions, which allowed for a relatively quick overview of the different ways that digital history is done. In the second year, I was placed into two divisions—one each in fall and spring—and I was able to delve further into particular projects within these divisions and work more closely with the members of each division.

The Center for History and New Media is structured in such a way that open collaboration and communication is possible. Although there are three divisions, there are open discussions for ideas, collaboration amongst the members, and many people that are very willing to help if needed. Through my work here, I’ve learned that many people in the Center use different tools to create their work, and this has helped me to become exposed to new methods. There are also several meetings in which ideas are discussed, and these meetings are productive for learning new ways to do Digital History.

I had a much easier time with my trio of Clio classes due to my time as a DH Fellow. When I came in, I had some experience with certain tools, but I did not feel confident in my ability to actually do digital history. Our classes have changed that, and my time at the Center was very complementary in that it seemed whenever we were doing work for the Clio classes, we were also working on something similar within our CHNM work. It also was a great establishment of skills for taking Clio 3, which involved much more programming. Because of my time at CHNM, I had previous experience with some programing languages, and it made the process of taking Clio 3 much easier so that I was able to produce a meaningful piece of scholarship in the end.

In the future, I plan on taking the ideas of collaboration, communication, and the skill set that I have gained from CHNM into my career as a historian. Since I plan on working in a public history setting, I feel that the ability to utilize these skills will further my ability as a historian.

I believe that one of the most meaningful activities of my time at CHNM was the building of relationships with my colleagues through our mentoring and support space. Although we were all working on different projects throughout the two years of our DH Fellowship, the availability of mentoring—first with the third years mentoring us and then us doing the same for the first years—allowed us to communicate, collaborate, and to learn from each other. I believe that this is one of the most important aspects of the DH Fellowship, as it fosters an environment that promotes this type of dialogue for our future careers and work, whether inside or outside the academy.


The second year of the fellowship, for me, has been incredibly useful.  I’ve really enjoyed being positioned on PressForward in the Research division. My work in this division has allowed me to further develop my programming skills, stay current with the latest DH scholarship through DHNow and the Journal of Digital Humanities, and participate in the development cycle for an open access piece of software.  Our first year of the fellowship was focused on testing various tools and becoming familiar with different platforms and approaches to Digital History.  This year I’ve moved into more of a building role and have had the opportunity to draw on the programming skills I’ve developed to contribute to the PressForward plugin. The structure of both the first and second years of the fellowship compliment each other well and has provided me with a broad knowledge of the centers organization, various digital history tools and approaches, as well as a chance to implement and build on what I’ve learned.

When I began this fellowship, the structure of the center was very unclear to me. However, through our rotations and experience in each division, I’ve become familiar with the current structure of the center, its origin, history, and its position in the larger field. CHNM has a long history of collaborating with teachers and schools, museums and libraries, as well as individual scholars and researchers to produce tools and projects that are innovative and sustainable. Participation in the Open Source community has been important to projects like Omeka or Zotero and has created a group of users who are active in testing and developing for these projects.

The digital history coursework we’ve been required to complete has often complimented our work at the center and helped to shape my views on digital history. Our practicum at RRCHNM provided practical hands-on experience while our coursework often provided a theoretical and sometimes historical perspective on Digital History methods, tools, and projects. I think taking these courses as a fellow gave me a unique perspective and some unique experience in Digital History.

Looking forward to the next year, I am planning to finish up prepping for my comprehensive exams and prepare my dissertation prospectus in order to advance to candidacy. Over the summer, I’ll be working on developing my dissertation prospectus and working to develop a proposal and plan for a digital component. My experience as a Digital History Fellow has shaped the way I’ve conceptualized using digital methodologies and techniques in my dissertation and has helped me to develop some of the skills that will be necessary. Because of the work I’ve been involved with at the center and my digital coursework at GMU, I have a realistic idea of what will be required to build a digital component.

The projects I have found most valuable during this fellowship have been projects like our THATCamp Topic Modeling project where we generated a data set about a center project and mined it. This project, in many ways, was a productive failure and I benefited greatly from it. Looking back on the project now, a year later, I realize many of the assumptions we made were flawed and we could have extracted and cleaned the data in both a reproducible and an easier manner. Projects where the fellows are given creative license to draw on techniques and concepts discussed in our coursework in order to create something based on a center project (or on center history) is, I think, extremely valuable for Digital History Fellows. These types of projects are also ideal for fostering and promoting mentorship among the fellows.  Spencer Roberts was such an important resource for us during the THATCamp project and we couldn’t have completed the project without him.  He offered advice on how to approach the project, explained programming concepts, and worked with us for several days on troubleshooting our python script.  Through this project, as well as projects like creating the RRCHNM Omeka Archive for the 20th Anniversary, I gained valuable insight into what it takes to accurately and realistically conceptualize a digital project as well as experience thinking through critical choices like information architecture with the user in mind. We were often faced with unexpected challenges and messy data along the way. I’ve taken a lot away from these projects and I think they are a valuable and unique aspect of the fellowship that should be continued and implemented in a thoughtful way for future cohorts.


Recently the next cohort of PhD students visited GMU. As we sat with them and described the fellowship track and digital coursework, I began to reflect on my own experience along these lines. It is surprising how quickly we were incorporated into the activities of the center. The structure of the fellowship was remarkably useful in this regard- we were introduced to people and projects in a six week cycle that provided a low barrier to entry. As we moved across the center, we were able to identify the projects and skills that appealed to each of us. The second year took this process further. Moving into a single department meant that each of us was able to take a larger part in the work. Each of us was able to explore subjects of interest and work more extensively with others within that division. In my case this meant a fall semester in the Education division working on the 100 Leaders project and a spring semester in the Public Projects division working on the Mall project. Working more extensively in one division meant that each of us had to balance the responsibilities of the fellowship with our tasks in each division, but in most cases we were able to manage these well.

Working as a DH Fellow has definitely guided the direction of my coursework. I entered the program here at GMU with very little technical experience. Working at the center enabled me to build skill and confidence in these areas. It definitely gave me the confidence to enroll in Clio 3; Programming for Historians without these valuable experiences. I also found the Support Space to be a valuable aspect of my time at the Center. Bringing my challenges to the table and helping others with their work allowed me to create and build relationships with other students in the program. Oftentimes, we would spend time talking a problem out together and I found this type of collaboration particularly edifying. Last spring, Mandy Regan led a group of students in our Clio 2 class in a tutorial on 960 grid. This impromptu tutorial was a great example of the way that we were able to bridge our coursework with the fellowship. These activities have fostered collaborative relationships that continue to encourage us to share techniques and digital work with one another.

I’ve written on this subject in the past, but the preparation we did for the 20th anniversary was particularly meaningful for me. We started this work as a group and over the course of the summer I expanded the repository to include the many projects in the Center’s history. The process enabled me to read each one of the grants in the center’s history. Quickly I gained a better understanding of how the field has changed in 20 years. The project forced me to reconsider tools like Zotero as part of a larger vision. To think about projects like History Matters in terms of the other work the center has produced. To put them on a timeline and to view them not as discrete but connected by a thread or an idea. I learned more about iterative projects and the complexities of collaboration. Considering these things while I was working through my coursework enabled me to make connections with readings and class discussions. The experience encouraged me to see these projects from multiple perspectives.

When I reflect on my time as a fellow – this project encapsulates the value of the fellowship for me. It encouraged me to think about the legacy of digital history projects while also considering what is to come from the field. It is a project that will be difficult to duplicate, but one that would serve future Fellows in a meaningful way.

Next year, we all move on, either as a Graduate Research Assistant at the center or as a Teaching Assistant in the Department of History and Art History here at George Mason.  Although our stint as Digital History Fellows is over, we all agree that it was a beneficial experience and we look forward to seeing what future cohorts will do.


On Mentoring

Last year all of the second year fellows benefitted from the mentorship provided by the second year students. My mentor was Amanda Morton and throughout the year she offered assistance in the various divisions, especially when I began on the PressForward Project in the Spring and Summer of 2014. In addition, Spencer Roberts helped us on various projects and his support throughout the year was invaluable.

This year I’ve had the opportunity to mentor Stephanie Seal. We’ve jointly produced the Digital Campus Podcast several times and I’ve offered her assistance on projects when she has needed it. The new cohort’s first rotation this year was in Research and for the first few weeks they worked on PessForward. As the digital fellow positioned on the PressForward project, I assisted in helping them set up their own WordPress blogs on the dev server, showed them how the plugin worked, and guided them through being both Editors-At-Large and Editors-In-Chief.

During the second semester each fellow was placed in a division. Jordan Bratt came to research and worked with us on PressForward. One project he spearheaded was learning R to scrape and download some Editor’s Choice pieces for a mapping/text mining project. I was able to take some time this semester to work with him to write some “if” statements in R since I am somewhat familiar with the language. He’s done an amazing job on the project and its been fun to watch him further develop his skills and do some interesting things with the DHNow data.

Aside from working with the first years on PressForward and with Stephanie on Digital Campus we’ve also used our roles as mentors to help out in the Support Space. During the fellows time in Clio II, I’ve assisted several students with things like learning the 960 grid (an easy way to quickly structure the layout of a site) and troubleshooting code. I think the mentorship program is very useful in the sense that it brings the two cohorts together across projects and promotes collaboration. Being stationed on one project has meant that I always have things to do aside from fellowship responsibilities. The mentorship program has allowed me to take time to work with Stephanie and the others through both the support space and collaborative projects like producing Digital Campus.

Reflections on Spring Semester

This semester I’ve continued my work on the PressForward project in the Research division. Throughout the semester I’ve served as editor-in-chief, helped troubleshoot and test the latest version of the PressForward plugin for public release, and continued to develop my php and web development skills by working on the TurnKey PressForward WordPress theme. In addition to working on PressForward, I’ve helped out in the support space, organized a brown bag, and spent some time mentoring Stephanie Seal. My time in the Research division on PressForward has allowed me to develop my programming skills and further acquaint myself with the software development process. I’ve learned so much about programming in general over the last two years, but I’ve also gained valuable experience in things like UI/UX design principals and about the workflow for developing/maintaining an open source piece of software.

The PressForward All Content page in 3.5 features improved navigation, filtering, sorting, and searching.

The PressForward All Content page in 3.5 features improved navigation, filtering, sorting, and searching.

In March, PressForward released version 3.5 which included some significant User Interface(UI) and User Experience(UX) changes. This version was the result of several months of work by the PressForward team and included a redesigned toolbar in ‘Nominated’ and ‘Under Review’ and some reorganization of tools and options in the plugin. Throughout the first months of this semester, I attended development meetings, tested new features, and helped to rewrite our documentation based on the new features. Releasing a new version of the software is a big task as it involves updating all our documentation, screenshots, and descriptions of the plugin. 

Output of the Subscribed Feeds Shortcode in the PressForward TurnKey Theme

Output of the Subscribed Feeds Shortcode in the PressForward TurnKey Theme

Building the PressForward TurnKey Theme allowed me to apply a lot of the concepts I was picking up through bug-testing and in the weekly discussions with our developer Aram. For example, I helped to write a shortcode that displays a list of the subscribed feeds and aims to allows PressForward users to further expose the metadata collected by the plugin. We came up with this idea after realizing how many of DHNow’s feed were broken and how poor the metadata that is associated with the feeds often are. Attributing credit to posts we feature when the author is not clearly listed in the metadata is often difficult and problematic. The shortcode allows users to highlight the RSS metadata pulled in by the plugin by providing options for displaying both active and inactive feeds. We hope allowing administrators to make their feedlist (as well as the feed title and author) visible outside of the plugin will prompt scholars to revisit the metadata contained in their RSS feeds. Participating in development meetings this semester, I have not only continued to further my understanding of the backend of the plugin but also have learned more about php and WordPress core. 

My work on PressForward has been immensely helpful in building my programming skills and as I look back at the last two years of this fellowship, I’m struck by how much my skills have grown. In addition to technical skills, I’ve also gained experience in managing an active publication and an open source project. Thanks to projects like our cohort’s THATCamp topic modeling experiment in Python, the Clio Wired sequence, the support space, and my time in Research my skills have vastly improved. As I finish up this fellowship and look towards beginning my dissertation and developing a digital component, the skill set I’ve cultivated through this fellowship will be immensely useful. At the very least, the skills I’ve developed her have given me a foundation in computational thinking and I feel confident in learning whatever new programming skills will be required for my own research.

Aside from our duties in our respective divisions, the fellows have also had some common projects we’ve worked on.  Stephanie Seal and I produced several episodes of Digital Campus this semester and continued to maintain the blog.  Producing Digital Campus involves finding stories for everyone to discuss, managing and scheduling the recording, and preparing a blog post summarizing the episode for the Digital Campus blog.

Additionally, each year the fellows are asked to host and organize a brown bag at the center.  This year I invited Micki Kaufman down from the City University of New York to talk about her dissertation research, entitled “Everything on Paper Will Be Used Against Me”: Quantifying Kissinger, A Computational Analysis of the DNSA’s Kissinger Collection Memcons and Telcons.” I had previously met Kaufman at the 20th Anniversary conference and the brownbag was an excellent opportunity for the fellows to invite down another graduate student and participate in conversations about digital methodologies and approaches as they apply to a dissertation.