[ on digital matters and a dissertation ]

Student projects in digital history

The Digital Past (History 390) at George Mason University is an undergraduate course exploring conceptual and applied approaches to digital history–that is, how to go about historical research and scholarship using a range of digital tools and resources. The class bridges an often-perceived duality between humanities and technology. Not only does it introduce undergraduates to digital history; it also fulfills George Mason University’s general education requirements in information technology.

I taught The Digital Past this spring, building on inherited syllabi from innovative and experienced faculty in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. Analytical blogposts will follow, talking about what worked (scaffolding), what didn’t (epic technology fails), the challenges of teaching a class for the first time (yike), and what I’d do differently as an encore.

But for now, it’s “show and tell”

Forty students from an original enrollment of 45 completed the semester. From freshmen to seniors, only eight had declared history as a major.

Their assignments included creating individual projects built in The mega-topic: develop research question on a narrowly-defined aspect of the history of the District of Columbia. And so they did, from punk rock to urban geography, from the history of the LGBT …

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Raising questions about the digital dissertation (part one)

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Digital Dissertation is a tricky phrase. Google-search it and you’ll note that the first quadrillion responses refer to the ProQuest Digital Dissertation Database or to standards for formatting and submitting the dissertation electronically to university depositories and archives.

But look further: search for born digital examples of dissertations in the humanities, dissertations in which digital technologies are core elements of analysis, intrinsic to the thesis. You’ll eventually stumble across the pioneering dissertations of Chris Boese, Chaining Rhetorical Visions from the Margins of the Margins to the Mainstream in the Zenaverse (Department of Rhetoric and Communications, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1998).

Or that of Virginia Kuhn, Ways of Composing: Visual Literacy in the Digital Age (Department of English, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, 2005).

Seek prototypes in history scholarship and you’re likely to enter a black hole.

Digital technologies, we are told again and again, are redefining the practice of history in academia and in public history, “yielding transformations so profound that their nearest parallel is to Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type more than half a millennium ago.”

The dissertation is an ignored product in this redefinition. Not even a proverbial elephant in the room, the dissertation is an unacknowledged step in scaffolded progression of …

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Raising questions about the digital dissertation (part two)

[Recap, part one]The results of a survey of students in the doctoral program in history at George Mason University demonstrated that two-thirds of respondents were either fully committed to or seriously considering including a digital component in their dissertations.

Looking at hard questions

Before we can create it, evaluate it, defend it, and submit it, we need to know just what IT is. The seminal logical inquiry becomes Just what is a digital dissertation? The digital dissertation may fall in a vast middle ground between the totally text-based traditional dissertation and the funded digital project realized over numbers of years by large staffs and collaborative teamwork. It is also differentiated from the work published digitally in open-source scholarly journals such as the Journal of Digital Humanities.

Certain qualities seem integral to any proposed definition, however. The dissertation is likely to remain an individual work, the exemplification of one person’s creative intellectual processes. The dissertation is terminal; that is, unlike many digital projects where sustainability is a consideration, the dissertation has an end point, a situational determination that the work is done. As a result, the technology(ies) upon which a digital dissertation is built is/are part of that dissertation and …

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One small step in technology; one giant step in historical analysis

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The syllabus for Fred Gibbs’s graduate course,  Programming for Historians, is ambitious.

Even for this class lurker, shadow-in-the-corner, and tech-stalker, the thought of working through the modules and the extensive list of the skills to explore (with practicum)–HTML5, CSS3, databases in theory and practice, mySQL, PHP, mark-up languages and more–is grist for intimidation or perhaps evocative of a giant time suck.

But the syllabus is at least as compelling as it is daunting. Why? Partly because requirements include “Must be able to have fun and learn while accomplishing nothing.”

It’s also the emphasis on digital tools to refocus the way we look at historical resources and how we think about them and use them. As analytical tools, these technologies promote creative thinking, but they’re also eminently practical for organizing research and resources en route to the dissertation and building foundations for complex projects.

The extensive records of the Tredegar Corporation in the nineteenth century comprise a core resource for my dissertation. They are not atypical of a mid-sized, family-owned corporation whose external accountability was limited in contrast to today’s regulatory standards and for whom the rational factory was a futuristic system. They wouldn’t pass muster today, and in fact, didn’t in 1913 …

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I code, you code, we code…Why Code?

Angry Birds dragon @ rovio

Forget the Year of the Dragon. It’s the Year of The Code.

I am code-literate; that is, I can play with variables and arrays just enough to exercise some control over projects. But I don’t code. And I don’t think I, you, or we necessarily must code.

I do think, however, that those of us who call ourselves digital humanists–or more specifically, digital historians–need to understand the concepts and components of coding languages and how people who are coders think. And I think that skill sets bulked together under markup languages–HTML, CSS, TEI–and basic principles of design are necessary tools for the digital humanist as well.

learning to code isn’t the only point of entry into these concepts

Why Code?

The advent of this year’s new kid on the block, CodeAcademy, built on a fairly user-friendly interface provoked a wave of enthusiasm. Half-a-million would-be javascripters plunged into free weekly lesson sequences, and briefly, the imperative, “Learn to Code” became mantric.

But the imperative also evokes an almost reflexive counter-response: “Why?” And granularly, “Why Javascript?” Pragmatism compels not just a rationale for learning to code, but an explanation of the whys, of the uses and applications–the context–of particular …

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Reading the Cemetery

[a side trip on the way to the dissertation]

Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia epitomizes the cemetery as narrative.

An outgrowth of the garden cemetery movement of the mid-nineteenth century, its shaded pathways overlooking the tumult of the James River wind among ancient trees and over slopes of well-tended lawns and flowering bushes. They frame gravesites of familiar people, a cross-section of national and local politicians and poets, founding fathers, businessmen and soldiers–Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler, Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart, Fitzhugh Lee, John Randolph, Edgar Allen Poe and generations of entrepreneurs and early industrialists who built Richmond’s cultural and economic base–the Valentines, Haxalls, Myers, Harvies, Mayos, Triggs, Branches, Glasgows, and Bruces.

And the graves of Confederate soldiers, officers and enlisted, fill hillsides.

Hollywood Cemetery hits the visitor in the face with a staggering story of the Civil War. The sheer numbers of headstones and monuments place the Lost Cause in high relief while an overarching theme of white southern identity is inescapable. The glaring absence of African American memorials casts shadows whose darkness becomes intrinsic to the narrative. Viewed from the longue duree, however, the cemetery reflects broad movements of Richmond’s history, gradual shifts of cultural tectonic plates.

Reading the …

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