Websites, Wikipedia and Nature

April 20, 2007

I found the material in James Capshew’s website(“Traditions and Culture of IU”) both informative and entertaining.  Yet typically the thought of a university history resurrects images of dusty, year-book-like tomes.  As such this project provides a successful example of marrying an old style or tradition (college histories) to the new media.  Admittedly, college histories often are interesting, even though the sight of one of these dusty old tomes can make your eyes glaze over.

 

The website allows the reader to move back and forth through the chapters and then quizzes the readers on their retention of the information at the end of the chapter.  The “Notes” sections of each chapter tell the reader which chapters contain similar information.  The chapters provide various activities for the topics covered.  Finally, I thought the quiz questions were well-crafted and thoughtful.

 

This website employs the type of images you would expect to find in college histories, for examples, pictures of presidents and buildings, along with pictures of “famous” individuals (such as Jim Thorpe), the “firsts” (such as the first female president or the first African American graduate), and popular sites on campus.  The prose employs a number of literary devices to appeal to the audience, including the use of exclamation marks as well as ellipses as mini “cliff hangers,” leading the reader on to the next paragraph.  The authors also employ an occasional “HMMMM…” to add emphasis to a topic, which also adds a sense of familiarity and “conversation,” btw the author and the reader.  I thought the prose was extremely effective in drawing the reader into the content of the chapters.

 

The chapters portray IU through a series of topics as well as through individual years.  The choice of topics/themes is both expected (as noted above, presidents, fires on campus, the “firsts”) and innovative (for example, the development of Crest toothpaste), and provide a social/cultural history of the university–which is one of the strengths of most college histories that I have seen. Through these themes, the authors situate IU within a national (and even celebratory) narrative.  For example the chapter on Crest toothpaste weds research, science, government, and business along with a social history of dental care.  This chapter tends to adopt a “benign-to-favorable” narrative.  (From someone who works on male merchants, this is not necessarily a criticism.)  For example, in 1951 as Muhler searches for funding for his research he turns to the most likely source (in terms of capital), i.e. business.  Since most of us view the advancements in dental care and dental hygiene products as beneficial, we would equate the companies involved in funding the research with that sense of positive advancement.  The authors, however, also use these discussions to view tensions that existed then and some that persist today.  For example, here the authors look at issues of public vs private funding for research.  Again, this strikes me as a typical feature of college histories, but also one that is effective in drawing in a contemporary audience.

 

As noted, since I look at the role of commerce in imperial expansion, I appreciate the  significance (at times beneficial) of “business” in development.  However, I also thought this chapter fit well with Sam Wineburg’s discussion of the various ways in which different groups read history textbooks.  Whereas high school students accepted the textbook chapters/prose as straightforward accounts of the “facts” in American history (specifically the American Revolution), the professional historians saw the same passages as loaded, conveying the events in heroic terms.  This does not strike me as a problem of the website, rather it is a comment on the style and the audience.  By nature, college histories (like national histories) tend to be celebratory.  Assuming a point of the site is to inform students and the general public about IU and its various roles, the site succeeds–and in large part because of its excellent prose.

 

Capshew’s own webpage demonstrates the degree to which he is integrated not only into IU, but the community as a whole.  I was particularly taken by the proposed syllabus for a “Green Web Course.”  As one of the humanities, history can readily fulfill the liberal arts mission by teaching students to be informed and active citizens, which this syllabus demonstrates admirably.

 

Finally, pushing (forcing) the “nature” motif, I chickened-out when it came to  posting an entry on Wikipedia, largely because I did not allow myself enough time to complete the task and thus became daunted when reading the various posting “stylistics.”  I intended to post a biographical sketch on a Loyalist (of the American Revolution), Nathaniel Whitworth.  He ties into a number of topics covered on Wikipedia (such as the Loyalists, the Revolution, Nova Scotia and the Planters, etc.), so seemed a good fit.  Moreover, I had an ulterior motive in hoping that genealogists might read Wikipedia, edit my entry, and provide information unknown to me.  But as noted, I did not leave enough time to fully explore the site (my fault) and thus feared this might not be an appropriate topic–especially given my selfish designs!

Cooking, Witchcraft, Massacres and the Narrative

April 12, 2007

I looked at these five sites:  Julia Child’s Kitchen, Raid on Deerfield:  The Many Stories of 1704, History Wired, History.Com, and Devices of Wonder.  On a number of levels, I found Raid on Deerfield and History.Com to be the most effective and/or satisfying.  I would say the latter is best in terms of the criteria specified in question 1 (Which of these sites most effectively conveys the past to a general audience? And why?).

 

I have two general notes up-front.  First, the article by Steve Dietz stresses and returns us to the importance of the narratives.  Thus, I think it works very well in re-inforcing a number of earlier readings and discussions.  It is also interesting to see how many different disciplines/fields depend upon the narrative, esp. in light of who (which people/persons) are or are not included in the narrative.

 

Second, as a disclaimer, I wanted to like the Julia Child site best, because I think cooking, etc. is an effective way of looking at culture.  However, the site did not seem to make novel use of a new media and I am not sure that it was particularly good at conveying history.  Steve Dietz commented that the best museum exhibits and museum websites should begin with the story and interweave the objects into the story.  This site makes a move in that direction, although it is not entirely successful.  The site tells the story of Child’s life, and when and how she became interested in cooking, international food, etc.  Along with the quotations are images of particular objects.  For example, Child observes that she was a late bloomer (“I didn’t get started on life until I was about thirty-two…”) and the page portrays an image of her Cordon Bleu diploma.  This is interesting, but the image appears to be tacked on rather than integrated.  Moreover, this could be achieved in a typical museum exhibit.

 

History.Com provides a number of topics to pursue and some of the major categories include very brief “movies” on the topic.  I found the movie on the Salem Witchcraft Trials to be interesting and informative, in that it used re-enactments and illustrations of the trials.  It also focused on particular material culture objects (such as the type of cart that a witch may have been conveyed to the courtroom in); but these seemed more for dramatic effect.  Again, in relation to Dietz, I thought this clip would have made a perfect example of bringing material objects into an interesting story and then providing in-depth knowledge of the objects as they appeared in the story.

 

The story of the Salem witchcraft trials, on its own, generates interest in the general public.  Moreover, it can easily be targeted at young people, given the age of the girls in Salem.  I also think depicting these vignettes as “Mysteries of History,” is a good technique to draw in the general public, similar to the notion of the historian as “detective.”

 

The mini-movies were brief and well presented, and they provided links where the viewer could obtain additional information on the topic. Moreover, the clip included a discussion by the historian Richard Godbeer.  According to Vergo, et al in their article (“Less Clicking, More Watching”), this appeared to be a favorite educational formats among the people surveyed regarding art education.  Much like a good historical movie or television show, I could imagine that these mini-movies would prompt the general viewer public to explore and read about the topic.

 

Another advantage of the mini-movies correlates to a discussion in Dietz’s article.  One of the criticisms of the new media are that they replace psychological interaction with physical interaction (pressing buttons).  If I understand this correctly, it reflects my “gripe” of (particularly successful) movies.  If I see the movie and then read the book, I cannot create my own image of the characters, etc.  The mini-movies were long enough to inform and intrigue the viewer, but not long enough to overwhelm his/her imagination.  As such, I think they are valuable, since they seem to be historically “responsible” in recreating the history, but not so overwhelming as to dominate an individual’s understanding of the events/episodes, especially if he/she goes on to investigate the topic.

 

This raises the by-now old question, do these new media (beginning with films) actually work to dampen creativity and imagination, since they provide so much of both to the viewer?

 

I also found the Raid on Deerfield site to be interesting.  In many ways it was more innovative than History come.  That said, however, I did not think it had the power of the short movie clips.  I could imagine many members of the general public being intrigued by it. There seemed to be more material integrated into the program that a viewer could examine.  But, because of that, I wondered if the viewer would leave the site still curious (and thus want to pursue the topic further) or if their curiosity would be satisfied.  That said, I am not sure which is better–that the viewer become more “fully” informed and leave satisfied; or leave having less information but more curiosity!  In the end, I do think that the mini-movies are the most effective.

 

As a final observation, I loved one of the basic conclusions of the Vergo, et al. article, especially given the current emphasis on participatory activities in the classroom.  The responders proved what many of us secretly suspected and what our students typically demonstrate–namely that “learners” (students, Americans, etc.) prefer passive education!  From that perspective, it would be interesting to run a survey which gauges how much viewers/consumers learn from these sites, for example, which is more effective as an educational tool–History.Com or The Raid on Deerfield?

 

Games an Insight into Culture

April 6, 2007

My blog this week is nothing if not eclectic.  I did discover some digital history game sites, but nothing particularly earth shattering.  Most of those I found were educationally oriented and could provide examples for classroom projects.  I have to admit ignorance in this area (and will be interested to hear what others report on), since I am totally unfamiliar with the world of games. 

 

On the other hand, I found the materials for this week intriguing for a number of reasons.  I started by looking at Lee Sheldon’s Anti-Linear Logic page (for lack of a better word) and I was struck by the creativity that goes into designing these sites, both in terms of Lee’s and those of various individuals  on the “Links” page.  I am in awe of the varied skill sets required to produce such sites, ranging from technical computer skills to artist talent (animation) to story telling to the philosophy of gaming itself.

 

One idea that surfaced on at least two-three different pages (or sites) concerned the 400 project, which involves the recording of _the_ 400 rules of game design.  Noah Feldstein admits the ambitious nature of the project, and he appears to be taking on a considerable amount of the actual work.  I applaud the efforts of all of those involved, as it strikes me as a wonderful source for anyone studying the culture of gaming (from an historical, sociological and/or anthropological perspective).  I can only guess at what a comprehensive “history of games” would entail, although elements are being worked on.  For example, historians of early English history look at “the hunt,” as a leisure activity.  (I did stumble across a 2006 book on the history of Monopoly, although I doubt that it is an “academic title–I would place a computerized smiley face here, but want to avoid that rather obnoxious yellow symbol.)  Analyzing games would be one approach to world history, since you could compare both particular games (do they extend across cultures) and gaming culture–who plays (male/female; rich/poor; young/old)?  how are “games” defined? what roles do games play in society?  Now back to the 400 Project, think of what a great tool this would be (and apparently free) for historians looking at games–to have these rules recorded, along with a discussion provided by gaming experts.  The historian may not agree with the definitions, etc., but he/she has a contemporary “western” assessment of game rules.

 

On a final note, a number of these sites clearly required a significant amount of effort due to the information they contain.  And, I am impressed by how generous these individuals are in sharing their resources.  This ties (very much so) into the philosophy espoused by Cohen and Rosenzweig (and Kirsten) that scholars should be willing to make their works and resources available to others.  We have discussed the pitfalls of doing so (esp. for beginning scholars), but I see it as a healthy tension and debate for academics to be having.   

 

From here, I want to move into a discussion of Henry Jenkins’s article, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.”  Jenkins hopes to steer a middle path between the narratologists and ludologists.  The debates between the two groups reveal the need to develop a fuller understanding of the relationship (or interplay) btw narrative and games.  As a novice to the study or conceptualization of games, I found this discussion the most interesting, especially in pondering how to categorize games.  Jenkins article fits nicely with other articles we have read that deal with the narrative (such as Cronin, for one example). 

 

Here, I do not know enough about games as category or discipline to know if this tension btw digital games and the narrative is new, or if it is an ongoing tension within games.  However, it strikes me that you could use these forms of digital games to study the “narrative” itself across tropes or disciplines.  Here, I am thinking of a graduate course (that would be heavy into literary theory and, in my case, would depend on guest experts!).  I particularly like Jenkins’s statement that these games are “in dialogue” with the story, thus adding a new layer or dimension.  Moreover, in keeping with storytelling, Jenkins shows how the game (and designer) depend upon the player’s (reader’s) familiarity with the story line, character, etc.  (Think of Hadyn White and the notion that historians borrow from these literary devices subconsciously and unknowingly.)  I have not fully digested this idea, but I really like it and think it has the potential to alter my thinking.

 

I also found intriguing (but, again have not fully comprehended) the notion of narrative architecture and the idea of an older tradition of spatial story telling.  These are ideas I would like to explore, especially in terms of introducing both the concepts and the study into undergraduate courses.  I have thought about using architecture in my history courses, but would not have thought about using digital games to introduce some of the concepts.

 

I have one final observation, and as a caveat, this was not the subject of Jenkins’s article.  I noticed that the author appeared to be unperturbed by the violence in some of the games.  Admittedly, there are only a few mentions of it (such as, if the player chose incorrectly, he/she could be destroyed).  Also, in fairness, I am sure that there is an entire literature on the subject, and most likely Jenkins did not want to start down that path.  Nonetheless, I noticed it!

 

 

 

 

Funding, funding, funding

March 29, 2007

My blog consists on rather random thoughts inspired by the Historical Voices website.  As way of explanation, I work for H-Net which literally co-exists with MATRIX (who produced Historical Voices).  Therefore, I know many of the individuals at MSU who produced the site; and I was present (although not involved) when the site was produced.

 

With that background in place, I want to segue into my topic for this week, which centers on funding these types of sites.  And here I am directly aiming my comments at you, as graduate students, in terms of how you might want to position yourselves for your future careers.

 

H-Net resides at Michigan State University, but receives no funding from the university.  MATRIX receives some funding from the university, but only a small portion of its operating budget.  Therefore, both organizations depend heavily on outside funding (i.e. grants, such as NEH).  The most important role of the senior staff is to secure funding by writing grants.  This is just one example of the importance of grant writing in academia.  Once they have the grant, those same individuals will assemble the experts to produce the particular website, including historians and technical experts (who are often undergraduate students).

 

I am struck by the value of this particular graduate seminar for all of you and see it as a real bonus on your c.v.’s.  As a next step (not entirely related to the seminar), I would recommend that, as graduate students, you take every opportunity to write grant applications–beginning now.  Even if you start by applying small grants that you do not receive, you will have that experience when you head into your dissertation research.  If you are fortunate and receive the grant, you have an established track record. 

 

These grants look extremely good on your c.v., not only because of the prestige involved in the grant itself.  Universities are chronically short of money and an academic with a proven record of securing research grants looks very appealing for two reasons.  One, the university hopes you will secure outside funding for your research (thus the university will not need to fund you); and two, universities often get a portion of the grant ($$).

 

Now to tie this discussion to earlier discussion–these media projects are extremely expensive and require outside funding.  To successfully take on a large project, most researchers will need funding–and thus have to write a successful grant application.  (You can see part of MATRIX’s grant application, in its introduction.  What does it say the website will accomplish?)  And here is where you as future academics could carve out an interesting and eye-catching role for yourselves in academia.  As Kirsten has already recommended, you should be able to walk away from the final project with “something to show.”  Then couple that with successful grant applications.  If you have all of these elements on your record (the graduate seminar, a project, received grants) you could sell yourself to departments, universities or private organizations (on the lines of MATRIX) as an individual who can both conceive of web/media projects and who can obtain the necessary funding.  This would be attractive to mainline academia, but also would open a variety of other avenues for you.

 

Okay, those are my thoughts.  I leave for the OAH early friday morning and thus will miss class.  I am sorry to miss Mark and Mike’s presentation, but will be interested to hear about it next week.  Let me know if there are any confusions!

 

     

 

Maps and Murders

March 23, 2007

To begin, I enjoyed using the site, “Who Killed William Robinson?”  The discussion in Cohen and Rosenzweig (“No Computer Left Behind”) on multiple-choice tests is beneficial in this context for two reasons.  First, this type of exercise requires students to move beyond memorizing and reciting finite information into analyzing and interpreting information.  More importantly, this site teaches students how to analyze material, which addresses the concerns of many critics of multiple-choice tests.  Second (and similarly), this type of “history” appeals to many students and opens up a new understanding and/or vision of what history actually is.  These students frequently enjoy interpreting history and (in the past) disliked the element of memorizing dates and facts.

 

I had three ideas for using the material to teach historical thinking.  First, would be to ask the students to define the concept of race based on the maps included in this site.  Second would be to give the students a series of questions (regarding the economy, Native – white relations; society; etc.) to be answered using the material provided.  These questions would be designed to help the students understand the historical context and to show them what types of information can be pulled from the materials presented.  I would have the students look at the murder itself after they had analyzed the other materials, so that they could analyze the murder within that context.

 

Third, I thought of breaking the students into groups to analyze the material, with each group taking a particular section.  Next, the different groups would compare notes based on their observations or conclusions drawn from their evidence.  Similar to my second exercise, it would be interesting to have the students look at the murder last, after they have studied the other materials.

 

The major problem inherent to this exercise comes from the fact that the reader is suspicious of the guilty verdict from the start; however, this would be true of many such exercises.  On the plus side, it presents an opportunity to teach students to think critically.  Often in viewing “evidence,” we are pre-conditioned to view it from a particular angle; thus, the students need to learn to step back and look at the material through additional perspectives. 

 

I think that the World History Matters and the Bridging World History sites both would be extremely helpful in the classroom and could be used to complement one another.  Although the assignments on World History Matters are designed for younger students, these could easily be expanded for college students.  For instance, you could develop a research project in which the students started by looking at World History Matters to learn how to use maps and travel narratives.  The students would then choose a category to investigate (maps; travel narratives; exploration) and pick a specific topic for their project.  The students could then compare both their notes from the World History Matters site and their research to the material on the Bridging World History site. 

 

You could also develop a map assignment from both sites for advanced undergraduates and even graduate students that would require thinking conceptually about maps and, in groups, developing a web site utilizing maps.  For example, the students could read Alessandro Scafi’s _Mapping Paradise: A History of Heaven on Earth_ (2005), which looks at medieval attempts to locate and map paradise.  This gets into the conceptual world of maps, as the people in the medieval era attempted to place an imaginary “place” or concept in a concrete form.   (I will be teaching World history next year and plan to use both sites :)

 

In, I was impressed by the effort and thoughtfulness that went into constructing all of the sites.  This leads back to topics that we have discussed frequently in class, i.e. resources and support.  Who will pay for the materials needed for such sites?  And will academic departments support faculty to produce these?  In World History Matters, I found the sections using maps and travel narratives helpful for teaching students how to use these materials as evidence.  It would be fun to complete a similar section specifically on material culture and the web format would be perfect for that in allowing you to provide pictures and illustrations.

 

I think all of the sites examined this week would be great tools in the classroom.  It is possible to do similar exercises in the classroom without the use of the web, but certainly not as convenient.  For example, I have given my students assignments asking them to analyze the Boston Massacre based on primary documents–but that required a great deal of xeroxing (and was not as complex as the “Who Killed William Robinson”).  Moreover, all of that xeroxing uses a huge amount of resources–thus the web-based program is certainly much more environmentally friendly.

 

With regards to the readings, I would be interested to hear the views of others on the article by David Pace, “The Amateur in the Operating Room.”  Most historians who have taught their first (clueless) class can relate to his message.  And, from an outsider’s perspective, it must seem strikingly odd that most history professors do not learn how to teach, before being thrown into their first class (“sink or swim”).  Although IU appears to have a graduate class aimed at instructing graduate students in the art of teaching, which is admirable.  In part, Pace’s article hits at the larger ideology driving history departments–i.e. publishing.  Universities benefit from research grants, thus have an incentive to emphasize research skills in hiring.  And many departments, while nodding to teaching, also place their hiring emphasis on research skills–for the research monies and for prestige.  The rumor in the academic mill, during the 1990s, was that Berkeley had said that the emphasis needs to go back on to teaching.  I don’t know if anyone at Berkeley ever said that, but I do not see that such an emphasis has occurred in the profession.

 

 

Creativity in copyright and projects

March 9, 2007

I have just a few comments about copyrights–which I am sure an in-depth study of could result in a pounding study! Cohen and Rosenzweig raise a number of interesting points centering on the “flexibility” of the web.


For one, it allows an author/creator to include far more images (literally hundreds in one project as compared to a handful in a print medium) in a project or paper. For the author/creator of the site, this could entail untold number of hours tracking down copyright holdings and gaining permission for use of the images. In addition to that, search engines (such as Google) make it easy for publishers to search for their materials on the web. (I wonder if this has become a new occupation–searching the web for publishers.) On the other hand, since images can be taken down (or off a site) so easily, the publisher or copyright holder might be less inclined to take the matter to court, so long as the author/creator complied by removing the image.

Ayers and Thomas (in their article concerning the Valley of the Shadows) commented that, so far, digital articles are being driven by the guidelines, practices of print articles. I would assume that a similar process took place with copyright matters, namely that existing laws and policies applicable to print media were transferred to digital sources. But in both instances, the media will require adaptation or new laws altogether–both of which require time. Thus, in copyright policy, Lawrence Lessig has developed the idea of Creative Commons, which gives the author/creator more control over his/her project. I am not well versed enough in copyright to know if this constitutes a radical change or if it is an adaptation.

 

Now on to the issue of proposals and projects. As the members of the class are developing final projects, I am hoping to take advantage of class discussions, etc. to develop a database for use on my own scholarship. In broad terms, my own research examines Anglo-American merchants in the North Atlantic in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Many of the general types of sources that I use (ledgers, letterbooks, and newspapers) lend themselves well to a database, as do a number of the categories that I look at, for example ships entering and departing particular seaports; names of ship captains and owners; names of ships; cargoes; etc.

This forms my general idea for developing a project, but I am still thinking about the best approach for a specific project focus. I plan to use Filemaker Pro and this seems the ideal opportunity to conceptualize and learn different ways to use the program for large research projects. So I plan to work on a database that focuses on my secondary sources (for the Literature Review) and another one for my primary research. I am still undecided as to what primary source to experiment–I am considering either a published diary from the eighteenth century or my notes taken from a merchant’s letterbook from the early nineteenth century. Part of my focus will be on creating templates that can be used across projects. I imagine that much of learning a database involves trial and error, and thus want to learn from this process so that I do not need to start from scratch with each new project. This is one of the reasons that I am thinking in terms of creating a database for the Lit Review as one of my first projects.

During my earlier research, I had constructed a spreadsheet that tracked ships, their captains and cargoes, etc. But it became too large and unwieldy. Thus, my rationale for using a database centers on being able to manage this information. Nonetheless, even using a database, I realize the need to pick categories/fields sparingly; and this is an issue that I want to experiment with as I learn to use the program and set up a database. Here, I think the notion of envisioning an “overall map,” showing how others might navigate my database program, could be very useful. In other words, how would I explain (and justify) my choice of fields and their specific function to a curious observer? Creating responses to my imaginary observer’s questions might help me decide what fields are necessary and which are not.

Certainly Kirsten’s own work on databases serves as an ideal model to learn–and this is where I hope to take advantage of class discussions and expertise to learn the database. I would imagine others will develop databases (even if only as one portion of their final project), so it would be helpful to discuss people’s experiences with setting up their sites. Next, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s work serves as a worthy (if ambitious!) model for using the published diary of Simeon Perkins.

 

empire and new media

March 1, 2007

James Castonguay, “The Spanish-American War in U.S. Media Culture” in Hypertext Scholarship in American Studies American Quarterly (Center for history and New Media)

Building on the work Ella Shohat and Robert Stam in Unthinking Eurocentrism, James Castonguay wishes to explore the emergence of cinema at the height of imperialism. The author’s choice of the Spanish-American War reinforces the theme of “newness,” not only in the form of the new media (film), but also the topics of international relations through “new imperialism,” and a new contender on the world scene, the United States. Through an “intextual investigation” of the role of film in the understanding of the Spanish-American War, Castonguay hopes to shed light on both early cinema and turn-of-the century mass culture in the United States.

The era of new imperialism, possibly more starkly than the “old,” shows the interconnectedness of imperialism and race, and imperialism and gender. (Or possibly it has just received more attention from cultural studies!) Castonguay uses film to show how notions of gender and race play out in American images of empire.

Elements of the article include an introduction; works cited; online resources; American Quarterly; and about the author. The sub-chapters include sections on film studies and the Spanish-American War; media culture and representations of the war; early cinema and the Spanish-American War; receptions of war; war at home; and resisting spectators. Many of these sections are further divided into small sub-sections.

In “Navigating the Article” (a subsection of the introduction), the author explains that the article is not designed to be read in a particular order. The text of the article contains numerous links that take the reader either to more text or to visual images. Thus, readers will follow different trajectories through the article depending upon the order in which they click on various links. While the essays contained in “Imaging the French Revolution” also allow the reader a certain amount of latitude/option, the layout of the essays there appear to guide the reader along a particular trajectory. Thus, the reader is instructed to go to a particular image, just as one would expect in print essay or book. In this sense the site seems very historian-friendly.

I will add a few comments, while on the topic of Imaging the French Revolution.” I enjoyed the site and could easily imagine using it in the classroom. I still do not have a good sense, however, of the “cost ratio,” concerning how much this site cost to develop and maintain, as compared to how many people take advantage of it. I often see e-mails directed to h-net lists (such as women’s history early American history) inquiring about Ulrich’s “do-history” site, which leads me to believe that it is at least consistently used. Then the question becomes, in the bigger picture, how cost effective is a site such as “Imaging,” as compared to an illustrated article/book that could contain the same images. And, here, I am thinking over-all not individual–since for the individual the cost savings is 100 percent.

As noted above Castonguay’s article allows the reader to determine the “path” through the article, which apparently is similar to the approach adopted by Philip Ethington in his article on Los Angeles. This raises the issue of structure in articles and narrative and historians. William Thomas and Edward Ayers provide an interesting discussion concerning the reader responses to their article using media to analyse slavery and modernity. Skeptical readers questioned whether early drafts could be labeled “article.” Some readers went so far as to assert that the two authors had broken the implied contract with the reader by abandoning the traditional “narrative” structure. And, this form of free-roaming trajectory in an article does seem to raise postmodern notions of authorial voice and structured thesis, in a distinctly “applied” fashion. Here my question would be, how much of this derives from the authors’ discipline/outlook and how much derives from the media itself. As noted above, “Imaging” seems to follow a traditional trajectory. Castonguay views this loose structure as a distinct feature (and benefit) of this article.

Thomas and Ayers continue their discussion by observing that, thus far, print culture (and its dictates) appear to be shaping digital scholarship rather than visa versa. Which is not suprising (given scholarly pressures, realities, etc.). The authors assert that there is a tension in their article between the narrative structure and the potential for non-linearity of their argument. They appear to pushing us toward a “paradigm” shift, which is exactly what these historians (Thomas and Ayers; the History Co-operative; Cohen and Rosenzweig; and others) appear to be developing the necessary vocabulary, understanding and tools to permit.

Back to Castonguay again, the article includes text and images (for example from contemporary newspapers) which do not push the button in terms of presenting a new format, even though the reader is invited to adopt an individual approach to read the article. But the article does provide actual film clips from the movies examined by the author, which certainly transcends an article in a print journal. The question then becomes how much does this actually enhance the article and, more importantly, the presentation and support of its argument.

In conclusion, I am trying to think of the circumstances under which it would be useful for me as a scholar to produce a digital article. Given my own work on eighteenth-century Atlantic trade, a digital article would certainly be possible, but I am not sure that it is particularly necessary, i.e. why not just publish it in a print journal. Although, if I think more broadly about trade form a British imperial or global perspective, such a project becomes more appealing. However, depending upon the outlook of your department, there may be advantages to citing a digital article on your c.v. I can also see the value of articles such as this by Castonguay in the classroom. Moreover, I could see real advantages to using this as an assignment where graduate students (working in groups) created a digital article that incorporated a variety of media. As a side benefit, Thomas and Ayers highlighted the collaborative nature of the project, of necessity, since they required the input of multiple experts and professionals. This, in itself, would be a great lesson in a graduate seminar.

How Much is Too Much?

February 22, 2007

I looked at a site (that I think was mentioned in discussion last week. Sorry!  it seems a very long time ago, now!) which raises a number of interesting issues, and that I think can be loosely tied to issues of preservation and digitisation.  So, I will use it to discuss my creative project for the week.  The site is entitled, “Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000,” (WSM) and is “provided” by the Center for the Historical Study of Women and Gender at the State University of New York at Binghampton.  The Co-Directors of the center (and thus this site) are Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin.  Here is the website:

 

http://www.binghamton.edu/womhist/staff.htm

 

The site is funded by the Alexander Street Press (which I assume is a private corporation) and has received additional funding from the NEH, Pro Quest and Houghton Mifflin, all of which tie into issues discussed last week regarding _who_ funds these sites, and is it possible to draw private corporations into these academic ventures.  According to the blurb, approx. one-fourth of the “projects” are freely available, while the remaining projects and documents are available through the Alexander Street Press (thus, $$).

 

According to the materials, the site staff is working with professors and graduate students at various colleges, who are producing projects for submission.   Of course, if accepted, those projects would be come part of the WSM site, which raises questions of accessibility.  The colleges mentioned are:  the University of Northern Colorado, Grinnell College, the University of Arizona, Oberlin College, St. Louis University, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, New York University, and Rutgers University.

 

There are two issues of the material (thus-far) mentioned, that interest me.  First, if this site has received funding from the NEH, then I assume that the “materials” they funded have to made available.  Possibly that is the one-quarter of the projects that remain freely available.  It would be interesting to know how this was decided, worded, etc.  For instance, did the NEH fund particular projects?  Or did the NEH provide funding for indiscriminate projects, but now has control over their availability?  The bottom-line question is how do public institutions work with private corporations, such as the Alexander Street Press, in terms of determining the public availability of materials?  I am not saying any of this raises new questions for institutions, corporations and their respective lawyers–it could just be new to me.  But, I wonder if these digitization projects are raising new questions, since they seem to be popular (both to produce and fund).  Moreover, the sites are “live,” in a way that books are not.  Thus, if the NEH pays for the production of a website or digitization project and stipulate that it must be freely available to the public, what happens if the site is improved, edited or added to?  A manuscript would not appear to present this problem, because significantly changing the original book would require a new edition.  Are there different “editions” of digital projects or websites?  These questions (and those in the following paragraph), most likely, are the types of issues that Julie Bobay can answer.

 

Second, what types of issues are raised by the fact that academics (professors and their graduate students) are producing materials that may (potentially) owned by Alexander Street Press?  Is the relationship the same as that between a publisher and the author?  And what rights do the producers have over the website or digital archive once it is posted?  Could they demand that it be taken “down”? 

 

The next element that I found interesting were the guidelines for submitting a project.  The paragraph explains the criteria for framing a project and what it would “ideally” address.  Although it is quite brief, others might find it useful/ helpful in terms of thinking about how to frame future projects (either digital projects or websites).  From the perspective of teaching, I thought this could be an ideal group project for a graduate class such as our in new media and historians.  I would recommend this site, as a source of ideas, for anyone contemplating  doing a website for their final project.

 

Finally, as a related aside, I will mention that two members of the small staff for this project either received/are receiving their Ph.D. from SUNY Binghampton.  That raises the potential for Ph.D.s to acquire positions in academic editing.  Obviously, that is not dependent upon digital archives, but the latter might open up more jobs.  More to the point, it is an employment idea for graduate students to keep in mind as they are moving through their degree and graduating.

 

To some extent, I can tie my ramblings above into the article by William Turkel (“Augmenting Places with Sources”), which I enjoyed!  In the opening pages, Turkel realizes the need to shift his focus to, among others, who was paying for the current research activity.  This keeps returning us back to the notion of who pays for these big projects, and if corporations, why?  Is there a tension btw academics and corporations, a natural partnership, or both?  Is this tension any different now than before (to again return to the analogy of publishers)?

 

With that “transition,” I will move into issues and questions raised by the article itself.  Turkel raises Roy Rosenzweig’s “culture of abundance,” which we have discussed briefly in class, already.  Here, I continually wonder how the twentieth century (when government bureaucracies saved “everything in triplicate”) and the new media (which allow bureaucracies the ability to save “everything) will influence the writing history?  More to the point, is it a step forward for history?  Will history be better?  Or will it cause information overload for those historians confronted by all of this information.  As J. H. Plumb once asked of the Annales school, exactly how many historians possess the encyclopedic mind (and thus, capabilities) of Fernand Braudel, and thus can synthesize _all_ that material.   The question seems even more pertinent now.  (The eighteenth century is looking better and better, all the time!)

 

In terms of conceptualizing “history,” clearly Turkel’s project takes an extremely broad perspective over (particularly) time and space, i. e. “big history.”  Indeed, to accomplish this project, the author must rely on other disciplines that many “historians” would see as only tangentially related.  This opens up questions regarding the ways in which history as a discipline must change to accommodate these new forms of information and how that will happen.  The notion of an “unbounded archive,” is more than a little unsettling.

 

I also found interesting the discussion of  placed-based computing that (again) relates to concepts already discussed; moreover, it raises issues common to history.  For example, the discussion of equipment raises notions regarding the learning and use of that equipment. While, new technology seems to promise so much (including “saving time”), there is always the potential that learning and managing will become a project unto itself.  As already mentioned, it raises issues of “so much” material and, now that I am home staring at all these multifarious sources/documents, what do I do with and how do I impose order on them?  Obviously, this is not a new issue, but certainly a problem of degree (overwhelming degree)?  The discussion of “ground truth,” brought me back to more familiar territory, in that one needs to be familiar with the extant “literature” on your topic to understand what you are seeing.  But from there, the conversation moved toward “indefinitely expanding” systems and supporting “alternative accounts of the past,” that raised the specter of postmodernism.

 

All said, my perspective of this discussion centered on the excitement of new methods/technologies, fears over inundation, and questions as to exactly what effect this would all have on the discipline of history.

 

Finally, I come to an organizational/research observation.  I was intrigued by the use of a research weblog, rather than using a research journal or diary.  I wondered if this replaces the research journal, or if this is would be in supplement to one.  It seems that it could be an interactive journal, or it could be a convenient way to have an ongoing discussion with scholars about your project, as you are working through it.  It is definitely intriguing and thus worth keeping in mind for the research project.

 

South-Seas, Bubbles, Captivity, and Travel Narratives

February 16, 2007

I experimented with the Eighteenth Century Collections Online (unfortunately) without a definitive project in mind. I intended to perform a “few” keyword searches to learn how the program worked and hoped that an “obvious” project would come to me. That approach revealed one of the strengths and weaknesses of the collection, i.e. that it contains a wealth of information on a wealth of topics, that can either be a godsend to your project or can suck you down a black hole.

The site contains “electronic facsimilies” of books published in Great Britain and North America during the eighteenth century. The site is owned and produced by Thompson Gale who also publish college textbooks (probably among other publising endeavors). Many of the documents appear to have been published previously by other “electronic” services, such as the English Short Title Catalog and Goldsmiths-Kress (pre-online sources, the latter company re-produced thousands of primary documents on microfilm).

This fact points to one of the supreme advantages of ECCO, sincethe documents can be read on the computer screen rather than on microfilm (at a library or archive). I would guess that most major university holdings include ECCO, but I have no idea about smaller college universities. Thus, using the site could be an issue depending upon your home institution.

In terms of interface, the site is easy to use and includes instructions to get started. Categories under “Search Tips” range from Date Ranges to Diacritics to Wildcard Characters. There are three types of searches: Basic, Advanced, and Fuzzy. The last can be combined with (and thus broaden) the Advanced Search. The researcher can also Browse Authors and Browse Works as well as Search This Work and Search History. The site produces or provides a facsimile of the original document. (As an aside, your query often produces a selection list that contains several editions of the same document, esp. since popular eighteenth-century documents were published frequently.) On the left-hand side of the screen appears a list of the page numbers on which your search category (word, phrase, name, etc.) appears. Thus, you can click on 38 and the search engine will take you to that page in your document. Once there, you will see that your search category is highlighted in green (at least, on my screen). At the bottom of the page are arrows, allowing you to move through the document, either page by page or from beginning to end.

Since my project ended up being so vague, I would say yes (of course) it could have been completed by using print-based archives. I started by looking at my resarch topics, which ranged from individual merchants to smuggling to the Vice Admiralty Court (and combinations of all of the above), with mixed results. Not surprisingly, I did not find individual merchants, however, I was surprised by the number of documents under smuggling, which were less than I anticipated.

Once, I began playing with the system, I decided to look for travel narratives thinking that I could use these as primary documents when teaching undergraduate classes. The phrase “Travel Narratives” produced nothing, however, I could use terms such as voyage and discovery, to get at accounts. One of my first searches provided accounts involving the “South-Seas,” and you can foresee where this took me–I decided to track down, first, the South-Seas Bubble. From there, I investigated the use of the word “bubble” itself with regards to “finances” and the stock-market. I found the results interesting, since “bubble” was more commonly used than I realized.

Moving past this digression, I deviated from travel narratives to captivity tales. When searching for both the captivity tales and the travel narratives, I used the “fuzzy” search feature. This allows the search to find and include words that are “imperfect” matches (in spelling). I found this helpful for Barbary (or at least convinced myself it was), since I was unsure of eighteenth-century spellings. However, the fuzzy search for “narrative” would pick up and show the word “native” (whether I used low or high fuzzy), which was confusing. I could see this as a potential nightmare if you were searching for names of individuals.

In the end, so that I could pretend to be productive, I determined that this could be used as a project for undergraduates. The undergraduates could be set to work in pairs to find their own captivity tales or travel narratives. I could set parameters regarding time period (entire eighteenth century or particular decades), locale (Europe, Muslim world, New world), etc. This type of excercise would require an electronic collection, since one of the functions of the exercise would be to familiarize students with the use of online collections.

Kirsten asked whether research and writing will be different in the digital era and, if so, how? I am not sure that I have an interesting answer to an interesting question, but do have two “thoughts” on the matter.

One, I wondered how the availability of digital sources such as ECCO might affect funding for research. For example, an university might justify the “purchase” ECCO (and I am not sure if that is a one-time fee or an annual service fee) by rationalizing that their “history” faculty could do research on campus and thus not need as many research dollars. Even I can see that this is a stretch, since a limited number of individuals in any history/humanities dept would be working on this area. Moreover, the Goldsmiths-Kress microfilm (and others) have long been available to university libraries (and certainly most large university libraries have them). But, here I am thinking of small universities (not universities such as IU), who are desperately slashing budgets.

These online catalogs most likely are pricey (did the cite a $250,000 “fee”) and any department would have to put forth a strong argument–and mostly likely would have to negotiate with administration. Next, I am thinking more broadly and loosely of the example of Angle or Blackboard (similar to Oncourse, in design). These online programs/services are very expensive. Most of the arguments, that I have heard, in support of these services center on savings in other resources (particularly copying). But the administration does typically want to see departmental savings (because of the cost of Angel), as such there is pressure for the faculty to use the service rather than making handouts. I do not see any of the is as negative–but there is a trade-off occurring. And, I wonder how this might affect research at institutions who have these online catalogs.

Second, based on the article on the ECCO collection, I wondered how the issue involving subject categories might influence an individual research project. In this scenario, I am imagining the lone researcher at a typical university library (whatever that is). Many university libraries, I would guess, will not have a staff as highly trained in these online collections as the folks at Northwestern University (or other large universities). During my very brief experiment with ECCO, subject categories did not necessarily present a problem, because I was playing with keywords. But in a “real” project, they might well be more crucial. This is not a problem peculiar to online collections, per se. But as these collections multiply, will universities have the resources to train their staffs in the use of the collections? Obviously this is the advantage of traveling to an archive with trained specialists who can help you in your project.

I am certain that no one (certainly in a university such as IU) envisions a scholar working solely on online collections, but I do wonder how the funding necessary for these collections will influence other university budgetary decisions concerning internal funding for academic research. Of course, the opposite might also be the case, since a scholar (with access to these collections) might be better able to shape a persuasive grant proposal and thus gain funding for a trip to the archives.

My final rambling concerns the repeated use of these documents. Will we start to see the same documents over and over again in the footnotes and bibliographies of eighteenth-century Anglo-American historians, and will we immediately recognize it as “available on ECCO”?

Announcement from H-World: Bridging World History

February 8, 2007

Below is an announcement from H-World, which may be of interest to some members of the class.  The list will be running a forum/discussion on a new website.   Of particular interest for us, is the fact that Matthew Guterl (of IU) is involved in the project.

I do not know if H-World will allow non-members to post responses, but you can view the discussion (as a non-member) by going to their daily discussion logs.  Go to:

https://www.h-net.org/~world/

Then click on Discussion Logs (in the left hand column) and select the current month from the drop down menu.

Here is the message!

From:    David Kalivas and Eric Martin

               Kalivas@comcast.net and elmartin@lcsc.edu 

               H-World Editors

Our third Author's Forum is set to begin on Monday, February 12th and
continue until February 19th.  This year's forum will examine Bridging World
History, an internet resource for world history classes.  The URL for
Bridging World History (BWH) is:
http://www.learner.org/channel/courses/worldhistory/   Please have a look at
the BWH website and offer your perceptions on the site's usefulness for
world historians during the course of this year's H-World forum.

Just a note on process: Initial commentaries on BWH will be posted on
Monday, February 12, then the site's originators will post their comments on
Tuesday, and the forum will open on Wednesday for a dedicated discussion on
Bridging World History (BWH) which will continue until February 19th.  We
hope this opportunity to review and discuss a valuable world history
resource will be a productive exercise for all of us.  Thank you.

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