Digital Databases and the Illusion of Comprehension

This post is part of a joint series entitled “Digital Research, Digital Age: Blogging New Approaches to Early American Studies,” the Panorama and the Junto. This joint series stems from  stemming from a conference entitled “Revolutionary Texts in a Digital Age: Thomas Paine’s Publishing Networks, Past and Present,” organized by Nora Slonimsky at Iona College in October 2018. This series will feature one post every day this week, hosted by both the Panorama and the Junto, and Dr. Slonimsky’s introductory post is found here. The first post at the Panorama is by Lindsay Chervinsky, “High Politics and Physical Space: Rethinking How We Commemorate Place.”

The rise of the digital humanities over the past decade has brought attention and support to a wide range of projects. In its most triumphalist form, the narrative about digital humanities suggests that digital projects have made early American materials far more accessible than they ever have been. Where once researchers could only access materials by visiting an archive or perhaps using microfilm or microfiche when available, now we can work from our homes in our pajamas to read manuscript and printed sources from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. And we can gather massive data sets about the past for quantitative or qualitative analysis.

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Do Objects Lie? A New Video for Teaching About Material Evidence

Is material culture as inherently untrustworthy? I was once at a conference roundtable where one attendee claimed that “Material culture is so elitist, just rich people’s stuff in museums.” Fortunately, a historical archaeologist in the room begged to differ, arguing that archaeology offered a rich record of people who did not necessarily leave written sources behind. When I recently required my students to analyze both a material and a textual source, they concluded that material sources were inherently more difficult to work with than their written counterparts. “Once I describe the object, there’s nothing left to say about it,” one student complained.

I’ve been hearing variations of this argument my entire academic life. As a scholar who both studies and teaches with material culture, I find this reasoning both fascinating and frustrating. Why do so many people, from scholars to students, consider material culture somehow a lesser form of evidence than the written word? Continue reading

Reflecting on Digital History

digital-clioLast semester, I taught my first section of Digital History, following my participation in the 2016 NEH Doing Digital History Institute. The program, which is headed by Sharon Leon and Sheila Brennan of George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, is designed for mid-career historians who come from institutions with little infrastructure or support for DH professional development. Owing to my library science background, I came to the Institute with a strong technological background, but the two weeks I spent in Arlington, Virginia last July definitely made me rethink my approach to digital history pedagogy. Continue reading

Guest Post: Digital Humanities & Digital Journalism Symposium Recap

Brad Rittenhouse is a PhD candidate at the University of Miami specializing in 19th-century American literature and the digital humanities. His work thinks about literature as data, and looks at the intersection of literary aesthetics and information management techniques. He is also working on a DH project at UM’s Center for Computational Science, where he is developing a methodology for quantitatively identifying instances of informationally “thick” literary passages.

rittenhouseThe inaugural Digital Humanities + Data Journalism Symposium recently took place at the University of Miami, from September 29 to October 1st, drawing together a diverse crowd of academics, journalists, and many in between. As conference convener and Knight Chair in Visual Journalism at UM Alberto Cairo informed the audience in his opening remarks, the somewhat speculative event topic was inspired by a February 2012 tweet by Digital Public Library of America Executive Director Dan Cohen, which hopefully conjectured that “digital journalism and digital humanities are kindred spirits, and that more commerce between the two could be mutually beneficial.” Delivering the first keynote of the weekend-long proceedings, Cohen drew equal inspiration from Thucydides and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, lightheartedly suggesting the latter as a metaphor for the symbiotic (and potentially delicious?) roles digital humanists and data journalists could play in our increasingly informational world. In referencing Thucydides, he developed one of the salient themes of the weekend, the notion that digital scholars and journalists alike were primarily motivated by the quest to rise up from data to understanding, to construct knowledge from the complicated and overwhelming. Continue reading

Love Letters and the Digital Turn

IMG_3738There should be no need to mention in a blog about early American history that the digital turn is, perhaps, a fait accompli. However, over the past couple of years more and more articles have called into question the ways in which access to digital archives and digitized sources has changed both the questions historians ask and the kinds of research we do. Of this surge in publications, Lara Putnam’s recent AHR article stands out as a kind of canary-in-the-coal-mine warning to both graduate students and established professionals. Putnam, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, calls on all of us to have an “extensive discussion of digitization,” thereby pulling our research approaches out of, “the realm of invisible methods, the black box where by consensus we leave so much of our discipline’s heavy lifting.”[1] For Putnam and others, the digital turn remains full of pitfalls that deserve our serious consideration. Continue reading

13 Revolutions +1

Diego Rivera and Bertram D. Wolfe, "Portrait of America," 1934

Diego Rivera and Bertram D. Wolfe, “Portrait of America,” 1934

When John Adams looked back on the American Revolution (something he liked to do), he reflected that, “The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People.” The colonists’ drive to independence marked a new era of American history, Adams thought, when “Thirteen Clocks were made to Strike together; a perfection of Mechanism which no Artist had ever before effected.” Scholars have struggled to frame the experience of the Revolution in picture and on the page. How can we use digital tools to curate collections of revolutionary culture and #vastearlyamerica for use in the classroom?

Today, The Junto chats with Darren Milligan, Senior Digital Strategist at the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access, about the Smithsonian Learning Lab, which encourages us to make, use, and share new galleries of history.  Continue reading

Teaching with Databases: An Early American Atlanticist’s Conundrum

SourcesDuring my three years of teaching in England, it’s become apparent that students in my American history classes spend a lot of time worrying about access to primary sources. As an undergraduate myself, I knew that upper-level assessment turns on the ability to find and analyze primary sources—that stipulation is no different in this country. What’s clear, however, is that whereas as an undergraduate I could go to the stacks and wander around until I had a pile of travel narratives, diaries, and monograph reproductions related to early American Atlantic history, that’s not necessarily the case here for students taking classes on early American history, Native American history, the Atlantic world, slavery, trade, and colonization. The costs of a Readex subscription, just for example, are too expensive for the library to justify when most students aren’t going to research early American newspapers. As a result, I’ve had to think hard about how to ease students’ worries about locating sources. Continue reading

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