Aug 30 2013

Points to Remember about JDH and the Recent “Kerfluffle”


[This article was originally posted on my new blog]

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I work at the RRCHNM alongside the editors for JDH and the PressForward staff. I do not, however, work on the PressForward or JDH projects. Furthermore, I cannot comment on their whereabouts or vacation time.

In the past two days, the Journal of Digital Humanities has been criticised for their recent negotiations with Adeline Koh and Roopika Risam about a special section in the journal. On Thursday, Koh posted an account of these proceedings, which began with a proposal for a “special section on the postcolonial digital humanities (#dhpoco).” The results of their negotiations were deemed unsatisfactory by Koh and Risam, which prompted the post and an ensuing debate.

I’ll not rehash the entire conversation here, and assume that readers will use the original account and subsequent comments to get up to speed. My intent is to offer a few simple points about the nature of the JDH and the conversation that has flared in response to Koh’s post:

  1. The JDH editors have not yet acknowledged or replied to the post, stating to Koh and Risam that they are unavailable until September 3rd. Any information about the JDH decisions has been offered by Koh and Risam.
  2. To the best of my knowledge, the JDH staff are employees of the RRCHNM and under the supervision of the PressForward project. As such, they would conduct JDH business during paid hours of employment. Unlike potential authors, whose non-paid time can be spent writing or revising their work for the journal, JDH editors are limited to business hours as defined by the center.
  3. The JDH has a workflow for the articles that they select for publication. That flow is built upon the DHNow aggregator system, which I’ve described here. As such, their primary model for selection, solicitation, revision, and publication is designed to highlight the articles that rise to the top through the system. Concerns about that process are not the issue here, because…
  4. Koh and Risam acknowledge that, to their knowledge, “this is the first time [JDH] were approached by editors wanting to do a section and that’s why a kerfluffle ensued.” The proposal of a special section by guest editors does not fit into the existing model as defined on the JDH site. Current evidence indicates that any review process for this proposal was not a switch from the incompatible model, but an entirely new model.
  5. The initial process for the special section is defined in an email posted by Koh; the email suggests that the process was negotiated by the JDH staff and the guest editors. With this as our only evidence, it seems that the JDH editors would accept the submissions, “review them for JDH and provide feedback.” Neither email explicitly defines the nature of this review and feedback. If such definitions exist, we’ve not seen them.
  6. Koh cites an email in which the JDH insists on a blind peer review. All reasons for that decision aside, we’ve not seen that email, nor any of the communications that prompted Koh’s post and the discussion.
  7. The major call from many people has been for more transparency from JDH, yet the debate and all comments have only two (2) emails and the statements of one group from which to draw conclusions.

These points suggest to me that the best policy is to await an official response from the JDH editorial staff. If that is not possible, at very least request further evidence that makes their position and statements more visible. We should avoid trying to find reasons or biases for the JDH decisions and/or questioning their integrity without hearing their side of the conversation.

Jun 26 2013

Giffing the Marine Memorial


Just a quick GIF from my trip to the Marine Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.


Jun 12 2013

Physical Computing and Fabricating


This past week, I’ve been hanging out at University of Victoria, attending the CSDH/SCHN annual conference as part of the CFHSS Congress and the Digital Humanities Summer Institute. I’ll be later writing a more substantial reflection on the various topics discussed at these meetings, but for now I’m going to comment on the specific course that I took at DHSI.

When I was choosing a class, I decided that I would do something new. I’ve played around or worked closely with many different digital tools and approaches, but I’ve never used 3D printers or microcontrollers or any other aspect of physical computing. Thanks to Bill Turkel, Jentery Sayers, and Devon Elliott, I was able to expand my knowledge and experience into these areas, if only briefly.

3D printing took up a large part of the course, especially for those who wanted to build physical objects. Students experimenting with Arduinos and other electronics were building, but assembling the Printr Jr, modelling 3D objects, and printing them, were more aligned with fabrication.

3D Model Printing

In a conversation with my classmates, I concluded that we should try to produce a working prototype of some sort that combined the three branches of experimentation: visual programming, electronics, and fabrication. One of my colleagues, Dr. Jacqueline Wernimont, proposed the idea of converting poetry into a non-textual experience, and we tossed around ways that we could produce such representations.

In the end, we produced an interactive poetry remixing device. The poem is Emily Brontë’s “Fall, Leaves, Fall”, which has two stanzas of four lines.

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.

I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.

Users touch a plastic model with a thin upper surface; a touch sensor registers the interaction and sends a signal to the computer; in response, a coloured LED lights up and an audio recording of one stanza plays; when a user touches the opposite area, a second LED lights up and the other stanza plays. Both stanzas can play at once, or be triggered in original or reverse sequence. Waveforms of the audio recording display on the laptop screen as the sound files play.
Although the device was altered multiple times after the initial design was sketched, the prototype was fully functional. Our experiment in non-textual representations of poetry was a success. And you can see it in action below.

May 21 2013

The Digital History Fellowship


During my first year at George Mason University, I was pleased to be a participant in the newly minted Digital History Fellowship, which is composed of Ph.D. students who have won the Digital History Research Award. The award and fellowship resulted from a coordinated effort between the Office of the Provost, Department of History and Art History, and Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.

The fellowship was first announced in December 2011, and so I was fortunate to be in the first group of applicants who would be automatically considered for the award. The first cohort of Digital History Fellows, as we’re now called, includes Amanda Morton, Ben Hurwitz, and me.

Part of our work as DH Fellows is to write down some of the narratives and observations that we experience during our time at the center and the university in general. To facilitate that writing and to stimulate conversations about our experiences in digital history, we have been using a WordPress blog under the expected title, Digital History Fellowship.

This term, we spent five weeks with each of the divisions in the center, and for public projects we wrote short posts about our work. In my post, I wrote about transcription projects and how they can be an unexpected source of research material. Amanda wrote about history that can be uncovered when sorting through documents to find important metadata, while Ben noted a possible link between the War Department and his own research about colonial South Africa.

The fellowship has been an interesting road to follow; as the first group, we were mindful of the negotiations that took place in order to fit our work into larger projects and to figure out how our contributions would be evaluated or converted into those ever-important grades. With the faculty and staff, we’ve found answers to some of those questions, but I imagine that future cohorts will face their own set of problems. As a new kind of fellowship in a fairly new field (graduate digital history education), there are many opportunities for new questions and innovative answers.

Apr 26 2013

First Paragraphs


In a recent post on her blog, Kathleen Fitzpatrick described the process by which her first creative writing was published. I’ll let you read her story for more details, but it brought an interesting question to mind: how would my scattered assortment of short stories read if they were shortened to the first paragraph only?

I have collected some of them, and present them here for your amusement and my own curiosity.

In rough chronological order based on date of composition:

He watched as the rider on the white horse approached through the thickets, the horse picking its way around the thickest of them. His eyes turned back to the embers glowing in the dying remains of the fire. The white stones were scorched black where the intense heat had flared as he cooked his meal. Maybe even my last meal, he thought to himself, as the rider neared his campsite.

“Are you prepared to die, Ms. Francis?”

Tightening the straps on their packs and shifting their loads, the grunts cling firmly to the rails and watch nervously as the transport slows in approach to the landing zone. The air outside is whipped into frenzy and particles invade every crack and crevice, pushed deep by the howling wind. The faceless peons feel the vibration of the engine beneath their feet, and hear the operator calling out directions and warnings while bringing the behemoth into its berth alongside the others in a ballet of machine and man.

When my aunt called my mother to ask if I would like to spend some time with my cousin over the weekend, I knew it wasn’t because my cousin missed me. I was going to be her excuse for staying out late and taking the family car. Except we wouldn’t be going to London to shop, or to Grand Bend to spend the day at the beach; we’d be going to find a boy, or boys, who could be enticed with a nice smile. I say we, but I really mean her, Louise, my cousin. For some reason, boys never made much fuss over me, but she attracted them like flies. So when the phone rang on that sticky Friday afternoon in August, I knew Louise had a plan.

I tell Frank that he’s going too fast, but as usual, he ignores me. “You’re going to get us killed!” He rolls his eyes and whips the Jeep into turn. The force of it nearly throws me out. We should have got the one with proper doors. “Frank! Watch out for those—“ but I say it too late. The bumper smacks into a stack of boxes and cans sitting at the side of the street. A sign flashes and I just make out “Alquiler De ~Sillas~Mesas~Lonas.” I am completely lost.

In the summer of 2001, the third floor on the east wing of Sarnia General Hospital became the home of a man whose influence would change my life forever. His room had a small, barred window that looked out over an asphalt parking lot and the trees lining the side streets that surround the block of plain red brick buildings. The view was uninspiring, but having a window at all was a luxury in this wing.

“Come on, man. You know I’m good for it. I’ll pay you back tomorrow,” he pleaded.

One thousand years passed under the glaring sun
Bleached bones scattered through middens
Mark the progress and regress of our kin
Where we went, we were, we are not
To a land not green, from a land not ice
We travelled in ships, no dragons, no horns
Even to distant shores to meet the white wild ones

When you listen to a veteran telling stories about the war, ignore his description of devastating machine gun fire that stitched holes across the sands, and how he nearly died defending his foxhole while his brothers fell around him; ignore all these tales, and listen closely for the moments about which he says, “I didn’t know.”  In that instance, he has spoken the most accurate and harrowing story of all.

Argyle Street between Texas and Stuart Avenues, though densely populated, was quiet in the early morning before people woke and began to leave for work. On one end of the street was Bulldog Memorial Stadium, with bleachers that rose above the squat houses surrounding the red track and snow-covered football field; the other end opened to a park with a large circle of ice, courtesy of the local fire-fighters. The low cost houses mingled with trailers that sported decks and sheds and the other indicators of permanence.

Jan 23 2013

Term Two at GMU


This week, I return to classes and employment at George Mason University. Here’s a brief overview of my schedule.


My class schedule contains the following two history courses and one bi-weekly professional development course:

Research Work

I’ve started the first rotation in a series of three. For five weeks, I am assigned to the education division at RRCHNM, where I will contribute to a forthcoming project related to a former president’s private estate and do some troubleshooting.

Following the education rotation, I will spend five weeks in the research and public projects divisions. At the end of this term, I will choose the division to which I want to devote my second year. This term promises to provide satisfying experiences and will require diligent effort, but I look forward to every moment.

Sep 24 2012

Crowds, Collectives, and Collaboration


This week in Clio Wired I, students are reading various perspectives on crowdsourcing, both generally and as it might be used in history. As many other courses have done, they skipped over James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and early works on collective intelligence, going for more recent commentary that incorporates or challenges those previous arguments.

They read, for instance, Roy Rosenzweig’s entertaining and informative article about Wikipedia, which not only provides a detailed history of the site, but also discusses its most difficult moments during emergence and development. Not surprisingly, Rosenzweig identifies many of the early concepts that would later plague those who explore crowdsourcing. The mechanisms by which Wikipedia began to monitor its content parallel those used by democracy. Jaron Lanier, whose book demonstrates his skepticism of collective intelligence, suggests that such mechanisms (representatives and elections, in democracy) are necessary to prevent random, “jittery” changes to  the collective system (57).

Rosenzweig and others were writing about crowdsourcing long before Lanier protested in 2010, and the topic remains at the forefront of many projects. The University of Iowa (similar to many other institutions) has invested in crowdsourced  transcription of their archives, in particular the Civil War Diaries. There are many, many projects out there. Hell, even I’ve put together a basic collection site that allows visitors to transcribe love letters from World War Two (using the CHNM Scripto plugin for Omeka). For many historians, the old question of whether crowdsourcing is beneficial to history, while still important to consider, has been passed by.

Many scholars are now focusing most intently on a more important question: how should we do this? At the University of Virginia, Bethany Nowviskie continues to ponder the ethical treatment of collaborations. Shawn Graham and his colleagues are exploring exciting new territory with their case study in crowdsourced public histories, which sets out some guidelines for new projects. I’m not suggesting that we should abandon our reading of Rosenzweig, Surowiecki, Levy, or others, but after we’ve come to understand the importance of crowdsourcing (or collective intelligence, or the wisdom of crowds, or massively collaborative histories), and have recognized the debates that still rage around it, perhaps we should consider how it will look.*


*To those savvy readers who say, “But you’re assuming that these projects are beneficial, and helpful, and the future,” I respond: yes.

Sep 14 2012

Text Mining Departmental Reviews


Though I may be accused of cross-blogging, I figure it can’t hurt to leverage various blogs to reach the most readers. During the summer, I helped run a series of workshops for faculty who wanted to learn more about digital tools and research methods. I blogged about our work at Digital Method Blog.

This week, my post reports on our collaboration with a history department during their administrative review. The techniques we used were not particularly sophisticated or innovative, but in the context of review committees and external reviewers, we are exploring new territory and improving the process. Our results will be incorporated into the official review documents, and, with luck, influence future reviewers.

Example of Visualization for Review

Sep 12 2012

The New Digital History Fellowship Blog


Announcing a new digital history blog: Digital History Fellowship

Starting this year, the recipients of the Digital History Research Award will be blogging about their experiences at the Center for History and New Media, the insights they’ve gained about the form of digital history at an institutional level, and ways in which grad students can better engage in digital history.

This year, the bloggers are Amanda Morton, Ben Hurwitz, and me, Spencer Roberts. Next fall, new members will be added, so that there will usually be two cohorts of bloggers on the site.

Sep 10 2012

But why?


The above question is familiar to anyone involved in digital humanities at any level. Some, especially those in literary studies, must answer only infrequently, when minor issues arise in a text-mining or literary mapping project. In my experience as a historian, however, providing an answer to “Why?” is an endless effort. Some historians, perhaps the bravest or most secure, simply reply, “Why not?” But not every historian, especially graduate students or those early in their careers, can avoid the question.

Not that any historian should ignore such questions. An historically reasonable purpose and plan for research is absolutely crucial and should never be left wanting. On my most recent digital history paper, my second reader asked why I had chosen the town which served as a testing ground for my augmented reality application. Although I thought the choice was obvious, I had not made my reasons clear and was challenged appropriately.

The danger in those questions, however, lies in the possibility of leaving avenues unexplored for lack of sufficient purpose. Many digital humanists, including Stephen Ramsay, have argued for the importance of “screwing around.” Even those historians who are not self-professed digital converts acknowledge the value of a broad education and the willingness to explore randomly or get lost. William Cronon, for instance, points out,

If wandering and serendipity are essential to the practice of good history, then we should be careful to design curricula that provide adequate opportunities for rambling—even for occasionally getting lost—along with the pedagogical guidance to help students understand how to make this seemingly inefficient activity both creative and productive. [Getting Ready to Do History, 9]

Wandering and serendipity. Trial and error. Experimentation. Failure. Only when we explore unproven and unexplained avenues can we stumble across hidden gems. In digital history, that exploration often requires us to answer, “Why not?”

The hidden gems we find are often unexpected, and can even change how we interact with history. As Tim Sherratt found during his exploration of the National Archives of Australia, the history that lies along unexplored paths often takes second place to better understanding how historians and the public each interact with history, and how they might collaborate. By opening up a new method of interface and presentation, Sherratt began to imagine a new method wherein historians do not exert a monopoly over the past, but study the interaction between public and past, offering to help interpret and investigate alongside the former audience.

In a way, he invokes Cronon’s image of a professional generalist, tasked with gaining “an intricately intuitive understanding of all features of life in a past time and place, in all their interconnections and complexities and contradictions” (9). Such a generalist, rather than merely conveying the past to an audience, would seek to understand how best he or she might serve the public and past, helping to bring the two together.

My recent project, however unintentionally, turned out to contain within its focus on augmented reality another argument about collaboration; how might historians and “professional amateurs” (a term used by J. P. Gee) work together to create history through a mobile, interactive history application? Although I doubt that I fully answered the question, it served to furnish an important answer to those who asked, “Why?” By setting out to create an app, to experiment with mobile devices, I stumbled on a more important purpose, and opened my work to questions about collaboratively histories and unforeseen opportunities.

I’m sure that many digital history projects start out with specific goals and definite reasons for their existence; I’m sure too that great opportunity lies in those projects that begin by asking, “Why not?”