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Evaluating Digital Scholarship

This week’s readings covered numerous issues in digital scholarship. Similar to the on-going discussions on the definition of digital history, digital scholarship can take many forms. Trevor Owens outlined suggestions for digital exhibits and even games as scholarship. The digital scholarship must also simultaneously make an easily accessible and clear argument, as Edward Ayers points out in his article, “Does Digital Scholarship Have A Future?” In “Living in a Digital World: Rethinking Peer Review, Collaboration, and Open Access,” Sheila Cavanaugh discussed the difficulties and limitations of creating digital scholarly projects, specifically the need for institutional resources and collaboration across institutions.

It was also evident from the readings that there is a need for sufficient guidelines and evaluation for creators and peer reviewers of digital scholarship. Digital historians need to effectively defend their digital scholarship, like a grant proposal does in Sheila Brennan’s piece, and collaborators should be credited in every case. Tenure and promotion committees, the AHA, and even dissertation committees need to follow some set of guidelines for evaluating the intellectual rigor and field innovation that that scholarship can bring, and several articles and blog posts proposed guidelines. There is also a need to develop a better peer review system for online work, specifically in journals, in order to promote open scholarship, as in the Writing History in the Digital Age, Press Forward, and Journal of the Digital Humanities. Lastly, Melissa Terras discussed the digital presence that scholars need to cultivate in order to share ideas and disseminate their research beyond publication.

This topic of digital scholarship involves many people in and outside of academia, but it is critical for graduate students who want to pursue the digital humanities in their careers. As discussed in previous class sessions, digital humanities is about building something, or creating digital scholarship. If a graduate student is claiming to be a “digital historian,” then he or she should have something to show for it, right? This something can take many forms, as said, such as a game or an online exhibit. A “good” piece of digital scholarship shows committees and employers that you can design, research, implement, collaborate, and contribute something innovative to your field, both in the form and content. The work must contain many of the elements discussed in the articles, such as a clear and advancing argument, an effective interface for a defined audience, and maybe a conference presentation or two.

The digital scholarship also allows you to articulate and defend what makes that scholarship “good” and a worthy endeavor when standing in front of a dissertation committee and/or job interview. A set of guidelines on the reviewing end is helpful, but it’s better if the candidate is proactive in this regard, as Brennan points out. A lot of the authors stressed how much of a risk it is for emerging scholars to engage in digital humanities, because they do not yet have stable jobs and reviewing committees usually do not have set guidelines for evaluation. It seems more fruitful for the candidates in these cases to bring the guidelines than have a set of guidelines drawn up by the institution, because the digital scholarship can take so many forms. Being prepared in this way is not that different from a regular dissertation defense. A graduate student must be able to clearly articulate the digital scholarship in the project itself and to reviewers.

Teaching Digital Humanities

This week’s readings on teaching digital history discussed many important themes. Two themes stood out particularly and go hand-in-hand: navigating the different technology backgrounds of today’s supposed “digital natives” and designing college and graduate-level courses that utilize digital media effectively to teach the content, the process of “doing history,” and the technology itself.

Ryan Cordell’s piece, “How Not to Teach Digital Humanities,” is a how-to guide for digital humanities courses, offering dos and don’ts for professors and institutions wanting to add digital humanities to the curriculum. In addition to suggesting that these courses should start small with one digital methodology or subject theme and should take advantage of local resources, he cautions instructors against assuming that their students are “digital natives.” He states that professors wishing to bring digital media to the classroom should be aware that students are still “technologically skeptical,” though they live in a world in which digital media is prevalent. This is an excellent point, because though students may interact with Facebook on a daily basis or are adept Googlers, they may not understand how that technology really works or how they can harness a digital tool for school projects and even build upon it.

Mills Kelly argues in his book, Teaching History in the Digital Age, that in order to incorporate the digital into the classroom successfully, the instructor must meet the student in that digital world that fosters active content creation and social networking. The instructor and the students must converge and work together within that digital world to learn the history itself, historical thinking skills, and the technology. By meeting the students in the digital world in which they already interact, such as Twitter, Wikipedia, or blogging platforms, the instructor can diminish that “technological skepticism” and then introduce more technology, such as Omeka. The students can engage with the history as they create digital content and learn about the historical process and technology along the way.

The “Lying About the Past” course that Kelly discusses in his work, though controversial in theory, did introduce digital media and the historical process to the students. They had to create a hoax, research real primary and secondary sources for context, write blog posts and Facebook posts about the topic and research process, and learn how to critically assess sources, especially those sources on the internet. The students directly engaged with Wikipedia, a source they undoubtedly consulted before at one time or another, and learned about crowdsourced history in addition to the evaluation of content that others have created. That course seems to be a good balance of introducing students to the process of history, how digital media interacts with that history, and the history itself. One key theme for teaching the digital humanities is balance. The instructor must balance the sophisticated technology and methodologies with the digital media that the students already use, and the course must balance the history itself, the content, with the process of making history and the active use of historical thinking skills.

Digital Public History

This week’s readings on public history raised a number of issues, namely defining audience and the “public,” building and maintaining that community of users, and the ability of digital exhibits to promote access, to encourage historical research, and to preserve museums’ collections. The issue that stood out the most was one that Sheila Brennan argued on her blog- that putting history on the web does not make it public. Defining the “public” in a digital public history project should be an integral part of the project’s conception, planning, implementation, and outreach. It must follow through from the beginning to the end of the project’s launch in order to be useful to a community of users and to remain that way. As Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig state in their chapter on Building an Audience in Digital History, the website/project’s creators should see the users as a community, not a monthly statistic of views, or an unidentified “other.” Additionally, the digital public history project must be flexible in adapting to new audiences.

The Histories of the National Mall is a great example of the public, the audience, driving the project. As Sharon Leon notes in her blog post for AHA Today, the project was driven by a need of visitors to the Mall to engage with the historical context as they traverse the site. Everything from the mobile platform to the content was planned and created with that audience in mind. As Sheila Brennan stated in her article, too, graduate students were sent to continuously test it on the Mall. The user is free to navigate the site from their mobile device wherever on the Mall and is free to explore the content.

The digital public history project, the Cleveland Historical Project, at the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University is an app that was created for and by the local community. In his article, “Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era,” Mark Tebeau states that they “moved toward curating the city in collaboration with the community, rather than curating it for the city’s many constituencies.” That project keeps the integral audience engaged by publishing new stories and reaching out to the new audience of educational leaders. This project is a good example of integrating the audience from the beginning and using their strengths and interest to build and promote it. It also is an example of adapting to new audiences, or extending the existing community of users, through the teachers and students using the app to create new content in the classroom.

More than once, communities of users appear that were not previously expected, and the project should foster that new audience. One example from Cohen and Rosenzweig’s chapter is of The Library of Congress digitizing and building a public history site of primary sources for researchers. In reality, teachers and students constituted their main audience. They, in response, adapted their website of digital primary sources to include digital tools and resources for those users. The digital public history project, whether a mobile app or digital exhibit, should define the audience in the beginning stages, integrate that audience into the design and implementation, and adapt to new communities of users.

Databases and Audience

This week’s readings discussed the advantages and disadvantages of databases and searching in presenting and conducting historical research. One aspect of these web-based databases that intrigued me was the usability of the database’s interface and the intended audience. In his review of The French Book Trade Enlightenment in Europe, digital historian Sean Takats makes note of the database’s user interface. He states that perhaps in an effort to promote the database to people new to the technology, the search options, such as the numerous choices in the drop down menus, could prohibit easy and quick searches. That project seemed aimed at a wide array of scholars with varying backgrounds in digital media. Also, scholars are increasingly employing these databases in their research, as Caleb McDaniel points out. How should the project leads and database designers decide upon and ensure a user interface that is easy to learn, not overwhelming, yet academically sophisticated?

The Trans-Atlantic Slavery Database Project is an impressive project, providing information on the slave trade spanning centuries and geographies. It contains millions of records in two different databases, one on the actual voyages and trade routes and the other on the enslaved people themselves. However, the user is presented with an overwhelming amount of information when just opening the site’s home page. It’s not easy to decide where to start with not just the database search options, but also the instructions for the database. That project is not easily navigable to a scholar, or anyone, relatively new to digital research methods. The site contains a lot of information about just using the database, and perhaps those lengthy instructions could have been channeled into developing a better interface or database design.

I’ve been thinking about databases more critically since I’ve been involved with the Rebuilding the House for Families Database project at Mount Vernon. This project is both a source-based and method-based database, in that it involves entering in data only relevant to the enslaved community on the plantation. For example, one letter that George Washington wrote to his farm manager might contain one paragraph concerning his enslaved laborers- that is the only paragraph that is entered into the database. It’s still a while until the database is launched online to the interested public, but I’m always thinking about how the database will look on the web and how the public will interact with it. It’s been discussed to present some constructed narratives and search queries for those less familiar with the content and database structure, as well as the entire database open for analysis. I think this is a good idea, because the user interface becomes more accessible and still provides ample opportunity for new historical analysis. The key is to present a database that uses an interface that isn’t too simple, as to seem constrained, or too overwhelming to users less familiar with navigating them.

Crowdsourcing as Community Empowerment

A few weeks ago I came across The Library of Virginia’s Making History transcription project. Anyone with an internet connection can view digitized primary source documents from nineteenth-century African-American freedom suits to letters penned by Patrick Henry and transcribe them for public viewing. The project provides both a digital version of the document and the plain text box side by side. The user-interface is easy to navigate, as the project is mainly interested in extracting the plain text for searching purposes. Other users can review the finished transcriptions, then the library staff downloads them to the digital collections. The project description states that crowdsourcing “empowers communities to make their own history” and that this cultural institution “supports this empowerment by inviting the public to be our partners in making our collections more visible and more accessible.” The volunteer’s engagement with the sources has as much weight, if not more, than the end result of better access to the documents.

The “Transcription Maximized; expense minimized? Crowdsourcing and editing The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham article from the Transcribe Bentham project seems to base a lot of weight in the success of the project on the cost and time of producing quality, transcribed documents. While this is an important factor in discussing and evaluating digitization projects, a more important factor is whether or not the project involved the public in a meaningful way. The authors state that only 259 volunteers did any actual transcribing out of the 1207 who registered, but that is significantly more people who engaged with the history than just the two full-time staff members of the project. The authors state that this 21% participation partly resulted in the complexity of the text encoding the project initially required of its users. The transcription tool, which would eventually provide TEI XML encoding to the documents, hindered some of the voluntary contributions.

In his blog post, “Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage,” digital scholar Trevor Owens states that “at its best, crowdsourcing is not about getting someone to do work for you, it is about offering your users the opportunity to participate in public memory.” I agree with this statement that public, volunteer-based projects conducted digitally through cultural institutions is a great source for community engagement with history. A lot of the focus in these projects is the end result of better access to these important historical documents, available online in one digital repository. People from seasoned scholars to young students in history can then engage with the same primary sources across cities and countries.

Yet, the digitization of the sources themselves by a community of volunteers results in engagement with the sources on another level. As Owens stated, instead of merely reading the texts, manipulating the data, and analyzing their historical meaning, the voluntary, digital transcription allows the user to contribute to the furthering of scholarship and to “participate in public memory” by creating history. The tools involved in such projects are important, as they can deter possible contributors. The tools provided need to support the democratized environment that these community engagement projects present and depend upon.

What is Digital History?

What is “Digital History”? Is it a field of study, a genre, a methodology, a promise? Can it be defined? What is it not? How can I, a young graduate student studying “Digital History,” succinctly define this minor field to future employers? How well does the title chosen for this minor field, “Digital History:Theory and Practice,” articulate and represent what I will learn and produce? This is the key issue in a majority of the readings this week discussing the origins of humanities computing, the advantages and disadvantages in employing digital media in historical research, and the elusive definition of the term. The work, Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader, by Melissa Terras and Edward Vanhoutte even states that no universal definition exists. That text alone includes numerous articles and debates between scholars over time that incorporates many dynamic definitions. “Digital History” encompasses a field of study and a methodology, and is dynamic, collaborative, fluid, and generative.

Digital history is a field of study, as numerous undergraduate and graduate programs offer majors, minors, and certificates in some form of “digital humanities.” As discussed in “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” these courses and programs focus on the theory of digital media and humanities disciplines and strive to emphasize the new narrative forms, non-linearity, and new arguments that digital media can create for a varied audience. They seem to focus less on the concrete technology, though some scholars want programming to be an essential element. The “Grounding Digital History in the History of Computing” article stresses the ability of programming to provide tailored code for historians. George Mason requires its doctoral students in history to complete two courses in digital media and history, the Clio Wired courses. One course introduces the students to theory, and the subsequent course teaches the practice of web design using HTML and CSS. These courses strike a good balance between the two. Digital history can and does encompass both theory of technology and history, as well as the digital tools themselves.

Digital history is also a methodology, a way to tackle historical questions and problems. Cameron Blevins best communicated digital history’s ability to create new historical arguments in his article, “The Perpetual Sunrise of Methodology.” He argues that historical scholarship needs to focus on the methodology of digital media in actively presenting new historical arguments, not just promoting its potential to do so. This is an important aspect of digital history that George Mason’s Clio Wired courses introduced to me in the first year of the program: What can you do with digital media and history that you cannot do without it? How does digital media unveil new historical arguments, or generate new historical questions? Blevins clearly shows how this is possible with his analysis of nineteenth-century Houston newspapers. The script he wrote to identify geographic terms revealed a regional based geography, rather than the traditional nationally based geography. He set a new historical argument in motion.

Digital history also involves more than just historians; it is collaborative effort involving museum curators, librarians, and computer programmers, among others. But it also allows historians to learn and practice those skills themselves. Almost all of the digital projects and articles from this introduction to digital history feature numerous authors, collaborators, and editors. Andrew Prescott argues more than once that digital humanities needs to continuously involve collaboration between scholar, curator, and technician. Digital history involves collaboration across professions and institutions of knowledge. It promotes new historical scholarship, shows the non-linear complexities and multiple perspectives of the past to a variety of audiences, and prompts new historical questions.