The Space Race: History’s not-so-final frontier

Doing the readings for this week prompted some reflection on multiple issues.  As I was reading the Sci-7 paper and summary, I began thinking about the relationship between race, class, and space.  Historians of slavery have long charted and analyzed the complex relationship between the architecture of homes (mostly southern, for obvious reasons, but with a few exceptions) and the racial thought of (mostly) the 18th and 19th century.  Before everyone starts shouting, I am aware that almost every article, most notably the SCI 7 paper, gave proper credit to the role of architecture historians as being part of the advance guard for the “spatial turn,” but simply acknowledging their contributions elides both the depth and significance of those contributions. To cite just two brief examples from prominent historians, Rhys Isaac’s Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom; Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation, and William H. Freehling’s The Road to Disunion, Volume II; Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861 both analyze the relationship between race and space to add new dimensions to their respective arguments (specifically, see Issac, Landon Carter, 4-8 and Freehling Road to Disunion, v.2 356-360). Perhaps a more complete accounting of this historiography would ease its acceptance into the mainstream of the discipline.

Directly tied to this issue of the acceptance of spatial history into the discipline is the question of what, exactly, are we supposed to take away from this new element of scholarship, and what is its broader role in the construction of a scholarly argument.  This issue is something that David wrestled with in his post for this week.  David can correct me if I’m wrong, but one the things that he is suggesting (and that I wholeheartedly agree with) is that we have to be extra careful to make sure that spatial history actually addresses important points, or in David’s words “can we derive arguments from visualizations.”  However, I understood the readings (most notably the Richard White and Jo Guldi readings) as saying that what might be equally important or useful is that if spatial history helps lead to new questions, or at least come at data/source material from a different perspective. If we take the ability to pose new types of questions, or offer a different perspective on old questions as our starting point, then it can be argued that the spatial turn does have the ability to provide us with a question that can lead to a thesis, and even in some cases to a thesis itself.  Furthermore, I think that part of the critical contributions that falls under the “offers a new perspective on old arguments” umbrella is the ability to present old information in a different, and perhaps for those outside the discipline a more effective and concise manner then the traditional monograph.  To illustrate this point, Dan and I actually used the Charles Minard map  in the undergrad version of Clio Wired last week.  The observations and deductions the undergrads culled from the map were fairly astute, but more to the point, they were actively engaged in a discussion, and (I would venture a guess though I don’t know this for certain) probably got the same amount of information out of this exercise then they would have gotten out of a 500 page monograph that chronicled Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

To the point of whether or not creation of some form of visual representation counts as scholarship, I absolutely think it should, though I am not entirely certain about the role it should play in making an argument. Thinking back to issues we discussed a few weeks ago that dealt with the acceptance of digital history as scholarship, I can’t help but wonder if it will only be accepted by the discipline at large within the context of a “traditional” argument or monograph.  On another level, we can’t necessarily expect everyone to discern all the arguments that spatial history or visualizations can convey unless we either teach them how, or provide some type of accompanying text.  Additionally, I’m not sure that I will ever be able to come to some sort of firm conclusion about a “correct” formula for the relationship between a traditional written argument, and one made with the “spatial turn.”  So perhaps after all of that, I think that at least part of me is in agreement with Davids reservations about “leaning towards the privileging of words…as the vehicle for an argument, albeit with the various forms of visualization to present supporting evidence” when considering  the role of spatial history representation within the framework historical thesis.

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Gateway Drugs, Statistical Analysis, and Text Mining

Doing the readings on data mining for this week, I got a little sidetracked thinking about Professor Cohen’s analysis that “Digital Humanities needs gateway drugs. Kudos to the pushers on the Google books team.”  Personally, I could not agree more.  I don’t know if this has happened to any of my classmates, but the advanced search on Google Books has saved me countless days in waiting for the interlibrary loan of a particularly hard to find book. I could come up with many more examples, but that was probably the best example of the “gateway drug.”  If only I had gotten hooked sooner, this class would probably not give me so many sleepless nights.  Where I have a slight disagreement with Dan is that I don’t think the conversion process will be as simple as addictive gateway drugs—though admittedly it will make the process much easier, especially in the field on Civil War Era Studies because it seems that something in that area is always one of the first test runs for an advancement in the digital humanities.  Nevertheless, I wonder if any “gateway drug,” no matter how useful or idiot-proof it may be, will be strong enough to overcome what is traditionally a stubborn discipline.  In the interest of full disclosure, this particular post was influenced by a conversation I had a short time back at the Lincoln Cottage.  This one fairly well-known Lincoln scholar was present to do a book signing and lecture, and I made the mistake of remarking to him that expense and time consumed by the research for this book must have been made considerably less by the Chronicling America website.  Apparently, this remark was a mistake.  It produced a several minute response wherein the scholar detailed, among other things, that looking at primary sources online “did not constitute real historical scholarship,” and that many of his colleagues “felt exactly the same way.” Against my better judgement (which was screaming do not bite the hand that does the book signing) I responded that while nothing was a substitute for archival research, was there really that great a distance between viewing a series of newspaper articles on the LOC website and looking at the same articles on microfilm? Without getting to graphic, lets just say that this line of argumentation did not win over this particular historian.  I know that we can’t use cantankerous historian as our entire sample, but I feel like this interaction was emblematic of why the problem with the perception of digital history from within the discipline is too large to be solved by gateway drugs.  This was what some of the readings for last week outlined as well, the problem is that a significant portion of the discipline needs a change in mindset, and while useful tools will always help the fight, I’m not sure they will carry the day entirely.

Now that my ruminations on the mindset of the history discipline have entirely taken over my blog post, allow me to return to the actual readings for this week, specifically Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees; Abstract Models for Literary History. Moretti, if I have at least a part of the meaning of his work right (and please feel free to disagree) proposes to change the blueprint of how we read.  For Moretti, when novels are represented using quantitative means and methods, it becomes possible to chart their broader impact in a new and different way. For example, treating Mary Mitford’s Our Village (volume 1) as a map allows for a powerful visual representation of how “Mitford reverses the direction of history, making her urban readers (Our Village was published by Whitaker, Ave-Maria-Lane, London), look at the world according to the older ‘centered’ viewpoint of an unenclosed village.  And the key to this perceptual shift lies in Mitfords most typical episode: the country walk.  In story after story, the young narrator leaves the village, each time in a different direction, reaches the destinations charted, then turns around and goes home” (Moretti, 39).  Here Moretti is undoubtedly correct: making this point visually on a map is much more effective than using words.  However, some issues related to the transparency of his methodology raise questions about his work.  For example, in his “Graphs” chapter Moretti lists all the secondary sources he scoured to provide the data for his graphs, but we have no way of knowing whether the figures in those work contain any important caveats that might make his graphs less compelling or definitive than they seem.  Additionally, we have no way of checking whether Moretti’s statistical analysis (or his simple math) is accurate, an important consideration when you consider all the problems historians have had with their own statistical samples.  Perhaps most importantly, Moretti proceeds from the false premise that “quantitative data are useful because they are independent of interpretation”(Moretti, 30). Behind the independence of those numbers are the questions we ask to get the numbers, the numbers we choose to present, and how we choose to present those numbers.  Thus, quantitative data are not as “independent of interpretation” as Moretti seems to believe, and we can question his results based on flaws in that premise. (Moretti, 30).


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Revisionists and tenure standards: adventures of public and digital historians

The readings for this week that stimulated my interest the most were the Engaged Historian White Paper and Report.  Both the White Paper and the Report speak to public history issues that are quite pertinent to what we have discussed in class thus far: what exactly constitutes public/digital history, how does one go about evaluating these forms of scholarship, and how does academia need to modify its current standards to ensure that historians whose scholarship is mainly in the digital or public realm are not penalized for doing there jobs when the tenure committee comes calling?  As doctoral student working in the field of public history, I obviously agree wholeheartedly with reports overall recommendations that established communication of job expectations, of completed projects accomplished goals (and the presentation of these goals in some type of public forum), and the inclusion of critical standards for evaluation should be paramount objectives.

However, despite similarities in the evaluative process, there are differences in the situations between public history and digital history that these articles throw into stark relief, even if they do not do so explicitly.  One particularly important distinction that bears some further elaboration is one that Megan made in her post for this week, that public history “has a larger group of practitioners” and thus the scholarship can be evaluated by curators, National Park historians, et all.  What this point hints at is that public history may simply have a more tangible or at least easier to evaulate end product than its digital colleagues. It also doesn’t hurt that for all the good points the White Paper makes about the need to consider different types of scholarship as part of the tenure assessment process, public historians have also produced a remarkable amount of traditional monograph scholarship.  To cite just a few examples, John Hennessy, chief historian at the Fredericksburg National Battlefield ( and well known for his excellent Civil War blog “Bull Runnings”) has also written the classic work on the Second Battle of Bull Run.  Matthew Pinsker runs NEH funded workshops for high school teachers on Slavery and the Underground Railroad, and has also authored Lincoln’s Sanctuary; Abraham Lincoln and the Soldier’s Home.  Gary B. Nash is best known for his scholarship on the American Revolution, but also spent a considerable amount of time helping to establish national standards for social studies.  I should make it explicit here that this is a fact, underutilized in the report,  simply strengthens the White Papers point–scholars should not have to produce full monographs in order to be considered for tenure.

Perhaps the most important point in the article is one that should be applied to judging the merits of digital history as well; the need for the creation of a separate category (apart from research, teaching and service) to judge “community engagement.”  Rightly pointing out that part of the problem derives from the “growing influence of the university research model,” the paper recommends the altering of contracts to allow for different teaching loads for professors who are actively and constantly engaged in the community through their historical scholarship.  The same should be true for digital history.  Websites that foster community engagement (not sure how one defines “foster community engagement” at the moment, but that is another problem for another day) often require a high degree of maintenance while providing often stimulating a similar amount of public interest.  As the White Paper points out, the lack of these separate categories point to the striated nature of judging historical scholarship and identifies the creation of standards for peer review of public history (recognizing of course that peer review in regards to public history often takes place outside of traditional mediums like academic journals), and perhaps most importantly in its implications for digital history, the need for flexibility and openness to broader definitions of old ideas (“the discovery, exchange, interpretation, and presentation of ideas about the past,” for example).  Only when openness to broader interpretations of the disciplines admittedly rigid and mildly archaic notions of what constitutes scholarship becomes more widespread can we hope to see the large scale change public historians, digital historians, and frankly probably most younger academic historians have identified as needing to take place for the discipline to continue to remain relevant.


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Reaction to Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media

Perhaps this reaction is due in part to all the attention we have paid to inquiry questions while writing our grant proposals, but I really found the way Manovich framed his argument very useful.  Manovich analyzes “the language of new media by placing it within the history of modern visual and media cultures,” and posits several central questions: How does new media rely on “older cultural forms and languages” and how does it break with them? How do “new media objects” interact with the viewers, and how does new media “represent space and time?” Finally, and probably most importantly, in the historical evolution or “archeology” of new media, where are the critical historical turning points? (8).  Much of the answer for Manovich is found in the process of digitization–or the converting of media into binary code, and he believes this profoundly changes the human experience. At least I think that is part of what he is saying–the theory of new media was a little abstract at times.  If I missed something with the essential way he framed his narrative someone please enlighten me…

At any rate, I want to offer my own perspective on something interesting that Andy wrote in her post for this week when she discussed the “Forms” chapter.  I find myself continually intrigued by the challenge (and I use term challenge loosely in some cases and not so loosely in others) of determining what constitutes a sites narrative.   Even though a lot of history related sites are databases/archival sites, that does not necessarily imply the absence of a narrative.  On the contrary, the selection of documents, which ones are privileged, which types of documents, and who wrote them, are all essentially similar to the choices one would make in constructing a narrative text.  In reading this particular chapter, and trying to relate it to history and the differences in the various forms of history based websites, I kept returning to the famous Michel Rolph Trouillot argument about historical silences and how the role of power in the production of historical source material ultimately provided several critical steps in the construction of a narrative.  In essence, Trouillot posited in Silencing the Past; Power and the Production of History that “silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of the source; the moment of fact assembly (the making of an archive); the moment of fact retrieval (the creation of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance).” In many respects these stages of historical silences create narratives before a historian ever puts a pen to paper or digitized a document. (Trouillot, Silencing the Past, 26).  Undoubtedly, we need to be aware of the balance between the text on a website being overwhelming, but we are already constructing narratives by creating an archive in the first place, we just need to be aware of it, and account for possible distortions as best we can.  Now, if only visitors would read the “About” and find all this information….

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Responses to questions for the grant proposals

1) My initial inquiry question was framed in response to a problem posited by public historian James Horton Smith. “Presenting Slavery: The Perils of Presenting America’s Racial Story,” observed that “public historians giving presentations on the history and impact of slavery on America and Americans immediately confront a daunting problem…generally Americans believe that slavery was a Southern phenomenon, date it from the antebellum era, and do not see it as central to the American story.”[i]   Horton concluded that the “first task” for a public historian dealing with slavery is to “assess and attempt to address popular ignorance of slavery’s diversity, longevity, complexity, and centrality.”[ii]  Thus, my inquiry question was: how can we design an interactive, accessible program that conveys to visitors the national scope of slavery on the eve of the Civil War?

2) I want my users to learn that slavery was an institution that was national in scope, and to do so in an accessible, engaging manner via the use of primary source material. While we as historians take the use of primary source materials for granted, interaction with historic maps, political cartoons, letters and diary entries will be a relatively new experience for much of the public. I also wanted users of the “Lincoln Slavery Footprint” program will use historical role-play to foster a deeper connection to the past, and hopefully find the use of Lincoln and his cabinet as comfortable “hooks” for dealing with one of America’s most significant historical problem.

3) My methodological stance is that interaction (zooming in, rotating, and providing transcriptions) with primary source material, and allowing visitors to connect with the past via interactive historical role play is the most innovative, engaging way to stimulate the widest amount of public interest while at the same time facilitating an in depth level of historical inquiry.  I also proceed from the stance that the institution of slavery proved to be the most pervasive, central political problem of the early-mid 19th century, and that its centrality to the American history is misunderstood by a significant amount of the general public.

4) The touch-screen design will facilitate easy, intuitive interaction with primary source material.  I wanted an uncomplicated multi-media platform so that visitors could concentrate on the programs content, and spend the most amount of time digesting the primary source material of the program as possible, rather than simply figuring out how to use the program. Usability was an incredibly important concern because the story of slavery in America is one that is tremendously complex, and visitors cannot hope to gain a better understanding of this historical problem if they are concentrating of how to operate the program.

5) I need to learn more about different ways to make Open Exhibit work in a manner that will best enhance the program.  Initially, my mistake for the first draft of the grant was trying to convince a recalcitrant supervisor and some advisory board members that utilizing this software was going to give our proposal the greatest chance of success as a result of its ease and accessibility to a wide audience.  I should have simply gone ahead and put it in there initially, and focused on convincing them later.  Lesson learned: serving two masters never works out for anyone.

6) I will go about learning more about Open Exhibit by using the tried and true principle of messing around.  I will follow up this activity phase by compiling a list of questions that will be answered by the computer programmers and digital historians that act in a consulting capacity for President Lincoln’s Cottage.

7) The rational for choosing the primary source documents were the ones that I felt most convincingly depicted slavery’s national impact.  Maps and political cartoons were given especially heavy consideration because they enhance a visitors comphrahensive capacity through visual learning.  It was also important to provide are visitors with examples of primary source materials that could convey a sense of Lincoln or his cabinet members private thoughts, thus the use of private letters and diary entries.  Examining an historical actors private thoughts would also serve the dual purpose of facilitating a direct connection to history.

8) I would say the greatest question that remains is how to convey what I believe to be a unique, viable grant project in a manner that does not get in its own way—i.e. can I convey the main points without using as much academic language?

[i]James Oliver Horton, “Presenting Slavery: The Perils of Telling America’s Racial Story.”  The Public Historian, 21, no.4 (1990): pp. 19-38, (accessed September 20th, 2011), pg. 21.

[ii] Ibid, 21.


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Presentation for class

Professor Leon and classmates: here is a sneak peak at my presentation for tonights class.

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More appendices for Grant Proposal

Professor Leon and classmates:  Below please find the first draft of my program map and several “screen shots.” These were actually ready to go on Monday, but I had trouble finding a scanner that would do a good job of picking up yellow ink on one of the scans (I color coordinated the program map and I ran out of colors, thus the use of yellow).  Please no mocking of my lack of artistic ability…

Program Map Setting the Stage Cabinet Member

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