Introducing Digital Sandbox

Digital SandboxToday has been an extremely lazy day for me. Not much of anything got done. Amidst the laziness, however, I completed a rough draft of an essay on public history and the digital humanities that will be up soon. I wrote this essay in preparation for Digital Sandbox, an exciting workshop that will be taking place at IUPUI next month on Thursday, August 15. The idea for this event was originated by Nancy Brown, a recent graduate of IUPUI who is now pursuing her PhD at Purdue University, but the process of planning and arranging the event’s logistics was left to three classmates and myself. Many of us took a course on digital history in the spring, and all of us have a strong desire to continue the discussion on the intersections between history, digital technology, and the digital humanities. We felt that a student-created, student-run workshop on these topics would be a creative and exciting way to not only inform and educate our fellow public history/liberal arts/humanities classmates, but to also demonstrate to IUPUI faculty our desire to make the implementation of digital technology a core element of the humanities curriculum.

I believe that digital technology should be utilized in humanities classrooms in two important and interconnected ways:

  • Rigorous and critical analysis of the theories behind digital technology. Does digital technology really lead to a democratization of humanities content that is accessible to a nonacademic audience, or does digital technology perpetuate old gender, racial, and class divisions that plagued humanistic studies in the twentieth century? Who are the power interests behind the creation of the digital tools we use in our research? How much technical training should humanities students receive? Should they receive training in code (HTML, XML, etc.), or should the emphasis be on other technical aspects? How much time should be spent “hacking” digital technology and how much time should be spent “yacking” about digital technology? What is the digital humanities, anyway?
  • Building things. Using tools to conduct digital research, create websites, preserve archival resources, present digital exhibits, and engage in text mining of large bodies of text. Experimenting and playing with digital tools. Collaborating in scholarly digital projects, some of which will be interdisciplinary in nature. Creating projects that provide unique insights, ask new questions of the past, and present our work to a diverse audience not exclusively composed of academics. The latter qualification is important, as the digital humanities shouldn’t be an exclusively academic endeavor.

By building things and understanding the promises and perils of digital technology, I believe humanities graduate students will put themselves in a much stronger position to find gainful employment upon completion of their respective degree programs. I am very privileged to work with such great classmates and faculty at IUPUI and I am hopeful that my training will lead to great results for my career next year.

You can see what we’re doing with the Digital Sandbox by visiting our website here.

The St. Louis Art Museum and Virtual Tours

The St. Louis Art Museum. Photo Credit: Wikipedia
The St. Louis Art Museum. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

On Saturday, June 29, the St. Louis Art Museum will be opening a new addition to its building. This wing will host a wide range of contemporary art, which in turn allows for a larger number of older paintings to go display in the main building. I’m not exactly the biggest art museum person around, but I am eager to get a chance to visit the new wing as soon as possible. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently published a virtual tour of the new wing that I’m a little too obsessed with right now.

I asked my friends on Facebook two questions about this virtual tour:

1. Does the virtual tour replace the experience of going to an Art Museum in person?

2. After looking at the virtual tour, are you more or less inclined to take time and possibly spend money to visit the Art Museum?

The fact that anybody can explore the contents of the new wing online for free is an ambitious gamble by the St. Louis Art Museum. There will undoubtedly be some people who decide not to go to the Art Museum in person because they can view it online, but in my case, seeing the virtual tour has increased my desire to see the new wing in person. The question of whether or not to put museum contents online reflects a larger debate on whether or not art should be freely posted online. For example, musicians have debated the merits of putting their music online for free (or asking for donations) for years. There are some who say no, while others say bands “shouldn’t give away all their music, but that some free downloading is okay.” Likewise, I’ve had professors who have completely railed on GoogleBooks for what they believed to be gross copyright violations for putting books online, even if it was only a small portion of the book. Concerns have also emerged in response to the creation of the Digital Public Library of America, which is putting the collections of partner libraries all over the country online, free of charge. All of these debates reflect the larger question of how best to promote artistic creations to as wide an audience as possible (and for some, making a few bucks too).

As I learn more about open access and observe more public institutions like art museums and libraries putting their content online, concerns about people having too much free access to online content or never leaving their desks to patronize libraries and museums in person are no longer a big concern with me. Putting content online for free is merely one way of establishing a relationship between artist and patron, and I think digital technology has allowed for patrons to make more informed decisions about the types of art they want to patronize. Although he was referring to concerns about the Digital Public Library of America, I think DPLA Executive Director Dan Cohen has made an eloquent argument in support of the personal, physical experience of observing art and information in person and how digital technology enhances–not detracts–that experience. To wit:

I believe that public and academic libraries will begin to understand how the DPLA instead strengthens and complements what they do. Public libraries have been, and always will be, centers of their communities, and will continue to be the place to go for high-circulating recent books, Internet access, public readings, and many other elements that the DPLA cannot and will not replace. Academic libraries are structured to support the scholarly research modes and fields of specific institutions, with collecting strategies and services to match. Both kinds of libraries will benefit greatly by what the DPLA will add to our landscape of knowledge. The DPLA will provide is a single place to discover and explore our country’s libraries, archives, and museums—a portal—and so will bring entirely new audiences to formerly scattered collections… For public libraries, the DPLA will provide a national-scale, free extension of their local holdings, and give them a place to store and garner audiences for their community’s history and content. For academic libraries, the DPLA can be used to suggest research materials and collections beyond a home institution, to create virtual exhibits and collections from federated sites, and to enhance the scholarship of students and faculty… I would hate for the launch of the DPLA to be used as an excuse to lower funding to essential physical libraries in times of austerity.

You can check out the virtual tour of the St. Louis Art Museum East Wing here.

Assessing my First Online Course

"I got two degrees in Awesomeness and Bad-assery online! Email me to learn more!" Photo Credit:
“I got two degrees in Awesomeness and Bad-assery online! Drop me a line to learn more today!” Photo Credit:

My summer online course on the history of libraries has concluded, and I think everything went pretty good for the most part. This was the first online course I’ve ever taken, so it was a new and exciting experience for me. As I gradually worked my way through the weekly assignments, I took notes on what worked, what didn’t, and spent a lot of time thinking about the future of online courses in education, especially with regards to history classes. There is no coherent flow to these forthcoming thoughts, but they are thoughts that I think are worthy of further discussion, and I welcome any additional comments from readers.

Course design is key: The way an online class is designed is key, obviously. Everything from font size to working links to clearly written instructions are necessary to ensure that students have a clear grasp of what is going on in the e-class. My online course was designed fairly well. It was easy to understand what was expected of me as a student and the content was split into coherent units that made sense. The assignments were challenging, but not overwhelming, which was good for me as I continue my internship at the Indiana State House and begin writing my thesis in my free time.

What are the best methods for fostering online classroom discussion?: For each weekly assignment, students were required to post their work to a discussion board and provide two responses to the work of other students in the classroom. This method is most likely very similar to the types of discussion forums that are created for other online courses, but overall I felt pretty underwhelmed by a lot of the classroom discussion. I’ve read about and heard from others on the positive benefits of online discussion, especially for those who don’t speak in class often. Online discussion provides these people an opportunity to share their thoughts and content without the pressures of being in a traditional classroom setting, which can be pretty overwhelming for some. I’ve never had these sorts of problems, but I’ve made plenty of terrible classroom comments that probably would have been better left unsaid, so I can understand if someone has a little more control over their voice than me 🙂 However, I value personal interactions highly and I tend to think that even if I say something that is completely wrong, having a good discussion allows us all to learn and try again. I love asking questions, and am not hesitant to admit that I really know very little about anything at the end of the day.

The big problem with online discussions can be summarized in a short example: Assignment X is due on Friday and the two peer responses are due on Monday. All students get done on Friday, but nobody (including myself) starts commenting on each others work until Monday night. Some discussions continue beyond Monday night, and I had a particularly good one with another student on the importance of historians studying change over time. Yet most discussions abruptly ended after Monday night as students moved on to the next assignment. Even worse, there were at least two instances in which I wrote detailed comments to other members in the class on their work without any sort of response whatsoever. This behavior is not only wrong but downright rude, in my opinion. If student A asked student B a question in a traditional classroom during discussion time and student B refused to answer, other students and the teacher would rightly question why B refused to answer, and there could be further consequences for B’s actions. If it’s wrong for B to refuse to answer in the brick and mortar classroom, then it should be wrong in an online setting too. I hope those people had points taken off or something to that effect.

I think Twitter could really come in handy for promoting better online classroom discussions. In my digital history class last semester I learned about the awesomeness of Twitter, and I continue to tweet to the #iupuidh hashtag when interesting articles pop up. Twitter allowed for the sharing of relevant articles between my classmates and me and allowed us to learn more about history and the digital humanities outside the classroom. I would recommend to future online instructors that they seriously consider using Twitter as an avenue for enhancing classroom discussion.

Should online courses cost the same as traditional courses?: I don’t really know, but I don’t think so. At IUPUI online courses cost the same as traditional courses, and I paid a hefty sum to take this online course. While there are costs involved with hosting content online, hiring competent teachers to control and teach this content, and providing maintenance to keep the site running, I have a hard time justifying paying the same amount of money as a traditional course for an online course in which you never personally interact with your teacher or the vast majority of your classmates. Although I have my doubts about the effectiveness Georgia Tech’s new online master’s degree program for computer science students, I can appreciate that the entire degree will cost around $7,000 as opposed to the $40,000 it costs for non-Georgia residents to attend the program in person. Georgia Tech realizes that online courses and traditional courses are not the same and that they shouldn’t be priced the same either. Online students don’t utilize campus housing, dormitories, or student facilities, nor do they get involved with campus activities such as intramurals or Greek life. To ask them to help pay for the maintenance of those things seems wrong to me. Nor do I think the credit hour cost should remain the same. Which gets me to my next question…

What am I paying for with an online course?: Generally speaking, when a person pays for a traditional course, they are paying for access to a classroom, a teacher, and the knowledge that is shared within those walls. Under most circumstances, people that don’t pay are not allowed access to that classroom. Digital technology has changed this, and with regards to my online course, anyone in the world could get online and access the very same information we learned for free. So it seems to me that I am no longer paying for access to classrooms, teachers, or knowledge, because those things are now free. What I am really paying for is the piece of paper that says that I successfully completed this course. Anyone can take the online course, but since I paid money, I get a certificate at the end. There may not be anything wrong with this model–and I certainly support the sharing of free knowledge–but again, I have a tough time agreeing with the idea that online courses should cost the same as traditional courses.

What sorts of classes would benefit the most from an online format?:  Not all classes and subjects are the same, and I think schools need to take time to determine if there are subjects of study that are more appropriate than others for online instruction. A online computer science master’s degree may make a lot of sense, but an online music, history, or teaching degree may not make as much sense. But even if we acknowledge that an entire online degree may be problematic, is there still room for some online instruction in most degree programs? I think there is.

What do you think? Your comments would be greatly appreciated.


A New Website on the Public Library Commission of Indiana

Over the past six weeks I’ve been taking an online course on the history of libraries. The final project included a choice between writing a scholarly paper, creating an interactive timeline/infographic, or building a website. I chose the latter and was able to find some great resources at the Indiana State Library that helped provide a focus for my topic, which ended up being the Public Library Commission of Indiana, a government organization that existed from 1899-1925.

While the final product may not look like much to some, it actually involved hours upon hours of research, writing and rewriting drafts, finding suitable pictures/a website template and background, and working with code on WordPress and Google Maps. Writing a “scholarly paper” probably would have actually been easier, most likely, but I like building digital products. I think I’m getting better at this whole digital history thing (whatever that means) and overall, I’m pretty pleased with the final product.

You can check out my website on the Public Library Commission of Indiana here. Any sort of constructive criticism or feedback would be greatly appreciated.


News and Notes: June 9, 2013

The Bust of Richard Owen. The best looking bust at the Indiana State House, in my opinion. Picture credit: Historic Indianapolis
The Bust of Richard Owen. The best looking bust at the Indiana State House, in my opinion. Picture credit: Historic Indianapolis

It’s Sunday. The government is watching you and me. But this sounds like fun:

  • Marc-William Palen provides some neat insights into “The Great Civil War Lie.” The lie, of course, is that supporters of the Confederacy attempted to secede from the United States largely because of unfair tariffs waged by the federal government onto Southern businesses, more specifically the Morrill Tariff. At the time, British onlookers of the Civil War were fed a narrative that placed secession after the passage of the Morrill Tariff, but it was actually passed while James Buchanan was President, before secession occurred. Thanks to the blessings of digital technology, we can now see that at least one state that attempted to secede seemed to have something else on their collective minds.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that people need to take ownership of their education. I find this article really refreshing. We hear so much about hard work, but it’s meaningless if we don’t have any dreams and aspirations or if the end goal is to simply pass a test.
  • Most students who attend community college with the intention of completing a four year degree fail to do so. Roughly 80% in fact. I never attended community college, but I know friends who did and ran into the same problems described in the article.
  • I have been reading content on Civil War Memory, Crossroads, and Dead Confederates for years. Leslie Madsen-Brooks has been following those blogs as well, and she creates an excellent bit of scholarship from the content of those websites that challenges historians in many way. In the digital age, who can call themselves a historian, and how do professional historians extend their scholarly endeavors to the broader public? Should historians focus on answering their own questions of the past, or should they be working harder to answer the questions lay audiences ask?
  • Tomorrow at the Indiana State House I will be playing my first musical gig of the year. One time not very long ago I was playing out almost every weekend with various groups, so it’s a bit weird not playing out live for six months. I’ve been practicing though. Anyway, on June 9, 1913, [I originally wrote June 13. My Bad!] the bust of Col. Richard Owen was dedicated at the State House. Tomorrow we are having a 100th anniversary re-dedication of the bust, and I was asked to play Civil War songs on upright bass. I’ve never done this before, but I think it will go fine. You can read more about the event here.

Until next time…

“Exploring Indianapolis” is Now Live

After a semester of intense research, I am proud to announce that my final project for digital history has now gone live on the interwebs. If you have a few minutes, please check out the site, which is a walking tour/history of downtown Indianapolis entitled Exploring Indianapolis: Walking Tours of Canals, Trains & Cars at the Crossroads of America.

The requirements for our project can be found here. We used a WordPress platform to design the site and created digital maps of our walking tours that are viewable through Google Maps and Google Earth. Eager to learn more about the history of transportation in Indianapolis, each member of the project spent the semester analyzing one element of Indianapolis transit in a collective effort to better understand what it means to form a civic identity around the slogan “Crossroads of America,” a slogan the people of Indianapolis have proudly proclaimed for many years. My section of the website focuses on the National Road.

I would surmise that part of the group’s interest in transit stemmed from the heated debate at the Indiana State House regarding the possibility of a new and revamped public transit system in downtown Indianapolis. After much discussion during the recently concluded legislative session, the Indy Transit Bill continues to sit in limbo. Some legislators are calling for more studies to analyze how the bill will be funded, but others fear that continued “studies” will lead to bill’s eventual death. “Exploring Indianapolis” does not explicitly advocate for or against the Transit Bill, but we hope visitors to the site are able to see how transportation in Indianapolis has changed over time and how we got to be in the position we are now.

This project couldn’t have been done without the great work of Jenny Kalvaitis and Noah Goodling, who were my partners on the project. They are excellent public historians who I am also proud to call my friends.

Until next time…

Some Tools to Add to Your Digital Toolbox

I have recently been on the hunt for good, practical digital tools that can used by all types of historians and humanists. Throughout this semester I’ve had the chance to learn about a wide range of digital technology being used in the field, but I’ve struggled to find tools that are practical for my scholarly needs. For instance, I think topic modeling is really interesting, but none of my projects in the near future would require me to use it.

Here is a collection of digital tools that I believe can be used in scholarly research, museums, universities, and the k-12 classroom. In the interest of finances, I limited my search to tools that are available for free download. I found many of these tools through Bamboo DiRT, an online repository of digital tools funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Credit should also be given to some of my classmates in Digital History, who found several of these tools and shared their knowledge of these tools with the rest of the class.

Creating Interactive Works

PressBooks allows users of WordPress to convert their blog posts into a wide range of formats, including PDF, Kindle Book, and eBook. Teachers who have their students blogging could possibly use this program to compile their students’ work into book format at the end of the semester, or something similar to that.

– When I was teaching, we encouraged some our students to try out Prezi rather than PowerPoint to make their presentations. Generally speaking, their work was more interactive and visual than PowerPoint. There is a bit of a learning curve with this software.

Historypin allows users to search for cities on Google Maps and then pin their own pictures to sites that they select. Users can then create their own “tours” by linking multiple sites together and mapping sites over a wide range of land. The program is a bit wonky, but could be a really great learning tool for students.

Drupal Gardens and Wix are great programs for building your own website. Omeka is also a solid program that seems geared more towards profession institutions and big data collections. I’m still learning about it and am considering the possibility of using it on some future projects. Users of Omeka can also take advantage of Neatline to create interactive narratives, maps, and timelines.

Sophie is a neat program for creating interactive books.

– Those who have a large, digitized collection of documents can create interactive graphs, maps, and charts with Viewshare.

Brainstorming is a simple mind mapping software that allows users to map out their ideas visually. Coggle and Cmap do much of the same.

Text 2 Mind Map takes a text and translates it into a mind map. I didn’t have much success with it, but it’s worth checking out.

Keeping Track of Information

– If you have a Mac, BibDesk lets you edit and manage your bibliography/works cited.

DocumentCloud uses Cloud technology to let users interact with their sources by allowing them to find specific dates, conduct concordance searches, highlight notable text, and publish work.

Zotero is a great tool for keeping track of resources and annotating work. I use it myself, although I am still learning how to use the program to its full potential.

Edit Flow lets individuals and teams of people keep track of their information on WordPress.

Dropbox is a well-known tool that uses cloud technology to let people store and share information online.

Visualization Tools

– Both and allow users the ability to convert excel spreadsheets into interactive visualizations, among other things. For my thesis, I am looking at possibly using these programs to create visualizations to document the rate of immigration in Indiana from 1870-1920 using census records, many of which can be found through the University of Virginia.

– There is an abundance of tools for creating timelines. You can check out a small list of 8 effective programs here.

3D Printing

– Another Student in class told us about 3D printing, which is very, very cool. While not as practical as the other digital tools I’ve listed, I think there is great potential for this technology in the future. Imagine going to a museum’s website and printing out their exhibits for personal or classroom use! To see some examples of items that can be printed in 3D, check out Thingiverse.

Trimble SketchUp allows users to create 3D visualizations, and I think they may be able to print their creations in 3D as well, but don’t quote me on that. The program reminds me a lot of AutoCad, although I’ve been told that some CAD designers say the program is too rigid and doesn’t allow for more precise measuring in its design software. I’m linking readers to the free version of SketchUp, but you can upgrade to the Pro version if you have $495 lying around.

Here’s a video showing off some items from a 3D Print Show in London last year. This stuff is just nuts…

News and Notes, April 21, 2013

I am looking forward to a busy of week of classes, three presentations, and one party. Here are some noteworthy articles and tidbits of information worth sharing.

– Readers will notice that I have added a new page entitled “CV” onto the top menu bar of this website. I’ve realized that while this is a strictly personal blog with no affiliations to any academic or professional institution, it is nonetheless a good idea to use this space to market my skills and post my Curriculum Vitae for public viewing and consumption. Yesterday, I created an account on Scribd, converted my CV to a PDF, uploaded the PDF to Scribd, and embedded the document onto this newly created page. The CV is admittedly small compared to other historians who have had more experience in the field than me, but I am hoping that will change soon. One benefit of putting the CV online is that it will force me to do a better job of updating it on a frequent basis 🙂

– I spent a lot of time this week on the hunt for good, practical digital tools that can be used to enhance my studies in the field of history. I will have more thoughts to share on this in a future post, but for the time being I’ll mention that finding digital tools relevant to my needs was actually much harder that I anticipated. However, I did come across a neat web design program called Wix that would be a great tool to use in a classroom setting, in my opinion. I taught myself how to use the program and actually ended up creating a simple website dedicated to my musical endeavors. You can see (and hear!) it here. Make sure to give the site a minute to load.

– Sam Wineburg is a professor at Stanford who wrote an excellent book about “thinking historically” that I hope to read again sometime this summer. In this Op-ed in the Seattle Times, Wineburg’s daughter Shoshanna laments the loss of personal interaction that has come with the rise of smartphones and other digital technologies in our lives. There is something beautiful in the lines, “You can share a margarita with your friend. Give your iPhone a shot of tequila, and it will die.”

– The Digital Public Library of America is up and running, and I am pretty impressed. I think it will only get better once more institutions choose to partner with DPLA and the digitized collection increases. You check it out here.

– William J. Reese shows us that standardized testing has actually been a staple of American education for a much longer than many of us may have realized. Reese has written a lot about the history of education in America and in 1998 he edited a collection of essays about education in Indiana entitled Hoosier Schools: Past and Present that I am utilizing for my thesis research.

– Speaking of education, Frank Bruni highlights the tensions underlying higher education in Texas these days.

– An argument on why 8-year-olds should be coding.

The Journal of Digital Humanities is an online, open access scholarly publication that is now a part of my regular reading, although I must admit that I don’t always understand what they are talking about. You can check it out here.

I hope everyone has a great week ahead of the them. Cheers.

Does Digital Technology Encourage Data Democratization?

big-dataA recent classroom discussion regarding digital technology–more specifically, who has access to this technology–has been lurking in my head over the past 24 hours. Here’s why.

My interactions with digital technology during my time in high school (2002-2006) were fairly unremarkable for someone who was raised in Midwest Suburban-town, USA. There was no such thing as a SMARTboard and, with regards to my Social Studies classes, we never utilized digital technology in any capacity whatsoever. All tests were done on paper and all educational material came in the form of big, bulky textbooks written circa 1995. Yet my school did have a computer lab (which was greatly utilized by the science teachers, but hardly anyone else, which is telling) and I was encouraged at home to use computers, the internet, and all digital technology to my advantage.

It was interesting hearing some of my classmates share their experiences during high school, which were not the same as mine. One person remarked that they went to a fairly affluent high school that will be completely eliminating paper textbooks and giving all of their students iPads next year. Conversely, another person told us they went to a rural high school that had next to nothing in terms of technology and history textbooks that were written in the 1960s. Considering that we’ve all graduated from high school within the past seven or so years, I would surmise that this digital divide remains a fixture in our educational landscape today.

To be sure, digital technology has provided the impetus for some remarkable efforts to democratize data, by which I mean the ability for all people in society to have access to voluminous collections of data (books, articles, graphs, and perhaps most importantly, information). In their book Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig point out on page 4 that:

Online accessibility means, moreover, that the documentary record of the past is open to people who rarely had entree before. The analog Library of Congress has never welcomed high school students–its reading rooms, no less its special collections, routinely turn them away. Now the library’s American Memory website allows high school students to enter the virtual archives on the same terms of access as the most most senior historian or member of Congress.

This is great and truly exciting for those of us who have grown tired of solely relying on a bland, passive textbook to guide our lesson plans in the classroom (although I think the textbook itself should still be used, albeit in a different role). Yet I feel that my ongoing discussions with students and teachers around the country suggest that perhaps digital technology is widening the gaps between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” The schools that had the money years ago had the nicest classrooms and the newest textbooks. We are now seeing today that the schools with money are the first ones to get SMARTboards, iPads, and easy access to these online resources. Meanwhile, the poor schools continue to rely on old textbooks from the 1960s and are lacking funds to buy digital technology now or in the foreseeable future. Thus, as we increasingly rely on digital technology as an integral part of our lives, those who grow up without access to or education in these technologies end up being thrown into a workforce in which their skills fail to match those desired by employers in all types of fields. Furthermore, it doesn’t help when websites with valuable research and information put up paywalls that restrict access to a limited number of “paying customers” who can afford the frequently excessive fees these sites charge.

This discussion on the digital divide is particularly relevant right now. Several states are considering the possibility of dropping the General Education Development (GED) exam amidst great changes in the test format and cost. The creators of the GED want to remove the pencil and paper aspect of the test and go completely digital. The cost of the test will be doubled in many states to $120, and in Missouri the test will cost $140. The President and CEO of the GED Testing Service has rationalized this by stating that, “the GED was in dangerous position of no longer being a reflection of what high schools were graduating,” which is true to a certain extent. Yet an employee of the Missouri Career Center aptly summarized the challenges of digitization by replying that for many GED students, “Transportation is a challenge. Eating is a challenge. For them, coming up with $140 for an assessment, it’s basically telling them, ‘Forget about ever getting this part of your life complete.'”

I’ve been reminded this semester that we must look at books as a technology as well. I don’t know a lot about the history the book, but I can imagine that many hours of study have gone into questioning whether or not the advent of the book and the Gutenberg press in the 15th century has contributed to a democratization of access to data and information throughout history. We’re having that same discussion with digital technology now, and there are no easy answers. More than anything, I’ve been taught to study and understand the power interests behind the creators of digital technology. Textbook companies have adopted digitization and are now creating textbooks for iPads, but these companies can now charge exorbitant fees every year to the schools that buy this software, rather than having the schools buy paper textbooks every five or ten years. Likewise, companies that created standardized tests for our students have a financial interest in going paperless and offering their tests on computers exclusively, which leads to increased costs and jobs for people with computer and programming skills, which are often filled by people who had access to computers when they were younger.

Who, if anyone, loses out in this process? Are we actually using digital technology as a tool for democratization, or is the opposite actually occurring?

Thoughts on Day of DH 2013

Just this morning I learned that today was “Day of DH [Digital Humanities].” The About Page of Day of DH 2013 explains that the goal of the project was to determine “Just what do digital humanists really do?” Participants from around the world were encouraged to share their experiences and activities for one day (not even necessarily with digital technology), comment on each others experiences, and take a stab at defining what exactly DH is. Today was a busy day for me and I didn’t have the chance to live-tweet my experiences or create an account on the site matrix, so I’ll just share my experiences and thoughts here.

Today was good. I gave three tours of the Indiana State House, all of which were quite different from each other. The first group was composed of student pages who worked with their local legislator in the House of Representatives for the day. We give these page tours to students while the Indiana General Assembly is in session, and today many of the students came all the way from Gary, which is about three hours away from Indianapolis, very close to Chicago. The second group was composed of 4th graders from Lafayette, where Purdue University is located. The third group was composed of adult lawyers from Fort Wayne. So it was a pretty diverse day in terms of who came to the State House and where they were coming from.

I spent a few hours studying my readings and assignments for both my Digital History and Historical Methods classes. For the latter, I read portions of Richard Slotkin’s book Gunfighter Nation. Our assignments for Digital History can be found here. When I got to my Digital History class, we discussed the nature of databases, how they’ve evolved over time, and the interests of the people and institutions behind these databases. We talked about the pros and cons of Google Books for a while. It was mentioned that one of Google’s primary concerns was getting books onto their databases as quickly as possible, which means that their metadata (“data about data,” more or less) is lacking. Another person mentioned that Google Books keeps track of all the books a person looks up. I mentioned that while I use Google Books frequently, the idea of Google having that information at the tip of their fingers concerns me. I pointed to Google’s complicity in enforcing draconian censorship restrictions on internet usage in China (although this has recently changed, apparently), and I asked an open question wondering what would happen if the U.S. government suddenly demanded that Google hand over its records regarding users’ search queries on Google Books. Would the government ever want to see if someone was studying material that could be deemed a national security threat? Would Google comply in handing over this information? How is a “national security threat” defined these days, anyway?

I had chicken nachos for dinner after class. They tasted awesome.

Here’s a picture of us in class, minus two of our cohorts who were unable to attend, sadly. I’m on the far right.

IUPUIDH 4-8-13
Nice Table, Eh?

I think the biggest success of Day of DH 2013 for me was that I even knew such an event existed in the first place. It seems that as I learn more about digital technology and the digital humanities, the more I realize the shortcomings of my education up to this point. I received a fine education at my undergrad institute, but I never once had a class that seriously analyzed the implications of digital technology in the study of history or education. Day of DH has existed for five years now, and we never would have participated in anything like this. The idea of learning about “distant reading” never existed. The idea of taking a class to learn how to better use digital technology in the classroom and educate students on how best to use these resources was never contemplated. In fact, when I first started my undergrad experience in 2006, my school didn’t even have the digital capabilities to allow students to sign up for classes online! We had to sign up in person at the main campus center, and some people who had specific classes and times in which they needed to take these classes sometimes spent the night at the campus center or got up at 3 or 4AM to get there early.

I think a large part of my shortcomings with digital technology, however, are self-imposed. Yes, I wasn’t really encouraged to embrace digital technology while in undergrad, but I also had an unhealthy skepticism about digital technology. I taught myself how to do basic HTML coding by creating wiki pages about bands like Time Lapse Consortium and hockey players like Jeff Nielsen (yes, very nerdy), but I rejected tools like Twitter and WordPress Blogs as frivolous and not worth my time. There were other elements of DH I was completely ignorant of, many of which I am still ignorant of today.

Going forward, I think the challenge for me in all facets of life–not just DH–is being more open to new ideas. Of course, not all new ideas are good ones, and skepticism is a good thing, within reason. But far too often I find myself saying “no” before even trying something. Day of DH 2013 reminds me to appreciate the views and ideas of others and to be open about moving out of my comfort zone, if only temporarily. Questions remain about how to best utilize digital technology in a way that enhances the study of the humanities. Questions also remain about the role of digital technology in the classroom (MOOCs, online courses vs. classroom courses) and how best to “share authority” between humanities institutions with an online presence and their audiences (crowd-sourcing projects, perhaps?). The good thing is that I’ve now got a stake in the game and can better position myself to help enact good measures going forward, and I’m excited for what the future holds. Better late than never, right?