When Nostalgia Overwhelms History

Photo Credit: Singapore Management University: https://www.smu.edu.sg/perspectives/2017/09/29/nostalgia-makes-us-more-patient

I am a member of a Facebook group called “St. Louis, Missouri: History, Landmarks and Photos.” As the title suggests, it’s a fun community where people can share pictures, thoughts, and reflections on the city’s history.

Or so I thought.

Someone recently shared a photo of a blackface performance from the 1920s in Webster Groves, a well-to-do area just outside the St. Louis city limits. After all, the photo is historic and it depicts something that is a part of St. Louis history, whether we like it or not. One would think the photo meets the standards of this group. But alas, the commenters had a firestorm. Why is this outrageous photo being shared?! Why do we have be exposed to this painful history? Why do we have to talk about the bad parts of St. Louis history? As one critical commenter later stated, “Sorry, I joined this group for history and vintage photos, architecture and STL neighborhoods – NOT for any ‘enlightened exchange’ [about the political aspects of history.]” The photo was quickly removed by administrators. 

Listen, I get it. We don’t always have to harp on the bad parts of history and for the most part this group is one of the few positives experiences I get from using Facebook these days. But when the controversial aspects of history are removed from the overall story, it is better to simply call the group “St. Louis, Missouri: Landmarks and Photos.” If you enjoy looking at old photos but not studying the people, culture, and context of the time in which the photos were taken, you are engaging in nostalgia, not history.

One might wonder why people interested in a Facebook group such as this one wouldn’t want to learn more about the larger context of the city’s history, but I would contend that many of the blackface photo’s critics were precisely not interested in learning about or having a discussion about history. They are there to practice nostalgia. They are there to talk about their personal childhood experiences and re-live the good old days before the neighborhood went into “decline.” They want to see fancy old homes and neighborhoods but don’t want to discuss the humans who built them or the humans who live in those areas today. To talk about the experiences of, say, an African American who endured the pain of Jim Crow, segregation, and racial discrimination during the “good old days” is nothing but a distraction and an effort to make the past political. Anything outside of mainstream history is a controversy. Please leave out the enlightened exchanges!

(I also note that the some of the same critics who objected to one blackface photo on a social media page because it was “painful” were demanding a few years ago that the St. Louis Confederate Monument remain in Forest Park “because it’s history.”)

This experience reinforced the importance of Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s 2000 book The Presence of the Past. After surveying 1,500 people the authors concluded that the foundation for historical understanding starts with the personal. As they discuss in the introduction, “people assemble their experiences into narratives that allow them to make sense of their personal histories, set priorities, project what might happen next, and try to shape the future.” The challenge for historians, therefore, lies in working with their many publics to demonstrate how fitting personal experiences into a larger context–using an entire body of evidence to make an informed interpretation about the past–is how history is created.

The advent of social media and the internet as a whole has been a double-edged sword for historical understanding. On the one hand, people now have an almost limitless access to information. The contents of the past–letters, diaries, newspaper articles, historical photos–can be found with great abundance in places like the above Facebook group. On the other hand, are we really learning anything new? What do people do with the knowledge they acquire at these places? Do they go to the local library to check out a book about St. Louis history, or does the information contained in a particular post evaporate as soon as the viewer logs off of Facebook? The internet can be a place of knowledge accumulation, but it can also be a place that is quite the opposite. I suppose this is all to say that I hope historians and public historians will someday collaborate to research and publish a new edition of The Presence of the Past for the digital era.

Cheers

Promises and Perils of Online Archives

The popular biographer Walter Issacson recently penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he muses on “what could be lost as Einstein’s papers go online.” The essay was sparked by the recent digital publication of the first thirteen volumes of Einstein’s papers by a consortium of institutions that includes Princeton, Caltech, and Hebrew University. Issacson uses this development to explore the nature of online archives more broadly, weighing the potential benefits and consequences of opening primary source documents to what he describes as “the wisdom of the crowd.” There is a tension underlying these thoughts, and as the essay title suggests, Issacson seems fairly preoccupied with what could be lost as the archives go online:

My initial joy about the project was tempered, however, by a pinch of sadness. I realized that most future Einstein researchers would no longer have to make the journey to the cozy house on the edge of the Caltech campus where the scholars of the Einstein Papers Project were eager to embrace their rare visitors and ply them with guidance, insights and tea. They wouldn’t likely spend delightful days there—as I did for my biography of Einstein—with the science historian Diana Kormos-Buchwald and her colleagues as they debated such issues as how to explain what Einstein meant when he referred to quanta as “spatial” or his fellow Jews as Stammesgenossen (tribal comrades).

The next generation of scholars will also lose the tingling inspiration of seeing original documents. I remember how much closer I felt to Benjamin Franklin —suddenly, he seemed like a real person—when, at his archives in Yale’s Sterling Library, I first touched a letter that he had written, marveling that this piece of paper had actually once been in his hands. I even made a pilgrimage to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which Einstein helped to found and where most of his original documents reside, so that I could draw inspiration. What sublime experiences will researchers miss if they simply view the documents online? What will be lost if the archives, with their passionate staffs, morph into unvisited repositories?

Issacson, however, does express some excitement about the power of computing to help us ask new questions about these documents:

My brooding soon gave way to marveling about the benefits that will come when millions of curious people, with new technologies in hand, get to dive into the papers of historical figures. While I was doing research years ago for my biography of Franklin, the Packard Humanities Institute in Los Altos, Calif., was at work on a digital collection of his papers. After a lot of begging, I wheedled a beta version of the CD-ROMs. They let me search all of Franklin’s papers for specific concepts . . . with the new digital version of Einstein, I have been looking at the 237 times he talked about Palestine—and imagining what a smart researcher could do by tracing the evolution of the 6,720 times he used the phrase “light quanta.”

With online archives, research can be crowdsourced. Students from Bangalore to Baton Rouge can drill down into Einstein’s papers and ferret out gems and connections that professional researchers may have missed. That will reinforce a basic truth about the digital age: By empowering everyone to get information unfiltered, it diminishes the role of gatekeepers and intermediaries. Scholars and experts will still play an important role in historical analysis, but their interpretations will be challenged and supplemented by the wisdom of crowds.

I share Issacson’s enthusiasm for the experience of traveling to and conducting research at archival institutions. I’ve conducted research at many different institutions, but I will always fondly remember my own experiences at the Indiana State Library when I lived in Indianapolis. Although I didn’t know it when I first moved to Indy, it turned out that my house was within walking distance to ISL. There were many Saturdays filled with early morning research, lovely lunchtime walks around downtown, and more research in the afternoon. The detective work of research is fun in and of itself, but the adventure of traveling to a new place and soaking in the character of the surrounding area makes the archival experience sublime.

All of this said, however, I don’t find myself as pessimistic as Issacson about this experiential loss with the move to online archives. Doing research online is, of course, also an experience. Digging into archival resources like Google Books, HathiTrust, The Internet Archive, and Chronicling America requires the same sort of detective work and interpretive skills that one uses at a brick-and-mortar institution. And it’s hard to describe the jubilation you feel upon discovering a crucial primary source that you would have never found or had access to at your local archival institution. Likewise, while the tactile experience of holding a real document in your hands is very, very special, the best web designers and archivists can make digital primary sources equally (if not more) accessible to researchers by providing clear scans, zoom in/out functionality, and text transcriptions that make these documents more approachable and understandable (especially for students in a k-12 setting who may be unable to visit an archive in person).

It’s also important to keep Issacson’s thoughts on digitization in context. All of the digital primary source collections he mentions are from noteworthy great white men in U.S. history: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, and Einstein. Historians and archivists pick and choose what history gets digitized, and it remains an open question as to what should be digitized for online publication and whether or not this effort to publish documents related to White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Males over ones connected to women and minorities merely duplicates the same dominant practices in the history book publishing industry since the nineteenth century. There are literally billions of primary source documents that could be digitized, but the lack of time, cost, and labor to digitize will prevent a sizable number of documents from going online in the foreseeable future. For every Smithsonian undertaking a “digitization strategic plan” there are probably hundreds of archival institutions that lack the ability to digitize anything in their collections. In sum, researchers understand that producing good scholarship means still going to the archives and digging through the actual sources – it can’t all be done online.

The real loss with online archives, as I see it, is the loss of interaction with all of the talented and helpful archivists who help researchers accomplish their goals. I suspect that most researchers don’t have tea with their archivists or bump into world-renowned historians of science at the archives like Issacson does, but almost all can recall an instance in which an archivist pointed them towards collection material they were unaware of, helped transcribe a document that seemed unreadable, or took the time to go into the back corner of a dark room to find requested documents. I can recall many such moments, and my own research over the years wouldn’t have been completed without the help of archivists. They are important people, and I think it’s safe to say that we’ll still need their services and expertise well into the future, whether online or offline.

Cheers

News and Notes: November 2, 2014

The weather and clocks are changing, but the blogging continues here at Exploring the Past. Here are a few good reads and some personal notes.

Good Reads

  • Flawed commemoration in Britain: The Tower of London is currently surrounded by red ceramic poppies in commemoration of British soldiers who died during World War I. Jonathan Jones writes a scathing and largely accurate (in my opinion) criticism of this commemoration, arguing that such a commemoration needs to highlight the horrors of war and the ways WWI was tragic to all of Europe, not just Britain.
  • The History Manifesto: Historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage have recently published a new book, The History Manifesto. Guldi and Armitage argue that “the spectre of the short term” clouds our society and government policy. “Almost every aspect of human life is plotted and judged, packaged and paid for, on time-scales of a few months or years” (1), according to Guldi and Armitage. This method of thinking also dominates the historical enterprise, where historians are told to specialize in historic eras or events that range between four and forty years, privileging the small picture instead of the big one. They argue that historians should aim to think more about the long term and the ways history changes over hundreds of years. Moreover, Guldi and Armitage argue that historians should involve themselves in public policy. The History Manifesto is open access and freely available for PDF download here.
  • Do Professors need to use digital technology in the classroom?: Professor and columnist Rebecca Schuman says ‘no.’
  • The Specter of Gettysburg: Kevin Lavery, a student at Gettysburg College, writes a sharp criticism of so-called “historic” ghost tours in and around the Gettysburg battlefield, with some pushback from readers in the comment section. A very thought-provoking read.
  • Slavery in America – Back in the headlines: People think they know everything about slavery in the United States, but they don’t.”

Personal Notes

  • Two of the chapters from my Master’s thesis on the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana, are currently under review for possible publication in scholarly journals. One of these chapters was revised into an article during the spring semester and submitted for review back in August. The blind peer-reviewers just got back to me a few days ago with mostly positive comments but also a few revisions to make the article better. The other chapter was revised throughout the summer and was submitted a couple weeks ago, so I’m still waiting for feedback on that one. I’ll have more info on these articles soon. Stay tuned.
  • I have an essay on Oscar Taveras, Stan Musial, and public commemoration in sports that is slated for publication on Sport in American History on November 10. This is my first essay for SAH and I’m really excited for readers to check it out.

Cheers

Changing Reading Habits in the Humanities

Over the past eight or so years there has been a push by educators and school administrators to have students in both k-12 and higher education use e-readers to obtain relevant scholarship and advance their educational careers. Some have argued that e-readers are better suited for so-called “digital natives” that are more comfortable processing information through digital technology than print technology. Others argue that devices like the Amazon Kindle ostensibly provide access to thousands of titles that are not always readily available at a local public or university library (although I would argue that obtaining access to a piece of scholarship is not the same as reading it. The world is full of unread books). This second point is particularly important for humanities students who spend countless hours reading works of literature, philosophy, and history.

A recent thought-provoking essay from American University linguistics professor Naomi S. Baron in The Chronicle of Higher Education, however, turns this logic on its head by suggesting that changing reading habits in the humanities actually threaten the future of the entire discipline. She argues that e-reading–the move from print books to digital devices for reading–“further complicate[s] our struggle to engage students in serious text-based inquiry.”

To wit:

For some years, the amount of reading we assign university students has been shrinking. A book a week is now at best four or five for the semester; volumes give way to chapters or articles. Our motivation is often a last-ditch attempt to get students to actually read what’s on the syllabus. Other factors include the spiraling cost of textbooks and copyright limitations on how much we may post digitally.

Are students even reading Milton or Thucydides or Wittgenstein these days? More fundamentally, are they studying the humanities, which are based on long-form reading? . . . I contend that the shift from reading in print to reading on digital devices is further reducing students’ pursuit of work in the humanities. Students (and the rest of us) have been reading on computers for many years. Besides searching for web pages, we’ve grown accustomed to reading journal articles online and mining documents in digital archives. However, with the coming of e-readers, tablets, and smartphones, reading styles underwent a sea change.

The bottom line is that while digital devices may be fine for reading that we don’t intend to muse over or reread, text that requires what’s been called “deep reading” is nearly always better done in print . . . Digital reading also encourages distraction and invites multitasking . . . Readings in the humanities tend to be lengthy, intellectually weighty, or both. The challenge of digital reading for the humanities is that screens—particularly those on devices with Internet connections—undermine our encounters with meaty texts. These devices weren’t designed for focused concentration, reading slowly, pausing to argue virtually with the author, or rereading. Rather, they are information and communication machines, best used for searching and skimming—not scrutinizing.

In sum, Baron suggests that the loss of close reading/long-form reading is detrimental to humanistic inquiry. Facing the twin challenges of an increasingly digital world and a society that has fetishized utility and practicality in education, humanists have cut down the amount of required reading for their classes while at the same time called for an increased usage of e-readers to obtain and learn about humanities scholarship.

Is it okay for humanists to cut down on the amount of reading they do? What medium is best for reading humanities scholarship?

In my opinion, close reading/long-form reading is necessary for all humanities scholars, even if they’re interested in using quantitative methods that utilize what Stanford University English professor Franco Moretti describes as “distant reading.” Everyone needs a basic understanding of noteworthy works in literature, philosophy, history, etc. etc. and that requires at least some sort of close reading.

When it comes to the best medium for reading humanities scholarship, I think the design of the medium is crucial. Most websites (including blogs on WordPress) don’t lend themselves for long, concentrated reading that exceeds more than 1,000 or 1,500 words. That number is even smaller for reading on a mobile device. Although I don’t prefer to read on an Amazon Kindle, those devices can help readers concentrate for longer periods of time than with a digital computer or phone screen, so I don’t find myself as dismissive of e-readers as Baron.

For my own studies I rely on print books for long-form reading. I find that print books are easier on my eyes and help me concentrate better on the material I am reading. I do a lot of reading online and on my mobile phone, but most of that reading consists of blog posts, news articles, opinion pieces, and other short-ish essays. When I read professional articles or books, I prefer print. I would also argue that research via digital archives, while extremely helpful and convenient, cannot fully replace the act of actually going to a brick-and-mortar library and/or archives and having an actual historical artifact in your hands (it’s also important to point out that the vast majority of historical artifacts are not digitized).

What are your thoughts? What is the place of reading in the humanities today, and what medium do you prefer for your own reading?

Cheers

IUPUI Digital Sandbox on History@Work

Digital SandboxA brief note: back in August three of my cohorts–Callie McCune (@CallieMcCune), Christine Crosby (@XtineXby), and Abby Curtin (@Abby_Curtin)–and I hosted Digital Sandbox, a one-day digital humanities workshop on the campus of IUPUI. More recently the four of us collaborated to write up a follow-up analysis of what worked, what didn’t, and questions we have about the digital humanities going forward. That essay was published today by the National Council on Public History’s preeminent public history blog, History@Work. You can read it here.

As a part of the workshop I created and ran a panel on using social media in conjunction with humanities scholarship. Here’s the introductory speech I made for the panel, and here are some discussion highlights that may help interested parties get started with “putting yourself out there.”

Cheers

The Internet as an Archive of 21st Century History

The Stream
“The Stream”

Several days ago I read a fine piece in The Atlantic from anthropologist Alexis C. Madrigal on real-time internet content/information delivery, what Madrigal refers to as “The Stream.” Whether it be Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader (R.I.P.), or the New York Times, many websites have turned to the stream as a means for instantly delivering information that is ostensibly meaningful to readers. The screenshot above is from the “Times Wire”–which is run by the New York Times–and it exemplifies the machinations of the stream: instant updates, individualized content, and and a sense of inclusion, by which I mean a feeling that you are keeping up with and understanding (at least somewhat) what’s going on in the world.

Madrigal explains the stream as such:

The Stream represents the triumph of reverse-chronology, where importance—above-the-foldness—is based exclusively on nowness. There are great reasons for why The Stream triumphed. In a world of infinite variety, it’s difficult to categorize or even find, especially before a thing has been linked. So time, newness, began to stand in for many other things. And now the Internet’s media landscape is like a never-ending store, where everything is free. No matter how hard you sprint for the horizon, it keeps receding. There is always something more.  Nowness also transmits this sense of presence, of other people, that you get in a city when you go to a highway overpass and look down at all the cars at any time of the day or night.

Given my recent embrace of Twitter and my belief in its enormous potential to deliver information to me that I find important, I am now more than ever a product of the stream. Rather than reading a newspaper, I now check my Twitter stream in the morning to see what’s happening, to find information that “newsworthy” to me. When I find content personally interesting, I contribute my own small part to the stream through tweets, Facebook posts, and essays on Exploring the Past. Since I started this regiment of blogging and tweeting one year ago, I’ve been blown away by the connections I’ve made with people all over the world and the number of visits I’ve had to this blog (more than 10,000 so far).

Yet there are times when I feel as if the stream overwhelms me. Sometimes I feel like I can’t get away. I try to work on projects, school assignments, etc., but the pull of nowness sucks me in, challenging me to stop work to check and see if I’m missing something important in the stream. Equally frustrating, these streams make little distinction between what Robin Sloan refers to as “flow” and “stock.” “Flow” refers to information designed for the here and now: updates and tweets about weather, daily activities, your pumpkin spice latte, etc. “Stock” refers to content that I’d argue is more than information in that it actually contributes to knowledge construction; material that you’d still refer to long after its incorporation into the stream.

Madrigal’s article raised larger questions within me about how we view the internet from a holistic viewpoint. If we rely on the stream for obtaining information, how do we promote and preserve meaningful flow and stock content for the long term? Can we break away from the pull of the now to make room for reflection on what has already occurred in recent memory?

Part of the solution, I think, is understanding that while the internet provides us meaningful information for the here and now, the internet should also be viewed as a historical, archived space. Sure, there are sites like the Internet Archive, Google Books, HathiTrust, and Chroncling America that provide public access to historical events, documents, and artifacts from the twentieth century and earlier, but how do we go about archiving the history we make every day through our interactions on the stream? Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other related sites are not just sources for nowness: they’re also tools and resources for future historians looking to interpret the history of the early twenty-first century.

Viewing the internet as a historical archive will require more discussion and questioning, as far too many website proprietors view the content and interactions on their websites as disposable rather than historical. Ian Milligan points out that major websites such as Yahoo! and MySpace have recently destroyed millions upon millions of historical digital records, embracing the notion of “who needs old stuff when the future is here?” In the case of MySpace, bloggers who used the world’s largest social media website from 2005-2008 to share their thoughts had their information wiped out instantly in June of this year. As Milligan argues, MySpace “meant something to multiple millions of people,” and future historians are now more impoverished thanks to this focus on the now.

How do you go about preserving your digital records? What would you do if Facebook, Twitter, or WordPress suddenly deleted all of your content, all of your flow and stock?

Cheers

News and Notes, Friday the 13th Edition

The past two weeks of school have absolutely consumed me. Two major projects, two professional book reviews, and writing the last ten pages of my third and final master’s thesis chapter have left little time for blogging and, quite frankly, I’m temporarily burnt out on writing. I have a lot of new ideas rolling in my head and over the next month there will hopefully be a lot of content worth sharing, but for the time being I’ll share some noteworthy articles worth reading:

  • The median grade at Harvard University is an A-, prompting claims that Harvard faculty are engaging in grade inflation.
  • Andrew Hartman on the curious avoidance of Noam Chomsky by historians.
  • The eminent American historian Michael Kammen passed away on November 29. A major loss to the entire discipline.
  • Michael Piotrowski muses on the dangers of creating a definition of “digital humanities” that is too rigid and exclusionary.
  • Philip Bump argues that while learning to code can help to develop important and marketable skills, “every American should know basic math. Every American should understand the logical underpinnings to coding, the way conditional clauses work and the cyclical way in which systems are constructed. Americans should know that the way a website works isn’t the way a video game works which isn’t the way a bank’s database works, but they don’t need to learn to “code” all of those things. Just as every American doesn’t need to get certified as a mechanic, but should know how to change a tire, every American should know how computer systems work in the abstract but doesn’t need to code.”
  • Google launches Open Gallery to help any museum or gallery create online exhibits.
  • A Pew Study finds that while public library usage is down in America, 94 percent of Americans still believe that libraries postively contribute to the quality of life in a community.
  • Rachel Laudan on the relationship between history and the historical sciences: “What’s So Special About the Past?”
  • Alexis Madrigal on Stream-based information delivery services. More thoughts from me on this excellent piece in a future post.

Cheers

There is No Such Thing as a “Digital Native”

Photo Credit: Ashleigh Graham http://ashleighgraham.edublogs.org/2011/01/06/mind-map/
Photo Credit: Ashleigh Graham http://ashleighgraham.edublogs.org/2011/01/06/mind-map/

I have been doing research on teaching students how to assess historical primary sources (both print and digital) and utilize historical thinking in and out of the classroom. One of the best sources I’ve relied upon for this project is the 2011 publication “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking Grades 7-12, written by history teacher Bruce Lesh. The book is wonderful and I really like his lesson plans. Many of Lesh’s activities challenge students to imagine themselves working as curators, archivists, or some other public historian who is interpreting the past for a larger audience. I hope to write more about Lesh’s book in a future post, but for this essay I am going to focus on a brief comment Lesh makes on page 33:

I am always amazed at how visual images, be they photographs, hand drawn, painted, sculpted, stimulate conversation among my students. It is a testament to the much discussed visual generation, of which they are a part. Inundated with images on television and online, combined with the decline of newspapers and print reading, this generation is more inclined to gather information from visual elements or sparse narratives. The predisposition for the visual over the written, particularly complicated text, is also indicative of the fact that students have been trained to see the study of history as one that involves textual sources…to the exclusion of other types of historical sources.

What Lesh essentially argues here is that his students are “digital natives.” They think and understand the world differently than older generations thanks to their participation in what Lesh describes as the “visual generation,” a new era of students who allegedly don’t like reading and who better process information through the use of visual images and short texts. Because our students are more comfortable with visual images, we should cater our lesson plans to that “learning style.”

The concept of a “digital native” was first penned by Marc Prensky in 2001. Digital natives, according to Prensky, are people who were born into what many refer to as “the digital age.” They are inherently different from “digital immigrants” who were born before the “digital age” but who have “immigrated” to this new age. The use of technology, social media, texting, etc. comes naturally to digital natives, whereas this technology is akin to learning a new language for digital immigrants.

While I agree with Lesh that history instruction has unnecessarily relied upon textual sources to the determent of visual sources such as maps, paintings, and photographs, I cannot agree with the idea of an existing “visual generation” that has a natural predisposition for visual items over textual sources. Additionally, I believe there are no such things as “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.” Here are a few reasons why:

  • Much of the digital technology we use on a daily basis was developed by “digital immigrants” who were not a part of the “visual generation.”
  • Since this technology was developed by “digital immigrants,” any notion of a cognitive difference between Millenials, Generation X, Baby Boomers, etc. lies on shaky ground. Rather than creating a dichotomy that differentiates how people process and apply information, perhaps we should consider the idea that all generations have a disposition to prefer visual images and sparse narratives over dense text. If we acknowledge that the teaching of history from the early 20th century to the present has had many shortcomings and that many students hate the way history is taught and not the discipline itself, then it signals a failure of learning theory, content delivery, and the creation of lesson plans with little purpose among educators rather than any cognitive difference in students today. One of the most exciting aspects of the digital humanities is that historians have so many opportunities to utilize sources that go beyond textual descriptions of the past. I would argue that everyone can have their perceptions of the past sharpened through visual imagery, not just the “visual generation.”
  • Jonathan Berg, a Washington, D.C. Library Director and author of the awesomely titled blog BeerBrarian, cites a recent study in which 315 college students and recent graduates were surveyed about their use of digital technology. The study concluded that younger people were slightly more comfortable using digital technology than people older than them, but it also concluded that younger people were no more comfortable creating technology than older people. In sum, young people are comfortable being consumers of digital technology, but there is no evidence to suggest that younger people are comfortable in their cognitive ability to creattechnology. Additionally, the study also shows that not all young people have access to the same technology. Many people use computers that were created ten years ago and/or don’t have access to smartphone technology.
  • Just because you have a smartphone or participate on Twitter does not mean that you are a “digital native” or that you understand the technology, source code, or power interests behind the creation of that technology. Again, consumption and creation are two very different concepts.

In sum, the notion of a “visual generation” composed of “digital natives” is a myth.

Cheers

Ideas for Keeping the Tent Big

A brief addendum to my post yesterday on crowdsourcing and DHThis:

  • Ernesto Priego of City University London left a thoughtful comment on this blog that provoked new questions about DHThis and the nature of inclusiveness in dh. He correctly clarified that the “yes/no” binary that I described is actually an “up/down” vote and that the content of an essay, article, video, etc. is not submitted to DHThis. Rather, it is the link to that content that is submitted by users. He also suggested that this formula complicates the voting system because “it’s not only the content being judged, but the participation via submission.” What motivates these people to submit links for voting to the site? Is it to endorse that content, or is like a Retweet on Twitter that doesn’t necessarily function as an endorsement? What if someone votes down a fellow colleague’s work?
  • Ernesto also pointed out that I had made no mention of DHNow, another website that functions as a repository for showcasing notable work in the dh community. I was vaguely aware of DHNow’s existence prior to writing my post, and I knew little about the site. Furthermore, much of the discussion I had observed on Twitter and blogs had revolved around concerns brought up by the Journal of Digital Humanities, so it never occurred to me that making no mention of the site or its similarities to DHThis was a mistake on my part.
  • Jesse Stommel of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and I exchanged a few tweets about ideas for DHThis to consider for their voting system. We agreed that the yes/no/up/down voting system put less emphasis on discussion of content. Jesse suggested that a system for tagging similar posts be implemented, to which I responded that such a system could open the possibility for a “similar” or “recommended” reading section to be added under each post on the site. If a popular post is featured on the front page, clicking on it would lead to similar content that has less votes, but may be worthy of reading. Such a system wouldn’t completely remove the “popularity contest” aspect, but I think it would allow for less popular scholarship to be considered for featured status on the site. Adeline Koh of Stockton College (and one of the creators of DHThis) agreed that such a system may enhance the “discoverability” of content on the site.
  • Jesse and I agreed that keeping the yes/up vote option and removing the no/down vote option should be considered by the organizers of DHThis.

I enjoyed the exchanges that took place yesterday and I thank Ernesto, Jesse, and Adeline for engaging in discussion with me when they really didn’t have to. I hope that readers didn’t perceive my last post as full of negativity. It is an exciting time to be involved with the Digital Humanities, as many traditional notions for creating, reviewing, and disseminating humanities scholarship are being challenged by the promises and perils of digital technology. The fact that three remarkably talented scholars and a Hoosier graduate student spread over two continents can exchange so many questions and arguments in a day’s time reinforces the sheer astonishment I have about the changing nature of communication in the digital age. Such an exchange would have never happened five or ten years ago, and I think that’s a cause for celebration, even if many of us still have a limited understanding as to what the “digital humanities” we so frequently talk about actually is.

Cheers

On Crowdsourcing

I need to temporarily interrupt my regularly scheduled programming to address some remarkable changes and vigorous debates within the field of digital humanities. The following thoughts must be taken with a grain of salt, as I do not profess to be an expert on dh or computing as a whole. However, as a graduate student who is learning more about dh and anxious to see the field progress in a positive manner, I feel it necessary to speak out. I will try my best to address the heart of the matter and cogently summarize my concerns.

Not too long ago, an open access digital publication called The Journal of Digital Humanities was created in an effort to promote “a comprehensive, peer-reviewed, open access journal that features the best scholarship, tools, and conversations produced by the digital humanities community in the previous semester.” However, concerns were raised about inconsistent publishing standards for peer reviewed work and a lack of transparency about the review process. In response to these concerns, a group of scholars has established a new website called DHThis, which aims to cultivate and promote dh content based on the opinions of its membership. More specifically, users will have the power to vote “yes” or “no” as to what content they want to have published on the website’s front page. As Michael Widner explains, DHThis has embraced a belief that “openness and the wisdom of the crowd [within boundaries]” trumps the traditional peer review process for selecting good scholarship. While acknowledging that the peer review process has its problems (especially when the process is ostensibly “blind,” yet the content under review is “post-publication,” aka freely available online), I strongly disagree with the notion of crowdsourcing online content in the form of a yes/no binary.

Jeff Howe, a writer for Wired magazine and one of the first people to coin the term “crowdsourcing” in 2006, defines it as such:

Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.

Wikipedia may constitute the most popular and successful crowdsourcing operation in human history, but there are many other online projects that also exemplify what I think is the true essence of crowdsourcing. In 2011, the New York Public Library created a project called “What’s On the Menu?” Through this initiative, NYPL made a call for help in transcribing upwards of 45,000 historic restaurant menus, some dating as far back as the 1840s. 45,000 menus is obviously a lot of transcribing to do for a small staff, but not impossible for a group composed of thousands of internet users who want to help out with an ambitious project that could help historians, chefs, and food lovers ask new questions about the history of food. Around the same time, Nicole Saylor of the University of Iowa Libraries embarked on a crowdsourcing project to transcribe Civil War diaries which led to upwards of 70,000 hits a day from interested visitors anxious to help transcribe these important documents.

With each of these projects, crowdsourcing led to several important achievements. For one, previously inaccessible historic documents are now accessible and readable to anyone looking to conduct research or learn more about a given topic. Equally important–if not more important–these projects allow users to take a sense of ownership in these cultural heritage institutions by giving them an opportunity to engage in meaningful work that advances the goals of the institution while also instilling a sense of satisfaction within the user. “At its best,” argues Trevor Owens, “crowdsourcing is not about getting someone to do work for you, it is about offering your users the opportunity to participate in public memory.”

However, it seems to me that the yes/no voting system DHThis has embraced for selecting good dh content represents the kind of crowdsourcing that has the potential to be quite loathsome. I generally avoid Reddit and dislike its yes/no voting system for selecting content, largely because it has perpetuated what Natalia Cecire describes as a “terrifying cesspool of misogyny, racism, and assholery.” I do not believe that DHThis will promote or encourage any sort of behavior like that, nor do I think “the people” are incapable of choosing good content, but there are other problems that a yes/no voting system brings to the table, in my opinion:

Yes/No Crowdsourcing is essentially a popularity contest: It seems to me that those already closely involved with dh (those deep inside the “big tent”) and have a strong digital presence are going to be the ones shaping the content of DHThis (and perhaps even dh as a whole) for the foreseeable future. They are the ones with thousands of Twitter followers, personal blogs that get lots of views, and posts that will get selected for voting in DHThis. Maybe this is the way things should be, but it seems like we should be asking if there are better ways for incorporating new and younger voices into the dh discussion. Who might be left out by leaving curatorial duties soely to the DHThis membership?

Not everything can be whittled down to a yes/no binary: News sites all around the world have gone to the yes/no binary to help determine the most popular comments on a news article, often through programs like Discqus. Thus, a September 11 Washington Times article on the “Million Muslim March/Two Million Bikers to DC” controversy that yielded 5,800 comments had the following as its most popular comment, with more than 2,700 thumbs up votes: “Someone should have set up catering trucks serving pulled pork and BLT sandwiches.” And as mentioned, other sites like Reddit rely on yes/no votes with commentary that is also lacking. As a scholar, historian, and writer, I think I deserve more for my efforts at public writing than crowdsourced yes or not votes. Facebook is actually quite genius if you think about it. There is no ‘dislike’ button on the site, and there will never be such a button. If I post a picture of myself on Facebook having fun or comment on the passing of a loved one, the last thing I want is to have people ‘dislike’ my actions. Similarly, I would hope that if someone doesn’t like my writing, they make an effort to provide transparent and constructive criticism, not an anonymous “no” vote.

Serious thoughts and arguments deserve better than a yes/no choice. If I were to submit an article for DHThis or if it were scooped up for voting, I would feel quite uncomfortable by the idea of someone dismissing my entire argument by simply voting “no,” especially considering the fact that it takes a great deal of courage to even write for a public audience in the first place. A yes/no environment makes me feel unwelcome, plain and simple. I realize that DHThis is an experiement, and I want it and others doing dh projects to succeed. For now, however, I’ll think continue to observe these discussions from afar and attempt to learn more about digital technology in my free time.

Cheers