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.”



News and Notes: October 24, 2013

Interesting reads from the interwebs…

Musings on culture and technology

  • An addendum to my last post on sports and identity: I had never heard of David Cain before, but this essay on contemporary lifestyles is excellent. Cain argues that the 40 hour workweek is unnecessary in today’s world, but that this form of scheduling continues to be deliberately utilized so that we use what little free time we have to gratify ourselves and spend money. “Western economies, particularly that of the United States, have been built in a very calculated manner on gratification, addiction, and unnecessary spending. We spend to cheer ourselves up, to reward ourselves, to celebrate, to fix problems, to elevate our status, and to alleviate boredom.” In a strange way, I think this may partially account for our collective attachment to sports. This is not to say that sports are trivial or a waste of time. Rather, it seems to me that sports are a meaningful way to keep ourselves occupied with something entertaining and exciting when we’re not working. This is an intriguing article and I’ll be sure to read more of David Cain in the future.
  • Speaking of loneliness and boredom: Here’s a thoughtful essay on a recent rant from the comedian Louis CK on smartphones. L.M. Sacasas argues that Louis CK has a good point in arguing that smartphones are often used to mask boredom, loneliness, sadness, and a myriad of other emotions. When there’s downtime (waiting in line at the coffee shop or at a restaurant, waiting at a stoplight, a commercial on TV, etc.), our first impulse is to go to the phone screen. I’ve certainly been guilty of doing this. Louis CK suggests that these behaviors in children have serious consequences: “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty. That knowledge that it’s all for nothing and that you’re alone. It’s down there.” Sacasas, however, points out that smashing our smartphones is not the solution. I am reminded of the movie Happy Gilmore, in which a large man is wearing an orange shirt that says “Guns don’t kill people: I kill people.” Sacasas argues for the same sort of understanding when it comes to smartphones. We have to think critically about the ways technology shapes and changes our emotions. Digital technology is here to stay, so there’s no need to be a Luddite. Smartphones don’t make people sad; the way some people use them makes them sad.
  • An interview with Douglas Rushkoff on “Present Shock” and the loss of narrative storytelling.

Public History: Remembering, Forgetting, and Shutdowns

  • Forgetting: In St. Louis, the Bernard F. Dickman bridge (popularly called the Poplar Street Bridge) was renamed the William L. Clay, Sr. Bridge. Bill McClellan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch shares a few thoughts on the short memory of St. Louis and what it means when a city renames its public streets.
  • Shutdowns: Cathy Bell writes during the Government Shutdown and argues that National Parks don’t run themselves (and that much of the protesting going on against the parks was really a faux civil disobedience movement). The Washington Post asks why the national parks closed in the first place, while University of North Carolina professor Anne Whisnant calls for a “Mission 16” movement in the National Park Service that was similar to the “Mission 66” movement fifty years ago.

Open Access

  • I sometimes write about open access here at Exploring the Past. Here’s an excellent 8 minute video that outlines what the open access movement represents and why many of us are so passionate about it:

And Finally…

  • The creators of Digital Sandbox–three fellow IUPUI public history students and myself–recently submitted a poster for the National Council on Public History’s annual conference in Monterey, California, in March 2014. We found out yesterday that our poster was accepted for the conference and that all of us will most likely be there to present our poster at the conference’s poster session on Thursday, March 20. I was already going to be at the conference thanks to my current employment with NCPH, but I am glad that my cohorts will now have the opportunity to attend as well. It’s going to be a great conference and I look forward to my first trip to the western United States.


Promises and Perils of Blogging

As I continue to reflect on the discussions that took place during the Digital Sandbox about student uses of social media, I have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of positive feedback I’ve received from the Twitterverse and those who attended my panel in person.

For my part of the panel, I chose to focus on blogging as form of sharing humanities scholarship with the broader public. At one point in my life not too long ago I was fairly skeptical of blogs and viewed them as platforms for promoting frivolous top ten lists, gossip, and “scoops” that were generally uninteresting to me. I was never encouraged to utilize blogging (or the internet generally) as a means for learning about history during undergrad. Indeed, I viewed social media and blogging as a place for leisurely fun, not scholarly discussion, and I never thought about using social media and/or blogging as a way to assert ownership in my humanities scholarship and my education.

My views began to change when I started working for the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in 2010. Within the first few days of working there, my friend and fellow ranger Bob Pollock of Yesterday…and Today told me about a number of notable Civil War blogs that were worth reading, and nothing’s ever been the same since. While I continue to read and rely on print books for a large amount of my scholarly endeavors, I began to find myself at that point making more time to get online to read about the Civil War. I began to spend less time on sites like YouTube and NHL.com and almost completely gave up watching television. Once I started graduate school last year, the impulse to start blogging on my own became more acute, and after eight months I have no intentions of stopping. I have been amazed by the ever-growing network of connections I have developed through blogging in such a short time.

I think that blogging sometimes gets the same sorts of criticisms Wikipedia gets. Wikipedia, we are often told by history teachers, is an unreliable source that cannot be trusted, and it should never show up as a citation on a term paper. Sure, it acts as a great “starting point,” but the crowdsourcing platform that Wikipedia has embraced has led to articles that are sometimes biased, inaccurate, poorly interpreted, or a combination of all three. There is certainly a grain of truth to all of this, and I wouldn’t want my students citing Wikipedia on their assignments either. However, many of those same academics who routinely criticize Wikipedia for its shortcomings have never attempted to edit a Wikipedia page to make it more to their liking, nor have they encouraged their students to use their newly-gained skills to fix mistakes on the site. Likewise, I have seen critics of blogs question the medium as a way of sharing information and “deepening” our understanding of the past and–in the case of Gary Gallagher in a June 2012 editorial in the Civil War Times–criticize history bloggers for making an “unworthy topic appear to be serious.” Yet those same critics often don’t utilize blogging as way to tackle what they consider to be “serious” topics.

So, in sum, I’m a big fan of blogging. However, my experiences at the Digital Sandbox on Thursday, August 15 and the IUPUI Public History Workshop the following day have also reminded me that there are shortcomings to blogging that have yet to be addressed in the academic community.

Dr. Ray Haberski of Marian University and the Society of United States Intellectual History gave the keynote speech for the Digital Sandbox, and his insights into the USIH’s experiences in blogging were fascinating. Originally started as a series of discussion threads on H-Net in 2005, the USIH eventually moved to the blogging format in 2007 and gained rapid popularity in the academic community. A national intellectual society was literally formed through the blog, and the society has been hosting a national conference on intellectual history since 2008. Dr. Haberski even mentioned that comments left on his blog posts helped to better arrange and formulate arguments in his scholarly books.

However, Haberski pointed out to us that blogging doesn’t get one a job in academia, nor does it replace the experience of getting one’s hands dirty with research material at a library or archives. In fact, several of the original founders of the USIH are now out of academia completely. Furthermore, the question of audience must play a role in deciding to blog. Has the USIH had great success because of its expanding popularity amongst those in the general public, or is it because of its popularity with an academic audience? Maybe both? Does blogging encourage dialogue between scholars and the general public, or are old divisions between scholars and the public being perpetuated in an online format? What can scholars do to reach the public? Are there ways to improve scholarly content delivery or the blogging platform in general? I don’t think anyone has an idea right now.

On Friday, many of these same concerns were addressed through a speech given by Dr. Andrew Hurley of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Hurley wrote a very fine book about historic preservation, public history, and civic engagement that I will address in a future post, and his work in St. Louis is remarkable. However, Dr. Hurley came to us with a warning: be careful with digital technology, and keep your audience in mind when creating digital content.

Hurley pointed out that public history has moved beyond text and image websites and into interactive realms that could redefine how we look at the past. He also pointed out that the term “Digital Divide” has changed in meaning over the past twenty years in the United States. In the 1990s, the Digital Divide referred to the haves and have-nots: those who had access to the internet and those who did not. Today, almost everyone has access to the internet, but how they use the internet constitutes the new and critical Digital Divide. Higher income people are more likely to have desktop computers and use the internet for website building, blogging, and the accumulation of “knowledge capital.” Lower income people, however, are more likely to access the internet through mobile phones and use the internet for passive entertainment, games, image sharing, and other related activities. When Hurley’s group attempted to run a blog and Facebook page to promote its restoration efforts in North St. Louis, the sites ultimately failed, with few people in the area commenting on the blog or accessing the internet as a way to promote restoration efforts in St. Louis.

Where do we go from here? Hurley stressed to us the importance of public historians encouraging their audiences to use the internet as a form of “content-based knowledge creation” and critical thinking. I am convinced that this is the next great challenge in closing the “Digital Divide,” but I am lacking answers for how best to approach this problem. It’s an exciting time in the social media/blogging/digital realm of humanities scholarship right now, but I hope that we as a community continue to make time for critical reflection on how to best use digital technology to inspire everyone to not only use the internet as a source of personal empowerment, but to become more empathetic humans in general. That’s the goal of the humanities, right?


Putting Yourself Out There: Tips and Tricks

At the Digital Sandbox this past Thursday, I moderated a panel on how students could use social media and blogging to promote their humanities scholarship online. I did a personal experiment with the workshop and went completely paperless, taking all of my notes via live tweeting. The following is a collection of points that were made by panelists and a list of resources I utilized as I put together this panel.

Social Media and Blogging

Besides my own presentation, I was fortunate to have two panelists who contributed much to the panel. Kalani Craig is a recent graduate of Indiana University who specializes in Medieval history and pedagogy and is now teaching at IU. Her website is here. Andrew McGregor is a PhD candidate at Purdue University who specializes in sports history. His website is here.

  • Kalani focused much of her discussion on establishing a social media presence that focuses on promoting clear professional goals. One important prerequisite for establishing this presence is finding where your audience is located. Writing up a nice essay and then posting it to MySpace makes no sense, since it is highly unlikely that any sort of audience will be found there. At this point, Twitter is an ideal space in which to create a social media presence because many students, academics, and professional have embraced it as a platform for sharing information.
  • Kalani equated social media usage to picking out clothes in the morning or finding a group of people to sit with at a table. What “twitter clothes” are you going to wear? Who do you want to sit at your social media table? Twitter is great because scholarly discussions are taking place through the use of hashtags in tweets. When announcements are made in the field of history, they are often tweeted to #twitterstorians, where historians from all over the world go to keep up on the latest happenings and engage in discussion. By using hashtags in tweets, students can share content to a wide audience. Students should also retweet good tweets from other Twitter users.
  • If a student wants to build a network of scholarly connections on Twitter, they should actively look for and follow other people who share scholarly content. Sometimes these people will follow you back. Furthermore, students should use Twitter for (mostly) professional tweets if they seek to connect with others in their field. “Professional tweets” can include links to interesting articles and blog posts, occasional commentary on those links, and tweets that outline your long term professional goals, including upcoming conferences, talks, and events that you want to attend. If most of your tweets are highly personal, the people who sit at your social media table may not include professionals in your field (or anyone at all). That said, occasional light banter between friends and professionals and personal tweets are okay. In fact, tweets of this nature are actually encouraged because they show that you are not a robot. The digital humanities community in particular is a welcoming place in which to work AND play. I (Nick, not Kalani) would recommend that students split their professional and personal tweets around the 70-30 or 80-20 range.
  • Andrew showed us the potential of Academia.edu as a way to promote scholarly work. Many people do Google searches, for example, of fellow professionals they may be meeting for the first time. The Google algorithms machine frequently lists the Academia.edu profiles of its users on the first page of a search. Academia.edu allows for its users to post their scholarly work online and make it downloadable in PDF format. The keynote speaker for the Digital Sandbox–Dr. Ray Haberski–has an academia.edu profile that serves as an excellent model for what this sort of profile can look like.
  • Andrew also pointed out that Facebook can be a means for sharing academic content as well. Many National Park Service sites, historic homes, and museums have Facebook profiles that are used to make announcements, provide information on their sites, and hold discussions about recent and upcoming events. Andrew also talked about a discussion group about sports history called “Sports Studies Reading Team” that frequently holds “book club” type discussions about recent scholarship in sports history. People from all over the world participate in these discussions and share information with each other through this forum. I had never thought of using Facebook this way and think it’s a great idea.
  • I focused on blogging as a way to promote one’s scholarship online and mentioned several reasons for blogging humanities content. One reason that students should consider blogging is that blogging is becoming more common in the classroom. I referenced American University history professor Trevor Owens’ essay on his experiences with his students blogging and mentioned that blogging involves writing for a public audience, which is different than writing an essay that only your teacher will see.
  • While writing my master’s thesis and getting that bound and published next year is my central academic goal at this point, I have had a desire to share my research with the broader public, especially research that will most likely not get into the final published product. Blogging provides me a platform in which to share some of that information and provide insights into how my research is going. In my opinion, blogging allows me to ask open-ended questions and write out some of my ideas about the ways in which I think about history and my thesis topic. In this regard, I believe that blogging has allowed me to advance the writing process of my thesis in an extremely positive manner. I occasionally get comments as well, which is awesome. Readers that want to see what I’ve been blogging in regards to my research can click on the “Grand Army of the Republic” link in the Categories section to the right.
  • I also attempted to complicate or “problematize” blogging. Time was running short, so I didn’t have much time to address this. I did, however, reference a point made by historian Keith Harris, previously of the blog Cosmic America. A few years ago, Keith wrote a post on Grover Cleveland and Confederate Battle Flags that gained a lot of traction. For a while, if a person typed ‘Grover Cleveland’ into Google, Keith’s post would have popped up on the first page. Keith readily admitted, however, that he is no Cleveland scholar, and his knowledge of Cleveland’s life and time as President is limited. However, Google made Keith an “authority” by putting his post on the first page. Is this good? How much “authority” do bloggers wield in humanities scholarship? Ultimately, I think this anecdote reminds us that we need to be careful with online sources when doing research. Furthermore, teachers need to educate their students on how to analyze online sources responsibly.

Recommended Reading

Social Media and Blogging Platforms

Putting Yourself Out There: Student Uses of Social Media and Blogging

The following is the introductory speech I made for a panel I moderated at the Digital Sandbox workshop. The panel’s central aims were to explore the positive benefits of social media and blogging, provide advice for building a network of students, academics, and professionals online, and consider some of the limitations of these communication platforms. With my introduction, I aimed to inject a sense of humor [it was early in the morning!], but I also wanted to seriously consider the challenges faced by humanities majors with regards to the lack of understanding from the general public about the nature of our work. Check out the links to read the sources I used in creating this speech. Tomorrow, I will point out some of the highlights of the panel and provide links to more resources that students can utilize if they are considering the possibility of using social media and blogging platforms to share their work. –NS

Over the past eight years, social media and blogging have become extremely popular forms of communication in American society. Many people today connect with their friends and loved ones through tweets, wall posts, and status updates as often as they send emails, talk on the phone, or engage with someone in person. As of May 2013, Facebook is the number one visited site in the entire world, while Twitter is number ten, and Blogspot–the world’s most popular blogging platform–is number twelve. [Note: this website’s rankings are updated periodically]. Although these communication platforms are undoubtedly popular among people of all ages, they have also sparked a great deal of controversy for the ways they have changed how we process information and interact with each other. One popular image of social media portrays these sites as potentially dangerous places that bring out the worst in their users.

Anthropologist Alexis Madrigal recently argued that for many users of Facebook, a hypnotic “machine zone” mentality takes over. “It’s a response to a fine-tuned feedback loop. It’s a powerful space-time distortion. You hit a button. Something happens… Maybe you win, maybe you don’t. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It’s the pleasure of the repeat, the security of the loop.” Matt Labash, writing for The Weekly Standard, paints a portrait of Twitter that, as his article subtitle suggests, will lead to “the decline of Western Civilization, 140 characters at a time.” Self-absorbed, attention starved “Twidiots,” according to Labash, are actively destroying written languages all over the world and killing our brains with mindless tweets about coffee, LOLcats, and episodes of Jersey Shore. Finally, academic thinkers like Sir Peter Strothard, former editor of The Times Literary Supplement, have lamented the loss of authority ushered in by the rise of blogging. “Not everyone’s opinion is worth the same,” argues Strothard, and bloggers who share their passion for literature online do so “to the detriment of literature… People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off.” It seems that for Strothard, the idea of readers relying on bloggers instead of academics for literary criticisms spells the doom of the entire field.

Meanwhile, the value of humanities studies has been actively questioned since the 2008 recession. Rising tuition costs, crippling student debt, and shaky job prospects have led to fewer students pursuing humanities degrees, and those that graduate have unemployment rates around ten percent, which is almost more than half the unemployment rate for those who graduate with science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. Some prominent political and education leaders have spoken out against the liberal arts and humanities. Florida Governor Rick Scott has asked, “is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory recently asserted, “if you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it… I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.” Here in Indiana, Ivy Tech Community College President Tom Snyder has conceded that “it is time we all accept the fact that a traditional four-year liberal arts education is a poor investment for America’s middle class… [it] is now a luxury that few can afford.”

Social Media certainly has its dangers, ranging from overuse and addiction, to breaches of privacy, to bad cases of TMI. A recent survey also found that 8% of individuals aged 16-24 had lost a job opportunity due to their social media usage. But it seems as if the time is ripe to begin considering the possibility of using social media and blogging to promote humanities scholarship. Indeed, much of the criticism against humanities programs stems from the misunderstandings of non-humanities majors who are not aware of the work being done in the field. Diana Sorensen, Dean of Arts and Humanities at Harvard, has stated that the time has come for those in the humanities to show “what it is our work does so they don’t think we’re just living up in the clouds all the time.” How might humanities students use online communication platforms to promote their work to the broader public? What are the possible career benefits of having a digital presence? Can a tweet, status update, or blog post help graduate students land a job once school is done? [Note: Probably not]. This panel aims to educate students of all types on the wide range of digital tools, blogging websites, and media platforms students can use to advance their academic interests.

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.