Teaching reading notes

When I was in college, a friend of mine made a joke that he couldn’t read novels without a pencil in his hand, because he was so used to note-taking his philosophy books.

My father is a professor, but I don’t remember ever seeing him read a work of fiction, and always remember him having a manuscript to work on in his spare time.

One of the goals of the historical methods class at CSUF is to teach students how to be history majors, and a part of that is teaching them how to read scholarly texts.  My friend and my father come to mind because they, and I, treat academic reading as the default form of reading, and (at least in my case) can forget what it was like to learn to read for argument and scholarly conversation rather than for information.  I have acute memories of feeling like I was reading in the wrong way in college, but not of learning what the right way was.

I’m hoping to help my historical methods students skip, or at least speed through the uncomfortable confusion stage of this (which is not to say that discomfort can’t be productive, but that the feeling that you’re missing something that everyone else gets isn’t really productive).  So I made a reading worksheet that’s based on the notes I took for my grad comps.  I’ve been filling one out for each of the readings we have this semester, and it’s helping me to ground my thoughts about a text.  Hopefully it does the same for the students, and models a way to take reading notes.


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Teaching theory in history (part two of some) – or – In Theory podcast meets Typhoid Mary

Big theoretical concepts can help us to see the world in new ways.  Big theoretical concepts can help us  see historical events in new ways.  This is especially important for methods classes like the one I am teaching now, since these courses seek to bridge the gap between history as a set of stories that someone else tells, and history as a practice that students themselves can engage in.  We want students to leave these classes loving history as much as when they came in, but we also want to destabilize the idea that there is one, “objective,” “true” narrative to be told about each historical event.  We want them to think about how to select evidence, put that evidence in conversation with other scholars, and offer an interpretative framework for that evidence that nets something beyond arguing that a thing happened in a place and at a time.  Theory helps with that framework.

Undergrad-me would not have believed that current-me would someday be singing the praises of theory.  Luckily, a compatriot of undergrad-me was more prescient than I – Maria Cecire and Noorain Khan are responsible for the In Theory Podcast, which seeks to “raid academia for the the most fascinating and relevant social, cultural, and scientific theories, and use them to help make sense of this beautiful mess of a world we live in.”  It is excellent.  You should listen to it.

I’ve especially enjoyed using In Theory in the classroom.  I’ve generally found teaching theory in history to be one of the more challenging parts of undergraduate pedagogy.  This isn’t because students are incapable of understanding, or even enjoying, theory.  However, I do think that it is difficult to understand the value of theory in the abstract (at least, this was true of me in my theory-adverse undergraduate days).  This course features several weeks on classic theory for history, but this semester I found that pairing the In Theory podcast with a classic in historical scholarship – Judith Walzer Leavitt’s Typhoid Mary – helped to illustrate the ways in which theory can be useful generally, and useful in historical scholarship in particular.

How it worked:

First: I assigned pairs of students different episodes of In Theory.  As they listened, they were asked to identify (1) the theories engaged with in the episode (2) how the podcasters apply those theories to everyday life and (3) other things to which they might apply that theory.

Second: In class, the groups diagrammed their notes on the board, focusing on one particular theoretical concept from the assigned episodes.

Third: Each group presented on their theory of choice, and then each student went around the room and commented on how they might use one of the theoretical concepts outlined in class to further their own research.

Fourth: For the next class, students were assigned chapters from Judith Walzer Leavitt’s Typhoid Mary.   Each chapter takes a different perspective on Mary Mallon (the first silent carrier of typhoid fever, colloquially named “Typhoid Mary,” and imprisoned by the state of New York until her death).

Fifth: Armed with their knowledge of how different theories help us to understand different aspects of the world we live in, students dove into Typhoid Mary and undertook the same kind of diagramming they had done for the In Theory podcast.

Sixth: Each student once again commented on how they might use the theoretical concepts used in Typhoid Mary to further their own research.

By the end of this two class arc, students had two different examples of the application of theory in concrete ways.  Next time I teach this class I am going to have a more defined section on theory, and probably build in an additional class and assignment that recapitulates the different theories the students have been exposed to.  Nevertheless, I think the concrete application of theory evinced in the In Theory podcast and in Typhoid Mary really helped to clarify theory for students.

Teaching theory in history (part one of some)

I’ve recently had conversations with several colleagues about teaching theory in history.  As a discipline, we’re not as obviously theory heavy as some of our compatriots in the social sciences, and much of the theory we use is grounded, or embedded in assumptions we make about sources, voices and narrative.  Given the importance, but relative invisibility of theory in history writing (and given that students – especially new majors in historical methods classes – are likely to be a little allergic to heavily theorized writing anyway) I’ve been trying to figure out how to teach students how to identify and make us of theoretical frameworks for history.

This question has been bugging me for the past year or so.  It first became apparent in a class on the intertwined histories of gender and technology, and I also see it in my current undergrad historical methods and Atlantic history classes.  This is not, I think, merely a consequence of mulling more on theory than I used to.  By design, none of these courses clear narrative path.  Gender and Technology took on several themes during the semester, often circling back to the same time, but a very different place or perception.  Atlantic history is arranged roughly chronologically, but approaches the Atlantic from a series of different spaces, and via different peoples, so we are often jumping in space and time.  Historical methods is loosely organized around the theme of American disasters, but we also skip around temporally, and often head down methodological or historiographical culs-de-sac before returning to the topical meat of the course. This shred lack of a singular storyline meant that theory was all the more important – it was the thing that could get the courses to hang together.

I wanted an assignment that allowed students to make connections from class to class, which emphasized theoretical framings, demonstrated the value of theories as organizing frameworks, and which wouldn’t rely on me lecturing at students.*

I’ve come up with something that I call “theory exercise.”  Each class uses a different variation on the same theme:

First: students review their notes and memories and write down one or two important framing concepts from the previous class.  Earlier in the semester these can be a bit vague, but I make sure that we identify important ideas in reading discussion, so that they can (hopefully) just go back to notes.

Second: some students come up to the board and write one important framing concept.  The only rules are (1) no duplicates and (2) you can amend what someone else writes

Third: the remaining students come up to the board and write down one topic from earlier in the semester, or from the reading for that day’s class that connects with those big ideas.  The same rules apply as in the second phase.

The final product
The final product

As a result of all of this whiteboard writing, we have a map of the main points of the previous class, and a visual representation of connections throughout the course.

This works with individual students working on their own, pairs of students, or even groups that have to consult and come up with one big idea or one connection.  I’ve been experimenting recently with randomly assigning students to big idea or connection and with allowing it to be more of a free for all.

I’ve learned a few things:

  • In classes where I’ve been using this exercise since the beginning of the semester, weekly reading responses do a much better job making links between a given reading and themes from earlier in the semester.  In making those links, students also invoke theoretical frameworks.  Some of these are more explicit than others, but the very act of linking disparate examples requires a theoretical underpinning.
  • In classes that don’t have a clear narrative (and this is probably true of most upper level classes) this exercise also helps students to make their own meaning out of the material covered, and to remember material from earlier in the semester.
  • On exams that ask students to identify and demonstrate the utility of theoretical frameworks, the classes that have been doing this kind of work do better than the classes that haven’t.
  • Having this material written on the board is a great way to mark the start of class with activity, rather than my recap; it also models note-taking strategies for students who aren’t familiar with documenting their participation in discussion based classes.

*I developed this assignment after many talks with Caroline Weist, pedagogue extraordinaire.

Digital History “From Below”: a call to action (and an abstract)

I’ll be heading to Kraków this summer for DH2016 – here’s the paper I’ll be giving.


Humanists – inclusive of digital humanists – are preoccupied with telling stories. Some of our most interesting subjects, however, have left only the barest of marks on historical records. Their stories are among the most captivating, but also some of the most difficult to access. This paper knits together recent trends in digital humanities practices that have helped us to elevate unrepresented voices with a discussion of how to elevate the marginalized within the DH community. It showcases select projects that undermine archival silences.[1]   It then argues that digital humanities practitioners should add these theories to the collection of tools currently used to forward social justice projects in DH spaces.


Elevating the Archivally Silenced

Various methodologies have been adopted to address the problem of how to tell stories about people who left behind few records.   In the 1970s and 1980s, practitioners of “history from below” worked to elevate narratives about “people with no history,” by chronicling the everyday lives of peasants and non-elites.   At the same time, practitioners of the “new social history” turned to cliometrics – and adopted methods that would be familiar to those who work with “big data” today – to highlight trends about marginalized peoples from historical data like censuses, probate records and financial documents.


There have been various resurgences and developments in these methods in the intervening four decades. These include practices of reading archives “against the grain” to get at the unstated assumptions that historical actors made about those they held power over.   They also include theoretical approaches that advocate the reading of silences to understand those whose voices were intentionally obscured by official recorders and gatekeepers.


Marginalizations Within DH

Questions about whose voices are elevated and whose are silenced have also long been a theme in DH scholarship and discourse. These questions seek to unpack the ways in which DH as a field is exclusionary. This former is a much (though still not enough) referenced problem in panels at former DH conferences, which have asked how DH research can address (and remedy) social problems.


Digital humanities scholarship has also begun to address problems of access within the broader DH community, and the barriers erected to women and people of color in particular. For example, Adeline Koh has argued that we need to examine the ways in which DH publics are constituted, in order to better understand the creation of “limits of the discourse that defines the idea of a digital humanities ‘citizen.’”   Similarly, Tara McPherson has argued that we must see the evolution of DH as a field shaped by structural inequalities – of race, class and gender – which accompanied the rise of computation technologies.


A Knitted View

These are much needed interventions, and help us to understand the evolution of our field as one in which certain groups have been marginalized and others have been centered. These conversations also mirror methodological debates within history about whose voices to elevate, and under what circumstances. This paper complements extant work by arguing that theoretical interventions concerning current structural inequalities must be brought to bear on the past, and that digital methodologies are ideally suited to elevating subsumed voices in the present. It further demonstrates that these projects, the theories that underlie them, and current work to make DH more equable should be read together to further the practice of digital history and humanities “from below.”


Bastian, J. (2003). Owning Memory: How a Caribbean Community Lost Its Archives and Found Its History. Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited.

Bhattacharya, S. (1983). ‘History from Below.’ Social Scientist, 3–20.

Farge, A. (2015). The Allure of the Archives, New Haven: Yale University Press

Fuentes, M. (2010). Power and Historical Figuring: Rachael Pringle Polgreen’s Troubled Archive. Gender & History 22, no. 3: 564–84.

Gallman, R. (1977). Some Notes on the New Social History. The Journal of Economic History 37, no. 1: 3–12.

Koh, A. (2014). Niceness, Building, and Opening the Genealogy of the Digital Humanities: Beyond the Social Contract of Humanities Computing. Differences 25, no. 1: 93–106. doi:10.1215/10407391-2420015.

McPherson, T. (2012). Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? Or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation. in Gold, M (ed) Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Trouillot, M. (1995). Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Beacon Press.



[1] These might include work like Ben Schmidt’s, elaboration upon late twentieth-century cliometrics and use of “big data” methods to explore historical sources (http://benschmidt.org/projects/digital-humanities-research/); maps like Vincent Brown’s “Slave Revolt in Jamaica” which uses sources produced by slaveholders to argue for the agency and tactical prowess of enslaved people (http://revolt.axismaps.com/map/); and Michelle Moravec’s use of metadata to “unghost” lesbian women in the past (http://michellemoravec.com/).

One more opinion on open sourcing history

I’ve just recently gotten on twitter, and I’m mostly using it to track what other history/digital humanities people are saying about the world.  It’s not surprising (though new to me) that there’s a lot of great linking and sharing about history going on through twitter, nor that a lot of people who are inclined to be “twitterstorians” are also interested in the relationship between history and digital humanities, so that’s a lot of what’s been cycling through my reader recently.

Something that’s come up with fair regularity is how historians might go about open sourcing their work.  I first came across this idea via Timothy Burke’s project to collect and make public his reading notes but within the last month there’s been some more discussion about exactly how we might go about open sourcing our notes, as people in the sciences are starting to do.  Caleb McDaniel outlined some of the possibilities, as well as the pitfalls of making our notes available, as I think some scholars are already using blogs to do – to quote Tim Hitchcock, quoted in another recent twitter discovery, his Historyonics blog is there to “upload bits and pieces that he would not otherwise publish in any other form.”  While what those bits and pieces are certainly changes over the life of a project, in the early stages – for me at least – I tend to post random things I find in archives that tickle me, or seem odd, or just interesting.  As the project progresses, I try out ideas, or illustrations, or maps, and by the end, I usually feel up to talking about the process.  Rinse.  Repeat.  So ultimately for me, this space is basically a commonplace book.  Other bloggers’ mileage may vary.

I think that McDaniel is right that open sourcing the kind of work we do on projects is very different from open sourcing scientific work.  For one thing, much of the legwork – perhaps akin to collecting experimental data in terms of place-in-process and time – is finding archives and transcribing information.  While some people work from readily available and widely known archives, others work painstakingly to track a story or character across different manuscript collections, and sharing that work feels a bit like giving away the whole ballgame.  I’m sure that at least some of this anxiety comes of being a junior scholar with limited publications, and from the many horror stories I’ve recently heard about work being “scooped” from Proquest-published dissertations or conference papers, but I also know that it’s an anxiety I share

Because of these reservations, I was excited to read Kris Schaffer’s suggestion that sharing platforms might be used for pedagogy as well as research notes. The world of syllabi  already seems to be a very sharey one – facilitated by H-net lists as well as colleges and universities that post syllabi online – but one where attribution is tricky.  If, for example, colleague A were borrow a semester structure wholesale from colleague B who’s posted theirs online, there’s been no way for A to let B know that their syllabus is being used, to share changes A has made, or feedback on how certain things worked or didn’t work.  Perhaps more importantly, there’s no way for B to know that A has appropriated their intellectual property for their own uses.  There’s no way for them to report back that something didn’t work, or that they made vital changes.  I love the idea of using something like GitHub to share this kind of pedagogical stuff, because it seems to give us a way to do better what some are doing already.

In that spirit, I’m going to try and provide a running commentary here on my experiences teaching the U.S. survey for the first time this fall – what’s worked, what hasn’t, what I’ll be doing differently when I teach it again in the spring.  It’s a terrifying prospect to lay bare my possible future pedagogical failures, but it seems like a good exercise in both practicing what I preach, and in being really mindful of that teaching.

Unlikely confluences

Project Runway is a guilty pleasure of mine – I’m not generally a huge fan of the reality tv genre, but I do love shows that showcase expertise (Julia Child on The French Chef is my tv chicken soup when I’m sick.)  This season, a native woman, Patricia Michaels, made it to the final round of the show, and was quite vocal about the importance of “a native woman showing in her own country.”

Today, I had the pleasure of attending the Rethinking Land and Language symposium at Columbia.  Through two round tables – one on the idea of land, and one on the idea of language in native studies – panelists discussed the current state of indigenous studies.  I’m a latecomer to the field – most of my familiarity with indigenous studies has been born of the article I’m finishing on the Cherokee and Choctaw donations to Irish famine relief – so I spent most of the day scribbling down references for things I must read, and must do, before this article gets sent out.  Even so, one of the most significant moments for me was J. Kēhaulani Kauanui talking about the ways in which the historical profession sometimes treats colonialism, and particularly the colonization of native peoples, as an historical, rather than a present phenomenon.  The audience was challenged to think about why scholars who write about native peoples don’t engage with theories of indigeneity, and why early modern Americanists in particular seem reluctant to present at native studies conferences.  There’s a lot to think about coming out of this symposium, but I was happy to see, when I got home to watch Project Runway, the presence of native voices on popular television, and not just native voices, but a native woman, and not just a native woman, but a native woman critiquing settler colonialism. 

Post-defense euphoria

It’s been a week plus since I defended, and while I’m very excited to have passed this particular milestone, I also sometimes feel like there’s a dissertation shaped hole in my life that needs filling.  One of the major themes of the defense was how to take a series of narratives about discrete geographic spaces, and make them into a cohesive scholarly monograph, so much like when I began this project five years ago, I’m going back to the secondary literature to begin thinking about relating the research I’ve done to broader themes of stitial and imperial governance, and the moral authority that giving lent to donors who might not otherwise have the means – social or economic – to voice their opinions on how their governments were taking care of them.

I’m also using the next few months to learn more about the opportunities afforded by GIS.  I was at a talk yesterday at NYU’s humanities initiative on deep mapping (like deep narrative) that raised a whole host of possibilities for creating a digital component of my dissertation research.  In many ways (and despite William Cronon’s dispiriting story of undergraduates who were unable to tell the difference between books and websites in the most recent AHR) textual narratives are the best ways to tell stories about the political possibilities afforded by famine philanthropy, but some kind of visual aspect is needed, I think, to really give a sense of the extent of donations.  I’m sure that static images would do this just fine, but I hope to really get into dynamic visualizations as another way to tell stories about nineteenth-century donors.

In my dream world, and with infinite resources, there are two projects here.  The first would map participation in Irish famine relief projects, showing both from where, and in what amounts donations came, and the ways in which news of the famine spread over time.  The second is somewhat more ambitious.  Having spoken with other people who work on nineteenth-century philanthropy, I think that it would be really productive to have a collaborative, searchable online database of participants in nineteenth-century philanthropic projects.  In a perfect world, anyone could upload both images of donor lists and enter donors’ names in a shared database, which would link multiple contributions to different organizations made by the same donor.  This would require a platform like Zooniverse, or the NYPL’s digital menu project, but might – if enough people working on enough different philanthropic projects – produce a really robust source for studying historical philanthropy.

Forming Nations, Reforming Empires

It was a long time (more than 3 years from the first conference meetings to now) in the making, but the special issue of Early American Studies that I co-edited and co-wrote the introduction to is “live” on Project Muse, and paper copies are wending their way from Penn Press.  Historians don’t tend to write with other people, and learning to do so was a challenge, but I think that the issue and our introduction to it are much better for both Jerusha and my contributions.  It was a great learning experience, and I’m both delighted with the final product, and to have completed this particular project.

“Are you a math person? You look like a math person.”

Having submitted my dissertation for review, I find myself with some time on my hands.  While many people have suggested that this would be an opportune moment to relax my father, who is also an academic, suggested that it merely freed up time to begin new projects! Write articles! Learn new skills!  Having taken one morning off this week to drink cocoa and read a novel, I think I’m all done relaxing and ready to get started.

A few years ago, after a thrilling session on network analysis at the AHA, I decided that I was going to teach myself network analysis.  That, much like undergraduate attempts in stat classes on linear regression analysis populated by econ majors, didn’t go quite as planned, and I mostly gave up and began to rely in IBM’s online ManyEyes software, which produces nice, if slightly clunky visual representations of data.  But just yesterday, I received notice of Indiana University’s free MOOC on information visualization (referred to as IVMOOC, which is really quite fun to say), which is offered just when I need something to occupy my time/keep me from compulsively re-editing a document I’ve already turned in.  The preliminary survey for the course suggests that it’s mostly geared towards people who already have data-driven backgrounds, so for the next eight weeks, I expect to feel much like I did when confronted with Chi-squared problems in my senior year of college – completely over my head, but having loads of fun.

At the same time, I also hope to get acquainted with the open source Quantum GIS software, which seems like it would be a pretty nifty way to deal with the map-making problems I’ve been confronting recently.

Also revising one article.  Also writing another article about the movement of information in the mid-nineteenth century, which hopefully utilizes some of what I’ve picked up from IVMOOC and Quantum GIS.

At any rate, the enthusiasm made possible by my new-found time must have been obvious to the woman sitting next to me during my novel-reading/cocoa-drinking morning off.  As she got up from her seat next to me at the cafe, she turned and said “Are you a math person?  You look like a math person.”  We’ll see.

Donor demography

An item titled “donor demography” is always on my to-do list – I have a database with the names of over 5,000 individuals and groups who gave to famine relief, and there always seems to be something more I could be doing with that data.  I’ve been playing around with a sample of 120 American donors.  Telling a story about these people is tricky.

The easiest, and most bloodless approach is a statistical one:

In a sample of 12o donors, the largest single donation came from the Society of Friends in Philadelphia, who in February of 1847 collected $7,200.  The smallest donation was of $1, and came from a “Friend of Ireland” somewhere in the vicinity of Charleston.  The average donation was $443, but the most commonly donated amount was $5.  The median donation was $50, and the geographic distribution of this sample (drawn from Charleston and New York Newspapers) shows donors scattered across the United States.

Another approach is to break them up into smaller groups, say, professional men (doctors, lawyers, clergymen, judges and military officers); men whose names don’t indicate rank or profession; women;  towns and groups of people, and write a speculative narrative about what might have prompted men or women of a certain type to give.

From February to May of 1847, professional men across the United States contributed to famine relief.  Some, like the Reverend Jas. Dupree of Summerville, South Carolina, gave as little as $3, while others like Dr. Benjamin Waldo, gave as much as $200.  In the 1850s, a skilled laborer could make, at most $300 in a year, so the doctor’s donation certainly, and Reverend Dupree’s donation possibly represented a sizable portion of their household income.  A significant majority of these men worked with a church in some capacity, suggesting that frequent exposure to doctrines of virtue through charity might have effectively encouraged some to give.  These men also would have had access to the dominant newspapers of the day – easily affording penny periodicals like the New York Sun or Charleston Courierand would consequently have been exposed to many of the circulating ideas about Americans’ obligations to the suffering Irish.

Finally, one of these donors from one of these groups, say “Dr. Reynolds” of Camden, SC, might be used to extrapolate the possible charitable motivations of men.

This “Dr. Reynolds” could have been any one of three Reynolds men living in Camden in 1840 (or someone else entirely, who emigrated in the intervening seven years).  All three Reynolds residents of Camden owned slaves.

There, the trail goes cold.  I could, with infinite time and resources, track down all of the donors mentioned in the records of famine charities, and that’s actually something I aspire to do some day, but those people who are recoverable from mid-nineteenth-censuses will likely prove to be remarkable in some way – an uncommon name or profession, or living in an uncommon place – rendering them less than ideal examples of the average or exemplary donor.  Ultimately, I’m not convinced that having the stories of five thousands individuals will tell me more than trying to make sense of the groups they belonged to, or how they identified in their communities, but I’m neither sure what the best way to tell their stories is.