Egalitarianism of the dead

We’ve reached the half-way point in the semester, which means that my students have turned in and received midterm grades (for this Tumblr archiving and contextualizing examples of digital death) and I have received my midterm course evaluations.  One of the requests for the second half of the semester is that the learning goals of the course be updated to reflect progress so far.  This has gotten me to thinking about what I’d *like* them to answer if faced with Caleb McDaniel’s (excellent) course eval question  – “what is the most important thing you have learned in this class?”

For me, one of the most important theme of the semester has been the ways in which structures of power and inequality play out, even in death.  This should come as no surprise.  Power, deployed through assumptions and expectations about gender, class, race and more, shapes most aspects of our lives.  It is in no way shocking that it might also shape our deaths.

These structures of death and inequality were made visible in a field trip we took today to the Christian Aid Society cemetery.  This block of land – carved out of the farm of a local elite in the early 20th century – contains graves that date back to the early 1910s, but is also a still functioning grave yard.  Most of those interred here are African American, and while some worked for the college, it is not official college space.  It is an evocative place – the stones are not ordered in neat rows, and more than a few are marked “unknown” or with the small metal plaques that funeral homes leave as temporary stand-ins for gravestones, but which remain the only identifier for years-old graves.

Christian Aid Society Marker

Christian Aid Society Cemetery

This cemetery stands in marked contrast to the space owned by Davidson College, which is reserved for those affiliated with the College.  As a result, without any overt policy of class or racial segregation, it is space in which overwhelmingly white and elite people are interred.

Davidson College Cemetery

While I hope that these students leave the semester with a better grasp of how theory has practical application, with some understanding of what it means to memorialize and learn, I hope that one of the biggest take-homes will be about the ways in which structural inequalities manifest in death and how those inequalities in turn shape the production of historical sources, the curation of archives, the preservation of some materials, and the neglect of others.

[Trigger Warning]

‘Tis the season for making spring semester syllabi, and I thought I’d share the trigger warning statement that I’ve developed over the past year or so.  I’m sure it’s far from perfect, but I’m hoping that it addresses the needs of students who do have PTSD (or other traumatic) reactions, while still maintaining a rigorous classroom environment.  Many things have been written about trigger warnings, and I tend to fall into the camp of thinking that the good they do for students who really need them is bigger than the harm caused by students who abuse them.  So far, this policy has worked fairly well (at least, from my perspective) – allowing students the flexibility to attend to their own mental health while unpholding accountability.



There has been a lot of discussion recently about “trigger warnings” – indicators that something so disturbing as to make participation difficult (i.e. death, dismemberment, assault, gore) will be covered in a particular class. To the best of my knowledge, we will not be dealing with these types themes in this class, but the history of [class topic] can be complicated, and I can’t guarantee that any of your projects or our readings won’t brush up against something that might be triggering. During the semester, I’ll do my best to be transparent about when we’ll be engaging with issues that I anticipate might be particularly troubling, and I ask you to come see me if you have any concerns about topics that might actively disrupt your ability to participate in this course. If such issues do arise, I will work with you to find alternate assignments, or to strategically pick which classes to skip. Remember that you may skip up to three classes with no attendance penalty, and that you are free to use those absences for whatever purpose you wish – inclusive of potentially triggering material. [my school mandates that student athletes be allowed to miss a certain number of classes depending on the frequency of course meetings – I extend this to all students]

A year of #dh and the Davidson archives

(Cross-posted at Around the D)

Over the past two semesters, I’ve had the privilege of trying out some new course ideas that blended digital humanities and archival work.  The challenge of bringing #dh into archives and archives into #dh is that it can actually be quite a chore to translate historical data – as transcribed in minute books, maps, or letters – into a form that works for #dh visualizations and research.  This year, I had two students whose projects used “analog” material from the Davidson Archives to create interesting and captivating digital artifacts, each of which showcased something new about Davidson history.  These projects speak for themselves, but I thought I’d say a little about the process that each undertook to get from poring over manuscripts in the rare books room to these digital explorations of Davidson’s past.

Mapping Davidson’s Environmental History

Sarah Roberts, a senior Environmental Studies major, undertook the impressive task of charting Davidson’s environmental development over time.  Using maps like this one

Davidson shrubbery, 1983-4

– and many more besides, she created a series of visualizations that documented different aspects of Davidson’s environmental history at different points in time.  This was not an easy process.  For each of the maps she used, she had to trace the outlines of important features (buildings, athletics fields, a briefly-present lake) and color code them according to their purpose.

She brought all of these together in an environmental studies capstone project, but also in a dynamic website which takes users through the spatial history of Davidson College and a bit of the town.



Mapping Davidson’s Institutional History

Avery Haller, a senior anthropology major also used the Davidson archives, but instead of tracking Davidson’s spatial history, she was interested in the college’s social and institutional history.  Avery used the minutes of the Concord Presbytery, the Presbyterian group which was prompted by “the closing of Liberty Hall Academy (now Washington and Lee University) due to a massive fire” to found “a new place close to home to send their young men to school.”

Using documents like this one (which, happily, were transcribed):

Concord Presbytery Minutes-March 1835


she was able to extract social networks – the ties that bound the various men (and they were all men) involved in Davidson’s founding together. (She describes the technical part of this process here)


The finished network

Ultimately, Avery concluded that both a close reading of the sources and a systematic analysis of connections among Davidson’s founders revealed “a picture of Davidson … that blend[ed] conservative values and an entrepreneurial spirit.”


Together, these projects point to the innovative work that can emerge when traditional historical materials are deployed in new ways.  However, both of these projects took an extraordinary amount of time to accomplish – since before they could begin their analysis, both Avery and Sarah had to render historical “data” legible for digital tools.  As one student noted in my class’s final presentations “As most of you have found, data entry is kind of tedious,” but I hope that these projects can help convince students and researchers alike that the intersection of #dh and archives can lead to some fruitful and interesting results.

Imaginotrasnference technology -or- books as technology

I’m teaching a class on early American communication technology/introduction to digital history next (almost this!) semester.  For one of the early classes, I wanted to drive home how books (and pens and paper and presses etc.) fit into a history of technology.  While there are some great theoretical articles on book-as-tech, I ended up going with an extended quotation from Jasper Fforde’s The Well of Lost Plots, on the genealogy of books – and then I made an infographic:

Book technology infographic-01

“First there was OralTrad, upgraded ten thousand years later by the rhyming (for easier recall) OralTradPlus. For thousands of years this was the only Story Operating System and it is still in use today. The system branched in two about twenty thousand years ago; on one side with CaveDaub Pro (forerunner of Paint Plus V2.3, GrecianUrn VI.2, Sculpt- Marble VI.4 and the latest, all-encompassing Super Artistic Expression-5). The other strand, the Picto-Phonetic Storytelling Systems, started with ClayTablet V2.1 and went through several competing systems (Wax-Tablet, Papyrus, VellumPlus) before merging into the award-winning SCROLL, which was upgraded eight times to V3.5 before being swept aside by the all new and clearly superior BOOK VI. Stable, easy to store and transport, compact and with a workable index, BOOK has led the way for nearly eighteen hundred years.

When we first came up with the ‘page’ concept in BOOK VI, we thought we’d reached the zenith of story containment — compact, easy to read, and by using integrated PageNumberTM and SpineTitleTM technologies, we had a system of indexing far superior to anything SCROLL could offer. Over the years . . . . we have been refining the BOOK system. Illustrations were the first upgrade at 1.1, standardized spelling at V3.1 and vowel and irregular verb stability in V4.2. Today we use BOOK V8.3, one of the most stable and complex imaginotransference technologies ever devised — the smooth transfer of the written word into the reader’s imagination has never been faster.”



End-of-the-semester Review

Back in 2011, ProfHacker recommended (and has continued annually to recommend) an end-of-semester re-cap.  Now that my students’ final projects are in, I thought it would be a good time to publicly take stock of what worked, what didn’t, and what’s next.

What worked really well for each course you taught?

I’m lucky enough to be a postdoc this year, so I was only responsible for one course – Digital Maps, Space and Place.  This was my first time teaching a course “native” to Digital Studies – that is, one that didn’t combine digital humanities methods into a history course, but was designed to put those methods at the center of what happened in my classroom.  I was afraid that students would have trouble learning the many new technologies that I threw at them, and I was pleased to find that they were willing to take on tools that they were previously totally unfamiliar with.  I’m hoping to lean into this willingness more in future, and spend a bit less time teaching the tools, and a little more talking about the theory behind tool design.  I hope that this will prove engaging for students, and will also make it easier to link what I teach with theoretical debates in other disciplines.

What didn’t?

Having never taught a technical skills-based class before, I struggled early on to figure out how to teach tools.  Talking students through step-by-step was fairly boring (for them and for me) and meant that they didn’t necessarily retain what we’d done in class without a tutorial hand out.  I ended up borrowing some techniques from colleagues in the sciences, and asking students to work on a small problem on their own at home (in lieu of lab time) and to bring projects in process (of either success or failure) to class where we could work on them as a group.

What ideas did you form that could be applied the next time you teach this course?

In addition to leaning into students’ embrace of new tools, I also want to lean into a lab model for the humanities.  In the spring, I’m teaching a class on information and communication technology in Antebellum America, and I’m using a group work format borrowed from a colleague in history.  Students work in groups to produce collective historiographies, primary source analyses and archive reviews, before turning to individual and self-directed projects.  I’m hoping that these groups – which remain static over the course of the semester – will provide students with a small learning community, and a support group for developing their own work.

I was also much more comfortable this semester changing things on the fly if what I was doing didn’t work.  In the past, when teaching classes I’m more familiar with, I’ve adhered to a pretty strict schedule, but I liked the flexibility of throwing a lesson plan out and starting from scratch the day before if the previous class had opened up new possibilities.  I do worry about unnerving those students who meticulously plan out the semester, but I’m convinced that a bit of spontaneity can be good for pedagogy, and for course morale.

Did you tuck away any digital or printed materials that you think would be great for inclusion the next time around?

Well, today I spent a lot of time tooling around in the U.S. Patent office online archive.  I’d not thought about using that next semester, but I might build it in.  I’m also excited about using the Davidson College Archives to show students what the architecture (both physical and informational) of an archive looks like before sending them off to evaluate digital ones.


How will you know where to look for these materials when it comes time for you to teach the course again?

When in doubt, !

Becoming digital historians

Over at the Imperial and Global Forum blog, David Thackeray is writing about the challenges posed by readily available digitized newspapers.  He closes by noting:

“[Digital archives] are clearly invaluable and make possible research avenues that would clearly not have been possible only a few years ago, providing an invaluable supplement to the traditional archival trawl and offering us new opportunities to understand transnational connections. However, it is important that a generation of digitally native students (and perhaps more importantly a generation of austerity-era politicians) do not see research as something that is done chiefly on a laptop.”

I suspect that most historians would agree, and that most have thought about the implications of the widespread digitization of some (though, as Thackeray rightly notes, by no means all) archives.  It also seems to me that the fact that historians are thinking about the archival problems posed by digital sources – the incorrect impression that all sources are digitized, that some reside behind paywalls, that a profit motive often defines which sources get digitized which don’t etc. – means that many who still practice “traditional” historical methods are also beginning to practice digital history, at least in terms of how they talk about access to sources in their undergraduate classrooms.

To that end, I thought I’d share a piece I recently wrote for NYU’s Graduate History Student Association teaching handbook – a sort of “listicle” (though I can’t convey how much I truly hate that word) of the benefits and pitfalls of bringing digital sources and methods into the classroom.


So, I talked about maps and the west

On Tuesday, I was invited to speak in a colleague’s class about mapping and the American West.  I tried to avoid just showing the students a bunch of maps of Western space, but instead talked about how ideas about the West were constructed, how they changed over time, and how the Turnerian idea that the emptyness and violence of the West “made” American identity should be confounded by evidence that native peoples and other Euro-Americans had quite a good sense of Western space, even before Lewis and Clark went out to map it.  These shouldn’t be revelations to historians, but I’d like to think that I persuaded these students that understanding ideas about space is essential to understanding the West more broadly, and that cartography is a way into how people imagined space.

I thought I’d share the Prezi I made for my talk – most of the images are from the David Rumsey Map Collection, though I was particularly inspired by Bethany Nowviskie’s recent article to include some of the penmanship maps produced by Frances Alshop Henshaw.

At any rate, here is the Prezi:

Once more unto the maps, my friend.

I’m running out of pithy titles for posts about mapping.

But – I am incredibly excited for my Fall class, beginning one week from today, on digital mapping.  The full syllabus is here and the course offers a humanities introduction to digital and interactive mapping technologies.  As with many things, I’m taking a rather broad view of what constitutes a map.  The Guardian’s recent post on statues that speak seem, to me, to fall under the broad umbrella of spatial thinking, as do the soundmaps that Google is now beginning to play with.  Then there are more serious analytical maps, like the Washington Post’s storymap of Ferguson.  Students are going to design and carry out final projects having to do with the space of Davidson College, and I hope to get some interesting engagements with history, cartography and narrative thinking.

Happy new semester, all!