Google map engine and Charleson donors

Although the Google map engine API is meant for businesses, there’s a lite version for non-business map geeks.  I like this tool because it’s easy to embed a lot of data into the map.  Here’s a quick version of the Charleston famine donors map that I’d previously made just using Google maps and dropping “pins” in places where donors were located:

All of these donations were printed in Charleston newspapers, and when I first started mapping them I was struck that (1) many of the donors printed in Charleston papers didn’t seem to live in Charleston and (2) how many of them were slaveowners.
The new map is here.

On starting new projects

I’m deep in the next-year’s-research planning phase of the summer, which is mostly comprised of figuring out what other donor communities I want to look at for the book manuscript.  I chose sites for the dissertation largely based on news production – locales in which a lot of news was being produced, reproduced and consumed – but for the book I’ve been thinking about how to better center the experiences of non-elite donors, which means looking for places from which donations flowed, rather than places in which people were merely reading about the famine in Ireland.  As part of this, and as part of a related project to collect the names of donors to a wide range of 19th century philanthropic projects, I’ve been working on a database which tracks not only individual donations, but also biographical information about donors.  I’ve been using this data – and in particular donations to national famine relief funds (the American Society of Friends rather than the New York Irish relief committee, for example) to try to map places where donations came from, but that I haven’t yet explored.

So: a very few, very preliminary findings:

  • Most of these donations are coming from cities.
  • Many are on behalf of relief committees of entire cities – it’s not clear yet whether these are Quaker relief committees or ones without religious (or with another religious) affiliation, but I hope that’s something I’ll be able to check out at the Haverford Quaker archives.
  • Of those donations made on behalf of urban relief committees, the people doing the collecting were almost entirely merchants.

The orange circles are the places I’ve yet to explore – lots to do!

CRC donor locales

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.

New York City directories/digital almshouse

Years ago I worked with Marion Casey of NYU’s Ireland House to put together a database of Irish-born admissions to the Bellevue Almshouse between 1845 and 1852.  At the time, Bellevue was the only place that destitute or sick people in the city of New York could go for relief (this was before quarantine institutions like Ellis Island, and before dedicated hospitals for particular illnesses, like those on then-Blackwell’s, now-Roosevelt Island).  We’re returning to the project this summer, to try to find some way to make the nearly 10,000 entries, which include name, profession and reason for admission – fruitful fodder for historians of immigration and public health alike – available to the public. 

In the process of starting this work, though, I came across this handy collection of New York city directories from the 17th to 20th centuries.  Neat!

100 Years of Isis

For those history of science types out there, I just finished working on a project with David Hubbard, Anouk Lang, Kathleen Reed and Lyndsay Troyer for the (now completed) IVMOOC on the History of Science Society’s journal, Isis.  We ended up with a visualization that tracked changes in authors’ locations from 1913-1937 to 1988-2012, and also mapped the dominant themes in Isis article titles from 1913 to the present.  There’s probably still a lot to do with the history of the journal, but I think we made a pretty good start.

100 Years of Isis8567870268_40c9dd6c70_c

Pedagogy, performance and the MOOC

Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) is a term that’s always struck me as a little tongue-in-cheek, aiming for hyperbole before we’ve even figured out the best ways to use them.  I also think that the term is useful because it’s fun to say – I’m taking a MOOC at the moment on strategies for information visualization, and simply being able to say “IVMOOC” on a daily basis has made the process that much more fun.  I suppose somewhere on the internet there’s always a flurry of discussion around things like digital pedagogy, but that flurry has been intersecting with my life quite a lot of late – most recently in Thomas Friedman’s piece today about the ways in which MOOCs produce celebrity professors.

I think that Friedman is right that MOOCs are more or less here to stay, and that while schools, professors and students are still figuring out how they can work best/better, the MOOC revolution has come.  Where I ran into trouble was this paragraph:

We demand that plumbers and kindergarten teachers be certified to do what they do, but there is no requirement that college professors know how to teach. No more. The world of MOOCs is creating a competition that will force every professor to improve his or her pedagogy or face an online competitor.

The somewhat flip suggestion that people with advanced degrees who teach in colleges haven’t been “certified to do what they do” seems a little straw-mannish to me.  At least on paper, many terminal degree programs, from DFAs to PHDs include some measure of pedagogical training – or at least the possibility of pedagogical training for those who think they might want to go into teaching.  In many places, though, this training is “hands on” – through positions as graders, TAs or course instructors.  We’re meant to learn on our feet gradually (at my institution, at least), first by figuring out how to fairly grade undergraduate essays, then in the relatively structured environment of the recitation section, and finally in classrooms of our own.  So the training is there.  Friedman is right, however, that many institutions don’t give the kind of directed pedagogical training that we get with regards to our research. (This isn’t true in all places, and I’d venture a guess that most PhD programs have some mechanism for pedagogical training, even if it’s not formally built into the curriculum).  Those of us who want more vis-a-vis pedagogy are  free to find it, but we mostly learn by watching and doing, and then go out and do, to be watched, by a whole new generation of students.

I’d also venture that what Friedman is talking about is as much about presentation as it is about good pedagogy.  Understanding how to tailor a syllabus to a class full of students with very different learning styles is, I think, a sign of a good teacher, but that probably doesn’t translate particularly well to the filmed MOOC environment.  On the other hand, people who are professional performers know that it can take an awful lot of work to learn how to project charisma, confidence and character on stage or film.  Whether we like it or not, students consuming MOOC material seem as likely to react positively to that as they do to the actual content of the course.  This isn’t to say that I think that all academics need acting lessons, but only that things are a little more complicated than what Friedman is calling for in that paragraph.

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.

Famine data

One of the secondary questions of my research has been what themes in famine reporting were dominant among all famine reports in different locales.  What, for instance, was the most common framework for famine reporting in New York in 1847, and how did that differ from the frameworks employed in Britain, the American South or Indian Territory.  I’ve tried a few really clunky ways of representing this, by tracking the number of iterations of certain themes by place and time.  (I should say that these are themes I’ve assigned myself – they differ somewhat from place to place, with major overlaps – and include references to the availability of potato (coded as “potato”), appeals for aid (coded as “appeals”) and discussions of American obligation (coded as “American sympathy”).  As a result, these themes are somewhat subjective – the next step in this visualization is to mine the text of all of the reports I’ve collected, but that’s for another day)

Anyway, as part of this IVMOOC I’m taking while biding time before my defense/trying to grapple with data in a more systematic way, I learned about “burst analysis.”  Basically, this is a way of tracking increased incidences of certain words in articles/titles/subject headings/whatever over time.  Jon Kleinberg, who developed this kind of analysis, describes it as a way of tracking “the appearance of a topic in a document stream [a]s signaled by a “burst of activity,” with certain features rising sharply in frequency as the topic emerges.” So basically, a topic “bursts” when it is discussed with greater and greater frequency (as determined by a set of key words) and the burst ends when that frequency dips.  There’s a lot of math involved in figuring out the “burstiness” of any given theme, but the fabulous Sci2 tool thankfully does all that for me.

So, here’s my first attempt to map “bursts” in famine reporting themes:

I think there are a few interesting things about this visualization, which I’ve intuited but never really seen so clearly.  The first is that the major themes I’ve highlighted in my dissertation “burst” at very different times.  I suspect that this has to do with the speed at which news traveled in the mid-nineteenth century, but the fact that the newspapers of the urban South contained an uptick in discussions about immigration in 1849 is interesting as well.  I also love the little blip of interest in nationalism in New York in the middle of 1847 – there’s a much more extended discussion of the problems facing the Irish nation in 1848, but perhaps later references to nationalism didn’t occur rapidly enough to constitute a “burst.”

Mass observation

I was living in Cork for the last inauguration, but came home from the archives early to watch.  Though Twitter existed in 2009, trending hash-tags were not yet a “thing,” and one group tried to track impressions of Obama’s first inauguration using the Mass Observation technique pioneered in Britain in the mid-20th century.  The January the 20th project tracked international impressions of the inauguration, and posted them with little analysis.  The original Mass Observation project is searchable by topic, and includes diaries, surveys and photographs.  The dominant themes include “sexual behavior,” “reading habits” and “bird watching.”  Twitter is something like a perpetual modern-day Mass Observation – there were more than 14,000 tweets per minute during today’s inauguration ceremony.  Trending topics included the musical performances, #inaug2013, #fourmoreyears, and FLOTUS’s bangs.