Perhaps it was a bit of a “cheat” to use my own book chapter to experiment with Wordle, but it did help me understand the potential educational value of the word cloud. More than simply an attractive display of textual elements, the cloud helps draw attention to major themes. The first chapter of my book traces the development of federal collections of material culture and the gradual acceptance of scientific research as relevant in the public sector. For first time readers, then, noting the dominance of words like “collections” and “research” alongside “federal government” in the first chapter could help clarify the main argument and enable a more efficient reading strategy.
As a public historian and an American Studies PhD (and BA for that matter), I have long worked with non-textual sources: material artifacts, photographs, oral histories, folkways, etc.
Nonetheless, today’s conversation in Doing Digital History pushed me a bit outside my comfort zone by pressing me to think about what it means to approach all sources as “data.” Our lively and fascinating guest instructor, Mike O’Malley, asked us to consider landscapes of sound and to examine the ways in which they have been re-configured over time. Sound Studies, as O’Malley explained them, have raised some interesting questions: when does sound become noise? how has the experience of listening to music changed over time? Yet, much of the work seems overly focused on technical evidence. Digital environments allow scholars to graph and map sound as form and to focus on its mechanical production. Yet, it seems that sometimes the function, creation, use, context, and reception –all elements of the human experience– are irretrevable. While it is clear that technical data charting changes in sound have interpretive value, the approach felt –for me– too detached from questions of human value and meaning-making.
During discussion, O’Malley offered a critique of historical reenactors as an analogy. He argued that their effort to understand the meaning of the past is misleading because it is attached to microscopic detail; reenactors focus is so much on the trees, that they miss out on a approaching a deeper understanding of the forest. Yet, some sound scholars’ focus on sound charts, combined with a reluctance to think about sound as only a small part of a much larger and more dynamic cultural environment seems potentially to have the same shortcoming. Can we really understand a sound landscape without considering all of its elements: human as well as mechanical?
My focus was a bit skewed during class. I was so interested in learning about Sound Studies as a body of scholarship, that I wasn’t terribly successful in thinking about how this might relate to to my foray into digital history. Nonetheless, I was interested in the examples that O’Malley provided about how non-text based productions can be used in a digital environment for teaching, learning, and research. I can imagine value in producing short digital stories or podcasts for students or other learning communities. I’m not yet sure how –or if– my current projects are appropriate for experimenting with sound or video, but I am certain that digitization will provide me with a venue for associating various kinds of data: textual, visual, audio, and material. I’m also starting to wonder how reducing evidence to “data” will impact my interest in remaining focused on the inconsistent, stubborn, difficult-to-categorize human dimension of social and cultural life.
James O. Horton was my mentor, and I was his graduate research assistant when he began work on the book Slavery and Public History. That book identified some of the specific ways that the history of slavery remains a “problem” in public discourse, at historic sites, in preservation, and elsewhere. I assign the book regularly. The recent creation of Harriet Tubman National Historic Site presents an opportunity for us to re-think the public history of slavery, to create new modes of story telling, to identify new questions that will feel relevant to site visitors, and to use new methods for engaging audiences in the interpretation of a difficult past. This fall, I will be partnering with the Maryland State Archives Legacy of Slavery project on a public history practicum class. Students will identify the problem that slavery has posed in the realm of public history. They will conduct research to find compelling stories that demonstrate why it matters when different states have different laws governing freedom, different definitions of migration, and different attitudes toward “catching” and “kidnapping.” They will work with specialists from the UMBC New Media Studio to develop digital stories. In the meantime, during our two week workshop, I am also looking for ideas about how best to collect, map, present, and preserve this work so that the project can be ongoing.