During the two weeks of Doing Digital History, I have found some concepts more or less easy to assimilate into my work as a public historian and public history educator. I felt competent and confident when establishing a domain, playing with WordPress, experimenting with Omeka, dabbling with some tools for annotating images, and animating brief stories. I am less comfortable with mapping. In my effort to experiment with Map Warper, a tool that allows users to overlay old maps over recent maps, thereby observing changes in the landscape and re-discovering “lost” neighborhoods or features, I discovered –much to my dismay– that I am a terrible map reader. I found it difficult to identify and mark similar sites on each map, a necessary step that allows the tool to overlay them correctly. That admitted, I am interested in beginning with some simple tools that will allow me and my students to situate historical narratives in both place and time. Starting with a relatively simple –and easier to use– tool like Story Map will serve as a point of entry, and allow me to work my way toward more complex mapping projects.
I more tentative about text mining and distant reading. I’m still not sure I recognize its potential for my own research, and I suspect this is the digital realm I am least likely to put to use in the immediate future.
That said, I may play with Voyant in my fall public history practicum course. After playing with the technology a bit, I understand that text mining can help my students identify interpretive pathways for a public digital project about slavery and freedom on the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania. Mapping patterns of word use and syntax will encourage students to think more critically about the different uses of words in private contexts and in legal contexts, about the ways in which word use and meanings changed across state boundaries, and about the words chosen by free people to describe the experience of freedom in and near a border state. Encouraging my students to play will, I think, help me understand text mining and its value for research and analysis.
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.