Category Archives: Slavery and Freedom

Data, Inquiry, and Squirrels

The dog and I were having a philosophical conversation about data on our walk this morning. (I do tend to bounce ideas off of her while we are staring at squirrels.)

During our first week of Doing Digital History, I have been a bit uncomfortable about the relationship between data and research. Talking it over with the beagle, I came to understand why that is. My research process is not terribly systematic. I begin with a general question. In my case, that is often framed as something I want to understand. For example:  I want to understand what it means to practice history as a form of public service. Next, I make decisions about where I might begin to approach that understanding. So:  Federal workers are “civil servants;” how have historians in the federal service conceptualize their work? Finally, I go to primary sources. I allow those sources to re-frame my questions, to open up new questions, and to shape my understanding in ways I did not predict.

I have no idea if this process is an adequate reproduction of “the historical method,” and I’m not sure that really  matters to me. I suspect it is a method that marks me as an interdisciplinary humanist. It probably also figures in my own sense of what it means to define myself as a public historian.

In any case, the beagle and I are discussing these questions of identity and process because I am framing a student-driven research project. I can see that it will be useful for them to assemble data in a tidy fashion so that we can create digital environments for study and interpretation. At the same time, planning for students to mine data  leads me to at least three anxieties:  1. Is it possible, on the cusp of a new research project, to create a data spread sheet that will actually work; that will represent what I want students to find AND will actually predict accurately what they can find.  2. To what extent will framing a data spread sheet in advance limit what students actually DO find? Will the tyranny of the spread sheet encourage students to disregard or simply fail to recognize the value of sources that don’t fit our data parameters? 3. Is there a difference between approaching sources as producers of “data” and approaching sources as windows to understanding?  

The beagle wasn’t sure…. SQUIRREL!

Student Driven Research and Digital History

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.