Writing rubrics is always a challenge for me, especially for projects. I have years of experience grading papers, so I’ve developed a basic rubric that I share with students. However, projects are a challenge. I suppose that’s one reason I rarely have students do projects, and when I have I’ve graded them pass/fail.

I am hoping to see if the group can help me think of how to assess student use of the transatlantic slavery database. I just figured I would have them write a paper based on the database and I would grade the paper like the others. But if there’s a better way to assess their work, I would love to hear about it.

Digital Assignments, Part 2

As discussed in class, I have decided to use the transatlantic slavery database as a way to incorporate the digital humanities in my Human Traditions course. The amount of information on the site can be daunting for students, so I will use class time to introduce the database and for students to play and see what they discover. I think I will use an entire class session for getting acquainted with the site. At the end of the unit (approximately a month, students will have to write a report about what they find. I will have them investigate a broad question, and their report will have to address this question. For example, I might ask, how did the transatlantic slave trade affect the populations in Africa and Brazil. I will then scaffold assignments to help them get at the broader picture.

Assignment #1: What does the database tell us about where in Africa enslaved peoples came from between 1600 and 1888? What kind of questions should we ask about those places and why people were more likely to be enslaved there? How many people were enslaved and where did they come from?

Assignment #2: Where did people from the Gold Coast most commonly end up at the end of the Middle Passage? Based on what we already read, what kind of people did they encounter when they arrived?

Assignment #3: What periods saw an uptick or a decline in slavery imports to Brazil? What variables do you think led to these changes in slave importations?

Digital Assignments

The two thoughts that have preoccupied me regarding incorporating the digital humanities into my course on modern history (aka Human Traditions) are, How much of the course should be devoted to digital humanities’ work, and how complicated should the assignments be?

The course covers the period from 1492 to the present, with faculty given discretion over what themes we cover, what parts of the world we study, and how intensely we study the particular themes or places. For example, we might ask ourselves: should I cover the conquest of the Americas in one class session, one week, or one month. I cover the conquest, slavery in Africa and the New World, the industrial revolution, and then some fairly recent historical topic, such as protests against neoliberalism or the emergence of punk rock.

I am thinking that I will devote between two weeks to a month working with digital humanities and slavery in the New World. Instead of assigning a book on slavery, which I often do, I might assign several articles from academic journals or some slave narratives. Then I will ask the students to use the information from the database on transatlantic slavery to pose questions unaddressed in the readings, or add clarity or empirical nuance to some of the topics addressed in the readings. This way students can see how academics do the work of history, and how statistics help us better understand the slave trade.

Engaging Ideas, Part 2

Bean’s piece on exploratory writing reminded me of my work as a writing tutor as an undergraduate in college, when I first started thinking of writing as a process that begins with the imagination, continues in scattered forms as notes and memos,develops into rough drafts, and culminates in a finished piece of writing that is suitable to hand in to a professor. As an professional academic with a published book, I’ve come to realize that the writing never quite ends–I still rewrite sections of my book while I lay in bed or drive my car. As one professor in college put it, “there’s no such thing as a perfect book.” This fleeting comment left a lasting impression on me, freeing me from the naive notion that I could produce something impervious to critique. It was freeing because it freed me to make mistakes–in fact, to accept that logical inconsistencies, artless prose, poor word choices, etc. are part of the writing process. Since that time, I have come to regard the revision process as key to my writing. All of my writing is a work-in-progress. Ideally, I would stagger my writing assignments to encourage this type of thinking in my students. I do encourage rough drafts, giving students a rough draft due date and a final due date, but I do not make them mandatory. Maybe I should. Here is what I am thinking for my digital project:

Assignment #1: Explore the following website on the transatlantic slave trade:

Questions: What time frames does the database allow us to explore? What are some of the search options? What is some of the basic information that the database offers?

Assignment #2: Search the database for slaves who embarked in Africa and got shipped to North America between the 1520s and 1750. What does the database tell us about transitions–in other words, when does the shipment of slaves spike? Compare the number of slaves who went to North America to those that went to the Spanish Caribbean. What do the numbers tell us about the economic and social changes that took place in North America during this time period?

Assignment #3: Search the database for slaves shipped to the Spanish Caribbean and North America after 1789. Put those numbers in the context of the major changes that unfolded in Europe and the Americas at the time. How do these numbers help us understand these changes?

Assignment #4: Search the database for slaves shipped to the Americas between 1790 and 1888. What regions experienced the largest influx of slave imports? What do these statistics reveal about the development of the slave trade during this time period? What political variables led to the changes in the slave trade after 1790?

Engaging Ideas Reading

This week we were assigned a chapter on integrating writing into our courses. Writing is one of my favorite topics to think about. I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about student writing because I assign writing in all of my courses, and often struggle with how to improve student writing. The problem I face is how to include more writing while continuing to include the same amount of content. In most history courses, we are expected to cover a set chronological time frame. Slowing down to focus on writing would be greatly beneficial to the student, but would make it challenging to cover all the ground we need to cover.

I especially appreciate the author’s advice on breaking down the writing project into a series of short writing assignments. This is what I advise students writing research papers or their thesis. Again, I think it would be beneficial to students working on short papers, but wonder how I can do it without sacrificing the content. This is especially important because the strong writers in the course may be eager to jump in and do more reading, more focuses discussion on the content, and may feel discouraged/bored if we were to focus on types of writing that they already “mastered” in Eng. Comp.

Mapping and History

I really enjoyed Matthew Booker’s “Visualizing San Francisco Bay’s Forgotten Past.” Booker is associated with a major digital humanities project based at Stanford University. The team there is using digital software to construct historical maps that track environmental change over time. I first heard of the project a few years ago when it came to my attention that Zephyr Frank, a historian of modern Brazil, attached himself to the project. I had not read any of the results until reading this piece by Booker.

I am a proponent of using maps in class, for homework, and in general for situating historical events and processes. Booker and his team constructed these maps based on extensive primary-source research on the San Francisco Bay. I appreciate how he emphasizes the importance of narrating the history of human interaction with the geological history of the region. This sort of “big history” gives us a much greater appreciation for human history than projects focusing solely on human endeavors. It is quite time consuming, which makes me wonder if this sort of project is best done in teams.

In fact, that would be one of my questions: are big data projects, or big mapping projects, or extensive digital projects best done in teams? And, if so, how do we get funding sources and University administrators to acknowledge the importance of funding these sorts of projects? Will these big projects be the domain primarily of well-funded institutions, such as Stanford? Or will small schools with few resources be able to conduct these projects at the same or similar levels as the well-heeled schools?

I also took a look at the sites we were asked to explore. I confess that my computer skills are too rudimentary to make sense of them without guidance. I would love to get together with some faculty of IT person to figure them out.

Thematic Research Collections.

This week’s reading once again has us consider the digitization of primary sources, and the aggregation of these sources online. In her piece, Carole Palmer gives builds on Unsworth’s work, providing empirical examples of how digitization enhances collaborative work in the humanities, and going on to make the case that this is scholarly production. To her credit, she does not insist that this is necessarily humanities scholarship, though that does seem to be the subtext, but I could be mistaken.

Palmer, like the directors and producers of the sites that I reviewed on the Omeka Showcase Exhibit site, does not belong to a humanities department. She is affiliated with the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois. Likewise, the producers of the Ann Lewis’ Women’s Suffrage Collection, the Digital Manifesto Archive, the New York Art Research Consortium on the Gilded Age in New York City, the Eastern Oklahoma Tuberculosis Sanatorium, and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History all lack extensive humanities training, or at least credentials. The one exception is the Director of Northeastern University’s Women Writer’s Project, Julia Flanders, who is a Professor of the Practice of English. But of all these sites, she appears to be the only individual with extensive humanities expertise; even her second in command, Syd Bauman, is listed as a programmer, not a humanities scholar. The remaining members listed are encoders. Bauman’s is associated with Digital Scholarship Group, which he lists as a department. This intrigues me. Does Northeastern have a department devoted to the digital humanities? If so, what does that look like? Is it staffed with programmers or scholars or are scholars also programmers?

As for the content of the sites, they vary of course. The Northeastern site is professional. Others are less so. I was excited to find a link to Cyberpunk in the Digital Manifesto Archive, but when I clicked on it there was nothing. That sort of thing is very common with non-professional sites, and I think it speaks to the need for funding to hire people to do a good job. The amateur sites, while potentially useful, lack oversight and are in need of funding. While I love the idea of anyone creating an online archive or thematic research collection, funding and training are often lacking in non-institutionalized online spaces.

I will end by noting that UNESCO, a division of the United Nations I believe, funded an enormous project that led to the digitization of the majority of documents on slavery housed in Colombia’s National Archive. The project highlights both the costs and the great potential of digitization and the creation of thematic research collections.

Enough with the Hype

W. Gardner Campbell’s piece, “A Personal Cyberinfrastructure,” makes the sort of exaggerated claims that now appears to me as commonplace among the digital humanities enthusiasts. The tropes acquire the cadence of mantras: revolution, a brave new world, progress. There is a sense of both exasperation (with all of us not yet on board the train) and mad enthusiasm for an inevitable future in which technology becomes both the medium and the message of higher education—both the tool and the substance. You can count me as unimpressed, and more than a tad skeptical.

Campbell envisions a college experience in which each student—not just those with an interest in or a knack for computing—is required by their university to manage a server on which they will fashion, upgrade, and “create” throughout their college experience. The value of such a requirement is presumed rather than explained. It is unclear to me how this requirement would improve oral and written communication skills, math competency, or, more practically, how it would lead to improved outcomes in content proficiency.

Campbell also uses vocabulary associated with improvement and self-development, but fails to substantiate or in any way explain how his promises will be delivered. We are told that students will create, but we are not told what they will create nor, more important, how their creative-work will differ, improve, or build upon traditional forms of creative work done in classrooms and workshops.

Finally, the piece ends with claiming—again, an unsubstantiated claim—that a personal cyber-infrastructure will enable students to compete economically and intellectually. How will a future lawyer or doctor, or a future artist or poet, or a future civil engineer or nurse, or a future stockbroker or psychiatrist—benefit economically from such an endeavor?

In contrast to the Campbell piece, I found the d106 site to be fun, provocative, and potentially quite useful. I appreciate that the assignments include audio, visual, and elements of writing. I chose an activity that asks students to choose a historical figure and map their movement across time using google maps. Students studying slave trade, maritime history, the histories of empire, Atlantic and Diasporic history, and other types of history could use this exercise to map out the lives of historical figures or to map out the process of historic events, such as wars, immigration, the transnational flow of ideas, etc. Excellent idea!

Primitives and the foundations of Digital Humanities

In this week’s reading, John Unsworth attempts to locate some basic ideas that are common to all humanistic scholars in order to set some terms of agreement for thinking about the digital humanities. He draws explicitly on Aristotle’s notion of ‘primitives,’ or a set of terms whose meanings are self evident and without dispute, that form the basis of knowledge. He lists a number of humanistic primitives, such as comparing, annotating, illustrating, etc. The bulk of the piece explores how these primitives inform digital humanities projects, such as a site devoted to the presentation of William Blake’s illustrated journals.

Before stating what I think are the piece’s limitations, I should note that I think it’s a very worthy and perhaps even necessary exercise. With new fields like DH, there tends to be a sense of chaos, uncertainty, and instability that is both productive and limiting. It is productive because it invites explorations and experimentation without regard to traditional boundaries. In fact, it encourages the transgression of the traditional, and in the process, if executed persuasively, could lead to new ways of thinking and/or acting in the world. On the other hand, few rules or the lack of any set of agreed-upon standards can also result in lots of poor work, sloppy thinking, a lack of analytical rigor, and just a slew of projects without any clear usefulness.

My primary problem with this piece is that it lacks what is perhaps the most essential task taken up by humanists, namely, interpretive work. The primitives listed by Unworth seem designed to express what digital humanities are already doing–comparing, illustrating, etc. However, my question is, How do projects in DH change or assist the work of interpretation that is central to all humanistic work, from philosophy to history, from art criticism to the deconstruction of literary texts? This will likely remain my main question throughout the semester.

Dazed and Confused, On the DH Trail

Rob Alegre, Blog Post, February 7, 2016

Matthew J. Kirschenbaum “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” made clear what I had suspected but was unsure about the digital humanities, namely that it is more concerned with computing than with creating new humanistic knowledge. The most revealing passage, in my opinion, comes in the form of an anecdote told by John Unsworth, the founding director of the Institute for advanced technology in the humanities at the University of Virginia, in which he describes the term “digital humanities” as having been arrived at as a marketing term, one that would be more attractive to humanists than the term then in fashion, “humanities computing.”

The primacy of computing over creating original humanistic knowledge is clear in a dry, clunky, article written by Robert W. Maloy, Michelle Poirier, Hilary K. Smith, and Sharon A. Edwards’, “The Making of A History StandardsWiki: Covering, Uncovering, and Discovering Curriculum Frameworks Using a Highly Interactive Technology.” For an article presumably intended to create a sense of excitement and novelty regarding the use of Wikis, the piece reads in parts as a formulaic guide to teaching American history through the use of Wiki. Moreover, and most problematic for thinking about “digital humanities,” the article is not fundamentally about creating original humanistic knowledge. Its primary purpose is to teach history–a fine and noble goal, but one that I would classify under pedagogy, not History.

Finally, as my additional reading, I chose Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig “Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web,” ( which is the title of their book on the subject. The purpose of the piece is to summarize their book, a work meant to assess how computing can be used for humanistic research and teaching. Two issues discussed by the authors stood out to me. First, the World Wide Web has made it possible for just about any amateur historian who knows how to build a website to disseminate information or ideas about the past. On the one hand, this represents the great leveling effect of the web—diminishing the role of the academy as gatekeepers of historical knowledge and allowing amateurs to shape how Americans view the past. The democratic nature of this appeals to our liberal (classical liberalism, not the Democratic Party kind) values of free speech, individual sovereignty, etc. However, it also enables amateur historians to intentionally and unintentional propagate falsehoods. This is particularly troublesome if these amateurs receive private funding to create lavish sites, and pay to have their site advertise throughout the web. One can imagine a wealthy anti-Semite promoting anti-Semitic sites as places to find “authentic history,” and the like. The authors have no remedy for such a scenario.

The second issue is of great interest to historians—the digitalization of primary source materials. On this score, historians would likely concede that digital humanists have much to offer the field. Online archives that present documents that previously required extensive travel and other difficulties to attain is a major innovation in the last twenty or so years. My question, however, is not whether this phenomenon is meaningful, but rather that it appears to be the online version of the physical archive—that is, it is not an example of the work historians do. It’s an example of what archivists do. The site alone is no more a “humanities” than a physical archive. It is the job of the historian to turn those documents into historical narratives, a process that digital computing may assist with but cannot claim to do.