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.