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Building a DH Working Group

Yesterday afternoon I met with two colleagues to begin building a Digital Humanities presence on our campus. We are deliberately starting small, but with an interdisciplinary core: we have a geographer (with an archaeology background), a lit theorist, and an historian. All of us are teaching courses this spring that leave themselves open to a lot of possibilities: Intro GIS, Historical Methods, and Literary Criticism. Jesse‘s goal is to “humanistically inflect” his GIS class (which tends to draw a lot of environmental scientists), while Therese and I work to “digitally inflect” our humanities offerings. We left the meeting with both short-term and long-term goals, as well as a specific schedule and assignments for our next meeting, so I am optimistic that we’ll be able to get the ball rolling this year.

Which Learning Objectives?

Last Monday, a student came into my office for advice. He’s one of our Social Studies Ed majors, and he had just finished his first day of his teaching internship. He was already looking ahead to graduation and the possibility that he would be able to get an available position at one of our local high schools in December. He was concerned, however, that taking this position would mean teaching African American History, even though he had no specific undergraduate coursework in the field. He came to me, presumably, because I teach most of our institution’s Af-Am classes.

He expressed several concerns: teaching in a subject that was not particularly familiar (although he said he preferred any kind of U.S. History to World History); establishing both rapport and authority as a white teacher of African American History with predominantly black students; navigating the many layers of racial tension in our poor, rural county. He hit me in a vulnerable spot, and I’m not sure I gave him terribly good advice.

I became responsible for African American History at my university by accident. My research projects required a strong background in late antebellum U.S. slavery — which makes me about as much of an expert as we have, particularly in the pre-emancipation period. But there was significant student demand for a general education African American History course, so I created one. Our student body is about 35% African American — but this particular class attracts black students almost exclusively. So I feel more than a little of what this student was worried about, especially this year.

I’ve been watching #FergusonSyllabus with interest and awe, trying to figure out where to make room in a class that must span the entire western hemisphere from 1500 to the present, wondering just how much current events I’m comfortable inserting into a history class, and worrying that any step I take in that direction could blow up in my face. I agree with the argument these professors are making that we have a responsibility to teach matters of public concern and prepare our students to engage in public debate, but I also feel most effective as a teacher when I have a good organizational plan and at least basic mastery of the subject at hand.

To return to the young man in my office last Monday: I told him that the tools he had learned in his pedagogy classes should be his starting points regardless of the subject material. What are the learning objectives? What classroom activities and assignments would best convey each objective? Remember that the purpose of history class is not to make people feel good or bad about their ancestors. I told him what my vocal pedagogy teacher told me in college: your job, as a teacher, is to help each student move forward one step from where he or she stands right now. Especially if he was going to pick up a class just a few weeks from the end of the semester, a few key concepts would have to do. I told him to figure out what those concepts should be by learning the current major debates in the field, something he should have learned to do in his history courses. Finally, I told him that African American History is American History, and so he should have a good sense of its basic contours from the 4-6 U.S. History courses he had taken with us.

This last part is the thing I’m not sure I conveyed as well as I wanted to. Putting the black freedom struggle at the center of U.S. History is certainly the right way to go, but I doubt that’s what he heard — I’m sure he was thinking, when he walked out of my office, that all he needed to do was go through the basic events from a generic U.S. History survey course but talk about black people, and he’d be fine. And if thrown into a classroom with two days’ notice and four weeks until the end of term, it’s probably not the worst solution, but it’s not what we should really be striving for. Because truly approaching U.S. History from the perspectives of African Americans means we will end up changing the questions we ask and the very framework of the course.

I don’t know if I do this enough. Designing a #FergusonSyllabus would have been one approach, but I don’t know how I could have done that and been properly organized for the semester (especially this semester, when I have a weirdly large number of conferences to attend, and have to prepare class activities for other people to cover). I probably do it well in the areas I really know: after being assigned Eric Foner’s Reconstruction four years in a row beginning my junior year of college, I put black political actors at the center of Reconstruction in every class, not just African American History. Runaway slaves drive wartime emancipation, Wilmington 1898 was a coup d’etat, and Joann Robinson is the real heroine of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. For many students, this is sufficiently revelatory.

So which learning objectives make the cut? I’m only half-joking when I say I’d be happy if students ended the class knowing there was more to the Civil Rights Movement than the “I Have a Dream” speech and Rosa Parks being tired one day. I want them to know that for each “big moment” they’ve heard about during Black History Month, there was decades of preparation and grass-roots work by dozens (or hundreds) of regular people. I want them to know that a demand for economic justice was always part of struggles for civil rights. I want them to be able to trace and identify long-term historic roots of current events — and so we will talk about redlining and state-sanctioned violence and the many events erroneously termed “race riots.” I want them to read and analyze primary sources. Will it be a #FergusonSyllabus? I doubt it. But I hope the end result will move slightly in that direction, providing students with the groundwork for engaging in a more informed public discourse.

A Digitally-Inflected Historical Methods Course

Yesterday was the first day since the seminar began that I didn’t post anything to my blog — but I will make up for it today with a long one. Last summer, I worked with a group of three colleagues to revamp our undergraduate methods course (and even spent about 90 minutes on the phone with Jeff McClurken to hear about the decisions UMW’s History Department had made when doing the same thing the previous year). I remember saying at the time that we should include some digital history, but since I didn’t have any good ideas about how we might do that, neither of my colleagues were willing to jump on my bandwagon. But I will be teaching the course in Spring 2015, and now I have some tools and concepts to incorporate.

All History and Social Studies Education students take this course, ideally in the second semester of their sophomore years or first semester of their junior years. The goal is to serve as a pivot from introductory courses to more advanced ones, giving students tools they can use in all their upper-level history courses. That goal is a key factor, for me, in which Digital History tools I want to emphasize (as well as which assignments I absolutely cannot change). We have broken down the course objectives into their constituent parts, and created a shell of five modules that will emphasize specific skills and ideas, regardless of which person teaches the course and what its content focus is at any point in time. The whole thing is still very much a work in progress, which means it’s a great time to incorporate new methods.

So here are some thoughts I had, broken down by course objective.

HST 3000: Historical Practice and Theory (Spring 2015)

Description & Goals: This three credit hour course is an introduction to key concepts and skills essential to the work of professional historians. This includes the following topics: the nature and types of history; the critical reading and analysis of primary and secondary sources; efficient and ethical research practices; writing skills; documentation style; and presentation and public speaking skills. The course is required for history majors, and it should be taken at the end of the sophomore or beginning of the junior year. This course is designed to prepare students for success in all upper level History courses. This course also fulfills the Writing in the Discipline (WD) requirement.

Communication skills (writing and speaking/presentation)

  • Use Blackboard internal wiki to do initial drafting/commenting/revision workshop (and then repeat at least once with the drafting/peer review/revision process for another assignment)—I have a feeling students wouldn’t want to make this experience public
  • WordPress blog with weekly posts (instead of weekly Blackboard journals or internal Blackboard blog)
  • Use Animoto to make a movie version of their project proposal, instead of giving an in-class presentation (keep other presentations)

Critical reading and analysis of primary and secondary sources

  • first step here is in-class modeling of how we analyze a primary source, next is to send students out to find new sources—different types—and practice that analysis: one example is to use ThingLink to annotate an image they’ve found (as their blog post/journal entry for the week)
  • I liked Diane’s post about text-mining runaway slave ads—use those or Documenting the American South slave narratives as the basis for a text-mining assignment and blog post or journal
  • transcription & metadata for one primary source item—I want them to understand what goes into creating the primary sources they find online (and then write blog post or journal entry about the experience)
  • use wikis to do parts of historiography jigsaw assignment (each student in a group contributes information about an important question/theme in that group’s subfield, based on book reviews and/or journal articles, some of which I select for them) outside of class
  • Write History Engine episode? (I don’t know if there’s time for this in the existing structure—it requires a lot of revision. But it fits with the goals of the course [one of which is to ingrain the habit of revising all written work], so I’ll see how the calendar works out.)

Efficient and ethical research practices

  • Use Bookworm (Chronicling America option) to identify appropriate keywords for searching other databases (esp. primary sources)
  • Work in Zotero: selecting and monitoring appropriate citation formats based on document type, organizing materials, taking notes, exporting into footnotes/bibliography/annotated bibliography

*The course overall builds to final paper of about 3000 words—that needs to remain because it’s a departmental priority. The standard book review also needs to remain, as do at least some of the in-class presentations. Since one of the course goals is to practice skills students will use in all upper-level courses, the assignments need to line up with what they are likely to see elsewhere. I also still need to use Blackboard on occasion (our Writing Across the Curriculum QEP requires that we submit and grade one assignment using a common Waypoint Rubric, and Blackboard is our route into that).

Text Mining

Below is a Bookworm chart I made with the Chronicling America newspaper collection. I used the search terms “bank,” “credit,” and “currency” for the years 1836-1900. Note the huge spike for the Election of 1840 — followed by precipitous drop in financial issues as a subject of political debate — and then the smaller spikes for Panics in 1857, 1873, and 1893. No big surprises here, but it is nice to see the visualization.


This could be an interesting exercise with students — asking them to search words they think are important, and then see if they were right. (And what do they think it means if they weren’t?) Or they could test different terms and phrases related to their topics, which would improve their ability to work with other primary source databases.

Some “distant reading” on newspapers, court proceedings, business records, etc. related to my Wilmington project would probably be helpful — but most of the relevant sources haven’t been put into appropriate formats. Uncorrected OCR for 19th century newspapers is pretty unreliable.

History, Memory, and Reclaiming Space

I spent a few hours Saturday wandering around Old Town Alexandria, which was a part of the DC Metro area I’d never visited before. I studiously avoided King Street (is it just me, or do all of the “one-of-a-kind” stores in historic-touristy areas sell the exact same stuff?) and instead checked out two colonial-era churches and meandered down side streets. The architecture was charming and had a comforting familiarity — the historic section of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, my birthplace, is from the same period and has a similar look. But I was especially interested to see the building that once housed one of the largest slave markets in North America.

Price Birch & Co., 1862 (Library of Congress)
the same space, 150 years later
the same space, 150 years later

The slave-trading firm Franklin & Armfield purchased property on Duke Street in Alexandria in 1835, using the space to collect large numbers of slaves purchased in Virginia and Maryland before sending enslaved men and women via ship to their complementary auction house in New Orleans. A different partnership (Price Birch & Co.) owned the business when the Civil War began, and many Union soldiers gleefully reported the immediate demise of that business when they occupied Alexandria in the first months of the war. (This was one of those moments where Union soldiers, though generally not abolitionists, demonstrated a clear sense that slavery was bad for the country and had caused the war, and thus should be destroyed.)

Re-purposing the space began almost immediately — the U.S. Army turned the building and its accompanying grounds into a prison for Confederate soldiers. Most of these men were imprisoned in 1861 and 1862, while the prisoner-exchange system was still under way, and so did not spend much time in the prison, but imprisoning white southerners in a slave pen must have provoked outrage at many levels. [Interesting side note: 34 of the men died while in prison and were buried in a section of the city’s cemetery, just a few blocks away, along with Union dead from area hospitals, in what is now known as the Alexandria National Cemetery. In 1879, the Alexandria LMA disinterred the 34 bodies and buried them in a mounded grave in the yard of Christ Church.]

Alexandria National Cemetery
Alexandria National Cemetery
marker in Christ Church yard

By 1863, the building and its grounds had become a hospital and barracks for local “contrabands” (runaway slaves) and black Union soldiers. It seems an insensitive move on the part of the US government — but someone (who?) named the barracks in honor of Toussaint L’Ouverture. The same year, a new African American congregation emerged in the city and built its first worship space — Shiloh Baptist Church — across the street. It looks like the formerly enslaved men and women who flocked to Alexandria during the war were determined to claim this space, once associated with deep suffering, and turn it into something much more positive.

The slave pens were torn down after the war, their place eventually filled by a nondescript brick municipal building, and the block’s tragic history slowly forgotten. For a town that can’t shut up about George Washington and its historic attractions, there is a great deal of willful forgetting at play. But the Northern Virginia Urban League purchased the building in 1996, christened it Freedom House, and are using it as offices and a museum (sadly, one geared toward school groups and closed on weekends). A state historic marker was placed outside in 2005. And the woman I spoke with at the Old Town Visitors’ Center was very eager to tell me about the restoration work underway at the Freedmen’s Cemetery on the south end of town (unfortunately out of walking distance) — so signs of progress abound in Alexandria’s interpretation of its past.


I am very interested in the process by which a community reclaims a space and, without forgetting or minimizing negative associations, strives to create something more affirming there. Who gets to control those commemorations? What happens to dissenting voices? (Was there anyone in the Northern Virginia Urban League, for example, who objected to working in a former slave trader’s office?) It seems like an approach that could work for student projects in various types of classes — local history, public history, history and memory, etc.

I’m also curious about the black communities that emerged in Alexandria during the Civil War. There’s been some great work done on political activism in contraband/refugee camps (Kate Masur’s An Example for All the Land, Patricia Click’s Time Full of Trial, and David Cecelski’s The Fire of Freedom spring to mind), so the specific story of Alexandria probably fits into established historiographic patterns and arguments. It strikes me that what happened in these spaces goes far beyond a “rehearsal” for Reconstruction, and I wonder if some comparative studies might be the logical next step.

Christ Church gate & steeple--just because I think it's pretty
Christ Church gate & steeple–just because I think it’s pretty




I really do like the idea of visualizing data, but I have to admit I’ve typically used it to illustrate a point I’m making in the text rather than as a research tool. And my charts have always been fairly simple (like this one I made in Excel, based on hospital records listing impressed slaves treated in Richmond, Virginia, in the second half of 1862). Ironically, when I tried to use the data underlying this very simple graph in ViewShare, I couldn’t get it to work — the program kept unlinking information I needed to remain together. I suppose I would need to format the source table differently.

Rather than spending a lot of time redoing something that’s already done and published, I figured I would look at something new. So I extracted all of the records listing individual slaveholders from the 1850 census spreadsheet I have for Wilmington, North Carolina, and then created a scatter plot that compares real estate holdings with slave holdings in the city. Click on “scatterplot” below to show the chart. If you hover over each square, you’ll see the specific numbers it represents. Click on the square, and you’ll get information about the slaveholder — name, age, occupation, etc. I’m not sure what this shows me yet, but it might be a way to start locating trends, especially if I do the same thing with the 1860 census.

Test post from ViewShare:

Non-Text Sources and Teaching Ideas

So there was some cool stuff at Doing Digital History today, but unless I move in the direction of Civil War memory, video and audio sources probably aren’t going to be a huge part of my researching life. Photographs and other images may, of course, and lots of people with the appropriate training do cool things with material culture. I definitely hope to include mapping, but I’ll leave a discussion of that for when we actually get to it in the seminar. (Is it a seminar or an institute? I’m never sure how the NEH classifies things.)

I am excited about some options we’ve seen for having students work with nontextual sources. I’m hoping to find two or three good tools to incorporate into the Historical Methods class, and I definitely plan to use ThingLink. We already include a series of assignments in which students locate and analyze one primary source at a time and then explain how that single source connects to larger themes, and images should obviously be part of that process. I’ll have to think about ways that annotating the image in ThingLink promotes historical thinking differently from simply writing about it, but it’s definitely a little more fun — and sometimes that’s enough to make something worth doing. We all need some fun built into the semester.

I had students use iMovie/Moviemaker for two assignments last semester, and that worked fairly well, but I think Animoto would be great too. What I like about Animoto is the limitations it places on the amount of text students can use. It prevents them from making the kinds of text-heavy products they sometimes create when asked to give class presentations or share various types of visual aids. I have a wonderful colleague who regularly asks students in the methods course to write their papers on a Post-It note — the idea being that if you can’t explain your argument in that amount of space (at least in the context of a semester-long essay of about 10 pages), you probably don’t have one yet. Making an Animoto movie would serve the same purpose, forcing students to zero in on what they thought was really important.

Struggling with Omeka…

Having a little trouble figuring out how to put things on Omeka, or really what I’d want to put there. I guess I’m not far enough on this project to have much in the way of content. I did play around with ThingLink a little more, and I took the jpeg of this 1882 map of Wilmington, NC (which I saved from North Carolina Maps purely as something to scribble on as I worked with one of my students), and noted the home locations of a few of the city’s slaveholders in 1860, as well as their occupations and the size of their households.