Courses for Historians at DHSI

The Digital Humanities are here to stay. By my rough appraisal, the history profession seems to be experiencing the long-anticipated pivot from “that’s not real history” to “all historians use digital tools in some ways.” For grad students with an eye toward the job market, this is still a good time to pick up some DH training.

The Digital Humanities Summer Institute is a wonderful place to develop your DH skills in a friendly environment. (Compared to the AHA, it’s downright warm.) Various week-long workshops are tailored to both beginner and more advanced learners, and generous funding is available to offset tuition costs.

Most folks participating in DHSI seem to be graduate students in English. There are several courses that are great for historians, however. I’ve attended five times as a history professor and wanted to suggest two courses of special use for historians.

Geographical Information Systems in the Digital Humanities, Ian Gregory with Alejandra Zubiria Perez. This is an amazing course! Gregory is a leading scholar in spatial humanities, and this is an incredible opportunity to learn from the best. He has offered this course for several years, both in Canada and the UK, and it is a well-oiled machine. This course gets you making maps right away. There is also time at the end of the week to ask questions about your own project. For grad students and faculty working on projects involving mapping, this is especially useful. Gregory is also extremely skilled at presenting GIS (an often frustrating tool) in a calming, patient manner.

Ethical Data Visualization: Taming Treacherous Data with Chris Church and Katherine Hepworth. The instructors walk you through the basics of ethical data analysis and presentation. Aspects of data visualization that I had not given much thought, such as the effects of shortening an axis, are covered here. The insights are very helpful for teaching data interpretation as well as data analysis. The course also offers a soft introduction to R through R Studio, a language and programming environment where you can manipulate, analyze, and visualize data. R is far more broadly useful than it used to be, and this course is a good way to get a sense of what it can do. Church and Hepworth are quite knowledgeable and enthusiastic.

Courses change annually, but others of use to many historians include Paige Morgan and Yvonne Lam, Making Choices about Your Data; Brian Norberg and Markus Wust, Developing a Digital Project (with Omeka); Erica Cavanaugh and Alix Shield, Drupal for Digital Humanities Projects; George Williams and Erin Templeton, Accessibility & Digital Environments; Dorothy Kim and Angel David Nieves, Race, Social Justice, and DH: Applied Theories and Methods; Anne Cong-Huyen and Amanda Phillips, Intersectional Feminist Digital Humanities: Theoretical, Social, and Material Engagements; Jamie Howe and Bonnie Ruber, Queer Digital Humanities; Angel David Nieves and Janet Thomas Simons, Models for DH at Liberal Arts Colleges (& 4 Yr Institutions); and John Unsworth, Harold Short, Ray Siemens, with Constance Crompton, Dene Grigar, and Angel David Nieves, DH For Department Chairs and Deans.

DH Party of One

The term “Digital Humanities” connotes for many well-staffed research centers at major universities and sophisticated, complex projects funded by external grants. In reality, DH also encompasses countless solo practitioners and small groups, operating without a budget. In this space, I will reflect a bit on that world, drawing on my experiences as as solo DH operator at two institutions over the past four years.

Those of us working alone do so largely out of passion, whether for our students’ learning, our research goals, or both. Our experience can usefully inform the work of those building DH centers and programs even on a larger scale, due to our remarkable lack of formal incentives. I receive no extra money, course releases, student or staff support for my DH work, yet I do it anyway. The allocation of resources in American higher education means that much DH support is currently aligned with many R1 faculty who least want it. Those of us at teaching schools who plug along on our own represent a different sort of calculation. We have found a digital space that connects us to our students.

I sought training in DH when I was running an MA program in Public History at a public institution. I believed that our students would benefit on the job market from skills building websites, so I attended Doing DH 2014 to learn how to administer a site, using WordPress and Omeka. Some students really enjoyed this work, further fueling my interest. I set up a Curatescape site, thinking this would be the best alignment of my research on local history with my students’ educational needs.

My limited knowledge of DH then proved enough for me to change jobs, much to my surprise. I had a solid run on the job market (much more successful than my first round in 2008 as a 20th-century American urban historian with a Ph.D. in American Studies from BU). Now, with a published book in hand and examples of student digital work on a website, more schools saw me as a viable candidate to do useful work with their students.

I took a job at a STEM-focused school, where we teach general education classes to Engineers, Architects, Computer Scientists, and Construction Managers. My job description includes incorporating DH projects, where relevant, into the curriculum. At first, I implemented those projects I had done before, having students build websites with Omeka and WordPress, and starting a Curatescape site.

I quickly learned, however, that these projects were not a good fit for my new student population. “Digital” Humanities did not interest them as such. If a student builds a robot in her 10:00 class, how is my database all that exciting in the afternoon? Some student evaluations called for more traditional history. One memorable zinger said I seemed more excited about digital projects than I was about history. So I retooled.

I learned additional DH skills in order to offer my students a better fit. I attended DHSI for QGIS and Sketchup training, figuring this might work well with Civil Engineers and Architects. Learning even these straightforward tools required a major time investment. It’s not enough to know the technology, though–obviously the trick is knowing how to deploy it to further the learning objectives of a humanities or social science class.

I launched a Boston: Then and Now site that works well in my Boston History class. Partnering with the Boston City Archives, we are recreating historic photographs. Students choose historic photos, recreate them, log the images and their metadata in Omeka, create a slider with Juxtapose JS, and load that to neighborhood simple pages. Students really like this assignment because it embodies hands-on, experiential learning. Drawing on Jules Prown’s method of material culture analysis, I have students use their observations from the photos as the launching point for their research papers. Rather than simply parroting established historical narratives, they ask real questions and work toward answering them. In a general education class, this is a tremendous victory.

In my new Digital Studio course, we partner with the BPDA Archive to use QGIS, Tableau, and Sketchup to study urban renewal, focusing on Boston’s infamous West End project. Some of our Civil Engineers know a bit of QGIS, our Architects know Sketchup, and very few students have worked with Tableau. Students genuinely educate each other and me on these tools as we go along, embodying the spirit of DH pedagogy. They study the impact of urban renewal on socioeconomic demographics, reflecting on neighborhood change, federal policy, structural racism, and other controversial topics. Their knowledge and questions come from their own quantitative and qualitative research, opening more space for dialogue than courses where it might be easy to dismiss my views as those of a “liberal professor.”

Skilling up to learn the tools my students are using in their majors has required a major investment of time and effort on my part. The rewards are significant, though. My own current research focuses on housing policy, federal programs, and racial and economic segregation. I’m now able to have real, scholarly conversations about this subject with general education students in a class with no prerequisites past English II. This adds intellectual stimulation to my life, preventing the drudgery than can result from an endless cycle of survey courses.

This space between my individual research program and my students’ educational and professional interests is highly specific. I think there is room for much of this type of development, when faculty and DH staff think broadly about process rather than product. The limits to this work come from resources–training, support, and sheer time. But adding one small digital project to a course need not be traumatic for anyone, if we are willing to listen to each other.

Student model in progress of the West End buildings flattened for urban renewal

DH fun at SSHA 2017

SSHA 2017 included a number of DH-related sessions–I was able to attend a few.

Exciting work is being done with the full-count data from the U.S. Census, available through IPUMS. Lance Freeman (Urban Planning, Columbia) gave an extremely interesting talk that showed some stark differences in segregation that can be measured by contrasting the 1910 and 1920 full-count data. Drawing on the indices of dissimilarity and isolation, he found major increases in segregation in cities nationwide, including Southern cities. In his response, John Logan (Sociology, Brown) called into question any use of enumeration districts as levels of measurement for segregation prior to the 1940 census. Logan’s name was mentioned in other sessions, in connection with work he is doing on this question of scale and measure–Urban Transition Project Site

Historical GIS is a wonderful network within SSHA, in which hope to present work someday. The awesome historical geographer Ian Gregory (Lancaster) presented his views on the field in “From Numbers to Text (and Back Again): New Directions for Historical GIS.” Gregory presented examples of various projects on which he has worked that used GIS to its full potential by combining such analysis with textual resources. Using textual analysis to identify text strings related to specific place names, then mapping such trends, questions can be identified. Answers can be found by returning to the text and looking for contextual meaning. This combination of distant and close reading, using a variety of tools, can produce impressive and interesting results.

Robert Nelson (Digital Scholarship Lab, Richmond) was on hand to talk not just about the HOLC redlining maps that we’ve all been clicking through frantically, but also to demonstrate the next phase of the site, set to launch within the next few weeks. Mapping Inequality will be joined by Renewing Inequality, a site that will showcase the thousands of federal urban renewal projects that were carried out across the United States. Most intriguingly, site visitors will be able to toggle between the urban renewal sites and the redlining areas to see the deeper history of the neighborhoods. This will be a wonderful tool not only for scholarly research, but also for teaching.

Anne Knowles (Maine) spoke about Visualizing Holocaust Geographies, a project that encompasses many different types of mapping, from GIS to freehand sketches. Drawing on oral history projects, archival records, and architectural plans, among other materials, this book from the project is one I will ensure we have in our university library. Knowles also offered challenging statements during the discussion, questioning the role of GIS in pedagogy. How can we use GIS without stifling creativity? Definitely a question worth considering.

What Does it Mean to Teach Digital Humanities?

A couple of years ago, I went back on the academic job market, giving up tenure for another spin of the AHA’s roulette wheel. This time I bet it all on jobs in DH rather than those strictly in postwar US. Like many history job candidates, I struggled to parse the goals of hiring committees. The ads were often confusing, containing contradictory or even seemingly impossible hiring goals. Having chaired a search, and having participated in many, I knew that there was no way to peer behind the curtain, and just applied. I had begun teaching DH to graduate and undergraduate history majors, as well as some non-majors, and discussed those experiences in confident terms, as one does when on the market.

I now teach a student population that is quite different from that at my previous institution. Working now in downtown Boston, rather than in Savannah, Georgia, I teach many students who have attended excellent public schools and arrive prepared for college. More significantly, I am now at a STEM school, an institute of technology where most of our students major in Engineering, Computer Science, Architecture, Industrial Design, etc.

My job now is to develop general education courses that engage students through the use of Digital Humanities methods and tools. This is a wonderful challenge to have, and one for which I am grateful, yet it poses a challenge just the same. A few of the factors involved include:

  • There are no prerequisites, so no knowledge of history or historical methods can be assumed.
  • The classes draw upon a mix of majors, so there is no single digital tool that all students can be assumed to use proficiently upon arrival. Many majors use programs like Solidworks and AutoCAD, but not all.
  • Students declare a major as part of their application, and are extremely focused during their course of study. While some do truly outstanding work in my classes, many have little time and inclination to go above and beyond in a general education class.

During my first year, I tried DH projects I had developed at my previous university. These were successful, but implementation has not been straightforward.

In my first term, in a U.S. History survey, I had students use Scalar to create digital storytelling projects as part of their individual research projects. Most students mastered the technology with ease, although  one complained that Scalar was too time consuming to use, and asked why he could not use Wix or Weebly. The responses I might have used with a history major, about the field’s love of metadata, or the need to understand the structure of the databases used in public history environments, fell flat.

In the second term, I had students in a Boston History class begin a Curatescape project. In the Omeka-based digital environment, students created entries for significant architectural sites around Boston. This will be an ongoing project, involving student-generated geo-located content. Non-history majors do quite well with this type of work, I have found—they seem to have a better ear for writing for the public than do many history majors, who are often beset by antiquarianism.

Students also surprised me with their excellent work on a Then and Now project in which they recreated historical images from the Municipal Archive. Most students took the assignment seriously, and some created remarkable recreations.

Overall, however, I have found that my STEM students are fundamentally not excited by DH as such. Here, I am thinking of Ryan Cordell’s seminal piece, “How Not to Teach Digital Humanities,” in which he offered the excellent reminder:

“We pair “digital” with “humanities” and feel we have something revolutionary, but for our undergraduate students the word digital is profoundly unimpressive.” 

This observation seems especially apt in a STEM-focused environment.

What skills do we want to teach in a DH general education course for STEM majors? On the one hand, teaching tech skills poses challenges. In the past, my history majors and grad students were often very impressed by their own technological advances. “I built a website!” can be incredibly empowering for an English major. But a Computer Science major might be more likely to ask, “Why does this Omeka site look so dated? Why are we spending so much time on this in a history class?” The value of humanities courses within the STEM curriculum is obviously not found in our technical skills.

Yet, on the fundamental historical research front, STEM majors have little advantage over any other non-history major. They have not been trained in locating or assessing source materials. These skills are quite complex, and while an instructor can invest heavily in teaching them, there are limits to potential growth during a single course.

Moving forward, I am going to experiment next with a narrower course focusing on a single historical theme and using multiple digital tools. In a class focusing on Urban Renewal in the Postwar United States, we will utilize mapping tools (QGIS), census data visualizations (Social Explorer), 3D models (Sketchup) to enhance our analysis of change over time. I am hoping that by narrowing the frame of the course I can more realistically provide the individualized guidance students will need to develop original research, analysis, and presentation of their findings.

I remain committed to helping students create public-facing work when suitable, and I am optimistic that this project will generate useful, visual, and highly original materials. Still, I now understand that teaching DH for me will always be an iterative process. I will have to remain flexible, creative, and willing to continually retrain myself. These are all good challenges to have.