Past Voices

March 6, 2013

Case Statement: “Teaching Digital History and New Media”

NCPH 2013 in Ottawa, CA

The following is a case statement I wrote for the “Teaching Digital History and New Media” working group taking place on Friday, April 19 at the 2013 National Council on Public History Conference in Ottawa, Canada:

Greetings fellow working-group participants, my name is Will Tchakirides. I am an Urban History Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee exploring race, crime, and the origins of America’s carceral state at the community level. In 2011, I earned a Public History M.A. from American University. There, I received instruction in digital history methods and completed a variety of web-based projects for DC area museums that utilize content management systems like WordPress and Omeka to catalog, organize, and display historical information and promote user engagement. As a result of these experiences, I am one of the few history graduate students at UWM trained to think and act digitally when approaching their craft.

To help integrate digital history methods and practices into its graduate and undergraduate curricula, UWM’s history department hired me in 2011 as a consultant for its “Digital Futures” initiative. Next year, UWM will offer two “digital history and new media” courses designed to train graduate and undergraduate students to research, collaborate, and create in digital spaces. Therefore, my interest in this working group is twofold: to report back to my department the best practices gleaned from our discussion on teaching digital history, but also to better prepare myself as an educator eager to raise the digital literacy of future history students.

To begin, training in digital history varies from institution-to-institution based on the expertise of instructors, specific departmental objectives, and the availability of mew media resources. Still, I believe the main goal of any digital history teacher should be to encourage students to think critically about how historical scholarship is produced online and to furnish them with the tools and theoretical training necessary to complete quality work in a digital environment. However, determining broader learning goals and outcomes might include asking the following set of “who, what, where, when, why” questions: Who is producing and consuming digital history content? What types of web projects, forms, and genres constitute digital history? Where are these approaches taking place? When did historians start thinking seriously about doing history digitally? Why is it important for historians, and public historians in particular, to develop well-rounded digital history skill-sets?

First, educators need to clarify for students that any scholar can become a digital historian with a little patience, effort, and humility. This includes those with limited technological skill-sets (like myself) who may serve more as project managers that utilize the talents of other tech-professionals, such as graphic designers and web developers, to complete their work. By nature, digital history is collaborative, interdisciplinary, and relies on shared authority to succeed. Therefore, history departments located outside of “digital-rich” campuses, like George Mason or CUNY, should encourage students to partner with other programs tracking similar digital outcomes. Moreover, educators must communicate the significance of “knowing one’s audience” before assigning projects that incorporate multiple stages of production. Like most public history endeavors, one’s target audience will determine the size, shape, and scope of their work.

Second, educators ought to convey what actually constitutes digital historical work. This includes everything from the building of electronic databases and online museum exhibitions to the creation of open-source web applications used by historians and other scholars to research or visualize information, such as the open-source research tool, Zotero, or the “geo-temporal exhibit builder,” Neatline. Third, students should get a sense of both where historians produce digital content and where scholars engage with each other and their work online. Digital scholarship is created in museums and archives; digital humanities centers, like The Center for History and New Media, The Scholars’ Lab, or The Center for Public History and Digital Humanities; public and private libraries; and everyday history classrooms. Discussions surrounding digital history largely take place in the blogosphere, on Twitter, and in web-based journals, like American History Now, The Journal of Digital Humanities, and Global Perspectives on Digital History.

Fourth, educators must, to some extent, trace the development of digital history as a field, methodology, and/or approach. For example, how have historians moved from visualizing content through Web 1.0 interfaces, like the esteemed Valley of the Shadows project, to developing IOS and Android applications that allow scholars to curate the physical landscape using location-based technologies, such as Mobile Historical? This not only instills a sense of how doing history online has changed over time, but also how the open web and new media tools have evolved as research, writing, and interpretive resources. Educators should also promote web-based services and applications as significant tools/modes of research, production, and community engagement that enhance traditional scholarly practices.

Finally, today’s uncertain job market requires new historians to remain at the forefront of the digital turn in academia and public history venues. Educators should have a frank discussion with students about the types of technical skills museums, archives, and history departments are looking for when interviewing job candidates. Furthermore, teachers must ensure that their students acquire as much, what Mills Kelly terms, “procedural knowledge” as they do “content knowledge.” In other words, we should cultivate engaging and lively classroom experiences that advance new forms of digital content production, new modes of data/text mining, some introduction to coding, and new ways of “mashing up” and presenting historical evidence, whether audio, video, images, maps, or text. As Kelly argues in his recent series of blog posts, “There is more to success in the economy our students will live in than being able to write a really good five-page paper based on primary sources.”

Although most history courses follow a traditional lecture, seminar, or colloquium format, digital history courses need to be hands-on, collaborative, and simultaneously blend theory with practice. I believe the latter point represents one of the biggest challenges facing instructors, especially when a steep learning curve exists between students and professors in less technologically adept history departments. One method of putting digital history into practice is assigning final group projects that teach students how to perform as a team, draw on each other’s unique skill-sets, and manage time more effectively. This process should mirror real-life challenges posed by digital history projects at museums, universities, government institutions, and DH centers. For instance, the assignment might involve some exercise in grant writing, emphasizing the role of funding organizations like the National Endowment for the Humanities and its Digital Humanities Start-Up and Implementation Grants in realizing large-scale works of digital history.

May 15, 2012

Digital History: A Field or “the Waters We Swim Through”?

When it comes to practicing their craft today, historians do not share an equal propensity to consider, produce, and discuss their work digitally. University history departments and the individuals that comprise them feature different levels of experience with, what some scholars refer to as, the “digital humanities movement.” Points on this experiential learning curve range from a vague familiarity to active experimentation to advanced content production. Some universities jumped ahead of the pack more than a dozen years ago, founding prolific digital history centers that continue to blaze new trails in online scholarly production – while also attracting impressive levels of grant funding. Still, others are just beginning to ponder what it means to do history in the digital age and think about the tools and methods their students need to learn to be successful in a competitive job market.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am working with a handful of scholars at UWM to integrate the digital humanities – theory and practice – into graduate and undergraduate curricula. As part of the Digital Futures grant, UWM faculty and students recently participated in a THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) at the joint meeting of the National Council on Public History and the Organization of American Historians to learn more about doing digital history. Many in the group approached the un-conference with a fear of the unknown. This is understandable when it comes to academics and technology. Historians like to have a firm handle on topics of interest before they discuss them. No historian wants to appear un-knowledgable in front of his/her peers.

However, historians also share a collective desire to remain current. Therefore, I would argue fears of getting left behind regarding the new ways historians research, write, and present history in digital environments trumped feelings of trepidation. The fact that public historians working with local communities need to stay abreast of how people share, communicate, and present ideas today (i.e. largely online) means that succumbing to one’s fears of technology is not an option. Big questions exist in our discipline and talking to scholars at the opposite (cutting) edge of the digital divide is one way to stay ahead.

That being said, UWM’s THATCampers actively questioned and looked to better understand why, where, and how history is being done digitally. The diversity of session topics and professional backgrounds of participants surely provided some answers. On monday, we held a THATCamp follow-up session to see where UWM’s group stood on the experience. Trinity College’s Jack Dougherty, our “camp counselor,” even skyped in to discuss what we learned, what we wish we learned, and new directions.

A few UWM campers felt they needed to see more project models and hear more feedback before pursuing digital scholarship in earnest. Others started a WordPress blog that night. Becoming aware of and managing one’s online profile, or social graph, with respect to career advancement represented a popular thread. Another valuable comment came from Jack Dougherty: “As historians we care about writing and using evidence smartly. Digital history offers a way to take it up a notch in terms of how we create and distribute historical work.”

Perhaps the most significant question of the day centered on whether “digital history” signifies a sub-field of history or permeates the larger field as both a methodology and tool of research that all practitioners of the craft must reckon with; as one PhD student elegantly put it, “the waters we swim through.” While the discussion was mixed, I hold that digital history signifies both a means and an end, a contested field and an evolving methodology. Real theoretical dilemmas and divergent lines of thought exist among digital historians and these are being actively debated within the digital humanities community on blogs, Twitter, and various learning commons. Questions of, for example, gender, race, sexuality, and environment pervade digital history as a field as much as they do other sub-disciplines of history. At the same time, the ways new media and technology allow us to express novel ideas in innovative ways impact all sub-disciplines of history; such approaches reflect and occasionally refract previous historical forms and genres.

I’d like to know, where do you stand on digital history or the digital humanities as a field? A methodology? A movement?

March 5, 2012

Recognizing History’s Digital Turn at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

“The struggle to incorporate the possibilities of new technology into the ancient practice of history has led, most importantly, to questioning the basic goals and methods of our craft.” – Roy Rosenzweig

George Mason University’s Mills Kelly recently shared with students and faculty from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee a prescient observation made in 2003 by his late colleague Roy Rosenzweig on the state of the history profession: “Historians…may be facing a fundamental paradigm shift from a culture of scarcity to a culture of abundance.” Rosenzweig’s notion of a “culture of scarcity” refers to the limited number of people historians reached, primary sources they analyzed, shared, and preserved, and scholarship they produced before digital technology – spurred by the Internet, the World Wide Web, and Web 2.0 – made the release, dissemination, and investigation of historical knowledge and information possible from a single computer. Whether colleagues harnessed the “culture of abundance” spawned by digital technology to produce better, more meaningful history or left the growing number of digital sources to be dealt with by others signified an important question for Rosenzweig and his peers in the early aughts.

Rosenzweig’s paradigm shift indeed exists and continues to leave the history profession in a state of flux and recalibration. As a result, our professional landscape is as exciting in its possibilities as it is perplexing to those who follow the traditional academic modus operandi of publish or perish. Many historians uninitiated with blogging, training students to optimize searches, or working collaboratively with various groups to produce digital resources remain skeptical of the field’s digital turn. For example, one faculty member at UWM asked Kelly, “What are the standards for reviewing digital work and how does that process compare to current peer review practices?” The fact is, historians are still collectively deciding how to adequately review digital humanities scholarship as more and more practitioners blog about what represents “good” work in the field.

Today, one’s pedagogy must account for the new and evolving ways scholars produce, share, and search for historical information. While the teaching and learning of history remains largely the same, the tools available to historians for mining historical sources, cataloging information, and visualizing arguments, text, and data continue to advance at a rapid pace. Moreover, the specialized nature of building and using digital technology encourages collaboration amongst colleges, universities, and public and private institutions, breaking down barriers that once prevented two-way information streams.

As a result, more history departments are looking to incorporate the digital humanities into their graduate and undergraduate curricula. Whether that means recognizing digital history in methods courses, offering seminars that blend discussions of theory with the practical application of digital technology, or hosting workshops that train students and faculty on products and services like Word Press, Omeka, Zotero, or Adobe Creative Suite, now is the time for colleges and universities to re-conceptualize their vision of the historian’s craft. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee hopes to move in this direction.

As an advisor working on UWM’s “Digital Futures” grant, I have the privilege of analyzing best practices in the field, offering guidance, and helping determine how UWM might integrate digital history into its course offerings. Currently, I am researching syllabi in use at the nation’s top digital history programs, including George Mason University, CUNY, NYU, the University of Maryland, and others. Common threads include emphasizing theory and practice concurrently, encouraging students to blog about process as they analyze books, articles, and blogs, and featuring guest speakers from outside departments and local institutions who are experienced in building digital projects.

As Kelly reiterated during his talk, historians need not be expert coders to “do” digital history. But, they must be willing to ask for professional assistance and account for the democratizing elements of practicing history in a digital age.

Please share your experiences teaching digital history at the graduate and undergraduate levels? What worked best for you? What online resources may help history scholars utilize digital technology in their classrooms more effectively?

January 26, 2012

Lessons Learned Building the “Community Documentation Initiative” Website

Written for the NCPH Working Group, “Public History Online, Using the Web to Collaborate and Share” (2012)

What makes for an effective public history website? In my opinion, the best serve a distinct purpose, feature balanced content, provide simple navigation, and include various opportunities for user interaction. Until recently, museums, universities, and cultural resource centers have focused too much on presenting text-heavy, one-dimensional websites interspersed with mishmashes of media that discourage everyday users from learning, communicating, or collaborating effectively. Trained to write lengthy research papers, articles, and books, scholars are only gradually recognizing that issuing content on the web demands new modes of contextualization in line with an ever-changing digital environment. Creating a public history website that is easy to use and interact with requires identifying an audience, simplifying goals, and accounting for new forms of online consumption. Jordan Grant and I kept these criteria in mind as we built a soon to be released website for the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Community Museum: “The Community Documentation Initiative” (CDI).

The CDI website called for ACM curators to “gather, organize, and make accessible to the public historical and contemporary information on the social and economic life and development of communities east of the Anacostia River.” The initiative’s primary objectives: deepen the museum’s engagement with the local community, make the museum more relevant, and empower citizens to communicate with each other and the museum through educational activities. For curators, realizing these lofty goals meant featuring content that ranges from digital representations of exhibitions to audio and video clips of oral histories to local artist galleries and archival documents.

For all intents and purposes, the museum hired Jordan and I to transform its physical exhibitions and digital content into an online resource that embraces Web 2.0 standards of interoperability, collaboration, and user-focused design. However, building an interactive and serviceable website demands more than simply reproducing existing content and hoping for community dialogue to ensue; allowing for community input is essential to the collaborative process in all stages of a public history website’s life. For instance, our web-team never fully considered how to market the CDI site to Anacostia residents or maintain user interest/interaction before the development process began. This forces the museum to rely on a modest number of Facebook fans and Twitter followers for feedback and participation, a positive development if properly channeled and/or cultivated.

Other challenges included clarifying the CDI website’s overall purpose, winnowing down content, and figuring out how best to connect with an Anacostia community that consumes online information in new and diverse ways. Public history websites serve many purposes. They are used to collect, exhibit, collaborate, or, as is the case with CDI, all of the above. While not an inherently wrong-minded approach, meeting all three objectives requires thoughtful discussion of how best to visually represent the different elements that make up a site. Regrettably, rushed deadlines, unfinished exhibit pieces, and limited funding hampered efforts to create, in my mind, a truly effective online resource that accomplished all of the ACM’s stated goals. Nonetheless, Jordan and I waded through the various content types and settled on a site architecture based on the initiative’s four main themes: The City, The Environment, The Arts, and Cultural Encounters. In doing so, we united different content types, balancing text and media across a handful of sub-pages that served these four themes directly.

Utilizing the open-source web application WordPress to design and build the site, Jordan and I created a space for ACM curators to release new information relative to the CDI website’s thematic structure and designated specific areas on the site for user interaction. Online visitors can remark on a blog post or exhibit page using the WordPress commenting system Disqus, a “plug-in” that filters spam, provides email notification, and aggregates social mentions among other features. The CDI website’s design also features a “Community” page that aggregates public mentions of the initiative and integrates comments from different social networking platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Nevertheless, institutional inertia and security precautions barred Jordan and I from testing certain plug-ins on our WordPress dashboard, or “back-end” interface. While designing a previous WordPress site for the National Museum of American History (NMAH), we avoided this problem by hosting the website beyond the Smithsonian Institution’s own network. This gave us the ability to make quick design changes, upload new content, and test WordPress plug-ins on that site’s official HTTP address. Conversely, ACM curators wanted to ensure that the Smithsonian’s own IT professionals could fix or respond to issues on their website directly. Jordan and I welcomed the Smithsonian’s hosting of the site, since the museum hired us as temporary employees who eventually needed to leave the project for curators and IT personnel to maintain. Nonetheless, working in tandem with the Smithsonian’s IT staff presented obstacles that hindered our larger vision. In addition to not being able to test plug-ins, limited access to back-end file-types forced us to email file copies to IT whenever we made changes to the design or wanted to see how the CDI website looked live. Presently, we do not even know how our final product appears to the public.

Initially designed for the blogging community, WordPress’s ability to feed new content to RSS subscribers fits the ACM’s goal of maintaining relevancy in the digital community. Knowing that curators may be too busy to maintain weekly blog posts, we suggested scheduling release dates for newly established or existing content so that the site features new subject matter on a regular basis. Jordan and I first tested this concept working on the American Enterprise pre-exhibition website for the NMAH. Moreover, “The Cotton” WordPress theme we employed features “portfolio” layouts for certain pages, allowing us to present digital images and artistic pieces in a visually stunning way that avoids clutter.

While other content management systems (CMS) permit digital cataloging/archiving without compromising site design (i.e. Omeka), WordPress allows the more “technically challenged” museum professional to showcase new content promptly and efficiently. The platform’s easy to use back-end interface includes helpful labels and a devoted online community eager to explain how WordPress functions for new users. Still, Jordan and I drafted a comprehensive manual for ACM curators that details using WordPress and “The Cotton” theme.

Perhaps successfully connecting with local community members represents the greatest challenge when building any public history website, including the CDI. How do inner-city museums best connect with poverty-stricken communities that face online access restrictions? For example, not every family can afford the pricey packages offered by Internet service providers, let alone afford a computer. One solution presented itself last spring. While not every Anacostian can afford a laptop, recent studies show that smart-phone use is rapidly increasing in urban communities. Although building a smart-phone app that specifically caters to certain demographics would go a long way toward increasing the ACM’s technical relevancy, it would not solve the initial problem of getting community members interested in or involved with the CDI website in the first place.

Ideally, outreach efforts (for the purposes of raising interest in public history websites) should include educational components that feature collaboration with community centers, libraries, and schools. Coupled with social networking campaigns, such endeavors will almost certainly raise greater awareness for a public history website and foster more meaningful collaboration. Had we continued on with the CDI project, we would almost certainly have pushed the ACM in this direction.

All told, Jordan and I managed to help curators build a website that celebrates, explores, and asks questions of a vibrant, largely African American community within the heart of the nation’s capital. Regardless of whether or not the project accomplished its stated goals, we learned several valuable lessons throughout the development process. When designing a public history website, it is important to have a clear sense of purpose, limit text and media appropriately, and understand who your users are and how they consume online content. If your team of museum professionals faces a high technical learning curve, seek outside help from an established design or new media agency. Granted, funding an online digital history project can prove challenging. Therefore, I suggest contacting local colleges and universities with students eager to improve their own technical skill-sets and gain real-world experience. Public historians are still learning how best to communicate with their online publics. Any efforts to advance this process, no matter how the final product turns out, should ultimately prove rewarding.

October 20, 2011

On the Public History Job Hunt

As a public historian, I’m a trained “jack-of-all-trades” in a field known more for its titular ambiguity than its overall purpose. I like to think of our cadre as professionally trained mediators obliged to make the past relevant and useful to a diverse public. Nonetheless, definitions of public history and its uses remain intentionally and intellectually broad so as to attract both interested students, financial resources, and partner institutions alike. Still, does learning how to “wear many different hats” in a field that often points students down multiple career paths necessarily translate to finding a good job?

Case in point, at American University I gained experience and earned credit working in four professional disciplines – collections management, historic site interpretation, exhibition development, and web design. While the process of discovering what moved me as a public historian proved fruitful, I cannot help but feel slightly under-prepared as I search for full-time employment in Milwaukee, WI.

Whether a result of America’s stagnant economy, the Wisconsin state government’s assault on education/arts programming, or my own professional blindness, public history jobs remain in short supply (especially outside of Washington, DC and other mega-cities). Meanwhile, non-history-related companies seeking, for example, web designers typically hire (surprise) applicants trained in that particular field. While my academic credentials are more than sound, nothing makes up for proven technical proficiency or know-how. Certainly, other grads exploring private sector opportunities outside the digital humanities bubble share my frustration.

In any case, designing participatory online experiences for museums and non-profits not only peaked my interest as a graduate student, but represents what I do best as a public historian: visualize, write, and engage people in meaningful ways. Through my program at AU, I was fortunate to create usable websites for Smithsonian Institution museums, learned that new media tools require two-way participation, and connected with digital humanists outside of Washington, DC who actively post relevant content on Twitter, Facebook, and personal blogs. This allows me to stay in the loop so to speak as new employment opportunities present themselves and public history methodologies evolve in the Digital Age.

Although Milwaukee’s job-picture looks bleak, I’m confident I’ll find an opportunity to put my digital and humanities skill-sets to good use for a local museum, non-profit, or business. I will continue to improve on an emergent web design skill-set, volunteer/work on freelance projects beyond museums, and intently peruse local want-ads until I fulfill my goal of designing for the web full-time. The constant reminder of monthly student loan payments leave no recourse.

By Will Tchakirides | RSS | © 2012 under a CC BY 3.0 license


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