Intro to History 689 Classmates for Jack Norton

With this post I join a community of digital history teachers taking the course “Teaching History in the Digital Age” at George Mason University this summer. By way of introduction I teach at Normandale Community College and this course is part of my sabbatical plan. I did my PhD in history at the University of Minnesota, focussing on women’s lives in early modern Valladolid, Spain. For a couple years I worked as a corporate archivist and historian for a medical device company. I live in Minneapolis.

Like some of you, I stumbled into digital humanities in the course of teaching. I hope to refine my pedagogy to better reflect the scholarship of teaching and learning as it relates to history. Of particular interest is how to teach with the evolving tools of digital history to large numbers of students, with highly differentiated preparations, and many of whom are poor. There’s nothing new about community colleges addressing this student population, but digital history frequently brings a new set of challenges to the fore. For example, many dh tools are online and free, but websites become unresponsive when faced with 40 or more interrogations of their data. I feel confident that I will be able to find technical solutions to problems, yet I hope this course can help me sift better from best of the tested methods for teaching digital history.

I am convinced that the tools, skills, and information-sorting mindset of digital history deserves to be taught at the survey level as it is there is where it can provide the greatest good. My commitment to teaching digital history springs culturally from geekdom and social justice. I hope that this course in, in its readings and learning from others, will help me refine my surveys to better serve my students.

Digital Humanties at Scale.

No, this is not about big data, at least not the sexy kind of big-data that makes venture capitalists and ed-tech analytics companies sit tall. Rather, I write to bemoan the challenges of teaching Digital History in the world of the cloud. Before the play begins, please note I write not to criticize the folks who create the DH tools mentioned below. Rather, I write to note there is an epistemological predisposition towards solo work in DH that makes teaching it at community colleges challenging.

Act one: GIS. Omeka is a content management system that I teach to my students as it helps them understand the need for standardized metadata when it comes to history presentations. It also helps them learn how historians always weigh what to put in and what to leave out when explaining the past. A stupendous plugin called Neatline lets students plot points and shapes on a world map and associate a variety of metadata, including dates, explanatory text, and html links to the original sources. I host my Omeka install with Reclaim Hosting, the best server option I’ve encountered and with banging customer service.

When all 45 of my students start inputing data into the same map, Omeka bogs down. I’ve checked my usage stats on Reclaim, and it’s not their servers, it’s just how the Omeka software processes changes. Truth in advertising, I know just enough code to know I don’t know diddly about coding, so I can’t say why Omeka slows with lots of folks using it. More challenging for me, when I go review the maps my students have made, every changed focus takes 5-12 seconds of “loading” time. Grading 80 GIS points requires I click, wait. . . . not long enough to do something else. . . wait. . . and read. Then I input the rubric in the learning management system, click in Omeka and wait. . . . .

To be clear, Omeka is by far the best teaching tool I’ve found for digital history, replacing four separate other tools. And there’s a new beta version of the software that appears to be more attuned to group usage, called Omeka S. That said, to teach my student now (and I’ve been doing this for a couple years) I have to counsel a great bit of patience with tools that were never designed for a standard undergraduate class. To be sure, Omeka is open source, so I could teach myself how to self-host an instance of it on a local college server, and that may be what I need to do, but again, it doesn’t look like my server is being overwhelmed with bandwidth issues, just too much data moving in an out of Omeka.

Act 2: Distant reading. Voyant Tools allow students to do distant reading in a fantastically-well-designed user interface. Like Omeka, you can download a local instance of it and install it on your local computer or on a server. In this instance, it my college’s IT rules that prove a challenge. Running Voyant locally requires Java, which my college’s IT no longer supports due to security issues. So, the obvious fix to overwhelming the free service the Voyant team provides through their web-version of Voyant won’t work right now. I may try to find a way to load a Java Runtime Environment, browser, and Voyant on a flash drive and then copy that package 45 times for a DH on a stick option. Again, brilliant tool, wonderfully executed, frustratingly slow when used in a 45, person classroom.

Act 3: As part of an introduction to how historical GIS can help us ask different questions I have the students use the Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World. I ask students to calculate distances and speeds from different cities in the Roman world and then to explain why historical actors may have chosen to act is certain ways. The map is in it’s 2.0 version and, by and large, works flawlessly, even with 45 students using it at once. Until it stops working. To be fair, I can get it to do some things, but not others. Right now I need it to calculate distances and times between cities so I can double-check my students’ answers. Stanford will probably get back to me in a reasonable amount of time and it is entirely possible (probable?) that my user error is causing the problems. Still, I can’t grade right now and anything that slows down grading for a community college professor is the root of all evil. UPDATE: I DM’d Jason Heppler at Stanford (he taught the intro to R course I took this summer) and he waved a magic wand. ORBIS is back up. Which reminds me that making great stuff is important, and having responsive support is equally important. Noting my gratitude for both the tool and the support.

Now, the field would not exist in its present state but for the hard-working humanists, coders, and other digital workers that created many of these tools. So, complaining that tools don’t work well for lots of people seems a bit akin to a restaurant review claiming “such poor food, and so little of it.” With that, however, I want to note that almost all of the tools I encounter that are easy to use, are not easy to teach to large groups. Those DH tools that are easy to teach to large groups (say Markdown) are not easy to use in a robust way. No, I can’t ask my students to install MALLET to avoid a web-interface: many of my students only have the computer I place in front of them. Yes, I could use other services that disaggregate work on a single server, reducing bandwidth issues. For example, I taught historical GIS using Web ArcGIS. But that requires a separate login and is not well-connected with the other more historically-minded work that we do in Omeka.

Perhaps this is just where we are as a field, with mostly 2.0 tools that are good, but not enterprise ready. Perhaps I’m asking too much of 1st-year students when it comes to doing DH work. And perhaps we, in DH, need to start thinking big when we create tools, so that the tool works well with 50-100 first, before we add new features.

How to build history and social justice into life.

This past weekend I visited St. Francisville, Louisiana for a family wedding. The wedding was held in a church built in 1860 and re-built in 1880 after shelling by Union troops. Later, the wedding reception was held at Greenwood Plantation. I asked my sister-in-law: “Hey, did you see the plaques commemorating the slaves who built the church and the plantation?”*

Her: “No, I didn’t”

Me: “Yeah, I didn’t see them either.”

As you’ll see from the links above, there’s loads of information about the botanical, architectural, and white familial history of these places, but, as far as I saw, no physical acknowledgement of the black Americans (slaves) who created the gardens. There are places in Louisiana that address slavery head on. Still, walking around St. Francisville, a town of fantastic architectural heritage largely built by slaves of wealthy slaveowners, I didn’t see any public displays recognizing slaves. Buildings were “Built by wealthy planter X in 1834.” To be fair, the failure to mention the workers who actually constructed buildings isn’t southern or even racist, but part of larger erasure of working people’s contributions to our country.

Still, focusing on the beauty of the architecture without acknowledging the horrific violence that created it seemed like a pact of forgetting, akin to the Spaniards not talking about the Franco period after the transition to democracy in 1976-1978. Walking around everyone commented on the beauty of landscape, which to me felt akin to commenting on the beauty of the forests around Buchenwald.

So I came back to Normandale, and I had a Muslim student chat with me about the difficulties of navigating the holiday of Eid al-Adha. Eid isn’t a holiday that my school has off, so she’s faced with observing it and asking professors for the day off, or only partially observing it and coming to school. We talked a bit about how employers frequently had floating holidays that let people of multiple faiths take time away. I let him know the minor accommodations I made to facilitate religious holidays that weren’t on the calendar, such as the High Holidays for Jews or Eid al-Fitr. Still, we wondered together about how culture builds in acknowledgement of some people and asks others to do more work to have their culture acknowledged.

The two experiences coming hard upon each encourage me to think about how I build in acknowledgement of certain groups into my assignments and why that matters.

* As a matter of historical accuracy, at least one source I read indicated the current Greenwood Plantation main house was rebuilt in the 20th century after a major fire.

Safe home.



Not sure where I’m going with this. . .

I’ve concluded, as so many others have, that the Learning Management System at my school does more harm than good to student learning. Not that the LMS is useless: I like the centralized grading, quizzing, and file system- all nicely FERPA compliant. But that’s it. For everything else, I want to use the public web, if possible.

So, imitating much smarter people, I’m putting my course on the open web. I don’t have the time to teach myself how to create static pages using jekyll and github, so I’m just going to run two installations of a wordpress on my own server. I’m toying with just linking to github pages for all the assignments and readings, gathering than posting them as HTML in wordpress, but that feels like I’m asking a bit much of my students, to learn to navigate two new interfaces.

One of my frustrations is that I have few to no resources at my school to help me work through these issues. IT and our instructional technologist are great, but with skills very different than what I’m working on right now. Plenty of historians around the country teach on the open web, and many post their syllabi and assignments to github for others to use. I met some of these amazing folks at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute , but their new colleagues, not the kind you can ding with newbie questions on workflow.

Curiously, for all the tech getting-up-to-speed I’ve been doing, the mindlessness of it has allowed me to reconsider more teacherly aspects of my courses, such as assignment design and how to promote historical thinking in a scaffolded way. I want my assignments to ask more open-ended questions that inspire curiosity, rather than settle for mastery of a timeline.

If you think this post is wandering, I did warn you in the title. . .

Safe home.

What do you value?- [Updated post] #budsc15

What do you value? [

I’ve had an itch all weekend long I couldn’t scratch until this morning. Session after digital humanities session highlighted the possibilities offered by new (mostly software) tools for understanding our world. Questions that might once have been improbably hard to answer (how often does a historical figure mention the ten cities closest to her home city in a work of 10,000 words) can no be dispatched with the flick of mouse. Particularly impressive have been the the two ends of the spectrum, field defining scholarship and more limited yet nonetheless fascinating undergraduate projects.

Yet, for all the brilliance of the technology, methodology, and–at times–andragogy of the presentations, I missed something. Rather, I saw it in asides, tangents, dry humor, and apologetic caveats: why does DH matter? I heard about the ability to access knowledge in new ways (digital vs analog, dynamic vs. static), new ways of analyzing established sources (distant reading, GIS, computer mediated transcription), and new ways of displaying existing information (student exhibits, DH research websites), but I didn’t hear a lot of why are we doing this.

Yes, we can. We can plot locations, parse data, and generally code the sum of human of existence into submission, making it bow to our technological prowess. Should we, and if so how should we? What do we value, as individuals, as educators, as scholars, as community members? One participant asked why I taught DH at the survey level and I said to get my students jobs. And while that was honest, I didn’t highlight the value behind that answer, that skilled paid work gives students options for a better life. Like you, I want to improve my students’ lives. And I don’t want to hide that, nor should you.

If you teach DH because you want to make the world a better place, say just that. If you don’t care about the world and just want to advance your career, say that. If you’re a nihilist who believes DH is just as useless as any other pursuit so why not do it rather than bake bagels, say that.

My point isn’t to superimpose my values on other’s andragogy, only to call for greater attention to the values embedded, explicitly and implicitly, in our DH work. As Vance Ricks, a philosophy professor at Guilford College, noted to me during a coffee break, if we fail to articulate our own values, the values of our work will be shaped by others. Knowledge creation is not neutral, even if combinations of 0 and 1s appear so.

To give relief to these general musings, consider the use of GIS to chart the ancient world. Some of the most prominent projects take well-know texts and geolocate references in the texts. In short, take famous text (Herodutus) add GIS and stir. It’s fantastic, truly. At the same time, historians have worked for half a century to expand what we know about the past beyond the elites that created most of our primary sources. For example, understanding women in ancient Greece requires reading “across the grain,” looking for the gender dynamics of ancient Greece in close readings of texts that are references against scant other sources, such as art, poetry or financial records. In short, our source record speaks directly to the immediate experience of maybe 5% of the ancient Greek world and historians have found creative ways to learn more about the other 95%.

If we go back and simply apply DH tools to existing sources, we risk reproducing the blindspots of historians 50 years ago. Or worse, we risk re-articulating the value that only the elite males of the past made history worth studying. As I reconsider my thoughts, I think it important to distinguish between undergraduate projects–which should be first to teach and second to advance scholarship–and more advanced work–which should know better.

I also want to acknowledge the folks I saw who presented work that both “liberates data” and “liberates people.” Matthew Cisk is working on mapping the South Bend community so that the city and the community can improve their neighborhoods. Sabina Deitrick and Abigael Wolensky went into Homestead and West Homestead and worked to make digital technology serve the people of those communities. And many people shared stories with me about how important using DH to improve society was to them. Miriam Neptune noted that technology can separate or unite students of color with their classmates, depending on how its deployed. I am hopeful these efforts continue, even flourish.

That’s a lot of words for this idea: why do you do DH?


The best of intentions, the brightest of minds.

Today I attempted to attend a conference being held at Stanford called the Digital Learning Research Network (dLRN) 2015 – Making Sense of Higher Education 2015. I couldn’t attend because my youngest turned 2 today.

Part of the conference included virtual chats with presenters conducted through Google Hangouts. If I can’t attend a conference I often follow the conference hashtag, and have learned much from that practice. The promise of the virtual chats, which the conference organizers called Virtually Connecting, was to “enliven virtual participation in academic conferences, widening access to a fuller conference experience for those who cannot be physically present at conferences.

I participated in two and half sessions. The first proved the promise of this type of conference outreach. Adam Croon and Jim Groom offered a quick comparison between punk music and education technology (edTech for the uninitiated) and pondered the counter-narratives created in both music and edTech. A couple of remote folks asked questions, which Adam and Jim answered. It wasn’t long, half hour or so. Still the energetic engagement of the presenters gave such energy to the discussion I wish I could bottle it and sprinkle a little around every academic conference I attend.

The second session was to be an introduction to Virtually Connecting and that’s when the wheels started to come off the cart. First, we didn’t start on time. If you’re at a conference and it starts late, it doesn’t matter much. The nature of the conference is that you likely don’t have to get back to work or family. When remote, lateness means you’re not doing something else you need to. Then, a couple of brilliant folks (sincerely, the presenters were all smart, engaged education professionals I respect)  came on to explain Virtually Connecting with a Power Point that tried to make the case that Virtually Connecting sought to expand the participation beyond the local conference.

In my world, “Power Point” and “participation” should not be used in the same sentence. I couldn’t even tell who was talking as only the remote participants had their cameras on: the local presenters kept the Ppt slides in their window.

After 10 minutes of waiting for the presentation and then 10 minutes of people talking to me about participation, I switched to the Hangout I was most interested in: a discussion with Bonnie Stewart on the sociocultural implications of digital learning. I waited for the introduction to Virtually Connecting to finish. It did and Stewart began the chat. We introduced ourselves and Stewart tried to summarize the session that was held just prior, and then asked George Station to recap a little of what he had presented.

And then she apologized and said the session needed to end as the next session was starting. That was it.

I felt sad, and a bit angry, especially given the promise of the first session.

So what lessons did I take from my Virtually Connecting?

  1. I’d define a focus for the Hangouts beyond just inclusion. Technology offers access, but the success of a virtual discussion requires an objective (or multiple ones). I’m reminded of this access vs. success conundrum as I pour over my college’s graduation and placement data. We’ve done a great job getting people to show up- and then. . . (Bali blogged on a similar subject on October 7th, which may be why this distinction is stuck in my head.)
  2. Introductions should be short. Discussants matter, but not as much as the discussion. Afterwards I realized I included three titles, my school name and the location of my college relative to the nearest large city. Yeah, I’m windy.
  3. Andragogy is not just for the classroom. I got to meet two of the teaching rock stars today (Groom who runs Reclaim Hosting and Maja Bali whose writings on teaching I’ve taken to heart for at least a year). These are folks I admire deeply for their creative approaches to digital learning. And yet, the intro to Virtually Connecting and the Hangouts demonstrated more technological prowess than teacherly planning. That’s a hard thing to write given my admiration for the folks running dLRN and Virtually Connecting, and I speak as an ally, not a critic.
  4. Setting expectations is important. I think I expected too much of these Hangouts. They couldn’t replicate or even offer a fraction of the value of the conversation that happened at the associated conference sessions. My let down was partly of my own making. Following the conference hashtag or reviewing video from the event could’ve given me what I wanted.
  5. Meeting people face-to-face, even virtually, is a thrill. That I got to say hi to Bali and ask Groom a question makes me feel like I’ve more digital humanities nerd cred and motivation than I had this morning. As educators fighting a rearguard action against fear, ignorance, and apathy, anything that motivates, matters. I even got to meet another digital humanities scholar in Minnesota- which really made me feel like I’m less alone in my work.
  6. The power to create quick, weak, networks that could expand into stronger relationships seems the great potential of the Hangouts (as the organizers hoped “It is our hope that through this experiment, people will not only make new connections, but they will also make weak connections stronger.”)

These are just some thoughts, and not terribly well-organized. Still, I want to offer something other than a quick Dickensian, best of times, worst of times, comment while my memory is firm.

Safe home.

Running with students.

5:30 am

I’m sitting in a hotel room in St. Charles, IL, just outside Chicago and I’m about to do a hard thing: run a marathon.

This exists to chronicle the challenges of leveling the playing field for poor students in my history courses, so running may seem far afield. Even so, it feels dishonest to not note something so prominent in my life. On runs I craft lessons, puzzle out how to reach students, despair and revel in recent classes, and sometimes just forget I teach and mind the glory of the state of Minnesota.

Perhaps the most important intersection between my running and my students is the strength I draw from them. So many faces challenges far beyond those I’ve faced, or challenges I faced with 15 years more experience. Running a marathon is not easy, but for many of my students, life is harder. It’s harder for the recovering heroin addict who shared his recovery story with me in the fall of 2009 when I came to Normandale. It’s harder for the student of mine who works overnight-shifts at a factory so she can send money home to her father in E. Africa. It’s harder for my student who is 19 and raising a child alone. Their stories are theirs and I don’t wish to co-opt that power, but I will run on it. I run inspired by a decade of students, every one with a story.

I need to run now. I do not run alone.

Safe home.

On incivility in the face of failure (@neatline, @omeka)

I’m trying to use Omeka and Neatline to help my students think about history as something we make, not that we receive. Omeka and the plugin Neatline make hosting online exhibits fairly easy, and hugely easier than coding your own CMS with a GPS interface.

Still, there are things that aren’t obvious, especially to a neophyte. There’s a bunch of technical rubbish that amounts to one-part niggling user interface quibble and one part shame of the “my students need to learn 21st century skills and I’m failing them” variety that erupted in some Beetle Bailey cursing on twitter today. That was low on my part.

Neatline and Omeka twitter handlers kindly declined to #@$% back, which makes them the better people and better educators.

And I learned a lesson in what some of my students must feel when having reviewed all the documentation I’ve given them, they still can’t get something to work.

Humbling, but I’m going to fail this lesson fast and get back to teaching.

Safe home.

New format and the absence of values in e-Learning.

To the five people who read this blog: I’m playing with themes. I’ll find one that works soon and stick with it.

In the mean time, consider the distant reading I did of the entire program of the recent e-Learning conference put on by the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. I the plugged the text of the entire program in Voyant, and searched for words that address poverty. You can see what I found.

To be fair, there were a couple of presentation about open education resources, but those focused on books, not students.  Next time you attend a conference, scrape the entire program into Voyant and see what it tells you.

Graphic of voyant.
What words were missing from the program of the conference? See the graph on the right of the image for the words I queried.