Friday, May 10, 2013

Gender in the Stacks: On Managing a Small Digital History Project

This was the title of a digital history project recently completed at Loyola-Chicago as part of Kyle Robert's Digital History class.  The manager of the project, graduate student Aaron Brunmeier (who also happens to be a Springsteen fan), describes his experience working on this project at his blog "thought-monopoly."  Here is a taste:

This post is a reflection on my experience managing a digital history project. Much like most projects I encounter in grad school, the beginnings are hazy, ill defined, and subject to change, sometimes so immensely that you cannot even recognize the final product from its original conception. Originally, I wanted to do a spatial analysis of the NYSL circulation records (1789-1792) to see where borrowed books were ending up in the city. I even had a 1786 city directory that I thought I could use to correlate patrons with their residences, but my group and I soon changed our focus to a much narrower, albeit intriguing and rewarding, topic. We decided to look at the eleven women found in the borrowing records to see what they were reading and what books that linked these women together. We wanted to test Cathy Davidson’s notion that the early American novel was a subversive tool with which to challenge the political and patriarchal status quos in a very restrictive post-Revolutionary society. 

For this project, I worked with two hardworking and thoughtful undergrads, and it was their effort that made this project what it is. What I realized along the way, though, is that we sometimes were working on different planes – and again, I want to stress that I am not criticizing my outstanding group members. I am speaking more to my own shortcoming. In the history world, especially within the graduate history world, we often “talk shop” with big words and think everyone naturally understands us. “How does Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto problematize or reify Sugrue’s ‘urban crisis’ thesis?” “Tell me more about the role of agency in Foucault’s conception of governmentality….” And so on. We get so caught up in our profession-specific rhetorical world that we sometimes forget that we often talk in code. Thus, when I set out to explain to my group about gender in the early Republic, I found myself on several occasions tripping over my own words. I had a tough time explaining something that, in reality, is not that complicated, but often becomes that way once an eager grad student varnishes his sentences with the biggest buzzwords he or she can muster. So the first thing I learned was that I didn’t have to try and talk in such a way that I would when I wanted a professor to know I read the book for that week’s class.

I am impressed that such a project could be accomplished over the span of semester-long course.  Nice work.