Thursday, January 2, 2014

Chistopher Graham Reports on the AHA Digital History Workshop

Christopher Graham weighs in on today's digital history workshop at the AHA. --JF

This image from Stephen Lubar’s title card of his (snow-cancelled) talk accurately represents where I have been today. I began this morning by attending the pre-conference workshop on “How to Get Started in Digital History,” assembled by Seth Denbo. The three-hour workshop consisted of a plenary session and two breakout sessions. The plenary offered an overview of the broad scope of digital history, featuring personal interaction (social media), project building blocks (Omeka, Zotero, etc.), and problem solving tools (text mining and topic modeling). [See also Claire Potter’s summary of the session.] Seth emphasized that the project building blocks should be employed only as appropriate tools to answer existing questions (and not just for the sake of using them.) Yet it would seem that the problem solving tools can, and should, be used to generate new questions. For instance, they brought up Cameron Blevins’ topic modeling of Martha Ballard’s diary, in which language and word patterns revealed new trends in Ballard’s life that Laurel Ulrich hadn’t seen.

The breakout sessions included an introduction to topic modeling, but I went instead to Jeff McClurken’s introduction to teaching the digital history class. McClurken’s most relieving bit of advice was that the teacher doesn’t necessarily need to be functionally familiar with all the digital tools available. That’s what Google is for. And besides, he claims that he spends far more time managing group dynamics than the technical aspects of the class.

The key to a good class is good planning, and according to McClurken, a digital history class needs to be put together differently from a traditional history class. You need to consider the extent you will utilize digital tools, the nature of the projects (group or individual), the technical skills of students, the digital tools you will use, what qualifies as a potentially good project, a grading rubric (much different than a grading rubric for an essay), and the kinds of collaborators and resources availale from across your campus. Jeff has his students develop a Project Contract, laying out the goals, tasks, and timeline for the digital projects his students will develop.

In the course of all this, Jeff said in passing that a critical concern of class projects is that they will be publicly accessible, so students should consider their public audiences. It occurred to me that concern for an audience is something that is hardly ever emphasized in traditional academic history courses. These digital history classes are not generally pitched (as far as I can tell) as public history classes, but this minor concession to a non-academic audience seems like a backdoor for the introduction of public-historical thinking to a traditionally academic realm.

My next breakout session was Sharon Leon’s basics of project management. Of course, historians are notorious for being solitary workers, directing their own projects in the form of manuscripts and articles. But group and collaborative projects are essential in the public and digital history world so a little training might be useful. Many of the project management items Sharon explained were somewhat familiar to the old exhibit development teams I worked on in another life. Proposals, objectives, budgets, time management, personnel management, milestones, evaluations, and resource appraisals are all necessary to a successful project. What struck me was that Sharon’s Project Charter is essentially the same thing as Jeff McClurken’s Project Contract. So that seems to be a good way of thinking about a digital (or public) history class—as an exercise (for the teachers and the students) in project management.

This slight repositioning of the digital history implicit in McClurken’s and Leon’s breakouts was made explicit in the session “Public Universities and the Need to Re-think Public History.” The individual speakers simply discussed challenges in their work on a variety of public history projects and it didn’t appear, at first, that they would get around to the “re-thinking public history” part of the session title. But the discussion afterward lived up to expectations. The primary problem is the ability of public history programs to survive and thrive in the new public university environment of permanent austerity and the Fortune 500 administrative mindset. This involves, apparently, some repositioning of the public history mission on campus as, potentially, a service learning component, or even more broadly, as a skill-set that should be included in the infamous STEM paradigm. After all, aren’t we teaching project management, and digital technological skills? Further, the broad engagement with collaborators across the university and in non-academic communities will lead to the development of partnerships with commercial and political influencers who will prove beneficial in wider policy-oriented discussions about the future of the university in general and history departments in particular. [NOTE: I sat in the back of this cavernous room and could only hear part of this discussion. Would love to get the input of anyone else in attendance.]

Anyhow, I have to grade a few papers and then head off to the history bloggers reception.