September 13, 2011 § Leave a Comment
This semester I am once again running a digital history practicum. The goal of these practica is to introduce graduate students to the digital tools available to produce a digital history “exhibition”. The students who take this course mostly have a strong interest in public history and the exhibits we create tend to represent the public side of the historians’ craft. In 2009, we curated a photography exhibit called Topos/Chora which brought together Ryan Stander’s photographs of our work at the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project with a series of essays. In 2010, we created a online collection of early M.A. theses at the University of North Dakota, many of which contributed to the earliest professional history of the state. This year, we’re preparing an online collection to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Chester Fritz Library at the University of North Dakota.
The group of students working on this project include from three Ph.D. students (of various ages and digital literacies from a retired chief petty officer in the US Navy to a student who came directly through our program from undergraduate), a M.A. student, and a senior History major. In terms of attitude and creativity, this group is a dream team. Moreover, many of them have had course work and real world experience in public history. In terms of experience with even the most basic digital tools, however, these students are far from digital natives. So, we’ve walked relatively slowly through the process of creating a Twitter feed, creating and uploading images to a Flickr account, and the technical aspects of the blogging and creating a collection in Omeka.
The most striking thing about this group, however, is that they have no sense of the pace of the digital world. In short, the students are not digital natives. While technical aspects have required some basic remediation, the students have struggled (at least so far) to recognize how quickly the digital world can move. The pace of content production in the digital world is not quite the same as the pace of production of in the world of paper, interlibrary loans, archives, and polished editing. Blog posts, Twitter feeds, and transmedia spaces like Omeka allow the creation of history in “perpetual beta“.
The Chester Fritz Library (photo: Tim Pasch)
The idea of public history in a digital context goes from history created for a pubic audience or with a public patron or a public goal, to history as a process made public. The editing, compiling, writing, thinking of historians laid bare before the public eye and, in the best situations, opened to public participation (the idea of public remixing or even public creation of historical narratives as well as content).
So with our project in very early beta, here are the component parts:
We’ll have them together in one place soon, but in the meantime, follow us on Twitter and check out our blog and watch our digital immigrants construct a public history (in public) of one of the most important institutions on any campus the Library.
September 12, 2011 § Leave a Comment
This past week University of Michigan’s Digital Culture Book imprint published the edited version of the Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt project Hacking the Academy. For anyone interested in the fertile intersection of digital culture and university life, the book is a must-read. Moreover, its unique format and production process represents one of the best examples of an emerging model of academic writing. The content for the book prepared from contributions via blogs, twitter, email and other digital media in a single week. (Longshot magazine has followed a similar model to produce a complete magazine in 48 hours.)
So as per my usual practice, I won’t indulge in a full review but offer three largely unrelated comments:
1. As cool as the concept of aggregating a book over one week is, I struggle in some ways to understand why it is important for academic publishing and writing to engage in such an experiment. Cohen and Scheinfeldt suggest that having a single week to compose on a particular topic served “to better focus [contributors] attention and energy.” I suppose this is a valid point. And I do know colleagues who continue to hold to undergraduate mantra of “working better under pressure”.
On the other hand, it seems like academia remains a bastion of the “slow food” type of writing. Unlike journalism or the even more rapid world of the blogosphere, the research, writing, and publication of academic writing tends to be a reflective and deliberate process. It’s not that I don’t think academia can benefit from the kind of instant gratification produced by such scholarly “fast food” (after all, I do blog!), but I do wonder whether this model of production should culminate in a print publication.
In fact, most of the posts in this short book are thought-provoking, but light on references, hard evidence, and “next level” thinking. In other words, the book captures the kind of early stage thinking found in the academic blogosphere. Making research projects visible at an early stage is useful for innumerable reasons (it brands an idea, it makes it possible to get critique early in a project’s life, the act of articulating an idea many times helps to refine it, et c.), but the difference between the initial articulation of ideas and the “final” product remains a distinct character of scholarly writing.
If I were envisioning a project like Hacking the Academy, I might have asked the authors whose contributions were accepted to envelope their initial contribution in a more formal reflective essay that both takes into account the original context of the contribution, and also places it in a more refined context.
2. The essays offer well-worn, but still exciting ideas about using technology to change the way that the academic culture does things. The contributors attacks on traditional forms of scholarly publication (particularly the profit driven practices associated with some academic journals) were effective and well-reasoned. As they expanded their critique to academic culture more broadly, however, a certain kind of naiveté seemed to creep into their writing.
The contributors seemed reluctant to engage the elephant on campus: TRUTH. Many of my colleagues are reluctant to engage with the process driven and transparent practices of digital scholarship because they see anything short of peer-reviewed, formal, academic publications as being short on access to TRUTH. The contributors to Hacking the Academy attempt to make clear that the origins of academic publication in a world where print was an expensive and exclusive commodity created certain procedures like peer review designed to ensure the quality of material committed to print. Today, however, the peer review process for many of my colleagues represents the line between the proliferation of half-baked, ill-informed, unTRUE ideas and the glistening utopia of TRUE knowledge. Despite the powerful influence of the postmodern critique, attitudes that see the traditional scholarly process as the imprimatur of true knowledge continue to carry sway in the academy. So attacks on traditional scholarly publishing as profit-driven, slow, exclusive, and bastions of secret agendas and vested interests, overlook the most common rhetorical position occupied by its supporters. The contributors to Hacking the Academy might not buy this argument, but they still need to find a response to it.
3. While I remain largely sympathetic to the contributors to this volume, I was also disappointed not to see more considerations of the limits of digital tools to reform the academy. After all, scholars who insisted on double-blind peer review and the stodgy ways associated with traditional academic publishing, did so as part of a democratizing process that was remarkably similar to that advocated by today’s digital scholars. There are, of course, issues confronting the “digital-turn”. Preservation, archiving, and curation of digital objects remains problematic. It remains unclear whether the coming digital information utopia will be fully realized on a global scale. The skills necessary to navigate the flood of data, applications, and tools remain daunting even to scholars who keep their fingers on the digital pulse. Finally, the tools necessary to generate and distribute digital collections remain exclusive and – as anyone who has taught a digital history course knows – expensive. While electrons are free, the tools needed to organize them into useful patterns remain dear.
These critiques, however, should not take away from the through-provoking character of this book. The contributions are short, pithy, and a fun to read. The contributors found interesting and effective ways to include comments generated via Twitter or email. And the book will likely stand as a testimony to a moment in time in the academy’s confrontation with our digital future.
September 6, 2011 § 1 Comment
This past week, I romped through Mark Amerika’s newest book Remixthebook (Minneapolis 2011). As with his previous non-fiction-ish offerings, this book defied categorizing and description. I was mostly a meditation on his creative process taking as a point of departure his creative work as a performance VJ, as an author, and as a critic. He focused primarily on the links between creativity and the work of remixing our lived worlds. His argument, laced through a complex, poetic text, is that to be alive, creative, and conscious is to exist in a constant flow of spontaneous, post-production remixing. As his definition of creativity expands and his understanding of remixing grows more ragged, the lived, creative, and performative become a blur and increasingly stand in for reality.
As archaeologists, we are in a constant state of remixing. Even the most basic archaeological arguments require us to move between times (the present and the past, relative and absolute dates, stratigraphy and periodization), move between media (ceramics, architecture, lithics, texts, digital data, images, maps, plans), move between voices (the art historian, the historian, the scientist, the critic, and the skeptic), and move between genres (narrative, analysis, catalogue, data). Our work flow is punctuated by the constant shifting between software, media (of different shapes, sizes, genre, forms), and our own creative output. Archaeological work is a process of constantly performing and remixing bits (both in the traditional sense and increasingly the digital sense) into new objects that present themselves for remixing.
1. This next week, Amy Papalexandrou has asked me to help her produce a 20 page synthetic, interpretative text for an exhibit catalog for an upcoming exhibit at the Princeton Art Museum -City of Gold: The Archaeology of Polis Chrysochous, Cyprus. Our short paper will look at the Late Antique to Medieval city and remix over 30 years of archaeological work, the physical objects present at Princeton, and our most recent research at the site (which is itself the remixing of finds, notebooks, architecture, past-texts, and archaeological method to perform new arguments and new syntheses). In our somewhat-harried correspondence, we took as points of departure an inscription, a short-video I narrated on site, and our most recent research. It goes without saying that the previous scholarship on the site forms a persistent backing track for our remix.
More importantly, we are writing a text that is designed for an informed and interest public, rather than a professional group of scholars, students, or researchers. So while our source material will – more or less – be the same as any other production of our site, our audience will be a bit different. The remix has context and responds to its environment.
2. I’ve been working with a small group of students to produce a public, digital history exhibit on the 50th Anniversary of the Chester Fritz Library (which is the main library on campus here). The students are busy pulling together photographs, texts, documents, and other objects from the university archives. They are also working on how to integrate these objects across a range of digital media – a blog, a Twitter feed, an Omeka.net page, and a Flickr account – and to narrate using these objects across these various spaces. While the source base for our remix is not so different from that confronting any scholar looking to produce historical analysis, the output of our work is quite different. We are intentionally distributing our remix across multiple media and thinking actively how our remixes (as a team and as individuals) will be unique to our audience.
In the context of our work with the library, we’re following Amerika’s lead by using the context of remix to join the work of the “authors” with the work of the audience. By preserving (re-producing?) some of the fragmented state of the original media (individual texts, documents, objects), we attempt to entice people to remix our material in new ways. We’ve performed the initial act of selection and become partners in the conversation.
3. In an effort to think more radically about the notion of remixing, I’ve begun a conversation with Tim Pasch – a computer guru type in Communications at the University of North Dakota. We both have an interest in sound and he records his own, highly-textured digital music. In the course of these conversations, he mentioned software that could translate digital images to sounds. This makes sense, of course, a digital image is a just a gaggle of digital data that could be read by any interface to produce output. The data behind a digital image could be rendered as text, images, sound or almost any medium imaginable via suitable software.
As we chatted about this, I offered to send him raster images from my project in Cyprus and invited him to use images which show the distribution of pottery, the survey grid, or topography and to render them as sounds. We’ve even discusses the potential for capturing sonic landscapes using both microphones, but more radically – capturing images with an explicit eye toward transforming them into sounds. Remixing the landscape would, then, extend beyond simply filtering digital data collected from the landscape and incorporate using the software filters as a lens for primary data collection.
August 30, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Amidst the beginning of the semester din, I did capture enough time to settled in and read a new book: E. Kansa, S. Witcher Kansa, and Ethan Watrall eds., Archaeology 2.0: New Approaches to Communication and Collaboration. (Cotsen Institute of Archaeology (UCLA) 2011). The book is a product of a session at the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) in 2008 and is the first volume in the new Cotsen Digital Archaeology Series. It is published with a Creative Common BY-SA license (By Attribution, Share Alike). The volume is available for free here.
This book may well become a landmark volume in the history of archaeology and the bundle of technologies that we associated with Web 2.0. The volume spans a range of topics from core infrastructure, to technical and theoretical concerns, collaborative research environments, and realistic perspectives on sustainability. Each of the topics considers the significance of Web 2.0 technologies in advancing the way in which archaeologists organize, produce, and share data on the web. The credentials of the participants in this volume speak for themselves and their body of technical work is cutting edge. More than taking a leap into the future, the book captures a precise moment in the history of the discipline’s long-term engagement with technology.
The greatest strength of this book is that it is steeped in the practical realities of archaeological data sharing. For the contributors, data sharing is not merely the exchange of raw data (databases, spreadsheets, GIS and CAD arrays, or whatever), but the full range of conversations that Web 2.0 (variously defined) technologies has made possible. User-generated archaeological information has changed the way that archaeologists conduct research.
At the same time, the contributors to this volume remained profoundly realistic. No one imagined a situation where all data is stored in some great archive but rather in a distributed way across numerous different archives on the web. The different organization of data, the limited ability to centralize resources, and the institutional structure of the discipline present significant obstacles to any single method imagined to accommodate the mass of pre-existing and born-digital archaeological data. In the place of the fantasy of a single repository, comes more sophisticated ways to syndicate, integrate, and query (and search) for archaeological data across the web like those provided by the Alexandria Archive’s Open Context and Michigan State’s iAKS.
The web has radically changed concepts of visibility, collaboration, and scholarly performance so it is now possible to consider projects like the online UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology to be equal (if not superior) to traditional print publications. Blog, social media, and other collaborative spaces have become important avenues for certain types of archaeological conversations. (It was flattering to see my blog mentioned in Sarah Witcher Kansa’s and Francie Deblauwe’s article on middle space in scholarly communication in zooarchaeology (it would have been even cooler had they spelled my name right!)).
While much of the book went over well-trod ground among those who follow trends in the digital humanities, the scope, accessibility, and intensely reasonable perspectives offered by the authors made the book particularly compelling. There was little in the way of naive sensationalism or even the utopian tech-evangelism that is sometimes found in these kinds of volumes. The limits of funding, issues of sustainability, and the need to protect certain kinds of sensitive data appear as serious considerations without simple answers. While this is a reality among scholars discussing digital archaeology and history, it rarely seems to be so fully articulated and recognized in the texts that these scholars produce imagining the digital futures of our disciplines.
The greatest limitation of this text comes not from the technological side, but rather from the intellectual or academic side. An issue that I have raised on my blog before stems from reflecting on the interpretative agendas advanced by many Mediterranean archaeologists. While the idea exists that it could be possible to collect data from numerous projects, across a vast area, and crunch it into a broad reaching, novel synthetic perspective, I think that it remains an open question whether there is a substantial scholarly interest in this kind of research. Vast, quantitative studies of even single regions – from single data sets – remain relatively rare in our field. And, there are significant questions whether the quality of data produced even in the most carefully monitored projects reach a sufficient standard to allow for complex generalizations across regions.
Moreover, more qualitative analysis – which does not rely necessarily upon the raw data of excavation or survey, but on published objects – is becoming better served by the greater accessibility and visibility of standard print publications via various journal databases and projects like Google books. (And it is worth noting that standard issues like naming of various vessel types, places, or even contexts (across multiple languages) are not any more easily resolved in databases than in more traditional publications).
In my world, most academic archaeologists design their field research to collect data that answers a particular question. Their research question, then, absorbs their energy, structures their data, and shapes their interpretative and publication strategies. In fact, the absence of useful data is often the reality that prompts fieldwork. At the same time, the inadequacy of other projects’ data is the conceit that makes one’s own data stand apart. This is not to say that comparative analysis does not occur between projects or that we don’t search for comparative “type-fossils”, but rather that this work tends never to be a major research priority. In fact, in Mediterranean archaeology tends to approach comparative analysis from the attitude that “our data” is unique and meaningful in and of itself, and other data “merely” provides it with context. (I do understand that this is not the same process for professional archaeologists or CRM types. There is obvious and tremendous value to the various digital projects described in the volume that sought to open up the vast body of “grey literature” to a wider professional audience.)
The issues facing large scale data distribution schemes isn’t, then, a technological one, but rather a more profoundly methodological one. Archaeologists simply are not asking the kinds of questions (yet) that queries across vast swaths of intensively produced data would support. So, the lack of support for the massive data repositories, comes as much from the intellectual limitations of our discipline as from institutional, professional, or technological concerns.
This being said, I do recognize that changes in technology does shift the conceptual footing of the discipline, but the nature of archaeology as a craft (as opposed to a more rigorously standardized science or profession) remains a major limitation to how scholars think about data.
May 19, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Smith-Corona Sterling Portable Typewriter. Ca. 1955.
May 18, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Over this past semester, I worked with a couple public history graduate students to build a small digital archive of M.A. theses produced by students at the University of North Dakota during the first half of the 20th century. Their work concentrated primarily on theses focusing on aspects of North Dakota history. Over the course of the semester the students scanned around 25 theses and uploaded them to an Omeka.net site.
This group of theses represent the first wave of graduate students in the departments of History and the School of Education. Their reflected the efforts of Orin G. Libby to develop a solid graduate program in the Department of History at UND and many of these works contributed to Elwyn Robinson’s seminal History of North Dakota.
As a final part of the project, we worked to create an online exhibit of these theses. Check it out here.
May 3, 2011 § Leave a Comment
If you’re interested in archaeology and the digital future then this is the lecture for you. Prof. Eric Poehler will be speaking tomorrow at 6 pm in the East Asia Room of the Chester Fritz Library on the beautiful campus of the University of North Dakota. If you’re not in North Dakota, FEAR NOT, the digital future has you covered!
We are going to stream the lecture LIVE from this site here. Please join us online if you can’t make it in person.
This talk is going to be so spectacular that we made the UND home page (everyone should click through to the UND link to show the power of my blog!!):
For you regular Archaeology of the Mediterranean World readers, this is probably a bit of a disappointing post. So, just to show you that I’m looking out for your leisure time reading, hop over to Teaching Thursday and check out a brilliant bonus post. My colleague Caroline Campbell has posted a particularly thoughtful series of reflections on her second year of teaching at the University. This is a follow-up to her first year reflections which she offered in the spring of 2010. Be sure to check out Teaching Thursday over the next few weeks as
April 21, 2011 § 1 Comment
This past week, Robert Darnton published a curious opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I am sure that by now, more qualified bloggers have already puzzled over this column where Darnton positively obliterates several strawmen (strawpersons?) about our digital future. Darnton begins his brief reflections by identifying and refuting five myths of the information age:
1. The Book is Dead. Here he argues that since more books are produced each year than ever before the book is alive and well as a medium for communication. I am not sure that I’ve ever read anywhere that the book is going away. In fact, most people say that recent changes in way books are produced, published, distributed, and read is a cause for some celebration! The real questions have surrounded our definition of the book and its place within our increasingly convergent media universe. So if the book is dead, long live the book.
2. We have entered the information age. Darnton points out cleverly that “every age is an age of information” as if this somehow undermines the idea that our age has celebrated and problematized information in new ways. While the changing pace of our ability to discover, manipulate, and communicate information is perhaps not “unprecedented”, our fixation on this abstract notion of information perhaps is. In any event, his argument is pretty facile. Every age seeks to define itself and almost every age identifies itself somehow and in most cases, these identifications tell us more about how that generation imagines itself than a perspective on some kind of absolute historical character.
3. All information is now available online. First, I’ve never heard anyone say that. I suppose someone might have only because people say the darndest things. It’s such a crazy notion that I am not going to comment any more on it here.
4. Libraries are obsolete. Aside from people who are library haters (and our local politics have reminded me that some version of these people do exist), few serious people have argued that libraries are really obsolete. They are changing, of course, to keep pace with new ideas of what constitutes a book and our fixation (fetishizing?) of information, but they are coming to occupy an important place in our expanding information infrastructure.
5. The future is digital. While it might seem impossible to argue with this, it all depends, of course, on what we mean by digital. Darnton points out that the information environment will be “overwhelmingly digital”, but also reminds us that printed material will continue to be important as well. Again, it seems hardly valuable to note that “old technologies” like print will continue to be value just as long-playing records, typewriters, radio, and old houses continue to be cherish as opportunities to reflect on media and through media on our own past.
To be more charitable to Darnton’s offers these strawmen as myths and his few concluding paragraphs offer more compelling observations on the changing landscape of information. He’s particular insightful when he challenges the idea that digital reading habits are undermining long-standing practices of reflective, sustained reading by arguing that there is growing evidence that people read in snippets and gleaned from texts in the past. So, perhaps in the final analysis his article does have something to contribute, even we might even see his effort to push back against such seeming facile and polarizing perspectives as perhaps warranted. I would like to think, however, that massacring such strawmen is an activity better left for a popular outlets than a publication like the Chronicle.
March 9, 2011 § Leave a Comment
This is a big week for the students in my digital history practicum. As some readers of this blog know, two University of North Dakota graduate students have been working on preparing a digital archive of our collection of M.A. theses relevant both to the history the state of North Dakota, but also the study of the discipline at the university.
So far this week, the first draft of the Omeka.net-powered web archive has role out and the first public presentation of their work will occur this afternoon at the 10th Annual University of North Dakota Graduate School Scholarly Forum. Come by today (Wednesday March 9) and check out the poster and chat with the students from 2-4 pm in the Ballroom of the Memorial Union.
They have also produced a poster describing the current state of the project:
They are also working on blogging, which as I have discovered does not come native to our aspiring cohort of public historians. Check out their blog: North Dakota History Goes Digital. Using social media is even more foreign to them, but they have a Twitter feed @nodakhistory, and they are trying!
They’ve even experimented with QR codes on their poster. It’s almost like the 21st Century.
February 16, 2011 § Leave a Comment
This semester I am supervising a small digital history practicum. The goals (as I have explained elsewhere in the blog) is to begin the process of digitizing Master’s Theses stored in Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections at the University of North Dakota. These theses document the early history of the study of history at UND and provide some valuable historiography for the study of the history of the state. In fact, some of these theses date to before the establishment of state or local archives or to times when these archives existed only at the most rudimentary levels. As a result, they could contain references to documents that are now lost.
For example, we have Myrtle Bemis’s 1909 M.A. Thesis on the Settlement of Swedes in North Dakota. Much of the evidence for her argument comes from conversations and interviews with Swedes who had settled there just 20 or 30 years earlier. This appears to be the earliest thesis in our collection here and it was prepared under the guidance of A. G. Leonard (Geology), Orin G. Libby (History), and John Gillette (Sociology).
Among the more interesting theses, however, does not touch on the history of North Dakota at all. Elmer Ellis‘s M.A. thesis, followed in the footsteps of Orin G. Libby’s work on the quantitative, geographical study of American political allegiances, but emphasized minority parties from the Civil War to 1900. As readers of this blog know, Ellis went on to earn his Ph.D. and become the 14th president of the University of Missouri.
We hope to begin to release these theses by early March with short interpretative introductions, some discussion of our methods, and a proposal for digitizing the entire series of M.A. Theses in the archive.
At present we are a bit stuck as to how present these theses to the public. Our initial instinct had been to use Omeka, an online collection management application, and, specifically, their hosted Omeka.net service. For public history students, learning to use these kinds of tools is an important skill, as many small to mid-sized museums and institutions have begun to develop their web presence in a more serious way. Omeka allows the students to familiarize themselves with the Dublin Core metadata for objects as well.
Unfortunately, we have not been very successful in getting Omeka (or Omeka.net) to display textual artifacts. While the self-hosted version of Omeka (version 1.1) does allow for a document viewer installation (using Google Docs viewer), it is pretty limited in where it can be deployed. For example, it does not appear to work when arranging various items in the database for a formal exhibition. Omeka.net, while a great tool for image collections, does not support the viewer at all. So we can develop the metadata for these objects and even display images of their front page (like in this blog), but we can’t actually display the text in a way that is easy for the visitor to the site to scroll through without downloading the entire thesis. This may be an acceptable solution for the present, but it is hardly optimal.
Since the scanned theses will eventually (we hope) make their way into the libraries digital collection in ContentDM, we are a bit reluctant to develop too much of a front end for their display. At the same time, the practicum had as its goal more than just creating a digital collection. We wanted to make sure that our collection could present our collection to interested members of the local community.