Monthly Archives: July 2014

Starting to Make Sense of It All

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I’ve been home from the digital humanities institute for about a week and a half now.  I spent part of that time just adjusting back to civilian life, including doing all the laundry I brought back from Fairfax, getting used to cooking for four again, filing papers, and pulling weeds (literally and figuratively).  But I’ve also been trying to wrap my brain around the two biggest events of the summer–the DH institute in July and the trip to Turkey in June–in a way that will help integrate those experiences into the places they belong (and that in itself is a question), while also reflecting on them in a way that hopefully embeds them into my lifelong experience.  Although I covet the regularity of the research/writing rut that I anticipate will be the general character of this sabbatical, I don’t want to lose, and forget, what has happened during this amazing summer.

I started in a very practical way, using my newly-won DH skills, such as they are, to organize my Turkish experiences and materials for a future presentation at the Niagara Foundation (organizer of that tour) and also for my future classes.  I’ve got a joint StoryMap/ThingLink project underway for the Ottoman patrons, but that is taking more time and brain cells than I have had to devote to the project (so, more on that later).  An easier task was to use the Google Maps Engine to work up a map of my first course in architectural history. ARC 231 covers the ancient and medieval periods, and I began with the simple idea of putting together a map that showed the location of sites that the course includes, in part to show the extent to which Turkey was included in the class by means of comparison with the adjustments after the Turkey trip.  Although it wasn’t the quickest thing to draw up the Excel sheet that listed all the buildings with their metadata (a word I wouldn’t have used a month ago, BTW), once the spreadsheet was “tidy” the map pretty much made itself.  Because of the limitations of the free version of Google Maps Engine, I had to break the class in half; the point “0” that separates BCE and CE/AD timeframes seemed a reasonable place.  Then, each map is further divided into three layers that show successive chunks of time.  By clicking in the menu that appears in the map, you can turn on/off the successive layers; zooming in and clicking on a pin will access the site’s data and access to a few pictures of each building or site.

If the Google system was a little more flexible (which maybe it is if you’re willing to pony up for the not-free version), and the pictures were a bit bigger, this would be a killer study tool for my students.  As is, it is still pretty great in simply locating the buildings and gathering basic info on them.  But more importantly, the map project accomplishes several goals that are at the heart of DH work: the map makes it much easier to literally see the big sweep of settlement patterns, understand adjacencies and, with a little more work, knit it all together through trade routes and other information networks.

Yet at the same time the maps, like all visualization techniques, have a truthiness problem. In the institute we read from a great little book, How to Lie with Maps.  One might see my maps giving a false impression about Where People Built Stuff–whole continents appear barren, which is, of course, not the case.  Even zooming in to well-pinned countries or regions show that there are very few things that appear to be worthy of note.  But therein lies the not-lie of these maps, because they are telling the very important truth of history’s long biases in favor of and against different cultures.  And that, perhaps, is where I see these maps having truly transformative effect in my classes.  Sure it will be handy for students to click around and find tidy dates for all the most famous things in Rome or wherever, but when we start the semester by looking at these maps and asking what they show, and what they don’t show, and WHY: well then.  I might just trick those sophomores into thinking like historians if they’re not careful.

Note: the map above is linked to the Google Map for the second half of ARC 231 (ancient/medieval architecture after the year 1 AD).  Click on it to go to the map, have a look around, and please let me know what you think!

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Recap of the Digital Humanities Institute at the CHNM/GMU

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In a post I didn’t have to write (but my camera did take the picture): click here for the recap as reported by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.

And another: this one posted by the Getty, which funded the program: click here.

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Over the Moat

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We took a different turn in the workshop today, getting away from demonstrations of digital tools, and having a long conversation about the nature of reaching beyond the walls of our institutions, be they museums or universities, to make our work more accessible to a broader audience.  The most worrisome aspect of this issue to me is the nature of authority that is the foundation of academic life.  There is a strong bias against projects that communicate with “the public” as being easy, backsliding, faux “scholarship” that really doesn’t deserve the name.  “Real” scholarship advances the field and is by nature of interest to a small group of specialists–at least, that is what we are taught in grad school, and that is the kind of work that is rewarded by promotion and tenure committees.  The sad thing is, of course, that by putting so much emphasis on specialist work, academics have built up walls between themselves and the public, to whom we are increasingly irrelevant (except, maybe, for a few telegenic Ph.D.s in economics and Middle East poli-sci who are valuable for talking points on evening news programs).  We talked a lot today about how we might reach out to different constituencies, but the nagging thought in the back of my mind persisted: what if they just don’t want to talk to us, let alone hear what we have to say?

I am fortunate to work in a field (architectural history) that is generally appealing to “the general public”–my subject is often on their television sets, and is part of their family vacations. So it should be easier for me and my peers to help to bridge that gap, to help reverse the destructive and prevalent idea that the humanities have little place in contemporary life.  But before, or as, academics try to swim across the moat (hoping there is a receptive audience on the other side) it is essential that the infrastructure of academic life–committee chairs, deans, provosts, boards of trustees–adjust the rewards system, and make it safe to do work that is accessible.  This does not mean, by any means, that it is simpler work; in fact nurturing historical thinking among 20-somethings is (in my experience) loads harder than writing an article from primary sources that will be read by a few dozen scholars in my narrow field.  Although this also shifts greater responsibility back to those committees to judge scholarly contributions (they can’t just count pages published in journals any more), it is the right thing to do, and, realistically, it is the only sustainable thing to do, lest we all research ourselves and our institutions out of existence.