Digital History in the 21st Century (WAWH 2022)

Digital History in the 21st Century (WAWH 2022)

Presidential Roundtable at the Western Association of Women Historians Conference (22-24 April 2022, Costa Mesa, CA)

Abstract: In this presidential roundtable, each scholar will provide an introduction to their work and offer their “best advice” to graduate students and early career scholars navigating the digital world at this challenging time.  In particular, speakers will address how and why they tackled the digital environment as an historian, the key decisions they made, their mentors (or other resources/professional development items) that made a difference to their intellectual and technical skill development.  They will also discuss how their “next steps” as a digitally involved historian mesh with their teaching, publication/promotion plans, or other elements of your professionalism.

Speaker’s Notes

My notes for this talk follow. Please remember that these are speaking prompts only and not a polished essay, but they may prove a useful addition to the slides shown above.

Work and background

B.S. in Mathematics and History. **NOTE: A degree in Math, Stats, or Computer Science is not necessary to succeed in DH.**

High school teacher for 2 years. I began a master’s in Math but was then accepted into a History Ph.D. program after deciding to apply when I realized that, as much as I loved doing Math, I enjoyed teaching History much more when I saw students’ conceptions of themselves, their communities and world change in response. 

In graduate school, I began asking a number of questions about research and presentation methods, which then led to a fellowship in Cultural Heritage and Informatics. I had always been intrigued by the possibility of bringing my two disparate disciplines together, and DH became one way to do that. Following this fellowship, I worked for 2 years as a Network Developer for H-Net, migrating listservs to the new Drupal platform, training editors how to use the new system and envisioning new Digital History projects that this transition enabled. As I finished my degree, I also became a volunteer with the Topanga Historical Society and consulted on a digitization project and the use of Omeka – a digital repository and exhibit-building platform. This volunteer experience opened a door into the library world, and my first position as I finished my dissertation was as a Digital Scholarship Librarian for the Claremont Colleges, which quickly morphed into a leadership position, two faculty positions and concluded at the consortium as Director of the Digital Research Studio, a Mellon grant-funded position. Although I had some exposure and experience working with various technologies as a graduate student, I attribute my development as a DHer to the 3.5 years I spent at Claremont, launching a 6-week intensive training course that I offered multiple times throughout the year to everyone from librarians and staff members to faculty and graduate students, as well as facilitating 50-100 project and instructional consultations each year. Building on the foundation that a number of folks at Claremont laid, I had the privilege to be part of the team that really built a DH Program across the 5 undergraduate liberal arts colleges and two graduate institutions. This time also helped me realize how much I missed teaching my own courses and engaging in my own research. When a position at UCLA became available, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to pivot back to what I loved doing most, challenge myself to figure out how to grow a pre-existing program, and deepen my understanding of digital historical practices by applying them to my own research.

A comparative colonial historian, my first project, “Between Two Fires: The Origins of Settler Colonialism in the United States and French Algeria,” explores the ways in which French politicians and military leaders borrowed rhetoric and policies from the American context to bolster their colonial project in Algeria. My second historical project, “Imperial Margins: Ethnicity, Gender, and Kinship in Ottoman-Algeria, 1518-1837,” is the first study to examine the inner workings of Algerian society and politics from its incorporation into the Ottoman Empire through its transition to French governance. Recent publications include an article entitled “Using Network Analysis to Uncover Women’s Roles in Early Modern Ottoman Algeria” in Current Research in Digital History (Fall 2020), and a chapter on building a DH program in the latest book in the Debates in DH series: People, Practice, Power: Digital Humanities Outside the Center (December 2021). Additionally, her first Digital Humanities book project, entitled Visualizing History’s Fragments: New Findings in Ottoman History through Digital Humanities Research Methods is under contract with Palgrave Macmillan Press (forthcoming). 

As an educator, I’ve expanded the introductory Digital Humanities course from 88 students in one course per year to three offerings per year with 120 seats each. In addition, I offer courses in applied statistics for humanistic research, social media data analytics, and text analysis for historical study. 

DH & Research

  • Silent No More
  • Visualizing History’s Fragments (Palgrave, Spring 2024)

A unique source I found during archival research led me into a computational project that has ultimately produced two book projects – one on the methods and the other on the history. In my research on Algerian resistance leaders during the initial era of French invasion and conquest, I stumbled across the memoir of the last governor of Constantine, the eastern province of Algeria. As I revisited this document, I wondered how ‘representative’ this man was for his time and during the Ottoman era of Algeria’s past. This is a concept with which all historians – and statisticians – must grapple. And there was the link. With a couple of other graduate students who were able to assist anywhere from one to three quarters one year, we created two data sets – one on governors of this eastern province, and one on their families, notably women, which included both named and unnamed actors. With data in hand, I began a series of experiments to see what else I could uncover about this region’s past. 

I’m happy to discuss these projects in greater detail if you have any questions or if you’d like to chat sometime over the next couple of days (or beyond). 

“Best advice” for graduate students and early career scholars

  • Consider what you would like to do post-graduation. Explore the types of jobs you might be interested in and read through descriptions in calls for applications. Note the types of skills and experience each type of position requires and desires. Where can you learn these skills? Where/how might you acquire the requisite experience?
  • Let your research questions and/or instructional goals guide your skill acquisition and the methods you employ. Learning technical skills on an as-needed basis is the best way to go. It ensures that you don’t spend too much time on methods you may never use, and having a project that requires the approaches you’re interested in learning offers a chance to practice them, which means you also learn and understand them at a deeper level, one that can really only be acquired through application.
  • In my own taxonomy, digital methods can be used for research alone, presentation alone (think interactive digital book or VR experience), or both (such as a map used for exploratory data analysis as well as presentation of the results to a reader). Consider which approach is more interesting, meets your needs and constraints (including time and cost), and what will serve your project’s and personal goals.
    • At the extremes: You can use digital research methods and publish in very traditional formats. Alternatively, you can employ very traditional archival research and close-reading practices and present the results of your research in highly innovative digital formats. 
  • Learn the concepts that underlie methods first through user-friendly tools before you learn how to deploy them with a programming language. Again, this suggestion is up for debate, but I’ve found that by learning techniques in this order, learners can focus on what a method can/can’t do, identify appropriate and inappropriate use-cases before they have to worry about the nitty gritty details (i.e., grammar) of a programming language. Often, programming details obscure what a technique is for and how it can be used to advance humanistic/historical research. 
  • Particularly during a pandemic or if one is not able to travel for any reason, digital and digitized sources – both secondary and primary – can salvage a project that may not have been possible without them and without the chance to travel to an archive in person. However, let’s not make the mistake of thinking that the growing archive of digital and digitized materials is a panacea that will solve all our problems. Only certain materials are digitized from certain places, and often those who have been marginalized in the past become even more so in the present. Often documents related to women, people of ethnic, religious, sexual, or gender minority communitiies, and those who were enslaved are left out of digitization projects. (See next point as well.)
  • Finding a plethora of relevant sources that are digital or already digitized can be as overwhelming and frustrating as identifying a dearth of materials (digital or analog) for a research project. If this is the situation in which you find yourself, consider which methods can be used to help you determine both the broad themes of a corpus, as well as identify which documents will likely be most relevant or fruitful and thus worth spending the time to close read. Using digital/computational methods is not, and I would argue, should not be, an either/or scenario with regard to “traditional” close reading methods, but rather a both/and.
    • Lara Putnam offers an important critique of employing digital/digitized materials alone in a study without place-based archival research during which historians not only become familiar with their primary sources, [but also is somewhat forced to grapple with the choices the archivists made in terms of selection and organization], learn about the local context through interactions in and outside the archive that can lead to insights about the project’s framing or the importance one ascribes to certain events, people, documents, movements, etc., and [enjoy the serendipity of stumbling on something s/he didn’t think to search for]. See her AHR article, “The Transnational and Text Searchable,” 2016.
  • If you decide to employ a digital research or presentation method, consider the assumptions on which the approach has been built, the affordances and constraints, the interests involved, and ways in which the technique will reveal certain features of your project but obscure others. For instance, network analysis can be a powerful tool in understanding how a community functions, but network graphs often collapse time and provide an appearance of completeness when they are usually only partial, at best, representations of a community. In other words, critique your methods in similar ways as you analyze your sources. 

How did you you make key intellectual and methodological choices during your development as an historian?

  • Methods: After raising a number of methodological questions with a fellow graduate student (Alex Galarza, who started GradHacker), he pointed me to DH. This led me to apply for a “Cultural Heritage and Informatics Fellowship” at Michigan State, which provided a general background in DH.  However, I’ve learned the most in my post-graduate life with more time and positions that required and facilitated my exploration and growth.
    • (I haven’t touched on this, but it’s worth recognizing that DH also encompasses questions of human-tech interactions, media studies, game studies, XR experiences, and more.) 
  • Intellectual => methodological: Applying DH research methods to my own work began with a question about the “representativeness” of a particular governor of Constantine, Algeria after stumbling across his memoir in the French colonial archive.
    • This launched a series of exploratory projects, beginning with structuring data from my sources (show spreadsheet), identifying named and unnamed actors, employing exploratory data visualization, descriptive statistical analysis, hypothesis testing, network analysis, and text analysis. 
    • With each new set of questions, a new set of methods became relevant to my research. I was able to draw on my background in Math, of course, but also the skills I had developed in order to teach DH and provide project consultations. The latter two endeavors have taught me the most because dozens of different projects over the years have presented a variety of questions, challenges, problems that I haven’t encountered in my own research and applications, forcing me to delve deeper into each method to help students and colleagues troubleshoot these issues.
      • If you want to learn a new method more thoroughly, go through tutorials on your own and then offer to teach it either informally or formally. 

Resources & professional development opportunities

  • See slides for lists and links

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