Letters to HIST3814o

The third week of crafting digital history hist3814o, my summer online course, has just wrapped up. Now I must page through everyone’s blogs and fail logs and annotations. I’m trying to write a general note to everyone on the global progress I’m seeing, while giving individual feedback in private. Here are the first three of my letters to HIST3814o, in keeping with my overall philosophy of turning my teaching inside out.


Thoughts on your first week

Greetings everyone

This first week has been a shock to many of you – a good shock, I trust, but a shock nevertheless! It’s been heavy on readings because I think it was necessary to lay some ground work about what digital history actually is or could be. We live in an era where algorithms surround us, invisibly, forcing us to see the world in certain ways. ‘Folks in that postal code are bad credit risks’, says the algorithm, ‘because bad credit risks always live in that postal code’. Garbage in, garbage out. Circular reasoning. Unconscious bias. All of these things have always existed, but the emergence of surveillance capitalism means that they’ve become weaponised.

Now imagine the historians of a few years hence trying to make sense of the last twenty years. They consult digitized newspapers (never realizing how much is missing, or how much the choice of which newspaper to get digitized was the result of various intersections of money and power), and pretend they consulted the actual physical piece of paper. The history of Canada increasingly becomes the history of what can be gleaned from the bad OCR of the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail. They argue that folks were living in these areas because of x,y,z, never realizing the pernicious invisible hand at play. This class should be a wake up call.

This week we have been laying the ground work for a kind of history that re-empowers you. When you take control of your own digital identity – when there is a space on the web that is yours, not Zuckerberg’s – you push back. With Hypothesis installed, you cease to be a passive receiver of information, but a co-creator of meaning, layered on top of the web. You are creating a digital palimpsest. Hypothesis enables collaborative reading, a concept that goes back (in digital form), to a piece by Vannevar Bush in the 1940s. Comments were the first try at this on the web, but they’ve long been so toxic that they’re pointless. Will this happen to Hypothesis? I hope not: but it depends on people using it as marginalia rather than point scoring. So far this week, I have been very excited to see students in this class use Hypothesis to discuss meaningfully points raised; I’ve been sharing some of your blog posts already where you reference your thoughts to the direct passage in the readings that inspired you. Take that, footnotes!

Your domains & other sundry matters

  • Now that you have your own domain name, you can begin to explore the cPanel for your domain to see what other kinds of software you might wish to install. Anytime you use the cPanel installer, it will ask you what ‘location’ you want to place the new software – an option in the location dialogue will be ‘directory’. So, on my domain, I might have my blog at electricarchaeology.ca and a digital map at electricarchaeology.ca/shawnsmaps <- I don’t, but you see how it works. Go explore! See what else is in there that might be useful for you. (If you have a cuPortfolio, you can export all of your materials from there and bring them over to your domain. You’ll need to install ‘mahara’, which is the platform that cuPortfolio runs).
  • Once you’ve got your domain up and running, you can share the URL to it in the resources-n-blogposts channel; read each others’ posts!
  • Make sure you read the course manual, folks. There’ve been some questions about where to submit things, how to submit them, when to submit them: this is all in section 2.
  • You should all have Github accounts now; you’ll need these for next week. You should have access to our DHBox; you’ll need that moving forward as well. (NB: If you’re on a Mac, nearly every bit of code I show you in this course will run on your Mac at the Terminal. Not all of it, but most of it).
  • Read all instructions through to the end before clicking on anything or typing in any commands
  • Read each other’s annotations – you’ll see them when you’re at one of the readings and you have the plugin turned on.

We’re having fun, right?

Finally, don’t try to slog through all of this on your own. I do digital history because it’s fun. It’s sociable. It lets me see things I never could have otherwise seen. Enjoy Module 1 – everyone should be able to do at least exercises 1 – 3. If you’re someone who sails through the exercises, write me another exercise that builds logically on the previous ones. Who knows, I might incorporate it into the next round of the course and make you a co-author.


Some Observations On Module 1

If you’ve struggled this week, know that you’re not alone. But consider this:

You are already more technically savvy than about 90% of your peers in History. While this week has been about learning to write simple text files to separate your content from its form – a kind of futureproofing – and to interact with a more powerful form of computing than you’ve likely ever encountered, my real goal this week was to instill some important habits of thought:

  • how to admit ignorance and to ask for help. We all of us struggle with this; we are socialized to be Warrior Historians, Armies of One, Who Do It On Our Own Thank You Very Much. It’s one of the hardest things to do, to admit that something isn’t working and could someone please help sort me out? Digital History is a team endeavour. We all of us have different skills too: we don’t all have to do every single thing, but we should at least understand something of what the other thing involves.
  • reading carefully. Years of training have taught you how to skim. Working with digital work, and the useful stupidity of computers, means learning to read carefully again, poring over every word. Spaces matter. cd.. is a nonsense to the computer: there is no program called cd.. But there is something called cd, and a location .. Spaces tell the computer that the next batch of characters is an input, or a modifier, or a file-name… (which is why you should get out of the habit of having spaces in file names. Spaces in file names cause trouble. Use underscores or hyphens if you must have some visual indication of a space).
  • reading collaboratively. Using Hypothesis, it’s like we’re all annotating the same page of a dog-eared photocopy. In these annotations, you are demonstrating one of the hardest things to do in a face-to-face class: have deep and meaningful interactions with the text and with each other. Keep it up. I love seeing you ask each other to explain and unpack your ideas, and asking for help, and providing each other with help
  • speaking of asking for help: please share the error messages. please share the screenshots. You can even make a screencast with screen-cast-o-matic.com and talk us through what you’re seeing and what you’re doing.

Many of you mention being frustrated this week. It’s ok to be frustrated, to be irritated, to be pissed-off. Walk away from the machine, turn to your peers here in slack, go outside. Remember that what counts – in terms of grading – is your progression, is your transformation from what you were into what you are becoming. Document everything. It all will become clear…. eventually. Y’all are doing great. Hell, there are over 650 annotations already.


Observations on Module 2

From your blogs this week:

… writing my own program to solve a problem felt incredible.

I bet there are still gobs of mistakes in it. The upside is I think I’m getting the hang of the coding

I was able to complete 5 of the 6 exercises, which feels like a big accomplishment for me as a beginner

[It] was simultaneously the most fascinating and the most frustrating task that I’ve taken on so far. Throughout, no matter how many roadblocks I hit, I was really getting into the challenge. There is something very gratifying about this kind of work.

This is only a sample of the kinds of things I’m reading today in your posts. I can’t tell you how excited I am to read these things. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! I have a crappy little table I made in Grade 9 wood shop that I still use in my office at home. I made it; it is mine; I understand exactly what went into it and I will never part with it. It’s the same feeling – and you’ll come to look on all of this in rather the same way.The exercises you’re doing – this is your first encounter with them. With practice things will come and become more natural to you. But that first feeling of ‘ah! I got this! It works!’ – that’s an amazing feeling. I’m glad it’s starting to happen for some of you. But what happens if you haven’t hit that feeling yet? Does it mean you’re going to fail this course?

Absolutely not. Just because it hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it won’t happen. What will make it happen is careful documentation of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and understanding the broader scholarly context where what you are doing matters. I post things I find in the resources channel where the ‘pros’ are wrestling with the issues that you’re wrestling with. It’s an exciting time to be in Digital History, because even students can be making meaningful contributions. We all struggle together!

As you move into the next module, take your time; read instructions fully before you try anything; document, document, document, and talk to each other. I was very pleased to see this happening much more this past week, in both your annotations and here in slack.

Final word:

… Doing this exercise, along with the TEI work in exercise 3, definitely gave me a better understanding of the kind of effort and detail that goes into making these documents accessible

That’s right. Digital work looks to outsiders as if it’s just magical, as if things just happen with a click of a switch. But now you know the dirty secret. Historiography, and theoretical choices, are literally encoded right in the data itself.

Keep going gang; you had a really good week this week and I’m proud. I’ve been telling people all about y’all.


(featured image: Tim Gouw Unsplash.com)