Letters to HIST3814o

The course is over! Watch for a summary of things accomplished, in due course.

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 four 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.


Observations on Module 3

“It’s worse than that: it’s dead, Jim!”

–   Words that Scotty never said regarding our DHBox.

You might not have realized, but y’all are part of an experiment. People teach digital history all over the world. To the best of my knowledge, we are the only class that has its own virtual computerlab to learn with. Sure, some courses have virtual machines that they require students to install on their own machine, but that’s usually just in small graduate seminars where the prof can trouble shoot on every machine locally – maybe five, six students. Some of you are in the Martimes, some are out West, some are here in Ottawa. And you all had access to the exact same computer, so that when you encountered errors, you could turn to your peers and find (or offer) help.

And then we crashed DHBox. We filled ‘er up. A couple of mal-formed wget commands, another few that were left running in the back ground, and we ate all of the space we had. When Andrew, our intrepid supporter in Computer Science tried to restart DHBox for us, well, the motor just wouldn’t turn (you can read more about our outage here. Suffice to say, we were suddenly presented with a very real problem (a crisitunity, in fact) in doing digital history: the unanticipated outage!

You all rose marvellously to the challenge. Some of you discovered capabilities in your Mac that you never suspected; Windows users discovered the power of proper text editors – and Jeff discovered how to make a virtual Ubuntu computer run inside his Windows machine! Resilience in the face of technology fails, and being able to find another route to solve the problem, is one of the hardest things to teach. (One might think it was planned this way… 😉 ) Not only that, but you installed quite a sophisticate piece of software, Open Refine, and used it to clean and normalize the text. Y’all are doing some good work.

The best posts this week did everything we asked of you – they connected the author’s observations on the readings with the issues thrown up by the exercises and the difficulties of cleaning and massaging data into shape. Cleaning data, ‘munging’ data, these are little actions we don’t talk about but which have profound historical implications. The best posts picked up on this, even if the authors didn’t always manage to make their way through the exercises completely. Remember that the exercises are meant to push you out of your comfort zone. With practice, these things become easier (I continue to screw Regex up without fail every time I go to use it, and I end up futzing around for an hour until I figure out the patterns I need). But what we have to insist on is that you document, document, document everything. What you’re thinking. What you’re doing, what you’re seeing, how you reacted, what you tried to do to solve it, when and why you shelved it, etc. That means two blog posts per week, right? Or one monstrous one; Context and Res Gestae (things accomplished). And then in your github you lodge your notes.

Moving forward, Module 4 takes you into the funnest (is that a word?) part of the course (your mileage may vary). Push yourself! Tie what you’re reading to what you’re doing. Explain what you did and where you got stuck. Keep good notes. You need to be thinking about what you might do for your final project – re-read the guidance on the project in the course manual, and chat in the final project channel. You’re more than welcome to collaborate with someone if you desire. Bounce ideas off one another, build each other up! You’re on the home stretch.

Thoughts on Module 4

Drink Deeply

Module 4 is a bit intense. I did say you didn’t have to do all of the exercises.

And like most things in digital history, the situation on the ground changes fast. Someone will update some code, and somewhere in the chain of dependencies (the links of this code depends on that code which depends on this code which depends on that) something goes ‘sproing!’ By now, you’ve learned that this isn’t the end of the world. You’ve learned – or should’ve learned – that when things don’t work, the opportunity for learning is at hand. You’ve learned to say, “I was trying to do X, but I got result Y when I was expecting Z. I’ve got a pc with windows 10, and I’m using R version 3.2.2 with…. and here are some screenshots and code examples”. This is the secret of digital work.

As you race towards the finish line, remember that I understand that this is a summer course, that we simply don’t have the time to do a perfect, complete, and polished project. I’m OK with rough edges and things going sideways PROVIDED (he shouted) you document everything – everything you did, why you did it, what kinds of historical questions you’re trying to solve, what your expectations of what a larger project might find… all of the things that I’ve been asking you all along.

You’ve been taught since first year to write essays as if you’re proving some deep historical point from first principles. I want you to admit that you don’t know what you might find, but given x, y, z, and the work of person 1 (year), person 2 (year), etc, you might reasonably expect to find…

See what I mean? Anyway, please see the announcements from August 8th for more guidance on the final project.

More guidance on the final project

Remember that ultimately in this course we are looking for growth along these 5 characteristics of a digital historian:

1. Productive ‘Fail’ documented
2. Reproducibility fully enabled
3. Collegiality amply demonstrated
4. Evidence carefully and fully engaged with, analyzed
5. Self Reflection present in all work

but that for the project itself, we are looking to see that you’ve understood the process and context for doing digital history as evidenced by the progression of the workbook eg

1. Principles of open access research and your digital identity
2. Finding Data
3. ‘Wrangling’ Data, or getting it into useable shape
4. Analyzing data, or matching the appropriate tool to the question
5. Visualizing (graphing, writing, plotting, mapping) data patterns, or communicating the compelling story

You’ll note that there are no exercises to be completed in module 5; instead I provide those materials to you as an FYI. For presenting your final project you are welcome to create a new subdomain or directory on your own domain and install whatever you need to in that space (another wordpress blog, or perhaps Omeka, or whatever else is available via cpanel). Feel free to experiment, to swing for the bleachers: just remember to *document everything* in your paradata document. Remember also to create a *new github repo* for your project.

*We place more emphasis on a well documented paradata and repo* than on visuals of your final project _precisely because_ we understand that each of you are at a different stage of development. But everyone is capable of documenting what they are trying to accomplish.

Have fun! :slightly_smiling_face:

(featured image: Tim Gouw Unsplash.com)