Category Archives: History


By far the best component of my current career path is that I get to spend a significant amount of time collaborating with really cool and smart people. These collaborations have been particularly fruitful over the past year, and it all starts with Tom Harbison and Mikhail Gershovich. When Mikhail hired me full-time at the Schwartz Institute and stuffed me into a windowless back corner office with Tom I warned him that if you put two historians together in a room for long enough, no matter how many bits you ask them to push, eventually they’re going to end up doing some history.

We’ve finally gotten around to it. We’re now on our second collaborative history project in the past year. The first was an essay we co-wrote for Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki’s Writing History in the Digital Age about lessons we learned while Tom was teaching a series of introductory history courses on Blogs@Baruch. The vast majority of the work we were examining was Tom’s and Tom’s alone, and I’m grateful that he let me glom on and add my two cents in assessing the fruits of his significant labor. Ultimately, we argued that taking advantage of the variety of modes of writing allowed by a flexible publishing platform like B@B encourages an approach to the introductory history survey that focuses more on methods than coverage. Tom’s notion of a “micro-monograph” introduces students to the work that a professional historian does in a way that allows him or her to see the transferable value of those skills. Being a detective who can nimbly sift through a variety of information sources, learning how to construct meaning in the form of a narrative, and figuring out how to assess and measure the quality of argumentation: these are the generalizable skills that introductory history should foster. Of course knowing about the Pentagon Papers is important. But knowing why you should know about the Pentagon Papers is even more so.

Watching Tom teach those classes and then crafting this essay with him taught me tons about teaching history and writing. The collaboration was unquestionably positive. Writing a dissertation, or a journal article, or book chapter… these are lonely, isolating pursuits. I’ll confess that the isolation got to me pretty hard as I was writing my dissertation, and made me far less enthusiastic about pursuing a career that was dependent upon my producing books. I simply didn’t want my head to be in that space for large chunks of my life.

Co-authoring eases that feeling significantly. Those moments where you’re stuck on an idea or a phrase or an organizational conundrum cease to be internal recursive loops and instead become opportunities for dialogue and collective knowledge making. Sometimes the mere act of verbalizing the problem to a sensitive and familiar ear helped solve it. Other times we more explicitly addressed each others’ lack of clarity or precision. We ultimately had no choice but to push each other. We began writing different sections, then would trade until, over time, our voice organically emerged. We now can’t look at the essay and tell which one of us wrote what.

We’re currently testing that dynamic in the classroom, and I’m finding it just as rewarding. We’re team teaching a Digital History class, and collaborated in its design in much the same way as we did on the essay. We steal moments out of busy workdays to trade class prep ideas, articulate problems with our course structure, and plan time to plan. Most ultimately happens on email during our commutes, and in the 45 minutes before our class meets. During that time we co-author notes to guide us through our class meetings, and also an “assignments” post that lays out the work we expect of students before the next session. We then head to class, and one of us gets things sets up while the other answers questions or kibitzes (we take turns doing both), and then we proceed without really knowing which one of us will cover which bits of the class. Wednesday, for instance, Tom slipped into a really nice contextualization of how Sam Wineburg (who we’ve learned a lot from about pedagogy and “thinking historically”) does his work, and I discovered that the students weren’t familiar with the notion of historical “agency,” so did a five-minute lecture on the idea. It seems like our students appreciate having multiple voices — one noted that having two historians guiding them lent instruction in the class more authority because we check and verify each others ideas.

The alignment of personality, skills, and intellectual goals obviously play a significant role in the success or failure of a collaboration. Tom’s awesome, so it’s easy. In the spring I collaborated with Cheryl Smith and Mikhail (both awesome too) in helping Cheryl’s Advanced Essay Writing course craft audio stories along the lines of what you might hear on This American Life. Mikhail and I pushed into Cheryl’s class several times over three or four weeks to help students work through, shape, and ultimately put to audio their story ideas. Cheryl spoke to them about voice, narrative, and about how to draw lessons about writing from the act of composing for radio. Mikhail lent considerable expertise about producing audio and imagining an audience. And I was able to speak with students about scaffolding their projects, planning for technological contingency, and seeing parallels between each segment of the process — from planning through production to post-production to performance — and the acts of writing and editing. Ultimately, the projects would not have been as rich as they turned out without our unique combination of voices guiding students through. We all shared the goal of experimenting with this type of project, helping students find and capture their voices, and learning from one another.

Working on these projects (and watching others emerge over the years in the same spirit) has gotten me very interested in the curricular possibilities of collaborations that push back against the confines of the single class with a single instructor taught within a single semester. That structure is implicitly hostile to the collaboration our students will need to be able to do in the workplace. Frankly, there’s no reason we have to accept it.

The fact that collaborating with another scholar might keep one from going insane is just an added bonus.

(95/365) Eh?!

The Challenges of Turning Inwards

(95/365) Eh?!
Creative Commons License photo credit: Sarah G…

Over the past few years I’ve approached the digital humanities with a touch of skepticism. Much of this has had to do with my own career path and anxieties: I did digital history from the mid-1990s through 2003 or so, and since then — even while writing a traditional history dissertation — have worked primarily as an educational technologist focused on pedagogy, curriculum development, and open learning initiatives. These two fields overlap in many important ways, and have much to learn from one another (a dynamic that I and others have attempted to tease out). Yet I regarded the rise of the digital humanities with a certain amount of bemusement since much of what was regularly being heralded as new felt to be the logical next stage of something already familiar to me. I finished my Ph.D. in 2009 and found that there were better opportunities in educational technology awaiting me than on the history job market. As I was making this move, the excitement and celebration and “woo-hoo!” that surrounded the digital humanities put me off a bit. It seemed discordant with the state of the field that I had come to know watching very few of my colleagues and friends land desirable jobs.

Over the past six months I’ve pushed myself to examine these feelings more closely, an effort that began when my pal Matt Gold asked me to contribute to a volume he’s editing on debates in the digital humanities and culminated in my attendance at my first THATCamp this past weekend at George Mason’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. I’ve emerged with a fuller and more complex take on the digital humanities, one that’s softer if still a bit critical (then again, I’m critical of everything). I was struck by a few things about THATCamp in relationship to other academic conferences: the earnestness of the curiosity that infused the enterprise, the genuine commitment to openness and sharing that so many attendees possessed, and the democratic willingness so many folks had to engage with whomever approached them. I was pleased to leave with a handful of ideas for projects to pursue. I needed a shot of adrenaline at the end of a relatively demanding year where I regularly felt that my professional autonomy was being made tenuous by circumstance. THATCamp delivered some inspiration, and for that I’m thankful.

Still though, after submitting an essay to Matt and my trip this past weekend, I feel as though some of the assumptions I had about the digital humanities have been reaffirmed even as I have come to understand them more deeply. One common theme threaded through several of the sessions and conversations that I had and observed at THATCamp: many attendees are working through some sort of frustration with their home institution.

The first session I attended, on whether or not “digital literacy is a done deal,” emerged out of attempts at the University of Mary Washington to launch a “Digital Knowledge Initiative.” Jeff McClurken, who proposed the session, argued that the DKI grew out of a sense that much of the experimentation that has been happening on UMWBlogs wasn’t filtering throughout the entire school and hadn’t been institutionalized in a way that was sustainable, scalable, and truly transformational. Martha Burtis, who also contributed to the proposal, noted her discomfort with an initiative that might disembed the building towards digital fluency from other curricula. Separating out those pedagogical processes ultimately might weaken them. Both positions reflect the desire to compel others at the institution to embrace lessons that can be drawn from the digital humanities about the role of technology in nurturing humanistic inquiry which revolve around openness, sharing, experimentation, visualization, embracing discomfort, and tapping into imagination. Much of the rest of the discussion focused on the challenges of compelling reticent colleagues to integrate such values into their own work, particularly the self- de-centering required of so many who’re steeped in research and teaching from very narrow niches.

A subsequent discussion that I attended extended a morning conversation about “inclusion” in the digital humanities while absorbing a session that had been proposed by Sheila Brennan on “documentation.” I have to say that while this investigation emerged out of earnest self-reflection and a genuine desire to make the digital humanities into a more fully representative field, parts of the conversation unsettled me. Though it wasn’t directly articulated, it was pretty clear from the conversation in the afternoon that most of the concern was about bringing scholars of color into the DH fold. While I agree that ensuring that tools and projects emerging out of the digital humanities are accessible is extremely important, the notion that those committed to the field need to put forth significant effort to make events like THATCamp more ethnically diverse is problematic. The THATCamp “movement” prides itself on openness and welcoming, and those feelings were certainly in full effect in Fairfax last weekend. A working group that focuses on targeting populations of humanities scholars who aren’t present in force at THATCamps risks reifying the insider/outsider us/them constructs that spurred the organization of this session in the first place.

There’s no easy answer to the conundrum of diversity in DH, but I do think that those trying to address this question would be as well or better served by looking inwards at the field than by organizing outreach. For instance, I’m curious how many disagreements there are at THATCamps, and to what extent real diversity might challenge notions of the “niceness” of the field? There’s also the question of politicization. Black and ethnic studies departments emerged in the wake of the civil rights movement, as part of broader efforts to explore untold histories in an effort to empower. I’ve not done research to verify this, and I feel a bit uncomfortable making the observation, but after a lifetime around higher education it certainly seems that scholars of color are still more likely to do their inquiry within this mission than outside of it. Research in these fields rarely pursues knowledge simply for its own sake, but rather does so regularly out of the sense that the process of making knowledge is political. That vibrancy and purpose has drawn me intellectually to the history of race and ethnicity. Does the fact that the digital humanities “movement” hasn’t articulated an explicitly radical agenda contribute to the lack of diversity at events like THATCamp? I really don’t know, but it seems a question worth asking. This is not a call for a more self-consciously radical digital humanities, but rather a call for more reflection about the nature and implications of true diversity within higher education.

Talk in that session turned to how digital humanists might reach out to such scholars on their campuses and draw them into projects or at least the conversation, and it was here where integration of documentation made the most sense. Good documentation is the best tool to make accessible what humanists are doing with technology, and ultimately to draw additional scholars in. A second conversation on documentation on Sunday morning extended this discussion, and it was particularly useful in suggesting tools for creating documentation and methods for integrating the creation of supporting materials into the production process. This discussion also focused on the frustrating art of imagining and addressing audiences not necessarily familiar with the language, methods, or processes of the digital humanities.

A final session asked “what can we learn from journalism?” Part of this conversation again constructed digital humanists as conduits for innovation to filter into their home institutions. A significant chunk of the work I do with Blogs@Baruch involves finding and sharing new models for teaching with technology across the curriculum and helping faculty members adapt those models to their pedagogical purposes. It’s here where I think the work of educational technologists and digital humanists most overlaps: for our work to be effective, we must have the ability to compel people into it, and that requires quite a different skillset than those that go into producing a new tool, visualization, or archive.

One of the most useful things that I got from conversations at THATCamp was some necessary perspective on how positively folks on the outside view the initiatives that I’m involved in at CUNY. Admittedly, most of this was likely out of broad familiarity with the CUNY Academic Commons, to which I’m a Community Advisor, but Blogs@Baruch is the Commons’ sister project, sharing an ethos, a politics, and circumstance that go far beyond software. I’m not shy about muscling Blogs@Baruch in on some of the Commons’ shine. What I think each of these projects shows — along with our other sisters — is that as frustrating as this process often is, a digital project becomes stronger as it grows organically within and in response to the concerns and uses of a distinct community, whether that be a college or an imagined user base. So much is to be gained from the networked conversations and experiences that happen within the digital humanities and at THATCamps. But the difficult work of turning that knowledge inwards — which often entails productively engaging resistance that can originate from both inside and outside our own selves — is at least as important.

Perfection and History

Frame grab from Fox Sports of Armando Galarraga’s near perfect game.

For me, last night’s near-perfect game by Armando Galarraga and the Detroit Tigers is as memorable for the events in its aftermath as it is for the blown call on Cleveland’s 27th out, which kept the game from the record books. The weight of history hovers over no sport so much as baseball, where the past is enshrined in statistics that upon a single glance might tell you the story of a moment, a game, a season, a career, an era. That weight is at the heart of baseball’s struggle to deal with steroids, which have totally distorted our knowledge and memory of a whole generation of achievement in the sport.

The reactions of both the Tigers and Jim Joyce give us occasion to reflect upon the way we connect records to meaning. For all intents and purposes the Tigers viewed Galarraga’s performance as perfect. Some joked that it was the first 28 out perfect game, and the pitcher received the customary “beer shower” bestowed upon hurlers who accomplish this miraculous feat. Though the Tigers gave it fiercely to Joyce on the field, without exception those who were interviewed later in the clubhouse treated the umpire and the moment with an astonishing level of class. Manager Jim Leyland spoke about what a great umpire Joyce is, about how Joyce was going to feel worse about this than anyone, and, crucially, about how the humanity and error that are at the center of the game are what makes it so great. Austin Jackson, whose Willie Mays-ish over-the-shoulder-catch secured the first out of the ninth for the Tigers, also talked of mistakes as being part of the game, and about how hard it is to be am ump. Third baseman Brandon Inge raved about how proud he was of Galarraga’s poise and performance.

Joyce, upon seeing the replay, immediately copped “I just cost that kid a perfect game,” and went to the Tigers clubhouse to apologize, tears in his eyes. Galarraga gave Joyce a hug, then told reporters that “he feel worse than I do.” He added “nobody’s perfect” with a smile. He then noted that he would save the tape to show his son. Joyce will be haunted by this moment the rest of his career, much more so than Galarraga.

The class shown by Galarraga and his teammates revealed their deep satisfaction with the content of the performance, which reminds us of what records sometimes miss. They knew this was a perfect game, and what frustration they showed was due to the fact that they immediately understood that history would not reflect what they knew to their very cores to be true. The “incident” is already enveloped in larger debates about whether to institute instant replay in the game. There’s debate about whether the Commissioner’s office should give Galarraga the perfect game anyway and Michigan’s Governor, never one to miss an opportunity, has already arrogantly done so!

But the Tigers, at least as they reacted last night, don’t seem like they’re too interested in all this. They know what they did, and whether or not they’re included in the record books won’t change that knowledge, which this Tiger fan hopes makes them pick things up a notch in their battle for the Central with the Twins. They know there’s a hundred and twenty more games to play, a hundred and twenty more opportunities to strive for perfection, and ten thousand times that many mistakes to avoid.