Announcing Current Research in Digital History

Today Stephen Robertson and I are announcing a new conference and peer-reviewed proceedings titled Current Research in Digital History, hosted (and funded) by RRCHNM and George Mason University’s Department of History and Art History. You can read the announcement at the RRCHNM website, and here is our brief description from the conference website:

Hosted by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, Current Research in Digital History is an annual one-day conference that publishes online, peer-reviewed proceedings. Its primary aim is to encourage and publish scholarship in digital history that offers discipline-specific arguments and interpretations. A format of short presentations provides an opportunity to make an argument on the basis of ongoing research in a larger project.

As a number of people have pointed out, most notably Cameron Blevins, digital history has a problem in that it rarely makes arguments or interpretations that advance conversations in historical fields. We intend for this conference and proceedings to be one part of an effort to encourage those kinds of arguments.

CRDH is also intended to be a publication venue for what we might call preliminary results. Let me give you a specific example. Kellen Funk and I have been working on tracking the migration of law in nineteenth-century U.S. codes of civil procedure for some time. While we are getting close to a final publication about those results and methods, we have had the basic argument down for quite a while. A venue like CRDH would let us not just present but also publish a mix of preliminary conclusions and method on the way to our larger argument. While that’s not the only kind of paper we anticipate digital historians might want to bring to CRDH, we do think preliminary results is one significant category that would be served by this kind of short-form publication.

We’ve gathered a program committee that I am very excited to be working with: Kalani Craig, Jessica Marie Johnson, Michelle Moravec, and Scott Weingart. We’re grateful to these four scholars for lending their time and expertise.

We’ve tried to think through very carefully what this conference and publication should look like, soliciting advice from a number of different people in the field. We’ve written up a fuller explanation of CRDH (PDF here). We hope you’ll take a look and then send us a paper for consideration.

A confirmation of Andrew Goldstone on “Teaching Quantitative Methods”

At his blog, Andrew Goldstone has posted a pre-print of his essay on “Teaching Quantitative Methods: What Makes It Hard (in Literary Studies)” for the forthcoming Debates in DH 2018. It’s a “lessons learned” essay from one of his courses that is well worth reading if you’re teaching or taking that kind of a course in a humanities discipline. This semester I’m teaching my fourth course that fits into that category (fifth, if you count DHSI), and I can co-sign nearly everything that Goldstone writes, having committed many of the same mistakes and learned some of the same lessons. (Except over time I’ve relaxed my *nix-based fundamentalism and repealed my ban on Windows.) Here is a response to Goldstone’s main points.

Continue reading “A confirmation of Andrew Goldstone on “Teaching Quantitative Methods””

Abram Van Engen on the Christian Reformed Church and Betsy DeVos

What’s the relationship between the Secretary of Education’s views and the religious denomination in which she was educated? In a Religion and Politics post, Abram Van Engen takes aim at simplistic news stories which draw a straight line between the Christian Reformed Church (Calvinism! predestination! capitalism!) and Betsey DeVos. It’s a good introduction to why you need to know more than the bullet points about a religious group to explain how it has shaped someone:

That’s the thing about religious traditions: They can be highly formative without yielding predictable results.

Abraham Van Engen — “Advancing God’s Kingdom: Calvinism, Calvin College, and Betsy DeVos

The Programming Historian calls for digital history argumentation

The Programming Historian has sent out a call for contributors to write several proposed new lessons. If you have expertise in one of these areas, one of these tutorials would be great to write. The Programming Historian has an excellent collection of widely-used tutorials, with a well-thought out open peer-review process.

I hadn’t quite realized until my colleague Stephen Robertson pointed it out to me that what unites these proposed lessons is a call for historical argumentation. The Programming Historian is exactly right to think that there is a big gap between data analysis methods and making historical arguments, and that what computational historians need to do is hammer out what that process of historical thinking looks like.

From their blog post:

But gathering data isn’t research in its own right. We need analysis. And that’s where we believe the The Programming Historian needs to go next. We’re looking to move beyond the gathering stage, because you know how to get the data (thanks to our authors), and you’ve cleaned it to a brillian shine (thanks again to our authors!). But what do you do with it next? How do you perform the types of analyses that lead to publishable historical research articles and monographs? How do you do digital research?

Syllabi for spring 2017

This semester I am teaching three courses, two undergraduate and one graduate. “Global History of Christianity” is a new course which Mack Holt, John Turner, and I are team teaching in both history and religious studies. This course was Mack’s idea, and the team teaching this semester is a one-time deal, but I am very glad that it’s been approved for the catalog going forward. “The Digital Past” is taught by a number of people at Mason, but I’ve decided to organize mine around the theme of “Reconstruction and Redemption.” For the graduate students, I’ve taught a version of “Data and Visualization in Digital History” before, but this is the first time that I’m teaching it as one of the required courses in the PhD sequence instead of as an elective.

Here are the syllabi and course descriptions.

Global History of Christianity, syllabus

This course is organized around a comparative examination of the many forms of global Christianity over the past two thousand years. Chronologically, it begins with the ancient Jewish, Greek, and Roman contexts of early Christianity and continues through the present. Students will become familiar with many kinds of Christianity across the globe, including Asian, African, Latin American, European, and North American Christianities. In each geographic and chronological contexts, students will explore several themes: use of sacred texts and the experiences of a typical church service, the relationship between Christianity and politics, and cultural aspects such as marriage and sexuality. Students will also consider Christianity as a series of global systems organized around missions, migration, trade, and warfare.

The Digital Past: Reconstruction and Redemption, syllabus

In this class, you will to learn to do history using digital tools. The course—which satisfies the Mason Core IT requirement—teaches the fundamentals of information technology by applying them to practical problems in history. Throughout the semester, you will work individually and with classmates on a series of projects about American history during the period of Reconstruction. You will learn how to do research online, but also how to put those sources in the context of other scholarly work. You will gather data, learn how to question it, analyze it, summarize it, and interpret it. You will create visualizations of datasets, including maps. You will learn how to present visual and textual sources online in web exhibits, and you will learn how to write and publish effectively online. Through learning by doing, you will gain both digital skills and the skills of a historian. This combination will be useful to you throughout your university career and in your future work.

Data and Visualization in Digital History, syllabus

In this methods course you will be introduced to data analysis and visualization for historians. You will learn to work with historical data, including finding, gathering, manipulating, analyzing, visualizing, and arguing from data, with special attention to geospatial, textual, and network data. These methods will be taught primarily through scripting in the R programming language, using other command line tools as appropriate. You will also learn how to present history on the web with HTML and CSS. While historical methods can be applied to many topics and time periods, they cannot be understood separate from how the discipline forms meaningful questions and interpretations, nor divorced from the particularities of the sources and histories of some specific topic. Therefore, in this course we will examine the historiographical tradition to see how historians have used data and visualization to understand the past. And we will work together to apply these methods to a series of datasets in the history of the nineteenth-century United States, with a focus on religion.

Pick the title for my digital history textbook

In my first semester teaching one of my department’s graduate methods courses in digital history, I realized that there was not a lot good material for teaching computer programming and data analysis in R for historians. So I started writing up a series of tutorials for my students, which they said were helpful. It seemed like those materials could be the nucleus of a textbook, so I started writing one with the title Digital History Methods in R.

It was too soon to start writing, though. Besides needing to spend my time on more pressing projects, I didn’t really have a clear conception of how to teach the material. And in the past few years, the landscape for teaching computational history has been transformed. There are many more books available, some specifically aimed at humanists, such as Graham, Milligan, and Weingart’s Exploring Big Historical Data and Arnold and Tilton’s Humanities Data in R, and others aimed at teaching a modern version of R, such as Hadley Wickham’s Advanced R and R for Data Science. The “tidyverse” of R packages has made a consistent approach to data analysis possible, and the set of packages for text analysis in R is now much better. R markdown and bookdown have made writing a technical book about R much easier, and Shiny has made it much easier to demonstrate concepts interactively.

After teaching these courses a few times, I have a clearer conception of what the textbook needs to accomplish and how I want it to look.

Continue reading “Pick the title for my digital history textbook”

My year in tech 2016

Following Alan Jacobs and Boone Gorges, here is a brief report on my year in technology.

Compared to the list of technologies that I used in 2014, not much has changed. My preferred tools for writing remain Markdown, Pandoc, LaTeX, and Vim, with Zotero for citations. I’ve never had a system for taking notes that entirely pleased me. After a brief flirtation with an open wiki notebook, following the lead of Caleb McDaniel and Jason Heppler, I gave it up this year. The idea still seems sounds, but in practice I’m unwilling to have all my notes public, the separation of public and private notes was onerous to maintain, and a fair bit of my note-taking is in the form of “lab notebooks” for which a different system is necessary. At the moment all of my notes are in plain text in a Dropbox directory, which I can access on iOS with 1Writer or on computers in Vim. Perhaps someday I will return to a private wiki.

For computational history, R maintained pride of place. It is astonishing how much better and easier to use the language has become since I started to teach it to grad students a couple of years ago. For one project I was able to do everything from machine learning on Mason’s computing cluster to interactive visualizations in Shiny. I foresee a lot more D3.js in my future, but mostly to make interactive R packages.

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Slack in my classroom

For several semesters now, I’ve used Slack for my graduate courses in digital history. (Here’s a good introduction to Slack for teaching.) Judging by what the students tell me and what they write on the student evaluations, nothing I’ve done as a teacher has been as universally popular. Students appreciate a way to get detailed help from me quickly. Students seem to be less reluctant to ask questions when they can see that other people are asking questions, and when the answer is public for everyone’s benefit. And I can tell from the reports Slack sends that they use Slack to talk to one another.

I like Slack because it encourages an ongoing connection between the students and me during the week. Rather than only hearing from students once or twice a week when the class meets, I have a more or less continuous connection to them, at least to the extent that they choose. Slack has cut student e-mails in those courses to virtually nil. It’s very helpful for me to have a single place to go to communicate with students, and where I can easily turn a query directed only at me into a general lesson for the entire group. For technical questions, it is far easier to give explanations with code blocks and screenshots. It’s also really nice to see students help one another figure out difficult assignments.

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Print historian

Imagine a photograph of a pile of pages, perhaps with a few glossy image reproductions and a cover letter, and a USPS envelope. Perhaps a few years ago I might have been able to take such a picture for this post. But without having to pay for postage, I’ve delivered the final revisions of my book manuscript to my editor before the end of December as agreed. The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America will be published by Harvard University Press in fall 2017. While there is still copyediting, proofreading, indexing and so on to be done, the book definitely feels like it is in the hands of the press and not my hands now.

Continue reading “Print historian”

New article: “A Servile Copy”

Kellen Funk and I have just published an article titled “A Servile Copy: Text Reuse and Medium Data in American Civil Procedure” (PDF). The article is a brief invited contribution to a forum in Rechtsgeschichte [Legal History] on legal history and digital history. Kellen and I give an overview of our project to discover how nineteenth-century codes of civil procedure in the United States borrowed from one another. (We will have more soon about this project in a longer research article.)

If you are interested in digital legal history, you might also look at some of the articles which have been posted in advance of the next issue of Law and History Review, which will be focused on digital legal history.