Pleased to welcome a new colleague, Jim Ambuske, to RRCHNM. Jim will be working at R2 Studios.

Sometime ago Kellen Funk and I used computational analysis to study how the Field Code created the category of civil procedure in American law, and how that New York code spread across jurisdictions in the nineteenth-century United States. We published an article about those specific findings, and have given various talks, shared code, published datasets, and the like.

Since that time we have tried to maintain a consistent historical and methodological approach, while expanding our scope in two ways. Our historical aim remains the same: we want to show how the modern structures of American law developed, and to do so, we are using computational methods which can uncover and describe patterns not readily found or explained with more conventional historical methods. We are expanding that research to more comprehensive corpora of legal sources, including the Caselaw Access Project and The Making of Modern Law: Legal Treatises, 1800–1926. And while we intend to keep publishing in conventional historical journals—at least, we hope to—we also want to expand the scope of the project to include more interactive visualizations.

To that end we have created a website for our work, which we are calling Legal Modernism. At the moment the website simply gathers our already published work. But it will soon be the platform for our visualizations and other ongoing work. (There is a feed on the project website if you’d like subscribe for updates.)

Our visualizations, publications, talks, and source code are available on the project website.

Our visualizations, publications, talks, and source code are available on the project website.

While my blogging efforts have been at most sporadic, I hope to share more substantively some of what we are working on in the coming days.

The most recent issue of the American Religion @ RRCHNM newsletter features an announcement of our Luce Foundation grant for a podcast on the history of American antisemitism, a new map of male and female preachers in the National Spiritual Alliance, and a new collection of oral histories about the Jewish experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, among other things.

Caroline Greer writes about a National Spiritual Alliance church named after its pastor, Dorcas Brown, and maybe the biblical Dorcas too.

I often have small snippets of Markdown that I want to copy to the clipboard and then paste as HTML. I thought about writing an extension for Visual Studio Code, or a custom script for Boop. But that seemed like a lot of work for a simple task. And then I remembered: Unix.

pbpaste | pandoc | pbcopy

There is a one-liner which will work on a Mac to paste Markdown into Pandoc and then copy the resulting HTML back to the clipboard.

Can’t get much simpler than that.

If you want do go from HTML to Markdown, the one-liner is a little longer:

pbpaste | pandoc -f html -t markdown | pbcopy

If you are a GMU student, faculty, or staff member, you can access library resources from off campus using a library proxy. Suppose you want to access this article:

Rosenzweig, Roy. “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era.” American Historical Review 108, no. 3 (2003): 735–62.

Following that DOI will take you to this page at the Oxford University Press website. This version is behind a paywall, however: we can’t see the full article.

A paywalled version of the article.

A paywalled version of the article.

Read the entire post 

The start of the academic year at RRCHNM also means the return of many of our graduate students. This week RRCHNM welcomed twenty-five graduate research assistants or graduate affiliates.

RRCHNM on the first day of classes.

RRCHNM on the first day of classes.

Graduate students are a critical part of the work that RRCHNM creates, and RRCHNM is in turn core to the experience of many of the graduate students in GMU’s Department of History and Art History.

A number of the graduate students at RRCHNM are graduate research assistants. As a part of their PhD fellowship from GMU, they work on RRCHNM projects. Coming alongside our faculty and staff, GRAs are full part of project teams. They contribute their expertise on both the subject matter of our projects and on the digital history skills that go into making them. While participating in the projects they learn from the faculty and staff and quickly move from being research assistants in name to research collaborators in fact. Our alumni from RRCHNM take what they have learned to become digital historians in libraries, museums, businesses, research centers, and academic departments.

The kinds of work that GRAs do at RRCHNM can be quite varied. For example, one GRA is working on writing and producing episodes for The Green Tunnel podcast about the history of the Appalachian Trail. Two GRAs are working with our partners at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to create a digital archive from the collections of five HBCUs. Two other GRAs are contributing to large-scale projects to turn historical collections into datasets. And two first-year GRAs are working on World History Commons to create educational resources and lesson plans for K–12 teachers, parents, and students.

Graduate students also are a part of RRCHNM to work on research projects that they start and lead themselves. Our graduate research affiliates—who are MA or PhD students in history or art history, as well as in related disciplines—benefit from the mentoring of RRCHNM’s staff and faculty. We currently have three working groups—on public history, spatial history, and data analysis—meeting regularly throughout the year to discuss works in progress and new publications on these topics. We regularly offer a series on “Basics of” where people at RRCHNM offer one another introductions to podcasting, educational resources, community engagement, various technologies, and so-called “soft skills” such as budgeting, project management. The graduate students themselves also form a community for peer mentoring.

The research projects that graduate students at RRCHNM create lead the field of digital history as much as any of the work by our faculty and staff. PhD students at GMU were the first to create born-digital dissertations. Our affiliates regularly present their research at academic conferences and publish their projects online. A number of our current affiliates are working on digital dissertations that combine visualizations, maps, databases, or public engagement with the prose more typically associated with dissertations.

To most people, RRCHNM is associated with the digital projects that we create and make freely available online.  Those online projects are the most visible part of RRCHNM. But another key part of our work is educating students to do digital history so that they can in turn achieve our mission—to democratize history. And that is work we have been doing for decades.

This weekend I am giving a presentation about the future of digital scholarship in the field of American religion at the Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture. In the presentation I’ll be sharing a number of digital projects in American religion that I’ve learned a lot from. Since the proceedings of the conference will be published later, I won’t publish my remarks here now. But for the sake of conference participants who might want to follow along, here is a list of the projects I’ll mention without notes or comment.

Hi folks. Lest this newsletter’s status be downgraded from occasional to sporadic, let me catch you up on the latest news about digital history and American religion from my small corner of the world.

My colleagues at RRCHNM and I have started a newsletter about our work. Titled “American Religion @ RRCHNM,” the newsletter is headed up by our excellent outreach manager, Bridget Buckovich, meaning that is published regularly at the middle of each month. We’ve published our first two issues. There is lots of good stuff in the most recent issue, including blog posts by our graduate research assistant Caroline Greer, an interactive visualization that the whole team worked on, and fascinating materials for Passover and Easter from our pandemic collecting projects. Check it out, and then consider subscribing{target="_blank" rel=“noopener noreferrer nofollow”}.

Mapping historical congregations in U.S. cities

Speaking of our work on American religion at RRCHNM, we recently released an interactive map of urban American congregations drawn from the 1926 Census of Religious Bodies. Here’s a bit more about the map.

In the early twentieth century, the U.S. Census Bureau conducted surveys of American religious congregations every ten years and published reports on the data it collected. The Bureau categorized denominations into different denomination families, linking together churches that had shared history, theology, or practice. This interactive map displays congregations by denominations and denominational families in American cities, including places with 25,000 or more residents.

To give you a taste, here are Pentecostal congregations located in cities in 1926.

Pentecostal cities map

We will be releasing the underlying data and adding three other decades (1906, 1916, and 1936) soon. The whole team worked on this dataset and map, but special thanks to my colleague and our developer-scholar, Jason Heppler.

DataScribe’s version 1.0 release

And how does one go about getting the dataset for such a map? Well, you have to transcribe the historical sources—in this case, the published records of the 1926 census—into structured data. And how does one do that? For sometime, my colleagues at RRCHNM and some former colleagues now at the Corporation for Digital Scholarship have been working on DataScribe, a module (i.e., plugin) for Omeka S that helps you transcribe historical sources into datasets. The software, which is led by my colleague Jessica Otis, recently reached version 1.0. You can find the software on the project home page.

DataScribe preview

Computing Cultural Heritage in the Cloud

During the fall semester, I had the privilege of working with the Library of Congress Labs—cool place, cool people—on a project called Computing Cultural Heritage in the Cloud. The LC Labs team did an amazing job documenting the project’s progress, and you can find all their blog posts on the project home page. But you might as well start with the blog post on project outcomes, so you can hear about the fascinating work done by my fellow researchers, Andromeda Yelton and Lauren Tilton. You can find the software I developed for the project on GitHub. If you’ve ever had a hankering to download all the digitized collections at the Library of Congress and run machine-learning models across them, then this is for you.

Shoutout to the Uncivil Religion project

Finally, a shoutout to one of the most interesting and significant digital projects on American religion to be released recently. Uncivil Religion is an online set of essays and media galleries, seeking to capture and interpret the religious dimensions of the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The lead essay describes the insurrection as “a religious, yet religiously incoherent event.” Perhaps you, like me, found the ways that religion “showed up” (to borrow another phrase from the project) to be an endlessly tangled pile of confusion. Uncivil Religion is the best source I’ve found for trying to understand the religious dimensions of that event. The project comes out of the University of Alabama and the National Museum of American History, and it is directed by Michael J. Altman and Jerome Copulsky with Peter Manseau as an advisor.

Recent blog posts

City-level data post


Reading: Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man.

Listening: I’ve been enjoying an “American roots music” (mostly bluegrass) band called The Petersens that I found on YouTube.

Planning: My wife, Abby Mullen, has accepted a job at the U.S. Naval Academy teaching—you guessed it—U.S. naval history.

Working: America’s Public Bible is through editorial board approval, and I need to submit the final manuscript in one month’s time exactly.

I was asked to write up what I thought made someone a good academic mentor, in less than a page. Since I had to write it up quickly, here it is for further thought. This list is partial and based on my own experience, but here is what I’ve observed from watching the good mentors that I have had.

  1. What got you here is not what will get them there. Too much of mentorship is the mentor describing their own career path. While there is value in hearing other people’s stories as a quick route for understanding how the academy works, the chances that someone else will follow the same career path are nil. A good mentor helps someone else find their own way forward, based on their values, interests, and goals, as well as the changing circumstances in the academy.
  2. Where you wanted to go is not where they want to go. Too much of mentorship is the mentor trying to reproduce him- or herself via the person being mentored. But other people’s career goals—not to mention how their career fits into their personal life—can and should be very different than your own.
  3. People can find their own answers. Generally speaking, almost all of the time people can work out what their own values, interests, priorities, strengths, and so forth are. They seldom need suggestions of what to do or even how to do it. What they need is someone to talk to who genuinely listens and can help them figure those things out for themselves. Occasionally they need someone they trust to give them “permission” to do what they’ve already figured out.
  4. Explain the boring stuff. Many things about an academic career are not hard: they are hard to learn. For instance, the mechanics of grant writing are not so difficult, but they are completely opaque the first time someone does it. One of the few times when a mentor should talk more than listen or ask questions is in explaining the routine, boring things that are hidden knowledge that block people (especially women and minorities) from success.
  5. Share failures as well as successes. When I was in grad school, I got a “revise and resubmit” from a journal then never resubmitted, because I thought that was just a polite way for the editor to say, “Get lost.” I’ve used this example to illustrate how the “pipeline” of academic research works … and to show grad students how much smarter they are than me!
  6. Open doors. Whenever possible, make introductions that benefit the person being mentored.
  7. Informal mentorship trumps formal mentorship. I have had good formal mentors, but their significance was secondary to some truly generous and wise informal mentors. My point is not to critique the idea of formal mentorship. But I do think that formal mentorship is a temporary relationship to help people until they find informal mentors for themselves—which is a great outcome.
  8. Never take credit. The successes of the person being mentored belong only to them, never to the mentor. However, some bragging on their behalf is allowed.