The Perpetual Sunrise of Methodology

[The following is the text of a talk I prepared for a panel discussion about authoring digital scholarship for history with Adeline Koh, Lauren Tilton, Yoni Appelbaum, and Ed Ayers at the 2015 American Historical Association Conference.]

I’d like to start with a blog post that was written almost seven years ago now, titled “Sunset for Ideology, Sunrise for Methodology?” In it, Tom Scheinfeldt argued that the rise of digital history represented a disciplinary shift away from big ideas about ideology or theory and towards a focus on “forging new tools, methods, materials, techniques, and modes or work.” Tom’s post was a big reason why I applied to graduate school. I found this methodological turn thrilling – the idea that tools like GIS, text mining, and network analysis could revolutionize how we study history. Seven years later the digital turn has, in fact, revolutionized how we study history. Public history has unequivocally led the charge, using innovative approaches to archiving, exhibiting, and presenting the past in order to engage a wider public. Other historians have built powerful digital tools, explored alternative publication models, and generated online resources to use in the classroom.
But there is one area in which digital history has lagged behind: academic scholarship. To be clear: I’m intentionally using “academic scholarship” in its traditional, hidebound sense of marshaling evidence to make original, explicit arguments. This is an artificial distinction in obvious ways. One of digital history’s major contributions has, in fact, been to expand the disciplinary definition of scholarship to include things like databases, tools, and archival projects. The scholarship tent has gotten bigger, and that’s a good thing. Nevertheless there is still an important place inside that tent for using digital methods specifically to advance scholarly claims and arguments about the past.
In terms of argument-driven scholarship, digital history has over-promised and under-delivered. It’s not that historians aren’t using digital tools to make new arguments about the past. It’s that there is a fundamental imbalance between the proliferation of digital history workshops, courses, grants, institutes, centers, and labs over the past decade, and the impact this has had in terms of generating scholarly claims and interpretations. The digital wave has crashed headlong into many corners of the discipline. Argument-driven scholarship has largely not been one of them.
There are many reasons for this imbalance, including the desire to reach a wider audience beyond the academy, the investment in collection and curation needed for electronic sources, or the open-ended nature of big digital projects. All of these are laudable. But there is another, more problematic, reason for the comparative inattention to scholarly arguments: digital historians have a love affair with methodology. We are infatuated with the power of digital tools and techniques to do things that humans cannot, such as dynamically mapping thousands of geo-historical data points. The argumentative payoffs of these methodologies are always just over the horizon, floating in the tantalizing ether of potential and possibility. At times we exhibit more interest in developing new methods than in applying them, and in touting the promise of digital history scholarship rather than its results. 
What I’m going to do in the remaining time is to use two examples from my own work to try and concretize this imbalance between methods and results. The first example is a blog post I wrote in 2010. At the time I was analyzing the diary of an eighteenth-century Maine midwife named Martha Ballard, made famous by Laurel Ulrich’s prize-winning A Midwife’s Tale. The blog post described how I used a process called topic modeling to analyze about 10,000 diary entries written by Martha Ballard between 1785 and 1812. To grossly oversimplify, topic modeling is a technique that automatically generates groups of words more likely to appear with each other in the same documents (in this case, diary entries). So, for instance, the technique grouped the following words together:
gardin sett worked clear beens corn warm planted matters cucumbers gatherd potatoes plants ou sowd door squash wed seeds
As a human reader it’s pretty clear that these are words about gardeningOnce I generated this topic, I could track it across all 10,000 entries. When I mashed twenty-seven years together, it produced this beautiful thumbprint of a New England growing season.
Seasonal Presence of GARDENING topic in Martha Ballard’s Diary
Interest in topic modeling took off right around the time that I wrote this post, and pretty soon it started getting referenced again and again in digital humanities circles. Four and a half years later, it has been viewed more than ten thousand times and been assigned on the syllabi of at least twenty different courses. It’s gotten cited in books, journal articlesconference presentations, grant applications, government reports, white papers, and, of course, other blogs. It is, without a doubt, the single most widely read piece of historical writing I have ever produced. But guess what? Outside of the method, there isn’t anything new or revelatory in it. The post doesn’t make an original argument and it doesn’t further our understanding of women’s history, colonial New England, or the history of medicine. It largely shows us things we already know about the past – like the fact that people in Maine didn’t plant beans in January.
People seized on this blog post not because of its historical contributions, but because of its methodological contributions. It was like a magic trick, showing how topic modeling could ingest ten thousand diary entries and, in a matter of seconds, tell you what the major themes were in those entries and track them over time, all without knowing the meaning of a single word. The post made people excited for what topic modeling could do, not necessarily what it did do; the methodology’s potential, not its results.
About four years after I published my blog post on Martha Ballard, I published a very different piece of writing. This was an article that appeared in last June’s issue of the Journal of American History, the first digital history research article published by the journal. In many ways it was a traditional research article, one that followed the journal’s standard peer review process and advanced an original argument about American history. But the key distinction was that I made my argument using computational techniques. 
The starting premise for my argument was that the late nineteenth-century United States has typically been portrayed as a period of integration and incorporation. Think of the growth of railroad and telegraph networks, or the rise of massive corporations like Standard Oil. In nineteenth-century parlance: “the annihilation of time and space.” This existing interpretation of the period hinges on geography – the idea that the scale of locality and region were getting subsumed under the scale of nation and system. I was interested in how these integrative forces actually played out in the way people may have envisioned the geography of the nation. 
So I looked at a newspaper printed in Houston, Texas, during the 1890s and wrote a computer script that counted the number of times the paper mentioned different cities or states. In effect, how one newspaper crafted an imagined geography of the nation. What I found was that instead of creating a standardized, nationalized view of the world we might expect, the newspaper produced space in ways that centered on the scale of region far more than nation. It remained overwhelmingly focused on the immediate sphere of Texas, and even more surprisingly, on the American Midwest. Places like Kansas City, Chicago, and St. Louis were far more prevalent than I was expecting, and from this newspaper’s perspective Houston was more of a midwestern city than a southern one. 
Cameron Blevins, “Space, Nation, and the Triumph of Region: A View of the World from Houston,” Journal of American History, 101, no. 1 (June 2014), 127.
I would have never seen these patterns without a computer. And in trying to account for this pattern I realized that, while historians might enjoy reading stuff like this…
…newspapers often look a lot more like this:
All of this really boring stuff – commodity prices, freight rates, railroad timetables, classified ads – made up a shockingly large percentage of content. Once you include the boring stuff, you get a much different view of the world from Houston in the 1890s. I ended up arguing that it was precisely this fragmentary, mundane, and overlooked content that explained the dominance of regional geography over national geography. I never would have been able to make this argument without a computer.
The article offers a new interpretation about the production of space and the relationship between region and nation. It issues a challenge to a long-standing historical narrative about integration and incorporation in the nineteenth-century United States. By publishing it in the Journal of American History, with all of the limitations of a traditional print journal, I was trying to reach a different audience from the one who read my blog post on topic modeling and Martha Ballard. I wanted to show a broader swath of historians that digital history was more than simply using technology for the sake of technology. Digital tools didn’t just have the potential to advance our understanding of American history – they actually did advance our understanding of American history.
To that end, I published an online component that charted the article’s digital approach and presented a series of interactive maps. But in emphasizing the methodology of my project I ended up shifting the focus away from its historical contributions. In the feedback and conversations I’ve had about the article since its publication, the vast majority of attention has focused on the method rather than the result: How did you select place-names? Why didn’t you differentiate between articles and advertisements? Can it be replicated for other sources? These are all important questions, but they skip right past the arguments that I’m making about the production of space in the late nineteenth century. In short: the method, not the result. 
I ended my article with a familiar clarion call:
Technology opens potentially transformative avenues for historical discovery, but without a stronger appetite for experimentation those opportunities will go unrealized. The future of the discipline rests in large part on integrating new methods with conventional ones to redefine the limits and possibilities of how we understand the past.
This is the rhetorical style of digital history. While reading through conference program I was struck by just how many abstracts about digital history used the words “potential,” “promise,” “possibilities,” or in the case of our own panel, “opportunities.” In some ways 2015 doesn’t feel that different from 2008, when Tom Scheinfeldt wrote about the sunrise of methodology and the Journal of American History published a roundtable titled “The Promise of Digital History.” I think this is telling. Academic scholarship’s engagement with digital history seems to operate in a perpetual future tense. I’ve spent a lot of my career talking about what digital methodology can do to advance scholarly arguments. It’s time to start talking in the present tense.

AHA-ing (Sunday Recap)

My final day at the AHA began with Building the Future of History and Computing, sponsored by the American Association for History and Computing. It consisted of four presentations, two focusing on GIS, the third of data analysis, and the fourth on podcasts. I liked what the speakers had to say, although the presentations weren’t quite as sharp or engaging as I had hoped for. It was interesting to hear Brian Rizzo’s impressive efforts at the University of Mary Washington to build its GIS program, and made me a little itchy to import some shapefiles again. I was also reminded at how widely applicable mapping skills are in general, as Rizzo mentioned that he counted at least 12 departments at UMW that could directly benefit from integrating a GIS component into their curriculum. An admittedly biased viewpoint, but one that is probably true.

The second session was CHNM’s third session of the weekend, “Teaching History in the Digital Age.” The room was encouragingly packed, with people lining the walls, and the presenters didn’t disappoint. Although I thought there was probably one or two more panelists than necessary, it was a fascinating panel. Jeffrey W. McClurken kicked things off by speaking animatedly about his course at the University of Mary Washington that required students to complete a digital project in place of a term paper. He aptly described his intentions of keeping his students in a perpetual state of discomfort, but not paralysis, a description I’ve heard before about teaching students in any kind of new technology. There is a fine line between pushing people to experiment outside of their technological comfort zone and making them completely overwhelmed. Some of the semester projects his students completed were quite impressive displays of digital production.

Also of interest, Jeremy Boggs shared his experience teaching at George Mason University, and his attempts to break down traditional barriers between students-teachers and students-students. I was in awe of his willingness to make himself “radically transparent,” and distribute his AIM screename, friend his students on Facebook, and encourage them to text him. That takes a lot of courage, and is not a route that 99.99% of teachers out there would be willing to take. He also spoke about the successes and challenges of using a blogging platform to organize the class, and having his students make posts and make comments. I absolutely loved his assignment of having each student compose a 500-word Wikipedia article on a historical subject, and then attempt to keep it from being deleted by the Wikipedia community. It not only forced students to delineate between writing an argument and writing historical “fact,” but also educated them about collective intelligence and online collaboration.

As I sat in the session, thrilled to be hearing so many people speaking fluently about digital history, I thought about the self-selective bubble that academic conferences frequently create. The majority of the sessions I attended were on digital history. In that sense, it was a great weekend and one in which I not only met people with similar interests, but heard about new projects and got new ideas. On the other hand, I never sat in on a session that was on a historical topic on which I was completely unfamiliar. In that sense, I didn’t even come close to following McClurken’s advice to his own students at stretching their horizons and making themselves uncomfortable. In retrospect, it would have been healthy to at least take a shot at listening to “Immigrants, Identity, and Popular Culture in Buenos Aires,” or “New Trends in Medieval Spanish History.” One of my problems with the current state of history is an overemphasis on narrow specialization, and these types of conferences, despite a superficial exposure to thousands of historians with different interests, can often create an even greater degree of academic insularity.

Sitting on the bus back to DC that afternoon, I reflected on the singularly strange nature of the AHA Annual Meeting. I fully understand the perspective of its detractors. Sessions can be numbingly boring, self-obsessed, and esoteric. One peek in the job interview room, filled with terrified and resigned looking younger types, was one peek too many for me. I’ll cross that bridge when I have to, and not a moment sooner. The massive scale of the conference makes it unwieldly and inefficient. Despite all of this, I genuinely enjoyed myself during the weekend and felt recharged at the bustling energy of thousands of badged historians scurrying across Manhattan. More importantly, I had taken a drink straight from the historical profession’s biggest firehouse and lived to blog about it.

AHA-ing (Saturday Recap)

I’d like to tell myself that it was the high quality of writing in yesterday’s post that caused an influx of site visits, but I’m afraid it’s due more to the link from a certain popular Historiann’s blog

I enjoyed Saturday’s events at the AHA just as much as Friday’s, but in different ways. After meeting and having a very enjoyable conversation with Sterling Fluharty of PhDinhistory, I spent a couple hours at the morning session of the National History Education Clearinghouse Workshop. It was good to hear about teaching history in a pre-college setting, and made me think a fair amount about what the role of primary sources should be in, say, a high-school classroom. Many kids can probably handle reading excerpts from an eighteenth-century manuscript, but the question is: would they want to? I think the process could gain a lot from an interactive, exploratory platform – the first example that comes to mind is the Library of Congresses’ engaging use of touch-screens to display samples of primary sources, which allows people to click on nodes to see more information, or to overlay a transcribed version on top of it if they need help deciphering “necefsary for one people to difsolve.”

Minor rant: I have always thought that academics were the primary culprits of using Q&A sessions to not actually ask questions, but to IM (intellectually masturbate) in front of a captive audience. It turns out the NHEC workshop, despite a lack of pretentious university academics, was not immune to a corrolary of IM-ing: personal anecdote-ing. I don’t mind hearing some personal context, or even a relevant experience. However, I have a low threshold for listening to every detail of the hiring process and administrative politics in your particular high school. Asking pertinent, concise questions in front of a large group is a pretty important skill, but one that people, across the board, tend to lack.

I absolutely loved the afternoon session I attended: Neogeographies/Neohistories: Analyzing, Creating, and Publishing Maps, put on by George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media. Four graduate students (Karin Hill, Ammon Shepherd, Christopher King, and Martin McGuirk) presented projects they had completed that grew out of a course under Paula Petrik on historical mapping and cartography. A brief run-down: Karin looked at the tattoos of an American sailor, and in a fit of visual creativity all to rare in historians, ended up actually drawing a map of East Asia using characters from a maritime font that incorporated information and elements from the sailor’s records. Christopher King innovatively examined closet space throughout American history, and charted its growth as a lens for viewing a wide array of other factors – class, cultural, economics, etc. Ammon mapped out underground munitions manufacturing that the Nazis had been planning towards the end of WWII, and spoke extremely thoughtfully on the nuts-and-bolts challenges of dealing with copyright issues (always an issue with graphics).  Finally, Martin McGuirk analyzed military maps from the Battle of Monmouth, and recreated his own, presumably more accurate diagram of the battle’s proceedings.

One aspect that I was impressed with, in all of their projects, was their skill in graphic design and their use of relatively basic software in order to produce extremely clean, good-looking visualizations. As someone with a background in ArcGIS software, I was intrigued by the fact that they created these products using some much simpler (and much, much, much cheaper) applications. Additionally, I was blown away at how genuinely collegial the graduate students were. When an audience member asked a specific question to one of them regarding their topic, it became immediately apparent that all of them knew the ins-and-outs of each others’ projects almost as well as they knew their own – certainly a testament to the benefits of academic collaboration. Following the session, I had the chance to sit down in the Hilton bar and talk with Paula Petrik and Christopher King, who generously gave their perspectives on a range of topics, from the state of the field in digital history to applying and deciding on graduate school. They both gave me a lot to mull over, especially regarding graduate school.

The final event of the day was the General Meeting that night, at which Laurel Thatcher Ulrich handed out the annual awards and Gabrielle Spiegel gave her presidential address. Spiegel is a seriously gifted historian and, by all accounts, a phenomenally nice person (and she went to Bryn Mawr, a school I hold quite dear to my heart as my big sister’s alma mater). But between my own lightweight background in historical theory and a massive, beer-infused dinner at Heartland Brewery, I had some trouble keeping up with all of the “irreducable otherness of the past” and “merely fictive postulates” that marked her speech. I then further gave myself away as a mouth-breathing clod, when I gracelessly gorged myself on several plates of tasty (and free – always important on an AmeriCorps budget) food at the reception, and waddled off into the streets of Manhattan.

AHA-ing (Friday Recap)

I managed to find some free wireless in the lobby, which I count as a major success. The past 24 hours have been somewhat of a blur, but in a good way. After taking a bus from DC to NYC, I made my way to the Hilton hotel and was promptly overwhelmed at the number of history types with AHA badges filling the hotel. The first session I attended was The Promise and Pitfalls of Writing for Readers beyond the Academy, at which I was that guy who embarrassingly enters late and bumps into people while finding a seat (in this case, on the floor). It was a relatively informal panel, with none of the typical reading of papers in a monotone voice, and with a lot of back-and-forth with the audience. I found it interesting that for the first part of the session, blogging was never touched upon. Then an audience member brought it up, and the panelists began to fervently speak about it for a fair amount of time. What surprised me was the relatively positive attitude many of the panelists carried towards blogging. This might be a kind of self-selective mechanism, as panelists for a session on popular writing are probably not the stuffy academic types that look down their noses at blogging. On the other hand, I got the sense that blogging as a whole has become much more mainstream and accepted within the academy. The panel also reminded me of the kind of “exercise” aspect of writing on a blog – in that it forces you to write and is a great tool for experimentation and self-improvement.

After dropping my bags off at a friend’s apartment, I returned to the Hilton for the evening session. Being a hopeless history nerd, I made sure to arrive to the opening ceremony roughly half an hour early, snagging myself a prime-time, fourth-row seat directly in front of the podium. The first portion was a presentation to Adam Hochschild for the Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Public Service Award. Hochschild proceeded to speak thoughtfully about the award, and I thought did a great job of highlighting the recent Russian police raid on the offices of the history/human rights group Memorial. He used it as a testament to the fact that, in many parts of the world, history still remains a perilous and radical practice, and that governments and regimes are wary of its power.

The night’s plenary session was a murderer’s row line-up of historians speaking about The Pleasures of the Imagination – Linda Colley, Natalie Zemon Davis, John Demos, Jane Kamensky, Jill Lepore, Robert A. Rosenstone, and Jonathan D. Spence. I felt a lot like a giddy sports-obsessed kid at an All-Star game, the difference being that instead of saying, “Wow, Chris Paul is a lot shorter in person!” I was saying “Wow, Jane Kamensky is a lot taller in person!” Like I said, I’m a hopeless history nerd. The panel itself was impressive, as each historian spoke briefly about the role of imagination in the historical process. For a more content-based recap, take a look here. Even more interesting than the content, being so close to them, I found it infinitely fascinating to study them all as they and their peers spoke. I decided I’d record those observations here, as one of the most valuable aspects of the conference so far has been being able to put faces, voices, and personalities to these famous names.

I often look at speakers and try to imagine what my impression would be if I couldn’t hear a thing. All of them took the podium with a degree of confidence and charisma that was startling – everyone seemed quite obviously comfortable with commanding attention and engaging a room. During the entire two-hour panel, Natalie Zemon Davis sat perched on the edge of her seat and 100% locked in to the speaker. I don’t think her attention wavered for a single second, and she continually looked like she was ready to leap up and offer her thoughts on the subject. Jane Kamensky spoke in down-to-earth, but carefully measured words that seemed meticulously planned and polished, and also ended with a casually stated, “Thanks,” which I found interesting. Meanwhile, Linda Colley picked up considerable steam as she progressed, and by a couple minutes into her talk, had completely hit her stride and ceased to look at her notes, sweeping her thoughts along with expansive gestures and a rising cadence. John Demos spoke in a more anecdotal and unhurried style, and did a great job of incorporating a couple of physical artifacts into his talk when speaking about material objects. I had absolutely no trouble picturing him in an intimate Yale seminar, telling stories and asking questions.

All I can say about Jill Lepore is that she spoke almost exactly how she writes, with a degree of accessibility and eloquence that lulls you into contentedly listening, until you realize with a jolt that she just said something incredibly important and intelligent. Robert Rosenstone was thoughtful and forceful, and it was fun to picture him in a CalTech classroom getting hardcore science and math students to think about story-telling and history. Finally, it was interesting when Jonathan Spence took the podium. At this point, I felt attention lagging a bit both in the room and on the panel itself. But there was a noticeable change when Spence began speaking in a remarkably soft voice. Everyone seemed to straighten up (besides NZD, whose attention never flagged an iota during the two hours), and many of the panelists began taking notes as if they were back in a lecture hall. Again, if I were watching a video of the panel with the sound turned off, I would still be able to assert with complete confidence, “This guy is important.”

That’s it for now, I look forward to recapping the rest of the weekend.


This Friday marks the commencement of the 123rd annual American Historical Association’s meeting in New York City. I will be taking a bus up from D.C.  on Friday morning, and will spend the next three days doing my best to: a) sit in on as many different sessions as possible, b) lower the average age of attendance, and c) contain my nerdy giddiness at seeing famous historians. I’ll be in the extreme minority of conference-goers, in that I can have a largely stress-free weekend – I have no job interviews, no papers to present, no potential colleagues I need to glad-hand.

In preparation, I’ve been doing some light blog reading on guides to the conference: at Tenured Radical, The AHA for Dummies, and at Edge of the American West, AHA interviews, redux. I’m also looking forward to fellow history bloggers’ paper sessions, including Sterling Fluharty on the history job market and Jana Remy on preparing for research trips.

Despite reading and hearing a whole wide range of complaints about the annual conference’s format, size, and usefulness, I’m still excited to attend. I’m looking forward to wandering around a gathering of thousands of historians and soaking in just exactly what I’ve gotten myself into by applying to graduate programs in history. I’m also going to try to listen to professors who I’ve applied to work with at various schools, and possibly introduce myself if the opportunity arises. Given the hectic bazaar-like nature of such a conference, this might be a challenge. On that front, I’d love to meet anyone and everyone reading this who will also be attending. If you’re interested, please send me an email.

Webcams, Ithaka, and Facebook

First, an encouraging article from the Chronicle discussing the decision by some professors to experiment with the form and length of their lectures. Dalton A. Kehoe, of York University, decided to post his lectures online. After receiving negative feedback from his student, he realized he needed to shorten the online lectures and break them down into 20-minute sections. I love this idea. The willingness to experiment and alter what you’re used to as a professor is a truly admirable trait. And I also think that broadcasting your lectures would allow for a critical element of self-evaluation that too often gets lost as educators settle into their individual comfort zones.

Next up is a post at the AHA titled “Links, Spaces, and Changing Habits of Historical Research.” It highlights two reports from Ithaka, one discussing how different disciplines approach research, while the second study analyzes the changing place of online sources in journal citations. The first one was a little discouraging. According to their report, history ranks near the bottom of a variety of categories in using digital resources in pursuing research, including a resistance to relying on online tools such as e-only journals and Google Scholar. Meanwhile, the second set of articles finds that history articles published online do not have any greater chance of being cited by other scholarly articles. While Robert Townsend attributes this to the fact that an alarmingly high percentage (18%) of links to online sources no longer function, I would also hypothesize that there is an unwillingness to even cite E-journals and other digital sources, as these are still seen as sometimes illegitimate sources of true “scholarship.” I have had several professors that would have criticized a bibliography for having a purely online source. In this vein, I look forward to the remainder of Mills Kelly’s postings on “Making Digital Scholarship Count” (Part 1, Part 2) as a way to combat this perception.

Finally, hat-tip to Jesse Lemisch for his posting on HNN, Historians and Facebook: In the Halls of an Electronic AHA. It’s encouraging to see a 71 year-old dive into something like Facebook and recognize some of its potential for academics, especially for historians. I also think Mr. Lemisch represents a the trend towards “aging” Facebook, as more and more older people start to use it, in place of the original demographic of college-aged students. It will be interesting to see if Facebook emerges as a widespread resource for scholarly collaboration and connection, or if it remains largely within the social sphere.