AAHC Recap (Morning)

Today I attended the American Association for Historical Computing‘s 2009 annual conference, hosted by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. For someone interested in the field of digital history, it was a phenomenal opportunity to meet fellow enthusiasts and explore a variety of topics within the field.

The first session, a presentation by Amanda French of NYU on “Basic Digital History Skills for Historians,” came from her experience in teaching courses in digital history, many geared towards archival and library studies. Of particular interest was a survey she administered to 25 students that measured their comfort and ability in a wide variety of digital skills – everything from using social media to knowledge of metadata systems. She spoke about the fact that there was a gap between the skills being taught to public historians and archivists, and those being taught to traditional historians. Namely, those in the former group usually gain a stronger digital literacy. One of the major action points she drew from the survey was the need to teach students in the following fields: website creation, metadata, and multimedia.

Besides being the first conference presentation that I’ve live-tweeted, it brought up some interesting questions. The biggest one (that recurred throughout the day) was the question of teaching students what I’ll term hard vs. soft skills in gaining digital literacy. Should teachers expect their college students to have a basic skill set (uploading videos onto YouTube, using RSS feed readers, etc.) already? Should you spend the majority of your time teaching the skills and habits that they can then adapt to specific platforms? Is it possible to impart broader concepts of digital history without a concrete base in technical proficiency? My first instinct was to come down on the side of a liberal-artsy instruction of soft skills and underlying “big-picture” principles. But the more I thought about the issue, the more I realized that for many people, the best way of learning these soft skills is by putting on your work gloves and diving into starting a blog, using Zotero, or generating a KML file.

The second session was Dave Lester‘s “Mobile Historical Landscapes: Exposing and Crowdsourcing Historical Landmarks.” Dave explained his ongoing project (History Plot) to create a means for people to contribute to a geolocated database. He compared it to Yelp, in that he dreams of a centralized platform through which people can look up historical landmarks and their metadata (primarily their location). In order to start seeding History Plot, Dave turned to 80,000 historic sites listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. Other resources could include Wikipedia, Flickr, and partnerships with local historical societies.

Dave’s enthusiasm was downright infectious, as he spoke about being able to walk down a city street, use your iPhone to locate a nearby historical building, look up information about it, then take a photograph of it and immediately upload it to the database. Possibly the most exciting aspect, for me, was his idea of leveraging community-based history volunteers (he calls them “street teams”) to crowdsource the project. I think this has tremendous potential. History remains one of the foremost fields for armchair enthusiasts, as legions of geneologists and Civil War re-enactors would provide an incredible resource for this kind of geo-based crowd sourcing. It’s easy to imagine groups of history buffs meeting up on the weekends to explore cities and sites, snapping pictures and contributing research tidbits. I’d love for this to get off the ground, and would jump at the chance to found a local chapter.

Dan Cohen brought up a good point at the end of Dave’s talk: that the issue is finding an incentive structure so that people will actually participate in the project. In particular, there’s a gap between the (usually) younger tech-savvy crowd that lacks a strong interest in local history, and the (usually) older, less tech-savvy crowd that could potentially be the strongest source for knowledge seeding. I think it’s a manageable problem, but one that increases the need for highly accessible mobile technology and platforms that makes the barriers to entry as low as possible, even if it has to come at the cost of losing some technical robustness.

The last session of the morning was “Teaching, History, and Digital Tools: A Roundtable Discussion,” by Jeremy Boggs, Jeff McClurken, and Josh Sternfeld. All of them brought different perspectives to the topic, although each of them came from the similar experience of having taught a digital history course. It was a similar presentation to the one given by Jeremy and Jeff at the AHA convention, and it reinforced a lot of the lessons they had previously given (chief among these is Jeff’s great refrain about trying to make students “uncomfortable but not paralyzed”). One point that it made me think about was the issue of how to value historical scholarship. I’ve been thinking a lot more about not only how the historical academy values research in digital history, but how it values teaching in digital history as well. Does listing “Creating History in New Media” on your C.V. as a course you taught carry more weight than listing an American history survey? Would a tenure review board be impressed with your tech-savvy literacy, or put off because they don’t understand it?

Twitter-ing

With my academic blogging hat firmly in place, I joined Twitter’s ranks several weeks ago. I’d been using Twitter for several months for my own personal use, as a way to connect with a small and close circle of friends, but finally decided to open a history-ing account in order to expand into the most explosively popular social networking platform of the past year. My initial reactions?

It’s fascinating. At first, there was the frenzied rush to follow and receive updates from others in order to carve out a toe-hold in the digital humanities/digital history Twitter community. That was followed by the mildly addictive positive-feedback loop of other users subscribing to your updates as well, with each new follower adding to my chimerical sense of legitimacy. Once a base level of following/followers was established, I settled in and absorbed the distinctive pulse of the Twitter community I had joined – its customs, conventions, and patterns. I felt a lot like I was learning a new sport, (mostly) watching from the sidelines for awhile until I felt more and more comfortable with tweeting.

The patterns became clear. Tweets could be broken into several different categories (at least among those users that I follow): serious thoughts/observations/questions, links to other tweets or external items, dialogue with other users, or personal asides. The last bit (personal updates) took some getting used to, and can be somewhat off-putting to many people. Do my followers really want to know that I had a crazy metro ride home from work today, or if it’s unusually warm outside? For those users interested in the “value-add” side of Twitter as an academic tool, probably not. But it is remarkable how personal tweets can lend an engagingly human dimension to the entire process. Especially for someone in my position, who has never met the majority of the people I follow, personal tweets (in moderation) can really add to a sense of community. And given its status a social networking platform, this is obviously an important aspect of Twitter.

One of the greatest advantages for academia that I can see from Twitter is that it plugs you into a rapid-fire, real-time platform for ideas and thoughts. While this can quickly turn into a deluge of information overload, it also keeps you up to date on contemporary events, issues, and trends in a distinctively social manner. If four people you follow start talking about the same issue (for instance, Facebook’s recent Terms of Service controversy), it prompts you to learn about the issue and participate in the conversation. Instead of simply reading an article, blog post, or op-ed, you can benefit from and participate in a series of snapshot reactions. In this manner, Twitter is another development that continues to chip away at the persistent notion of an individual scholar toiling in isolation. For instance, a historian conducting research might tweet a link to a particular photograph they uncovered in the archives. Perhaps one of their followers notices something of interest in the photograph and alerts the original researcher, or ends up using that photograph for their own project. Even if you don’t have enough of a follower base to engage in this kind of crowd-sourcing, it is still an ideal platform to casually bounce around ideas, thoughts, or questions with a community of like-minded individuals.