Playing with data

I found a useful site for those of s trying to measure inflation rates in the 1960s in Argentina (not an easy task, mind you). Here is an example for the years 1958 to 1964-years in which Raúl Colombo was president of the Argentine Football Association and Argentina was under (mostly) democratic rule.






And here is a chart in which you can select data ranges and use various display features, such as median rate:


Dan Cohen and writing scholarship on WordPress

Dan Cohen’s latest blog entry highlights WordPress’ ability to write scholarly work online. In light of CHNM’s unveiling of PressForward, it’s pretty exciting to be in the digital history realm right now (good article on PF in the NYT.)

I continue to stress that the mechanism for maintaining peer review and ensuring quality scholarship already exists in the form of regional accreditation and consortium models. It’s a matter of will more than ability that is hampering a move away from traditional publication and towards a digital model.

Digital History’s potential and legitimacy

(this is the second in a series of reflections on the field of history, digital humanities, and historical questions about identity emanating from the 2011 American Historical Association [AHA] conference)

In his most recent posting, “The Ivory Tower and Open Web”, historian and director of George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media (CHNM) Dan Cohen shares a video from a recent talk at the Coalition of Networked Information in nearby D.C. where he discussed important questions about the nature of the field of history and its practitioners. At the heart of these questions, Cohen asks why historians (finally?) seem to embrace digital tools as useful resources, but continue to produce (or favor) historical sites that mirror “off-line” scholarship: journals, papers, books, mediated reviews and commentary.

The ability to imagine different forms of historical scholarship has permeated much of digital scholarship over the last decade or two. The potential to realize it, though, is now.

New digital tools are increasingly making self-publication, remixes & mash-ups, and collaborative efforts (which were largely unimaginable even a decade ago) possible for scholars possessing varying levels of web-literacy. I’m not sure when we crossed the Rubicon in this regard; “old” new media typically entailed curious scholars contacting computer programers for ideas related to research: How can I archive and display images? How can I create interactive footnotes? How do I make a footnote without throwing off the line-height? Nowadays it seems that design principles, knowledge of html and styling sheets, a basic understanding of photoshop, and marketing savvy are all part of the emerging job description of a digital humanist…but the truth is that the glut of digital tools is actually demanding less immersion than early pioneers faced a while back in digital scholarship.

The degree of difficulty “newbie” digital historians face varies, depending on which programs they plan to use. If someone wants to learn how to build a website from scratch, that might be a useful skill to learn (although history graduate students at GMU can attest to this painful process), but…why not simply use WordPress to build a website?

Some scholars might want to use an existing template and let the strength of their research sell their website. Others, still, might enjoy hacking and modifying an existing template. The open-source nature of platforms and browsers like WordPress, Firefox, Zotero, and Omeka even allow a few daring scholars to invent new plug-ins that can radically transform what a scholarly site can do.

So…what can historians do on the web?

At the 2011 AHA conference in Boston I gave a presentation that was, in part, inspired by a recent series of articles by Robert Townsend in AHA’s Perspectives on History (OctNov, Dec). In his findings, Townsend noted that scholars are increasingly embracing digital tools based on responses to an extensive survey of over 4,000 members of the academy. Nearly 70 percent of respondents characterized themselves as “active users”-a number that might surprise many. Upon closer inspection, however, active digital users are mostly younger (no surprise here) and the most popular tools are not what many digital historians would necessarily consider as cutting-edge: digital cameras, scanners, search engines, word processors, and searching online archives. Tools that have the potential to change how we “do” history–text mining, social media, GIS/mapping, and data visualizations–received few responses in AHA’s survey.

My immediate reaction to Townsend’s articles? Is that it? While acknowledging that my association with CHNM colors any perception about the state of affairs of the field of history, I found it rather underwhelming to see what passes as “digital history” in the second decade of the 21st century. Nevertheless, I am not a utopian when it relates to digital history; lasting change rarely develops out of radical, or revolutionary, change. Any significant shift towards digital scholarship, according to new media scholars like Christine Borgman and digital archivist Daniel Pitti, will appear incrementally as change takes place within existing systems and serves the community as a whole.

The presentation at AHA, then, was designed to expose scholars and students of history a sample of the plethora of tools currently at their disposal–free and often open access in nature. As always, these tools are helpful but only when applied with thoughtful consideration towards teaching and research (several good reads recently posted on Edwired deal with the perils and possibilities of web tools)

Digital Tools for…PRESENTATIONS

  • Google Maps is a good instrument for examining memorials, battlefields, and other historical sites, while also allowing users to create new and interesting links between locations.
  • Google Earth allows users to create placemarks, polygon shapes, paths, and images on their database of satellite images. This is ideal for creating original maps or recreating routes on military campaigns, plotting the Underground railroad, or analyzing the Great Migration patterns of African Americans to see if new relationships emerge.
  • In ManyEyes, users can upload data and choose visualization preferences that might shed new information about the past
  • Hypercities uses historical overlays on geographic maps to show change over time
  • Prezi is a structural and/or non-structural approach to presentations where you can type text, embed media files, graphically organize items, and highlight the importance of elements—relative to other ones on the infinite canvas platform—based on size and colors. The presentation at the AHA conference used a Prezi.

AHA: first impressions

(this is the first in a series of reflections on the field of history, digital humanities, and historical questions about identity emanating from the 2011 AHA conference)

Sitting at Logan Airport, waiting to catch a flight back to DC, provides me some time to reflect on an initial foray into the world of academic history conferences: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The first overall impression of the American Historical Association gathering in Boston is one of “selfishness”. This term is often loaded with negative connotations, but this is not how I want to use the word; rather, it captures the mood of a gathering where the vast majority of participants were there to either present their papers, or look for a job.

And that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with it. The point, though, is that in contrast to other conferences (more geared to social studies and education) the mood was stiff, lacked some joy, and there was no sense of a esprit de corps. No, I wouldn’t expect conferences to have a “rah-rah” feel; having sat in sessions with motivational videos and a call to “change the world”, I find such approaches a bit shallow and not very informative. Still, the AHA conference could use some relaxation, or at least a more jovial tone that might put some nervous would-be professors and presenters at ease.

The Good

Most of the panel presentations were rather helpful at this stage of my career. From presentations that specifically dealt with soccer and Latin America, to more odd-ball topics like spelunking in Venezuela, and to very specific themes of generational conflict and regional tensions…hats-off to the panelists who often raised interesting historical questions. The Prudential complex (composed of 3 major hotels with a Mall and Convention Center) was not my cup of tea, but for a frigid Boston in January it was helpful to find distractions nearby when a hike to the North End seemed like a long and cold endeavor.

The Bad

Although the panelists were quite good, I found the commentary of the presentations to be a mixed-bag. At some panels, no commentary was actually provided; at others, the speaker often went longer than the panelists and ate up much of the time for the audience to ask questions; and in one case the commentator’s critique and suggestions were geared more towards moving the panelists’ work to his/her own research and interests. For the AHA, I would suggest providing more time between panels if the conference site often meant walking at a brisk pace for nearly 30 minutes to go from one room to the next. Many attendees complained about missed meals because they could not afford to stand in a long line for food and miss a key presentation.

The Ugly

Very little actually, but there were several instances where I was amazed that a panelist, or even worse a panel chair or commentator, seemed bored or disinterested during the presentations. Attending AHA is a voluntary exercise. A presenters’ nervousness sometimes masked the quality of their research and it reflected the inordinate amount of time put into delivering a presentation. For some, they also had job interviews on their mind. From the perspective of the audience, it simply looked unprofessional to witness obvious signs of disinterest.

On an unrelated note, I went to my first NBA game thanks to an old, dear friend. If the price to pay for a good time at a historic pub was to dive into the hell that is the Boston Garden, as a Lakers fan I could bite my lip for a night. Unfortunately the Toronto Raptors played ugly that night. At least I witnessed local legends like Gino the disco dancer, and the Indian American Society of Worcester singing the Canadian National Anthem at an NBA game where no single player was either Indian, nor Canadian.

Overall, AHA was eye-opening and left me with much to think about whenever I am at the stage of presenting research and looking for employment. In subsequent postings, I’d like to share a few observations from my own presentation on digital history and a conversation that crystallized for me the need to dialogue about new media’s potential to spark a proliferation of historical work, increased visibility, and an honest discussion on how peer review and legitimacy can be handled in a digital age. Another subject worth discussing are the trends that emerged from a variety of panels on modern Latin America, identity, tensions, and social movements.

It’s nice to be back from the dead on this blog…


teaching & learning history on the web

Recently I commented on the possibilities that sports (in this case the World Cup) offers teachers to make history relevant to students, to authentically “hook” them in the material. As educators, it is an often daunting challenge to engage students when you consider that their world is 24-hour information at the touch of a button (or a click on their laptop), instant information, bite-sized presentations, and (if they choose) catered to their own tastes and sensibilities.

How can the perception of History, as a stuffy series of past events, matter with all the distractions on the web? It’s a question that interests me: how can new media authentically engage students in history and expand the arsenal of history educators? How does new media further (not simply with bells and whistles) the teaching and learning of history?

The American Historical Association presents a series of links to some of what their members rate as great websites for teaching and learning history. Take a look and feel free to comment.