To conclude our most beloved #hist5702x, Shawn had us submit an “UnEssay.” It’s like an essay, but it didn’t need to adhere to any particular essay-like standards.
So Alex and I decided to record a podcast-like beast, and here it is for your listening enjoyment. Follow this link to listen to it in full. You can also follow along with our summary below. But really, you should just listen to it. Enjoy!
Hi there! My name is Lina Crompton, and in this podcast, you’re invited to listen to me and my comrade-in-arms Alex Wilkinson discuss the benefits, drawbacks, challenges, and achievements we faced during HIST 5702X otherwise known as Digital History that we took this year with Professor Shawn Graham at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. If you’re interested with getting in touch with any of us from this class, following along with some of the readings that Alex and I discuss throughout the podcast, or getting a glimpse at our Augmented Reality project with the Canada Science and Technology Museum, you can find us at 5702x.graeworks.net
Throughout the podcast, we discuss:
Alex and Lina start the podcast by discussing Tim Hitchcock’s Big Data for Dead People. Lina highlights how she appreciates how he uses big data tools to do both micro and macro analyses of the story of one Victorian woman. At the same time, she remarks on her reticence to dive headfirst into the big data world, as she is still not comfortable with the tools at her disposal. The learning curve to master the tools of big data, and to use them efficiently and effectively, seems like a very steep learning curve indeed.
Alex then remarks that sometimes the roadblock is just finding a way to incorporate the tools we’ve covered in this class with our own research interests evidently it can be done, but it just so happens that the two of us aren’t researching topics that lend themselves to big data methodologies at the moment.
The two recognize that Digital Humanities as a whole can be a scary arena to dive into, much in part to the newness of the kind of materials that DHers engage with. However, engaging with digital sources is just further along the trajectory that the historical establishment has been pursuing for a while now. For example, Lina uses film as her main source, whereas Alex uses buildings. Already, non-textual analyses pervade the academy why not digital as well?
The pair also note a disconnect between digital humanists and programmers which may be another roadblock on the way to a commonplace academic DH culture. There seems to be a need to bring these two sides of the divide together in order to legitimize the work done by each, so that each side can speak each others languages and construct edifies which are mutually informed by the kind of work that both DH scholars and programmers do. They discuss this specifically pertaining to the citational nightmare that is trying to include digital sources in a humanities bibliography. If both sides of this chasm can bend new technologies to suit established practices of the academy, this could be a way to bridge the gap between those reticent to accept DH methodologies and practitioners eager to see their own work valued in traditional scholarly settings.
However, the pair also recognize the fallbacks of trying to get digital tools to fit established models of scholarship. Recalling Kathleen Fitzgibbon’s Planned Obsolescence and Shawn Graham, Ian Milligan, and Scott Weingart’s “Putting Big Data to Good Use: An Overview,” Alex and Lina remark that it is still rather irksome that these digital works end up resembling traditional written works so closely. Even though these two examples of digital scholarship engage with an academic community in a novel way, the pair wonders how long Digital Humanists will have to keep jumping through the academic hoops by publishing such familiar deliverables.
The pair then move on to discuss what they expected from the course. Both Alex and Lina had inklings of what this class was going to be Alex from conversations with Professor Shawn Graham beforehand, and Lina from overhearing the planning stages of the relationship with the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM)while she was an intern there over the summer.
Because Lina knew the Museum, their collection, and the people at CSTM fairly well, she had a certain level of comfort going into the class. After the first few weeks, she felt as if the level of work required from the students would be achievable. She also really appreciated how the group work aspect of the Augmented Reality (AR) project embodied the collaborative and supported atmosphere that she saw pervading the DH world as a whole.
Lina also particularly appreciated how the course offered both a theoretical introduction to the DH world, as well as the opportunity to learn new skills while working on a deliverable, group project as well. However, the pair did sense a bit of divide between the theoretical and the practical sides of the classes.
Alex, on the other hand, had previously taken classes with Professor Shawn Graham in both historians craft and digital history during his undergrad. Having a fairly good understanding of the material we would be digging deeper into this course, he hoped that the course could have been more project-focussed. However, he does concede that not everyone is fortunate enough to have the background that he did his podcasting partner for example had never been introduced to the Digital Humanities before coming to Carleton.
To that end, the pair muse that perhaps the academy’s adoption of Digital Humanities may be a generational task. They hope that, like the postmodernist tradition that they both were trained in, eventually the tools, methodologies, and languages of DH will become commonplace and second-nature to historians.
Alex and Lina then switch gears to discuss the public history aspect of the work they undertook during the course. They highlight the near ubiquity of tablets, smartphones, and the like. The pair remark that although the near ubiquity of such tools means that museums and other public historical institutions can harness a new, digitally informed way of engaging their publics with the past. However, these institutions cannot afford to alienate their publics by relying too closely on these technologies, as to assume that visitors will have a tablet or a smartphone will necessarily exclude certain demographics. If the Digital Humanities is a force for breaking down the barriers of the academy, the manner in which Digital Humanities is communicated to the public will also have to find a way to break down generational, socioeconomic, and technological barriers as well.
If public history is about representing the past or re-presenting it, as Lina puts it at the heart of it still lies the individual historian. In Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, Gertrude Himmelfarb is quoted saying, “the internet does not distinguish between the true and the false, the important and the trivial, the enduring and the ephemeral.” The pair cry out “but neither does any other source!” No matter whether one studies data sets or buildings, films or YouTube comments, laws or literature, no source distinguishes between true, false, important, trivial, enduring, or ephemeral. That role is instead accorded to the historian
Alex begins to discuss games and gaming as an historical tool. While lapsing on the specific readings he discusses themes present in Roger Travis’, “Halo: Reach as Epic.” Lina interjects, noting the trend of some games to demand of the player the completion of a specific narrative, drawing from Trevor Owens’, “no no no, thats not the way it happened. Shall I start again?” Alex continues by discussing the perceived need for historical games to present “authentic” depictions of historical facts. Alex argues that the historical context can be irrelevant, suggesting a diplomatic game set in space that could be an allegory for pre First World War politics. Again the pair falls back onto the idea that a tenant of digital history is getting a wider acceptance of ideas, and that some of the most important aspects of the history are below the surface.
The pair discuss the relationship between digital mediums and history. Drawing on the previous discussion of games, they note that the use of any medium comes with ingrained understandings that limit its use. This rings true for both traditional text and new digital mediums. From here the pair discuss the need to see more interaction between disciplines. Alex suggests that people involved in game design from a purely game design position are rarely, if ever, interested in “historical accuracy” as anything greater than attention to aesthetic details and dates. Alex notes that some games will be heralded as “accurate” or “historical” because game elements, such as guns or vehicles, appear “authentic”. This understanding of authenticity does not account for historical ideas and trends. Lina highlights the use of history and historians as an accent, a means of framing the theme of the game rather than an integral component. She notes that game developers will often claim to have consulted a historian for reasons of authenticity.
The pair lament the lack of communication between the computer sciences and the arts. They note that often in digital history and digital humanities projects it is an historian who has taken it upon themselves to learn the computer programing aspect of the project, learning code and the languages needed therein, rather than a computer scientist learning to present the history. Both agree that this is an unfortunate situation as this kind of cross-discipline work would be very interesting, but are unsure of how to really tackle any of the issues that arise from this.
Lina argues that there is no “truth about the past.” This sparks a conversation about historical systems and the need to understand what is under the hood of digital media, just as it is the practice to look beyond the surface of dates and names in history so as to peer at the larger systems at play. This conversation raises the question of Carleton as a pioneer in digital humanities and digital history. The pair discuss the thoughts of Carleton students versus non-carleton students, noting that non-Carleton students are focused on the surface level of ideas. Lina describes this interest as “the decoration on the christmas tree.” The conversation is tied back into the idea that setting is secondary to system.
Lina argues that this conversation on video games is a good case study for her. She says that, “[she] has played three video games in her life”, arguing that she does not have the “language” to “make the people move correctly.” This brings up the question of medium and the language necessary to understand. Games present Lina with a “whole other world that [she] would need to get immersed in.” Alex argues that historians spend years getting to know and understand the fundamental parts of history, how it is written and read, and how those engaged in history process their ideas. Games and digital media suffer from a similar concept. Lina notes that discussing history with her father, an architect, he was unsure what the discussion meant. This is not due to anything more than the lack of training in the language of history. While it may be in english, the points of reference and the context in which history as a field is situated is alien to those not trained to understand it. Alex notes that games can suffer from this as well.
Alex is reminded of a previous discussion with Dr. Graham on “digital natives.” He argues that the assumption that people who have grown up with video games, cell phones, and the internet are inherently able to understand all things technical and digital. As was Lina’s example a problem of language, so is the logic behind the thought of a “digital native.” Alex notes that games do offer, in some cases, a slightly better learning curve than text. Where basic literacy is needed in both cases (the ability to read and the ability to understand the relations between controls and game) most games offer a tutorial or training level before the full content is unlocked. This is a rarity within the textual world, where seldom do books present a brief chapter which presents the entirety of the needed knowledge for understanding the rest of the text. Texts, unlike games, are much more interconnected, requiring a knowledge of other texts in order to contextualize any new material. Games, on the other hand, are often separate and require a tutorial for each instance. Arguably this makes games more consumable from a state of blank knowledge, but also means texts are, perhaps, capable of presenting far more complex and dynamic medium.
Alex reflects on the nature of the course as a public history course. He recalls the class’s week on museums and AR. His concerns are with AR in museums as kitsch rather than productive historical work. Lina rebutes by offering the example of Peter C. Dawson and Richard M. Levy’s “A Three-Dimensional Model of a Thule Inuit Whale Bone House”. The example of a native artifact, a hat, which was repatriated. The process of rendering it in AR meant that it would still be available for display and museum presentation. AR, Lina argues, offers a way to undo some aspects of western colonialism. She also says that “AR can keep the edifice of the museum while undoing some of the ills of your forefathers.” Alex presents Natasha Baker’s article, “Dinosaurs roar to life with museum’s augmented reality app”, as an example of AR for kitsch value. His issue is that he sees the benefits of promoting museums and exhibits but is uncertain as to any further value. Lina says that getting people into museums is a worthy cause on its own, and something many museums struggle with.
Thanks for listening! We’ve been Alex Wilkinson and Lina Crompton. If you’d like to learn more about this course, please check us at 5702x.graeworks.net