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Just Putting Words on “Paper”

These past few weeks have been full of “Big Emotions,” as we sometimes say around here. I am in a very privileged situation, with a steady job that isn’t going to disappear this semester, a nice house, kids who aren’t terrors, no worries about where the next meal is coming from. And yet.

Sometimes the anxiety creeps in, and sometimes it roars in, and sometimes it crashes in like a tsunami. Am I going to get sick? Are my students going to get sick? Are my family going to get sick? And those are only the questions that concern me the least. More pressing, I find myself concerned about my kids’ relationship with each other (which is actually quite strong at the moment but I still worry). I find myself concerned about whether my friends who are healthcare providers are signing their own death warrants by going to work. I find myself concerned about my students who are drowning in their own wells of anxiety about school, work, home, living.

Can I be honest, though? I don’t miss many face-to-face interactions. I’ve heard from a number of people that their main source of anxiety is not being able to go out with people. I guess I’ve just proved once and for all to myself that I’m an introvert. Far from wanting to see other people and go out, sometimes my most fervent wish is to socially distance from the people in my house right now. That’s not to say things are going badly. They aren’t. In fact, social distancing with my family has been a definite positive.

But homeschooling two kids and trying to teach my students at the same time is exhausting. I always said that I didn’t want to homeschool, and now I definitely don’t want to, ever again. But we’re muddling through. We’re taking some time to learn new things, but mostly we’re just in maintenance mode. (We did do a pretty fun science experiment today; I’m looking forward to more things like that once GMU’s semester is over.)

I really miss my students, though. I chose to do my classes asynchronously (more on that in another post, maybe), which means I haven’t seen them in weeks. The first few days I missed them a ton. Then it settled into a “this is how it is” feeling. But I did video check-ins with some of my students today and now I miss them dreadfully again.

I may write another blog post about online learning, and how I’m dealing with the pivot. To be honest, I’m not sure I have anything useful to say. Everyone’s approach is so idiosyncratic, so particular to their individual classes, that hearing how I’m doing things probably isn’t that interesting.

I do get a little upset when I hear that professors are giving their students MORE work to do right now “because they have so much more time.” That’s garbage. No one has more time right now. Not even the people who have nothing to do. We’re all living in a state of general anxiety that makes focus and productivity a Herculean struggle. On the days we succeed in focusing, we’re exhausted. On the days we don’t, we’re exhausted. But no one has “more time” for more work. If we have more time, it’s to be creative, to express how we are processing this new and terrifying world. It’s to be with our families and spend more time loving them. It’s to reach out to our friends and neighbors (from a safe social distance) to make sure they’re ok. It’s not to work.

So I guess my main goal in this weird and anxious time is to care about people more, not less. My students are probably getting tired of me asking how they’re handling things, if I can do anything to help them. But I’m going to keep asking.


I think I’m using this blog post as a coping mechanism, just to write down some of my own big emotions. I probably will write up that blog post about the pivot to online learning, later. Today felt like a good day on that front: I tried something and I think it worked really well. So maybe I do have something to say after all, if only to myself.

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Spellcast: A Podcast About Words

My daughter is really into the spelling bee at the moment (she’s in third grade and her school is doing the spelling bee). She brought home a spelling list, which we busted through in a few hours, with a respectably low number of misses. But I remember from my spelling bee days that I knew how to spell an awful lot of words that never entered my functional vocabulary because I didn’t know what they were (even if I could recite a definition).

As I may have mentioned a few times, my class is making a podcast this semester. I may have also mentioned that while I have done a lot of research into how to make a podcast, I’ve never actually made one. Apparently my children have heard me talk about podcasting enough that they wanted to try it. So my daughter and I hatched up an idea for a podcast that could benefit both of us.

Our podcast is meant to be a way to talk through the words on the list, to get familiar with them in a deeper way than just a definition (though of course we read the definition and spell the word too). My other goal for the podcast is to learn the nuts and bolts of audio-editing software and work on editing.

This could potentially take a lot of time. So we have some parameters: the recording has to take less than 10 minutes, and the total editing/mixing time has to be less than half an hour. I’m willing to stretch the time for editing a bit if I am playing around with some of Audacity’s functions.

It’s been really fun to see my daughter get so excited about creating this podcast—it’s often the first thing she asks about when she comes home from school, and so far we’ve managed to record an episode every day since we started (which is, admittedly, only 6 episodes so far). Doing this podcast is helping her learn how to speak loudly, clearly, and concisely. It’s helping me learn how to “get good tape,” as luminaries such as Jessica Abel and Alex Blumberg call it; I don’t do a lot of re-organizing, but I do a lot of deleting to make our work more concise.

We’re still developing our style, but it’s been really fun and I hope we’ll be able to keep it going for a while yet (even if she doesn’t win her class and school spelling bee). We’re also working on getting it into Apple Podcasts and other podcast distributors so it’s easier to listen to.

Take a listen to our most recent episode; if you like it, we’d be delighted for you to spend 2 minutes of your day listening to us talk about words.

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First Day Exercise

I think of the first day of class as 1/3 user manual and 2/3 sales pitch—why should these students stay in this class? So making the first class interesting but also informative is critical.

The goal for the first day is threefold:

(1) Introduce the class’s content and responsibilities.

(2) Give the students a feel for how I teach.

(3) Get the students doing history.

In my big class, with 48 students who by and large aren’t interested in the subject and are afraid of the methods, I still haven’t quite struck on the right way to achieve these goals. But in my 15-person class, I adapted an exercise by Cate Denial for getting students into the sources early, and I was really happy with the results.

The course is about American explorers, and I’ve broken up the course material into 7 types of explorations. For the first day, I found a newspaper article about one example of each of these types of explorations. I purposely didn’t use the “banner” expeditions for each category; for instance, I found an article about Zebulon Pike’s 1806 expedition for the type I’m calling “continental exploration,” and an article about a satellite launch for space exploration.



A map created on the expedition written about in the article the students read. Zebulon Pike, A Sketch of the Vice Royalty Exhibiting the several Provinces and its Aproximation (sic) to the Internal Provinces of New Spain, 1810. David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

For each of these articles, I selected a few key paragraphs, stripped out the date of the article (but left all the other metadata), and transcribed them all (so the typeface/printing style wouldn’t give away the date). I printed two copies of each article (for a total of 14), labeled A and B. In class, I gave each student one article and asked them to find these things:

  • When do you think this document is from?
  • Where is the exploration happening?
  • What is the purpose of the exploration?
  • What are the challenges of the exploration?
  • What else can you infer about exploration from this newspaper article?

The exercise I adapted this from doesn’t ask specific questions about the documents, but I wanted the students to think about specific things because these documents are all text, rather than images, so there are explicit pieces of information they can figure out from reading the words, but also some elements they have to read between the lines to figure out.

The students worked in teams of 2, with the other person who had the same article as they had, to answer these questions. I gave them about 10 minutes, which isn’t very long, and I told them they could write on, underline, do whatever they needed to help them understand the source.

The Cecil Whig, Elkton, MD, December 8, 1871: The article illustrating deep-sea exploration.

I then asked all the As to get together, and all the Bs, and try to put their documents in the right order. Despite the fact that each team had separately made a determination about dates for their documents with their partners, in the face of a larger team with documents from different contexts, the two teams did NOT arrive at the same conclusion about the order of the documents.

The process of ordering the documents proved to be immensely challenging (several of the documents are pretty close to each other in date), but it also got the students talking about the contextual clues in each document. It was actually quite hard to get them to come to a decision. And even though neither team got the order exactly right, they both had compelling reasons for their argument.

In fact, this was exactly the outcome I was hoping for. I was hoping that the students would grasp that exploration is more widely dispersed chronologically, and more complicated politically and strategically, than they may have learned. And that’s exactly what they came away with.

It gave the students an introduction to how strange and wonderful this slice of history can be. An added benefit has been that we can now refer to those articles that we all talked about, and we have. It’s a specific point of community that I imagine will follow us through the rest of the course.

This kind of exercise won’t work in every class, but I’m pretty pleased with how it went in this one.

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Podcasting in Class

I asked on Twitter yesterday if those who used podcast creation as part of their classes would share their materials or, even better, their podcasts. I got some pretty cool stuff. So here’s a roundup, possibly incomplete (the threads kind of got away from me a few times). If I’ve missed something you suggested, or if you have additions to/amendments, please let me know!

Podcast Examples

Here are some of the podcasts that were created during the course of a semester, by students.

Podcast Methods

Here are some of the rubrics/instructional materials about podcasting. (I received a few others that aren’t available on the web, so I am not posting them.)

Additional resources

Here are some additional resources that people mentioned for teaching with podcasts.

  • YouTube tutorial for Audacity
  • Programming Historian tutorial for Audacity
  • NPR guide to podcasts for students
  • Jessica Abel, Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio (New York: Broadway Books, 2015).
  • John McMahon, “Producing Political Knowledge: Students as Podcasters in the Political Science Classroom,” Journal of Political Science Education 0, no. 0 (July 16, 2019): 1–10, https://doi.org/10.1080/15512169.2019.1640121. (unfortunately paywalled)
  • Hannah Hethmon, Your Museum Needs a Podcast: A Step-By-Step Guide to Podcasting on a Budget for Museums, History Organizations, and Cultural Nonprofits (2018). (The author has also generously offered to Skype into any class that reads this book–that’s no small offer! She’s on Twitter @hannah_rfh.)
  • Jim McGrath, Podcasts and Public History, History@Work

Resources for Use in a Podcast

This is a list of things that you might want to incorporate into your podcast, such as sound effects, etc.

Resources for Creating or Hosting a Podcast on the Web

None of these resources is outright free, but many have very limited free plans.

  • Soundtrap, for collaborative podcast creation
  • Podbean, hosting service
  • Libsyn, no free plan but the old standby host for many successful podcasts
  • Descript, an online editor and transcription creator
  • Buzzsprout, hosting service with some other bells and whistles
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Student Communication: Pedagogy Musing #2

My self-maintained list of failings as a teacher is quite long. But I’d like to think that communicating with students outside of class is not on that list. I do everything in my power to make sure my students have ready access to me at all times. And yet it often feels like I’m not connecting with students who really need some help.

I use a lot of different means to make myself available to my students. Each of them has its own merits and demerits.

Office hours

The traditional method of student communication is office hours. They’re required by the university, but I’d hold them anyway. In the past, both here at GMU and in the past, I viewed office hours as a time for me to get stuff done, and I spent most of the time hoping that no one would show up. This semester, I made a conscious choice to not endure office hours but rather encourage them. One-on-one conversations aren’t my preferred mode of communication, but office hours aren’t about me.

So this semester I’ve tried to be more deliberate about how I do office hours. I’ve always had the policy that I prefer students to sign up for an appointment, and I kept that policy this semester, but I tried to shift my thinking about appointments from “If there aren’t any appointments today then I get the day off” to “These appointments help keep the meetings on track so both the student and I have a sense of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

I’ve also tried to explicitly communicate throughout the semester that office hours are for talking about anything that is even tangentially related to the course, whether that’s grades, personal situations that are affecting coursework, or steps to take after the class is over, or anything else. This new strategy has paid off several times, where I’ve had meaningful conversations with students who needed to just talk through things. I’ve also tried to ask broader questions when they come than just “what problem can we solve right now?” and spend some time on how they’re doing overall this semester or in this class.

Everyone says things like “if you’re getting a bad grade in this class, come see me.” I say that too. But this semester I tried something new in my undergraduate class: after the midterm, where some students did not do as well as they hoped, I offered them a chance to make up a few points on the midterm. The catch was that I wouldn’t tell them how to get those points back unless they came to see me in my office. The allure of a few points back was enough to attract some students who hadn’t been engaged up to that point, and several of those students have since come back to ask questions about other things. So getting them to come just one time helped them to see that it wasn’t quite so scary. (This class has 42 students; it’s not the kind of class where I’d make an office visit mandatory.)

Nevertheless, only a small percentage of my undergraduate students have come to office hours. My graduate students are less reticent, but they have more experience navigating the academic system and they have more complicated problems. So I don’t think I’m reaching all my students where they are just by having office hours.

Email

Email is another somewhat traditional method of communicating with students outside of class. I rarely use email when communicating with students, though. First of all, it appears to be the case that many students don’t check their email with regularity (a mind-boggling concept to me!), so an email isn’t any more likely to reach a student than just making an announcement in class.

I also don’t really like email. It’s at that awkward place where formality and protocol are a barrier to both effective and respectful dialogue. I definitely don’t like getting emails like “Hey Abby!” from students (I’ve never received one of those from a GMU student), but I also don’t want a student to be so concerned with whether they should address me as “Dr. Mullen” or “Professor Mullen” that they never reach out. (And this paralysis HAS occurred with a GMU student.) I struggle enough with forms of address myself that I totally get why students do.

Email is also a very awkward way to have a conversation. Emails like “I wasn’t in class; what did I miss?” can rarely be adequately addressed without multiple emails from both parties. Emails like “I don’t understand this problem” almost never can. But email threads are so painful.

So email doesn’t feel like the best way to have real out-of-class interactions with students either.

Slack

I use Slack every day to talk to the Tropy team. I like it for its hybridity between email and text messaging, and I also like it that (set up right) it can be somewhat asynchronous. So, following the example of some colleagues, I set up Slack teams for each of my classes.

This is far and away MY preferred method of communication. I like it because I can be available to students at times when they’re more likely to actually be doing their work. I also like it because I can share links/show things fairly easily (screenshots are my best friend).

However, Slack has its disadvantages. It does tether me to my students in ways that could get problematic. I don’t think it has done so yet, but I have to be cautious about when I answer Slack messages. I tell students at the beginning of the semester that I will answer Slack questions as soon as is reasonable for me to do so, but in the evenings and weekends, I reserve the right to not be instantly available. I have gotten Slack messages time-stamped 2:00am; I did not answer those instantly. But I did answer them the next time I saw them, the next morning.

Slack is also new and intimidating for some students. In my mind, Slack is a much better text alternative to the more common group-communication tool many students are used to, the group text. But some students have a hard time following how the channels and tagging work.

It’s also true that if you’re not paying attention to the conversations, important information can pass you by as the conversation moves on to something else. And since not all students work on their projects at the same time, sometimes I end up answering the same question multiple times.

It’s hard to get full engagement from the whole class with Slack. I would prefer to make all class announcements, etc., on Slack, but I know that not all students will see those announcements. In my graduate class, I do it anyway, because I think they should be able to handle it, but if it’s something really important, I’ll send an email too. I tried to get everyone to use the Slack interface at least once during the semester—the very first day, actually, where they had to post a meme that they made to Slack. I hoped that this action would demystify the platform for the students, encouraging more interaction, but it really hasn’t.

My ideal Slack community allows students to help each other with questions and pose new and interesting questions to each other, developing a real connection to each other in this online space. I’d love for my role to not be central in our Slack teams. But the reality is that most questions and clarifications are directed at me and I answer them.

Nevertheless, I still like Slack. I like that I can answer questions in public, thus minimizing the number of times I have to answer the same question. I like being able to post new and interesting resources that I find relevant to our class discussions (esp. for my graduate students). I also like being able to have a conversation that allows me to ask lots of questions in order to get to the bottom of problems, without dozens of emails. Since tech support is a large part of my outside-class interactions with students, it’s nice to have a dynamic place to help them work through things.

What else?

Sometimes I think that I’m too available to my students. Am I giving them too many ways to get in contact with me, thus reducing the necessity for them to do creative problem-solving on their own? But then again, very often I’m asking them to do things that are completely unfamiliar to them.

My three main goals for outside-class communication with my students are (a) that they won’t be scared of me; (b) that they’ll get the help they need; and (c) that they’ll make real connections with both the material and the humans they’re interacting with in the course. For many of my students, I don’t think I accomplish any of these three.

What am I missing? How do you handle out-of-class communication?

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Preble Hall Podcast: A Bit of Self-Promotion

A few weeks ago, I got to be the guest of Claude Berube, director of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum, on the new podcast from the museum, Preble Hall. It was really fun to talk First Barbary War with him. Give it a listen if you’re so inclined.

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Pedagogy Musing #1: Backward Design

[Note 1: Today is the 8th anniversary of my mother’s death. I’ve written about her before, but it seems fitting that I should write about her again as I start my promised series of blog posts musing about pedagogy.

Note 2: This post is called “Musing” for a reason: it’s really just somewhat random thoughts about pedagogy. It’s not meant to be even remotely authoritative; I’d settle for mostly coherent.]

I first heard the term “backward design” maybe a year ago. Backward design is a system whereby you design courses by starting with the learning outcomes or course objectives, rather than the topical coverage. When I heard the term, it confused me: why is it “backwards” to start with the learning outcomes? Doesn’t everyone do that?

It turns out that my pedagogical education has had a different trajectory from many college professors. I started learning about pedagogy by working with my mom, who had a degree in elementary education and wrote elementary-school science textbooks for a living. My first professional job (starting at fourteen years old) included proofreading pre-college textbooks and eventually working with my mom to write materials for her elementary science curriculum.

As a high schooler and then a college student, I saw firsthand the process of designing a curriculum starting with the very big picture (the scope and sequence of the whole curriculum, over the course of several years), then moving to individual grade-level objectives, then objectives and content for units of study within the grade, and then finally learning outcomes for individual lessons within the units. Then, and only then, was it time to write the content, including the activities designed to achieve those learning outcomes.

So I was surprised to find out that college courses are often designed around topical coverage, not around learning. It turns out that the way I’ve been taught to think about curricula and course materials is not particularly intuitive, especially when the courses are being designed by people who have little to no training in pedagogy. Despite all that I’ve absorbed over my lifetime of living in the household of educators (my father, about whom I’ll write soon, I have no doubt, has an EdD and wrote his dissertation about Bloom’s Taxonomy), college course design still proved a challenge for me.

How the learning outcomes matter for me

This semester, I’m teaching two classes—one undergrad and one grad—that both focus on digital methodology for historians. When I was planning these courses, I started with a pencil, paper, and a lot of ideas. I wrote them all down, and then I organized them into categories. I then tried to think about all the things I’d written down, and what I was actually aiming for when I wrote them. I used those filtered ideas as the basis for my learning objectives.

Because digital history can be so many different things, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of doing fun digital stuff that has little pedagogical value. The tools with the most bells and whistles may not have the most value for understanding why that tool or method works for historical analysis. So checking all my activities against the learning outcomes is one way I keep myself from going down (too many) rabbit holes.

I’m also not the best at planning out a whole semester’s worth of materials and activities in advance. I like to change things on the fly, as I see how the course is progressing. So the learning outcomes are my only guide as I adapt to changing circumstances within my courses. Sometimes I have to cut or transform a whole class plan; as long as I’m still achieving my learning outcomes for the class, I don’t feel so bad about losing that “coverage.” I also don’t feel bad about dumping assignments; the students never mind, and if something went badly for them, they probably didn’t meet the learning outcomes anyway. So I have no problem either preemptively or retroactively canceling assignments that didn’t work out as planned.

For my undergraduate course, these are the objectives:

In this course you will:
Learn the varied history of war in the antebellum United States, from the French and Indian War to the Civil War;
Create historical scholarship using varied tools and sources;
Publish historical scholarship on the web.

For the graduate class, they’re similar, but with a focus more on the field of digital history as a subfield:

Our core objectives are these:
Survey the many facets of digital history (through readings)
Create web-based digital history analysis
Practice the nuts and bolts of digital history projects from start to finish

Flexibility within parameters

I recently saw someone on Twitter arguing that learning outcomes were too restrictive and they inhibited student learning by pushing them into paths pre-defined by the teacher instead of allowing the student to guide their own learning. (If I’m mischaracterizing this thread, I apologize—it was just a quick read on Twitter and I couldn’t find it again!)

I disagree with this assessment. When students come into my classes, many of them are there because the course is required in some form or another. They don’t know enough about the course to know what they might want to know. So assuming that they can create their own objectives for whether they’ve succeeded in class feels like it’s setting them up for failure—it’s like asking them to build a house while giving them only the materials they can think of without any knowledge of how a house actually gets built.

So I think learning outcomes serve an important purpose in course design. Students who come into my courses are often skeptical, terrified, or both. Throughout the course of the semester, we work together to build confidence in both history and technology until at the end, the students can look at the learning outcomes and say “Oh yeah, I did learn something in this class!” We judge whether or not they succeed in the class based on whether the learning outcomes are met.

This system gives me a lot of flexibility. The student didn’t get the technology right the first time? That’s ok—we’re still learning, and you’ll have another chance to get it. I did a bad job of explaining something in class? No problem—we can take another run at it next week. If we don’t get to something, we don’t get to it. I worry a lot less about “coverage” when I remind myself of what the learning outcomes are.

But I’m still able to check both my students and myself to make sure we’re all working together toward the same goals. I think that’s the value of learning outcomes; they give the students parameters by which to judge their learning while giving them a chance to do more.

Challenges of teaching with learning outcomes

I believe firmly in the value of having learning outcomes. However, I still find them hard to write and sometimes hard to live by. I struggle to strike a balance between too restrictive and not restrictive enough. I try to write them so that any student who comes into my class can succeed under them, but I also want the objectives to have enough meat to be meaningful.

I also struggle with making sure I adhere to the outcomes. I do think an occasional divergence is fine, even healthy. But it’s really easy to slip back into the “I have to get through this” mindset, even in setting up course assignments and assessments. But I think that’s the key: slipping back into that mindset is the real backward design. I always want to be moving myself and my students forward. But I don’t think I’m quite there yet.

For me, the real challenge is in working within the learning outcomes I didn’t set myself. My undergraduate course fulfills the requirement for the Mason Core IT requirement. A Mason Core course comes with its own set of learning outcomes, created by the Mason Core committee. Courses that fulfill the IT requirement span the entire university, from IT 101 in the information technology program, to my course in the history department, to a music technology course in the college of visual and performing arts.

The learning outcomes set by the Mason Core committee were written with little attention to the humanities applications of technology. (This isn’t a knock on the outcomes; it’s just a fact.) As a result, where the outcomes I’ve crafted myself feel like they fit the course, there are occasions when I feel like I’m shoehorning sessions and activities into my class merely to meet the core requirements. But the benefits of having my course in the Mason Core outweigh the frustrations of trying to adhere to the IT outcomes.

So, how do you use learning outcomes in your classes? How do you keep yourself on track? How do you work with outcomes that aren’t yours by design?

Next time: Analog tools for digital methodology?

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Using Tropy for the Classroom

It’s no secret that I’m a Tropy enthusiast. I often say that I would use and recommend Tropy even if I weren’t the principal investigator on the project. But this semester my work is divided between Tropy and teaching, on both the undergraduate and graduate level. And it turns out that pairing these things has enhanced both sides.

In both of my classes, my students use Tropy to collect primary sources for their projects, but I’m using Tropy in a slightly different way.

Keeping Track of Course Visuals

I’ve created a Tropy project for each of my courses this semester. In these projects, I keep track of all the images I use in my courses. For my undergrads, that’s predominantly visual aids that I use in my PowerPoints. Putting the images into Tropy has two salutary effects on my course organization: (1) It encourages me to put my images into a logical folder when I download them from the Internet (rather than leaving them in my Downloads, which I’m wont to do). And (2) it encourages me to record relevant metadata about them so that I can be very accurate about what my images are and where they came from.

A screenshot of the Tropy project for my undergraduate class, showing the lists I use for organization.

I can keep all of my images in a unified folder in my file system, since I can use Tropy to categorize them into topics and even specific lectures. Using the “Show photo in folder” function, it’s easy for me to get back to the original file so I can put it into my PowerPoint.

Furthermore, I can record in the notes for each item how I used the images in class, or what I should do differently next time.

I’ve found this use for Tropy incredibly helpful as I’ve created new PowerPoints this semester but wanted to use visual materials I’d collected when I taught this class last semester. A little extra organization goes a long way for those last-minute PowerPoint needs.

Creating Primary Source Readers

For my graduate class, I use fewer visuals in PowerPoint, so my Tropy project isn’t full of that kind of material. Instead, it includes primary sources that we work with in class. When I teach with or about primary sources (which is often!), I place an emphasis on recording metadata as an ethical practice. So when we look at primary sources in class, I like to include the metadata for the items we’re looking at.

Ironically, in a digital history class, I sometimes find it more helpful to use pen and paper to think about digital history topics. But that doesn’t eliminate the need for metadata. Enter Tropy’s Print function.

Using the Print function, I can generate pages that include both the image of the source we’re talking about, and the metadata that tells the students what it is and where it came from. We can then look at a printed copy of the digital item and mark it up with colored pens and Post-it Notes. But all the time, the students know exactly what their source is and where it came from, because the information is right there on the page (and it’s nicely formatted).

An item from my Tropy project, printed with all its metadata.

I can also use the CSV export function to pull metadata out of a large Tropy project, which we can then use to think about the primary sources in aggregate. (We haven’t done this yet in class, but we’re going to in a few weeks.)

What’s Next

One of the common critiques of digital tool creation and use is that people start with the tool rather than the problem they need to solve. Being tool-focused leads to tunnel vision, lack of intellectual creativity, the list goes on. But in this case, the problems I needed to solve existed well before Tropy. It just happened that Tropy was able to provide the solution to my problems because some parts of it have outstripped the original charter for its creation. The product is the better for it, and it’s also more flexible in its uses.

Tropy has always been great for organizing photos from archival research trips—that’s what it is for, after all. But many of the features that are continually being added to Tropy make it even more valuable for other uses as well. I’m delighted that one of those uses is making this teacher’s life a little bit easier. New features that are coming down the pike will make it even better.

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Digital Methods for Military History: An Institute for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities

In October 2014, I ran a workshop at Northeastern University called “Digital Methods for Military History,” designed to (you guessed it) introduce digital history methods to military historians. It was a two-day event that covered a lot of ground, and many participants suggested that they’d like a longer period of instruction or a follow-up event.

A lot has changed since 2014. I was a graduate student then, not even advanced to candidacy. I was a fellow at the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, feeling my way through the wilds of digital history, mostly under the auspices of the Viral Texts project. In 2013, I attended my first THATCamp Prime, where I met Brett Bobley, the director of the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities, and he and I talked about how military historians could be brought into the digital humanities fold. From that conversation, the project was born. Looking back on those conversations today, I continue to be humbled by the confidence that Brett, the NEH, and the NULab and College of Social Sciences and Humanities placed in me, a very young graduate student, to pull off the workshop.

In 2016, while still working on my dissertation at Northeastern, I started a job at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media as a part-time wage employee on the Tropy project. I defended my dissertation in April 2017, and since then I’ve transitioned from wage employee to research faculty, and now this fall to instructional faculty at George Mason University. I’ve worked on Tropy for that whole time, and continued my own research on the First Barbary War while I work on turning the dissertation into a book (as one does), as well as being involved in several other grant projects.

This grant, an Institute for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities to fund a new 2-week institute on Digital Methods for Military History, feels special, though. It’s fitting that a project that was conceived during my first visit to RRCHNM should find its way back to the Center, where so many great institutes have occurred in years past. It’s a privilege to follow in their footsteps in teaching about digital history. I’m honored that the NEH again found the instruction of military historians a worthwhile endeavor and gave me a chance to assemble a great team to do that instruction.

This institute is two weeks instead of two days, giving us a lot more time to delve more deeply into the topics that military historians already find interesting. We’ll be spending our time investigating data creation and cleaning, visualizations, and mapping. We chose those topics because they are ones that many military historians are familiar with but don’t know how to create on their own. We’ll also be thinking about how to see a DH project through from beginning to end. Our instructors are top-notch practitioners in these areas: Jason Heppler, Jean Bauer, and Christopher Hamner (and me).

The planning has only just begun, of course, but the tentative dates are July 20-31, 2020. Stay tuned for more information and a call for participants. This time, we’ll also be able to pay for people to come, which will hopefully make it possible for some historians to come who couldn’t afford to pay their own way to the workshop.

I’m so grateful to have this opportunity to introduce military historians to tools for the digital age, and I’m humbled that the NEH has funded this institute. I’m looking forward to working with a great group of military historians in summer 2020!

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In Defense of Finding Things in Archives

Over the past several months, and probably before that, several historians have been flayed on social media for making claims like “I found this forgotten thing in the archive,” and stories about their finds criticized for calling their work “discovery.” Scholars have (rightly) called out these stories as erasing the work of the archivists in those archives. But these excoriations are often accompanied by calls for all researchers to stop saying they’ve discovered things in archives. I disagree.

I work at the intersection of historians and archivists. I manage the development of software whose goal is, in part, to help researchers see and acknowledge the work done for them by archivists. I encourage researchers in every training session to increase their awareness of and gratitude for the work of those who made it possible to find the sources they’re photographing. However, another goal of Tropy is to allow researchers to add item-level metadata to the sources they photograph, a level of granularity not often achieved by archivists. Every archive would love to have item-level metadata on their collections, I’m sure, but most have neither the financial nor personnel resources to make it happen.

Hence it is entirely possible for a researcher to find, within a described collection, a “lost” source. A lost source is not necessarily one that no one has ever known existed, or that has not been placed into a location that is “organized.” It is a source that no one currently knows the location of, or possibly the existence of. When I have lost my keys in my house, I don’t mean that I have never known where they are–I just don’t know where they are right now.

Likewise, anything in an archive has of course been known to someone at some point. Someone had to accession it; someone might have even written a finding aid that included it. But that work may have been done decades ago, by archivists who took their personal knowledge of those collections with them when they retired. A researcher can certainly find a source that no current archivist knows about, even if they know the collection exists. Because finding aids almost never include item-level information, a source can be cataloged perfectly and still be completely invisible to archivists.

For example, I was recently in the Library of Congress looking at the papers of Richard Dale. In Box 1, I found, alongside the commissions and appointments that the finding aid said would be there, Richard Dale’s certificate of entrance into the Society of the Cincinnati, signed by George Washington himself. A passing librarian stopped to admire the certificate, and he was surprised to find a document with Washington’s signature on it so easily accessible. (I was too–the last time I looked at documents that included presidential signatures, the archivists had to retrieve them from the vault.) For all intents and purposes, I discovered that certificate. I daresay not one person currently at the Library of Congress knew that document was there.

Richard Dale’s certificate of entrance into the Society of the Cincinnati, October 31, 1785. Library of Congress, Papers of Richard Dale: Commissions and Appointments.

Furthermore, finding aids are an imperfect mechanism. Things get put in the wrong place. On a research trip to the National Archives once, I found in a box labeled “Charts of the Mediterranean” several schematic diagrams of the torpedo damage to a vessel called Terpsichore. There was no identifying information on those schematics, and they couldn’t be related to the charts of the Mediterranean (torpedos weren’t a thing till years after the dates on the charts). I still don’t know the significance of the Terpsichore, but my experience is a perfect example of “stumbling across” something that no archivist could have been able to point me to unless they had personally accessioned it.

Schematic of torpedo damage to the Terpsichore. National Archives, Charts of the Mediterranean.

Again, I am not saying that researchers should unadvisedly claim they’ve found something lost–I too get annoyed when people overstate their discoveries. A fully described item in an online catalog cannot be described as lost. Something an archivist showed a researcher in person is not lost. Those instances are not discoveries of those sources, though perhaps they are fresh realizations of the source’s significance. But we need to stop reflexively saying that researchers can’t make discoveries. Just because we know where the Titanic sank doesn’t mean that discovering its wreck is any less of an accomplishment. Give archivists credit for doing their job; but give researchers credit for doing theirs too.