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Historical Literacy and Public History, Part 1

Historians and political pundits often lament the woeful historical ignorance of the public. They claim that the lack of historical knowledge causes people to make bad political choices or appreciate their country less than they should. But I wonder whether the ignorance of the American public about history (which I’m not disputing) has the profound political ramifications that so many pundits claim.

For the final paper for Issues and Problems in Public History, our professor asked us to write a paper that synthesized our readings into an argument about how the mythic past and historical memory propel the practices of public history. Working on this paper made me think about how history really functions, at least in the United States. What follows is the theoretical background for a couple of future blog posts about historical literacy and public history.

History and politics interact on several levels. These levels are fluid, often working together to help form the basis of people’s historical consciousness.

First, identity. David Lowenthal suggests that “we alter the past to become part of it as well as to make it our own.”[1. David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 331.] Individuals base their identity in large part on their past, both their own past accomplishments and their forebears’. What is true for individuals is also true for nations. Lowenthal suggests that personal memory is to identity what history is to collective “self-awareness”: memory and history validate a sense of identity.[2. Lowenthal, 213.]

Forming a collective identity is difficult because the collective has to attempt to incorporate the identities of all its members. This means that collective historical memory is both something less  and something more than individual historical memory. It is less because it operates by consensus–only the things that the group agrees on are maintained in the collective memory–but more because it provides a historical grounding for people who do not have a personal past they can or want to identify with.

When individuals cannot claim their own past, they can identify with the past of a larger group they are part of. But when groups or nations do not have a past they can meaningfully identify with, they may turn instead to an invented tradition. These traditions are not just for nostalgic effect: Eric Hobsbawm argues that invented traditions are explicitly didactic, and they are used to cope with social change.[3. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 1, 5.] History can be used to establish political legitimacy for groups who can establish their historical identity, perhaps even more so when the tradition is invented: Hobsbawm suggests that “all invented traditions, so far as possible, use history as a legitimator of action and cement of group cohesion.”[4. Hobsbawm, 12.]

It is remarkable how powerful and pervasive an invented tradition can be. One only has to look at the obsession of Scotland (and the world) with tartans and clans to see that invented identity can hold as much weight as, if not more weight than, an identity based in historical fact. Most people who claim an invented identity probably do not even know that their tradition is fabricated. Those who do know either consciously choose to not care, or they change their way of identifying themselves. As Lowenthal points out, we almost always change the past to make it more positive and more coherent.[5. Lowenthal, 325.] But in the process of creating such a past, we exclude or marginalize those who were in the historical record but do not reflect well on our sense of ourselves.

Narratives. Identity is constructed most effectively through the use of narratives, which is the second point at which public history and politics intersect. A single person can be a part of many narratives, from the highly individual to the cosmic. These narratives are effective for at least two reasons. First, everyone remembers stories, especially about themselves. It is not necessary to know the facts of one’s history in order to be part of (and be aware of being a part of) a larger narrative. In fact, the specific details do not even matter all that much.

All people need to know in order to be a part of the American national narrative is that America has always been about about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all; if even that is too much to remember, then citizens of the United States need remember only that they live in the greatest nation on earth. That metanarrative will inform their political choices and all them to call others’ political choices into question if they appear to diminish America’s greatness.

Second, narratives are flexible. They can be leveraged on all sides in order to achieve political goals. Because they are not strictly fact-based, their interpretations can be multiple and even conflicting; they may be able to merely co-exist instead of colliding head-on.

Tragedies. Some events in history do not fit into the standard heroic narrative. The grave injustices, serious misjudgments, and horrifying tragedies in history do not fit into a narrative of progress and greatness. dealing with these events and injustices is the third point of intersection between public history and politics. When narratives in conflict cannot bend to co-exist, public historians must decide which narrative is the correct one and thus which to perpetuate. Often, historians fixed on a particular narrative simply ignore the ugly parts of their past; as Lowenthal says, “Americans for whom history has to be a chronicle of national greatness shun reminders of what seems shameful and demeaning.” But this type of historical forgetfulness, though impossible to avoid in the general public, is irresponsible in the hands of historians who ought to know better.

So, as historians, both public and academic, how do we work with ideas of identity and narrative? 

Categories
Naval History

Poetry and War: Constitution v. Guerriere

USS Constitution v. HMS Guerriere. Public domain image from Naval Historical Center.

In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of War of 1812, here’s an excerpt from Columbia’s Naval Victories, a poem about the naval victories of the Americans, written in 1813 by Benjamin Allen.

In war a lion, though a lamb in peace,

Hull [1. A brief biography of Isaac Hull can be found here.] bears the flag of freedom o’er the seas;[2. A motto often flown on ship’s flags was “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights.”]

Ready to vindicate his country’s fame,

And add new honours to her injur’d name.

Soon Albion’s banner rises on his view [3. A few weeks previous to this battle, the Constitution had successfully evaded the Guerriere, which had then been sailing in a squadron with several other warships. This time, on August 19, 1812, Hull decided to take the chance that the Guerriere was alone.]—

His dauntless soul impels him to pursue.

Of equal force, the ready foemen meet,

And with the cheer of gladness loudly greet.

Here England’s Dacres,[4. Captain James Richard Dacres, captain of the Guerriere] with a gallant band–

There the firm sons of blest Columbia’s strand.

Now roaring rolls the deathful cannon’s sound,

A novel thunder frights the floods around:

The pious soul attendant angels guard,

Or wait to waft him to his last reward.

Short is the contest, carnage soon is o’er,

For Albion’s banner falls, to rise no more.

Low in the briny deep the Guerriere lies ;

The finny tribes of ocean o’er her rise :

Like some forgotten wave she sinks to rest,[5. The author is taking some poetic license here: Though the Guerriere was indeed too badly damaged to be claimed as a prize, Hull ordered it burned, which did of course result in its sinking.]

In all her futile, fleeting, boastings drest.

Modest, but firm, the victor Hull is seen,

With sympathising kindness in his mien,

Aiding the vanquished: he receives them well,

And bide them with himself, like brethren, dwell.

 

 

Categories
Digital Humanities

DigiWriMo Wrap-Up

Today’s the last day of November. Advent starts in two days; classes end in four days (for me, anyhow); and today DigiWriMo is ending.

So, what was DigiWriMo like for me?

Maybe I should start with how I did on my goals.

Goal #1: Completed. All officer bios on Preble’s Boys are completed.

Goal #2: Mostly completed. In the last few days, I did slack off. Bad Abby. But I got a fair number up.

Goal #3: Technically completed. I didn’t do the intensive reflection I was intending. But that’s ok. I wrote some other pretty good blog posts.

 

I purposely didn’t tax myself all that far for this DigiWriMo. This is my first semester in grad school in a long time, and I wasn’t sure how much time my projects would take down the stretch. In retrospect, that was probably a wise decision.

Nevertheless, I did reap some rewards from doing DigiWriMo.

Because of the rapidity with which I wrote the officer bios, I saw some connections and similarities that I feel certain I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. In addition, the group has started to really cohere as a unit for me; before this month I viewed them as individuals who were just arbitrarily grouped together (although I do still think their grouping is somewhat arbitrary).

I also gained an appreciation for other people’s amazing work that they wrote about for DigiWriMo. I feel somewhat more connected to the DH community than I did before DigiWriMo, even if it’s a somewhat one-way connection for now.

Because I spent so much time in the blogosphere and on my Omeka site this month, when a speaker at Northeastern mentioned the possibility of doing a department-based group blog, I jumped at the idea. Thanks in part to DigiWriMo, we successfully launched Global History in the Digital Age in the middle of the month. This blog’s authors are members of Northeastern University’s history department, and we’re writing about things that we’re doing in history right now, digital or not. (Please read and follow!)

Global History in the Digital Age is giving some members of my cohort the chance to get their ideas out on the Web without having to deal with the admin stuff of running a blog. So DigiWriMo did something for not just me but also at least four (right now) people in my department. (Since I started the blog, I think I should get DigiWriMo credit for all of the posts on it right now–just kidding. 🙂 )

 

I’m sure the makers of DigiWriMo will be making structural changes to the event for next year (though mad props to them for a really fantastic month of writing!). For myself, there are a few things I’d like to do or see done for next year.

1. I’d like to see more historians participating. Perhaps I just wasn’t looking in the right place, but I seemed a bit like a horse among a herd of zebras.

I’ll probably be proselytizing DigiWriMo next year several months in advance of November. I’d love to see some of my cohort at Northeastern participate.  Now that we have our blog up and running, they have the platform to do the writing.

2. I’d like to do more substantive collaboration with other historians. This follows from No. 1, of course. I enjoyed participating in the opening-day collaborative poem and the collaborative novel, but I’m not that much of a creative writer like that. (I still need pen and paper to do most of my creative writing.) But I would love to see some serious historical research collaborations.

More historians would also be nice for the Twitter discussions, since the types of digital writing that might be discussed would be different from the literature-types’ writing.

3. Next year, I’m doing 50,000. You can hold me to that.

 

Total word count for the month (not counting FB and Twitter words): 13,800 words

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Uncategorized

Academic Hardcores and Academic Farbs

In the book Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz encounters Civil War re-enactors of varying levels of seriousness about their craft. They divide into two main categories: hardcores and farbs. The hardcores get into their roles as accurately as possible, even starving themselves so they look like haggard Confederate soldiers. They eat, drink, and breathe the Civil War. (One hardcore says, “I don’t do drugs; I do the Civil War.”)[1.  Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), 14.] By contrast, the farbs dabble in re-enactment but do not trouble with the exacting details of appearance and behavior that hardcores do. Hardcores, of course, disdain farbs and farby behavior.

Horwitz gets involved in this dichotomy of re-enactor culture because he joins up with a super-hardcore named Robert Hodge. In the course of his travels with Hodge, Horwitz learns just how far hardcores will go to preserve the illusion of actually living in the past. He experiences, as much as is possible, the life of a Confederate soldier.

In a class discussion of the book, the question was raised: Are academic historians hardcore about their discipline, or are they farbs? 

The class suggested that most academic historians would call themselves hardcore. However, many historians have never lived where their subjects lived, or worked with their subject matter, so perhaps they are in fact farbs. (Our professor gave the example of a historian writing a book about wood without ever having done any woodworking.)

The question about hardcores and farbs, re-enactors or historians, is whether painstaking and total immersion into the culture about which you are focused is really beneficial to your understanding. Do you have to have experienced in some way your subject in order for you to write about it intelligibly?

For some subjects, it seems impossible to have any meaningful present experiential connection with your work. (For instance, there’s not really enough information about ancient Sumer to definitively experience it.) But for a subject like mine, the navy, I do wonder whether learning to sail would help me to understand a ship’s culture in a more meaningful way.

This idea dovetails with the reading for my other class for this week: Clifford Geertz’s “Thick Description” and “Deep Play,” as well as Robert Darnton’s “The Great Cat Massacre.” These works demonstrate that no matter how ingrained you get in a foreign culture (whether present or past), you will always be Other. You can’t be in the Civil War just because you look like you’re from the Civil War. But you can read about the Civil War, and apply the principles of thick description, trying to understand the symbolic meaning of the rituals of the Confederacy instead of emulating their hygiene practices.

My reading of Geertz indicates to me that no one can ever be 100% hardcore. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that a historian ought not try.

 

What do you think? Are you a hardcore? If you are, why are you? If not, why not? (Also, if you’re in another discipline, are there parallels for your discipline?)

 

Categories
Digital Humanities

Lessons from a Google Fusion Table Graph

Armed with new and improved service record data, last night I set out to create a new network graph in Gephi, to see whether just new data would help to mitigate some of last time’s problems.

To be frank, Gephi beat me. My graph is so small, and my screen is so small, and the zoom function in the graph window is so bad (at least, I couldn’t figure it out) that I couldn’t really see my graph in order to draw any conclusions. All my data imported correctly, though, so I knew there was hope.

I turned instead to Google Fusion Tables, an experimental data visualization app from Google. Unfortunately, it appears that the data tables work completely differently from Gephi’s, so I did have to do some reformatting. (This isn’t a huge problem for a graph with only 34 edges, but it would be a pain for something bigger.)

Google Fusion Tables

For this small network graph, Google Fusion Tables seemed to have worked out very well. The graph itself is clear and easily readable, and it’s a relatively simple proposition to remove nodes and see what happens. Fewer options for manipulating the data mean that the graph renders quickly. It’s also nice to be able to hover over a node and see the attached edges highlighted.

Google Fusion Tables does do a few annoying things, which may be able to be disabled. It would be nice if the nodes were able to be moved to a specific location for ease of reading (as is, you can pull a node to a general area, but it won’t stay exactly where you put it). Also, it would be nice if the graph would hold still! It seems like some element of the graph is always moving all the time.

More options for edges would be helpful too. I’d like to be able to see the edge labels that are in my chart, and I’d also like to be able to click on an edge for more data, just like you can see the highlighted edges when you hover over a node.

Observations about the Graph

I’ve been doing some reading up about social network graphs in this book. But this network I’ve created is not actually a social network: there are not any connections that can accurately be predicted by network theory. Why? Because this set of data is about concurrent service, not something that the men themselves control (for the most part).

So how then is this helpful?

First, even though new connections cannot be posited, the graph does show the high degree of connectedness between some of the officers. Thomas Macdonough, for instance, has multiple connections to many people. The same is true for David Porter. Macdonough and Porter have some shared connections, but they also have some unique connections. Hopefully, seeing the connected officers through the eyes of Porter and Macdonough may yield information about them.

Second, once I do get the social networks mapped out, it will be interesting to compare the two graphs, seeing whether the connections established shipboard continue into correspondence. It seems unlikely that officers would write directly to each other without previous personal connections, and concurrent service seems the most likely place for that connection to have occurred.

The comparison will be a little tricky, because it will involve networks that evolve over time. In order to create these networks, I’ll probably have to move back over to Gephi. Maybe by then I’ll have figured it out a little more.

Mapping the service of just the Preble’s Boys connections to each other shows only an incomplete picture of their records. So the next step will be to add in connections to other officers, especially highly prominent officers such as Thomas Truxtun and John Rodgers. After that, mapping out squadron service will be the next step in establishing these formal connections.

 

The question I’ve been asked before about this sort of network is: how is this more helpful than a spreadsheet? The value here is how easy it is to remove nodes and see the resulting changes in the network. You can’t really do that with a spreadsheet. As the networks get more complex, and they have to change over time, visualization is going to be much more helpful than a spreadsheet.

 

As always, I’d welcome any insights on my network thoughts!

 

Categories
Digital Humanities

DigiWriMo Halftime Report

Today is November 15, the halfway mark in DigiWriMo/AcWriMo. It’s time to check in and see how my DigiWriMo goals are progressing.

Here are the goals:

1. Write one officer bio every day for the first 17 days, taking off Sundays.

I’m happy to report that I’m right on target. Today, I completed the last of my officer bios: Stephen Decatur

2. Write one or two ship bios for the remaining days. (Take Thanksgiving Day and Sundays off.)

Since I just completed the officer bios, tomorrow begins the ship bios. These are going to take more work because for most of them, there is no one authoritative source to consult. 

3. Blog about the progress and challenges of the site at least twice during the month.

Well, here’s blog post number one about the progress. Coming soon (in the next day or two): blog post number one about the challenges and benefits of DigiWriMo.

How’s the word count? Well, I never planned to make it to 50,000, which is good, since I’m at 7109. I do hope I can make it to around 25,000, but to me, getting the content up is more important than getting a certain number of words out. (Also, I’m not counting tweets. Maybe I should count them.)

Categories
Digital Humanities

The Lessons of a Bad Network Graph

Spurred by our DH reading group at Northeastern, as well as my general tendency to jump into things before really knowing what I’m doing, I decided a few weeks ago to download Gephi and see what sort of rudimentary networks I could create.

I’d been cataloging the service record of each of my Preble’s Boys officers, setting up the chart so that I could see concurrent service. I started out just looking to see whether any of the Boys had actually served on the same ship as Edward Preble, but as I created the chart (the link here is to a more fleshed-out chart with more comprehensive data), some other patterns began to emerge.

So I thought, let’s plug this into Gephi and see what happens! I set up my network, fumbling through the Gephi readme to set up a very basic network in which the nodes were the officers and the ships were the edges.

I knew what was coming before I rendered the graph as a network visualization, but I was still a little surprised when I saw it. What I saw was a network that I knew from all my research heretofore to be completely false.

[gview file=”http://abbymullen.org/smallnetwork.pdf”]

(I apologize for the crazy way the graph sort of goes off the page. I tried every setting I could find to get it not to do that. Some mysteries of Gephi remain hidden to me.)

My initial reaction was to scrap the whole thing and start my thinking about networks all over. But on further examination, I realized that this graph still had something to teach me.

First, I learned the importance of good data. This graph shows Stephen Decatur as having only two links to anyone, a fact that is false. Additionally, it looks like Edward Preble is almost a tangential figure, a fact that is false. The person with the most links is David Porter, who is an important figure but not that important. So why the graph that looks like this?

Simply put, this is a bad data set. It starts to get at my question (How do these people link together?) by a very small subset of their interactions with each other. I don’t even have complete service records for some of these men, so it’s possible that there are connections missing from my chart. In addition, these men had several levels of interaction beyond just concurrent service (squadron concurrent service, shoreside interaction, correspondence, indirect influences…the list goes on). So the data set is quite incomplete.

What this bad data set teaches me is that the meaningful network of these men is going to be quite complex. It’s likely to need to be organized on several different interaction levels, as well as interactions over time and even perhaps spatially (do men feel others’ influence more when they’re at sea than when they are landbound? I don’t know).

Second, I saw new connections, forged through unintended groupings. Since this is a bad graph, it’s tempting to say that all the links it made between people are bogus. However, I realized that there is at least one interesting phenomenon going on that I hadn’t thought of before, but that perhaps is borne out by the documentary evidence.

This phenomenon, which may actually be a real breakthrough in my analysis, is the appearance of two groups. If you draw a connection between Stephen Decatur and Edward Preble (in your mind), then you see the loose formation of a group around them. The graph already shows a clique: the group with David Porter and William Bainbridge. What’s the connection between these two groups?

Interestingly, the two groups roughly fall into (1) those who were aboard the USS Philadelphia when it grounded in Tripoli Harbor, and (2) those who volunteered for the mission led by Stephen Decatur to destroy the Philadelphia. There are some outliers, officers who were not involved in that series of events in any way (Lewis Warrington, for instance), and one interesting anomaly, Charles Stewart, who was not aboard the Philadelphia, though he is well-ensconced into that group of officers. It will be interesting to see what happens to those men once there’s more data.

Without having done any other research yet into this grouping, I have an inkling that this way of looking at Preble’s Boys may show more about their careers after 1803 than their link to Edward Preble.

 

So what’s the major lesson for me? When I next take on Gephi, I’ll be armed with a lot more data, but even if the results are surprising, I’ll be keeping my eyes open for possibilities that I didn’t see coming down the pike.

I’d welcome any other insights on my first foray into network analysis.

Categories
Uncategorized

Masks

Today is the second anniversary of my mom’s death from cancer. She fought it over the course of more than a decade using almost every weapon in the oncology arsenal.

Categories
Digital Humanities

WriMos

I remember the first time I heard the word(?) NaNoWriMo. First I thought: What in the world does that word(?) mean? It sounds a bit like an alien planet. Once I found out what it was, I thought: You people are insane. Write a novel in a month? That’s crazy.

I still think NaNoWriMo is crazy. But it has spurred several other WriMos that seem a little more useful to my current life: DigiWriMo and AcWriMo. Both of these challenges begin in about a week on November 1. And I’m going to try to do them both. I feel pretty certain that I won’t make it to 50,000 words, but you never know.

The cool thing about AcWriMo and DigiWriMo is that they work in tandem. I intend to do a large portion of my academic writing for the month online, thereby fulfilling the requirements for both challenges. (Is that cheating? If it is, oh well. I’m doing it anyway.)

Both WriMos have challenged participants to set outlandish goals and make them public. So here’s my plan for the month.

The overall goal: Populate Preble’s Boys with bios of each officer and ship.

The specifics:

1. Write one officer bio every day for the first 17 days, taking off Sundays.

2. Write one or two ship bios for the remaining days. (Take Thanksgiving Day and Sundays off.)

3. Blog about the progress and challenges of the site at least twice during the month.

The challenges:

1. Language exam, Nov. 16.

2. A live-in toddler.

3. Need for more research. (My intention is to write the bios using secondary sources for now and when I have the chance to travel to archives, then flesh them out with primary sources if needed.)

4. Thanksgiving!

The preparation:

1. Research: I need to build up my Zotero library about each of these officers so that I don’t have to do a lot of reading when it’s writing time.

2. Organization: I need to set up a good system for keeping myself organized. I’ve been working in a sort of piecemeal fashion up to this point. I need to get it together.

And that’s the plan. We shall see whether my site is text-heavy by the end of the month!

I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone else is doing for DigiWriMo and AcWriMo!

Categories
Digital Humanities

THATCamp New England Roundup

On Saturday, I went to THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) New England at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. I’ve known of THATCamps for several years, but this was my first chance to actually attend one. I went to four sessions: Libraries, Archives, and Museums; Customizing Omeka; Doing Digital History with Non-Digital Sources (link to notes); and Network Analysis.

This post isn’t a comprehensive record of everything that went on, but rather just a few things that I found interesting or valuable about the experience.

1. The value of collaboration. In at least two of the sessions I went to, collaboration was explicitly discussed: between colleagues in the same discipline, colleagues in similar disciplines, colleagues in totally different disciplines (historians and computer scientists!), and even professors and grad students.

The bottom line: the best DH work is collaborative.

The challenge: Collaborating is risky. Working with people who know nothing about your subject matter can make communication difficult (but remember that your collaborator has equal difficulty communicating with you).

Best practices: Communicate, communicate, communicate! And in the final outcome, be sure to give credit where credit is due–the Fair Cite initiative can help humanists correctly and fairly give collaboration credit to all people involved in the project, academic or alt-ac.

 

2. New tools (for me) of digital humanities: I was introduced to several tools and resources that I never knew existed and I can’t wait to explore further. The two big ones are these:

Quantum GIS: This open-source mapping software may be the answer to my mega-problems with Neatline. Trying to use the institutional copy of ArcMap through the remote desktop was a complete disaster, besides my surprise that anything from CHNM/Scholars’ Lab types would require proprietary software. Turns out–it doesn’t! My life is revolutionized!

SNAC (Social Networks and Archival Context): This is a site where Linked Open Data is used to provide access to an aggregate of archives. To be truthful, even after half a session’s worth of discussion about LOD, I still don’t really understand what it is, but the value of an aggregate of archives, including rudimentary network graphs based on the metadata in the archival records, is only going to increase as more archives get linked to this database.

 

What were the major takeaways from the conference for me?

1. I need to go to more THATCamps now that I’ve got a little more lingo in my vocabulary.

2. I personally have opportunities for collaboration. The sessions weren’t the only places I learned about collaboration: interaction with the other campers opened up a staggering array of potential opportunities for me. It was remarkable how many people there were doing something related to naval history or the early republic. And many of them are working with things that I can either help with or be helped by. I’m excited about the new contacts I’ve made. In fact, this week a new friend and I are going to be customizing our Omeka sites based on what we learned at THATCamp. And now I’m thinking I would like a collaborator to help me make some maps for my site as well. (Digital cartographers, I’d like to chat if you’re into drawing oceans and battle diagrams.)

 

If you’re interested in digital humanities, I’d recommend you try to find a THATCamp in your area to attend. Since THATCamps have proliferated like rabbits over the past few years, you should be able to find one (for instance, another THATCamp, Hybrid Pedagogy, occurred simultaneously with THATCamp New England, and before the end of 2012, there are nine more THATCamps across the globe).