Tag Archives: Crowdsourcing

My Runaway Class

Over a decade ago, the world began to hear about the “digital native” – a new breed of young person reared on computers for whom Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter are second nature. Digital natives thrive in an online universe where knowledge is democratized, authority is decentralized, and media is everywhere. And they are most comfortable in an environment that is fast-paced, interactive, and immediate. It reminds me of a line from Hedwig and the Angry Inch:

all our feelings and thoughts
expressed in ones and in oughts
in endless spiraling chains
you can’t decode or explain
cause you are so analog

There is a large and growing body of excellent material on the use of technology to engage digital natives in the classroom. But one thing I have learned over the past few years is that a student who is very comfortable with digital technology is not necessarily digitally literate. A student can spend twelve hours a day online but still not know how to run a sophisticated Google search or post a video, not to mention build a website or script an algorithm. A student who knows how to update her Facebook status does not necessarily know how to navigate the back end of a blog or find an article on JSTOR.

This does not mean that the high-tech classroom is a misguided endeavor – exactly the opposite. It means that educators have to work especially hard to guide students through the digital realm. We have an obligation to teach digital literacy. And since the best way to learn is by doing, I’ve been experimenting with new technologies for a while. I’d like to share the results of some recent tinkering. This is the story of my runaway class.

Last year I taught a course entitled “Slavery and Freedom in Early America.” The course is designed to be both chronological and accumulative. Beginning with Pre-Columbian slavery, it dwells on the wide spectrum of captivity and servitude under colonialism, the transition to African chattel slavery, the rise of antislavery movements, and revolutionary politics. It ends in 1830 with the third edition of David Walker’s Appeal…to the Coloured Citizens of the World. It is not so much a supplement to the traditional early American survey as an attempt to re-narrate the entire period from a substantially different perspective. Each week students are exposed to original documents coupled with the work of a professional historian. And each reading highlights different themes and interpretive strategies. The goal is to be able to marshal these different modes of interpretation to build a multifaceted view of a particular topic, culminating in a final research project.

Drawing on various active learning techniques, I attempted to make the course as dynamic as possible. We had a group blog for weekly reading responses, research prospectuses, and commentary. The blog also served as a centralized space for announcements, follow-ups, and detailed instructions for assignments (at the end of the semester I used the Anthologize plugin for WordPress to compile the entire course proceedings in book form). There were a plethora of digital images and videos, student presentations, peer instruction, and peer editing. We had a really fun, if somewhat chaotic, writing workshop speed date. We used Skype to video conference with the author of one of the required textbooks. We dug through various digital databases and related sites. We even grappled with present-day slavery through Slavery Footprint (an abolitionist social network not unlike the Quaker networks of the eighteenth century). Almost every week I asked the class about their definitions of slavery, and it was fascinating to see how they changed over time. Things really got interesting one day when I surprised them by asking them to define “freedom.” Their answers gave me a lot to think about long after the course had ended. I’ve posted the full syllabus here.

Aware of all of the discussions brewing around digital pedagogy, I gave special attention to the role of technology in the classroom. This culminated in an activity where students used their database skills to find runaway ads in colonial newspapers. Runaway wives, runaway servants, runaway children, runaway slaves – it was all fair game. I was more than a little nervous about giving the students such free reign. But the results were spectacular. The ads they unearthed were wide-ranging and rich, and no two students focused on the same thing. The sheer diversity of the material reminded me of Cathy Davidson’s musings on the brain science of attention. There is much benefit, Davidson argues, in harnessing myriad perspectives on a single topic. It is, in essence, a controlled form of crowdsourcing. Edward Ayers, the doyen of digital history, calls it “generative scholarship.”

One student found an ad for an escaped slave named Romeo, “about twenty-four years old, five feet six inches high, and well proportioned; his complexion a little of the yellowish cast.” Romeo was literate and “exercised his talents in giving passes and certificates of freedom to run-away slaves.” He ran off with a woman from a different county, “a small black girl named Juliet.” Another student found a convict with “a great many Letters and Figures on his Breast and Left Arm, some in red and some in black.” He was imprisoned in England, shipped to Virginia as a bond slave, escaped, traveled back to London, was recaptured, convicted, sent back to Virginia, and escaped again. Some students found notices of hapless travelers who had been captured and deposited in prison on suspicion of being a runaway, such as Thomas Perry, a Welshman, who could provide “no certificate of his freedom.” I also shared one of my personal favorites, a servant who eloped with his master’s wife on a pair of horses.

The students posted their ads to the course blog, and when they arrived for the following class I divided them into small groups. After some preliminary remarks, I asked them to choose an ad among the ones they had found and to write that person’s biography. This was an experiment in generative scholarship, not unlike Visualizing Emancipation or the super-neat History Harvests at the University of Nebraska. But my class was much more narrowly defined in time and scope. The students had to use their wits, their laptops, and all of the contextual information they had accrued from the readings and discussions in previous weeks. They had to build a plausible narrative for their runaway on demand, with no warning, no excuses, and no template. I circulated among the groups to monitor progress and occasionally offered questions or assistance.

The questions we asked were the typical ones employed by historians. What can you find out about Romeo and Juliet’s purported owners? What does the date tell you? What was going on in that location at that time? How many women ran away from their husbands in New York City in 1757? Was it unusual for servants to escape in groups of three or more? Did the time of year matter? How does the price offered for one runaway compare to others? What can you learn from their detailed physical descriptions? What about their profession? What about the lists of items they took with them on their journey? Is this information reliable? What governed decisions to escape or to stay? What, if anything, does this tell you about the relationship between petit marronage and grand marronage? How does this information comport with what we know about slavery in a particular place and time?

It’s shocking how much information you can glean about a person’s life after just a few minutes online, even persons who have been dead and gone for hundreds of years. The various newspaper databases – Readex, Accessible Archives, Proquest – and specialized projects, such as The Geography of Slavery in Virginia, proved invaluable. I directed students to the large collection of external databases featured on the Slavery Portal. Genealogy sites and historical map collections also came in handy. One student discovered that his subject had escaped from the same slaveholder multiple times at different points in his life. Using the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, we were able to locate the name of the ship that had carried an individual and their likely point of origin in Africa.

Students from different groups helped each other, which created a nice collaborative atmosphere. Sometimes there were dead ends, a common name or a paucity of leads. But even then the student could surmise, could use her imagination based on what she already knew about a particular time and place. And this was one of the goals of the exercise – to expose the central role of the imagination in historical practice. At the end of class, we shared what we had discovered and were able (briefly) to engage some big sociological questions about the lives and labors of colonial runaways. When I polled the students at the end of the semester about the most memorable moments of the course, the runaway class was their favorite by a wide margin. The final evaluations were among the best I have ever received.

There are aspects of this crowdsourcing experiment that I regret. I had hoped at least some students would take inspiration from the material for their final projects, and I’m sure some of the lessons from that day improved their papers. But because I scheduled the runaway class late in the semester, the students were reluctant, I think, to radically revise their project proposals. Of course, if I had run the class too early in the semester, the students would not have had the necessary background to make educated inferences about their subject. There were other snags. Because most students were not familiar or comfortable with the vast range of digital research tools out there, I had to do some hand-holding and gentle nudging. It was clear that my students needed more experience finding, using, and interpreting large online databases, not to mention Google Books, Wikipedia, Zotero, and other tools historians use every day. It might even make sense to run in-class tutorials on what researchers can do with a database like Colonial State Papers, Fold3, or Visualizing Emancipation. A large part of being an historian is just knowing what source materials are out there and how to turn them to your advantage.

I also regret not taking more detailed notes. In part because everything moved so fast, I was left without a finalized version of the students’ many fascinating discoveries. There was a lot of research and sharing going on, but not a lot of synthesis and reflection. I suppose asking the students to follow-through and actually write their speculative biographies would help. Maybe that would be a good midterm assignment? If I ran this course for years, I could easily see building a massive online database of runaways and their worlds, on a national or even international scale.

In the end, the runaway class was an object lesson in the raw energy and potential of digital history. It was interactive, immediate, and exciting. I would be interested to know if anyone has run a similar experiment or has suggestions for different ways to liven up the classroom.

Cross-posted at HASTAC

Mal d’Archive

You know you’re a pretentious academic blogger when you start titling your posts in French, and if you can quote one of the most notoriously abstruse French philosophers at the same time, well that’s just a bonus. Jacques Derrida is not much in style these days (if he ever was). His ideas, and especially his prose, have been the butt of many jokes over the past half-century, but his 1994 lecture series Mal d’Archive (later published and translated as “Archive Fever“) is a significant artifact of the early days of the digital revolution. Although I don’t quite agree with everything its author says, the book makes an earnest attempt to grapple with the intersection of technology and memory and offers some worthwhile insight.

An archivist works feverishly.

The idiomatic en mal de does not have a direct analogue in English, but for Derrida it means both a sickness and “to burn with a passion.” It is an aching, a compulsive drive (in the Freudian sense) to “return to the origin.” It is the sort of fever rhapsodized by Peggy Lee, the kind of  unquenchable desire that can only be remedied by more cowbell. Whatever Derrida means by archive fever (and I think he leaves its precise meaning deliberately ambiguous), it is a concept that has some resonance for historians. As a profession, we tend to privilege primary sources, or archival documents, over secondary sources, or longer works that analyze and interpret an archive. Yet even the most rudimentary archival fragment contains within it a narrative, a story, an argument. Every document is aspirational; every archive is also an interpretation. There is no such thing as a primary source. There are only secondary sources. We build our histories based on other histories. The archive, Derrida reminds us, is forever expanding and revising, preserving some things and excluding others. The archive, as both subject and object of interpretation, is always open-ended, it is “never closed.”

Of course, in a few weeks, in what can only be described as a stunning disregard for French philosophy, the Georgia State Archives will literally shut its doors. Citing budget cuts, the state announced it will close its archives to the public and restrict access to special appointments (and those appointments will be “limited” due to layoffs). For now, researchers can access a number of collections through the state’s Virtual Vault, but it is not clear whether more material will be added in the future. The closure comes at the behest of governor Nathan Deal, whose recent political career has been beset by ethics violations. The cutbacks are the latest in a string of controversial decisions by the Georgia governor, including the rejection of billions of dollars in medicare funds and a $30 million tax break for Delta Airlines, and will have a negative impact on government transparency. Coming on the heels of the ban on ethnic studies in Arizona, the campaign against “critical thinking” in Texas, attacks on teachers in Illinois and Wisconsin, and deep cuts in public support for higher education across the country, the news from Georgia seems a portent of dark times.

Archives are so essential to our understanding of the past, and our memory of the past is so important to our identity, that it can feel as if we have lost a little part of ourselves when one is suddenly closed, restricted, or destroyed. Historian Leslie Harris calls public archives “the hallmarks of civilization.” Although I don’t entirely agree (are groups that privilege oral tradition uncultivated barbarians?), Harris points to a fundamental truth. The archive is an integral component of a society’s self-perception. Without open access to archival collections, who could corroborate accusations that the government was conducting racist medical experiments? Who would discover the lost masterpiece of a brilliant author? Who would provide the census data to revise wartime death tolls? Who would locate the final key to unlock the gates of Hell? All of the boom and bluster about digitization and the democratization of knowledge notwithstanding, it is easy to forget that archival work is a material process. It takes place in actual physical locations and requires real workers. What does it mean for the vaunted Age of Information when states restrict or close access to public repositories?

However troubling the news from Georgia, all hope is not lost. This is not the end of days. Knowledge workers are fighting to preserve access to the archive. At the same time, efforts by historians to crowdsource the past offer a fascinating and potentially momentous expansion of archive fever. Several high profile projects are now underway to enlist “citizen archivists” to help build, organize, and transcribe documentary collections. Programmers at the always-innovative Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media have just released a “community transcription tool” that will (hopefully) streamline the process of collaborative archiving, transcribing, and tagging across platforms. The potential for public engagement and the production of new knowledge is stupendous. Because they rely on the same volunteer ethos as Wikipedia, however, it is likely that part-time hobbyists will be more interested in parsing obscure Civil War missives than the correspondence of Jeremy Bentham. A citizen archivist with a passion for Iroquois genealogy might have little interest in, let’s say, the municipal records of East St. Louis. And this is precisely where major repositories and their well-trained staff can help supervise, guide, and even lead the public. What if every historian could upload all of their primary sources to a central repository when they finished a project? What if there was a universal queue where researchers could submit manuscripts for public transcription, along the lines of the now-ubiquitous reCAPTCHA service? Perhaps administrators could implement some sort of badge or other incentive program in exchange for transcribing important material? As all manner of documents are digitized, uploaded, and transcribed in a lopsided, haphazard, and ad-hoc fashion, in vastly disparate quality, in myriad formats, in myriad locations, physical archives and their staff are needed more than ever – if only to help level the playing field. Among the most important functions of the professional archivist is to remind us that there is much that is not yet online.

Note recording the arrival of the Amistad survivors in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Jan. 1842. Liberated African Register, Sierra Leone Public Archives, Freetown.

One of the best experiences I’ve ever had as a researcher was in the national archives of Sierra Leone. Despite a century and a half of colonialism, a decades-long civil war, and other challenges that come with occupying a bottom rung on the global development index, the collections remain open to the public and continue to grow and improve. They have even started to go digital thanks to some help from the British Library and the Harriet Tubman Resource Centre. Sitting in the Sierra Leone archives, with its maggot-bitten manuscripts, holes in the windows, and sweltering heat, suddenly the much-discussed global digital divide seems very real. Peering out of the window one day, as I did, to see a mass of students drumming and chanting, then chased by soldiers in riot gear, the screams from the crowd as you shield yourself from gun fire behind a bookshelf thick with papers, it is difficult to look at knowledge work the same way again. When I enter a private archive in the United States, with its marbled columns and leather chairs, its rows of computers and sophisticated security cameras, I am grateful and angry – grateful that this is offered to some, angry that it is denied to others. The archivists and their support team in Freetown are heroes. Full stop. I worry about them when I read about the conflict in Libya, which continues to spill across borders and has led indirectly to the destruction of priceless archives and religious monuments in Mali.

Compared to the situation in West Africa, the more modest efforts to preserve and teach the past across the United States seem like frivolous first world problems. On the other hand, all information is precious. Whether physical or digital, access to our shared heritage should not be held hostage to political agendas or economic ultimatums. Archives are a right, not a privilege. I like to think that Derrida, who grew up under a North African colonial regime, would appreciate this. If Sierra Leone can keep its archives open to the public, why can’t the state of Georgia?

Cross-posted at HASTAC