Tag Archives: Runaways

Rapid Development for the History Web

This year I was privileged to design and teach an experimental (and somewhat improvisational) course spanning multiple disciplines. It is one of a small number of Digital History courses offered at the undergraduate level in the United States and, to the best of my knowledge, the only course of its kind to require students to conceive, design, and execute an original historical website in a matter of weeks. Beginning with a short overview of the history of computing, the major part of the course deals with current debates and problems confronting historians in the Digital Age. Students read theoretical literature on topics such as the gender divide, big data, and the democratization of knowledge, as well as digital history projects spanning the range of human experience, from ancient Greece to modern Harlem. Guest speakers discussed the complexities of database design and the legal terrain of fair use, open access, and privacy. The complete syllabus is available here.

Unusually for a humanities class, the students engaged in a series of labs to build and test digital literacy skills. This culminated in a final project asking them to select, organize, and interpret a body of original source material. I solicited ideas and general areas of interest for the project and posted a list to the class blog that grew over the course of the semester. Students expressed interest in newspaper databases, amateur history and genealogy, text mining and topic modeling, local community initiatives, and communications, culture, and new media. I thought it was important to find a project that would speak to every student’s interest while not playing favorites with the subject matter. We considered a plan to scan and present an archive of old student and university publications. I thought it was a good idea. On the other hand, it would have involved at lot of time-consuming rote digitization, access to restricted library collections, and sharing of limited scanning facilities.

Ultimately, the students decided to build an interactive database of runaway advertisements printed in colonial and early national Connecticut. This seemed to satisfy every major area of interest on our list and, when I polled the class, there was broad consensus that it would be an interesting experiment. The project grew out of an earlier assignment, which asked students to review websites pertaining to the history of slavery and abolition. It also allowed me to draw on my academic background researching and teaching about runaways. We settled on Connecticut because it is a relatively small state with a small population, as well as home to the nation’s oldest continuously published newspaper. At the same time, it was an important colonial outpost and deeply involved in the slave trade and other forms of unfree labor on a variety of fronts.

RunawayCT_projectDrawing on the site reviews submitted earlier in the term, we brainstormed some ideas for what features would and would not work on our site. The students were huge fans of Historypin, universally acclaimed for both content and interface. So we quickly agreed that the site should have a strong geospatial component. We also agreed that the site should have a focus on accessibility for use in classrooms and by researchers as well as the general public. Reading about History Harvest, OutHistory.org, and other crowdsourced community heritage projects instilled a desire to reach out to and collaborate with local educators. Settling on a feasible research methodology was an ongoing process. Although initially focused on runaway slaves, I gently encouraged a broader context. Thus the final site presents ads for runaway children, servants, slaves, soldiers, wives, and prisoners and ties these previously disparate stories into a larger framework. Finally, a student who had some experience with web design helped us to map a work plan for the project based on the Web Style Guide by Patrick Lynch and Sarah Horton.

Since there were students from at least half a dozen different majors, with vastly different interests and skill sets, we needed a way to level the playing field, and specialized work groups seemed like a good way to do this. We sketched out the groups together in class and came up with four: Content, CMS, Outreach, and Accessibility. The Content Team researched the historiography on the topic and wrote most of the prose content, including the transcriptions of the advertisements. They used Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers database to mine for content and collated the resulting data using shared Google Docs. The CMS Team, composed mostly of computer science majors, focused on building the framework and visual feel for the site. Theoretically they could have chosen any content management system, although I pushed for Omeka and Neatline as probably the best platforms for what we needed to do. The Outreach Team created a twitter feed and a video documentary and solicited input about the site from a wide range of scholars and other professionals. The Accessibility Officer did extensive research and testing to make sure the site was fully compliant with open web standards and licenses.

The group structure had benefits and drawbacks. I tried to keep the system as flexible as possible. I insisted that major decisions be made by consensus and that group members post periodic updates to the class blog so that we could track our progress. Some students really liked it and floated around between different groups, helping out as necessary. I also received criticism on my evaluations from students who felt boxed in and complained that there was too much chaos and not enough communication between the groups. So I will probably rethink this approach in the future. One evaluator suggested that I ditch the collaborative project altogether and ask each student to create their own separate site, but that seems even more chaotic. In my experience, there are always students who want less group work and students who want more, and it is an ongoing struggle to find the right balance for a given class.

The assignment to design and publish an original historical site in a short amount of time, with no budget, almost no outside support, and only a general sense of what needs to be done is essentially a smaller, limited form of crowdsourcing. More accurately, it is a form of rapid development, in which the transition between design and production is extremely fast and highly mutable. Rapid development has been a mainstay of the technology industry for a while now. In my class, I cited the example of One Week | One Tool, in which a small group of really smart people get together and produce an original digital humanities tool. If they could do that over the course of a single week, I asked, what could an entire class of really smart people accomplish in a month?

The result, RunawayCT.org, is not anything fancy, but it is an interesting proof of concept. Because of the hit-or-miss nature of OCR on very old, poorly microfilmed newspapers, we could not get a scientific sample of advertisements. Figuring out how to properly select, categorize, format, and transcribe the data was no mean feat – although these are exactly the kinds of problems that scholarly history projects must confront on a daily basis. The Outreach Team communicated with the Readex Corporation throughout the project, and their representatives were impressively responsive and supportive of our use of their newspaper database. When the students asked Readex for access to their internal API so that we could automate our collection of advertisements, they politely declined. Eventually, I realized that there were literally thousands of ads, only a fraction of which are easily identified with search terms. So our selection of ads was impressionistic, with some emphasis on chronological breadth and on ads that were especially compelling to us.

upside downDespite the students’ high level of interest in, even fascination with, the content of the ads, transcribing them could be tedious work. I attempted to apply OCR to the ad images using ABBYY FineReader and even digitized some newspaper microfilm reels to create high resolution copies, but the combination of eighteenth-century script and ancient, blurry microfilm rendered OCR essentially useless. Ads printed upside down, faded ink, and text disappearing into the gutters between pages were only a few of the problems with automatic recognition. At some point toward the end, I realized that my Mac has a pretty badass speech-to-text utility built into the OS. So I turned it on, selected the UK English vocabulary for the colonial period ads, and plugged in an old Rock Band mic (which doubles as an external USB microphone). Reading these ads, which are almost universally offensive, aloud in my room was a surreal experience. It was like reading out portions of Mein Kampf or Crania Americana, and it added a new materiality and gravity to the text. I briefly considered adding an audio component to the site, but after thinking about it for a while, in the cold light of day, I decided that it would be too creepy. One of my students pointed out that a popular educational site on runaway slaves is accompanied by the sounds of dogs barking and panicked splashing through rivers. And issues like these prompted discussion about what forms of public presentation would be appropriate for our project.

I purposely absented myself from the site design because I wanted the students to direct the project and gain the experience for themselves. On the other hand, if I had inserted myself more aggressively, things might have moved along at a faster pace. Ideas such as building a comprehensive data set, or sophisticated topic modelling, or inviting the public to participate in transcribing and commenting upon the documents, had to be tabled for want of time. Although we collected some historical maps of Connecticut and used them to a limited extent, we did not have the opportunity to georeference and import them into Neatline. This was one of my highest hopes for the project, and I may still attempt to do it at some point in the future. I did return to the site recently to add a rudimentary timeline to our exhibit. Geocoding took only minutes using an API and some high school geometry, so I assumed the timeline would be just as quick. Boy, was I wrong. To accomplish what I needed, I had to learn some MySQL tricks and hack the underlying database. I also had to make significant alterations to our site theme to get everything to display correctly.

One of the biggest challenges we faced as a class was securing a viable workspace for the project. Technology Services wanted us to use their institutional Omeka site, with little or no ability to customize anything, and balked at the notion of giving students shell access to their own server space. Instead, they directed us to Amazon Web Services, which was a fine compromise, but caused delays getting our system in place and will create preservation issues in the future. As it is now, the site will expire in less than a year, and when I asked, there was little interest in continuing to pay for the domain. I was told saving the site would be contingent on whether or not it is used in other classes and whether it “receives decent traffic.” (Believe it or not, that’s a direct quote.) One wonders how much traffic most student projects receive and what relationship that should bear to their institutional support.

Although not a finely polished gem, RunawayCT.org demonstrates something of the potential of rapid development for digital history projects. As of right now, the site includes almost 600 unique ads covering over half a century of local history. At the very least, it has established a framework for future experimentation with runaway ads and other related content. Several of the students told me they were thrilled to submit a final project that would endure and be useful to the broader world, rather than a hastily-written term paper that will sit in a filing cabinet, read only by a censorious professor. Given all that we accomplished in such a short time span, I can only guess what could be done with a higher level of support, such as that provided by the NEH or similar institutions. My imagination is running away with the possibilities.

Cross-posted at HASTAC

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