Category Archives: Research and Teaching Tools

Modlab at Yale and a voyage to Italy

It’s day 1 of the ModLab Workshop at Yale with Dean Irvine, Matt Huculak, Kirsta Stapelfeldt, and Alan Stanley.  We have great group of participants from across the disciplines – from anthropology to East Asian studies and from English to film studies. Several participants have DH projects under their belts, but many are just starting out.

I handed over my files to Dean yesterday, newly digitized reproductions of glass lantern slides from the early 20th century. They gathered dust for decades in a black box forgotten in the corner of a campus office, their technology obsolete.  I took this photowhile I was still trying to find someone to fund digitizing the box’s fragile contents. Fortunately, the Instructional Technology Group stepped in with the necessary funds and ITS Academic Technologies provided the expertise.

The collection is a valuable visual archive in multiple respects. The photographs were taken during several grand tours of Italy between 1904 and 1912 and provide a unique perspective on the history of Anglophone tourism in Italy. They also provide precious historical documentation of cultural heritage sites in cities such as Florence, Venice, Assisi and Rome. Finally, the technology employed to reproduce these photographs indicates that their use was a public one: whether in the classroom for the undergraduates of Yale College or at public lectures, the lantern slide was the technology of choice for projecting images for a large audience.

In 1903, at a meeting of the New Haven Medical Association at the medical school, Dr. Robert Osgoode, greatly impressed his audience with a splendidly illustrated lecture on “The Interpretation of X-ray findings in suspected diseases of the bone or soft parts” with an assortment of lantern slides.   Their extensive use in education at the turn of the 19th century is also evinced by the large number of lantern slides found in a number of repositories at Yale.

Beyond those found in the Harvey Cushing/ John Hay Whitney Medical Historical Library (including Dr. Osgoode’s), the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library houses William McClintock’s 1500 hand colored lantern slides of the Blackfoot Indians in the Yale Collection of Western Americana. The Yale Peabody Museum’s Division of Historical Scientific Instruments also has over 800 lantern slides, many of which contain material for physics lectures.

While I still don’t know exactly in what context these slides were used, I could turn to the  extensive William Inglis Morse lantern slide collection found  in the Visual Resource Collection at the Robert B. Haas Family Library. While not as meticulously annotated as our mysterious black box, this collection also documents the Grand Tour in Italy and was probably used as an instructional technology tool for Yale College courses.  The images collected by Morse, a philanthropist, historian, and clergyman are a particularly appropriate point of reference in this case given that Morse, like our instructors, came to Yale from Nova Scotia. In fact, Dalhousie University also houses Morse’s  ‘scholar’s library‘ which, as he noted, “if properly selected and studied, is one’s best monument.” (from his Preface, Catalogue of the William Inglis Morse Collection at Dalhousie University Library (London: Curwen Press, 1938).

Let’s hope Day 2 provides some valuable digital tools to better understanding and disseminating this unique visual archive which also serves as a valuable reminder of technological obsolescence.

cross posted at [archive]

Floating Universities

In late September 1926, the SS Ryndam departed Hoboken, New Jersey, on a journey around the world. Dubbed the “Floating University,” she housed about 500 students, representing almost 150 different colleges, and dozens of professors and administrators.  Among the world-class faculty were representatives from Clark University and Williams College, the universities of Michigan, Missouri, New York, Texas, Washington, Turin, and Vienna, and the former governor of Kansas. Almost one third of the students were freshmen, who would earn “[f]ull credit for courses passed” when they returned “to stationary education.” The brainchild of New York University psychology professor James Lough, the charmingly-named “University World Cruise” “visited 35 countries and more than 90 cities,” from Shanghai to Oslo, before returning in May 1927. A precursor of modern study abroad programs, the cruise marked a turning point in the globalization of American education. The goal, as Lough put it, was “to train students to think in world terms.” Within months of its return, educators started formulating a floating high school to supplement the curriculum.

The new Floating University, launched in Fall 2011, does not literally float, but it is no less ambitious. Its signature course, entitled “Great Big Ideas,” purports to offer “the key takeaways of an entire undergraduate education.” In a series of twelve video lectures, students receive “a survey of twelve major fields delivered by their most important thinkers and practitioners.” Topics range from physics to philosophy and feature an all-star cast of instructors from Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and the University of Chicago. Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard, offers his thoughts on education. Dean of Yale Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel recommends his “Top 10 Classics” in high definition video “featuring Hollywood production values.” There is even a lecture on investment strategy by superstar hedge fund manager William Ackman. Students at Harvard, Yale, and Bard College can enroll in the course for credit. Others can buy a six-month subscription for the low, low price of $199 (Ackman’s video, “Who Wants to Be a Billionaire?” is available in “enhanced stand-alone format” for $59.99).

Unlike the original Floating University, this most recent iteration has only one course and is not focused on world experience. Instead, it brings the world to you. Although students taking the course for credit meet in person for a weekly seminar, for the most part it is an experiment in structured independent learning. The motive force behind this latest floater is not a professor. Rather, it is real estate mogul Adam Glick. The university is, in fact, a for-profit venture of Glick’s Jack Parker Corporation and Big Think (a website that aggregates what it deems “the most important ideas” of today). While James Lough dreamed of educating global citizens, Glick’s concerns are much more prosaic. “[I]n my business, I was having difficulty hiring generalists,” he said in an interview last year. “Most people had graduated college in the silos of particular majors. They were very, very smart, but didn’t have a lot of perspective.”

I have mixed feelings about Glick’s university. On the one hand, it embodies a collaborative, interdisciplinary spirit that is in great demand these days. Despite the hype, it does make important topics and world-class intellectuals available to almost anyone. Certainly, its broad scope and accessible format will encourage students “to think in world terms.” On the other hand, I am skeptical of running essential public services (such as higher education) as for-profit industries. The inclusion of hedge fund manager Ackman, for example, smacks of a tacky infomercial. There are digital alternatives that offer similar content for no cost whatsoever. Academic Earth, to which Yale contributes, hosts dozens of world-class courses, including a blockbuster series on the Civil War by my adviser. (Learn about the election of 1860 while munching a bowl of popcorn; ponder the shortcomings of the Freedmen’s Bureau while waiting for the bus!) The famous Khan Academy offers a plethora of lectures and tutorials that are like watching a filmed version of Wikipedia. Of course, as every digital humanist knows, “lectures are bullshit.”

Perhaps the most troubling oddity about “Great Big Ideas” is that it has no content in history. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. Not even close. Is history not a “major field” with “important thinkers?” Even more baffling, history instruction provides exactly the kind of big-picture-oriented, theoretically-grounded, interdisciplinary knowledge to which “Big Ideas” aspires. History is a discipline of disciplines; in their attempts to make sense of the past, historians draw on anthropology, archeology, computer science, demography, economics, film studies, geography, linguistics, literature, musicology, philosophy, physical and natural science, psychology, social theory, and statistics.

History is a vast laboratory of humanity; it illuminates the present by tracing the trajectories of the past. It is, as Robert Penn Warren put it, “always a rebuke to the present.” It tells us that the original Floating University had difficulty raising funds after its maiden voyage, and that it floundered in the wake of the 1929 market crash. If the new Floating University is to avoid a similar fate, it might do with a lesson in history.

Darwin and the Digital Utopia

Last year, I dwelled briefly on the implications of the Google Books settlement and Dan Cohen’s critique of all pre-Google history as merely “anecdotal.” In the mean time, the “Culturomics” project has burst onto the scene, offering a new way of doing the kind of total history envisioned by Cohen. Culturomics, which uses the Google data set to trace how different words and phrases change over time, has inspired cautious optimism among historians and other groups. I think the project’s claim to represent all of human culture is potentially dangerous, and I will explain why below. But first, to show that I’m not just another luddite crank, I’d like to demonstrate how truly valuable Google Books has been for my work.

Historians, in general, do not like to foreground their methodology. Narrative historians like myself, especially, tend to bury our research strategies and theoretical scaffolding in footnotes and appendices and prospectuses. This helps create a more seamless reading experience, but is not always a good thing. So, in the spirit of open source and to make up for missing the HASTAC Conference this weekend, I will share part of the digital methodology from one of my recent articles.

The article (which you can check out here, if you’re lucky enough to have the right institutional subscription) examines the story of a murder committed by a South American man just south of Chiloé Island in the mid-1700s. I argue that the sole witness to the murder is unreliable and use contextual analysis, manuscripts, printed narratives, and oral histories to back my claim. The murder story appealed to Charles Darwin, who used it at two key moments in his career, and unfortunately it has been mindlessly repeated by historians ever since. Thanks in part to Darwin, the story is now falsely associated with the Yahgan people he encountered on the Cape Horn Archipelago – a group hundreds of miles away and very different from that of the original alleged murderer.

Although I don’t really talk about it in the article, I used anti-plagiarism software (designed to catch student cheats) to track the copying of certain quotes and phrases across texts. The fuzzy logic employed by some of these programs, meant to catch students who alter a word here or a phrase there, is especially helpful in identifying “borrowed” passages in historical documents. I used The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online to mine for certain phrases. Their large collection of foreign language material is really cool – there is a strong argument to be made for these kinds of subject-specific digital repositories as separate entities from the big universal search engines. I also used Google Ngram and related platforms to chart the use of the murder story by various authors over time.

The results (summarized in the chart at left) confirmed my thesis. Use of the original murder story (the blue line) dropped precipitously in the middle of the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, Darwin’s version of the murder (the red line) shot way up. Texts that falsely attribute the murder to the Yahgan people (the green line) correlate more or less directly with the popularization of Darwin’s version of the murder. You can view my original data set here (it’s not the final version, since I stopped using Google Docs at some point, but it gives you the idea).

The graph cannot, however, establish that the murder story is a lie. It can only replicate the lie as it develops over time. Without the broader context established by more traditional historical research, these results would be meaningless. And this brings me to the danger inherent in Culturomics. First, machine-readable texts do not, and will never, represent the totality of the human experience. What about paintings, illustrations, and photographs, statues and figurative art, architecture, music, material culture, and ecology? What about oral history? What about economic, statistical and demographic evidence? Although there are millions upon millions of books, magazines, newspapers, and other printed material, they represent only the visible, privileged, literate tip of a vast store of human culture.

Even more troubling, texts lie. “There is no document of civilization,” said Walter Benjamin, “which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”  One of the great insights of the “New Social History” was the need to rub documents against the grain. Text mining usually rubs with the grain, merely reproducing the endemic biases and structured incompleteness of the written past. The graph can only replicate the lie.

This is not to say that Culturomics is hopelessly biased and needs to be discarded. On the contrary, it is precisely this kind of utopian enthusiasm – the dream that we can actually develop a more total vision of human culture – that is needed to keep history afloat. Large scale text mining is simply wonderful. Like all great inventions, though, it can be used for good or for ill. And it makes sense, I think, to guard against the naive assumption that all of human culture or history can be reduced to a computational algorithm.

Cross-posted at HASTAC


I am teaching African history this semester, which is always a great opportunity to get students thinking internationally and comparatively (of course, I think U.S. history should do the same, but that’s a post for a different day). One of our core texts is Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa. First published in London in 1799, Park’s narrative is a classic of world literature and the subject of an equally classic book chapter by Mary Pratt. The archetypical solo European explorer in the African wilderness, or what Pratt calls “the sentimental unhero,” Park was part of a group of international entrepreneurs. Mostly men, they tended to share the same fantasies about “penetrating” the virgin soil of the continental interior. More often than not, they were killed in the attempt (and this forms part of their mystique). In April 1796, Park traveled from the Niger River to the Gambia with a group of 73 merchants, servants, and slaves, and his narrative sheds significant light on the tension between slavery and abolition in this part of the world. He describes the tremendous violence that suffused every aspect of the trade: slaves were whipped, roped, chained, and swapped on a whim. He describes the chaotic scene as the entire coffle itself is nearly captured and enslaved by a rival group. He describes slaves running away and returning, refusing to eat or drink, and forced to march until they collapse. These same slaves give Park water and tend to him when he is sick. It is a truly remarkable, and sometimes downright bizarre snapshot of a particular place and moment.

Doing some research on Park for my class, I was intrigued to learn that he was also a zombie. Returning to Africa in 1805, Park mysteriously disappeared, and the lack of a body or any of his personal effects has fueled speculation ever since. According to this (highly credible) website, locals and other travelers reported zombie-like creatures in the area where he was last seen, “including several white men.” I could not substantiate even a small bit of this story, but it is fun to think about. It tickles me to imagine Mungo Park’s reanimated corpse lurching aimlessly across the African countryside, on a relentless march to nowhere.

However bogus this story, there is a kind of poetic verisimilitude to it. The history of slavery, especially, is rife with zombies. Throughout four centuries of the slave trade, just as European explorers assumed Africans were cannibals, Africans assumed Europeans were terrifying barbarians intent on eating them. Park described the “looks of horror” on West Africans’ faces, as they “repeatedly asked” if he was a devourer of human flesh. The idea was deeply rooted, he observed, “that the whites purchase Negroes for the purpose of devouring them.” Although he doesn’t deal with the undead as such, Vincent Brown argues that the experience of death and rituals of remembrance were central to the lives of enslaved Africans across time and space. The Vodou religion – perhaps the most important influence on the modern zombie myth – was developed by enslaved Africans. The word “Zombi” itself is of African origin. By the end of the eighteenth-century, in the slave society of Saint-Domingue (what is now the Republic of Haiti), zombi was a creole word that evoked fear and trembling, whose meaning implied a “spirit, returning.” By 1872, according to one observer, the word was “not unfrequently heard in the Southern [United] States in nurseries and among the servants.” (I’m sure I’m not the only one on the edge of my seat waiting for Professor Brown to write an article or a monograph on Zombies and Slavery – or a film – the material is out there and this one is ripe for the plucking.)

Zombies seem to be in vogue these days – just add the word to your title and you have the makings of an international bestseller. Fashionably late as usual, even academics are jumping on the zombie bandwagon. Does this say something about our society at this particular moment in time? Anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff point to a growing epidemic of the undead in modern South Africa as one symptom of the seemingly arbitrary disruptions and uncertainties of the global economy. “Zombie tales,” they argue, “dramatize the strangeness” of reality in a rapidly changing world. They are a surreal response to the surreal nature of the modern market, in which wealth seems to be conjured out of thin air and the dispossessed are stripped of any semblance of autonomy or stability. The protagonists of George Romero’s iconic 1978 film Dawn of the Dead literally imprison themselves in a shopping mall. Romero’s 2005 sequel Land of the Dead, in which the undead achieve a rudimentary form of consciousness, is an even more explicit parable about the dangers of inequality, consumerism, and greed.

Is there a connection between the Africans who rendered the slave trader’s effort to commodify them as a form of cannibalism, consuming their flesh and transforming them into a disembodied spirit, and the moviegoer who fears being bitten and transformed into a mindless consumer? Is there something about the digital revolution – the constant recycling, repurposing, mashing up, crowd-sourcing, and homogenizing – that helps us identify with the zombie? Is there something zombie-like in the reanimation of static books and newspapers as interactive, digital editions? Are the homicidal hordes of Black Friday shoppers, stampeding into a store to grab the latest Xbox 360, analogous to the zombie “herds” from The Walking Dead?

Interestingly, Mungo Park was among the first historical subjects to be resurrected from the analog to the digital realm. Way back in 1996, Microsoft established as a site for “virtual expeditions on the World Wide Web.” The project included a modern retracing, and digital mapping, of Park’s journey through West Africa – a sort of  precursor to the much more complex and sophisticated GIS projects of today. The Microsoft explorers did not encounter any reanimated corpses on their quest, but I like to think that Zombie Mungo Park is out there somewhere, relentlessly on the march.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Cory Smoot.

Your Slavery Footprint

One of the more interesting concepts developed by Karl Marx (himself one of the more interesting characters in the period of history I study) is the notion of commodity fetishism. The details of the theory, as outlined in volume one of Capital, are a bit complex, but they can be summarized relatively easily. When you enter a modern marketplace, say, to purchase a commodity, say that new Kindle you’ve had your eye on, you do not have access to all of the steps that produced that commodity. You do not see what parts make up the Kindle, where they found the raw materials, how the various pieces traveled to the various factories, who hired the workers, who made the screen, who designed the microchips, who assembled the chassis, who coordinated the whole process, etc. You see only an end-product, a commodity, which you acquire by trading another commodity (money). So what looks like a straightforward exchange between two discrete objects of equal value, money for Kindle, is actually an incredibly complex and layered social interaction involving people, material, infrastructure, governments, trade policies, etc. from all corners of the world. When you purchase a product, however, you rarely think about all this. Each step, each transaction in the commodity chain constructs an elaborate, if delicate fantasy. “A commodity,” writes Marx, “is a mysterious thing.”

Although I don’t have any direct proof, I suspect that Marx borrowed the idea of commodity fetishism from antislavery activists. At the very least, he absorbed it from the wider Victorian culture of which he was very much a part. Exposing the social reality, the horrific human toll, behind slave-produced commodities is one of the oldest and most important strategies of abolitionist movements. The image at left first appeared in 1787, accompanying a book written by Voltaire three decades earlier. It shows a Surinamese slave, mutilated and broken, lying on the ground near a plantation; the caption reads: “This is the price for the sugar you eat in Europe.” In the original book, published in 1759, the slave castigates les fétiches hollandais (Dutch fetishes) for preaching universal brotherhood while at the same time reducing him to the level of an inhuman object. The slaves who helped produce consumer goods, as Walter Johnson and Edward Baptist establish, were themselves highly fetishized commodities. Abolitionists aggressively promoted free labor sugar and cotton as antidotes to the global trade in human beings. Consumer boycotts and efforts to market “free produce,” as Carol Faulkner and Lawrence Glickman argue, developed alongside opposition to slavery.  The same impulse lives on today in “fair trade” coffee and “made in the USA” stickers. Even the “free trade” fundamentalism that emerged in Victorian England, as Richard Huzzey shows, was deeply rooted in antislavery strategy.

Slavery Footprint, launched last month by a nonprofit group in collaboration with the US State Department, puts a new spin on this old story. The website offers users a simple survey to determine “how many slaves work for you.” The type and amount of clothes you own, the food you consume, and other lifestyle choices all factor into the calculation. In the end, I discovered that I have 23 slaves working for me, which is on the low end of the spectrum. Some estimates place the total number of enslaved individuals as high as 27 million (more than the entire population of the state of Texas). A mobile app linked to the site, called “Made in a Free World,” allows you to monitor progress against human trafficking and earn points by pressuring corporations to clarify their supply chain. Slavery Footprint joins a growing body of digital platforms aimed at demystifying commodities. SlaveFree, developed by the same group, encourages users to post images of their consumer goods accompanied by a demand to liberate them from forced labor. Free2Work allows smartphone users to scan UPC codes to learn how different corporations are implicated in global slavery.  Historians Against Slavery offers a framework for combining scholarship with activism. CNN has launched the Freedom Project. And no doubt there will be many more. Demand on Slavery Footprint was so overwhelming that it crashed the site almost immediately after its launch.

The irony of these initiatives is that they rely on the very same global corporations that they critique. You are not allowed to use the “Made in a Free World” app, for example, unless you agree to join Facebook. The conflict minerals and child workers that help generate touchpads, smartphones, and other low-cost, mass-produced interfaces also help fuel the campaign to eliminate them. Apple made this clear just a few weeks ago, when it quickly yanked a new app called “Phone Story.” The program, which shows some of the brutal child labor that forms part of the commodity chain for the iPhone, is unavailable to Apple customers. “Apps that depict violence or abuse of children,” announced the company, “will be rejected.” Abolition itself is a commodity dependent upon slave labor – inadmissible under its own moral logic.

Earlier abolitionist movements also relied on a consumer revolution, high-speed printing presses, advances in travel and communication, and an increasingly interconnected globe to spread their message. And where slaveholders and their sympathizers influenced those technologies (the national mail, segregated railroad and steamboat cabins, pass systems) abolitionists had a harder time. The present campaigns recall much of this earlier form of activism, usually called “moral suasion.” Yet there are important differences. Slavery is now illegal, at least nominally, in most of the world. Although earlier abolitionists denounced the “unhallowed union” between manufacturers and slaveholders and saw “wealthy capitalists” as impediments to their cause, they did not focus their efforts on improving corporate citizenship. They certainly did not collaborate with the State Department (at least not until the Civil War, when abolitionists participated in the Freedmen’s Bureau and other reconstruction initiatives under Lincoln’s successors).

Like their predecessors, recent campaigns tend to place more emphasis on the purity of the purchaser than on the plight of the victim. “[N]one of us want to wear people’s tragedy,” argues the president of Call + Response, the organization behind Slavery Footprint. “We don’t want to consume their suffering where we have coffee with sugar poured in it.” It is worth remembering that no entrenched system of slavery was ever abolished by boycott or free produce movements. In parts of Africa, the introduction of “legitimate commerce” accompanied an expansion and intensification of enslavement. In most cases, it took a combination of grassroots action, international pressure, and direct government intervention to end slavery; in the United States, it took a revolution. At the same time, consumer awareness campaigns, breaking through all that commodity fetishism, are indispensable to abolition. Ian Baucom calls this “melancholy realism,” but could it also be empathetic or liberatory realism?

In a world where we are even more removed from the source of slave labor than the original abolitionists (who could hop the nearest steamboat south of Jersey), what does it mean to consume someone’s suffering? What does it mean to quantify your contribution to the elimination of forced labor with virtual points?

Cross-posted at HASTAC