November 14, 2018
A "Digital Research in Early America" recap
11 min read
by Maeve Kane
In October 2018, I participated in the WMQ-UCI Digital Research in Early America workshop hosted by Sharon Block and Josh Piker at University of California-Irvine. This post aims to give those who weren’t able to attend an idea of the conversations and common themes of the new scholarship presented. Most broadly, the workshop was a productive forum to think about what we as historians are able to know about the past and how we work around those limits, digitally or traditionally.
Many of the projects featured at the two-day event examine well-known archival materials in new ways to interrogate their limits and their potentials, and examine archival silences in historiographically significant ways. Ashley Glassburn Falzetti’s (@radfemndn) paper on indigenous groups’ competing needs for access to and the protection of heritage objects and cultural knowledge as epistemological concerns for digitization projects framed discussion over the two days of the workshop. Amanda Crompton (@AJCrompton) and Marc Bolli’s (@MarcBolli) aerial archaeology work uses imaging of plant species to find areas of anthropogenic soil change and sites of human occupation in marginal soils that are difficult to find with either traditional archaeology or archival work. Christy Hyman’s (@CLHyman) work in particular is a great example of how to use digital humanities methods to read against as well as along the grain of known archival sources. By using the genre of missing persons ads to map enslaved people’s routes of self-emancipation, their experience of traumascapes, and the community knowledge built about those landscapes, her work demands a reexamination of familiar documents.
This re-evaluation of archival materials and their silences was striking in the context of the non-DH scholarship cited as essential points of reference shaping many of the projects presented. I wasn’t keeping an exact count, but Marisa Fuentes’ brilliant Dispossessed Lives was possibly the most cited work during the two days of the workshop, along with work by Sasha Turner, Lisa Brooks, and others. This non-DH work takes a critical eye to the limits of the archive and interrogates the meanings of archival silences, important methodological concerns for DH and traditional early Americanist scholarship. I was also struck by the fact that so many of the non-DH scholars cited were women, and especially women of color doing intersectional scholarship, which makes me hopeful that DH as a method is turning towards a deeper examination of historical, archival, and historiographic power structures, rather than replicating them by uncritically focusing on easily-digitized print materials that can reify a focus on literate whites.
The papers that discussed spatial work likewise raised provocative questions about how useful the Google Earth style of top-down satellite map is in trying to rethink concepts of space, particularly for projects interested in engaging or analyzing indigenous concepts of space. For scholars interested in critically rethinking concepts of space in the historical period, whether digitally or traditionally, it may be useful to consider whether cartograms, other types of data visualization, or narrative strategies can better represent space in ways that don’t reify modern Western cartography as the default, neutral, and natural concept of space. Jeremy Mikecz and Edward Larkin (@edwardjlarkin) both presented projects that examined early modern conceptualizations of space that were shaped by their cultural, colonial, and literary contexts which prompted discussion of how historians can best represent the ways our historical subjects conceived of space in ways that may be difficult to capture with modern constructions of cartography.
Jordan Taylor (@PubliusorPerish) pointed out that the workshop as a whole was unselfconsciously transnational (including his own fascinating work examining shifts in the sources of international news in late eighteenth-century US and Canadian newspapers). In part, this was due to Sharon Block and Josh Piker’s approach to organizing, but also because DH can allow scholars to do more seamlessly comparative and transnational work, as well as speak to common patterns, whether in the structure of networks or the way historical subjects engaged with space. By design, most of the commentators do not themselves do digital humanities work, and our nineteenth-century interloper Cameron Blevins (@historying) (his words, not mine), observed that the methodological approach to spatial questions allowed for productive conversations across time.
One of the common themes that tied together these conversations about silence and visualization was that reworking the presentation of DH projects sometimes requires skilling up that can be costly in money or time. Leveling up DH skills can sometimes come at the cost of learning or improving a new (spoken) language necessary for archival work, as commentator Christina DeLucia observed. Many of the presenters (including myself) expressed frustrations with the technical constraints, epistemologies, and learning curve of the tools we work with—our tools sometimes impose priorities and limits that are at odds with the arguments we as scholars would like to make. This makes work like Max Edelson’s (@maxedelson) in developing VisEye (http://viseyes.org/visualeyes/), a platform designed from the ground up to interrogate space and time from a historian’s perspective, especially exciting.
Graphic by Maeve Kane
That tension between the limits of our tools, and the time and skill necessary to work within those limits may seem like a barrier to DH work, but I hope it is not. Just as historians are aware of the limits of the archive and must think productively about engaging its silences, historians who do DH work must both be aware of the limits of their tools and think creatively and critically about how those limits shape our work. The limits of both archival silence and DH tools do not mean we simply end our inquiry. The projects presented during the workshop were all source-focused and historiographically driven, and I believe almost everyone who presented came to their DH method relatively late in their academic careers. That is, the choice of method was an outgrowth of our attempts to answer historiographic questions. For scholars who are perhaps interested in the potentials of DH methods for their own work but uncertain of where to start or whether the investment of time will be worth it, there are relatively friendly tools like Palladio, Tableau Public, StoryMaps, Voyant, and others which allow some experimentation for single-author projects. My own work on indigenous women’s networks began with several pages of notepaper taped together in an attempt to draw the connections between families I saw in a baptismal register, followed by a search for a flowchart maker, and finally network analysis software.
The projects presented followed similar paths of attempting to make sense of interesting sources and did not require programming or large collaborative grants (though collaboration and grants help). Here I’m responding in part to an October Uncommon Sense post serendipitously published during the workshop. I do programming for my own scholarship and I teach a bit of programming for my grad Intro to DH course, but I would argue that early Americanists, and even DH early Americanists, do not need to learn to code to do interesting digital humanities work. If you have an interesting question, it is possible to pursue it with very little technical background and skill up as the project requires. Although the projects presented all shared a common digital methodological approach, they also shared a common focus on historiographic intervention driving their choice of method similar to the path that brings scholars to material culture, ethnohistorical, spatial, or gender analysis: the awareness that looking at our questions in slightly different ways can productively move scholarly conversations.