Mar 31 2010

Website Review

             The Difference Slavery Made

In creating The Difference Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities[1], William G. Thomas III and Edward L. Ayers wanted to blend aspects of traditional scholarship with the emerging electronic environment in order to showcase the best of those two worlds.

            Difference is an analysis of two similar communities located a few miles apart across a very important line, the Mason-Dixon Line separating the North and the South. Thomas and Ayers were hoping to isolate the issue of slavery and look at how it played a role in the shaping of societies- everything from demographics to labor, from economics to politics and culture.

            It is a blend of an archive and an electronic exhibit, because it not only presents its material for the reader to view, but also seeks to investigate and present findings to the public. In this case, their analysis of the data suggests that slavery was so pervasive throughout the South that it was taken as a given societal construct, and had very little to do with one’s political stance. The ownership or non-ownership of slaves had no bearing on whether one was a secessionist or a unionist; everything depended on the familiarity with the institution. In other words, if you grew up with slavery, you accepted it; if you didn’t, you didn’t.

            The site is laid out in an agreeable manner, with clearly delineated paths and a minimum of clutter. The first page lists along the left side the introduction, summary of argument, points of analysis, and methods. Across the top is the overview, presentation, about the authors, and acknowledgements. Above this line are the three areas of evidence, historiography and tools (text search, print, citation locator, and my favorite- the reading record, which allows you to see a graph of every element within the site, and keeps track of each element you have visited).

            No matter where you are within the site, you always have the option of returning to the beginning or switching between evidence, historiography and tools. And each page is clearly labeled to minimize confusion. Although this seems like an obvious and natural thing to do with a site, you’d be surprised at how few sites tell you where you are or allow you to easily get back to the beginning. Thankfully, Thomas and Ayers did allow for it.

            Their analysis is both thorough and in-depth. The comparisons between Franklin County, Pennsylvania, and Augusta County, Virginia, cover crops, election and campaign results of the 1860 election, property, race, religion, labor, commerce, schools, geography, and information and communication. Within each topic, a map provides you with the choice of counties, and within each choice, a summary of their position and analysis is backed up by primary sources, which you can access either within the article or through a link which they have provided.

            The beauty of this creation is that it allows the reader to have instant access to the data and primary sources from anywhere inside the article. Having the access to the historiography and the evidence allows for one’s own exploration and analysis. When Fogel and Engermann wrote Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery in 1974, they did the same thing, publishing all of their statistical data and analysis at the same time, in essence saying, ‘Here are the data, you decide if our argument is correct.’ But whereas Fogel and Engermann did provide the data, they were unable to provide an easy way to wade through it all; Difference provides it through the innovation of the digital medium.

            It is a medium that invites the participation of the reader, although one must follow a certain procedure to arrive at supporting documentation. But even so, the thoughtful considerations (and collaboration, among peers and graduate students) provide an experience that is in no way frustrating or exhausting. The depth of the article is far deeper and richer than could be produced in print, and allows for a highly enjoyable and enriching experience.

            The authors chose to create the site using XML because of the multiple-linking and search features, believing at the time that XML would become the de facto language in the future, and that using it would give longevity to their site.

            Even with all of the effort that went into the site by the authors and their collaborators, they were under no illusions about their final product. They are well aware that theirs was but a ‘first step’ toward ‘envisioning new forms of scholarship.’


[1] The Difference Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities, http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/AHR/. University of Virginia and the Virginia Center for Digital History; created by William G. Thomas III and Edward L. Ayers. Last site update: November 2005.


Mar 30 2010

March 24th readings…

March 24th readings

            So someone suggested to me that since we all are experiencing the same things in class each week, and we are currently the only ones reading each other’s blogs, that I should write about something different. And I will, after I say this one thing: this week’s class was an excellent practicum, and I enjoyed it immensely.

             Now, on to the issue at hand. My wife and I are rather curious people, always asking a lot of questions about stuff from people we meet whenever we travel, which is pretty often. As a result, we know how gristmills work, what the gross domestic product of Quebec was in the decades leading up to the War of 1812, how President John Tyler’s grandson spends his days (he is still alive), and what makes a good Virginia wine.

             It is this last item that I will expound upon for a bit. Pretty much every weekend we can, we either drive to the various colleges to visit one of our five college-age students (that’s right- five; including me, we have six tuitions we are dealing with annually), or we visit wineries, or both. In Virginia, we have visited around 35 wineries out of approximately 70. New ones are popping up daily as people decide either that it’s cool to say you own a winery or because of the generous tax advantages of owning a winery. Either way, as a result there’s always something to do on the weekends if you like to meet new people and share a drink and just talk about things.

             Now I won’t get into comparisons between all of the wines, because it wouldn’t be fair. Some of the wineries are well established, some are still feeling their way around, and others, well, let’s just say that the Virginia wine world is a very small world, and a negative comment travels very far, very fast.

             But I will share with you our favorite Virginia wines so far, and these have held steady over the past couple of years. Jack Kent Cooke’s Boxwood Winery makes an outstanding red simply called Boxwood. The winery and a tasting room are located in separate locations in Middleburg, and are well worth the visit. Whenever we visit someone we like, we’ll always bring a gift of a bottle or two of Boxwood.

     Linden Wineries has a Claret that is superb, and is one that I highly recommend for sipping in front of a fireplace on cold wintry nights, preferably with some goat cheese and garlic. Many an evening was spent this way during Snow-mageddeon 2010. Their winery also has one of the most beautiful views of the countryside, and an outside area to sit and sip and enjoy the surroundings.

     Fox Meadows Winery has a wonderful red, Le Renard Rouge, that goes well with damn near anything, and it’s one they we seem to enjoy most on a cool, crisp evening around an outside fire. They also have a nice tasting area from which one can enjoy the views.

     As far as whites go, we haven’t really found anything yet that we like as well as the California chards or some French and Italian varietals, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. The same with ports: few American-mades can compete with the continental imports, but we are always on the lookout for one.

       Let me close for now, and we’ll see what next week brings in terms of a topic.


Mar 24 2010

March 17th – Project Proposal

Digital History Resource Proposal

             I intend to create a US I comprehensive exam site that can be utilized by any and all graduate students attending American University and needing a structured approach to studying for the US I comp.

            In its current state, the prototype consists of an overview layer explaining what the site is and how to use or navigate the site (a feature that surprisingly few sites have), followed by two ways to approach studying (by theme or by timeline), as well as a visual approach that includes a grid mesh overlay and bar graph.

            Within the theme and timeline choices, users can access individual artificial ‘mini-themes’ or ‘mini-timelines’ to breakdown the topics into comprehensible units of study. Each of these units will be supported by at least one book; each book will be supported by at least two reviews from noted scholarly journals, in addition to contributions from other graduate students.

            At a minimum, the resource is at least four layers deep; I believe this will be sufficient. If I make it too complicated, students won’t use it. Furthermore, I want as much participation as possible from graduate students in the field, contributing their comments and/or reviews on the various themes and books in the project. The purpose is to make the site a living, breathing comprehensive exam resource. If reviews are not updated by grad students, then the site will become dated, and eventually die a lonely, irrelevant death.

            If this phase is successful, then I would like to expand the site to encompass US II, US Diplo, and other outside fields. The site will also include other relevant information (copies of comp requests, copies of tools of research requests, etc.) that a graduate student, wading through the morass of graduate school bureaucracy, needs.

            For the most part, WordPress will be used in the resource’s creation. A flatbed scanner will be utilized for various form and map images, and an as-of-yet unchosen application will be used for the creation of the grid overlay. At the present time, I envision a static HTML display, but I may try to incorporate some aspect of CMS at a later date.

            For the purposes of this class, I expect to have a navigable four layers completed by the due date; these layers will chart one historiographic theme along with its support resources. My timeline is simple: one layer per week until project presentation.

            This project is but a beginning phase of a larger work, one that I expect to be around for a long time, and I invite your collaboration in its development.


Mar 24 2010

March 17th readings…

             Individual meetings.


Mar 24 2010

March 10th readings…

             Spring Break.


Mar 24 2010

March 3rd readings…

March 3rd readings 

            We met Tom tonight, and had an enjoyable session talking to him about digital history and creation of sites. I think a lot of what these guys are dealing with is they are creating things that the Old Guard have never seen before, and the Old Guard have no way of gauging what it means in terms of a contribution (or a threat) to their known world. Increasingly, it seems that there is an ever-widening divide between History 1.0 and History 2.0, and much of the divide parallels the age divide between professors.

            The Old Guard seeks to maintain power by asking the question, “Well, is it History, or is it Computer Science?” to which the Young Turks reply, “Yes,” thereby confounding the issue. We see this everyday; I’ve been observing a similar phenomenon in politics for years. A Young Reformer makes a name for himself by attacking the Old Guard, wins an election, then promptly entrenches himself in power and begins the transformation into part of the Old Guard.

             The scary question is, will this happen with Digital History? Will the new guys finally get tenure after the old guys finally die out, and then will they be as entrenched in their mindset that in forty or fifty years when History 3.0 comes into existence (holograms, time travel observational technique (which I should have perfected in another twenty years), mind implants, four dimensional historiographic analytical technique, etc.)? Will the Young Turks remember what it was like to be a Young Turk after finally achieving tenure? Will plain old historical research in hidden archives be viewed as passé? Will Jennifer Aniston ever find happiness? Heady stuff.

             Part of this week’s work also including a reading about archive animation and visiting several digital history sites. Most of the sites I have visited I have enjoyed, although a couple bothered me. I already discussed the ‘History Engine’ site; the one I’m trying to decide if I like or not is the ‘Flickr Commons’ site.

             I get the posting of pictures in groupings. I get the invitation for commentary. I get the sharing aspect of the site. Where I start to get bothered is the absence of a clear and concise breakdown of everything the site has. It seems to me that with each upload of photos there could be a manipulation of an alphabetical listing or table of contents of subject matter, artist, collector, etc., etc. so that there is an instantaneous collating process in operation. Could I do better? Not at this time. Would I like to see it done better? You betcha.

             Furthermore, isn’t anyone checking the comments that are left on these photos? You see a fascinating photo, and then when your cursor glides over it you get the Flickr Commons equivalent of graffiti. Like having the lights come on in the middle of watching a scary movie at night, it breaks the mood. And I want it stopped. Now. Run parallel sites, ‘Flickr Commons’ and ‘Bizarro Flickr Commons;’ each site has the same images, but one allows for scholarly commentary, and the other, for the preadolescent interpretations of cleverness that currently take up space on some of the images.

             My two favorite sites so far are the ‘Transatlantic Slave Trade’ and ‘SmartHistory’ sites. Both are well-thought out and visually appealing sites. I love the organization of both sites, and am blown away by the depth of coverage (especially the “Transatlantic Slave Trade’ site). Granted that both sites benefit from generous grants and lots of labor, I still hold them up as templates for the right way to do something. Viewing these sites, and the others, is giving me a lot to think about as I begin work on my project.


Mar 23 2010

February 24th readings…

February 24th readings

            This week we looked at two websites, Leah’s and the CHNM site, comparing the work of one person over three weeks to the work of a team over a significantly longer period of time.

            Both sites followed the same basic layout, with topics laid out and links going to greater depth. Leah’s was, for the most part, two levels deep, counting the intro; the CHNM site, deeper. Leah’s was static, whereas the CHNM included video and audio components at various depths. Both were well-documented, with further sources suggested. Obviously, the CHNM site was the more attractive of the two because of the amount and diversity of labor put into it, but Leah’s site was well done and was easy to navigate. Certainly at this stage of the class I could not possibly compete with her effort, and any commentary I make is simply for the purposes of comparison, not a criticism. I’ve had Leah in a class, and I find her to be an extremely intelligent and capable historian. If I become half the historian she is, I’ll be pretty good.

            We dipped our toes into the waters of WordPress, breaking down the webpage into banners and bodies and sidebars and footers and comment forms and search forms and pie costs (what’s a pie cost? About eight bucks). We played around with the templates, altering parameters a little bit with the header, which allowed us to feel a little more comfortable with the program.

            Header images are taking up the bulk of my time right now, as I play around with getting regular images scanned in and then uploaded to a test site. I gotta say, altering the pixel size while still maintaining the message of the image that you want is a hell of a lot of work.

            The other part of the readings consisted of a couple of sites dedicated to developing the themes for your website. There is a lot of work involved, but also quite a bit of common sense threaded through it all. In the direct mail business, the design of the envelope has one primary purpose: to get you to open it and see what’s inside. So direct mailers will make the letter look like it’s a bill or from the IRS or make it look like you’ve won the lottery. Email scammers and virus programmers try to disguise their emails in much the same way. In each case, the goal is to get you to open their product.

            Website design is much the same thing- you want a person to move deeper into your site, and they’re not going to do that if you have a crappy image or a poorly designed first page. You want something interesting, intriguing, or attention-grabbing; ideally, something you’re passionate about will interest people a hell of a lot more than something that you feel you are forced to do. So the more I get into this, the more I can relate building a website to just plain old marketing- make it pretty and they will buy it and take it home with them.

          But the flip side is, if it’s a crappy product, they’ll never buy it again. So you have to have a compelling message to get return traffic to your site.

          Good content, good imaging, good times. That’s this week’s lesson.


Mar 18 2010

February 17th readings…

February 17th readings

          I can see now that using the term ‘readings’ was a mistake; more and more our assignment includes visiting websites and listening to podcasts. But I trust you get the drift.

          Continuing along the lines of merging history with the digital medium, this week’s readings had us visit several websites and get a feel for different ways the medium is being used. The ‘History Matters’ is what I would consider to be a resource website designed for history teachers (and students) at the high school and college level, providing ideas and lesson plans, as well as syllabi and even interviews with teachers on the subject. One particular feature that I liked was a review of over one thousand history websites, including JAH reviews of some of them. This is a website that I would consider to be a very valuable tool for new teachers, although veteran teachers could also pull from it.

          ‘Making the History of 1989’ was a narrower topical site, but still provided the tools for lesson plans and in-depth analysis of a pivotal year. Well-documented and easy to navigate, this site ‘felt’ less referency than the ‘History Matters’ site.

          ‘Smart History’ is a gorgeous site that utilizes multimedia to create a digital ‘web-book’ of art history, a site that the creators hope eliminates the need for an expensive textbook. I cannot say enough about the layout, the innovative navigation, and the imagery. Whereas the other sites had a rather formulaic layout, ‘Smart History’ has a design that really makes it stand out.

          As enthusiastic as I am about the ‘Smart History’ site, and I am as equally unenthusiastic about the ‘History Engine’ website. A collaborative effort by instructors and students, the creators’ objective is to allow students to partake in their education by writing little snippets and plugging them into this site, eventually creating a huge mosaic of history. I find it to be more or less a hodge-podge of efforts that give me a headache to navigate. Granted, I may be a little prejudiced because I visited the ‘Smart History’ site first, but I really do not like this site; furthermore, I don’t think I would ever reference anything from it because I can’t judge the academic prowess of the writer. Yes, every article is vetted by a professor, but the site just feels ‘eh.’ It reminds me of those ‘Who’s Who’ compendiums or massive compilations of poetry or short stories that you can be a part of if you pay $75 for your entry and then pay another $75 for a copy of the book (and yes, if you must know, I fell for the spiel in high school and published an entry and bought the book; it currently serves as a support for a broken shelf in a closet). It is not a website that I see myself visiting in the future.       

          The ‘real’ readings dealt with several topics that touched on intelligent website design, arguing that the more accessible and easily navigated a site is, the ease of linkage to primary source material, and the more open-sourced it is, the greater the impact on the user, and the more learning that is achieved. All argue that the traditional educational models are clunky and outmoded, and have been for some time. Hell, even the arguments against the current educational and classroom design are over fifty years old- critics are quoting McLuhan.

          The key in all of this is intelligent design. And collaboration. And open-sourcing. And knowing the purpose of your creation.


Mar 18 2010

Journal Article Embed Experiment III

The best place to look would be the JSTOR review.


Mar 12 2010

February 10th readings…

Class was canceled due to massive snowstorm.


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