Week 4

The story so far….

My podcast topic is on the 2008 general election and what really interests me about this race is that it’s the first time since 1964 that Virginia voted Democrat, and only the second time since 1952. It’s Virginia’s birth as a swing state and I want to know why. Part of the reason can be seen by comparing the map of 2008 election results with a map of population density, in this case, one made from 2010 census data. The more populous cities and counties, particularly the NoVa suburbs and the Norfolk area voted, as cities tend to do, for the Democratic candidate. As reported in Virginia Issues and Answers, “Between 2000 and 2010, the population of Virginia’s metropolitan areas grew by 14.3 percent while the non-metro area population grew by only 6.8 percent. Northern Virginia was the main driver of the state’s population growth. More than half (51.4 percent) of the state’s net new residents over the past decade live in Northern Virginia. Five of the state’s 10 fastest-growing counties and independent cities are located in Northern Virginia: the counties of Loudoun, Prince William, Stafford, and Spotsylvania, and the City of Manassas Park.”  So not only is the population of left-leaning areas larger, but is growing faster than the more rural right. But the shift from red to blue cannot be explained by numbers alone. The larger political arena has to be taken into consideration. 2006 was a resurgent year for Democrats in Congress, following discontent with George W. Bush’s policies. According to Gallup, Bush’s approval ratings fell from an average of 62% during his first term to 37% during his second. An unpopular Republican president and the increase in population in Democratic areas created the perfect environment for a young Barack Obama to woo Virginia.


Topic modelling

I actually have some experience with data mining and textual analyses. Since August I’ve been working on Dr. Ewing’s Russian flue project. A lot of what I do for it is reading through old newspapers and medical journals, to pull out keywords that signify a certain topic or event in order to understand how the disease, and the news about it, spread. On the computer science side we’re also trying to improve OCR technology and create better systems of getting data from digitized sources. It gets confusing at times, especially with so many different parts, but I’ve enjoyed it so far.

For my own benefit, and I have no clue where this idea came from, but I would like to see a project on the correlation between immorality and death of young women in Victorian literature. Rob Nelson discovers that poetic language and anti-north diatribes tended to go hand and hand with each other and I think a researcher would find a similar link between my two topics.

On a more serious note, I would be very interested in see the profits from some medicine companies that come up frequently in my old newspaper findings compared with the the number of false reports of the Russian influenza. So much of disease medicine was surrounded by hysteria in the 19th century and I’d like to know if any companies used this to their advantage, especially as it was also the heyday of newspapers and magazines.

3.) I have one episode left of In the Dark. I’ve been listening to it while I work on my Congressional data. It’s made me question the politicization of the sheriff’s office. Is it right that we leave a key law enforcement official up to the people? Does this keep them accountable or make them too focused on their own likability? Will they become afraid to admit mistakes and take on difficult cases? This is especially important to me right now as my home county is having a bit of a governmental shake-up in light of the opioid crisis.

But in terms of technique, I’ve noticed that the longer In the Dark goes on, the more our narrator puts herself into the story. I’m not sure if I necessarily like some of the choices she and the editors have made about what comments to keep during interviews, but I do understand. We are now at the point of the story where she as a journalist was a participant in the case and I think it’d stand out even more if she took herself out completely.

On humans and computers

Question 1: What is the relationship between computers and humanistic historical inquiry? 

It may be simplistic, but I see computers and the programs we can run on them as another set of tools for our historian work-belts. Like Delia, I’ve been in a lot of discussions on digital methods where the central question assumes that something is lost. Rarely does academia wonder what we gave gained. In this way Donati’s work was a breath of fresh air.

Donati’s “Best Practice” article leaves the hand-wringing and worry over new technologies behind. He just calls remote sensing “exciting new tools for the investigation and documentation of archaeological landscapes” (iii). As with everything in the world, computer programs can have their flaws but I don’t think any of us can think of a completely perfect tool. Donati mentions this and concludes by saying “although satellite remote sensing can be implemented quite effectively as a stand-alone method for exploring past landscapes, it is used to even greater effect in conjunction with other methodologies” (134).

I think this sentence best sums up the relationship between computers and historical inquiry. We have to use every skill we have in order to gather as much information as possible. I don’t think we can think of digital history as a separate field from history. We have to embrace everything.

Question 2: What is your experience with and perception of Wikipedia?

I love wikipedia, not only has it provided me hours of fun playing the six-click game– where you choose two topics and see if you can get from the first to the second in just six link clicks– but because Bill Gates was something of a bogeyman growing up. Microsoft and other big corporations sparked actual fear in my family. My dad switched the family computer over to Linux when I was very young and open software became crucial to our family belief system. I started using Apple computers when I was in high school but I’m still outraged whenever I have to pay for a program. (ie excel)

To me, wikipedia encapsulates the democratic ideals of the internet. I especially like that it’s collaborative. I know this can lead to issues with the style of articles but there are so few spaces where historians are allowed to work together I think it’s a valuable tool even if it’s not scholarly. I remember going to my ethics training last semester and having to do all these exercises about how we would handle situations like two students getting a similarly wrong answer or admitting that they talked each other through a homework assignment. It turns out that all of these instances could be used against the students as evidence of cheating.

Eli, a sociologist I was sitting next to, was the only other person as infuriated as I was. We held our ground and defended each other collaboratively because where the University saw cheating, we saw as students who needed help. I know that plagiarism is an important issue in academia, but I think a culture of hyper-vigilance is incredibly detrimental to a students desire to learn. We need to allow our students to learn from mistakes, even if they are big ones.

A final note on wikipedia, the title of Jenny’s blog is absolutely amazing and indicative of so many biases in the digital world. But in recent years these biases have been battled by groups of writers and editors determined to expand the articles wikipedia has available to include the contributions of marginalized peoples. Just google “wikithon” and you’ll discover there have been plenty. Perhaps someone could coordinate one as a semester project or thesis component?

Podcast listening

I’ve also been continuing to listen to In the Dark as I walk to and from campus. I’ve never been into the mystery genre before but ever since I moved to Virginia I’ve been listening to and watching mysterious audiobooks, podcasts, and tv shows. Am I discovering my true calling? Should I drop out and become a hard-boiled detective? I do like eggs….

If you build it, white English-speaking dudes will come

My dad likes to recount his glory days at Virginia Tech during the late 1970s to early 1980s and his favorite horror story tell me is about writing his M.A. thesis in economics on a typewriter. On time, his roommate came into his room and spilt his soda on a neatly stacked thesis chapter. Unable to salvage it, he had to spent hours retyping the chapter (and probably swearing at his friend). As a twenty-three year old history M.A. student, I can’t imagine a time where research didn’t include the preliminary Google search. While I like to bemoan being forced to blog or tweet, computers have been an essential part of my research. Computers make things so much easier and accessible. Over half of my archival resources are available online. Anytime I need to check a quote, I can find Keating’s history of yellow fever on HaithiTrust. This has saved me so much time and money because I’ve only had to visit the physical archives twice.
The internet also created new ways to disseminate original research. Historians are venturing into the realm of digital history and are creating websites, digital archives, and interacting with each other on social media. This helps to further the democratization of knowledge and opens research findings up to anybody with a computer. The different forums to present information also engages people who might not be interested in reading scholarly monographs.
I don’t really have a lot of experience with Wikipedia. I mostly use it when random curiosity strikes and I don’t need an in-depth answer. I’ve never been anti-Wikipedia, though I think I respect it even more after reading Rosenzweig. The idea that such an expansive encyclopedia can be sourced from the masses and its information can be shared is an exciting democratic triumph of the accessibility of information. It’s disappointing that most contributors are white, English-speaking men but it also makes sense. Contributing takes time and energy, something a stable, middle class life provides. It makes sense that a more privileged class would be the most active contributors.
My podcast listening habits haven’t greatly changed but I have been making an effort to listen to Snap Judgement on NPR. The production value behind this podcast is killer. Guests of the show tell their dramatic stories which is then matched with a beat. Together, this creates a holistic listening experience. The host, Glynn Washington, opened a recent show with a personal story about a book on abstinence assigned to him by his youth minister when he as a child. Washington is a dynamic speaker, imitating his fire and brimstone preacher boisterous speech. The music follows, building suspense as Washington describes his attempt to ditch the book but like a cursed object, it follows him as he goes to college, studies abroad, and gets married. The story itself is silly but Washington’s changing tone and pace, combined with the music and sound effects make it sound like an Edgar Allan Poe tale of a sexually repressive book.

Blog Post Week 4

We will be joined -by Jamie Donati, a survey archaeologist and now a remote sensing specialist in ancient Greece-, and Kurt Luther, a computer science professor at Virginia Tech.

[UPDATE: DONATI WILL JOIN US FEBRUARY 23rd INSTEAD OF FEB 9th, so we will work with Kurt Luther this week and go over the data/mapping project].

While few of us probably have a clear idea about antiquity, we should have a basic understanding of pit or excavation archaeology and what it and material culture can tell us about past settings.  However, a relatively new development, survey archaeology (detailed here), uses new methods and frameworks to expand to analysis of landscapes.  Building from that, archaeologists like Donati are using remote sensing to make new contributions to the study of antiquity.  We have two nuts-and-bolts articles in the “files” section of Canvas.

In addition, there are two articles to go along with Kurt Luther’s visit.  One is by the late Roy Rosenzweig, founder of the Center for History and New Media, on Wikipedia, and one on genealogy and open contributions in digital projects.

Discussion, part the first: What is the relationship between computers and humanistic historical inquiry? Part the second: What is your experience with and perception of Wikipedia?