Why am I taking this class: revisited

Why am I taking this class:  What I learned from this class

This post is going take a look at the first blog post I did for this class.  I thought it would be useful to look back, reflect on some of the things I learned, the challenges etcetera.

I’m interested in taking this class because I’m hoping to learn more about Digital History. While this seems like a generic answer, I’m interested in the issues that are being discussed. On our first day Dr. Graham raised a good point, which was that historians often get so excited about the digital that they forget to look at it like any other source.

This lesson has definitely stayed with me throughout the course. We’ve worked with a lot of interesting and innovative tools, and I think with the majority of them there was an excitement over the things they could do, and how it could impact our research. It was easy to get caught up in this excitement, and forget that each fulfills a specific purpose, one that is never objective or impartial.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should ignore them. Instead, the products of these tools (whether a word jumble or a graph) need to be evaluated the same as we would a primary source document, considering the context, objectives of the creators, function etcetera.

Not only am I guilty of this, I can see parallels in my own research of performance history. Often an audience forgets that costumes, lighting, casting etc., is done deliberately, designed to present the events in a particular way, whether it is to make it more dramatic, relatable, etc. A helpful example is looking at the most recent adaptation of Macbeth. The three witches (classic and memorable characters in the story) rather than looking like this:

V0025894 Macbeth meets the three witches; scene from Shakespeare's 'M

V0025894 Macbeth meets the three witches; scene from Shakespeare’s ‘M Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Macbeth meets the three witches; scene from Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’. Wood engraving, 19th century. after: William ShakespearePublished: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Look more like this:

This isn’t because the director thought himself better than Shakespeare, but because creepy children provide the contemporary audience with the same cringe factor that witches provided Shakespeare’s audience.

I’m also interested in learning more about Digital History for future career opportunities. Just from going over the syllabus, I can see many ways in which the skills I’ll be learning could help my work as a historical researcher. The most obvious is a better learning about SNA, something we use a lot in our genealogy work.

This has also proven true. Consistently over the course I’ve been sending emails to my employer telling them about some of the tools I’m learning about (wget, Palladio, SNA programs, voyant) and how they could be used for our research. One of these actually got put to use on a project we are working on, as a direct result of my email. This was wget, which I talked about in this post, and which I had to talk about as part of my seminar leadership in the class.  

Part of me still slips into the thinking that this is a “wonder tool”, forgetting again that there are implications from its use. For our project it had positive implications, including that we were able to access and download primary source documents really quickly. However, we did encounter problems with it, such as realizing the image size was compressed (meaning the image was pixelated and blurry), and we had to stop and use some creative group problem solving.

This creative group problem solving is probably the second most important thing I’ve picked up from the course. There were a lot of instances (especially at the beginning) when I was really frustrated. In some cases this was because I hadn’t taken the time to read a tutorial properly, too accustomed to speed reading, and in other cases this was because a tutorial was may have been written using overly-complex language, and relied on previous knowledge (which I talked about here). This frustration at times was very isolating. While in the real world group work is a necessity, we don’t often do this in university. Until I started reaching out to my classmates (who to my surprise were often struggling with the same things I was), I felt very isolated. The old saying two heads is better than one held true in these cases. And even if we weren’t able to figure it out, there was a comfort knowing that it wasn’t “just me.”

Sitting down to think about my experience with Digital History, I actually have a bit more experience than I gave myself credit for (not that this is a lot.) My lovely and forward thinking parents enrolled me in Virtual Ventures (a summer camp run by the Faculty of Engineering and Design at Carleton University), and I remember learning how to create my own website using html (complete with garish colours, and images.) It seems I couldn’t escape html, as I later had to deal with it in high school when I was enrolled in a special course where we created things like photographic essays using PowerPoint, built websites using html etc.

It surprises me, looking back on this last paragraph how much my writing came full circle. I started off giving myself some credit for the experience I did have, and ended up writing this post towards the end on a similar subject. I think somewhere in the middle I lost a lot of this confidence, especially when I felt frustrated, but it makes me feel sort of proud that Emily 12 weeks ago, believed in herself.

Other than those two examples, my experience is relatively small. I am the go to “tech” person at my office, which generally means I am in charge of fixing the printer, and setting up laptops. I also manage the company’s online presence, including running the Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts.

I’d like to come away from the course having a better understanding of the nitty-gritty behind Digital History, and how these tools and programs can help my research. I can tell already that this can be done, and that the more I put in the more I will get out.

Coming away from the course, I think accomplished most of these things. I can’t say I always understood how the tools I was learning might help my research, but when I did I was really excited. And while I can’t say either that I have a full understanding of the nitty-gritty of Digital History, I think I have at least an ankle deep understanding. I understand that the field is large, but it isn’t as complex as I had feared. There are a lot of assumptions that go on about Digital History, and within the field, especially on things like gender. Rather than look at “digital” as something scary and unknowable, (something like this):


I see it more as a toolbox.



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