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.



All is Vanity: Photography and Time

For the next few months the National Gallery of Canada will be featuring a photographic exhibit, Clocks for Seeing: Photography, Time and Motion. The exhibit title references a passage of Roland Barthes Camera Lucida:

For me the noise of Time is not sad: I love bells, clocks, watches — and I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood.[1]

Barthes’ conception of the connectedness between photography and time is explored in the exhibit through different photographic installations. The exhibit features two photographs from the photographer Eadweard (or Edward) Muybridge. These two photographs are from Muybridge’s later work studying motion. Rebecca Solnit in her book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West examines Muybridge’s works. Interesting she also emphasizes the connectedness of Muybridge’s photographs and time, explaining (in a discussion of Muybridge’s early panoramas) that “to look at a panorama is to look at time.”[2] Solnit uses Muybridge’s panoramas of San Francisco to illustrate the ways in which the panoramas reflects (and arguably does not reflect) ongoing tensions in the city.


“Annie G. galloping” Eadweard Muybridge 1884

Solnit also roots Muybridge’s work to the development of film studies. This establishment of film as an extension of photography is illustrated in other installations in the Clocks for Seeing exhibit, including a piece (my favourite) done by Adad Hannah titled All is Vanity (Mirrorless Version.) The installation is a combination of theatre and video. The installation is a recreation of Charles Allan Gilbert’s 1892 piece All is Vanity. Gilbert is well known for creating illustrations that featured illusions or double images. In All is Vanity a young woman looks at herself in a mirror. The mirror, woman, and her reflection however form another image, one of a skull.

"All is Vanity" Charles Allan GIlbert 1892

“All is Vanity” Charles Allan GIlbert 1892

For his piece, Hannah recreated Gilbert’s illustration using a replica set and two identical twins. Hannah recorded this video, and it plays on a screen as the front of the instillation. Except for blinking and slight movement, the twins remain completely still. Behind the screen, observers can see the recreated set. This double image appears to be a nod to Gilbert’s original illustration in that it features images within an images. Additionally it also is reminiscent of a stereoscope, featuring multiple images that come together to present a three-dimensional image. Coincidentally Muybridge also produced stereoscopic images.

"All is Vanity" (Mirrorless Version) Adad Hannah 2009

“All is Vanity” (Mirrorless Version) production photo, Adad Hannah 2009

Additionally All is Vanity (Mirrorless Version) also draws attention to the reflective aspects of photography. Susan Smith in American Archvies discusses the reflection of self in photography. She relates how there was some social anxiety over the depiction of an authentic self in photography. Gilbert’s illustration speaks to this. The woman’s reflection depicts her true self, and her true character, vanity. Contrastingly, seeming to work against Gilbert’s desire to bring attention to the futility of vanity, the woman in the illustration obtains immortality through art.

In the text panel accompanying All is Vanity (Mirrorless Version) it is highlighted that like the woman in the illustration, the video strives but fails to achieve stasis. Similarly Muybridge’s “Annie G” galloping strives to portray movement, however instead captures and imprisons multiple moments. Contrastingly both obtain a position of semi-stasis or semi-movement. By being captured on film, they are immortal. However both continue to move in time, from gallery to gallery

Evidently, Clocks for Seeing is a compelling exhibit that promotes (or at least in me) deep thinking over the conception and recreation of time. If possible and feasible, I encourage you to visit!


[1] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981), 15.

[2] Susan Solnit, Skinning the City,” in River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (New York: Penguin Books Ltd, 2003), 155-160.