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a born-digital, open-review volume edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki

open peer review essays (Fall 2011)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Our open peer review has concluded. Below are the essays that appeared in the fall 2011 version of Writing History in the Digital Age, a born-digital edited volume, under contract with the University of Michigan Press for the Digital Humanities Series of its digitalculturebooks imprint.  The process generated 945 comments from general reader, other contributors, and four expert reviewers designated by the Press. Afterwards, the co-editors invited some authors to revise and resubmit essays for the final manuscript. Pending the final approval by the Press, the volume will be published in traditional print and open-access digital versions. Click on an essay title below to view its comments.

Essays from the fall 2011 version:

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Introduction (Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Part 1: The Wisdom of Crowds(ourcing) How does historical writing change when technology enables everyone to publish online? Does the democratization of knowledge irreparably damage the historical profession, or might it pose a necessary challenge to the scholarly author(ity)? Leslie Madsen-Brooks opens up the conversation with her essay, “‘I nevertheless am a historian': Digital Historical Practice and Malpractice around Black Confederate Soldiers,” which investigates how false claims about U.S. Civil War history arose, and have been combatted, on the Internet. Robert Wolff takes us a step further in his essay, “Beyond the Historical Profession: The Historian’s Craft, Popular Memory, and the Wikipedia,” by exploring what we can learn from documented editing debates over Civil War history in this popular multi-author online encyclopedia. In “Citizen Scholars: Facebook and the Co-Creation of Knowledge,” Amanda Grace Sikarskie makes the case for lay historians actively contributing to research through social media, drawing on her rich experience with the Quilt Index. Finally, Shawn Graham and his student co-authors offer a behind-the-scenes look and some early conclusions drawn from their experience in documenting Canadian memories for “The HeritageCrowdProject: A Case Study in Crowdsourcing Public History.”

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Part 2: Practice What You Teach (and Teach What You Practice) When we initially proposed this book on our website, the first comments we received came from readers who demanded that we pay more attention to the teaching of historical writing. We listened (boy, did we listen) and intentionally revised the scope of the volume to include essays on ways that new technologies affect how historians “think, teach, author, and publish.” Several contributors leaped at the opportunity to share insights on digital writing from their history classrooms, often with richly detailed class assignments and examples of student writing. Most focused on the world’s most popular crowd-sourced encyclopedia. In “The Wikiblitz: A Wikipedia Editing Assignment in a First Year Undergraduate Class,” Shawn Graham recounts what he and his students learned while updating a single page on Canadian history. Amanda Seligman explains why she is “Teaching Wikipedia Without Apologies” and challenges educators who oppose its use in academic writing (most notably in the 2007 resolution by the Middlebury College Department of History) by integrating her expertise in historical encyclopedia writing into her classroom. At Amherst College, Martha Saxton and her co-authors recount challenges they faced when confronting the so-called “neutral point of view” editing standard in “Wikipedia and Women’s History: A Classroom Experience.” Historians also have integrated digital technology into other dimensions of student writing. Kathryn Tomasek demonstrates how her students have made meaningful contributions to a long-term scholarly project through textual encoding in “The Wheaton College Digital History Project: Undergraduate Research in a Local Collection.” Collaborators Thomas Harbison and Luke Waltzer explore tensions between content coverage and “doing history” more deeply with their students in a media-rich curriculum in “Towards Teaching the Introductory History Course, Digitally.” Lastly, in “Learning How to Write Traditional and Digital History,” Adrea Lawrence takes us into her classroom to compare how student authorship and understanding varied as they worked with both old and new media.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Part 3: Writing with the Needles from Your Data Haystack How are electronic databases and text-analysis tools changing how historians research and write about the past? Are we finding more “needles in the haystack” that we otherwise might not have noticed? Ansley Erickson launches this section with “Historical Research and the Problem of Categories: Reflections on 10,000 Digital Notecards,” which richly illustrates how using a relational database package reshaped her dissertation source-work and writing process, and led her to reflect on broader questions of historical categorization. Following her essay is Jean Bauer’s “Fielding History: Relational Databases and Prose,” which also draws on her dissertation research to argue that the way we design databases, particularly the representation of time, deserves them to be considered historical publications in their own right. Reflecting on their long-term collaboration, Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin describe the transformation of their intellectual goals, technology, funding, and global audience in “Creating Meaning in a Sea of Databases: The Women and Social Movements Web Sites.” Finally, Frederick Gibbs and Trevor Owens argue that historians should emphasize our research methods more than traditional narratives, with a case study using tools such as Google Book’s Ngram viewer, in “The Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing.”

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Part 4: Re-visioning Historical Writing  When announcing our call for ideas & essays, we emphasized that the book’s focus was not simply about computers, but rather the influence of technology on our writing process. We specifically invited non-conventional rhetorical styles and contrasting points of view, and responded to queries from several authors who asked what type of “tone” we expected in their essays, and whether there was a difference between authoring for online versus paper publications. Taken together, these concerns about how we envision (or re-vision) historical writing deserve closer attention. Sherman Dorn asks, “Is (Digital) History More Than an Argument about the Past?“, and draws distinctions between thesis-driven scholarly monographs versus digital history projects, with examples and ideas for evaluating the latter. In one of our most provocative essays, “The Necessity of Video History,” Marshall Poe questions the premise of our book on writing, and contends that to communicate with our digital-era audiences, we should be making movies. In their collaborative essay, co-authors Natalia Mehlman Petrzela and Sarah Manekin share their story of “The Accountability Partnership: Writing and Surviving in the Digital Age,” and reflect on what dissertation writing guides do not tell us. Alex Cummings offers “An Informal History of Informal Writing: Wikis, Blogs, and the Promise of Digital Humanities,” which draws on his personal experience on collaborating with group-authored digital platforms for sharing insights on historical literature. Jonathan Jarrett’s essay, “Popular History, the Academy and the Internet: Blogging History for New and Old Audiences,” draws on five years of experience with this online writing genre and makes a case for how it invigorates conventional scholarship.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Part 5: See What I Mean? Media, Visual and Spatial Evidence Digital scholarship allows historians to integrate rich source materials into our writing, and several of our contributors took the opportunity to visually illustrate arguments in their essays or draw theoretical insights on this practice. In “Putting Harlem on the Map,” Stephen Robertson describes using spatial history tools to reconstruct the material lives of residents in this predominantly black neighborhood during the 1920s, with examples that reshaped his historical analysis. Stefan Tanaka’s essay, “Past in a Digital Age,” argues that today’s digital media revolution helps to remind us that our present-day conceptions of history did not arise until the late-eighteenth century, when people began writing about the past in a linear, chronological structure. “Visualizations and Historical Arguments,” richly illustrated by John Theibault, presents a broad overview of how charts and maps have influenced historical thinking from the birth of nineteenth-century social science to today’s processor-intensive digital era. In “Everyone is an Editor: The Tenuous Politics of Non-Linear Editing and the Digital Age,” Daniel Faltesek draws an analogy between this 1970s video-creation technology and our present-day hyper-linked digital culture. Finally, Peter Haber’s “Writing History by the Numbers: A New Historiographic Approach for the 21st Century?“, compares the 1960s birth of quantitative history with current trends, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Part 6: New Ways to Tell Old New Stories Digital history opens up innovative ideas to convey stories about the past, as well as imaginative ways of connecting with audiences to create richer historical understandings. In “Pox and the City: Digital Games and the Writing of History,” Laura Zucconi and colleagues offer an insiders’ view of the design challenges they face in creating a role-playing historical simulation on the invention of the smallpox vaccine in nineteenth-century Scotland. On a similar theme, Julie Judkins provides a “Case Study of the American Influenza Epidemic of 1918: A Digital Encyclopedia,” a collaboration between medical historians and digital publishers to integrate historical narrative with interactive primary source materials. Oscar Rosales Castañeda’s essay, “Writing Chicana/o History with the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project,” describes how students and faculty created a digital public history project to document local activism, and the vivid role it played in shaping their lives as well as historical knowledge on the contemporary Pacific Northwest. Finally, Ellen Noonan makes the case for “Building a Better Textbook,” not simply to deliver digital content to students, but rather to model pedagogically how historians interact with source materials, based on research by psychologist Sam Wineburg.

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