Thanks to everyone for a very good discussion at last night’s dinner and workshop with Scott Nesbit and Visualizing Emancipation. A lot of issues were raised, both about the project itself and about digital history generally. What surprised you or stood out to you about the night? What are your thoughts about the challenges and payoffs of work like this?

You can answer these questions or chime in with questions and thoughts of your own. The comment thread is yours.

10 Responses to Debriefing

  1. What a great presentation on a really impressive project. I find myself reflecting on how Visualizing Emancipation could be used in the undergraduate classroom. I’d like to use the site for a class I’ll be teaching this spring on the rise and fall of Atlantic slavery. I’m sure Scott has given thought to this issue, but others may have valuable ideas as well.

  2. I think it would work great in the classroom as well. Typically in my Civil War class, I have used a video called The Civil War in Four Minutes to get students to think about how shifts in Union occupation affected slavery on the ground. The Visualizing Emancipation offers a much different way of visualizing this, particularly by representing Union occupation as more “finger-like” and precarious, to use Nesbit’s terms.

    I believe the Viz Emancipation site also allows students to upload new events into the dataset; could be a good research project for students to identify events not already in the database using newspapers or other sources and then create pins for them.

  3. I am surprised by how rich the visualizations are in the final project, while the underlying emancipation spreadsheet is fairly simple. His workflow for data entry also was simple, yet efficient.

    Ben – Below is a link to the page on the Visualizing Emancipation website addressed specifically to teachers:

  4. I thought it was pretty interesting to learn about the project and I think that if used in a classroom, a really cool exercise would be to see what kind of event types students would choose as emancipation events and how they might design it. I didn’t even realize until other people brought it up how even choices like the timeline make an impact on Visualizing Emancipation’s ‘message’ even with its main function being a tool.

  5. I really enjoyed both the formal presentation and the workshop after dinner this week! I’m glad that there are historians out there working on these kinds of projects to help students and other scholars understand historical events in new ways. I’m certainly a visual learner, and something like this gives a learner like myself a new method of understanding. I’m also very appreciative of Scott’s take on evaluating digital history and how this will impact the discipline. For me, this is one of the most important questions we’re facing. I appreciated when he said that not everyone needs to be doing digital history, and I thought it was interesting that he referred to it as a “trend.” While this may have reaffirmed my penchant for skepticism, I’ll be interested to see what everyone else in the class as well as the other speakers this year have to say about the “trendiness” of digital history.

  6. I think a lot about how and why we literally see the world a certain way, and it’s so interesting to me to think about how “seeing” history (whether evidence or argument) changes the way we engage with it. While we (of course) see an article or book text and engage with it, it’s a different phenomenon than visualizing that text as a non-text (visualizing it as a map or picture, for example). The adjectives that we use to describe a piece of historical scholarship like Visualizing Emancipation (words like “rich”) highlight this difference, as they emphasize the aesthetic and sensory experience that accompanies such visualizations. The sub-discipline of visual culture history deals a lot with the issue of how spectators interact with and react to the world in different ways based upon innovations in technological mediums (photography, film, the internet, etc.). How does changing the medium of history, from printed text to online image, alter the way we understand, analyze, and generally engage with evidence and arguments? Just something I’ve been pondering ever since our lively discussion on Thursday!

  7. I actually enjoyed the workshop afterwards a lot more than the talk itself. Even though the talk addressed some of the main thinking behind the project and some of its findings, I felt like I got a much better sense of what Visualizing Emancipation could and couldn’t do during the workshop afterwards. I also really enjoyed the more general discussion about the future of digital history. I think it will be interesting to see as the semester goes on what other digital humanists see the possibility of digital scholarship replacing all or part of the traditional dissertation.

  8. This factor of visual communication is really decisive for what’s going on here, and I think we probably didn’t talk about it enough on Thursday. A lot of what you might call digital humanities skills are different from what’s traditionally being taught as history methodology, but teaching how to communicate information visually is probably going to require some major changes to the way people are taught to “do” history. I’m guessing it’ll be a recurring theme of this class that if research is going to be communicated digitally, that almost necessarily means it will have to be communicated at least partly without words, even though “digital” doesn’t actually have to mean “visual.” We’re looking at the challenge of being jacks of even more trades than history already needs us to be! The trickiest aspect of this has got to be how a history prof could teach their own eventual students to use visual communication. I’ve always figured being an art teacher might be one of the most mentally taxing things in the world—trying to put into words something that has to then be done without words is not easy. Adding that in to teaching history is some tricky stuff.

  9. Christian Hauser

    I appreciated Scott’s honesty as he led our discussion of what “digital history” is and is becoming, leading into the relationship between what a historian does and recognition of digital work. It’ll be neat to see how the field lands on the issue in the next decade. The stance Scott took on the work of a scholar as not significantly changing I felt was appropriate, since we all did agree digital tools can and will shift both capabilities and communication. That second one is a place I see as being hugely significant in light of the point mentioned Thursday evening, that the historian tends to think of his work as a manifestly public one. Thus while the tools clearly provide utility in making huge and hugely interesting research and discussion possible, it’s in education where I think these digital tools have perhaps a more impactful potential in blowing things up—in a good way—both within and without what can be labeled with a grade.

  10. Nice points, all around!

    On visual communication and the difficulties of analyzing images, it seems to me this should form some part of historians’ training already. If you’ve ever read a book with a map or a table, then you’ve already encountered data visualization, and reading such a book well requires thinking about how the image was made and what assumptions are embedded within it. Projects like Visualizing Emancipation are published in a different medium, but they call for as much critical engagement as an analog map, and vice versa.

    Several of you noted surprise (or maybe relief?) that Nesbit did not seem to be saying “do digital history … or else.” Truthfully, though, I have rarely seen any digital historian or digital humanist frame their work in such a “zero sum” way, as though to do digital history at all you have to do it exclusively. Most, like Nesbit, take a more open approach to what it means to be a digital historian (which is that it’s mainly just being an historian). Witness this recent blog post, which I pinned to our Pinboard. The closing paragraph is especially good:

    Bottom line: grad students shouldn’t feel that they’re being asked to assume a position as “digital” or “analog” humanists, any more than they’re being asked to declare themselves “for” or “against” close reading and feminism. DH is not an identity category; it’s a project that your work might engage, indirectly, in a variety of ways.